Anna Grayson and The Order of Merlin

Titan’s Tale

“That was incredible!” shouted Gwen, running over to Anna in the Server Tower that same evening. Anna was sitting by the fire, trying to use her homework as a way to forget about the duel with Debbie Dunning. Suddenly, a large group of Servers and Artisans came bursting through the tunnel doors. Laughing and talking gaily, it was apparent that the dueling club had finally let out. “Anna, you’re a hero!” Gwen yelled out over the crowd.

“Way to go Grayson!” shouted another fifth-year boy, coming over to smack Anna on the back.

“Finally,” said a sixth-year girl, reaching in to shake Anna’s hand, “somebody put that awful Debbie Dunning in her place. You were positively brilliant!” Anna was both surprised and embarrassed by all the attention as the giant mob pressed in on her.

“Outstanding!”

“Unbelievably fast! I’ve never seen anybody move that quick over the sand in the pit.”

“And did you see Captain Dunning’s face? Ohhh yeah! I’d give my gold fillings to see that sour puss every day.”

Suddenly, another large group of students came storming into the tower. Dueling club Defenders, Searchers, and Laborers were now crowding into the room.

“Over here!” Gwen yelled, waving the group over to them. “She’s over here!”

“Gwen, no! Oh my God!” Anna gasped, as the huge multitude moved as one toward them.

“Where is she?” called a very large and burly seventh-year Laborer, pushing his way gruffly through the crowd. He found Anna and hoisted her to her feet. “Let me be the first from my Union to congratulate the person who finally had enough guts to fight and defeat the worse menace of Castlewood since Sugianto himself roamed these towers.”

Everybody cheered and clapped as the giant boy lifted Anna high into the air and shook her gleefully. Anna, trying her best to construct a friendly smile, thought her teeth would rattle out of her head. She was finally set on her shoes again when several more students began pouring from of the Artisan and Server Halls, drawn out by all the shouting in the tower. Word spread quickly throughout the Halls, and soon even those who were not there to witness Debbie Dunning’s defeat by a first-year were passing the story on to others.

“Speech!” someone yelled from the railing above. “Speech!” Gwen took this cue to stand on one of the couches where she started to flap her arms to quiet the crowd.

“Let’s hear what our hero has to say!” Gwen shouted over the near rioting throng.

Anna was shaking her head as she tried to pull Gwen down. “What are you doing?” she said apprehensively.

“I’m trying to win over some Guardian recruits. Now shut-up while I set them up for you.” Anna tried to protest, but Gwen was clearly enjoying the moment. She looked up and presented a toothy smile to the crowd.

“The conqueror of that dastardly ‘D’ is a little tired, so let’s give her a little encouragement to stand up and give us some insight on what it took to take down the beast of Castlewood.” Everybody laughed and began to chant.

“Speech – Speech – Speech – Speech – Speech…” Anna, feeling very embarrassed, was hauled up by Gwen while being shoved from the back by several others to stand. She looked over the sea of faces as Gwen waved at them to quiet.

“Umm,” Anna mumbled shyly, “I… ah… don’t know what to say, except… well…” she finally shrugged, “she had it coming.”

“And how!” yelled a Searcher and everybody cheered. Gwen stood and, wrapping her arm around Anna’s shoulder, she turned to speak to the crowd again.

“Now… for those of you who don’t understand why the Guardians are here, I hope what you saw tonight will embolden you to consider the ways you can help.” And like a traveling salesman hocking some miracle tonic, Gwen launched into the most ambitious sales pitch for the Guardians Anna had ever heard. She was forthright and very persuasive. She talked about the virtues of protecting the magical world from people like Debbie Dunning and other dangerous elements like the type they all saw in the pit that evening. Gwen was magnificent and Anna stood next to her friend with marveled appreciation at her efforts on the Guardian’s behalf.

“So — if you want to make a difference,” Gwen continued, “if you want to take a stand for what’s right in the world, if you want to wear the coolest shade of purple since the robes of Henry the Eighth, contact your favorite teacher and see what the Mirror of Enlightenment has to say, because courage like this,” she pointed at Anna, “has to be supported!” Loud applause filled the tower room as Gwen waved to the crowd and then yanked up Anna’s wrist in triumph.

As the crowd cheered and clapped, Anna leaned sideways to whisper to her friend. “I’m not sure asking people to join the Guardians so they can smack their fellow students in the nose is what the Mirror of Enlightenment had in mind,” she said, worriedly.

Gwen looked at her and smiled. “Lets find the fifty Guardians first — then we can figure out what to do with them after they get here.” Anna thought she had a point. “For now, let’s stick with the themes of truth, justice, and the Wizarding way. It sounds better on the stump anyway.”

“What about you, old friend. When are you going to walk through the mirror for this noble cause?” Anna asked her challengingly. Gwen looked at Anna in shock.

“Me? Are you nuts? My parents would kill me if they knew I was even thinking about leaving the Artisans,” she grumbled fearfully from the side of her mouth, still smiling and waving at the cheering crowd.

Anna laughed. “You should work on a speech on how to stand up to your parents.” Anna grumbled back. She looked out over the happy mob again. “Frankly, I think you’d make a better Guardian than me.”

“Yeah, well… if it’ll get me a date with that blonde, sixth-year hunk standing next to you, I just might take the chance.”

Over the next week, Anna received dozens handshakes and thoughtful waves in the hallways of Castlewood than in the entire first two months put together. The experience made her realize Debbie Dunning wasn’t just somebody she didn’t get along with; most of her fellow classmates seemed to have a personal grudge to settle with the Captain’s sister, which seemed to be satisfied in some strange way by Anna’s actions in the dueling hall. Little was seen of Debbie Dunning over the days that followed, but the captain made his branded loathing of Anna evident by assigning her to detention in the stables once more. Fortunately, Anna’s time with Mr. Kingston and Swooper was so common these days that it was impossible to tell where her willing stewardship ended and where Dunning’s punishment began. Still, as the days passed, no new Guardians were announced.

TWO

A few days later, Eric was walking his rounds in a remote section of the castle. The wind outside howled, rattling the windows as the first week of November brought with it an unusually early winter flurry. Although most might call walking through the empty corridors after curfew rather boring or maybe even a little frightening, this had never been the case with Eric. He absolutely loved having this section of the castle to himself. After living in this magical place for more than six years, there was always something wondrous to see and learn within its stone walls.

“Hello Barty,” said Eric. He tossed a friendly wave to a large canvas in an ornate frame. The man in the portrait looked properly regal but, due to the late hour, was found leaning to the side of his chair in a light doze. He startled at Eric’s voice.

“Huh? What — What?” he said, jerking up straight. “Oh… it’s you Grayson. Off on… your… rounds… I see?” he said, yawning widely.

“Yes, sir,” Eric replied with a smile. “See any students sneaking about tonight?”

“No… all is as it should be this time of night –– quiet. I think everybody has properly reported to their…” A sharp clang echoed from the end of the corridor, which cut Barty’s sentence short.

Eric turned to look and then frowned. “Who’s there?” he called, looking for any movement at the end of the long hallway. He heard a thump, as if something heavy had been dropped on the floor.

“Well…” said Barty from his frame, “it looks like somebody might be out of bounds after all.”

“Hello? Is somebody there? All students should have reported to their Union Halls by now. You are out of bounds after curfew.” Eric stopped to listen, but there was no reply. “That’s strange,” he said, looking back at the portrait. “I wonder who it could be.”

“Perhaps a teacher,” said the portrait, stretching and then yawning again.

Eric thought. Yes… I suppose… but why wouldn’t they answer? “Well, I’d better check it out. Goodnight, Barty!”

“Take care, Eric,” said Barty, leaning on his hand again to resume his repose, and Eric gave a friendly wave as he ambled down the corridor.

When he reached the end, Eric scanned the halls to his left and right; all was quiet, but he did notice something lying in the center of the floor by his feet. It was an old book, its edges yellowed and uneven due to the castle’s gnawing silverfish. Frowning, Eric picked up the book and wiped away the graying dust from its cover. Unsolved Murders in the Wizarding World.

“That’s strange… I wonder…”

Suddenly there was a crash.

“Who’s there?” Eric yelped. “It’s well passed curfew. Show yourself!” Nobody did. He set the book down on a table against the wall and started down the empty corridor in the direction of the sound.

Suddenly he saw something that made his heart stop. The torches at the end of the passageway had abruptly and inexplicably gone out, and the end of the long, stone corridor was now shrouded in complete darkness. The sight of it was eerie, and projected from within its shadows an unwelcome sense of coldness, like the entrance of some forbidden cave. If just one of the torches had gone out it might have given Eric barely a moment’s pause, but he could see the snuffed smoke of both torches now pouring out of the shadows on either side of the corridor away from him.

“Hello?” Eric called out, uneasy this time. Two more torches blew themselves out a few doors closer to where he stood, but before Eric could think what would cause such a thing to happen, another set, closer still, flickered and then died. The darkness seemed to be crawling its way toward him. Eric took a step back from the approaching shadows. Another set of torches started to sputter and then went out. He turned to look down the hallway in the opposite direction and was shocked to see the torches there also beginning to fail. The darkness was now closing in from both directions.

“What the hell?” He snapped his wand forward. “Who is it?” he yelled, pointing his wand at the approaching blackness. And then he heard it; a soft and airy voice that seemed to seep from out of the gloom.

“Errrrrrriiiiiiiiccc.”

A cold shiver ran down the Guardian’s back. “Who’s there?” he shouted, stepping boldly toward the creeping darkness. From the corner of his eye, he noticed the last two torches on his left and right start to flicker and weaken. “Uh-oh…” he whispered, ominously. The torches suddenly went out with a sharp snap.

“Lumos!” The light from Eric’s wand split the darkness, shining bright in a sphere surrounding him.

“Errrrrrriiiiiiiiccc,” sighed the voice again. It seemed to come from the darkness just out of his wand’s light. Eric stepped forward again.

“Yes?” He said, trying his best to sound casual.

“Heeeelllpp meeee. Pweeeeeaaassseee, Errriiiccc, help… me…”

“Who are you? What do you want?” Eric barked, squinting hard to see more clearly through the darkness ahead of him. “Show yourself — please.”

The voice began to fade. “Heeeelllpp meeeeee.”

There was something in the purr of the voice; something Eric thought strangely familiar, almost recognizable in its timbre. “Wait!” Eric ran forward into the darkness. He could hear the faintest of footsteps running just ahead of him now. Somebody was there, trying to get away. Eric sped forward, the light of his wand flashing ahead as he ran until he came upon another split in the corridor. He ran headlong into a table at the tee, falling with a loud crash to the floor.

“Ouch! Damn it!” He got to his feet, listening to hear in which direction to follow. All was quiet again.

“ERIC!”

Eric wheeled around and pointed his wand’s light at the voice next to him. It was another painting, this time of a woman sleeping with a dog on her lap, and then a man suddenly stepped into the frame.

“Barty!” Eric barked, lowering his wand. “What the devil are you doing? You almost gave me a heart attack!”

“Sorry, my boy, but I had to follow after hearing the voice.”

“You heard it too?”

“Of course… I…” There was another thump in the hallway behind him. Eric turned and pointed his wand into the darkness again.

“Eric, why are all the torches out? I don’t like this,” Barty whispered. Suddenly, they could hear footsteps running down the hall once more.

“There! Stop!” Eric yelped, pointing the way.

“I’ll go ahead of them through the portraits,” Barty said quickly, “I can certainly make it to the end of the hallway quicker then our mystery guest.”

“Good idea, Barty.” Eric replied, grateful for the help.

“I’ll meet you at the end,” grinned the man in the painting.

Eric waved and then took off again. As he ran, Eric could hear Barty entering and exiting paintings down the hallway in front of him. A woman in one of the portraits screamed.

“Sorry, Isabel,” said Barty somewhere ahead of him. Eric came to another tee in the darkness and stopped.

“Barty! Where are you, Barty?”

“Ah-ha!” yelled Barty’s voice from out of the darkness to his left. “Great Scott! You’re not a student… what are you doing?” Eric heard a loud bang and then a thud.

“Barty!” Eric ran forward.

At the end of the hall, he found a portrait lying in the middle of the floor. The man named Barty looked like he was unconscious within the frame. Eric picked up the painting and leaned it respectfully against the wall. “Barty! Are you all right? Who was it, Barty? Who attacked you?” But the man’s eyes were closed, his head lulled over to one side.

“Errrriiiicc,” came the wispy voice behind him. “Help-meeee-peeeeease.”

Eric turned angrily this time and ran toward the voice again. He heard a door fly open against its stops and then footsteps running down a flight of stairs. There was something strange about them. The feet were almost too quick, too light to be human. Their faint slapping sound gave him the impression of a small child trying to escape. Eric found a gap of light behind a door slowing closing and threw it back hard once more to follow. The steps lead to a bright underground tunnel. He knew this place; it was the tunnel connecting the castle to the Server Tower. As Eric entered the passageway, he could hear the far-off footsteps echo their slapping sound preceding him.

“Stop! Stay where you are. Stop, I say!” Eric screamed as he pelted down the tunnel in hot pursuit.

Suddenly, about halfway through passageway, all of the torches instantly blew themselves out. Eric slid to a stop, pointing his wand forward.

“Lumos!”

“Cooommme…” beckoned the singing voice again ahead of him. Eric was shocked at how close the intruder seemed to be. “We must reach… the other tonight,” it said, fading off, “the other Guardian… is waiting.” Eric’s eyes widened.

“The other? You mean Anna? Why? Is she in trouble? Who are you?” He could hear the footsteps running again.

“We must… find the firrrrrsssst,” called the intruder, and Eric thought he heard the sound of something evil giggling in the thing’s voice as it fell away from him. Eric chased the footsteps to the end of the tunnel and finally to the massive double-doors, the entrance to the Server Tower. The doors were closed, locked tight. Eric pounded on the heavy, wooden planks.

“Why are these doors locked?” he yelled. “Open up. Open them, I say!” Eric stepped back and pointed his wand. “Alohomora!”The lock clicked and the doors instantly swung themselves open. To his astonishment, Eric saw something he had never seen before in all his years at the school. The tower room was completely dark.

“What the hell? Hello? Where is everybody? Where are the guards?” he yelled.

“You found me, Guardian,” another voice whispered behind him.

Eric whipped about, the glow of his wand lighting the face of the person standing there. In the eerie glare, he recognized the person staring back at him. “Anna?”

“Hello big-brother. Have a nice run?” The lights suddenly burst to bright all around them.

“SURPRISE!!!”

To Eric’s utter amazement, there were at least a hundred people standing and smiling at him in the tower room. Gabby, the Grayson house elf, was wheezing from an apparent lack of breath at Anna’s feet.

“HAPPY-BIRTHDAY-ERIC!!” yelled the crowd in unison. Eric gawked in complete disbelief as the crowd around him began to clap and cheer.

“What the…?” Eric mumbled, smiling stupidly as Karen Scott stepped in to give him a quick kiss on the cheek.

“Happy Birthday, Eric,” she said, happily.

“What’s all this?” he said, still shocked by the huge crowd now pushing an extremely large and candle lit cake into the room.

“Cheers, Eric!” called several of his friends, who were grabbing butter beers from one of many trays held aloft by empty suits of armor. They raised their drinks from the student-packed railings above him.

“It was all your sister’s idea,” Karen said, pointing an accusatory finger Anna’s way. “She made all the arrangements and then everybody pulled together to keep it quiet.”

Eric beamed. “Well I would never have thought it possible to keep a secret this big quiet within the walls of Castlewood,” he said laughing, stowing his wand away and gratefully accepting the butter beer pushed into his hand. “Oh my…” Eric murmured, as more people stepped from out of the shadows. The Student President Nancy Dodimayer stood next to Lieutenant Hayman, and several other Crimson Guards that Eric knew came forward flanked by Tencha and Dowla, all were clapping with the rest. All of the school’s Knights were present, together with dozens of Eric’s seventh-year classmates. Doctor Pearl stood next to Jeremiah Kingston, who was still wearing the bibs from his day’s work in the stables, and several paintings had been hung in the tower room to allow some of the resident portraits to join in on the fun. Eric saw a familiar face trying to hide to the side of one of the frames.

“Barty!” Eric yelped, striding over to the painting disbelievingly. The man Eric thought he had left unconscious didn’t look any worse for wear. “Barty — don’t tell me you were in on this too?” The man’s normally stiff and proper stature suddenly fell absent as he tried to explain.

“Ah… yes… well, you see, Grayson, I was approached by your sisters and recruited… all be it reluctantly, mind-you, to… ahh… well… participate in a bit of pleasant mischief.”

“Ha-ha-ha. Very good, Barty. Remind me to send you out for a good cleaning before my next shift.” Several portraits began to laugh, but Barty looked worried.

“And I suppose one of my other so-called friends was responsible for the torches going dark in the hallways?” Eric observed disdainfully, as Anna pulled him back into the center of the room again. Suddenly all of the torches bloomed in the tower room, flickered briefly, and then snuffed themselves out. The entire tower was cast into darkness once again. There were a few unexpected yelps from the crowd as a voice rattled forth from out of the shadows.

“No… that… was my doing,” something grumbled. Two of the torches popped on again to reveal the Dark Art’s teacher, Professor Van Doorn, walking forward draped from head to toe in her usual black. Professor Titan was on her arm. “Childish –– yes,” a far off wail could be heard yowling somewhere outside, “but satisfyingly effective, no?” she said with a hiss.

“Yeah… well… thanks for that ––” Eric replied sardonically. “Nearly sent me diving out the window in fright.” Everybody chuckled amusingly as Professor Van Doorn bowed before waving her wand again and the torches in the tower room burst into light once more.

“And was that you I was chasing up there in the dark?” Eric asked, looking down at Gabby.

“I is…” the elf stammered, hiding behind one of Anna’s legs, “doing what Iz can to helwp...” Eric stooped down to pick up the elf and then placed her on his hip like a child of two.

“You’re a lot faster than you look, elf!” he said with a smile and then kissed Gabby hard on the cheek. The crowd howled with laughter.

Soon the party was a frenzy of loud music and merry-making, and Eric and Anna were passing out squares of cake while several of the Artisans strummed out the most popular tunes of the day. Gwen and Stephan Durkin started dancing and were soon joined by several other couples. Eric tried to admonish Anna and the twins for their role in the evening’s deception, but was soon too busy unwrapping a mountain of gifts to give any impression of being truly upset by their actions.

“Still,” Eric said, smiling gratefully, “you shouldn’t have bothered. With all your studies...”

“Oh shut up and open this one,” Anna snapped back, handing her brother another gift. “It’s from me.” Eric quickly tore away the wrappings to reveal a very thick book entitled, The Care and Treatment of Uncommon Magical Creatures.

“Thanks,” he said, hugging his sister. “Oh look,” he quipped, raising the heavy tome over Anna’s head, “all the better to pound you with.”

Anna smiled back and then kissed Eric on the cheek. “Happy Birthday, big-brother.”

“And you. It’s your birthday next week as well, you know, but I really don’t think I can top this,” Eric said apologetically, motioning to the party going on around them. “But maybe I can get Captain Dunning to help me find a couple of ogres in the dungeons to chase you about the castle.”

Anna smirked. “Yeah, I’m sure he’d be more than happy to help you with that,” she replied scathingly.

Smiling, Eric put an arm around Anna’s shoulder and cautiously led her away from anybody who might hear them. “And speaking of birthdays,” he said, in a hushed voice, “have you given any thought to the question you’re going to ask that scope of yours?” Anna hesitated.

The fact was she had thought of little else as her birthday approached. She knew, of course, what question her brother would have her ask the Verosapt:Who was the person with Victoria that night in his bedroom? But there were several other questions that seemed just as important to her right now. Who were her mother and this person looking for?Who was the ghost that had come to visit Anna twice before she left for Castlewood, and why did it attack her father? Who was it that had murdered this phantom when they were alive, and why did they do it? Who was the evil one that the mirror said had altered her at birth? How would they do such a thing and… for what purpose?And in what way was she altered?

Yes… she had questions, lots of them. But there was one question that always haunted her more than any other; one question she always found herself searching an answer for even when she was a small child. How did her mother really die? But to ask such a question when she already had the answer given to her by her father seemed almost, should she say it… rude. Wouldn’t asking something like this be admitting she didn’t believe her father was telling her the truth? And what if the answer was just as simple as her father had said? Then she will have wasted the opportunity to ask something almost as important. Anna looked up at her brother.

“I haven’t decided what to ask yet,” she said honestly and, to her great relief, she saw Eric smile.

“I suppose that’s understandable, given what’s been going on around here lately,” he said, knowingly.

“Eric ––” Karen Scott stepped in to join them. “Sorry Anna, but some of the other Knights wanted to get a picture of all of us together. Who knows when we’ll be in a casual setting like this again?”

“Do you mind?” Eric asked, with an obligatory nod toward a group of Knights waving him toward them.

“Of course not — you go ahead,” Anna whispered, somewhat relieved she didn’t have to discuss the subject of the Verosapt more.

As Karen playfully shunted Eric away, Anna sank blissfully back into a quiet corner near one of the many fireplaces ablaze and crackling around them.

“Quite a party, aye?” said a happy voice next to her.

“Oh… hello Professor Titan, I didn’t see you there. Yes, I think we were able to pull it off successfully,” Anna observed with a sigh of relief. Anna watched in amusement at several Knights posing with Eric, some with their wands at his throat as if holding him a prisoner. She suddenly remembered something and frowned as she turned again to the teacher.

“Professor, can I ask you a question?”

“Of course, my dear,” Titan replied, pleasantly watching some of the dancers. “Easy on your partner’s feet there, Riggins,” the teacher chuckled at one of the boys leading a dark haired girl on the dance floor. He took another sip from his short glass and then looked at Anna as he swayed appreciatively to the music.

“Um, well… on the first day of class you were inspecting our wands, and you said something that sounded like you had seen my wand before. You said, ‘It was nice to see it again’?” Anna said, cocking her head to frown up at him.

Titan looked at her somewhat surprised. “What? Oh… you mean the Victoria Jennings’ purple heart?”

Anna’s jaw dropped. “How did you know my wand belonged to my mother?”

Titan smiled down at her. “My dear, I come from a family of old Welsh wand makers, going back hundreds of years. You could say wands are in my family’s blood. But I must admit, before I met your mother, I had never seen another wand quite like the purple heart. One of a kind, that is.”

“What? Are you saying… you knew my mother?” Anna replied, in shocked surprise.

“Knew her? Of course I knew her. We went to school here at Castlewood together. For a time, I can proudly say, Victoria allowed me the pleasure of her company almost constantly,” he informed her, brightly.

“Really? Are you saying… that you… and my mother, dated?” Titan looked at Anna, the eyebrow that usually held his monocle rising high on his forehead. Anna realized that her reaction might have inadvertently sounded contemptuous.

“Sorry, it’s just that… I know so little about my mother’s life. It’s always a surprise whenever I hear something about her.” Titan seemed surprised, but then he smiled kindly.

“It’s not my place to understand why that would be, but I’m sure your father has his reasons, and it probably has something to do… well… with Victoria’s unexpected passing.” The professor looked suddenly sad. “Some wounds take a lifetime to heal, I’m afraid. The news of your mother’s sudden death was a blow to many of us who cared about her.” Anna smiled again, but then quickly moved to harvest as much information from the man as she could.

“Could you tell me more about my mother? It’s so rare for me to meet somebody who actually knew her.”

Titan seemed to be evaluating her. “Well… it might not be my place to…”

“Please?” Anna pleaded, placing her hand gently on his forearm. “Your memories are yours to freely share, right?” Titan thought for a moment, and then motioned for her to sit on the couch near the fire. Anna sat as Titan lowered himself with a heavy groan into a chair next to her, his huge bulk sinking deep into the cushions. He paused again. Taking the monocle out of his pocket, he began to clean it with the sleeve of his robes.

“Victoria was a beautiful woman,” he began, with just a hint of longing still lingering in his voice. “And I don’t mean just physically. Your mother had a genteel quality that could make a stranger feel comfortable to be around her. In a word — gracefulness.” Anna smiled.

“I met Victoria in my first year here at the school; we all arrived together –– me, Boris, Victoria, and of course Leola.” Anna’s eyes widened.

“Leola? You mean Leola Grayson?”

“Well, in my day, we knew her as Leola Vaughan,” Titan explained. “Your father and Victoria arrived together at Castlewood, of course.” He chuckled. “They looked more like brother and sister than two people from separate families. Two pees in a pod, those two; they were never apart.”

“Are you saying my mother and father knew each other before they came to Castlewood?” Anna asked him in surprise.

Titan looked amusedly at her. “Knew each other?” he laughed. “They had known each other ever since they were children. Grew up right next to one another on that precipice of yours, overlooking the sea in California. Next door neighbors for generations.”

“What? The Jennings family lived on Grayson hill somewhere? But… where? The Jennings aren’t there now.”

“That is because Victoria’s father passed away when she was a baby, and her mother died in her fifth year while she was here at school. Her mother left the Jennings estate to Victoria, their only child.” Professor Titan could see how confused Anna looked. “You really don’t know that much, do you?” He paused to think. “All right then –– let’s see. The Graysons and the Jennings both occupied the hill we now know as the Grayson estate. Boris and Victoria were born the same year, and their families were very close as the children grew up. That’s why Boris and Victoria arrived at Castlewood together.

“Then Victoria met Leola in one of her classes, and the two became very close friends. In fact, it was through their friendship that Boris was introduced to Leola in the first place, and the two started dating seriously in their fourth-year. I began spending a lot of time with Victoria the following year. Your mother was an accomplished student, and she was willing to help me when I found myself struggling with my O-W-Ls.” Anna knew O-W-Ls were Ordinary Wizarding Level tests all the students had to take in their fifth year. “We started talking about our families and, before long, I was lucky enough to call upon Victoria nearly every day.” Anna was enthralled by the thrill of this new information. She sat mesmerized as Titan continued.

“To nobody’s surprise, Boris and Leola announced their plans to be married a little while after they left Castlewood.”

“So… what happened between you and my mother?”

Titan’s face suddenly fell as he reached up to wedge the monocle into his eye. “Well… it just didn’t work out. Victoria wanted to return to the Jennings estate, of course, and I planned to continue my studies here at Castlewood to be a teacher,” he explained, somberly. “I know that sounds sad, but at the time it was an easy decision for the two of us to make. She was the only Jennings left to care for her ancestral home, and Boris and Leola were right next door on the same hill after they were married. Your brothers and sisters were born over the years that followed, and Victoria and Leola continued their close friendship right up to the time of the accident.”

Anna suddenly had an ill feeling of shame spilling over her. Many were the times she felt angry whenever she saw Leola Grayson’s portraits at the manor. Those paintings seemed to present a woman so cold and unwelcoming to her, but now she knew better. Anna lowered her head, trying to find comfort with the knowledge that her mother had such a good friend in her father’s first wife.

“Leola Grayson must have been a very nice person for my mother to…wait a minute.” Anna looked up in surprise at Professor Titan. “But how could they have been friends up to the time of the accident? Leola was dead more than two years before I was born.” Titan screwed up his face trying to understand Anna’s question. Finally, he seemed to comprehend what she was saying.

“Oh… I’m sorry. I wasn’t referring to Victoria’s accident. I was talking about the accident at the Grayson estate that took Leola’s life.”

“Oh ––” Anna said in surprise. She frowned curiously. “I… never actually knew how Leola Grayson died. What happened?”

“Very sad… really. Apparently, Leola was walking on the grounds somewhere near the cliffs at night when she accidentally fell. Her wand was found at the cliff’s edge near where she tripped.” He sighed regretfully. “Terrible thing. If she had held on to her wand, she could have easily saved herself, but… well. Poor Boris; for a man to lose his wife so early in life was bad enough, but to have it happen again two years later with Victoria… I honestly don’t know how your father ever made it through those dark days.”

“I… never knew,” Anna said sadly, looking over at Eric who was laughing with several of his friends. “I guess I just never thought…”

“Your brother Damon was just a few months old when he lost his mother; nothing more than a baby, just like you,” Titan added somberly. Anna looked over at Damon, who was talking with Professor Van Doorn in a private corner of the tower room. She found a strange feeling of unexpected sympathy rolling over her. Titan was right, of course. Damon could never have remembered his mother either. Why had she, Anna, never thought about these things before now?

“You children have done extremely well, considering the challenges you had growing up without a mother. I always liked your father. Of course, I have a great deal of respect for what he’s accomplished in his professional life, but it’s what he’s done with his children, despite his personal loses, that make Boris Grayson a truly remarkable man.” Titan settled back in his seat to continue his story.

“After Leola died, we saw a light of hope for Boris and the children, because, of course, Victoria was right there to step in and support them. Both Boris and Victoria were absolutely devastated by Leola’s death, and it was a good thing they had each other to sustain their faith for the children’s sake. Professor Thordarson and I visited Boris after the funeral, and I’ve never seen a man so distraught and lost in life.” Titan removed his monocle unnecessarily to clean it once again. After rubbing the lens and peering through it at the fire, he placed it into his eye again to continue.

“Victoria was a saint. Exactly the right person at the right moment to step in and insure the children were cared for, while Boris took the time he needed to recover from his loss. Did you know Victoria was living at the Grayson estate at the time of the accident?”

“Oh?” Anna said, in surprise. “Why was that?”

“Fire,” Titan replied matter-of-factly. “The Jennings estate burned to the ground just a few months before Leola’s accident. It was something of a miracle that Victoria survived the blaze. She was asleep when the fire started, and was very lucky to make it out alive.”

“But… that’s… that’s terrible,” Anna moaned, glancing over to stare at the burning embers in the fireplace next to them.

“Yes… Victoria had lost her home, and was beside herself with grief. She blamed herself for the accident, confessed she left a candle burning on her nightstand. Boris and Leola took her into their home immediately, of course, but the historic old Jennings’ estate was lost forever.”

Anna laid her head back on the couch to think and then, quite suddenly, something obvious dawned on her. “Hold on…” she said, jerking up. “I know the place you’re talking about. I’ve seen it. There’s a burnt structure on the other side of the estate that I visit from time to time while riding on the grounds. The remains of the Jennings’ estate are still there!”

“Really?” Titan said in surprise.

“Yes. It’s a wonderful place. It must have been glorious before the fire,” Anna observed, and an overwhelming sense of realization began to flood over her mind. So many times she had found herself sitting by the trees, looking into the ruins of what she now understood to be her mother’s ancestral home.

Anna looked back up at Titan. “So what happened after Leola passed away?”

“Ah… well, I think you probably know the rest of the story. After about a year of living together at the Grayson estate, I guess it was inevitable that Boris and Victoria would fall in love and marry. To tell you the truth, I always suspected it would turn out that way in the end,” Titan added, shrewdly.

“What do you mean?”

“Well — as I said — Victoria and I were very close the last couple of years here at the school. When we parted, she told me she wanted me to come with her to California and carry on with my studies out there, but I knew it wouldn’t work out. I knew we really didn’t have a future together,” the man explained somberly.

“Why was that?”

Titan looked at her uncomfortably. He seemed to be struggling with something very private, something he had never repeated to anybody before this night. Anna thought he looked resigned to keeping his feelings a secret, and was surprised when he went on to explain.

“When two people are together for as long as Victoria and I were, after spending that much time getting to know somebody to the extent that we did, a man can always tell the truth about such things.” He paused, and then, looking back at Anna, he said, “Victoria always loved Boris,” he confided to her warmly. “Oh they might have come here acting like the best of friends, but I know it was never really true for Victoria. I believe she loved your father from the time they were children.” The man almost seemed to catch himself thinking out loud, and then quickly moved to recover. “Don’t get me wrong, I know for a fact that Victoria was very happy for Boris and Leola when they decided to get married. I believe she was thrilled at the thought of her two closest friends starting a family together. But deep down, I knew the truth. She really loved your father, and I knew even if she wouldn’t admit it to herself that she could never be truly happy with me.”

For a time the room seemed quiet to Anna and Titan, even though the party around them was clearly approaching a near riotous level. Finally, Professor Titan seemed to snap to life again. “So! Things did work out just as I thought they might. After a time, Boris began to realize what he had in Victoria, and found the courage to ask her to marry him.” He smiled broadly. “And what a celebration that was. Everybody was so happy for the two of them. After what happened to Boris and the children in losing Leola, not to mention Victoria losing her home, everything seemed to be right with the world again. Then, of course, we heard that Victoria was pregnant, and we started to believe the best was yet to come from these two wonderful people.”

Titan’s infectious smile slowly dropped as the inevitable reality of the rest of the story came into his mind. The rest of Titan’s tale unsaid saddened Anna, and the two sat together looking at the fire in somber reflection. It was a strange moment, the two of them thinking about the life they could have shared with a woman already departed.

Anna looked at Titan and smiled. “Thank you,” she said, meaningfully.

He looked at her. “For what, my dear?”

“For sharing your memories about my mother with me.”

The man grinned broadly at her. “You know… you look so much like Victoria,” he said thoughtfully. “More than your wand, it’s very nice to be reminded of her by your presence here at the school.” Anna smiled as the two shared another quiet moment by the warm fire.

“Well!” the man said, heaving himself up to stand. “I have to prepare for Monday’s lessons, so I’ll say goodbye to your brother and be off. Thank you for the invitation, Miss Grayson,” he said, bowing respectfully, “and I hope you enjoy the rest of your evening.”

He left Anna sitting on the couch staring at the fire, her mind numb from the flood of information spinning around in her head. After a few moments of private reflection, Stephan Durkin came over to join her.

“Great party, Anna. I feel like I’ve made the ‘A’ list. Thanks for inviting me.” Anna looked up and smiled. In the warm glow of the firelight, Stephan looked very handsome. His straight, rugged chin and dark, wavy hair fell into sharp relief in the light, and Anna received an unexpected sense of delight as he rounded the end of the couch to sit next to her.

“Oh… no problem, I’m glad you could come,” Anna said nervously.

“Why are you sitting here by yourself?” he asked her.

Anna smiled. “Professor Titan was just filling me in on some old family history. It turns out he went to school with my parents.”

“Excellent! Did he give you any good rot you can use in the event you get into trouble at home? It’s always nice to have a ‘but you did it too’ excuse when you find yourself in a jam,” he said jokingly. Anna giggled, but then caught herself looking around for Gwen.

“No, not really. Just filled in a few gaps for me is all,” she explained.

Stephan nodded. “I wanted to congratulate you on making the Vollucross team. You were excellent at the tryouts.”

“Oh… thanks. Of course, it wasn’t too difficult to make the Guardian team when there are only three of us in the Union.”

“That doesn’t mean anything. Doctor Pearl is very strict about who’s allowed to compete. She calls it her flying standard,” he said, rolling his eyes mockingly. “If nobody from a particular Union can achieve the standard, then that Dynasty won’t be allowed to compete. I should know,” he said mournfully, “I’ve never been good enough to make the roster.”

Anna smiled. She really liked the way Stephan could openly admit his faults. Knowing he was an excellent student and excelled in nearly everything else he did at the school somehow made his confessions of weaknesses charming to her.

“Oh well,” he said with a heavy sigh, “there’s always next year. One day, with a lot of practice and hard work, I’ll get there.”

“I’m sure you will,” Anna said encouragingly.

“Hey — you’re not trying to steal my man are you, Grayson?” Gwen quipped, walking around the couch to give Stephan a quick peck on the cheek. Sarah Bell was following her.

Anna laughed nervously. “Wouldn’t think of it. I still don’t have a properly practiced spell I can use in my defense, remember?” she added, echoing the words of the portrait overseer from the dueling hall. Gwen laughed. She was still clearly basking in the glory of Debbie Dunning’s defeat.

“Oh that was so great!” Gwen said meaningfully. “You guys should have been there.” And for the hundredth time that week, Gwen recounted the intricate details of Anna’s duel with the captain’s sister. “And you should have seen Captain Dunning’s face. You could have cooked eggs on his forehead, he was so mad.” They all laughed. “I hope Professor Bots comes back soon. The class was much more fun when he was our dueling instructor,” Gwen finished.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Stephan countered. “He’s still hard at work bringing the Triwizard Tournament to Castlewood.” He leaned in. “Did you guys hear what happened at Hogwarts over the Halloween holiday?”

“What happened?” asked Gwen, sitting down next to Stephan and wiggling a shoulder affectionately under his arm.

“Well –– remember the newspaper I showed you had said the students from Beauxbatons and Durmstrang were suppose to arrive at Hogwarts to select their champions for the tournament?”

“Oh yeah,” said Gwen, who seemed overly interested in the boy’s every word. “So when are we going to see some Triwizard action out of England?”

“The action, as you correctly put it,” Stephan said, glancing at Gwen, “has already started with some controversy.” The group leaned forward to hear the news from overseas. “It seems the Ministry officials running the tournament ran into some trouble when they went to choose their champions. They were using a very old and magical object to help them select the most qualified students. The object was called The Goblet of Fire.”

Anna’s mind immediately started to swim with the possible images of the Goblet of Fire. She pictured a wooden casket encrusted with set jewels, and a wooden cup billowing blue-white flames.

“The goblet,” Stephan continued, “was supposed to choose one representative from each of the three schools to compete.”

“The three champions,” Sarah added.

“That’s right. But something went wrong, because the Goblet actually ended up choosing four champions… two from Hogwarts.”

“Well that doesn’t seem very fair,” Gwen complained. “Why should one of the schools get to have two champions?”

Stephan looked at them and smiled. “That’s what the administrators from Durmstrang and Beauxbatons said as well. It seems their governments are very upset about this turn of events.”

“Can’t say I blame them,” Anna said, frowning. “Why don’t they just make Hogwarts choose one of their two champions to compete and leave it at that?”

“Well that’s the thing. It’s not up to them to decide who competes. Apparently, if the Goblet of Fire chooses you, it represents some kind of binding magical contract. The four champions are now forced to compete in the tournament… whether they want to or not.”

“But that’s not fair,” Gwen repeated.

“I know… but everyone’s saying they don’t have a choice now. The first task is going to be held in three weeks.”

Gwen looked over at Anna and smirked. “I guess that means Professor Bots will be too busy to watch over our dueling club.” Anna nodded worriedly.

Stephan broke in again. “But that’s not all the news. Guess who got selected as the second champion from Hogwarts?” The three girls looked anxiously at him. “None other than Harry Potter.” Gwen and Anna looked stunned, Sarah perplexed.

“You mean, the-boy-who-lived? That Harry Potter?” asked Anna.

“Yeah,” Stephan said eagerly. He seemed to be relishing in the delivery of this unbelievable news.

“But isn’t he about our age?” asked Anna, scowling. “I thought the newspaper said they were only going to select students who had come of age?”

“That’s right. There were supposed to have been precautions taken to insure no students below the age of seventeen entered their name into the Goblet of Fire,” Stephan explained. “Those in charge of the tournament are in chaos right now, because half of them are confused as to how the mistake could have happened, and the other half is upset because Hogwarts now seems to have an unfair advantage. But now that Harry Potter has been selected as one of the four champions competing, the tournament has taken on a whole new level of excitement.”

“So when we see this tournament, we’ll get to see Harry Potter compete?” asked Gwen, a tone of building thrill invading her voice. Stephan nodded.

“Excuse me ––” Sarah interrupted, “but… ah… who’s Harry Potter?” The other three looked at her in surprise.

“Who is Harry Potter?” Stephan bellowed. “Who is… you mean… you’ve never heard of Harry Potter and how he survived You-Know-Who?”

Sarah frowned. “You-Know-Who?” From the stunned faces staring back at her, Sarah could see she had once again exposed her lack of knowledge about the Wizarding world. “Sorry. Being the first witch in my family, there are many things about the magical world I still don’t understand.”

“No need to apologize, Sarah,” Gwen said, reassuringly. “It’s not necessary with us.”

After the initial shock that somebody at the school had never heard the story of Harry Potter, Stephan was happy to fill Sarah in on all the details. After telling her about the boy-who-lived, Sarah was appalled to hear about an evil wizard who had tried to kill a baby.

“So this Harry Potter, the-boy-who-lived, is going to compete in the tournament’s first task in three weeks?”

“That’s right,” said Stephan, settling back into his seat. “And then afterwards… we’re going to watch Anna compete in her first Vollucross race.”

“What?” Anna yelped in surprise.

Stephan grinned. “The racing schedule was posted this afternoon in the Rotunda. Since England is five hours ahead of us, the first task will take place at seven AM our time, and they’re estimating it’ll take about two hours to finish. Since most of the town and nearly all of the students are going to be in the stadium anyway, Doctor Pearl has decided to treat the school to our first round of Vollucross races as well. Anna will be among the first groups to fly.” Anna smiled gleefully, which didn’t go unnoticed.

“Uh-oh, I can see that competitive glint in her eye,” Gwen said jokingly, pointing at Anna. “Here’s to Anna’s first Vollucross win,” she said, raising her glass. “Cheers!” The group tapped their glasses together. As they drank to Anna’s future success, a strange hush fell over the tower room and the music unexpectedly began to die off.

“What’s going on?” Anna said, getting to her feet. “Nancy Dodimayer said we could carry on with the party until midnight.” Everybody looked around and instantly became aware of a most amazing sight. Professor Thordarson had entered the tower room. He looked regal in robes of emerald green with gold embroidery, tapping his staff as he slowly walked among them.

“Chancellor!” Eric said, in awed surprise. Setting his butter beer down, he hurried over to greet the head of the school. “This is an honor, sir.” Thordarson was smiling as he shook Eric’s hand.

“Not at all. Indeed, the honor is all mine. I was very happy to receive Anna’s invitation earlier today. Happy Birthday, Eric,” Thordarson said kindly, patting him on the shoulder. Eric looked at Anna with a disbelieving grin and found his sister smiling back at him.

“Thank you, sir,” said Eric. “Can I offer you refreshment?” he asked, motioning to the elf named Tisket, who happily scampered over with a tray of drinks. Gabby also came bouncing up behind him, hoisting up a plate of hors d'oeuvres.

“Oh — no, thank you. Actually, I can’t stay long. I have a fire chat scheduled with the Head Master of Hogwarts this evening about the Triwizard Tournament. Albus is never tardy, I must be prompt. I just wanted to stop in and quickly pay my respects.”

“Thank you, Professor. Thank you for taking the time.”

Thordarson smiled. “I do have two things to deliver to you before I leave,” the Chancellor said, rather mysteriously. He started to fumble within the pockets of his robes. “Now where did I put it? Oh dear… did I leave it…? Ah… here it is.” He pulled out a tiny box, no larger than a grape, wrapped in purple foil and a bow. With two long and very white fingers, he handed the box to Eric. “This… is from your father. He had planned to send it to you by owl, but I insisted he allow me to present it to you properly.”

“Thank you very much, Professor, but you needn’t have gone to all the trouble.” The Chancellor humbly waved off whatever effort it might have been as Eric unwrapped the small box and pinched open the lid. Several students gathered in close to see what might be inside the tiny package.

Eric looked up. “Empty,” he said uncertainly.

“Really?” Thordarson said, smiling. “Are you sure?”

Eric looked again. Indeed the box looked completely empty; nothing inside its blackened depths. Suddenly Eric realized that the box had no bottom, just a seamless cube of nothingness in the center of his palm. And then, unexpectedly, Eric noticed a speck of something moving, slowly turning, inside the blackness of the box. The small bit of white light was now growing larger from within. A moment later, the dot, now resembling that of a tiny hurricane, began to swirl and rotate, gathering more speed by the second. As the storm enlarged, the sides of the little box containing it split and were instantaneously sucked into the swirling mass now raging the size of a large grapefruit in Eric’s palm. He slowly extended his hand away in proportion to the storm’s growing size, not knowing whether he should drop the thing or throw it out the nearest tower window. Several onlookers began to back away from him.

“You might consider setting that down, Eric,” the Chancellor said amusingly. Eric didn’t need any persuasion. He immediately walked to the center of the room where Anna joined him. He slowly set the raging storm down, which had now grown to the size of a beach ball. He then slowly backed away, resembling a man looking to be rid of some ticking time bomb.

“Eric — what is it?” Anna asked, looking at the object now spinning faster in the middle of the room, causing the air to blow around them. Bright flecks of lightning could be seen flashing out of the storm, which had now grown larger than the piano sliding away from the pressure next to it. The storm began to wobble and then bounce up and down, looking like some living thing seething and pulsating angrily.

“I have no idea,” Eric admitted.

Several students tried to speak over the wind now howling around them, which was whipping their robes and hair in a clockwise direction inside the tower room. The storm was now huge; the size of a large automobile and, abandoning any remaining courage, the students in the room pressed themselves flat against the tower walls and squinted through the blowing, near blinding wind thrashing around them. Even Professor Thordarson moved back to the edge of the circled room, but kept an amused grin planted firmly on his face.

The hurricane continued to grow, now getting taller, before splitting itself in two. The two halves of the gale looked like growing tornados gyrating furiously, and emitting a purplish mist into the air around them. A loud and ugly roar was heard screeching from one of the twisting giants whose rotation seemed to be slowing now, changing like some mist-cloaked object walking out of the surface of the Mirror of Enlightenment.

The second storm had ceased rotating as well, and curled over onto itself as if bowing to the other. It straightened with a jerk and arched back to let out a roar so loud that the walls of the tower room seemed to shake on its foundation. One of the Artisan girls let out a scream in reply. The two shapes were sprouting protrusions from their backs, extending high into the ceiling and then curled down nearly to the floor. Another limb seemed to eject itself from what one might likely call the body of the thing. It elongated, wrapping itself around its body –– a tail perhaps. Anna’s eyes shot to the top of the body, expecting some kind of head to show itself and, sure enough, in the exact spot she was watching, another protrusion blossomed there. Thick and long, it grew high toward the ceiling before sprouting two more appendages, like arms thrusting themselves forward, and now Anna knew exactly what the shapes were.

“Dragons!” she whispered out loud. Eric looked at her and then up again at the shapes now screeching and bellowing angrily at each another. He tilted his head to the side, trying to recognize what Anna was seeing through the cloudy haze, and now he could see them too. Two enormous dragons suddenly appeared from out of the mist. Their heads were stretching and forming fanged mouths, the elongated protrusions on their backs split themselves to create enormous, beating wings. Suddenly two massive eyes opened to reveal white, boiling orbs that emitted smoke.

“Oh my God, they’re dragons!” somebody yelled from the crowd, and several students moved toward the doors of the tower room thinking to escape. The two dragons reared and bellowed; their images now clear for all to see. One of the beasts was black and the other white, and they looked down upon the crowd below them with eager longing. One of the girls in the crowd screamed again, as the dragons bellowed fire down into the crowd. But what should have created a stampede of terror toward the doors suddenly did not, and an unexpected tranquility seemed to calm everybody where they stood. The crowd looked up in awe at the ferocious beasts that now seemed to turn upon each other. They breathed fire, and took massive swipes with their black talons the size of a man at one another. They fought savagely, their ghostly tails whipping across the floor and through the tower walls, striking each other where they could. Their powerful wings began to rise and fall, struggling to keep the heavy brutes aloft, while their scaled bodies thrust themselves forward in deadly combat.

“They’ll destroy the castle!” somebody yelled, as the white dragon reared back and shot fire at the black. The black screamed in pain, and then lashed out with its knife-like claws. The white bellowed in agony. Suddenly, something moved to separate them from the ceiling. It was lowering itself between them as they continued to fight and brawl. It was a massive sword. Turning and glinting, its steel shined bright, reflecting the blooming fireballs bellowed by the giants as its twin, razor edges slid down between them. Angry at the object now separating them, the two dragons seemed to turn on the sword. Thrashing and spitting fire at the steel, they howled angrily, trying to get at each other, but the sword would not allow their battle to continue. With one deafening and final roar, the two dragons screamed in utter frustration and then reared back as if to suck in all the air from the room around them. Their heads shot forward, blasting fire they hoped would kill the other. The flames exploded in the center around the sword, filling the entire tower with a scorching heat that blinded those watching below. Nearly everybody in the room dropped to the floor in fright.

Suddenly the tower was quiet and the students gathered themselves to stand once again, surprised to be alive. The two dragons and the sword were frozen in mid air, rotating in a circle for all to see. The purple mist within the tower collected around the beasts, and the dragons seemed to deflate and then flatten to face each other, the sword still between them. The scene became a massive tapestry still rotating slowly above the crowd. The smoke finally cleared and everybody was left speechless at the wonderful, embroidered tapestry, twenty feet tall, suspended high in the tower room. A soft muffled clapping could be heard from the side, and everybody looked over to see Professor Thordarson smiling appreciatively up at the new hanging. The crowd smiled and then joined the Chancellor with their applause.

“Amazing!”

“Incredible!”

“Wonderful!”

“It’s the Guardian crest!”

“That’s unbelievable!” said TJ, bouncing up and down and clapping madly.

“That’s daddy,” Anna said, leaning over to her brother who was clapping with the rest. Eric looked down at Anna, nodding a smiled reply.

“Our father isn’t known for doing anything in a small way, is he?” he mused. Eric looked over at Professor Thordarson and then turned serious. “Uh… sorry about this, Professor. I… guess my father’s gift went a little overboard.”

The Chancellor moved to join them still smiling. “Not to worry, my dear boy,” he said, staring at the tapestry with delighted wonder. He leaned in. “Although I did think it best to cast a calming charm over the tower at the height of the battle,” he said, beaming through his dark spectacles. Eric and Anna remembered the feeling of peaceful tranquility floating over them just at the moment when they thought to run from the tower. They both smiled gratefully.

“Now,” Thordarson continued, “I must give you my gift,” he said, looking again at Eric.

“Oh, but sir,” Eric replied in surprise, “you really didn’t have to bother…”

“Tut-tut,” Thordarson said, stopping him with a wave. “I must admit, however, that my offering cannot in any way surpass your father’s skill of the dramatic,” he said, pointing toward the tapestry in the ceiling again. The crowd laughed. “In fact, I seem to remember that Anna’s birthday will soon be upon us as well. So let me allow your attempts to dissuade my generosity to only go so far as to say that my gift to you can certainly be shared.” Eric and Anna looked at each other and grinned.

Without another word, Professor Thordarson turned and headed for the tunnel doors. Stopping a few feet from their center, he waved his staff and the orb on top glowed briefly. The doors clicked and slowly moved to swing open.

“You may come in now.”

The crowd gathered around the opening and watched as several other students began filing into the tower room. They marched in a straight line, shortest in the front, their heads ramping up to a huge senior classman bringing up the rear. They stopped and turned to face the crowd, their faces hooded in black. Eric frowned as he inspected this strange sight, and then noticed the commonality that had brought the group together there.

“Guardians!” Eric whispered. Anna pushed her way through the crowd and beheld an incredible sight. Twelve new Guardians stood before them, wearing Union stripes of purple. “But how? I should have been told about this,” Eric said, disbelievingly. “I should have been informed.”

“That… was my doing,” Thordarson explained. “It would seem that after one particularly… ah… eventful evening in the dueling hall last week, we received a flood of eager willingness to reenter the Mirror of Enlightenment,” the Chancellor said amusedly. “My staff,” he said chuckling and shaking his head, “were quite overwhelmed by the rush of so many willing to try. We decided to bring all those who wanted to reenter the mirror in on a single night; this night, in fact. More than a hundred students entered, and now these courageous few have been moved into their new lodgings within the Server Hall.” Thordarson looked around at all the new Guardians surrounding him. “Oh dear…” he said worriedly, “at this rate, a new Guardian Hall must be a consideration.” The crowd in the tower room began to cheer as each of the new Guardians lowered their hoods.

“John!” Eric yelled, recognizing the huge seventh-year boy at the end of the line. “Old man — what are you doing here?” he said, walking over to shake the boy’s enormous hand. Anna recognized the student immediately. He was the burly Laborer who had raised her high after her triumph over Debbie Dunning. Anna’s eyes began to well with tears.

“Oh, I couldn't let you Graysons grab all the glory for yourselves,” the boy grunted, and then he grinned. “We're going to fight evil, aye?” he said, with a twinkle in his eye.

Eric’s face turned serious as he leaned in to whisper. “Yes… but we may also have to fight those seeking to stop evil at any cost.”

“HAH!” the giant bellowed. “The more the better!” he said, smashing his massive fist into his palm. He reached down and grabbed Eric behind the neck and pulled their foreheads together. “We shall do great things, Grayson; an army of warriors – ALL!”

Eric grabbed the brute’s boulder-like head and pushed him back to stare up into his friend’s happy face. “Yes… my friend. With your brand of courage, we are truly formidable!”

One by one, each of the new Guardians lowered their hood and was recognized by the students within in the tower room and Anna stepped in to shake each of their hands. When she got to the middle of the line, the person standing there hadn’t removed their hood.

“Hello,” Anna said anxiously, trying to peek under the hood. “Anybody I know in there?” she said, extending out her hand to shake.

“I think so,” a quick and muffled voice replied. Anna recognized the voice immediately, but couldn’t believe it unless she saw for herself. Anna reached up and yanked the back of the hood down to reveal the girl hiding there. Fine strands of blond hair fell out.

“GWEN!!”

Gwendolyn Reese smiled back at her best friend. “Got any room for a piano player in this club,” she said humorously.

On the fourth floor of the Server Hall, several girls had finished climbing the steps and turned as one toward their rooms. They were stopped by the sudden, odd-sounding ka-chunk-ching over Anna’s door. They looked up to read the message:

[Guardians needed to sustain the Union:]

[35]


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