Yaya couldn’t quite put a finger on it, but there was just something different about school. Placing a manicured nail on the flushing handle of the porcelain throne she had just been occupying, Yaya pushed down the silver handle. She immediately gripped the sides of her pulled down panties and slide them up her legs and over her hips, letting them snap into place as she patted her skirt, making sure it fell over her knees.
Yaya was a small girl – on the shorter side of the spectrum – often getting mistaken as a First Year when she was not wearing her robe or tie. Yaya exited the enclosed stall and headed straight for the sink. The girl’s restroom was quite luxurious – there was a crystal chandelier in the lounge area of the restroom. The lounge’s furniture was velvety and soft with high quality processed carpet placed on top of a cold tile floor. The chic end table had a small bouquet of fresh flowers just like the coffee table between the love seat and sofa.
She lathered her wet hands with the provided pearly luminescent-colored soap and began scrubbing in earnest as she smiled to herself. The soap bubbled and bubbled, and she turned the faucet on with the back of her soapy hand. She preferred warm and hot water over cold temperatures – and so the water running over her soapy hands was hot and warm. A stall’s door opened, and out the corner of her eye, Yaya noted platinum dyed hair that was elbow length long. The girl who came out of the stall was wearing a blue tie and robes decorated with blue lining – she was an upperclassman. A Fourth Year at the University Prep division.
There was slight tension around the girl, but Yaya averted her eyes despite the girl’s seemingly smiling face. She was a pretty girl – the girl who exited the stall with forced sultriness – with big eyes, thin lips, and a pointed big nose. Her eyebrows were maintained without a single hair out of place and the dark roots of her platinum hair were starting to grow in. The upperclassman then stood by her at the next available sink to use and placed her hands under the running faucet.
“Oh! Are you new here?” she asked.
Yaya grabbed one of the clean hand towels set aside and began drying her hands. She looked up at the upperclassman, and presented her best face as she replied nonchalantly, “Nope.”
“Then do you recognize me?” The girl asked, placing a hand upon her chest as if she was a celebrity of some sort.
Yaya took a good look at the girl, and then after no clear recognition. Yaya simply smiled as best as she could as awkwardness filled the air between the two. “No, sorry,” she said.
Yaya had almost wanted to ask the other girl if she was new, but she bit her tongue, taking in the shocked wide eye look on the upperclassman’s face. Yaya was not daft when it came to social cues – and it was without a doubt that recognition was a huge part of this girl’s needs to survive Uni Prep. There was that locked jaw look, the furrowing of brows, and the resentful glint apparent in her eyes despite the smile on her face. Her body language screamed entitlement as she crossed her arms over one and another, standing straighter than before as if she had something to prove by towering over a shorter, smaller girl.
“Well…” she said with just a touch of arrogance that Yaya found irritating. Though Yaya – the ever-overanalyzing girl – argued that it could have just been her misconception, her misinterpretation of what the girl was really trying to say. And so, with bated patience, Yaya did what she usually did best: wait and listen. “I’m Juliette.”
Juliette then continued and said, “Juliette Rouge. When the time comes, I hope I have your support.”
The cryptic words could mean less to Yaya – it was probably some sort of Associated Student Body manner, or something related to a school function. Yaya simply didn’t care. She was here because her parents and siblings wanted her to be – if she could pick to go anywhere to learn magic, it would be the backwoods of her refugee parents’ homeland in southern Zhong Guo, Xinan province to be exact. Not that her parents were welcomed there…there was a reason why they had fled, but 40 years passing surely made a difference. Wouldn’t it?
After thinking about it, Yaya would rather skip school all together and just something else. She didn’t know Zhong Guo – there was nothing that tied her there.
“Hmm,” replied Yaya politely, making sure she was smiling at Juliette. After drying her hands, Yaya tossed the used towel into the bin designated for it and gave Juliette a polite nod of acknowledgement. Yaya then proceeded to walk away, having spent too long in the restroom for Gods’ knows why.
“Yaya!” A slender hand waved at her from one of the long wooden Mass Hall tables. “Over here!”
Her eyes darted towards the girl with the short hair and long bangs. She quickly made her way over to Aja Kaur – every step filled with excitement. Aja was from Deccan, Bharat. Bharat was a country in the Old World where the rivers ran deep, and the sand dunes were endless unlike the New World where most of the land was untamed, undiscovered, and wild with extreme weather. The New World was a continent that rose from the pits of what was the Aine Ocean was now roughly half of the newly emerged continent.
From her point of view the current state of Grian as a colony controlled by the Gaul Empire was one that wasn’t too particularly bothersome. The Empire left Grian alone while the pioneers and explorers commissioned by Old World countries discovered the secrets to the New World. Those pioneers and explorers were now part of the system where they played patron to her family’s produces while more than half a world away from the Empire needed their food to feed the masses back in the Old World. And although it was indeed not her place to know or become involved in politics, Yaya was very aware of how the Taos were in control of what was now the main source of food for the Empire and any patron that wanted food. And they were very rich.
A bright green pear almost floated past Yaya when she snatched it out of the air. There was that little extra bit of excitement flaring up within her when her eyes met Aja’s, and Aja’s mouth curved into that little all knowing smile. Aja was a nosy girl (so was Yaya too!), a loud girl, a girl who stood up for what was right, stubborn, determined, straightforward and blunt, and forgiving – the best kind of friend you needed to keep you grounded. She smirked, wrinkling her nose just a tad bit as she said, “Well, well, well, look who it is.”
“It’s me!” Yaya couldn’t contain her loud throaty laughter as the two girls embraced one and another, jumping up and down in excitement at being reunited. “When did you get here? I didn’t hear you!”
“Just got in this mornin’,” Aja said, settling down. A plate with decorative roses appeared in front of her along with silver utensils. She grabbed a serving of beans, bacon, toast, and roasted tomatoes and potatoes – plating them on top of one and another. “You were still sleeping, I think.”
“Courtney and Amberly should be here in a bit,” Aja said before taking a mouthful of buttered beans into her mouth. She chewed a bit before giving out a delightful moan as the garlic and parsley and butter hit her full throttle. She then noticed the bright green pear in Yaya’s hand, and she couldn’t help, but scrutinize the girl. “Is that all you’re eating?”
Heat sparked her cheeks aflame and embarrassment filled her stomach. She couldn’t help but think of her mother’s disapproving gaze as she would look at her waistline. “Well,” Yaya tried to explain. “My mother thinks I need to lose some weight…”
Although Aja said nothing, Yaya felt as if weights were suddenly tied down to her shoulders and she couldn’t even muster the strength to eat the fruit in front of her. In fact, her eyes were drawn to anything but the fruit. None the less, she knew that the quickest way to lose weight was to simply cut the calories.
“Ah, this is home for the next seven months,” pouted Aja, placing her silver spoon down into the bowl. “Then it’s summer! You’re going to come visit me next summer, right? I’ll take you to Puri Beach! It’s beautiful!”
“Yeah! I’m definitely coming! Courtney and Amberly will be coming too… so I have to get my beach body ready. By the way, I paid my dues to the International Dance Club this morning so I’m all good!”
“Did you hear?” asked Aja. “We have a new Hero.”
“Ah?” Yaya replied. She didn’t really care too much. It was nothing, but a title anyways. “And who is the lucky child? Hmm?”
“It’s a First Year in Uni Prep div!” Aja said. “I heard that he didn’t go to the Elementary Division here at the I.A.M., or we would have heard about him like when we were First Years!”
“So, he was homeschooled,” Yaya added, nibbling on the pear to make it last the breakfast hour. “Or something like that?”
“No, he attended Hwangjoga first before transferring over,” Aja said.
“Isn’t that like the school in Goryeo?” Yaya mentioned, munching on her pear. The juice was sweet and ripe, and the flesh provided a satisfactory crunch every time her teeth bit down. It wasn’t that the Imperial Academy of Magic (I.A.M for short!) was a terrible school – in fact, it was a great school! It was a boarding institution where the elementary, high school, and university students were all separated into three different divisions and buildings across the three connected floating islands. As a magical traveling, floating collection of islands, every child of the world was given the opportunity to be chosen by the Paragons to attend the institution. However, that didn’t mean attendance was mandatory – after all, it was the choice of the child and the parents if they wanted to attend the I.A.M. for an excellent international experience. It could be simply said that some people preferred a familiar setting with a homogenized population of students compared to a diverse one. It was very odd for the I.A.M. to receive transfers from other magical schools, in fact, Yaya couldn’t recall if she had ever heard of a transfer student before.
“So that means he is here in the same facility with us,” concluded Yaya.
Aja nodded before thoughtfully adding, “Eight years ago there was another given the Hero status too…I’m telling you something big is coming!”
“Well, I wouldn’t have expected a transfer student to be given Hero status right away…”
Loud girlish screams of delight and sighs and giggling then filled the room as a tall, dark, and handsome boy entered the Mass Hall. Ah, there he was. The Hero named Chase Young had entered the room, and just as quickly, he was swarmed by adoring young girls and boys.
Yaya couldn’t help, but look on as she muttered, “A gathering of heroes…”
Dinnertime proved to be an entertaining, but lackluster affair. There was prime rib, lobster, fish, healthy choices of beet and potato pie, and other choices in the Mass Hall. Yaya sat with Aja, Amberly, and Courtney at one of the tables near the front where the Uni Prep professors and administrative staff ate and dined. The head of the administrative staff was Administrator Meuchel. He looked the typical part of a wizard that were popular: long hair, a robe, and a beard.
Administrator Meuchel stood up from his seat at the dining table, and then began a long-winded formality that Yaya was already dreading from the get-go. The first time she had heard his First Day announcement three years ago, she was excited as a First Year, but now as a Third Year, she simply wanted to eat in peace and then leave. Yaya turned to the side, noting how her friends were all so engrossed in with Meuchel. He then said, “Good evening. I hope the returning students are eager to start the new term, and our new fellow peers are adjusting quickly to this unfamiliar and foreign environment here at the Ivory Citadel.”
The older students were groaning aloud as Meuchel continued in his happy tune. “Each and every year is a learning experiences for me,” he said. “And I hope it is as much for you. Now I shall announce our new Associated Student Body for this year.”
Yaya’s eye twitched involuntarily. She had quite the feeling she knew one of the three who would be on the Lower Cabinet at the very least…
“Bear with me. It’s only fair,” reasoned Administrator Meuchel. “for our new First Years to hear how our student body system works. The rules and regulations of the academy will be strongly upheld to the highest degree, and your governing body will lead by example.”
He said, “The top three students with the highest grades from the previous Third Year will fill the positions of the Upper Cabinet while the top three students from the previous Second Year will fill the positions of the Lower Cabinet.”
Aja leaned into Yaya, cupping a hand around Yaya’s ear. Curious, Yaya leaned and waited patiently for Aja to share. Aja whispered, “I heard Juliette and Nu allied together to lock out Dara… Dara was supposed to come in first, but she suddenly missed the last day of elective testing, dropping her score 50 points below Juliette and Nu.”
Yaya diverted her eyes over to the table in the very front on the elevated stage. Three students were now standing in front dressed in the school robes lined with blue and blue striped ties. The Fourth Years standing in front of Administrator Meuchel where the Upper Cabinet members were supposed to stand as tradition dictated were all female students looking as proud as can be… but the last girl all the way to the left did not look too please. Her smile was strained and tight lipped. Administrator Meuchel continued speaking, “I am pleased to announce this year’s Student Body President is Juliette Rouge who finished First the previous academic year. Nu Le will be assuming the position of Vice-President, finishing Second as a Third Year. And Dara Nthanda will be this year’s Secretary, finishing Third in the previous year.”
Dara Nthanda possessed long legs and fierce eyes. Her hair was bobbed while her ear lobes were pierced in three different spots, trailing up the cartilage with star earring studs. Standing next to Dara was someone familiar like the back of Yaya’s hand – it was Chase Young.
Chase Chunling Young was someone who made all the girls sigh with appreciation. He was very handsome with mono-lid eyes, a strong jaw and bone structure, and he had good hair. The hair was cut short and often styled with gel for the “effortless” look, or so he told her one day. He was tall – almost a whole six feet tall – and he was only going to grow taller until he reached his early twenties. His skin was tan and bronze from always working out in the sun, playing in the sun, or doing who knows what. He was heavily muscular especially the area around his biceps and shoulder blades. He wasn’t someone who smiled often, but he was always seen with a smirk. Chase Young was someone who took great care of his appearance due to his terrible elementary school days of being the smallest in the class, but that was neither here nor there.
“Representing the Lower Cabinet’s Treasurer will be Chase Young who finished First as a Second Year. This year’s Historian will be Ana Ellenberger, and our final member of this year’s Student Council as Committee Chairperson will be Justine Avila,” concluded Administrator Meuchel.
A wistful sigh echoed near Yaya, drawing her attention to Amberly. Amberly Karimi was a pretty girl with large, hazel eyes and long light brown hair. She was almost the same height as Yaya, but only three inches taller than the petite girl. Her hands cradled the sides of her cheeks lovingly while the corner of her full lips was slightly turned upward as if a framed painted perfection lied before her. She then said wistfully with the adoration of a young girl, “Isn’t he just dreamy?”
Yaya blinked. Was Chase dreamy, wondered Yaya seriously. The thought didn’t really cross her mind, but as her eyes roved over to the young man standing in front – she didn’t disagree with Amberly. Chase shook the hands of Administrator Meuchel, moving his mouth, saying something she couldn’t hear. Chase was tall with great facial bone structure. He was very masculine and all strong jawed and muscular. He had a slightly crooked, bumpy nose that didn’t deter from his handsomeness, and his lips were lush and full and plump. Perhaps the only thing that truly bothered Chase (and Yaya only knew because they had seen each other grown up over the years) were his monolid eyes. His older siblings didn’t have their father’s eyes, but he did. Chase was very self-conscious about their shape, the overall largeness of them, and whether he was still handsome despite the only one flaw on his face per his words.
Nodding while placing a piece of vegetable into her mouth, Yaya agreed, “Yeah. He’s good looking.”
In the distance, grey clouds began settling in. Thunder roaring as they came closer and closer to the traveling, floating collection of islands. The Academy protected by the Paragons would never suffer from natural disasters as the islands were magicked and warded with an ancient magic cast eon ago before the Paragons were even made. The electrically charged bolts of chaotic energy would simply miss the island, hitting something near instead. Something near could have been the city below, or the ocean.
Thunder clouds rolled through the island, misting the islands and academy with thick smoky fog and a wet coldness. Gloom began settling over the children as Administrator Meuchel opened his mouth, but the words were drowned out by the oppressive, cracking booms. They were within the storm, but by pure magic alone, the danger was gone and diverted elsewhere. The violent rumbling was like the thumping, drumming prelude of a song, making Yaya hold her breath for every booming beat as thunder struck. Then after the roaring sounds calmed for just a second, Administrator Meuchel smiled and concluded his thoughts for the evening, “In addition to this, I am pleased to announce this year’s annual competition theme: Factions. I am most definitely looking forward to another blessed year.”
Thunder boomed once more, and sparks of light appeared in the darken sky like broken cracks. The flashes lit up the sky as the pitter patter of rain hailed down, resounding and rippling across every surface of the islands and whatever laid below. The rain promised cold wickedness as every drop of rain carried the disappointment and reprieve of the Heavens for all mortal sins committed. Beneath the stone floors of the academies’ dungeons were disjointed catacombs, mazes, and flooded chambers and corridors. In the long, forgotten history of the flooded chambers and corridors lied secrets that only the Paragons knew as they existed before the Age of Gods came to an end. The Paragons were watchers of the dark, and guardians entrusted with the world – and in its short history of 2000 years of allowing children onto the scared islands to learn from them, the Paragons too have chosen to forget about the darkness submerged and chained within the depths of the floating earths. And so, with the rumbling of thousand stampeding warriors from the sands of time, in the dark among the fallen columns and pillars erupted a sparking sphere of energy, and a voice asked, “Can you hear me?”