Chapter 1: Arriving at Batwing
The castle gates extended high into the sky above Autumn's head. They looked rather forbidding – black ebony gates with iron fittings and a huge brass knocker that was shaped like a bat. Above the gates there was a wooden, half-rotted sign proclaiming "Batwing Academy of ..." – the last word was so faded you could not decipher it anymore. But Autumn knew that the last word was "magic". She was standing in front of the gates to her new school, the Batwing Academy of Magic.
Autumn also knew that the school had originally been an all-girls school for witches only. But ten years or so ago, the school got a new headmistress who modernised the academy. Still, Autumn was not sure what to expect. She thought of Harry Potter and The Worst Witch – draughty castles that were icy cold during the winter months. Would Batwing be the same?
When Autumn got the letter that her application had been accepted and she had got a place at the academy, she had been absolutely excited! Wasn't it simply brilliant to go to a magic school and learn spells and potions?
But now she was standing here, in front of the castle gates, broomstick in one hand, her book bag in the other, in a blue uniform – and was too nervous to enter. Because right next to the door knocker there was a piece of paper pinned to the door. "Knock three times and step through the gate right away. Then wait with the other first-years next to the broom shed. A teacher will take attendance at precisely 4.50 pm and take you into the Assembly Hall for the start of term speech."
Autumn sighed. Would the gates open of their own accord when she knocked? Or would someone come to open them? How she wished someone else was here, another new pupil, so that she would not be quite so alone.
Autumn bit her lip, grabbed her bag with some difficulty in the same hand as her broomstick and raised her other hand tentatively towards the brass knocker. Then she threw a glance over her shoulder, half hoping another pupil was coming up the road behind her, but she could not see anyone all the way down the hill.
So she scraped every last bit of courage together, took the cold knocker into her hand and let it crash against the gate three times, then let go of the knocker. Nothing happened. Autumn was confused. She raised her hand to grab the knocker again, but her hand went right through it!
In her shock, Autumn squealed and dropped her bag and broomstick. She pulled her hand back and rubbed it with the other, as if she had burned herself. Then she stretched out her hand again to touch the wood, and again her hand went right through it. How funny! She could still see the door, although it obviously was not there anymore.
"Paradox!" Autumn murmured – that was her latest favourite word. Becoming a little braver, she stuck her head through the gate. Behind it, as she could see now, was a big courtyard. It was rather empty, except for a few older pupils who were lounging about next to one of the buildings, and a few anxious-looking first-years next to a rather dilapidated old shed.
Quickly, Autumn drew her head back out of the gate. She gathered up her things and made to step through the gate, but – she walked right against the solid wood of the gate, hitting her nose painfully. Autumn tumbled backwards, dropped her things again and landed painfully on her back, swearing like a sailor.
Laughter rang out from the top of the castle wall that stretched out from the gate to both sides. Autumn looked up and saw two girls standing there. One of them nearly fell off the wall from laughing so hard.
"I thought it said you should step through the gate!" Autumn cried indignantly, forgetting her shyness.
"Yes, but it also says you should step through the gate right after knocking," laughed the girl who had nearly fallen off the wall. She had blond hair and wore the blue uniform of the first- and second-years. "Because the spell wears off after a while!"
The second girl – who had mouse-brown hair and also wore blue – giggled even harder at the look on Autumn's face. "God, I'll never get tired of seeing them do that! – You're the fourth first-year today to run bang into the gate!" She held her sides. "Ah, I've got a stitch now!"
That made the blond girl laugh even harder. "You should see your face!" she called down to Autumn. "Hilarious!"
Autumn huffed indignantly. "They could've put that onto the note!" she mumbled under her breath, but it must have carried up to the girls, because they broke into a new fit of laughter.
"Put something so obvious on the note?" asked the brunette in a mock-indignant voice.
"My, if the new first-years can't work that out themselves, maybe they shouldn't even be here!" added the other in an equally mocking tone of voice. Then they looked at each other and broke out laughing again.
At that moment, a whistle was blown in some distant part of the castle. "See ya!" the girls called down to Autumn immediately and, still giggling, vanished from sight.
Autumn stared at the part of the wall where they had stood, then looked all the way up and down the wall to make sure there were no other unwelcome onlookers, before she gathered up her belongings, knocked on the gate another three times, and, taking a deep breath, stepped through the gate into the courtyard.
There were three buildings surrounding the courtyard, with a fourth visible a little way up the hill. Autumn slunk over to the other first-years and was glad to see a familiar face. "Drew, you're here! I'm so glad!" exclaimed Autumn, relieved.
"Oh, Autumn, I'm so excited!" shouted Drew, jumping up and down with joy. "I'm so glad you're going to this school, too! I had been afraid you might not pass the entrance exam, it's supposed to be very difficult for non-magical people!"
"But you were a very good teacher," smiled Autumn. Really, if it had not been for Drew, Autumn would probably not be here now. Drew was a witch – she had been able to perform magic since she was born. Autumn often was a little jealous of that, because she was just an ordinary girl. But she had lived next door to Drew ever since she could think. It had not taken her long to find out that her friend could do extraordinary things, and by and by she had got used to it.
They had always played together, had gone to the same kindergarten, the same primary school. For Drew and Autumn it had been unthinkable to go to different secondary schools. So when the time came for Drew to pick a magic school to learn witchcraft properly, she had dug her heels in. She would only choose a school that Autumn could also attend. Their parents were at wit's end, with no idea what to do. Who had ever heard of an ordinary girl attending witch school?
One day, Drew found a leaflet in the local Magical Community Centre, a leaflet on the different types of magic schools. She learned that only witches can perform witchcraft and only wizards wizardry, but that non-magical people can become mages and learn wandcraft. There was something about sorcerers, energetists and elementalists, but that did not interest Drew. Apparently, the different kinds of magic were not usually taught at one and the same school, but there were a few such schools, and two or three of them were named at the end of the leaflet.
When she came home, Drew immediately told Autumn about this. They got very excited, looked at the schools' websites, and talked about which they liked best. Their parents were sceptical but agreed that Autumn and Drew could both attend this school if they passed the entrance exams, under the condition that both would apply for other schools, too – Drew for witch schools and Autumn for ordinary schools. The girls agreed and sat down to study for the entrance exams.
Drew had been taught a little about magic and witchcraft by her parents, and with the help of books from the Magical Community Centre library, she was soon ready for her exams and indeed passed with flying colours. Autumn, however, had a rather tougher time.
Batwing's homepage had a site with details about the exams, which was lucky, because neither Drew nor Autumn had any idea what tasks a non-magical person with no experience of magic would be set. Basic theory of magic, knowledge of the most important historical and contemporary magicians (to test the interest the person had in magic); imagination and creativity (two very important traits when it comes to magic); determination, a quick mind, and readiness for the extraordinary (tested by teaching her a simple spell and a potion in the exam, to see how well she could actually cope with magic). Most of this could not be studied, so Autumn was very anxious before her exam. Against the wildest dreams of herself and her parents, Autumn passed the exam with flying colours as well.
Thinking of all this, and of how lucky she was to be here, Autumn rubbed her nose absent-mindedly.
"Does your nose hurt?" Drew asked, surprised.
"Yes, I ran right into the gate. I guess I wasn't fast enough," Autumn mumbled, turning red.
Drew giggled. "I was surprised, too. I wasn't expecting a gate like that, I thought it would open by itself."
"Yes, that's what I was thinking. I'm glad I'm not the only oaf! Some second-years were having a good laugh at me."
Drew nodded sympathetically, as if to say that they had laughed at her, too, but she did not manage to say so, because somebody called out to them from the gate.
"Autumn? Is that you?" It was a boy's voice, and it sounded dumbfounded.
Autumn and Drew turned around. "You?" Autumn gasped.
"It really is you, Autumn!" An astonished silence. "Wicked! I'd never have expected to see you here, of all people."
"Who is that?" Drew whispered to Autumn.
"My cousin Jared..."
"Your cousin?" Drew exclaimed. "Well, I never! So you are from a magic family, after all! Smashing!"
Jared grinned at the girls. He made a mock bow. "Don't get too excited, I'm only an earth-elementalist, I can't do proper magic," he then said to Drew.
"What's an elementalist?" Autumn asked, confused.
"I can control the element earth. I could make a crater in front of you, a foot deep and a foot wide, vaporise the earth that used to be there, or make it soar yards from the earth. I could grow a stone pillar out of nothing, or turn the ground into quicksand," Jared explained, with an air of expertness and pride.
Autumn looked impressed and a little jealous. Drew did not say anything, but she raised her eyebrows and smirked knowingly.
Jared got fidgety under her gaze, and, looking a bit sheepish, added "Well, or at least I'll learn all that. I can make a little hole in the ground and make the clump of earth appear in my hand, and if I concentrate very hard, I sometimes manage to turn that into solid rock. And I can make stones fly through the air, but not too far, though."
Drew giggled, but Autumn still looked impressed. "Well, that's more than I can do! I never knew you had such powers!"
"Mum always said to keep it secret from you, because your parents aren't magical and so you probably wouldn't be either," Jared explained. "But if you're here, you are magical after all!"
"Not really," admitted Autumn with a shrug. "I'm non-magical, but I can learn wandcraft – 'the ability to use the powers of a wand to perform magic'. And then, hopefully, one day I'll be a proper mage and able to say I am magical. I can't wait to get started and to learn all that amazing stuff!" Autumn's eyes shone with her excitement.
Drew and Jared grinned – their friend's bubbly excitement was contagious.
By the time the little Bell Tower chimed a quarter to five, some 60 new pupils had assembled next to the broom shed and were chattering noisily and excitedly. Autumn, Drew and Jared had already got to know a few other first-years: Jaimee and Wilma, who were elementalists like Jared, and Robin, a wizard. Drew found it fascinating to meet a wizard – after all, witchcraft and wizardry are very similar, but Wilma and Autumn, who were getting along splendidly, thought him a bit stuck-up and conceited.
Jaimee and Wilma, like Drew and Autumn, had been best friends forever, but like Jared and Autumn, they had never told each other about their talent, because they thought the other was non-magical. How glad had they been when they met at the bus stop at the foot of the hill and discovered they were going to the same school after all!
Jaimee was a water-elementalist, and Wilma a fire-elementalist, which caused many a joke from the others about how they should hate each other rather than be best friends. The two just laughed about it with the rest.
Autumn stood in the midst of her new friends, and could not have put her happiness into words, so overwhelming was it. She had been a little anxious that she might not fit in too well because she was non-magical, but here she was with a bunch of new pupils who might become very good friends. She took a look round.
There was Jaimee, ash-blond hair in a short ponytail and eyes as blue as a mountain river sparkling in the sunlight – from what Autumn could tell, having met Jaimee only just now, she seemed to be as changeable as water, generally flowing along cheerily and adapting to the circumstances, but you could sense that she might become as raging as the choppy sea during a violent storm.
Then there was Wilma, with hazel eyes and bright copper hair falling, slightly dishevelled but all the more perfect for that, in big waves around her face and shoulders. She was laughing a lot and seemed very lively and sunny, without a care in the world.
Robin, with his dark blue eyes and inch-long jet-black hair, seemed very proper and serious – and thought himself frightfully smart, with his expensive tailored uniform, designer shoes and perfectly ironed trousers. In other words: he was a bore and a stuck-up twit. He did not even seem to have an ounce of humour. What Drew saw in him that she would keep talking to him, Autumn could not imagine.
Her cousin Jared was another matter, though – he could be very serious and correct as well, especially regarding school, and was usually very down-to-earth, but he could loosen up and have a bit of fun. In fact, he could be quite a jokester if he wanted to, or a tremendous tease. His amber eyes would light up then like molten gold, and he would shake his wavy chestnut hair out of his eyes.
And then there was Drew, of course – Autumn's very best friend ever since she could think. She always kept her dark brown hair in a tidy French braid. At home she always wore contact lenses, but they were forbidden at Batwing Academy – apparently, magic and contacts do not mix very well and can be very harmful for the eyes. That's why Drew was wearing her glasses. Autumn thought they brought out her beautiful brown eyes much more, even though they were triangular-shaped and looked rather eccentric. But then that was Drew – hard-working, studious, conscientious, but with an eccentric twist, something almost outlandish and rebellious. She might be almost boring in her conformity and rule-keeping, but then, out of the blue, she would do something unusual, she would go crazy and cast convention aside, exhausting her teachers and delighting her friends. You could safely say that life was not boring with Drew around.
While Autumn was still thinking all this, a young woman stepped out of the main building. With a snip of her fingers a resounding "gong" rang out across the courtyard. The first-years fell immediately silent. The woman smiled at them. "It is now 4.50 pm precisely. I'll take attendance and lock the gates up, and then I'll lead you to the assembly hall," she announced.
Autumn and Drew looked at each other with gleaming eyes and squeezed each other's hand – finally, they were starting school.