The seven students rushed through the narrow archway to find a slavering best towering over Sierra. As Tara pulled the smaller girl to her feet, she retched; the smell of rotting flesh almost overpowered her.
“It's a hellhound,” said Hayden, pulling a long, thing knife from his right boot. “Knives won't do much,” he said, glancing at the others, who had by this point withdrawn knives of their own.
“And none of us have a gun,” muttered Pharos.
The hellhound was circling them in, its huge from blocking their exit. Its three tails lashed wildly around flinging an acidic slime over the courtyard. It appeared confused by the sudden presence of seven more small, unpredictable humans.
“'Toryia, get help,” said Cayla, springing into action. Within seconds the tall blonde girl had run off for help and the other members of her squad circled the creature. A ring of satchels surrounded the creature haphazardly; nobody cared that their things were strewn around the courtyard. The misshapen creature was alternating between an awkward, two-legged gait and the more graceful movements of a quadruped as it tried to keep all of them in its field of vision.
“Tara, Hayden, go,” said Pharos, taking advantage of the creature's bipedal state and ducking underneath the creature's exposed belly with his knife. The sharp implement barely pierced its hide and served only to enrage it further – to disastrous effect.
With the beast's head turned, Sierra was free to leap onto its back. Cayla signalled to the other members of her team. The huge, hulking form of Gareth Conway rammed into the hellhound just as Tara delivered a jump kick to its other side. From his place underneath the hound, Pharos heard its ribs cracking and drove his knife through the weak points. The creature squealed and threw Sierra from its back. She rolled out of the fall and nodded to Cayla.
“Pharos, move,” Cayla yelled, reaching into her satchel and pulling out a small incendiary device. Before he could comply, the hellhound knocked him out from underneath. He bowled Tara over and the two of them ended up tangled on the floor.
On top of the beast, Sierra closed her eyes tightly and clung onto its thick fur. Cayla launched the smokebomb. Smoke billowed out of the small device as thin, sharp pieces of metal went everywhere – including the hellhound's thick hide.
Still clinging to its back, Sierra took advantage of the creature's confusion and plunged her knife deep into its neck. The knife broke off inside the thick, plated neck and she let go.
“Hayden! Get the tails!” she shouted, rolling out of the fall. Reacting instantly to her command, Hayden sprung forward and grasped the flailing creature's tails and put his knife to them.
Before he cut them off, the hellhound secreted a foul-smelling slime that spread all over Hayden's arms. Allister rushed forward and grabbed him before he fell and passed him to Gareth Conway. As he was placed carefully on the ground, he vomited over himself. About three feet away, the hellhound fell to the floor with a crash, landing on top of Pharos and Tara, its severed tails lashing wildly several feet away.
Silence fell over the courtyard, broken periodically by the panting of the students. Moments later, Viktoryia reappeared with Squads II and XI following her, Elle Kilgaran at their head. They were armed to to teeth, carrying the newest and most efficient Vanderklass S-1 pistols. They appeared somewhat disappointed when they spotted the hellhound's corpse.
“Leavesden, Hughes, take Cross to the infirmary. The rest of you see to the clean-up,” said Elle sternly and quickly. She turned her attention to the exhausted students.
“Get yourselves to the infirmary to get rid of the filth,” she said, “and then report to me for debriefing.”
The tall, stony-faced woman turned on her heel and walked briskly from the scene. The two active squads went about their duties, with the short, squat form of Camilla Leavesden and the broad-shouldered Anselm Hughes carrying Hayden's unconscious, prone body to the infirmary.
The battered and tired adolescents collected themselves from the ground and followed Leavesden and Hughes toward the infirmary. Tara was nursing her left arm and Pharos was limping. Squad XVI fared little better, with Gareth Conway sporting what appeared to be a dislocated shoulder and Cayla Lodge bits of metal stuck in her torso.
The infirmary was on the grand palace's ground floor and occupied a space once used as a grand reception room. Several markers of its past remained – the cornicing around the base of the never-used and rather neglected chandeliers along with tall, narrow windows. The ceiling was painted over by a mural popular during the fifteen hundreds, though the walls had been painted over in a crisp white emulsion.
A wide space in the middle served as the walkway, with beds and partitions occupying the sides of the room. Save Hayden, who was promptly carted off to a bed, all eight of the students were instantly pushed into separate decontamination chambers.
More of a small room than a 'chamber,' they consisted of three shower heads pointing from different directions, with one from above and two from the side. They were washed off with a strong soap and given scrubs to wear; their uniforms would be burned, as well as their satchels and the contents inside. New ones would be provided.
A stocky, hard-faced nurse corralled them into a small partition room for their own treatment while they waited for Hayden's treatment to be over. As the nurse saw each of their injuries, Sierra sat apart from the others, her face an expression of melancholy. Tara leaned in closer to Pharos.
“Something's wrong,” she murmured. Pharos nodded slightly and almost imperceptibly.
I think I know what's wrong, he answered, projecting his thoughts directly into Tara's head. It's difficult because I'm unable to hear her thoughts. We'll talk later.
Tara nodded and dropped it. They sat in an awkward silence as they waited for one of the other nurses to come and tell them Hayden was ready for release. He was released nearly a half hour later, and the two squads made their way to Director Kilgaran's office in two close but distinct groups. Hayden's arms had been bandaged and Tara was fretting over him in much the same manner that Viktoryia was hovering around Cayla.
They were admitted to the somewhat claustrophobic office of the school's Director in two groups, with Squad XVI entering first. Director Kilgaran kept them inside for what seemed like a very long time, during which Sierra paced almost constantly. Worse still, her voice was so low and calm that nothing could be heard from outside, and Pharos had never been able to hear her thoughts, so they were in the dark as to her reaction to their antics.
The reappearance of Squad XVI did nothing to mollify Squad XVII as every single squad member had a stoic, impossible to read look on his or her face. Squad XVII was called in just moments after the other team had left.
They entered the office and stood in a perfect line before the carefully manicured Elle Kilgaran. She sat before them with an air of complete authority, her eyes hard and unyielding. Her face was set and impassive as she looked at them.
“After hearing Squad XVI's interpretation of events, I would like to hear your own. Proceed, Ward,” she said, looking the tall boy directly in the eyes.
Pharos shifted his feet slightly before talking, but remained with his hands clasped behind his back and in a fully upright stance.
“As a result of the confrontation between Cadet Hansel and Cadet Firefly during the demonology lesson, it was decided that a non-violent way of settling the matter would be for the two girls to race. Cadet Hansel won. After the race, Cadet Firefly left before her squad. We followed and saw that she was the subject of an attack by a hellhound. Along with Squad XVI, we intervened and dispatched the freak,” said the tall boy quietly. “Ma'am,” he added.
Director Kilgaran considered this for a moment.
“The race track within school grounds would have been a suitable test, would it not?” questioned Kilgaran, peering intently at Sierra.
“It was felt that the forest would be a better test of whose reflexes were better, Ma'am,” said Sierra. “It was not our intention for a situation such as this to arise.”
“But it did,” murmured Kilgaran, slightly too quiet for them to hear. “A suitable punishment for your actions today will be giving Squad XVII the responsibility of caring for our firearms. You will replace Cadet Bearwood's squad.”
Kilgaran got up from her seat and began pacing around them.
“It would be remiss of me to downplay your accomplishment this day,” she mused, passing in front of the students. “Hellhounds are level five freaks, although this particular specimen was old and diseased. Both yourselves and Squad XVI escaped with minimal injury; Cadet Cross will heal quickly. Such a display of skill must not go unrewarded. As such, your Championship Score will be reset to zero – I am told that it is currently negative five.” She turned to look at the assembled cadets. Her face was a picture of sincerity. “That I am pleased with your achievement by no means lessens the severity of your transgression, however. You will all remain on probation until further notice. You are dismissed.”
As the four tired and battleworn students left the room, Kilgaran called Sierra back. She closed the door behind Hayden and stood before Director Kilgaran's desk, behind which the tall, confident woman was sat.
“Yes, Director?” said Sierra cautiously. The small girl was on the defensive, with her body primed for escape.
“Permission to speak freely,” added Elle, relaxing. “From the testimony of Lodge I felt that there was more to the incident than a lost race.” Sierra nodded.
“Yes. It is a matter with which my mother is more comfortable than I,” said Sierra quietly. “She can explain it better.”
“You may leave,” said Elle, rubbing her temple. The young woman curtsied and left the room, and Elle saw in Sierra the vision of her mother. It was clear that Sierra was Siaran Firefly's daughter, she thought. There was no question.
With a sigh, she looked down at her desk. Still open was a letter, penned in a small, curving script, from her cousin, the queen of Spyr Darr. Elle was loathe to comply to her demands, but her organisation existed solely because of her good will. Without her approval the palace would be appropriated by Parliament and all her work would go to nothing.
She pushed the letter to one side, knowing that Siaran would have a better idea than she could come up with. Thinking of her friend and deputy Director, Elle's eyes flicked toward an antique timepiece sitting on the wall opposite her. Within moments Siaran was scheduled for a meeting, which would give them ample time to discuss events.
Not longer after, there was a sharp rap on her door and Siaran Firefly, the buxom deputy Director, walked into her office. Her somewhat fly-away bun and her odd robes indicated that she had been underneath the school working on her patterns.
“Apologies for my lateness,” said Siaran, slipping into the chair opposite the desk. She took a few moments to tidy her hair as Elle smiled indulgently.
“Read this,” said Elle, pushing the letter across the desk. The busty blonde woman read it silently, and frowned upon finishing.
“Dear Luisa wants five squads,” said Siaran incredulously. “Five. We only have eleven, and one of them is new! This is an outrage.”
“I thought you would see it that way. It puts us in a rather precarious position, as I'm sure you know.” replied Elle, leaning forward to take the letter back. “I have a familial obligation as well as the one you and I share with Her Majesty.”
“Give her two squads,” said Siaran quietly, playing with one of her long necklaces. “Say it's all we can spare, and then send Squads I, II and V out on a mission. That leaves us with six active squads here. Squads IV and XI are to be sent overseas to classify whether the aberrants there are freaks or demonic in nature anyway. Three active squads would allow us to deal with any situation that may arise. We can not be denied this – it is our purpose.”
“Yes, yes,” said Elle, “That may very well work. Squads I, II and V will be given access to Tashraq for their mission. A pack of therianthropes should keep them occupied and prove a good test of their abilities.”
“Oh? Is it a pack? I was under the impression it was a lone pair.” replied Siaran, her curiosity piqued.
“Yes,” said Elle grimly. “Level six alpha with two level five females. Our sources suggest a some level two pups.”
“Werewolves?” guessed Siaran. Elle shrugged.
“Does it matter?” she replied, to which Siaran shook her head.
“No, no, of course not. Still, it would be nice to get a living specimen...” She coughed. “But yes. That is what we must do. We would be paid for our services, yes?”
Elle frowned and shrugged. As Siaran had read for herself, the letter stated nothing about payment.
“We could specify it in the terms of the agreement,” said Siaran. “Send three squads instead of two and request a Captain's pay for each squad member. We struggle to find funds as it is. Perhaps you could suggest that we would be unable to continue providing our services without funding.”
“I'm wary of our squads becoming akin to mercenaries,” admitted Elle. “Already we have rendered services to governments that have nothing to do with our mission statement.”
“A necessary evil,” said Siaran, dismissing her concerns. “We have done a lot of good since our first five squads graduated. This will be our second year with active squads,” she said, “and we have eleven now, not five.”
“Nine years and only eleven squads,” said Elle, and then she sighed. “It seems a waste of time.”
“Never a waste,” said Siaran. “We protect people from the deepest, darkest horrors our world can offer. It takes six years to train an exceptional squad adequately and seven for the others. The Championship weeds out the exceptional from the good. This is why it exists. I will handle this,” said Siaran.
“Your court,” said Elle, handing over the problem to her friend. “I wanted to ask about Sierra. Is she still having those ...” she trailed off, searching for the right word.
“Episodes?” asked Siaran. “No, not often. Why do you ask?”
“There was an incident today,” said Elle, and as soon as the words left her mouth Siaran's face fell, and then tightened anxiously. “No, no, you misunderstand! Nothing happened, everything is fine. I just … It isn't anything,” she said. “Forget I said anything.” Siaran nodded.
The two women sat in Elle's office, no longer talking about official business but chatting. They remained there until each woman had to excuse herself due to teaching commitments.