Anna Grayson and The Order of Merlin

The First Task

The days leading up to the first task of the Triwizard Tournament were exciting at Castlewood. Not only did the events from England bring with it an unusual amount of anticipation, but the fact the tournament had come so close to the Thanksgiving Day holiday meant classes had ended early that week, and brought with it, as it always did, a festive warm up to Christmas.

There were an unusual number of parents being escorted by their children through the school, and several tours lead by members of the Crimson Guard. Captain Dunning was strangely gracious to these guests, although most of the students believed his willingness to fly open the doors of the school were due more to the Chancellor’s sociable hospitality than anything the Captain of the Guard had thought to do on his own.

Anna was especially nervous. After the first Triwizard task, she would be riding in her very first Vollucross race in front of the entire school and the town of Spellsburg. And just as Doctor Pearl had predicted, Anna’s practices were being monitored closely by the odds-makers in town, and several local newspaper articles had been written referencing her as, ‘The newcomer in town, who might very well reset everybody’s expectations for the upcoming season.’ Anna’s unusual visibility in the newspapers seemed to heighten her popularity at the school to uncomfortable levels she never thought possible.

Anna believed she could do without all the extra attention, but Eric was thrilled. In his mind, the more the Guardians were seen in a positive light, the better their chances were for adding to their ranks. He likened them to a force of destiny and, to prove his point, her brother took the time to deliver three strong presentations on the mission of the Guardians in one of the school’s largest classrooms. The groups of students willing to come and listen to these discussions were surprisingly large, due in part to their curiosity over all the new Guardians walking through the halls of Castlewood after Eric’s birthday. The lectures were absolutely brilliant, and Anna believed many students left the talks pondering their own role within their current unions. Sure enough, within just a few days following Eric’s efforts, eight more Guardians were announced to the school. It seemed her brother was right. The juggernaut that was the Guardian cause was rolling along at an unstoppable pace.

Then there was Anna’s birthday, which brought with it an array of wonderful gifts from both her family and her friends at the school. Her father had given her a new Vollucross bridle with the Grayson crest for each side of Swooper’s jaw, along with a magnificent Guardian shield for the top of his forehead. It would seem her father was anxious to create as many things Guardian as he could. Gabby had made her a Vollucross safety harness to go with the new bridle. Although Anna appreciated the elf’s efforts, she ended up stripping away most of the heavy chains Gabby had expected her to wear wrapped around her waist and neck. Apparently, when it came to her mistress’s personal safety, the Grayson house elf didn’t have a lot of faith in the equipment being offered by the school.

While all the gifts were wonderful, for Anna, it was exciting enough just to be at Castlewood. She couldn’t believe, just a few months ago, all she could have hoped for was another quiet birthday alone with her father. In fact, this would be the first birthday Anna could ever remember sharing with Eric, and her brother was making the most of it.

It wasn’t Eric’s gift of amethyst earrings that made her birthday special; it was the manner in which he had them delivered. Her present came in a small, white box couriered personally by Hobbs. Totally recovered from his injuries in the attack by the Crimson Guard at Saint Drogo’s castle, Eric had painstakingly nursed Hobbs back to perfect health, and although he still had a few blackened feathers, Hobbs’ flying abilities were nearly perfect in the bright morning dawn of Anna’s thirteenth birthday. Anna was so excited to have Hobbs back that she nearly crushed him in her howling embrace. It was her greatest birthday ever.

But the best gift of all was having Gwen as a fellow Guardian. Anna found out Gwen had gone to her parents after all and requested that she be allowed to walk through the Mirror of Enlightenment in support of what Anna was doing, but they had refused to give their consent. Anna couldn’t blame them. After all, Gwen was already exactly where everybody believed she should be — in the Artisan Union, studying her music.

Then, in an act of courage Anna would have never thought possible on her behalf, Gwen reentered the mirror anyway with her parents’ threats still ringing in her ears. Steadfastly stubborn, Gwen told Anna her only regret about her decision was her becoming the fifteenth Guardian and not the second.

But Mr. and Mrs. Reese did not willingly accept Gwen’s decision or, in their mind, the appalling results. In short order, they both unexpectedly arrived at Spellsburg on the iron gray morning following the day they were notified of Gwen’s change of Union. Intent on removing their daughter from Castlewood entirely, it was only due to the personal intervention by Chancellor Thordarson himself that made them relent and allow her to stay at the school.

Thordarson assured Mr. and Mrs. Reese that Gwen’s study of music would continue within the newly formed Union of Guardians. In fact, the Chancellor had informed Gwen in front of her parents that she was required and obligated to continue, and that he would ‘Throw her out of Castlewood himself’ if her lessons fell behind. Knowing how much Gwen truly loved the piano, Anna could only imagine how secretly relieved she must have been to understand that, whatever her future might be as a Guardian, her music would continue to be a key part of her future at the school.

Armed with the knowledge they had an ally in Thordarson, the Reeses left Spellsburg after delivering a much-intensified threat of severe reprisals if Gwen ever stepped out of line again. And although Anna saw Gwen acting the part of a bravely defiant daughter after her parents had departed, she could tell their message had settled in Gwen like never before. Yes… Gwendolyn Reese would toe the line at Castlewood for a very long time to come; at least a week, maybe even longer.

There was only one thing left undone as the Thanksgiving holiday quickly approached, and that was Anna’s decision of what question she would ask the Verosapt. Unfortunately, she was no closer to making that decision than the day she had first found out about the Jennings’ family oracle. As Anna lay in bed staring out at the evening, and listening to the last minutes of her birthday tick by, she decided to put her decision off until after the Christmas holiday. Perhaps she would have a better idea of what to ask after she had a chance to speak to her father about the other things he hinted of in his letter. Besides, she had a whole year to decide what to ask. In her mind, there was no rush.

As the last three minutes of Anna’s birthday slipped away, Hobbs sat outside her window objectively pondering in which direction to begin the evening’s hunt. Anna recalled Titan’s story about her mother, which was something she had been doing nearly every night before dropping off the sleep. She smiled at the thought of Victoria Grayson moving through the same corridors she herself traveled every day.

Two minutes left. Anna saw herself using the new riding bridle, and how she would hide from Gabby the fact she had no intension of using the chain-laden safety harness the elf had given her as a gift.

One minute to go. Suddenly, Anna heard a soft click below her feet and sat bolt upright looking at her dresser. Her reaction to the sound made her realize she had somehow expected this, almost like an unwanted dinner guest arriving at her door earlier than expected. The familiar red beam of light blazed from the top of the kaleidoscope and spread itself wide. She could see the billowing, gray clouds rushing forward, this time reaching into the room all around her. Anna looked quickly over to Sarah who was snoozing peacefully, still facing the wall opposite. From out of the clouds, Anna could hear the deep, rumbling voice speaking over the sound of trickling water and chirping crickets.

“Thy day of thy entry has nearly passed, Jennings. Why have you not called out to the Verosapt?” Although the great ape didn’t appear to her, Anna could still hear the sardonic tone in the beast’s voice over some growling thing next to him in the forest. Obviously, he was anxious to get their business over with quickly. Anna glanced over to Sarah again. Her roommate continued to sleep undisturbed.

“I haven’t decided what to ask,” Anna whispered back. “I didn’t know you could come here on your own.” She could hear the impatient snarl in its response.

“The Verosapt is not without power, little one. We who are all within the kingdom go where we please, when it pleases us to do so. Ask thy question Jennings! The truth awaits.”

“I said — I’m not ready yet.” Anna replied edgily. “I still have a whole year to ask my question… it doesn’t have to me now.” There was a loud chatter, mixed with the buzz of thousands in the background. There seemed to be many others eagerly waiting to hear her question.

“Insolent human… why dost it hold the Verosapt hostage so?”

“I’m not doing anything of the sort. I’m just… undecided.” There was a long pause before the clouds rumbled their reply.

“If it is –– as it claims –– undecided, it wouldst be a first for us to witness. Couldst be thine uncertainty is not in what thou wouldst ask, but how thy world might change in the truth of what it seeks? Many have called our knowledge a gift, but some didst also call it… a curse. What wilt it be for thee, Jennings?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Anna lied. The fact was she knew exactly what the Verosapt was hinting at. Day by day, Anna had come to think she might very well ask about the events leading up to her mother’s death. Was the Verosapt hinting they knew what she wanted to ask and that there might be some kind of pain in their answer? “I will make my decision in my own time,” Anna said forcefully.

There was another long pause, and then, “We shall see. We await thy call, daughter of Victoria. Fear not the truth in the knowledge thou seeks.” And with these words, the grayish smoke withdrew from the room and back into the fan of light, which closed into a single beam. “Truth is enlightenment, and in the fullness of time enlightenment befits wisdom. Sometimes the path from truth to wisdom is long and strewn with many obstacles. It is better to start soon…” the voice echoed, before dropping down into the ruby of YU once more. After checking that Sarah was still sleeping, Anna laid back in her four-poster.

The path from truth to wisdom is long and strewn with obstacles. “Does that mean… if the truth is something unexpected, then the path to understanding it could be difficult?”She rolled over and forced her eyes closed. All the more reason to take my time.

TWO

On the early morning of November twenty-fourth, the entire school was buzzing with excitement. The day had finally come; the Triwizard Tournament was about to begin. For Anna, she didn’t know what was more exciting, watching something the Wizarding world had equated to a Muggle Olympic event, or her participation in her first Vollucross race afterwards.

The Guardian breakfast table was a bit more crowded these days, now that their number had suddenly grown to twenty-three, and for the first time since she had arrived at the school, Anna felt like she was finally part of a real Union. It was a nice feeling being a part of a larger group.

Finally, the message was sent throughout the castle. “All students wishing to see the Triwizard Tournament — please follow your Union Knights to the castle entranceway. The tournament will begin in one hour.”

“Good luck, you two,” Gwen said to Anna and Eric. “Bring home some Vollucross glory for the Guardians.”

Eric smiled, and then nodded his strong determination to fulfill her request.

“Am I supposed to be this nervous before the race?” Anna asked her brother anxiously. Eric put his arm around his sister and grinned.

“You only have to worry if you get as worked up about these races as I do,” he said with a smirk.

“You? Don’t tell me you’re nervous too.”

Eric looked around them guardedly and then leaned forward. “I always try to keep myself in a very high state of anxiety in the days leading up to these events,” he said, jokingly. “To tell you the truth, that’s how I keep my edge.” Anna laughed. “Don’t worry, you’ll do fine. You’ve trained hard, you have an excellent mount, you’re using the best equipment, and we’ll be riding together as a team. You’re as ready as you’ll ever be.”

Anna was grateful for his confidence. “I just don’t want to let you down.” The worry in her voice was obvious.

“Are you planning on going into this thing half-heartedly?” Anna’s eyes widened and Eric laughed at her appalled expression. “I didn’t think so. As long as I see you giving it your best, I’ll be happy no matter what the results. Come on… let’s get outta here.”

They gathered themselves up and, after a few more supportive handshakes from their fellow Guardians, they headed off with the crowd toward the castle entranceway. As they walked through the main doors and across the drawbridge, they were met by a number of townspeople.

“Good morning, Eric. How do you feel today? Expect you’ll have a good race?” asked a tall man in yellow robes. He was holding a racing form and a notepad.

“Odds-makers,” Eric whispered down to Anna. “They’re looking for signs of weakness. Play it cool; be humble, but confident.” He turned to greet them. “I feel great, the weather is beautiful, it should be a fine day for flying,” he answered the man.

“And… how about your sister? We’ve been reading a lot about her lately; the first fully qualified egg in twenty years. Do you think she’s ready for the race today?” Eric turned with the rest of the students off the bridge and onto the cobblestone streets of the Spellsburg. There, they merged with a large crowd of townspeople heading toward the city gates.

“Why don’t you ask her yourself?” Eric replied, stepping to the side to reveal Anna purposely walking in his shadow. Four more men in yellow robes immediately moved in. “Humble, but confident,” Eric muttered down to her.

“Well… how about it, Miss Grayson? Do you expect to win today?” asked a man to her right.

Anna tried to smile. “The weather is perfect and I have a strong horse,” she replied. “I’ve trained very hard, so I hope to do my best.” The men in yellow grinned as they wrote in their pads.

A second man stepped in. “We understand that you’ve been training on just one horse, Miss Grayson. Is that true?”

“Anna –– please –– call me Anna.” The group walked through the city gates and then turned toward the stadium. The men in yellow were walking backwards as they continued to scribble in their notepads.

“Okay, Anna, why don’t you tell us about your horse. Doctor Pearl and Mister Kingston won’t let anybody near the stables.”

Anna smiled again. She loved talking about her mount to anybody who would listen. “Well, his name is Swooper, he’s seven years old, and his breed is Mountain Thorse. He’s a very strong…”

“Isn’t it true, Anna, that this Thorse you ride is the only animal you’ve ever trained on?” another man interrupted.

The massive crowd was now merging together onto the plateau. Several wizards and witches wearing various colored robes and hats were talking excitedly as the large group moved as one toward the stadium.

“Well… yes. Swooper is the only flying horse I’ve ever ridden. But I’ve been riding all my life.”

“But the Vollucross season can be long, and if your ability to ride well is based on the health and ability of just one horse, how can the fans be assured we can count on you to play a strong part later in the season?”

Anna didn’t like the tone of the question. It seemed more like a well-disguised accusation rather than something a person on the street might really want to know.

“If you’re asking me if I’d continue to ride if something ever happened to Swooper, the answer is no,” she said, somewhat irritated. “I only took up this sport because of Swooper. I can’t see myself flying without him.”

“How about you, Eric?” said another odds-maker to her brother. “You don’t seem to have any limitations dependent on the mount you ride. Can we depend on the Guardian team or not?”

The question surprised and immediately infuriated Anna, but Eric simply smiled. “We all have our favorite mounts, and each rider feels they do better on some more than others. I know you guys don’t like hearing that, but it’s the honest truth. I think you will find one of Anna’s strengths comes from her close relationship with her horse. Would she be just as good on a different mount? In my opinion — yes, I believe she would do well on any horse. However, most of the experts have already seen her on Swooper during our practice sessions, and I believe after today the true enthusiast of our sport would be disappointed if the two weren’t flying together. Frankly, I’m proud of my sister’s willingness to set her racing aside to care for her mount if it ever came to that.”

Anna admired her brother’s ability to handle the men in yellow. He was always polite, but never to the point of allowing himself to be pushed about by their questions. The men made Anna feel like she was being set up to say something stupid at the expense of her team.

They finally entered the stadium and Anna was amazed by the sight of thousands of people stacked high below a beautiful morning sky. She thought this must have been what her Muggle friend Teres was trying to describe to her when she said her father had taken her to see what she called a football game. While the sight of so many people was incredible, it was the level of noise that really surprised Anna. There was a constant and absorbing hum that she could actually feel pressing against her face. She looked up at her brother and caught him smiling down at her. As he looked back up at the crowds surrounding them, she thought she almost heard his voice waver a bit.

“Amazing, isn’t it? I wasn’t lying when I said I’m always in a state of high anxiety.” He watched the crowds pouring through the gates. “Honestly… I’ve given up trying to be calm before a race.”

“It’s incredible,” Anna said in awe, looking around them. “I never realized there were so many people living in Spellsburg.”

“Oh — this isn’t just Spellsburg. In the last three days, the Allegheny Pride has been bringing people in from all over the Americas. Events like the Triwizard Tournament, together with Vollucross Opening Day, were bound to draw a huge crowd. Add the fact it’s all happening over the Thanksgiving holiday, and you have what you see today. Mister Kingston said this is one of the biggest crowds they’ve ever had.” Eric looked at Anna and raised his eyebrows. “Just wait until they start screaming. You’ll still be hearing them yelling in your sleep tonight.”

Anna smiled. Looking around again, she watched the gathering audience talking excitedly. She couldn’t imagine what she was about to experience. If possible, Anna felt more nervous than when she first had entered the dueling pit.

“Now… are we straight about the spells we’re allowed to use today?” her brother asked her.

“I think so.” Anna remembered Doctor Pearl’s book on Vollucross and how surprised she was to learn how complicated the sport could be. The book described the beginner’s race in much the same way she had practiced them. However, in the more advanced levels of the sport, riders were expected to use their wands to help them gather the objects, which didn’t necessarily have to be the metal rings Anna had been collecting from the checkered poles.

The Gathering, as it was sometimes called, might include battling with trolls for the items in their possession. Or they might be required to capture a magical creature within the forest, or skirmish with the other competitors for several objects hidden in the woods. The penalty for failure, however, was always the same: Those who did not finish or did not successfully complete the tasks given to them would be sent back or disqualified once they reached the Amber Gates. As if that wasn’t enough, advanced riders were not required to wear a safety harness and, in honor of the sport’s oldest traditions, very few of the school’s seniors, including her brother, actually did.

When it was announced some moderate forms of magic would be allowed during the first race, Anna believed she wouldn’t be allowed to compete. Given her novice magical abilities, she felt certain she would be grounded come Opening Day. But Eric wouldn’t hear of it. Believing the Hall’s honor might somehow be at risk, he and her fellow Guardians took Anna aside in the evenings to coach her on some of the second and third-year spells they thought she might need during the race. Even Professor Titan seemed willing to push Anna along in his Magical Incantations class by frequently calling on her during most of the demonstrations. Eventually, Anna was able to increase her abilities in those areas where she had to move and push objects about, but the one spell Eric wanted her to learn the most, something called the summoning charm, seemed to evade her capability altogether.

“Do you understand our strategy today?” Eric asked her covertly.

“Yes,” Anna assured him. “Low to the ground at all times.” Her brother nodded.

“Staying low is the shortest route to the first gap. With any luck, most of the riders will be watching the seniors more than a first-year. We’ll use that and Swooper’s speed to our advantage,” he said confidently.

The riders headed toward the stable entrance where they expected to receive their final instructions and access to their mounts. Mister Kingston had each horse set in a stall overlooking the open field beyond the prying eyes of the odds-makers.

“Good morning riders,” said Doctor Pearl to the group. “A beautiful day for flying. Let’s review the rules for this morning’s race, shall we?” The doctor looked very formal in black-velvet robes trimmed in red, topped with a crimson hat. “This is an event for qualified riders only, and each Union will be allowed up to three riders today. Since several of you only have two qualified riders on your team, we will only require two to finish in the points. The first Union to successfully get two of their riders across the finish line after completing the course through the Shadowed Forest will be declared the winner, and fifty points will be awarded toward the Chancellor’s Cup.” They all nodded. “Since this is not an all-senior field, you will not be allowed to use magic to hex another rider. Is that clear?” she said, sternly.

“No magic, Doctor?” asked a seventh-year Defender in surprise.

“You may use magic to help your team gather the rings and create the normal barriers to your opponents, but that is all.” The senior Defender looked to protest, but Pearl cut him off. “Any student caught sending a hex at another rider, will be sent back to the stables when they pass through the Amber Gates, and their team will be disqualified from the match. Is that clear enough for you, Mister Wendell?” The boy reluctantly nodded.

Eric casually leaned down and whispered, “Watch out for Michael Wendell, Anna. He’s already proven he has no honor while flying. Keep a good distance from him at all times.” Anna looked suspiciously over at the seventh-year boy and found him staring back at her. He grinned evilly, and Anna could tell he was proud of his less than honorable reputation. His sallow, pointed face reminded her of an older version of Damon.

“I want a clean run out there. No accidents please. Although there are points at stake, this race represents the Opening Day for our sport.”

“Here it comes,” whispered Eric casually again, “The Pearl Proclamation.”

“The what?” Anna said, with a questioning smile.

“Keep in mind, all of you,” the doctor continued, “your flight today represents the continuation of the strongest traditions our sport has to offer, going back nearly two thousand years. You should feel privileged and grateful to be here. Remember our code of honor while you’re out there. I won’t have any disgraceful underhandedness on this, our biggest Opening Day ever.” She glared at Wendell again. “I’ll be watching you all very closely.” She finally looked at the others rather worriedly. “And — as always — be safe… please.”

She pointed behind them. “Your robes are waiting for you in the locker room, and you will be watching the Hogwarts tournament with me atop the stables. Good luck — and good flying.”

The riders departed for the locker rooms while the rest of the stadium continued to fill. Twenty minutes later, they reentered the stadium with their bridles and blankets draped over their arms and headed for their seats to await the start of the Triwizard Tournament.

Anna felt extremely proud wearing her new Vollucross robes. The garment was a deep purple that simmered in the morning sun. Looking closely at the cloth, she could see threads of gold woven into the fabric. The crowd celebrated the riders with loud applause as they took their seats.

A few minutes later, Anna could see Chancellor Thordarson and the Mayor of Spellsburg enter the top box to an enthusiastic cheer from the entire stadium. The two men smiled and shook hands with many of the people sitting near them under a beautiful canopy of white. Then Thordarson signaled to another wizard Eric said was Professor Bots. The man stood and then, pointing his wand to his own throat, his voice boomed over the boisterous crowd.

“Ladies and gentlemen, citizens, students, faculty, and honored guests. Welcome to the City of Spellsburg and Opening Day of this year’s Vollucross season.” There were roaring shouts of jubilation from the now standing crowd. “On behalf of the Honorable Mayor Prower and Chancellor Thordarson of Castlewood Academy, we are pleased to present our first race.

“Our gracious host this morning, as always, is our very own Doctor Margaret Pearl, Healer, and Vollucross Steward of Castlewood.” Doctor Pearl, who was seated in front of the riders above the stables, stood and acknowledged her introduction to the stadium with a happy but reserved wave.

“And let us not forget our riders for today’s exciting event!” At this, Pearl turned to face the riders and motioned for them to stand. They did as one, and the stadium erupted in earth shaking howls of delighted applause. Pearl turned again to the stadium, bowed respectfully like a Roman governor, and then sat. Immediately the riders sat down behind her. The noise was pegging the needles in Anna’s brain, and she couldn’t help smiling at the induced excitement and pageantry of the assembly gathering around them.

“But first,” Professor Bots continued, “we have a real treat for you. For the first time in over one hundred years, the Triwizard Tournament will be taking place this year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. In agreement with our brother wizards in England, and the International Committee of Ministries, we are very excited to bring to you the first of what will be three tasks today. In just a few moments, you will be able to see everything as if your were there, thanks to the magic of our incredible Vollucross Hemisphere.” There was more applause from the crowd as Professor Bots turned to speak with several wizards seated below him. After nodding to the men, Bots turned to the stadium once more.

“I have just been informed that the Triwizard Tournament is about to start. So, without any further delay, let us take you now… to England!” There was a cheer as Bots raised his wand high into the air and then bellowed the incantation, “Projectius Visum Hogwarts!”

Instantly, the morning sun streaming into the stadium darkened like the dimming lights in some gigantic theater. For a moment the sky was completely black, and then, quite suddenly, the sky burst a brilliant blue once more. But this wasn’t the morning light they had just seen fading to black the moment before; it was high noon, and the noise inside the stadium seemed to double. More cheering voices were added to their own as the picture above them showed another stadium filled with students from the faraway school across the sea. They were seated high above a grassless, open area surrounded by wooden planks.

“Fantastic!” Anna whispered to Eric sitting next to her. He nodded and smiled excitedly.

The scene being sent to them looked like somebody was on a broomstick, flying over the distant stadium. The camera, or whatever it was that was projecting their view, flew low into a dirt-filled enclosure, and the dizzying scene rushing passed them was supplemented by the sound of some gigantic and beastly roar. The image rose high above the enclosure and over a waving crowd of students seated in black robes. It continued to rise above the surrounding trees to settle on a beautiful and mountainous countryside. It panned the emerald green hills and rocky ledges, and finally settled on the massive castle they called Hogwarts. The crowd around Anna pointed and ‘oohed’ at the legendary school of wizardry, and then clapped enthusiastically as a British announcer began to speak to them.

“A warm welcome to all of our wizarding friends around the world. This is Patrick O’Shea, bringing to you, for the first time ever, a remote projection of the legendary Triwizard Tournament.” The overhead scene quickly changed to a portly man, speaking into his wand like a microphone.

“Good afternoon from England, everyone, and become to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The scene here is absolutely breathtaking as we finally begin, after so much press and fanfare, this tournament’s first of what will be three amazing tasks. It’s a wonderfully clear day here at Hogwarts, and expectations are high as we look forward to finally starting this remarkable contest. But before we do, I’d like to bring in my co-host for this event… a wizard needing nothing of an introduction anywhere he travels, the famous dragon hunter, Mr. Beetle Mantooth.” A tall, smiling man in green robes stepped into the picture holding his wand under his chin.

“Thank you, Pat. It’s good to be here, and what a spectacular event we’re about to see, eh?”

“Oh, I think we can guarantee the audience something special today, Beetle. To quote my good friend LudoBagman, who will be commentating this event for us, we’ll be hip deep in fun very shortly. But despite the excitement we see all around us now, we have to report this event didn’t have a very smooth start, did it?”

“No it didn’t, Pat,” said the tall man with a chuckle. “In fact, this event was almost cancelled before it was started, because of the controversy surrounding the selection of the champions from the three schools competing for us today – Hogwarts, Beauxbatons and Durmstrang Academy. Many of us have already heard the tale of the bizarre events leading to Hogwarts being allowed two champions, but that part of the story pales in comparison to the drama surrounding whom we’ll be watching in the competition today. Our second Hogwarts’ champion will be none other than the-boy-who-lived, Harry Potter.” The crowd around Anna gave out an acknowledged whoop of excitement. “But despite the fact the interest in this tournament has increased dramatically because of the-boy-who-lived, the fighting within these Ministries is still rather stormy regarding the host school competing with two champions, Pat.”

“That might be true, Beetle, but despite the controversy, the task we’ll be seeing today is going to be something I think folks will remember for years to come. Let’s show our audience what they can expect to see.” The projection on the hemisphere began to move into the enclosure again and then to a smaller fenced area sitting behind it.

“The first task is going to test the champion’s courage and daring, as well as their prowess with a wand, and I can’t think of a better way to do that… than with dragons.” The crowd around Anna gasped as the picture zoomed in on four enormous dragons chained in separate corners of a square paddock behind the stadium.

“That’s right, Pat,” added the second announcer. “And these are some of the most ferocious breeds in all the Wizarding world. We understand the champions are just now finding out what their task is going to be, and which of these deadly beasts they’ll be facing.” The man shook his head and chuckled at the projector. “So… we shouldn’t be too surprised if some of our competitors are seen leaving the champion’s tent looking a little pale from shock.”

Patrick O’Shea laughed. “I think we can all forgive them for that. Unfortunately, we still don’t know what champion will be fighting which of these terrible beasts, but we will bring that information to you just as soon as it’s made available to us. We do, however, know the order of the dragons, so why don’t you lend us your expertise, Beetle, and tell our audience about them.”

The other man nodded. “The first champion will be fighting a Swedish Short-Snout.” The picture moved inside the compound containing the dragons. “I believe it’s going to be… yes… it’s the blue-gray variety.” The crowd gasped at the huge, bluish dragon, which snorted a burst of fire at the projector, causing the entire hemisphere above the stadium to fill with yellow flames.

“These beasts are sometimes hunted for their skin, which has been used in the manufacture of protective gloves and shields. In fact, there’s been a lot of discussion about placing these creatures into an intensive breeding program, much like the Romanian Longhorn, because their numbers have dropped off so drastically in recent years.

“Here’s an example where the champion had better know something about this creature before moving against it. The beast is extremely fast, and one of only two breeds that can issue fire from both its nostrils and its mouth. It has one of the hottest flames of any breed, and those horns… absolutely deadly.”

The picture moved on to the next dragon. “And now we see a Welsh Green, another native of England. This breed was once very common here in the high mountains, but has been pushed into total disillusionment by the Wizarding community due to Muggle encroachment into their natural habitat. Like most of these dragon breeds, the females are somewhat bigger and much nastier than their male counterparts, especially when they’re nesting.

“Our third beast will be the Crimson Chinese Fireball, and I have to say — I don’t envy the poor champion who draws this beast as their opponent. Of the four, this dragon is most protective of her nest, and she’s a known man-eater, Pat. Anybody getting within a thousand yards would be dead on the spot if not for the chains holding this creature back. Coming in at a little more than four tons, this scarlet colored monster is almost as venomous as the Peruvian Vipertooth,” Pat let out a long whistle in amazement, “and it’s said its eggshells are highly prized in Chinese magic.

“And, finally, we have a Hungarian Horntail.” There was a loud ‘whooooa’ heard emanating from the crowd around Anna as the projector turned to the last dragon.

“Beetle, I have to tell you, this black lizard is absolutely huge. It’s terrifying enough for me even at this distance,” said the portly man nervously.

“And for good reason, Pat. I really don’t understand what the ministry officials were thinking to bring a beast like this into the tournament — absolutely vicious, this. In all my years hunting dragons, I have always tried to wrestle myself clear of this animal. At nearly fifty feet, it’s almost as big as the Ukrainian Ironbelly, and look at that tail.” The crowd gasped as they watched the Horntail snap at its wizard handler, yowling angrily and swishing its tail forward like a spear. The horns on its head matched the bronze colored mass of ugly spikes on its tail, which shook and twitched like a rattlesnake, ready to strike at the wizard trying to control it. “This beast will eat just about anything it can get into its mouth, including goats, sheep and, whenever possible, humans.”

“I have to agree with you about this one, Beetle; she’s a killer for sure. Tell the audience what our competitors have to do today.”

“Well,” said the tall man, shaking his head almost disbelievingly, “as if it wasn’t enough just to be in the same enclosure with these creatures, believe it or not, our champions are expected to capture one of the dragon’s eggs from its nest.” The other man looked shocked.

“No… not for a million galleons, Beetle,” said the commentator, his words rolling out fearfully. “These champions have to be made of the strongest stuff to accept this kind of challenge. What do we know about them?”

Four pictures of the school champions flashed high over their heads. One of the pictures then expanded to fill the sky.

“From France, this competitor is a seventh-year senior from Beauxbatons School of Witchcraft, Fleur Delacour. Miss Delacour is said to be studying English and hopes to work for Gringotts one day.”

“When you see a beautiful young lady like this, Beetle, it makes you wonder if this tournament was taken all the necessary precautions for the champion’s safety.”

The brooding face of a dark-haired boy suddenly zoomed forward. “Viktor Krum of Bulgaria is another seventh-year student from Durmstrang Academy. You might remember Viktor, Pat. He was the Seeker on the Bulgarian National Quidditch team that played for this year’s World Cup against Ireland just a few months ago. Although Bulgaria lost that match, Mr. Krum is still a national hero in his country, and all hopes lie with him during this tournament.” Another picture zoomed forward to replace Krum.

“And here’s one of our local champions, Cedric Diggory of England. Diggory is a seventh-year senior from Hogwarts and, we understand, one of this school’s top students.”

“A handsome lad, Beetle. Let’s hope he comes through of this first task in one piece.”

“And finally,” the face of a younger boy with dark, messy hair and glasses zoomed forward above them, “we have the young man who so many people have been talking about since he was named Hogwarts’ second champion, the boy who survived You-Know-Who, Harry Potter.” The stands around Anna exploded in applause. Anna sat mesmerized at the sight of the legendary boy who had defeated Voldemort as a baby.

“He’s so young,” Eric said, looking dumbfounded. “I can’t believe they’re letting that kid go up against these dragons.” Anna nodded uneasily as the commentator continued.

“Yes, Beetle, Harry Potter might be the sentimental favorite in the Wizarding world, but the odds-makers don’t give him much of a chance, given his age and inexperience.”

“That’s right, Pat. Not only is the Potter boy lacking three years of experience compared to the other champions, but we can now report that he’s drawn the horntail for this first task. I’m afraid young Harry will find his challenge today just as difficult as his run in with You-Know-Who,” the dragon hunter said, stupidly.

“Well… Beetle, the stage is set — and our champions are ready. Let me tell the audience about our judges for today’s task.” The picture shifted to the portly commentator again with a line of five pictures below him. “Our first judge will be Mister Bartemius Crouch.” One of the pictures below zoomed forward to fill the screen. The man being projected wore an unsmiling, rather vacant expression, with clean-cut features and a thin mustache. “Mr. Crouch is England’s head of International Magical Cooperation and, we understand, one of the men we have to thank for reviving this competition for us today.”

A second face zoomed up to replace the first. “My good friend Mr. Ludo Bagman is head of England’s Department of Magical Games and Sports.” The man staring down into the stadium looked happy and jovial, and everybody laughed as his picture gave the crowd a rather mischievous little wink. “I’ve known Ludo for years, Beetle, and I’ve never seen him as excited as in the days leading up to this first task.”

An older man with a twisted goatee replaced Bagman’s picture above them. “The Headmaster of the prestigious wizarding school, Durmstrang Academy, this is Professor Igor Karkaroff. Karkaroff was also very instrumental in bringing this tournament to us. It’s said he personally participated in the early negotiations on the rules.”

Another face loomed forward. “Professor and Headmistress of Beauxbatons School of Wizardry, this is the famous Madame Maxime of France. I have to tell you, Beetle, I met the Headmistress last night for the first time, and she’s a woman who makes her presence known whenever she enters a room.” The other man laughed as a final picture came forward.

“And here, of course, is a wizard of renowned fame and our host for this competition today, the Headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Professor Albus Dumbledore.” Everybody around Anna stood and started clapping respectfully. The man in the picture looked exactly like his photograph in the newspaper that Anna had seen a few months earlier. He was a much older man with long, silvery hair and matching beard. But his age did not hide the bright twinkle in his eye, looking out through his half-moon glasses. His nodding smile was warm and gracious.

“And so — there you have it, Beetle. Our judges are ready and so are the champions. The Swedish Short-Snout is being moved into position, so I think we’re ready to start. Yes… there’s the whistle. Our first contestant can be seen exiting the champion’s tent and heading for the enclosure. Mr. Cedric Diggory of Hogwarts will be going first.”

The projector followed the boy from Hogwarts as he made his way toward the enclosure, and several dragon handlers could be seen directing his way.

“I believe Mr. Diggory looks a bit shaken, Pat, and who could blame him? The Short-Snout is an awesome beast to face by yourself, even for the best trained and fully qualified wizards. Let’s hope our first competitor is up to the job.” The crowd in Spellsburg watched nervously as Cedric Diggory walked up to the enclosure entrance where he was stopped by some of the handlers.

“At this time,” said Pat the commentator, “we’re going to turn over the spell-by-spell action to Mr. Ludo Bagman. Take it away Ludo!”

The picture switched to another portly man, standing behind a raised set of seats draped in gold. He was wearing a set of yellow and black robes that looked like they were once part of a team uniform. The man leaned over to say something to the rest of the judges sitting to his left and then brought his wand up to his throat.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the first task of the Triwizard Tournament. Our champions are ready and so are our judges. The task today, as you can see, is dragons. Each competitor must collect the golden egg from the nest below. Marks out of ten will be allotted based on their skill, wizarding knowledge and daring. So, without further delay, we’ll ask Mr. Diggory to join us.”

The gate opened and Cedric entered the enclosure. There was an explosion of loud applause given by the Hogwarts students encircling the planked fence as the seventh-year strode forward to face the Swedish Short-Snout. The boy looked extremely apprehensive, but he did not waver as he pulled out his wand and marched bravely forward. He finally stopped and, as if inspecting each and every scaly inch of the beast before him, his head slowly rose to finally face the creature. From his expression at the end, Anna could tell the dragon appeared far worse than what he had expected. He quickly looked down, trying to focus on the golden egg between the beast’s giant, clawed feet. He could see it there, almost hidden from view by the other eggs surrounding it. His nervous gaze was broken by the Short-Snout’s horned face as the dragon lowered its head to stare across the dirt at the boy. Boiling smoke and orange flecks of singe rose from its nostrils like a freshly stoked fire. The thing growled ominously at him, and Cedric jumped with a start when Ludo Bagman spoke again.

“The scoring will begin now, Mr. Diggory,” said Bagman, who then sat down in his chair and picked up his judge’s quill.

Anna was transfixed. As she watched the scene above them, a strange sensation began to sweep over her. She studied the dragon; its long, blue tail wrapped tight around the bottom of her feet to protect its precious eggs, and she could almost feel what it was thinking. Despite its reputation for being a man-eater as the man named Beetle had first described it, Anna could sense a much more complicated array of emotions coming from the creature. She squinted up at the beast in absorbed concentration. There was certainly anger, but that was something one should expect after being stunned, stuffed rudely into a crate for travel, and then awakened in a strange place surrounded by hundreds of people. It occurred to Anna that what the creature was feeling was quite understandable.

But now the beast felt threatened. It was beginning to realize what the wizard in front of her was intending to do, and it was now fearful for its brood. Under more familiar surroundings, she would have certainly killed the thing standing in front of her already, but the mother wasn’t going to leave her nest for fear the other creatures surrounding her would move in. She was trapped. Her only option was to try and scare the nasty, little egg thief away.

The dragon growled and bellowed angrily at Cedric. Puffs of black smoke snorted from its nostrils like a great steam engine engaging the screws. The beast remained low and trembled as she screeched again, twisting its head around in a wide sweeping motion to score the ground with the horns upon her massive crown. She turned upright again to glare at the boy, and Anna could feel the creature’s clear warning: Come no closer. Cedric began running to his right.

“He’s off!” Bagman yelped excitedly.

Cedric was waving his wand animatedly at the dragon in a way that suggested he didn’t have the beast’s full attention. If Anna had been with him, she would have told him that he certainly did. As soon as Cedric started to run, the dragon immediately crouched low upon her eggs and Anna could sense the fear quickly building inside the beast.

Cedric shot a blast from his wand to the right of the dragon’s head, obviously not meaning to hit it, but distract it while he turned to run the other way. The dragon quickly ducked to avoid the blast and then looked back to find the boy’s direction changed. The creature’s head trembled, reared slightly, and then shot a stream of brilliant-blue fire from its nostrils across the champion’s intersecting path. The flame was so hot that many of the students sitting in the front row leaned back in shocked surprise. Cedric dodged the blast just in time.

“Oooh, narrow miss there, very narrow. He’s taking risks, this one!” said Bagman over the now breathless crowd.

Cedric changed his direction and ran the opposite way again, all the time testing the beast’s range and closing the gap between himself and the nest. The dragon took an anxious step forward, thought better of it, and then stepped back again, turning her massive body slightly to hide her clutch from view.

“Avis!” Cedric shouted, pointing his wand at the dragon’s head. A large number of birds zoomed out of his wand and up at the dragon’s face. “Avis!” he bellowed again. Soon, dozens of birds were flying in a tight circle around the Short-Snout’s head, buzzing like a swarm of angry bees. The dragon snapped viciously at the birds and swiped at them with its deadly horns. Parts of the flock began to fall like rain upon the ground where they immediately disappeared in puffs of white smoke. But while the beast was distracted, Diggory had already made his move toward the nest. The crowd gasped as he ran courageously forward, heading straight for the dragon’s feet.

“No!” yelled Anna. “Not yet… not yet!” Eric looked at his sister and frowned. She seemed transported at what was happening above them. The dragon blew an enormous mushroom of fire over its head, and what was left of the birds was immediately consumed and turned into smoking ash. Fortunately, Cedric saw what was happening and skidded to an immediate stop. Stumbling slightly, he retreated just as the Short-Snout blasted the ground around him. Cedric barely escaped.

“Careful there! Clever move… pity it didn’t work!” yelled Bagman.

And so it went. On and on, Cedric tried to divert the towering monster with an array of spells bent on distracting its full attention away from her nest. Finally, he pointed his wand at a rock lying within the enclosure and then shouted something that transfigured the stone into a dog.

“Brilliant!” said Eric, excitedly. “The dog is a great choice to divert some of the dragon’s attention.”

He was right. The dog started barking and darting anxiously around the dragon’s feet, looking to coax and entice the beast a few steps forward. Being quicker and much more agile than Diggory, the dog was able to barter most of the dragon’s attention, as she immediately perceived it as the greater threat to its nest.

Cedric bolted forward again as the crowd held its breath. Within seconds he was beneath the beast undetected. He snatched up the golden egg and then peered out from between the dragon’s legs to find his dog prancing and yelping loudly in front. Assuming the dragon was still watching the dog, Cedric boldly dashed away from the nest in the direction opposite. Unfortunately, the dragon saw him.

Screeching madly at the thing trying to steal one of its precious eggs, the dragon stepped forward and blasted a stream of hell’s fire at the fleeing boy. Cedric leaped to the left just as the blue flames blistered passed him. The crowd stood and screamed in horror as Cedric began rolling in the dirt, clutching his face. The dog immediately rushed in. Barking frantically up at the beast, it hoped to distract it one last time. The dragon raised her foot and with an angry roar she smashed the dog flat into the ground. It lifted its foot again only to find transfigured rubble beneath, but in its final distraction, Cedric Diggory had successfully escaped. He had captured the golden egg. The stunned crowd flew into a deafening roar of delight as the handlers ran in to subdue the angry mother.

“Well done, Mr. Diggory. Very good indeed!” shouted Bagman. “And now — the marks from the judges!”

There was a pause as the judges used quill and parchment to calculate their scores. The Hogwarts students were still cheering madly at the success of their fellow classmate, as another set of handlers began to move the green dragon into the enclosure. Each of the judges then used their wands to present Cedric Diggory’s score. First came Madame Maxime, eight; then Bagman, an eight; Mister Crouch, another eight. Professor Dumbledore agreed with his fellow judges and also presented Cedric with a score of eight. Professor Karkaroff was next, a six. The Hogwarts crowd, who had been cheering enthusiastically for Cedric’s marks up to the last, started to boo and hiss bitterly at the Bulgarian Headmaster’s lower than expected score.

“So whaddya think?” Eric said, looking at his sister.

Anna didn’t exactly know what to say. Although Cedric Diggory had been impressive, she couldn’t seem to shake a more powerful sense of gloom. Rather than feeling excited about Cedric’s win… she was saddened by the dragon’s loss. She looked at her brother and shrugged.

“I guess it was good,” she said, reluctantly.

“But…?” Eric replied, half surprised by her despondent expression.

Anna looked at her brother again and smiled. Once again, he had proven very few of her true feelings ever escaped him.

“It’s just that… well… how do you feel about the way these animals are being treated?” Once more, Eric seemed surprised.

“I… don’t understand what you mean.”

“Well… I guess I’m not sure it’s necessary to task the champions at the expense of these magical creatures. They’re nesting mothers, scared and confused, and made angry by the circumstances in which they’ve been placed. Although I can see the benefits of having a tournament like this to bring the wizarding world closer together, I’m not sure I like what they’re doing with these animals.”

Eric thought for a moment, looking back up at the projection above them. He nodded. “I think I see your point,” he replied guardedly. “I see the rest of us still have a lot to learn when it comes to being a Guardian,” he said, sounding whimsical. Anna frowned as her brother turned to look up again.

“One down, three to go!” said Bagman. “Miss Delacour, if you please!”

A girl in pale blue robes and long silvery hair entered the enclosure. She took three steps on the dirt-strewn field and stopped cold. Her wide eyes looked up in horrified wonder at the green, bellowing monster standing before her. The creature was rocking and stomping nervously over her nest of brown eggs flecked with green. The girl could see the golden egg lying atop the rest as she slowly pulled out her wand.

The race to the egg began, and Anna and Eric were rather shocked at the aggressive nature of the girl’s attack. While Cedric had used magic as a distraction to get to his egg, Delacour was much more direct. She shot a stunning spell at the beast as she marched forward, looking as if she intended to plow straight through the beast with only the force of her will. Her hex hit the dragon in the neck, which sent the creature into a frenzy of howling snorts.

“Oh, no!” gasped Anna.

“Oh I’m not sure that was wise!” shouted Ludo Bagman.

The dragon reared back to emit an almost surprising song-like roar, and then fell low to blast two thin jets of fire that seemed to accelerate as they merged together into one.

“My God, she’s too close,” Anna screamed, burying her face into her brother’s shoulder.

Fleur saw the fire coming and immediately waved her wand in a wide circle in front of her body just as the flames enveloped her. The crowd screamed in panic, but the girl had managed to conjure a shielding charm that kept her from being turned to ash. The force of the blow sent her reeling ten feet backward onto the ground.

“Oh . . . nearly!” yelled Bagman. Careful now… good lord, I thought she’d had it then!”

For ten full minutes, Fleur ran around the arena shooting an array of spells at the dragon, intent on forcibly moving her off the nest, but all she seemed to be doing was enraging the creature more. Anna could feel the beast’s temper rising to near blinding levels. She wanted to scream at the girl to stop what she was doing, that she was close to a rage beyond her ability to control. The beast was about to reach out with a fury rarely matched anywhere in the magical world and put an end to Delacour’s short life.

The dragon shook its head in a wild, almost insane fury, and then bellowed a hideous roar toward the sky. The mother spread her enormous, bright-green wings and then leapt forward. It flapped once, hit the end of the chain wrapped around its neck, and then landed with an earthshaking boom on the ground just twenty feet from the girl. Some of the handlers began to run in as Fleur screamed, stumbled backward, and then fell to the ground. She screamed again as the creature’s jaws swooped down at her. In desperation, she pointed her wand at the beast and shrieked out what she thought would surely be her last spell. A jet of blue light shot from her wand and hit the dragon directly in the eyes. The beast bellowed angrily as its head snapped back. It straightened, stumbled, and turned. It shook its great head and then stretched its neck to look longingly back at its nest again. The dragon wobbled forward, lurched back, and then staggered again, rubbing at its now tired eyes with one of its massive wings.

“Get the egg, Fleur. Get the egg!” yelled some of the students in the stands beyond the fence. There were shouts in French by her fellow classmates who were also now pointing at the open nest.

The girl quickly got to her feet and ran around the dragon toward the eggs. The giant seemed too sleepy to stand and just managed to save itself twice from toppling over. It looked like a punch-drunk, lumbering tower ready to fall. Raising its head high into the air, it let out a short roar, almost like a bark, turned, and then blew an enormous ball of fire down at the ground as if to clear its sinuses before a long nap.

Red and yellow flames exploded as they hit the ground and then spread in a wide circle around the dragon’s scaled feet. The girl was almost at the nest when she saw the inferno coming at her. She shouted something in French and then dove headlong into the nest of eggs just as the flash reached her. The crowd screamed in horror as they watched Fleur frantically conjuring several water spells to douse the flames on her robes.

When the girl had finished putting out the fire, she peered fearfully over the edge of the nest to stare up at the dragon again. She found it shaking its head, trying to throw off the sleeping hex the girl had used to save her life. Knowing she only had a few seconds before the dragon rushed back to its nest, Fleur stooped down rather indifferently and picked up her prize.

“Excellent!” yelled Bagman. “She has the egg!”

The crowd rolled into relieved applause, as the handlers rushed in to subdue the dragon. They quickly moved the beast back to her nest where the mother coiled herself into a ball to sleep. They then carefully placed her with the other dragons behind the enclosure.

There was another long pause while the judges worked on the girl’s marks. Madame Maxime was the first to lift her wand high. A long-bright and steely ribbon shot into the air, forming itself into the number nine. Bagman, Crouch and Dumbledore quickly followed with matching scores of eight. Professor Karkaroff, another six. Polite applause from the Hogwarts students followed Fleur Delacour as she exited the enclosure with her egg tucked under her arm and the whistle cut the morning air once again.

“And here comes Mr. Krum!” said Bagman, happily. Viktor Krum slouched in to face the scarlet, smooth-scaled, Chinese Fireball. The creature’s protuberant eyes narrowed evilly as it surveyed the boy in blood-red robes. It snorted a warning at Krum, billowing two large, mushroomed shaped balls of fire from its nose that wrapped in spiraled rings around the golden spikes encircling the fringe of its head. Its snub-snouted face almost disappeared entirely as the beast opened its mouth wide to issue forth a horrible, shrieking wail. Spit dripped from its fangs and spattered the ground in fiery pools of yellow stench.

The boy from Bulgaria looked unimpressed. He marched forward and Anna felt the knots in her stomach clinch once again. The boy whipped his wand around over his head and with an animated, dance-like skip he cast a spell forward with the force of his entire body.

“Aсоциирам 3апалване!” he shouted, in his native tongue. The hex shot forward, but the dragon dodged it easily. It let out a quick burst of flame in reply, which slowed quickly before rising as a black ball of smoke well short of Krum.

“The Fireball doesn’t seem to have the range of some of the other dragons,” Eric surmised, optimistically.

Anna glared fearfully up at her brother. “Don’t be fooled,” she said, knowingly. Once again, Eric was surprised by Anna’s seemingly experienced assumptions.

“Oh, very daring!” yelled Bagman, as the Bulgarian, showing incredible quickness, easily dodged another burst of fire from the beast. Although not exactly fast on his feet, the boy’s reactions were incredible as he dove, rolled, and then popped to his feet again to cast another spell forward. He was concentrating on the nest between the creature’s feet as he weaved around the dragon, looking for the golden egg among its crimson brothers. He was closing in, acknowledging the range of the beast as he circled.

Suddenly, Anna stood and yelled out, “Get back — get back, now!”

Krum saw it too. The beast stepped forward; this time narrowing its sights, it knew the boy had been tricked into coming into range. Krum turned to run just as the dragon let loose a tremendous ball of fire twice the size of anything before. The crowd screamed as Krum darted to the left to escape. He then turned and fired again.

“Aсоциирам 3апалване!” This time his aim was true. The hex hit the beast directly in the eyes and the dragon pitched back and bellowed in shocked agony.

“It looks like a Bulgarian version of a Conjunctivitis Curse,” said Eric, who started to applaud with the rest of the stadium. “He’s going for the egg!”

Sure enough, Krum was running to the left and then behind the beast toward the piled sticks and branches.

“That’s some nerve he’s showing — and — yes, he’s got the egg!” yelled Bagman, over the cheering crowd. But they could all see Krum was still in great danger. The dragon was stomping in agony around the boy, stepping on some of the crimson-gold, speckled eggs in the nest as it howled in pain.

“No!” Anna and Eric yelled together as they leaped to their feet.

“The eggs –– get the eggs,” Eric shouted pleadingly at the projection above them. The handlers ran in and immediately levitated the rest of the eggs out of the nest before the mother could destroy them all. Eric dropped heavily into his seat and then slumped over his knees in frustration. “Damn it…” he groaned, despondently. He looked over at Anna who was crying. “This… is so wrong. The entire nest could have been destroyed,” he said somberly.

“The eggs…” Anna sobbed miserably. Eric wrapped his arm around his sister in an attempt to comfort her. “Lost…lost…” she moaned. She could see the broken pieces of shell in her mind, the half formed and grayish embryos strewn upon the ground. Everything smashed.

“I understand what you were trying to say, Anna. I really do. Our first public action as Guardians will be to submit a protest about this task to the responsible Ministries as soon as possible.”

As the crowd around them callously cheered on, the judges began working on Krum’s score. Soon, ribbons of silver were shooting into the air once again. Professor Karkaroff was first this time. Unsurprisingly to everyone, he gave his Bulgarian student a ten. Dumbledore and Bagman gave Viktor scores of eight, Crouch and Madame Maxime, apparently unhappy at the loss of the Chinese Fireball’s eggs, issued forth scores of seven.

The whistle sounded again after the handlers had moved the Horntail into position, and a skinny boy with glasses stepped through the gap in the fence. Anna pulled in a calming breath, wiped her face, and looked up to stare at the boy. To her surprise, she thought he was very average looking; somebody who would blend into a crowd easily if you didn’t know who he was, and what he had done for the Wizarding world in defeating the most terrible dark wizard in the last one hundred years. But Harry Potter was about to tackle a dragon more terrible than anything the stadium had seen that day, and Anna found herself desperately fearful for the boy’s life.

The reaction from the crowd in Spellsburg when Harry stepped through the fence was a blast of enormous applause. The English commentators were right; Potter was definitely the sentimental favorite today. But to Anna’s surprise, the reaction from the crowd in Hogwarts seemed rather muted in comparison. Unlike the Diggory boy, who had received tremendous applause from his fellow classmates, Potter only seemed to be gathering the praise from a very small section of the crowd.

“Are some of the students over there booing him?” asked Eric, staring up at the projection in disbelief. They definitely were. Anna could hear the jeers and catcalls coming from Hogwarts, but the crowd soon went quiet as Harry stepped in front of the Horntail who was crouched low over the nest, her yellow eyes narrowing under a scaly-furrowed brow.

Anna reached out with her mind to touch the creature and her tears were immediately replaced with terrified wonder. She could sense a rage unlike any other in this beast. In sharp contrast to the rest of the dragons, this one didn’t seem to care about being encircled by the crowd outside the enclosure. From the very beginning, the creature’s attention was fully focused on Harry Potter. It unfurled its huge, bat-like wings, blowing itself up to scare off the thing approaching her nest. It let out a tremendous scream, and Anna could see the crowd at Hogwarts covering their ears at the high-pitched and screeching blast. Its bronze-colored, spiked tail whipped about to thrash the ground like a moat around her.

Suddenly, a cold wave of fear came crashing down in Anna’s mind and she immediately knew this beast was far different than its cousins. Its inner spirit was almost primeval and much more vicious. But the most terrifying thing about this one was knowing she would abandon her nest in a fight. The wall that defined her both as a predator and a protector was much thinner here and, if pushed to the wall, the rage that filled her heart would propel her through any maternal instincts, to kill at any cost.

Potter stood looking at the beast and, for a moment, Eric thought this would be as far as he would go in approaching the nest. This young fourth-year was too scared to move… and who could blame him? He was nothing more than a meal to this creature, a blundering fool approaching the dinner plate.

Potter raised his wand and yelled something that projected his genuine state of mind. He wasn’t frozen in fear at all, but in a high state of concentration.

“Accio Firebolt!” he shouted.

“What? What’d he say?” somebody behind Anna asked.

“A summoning charm of some kind,” said another voice to her left.

Potter waited with his wand in his outstretched hand, as if not quite sure of what he was doing, or if what he was planning would even work. Moments passed by like hours as the noise from the crowd both at Hogwarts and Spellsburg grew into a steady rumble. Anna could see several people gathering around the odds-makers in yellow, looking to hedge their final bets. She frowned irritably, agreeing with Doctor Pearl: What these men did was disgusting.

Potter suddenly dropped his arm and looked around. A single broom was now flying into view from around the trees. It rose into the air, cleared the enclosure fence, and then streaked its way toward the boy, stopping exactly next to him. The crowd around Anna cheered loudly.

“Well I’ll be; Potter’s got a broom,” Bagman yelled. “Now there’s some steely cunning out of our young champion. Let’s see what he can do.”

Potter swung his leg over the broom and kicked off. He did a half turn and then, like a cannon delivering its calling to the open sky, he shot straight up. Instantly, the projection above Vollucross stadium split itself in two; one side of the hemisphere followed Potter streaking high above the crowd, and the other showed the dragon stretching its long-scaly neck to follow him.

“I don’t know about this,” Eric said, appraisingly. “His tactics are sound; he can move about the dragon in three planes instead of just two… but I don’t understand how he expects to get to the nest while riding on a broom.

Anna agreed. What was Potter doing?

Harry did a couple of circles high above the dragon and then quickly dove. In an instant he was level with the beast again and the dragon’s yellow eyes honed in, marking him for death. Its massive head fell back and then jerked forward. It roared fire in one long and continuous streak of orange into Potter’s oncoming path. But the boy seemed to know what the dragon was about to do, which made his effort to avoid the blast look easy. The stream of fire missed him entirely and trailed off in a river of blackened smoke.

“Great Scott, he can fly!” yelled Bagman. “Are you watching this, Mr. Krum?”

Potter was circling just out of range of the dragon whose neck was twisting itself like a coiled rope as it followed his every move. Then the Horntail dipped and, in less than a second, spun its head three complete revolutions to unravel itself before glaring up at Harry again. In that brief moment, Eric thought there might have been an opening to make a move at the nest.

But that wouldn’t be enough time, Eric thought worriedly. Besides, how could the boy hope to get to the eggs on a broom?

Potter turned and dove again, but this time the Horntail’s reaction to the boy was shifting away from simply scaring him off. It wanted him; it wanted to hunt him.

For most in the crowd, Anna saw them as almost blind to the possibility that something terrible was about to happen, but she understood why. Even Anna could feel the draw of complicated emotions herself; the internal struggle between that of hoping to see something electrifying out of this deadly struggle, and the more prudent hope that the boy wouldn’t get himself killed. There was a palatable, almost delicious tension, as the beast reared back once more intent on turning the boy into ash. The crowd cringed as the head of the creature trembled to draw in a lungful of air; its eyes narrowing like a snake looking to strike.

But then Anna’s sensed something else. Maybe it was the way the beast moved, or the sudden shift of its weight to one side. At once, Anna’s attention slid away from its now thrusting head and redirected itself to….

“The tail…” she mumbled under her breath.

The dragon let loose another blast of fire and then dropped its shoulders into the direction of Potter’s flight.

“The tail!” Anna yelled.

The spiked-end of the Horntail suddenly whipped forward. The boy swerved left only in the nick of time just as one of the bronze spikes grazed his shoulder. There were a number of intermingled screams as the crowd in both stadiums groaned as one.

“Oh… now… that was too close! Careful there…” warned Bagman, who was now standing and nervously swaying in time with Potter’s every move.

Anna closed her eyes and reached out, the fingers of her mind probing the dragon’s thoughts. “Potter’s been injured. Not badly… but the dragon knows he’s hurt,” Anna said knowingly. She looked at Eric again who was frowning down at her. “There’s blood in the air… the dragon can smell it.”

“Anna, how can you possibly know…?” Eric started to ask, but he was cut off my Bagman’s voice once again.

“Keep your wits about you, careful!”

Harry was now circling around the giant’s head, just out of range of its fire, but still… close enough to be a threat. The creature’s yellow eyes narrowed as she reached up to snap at him with her outstretched jaws. Anna could see her slowly rising higher off the nest as she straightened her knees. She snapped again, more out of frustration than knowing she could get to the thing flying above her. Her head swayed left and right, stretching her long neck still higher.

Anna could feel the frustration burning within the beast. She meant to have him, this nasty little thing taunting her. The dragon stretched her neck as far as it could go. He was there… right there; if she lunged she could take him. Her knees slowly bent to make the jump, but then, he suddenly was too high, too far again out of her reach. The creature rose and roared in provoked frustration, blasting fire again at her tormentor.

Anna could sense the creature was at her limit of motherly protection. No longer a sentinel of her brood, she was now exactly what she was born to be, a hunter and a killer. Her jaws opened wide to emit a horrible, deafening screech. She had been pushed to her limit; she had reached the wall of her given restraint.

The dragon suddenly spread its arms wide like some horrific demon. She was as broad as she was tall with her black, leathery wings unfurled to full. She leaped into the air, throwing her wings downward to sustain her great weight, and that’s when it happened. In the blink of an eye, Potter dived, falling faster than a rock hurled at the ground.

Eric grabbed Anna this time, “He wouldn’t… he can’t… he’s going for it!” he yelled in amazement.

The crowd screamed as Potter suddenly turned just when they thought he was going to crash and then streaked in the direction of the creature’s nest just inches above the ground. After watching him dance and weave for so long just out of reach of the beast’s jaws, all were amazed at this sudden burst of speed and pinpoint accuracy toward his target. He was suddenly under the beast. He slowed, grabbed the golden egg, and before the mother could realize where her tormentor had gone, he was off — zooming up behind the dragon high into the air again and the crowd exploded into jubilant applause. And this time Anna joined them in astonished wonder. Potter was amazing, incredible, and she couldn’t help noticing nearly everybody at Hogwarts was now clapping and yelling for Harry just as they had done earlier for the boy they called Diggory.

“Look at that!” Bagman was yelling. “Will you look at that? Our youngest champion is quickest to get his egg! Well, this is going to shorten the odds on Mr. Potter!”

Harry finally landed and was instantly surrounded by a number of happy teachers, including a heavy-bearded man who was every bit as large as the giant, crimson-cloaked guard that had chased Anna through the halls of Castlewood. The dragon keepers rushed forward to calm the Horntail and settle her down over her eggs again. The beast pushed her clutch around with the horn of her nose as if counting her loses, while Bagman’s voice boomed over the crowd once again.

“And how about a hand for all of our champions. Oh, absolutely brilliant! Really… well done!” The crowds cheered boisterously in agreement. “We’ll send Potter in to see the healers while the judges work on his marks.”

Ten minutes later, Harry Potter reentered the enclosure, which was now empty of dragons and full of happy students. A redheaded boy standing next to Potter was directing his view toward the judges. Madame Maxime raised her wand in the air and the number eight appeared over her head. The redheaded boy nodded happily and smacked Harry on his undamaged shoulder. Crouch and Dumbledore’s score – nine; the crowds in the stands around Anna cheered. Bagman’s score – a ten; the odds-makers in Spellsburg could be seen waving off Bagman’s mark in frustration; obviously they thought it too high. Finally Karkaroff raised his wand and when the number four shot into the air, the crowd in both stadiums booed angrily.

Anna looked at the men in yellow and could see their angry expressions. It was the worst possible result for them. The sentimental favorite had beaten all the odds and won. And the many who were now surrounding the men with their little slips of parchment would celebrate a toast Harry Potter tonight with the odds-makers’ profits.

“I don’t believe it!” Eric said, excitedly. The Potter kid did it. He actually tied for first place… really, very impressive.”

For the first time during the tournament, Anna smiled. “He was a very good flier, wasn’t he?” Eric was nodding his agreement.

But Anna was far more impressed with Potter’s ability to do well without having to hex the dragon or damage its nest, and she knew that if she ever had an opportunity to meet this boy face to face, she would tell him how much she appreciated that.

The commentators broke in again. “Well, there you have it, Beetle. Our first task is complete. What did you think?” asked O’Shea, still speaking into his wand.

The other man was smiling and shaking his head satisfactorily. “I have to tell you, Pat, I thought the contestants did surprisingly well. Very well, indeed. They were aggressive when they needed to be, and smart enough to keep from getting seriously injured. The three schools represented here have to be proud of their champions.”

“I agree. And what did you think of Potter using a broom instead of his wand to get to his egg?”

“I thought it was brilliant. It allowed him to get to his egg in the shortest amount of time even though he was unfortunate enough to draw the Horntail.”

“So –– let’s review the marks for our audience,” said Pat. The four pictures of the champions were shown with their scores. “Tied for first place are the Bulgarian, Viktor Krum, and Harry Potter of Hogwarts — with forty points each. In second place is Miss Delacour of France with thirty-nine, and Cedric Diggory of Hogwarts is in third, just one point behind, with thirty-eight. What do you think of the marks, Beetle?”

“I thought they were reasonably fair, Pat. Perhaps Krum’s score was a little high, given the damage he caused to his dragon’s nest, and I think the Bulgarian judge was a little harsh on some of the other champions. But, overall, I think the final positions coming out of the first task were correct.”

Pat nodded in agreement. “We’ve now been told that the second task will be held on February twenty-fourth, and we hope to tell our audiences what the champions will be doing just as soon as those details are made available to us. So… on behalf of my colleague, Beetle Mantooth, this is Patrick O’Shea, signing off from Hogwarts. We’ll see you again in February for the second task. Good evening, everybody.”

And with these final words the Vollucross Hemisphere began to fade, and the appreciative spectators in Spellsburg continued their thunderous applause well after it had gone completely black.


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