Tia looked at Sukie admiringly when she returned to the stairwell.
"You do look the part… Your fiery hair looks especially witchlike."
"Carroty hair," said Maddie, curling her lip.
"Will you look the part as much as she does?" asked Tia. "I doubt it."
"Girls, please don't fight," urged Sukie.
"I'll show you who looks the part," said Maddie.
She flounced through the door to the tower top and returned a few minutes later with bright green skin. She took a little round pink box from her pocket and opened it. The inside of the lid had a tiny mirror. "Really green…" she commented. "But I like it. I'll be the greatest witch one day."
"I for one jump at the chance of being strange and unusual," said Tia with a small smile.
Tia went onto the tower top and returned transformed. Sukie took her hand and the five of them traipsed down the steps and made their way to their new witch's dormitory. They arrived at a pair of ebony doors that swung open as they approached.
They found themselves in a dorm with beds with black metal frames, lit by black candles which burned with ghostly blue flames. Other green skinned witch girls were getting ready for bed.
Rows of green faces turned as they walked in. A witch with purple hair beamed at them, her white teeth contrasting oddly with her green face. "Heyyy! Welcome to Sickle Moon."
"Hello!" said Sukie brightly. "Wow, I love the décor in here."
"Yeah, you're weird," said Maddie sourly.
"I also approve of the decor," said Tia. "It reflects the blackness of my spirit."
A few girls sniggered at that.
"That's nice!" said the purple haired girl. "I like to brighten it up though." She was wreathing flowers around the head of her bed. "I'm Willow."
Sukie threw her arms around her to give her a quick hug. "I'm Sukie!"
Willow grinned. "You'll love it here. It's magic." Willow made complex interlocking motions over the flower buds on her bed with her green fingers. The buds swelled and then blossomed forth in full flower.
"How do you get your hair like that?" asked Tia.
"A more experienced witch did the spell for me," said Willow grinning. "But we'll soon be able to do that sort of thing ourselves."
"And body modifications the guys approve of," said Chrissy, putting her hands to her chest. "They don't look at your face."
"Is that all you think about?" snapped Maddie.
"Girls, girls…" said Sukie in her practised soothing voice, as Willow gazed at them with wide blue eyes.
Baths for the new witches were in giant cauldrons of steaming water. Breakfast was in another hall with ebony tables and the food was a variety of strange dishes, including bacon and eggs with green yolks and pink whites.
First class of the day was an introduction to the occult. Cathy set them the exercise of changing the shape of a spider using interweaving finger motions. The instructions on the finger motions were hand written on scrolls of vellum and a little hard to follow. Some of the girls, like Willow, had arrived a few days earlier, so had a bit of a head start.
"I can do this!" she enthused, gesturing over the spider which swelled in size and became purple.
"Come now, Minister Remchild is visiting us this evening," said Cathy. "The Interior Minister himself. A man of initiative. We all want to impress him, don't we."
"His handsome son is coming too!" said Willow beaming.
The reception for the Cabinet Minister took place in the Hall of Dusk – the biggest reception hall in the building. A red carpet had been laid out ready and the young witches stood in rows on either side of it. The double doors at the end of the room opened and the Minister entered, flanked by his entourage. There was a handsome young man with him as well. There were murmurs among the crowd of girls.
"Martin Remchild, the Minister's son… cuter than I thought he'd be…"
"So gorgeous," murmured Willow. "I'd love to run my fingers through his wavy hair."
"Women of power are helpless before masculine charms," said Tia with a smirk.
After the girls were dismissed so that the Headmistress could entertain the Minister, Tia, Sukie and Willow went back to the dormitory together through the dark corridors, lit by flickering blue tapers set into the walls. Sukie was surprised to catch sight of Martin Remchild strolling down the corridors.
Willow clapped her hands to her cheeks and gave a little squeal.
"Are you alright?" called Sukie, a bit concerned. "Are you lost?"
Martin came towards them. He really was handsome in a lot of ways. The girls were right. He had wavy brown hair, as Willow had observed. Opaline blue green eyes and broad shoulders. A strongly defined jaw and a freckled nose and cheeks…
Martin shrugged. "A girl was showing me around, but she was too slow, so I decided to take a tour myself."
Sukie tutted. "You should be more careful."
"He took the initiative," sniggered Tia. "Certainly no follower. A born leader if I ever saw one."
"I – I'd show you around," said Willow breathlessly. Her blue eyes were shining.
"Why not?" said Martin. "You look like you know your way about."
Willow beamed. She laid both her green hands on Martin's arm. "Oh yes. Top to bottom."
"How long've you been here for, exactly?" asked Tia, tapping her green nose. "I thought it had only been a few days."
"Alright… I've actually studied a map of the place and I'm good at directions." She beckoned to them and they followed down the corridor.
"This is the way to the armour gallery," said Willow. They entered a long hall with suits of armour standing along both of the walls. "Check this one out – custom made for a warrior lady." She peered at it. "The chest plate is more rounded as you can see. And this is the uh… belly plate or whatever it's called."
Sukie could see that the belly plate had hinges. She wondered why and then the suit of armour suddenly jerked to life and moved with twitching motions. It thumped its belly and the plate swung open like a little door.
"Mm. Looks like it has a tiny oven inside," said Tia. "Wonder why."
The suit of armour shifted along the bare stone floor and reached out with its gauntlet hands to Martin who took a step backwards, his opal eyes wide.
"Ooh… look out," said Tia. "The iron lady finds you hot."
Sukie and Willow took Martin's hands and they all backed away from the armour which lapsed into stillness again.
"You're like a magnet. Get it?" said Tia sniggering.
"Alright, Tia, don't tease," said Sukie reprovingly.
They left the hall and proceeded down a narrow corridor. Little sparks of pink and purple appeared on the walls. They were glowing beetles coming out of the cracks in the walls.
"Heart bugs!" said Willow. "They sense your thoughts." She put a green hand to the wall and the beetles all scuttled around her hand to form a heart shape in glowing points of light.
"That means you're in love?" said Tia. "Wonder who the lucky guy is."
"Ahem!" Willow snatched her hand from the wall. If her face wasn't green, Sukie thought she would be blushing. "Some bugs here get really sweet. It's the magical residue they gobble up."
"Depends what type of magical residue," said Tia. "Look at this one."
She pointed at a beetle with three fanged mouths. It snapped its jaws open and shut and spoke in a tiny, brittle little voice. "Bite and tear! Bite and tear!"
"Ugh!" Willow wrinkled her shiny green nose in disgust.
"Aww! How cute." Sukie peered at it and it snapped at her. "Magical mutation. Breaking the laws of nature."
"That's cute?" said Martin.
Sukie straightened up and smiled at him. "Well it shows that the laws of nature can be broken."
Martin raised his eyebrows. "And that's a good thing."
"Yes…" said Sukie. "When I was little, in my home village, a boy died of an illness that according to the laws of nature, could not be cured." Sukie felt a prickle of sadness as she remembered. "But I'll defy the laws of nature.
"Well said," said Tia softly.
"A worthy ambition," said Martin.
There was a clanking sound and they turned to see the suit of armour lurching after them.
"Uh oh… the armour's still hot for you," said Tia.
"Hang on. I'll deal with it," said Willow. She held up her slender green hands and made a hand gesture that Sukie did not recognise from their class. Green sparks fizzled around Willow's fingers and she cast them at the armour, but they bounced off her breastplate.
"If she could speak, she'd say something like; 'your puny attempt failed,'" said Tia.
"Ah… the most I can do is send sparks," said Willow. "Let's keep moving. We can outrun her. She can only shuffle 'n clank."
She laid a hand on Martin's arm and they all followed her down the corridor until they reached a pair of staircases, one leading up and the other down.
"Where now, Willow?" asked Tia.
"Definitely down," said Willow.
But at that moment, they heard a ghostly wail from somewhere below them and the landing below glowed with an eldritch light.
"I think you mean up!" said Tia.
"Definitely up!" agreed Willow.
"Ohhh, help!" A female voice echoed up the stairs.
Sukie felt a stab of anxiety. Could there be some being in pain? "What help do you need?" She called.
"Agh! Come on!" Tia grabbed Sukie by the arm and dragged her up the stairs, following Willow and Martin.
Sukie glanced back over her shoulder. In the distance, there was the slow clanking of the animated armour, but now it was drowned out by the terrible wailing and a glowing spectre came gliding up the stairs after them. Her face was chalk white, framed by wild hair. Her staring eyes looked whited out.
"I want my boyyyyyy!" wailed the spectre. "A mother's love cannot be denied…!"
Tia choked and Sukie, feeling even more anxious, hurried after her. A mother's love…? Could this be the Weeper they had heard about in class?
"To the bell tower!" said Willow. "I wish we weren't raw rookies."
"Figures. The help I get would turn out to be raw rookies," said Martin.
They followed Willow, their footsteps echoing down the dark corridor, then they ran up the bell tower, the spectre wailing behind them. They ran faster and left her behind, emerging onto the top of the tower. A huge, silvery bell hung above them. The moon was a ghostly galleon, tossed on a sea of clouds. The bell seemed to gleam blue in the night.
"We've outrun her!" said Willow.
"Uh… no…" Sukie pointed at a glowing white figure who had appeared nearby. The staring spectre! Tears were coursing down her ashen face.
"I've come to claim this lad!" said the Weeper, pointing at Martin.
"Oh no! You'll have to go through me first!" said Willow, clenching her green fists.
"Please, let's calm down," urged Sukie. "We can sort this out without violence…"
"Stay out of this!" The ghost fixed the girls with a glare – the sight of her colourless eyes caused them to freeze in position! Did her stare have some kind of power over them? With a chill, Sukie realised that her jaws had seized tight.
The Weeper turned to Martin. "My fine lad…" she crooned. "You're all I want in a son."
"Come to me then…" said Martin stepping backwards. Quick as a flash, he picked up a staff from the tiled floor and struck the bell.
The bell tolled, but not as loudly as Sukie had thought it would. It was a ringing that sounded like a cry… The Weeper wailed and put her hands to her ears, but her outline shimmered and she faded from sight. Sukie found she could move again. She gingerly touched her face and moved her jaw. "Is everyone OK?" she asked.
"Peachy. But this has been really weird," said Tia dryly.
Willow ran forward and clasped Andrew's hands, she was grinning and her eyes were shining. "You were wonderful! So brave. I'm - I'm reassured with you here to defend me!"
Tia rolled her eyes. "Glad that reassures you. That you need a young man to get you out of a tight spot."
But Willow's grin didn't waver. "Yes! I can see why the ghost wishes you were her son."
Tia sighed. Sukie felt sad. She knew that the topic of dead mothers must be painful for Tia. She gave her hand a reassuring squeeze.
The door to the staircase flew open and Wynona came storming through. Her brows were drawn together and her blue eyes glinted with anger as she glared at Martin. "You wandered off?" Her voice sounded a little bit choked. "If – If any other guy had ignored me and disrespected me…"
"But Martin gets away with it, cos he's cute, or cos his dad's a statesman. Can't tell which," said Tia laconically.
"I didn't ask for your cheek!" Wynona snapped at her.
"I admit I was a bit thoughtless," said Martin smoothly. "But I enjoyed a walk with these three charming ladies."
Willow brushed her purple hair away from her face and shifted nervously on her feet. "And, um - Martin was so brave. He saved us from a revenant."
Martin curtseyed to her and she gave a little squeak and put her hands to her mouth. "If only you could come to the Harvest Moon Formal. But you can't since Dad has made it exclusive. But I say he shouldn't discriminate."
"You're so wise," said Willow breathlessly.
It was obvious to Sukie that Willow had a big crush. Sukie wanted to hug her because that was kind of adorable, but then she also wondered whether she should give her a friendly word of caution… Wynona had folded her arms and her eyes were flashing.
"Come with me, wise guy." Wynona took Martin by the hand. "It's my job to escort you and I'll do it even if I have to carry you."
Back in the dorm, Willow gushed about Martin. The girls turned to stare at her, the eerie candlelight playing oddly on their shiny green faces.
"He curtseyed to me! Said he'd invite me to the Harvest Moon Formal if his dad… the Minister… would allow it."
Maddie curled her lip. "If the Minister would allow it? Sounds like the Minister's a snob. Or a witch hater."
"Steady on, Maddie," said Sukie. "He has the right to invite who he wants to his formal."
"Pfft. He has the right to shut us out of anything he thinks is important," said Maddie. "You won't get to see Martin, Willow. Even though you're besotted with him."
Willow pouted. "Martin would welcome me with open arms."
"You dare not go to the stupid Formal," said Maddie with a sneer.
"Girls…" said Sukie, putting a hand on Willow's shoulder.
Willow narrowed her eyes at Maddie. "Daren't I?"
"Martin wouldn't look at a green chick twice," said Maddie, curling her lip.
Sukie held up her hands. "Martin is a very nice young man. We met him. He's not prejudiced."
"Yeah. Guess so." Said Tia.
"Well anyhow…" said Maddie. "You don't have the courage to crash a statesman's party."
"I'll prove you wrong," said Willow. "I'll go there, even if the statesman doesn't like it."
"Um… Willow, I don't think that's right," said Sukie tentatively. "The statesman has the right to decide who visits his house."
"She's trying to talk you out of it," goaded Maddie. "She thinks you're a coward."
"No!" said Sukie.
"Bet you wouldn't go with Willow out of solidarity," said Maddie.
Sukie found herself in a bit of a bind. What should she do?