There is a school, deep inside the Blackwood Forest of Spyr Darr. The students at this school are taught vital skills for the future: demonology, hand-to-hand combat, and various obscure sciences and arcane arts, all with the goal of training an elite fighting force, fighting against what some call "lusus naturae" and what others call "freaks."
This year is not like the others. This year is different. This year will be Hell.
The grand, once-crumbling façade of Blackwood Manor opened its doors once again to students ranging from ten years old to its older, more mature inhabitants and staff. The soft pink hue of the building hid a more serious purpose: the centuries-old manor was home to a school tasked with the training of elite squads, squads who would, upon completion of their studies, travel the world to eradicate the plague of the lusus naturae.
A tall, austere-looking woman stood in front of the grand, polished oak doors, her near-platinum hair tied into a severe bun. A sleek, practical black uniform covered her lean body, and she watched, eagle-eyed, as a procession of horse-drawn carriages made their way in a stately procession up the long, wide pathway to the house.
Arranged before her were ten groups of four people, each wearing uniforms that deviated only slightly from the woman's own. Stood behind the ten squads were the senior teaching stood, foremost among which was a tall, busty woman with a sharp face.
“And so it begins,” said the busty woman, stepping back slightly to fall in line with the woman by the door.
“Hush,” she replied, her voice lacking the conviction necessary to quiet the other woman.
“A new year, new students...” mused the busty woman.
“Your Sierra is in her sixth year,” said the austere woman.
“Not now, Elle,” she replied, her voice soft and quiet. Elle smiled, her white teeth showing between her red-painted lips.
“So now you agree with me, Siaran,” said Elle, smirking. “They're here.” she said, nodding her head toward the carriages. They had stopped in front of the gathered people.
The seventh year students exited their carriages first, each carriage containing four passengers. As the students from other years left their own carriages, the squads of four lined up in front of the staff. The youngest and newest students clumsily fell into line along with the older students.
Elle stepped forward when each of the squads had moved into place and stood before the gathered students.
“Welcome to another year at Blackwood Manor. I hope I do not need to say that I am Elle Kilgaran, Director and Headmistress of Blackwood Manor. It is my sincerest hope that you all enjoy this year at the school.”
Just as Elle finished speaking, the wind picked up and howled through the trees. Ignoring it, Siaran stepped forward and addressed the students.
“Seventh years, move out!” she said, directing the seventh years toward the doors. In perfect unison they marched into the school. “Sixth years. Auditorium.”
The tall blonde woman did not bother to wait for the sixth years to start moving. Almost immediately she issued orders to the third, fourth and fifth years, who followed the upperclassmen into the building. That year, there were no first and second years, as Elle had refused any new students.
In the somewhat understated auditorium, Elle Kilgaran stood behind a podium serenely, watching as her twenty sixth years sat quietly in front of her. Some of her senior staff had had qualms about running the school in something of a military fashion, but with two successful graduations and the cool, ordered discipline of her students, Elle had been proven right.
“Welcome back for another year at Blackwood Manor,” she began. She paused, and looked every student in the eye. Behind her, she could hear Squad XI fidgeting. “As you have entered your sixth and penultimate year at the school, each squad will be offered a chance to forego the final year of training and enter the active roster.
“Through a series of gruelling tasks and obstacle courses, you will be tested. This will be unlike anything you have ever faced before, and as such, you have one week to decide whether to Inter Squad Championship is something you would like to do. There is no shame in dropping out of the contest; we understand how difficult it is, and there is the possibility that you are not yet ready.
“However,” she said, taking a breath, “I would not feel comfortable as the director of studies putting you through this if I did not feel each squad is capable of completing the competition. If your squad is not participating, I will need a signed letter explaining why, delivered by the squad leader.” Elle smiled. “The competition can not take place with fewer than three squads. Now, here is Squad XI, here to talk to you about their win last year.”
Elle stepped back from the podium and allowed the four immaculately dressed young men and women to stand centre-stage. Each of them wore the same black uniform as the sixth years, but with a subtle difference: where the students had the school logo, each member of Squad XI had, in silver script, their name and squad number.
Elle leaned against the thick stone walls, and absently caressed the marble veneer. She knew that all five squads would participate: it was seen as shameful to drop out, even though the competition was almost as hard as active duty. One of them would win, of course; in life there are winners and losers, and Elle certainly wanted her students to learn that fact. These, and the five years below them, would be her elite, her special squads. At the end of the current school year she would have eleven new active squads. She smiled.
She was drawn out of her musing by Celia Graves, Squad Leader of Squad XI. She had stopped talking, and was looking to Elle to finish off the speech. Moving forward quickly, and with grace, Elle addressed her students.
“Good luck. I wish you all the best of luck in the Championship. Dismissed.” she said curtly. The students filed out quietly.
As soon as they were free from the watchful eyes of Director Kilgaran, the sixth year students erupted into noise. They stayed in their squads, content in the intimate foursomes.
A tall, broad young man by the name of Pharos Ward was talking to a somewhat petite, but curvaceous, girl named Sierra Firefly.
“We're going to compete, of course?” said Sierra, only half-asking a question. Pharos snorted.
“Of course we are. If Tara and Hayden agree,” he said, looking back over his shoulder.
“We can win,” said Tara, tying her sleek, brown hair into a tight bun. Next to her, Hayden grinned his agreement.
“We're going to win,” he added, squeezing Tara's shoulder. “How could we not? We've got Sierra.”
“I'm not that special,” she said, and shrugged. The chatter from the other students died down as each squad entered its apartment. Pharos opened the door to Apartment 6 and the others followed him inside. Hayden locked the door. The room was dimly lit at first, but when the four adolescents moved further inside, a sphere hanging in the centre of the room started glowing with a soft yellow light.
The small common area that they shared was decorated sparsely, with three sofas. Several shelves hung on the walls, empty, save a few books. Sierra and Tara disappeared into another room. In copper lettering, “GIRLS” was nailed to the front.
Pharos stretched and flopped onto one of the sofas languidly. Hayden took off his shoes and put them neatly beside the door, and then sat opposite him. There was a low wooden table between two of the sofas, upon which Hayden's feet rested.
“Who do you think our biggest competition is?” said Hayden.
“Cayla's lot?” said Hayden, frowning. “They're good, but they're not as good as us – Sierra's got that thing going on, you've got your psychic thing going on and Tara's the best hand-to-hander in the school!”
“You're pretty good at what you do, too,” said Pharos, smirking. “We're good,” he said, but silenced Hayden with a finger before he could speak, “but you're forgetting that Viktoryia holds records for her speed and agility. Not to mention Cayla, a tactical genius.”
“Sierra's faster,” countered Hayden, “and stronger. And not as vulnerable,” he added.
“You know that's not how it works,” said Sierra, appearing in the doorway. Tara stood behind her. “I'm either strong or fast; I don't get both at the same time.”
“I am an expert hand-to-hander, though,” said Tara, grinning. “We'll win. Don't worry.” she said. She skipped out from behind Sierra and sat down on the remaining sofa.
“Don't get comfortable,” said Sierra, looking pointedly at Pharos, “Dinner's soon.” She turned around and closed the door to the girls' bedroom. Pharos rolled his eyes. He got up, and retreated to his own bedroom, leaving Hayden and Tara alone in the living space.
“How was home?” asked Tara, looking across at Hayden. His head was shaved bald – shorter than the regulation cut for boys – and his olive skin was a sharp contrast to her own, milk-white hue. “You didn't say anything on the journey up,” she added.
“As well as it could be,” he said, and shrugged. “It's not as civilised as Spyr Darr,” he said quietly. “Rebels attacked the King's household on a hunting trip,” he continued. “No one is allowed to leave the cities, patrols go through every village... it's madness. I was only allowed out because of Director Kilgaran's influence over the king.”
“It sounds terrible,” said Tara, leaning forward. Hayden shrugged.
“It isn't so bad,” he said. “How was your break?” He scratched at his stubble, and Tara grimaced.
“You had better shave,” she said critically, before adding, “Summer was boring. Mother paraded an endless stream of suitors before me – all of them sons of ladies at court or of prominent merchants.”
“And that's a bad thing?” said Hayden, eyebrow raised. He leaned against the sofa, rubbing his jaw with his palm. Tara shot him a look.
“I forgot that you aren't Darrian,” she said. “When a woman gets married, she becomes the head of the household – while I would be allowed to have a job, this would be … difficult. Of course, I might be interested in someone else.” She shrugged.
“You're freer than women in my country,” pointed out Hayden. “Have you never wondered why only boys from Tashraq are here?”
“Yes,” she said, “and you explained why before. But it's – we're free,” said Tara. “We're in power. It's a Queendom, women inherit property and titles. We have restrictions, though.”
“Like?” pressed Hayden, leaning forward, elbows on knees, hands on his face.
“I would have to get a respectable job, I would need an heir, a daughter. My life would essentially end,” she said. “I would need to manage the estate, raise a child... and Mother was never happy with me coming here. She was overruled by Parliament. All the ladies were. If I married I would be required to leave the school.”
Hayden looked pensive, and opened his mouth to speak, but was interrupted by Sierra.
“Dinnertime.” she said, skipping across the room. Pharos emerged from the boys' bedroom and crossed the room far more sedately.
“We should go,” he said. “It isn't proper to miss dinner on the first day back.” He opened the door and waited for Sierra to prance outside. He grimaced at Hayden, who was already standing. The four members of Squad XVII flooded out of the open door. Tara locked it behind them.