Anna Grayson and The Order of Merlin

Day One

As promised, Chancellor Thordarson spoke to Doctor Pearl about giving Anna a dreamless sleeping draft, which at last cleared her mind and put her into a deep sleep. When Anna awoke the next day, she never felt so rested. She stretched her arms out lavishly and frowned. As her vision cleared, she realized, she had no idea in what bed she was sleeping.

“Oh — yeah,” she remembered with a grin, “the hospital floor at Castlewood.” Hospital or not, it was still thrilling to know she was finally at the school.

“So… finally awake are we?” came a voice from the foot of her bed. It was Doctor Pearl.

“Yes, ma’am,” Anna said, stretching once again. “I feel so much better.”

“Good — good. You said you had a headache last night, and how is that this morning?”

Anna stopped moving to check the pain. “Nope… all gone!” she reported, happily.

“Excellent!” replied the doctor, lifting Anna’s wrist to take her pulse.

As she looked around at the walls in the morning light, Anna noticed a series of beautiful paintings between every other bed across the aisle. “Those are really nice,” she said, pointing at the galloping horses in the pictures.

“Ahhh…. that’s right. I had forgotten about your love of horses. Yes dear, they are my passion as well. As a doctor, I cannot prescribe a better remedy for those who ride.”

Anna smiled. “I’m going to miss my horse, Apollo,” she said, looking longingly out at the crisp, clear morning through the window behind her headboard. “We always used to love going for a ride on mornings like this.”

Pearl looked at Anna interestedly. “Well, if that’s the way you feel, you should visit the stables when they give you time to breathe. We have a wonderful array of animals; I should think one of them might fill the gap nicely. I can’t promise anything as good as your Apollo, but I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. I’ve worked very hard over the years to bring only the best animals to our school.”

“Oh… wonderful! Yes, I’d like that.”

“Just tell the stable master, Mr. Kingston, that I sent you down for a mount. He’ll take care of you.”

“Thank you. So… do you ride?”

“Not as much as I would like. My duties here, you understand, keep me very busy. Still, the Chancellor has a way of understanding the individual needs of everybody on his staff, and he insists I go for a ride at least once a week.” She leaned in to whisper, “He says he can’t stand being around me if it’s been longer than that,” she finished with a coy, little smile, and Anna giggled at the thought of Professor Thordarson telling Pearl it was time for her to get on her horse.

“You know, my dear, I also happen to be Castlewood’s Vollucross Steward. Do you know anything about the sport?”

“No — nothing; what is it?”

The doctor smiled keenly as she sat next to Anna on the bed. “It’s a mounted race in and around the stadium grounds.”

Anna’s heart gave an eager little twitch. “Really? How exciting!”

“Yes… the riders use the Vollucross stadium outside the Union walls. Did you happen to see the fields as you entered the castle on the tram?”

“Yes, I think so. The Vollucross field… that’s the U-shaped stadium adjoining the Shadowed Forest, right?” Anna answered, remembering Eric showing her the grounds outside the city gates on the way in.

“That is correct. We have team and individual events that take full advantage of a rider’s abilities, as well as the beautiful countryside. Since everybody at Castlewood must participate in a sport, and you already have riding experience, it would seem the perfect fit.”

“Yes… exactly,” Anna said, happily. Although Anna knew everybody at the school had to participate in some kind of sport, she hadn’t put much thought into which she would choose. It seemed Pearl had given her the best possible option imaginable.

“Well then… at your first opportunity, head down to the stables and have our Mr. Kingston show you some of our fine animals. Tryouts for the Union teams are in one month. Since you’re the only member of this new Union, you won’t be able to enter the team events, but the individual elements would clearly be available to you.” She held up a warning finger. “I should warn you however, some of our mounts are a lot more powerful than what you might be accustomed back at home.” The doctor stood. “Give the idea some thought, and, if you’re still interested, you may join us if you like.” Anna didn’t need to think about it at all; she had already decided to find the stables as soon as possible.

“You are to be released immediately. Here are your clothes and a bathrobe,” the doctor said, handing Anna a small bag. “Your shoes are in the bottom. I have been informed that another student has been assigned as your guide to help you through your day-one schedule. They should be arriving shortly. So, let’s get those lazy bones up and moving — shall we?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Anna replied eagerly, jumping to her feet. She grabbed the bag, the robe, and then looked around to make sure she hadn’t forgotten anything. “Hold on; the amulet! My brother’s amulet; where is it?” Anna realized she was no longer wearing the heavy chain around her neck. She started ripping the blankets back on her bed, looking desperately for the necklace.

“The what? Oh… that!” Pearl said, smiling. “Not to worry, dear. Your bother was in bright and early this morning. He said he needed it back.”

Anna jerked up quickly. “He said he needed it back?” A blissful thought raced through her mind. He must have decided to accept the position after all. Her father and Chancellor Thordarson must have talked him into staying on as President. Anna’s heart did a happy little leap. Still, she couldn’t be sure until she saw him. “Did Eric say anything else?” Anna asked the doctor, hoping her brother might have left her a message or at least a note.

“No… nothing more. He had a heck of a time getting that chain off of your neck while you slept,” she said, with a grin, “but… when I administer a sleeping draft, I do the thing right!”

Anna stretched her arms graciously again. “Oh… you certainly do, Doctor,” she replied, beaming.

“I think your brother will make a fine Student President,” Pearl announced happily. Then, looking around to make sure no one else would hear, “I voted for him myself,” she said satisfactorily. “Of course… I would have voted for him on his riding abilities alone!” She chuckled and then winked. “So… off you go. The showers are down the hall and to the right.”

Anna collected her bag and made her way toward the showers. As she passed the last row of beds, she stopped again at the painting of Merlin and his Guardians. She read from the placard, “The Order of Merlin.” She looked into the old wizard’s eyes, and her view immediately seemed to zoom into his stare. Deeper and deeper, his gaze seemed to draw her into him; deeper still, her focus started to strain.

There was a faint whisper, Sithmaith,” which broke her gaze as she looked around. All was quiet.

Anna looked at the painting again and then to the witches and wizards standing in the background. “Must be hearing things again,” she said, uncertainly, as she turned and headed toward the showers.

TWO

When Anna returned, she found Gwen waiting for her.

“Hey — Grayson! You finished burning down the castle yet?” Anna smiled. As always, Gwen had a remarkable way of making any terrible event seem like a party just getting started. Her friend was dressed in her Artisan robes, which were opened casually in the front, and her blonde hair was pulled back in a tight ponytail.

“What are you doing here?” Anna said, frowning as she made her way back to the bed.

“Why, I’m your escort, of course. I hold the immensely important job… as your guide; hand-holder extraordinaire,” Gwen said, dipping her a little bow with an arm outstretched to the side. She leaned in to hug Anna as they came together. “Actually, Professor Titan came to me this morning and asked me to take the job. He thought it would be better to have somebody you knew as an escort, since there’s nobody else in…” she hesitated, “ah…well, you know.”

“Nobody else in this Guardian Union but me?” Anna asked, still rubbing her wet head with a towel.

“Well… yeah. Normally, they would have assigned somebody from your own Hall to escort you. They did have quite a few volunteers, you know. Seems everybody is a little nosey about what happened to you last night. Can’t say I blame them; would kind of like to know myself.” Gwen gave Anna a look of appealing curiosity.

Anna’s mind immediately raced to Chancellor Thordarson and what he had said about taking a lot of questions. She knew this would only be the beginning. Realizing she wasn’t ready to discuss the details, Anna threw the towel onto the bed, took Gwen’s hand, and sat them down.

“To tell you the truth… I really don’t understand what’s going on either.”

“But… you look all right. No burns, right? No injuries? The doctor wouldn’t let you go if…”

“No — no, I’m fine.”

“What happened to you in the mirror, Anna? Why were you in there for so long?”

Anna tried to explain, but she purposely left out the confusing details she knew would only raise more questions. By the end, she could see Gwen knew she wasn’t being entirely open.

“So… these voices, they just kept asking you all these weird questions? And they didn’t explain what all this Guardian stuff meant?”

Anna shook her head. And then, because she felt guilty about not telling her friend everything, she added, “Gwen, there is more — a lot more. But I hope you understand… I really don’t know what’s going on. I’m just as confused as everybody else is here, and I get the feeling my father and the Chancellor know more than what they’re telling me.”

“But… why wouldn’t they tell you? Do you think they’re protecting you in some way?”

“I don’t know, but I’m convinced they know much more than what they’re willing to say now. I think they’re searching for the answers themselves. They want me to carry on as normally as possible,” Anna said, rolling her eyes, “and take things one day at a time.”

Finally, Gwen seemed temporarily satisfied. “Okay…so, what can I do to help?”

Anna smiled. “Well, since you asked, if you can keep me from having to take a bunch of questions that I can’t answer anyway… without coming off… well… you know… smug…”

Gwen grinned. “No problem. Between the two of us, I can assure you, I’ll be the one they think is smug.”

Anna laughed, and then reached out to take Gwen’s hand again. “But when I am ready to say more; when I need somebody to tell…” Anna looked longingly into Gwen’s eyes and her friend instantly understood.

“I’ll be here, Super-G. I’ll always be around if you need me,” Gwen whispered back before giving Anna another reassuring hug.

“Listen, I’m supposed to give you this… it’s your day-one schedule.” Gwen handed Anna an envelope and watched her open it.

“Oh… it’s also a list of my classes for the upcoming term.”

“Yeah, what you’re suppose to do, see, is follow today’s schedule by the clock. Day-one is set-aside for the new students so they can find their classrooms, meet the instructors, and gather any information they’ll need for the rest of the week. You’re a little behind schedule today, because you should have already received your room assignment. Since there isn’t a Guardian hall here at the castle, they decided to place you in the Server’s hall. That’ll do for now. Eric assigned that little Sarah Bell as your roommate.

Anna looked up. “Oh… that’s great. Well… this is working out better than I would have hoped. And I see we’re all supposed to meet back at the Rotunda at six o’clock?” Anna observed, looking at her schedule.

“Right… for the start of term banquet. That’s always fabulous; you won’t want to miss that.”

“Okay. So what’s first, oh-wise-one,” Anna said, handing the list back to her friend.

Gwen giggled. “Well, first… it looks like… you’ve got Potions; that’s the East wing, eighth floor. Professor Tearrantulla is your instructor. Oh, I know him… a bit creepy… but pretty good, overall. Then it’s on to Transfiguration and…”

“Trans-what?”

“Transfiguration. That’s transforming and reconfiguring stuff — very cool,” Gwen said, expertly. “Should come in handy when you need to turn Damon into a mushroom or something.” They both laughed. “Then you have History of Magic, Magical Incantations, Common Studies, Study of the Dark Arts, Care of Magical Creatures and… hold on… what’s this? Dueling? You’ve got Dueling!”

“Dueling? Is that bad?”

“No… actually, it can be a lot of fun… but I’ve never heard of a first-year student taking it.” Gwen said, looking up in amazement. “This must be some kind of Guardian thing. Oh my, girl you are in so much trouble.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because dueling has always been an elective; it fills the requirement for a sports activity. But it’s never been mandatory,” Gwen said, staring at the list again. “The people who take dueling plainly want to be there, and they’re usually very good at it. No offense, but… you’re going to get trounced. I should know; I was in dueling last year. It was the only sport my parents would allow me to take. You know,” Gwen waggled her figures in front of her face and smirked, “have to protect these talented mitts.”

“So we’ll be in the class together? That’s terrific!”

“Yeah… but you’d better stay low for a while. If the students in that class sense any weakness, you’re dead. They’ll pounce on you. The more wins they get, the better their grades. Being a first-year, you’re going to draw their attention as an easy target.

“Oh… I see what you mean. Well, maybe we could pair up and you can go easy on me.”

“Yeah, okay. But, remember, if you have to go up against one of those sharks, make sure they know you’d just as soon drop the wands and go hand to hand. Attitude is everything in there. If they know you’re liable to kick the snot out of them outside the pit, they’ll respect you more when their wands are drawn.” Anna stared at Gwen for a full three seconds before they both started bursting out laughing. “Come on,” Gwen said, snatching Anna’s school robes off the bed. “Let’s get out of here.”

By the afternoon, Gwen had escorted them to nearly all of Anna’s classes, and she had never met a stranger array of teachers in her whole life. When Gwen had said Professor Tearrantulla, the Potions Master, was a bit creepy, that was an understatement. He was downright bizarre. A heavy-set man, he wore extremely shabby robes and sported a messy beard that only grew under his wobbly chin. He also had an enormous amount of hair growing out of his ears and between his eyes, which were beady black set in a baldhead. He soon gave the new students a demonstration of what he called: The intricate qualities of potion making. Ladling out a spoonful of bubbling, yellow goop from a hot caldron set deep in the fireplace, he poured it into a shallow cup. He drank it and made a soured face. Within seconds, they all watched in amazement as Professor Tearrantulla’s beard started growing at an astonishing rate. By the time the students had stopped clapping for the genius of the potion, his beard was so long it lay in a tangled mess up to his knees on the floor.

“Oops… over did it a bit!” the teacher said, laughing at himself.

It was the same in the other classes as well. Professor Nevork, the Tranfiguration teacher, it turned out, was a Siamese twin; two identical brothers joined at the chest and hip. They had four arms and legs, and bright orange eyes. They also had the habit of speaking in unison most of the time, as if from a single mind.

“We prefer to be called ‘Professors Nevork’,” they said together, introducing themselves to the students. They turned a lamp into a bat, which immediately flew out the window. “We loose more furniture that way,” the Professors said, sounding agitated, and then they began to squabble with one another about the choice of spells they had used during the demonstration.

Then it was on to The History of Magic, where a tall, thin, and rather hyperactive teacher, a Madam Bolcher, buzzed nervously around the room, passing out course outlines, and even some early reading homework. This, she said insipidly, had to be completed before the first day of class.

“I’ve never had a homework assignment before the start of term,” Anna told Gwen, disapprovingly.

“Yeah, old Madam Bolcher is really ate-up!” Gwen growled under her breath.

“Ate-up? What does that mean?”

“Oh… you know, she’s a bit too far into it; really loves this stuff. She lives and breathes wizard history… ate-up!” Anna giggled before noticing another picture of Merlin by the door on the way out. He looked much younger in this portrait, and it reminded her of one of those sports posters she had seen in a Muggle shopping mall. The wizard looked young, fit, and ready for anything. Anna avoided staring into the wizard’s eyes as they moved on to their next appointment.

“What’s Common Studies?” Anna asked Gwen, glancing up from her schedule. “Did I say something wrong?” She saw Gwen rolling her eyes.

“Common Studies is the most despised class at the school; even worse than History of Magic. We all have to take it, but it’s commonly referred to as Muggle subjects.”

“So we’re studying non-magic people?”

“No — no. It’s the study of non-magical things like civics, and geology, and even some non-magical science. Most of the students think it’s rather degrading to study Muggle subjects. Even some of the teachers openly say it’s a waste of our time.”

Anna frowned. “Well I don’t think it’s a waste of time. It makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? I mean… how can you yank an eleven year-old kid out of school and tell them: ‘Right, you’ve learned enough about those subjects now that you have a wand.’”

Gwen shrugged. “Well… it would seem Thordarson agrees with you. I heard Common Studies was never taught at Castlewood until he became Chancellor, and my father told me this is the only Wizarding school in the world that teaches this stuff.”

The halls in the castle were very busy as the first-years and their escorts moved about, looking to complete their day-one schedules. Anna was amazed at the castle’s complex array of hallways and staircases. She had no idea how she was going to remember the way to her classes the next day without Gwen’s help.

They slowly made their way to their last appointment of the day, Care of Magical Creatures. “Professor Motim is very harsh,” Gwen said with a frown, looking at Anna’s course schedule and finding the teacher’s name. “I honestly don’t know how he ever came to work with animals. It’s too bad you didn’t get Mr. Rosenthal.He’s the other CMC teacher.” Gwen smiled dreamily. “He’s really handsome, but you get the feeling he’d rather spend his time with the animals than with people.”

“Sometimes I can relate to that,” Anna replied, thinking about her brother Damon.

As they rounded the next corner in the corridor, Anna looked away for an instant and, WHAM! She ran straight into another student, knocking them both to the floor.

“Hey — watch where you’re going, you idiot!” bellowed a fourth-year student from the Defenders’ Union.

“Oh… sorry,” Anna said, getting to her feet quickly and reaching out to help the other girl back up. The girl slapped Anna’s hand away as she stood.

“Stupid eggs,” the girl said, brushing her robes off angrily before turning to pick up her books.

“Ah… as I said… it was all my fault — sorry. My name is Anna,” Anna said, reaching out a friendly hand.

The girl looked up at her and sneered. “So?” she said snappishly, not willing to shake Anna’s hand at all.

“So… I was just saying how sorry…” The girl suddenly straightened and then shoved abruptly past her.

“Excuse — me,” Anna said, surprised at how rude the girl was acting. She was rather short and pudgy, with tight-black, curly hair and a body that seemed to throw itself about as she moved. Anna tutted loudly as the girl pushed her aside again to get to another book lying by her feet. She saw the girl’s eyes find the purple stripe on the hem of her robes, and then saw her lips curl evilly as she stood to face her.

“You’re that new Grayson kid… aren’t you?” the girl asked her in an unfriendly tone of voice.

“Why yes… I am. How did you know my…?”

“I was at the Joining Ceremony just like everybody else and I know your sisters well enough; people who don’t believe the castle rules apply to them.”

“What?” Anna said in surprise. “What are you talking about?” Although the twin’s had never given Anna any reason to stand up for them in the past, she was starting to dislike this girl’s attitude less by the second. “Who are you?” Anna asked, staring at the other student.

“Debbie Dunning,” the girl replied, sharply. Gwen started to snicker and had to turn away to keep from laughing out loud.

“You’re… Debbie Dunning?” Anna said in astonishment.

“That’s right. So… I see your sisters have mentioned me to you. Good! This works out just right then, doesn’t it?” She took out a small spiral pad with a pencil and, after flipping over a few pages, began to write. “Anna Grayson… troublemaker,” she said as she wrote, and then scratched an underline twice. “Needs to be watched!” she added in a sarcastic tone.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Anna said, peering over to see what she was writing.

Debbie snapped the pad closed to glare back at her. “Just a few notes I keep on potential rule breakers, troublemakers, and the sort… people I need to keep my eye on.”

“Excuse me? You don’t even know me. Why would you think you needed to watch me?” Anna said, loudly.

“Oh… I know you,” Debbie said, with an increasing level of righteousness. “I know your entire family; the lot of them — good-for-nothing troublemakers! Thinking they’re better than everybody else. The Graysons are a menace to this school!”

Anna dropped some of her books in shock, and angrily stepped forward. “What did you say about my family?” she seethed through suddenly clinched teeth. Who did this girl think she was, insulting her family honor? Gwen immediately stepped in front of Anna to stop her from grabbing the other girl.

“Anna… don’t! Do you have any idea who her brother is?” she whispered, looking to tip Anna off. Anna could see a number of other students looking at her in horror, half expecting Captain Dunning or another crimson guard to move in.

“I don’t care who her brother is… she’s not going to insult my family,” Anna snapped back loud enough for everybody in the corridor to hear.

The Dunning girl was smiling. “No — no… let her go. I’d love to see a Grayson kicked out of Spellsburg before the start of class,” she said, her wicked grin broadening.

“She’s provoking you… can’t you see that? She wants you to grab her so she can get another Grayson in trouble,” Gwen cautioned Anna, holding her back with one hand while trying to pick up one of her books with the other.

Anna pointed warningly at Dunning. “You’d better watch that mouth, Dunning, or you’ll find my fist stuffed in it!” The other students watching them looked around, half alarmed and amused at the bravery of a first-year egg arguing with the Captain’s sister.

“Oh… is that a threat, Grayson? I certainly hope not, and with all these witnesses around to hear you. Gee, I hope I don’t accidentally trip… and fall off a bridge anytime soon. It wouldn’t look too good for you, would it?” she sneered.

“If you fall, Dunning, trust me… it won’t be an accident!” Anna yelled. Debbie smiled as she watched Gwen pushing Anna backwards.

“Brave words coming from an egg. I’ll be watching you, Grayson,” she said, slapping her pad with the back of her hand. “I’ll be watching you, very… closely.” Anna was boiling with rage as Gwen continued to push her back out of the crowd.

Finally, Anna stopped pressing forward, but when she saw Debbie turn to walk away, she couldn’t stop herself from saying more. “Watch all you want, Dunning, but you should pay more attention to those eyebrows of yours.” Debbie wheeled around again. “You might try thinning those out a bit… they’re starting to grow together in the middle!” Everybody started laughing and looking at Dunning eagerly for a reaction. Debbie’s face went bright red as she angrily flipped her pad open again and started writing. Gwen was laughing too as she started pushing Anna backwards again. “Yeah, that’s right, Dunning… write it down, eyebrows, great-big, slope-headed prehistoric ones. Get a clue… you’re supposed to have two!”

The hallway erupted into laughter again as Gwen turned and pulled Anna bodily around the corner and out of sight. She was giggling hysterically. “Are you mad? Don’t you know what that girl can do to you?” she said, still laughing and holding her sides. “Her brother is going to put you in detention.”

“I don’t care what her brother does. I won’t put up with anybody talking about my family that way!”

Gwen frowned. “Gee, I’ve never seen you like this before.”

“What do you mean?” Anna snapped back as she peered around the corner half expecting Debbie Dunning to come chasing after her.

“I’ve never seen you so angry. And I never thought I’d ever see you sticking up for Tencha and Dowla.” Anna looked back over her shoulder, realizing she was somewhat surprised herself.

“Well, maybe not them, but… she offended my family — my father!”

“But if she was only talking about Tencha and Dowla… would you have reacted the same way?”

Anna thought for a moment before looking around the corner again. “Yeah, I probably would. So? What gives her the right to say anything about my family? I can see now why Dowla pitched her into that moat last year. It’s a good thing I wasn’t there. I probably would have stopped them from fishing her out.”

Gwen laughed again. “Well, I can tell you this. The twins were heroes around here after what they did to Debbie. They even had volunteers asking to help them with their detention. I think everybody was just waiting for someone with enough guts to stand up to that little pit-bull. It didn’t help though; Debbie was worse after the incident than ever before. Always following people she didn’t like, and then turning them in to her brother for detention. She’s taking up where she left off last year, that’s for sure. And she’s no slouch with a wand either, so you’d better watch your back. You’ll see her again in the dueling hall.”

“I don’t care where I see her,” Anna blurted out angrily. “You said it before; I’ll just chuck the wand and plow into that stupid, pug-face of hers.”

Gwen giggled, putting her arm around Anna’s shoulder to direct her away. “Come on, I’d better get you out of here before you get us both into trouble. Wow — you sticking up for the twins; never thought I’d ever see the day. Next thing you know, you’ll be running to Damon’s rescue.”

Anna looked at Gwen in surprise. “Let’s not get crazy now… okay?” she scoffed, with an affronted smile.

As the girls completed Anna’s day-one schedule, they casually made their way back to the Server Hall. Gwen showed Anna the underground tunnels that connected the castle to the student Unions. Each tunnel looked like it was cut out of solid white marble that ended at a circular turret, connecting two of the Dynasty Halls. There, a massive common area allowed students from the two adjoining halls to mingle and visit.

On the left stood a large, blue door with gold lettering and the words: Enter Thee Servers of the Wizarding World. To the right was another door, turquoise in color, with the heading: Enter Thou Artisans of Castlewood. Next to each door stood a gruff looking crimson guard, eyeing those trying to enter. There were portraits of famous Servers and Artisans wrapped around the walls of the turret’s inner space, with at least six individual fireplaces between them. There were chairs and tables of every kind arranged in front of the fireplaces, which looked like small conversation areas that might be shared by the students. A spiral staircase wound its way up the wall to a second and third level balcony, overlooking the large space below. Narrow windows split the steal-gray walls high above, allowing dust-filled beams of light to radiate inward. Within the center of the area, and randomly placed throughout, were sculptures and beautiful paintings created by the Artisan students. Several musical instruments, including a large piano, sat to the side. It was a marvelous room, and Anna took the time to walk its circular perimeter twice before heading toward the Server’s entrance door.

“Whelp… this is where I have to leave you. I won’t be allowed to continue past this point,” Gwen said, looking at the Server door. “I’ll meet you down here again at five-thirty, okay?”

“All right… but I hope they know to let me in?” Anna said, motioning toward the very large Crimson Guard standing by the door. “I’m not a Server either, you know.”

As Gwen headed off Anna noticed several students staring at her, obviously trying to get a better look at her robes. The embroidered markings on her sleeve and dragon crest put Anna back in the uncomfortable position of being singled out once more. People whispered and pointed at her as she passed. I wish there was another Guardian in the castle, Anna thought fretfully. At least then they would have somebody else to stare at. Anna followed the other Servers toward the entranceway until she made eye contact with the Crimson Guard at the door. He quickly stepped forward.

“Halt!”

Anna stopped, not knowing what to say. “I… ah… I think I’m supposed to… uhm…” Anna stammered, lifting herself onto her toes and pointing at the Server’s entranceway over the man’s shoulder.

“You are the Guardian-Grayson, yes?” asked the guard in a rather grumpy voice.

“Yes, I am,” Anna replied, nervously. She noticed the common room had suddenly gone quiet; everybody was now looking directly at her. Anna stared at the guard with her best, almost pleading, let-me-pass face.

“You have been assigned a temporary room within the Great Server Union Hall. Enter the gathering space within and then turn right at your first opportunity. You will find the girl’s entrance to the upper floors there. Go up the stairs to the fourth floor hallway. Your room is the first door on the left. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir.” Anna replied, meekly.

A single eyebrow lifted on the guard’s forehead. “Follow me.”

He turned, and several students parted to make them an aisle. Anna could see two large Server Union crests mounted on the wall on either side of the entranceway. The guard stopped in front of one of the crests and reached into his robes to pull out a small plaque, which he quickly affixed to the wall. As he stepped aside, Anna could see he had mounted a Guardian crest next to the larger Server coat of arms. For the first time since the Joining, Anna felt a twinge of pride as she looked at her crest upon the gray stone. It was much more detailed than the one on her robes; the purple color was deeper and outlined in gold. Several students moved to inspect the crest more closely, as the guard motioned Anna toward the door.

“Have a good evening, Guardian,” he said, with a forced smile.

Anna nodded, as she passed him. “Thank you.”

As she entered the great hall, Anna gasped. The gathering space inside was absolutely wondrous. Decorated in royal blue, there were two-story windows of strained glass on both sides of a stone walkway down the middle of the vast hall, leading to a far off door barely visible at the other end. The ceiling was at least thirty feet high and painted in a mural of marvelous scenes. The heroic deeds of Servers past were depicted in the ceiling’s curved arches and beams. Several tables and chairs sat on both sides of the aisle in what looked like a massive library intermingled within the furnishings. As Anna slowly walked down the hall, several Servers looked up in amazement at the Guardian now walking among them. They all pointed and whispered, comparing their own stripes to those on Anna’s arm. A sixth-year girl, in robes of blue and gold trim, approached her.

“Hello. You must be Anna Grayson,” the girl assumed, pleasantly.

“Yes, I am. Hello.”

“Welcome to the Server Hall, Anna. I’m Karen Scott, one of the Union Knights here.”

“Oh… then you might know my brother, Eric,” Anna said, hopefully.

The girl smiled. “Everybody knows Eric. We all look to your brother for leadership among the Knights. He’s an outstanding student, and a close friend. It will be difficult on everybody, knowing this will be his last year. Do you need any help finding your room?”

“I was told to look for the girl’s entrance to the upper levels. I have a room on the fourth floor.”

“Yes, you’re almost there; I’ll show you the way.” Anna followed the girl to a wide marble staircase, which turned gracefully up and out of sight above her lit by the glow of many bracketed torches.

“Never mind them,” Karen said, eyeing the other students still spying Anna’s robes. “Honestly… you’d think they’d never seen a new student before.” Anna tried to force a smile. “Well — here you are. Just go straight up four flights and look for your name on the door. Good luck this year, Anna. It was nice meeting you.”

“Thank you, it was very nice meeting you too,” Anna said, shaking the girl’s hand.

She headed up the staircase to the fourth floor, and found a tight row of doors crowded one next to the other all the way down a very long hallway. The rooms must be the size of a broom closet, Anna thought as she searched for her name among the doors. She found her room, knocked, and then stepped inside. To her astonishment, the space within was much bigger than it looked from the hallway. In fact, it was surprisingly huge, containing a living area, a couch, three chairs, two lamps and even a fireplace. A nice bathroom adjoined the bedroom, which included two four-poster beds.

“Wow,” Anna said, in surprise. She could see her trunk had been brought up, along with the cage containing the small scops owl from home. She had decided to call the owl Hobbs, after the wizard she had met at home who worked for the Committee for the Disposal of Dangerous Creatures. They both had the same bushy mustache. “Oh… sorry about that,” Anna said, walking up to the owl’s cage. “I didn’t know they were bringing you straight to the room,” she explained to the owl, which looked very disgruntled at being left alone and locked in its cage all night.

Anna slid one of the windows open, and then unlatched the door to Hobb’s cage. “There you go,” she said, pointing to the window. The owl hopped through the opening and unfolded himself just above the floor. His handsome wings began to beat with the rhythm of an experienced flyer, turning two complete circles around Anna’s head before swooping to the window and landing on its outer ledge. “I have no idea where the owlry is around here, so just give us a tap tonight if you need to come back. I hope you have a good dinner.” The owl looked over his shoulder, gave her a forgiving hoot, and then dropped over the edge and out of sight.

Anna could see Sarah’s trunk was also in the room, and she groaned at the thought of her new roommate spending her first night at Castlewood alone. Although she wondered how Sarah was getting along, Anna found herself feeling thankful for the privacy.

She sat quietly at the window, overlooking the streets of Spellsburg below. The cobblestone walkways were busy with townspeople and students, walking about and shaking hands with old friends and acquaintances. Having grown up on a remote estate, kept invisible from the prying eyes of Muggles, the city, with all its many characters, seemed incredibly exciting. As Anna ran a finger along the stitched purple band on her arm, she found herself looking forward to the evening’s feast.

Without warning, the strangest feeling of unease suddenly swept over her. It was the same feeling she had felt on the hospital floor, like something unseen was again watching her there in the room. Anna looked around suspiciously, listening hard for another heartbeat, focusing her attention on the farthest corners of the room. As suddenly as it was there, the feeling was quickly gone, and a cold loneliness took its place. The cool breeze blowing through the window made her shudder unexpectedly.

Anna found herself looking around watchfully, insuring whatever it was she had sensed earlier was truly gone. She was worried. She had tried to ignore it earlier, but she couldn’t anymore. She could feel it again; something left over from her fight with the Dunning girl. Anna could feel a familiar coldness, like a winter’s wind, blooming forth from the deepest parts of her soul. The fight had brought it on, and she knew what it was immediately after she had left the other girl behind. It was back; the Lethifold was present once again.

But for some strange reason, the return of the creature did not frighten her as it did before. Maybe it was the ally who had told her she had nothing to fear, that the creature was just an extension of herself. According to the voices in the mirror, this thing was something she had become familiar with through physical contact long ago in the forests of Indonesia. Maybe this lack of fear at the creature’s return was because of her talk with Professor Thordarson, who equated some of her abilities to those of Merlin, the Animagus. But, perhaps, the answer was much simpler; Anna was tired. She had grown weary tormenting herself about the creature’s presence ever since that terrible night in Damon’s room. Day after day, she worried about the Lethifold’s existence within her, and whether it would ever come back again. Anna was weary of her own anxiety, exhausted from her efforts to guard against this thing she had become. She was now forced to believe she had the ability to control this creature if she could only summon the courage to try.

She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. Reaching deep, she carefully tried to lure the creature forward. There’s nothing to fear; we are one, she thought to herself cautiously. Stretching still deeper, Anna located the very spot where the cold presence seemed to center itself. She finally relaxed, and gently let her guard down, allowing the cold within to spread throughout her body. A wave of unbelievable iciness began to penetrate her skin from the inside out. Anna opened her eyes and could see dark, misty clouds of smoke forming around her head and arms once more. The blackness seemed to bleed from every pore in her skin, and she could feel her body begin to lighten then rise to hover over the bed. The light in the room was suddenly far too bright, and she instinctually slid to the floor, to the safety of darkness under her bed.

I’m okay. I’m still in control; it’s still me.

A swift urge of starving hunger seemed to come out of nowhere and move to overwhelm her, and it was at this moment that Anna finally knew the change was complete. She was once again the living shroud, the thing they called the Lethifold.

I’m still in control, Anna said to herself, trying to ward off the panic now working to engulf her. This is what it must be like to be this creature, always hungry, longing to feed, looking for food. But I’m still a Grayson, I’m not starving, I’m okay; everything is fine. Anna’s senses erupted forth once again, and she could smell the food of living creatures all around her. She wanted to go to them, to search them out, to feed.

No! I will not let go of who I am. Anna slowly hovered out from under the bed and then up the wall. She laid flat to the ceiling for a moment, and then slid down again to the open window, creeping unhurriedly around the wall to the outside. If anybody looked up at her now, they would only see a dark shadow cast against the gray stone of the Union tower. She watched them hungrily, the creatures walking around on the streets below, and although she wanted to join them, to hunt them, she remained calm, concentrating on her control.

Anna slowly slid back inside the window to her room, stretched out, and then hovered through the air to her bed. It’s time to put you away now, she said calmly in her mind, as if telling a favorite pet their walk was now over. Don’t worry. We’ll do this again. It’s all right… in you go.

She tried to imagine an inner door to her soul, which, when opened, would give her a place to keep this newfound companion. Anna tried to concentrate on the warm beaches of her far-away home, and she could feel her skin immediately begin to thaw. She could sense the creature slowly sinking into her chest, and with it, the terrible hunger, and the anger within. Anna’s body began to press down on the bed as her weight slowly returned.

Finally, Anna opened her eyes and looked out the window. “You poor — poor thing,” she said, her returning voice shaking uncontrollably. “Always so scared, so cold, and starving all the time; so misunderstood.” Blackened tears poured forth from Anna’s eyes as she watched what remained of the sun drop below the mountains surrounding Castlewood.


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