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Standing on the isolated platform, I contemplated my options. Grimly Hall waited just beyond the desolate moore, and I had only in my wildest dreams expected to pass the entrance exams. It was the most prestigious and only girls’ academy in all of Western Europe. Young men not yet called to the front created a continuous stream. And the witty and the dippy mobs of girls followed behind.
But, on the other hand, socializing with others was not my strong suit. My stomach had been upset from the carriage ride, but now it was excruciating. I had to sit down. Setting my belongings beside me, I tenderly placed myself on the cold stone. A clearing of the throat shook me out of it.
“Miss Thompson?” a deep, warm voice sounded.
“Yes?” I ventured softly. As I lifted my head, I found myself blushing. I was sitting on the ground in the presence of a man. Well, hardly a man, he seemed to be about my age give or take a year or two. He had electrifying steel blue eyes and a brown head full of perfect curls. I noticed they were tied neatly back fashionably to allow his face to show. His hand was open, offering to pull me up.
“Um, are you alright?”
“Oh, yes, I’m fine. And who may I ask do I have in my company?” I replied trying to maintain composure.
“Ah, I was sent to escort you to the bridge,” he reached for my bags, “I am lieutenant Fryre. You may call me Cameron. I am also sitting in to lectures at the Hall.”
It was an unconventional, but I felt myself gain a friend. Cameron drove me to the gates and then helped me out of the even less comfortable carriage. I nodded cordially and began to quickly retreat into the threatening walls of Grimly Hall. I took in a shaky breath and hiked up my skirt.
“Miss Thompson? Your things?” Cameron asked leaning on my belongings.
“Right, yes, well, thank you again Cameron, but I can take it from here. Housing to the left? Splendid,” I babbled fast. I felt my face burn. I avoided his entrancing eyes. As his body became sheer blur, I reached my destination. I examined the old brick building. A bit grimy, but cozy, I concluded. When I pushed the front doors open, the little speck of my nerves that I had still had control over dissolved. A packed commons stopped what they were doing to look up. A short and somewhat rotund girl with lovely chocolate brown ringlets stepped out of the crowd and made her way over to my side.
“Don’t mind them. They’re jealous they couldn’t make such an entrance,” she glared back at a cluster of girls about my age who were smirking nastily in my direction, “You must be Leslie Thompson. I’m Becca Larose, your roommate. I’ll show you to our room.”
“Of, of course,” my face boiled over now.
“Go on; get on with your gossip! She’s just a girl like you and me,” she nudged one of the few girls she had scoffed at on our way up a spiral staircase, “That was Alessya Todlesey. Her father is on the board, but she still can’t manage to pass a single class. You’re lucky I volunteered to house you. Most girls wouldn’t want to give up their rooms. Especially one in the tower.”
She said this with vigor right as she stopped at a landing. A beat up old door was the only thing identifiable. It seemed like a mess that would never be tended to. I couldn’t imagine anybody envying the tower, but then I saw it. Becca beckoned me in. Two beds, two desks, a large armoire, and a toilet made up the room. It would have been less than average except for the fantastic views from what seemed like every angle as well as the warmth I felt just standing in it. A magic stronger than witchcraft covered every inch of this room. Becca’s side was cluttered, but not unmanageable. I shut the door behind me and sat at the end of my bed.
“Incredible isn’t it? Here’s your key. I should probably cover some ground rules for the commons. Don’t fraternize with the boys’ dormitories unless in a public event specifically held by the school. Keep your room orderly. Well, atleast keep your bed made and the toilet clean. The dining hall is open from seven to quarter past nine in the evening. There’s probably more I’m forgetting, but those are the basics,” Becca explained.
“It is amazing. But what did you mean earlier? You said I had made quite an entrance,” I inquired curiously.
“Oh, isn’t obvious? You are much prettier than most of the other girls. And you had that winded look about you with your cheeks all rosy. Besides, Glenn Adams saw Carmen Fryre escorting you to the gates. He may not be the most popular chap around campus, but he is certainly the most wanted. Alessya and Glenn are always getting into little tiffs over him. It’s hilariously idiotic since it’s apparent he has a sparking interest in you.”
“He merely helped me with my things,” I said indignantly, but inside I had warm glow of satisfaction.
“Now then, there is to be an orientation at four, so that gives you some time to unpack, and then we can get to know each other,” Becca said cheerfully brushing off her bed and sitting primly at the edge.
By four, I already knew that Becca and I would get along just fine. She shared the same enthusiasm at being at the Hall as I was, and her personality suited me perfectly. I could tell that she wasn’t the favorite amongst the other girls, but only because she was twice as decent and thrice as intelligent. She didn’t waste half her time following new trends that may (or may not, as was more common) last. In addition, although respectful, Becca didn’t follow proper etiquette.
As we made our way into the courtyard where orientation was taking place, I felt a sense of insecurity from where, I couldn’t conjure. Maybe it was the way the archways bidding entrance to the grounds seemed to hunch menacingly over the students, or maybe it was the precise and somewhat threatening position the professors stood in; one blocking each exit while others paraded back and forth down specified corridors. It was disconcerting, but I was too excited to look too far into it.
“Welcome old and new classmates alike. I would personally like to greet you with the greatest thanks I can muster. My colleagues and I are proud to have so many young and old, wise and naïve faces among us. You all will come to love and loathe me (a chuckle from a small number of third year students) as Mistress Grotesque, head and one of the founders of these heavenly halls,” the speaker bowed her head deeply allowing the crowd time to applaud, “Will first year classmen please rise. Good. I would like to introduce you to our world renowned lecturers, Master Hendricks, professor of anatomy and botany, Master Dillons, professor of literary and cultural arts, Mistress Terry, professor of history and language, and Master Lawrence, head of witchcraft.”
Everyone stopped at Master Lawrence. Nobody outside of Grimly Hall could ever know how glorious it was when you first discovered that the trembling rumors of magic were true and real as day. They are not for everyone, however, which was why Mistress Grotesque announced that she and Master Lawrence would have a designated placement exam for all primaries (the nickname for new students) who would like to take a whack at the art. At this, all returning students took that as their cue for dinner. Mistress Terry was to assemble all new students and take them on the tour of the school. Prior to this, she retrieved a golden bound file that held each of their class schedules.
“I hope you all will keep this schedule in good hands. You will only receive one, and no replacements will be given out,” Mistress Terry warned sternly, “It is just one of the numerous and mainly unspoken policies here at Grimly Hall. Now that I have scolded before the accusation, I would like to further add my own welcoming to this epidemy of education and enlightenment. As your teacher I expect that each and every one of you feels that you may confine in me as a kin as well as your elder. And, may I caution, that you must be careful as to what you say. These are not the walls of your elementary childhood days. People and things have ears and will abuse them at any lengths they deem necessary.”
At this the group stiffened and glanced nervously around. Was it playful teasing or serious hints to danger? Nobody knew or would probably find out; especially with the secrecy and the excessive policies that they all soon came to learn and memorize as quickly as possible. Leslie realized that many of these policies or rules were implied, but usually unsaid. For instance, it was implied that all primaries must take the witchcraft placement exam whether they would wish to pursue the practice or not. It was implied that to question a teacher was to question the establishment, therefore scorning education. While these appeared harsh at first glance, most got used to them quickly which was for the better anyways since the consequences were dire.
The good part of a semester had gone by when I was nicely settled in at the Hall. I had only encountered Cameron once since we had first met, and without hesitation, won disapproval from the majority of my female classmates excluding Becca, who continued to stand by my side. This was all well, but the feeling I had experienced during the orientation ceremony had since then dulled, but persistently pulsed. It made me uneasy, and try as I might, I could not shake it. One night lying in the darkness of our chamber, I shared my concerns with Becca, knowing she would be the only one to wait to judge.
“Doesn’t it seem a little peculiar? I mean all these “policies” if you can call them that. I’d go as far as to call them restrictions or forced exercise,” I had ranted, “I am satisfied enough by the education we’re getting, and it is quite a marvel to be here, but I just get a strange feeling; like something isn’t right.”
“I suppose I have noticed some odd happenings, but we can’t be for sure. And we have no idea what is up if anything,” Becca had reasoned.
“True, but I’m on my guard,” I replied firmly. It was amazing how I had changed in such a short period of time. I had once been fearful to even step through the entrance to the school, and now I was a rebel against the establishment. Well, hardly a rebel. I was quiet in sessions, never offering an opinion, but with Becca it was easier. She had become my best friend, and we both debated long hours into the break of dawn. It was pleasant to have someone to talk to. My father, being the oblivious diplomat he was, was too far indulged in his work and money. As for my mother, well, she was withering on her death bed, having gotten sick years ago. With no siblings, it was abnormally silent in my home.
“Leslie, as much as I doubt it is anything serious, I say we interrogate someone of upperclassmen ship. How about Cameron? He’s been here longer, and he’s honest. He’d be able to tell.”
“I scarcely see him. How would I be able to corner him?” I asked just as a knock from our door sounded. We inhaled and laid there in silence.
“Nobody should be out at this time. Who could it be?” Becca whispered anxiously.
To answer that, a perfectly timed voice spoke, “It’s Cameron Fryre. I promise I am only here for professional reasons.”
At this I climbed out of bed, and creaked to the door. I peeked out the peep hole, and undid the latch. Cameron snuck in noiselessly, and he shut the door behind him.
Lighting a candle I asked him, “What are you doing here at this hour? You do realize we could all get terminated for doing this?”
“Shh! Yes, I know. Why do you think I’m keeping my voice to a minimum? Anyways, I’d like to say that I’ve been meaning to talk to you again. We’ve barely seen each other, and we are friends right? It seems a waste to let a perfectly good friendship go down the tube.”
“Oh sure, this is definitely a professional call,” Becca hissed. She was grinning, however, and rushed to light the gas lamp.
“Well, you could have made this visit in the daylight, perhaps during study hour.” I suggested. I was grateful for the dim lighting for I could feel my face redden. At this, Cameron grinned peevishly.
“I know, but isn’t this more exciting?” His face grew nearer until it was directly in front of my eyes.
I turned my head hiding my dismay and what was it? Pleasure?
“Well, I suppose it is just as well as we were just talking about you,” Becca butted in swiftly, “ Leslie has a few questions for you. She feels that there is something fishy going on around here, but since there is no solid evidence, she wanted to observe the attitude of an upperclassman.”
“I’m the man for the job,” Cameron announced eagerly. He scooted right next to me and forced myself to look into those wonderful eyes that were him, “I am your humble servant amidst many selfish faces.”
“Wise words for someone stupid enough to come here,” I breathed. And like that the spell was broken. We hurriedly separated to different parts of the room, “So, I’ve been suspicious for a while now, and I was hoping you could help. Has anything strange happened since you’ve come here?”
“Well, nothing since I’ve been around, but there is the Christensen story,” Cameron said slowly,” But there was never any solid proof.”
“Oooh, I like a good mystery, tell us!” Becca demanded.
“Alright, but everything I say can never leave this room. Promise?” he searched our faces.
“We swear.” I whispered.
“Thirteen years ago, a new student, Lark Christensen, came to the Hall. She was from a family of wealth, therefore cherished based on generous donations to the school. Lark grew to be quite popular amongst the professors. They kept a close watch over her, which at the time seemed only natural for the prized pupil,” He paused, “But there were rumors that followed the teachers; the student body was gaining suspicion to their intentions over not only Lark, but them as well.”
“What were the suspicions?” I asked.
He beckoned to put a finger to his lips, “Lark was also apprehensive, so she tried to investigate, volunteering to clean up after class, organizing documents for Grotesque. To the students it was very innocent, but it was apparent that the teachers were not as naïve. One afternoon, Grotesque made a grave announcement. Lark Christensen was in a fatal accident following a private session with one of the masters. She never told which teacher, but all eyes went to Master Lawrence.”
“And what happened?” Becca inquired, quivering a little as she said this.
“Well, of course word got out. The countryside was filled with terror and doubt. Should they enroll their children? Should they take them out? Did Lark really have an unfortunate accident? Or was it twisted fate by the administration? To this day, Grimly Hall is still trying to rebuild its reputation.”
“How come I’ve never heard of this?” I wondered out loud, “I mean I know I’m from abroad, but my father is a diplomat. He would have gotten word. And none of the students speak of it.”
“Well, as to that, older students are too afraid to mention it. We don’t know whether to trust the establishment or not, so best not to try it. And I’m sure there was severe damage control in order to keep the school up and running.”
“If I may ask, what were Lark’s reservations?” Becca stuttered.
“That the Hall is a hoax. That it is entirely an illusion to empower young minds to harness their knowledge for the personal good of the five instructors. Some even go as far as to say that Grotesque is a sorceress out to eliminate those who study else where. You see, theories believe that she wants to, this is to bluntly state, take over civilization as we know it. Now, mind you, there’s also the prophecy.”
“It is exceptionally old …Grotesque is said to have been visited by some sort of creature. It warned her that the next generation of students would become almighty if she did not destroy them, one by one.”
“But that’s horrible! Somebody has to stop her!” I exclaimed furiously.
“Yes, but how? And more importantly who?”
“I think it should be a group, a force, so-to-speak; a small number of students who ban together to really get rid of her. I think…” I stopped myself. I was amazed that I was even imagining saying this, “it should be us.”
It had been weeks since the night Cameron had snuck into our room. After hours of planning, morning had arrived, and Cameron had to leave before expulsion. Now, we were in the thick of research. Every waking spare moment we had, Becca spent with the professors as Cam (after a day of him nagging me to call him by his nickname) and I consulted thousands of books and records. We knew we had to be confident in our accusations, so for the past month or so, we had been getting our hands on any information we could. Unfortunately, Mistress Terry and Master Hendricks had caught us huddled in a corner discussing our latest find, a record of five other student mortalities within the last decade or so. None, however, were as pronounced as the Christensen story.
One drearily damp Thursday about a month into our discoveries, Cam and I sat in our usual spot by the library’s fire, reading an endless piles of books. We had no classes that day; so many peers had decided to travel into the nearest town, Fentington. Even Becca had pleaded to go visit her nana who was staying at a local inn. Cam would look up every so often to check to see if anyone was coming near. After the fifth time, I slammed my book and raised my eyebrows.
“Cam, I’m pretty certain when I say that, at least for the time being, the coast is clear,” I teased.
“You can never be too careful. Besides, any false step, and we could end up in those records,” He indicated the student mortality document.
“Even still, it’s so quite I have a hunch even the teachers have decided to escape these depressing hallows,” I said pointedly. I shivered as I turned the page of my most recent text, Mishaps: the stats and facts of misfire magic. Cam, seeing this, walked over and placed his candle by my feet. Then, he tenderly wrapped a blanket over my shoulders. He left his hands there a minute. We sat there in our thoughts. It was nice, to feel his strong and able arms slowly wrap around mine. I let my head rest on his shoulder for a moment, but all was lost as a loud pop from the fire broke our moment. I smiled appreciatively and returned to my reading. Cam, instead of doing the same plopped down next to me and stared into the flames.
“What if all of this is a myth?”
“What if it isn’t?” I retorted half listening.
“Leslie, as much as I admire your enthusiasm, I just want you to be careful in what you say around here. Look, remember, the walls have ears. Don’t…”
Cam stopped mid-sentence. He silenced me and stood up. Then, stealthily moving across the floor, peered out the closest window pane. I blew out the candle and joined him. A look of terror was on his face. As I looked below, I understood why. Becca and what must have been her nana, were being carried towards the front gates, drenched in blood and rain.
We both wove our way in and out through each row of books until we entered the corridor. We sprinted until we reached the precession. Grotesque was in the lead, head bowed until she saw us. She sighed as if pitying us, and then, as if on air, floated to us.
“Dear students, I was fearful you might see this awful sight. Your beloved friend and her companion were in a most dreadful carriage accident. I was on my way out of Fentington myself when I saw the poor horses rear up in the storm. We will all miss sweet Becca terribly. Leslie, I know how fond you were of her, would you kindly go fetch her things. We will send them to her family first thing tomorrow,” she requested sorrowfully, “Cameron, would you please follow me.”
Cameron began to object, but then slowly followed Mistress Grotesque. I breathed heavily and made my way up to our room. The walls seemed to waver as I climbed the spiral stairs. I could feel my eyes swell up with burning, frightened tears. I unlocked our bed chambers, and sat at the edge of my bed. Thoughts, doubts, and ideas swirled around and around contemplating my next move. The door was still ajar, so I kicked it closed in anguish. As the door clicked shut, I heard the screams of agony and torture. I leapt up and made for the door, but it wouldn’t open. It’s locked! I thought to myself, it’s locked, and now I’ll be stuck in here as Grotesque does who knows what to Cam! And now Becca’s dead. Another cry sounded from somewhere in the school. And as I made one more attempt at the door, Grotesque was entering.
“Did you really suppose that I was dimwitted enough to fall for your little games?” She said disgusted, “I had things you can’t imagine watching your every move. Honestly, I had you and your friends pegged from the moment Miss Larose offered to stay after classes. How do you think those poor, vile students of mine got themselves in such a fatal fix? And darling Lark Christensen, bless her impish soul; did you think I would let another rebel follow in her suit, searching for answers you would never be able to prove?”
“You can’t let this happen! You are a selfish, awful woman! And someday, you will be defied!” I screamed. I could barely hear our voices retorting back and forth. My head was spinning at rapidly dizzying speed, “You and the other professors will be closed down, discovered, found out. You’ll be destroyed!”
“The other professors?” she scoffed, “Please, they have all been…shall we say, taken care of. They have never known anything. The only accomplice was Master Lawrence, and he wasn’t even aware of it. I’ve been cleverly stealing memory potion from his cabinets and distributing it amongst those who have been wary of my proceedings.”
“I won’t let you anymore!” I shouted distantly.
“Not when you’re good and dead you won’t!” She screeched. Muttering incantations to herself, she began to exit the room, “Be careful duckie…your world is tumbling down!”
And with that, a deep moan abruptly came from within the walls. As if by the very uttering of Grotesque’s last words, the structure began to quake ferociously.
I ran towards the door, but it had locked once more. I raced to the stained glass windows and estimated how far down it was. As I did so, I caught a glimpse of my reflection. I stared back at a distorted face. Tears streaked down its cheeks, those same cheeks were puffed, and eyes blood red squinted at me. As the walls crumbled, it occurred to me that this was the first time people had ever depended on me; Becca’s namesake, Cameron, and the many students that resided in these halls as well as innocent teachers. A delicate sliver made a ridged fissure within the window pane. And darting my eyes around the solitude of my chambers, I was reminded of cracked glass. A fracture of life, not broken, just frayed around the edges, easily mended. All I had to do was be its healer.
And then I knew I had to do something, anything at all to keep those I loved and knew safe. I harnessed as much energy as I could muster and charged towards the sealed door. It swung open admitting me into the girls’ dormitories. I slid down the spindly banister and leapt off in a hurry. I was cautious of where I went, knowing that any passageway could be a pile of rubble at that very moment. I turned again and again winding down every hall in sight, searching through the dusty air for the familiar set of steps to the Head’s office.
I plunged my way into the mahogany studded room where a limp Cam lay chained to a chair. In a smoking mound, I could almost make out Becca’s figure burning to acrid ashes. I choked back a sob. And I whirled around just in time to see Grotesque lunge for me. I ducked aside barely missing her groping fingers.
“You cursed child! I’ll be ecstatic to see you take a turn in my special chair,” Grotesque screeched wickedly.
“No!” I spoke deeply. I dodged her clutches once more and desperately clung to an arm chair. I felt along the wall with my hand until I made contact with what I was looking for. I flipped it open fast, and without thinking found the page I needed. I browsed through a small acrylic statement at the bottom of the parchment, and began to recite.
“Cantum Andante, Libre di Cyprus, Cantum Luske, Vada Cadabra!” I chanted. I tensed, praying with my life that it would work. Then, nothing. Nothing but serene silence that seemed to be the loudest noise I had ever encountered.
“Leslie? Leslie? Leslie!” a faded voice shouted.
“Please Mister Fryre, allow me,” another voice insisted urgently, “Maladies like this can only be healed by the greatest of miracles.”
“Good, Cameron? She’ll be alright. Trust me. Go get some rest son.”
“When shall I see her?”
“As soon as you are well rested.”
A door shut quietly. I fluttered my eyelids several times as Grotesque’s office came into view. Paintings were strewn along the edges, and altogether the room was in complete shambles. I turned my head slightly, and saw droplets of blood scattered over the floor.
“Easy does it Miss Thompson. Let me get you to a more comfortable place.”
“Professor Lawrence?” I said groggily.
“Mmhmm,” He mumbled.
“Leslie may I be one of many to thank you for the deed you have done to this school. I assure you that all will be explained in time, but for now drink this…” he tipped a vial of golden elixir to my lips, “And sleep. You have a mighty wound that I wouldn’t dare tend to if you were conscious.”
I woke up with a crescent of moon shining down over my body. I was now in my own bed chamber, but how I got there I did not know. An owl cooed sweetly outside, and everything appeared to be restored to peace and order. I sat up, and then quickly lay back down as my head throbbed horribly, and the room swam when I blinked.
A tiny knock erupted at my door. And then without hesitation, it opened and closed promptly.
“Leslie?” Cam’s voice spoke to the darkness.
“Cam? Oh thank goodness! Are you alright?” I exclaimed.
“Leslie, shh, I’m alright,” he sat at the end of my bed, but only for a moment. He shuffled his weight until he was leaning over me, “I should be asking you if you are alright. I mean to say, the torture you went through, and then discovering your magic so abruptly.”
“I’m fine, just fine. Wait, magic?”
“You used armada cantum, the spell that banishes evils.”
“I suppose I’m just fuzzy on the details. Cam, Becca…she’s…”
“Gone, I know. We’ll manage…somehow. But listen, Leslie?”
“I love you…” he whispered. I caught a last glimpse of the moon before sitting up to kiss sweet Cam’s warm lips.
It was wonderful and soothing and comforting and all in between. He stopped tenderly. He lay my head gently against my pillow, kissed my forehead, and turned towards the door. And with that, the glass was mended. Not as perfect as when new, but with memories to last.