A tremendous crack and brilliant flash of lightning jerked Mal bolt upright in bed, wide-eyed and alert. Throwing her gaze left and right, she quickly verified that nothing was amiss in the dorm room and her wits returned as her breathing slowed to a normal rhythm. Then another flash lit up the room and a blue glow in the corner caught her eye.
"You okay, E?" she asked, throwing the comforter aside and going to her friend, carefully setting aside some odd nicknacks before settling on the corner of the desk.
"Yeah," the other girl replied, without turning her transfixed gaze from the window, "There's a bad storm tonight."
"Studying late, again?" Mal probed gently, noting the chemistry book on the desk and the clock on the wall.
"Until the storm blew in," Evie answered, finally tearing her eyes off the dazzling light show and driving rain outside, "It's been a while since I've seen so much energy in the air."
"Penny for your thoughts?" Mal asked, certain that Evie had actually never seen a storm like this since Auradon's goodness kept them away.
"Wow, you're cheap," the blue-clad girl dodged.
"I don't want to take anything out of your buy-a-castle funds," her friend's eyes glimmered green with laughter.
"Alright, you win," Evie sighed, "This storm-the energy-reminds me of that night on the Isle when Carlos's invention broke the barrier."
"The night mom's staff reactivated!" Mal gasped, suddenly remembering, "I'd forgotten about that! Yeah, that was a wild night!" She swept her friend with critical eyes, "I hope you're not thinking about the bear traps in Cruella's closet too…"
"Are you kidding?" Evie teased, covering the truth with a light joke, having no intention of ever telling anyone, least of all her Isle-friends, that she still occasionally saw fur coats in her nightmares, "I got out of there myself, thank you!"
"I'm sorry, E," Mal murmured, suspecting the truth; she reached out to squeeze her friend's shoulder.
"M, you don't think anything is wrong, do you?" Evie asked suddenly, her wide eyes roaming the courtyard as she unconsciously gripped her friend's hand.
"You mean with the barrier?" Mal scowled, turning her own penetrating gaze outside, searching for unfamiliar shadows, "I hope not."
But the idea that this storm was akin to the one that they'd seen the night the barrier cracked settled like a stone in the pit of her stomach, "Maybe I ought to shoot Ben a text though..."
"Fairy Godmother too?" Evie suggested.
"I hate to wake them up for something that's probably nothing..." Mal scowled, hesitating, her fingers looming above her phone.
"You'd hate not waking them up even more if it is," Evie's gentle grip stiffened, insisting that nothing could be taken for granted when it came to the villains who lived across the channel.
Relenting, the purple-clad girl sighed and started typing, then paused with a hopeful expression, "Say, Halloween is in a few days! Maybe it's nothing more than some last minute Fright Night preparations. The Howler has gotten pretty wild in recent years!"
"And why would that affect Auradon's weather?" Evie pressed, her eyes imploring.
Ben awoke with a start and, having not slept at Auradon Prep for a couple of weeks, laid still for a solid minute to collect his bearings.
"Holy cats," he muttered, flipping the comforter off his sweat-drenched body and sitting up with a groan. He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to erase the scenes of his nightmare, "That was...something!"
Light exploded outside his windows, rattling them with an electric shock.
"Holy cats, that was something too!" he yelped, staring wide-eyed out the window for several minutes, hardly believing that he'd been sleeping through such a storm.
Then his phone buzzed.
"Mal!" he squeaked excitedly, his spirit buoyed by the thought of her checking on him in the midst of such weather.
"Is everything alright?" he read her message aloud, "Of course." His fingers moved to write, then paused as a chill crept up his spine, intuition telling him that she didn't mean it as a personal question.
What do you mean? he wrote silently.
Her reply was almost instantaneous and he read it in a mumbling tone. "This storm reminds Evie of one that we had over on the Isle when one of Carlos's inventions broke the barrier for a second and my mom's staff reactivated."
"What?" his voice was sharp. She'd never mentioned that one before!
I don't think you've ever told me about that, he wrote quickly, waiting for her response with baited breath.
Be in the lobby in five, he read silently, we'll explain. "Okay."
Then a second message popped up.
"Make it ten." he read mumbling, "We'll get the boys and Evie thinks that Fairy Godmother should be there too. Sorry."
Biting his lip, he stared out the window unseeing for another minute as dread settled in the pit of his stomach. Since he'd gotten to know them, he'd come to understand that the VK's didn't react like this without cause and the idea of a new threat really upset him.
He could only hope that his kingdom would rise to the challenge and defeat whatever was out there again.
"Explain again why we have to be awake right now?" Jay grumbled, as the girls drove he and Carlos down the hall and Dude trailed behind.
"Because you helped us get mom's staff so you get to come with us to explain what happened." Mal retorted.
"The last time I checked," he answered, "we didn't get that staff."
"How could you not have told Ben about my old invention?" Carlos muttered irritably.
"It must have slipped my mind," she snapped, irritated by their disinterest in telling Ben the story.
"Oh, yeah," Jay sighed, "You remember now that we've been here for almost a year and it's almost two in the morning-"
"I know, I know," Evie interrupted, her voice sweet and seemingly sympathetic, "She could have remembered before but, you know, we were busy saving Auradon from her mom and then from Uma and Harry..." She gave him a sly smile and he rolled his eyes.
"It's nice to see you guys too," Ben said, calling attention to himself and Fairy Godmother, both standing in the dormitory lobby wearing tense expressions.
"Alright, I'm gonna cut right to the chase," Mal stepped forward with determination as the others glanced left and right, surprised that they'd come into the lobby while they were arguing.
"You can sit down first." Ben spread his arms to indicate all the chairs.
"Nope." Mal shook her head, "I'm just gonna start right in."
"You mean we are." Jay corrected, shaking off his grumpiness and stepping up beside her.
"Yep," Carlos agreed, "We." He and Evie made it a solid line of four, standing shoulder to shoulder.
They proceeded to tell a tale unmatched in the annals of Auradon. Starting with Evie's sixth birthday party and Mal's decade-long grudge, they relayed the tale of the blue-clad princess' return to Dragon Hall, the evil scheme assignment, the hellraiser at Hell Hall, the closet of fur coats, Carlos' invention opening the barrier, Diablo's return and report about Maleficent's staff reactivating and, finally, their quest to retrieve it.
"When Mom sent us out, I hated Evie and I didn't didn't trust Jay or Carlos," Mal finished over two hours later, "but when we came back, we were the best of friends and quickly became the most feared pack on the Isle."
"Wow," Ben said, swallowing hard, "If I'd made my proclamation a couple weeks earlier, I might have brought ruin to Auradon."
"There ain't no maybe about that." Jay scoffed, a hint of pride in his voice.
"So, back to this storm," Evie brought them back on point, "Is the barrier alright?"
"Y-yes," Fairy Godmother swallowed hard, having some trouble digesting the story, "I've been monitoring every storm since Madam Min's incursion into Camelot, just to make sure. There have been no breaches."
"That's a relief!" the blue-clad girl sighed, visibly relaxing.
"See!" Mal turned to her, "It's probably just the Isle getting revved up for Halloween."
"Halloween?" Ben questioned, looking confused; then the light bulb flipped on, "Oh yeah! I remember-gosh, it's been a long time since I went trick-or-treating."
"Halloween was voted banned in Auradon back when our oldest kids were just starting school," Fairy Godmother explained.
"What?" the VK's were shocked, "Why?"
"It was thought," she explained, simply, but not unsympathetically, "to be a celebration of evil."
"It was the only holiday that we did celebrated on the Isle," Mal grumbled.
"Yeah," Evie looked at the floor, "But, I was banished so I haven't gone to Fright Night since I was little."
Reaching out, Mal's eyes flashed green with sympathy, "We'll party-hearty that night, E. Just the four of us. Then you'll know how much fun it was was!" She winked, "Like I said, it's gotten to be pretty wild."
"So, I gathered from my bedroom window." blue princess sighed.
"That sounds awesome!" Carlos brightened, "A lot better than Fright Night on the Isle ever was! I always had to drive mom and parking was terrible because everyone was there. I'd drop her off and then go find a place to park and walk back. But I'd get there just in time for her to be throwing off her coat and I'd always get stuck holding it. She'd blow a fuse if I let it drag on the ground!"
"Speak for yourself!" Jay smirked, "I had some pretty wild times at Fright Night! Remember when Shan-yu stole Headless Horseman's ride and rode down main street throwing leftover pies from the Slop Shop at everyone?"
"I do!" Mal grinned, "I tried to replicate it for weeks afterward, but ole Headless always caught me. For a guy without a head, he sure had eyes in the back of somewhere!"
"He beamed me square in the face with half a cherry cheesecake."
"Ooo!" she cracked up, "No pride!"
"No shame!" he corrected, laughing too, "I told everyone that it was blood because I'd pinned Horned King in a wrestling contest; I was a hero...for a little less than twenty-four hours."
"Like I said, no pride!"
"Oh, well done, Jay!" Evie applauded sarcastically, laughing despite herself.
"I fell for it," Carlos laughed sheepishly, grinning with good humor.
"You were kinda easy to convince, ole buddy." Jay whacked him on the back.
"So, what exactly is Fright Night?" Ben interrupted, jerking then rudely back to the present with raised eyebrows.
"The annual Holiday Howler," Mal replied, her eyes glowing green with pleasure, "It was the best!"
"Ah, yeah," the king laughed uncomfortably, "It sounds like it."
He glanced at Fairy Godmother, searching for the right words, but she raised her eyebrows and shook her head. There was no way that she was going to touch this one!
"After that story, I think I'll get back to monitoring the storm!" she said, waving goodbye as she hurried out.
As soon as the door closed, Jay raised his eyebrows, "You know, tomorrow's clean up is gonna be a beast, no pun intended, so shouldn't we all get back to bed?"
Author's Note: The Headless Horseman is from Disney's 1949's "The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad".