Pharos Ward sat in the communal living area of Apartment 6, feet resting against the low oak table, reading a book. The fire crackled from its space between the doors leading to the bedrooms, and the sphere that hung from the ceiling glowed a soft, somewhat dim, yellow light.
His eyes flicked toward the clock which was set above the fireplace. He grinned. He set the book down quietly and tiptoed across the room. Inching the door to his and Hayden's room open slowly and carefully, Pharos crept inside and tore open the curtains.
Due to the apartments' position facing east, light flooded into the room, hitting Hayden square in the face. The sleeping boy groaned and got out of bed. He glared at Pharos and rubbed his bald head.
“It's a free day,” he said, standing in front of Pharos and rubbing his eyes, “we don't have to be awake until oh-eight-hundred.”
“We need to start doing research for the Championship,” said Pharos, shrugging. “I'm not as good at classification as you are. Don't look at me like that,” he added, seeing Hayden's defiant look. “Tara and Sierra will be training today, too.”
“And what will you be doing?” said Hayden from inside the washroom. “Reading a book? Talking a walk through the gardens?”
“Training,” said Pharos, sitting down on his own bed. The room was small – easily large enough for two single beds with a nightstand each and limited wardrobe space – but it was sufficient for two young men.
“Oh, yeah?” said Hayden, coming out of the washroom wearing a robe. “And how's that? Doing your psi-thing with Claudia Rawlins?”
“No, actually,” said Pharos tersely, “I'm going to research the challenges in the last two competitions. And the last three seventh year exams.”
“They're in the restricted access,” said Hayden, pulling a towel from his drawer. “Coming?” he said, indicating the towel. Pharos shook his head.
“Showered an hour ago,” he said. “And I can get access. We're sixth years now. I'll just ask Anabel for permission.”
“Fair enough,” said Hayden. Picking up his regulation toiletries, Hayden left the room. Pharos followed him.
“Good luck with the research,” said Hayden as he unlocked the door.
“Meet me in the library after your shower,” said Pharos. The tall, dark-skinned young man waved him off and exited the apartment. Pharos knocked on the door of the girls' room; he didn't go in because there was an alarm system which, if he walked inside, would alert the sixth year Tutor and he would be punished for infringing on the girls' privacy.
Sierra answered the door, her hair damp and messily arranged. She appeared to be somewhat peeved.
“What?” she said, hand on hip. Her long, white dressing gown was drawn tightly.
“You and Tara should do physical training today,” he said. “Try the obstacle courses, check your reflexes. Maybe you should see how good you are without any extra help,” he added. “Might be an idea.”
“And what are you going to be doing?” she replied with an arched eyebrow. “Playing mind-games with Claudia Rawlins?”
“No, no I won't be. I'll be doing important research for the Championship.” he said indignantly. “I don't see why everyone thinks I'll be with Claudia Rawlins,” he added. “We're partners for the psionics exercises, that's all.”
Sierra laughed and rolled her eyes.
“That's all anybody meant,” she said. “We'll get on it,” she said, returning to business. “I'll spar with Tara until the cows come home, if you want me to.”
“I'm going to the library,” said Pharos, not bothering to answer her. “Hayden's meeting me there after he showers and has breakfast.”
“Have you eaten, then?” said Sierra, frowning.
“I got up an hour or so ago,” he said, and waved dismissively. “I'm going to the library. Come get me if you need me.”
Sierra closed the door on him, and Pharos picked up a satchel from one of the sofas. He left the room whistling a fast, upbeat tune, and made sure to lock the door behind him.
In the deepest cellar, a full two levels underneath the main building, Siaran Firefly laboriously drew intricate circles and pentagrams in a careful, precise order, onto the wooden floor. Instead of the staff uniform, Siaran wore a strange, blood-red dress with a silver hem. Elle stood a level above, watching from a balcony.
“Is that the same pattern as last time?” she asked, her voice slightly raised. It echoed off the thick stone walls.
“No, this is a new one,” said Siaran, marking out a triangle at the centre of the pattern. “My research indicates that this pattern is the key to a powerful and ancient energy.”
“Azaratt?” said Elle, “Callo?”
“Neither,” replied Siaran. “I'm not sure if we're talking about demons. Perhaps something even older, though I can't be sure.” She stood back, chalk in hand, and surveyed her markings. “It seems right. I'll have to measure it later.” She was mumbling slightly, and Elle was only half able to hear her.
“What are you going to do with it?” she said, peering at the complex pattern from her vantage point above the wooden platform.
“It would be unwise to try anything until I know more about what will happen,” said Siaran, hand on her hip. “That's why I haven't finished the pattern,” she added. “But I don't think I can find new information. I've exhausted my books, I've asked questions of the appropriate contacts... I fear I have as much information as is available.”
“Then why do you wait?”
“The danger is very great,” she said, and shrugged. “My room at home is too small, since I don't quite know what's going to happen, but it's for that reason I am unwilling to do it here.”
“I trust your judgement,” said Elle. The tall, aloof-looking woman carefully made her way down to the wooden platform where Siaran stood.
“It needs blood to work,” said Siaran, tapping her nail against her moon-shaped brooch. “So you can see why I'm loath to try it on a whim.”
“We have more important issues to content with,” said Elle, “and I certainly won't put any pressure on you – do this when you feel ready. I confess, I have no idea what the ramifications of this project of yours will be, so perhaps I am downplaying it... still,” she said, “I think the Inter Squad Championship needs more attention.” Elle pursed her lips. “I know we usually have a standard level three freak for the first challenge, but this year has unprecedented talent... I was thinking a high-end level three to low-end level four?”
“Do you think?” said Siaran, cocking her head. “No, no, you're right. I know Squad XVII could tackle a low level four alone, maybe even a middle four, depending on its classification, and Squad XIX is a strong contender. Yes,” she said, as if making a decision, “I think that would do nicely. I shall ask Canan to wrangle us some freaks.”
“Good,” said Elle, nodding. “Are we finished here?” she asked, poised to leave the somewhat dark and claustrophobic chamber. Siaran nodded, and the two of them climbed the two sets of staircases – one wooden, and one hewn from stone – and exited the cellar, appearing inside what used to be a pantry, but was now a heavily fortified entrance to Siaran's cellar below.
The two women exited the long, narrow room – which was more like a corridor than a room – and Siaran locked and dead-bolted the heavy iron door. Elle turned to her, and was smiling.
“Tea?” she said lightly.
“Love to,” replied Siaran, tucking her various pieces of jewellery – silver necklaces, brooches and long, dangling earrings – inside her clothes and into concealed pockets.
In a flurry of kicks and punches, Tara Pierce was knocked to a padded, but firm, mat. She rolled out of the fall and kicked her opponent, Sierra Firefly, in the ankles. The short, buxom girl fell to the ground, but quickly recovered. Tara rolled backwards, and got to her feet quickly, anticipating attack. Sierra remained prone on the mat, but seconds later she was up and moving faster than before. She was curiously manic, her eyes opened wide.
She rushed Tara to the mat and, after a brief struggle, strength flooded through Sierra's limbs. Her movements became less hyperactive and her eyes narrowed. She pinned Tara down with what looked like no effort. The taller, broader girl resisted underneath Sierra' vice-like grip until she relaxed and gave in. Sierra got up and dusted off her hands. She helped Tara up.
“That was unfair,” said the red head, frowning.
“How?” replied Sierra, frowning.
“You used your strength! And your speed.” said Tara indignantly. “How can I fight against that?”
“You had three seconds where I was weak and vulnerable,” said Sierra, flopping down onto the mat.
The large gym, which used to be a formal ballroom, was well lit by tall, wide windows that showed the thick forest outside. Aside from Tara and Sierra, there were only three others in the cavernous space; it was relatively quiet.
“It's an unfair advantage and you know it,” retorted Tara, dropping down next to Sierra. “I can't make myself stronger or faster in the middle of a fight. I'm not going to be fighting against you,” she said.
“If you can beat me you'll be able to beat anyone else,” reasoned Sierra. “If you like we can do it again, only this time I'll just be me.” Tara shot her a withering look.
“No. I'm fine. We can go see how the boys are doing in the library. I need to see what Pharos dug up on last year's challenge.” said Tara.
“I need to talk to Mother, anyway,” said Sierra. “I'll meet you in the library, then,” she said. The two girls got up and headed for the showers off the gym. They parted ways then, with Tara going to the library and Sierra heading for her parents' quarters in the South Wing of the building, which housed the teaching staff as well as those squads on active duty.
Sierra was unsure if her mother would be in her quarters, as during the school year she spent much time doing research or attending to her work, even during free days. The South Wing was fairly easy to access from the second floor gym, and Sierra knew where the servants' passageways were.
She emerged near to her parents' apartment and used her key to gain access. Her father, a fairly short, red-faced man named Lucian, was sat in a plush armchair reading a book. He looked up as she entered and smiled when he saw her.
“Sierra!” he said, closing the book and putting it down onto a small, round table next to hair chair. He took his glasses off and put them on top of the book. “Are you looking for your mother?”
The short, dark-haired girl nodded and opposite him.
“Where is she?”
“The last thing she told me was that she was going down to her cellar with Director Kilgaran,” he said jovially, “but that was over an hour ago. I don't know where she is now.”
“Oh,” said Sierra quietly, “I suppose I should go look for her.”
“Stay a while,” said her father, getting up from his chair. “I'll brew us a pot of tea, get some teacakes,” he said, smiling at her. She smiled back at him, and got more comfortable in her chair.
“I'd like that,” she said.