As Anna walked through Castlewood’s arched front gate, she immediately began to hear a soft muffled echo. Very faint at first, the sound became increasing louder as she continued to walk through the tunnel toward the castle grounds. The echo turned into a velvety whisper, like the sound of many voices speaking to one another. She stopped to listen more closely, frowning as she stepped to the side where she could hear the light murmurs becoming louder. Finally, Anna was standing right next to the wall and noticed the cold, gray stone beginning to sweat, almost bleed with water. The whispering was louder now. She leaned closer and could almost make out some of the words.
“The… --tor… --…am--… us.”
“What was that?” Anna said, stepping closer to the wall. She reached out with her hand and placed it on the surface of the stone. At once, she heard a scream shoot through her mind like a knife splitting her forehead.
“The protector is among us!”
It was so loud her knees immediately buckled as Anna tried to cover her ears and drop to the ground. She could hear many voices now yelling excitedly.
“The protector! It is here!”
Again, Anna tried to cover her ears, but realized she couldn’t remove one of her hands from the wall. Forcing her head up, Anna opened her eyes in horror at the sight before her. Her hand was buried up to the wrist within the surface of the wall. Panicking, Anna stood and tried to pull her hand out, but she found it fixed tight. She tried to scream, but the yelling in her head was so loud she couldn’t even hear her own voice. She began recklessly yanking on her arm, looking at her wrist in terror as she felt what seemed like dozens of cold hands touching the tips of her fingers deep within the rock wall.
“Let go! Let go of me!” Anna yelled, sickened at the sight of her hand slipping, and perhaps even pulled, still deeper into the stone.
Her mind flashed back to her nightmare of Damon, when the hands in the floor were grabbing at her feet. Her reaction was much the same; she could feel her blood begin to boil as she pulled desperately back to free herself.
“I said — let me go!” And all at once, her hand slipped free. Anna tumbled backwards to the ground as the screaming in her mind suddenly stopped. Anna sat up quickly, clutching her hand. She looked around, listening carefully; the voices were quiet. She looked down. Other than feeling a bit cold, her hand seemed to be fine, and she noticed the wall in front of her now looked completely dry. Anna slowly reached out and quickly stabbed at the wall with her finger. The stone was solid again. She placed a single hand on the wall again and lightly swabbed over it, looking for any weak spots. She pressed hard against the stone with both hands.
Hmmm, I wonder if this is some kind of trick to catch the first-years off guard. Could be one of my sister’s stunts, but that wouldn’t explain the voices I heard. She looked down at her hand again, flexing her fingers and feeling their tips.
“Strange… really bizarre. I guess you have to be mindful of what you touch around here,” she said, trying to insure her first experience within the castle was more interesting than frightening.
She got to her feet and entered the inner courtyard. She could see a set of doors at the top of some stone steps and, ascending them two at a time to the second rise, she suspiciously turned to listen again for the voices. All was quiet. She opened the front door and stepped inside.
As Anna entered, a large reception area opened before her, lit by the fires of many bracketed torches. There was a long hallway at the opposite end of the room, and two more on her left and right. Although the air around her was somewhat chilly, the room was warm and inviting with its many tapestries, marbled stairways and worn flagstone floor. Anna smiled and wondered aloud how many other students had entered this place since the castle’s founding.
“First-year?” barked a voice behind her. Anna turned to find one of the castle guards, dressed in spectacular red robes, standing there.
“Uh… yes. Where am I…?”
“Down the right corridor to the end, and then turn left,” he interrupted coldly. “Continue to the end again, down the steps to the double doors. You’ll find the rest of the eggs there.” He pivoted to return to his station at the foot of a sweeping staircase.
“I’ll find the rest of the what?” Anna said, looking confused. The guard stopped and turned again. The cold look on his face never broke.
“The eggs — the first-years. We call them eggs here.” His hand came out from under his robes, displaying a silver sword. He pointed it down the hall. “That way.” Anna didn’t argue. She followed his directions until she came to the double doors and then entered.
She stepped into an enormous classroom that looked like an amphitheater. There were steep steps leading downward, and seats arranged in a circle around a small staged floor at the bottom. The seats where filled with nearly two hundred first-year students, the steady hum of their voices were talking excitedly. Anna found an open seat next to the aisle with a good view of the platform and sat down.
A few minutes later, a trap door in the center of the wooden stage swung open and banged the floor opposite. A tall, rather thin man, with blonde hair and bright red robes, could be seen walking up a set of steps below the hole. He stepped onto the platform, and then flipped the trapdoor over with his foot, slamming it loudly again.
“Quiiiieeett,” he growled. “My name is Gregory Dunning, and I am the Captain of the Crimson Guard here at Castlewood Academy. I am responsible for your protection and safety during your stay with us.” He began to pace back and forth across the stage, his hands clinched tightly behind his back.
“I’m going to do you all a favor tonight, and tell you about a few rules you’ll need to know if you’re going to avoid an inconvenient death before your first holiday break.” A few of the students chortled in the audience, and the captain’s head snapped around, giving them a look that let them know he was absolutely serious. Those who were laughing immediately went quiet.
“Inconvenient to me, that is, because of the paperwork an incident like that can produce,” he sneered at them, before continuing his pacing again. “Castlewood has a wonderful reputation for creating scholars in every walk of life, but it also has a reputation for being an extremely dangerous place. If you ignore the rules set aside for your safety, you may very well get yourself killed. But if you’re lucky enough to break the rules and live, I will personally toss you over the moat and out on your ear.” The room was so quiet; Anna could hear the boy next to her gulp.
“There are only three people on this mountain that can expel you and send you home,” Dunning continued. “The first, of course, would be the Chancellor of this school. The second is the Mayor of Spellsburg and the other…” he slowly turned to face them, looking all the way up to the back row of the seats above him, “is me!” He grinned maliciously. “And make no mistake… step out of line in the slightest, and I’ll have you packing and on that ship faster than you can say, better off dead.” Anna shuddered. Was this the man the twins had to face last year when they were nearly suspended?
“Rule number one: You will not travel about the castle on your own after lights-out. There are exceptions to this rule, of course, but those occurrences will be made exceedingly clear when they apply.
“Rule number two: The moat around this castle is not a swimming hole. There are several species of beast living in those black waters, and they don’t take kindly to students bathing in their home — keep out!
“Rule number three: You will stay out of the Shadowed Forest and the woods surrounding Spellsburg. There are a few exceptions when it comes to those woods. For example, those flying for their Union teams on the Vollucross field are allowed to enter the forest on a predefined route under the direct supervision of the resident Vollucross Steward. For the rest of you — stay the hell out! What you can’t see in there will surely kill you!”
The Captain turned to face the opposite side of the room. “If necessary, the guards under my control will follow my orders to their death. I command — they follow. However… entering the Shadowed Forest, looking for lost or dimwitted students, is the only time I will ask my guards to volunteer for a task. Very few have singularly agreed to enter those woods alone, and fewer still have returned alive to tell us what they saw. Remember this; you put more than yourself in danger if you enter the woods alone. The guards who follow you may very well die in a wasteful attempt to save you. Think about that before you mindlessly blunder off.
“Finally, you will follow all commands given to you by the Crimson Guards in and around the castle without fail. Is that understood?” Several students murmured yes and then nodded.
“At the end of each year, one Union Dynasty is awarded the Chancellor’s Cup, a very prestigious honor that is part of nearly every conversation you will have here at the school. Points are allotted based on your grades, test results, and your participation and success in your sport of choice. Every student will participate in at least one sport here at the academy. This is tradition… and there are no exceptions.
“Anyone breaking the rules at the school will receive detention and will have points taken away from their Halls. Anyone suspended from the school, even for a single day, makes his or her Union Hall ineligible to receive the Chancellor’s Cup.” Captain Dunning paused.
“Tonight is a night you will remember for the rest of your lives. Tonight, you will be joined to one of the five Castlewood Unions. When you leave here in just a few minutes, you will be served dinner and then taken to the Great Rotunda, where the rest of the students will be waiting to witness your joining. After you have been seated with your Dynasty Unions, this year’s Union Knights will be named, along with the Academy Student President. That will complete the evening’s events, and you will be given your day-one schedules and room assignments. Tomorrow, you will follow these schedules to the letter and then, in the evening, you will return to the Rotunda for the start-of-term banquet.” He turned around and yanked the trap door open and let it drop on its back again with a bang.
“Oh… and one more thing. You are not to interfere with the duties of the men under my command. They are posted in the hallways and main corridors for your protection. Castlewood is a very special and magical place. As such, it has many secrets yet to be understood. There are ghosts within these walls, and at least two ogres I have personally seen living somewhere in the dungeons. Until you understand more about the things that exist around you, stay on watch and near my guards at all times.” He paused again. “Enjoy your dinner. There will be guards at the top of the stairs to show you the way. You are dismissed.” And with these final words, Dunning disappeared down into the floor again. The students stood and headed back up the steps toward the exits. As the Captain had promised, they found several guards in the hallway pointing the way.
“Kind of an odd, stiff fellow, wouldn’t you say?” asked a boy, walking next to Anna, speaking of the captain.
“Yeah, I’d hate to accidentally break one of his rules,” she replied, with a smirk.
“My brother said Dunning has tried to suspend more students for rule breaking than any other captain in the history of the school,” the boy said, worriedly.
“I can believe that; seems somewhat grumpy by nature, I think.”
As they made their way through the corridors, Anna could smell the food wafting down the hallways, enticing them onward to their dinner. Anna lagged behind the rest of the students; once again, taking in all there was to see within the castle. As they walked, the students periodically passed other corridors, branching away to their left and right. Looking down these other passages, they could see an assortment of oddities and strange things occurring. There was a row of stained glass windows whose pieces were constantly rearranging themselves to change the images within their frames. There were wobbling wardrobes, and chairs that stood and walked about their tables. They passed a series of doors that began to float mischievously around on the walls.
“I wonder how they expect us to get into that room,” commented a boy, pointing at one of the doors that moved itself flat to the ceiling above their heads. Anna noticed some of the torches hanging on the walls had left their mounts, and were floating through the air by themselves to light their path. One hallway was completely upside down, and the students had to carefully mind their step as they maneuvered around the ceiling fixtures, rising straight up from the floor. One of the girls in the group pointed to the bottom edge of a hallway door upside down against the ceiling. They could see the shadow of somebody walking around on the other side.
As they rounded the next bend, Anna could see some of the students in front hesitate before turning suddenly quiet. As Anna turned the corner, she understood why. Standing in the center of the hallway was another guard draped in a red cloak and a hood covering his face. Unlike the other guards who had been escorting them through the castle, this sentinel before them was enormous. At least eight feet tall, the man took up nearly all the space between the walls.
The students cautiously made their way around the figure, too frightened to look up as they passed on his left and right. The colossal form stood motionless, like a statue, never moving or offering instruction.
“Is it real?” Anna heard a boy ask another ahead of her.
“Nah… can’t be. Nobody’s that big,” replied the boy walking beside him, but Anna could tell by timbre of his voice he wasn’t really sure.
As Anna followed from behind and approached the guard, she instantly froze. Without deliberately meaning to, she had halted right in front of the enormous sentry. The cloaked figure never moved, but Anna could sense something completely unexpected from him. She stood, concentrating hard, scanning the hulkish form looming high above her. She could hear its breathing now, a low and steady rumble, and could feel its elephant-size heart beating deep within her head; something was very wrong. Other than his immense size, there was something strangely different about this one. Anna closed her eyes and tilted her head down to concentrate harder on the odd sound that was his beating heart.
It’s… the rhythm, Anna thought. The man’s heart wasn’t beating properly. And then the answer came to her like a bolt of lightning and Anna’s eyes popped open with shock as her head jerked up.
He has two hearts! This was no man standing before her; it was some kind of creature, a beast. And just as Anna began to consider what kind of creature the thing might be, she realized she was now completely alone with it in the corridor. Fear suddenly swept over her. She dropped her head and quickly started to walk around him, acting like a spy carrying some guarded secret. As she passed, Anna glanced upward again, and was shocked to see the hooded figure looking down at her, its face still clothed in crimson silk. Anna’s blood ran cold as she continued past him without hesitation. Did it somehow sense that she knew he wasn’t what he seemed to the others?
As Anna got a few steps past the giant, she quickly broke into a run. Sprinting all the way down the hallway, she only turned to look back when she reached the end of the long corridor and saw the other students rounding the next turn in front of her. She finally stopped, and twisted around to look back. Her view instantly went red. Stunned, Anna looked up and was shocked to see the giant standing right next to her, no more than three feet away. Just as before, he stood motionless, still facing the long, now empty, corridor behind them. Anna slowly backed away until she bumped flat to the wall on the opposite side of the corridor. And then, like a bird of prey focusing in on its next meal, the figure slowly turned his huge head all the way around, its covered face now looking backward at her.
Frightened at being left alone with the creature once more, Anna saw the last of the students disappear around the next corner and quickly moved to join them. She raced down and around the next turn just in time to see a large wooden door slowly closing ahead of her. As she yanked open the door and stepped inside, Anna didn’t have the courage to look back for fear the giant might still be hovering there next to her. She quickly slammed the door behind her. She backed away, watching the door’s rusted latch for a moment, and then cautiously stepped forward again to press her ear to the panel, listening for any movement coming from the other side. She stepped back and then turned. Apparently, when it came to protecting the castle, Captain Dunning’s crimson guard included creatures as well as wizards.
To Anna’s surprise, the dining hall looked very much like any other Muggle school cafeteria. It was well lit and modern looking, except for the old wooden tables and benches, which were pushed together into long lines. Even the portraits hanging on the walls looked rather new, and contained the smiling and moving faces of several old witches and wizards dressed in white within their frames. Most of them, Anna noticed, were wearing tall chef’s hats on their heads.
“Please, if you will, try the Saumon cru à la mousse d’avocat,” waved a friendly French cook in a frame to Anna’s right. “C’est magnifique!” he said, kissing his fingers toward her.
“Uh… okay. That’s the salmon right? Thank you, I will,” Anna replied courteously.
They all sat down to a fantastic dinner. There were dozens of turkeys, platters of sliced ham and fish, and several wonderful old world entrées that the portraits discussed and bickered over, while simultaneously trying to get the students to sample and taste.
“No, don’t eat that! That’s his dish,” said a grumpy old cook from his painting. “Try the corned beef next to it. Now that’s a real meal.”
“Egit, nein ich es das nichts immer! That mess vill make you sick and give you gas. Try the Spätzle and the Kalbshaxen behind it.”
Even in her mansion home with Widwick’s best effort, Anna had never seen so much food. There were piled mashed potatoes and yams, mounds of stuffing, rolls and breads, and an assortment of vegetables and fruit. Although the dinner was tremendous, Anna felt enormously uncomfortable. The difference in her size and age compared to those seated around her was more than obvious now, and made her feel terribly awkward and out of place. After being singled out by the Mayor in front of the whole town, Anna wanted nothing more than to disappear and blend in. Unfortunately, sitting among the younger first-years was not the place in which she could find obscurity. She longed to see Gwen again, and take her up on her offer to show her around the castle grounds.
“Eeeeekkkkk!” a young girl screamed at the end of the table and everybody turned.
“What is that?” the girl yelled, pointing at the floor below her. Anna could now see a small figure waddling around the end of the table. It was a house elf, carrying another platter of ham to the table.
“Oh… I is sorry, miss. Did I scare you?” asked the elf, in squeaky surprise. A lot of students at the table looked shocked as well, and Anna understood why. A small number of these students were from Muggle families and would never have seen an elf before now. The others probably knew about them, but very few had ever actually seen one. Anna could tell who at the table was familiar with the creature, because she could hear them snickering at the now crying young girl at the far end of the table. Seeing the girl mocked and laughed at made Anna’s face go red with anger.
“Knock it off!” Anna said, glaring at the giggling students in front of her. They all stopped instantly in surprise. Anna picked up her plate, stood, and walked to the end of the table where the young girl was crying. She could see the elf trying to soothe the tiny girl’s fears, but she was leaning away and cringing in horror. Anna set her plate on the table and sat down on the end of the bench between the girl and the elf. She placed her arm around the girl’s shoulder to soothe her, and she instantly leaned in to clutch Anna’s robes.
“Calm down… it’s all right.” The girl looked up; her eyes were wet with tears. Anna could hardly believe his girl was old enough to be at the school. Although she knew she must have been at the age of entry, the girl was tiny and looked barely ten years old.
“Wha…. what is that thing?” the girl said, looking at the elf behind her.
“It’s not a thing. It’s an elf!” Anna replied, sounding upbeat. “Hello,” said Anna, turning to the small creature, trying to show the girl there was nothing to fear. “And what is your name, little elf?”
“Oh, I is called Tisket, mum,” the elf replied is a high squeaky voice. “I is sorry Iz frightened the child, mum. I should not have come in unannounced.”
“It’s all right, Tisket. She’s not afraid anymore, are you?” Anna looked at the girl, trying to bolster her confidence. The girl had stopped crying, but Anna could tell she still wasn’t quite sure about the creature serving their food.
“I… I,” she started to mutter. “No?”
“There now… you see? No harm done.” Anna turned to the elf. “My name is Anna Grayson,” she said, joyfully. “It’s very good to meet you, Tisket.” Anna stretched out her hand, showing everybody at the table that elves could be touched as well as seen. The elf looked at Anna’s hand in shock, and then slowly smiled. He quickly set the plate of ham down on the table, and wiped his hands on the dirty Castlewood pillowcase he was wearing under a tiny apron. He shook Anna’s hand vigorously, beaming with delight.
“Oh, Miss Grayson, the pleasure is all mine… all mine, indeed,” he squeaked, and a few of the girls around them let go a heart-felt sigh. After releasing Anna’s hand, the elf peered over at the girl still hiding to Anna’s left.
“Wez have lots and lots of desserts. Would the bunny of a girl like something sweet? Does she have a favorite?” The girl looked up at Anna.
“Go on… what would you like?” Anna asked her softly.
“I… I like ice cream,” she said meekly, not knowing if a place like this had such a thing as ice cream.
“Ohhh… wez has lots of ice cream. Wez have sweet acorn, basal, pepperbush, locknut, and many — many others.” Anna looked at the girl. She could tell she had never heard of these flavors before.
“My favorite is vanilla,” Anna said. “How about you?” The girl nodded.
“Two vanilwas it is, then! I is getting them coming right up just for you’s.” And with that, the elf scampered back into the kitchen.
“Sorry… I was being so silly,” the little girl said to Anna.
“Oh... no problem. It’ll take some time getting use to all of this. I take it you’re the first witch in your family, then?”
“I think, I mean… I guess so.”
“And… what’s your name?”
“It’s… I’m Sarah Bell,” the girl peeped.
“Glad to meet you, Sarah. So, when did you get your letter from Castlewood?” Anna asked, still trying to soothe the girl, but, despite her efforts, she thought Sarah looked quite shaken by the things going on around her.
“About two weeks ago.”
“So that would mean your birthday was about three weeks ago, right?” The girl nodded.
“Well happy birthday, Sarah.” The girl’s head drooped down unhappily.
“What’s the matter?”
“I really miss my mom and dad. I… really don’t want to be here,” she said, not looking up.
Anna was stunned. To her, coming to Castlewood was a dream come true, and yet, here was a girl who wanted nothing more than to go home.
“Really? You want to leave?” Sarah nodded. “But… why?”
“I don’t want to be a witch. I want to be normal, like my brothers and sisters. I don’t like this scary place. I don’t want to see ghosts and ogres. I don’t like scary giants in the hallways or pictures that move. I just… I just want to go home.” And with that, the girl started sobbing into her hands. Anna patted her on the back. She couldn’t help but appreciate how ironic this moment was to her. In truth, both Anna and Sarah shared a similar problem; both of them just wanting to be normal. For Anna, being normal meant being a witch, but for somebody like Sarah, it meant… well… being just a Muggle.
“Why did your mom and dad send you here if you didn’t want to come?”
Sarah raised her head. “My daddy said going away would help me come out of my shell, but I don’t believe him. I think they did it because they’re afraid of me. They’re afraid of all of the weird things that happen around me all the time,” she replied sadly, before returning to her whimpered moans.
Anna bent forward. “Look… all you need is a friend, somebody who can look out for you and make sure you don’t get lost in the mix. Tell you what, how about… I’ll be your friend, and you can watch out for me and be my friend?” The girl peered up through her wet, red eyes and sniffed, looking at Anna with a slight sparkle of hope building in her face.
“How about it? Does that sound all right?” The girl finally smiled. “So, it’s agreed?” Sarah nodded.
“Here is you’s ice cream, miss,” came Tisket’s voice behind them. Sarah looked at the elf and then at Anna, who smiled down at her and then gestured to the elf for a reply.
“Thank you,” Sarah said quietly, taking the bowl from the elf’s hand. “I’m very sorry I screamed when I saw you.”
The elf’s eyes brightened. “Is all right, Miss. Iz just hope I see you’s again soon; such a pretty-bunny of a girl.” Sarah smiled, again.
As the students finished their dinner, several more elves were seen coming in and out of the dining hall, and, by the end of dessert, hardly anybody took notice of them picking up the many plates and platters, and sweeping the floors around their feet. Seeing the elves at work reminded Anna of Gabby and Widwick, and how much she missed them already.
After a while, the Captain of the Guard appeared once again, and was escorting them down the many hallways through the castle. Everybody was full and happy, smiling in amazement at the number of portraits waving and welcoming them to Castlewood. They finally turned down a dark, stone hallway, whose torches burst with fire as they walked passed. There were no portraits here, just a series of chipped, stone pedestals with large, horned gargoyles crouching down menacingly on top. Sarah stayed very close to Anna as they walked between them, and then reached out to grab her by the arm when she thought she saw the eyes of one of the ugly, winged creatures move to stare down at her. Suddenly, one of the statues stood upright to stretch his long bat-like wings, and the children walking close yelped in fright as they moved together against the wall opposite. Another gargoyle behind them gave out a deep growl and bared its blackened fangs at them.
“Come on — keep moving. Don’t worry about them — they won’t bite,” hollered the Captain, walking briskly to the front.
The students crowded single file into the center of the hallway, and as far away from the pedestals as possible. Anna huffed irritably. Her father had two statues exactly like these in their garden at home, and she knew the creatures would think nothing of scaring all the children they could. Anna found herself rebelliously walking as close to the pedestals as possible, almost daring one of the creatures to make a move toward her. The other students were impressed by her apparent courage.
“Eggs… Tasty, delicious eggs,” whispered one of the statues to another creature squatting next to him.
Anna looked up and scowled. The gargoyle snarled back at her, and then showed her his long black fangs and ugly forked tongue. Anna hissed back at the statue, reached up, and slapped the gargoyle across the nose.
“Mind your manners, you!” she warned, pointing a threatening finger at him. The statue rocked back on his heels and screeched out in surprise, but then fell silent. Captain Dunning, looking back, chuckled amusedly to himself.
The students entered an immense gathering space where two guards were standing in front of a large set of double doors behind them. As Captain Dunning entered the space, the guards went rigid in attention. He turned to face the students again.
“This is the entrance to the Great Rotunda. Your classmates are waiting for you inside.” Anna could now hear the rumble of many voices on the other side of the doors. “When we go in, you will follow me to the far side of the room where you will be seated near the Chancellor’s observation box. We will begin the Joining Ceremony soon afterwards. You should be concentrating once again on your ambitions; it will make the joining go much quicker for everybody. Each of you will be called individually to the front in the order given to us by the Book of Births. There are nearly two hundred of you here tonight, so listen closely for your names. Several names could be called at once to keep the line to the platform moving smartly.
“Any questions?” Looking around, the Captain glared at them. “Pay attention… and don’t make us ask for you twice. Gather behind me as we enter the rotunda.” He turned and walked toward the two guards, who separated to give him access to the double doors behind them. He grabbed the two latches, clicked, and pulled. The doors swung in and the guards to the side grabbed the handles to hold them open. The Captain stepped forward and stopped a few feet inside on the threshold. The voices of the crowd inside went quiet.
“Chancellor Thordarson, I give you… the first-years, sir!” He turned back to the students waiting behind him and, with a wave of his hand, he called to them. “Come!”
They all marched in as the other students inside cheered and clapped wildly. As Anna entered, she could see the Great Rotunda was a wondrous place. The room was round, with twenty-foot windows encased within large arches, wrapping around the outer walls surrounding them. There were five long Union tables on the floor, extending down the entire length of the vast space inside. Seated above them in an open balcony against the round walls were the professors, teachers, and instructors, sitting in high-back chairs. Most were wearing beautiful robes of various colors and impressive hats, their Dynasty colors draped impressively across their sleeves and front.
Anna’s first instinct upon entering the room was to look up, but from the steep angle at the door, the ceiling above them was strangely blurred from their view. But, as they made there way between the long rows of student tables, the ceiling began to sharpen.
“That’s my dad!” yelled a boy on Anna’s left, and they all looked up and gasped. High above them, where the domed ceiling should have been, were hundreds of faces looking down upon them.
“They look like ghosts!” said another boy in astonishment. There was a squeal from a girl ahead of Anna, and she started waving frantically up at the ceiling.
“Mother! Mother… over here!” The girl was jumping up and down, trying to get the attention of a woman who looked like she was seated among a long line of heads, spiraling high above them; her image was flattened, as if projected, against the stone of the dome. The woman in the ceiling saw the girl waving at her, and then nudged the man seated next to her. They both started waving merrily at their daughter below. “Hi, Daddy!” the girl sang out, enthusiastically.
They were the parents and relatives of the first-year students, their images somehow magically placed inside the rotunda to watch the Joining Ceremony. Anna was scanning the ceiling too, looking for her father, but with so many people, it was difficult to find a familiar face among the hundreds looking down upon them. Somebody grabbed Anna’s robe on her right and she turned to find Tencha and Dowla smiling at her. The two looked impressively formal in their black robes and gold braided trims. Tencha turned Anna’s shoulders, redirecting her gaze to the upper left and then pointed at a figure in the ceiling above her. Anna squinted, looking desperately toward the area where her sister was drawing her attention. And then, she finally saw him.
“Daddy,” Anna whispered. He was seated in the front row in the ceiling, smiling broadly. Mrs. McConnell was waving politely next to him; she could see her father’s secretary wiping away her tears with a tissue. Anna waved at the two of them as her father bent to blow her a kiss, and then cupped his hands together toward her. Anna was given a slight bump from the back before realizing she was holding up the procession forward. She continued along, not taking her eyes off her father’s position as she walked.
They were finally seated in a number of chairs facing the Chancellor’s box, and Anna could at last see Professor Thordarson sitting impressively between two crimson guards on his left and right. There was a wide, lifted platform, stretching the width of the room before them, and steps leading up to the flattened stage on the right and another set that lead off to the left. A very large mirror stood imposingly in the center of the platform. The highly polished mirror was at least eight feet tall and five feet wide, sitting in an ornate frame. Looking into it, the glass reflected the room behind them perfectly; in its center, a dim yellow light was pulsating.
After they were all seated, the Chancellor slowly stood. He was very old, but by the look of the professors seated in the balconies watching him, there was great deal of admiration and respect for this remarkable wizard. He was of medium height, with long white hair pulled tight behind him. He was wearing a blue robe and very dark glasses, which Anna thought was rather odd, considering it was already dark outside. He leaned on a tall gnarled staff in his right hand, which was topped with a blue colored orb that glowed very slightly. As he stood, he stepped forward to the edge of the observation box and opened his arms to speak.
“Welcome, one and all, to this year’s joining. We are happy so many of our family and friends have joined us this evening, because what we do here tonight is extremely important. The joining represents the final validation that these students are ready to begin the process of finding their place in our Wizarding community.” Anna felt uneasy. Up until just a few days ago, she wasn’t sure she belonged in the Wizarding world at all, and since she had come to Castlewood by way of a very strange set of circumstances, the thought of being validated, in any way at all, made her apprehensive. What if the doctors were wrong? What if what happened to her had nothing to do with magic? What if…?
“Are you all right?”
Anna looked over and found Sarah Bell staring back at her. Anna realized the tension was starting to get to her, and found herself nervously rocking back and forth in her chair.
“Yeah… I’m fine,” she lied, trying to embolden herself with a fake smile, “just a little nervous.”
“Me too,” Sarah mouthed, before turning to face the front again.
The Chancellor continued. “When we call the student’s name, we would ask anybody that might know them in the audience, and can vouch for their character of spirit, to please stand as they approach the Mirror of Enlightenment. This is done to remind us we are never alone as we search for our future path in life. Who we are, in part, comes from where we’ve been, and with whom we have shared our lives up to this time. In this way, the past and the future are connected, not only by what we do tonight, but also by the love of those around us. To the new first-year students, the mirror you see before you can only suggest what might be in your future. What you will be — is entirely up to you. We seek only to help you find the right path.”
He smiled brightly and held out his hands. “And now, your Union Halls await your joining. Professor Titan; if you would be so kind as to read the names from the Book of Births?”
A very thickset man in velvety green robes walked up the platform steps and to a pedestal standing to the side of the mirror. He lifted an enormous, dusty-old book from a shelf below, and carefully laid it on top of the pedestal, its front cover flat. He pulled a monocle out of the pocket of his robe and set it deep into a socket, scrunching his face to hold it in place. He opened the back cover to read the names from the book’s last pages. He grumbled, as if to tune his voice, and then spoke over the students below him.
“When I call your name, you will walk up these steps to my left and approach the mirror,” he said, in a surprisingly light voice. “You will wait for the mirror to tell you when to enter. Step quickly through the mirror to the other side, and then listen for the Union name to which you have been joined. You must answer any questions put to you while inside the mirror.” He coughed slightly to clear his throat again.
“Catherine Osgood!” A tall girl with blonde hair stood in the third row in front of Anna, and made her way toward the steps. They could hear the scratching and scraping of many chairs behind them, and Anna turned to see two older boys standing at the Servers’ Union table. They were waving to their sister with enormous pride. A woman in the ceiling above them also stood, obviously the girl’s mother; she was also waving merrily. Anna looked around and could see Chancellor Thordarson smiling, and happily gesturing toward the woman in the ceiling to another teacher seated next to him. As the girl made her way up the steps, Professor Titan walked over to the mirror and waved his wand. The mirror rotated a quarter turn so that its thin edge was now facing the audience. The mirror was positioned like a doorway as the girl approached. She stood before the mirror and Anna could see the dim, yellow glow from its center begin to brighten, lighting up the girl’s entire front.
“Enter… and prepare to be joined,” boomed a powerfully strong voice from within the mirror.