The four members of Squad XVII stood outside one of the smaller classrooms on the ground floor of the huge fourteenth century palace. The other four sixth year squads were standing against the panelled walls. There was a low murmur of indistinguishable voices as the students talked to one another.
Lucian Firefly, the short, red-faced father of Sierra, turned the corner fumbling with a set of keys. He looked up at the class and seemed surprised.
“Oh? Is it time already?” he muttered, and hurried forward to open the door. The students flooded inside and took their seats. They were quiet as they waited for Lucian to get his things ready.
“First lesson back,” he said when he had finished, “how exciting!” He stopped talking for a few moments to write something on the board. “This year we will be some of the most powerful demons on whom we have lore – Azaratt, Callo, Trogdor and Sariel, for example. Our focus has moved away from generic species and onto more prominent individuals. Questions?”
Sierra glared openly at her father, whilst a tall blonde girl with high cheekbones and a pale face raised her hand.
“Why are we learning this? They have been sealed away.” She spoke curiously, with a somewhat harsh accent.
“Even though these particular demons are inactive, they still present a very big and very real threat,” explained Lucian. “At any time the seals containing them, barring them from this world, could break, and they would be freed. This is why I am going to teach you about their history and the various methods used to contain them. That make sense?”
The blonde girl nodded, and jotted something down into a book. She glanced up and smiled. Lucian continued.
“We will start, I think, with the oldest of the demons on our syllabus, and perhaps the most well-known.”
“For some definition of 'well-known,'” whispered Hayden to Pharos, who snickered.
“Azaratt first enters our histories in the fifth century BDR. He initially appears as a tribal god to a primitive people in a region which is now called Tashraq, but his role and power become clear in the first century ADR.” Lucian reached up to grab a wooden ball on a string. He pulled it down, and a five foot tall illustration of Azaratt was revealed. “Using knowledge from previous classes, which type of demon is Azaratt?”
A doe-eyed girl with a shock of bright red hair put her hand up. Lucian nodded at her, and gestured for her to speak.
“The curling ram's horns indicate a lust demon, and we can find further evidence in his erect penis, but those are both in direct opposition to smoke surrounding his body, which indicates a corruption demon.” she rattled off confidently.
“Exactly, Claudia. Azaratt is a demon who defies classification. His burning eyes suggest an ability to foresee the future, and at the end of his tail is the animated skull of a jackal, suggesting an affinity with death. His abilities are mixed. He gets the classification of Underlord, a reflection on his status as a commander of demonic forces.” Sierra raised her hand.
“Could Azaratt's original classification have been as a lust demon? The lust aspects are the most prominent, and I read that over the course of their lifetimes, demons can change attributes and even take on new aspects.” she said. She shifted in her seat, leaning forward slightly.
“Yes, we think that this is what happened with Azaratt. We've seen it happen with Lastatrix. Originally a guardian force with a healing aspect, she is now a succubus who hunts primarily in the tropics.” replied Lucian, beaming. “She is fairly benign,” he added, “so we haven't yet destroyed her.”
“You mean it's official policy to live and let live? Even when a dangerous freak is out there?” said Viktoryia, interrupting Lucian. “How can you condone that? Succubi are very dangerous.”
“Lastatrix is a benevolent demon,” protested Sierra, “she causes humans no harm. Killing her would only anger the rest of the succubi and it would be a waste of manpower. Eleven squads can only cover so much of the world. We don't need to waste time on Lastatrix when dangerous freaks are out there hunting.”
“You deny that succubi are dangerous?” retorted Viktoryia, who then muttered something in her own language. “You are a fool.”
“Girls, I think this is perhaps inappropriate,” cautioned Lucian as he looked at Sierra's posture: he knew her well enough to know she was poised for attack. He was ignored.
“Succubi in general are dangerous,” argued Sierra, “but Lastatrix is the most benevolent demon in the history of the world. She used to be a guardian force. She doesn't cause her victims any pain and she doesn't kill them. She's a waste of time.”
“No freak is a waste of time,” said Viktoryia angrily, a look of pure hatred flashing in her sheer blue eyes.
“That's enough,” said Lucian forcefully. “A little heated discussion is conducive to learning, but this is not appropriate at all. I am docking five points each from Squads XVI and XVII. Any complaints will be deferred to Tutor Goldenrose.”
Sierra and Viktoryia stewed for the rest of the lesson, and in an attempt to let the situation go quietly, Lucian set the class a task classifying various demons and putting them into their historical contexts. The rest of the hour-long lesson passed by without incident, and when the class finished, Lucian kept Viktoryia and Sierra behind.
“Your conduct today was unworthy of a Blackwood Operative – at the end of the year, one of you could be an active member of our organisation. This is simply unacceptable behaviour. I expect each of you to write me an essay on the importance of demonology in our line of work. Dismissed,” he said in an irritated tone.
The two girls left the room, one tall and blonde, the other short with black hair. Their friends were waiting outside. Viktoryia turned to Sierra, anger in her eyes.
“You are wrong! It is our duty to search and kill freaks and demons!” The tall, pale girl's voice was eerily soft, and hid a very real danger.
“I know,” said Sierra testily, “but it's better to focus on dangerous foes than it is to expend time and energy on benevolent succubi like Lastatrix!”
The girls' respective squads hung around nervously; both teams were anxious to prevent a further loss of Championship points, which was an inevitable outcome if the two girls started fighting.
“There is no such thing as a benevolent demons!” spat Viktoryia, balling her fists.
“Yes, there is,” replied Sierra. “Her name is Lastatrix.” Both girls were staring at each other intently. Pharos's eyes glazed over as he tried to pluck Sierra's intentions from her head.
“Viktoryia.” said a tall, lean girl sharply. A silver pin above her right breast marked her as Cayla Lodge, the squad leader. Viktoryia ignored her.
“No. You are wrong. All demons are evil, it does not matter where they came from.” She said it with so much conviction that Sierra was very nearly swayed. “We will race. If I win, you will apologise to me. If you will, I will apologise to you. Then we will never talk of this again.”
Sierra looked to Pharos before replying. He nodded to her.
“You're on. Can you handle the forest?”
“Of course.” said Viktoryia. The foreign girl radiated confidence, and Sierra felt somewhat intimidated by her cool, sure stare. She set her jaw. The other members of Squad XVII shared a look; they knew exactly what Sierra's expression meant.
“Let's go. Now.” said Sierra. Gareth Conway, a member of Viktoryia's squad, sighed. There was a courtyard with access to the forest fairly near to the demonology classroom, and it was there that the two squads headed. They passed through the courtyard with its carefully tended flowerbeds and headed to the outer wall. A small archway was covered by an iron door, across which was a heavy iron girder to prevent entry by freaks or creatures from the outside.
“That's there for a reason,” said Hayden quietly as Sierra and Gareth Conway removed the long, thick metal bar.
“We should be fine,” said Cayla. “Only Sierra and Viktoryia are going to stray far from the school.” The eight of them walked through the arch in single file. They walked through the dense, old growth forest that backed onto parts of the school until they reached a small clearing. The doorway back into the school was still visible. The thick forest was fairly dark, with scant light filtering down through the canopy. Sierra leaned against a gnarled, somewhat decaying, tree nonchalantly.
“Shall we get on with it?” she said, eyeing the taller girl disdainfully.
“Yes, I will be ready soon,” said Viktoryia, pulling her long, thick blonde hair into a ponytail. Lucian Firefly was surprisingly lax when it came to the regulation of hairstyle, and he regularly let it slide during his classes. When she was done, she stared Sierra in the eyes.
“I'm going to decide on the race,” said Renard Allister, a short, mousy haired boy with an odd birthmark below his left eye.
“Damn farsighters,” muttered Tara.
“There is a tree three miles from here that has fallen down,” he said, his eyes strangely vacant. “There's a poggle carapace inside. The first one to bring bring it back wins,” he said.
“He's not using his farsight because he thinks you'll accuse him of cheating,” whispered Pharos to Tara, sitting down beside her on a particularly large and flat tree stump. The lean girl frowned. Hayden stepped closer to Allister.
“Get ready,” he said. The two girls stood next to each other and got ready for the race. “Ready, set, go,” said Hayden, and the two girls were off.
Sierra felt fluidity flow into her limbs, and everything became so much sharper, and it was as if the world were moving far more slowly than before. She could hear the blood pumping through her body, and her breathing deepened. She felt the elation that came with running free and fast and uninhibited. With a brutal, primitive shriek she ran with abandon, forgetting her purpose – until Viktoryia ran past her, the tall girl's limbs moving with a speed that exceeded even Sierra's own.
Something deeply alien inside her caused her to become angry, and she sped up, pushing with all she had to surpass even her fastest speeds. Watching the blonde girl duck and weave through the thick trees without so much as a single hesitation, Sierra felt a sudden surge of anger. The desire to be dominant, to dominate the weak, pitiful girl before her spilled into her mind, spurring her onward.
As Viktoryia slowed down to collect the poggle carapace from inside the tree, Sierra's anger turned to rage and then quickly to fury. She could see Viktoryia speeding up once more, but slowed herself. She slowed to a jog and felt, for the first time since she started the race, the wind whipping around her face. It was cool against her hot, red skin. She reached the clearing a few minutes later, where Squad XVI was congratulating Viktoryia on her win.
She entered the clearing and muttered her apologies to Viktoryia, and then left abruptly, jogging at what would have been a run for most of the others there. Hayden shot Pharos a confused look. The other boy shrugged.
“Congratulations,” said Pharos to Viktoryia. “It isn't often that someone beats Sierra in a race.” The tall girl smiled coyly.
“I am faster than she is,” said Viktoryia, who shrugged. She hugged the poggle carapace close to her chest: a symbol of her victory.
“I'm surprised that it was actually there,” said Allister rubbing his chin. “The farsight is iffy outside.” He shrugged, and began walking back to the school.
As they got closer to the school it became apparent that something was wrong. Loud crashes and bangs came from behind the wall. They rushed forward to see Sierra knocked to the ground by what appeared to be a huge, crooked bear claw.
“Oh, crap,” said Tara, looking through the doorway.