AN: Special thanks go to Dissecting Pomegranates for the amazing help and odd ping-pong session ;) and to NCD for her ever present support. All errors are mine.
Hecketty would have rubbed her hands with glee if she wasn't faced with the mocking force field that blocked her path. She was so frustratingly close to her goal, to her domain, her territory and her prize. If she hadn't known better she would have reached forwards, taken a hold of the handle and forced the door open, only to be thrown back by the shields powerful spell and end up meters away. But she did know better. She knew that Constance wouldn't have been stupid enough to leave the school unprotected, though she partially wished that she had been for once, if anything to make her job easier.
But, the more difficult the journey, the more satisfying the outcome, she reasoned.
Sadly, her allies were not as tactful or intelligent. Bindweed exclaimed 'what are we waiting for?' and attempted to open the gate, only to be swatted back like tennis ball from a racket, making Broomhead sigh with disbelief at her own foolish decision. Why did she pick these witches; of all the witches in the world that she could have chosen for her revenge plan? She had chosen the idiotic imbeciles that were all scurrying around behind her like sheep without a sheppard, or chickens without their heads. Disorganised, unruly, unintelligent, fools - but a necessary part of her grand scheme. After all, one must make sacrifices for ambition, some more callous and extreme than others.
"What the hell was that?" Agatha barked as Coldstone helped Bindweed steady herself.
"A shield," Broomhead noted, quietly, as if it was common sense, which to many it would have been. She turned. "Did you really think that the school would be unprotected?" Agatha looked to her two cronies for a moment and her eyes flickered back to Broomhead's giving her an unsatisfactory answer.
Hecketty wanted to pick them all to pieces right there and then, but being a leader inside Witch Training College had taught her that sometimes getting your own way involved saying nothing where appropriate and picking your words carefully. So she didn't and allowed them to wallow in their own self doubt while she returned to her goal.
She closed her eyes and waved her right hand before her, mentally scanning the surface. It seemed secure but many shields still had a small weak spot. Constance's magic was strong, probably on par with her own, so trying to attack or destroy it from the outside was pointless. The last thing they needed was an eruption that would spread from the school like a tidal wave, blasting anything in its path. No, they needed to be a little more careful, more delicate.
Then she felt it, a divot, it was small, fragile, but just enough for them to use. "Come here!" She barked and they arrived at her side. "We need to focus our energy into that spot." Her skeletal finger indicated the exact position. "It won't be enough to destroy the shield all together, which isn't what we want anyway. We just need to include enough to widen the gap so we can all step through."
Agatha, Millicent and Betty nodded with understanding before releasing their magic in one blast. The invisible and electrifying shield parted to form an archway large enough for them to enter through. Broomhead proceeded first and pushed Walkers Gate open before the others followed one by one. Once inside the barrier enclosed itself and Hecketty let a sly grin pass her lips. It was time for stage two.
The green malachite held delicately between Enid's fingertips shone brilliantly with the mixture of light from the central bonfire and the full moon that shone above. Its blue rays illuminated the tree tops while the fires light licked the edges, casting away the usual shadows of the night and offering protection for all those within its warm glow.
She made it to her feet and decided to walk to her left, passing Fenny and Gris who had started a conga-line and were working their way around the fire with Miss Bat eagerly joining in. Reaching the barrel she opened the tap and poured herself a drink only to turn and suddenly trip on an oddly placed tree route causing her to fall to her hands.
A crack, it was quiet, and wouldn't have been heard by the majority of the occupants partying the night away and enjoying the solstice for what it was. But Enid heard it and, with a terrified gaze, lifted her hand from the hard ground to see a sharp, lightning jagged crack, edged in the necklace crystals surface.
"But… how?" Amelia asked, eyes wide, "or, more importantly, who?"
"That's what I need to find out," Constance explained standing to her feet and marching to her right, into the dark.
Enid lifted her tearful gaze from the necklace to the two teachers, as they disappeared from the fires glow and into the woods surrounding them. Carefully she stood to her feet and pocketed her necklace before following. She crept from tree to tree, hoping that her quiet footsteps would be drowned out by the continuing cacophony of sound from the festivals celebrations.
"I have to go," Constance explained, as Enid neared enough to hear their muffled conversation.
"Don't you think we should wait?"
"Are you sure that it wasn't just a bat or a cat perhaps?"
"Absolutely sure," Constance snapped. She knew that the headmistress wanted it to be true, for it to be some misunderstanding that didn't mean the castle was in danger, but it wasn't and deep inside her tired grey eyes Amelia knew the truth. "The spell I cast is set repel anything that tries to penetrate walkers gate. A bat or cat wouldn't have caused the disturbance that I sensed." Constance strode past the headmistress and took her broomstick in hand before pivoting and commanding it to hover. A loud and unexpected roar of thunder rolled across the sky, catching both teachers attention. They looked up to the dark and forming clouds as the pain inside Constance's head began to swarm once more. It rose like a band and constricted her head.
"But what do we do about the girls - the festival?"
"Cancel it," Constance replied, noting the sadness in Amelia's eyes. "Davina has done a good job of organizing things but-"
"Your intuitions have never been wrong," Amelia admitted.
"And by the looks of the weather it can't last much longer anyway," Constance added, the first of several small water droplets falling from heaven and onto her cloak.
"You know…we could always-" Amelia inferred making Constance's head snap upright.
"No! Amelia you can't honestly be asking what I think you are!" Miss Cackle couldn't help the way her eyes drifted to the ground. "You of all people should know that magic is-"
"Not to be used for selfish and trivial ends, yes Constance I know," she interrupted when a streak of lightning broke through the dark skies above and thunder broke the quiet nature of the night once more. An unfamiliar sound entered Amelia's ears.
"Did you hear something?" She asked, looking to her right and peering through the trees. Constance rolled her eyes and sat on her broom. How many other imaginary distractions would the Headmistress conjure?
"No I didn't hear anything."
"It was a kind of, thud?"
"I'm sure it was nothing," Hardbroom dismissed before tapping the broom with her hand and rising into the sky. "I'll signal you when the coasts clear," she explained, finally free to search the school grounds for their suspected intruder.
"And what if it's not?"Amelia called from below but her beloved deputy was already out of sight.
"WHAT DO YOU MEAN 'CUT IT SHORT'!" Davina yelled. "It's just a change in weather patterns, it will be over soon, solstice celebrations are highly magical and can cause the odd environmental disturbance but it's all part of the experience!"
"Constance sensed a disturbance in the schools shield-"
"Oh!" Davina sighed, throwing her hands into the air with frustration. "Of course she did!" Trust Constance to be the one to suggest to Miss Cackle that they call the festival off early. She might have guessed the stone cold pillar was behind it.
"She's gone ahead to see to the issue and I think, considering the weather, it will be a good idea if we get the girls back to the castle."
"But if there really is some sort of danger then wouldn't it make more sense to keep them here?" Davina argued when another lightning bolt splintered across the sky, earning the odd squeal or two from the girls - Sybil Hallow in particular. Davina herself was shaking in her shoes by just staring at the white jagged lines above. The last thing a witch should do is fly in such terrible weather but she supposed they did not have much of a choice.
"Under the circumstances I'd say no," Amelia replied. A suddenly warmer breeze blew past the girls making leaves fly from the trees branches and onto the fire which now danced like a possessed being, trying to escape the confines of its rock formed circumference. "Can you do a final head count?"
"What's going on?" Imogen asked, interrupting the two staff members when she noticed a third, and usually impossible to miss, witch was missing. "Where's Constance?"
"We have a situation. Can you put the fire out and get the girls into line?" Miss Drill nodded before calling to the girls and getting their attention, the magically conjured music stopped with a sweep of Amelia's hands and the girls eagerly sought guidance.
"I'm sorry, Davina," Amelia sighed, placing a hand on her good friends shoulder and truly feeling sorry that the fantastic evening needed to end so abruptly. The chanting mistress didn't answer but walked away from her touch, adjusting her hat atop of her head as she went and nervously started her headcount.
"Girls! Attention please!" Miss Cackle's magical shout echoed over nature's battle with itself as the girls' cloaks blew with the wind and Imogen ordered Fenella and Griselda to help her pour dust to smother the festivals ceremonial flames. "Because of the weather we have to cut the festival short and return to the castle. Please get your brooms and line up for a final head count before we leave."
Mildred scattered with the other girls and reached where her trusty banana broom was waiting patiently for her. With it in tow she lined up next to Maud in rows or two as Miss Bat walked from the front of the liens to the back, counting from youngest to oldest. Looking to her right and left Mildred strained above the crowd, feeling that something or someone was missing.
"Where's Enid?" She asked suddenly, realising what it was and catching Maud's attention.
"I can't see Enid anywhere." Maud looked around as well by stepping out of line to check the others but in the dark everyone looked the same. "I'm sure she's here somewhere," she replied. "But I can't see HB either, maybe she went with her?"
"Seventy six, seventy seven, seventy eight, seventy nine-" A loud clap of thunder made the scatter-brained witch leap into the air and curl her cloak around her. It wasn't that she hated the storm itself it was the fact that they were about to send…how many students had she counted again? She turned three times, pointing to the girls to try and remember but she couldn't. She looked to the last group and started again. "Seventy seven, seventy eight, seventy nine," her finger pointed at the last student and she smiled, she must have counted it wrong the first time. "Eighty."
"Miss Bat, have you finished?" Amelia asked, nearing her side and the witch nodded nervously.
"Yes, Miss Cackle, everyone's here."
"Alright girls, sit on your brooms and we'll fly out, keep close to the tree tops and keep your eyes on the sky. Miss Bat will make sure no one is left behind while I'll lead the way. Be careful and stay together."
Constance descended from her broom and landed with her usual grace and elegance. She strode quickly towards Walker's Gate and paused just before to raise her right hand. Her spell casting fingers touched the warm, smooth barrier of protection and it glowed purple for a split second to acknowledge its conjurers presence. She didn't sense anything out of the ordinary though her head was still pounding away, telling her that there had indeed been someone else here. There was only one way to know for sure. Constance closed her eyes before placing both of her hands against the shield and negating its power, when she opened them again the shield dissolved into smoke that wafted away in the breeze as the first torrents of rain poured from heaven. Opening the door she tapped her broom and pointed to the shed, commanding it to hide itself before she walked to the schools front doors, unlocked its defence hold with a key from her chain and pushed herself inside.
Stepping into the foyer she closed the door quietly behind her, eyes peering through the darkness for signs of life.
With only the pouring rain to mask her heels authoritarian thud against the pathway, Constance marched to Miss Cackle's office to begin the inspection. Everything seemed to be in its usual place, her typewriter still had centre stage on her mahogany table, terribly organised piles of paperwork were scattered from one end of the room to the other and a now cold cup of tea sat in the corner of her table. Nothing was out of place or position which was both a relief and a worry.
The other classrooms and staffroom were fine, along with the girl's dormitories which brought Constance to her home, her sanctuary, her safe haven. She hoped that it hadn't been tarnished or ruined. If just one of her perfectly placed and labelled potion bottles was out of place on the shelf only trouble was going to follow. The door released its usual squeak as she walked towards the front, checking under each row of benches as she did. When she reached the supplies closet she inspected each and every bottle with military precision, checking they were all still alphabetical, that nothing was missing, and it all was fine.
Somewhat bemused at the lack of evidence she placed her right hand to her forehead and slowly massaged her temples with her thumb and forefinger. She had never been this wrong before, her instincts were always correct - every single time. The very thought of having to face Davina when she came back with the other girls, fuming at it all being a false alarm and accusing her of making false allegations, made her release an exasperated sigh.
Lightning flashed, illuminating the darkness and she finally admitted defeat. It had been a long and tiring day. Opening the top draw of her desk she removed a match and lit a nearby candle before proceeding to light a few others and the torches in the foyer.
It was going to be difficult to explain but she still knew that something wasn't right. The castle… it seemed… different and still the familiar and lingering magical essence swept through the corridors. Her headache had begun to subside, which, she admitted, was a relief, though the nagging feeling that something was amiss still proceeded with determination.
Opening the doors and stepping outside into the terrible weather she prepared her spell casting fingers and released a blast from her right hand into the sky, the purple firework lingered in the air before disappearing and Miss Cackle and the other completely drenched girls landed.
"Quickly girls, inside, get yourselves dry and into bed!" Amelia ordered; tapping and ordering her broom away to the shed. She hurried to Constance's side as the girls rushed through the doors to the hall, desperately seeking shelter. She looked up to her deputy's frozen and disbelieving eyes before parting her lips to speak. "Constance-"
"It was nothing," she interrupted, keeping her eyes trained on the girls.
"But…what you felt…it couldn't have been nothing?" Constance didn't say a thing, she waited until the last girl entered and pulled the wooden doors closed as Amelia stood at her side.
"Constance…maybe you just need a break."
"I do not 'need' anything!"
"We all have lapses in judgement, we all make mistakes." The deputy crossed her arms and Amelia reached to stop her.
"Constance, what's really going on?"
"I don't know, Headmistress," she admitted, scared as the first three lips rolled from her tongue. She readjusted her arms as Amelia let go. "But I'm going to find out."
It hit her, like a wave against a ragged shore, a gale against the cliff-side, a hammer to her skull. She didn't even know what had caused it but the moment she landed in her room everything was a blur. The walls had meshed together, her desk seemed to be twisting and forming into some kind of creature and Morgana scrambled under the bed with a terrified cry as her mistress hit the far wall and braced herself against it. Her hands shook as the pain increased and increased beyond anything that she had ever felt before in her life.
She had the usually common ability of some witches to sense when danger was near though the pain or sense had never been this strong, this acute. Raising her right hand to her head she tried to do something, anything to relieve the pressure before opening her desk draw and removing a vial of a green healing potion, something she was hoping not to use. Her left hand trembled before finally popping the cork but before the vial could touch her lips…
She froze. She knew that voice all too well, the voice of judgement, of pain, of ridicule, her childhood and every unpleasant emotion and dream she had ever had - the narrator of her life's tragic story. She turned her head but before she could conjure a response from her spell casting fingers it was already too late. A blast hit her directly, sending the witch plummeting to the ground and the vial to smash into hundreds of tiny pieces, the green liquid oozing across the floor.
"You're all mine now, Constance," the devil paused, kneeling next to her unconscious protégé. "Mine for the taking."
AN: *ducks behind previously conjured shield and awaits angry responses about the cliff-hanger… though makes special note that said cliff-hanger is dedicated to DP ;)*