Chapter Fifteen: Politics
It was the end of Penny’s first week at Greymalkin’s Academy. Chloe had been right on the money: Penny had spent the week turning away autograph books and photo requests. Several others wanted Penny in their friendship groups; she had been invited to four parties already and had been offered a gold necklace from a mage who looked very similar to Gideon Gecko. Lunchtimes became something out of a rugby match: dodging past everyone to get her food and then running down to the underground fort left her bemused and exhausted.
Penny hadn’t been doing her job as well as she could have. She still hadn’t joined any societies, and was no closer to finding the students who were responsible for the Tarquin hype. The spinead had been more than disappointed by the lack of interest the subject was getting from the Creep students. She had assumed that if Faust had heard about the Blood supporters from his station Outside then everyone in the Academy would have been talking about it. She needed to find the right people to find out more.
She had English first period. Mr Groote was a skeleton, the first skeleton Penny had seen in a position of authority. He wore a cassock-like cloak, which seemed to be the uniform for the teachers at the school, and a trilby hat with a shiny purple feather on the brim. The skeleton swept around the room, reading enthusiastically from an old battered copy of Macbeth, his arms flailing around madly, feather askew. It was hard for Penny to pay attention to him; sat in front of her was a warlock who was scribbling on a piece of paper so furiously it was drowning out Mr Groote’s speech. The warlock kept glancing up at Penny, smiling, and then returning to his essay.
The spinead tried looking over his shoulder to see what he was writing, but his thick shoulders and mass of blonde hair obscured her view. She reached out her hand to pull him backwards, but Mr Groote’s polished face appeared inches before hers instead. Penny yelped and drew backwards. There was an amused twitter from the class.
“Are you listening, Penny?” asked Mr Groote.
“Can you repeat what I just read?”
The warlock next to her looked up with mild interest. Penny felt her face redden and she looked down at the knobbly desk.
“Fair is foul…?”
The class laughed louder as Penny receded into herself. She wanted to kick the warlock in the shin for distracting her, but he had already resumed his essay writing. Mr Groote shook his head and swept past her. Just as he was about to start reading again, the lunch bell rang.
“Okay, no homework for today, class. Have a nice weekend!” said Mr Groote as the Creeps got to their feet and filed out of the classroom. Penny shoved her books in her bag and was just about to stand when the warlock grabbed her arm.
“Here,” he said, shoving the folded note into her palm. Penny raised her brows and started to unfold it, but the warlock stopped her.
“Don’t open it yet!” he hissed and took a quick glance around the room before running out the door.
Penny stared for a long while after the boy had left. She then looked down at the folded piece of paper, and wondered if she really wanted to open it at all. Stowing it away in her pocket, she packed the last of her things away and made straight for the underground fort. Chloe was already in her position by the fireplace, painting her toenails, when Penny entered.
“Hey,” Chloe said, not looking up from the task.
Penny sat down next to her and waited. She was itching to open the letter, but was worried it would contain something she didn’t want to read.
“If you sit any straighter you’ll break,” muttered Chloe.
“Whatever,” said Penny. After several minutes of more deliberation, she hastily pulled the letter from her pocket and unfolded it.
I’m on the prom committee, and I could do with your help. I’ve seen you around the school, and I like the way you carry yourself. I also can’t help but notice that everyone gravitates towards you, and that’s why I’m writing to you today.
The prom committee is having some trouble. There’s a group of warlocks from our year who’re trying to stop the prom from happening, and Mistress Crickleton (our head of year) might grant their requests, because she has this thing for feeling sorry for warlocks everywhere.
Will you join our committee? We really need to rally as many votes as possible otherwise we’ll have no prom. If you’re interested, meet us in the library in the North Quarter today at 6 p.m.
Thanks for your time,
“Charlie,” said Penny.
“Charlie? Charlie Appleton? Sent you a letter, did he?”
“Ah,” Chloe finally looked up from her nails. “I forgot about that. D’you wanna go?”
Penny didn’t say anything. She stared at Chloe, waiting for an explanation.
“Year Eleven gets a prom,” the vampire sighed. “It’s a tradition at the school. The Year Thirteen gets a prom too. Let me guess: Mr Appleton wants your help fighting against Martin Dell.”
“I love it when you mention random people, Chloe.”
“Penny, get with the program! How can you not have heard of Martin? He’s only the most annoying warlock in the school. He’s the head of the Arrow Club, and he causes misery for everyone. From what I’ve heard, Martin wants to scrap the prom this year ‘cos he thinks it’ll be unfair on the warlocks that won’t get dates. He’s just going to have to deal with it. That’s the Greymalkin’s tradition: all the vampires get the dates; the warlocks go with each other.”
“You wouldn’t be saying that if you were a warlock.”
“But I’m not, so I don’t care.”
“That’s the problem with this place,” said Penny. “You lot need to be nicer to the warlocks. Look at Tarquin Blood. He’s a typical example of what can happen when you treat people badly.”
“Penny: The Martyr of the Underprivileged.”
“Come off it.”
“That reminds me,” said Chloe, bending low to paint another coat on her talon-like toenails. “What’s happening with that Blood fellow? You’ve got to know something because you go to Blythe Mason’s house and stuff. Go on, what’s the scoop?”
“Blythe doesn’t tell me anything. He doesn’t like me.”
She wasn’t too sure whether or not to tell Chloe about the snippets of information Forrest and Riider gave her; their involvement in Gardien still wasn’t common knowledge. But even so, the wraiths were just as clueless as she was. They were sent on countless patrols and sought information from as many Outside-dwelling Creeps as possible, but found no trace of Tarquin’s whereabouts. The group had become so desperate that they were now looking for an escaped basilisk form Sweden as well, in the futile hope that it had been freed by the warlock in question.
“I wouldn’t stand for it,” said Chloe, frowning. “You went through all that, brought in more information than Gardien could have hoped for, and they don’t even tell you anything? You’re a pushover.”
“You are! Even the papers depict you as some Virgin Mary…”
Penny narrowed her eyes at Chloe and folded her arms tightly across her chest.
“Who’s Virgin Mary?” she asked.
“She’s … a lady,” Chloe said indignantly. “That was a virgin.”
“Right. I think you Creeps should learn more about human culture and religions. You do live underneath them and all.”
“You’re a Creep too, bonehead.”
“You’re a bonehead.”
Chloe looked mildly taken aback. She watched Penny as if the spinead was an amusing artefact, the nail polish brush held loosely in her hand. The pair watched each other in silence. The only noise came from the crackling wood in the grate. Penny could see the orange flames flashing across Chloe’s bubblegum pink eyes. The effect was frighteningly beautiful, and she suddenly felt intimidated by it. It wasn’t until Chloe’s mouth curled into a smile that the spinead relaxed, feeling her own smile start to form
“The great Chloe Manheim being spoken rudely to. The horror,” she said.
“Whatever,” said Chloe. She rolled her eyes, all the while looking pleased at something unspoken, and returned to her nails. “So, what about this prom, then?” She glanced at the open letter on the ground and scanned it quickly. “Are you going to join the committee?”
“I might do,” said Penny.
“No. You have to. I’m not bothered about the prom, but I won’t allow Martin Dell to get his way. Plus, if you don’t help everyone out, they’ll think you’re mean. You don’t want to fall out of favour with the people.”
“That fickle, are they?”
“I’ll join if you join with me,” said Penny. “I’m sure they’ll be happy for your input. A bit of showbiz glamour and all that.”
“Stop acting like you hate attention,” said Penny. “Rather than just moping around in a dungeon all day, why don’t you do something? It might be fun.”
“Fine. But don’t get upset when everyone ignores you when you’re standing next to me, okay?”
“I think I can deal with that.”
Chloe finally screwed the top of the nail polish and admired her toes in the firelight.
“Too bright,” remarked Penny.
Penny had used Chloe’s mobile to tell Forrest and Riider that she would be home late. Riider had been very pleased to hear that Penny was joining the committee, as the wraith had been the president of such a committee when she was the same age. Forrest was more cautious, and made sure that Penny didn’t forget her mission, and the reason why she was in Greymalkin’s in the first place. The spinead had assured him that joining the prom committee would be a perfect opportunity to meet more of the students and gather information about anyone siding with Tarquin Blood.
Chloe and Penny remained in the underground fort for the rest of the evening. At a quarter to six, Penny started to gather her things to leave, but froze in her tracks by a very disapproving look from her companion.
“What?” she asked.
“Do you know nothing of entrances, Penny? We need to be fashionably late. Put your things away. I’ll say when we’re leaving.”
“This is ridiculous!”
“What’s ridiculous is you forcing me to join this silly prom committee, but I’ve dealt with it, haven’t I?”
Penny flopped onto a cushion and waited as patiently as she could, but lost her temper at 6:45 and ended up dragging Chloe all the way to the Quarter.
The Greymalkin’s library took Penny’s breath away. It was huge, and filled with tall oak bookcases that were stuffed with old books and new books and leather bound books and books cased in plastic. The usual faeries hung in clusters near the high ceiling like shimmering chandeliers; the ivy fell from the brass brackets and snaked across the polished oak floors. Purple-clad students crowded around tables, read from great tomes from their favourite window seats, or chatted in muted tones on the cushions by the fireplace in the central circle. Penny and Chloe walked silently past the students, looking this way and that for the right table. The former was about to turn back, thinking that the committee meeting had already finished, when Chloe tugged her on the arm.
“Over there,” the vampire muttered, pointing to a darkened corner. Three Creeps sat around a square table engaged in a muted but heated discussion. Charlie Appleton was in the middle; a black mage girl was on his left and a vampire boy with long midnight blue locks sat on his right. When Charlie caught sight of the invited party, he smiled brightly and beckoned Penny and Chloe towards the table.
“I didn’t think you were coming,” he said, shaking hands all round. “This is Cordelia,” he patted the mage on the shoulder, “and Klaus,” he nodded at the vampire.
“Hello,” said Penny, sitting down. Chloe didn’t introduce herself, but sat down all the same, looking wistfully out of the window behind them.
“Come out of your hole, then?” Penny heard Klaus mutter. Chloe shot him a vicious look in return.
“So, Penny. Glad you could make it,” said Charlie. “We were just discussing the news.”
“What news?” asked Penny.
“Martin Dell. He’s gone to Mistress Rookwood instead because Mistress Crickleton felt under pressure,” said Cordelia. “You have me to thank for getting Crickleton on our side: I set up a Mages’ Revolt.”
“What kind of stuff did you do?” said Penny.
“We got the mages in Year Thirteen to turn the staircases in the East Tower into waterfalls,” the mage answered. “Then the mages in our year all called in sick on the same day. Oh, it was great.”
All this for a prom? Thought Penny.
“But now that Mistress Rookwood has been involved, things will get a lot trickier,” said Charlie. “So I think you’ve joined us just in time, Penny. I doubt Rookwood will say ‘no’ to you.”
Penny thought about the headmistress’s erratic behaviour and doubted Charlie’s beliefs very much.
“We’ll see,” she said.
“I knew it,” said Cordelia, looking at Penny through narrowed eyes. “You don’t have any power around here at all, do you?”
“Why did you think I’d have power in the first place?” said Penny. “I’m just a normal teenager like you lot, not a superhero.”
“I know…” said Cordelia, softening a little, “but I’m frustrated that someone like Martin Dell is in our year! All the other Year Elevens get a prom, but when it comes to us, we get trouble!”
“I’ll do my best, then,” said Penny.
“What does Chloe have to say about all of this?” said Klaus, speaking for the first time. Everyone turned to see him staring mockingly at Chloe, his blue eyes shining with some sort of anticipation.
“I don’t have anything to say,” said Chloe.
“Why did you come then?” said Klaus.
“None of your business.”
“Become the spinead’s sidekick, eh? No offence,” he added to Penny.
“Klaus! We don’t have time for this,” snapped Cordelia.
“Any-anyway,” said Charlie, looking more than confused (although he wasn’t the only one). “We need to decide how we’re going to approach Rookwood.”
“You’re going to have to grovel, Penny,” said Cordelia.
“Hey, hang on!” said Penny. “Am I supposed to do this all by myself?”
“Yes,” said Charlie and Cordelia in unison.
“I think you’ve got this all mixed up, Charlie,” said Penny. “I only came to help, and I don’t fancy seeing Mistress Rookwood any time soon. Isn’t there something else we can do? All together?”
“Like what?” said Cordelia.
“Well, have you even had a meeting with the Arrow Club? Tried to negotiate?”
Cordelia and Charlie exchanged a glance before shrugging helplessly. Penny sighed. What kind of committee was this? No wonder their plans hadn’t gone far. Her mind ticked in her annoyance, trying to link together the committee’s woes and her secret mission. Having a meeting with the Arrow Club seemed like the best way to identify the possible rogue warlocks in the school. It seemed as though this Martin Dell would lead to other threads that she was interested in.
“Good idea, Spinead,” muttered Klaus. His eyes hadn’t left Chloe’s face, which was growing pale with fury.
“Yes. Good idea,” agreed Charlie. “I guess it’s the best bet we have. I doubt it will go well, but the adults will be impressed with us, won’t they? So if the meeting goes down the pan, at least we can say we’ve tried, and Mistress Rookwood will respect us for that.”
“Exactly,” said Penny.
“Mmm,” said Cordelia. She clicked her tongue and looked away from Penny, obviously unhappy with the turn of events.
“Klaus is in the same Maths class as Martin, so Klaus, we’ll leave the organising to you,” said Charlie.
Penny was not surprised to see him still staring at Chloe.
After agreeing on meeting at the same time and same place the following Friday, Cordelia and Charlie left the library. Klaus shot a dazzling grin at Chloe before slinking away to another corner. Penny watched the vampire through narrowed eyes before turning to Chloe, who looked more than embarrassed.
“Do I want to know what that was about?” she asked.
“Not really. He’s been asking me out since Year Two. I had no idea that Klaus Vanderman was on the prom committee! The Gods are against me. Let’s go; I’ll walk you home.”
Chloe hadn’t been listening to the committee’s conversation, so Penny had had to fill her in on the happenings of the school. The spinead was relieved to see Chloe’s somewhat perplexed reaction to the Mages’ Revolt.
“They really want that prom, don’t they?” Chloe muttered. “A part of me wants it to get cancelled, just to see their sad little faces.”
“After speaking to them, especially Cordelia, I don’t think it’s the prom that they want so badly,” said Penny slowly. They were in Scare now and she had had to duck underneath a jet of green water a young mage was manipulating from the owl fountain. “They just want to beat the Arrow Club. Everyone wants to beat the Arrow Club – otherwise the Year Thirteens wouldn’t have got involved, either.”
“Can you blame them?”
Penny ignored this comment.
“Do you want to come in for dinner?” she asked the vampire when they were outside Number Two, Closet Road.
“I’m a vampire. I don’t eat.”
“Oh yeah! So when’s your First Hunt again?”
“Not until the first of July. Don’t worry, Penny; I’ll keep you informed.”
She smiled before turning on her heel and leaving. Once she was at the bottom of the road. Chloe Manheim crouched low to the ground and sprung several feet into the air. Penny watched the vampire fly above the thatched rooftops of the neighbourhood wistfully, and thought it a shame that Tarquin’s attack hadn’t left her with any comprehensible abilities.
“So, how did the meeting go?” asked Riider at dinner.
“It was all right,” said Penny, spooning three rostis onto her plate. She then told Riider about the upcoming meeting with the Arrow Club.
“Excellent, Penny,” said Forrest. “I’ve never heard of Martin Dell, but make sure you get a good look at him. He is bound to have links to the Blood supporters.”
“That’s what I was hoping for,” said Penny.
“Well, don’t forget to have fun as well, Pen,” said Riider. “You don’t wanna make too much enemies, do you? Just try to get a date from now, yeah?”
“Riider, I think you’re forgetting the whole reason behind Penny’s attendance at Greymalkin’s,” said Forrest incredulously. “It isn’t about having fun, and whilst I wouldn’t want you do overdo yourself, Penny,” he added to the spinead, “I think that if you’ve decided to go down this road then you have to take it seriously.”
“Will do, Forrest.”
Riider shot Forrest a hurt look. She then shoved a heap of spinach in her mouth to stop any regrettable retorts. The corners of Forrest’s mouth twitched and he deliberately looked away from her.
“Is there anything new happening on the Outside?” asked Penny after a pause.
“A witch was almost killed by the basilisk,” said Forrest. “This was in Bermondsey, two days ago. She said she was rescued by a man in a white cloak who I’m guessing was a member of the Cave Police. Sadly, the basilisk got away. I couldn’t even begin to imagine how that happened, but it did.”
“According to the witch, the basilisk came from the English Channel. Been there for years,” said Riider. “Killed a few people in ’99. It comes out from time to time and always causes a stir when it does. Our homosilisk friend will take care of ‘im. But if it is the Channel Basilisk, then we can take Tarquin outta the picture.”
“What about the other Gardien members? What are they doing?” asked Penny.
“They patrol the borders of the country. Ulrich and Josh work in The Cave with the forensics department, and Shaun and Silvia make weapons, so they’re not really included in the day-to-day workings of the team.”
“It just seems really complicated,” said Penny. “And I suppose Blythe just sits around telling everyone what to do without getting his hands dirty and all the while Tarquin is doing something dodgy in the background.”
Forrest didn’t look pleased with Penny assessment, but Riider nodded her head solemnly.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if Tarquin had gone and kicked the bucket somewhere,” said Riider. “And we’re all here running around like headless chickens. Because, come on! He ain’t said a peep for ages, has he? The only trace of Tarquin we have is coming from a bloody school! I’m telling you – a few months down the line and Tarquin won’t be around anymore.”
How wrong she was.
Klaus had successfully arranged a meeting with the Arrow Club over the weekend and the Greymalkin’s corridors were abuzz with news of The Great Standoff. Penny had been approached several times before her first lesson, Beautification, by people who were interested in the meeting. It was refreshing not to be spoken to as The Spinead: the one with all the news about Tarquin Blood and Gardien; the one who almost died and had all the great horror stories of the Outside. The students addressed her as ‘Penny’, and spoke to her as one who had attended the school for several years and knew the ins and outs of the place.
“Make sure you get a good deal, Dido,” several people warned/pleaded, even those in the years above and below, who saw the failure of this negotiation as an invitation for the warlocks in the other years to do the same when it was their turn.
The hassle almost made her late for Beautification: she slid into the ruby-painted room just before Mistress Pleasant closed the door.
“Close shave,” said Mistress Pleasant, a tall black vampire. Her heart-shaped face was surrounded by a mass of curly hair, crested into a perfectly maintained afro. The purple candles around the room shimmered against her blue-black skin, and her eyes were totally violet, mirroring the colour of her hair. Penny had become accustomed to the vampires’ appearance; although their irises and sclerae were indistinguishable, merged into one by a single colour, she began to detect the nuanced changes in their expressions, how they used their entire faces to show disdain, or boredom, or excitement. It was easy to know where they were looking, and to whom their attention was directed at any given time. Coupled with the strange colours of their hair, and their open, clear faces, it only added to their otherworldly beauty. Mistress Pleasant had an odd, almost celestial appearance, as if there were dozens of faeries hovering around her head. She was as intimidating as Madeline Mason, but her eyes were softer and brighter, and she always had a warm smile on her face.
Beautification was the strangest lesson Penny had ever been to. Filled with both male and female vampires, the class experimented with different lotions and potions and activities that one would expect to find at a spa. There was a white door at the back of the room that lead to an artificial hot spring, which the vampires would soak in after lessons. Mistress Pleasant had assured Penny that this was all part of vital training for vampires to appear alluring to the humans, who would be more than willing let a vampire feed from them if they looked good. Mistress Pleasant took much advantage of Penny’s presence in the class, and would use her to judge the prettiness of every student at the end of the lessons.
Penny took her seat next to Chloe.
“Everyone’s talking about this stupid meeting,” said Chloe. “Why did I let you talk me into getting involved? I hate you, Dido.”
“At least everyone’s on our side,” Penny muttered just as Pleasant moved to face the class.
“Charming,” Pleasant said, leaning against the desk at the front, “a gift given to vampires from Creepen Himself. Penny, my dear, please come to the front.”
The spinead groaned inwardly, much to Chloe’s delight, whose eyes flashed electric pink in the dim room. Penny slowly made her way to the front of the class and felt her cheeks burn red-hot as all the eyes in the room followed her. Mistress Pleasant took Penny’s hand and rubbed the skin over her knuckles. The vampire’s violet eyes bore deep into Penny’s hazel ones. The pair remained in this position for an embarrassing amount of time, until Penny felt an uncomfortable ripple behind her navel. The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end and feeling of glowing warmth burst in her chest and crawled throughout her entire body. The glow coursed through her veins and pulsed excitedly with every heartbeat; it crashed in great red waves through her muscles and made her bones shiver with an emotion completely alien to her.
In that moment, Mistress Pleasant looked so beautiful, so bewitching, that Penny wanted nothing more than to leap into her arms. The spinead wasn’t even aware of her own arm as it reached up towards her collar, pulled it down, and rubbed the jugular vein on her neck.
“Bloody hell!” someone said from far, far away. This voice was accompanied by distant catcalls and jeers. The noises grew in volume until they all but burst their way into Penny’s ears.
She blinked rapidly and looked around the room, at the gleeful, cheering vampires. Horrified, Penny turned to Mistress Pleasant, who had a pleased look on her face. She bowed to the class and patted Penny on the shoulder.
“I’m sorry I had to do that, my love,” she said. “That is Charming,” she announced to the class, “the innate ability to manipulate the emotions of any non-vampire, so as to allow consented feeding. All of your previous lessons have lead up to this one. By the end, you should have a basic grasp on the ability. Now, if you would please applaud our unsuspecting spinead as she returns to her seat.”
The class rose to its feet and cheered Penny as she dashed towards her chair. Her cheeks were so flushed that she was sweating. Chloe was bent double with laughter, wiping genuine tears from her eyes. The spinead dropped onto her seat and buried her head in her hands.
There was something satisfying in the knowledge that none of the vampires had grasped even the bare bones of Charming by the end of the lesson. Mistress Pleasant had consoled the younger vampires and encouraged them to practise over the following week. She had given a sly wink to Penny when she left the classroom.
“Karma, I say,” said Penny as she and Chloe walked up the main spiral staircase of the North Quarter. They were to meet with the rest of the prom committee outside the library before they went to Room 202, the Warlock Studies class where the Arrow Club would be.
“Don’t start,” sniffed Chloe.
“I’m surprised you even know what it means,” said Penny.
“My mum says it a lot,” said Chloe. “And you’re just sour because you got Charmed.”
“Of course I am,” said Penny, waving at Charlie Appleton as he appeared further down the corridor with Cordelia and Klaus in tow. “But you’re far sourer than I am at the moment.”
Chloe looked as though she wanted to kick Penny in the shin. Her face took a turn for the worst once she caught sight of Klaus, who was grinning at her like a maniac, and she turned away from the group and didn’t speak until they arrived at Room 202.
“I’ve never been in here,” she muttered.
They looked up worriedly at the brass ‘202’ above the door, as if it was some dark omen. Even Klaus seemed surprisingly subdued for the occasion.
“So this is it, then, is it?” said Cordelia. “We’re going to lose? I’m embarrassed for all of you.”
“No one said we’re going to lose, Cordelia,” said Charlie.
“Well we’re all acting like it! Come on. They’re warlocks! They can’t do anything to us. They know how unpopular they’ll be if they don’t agree to our demands.”
“You know the Arrow Club don’t care about popularity,” said Klaus. “They hate it, don’t they?”
“Mmhmm,” said Charlie. “It’s why they call me The Traitor; because I get along with people.”
No one had made a single step towards the door, and their hesitation had caused a crowd to gather.
“So what was the point of us using Penny then?” said Cordelia. “Isn’t she giving you any courage?”
“I’m not a lucky charm,” shot Penny. Cordelia gave her a disgusted look in return.
“That’s it! I’m going in!” said Klaus. He flashed a grin at the crowd around them before running up to the door and turning the handle. The rest of the committee followed closely behind.
The door led to a dark and pokey room. Whereas most of the other classrooms had been decorated with ivy and faeries, this room was only lit by floor-length black candles. The room was littered with skulls of all shapes and sizes; they were on the top of bookshelves, on the floor; on tables and around windowsills. A group of warlocks, twenty-one in total, sat in a semi-circle facing the committee. They weren’t wearing the Greymalkin’s uniform; each donned the black cloak that was vital for warlocks, and had chosen to wear the hoods far over their faces, until only the eerie light from their dark eyes could be seen.
The warlock in the middle chair stood slowly.
“Appleton,” he sneered. “Haven’t we gone up in the world? Chloe Manheim and Penny the Spinead, eh? Congratulations.”
The warlocks barked their laughter. The only one who remained silent was a warlock on the far left of the circle, who sat straight-backed and stared at the committee with a cool and calculating gaze.
Cordelia punched the air in front of her. The guffaws were cut off abruptly, as if they had been put on ‘mute’. The warlocks turned to glare at her. Martin Dell waved his arms madly; his mouth opened and closed as he uttered words that couldn’t be heard. He then raised his own arm and moved in a downwards arc, but nothing of interest happened.
“Do you think I’m stupid?” said Cordelia, “I’ve put up a shield; you can’t use any of your dirty warlock magic on us.”
Martin continued cursing her in silence, his eyes wild with anger.
“Just stop talking and I’ll lift the spell!” said Cordelia.
It took several minutes for the warlock to listen. He looked so foolish yammering in silence that Penny almost laughed and she had to cough into her fist to hide it. At this action, the straight-backed warlock tilted his head in her direction.
“Finally,” said Cordelia once Martin had flopped into his seat. She then conjured up a plush white sofa for the committee to sit on, brandishing her staff like a sword.
“Is everyone okay for this meeting to continue?” said Charlie to the room. When no one answered, he scratched his chest nervously and looked at the committee.
“Trey,” said Martin Dell loudly, “you’re taking notes. Get everything down.”
One of the warlocks on the right of Martin whipped a notepad and pen from one of the folds of his cloak and he leaned forward with the pen poised above the paper. He whispered something to it, and the pen stood aloft, balanced on its nib without his help, waiting for the meeting to begin.
“And I’ll do the same,” said Klaus, getting his own notebook out of his bag.
“So, anyway,” said Charlie, “we’re here to discuss the issues with the prom. I’ve done a survey already. The majority of the year wants a prom at the end of term, just like all the other Year Elevens have had before us. I know you guys are worried that you’ll be left out—”
“—worried?” spat Martin. “Who do you think we are? We don’t worry about anything. We just think that proms are a waste of time! We have serious exams in two years and all you lot care about are stupid proms and parties.”
“It’s just a bit of fun,” said Chloe. “We work hard all year. What’s wrong with letting your hair down every once in a while? You should try it sometime; then you wouldn’t be so bloody uptight.”
“Well so-ree, Chloe,” said Martin. “I apologise for being a warlock!”
“What are you on about?” said Klaus. “It’s always ‘warlock’ this and ‘warlock’ that with you lot!”
“Of course it is! We have to work ten – no – twenty times harder than all the other Creeps in this school! So while you lot get to go to parties and proms, we have to study, otherwise we’ll get nowhere in the outside world. Someone like Chloe, who won’t need to work a day in her life, will never understand that.”
“I work really hard, thanks very much!” said Chloe. “My life ain’t all roses either!”
The warlocks twittered.
“Oh, sure,” said Martin. “You’re a Manheim. Life doesn’t get any better than that.”
Chloe made to stand to her feet, but Penny held her back.
“Don’t rise to the bait,” she muttered.
Martin’s smile dropped at the sound of her voice. All eyes were on Penny now.
“Life doesn’t get any better than that,” repeated Martin, “unless you’re Penny Dido. Why is the spinead here, anyway?” he added to Charlie.
“We invited Penny to be part of the committee,” he said.
“Were you trying to scare us or something?” said Martin, leaning back in his chair. “Has Dido become some kind of warlock repellent?”
Penny flushed angrily as the Arrow Club laughed at her. She felt her hands ball into fists and was filled with the urge to push Martin over his chair.
“This is getting stupid!” said Klaus. “We came here to discuss the prom. Stick to the brief!”
“So … right,” said Charlie. “I’ve made a sort of … plan. Basically, we get the prom, and you guys get to help organise the Great Tree Festival celebrations next year.”
The Arrow Club roared with outrage.
“The Great Tree Festival? The Great Tree Festival?” said Martin. “We don’t want any part of that farce. Creepen is dead! He doesn’t exist!”
Cordelia clapped her hands over her mouth, Klaus dropped his pen on the ground and Chloe and Charlie gasped. The Club applauded and took much delight in the committee’s reaction.
“You can’t say that,” said Chloe. “You’re all bonkers!”
“Just calm down, all right?” Charlie yelled to the room. “What do you want, then? In return for the prom?”
“We want change!” said Martin. “More warlock teachers, compulsory Warlock Studies lessons for all students and no more Tree Festival celebrations.”
“You know we can’t give you that,” said Cordelia. “Stop being unreasonable.”
“Well then,” said Martin, “no prom.”
“We came here for an adult discussion,” said Charlie. “If you don’t—”
“I think I’ve had enough of this … adult discussion,” said Martin. “You can go now, Traitor. We’re done here.”
“We haven’t got anywhere!” said Klaus.
“Don’t care,” said Martin, “we have actual important things to discuss. Like, you know, warlock issues? We’ll be here all day if you want another pop, but I doubt it’ll prove useful.”
“Martin, be reasonable,” said Charlie.
“Is the traitor still speaking?”
“You’re an idiot!” said Chloe.
“And I’ll get my way and all. Wait ‘till Rookwood hears how you bullied us into giving you a stupid party.”
Klaus stood and waved his minutes in the air.
“Are you forgetting this?” he said, then, “ARGH!”
The sheet of minutes burst into blue flames. Howls of laughter erupted from the Arrow Club once again. They looked at Martin, who had his left hand splayed outwards in the direction of the burning minutes, the tips of his fingers ignited with blue fire. Klaus dropped the minutes on the ground and watched in horror as they curled and twisted on the ground, completely destroyed.
“What happened to your shield, Cordelia?” spat Chloe.
“I … I don’t-!”
“Every shield has its weak spot,” Martin said proudly. “We learnt how to find them in Warlock Studies this morning.”
The committee was stunned and humiliated. Martin Dell took his hood off, allowing Penny to see him for the first time. He had a mass of blonde hair, bright blue eyes and a fixed malicious expression on his face. He was like a dark mutation of Peter McDonald.
“Let’s just go,” said Cordelia, blinking back angry tears.
“Before you do…” said Martin
He went to the front of the room, beside the door, and opened the grate of an air vent embedded in the wall. He dragged out a dirty, tattered ball gown from the dark square hole and threw it in their direction.
“For your prom!” he spat.
The committee left the room with the yells of the Arrow Club ringing in their ears.
“Well that was a disaster,” said Klaus. “We don’t even have proof of anything.”
“Don’t we?” said Charlie. The group turned to him. Penny was surprised to see a determined look on his face.
“What does that mean?” said Chloe. “They burned the minutes.”
“Yes, yes they did,” Charlie began walking down the corridor. With nothing else to do, the committee followed him. Charlie didn’t say anything until they were at the end of the corridor and far out of sight of Room 202. When everyone was gathered around him, he reached into his robe and withdrew a slim, silver object with a blinking red eye. He pressed a button and the blinking stopped.
“A tape recorder!” said Penny. She suddenly recalled the moment just before the meeting started, when Charlie scratched his chest.
“Genius!” laughed Klaus.
“Ah!” said Cordelia. She grabbed Charlie by the shoulders and kissed him on the forehead.
“Okay, steady on,” said Charlie, even though his cheeks darkened in response.
“Hmm. Well done, Appleton,” said Chloe. “Still, that whole meeting was pointless. We didn’t get anywhere.”
“We will now,” said Charlie. “Mistress Rookwood is very religious. She won’t be happy with what Martin said about Creepen.”
“Can you believe that?” said Cordelia. “I’ve never heard anything like it!”
“He’s mad all over, that one,” muttered Klaus.
“So … you’re not allowed to say anything bad about Creepen?” said Penny.
The group looked at her as if she had grown a second head.
“All right, all right,” she mumbled.
The corridors were still packed with students making their way to their respective lessons. Several people glanced in the committee’s direction, obviously tempted to ask how the negotiations went, but Penny had a feeling that their somewhat dishevelled appearance dissuaded people from doing so. When the bell finally sounded the end of lunch, Charlie made plans with Cordelia to book an appointment to see Mistress Rookwood, whilst Klaus resumed his fawning over Chloe.
It was Penny’s free period: the rest of 11E had Flying lessons.
“I’ll see you in a couple hours?” said Chloe.
“Yeah,” said Penny. “Meet me in the library.”
The committee went their separate ways; Chloe towards the East Quarter that lead to the football grounds, Klaus went to the West Quarter, and Cordelia and Charlie made their way to Mr Odelola’s office – he was Mistress Rookwood’s secretary.
By now the corridor was almost completely empty. The main source of noise came from the distant Room 202, where the Arrow Club was still holding their meeting. There were yells and bellows and screeches and guffaws coming from behind the door. Penny strained her ears to hear what they were shouting about and soon found herself creeping towards the room. It was most likely that the warlocks were still discussing the dreadful negotiations, but Penny had a sinking feeling that they were talking about her.
Soon enough, the spinead had her ear pressed against the door. Several warlocks started talking at once before they were cut off by a much deeper, quiet voice. Penny was certain she heard the new speaker utter the name ‘Dido’. She looked to the left and right, trying the think of a way to listen in on the conversation, when inspiration stuck. There was an air vent in Room 202; Martin had revealed its presence in such a rude manner that she couldn’t forget it. Penny darted back down the corridor, searching for an entrance that would lead to the place she wanted, and found a mesh square in the wall next to the oak doors of the library, several feet away from the Warlock Studies room.
“All right then,” she muttered before pulling the cover from the vent and scrambling inside. She pulled the cover back into place behind her and looked around the dark, cramped space worriedly. The square tunnel went upwards, with metal bars embedded in the wall for climbing. The more Penny inspected the tunnel, the more she doubted that it was an air vent after all. It was cool inside and looked more like a place one would use to hide from danger. Filled with sudden curiosity, she climbed upwards and was met with several stone tunnels that lead off in different directions. Penny wanted nothing more than to explore the system further, but the need to have something to report to Blythe Mason overrode any desire she had.
She took the left tunnel and hoped that it would lead to the Warlock Studies classroom. The stone was hard and cold under her knees and it was so dark that she couldn’t see the way in front. Penny grunted in the tight space and soon regretted ever setting foot inside the tunnel. She almost turned back, but the smug look Blythe would have on his face if she turned up at his house empty handed again spurred her on.
Penny’s perseverance was rewarded. The familiar voice of Martin Dell trailed towards her from a shaft of light in the tunnel ahead. Penny wriggled towards it and looked straight down. Martin had shoved the tattered ball gown back into the grate, for she could see it below. Ominous shadows swept over it as the warlocks passed by the entrance. The spinead felt around for the metal bars in the tunnel and made her way down it, stopping half-way to remain out of sight. When she was as comfortable as she could be, she waited and listened.
“…And then we flood it!”
“That’d be awesome, but it ain’t gonna happen.”
“Why not?” said the first speaker.
“Because,” said the second, “the Sword Club’s put all these enchantments and spells around the dome. No warlocks allowed. I heard some warlock kid in Year Three tried to go there and grew a rhino horn on his head…”
“I hate those witches,” said the First. “If there’s anything that’s stopped me believing in Creepen, it’d be them.”
There was a murmur of agreement.
“Ha! Did you see how shocked that stupid committee was when they heard about our … leanings,” said Martin Dell. “Such stupid, ignorant people. They’ve been brainwashed, hoodwinked, made to think there’s no alternative view from the Creepen one. What kind of world are we living in that we can’t openly say we don’t believe in an old faerie story? Take Rookwood – she won’t hear anything of the sort.”
“It’s all part of the great plan.”
The chatter died down. Penny’s heart gave an uncomfortable lurch; she had heard this voice from behind the door: it was deep and quiet and smooth. Everyone’s silence spoke volumes about the speaker’s authority within the Arrow Club.
“What plan?” said Martin Dell.
“The plan to breed us out. One day there won’t be a single warlock walking the streets. I don’t think you realise how much we are hated down here. The mayor hates us, the teachers hate us, the students hate us. Warlocks can’t get jobs, we can’t find partners, we don’t get any help whatsoever from the state.”
“Of course we know how much we’re hated,” said Martin.
“You don’t. I’m disappointed in you lot. While you were all laughing and feeling proud of yourselves during that committee meeting, you allowed the real enemy to walk in here without so much of an interrogation.”
“What’re you talking about?” said the First.
“I’m talking about Penny Dido.”
A confused silence followed this before Martin said, “Explain!”
Penny’s hands trembled as she held onto the metal bars for dear life. This was it. What would this warlock say about her?
“All right, I will,” said the quiet speaker, “because you all seem a bit clueless today. Am I the only one who finds it a bit odd that Tarquin Blood is now a criminal? I mean, think about it: he was probably the only respected warlock to ever step foot in this school. He made a name for himself. He invented gadgets and equipment for the government. He was liked. And then poof! He’s now a bad guy, a murderer, and monster. It’s almost as if the government just can’t handle the fact that there are good warlocks around, so they had to taint his image and ruin the only reputation he had.”
“But … he killed people,” said the Second.
“Did he? How do you know that, Siegfried? You’ve never been Outside – none of you have! How do you know the murders weren’t all made up by the mayor? We have no proof of anyone dying at all! The government knew this, so to keep any suspicions at bay, they bring in Penny Dido, the poor spinead, Tarquin’s only surviving victim. She has this sad little story about being a reject and an orphan with no friends and no home. What a coincidence that she ‘used to be human’, eh? So there’s no way of tracing her origins or her family background. Get real.”
“So let me get this straight,” said Martin slowly, “you think it’s all a conspiracy? That Penny Dido story’s all made up?”
“No it isn’t!” Penny breathed from her place in the tunnel.
“You don’t have to believe me. I’m just saying: you need to look at the bigger picture, guys. There’s no point having petty little arguments with the Sword Club, or trying to get proms cancelled, or demanding compulsory Warlock Studies lessons for all students. It’s time we tried to change the world, overthrow the government, and get a warlock in the mayor’s seat. Don’t fall for the Dido Hype.”
“Then why is Tarquin Blood in hiding, then?” said Martin.
“Don’t know. Maybe he realised the big plan to get us all bred out? And then the government … yes! The government tried to kill him before he spread the word, because he had a following. And now he’s working on a great plan to set us free! I bet that’s it. He’s coming back, and he’ll come back with a bang.”
One of the warlocks mumbled something which made the others laugh nervously.
“It’s just something for you to chew on,” the dark speaker said. “You can be sheep all you want.”
“All right, Hawthorne,” Martin sighed, “enough conspiracies.”
Penny let go of the breath she had been holding. Her knuckles were bone-white and bulging from the force with which she was holding the metal bars. She remained in that position, as straight as a board, for what seemed like ages, listening, listening, for more theories. When the Arrow Club started frivolous chatter, she knew the dark speaker, Hawthorne, would say nothing more. She was scared to move, just in case she made a noise and alerted this strange warlock, but her legs eventually started working on their own, and she soon found herself back in the tunnel above.
Her mind was reeling. Penny never expected to hear such strong opinions from any student, and the reality of it left her feeling hollow and miserable. Her life was not a lie. All what she had been through up to this point had affected her greatly, and it was an insult to hear this Hawthorne person write it all off. She dragged herself through the tunnel, her spirits plummeting, and by the time she was back in the corridor outside the library, she wanted nothing more than to go home and curl up in bed. The only thing that got her through it was the knowledge that she had something important to tell Blythe. She now knew where the support for Tarquin Blood was coming from: Hawthorne, Year Eleven, Arrow Club member. Her first Gardien related mission, and she had done better than she had hoped.
As she turned into the library doors, Penny tried to picture what Hawthorne looked like, but the exercise proved useless: all of the Arrow Club members had been wearing hoods over their faces during the committee meeting. This wasn’t a good thing: an unidentified person was walking around the school with dark thoughts about her. Penny was in danger.
It took her a while to realise that she had been standing in a daze by the librarian’s desk. Once she had snapped out of her reverie, she floated towards the fireplace and flopped onto one of the cushions with her head in hands.
Her time at Greymalkin’s had taken a drastic turn for the worse.