Christmas at the Graysons: For those who knew the family for many years, it was something they looked forward to by special invitation. For Anna, it was always a magical time long before she knew of the workings of witches or wizards. It was the time of year when everything in their busy lives finally seemed to slow and take into account their many blessings, and for the first time in her life Anna found herself wanting for nothing. Her dreams of going to Castlewood had come true. She had made several new friends and revived her friendship with Gwen; she had discovered more about her mother in the last few months than in all of her years before; she was with her father and her family, and she was home. It was more than enough.
Still, there was a strange longing left in her heart after her fall in the Shadowed Forest. Like a lost-love unforgotten, she found herself aching for something far off and unattainable. It was the lullaby that had brought these deep feelings of desire out of her; the mysterious, soft hum in her mind she first remembered hearing while recovering in the hospital. It had come to her several times since then, invading her sleep like a gentle haunting. The voice was familiar, the words echoing and tender, as if sung from some lonely and deserted heart. As troubling as the song was to her, Anna always longed to hear it again in the moments before dropping off to sleep, and found her spirit continually disappointed at the dawn if it did not come.
In the years going back as far as Anna could remember, Christmas Eve was celebrated in the stone chapel on the Grayson estate. The interior of that holy place, half buried like a grotto, was different in its setting and decoration every year, but always beautiful. Mister Grayson never trusted these holiday preparations to Widwick or Gabby, but insisted the details be left to him alone. There was always a steady buildup of anticipation in the children as they watched their father leave to prepare the chapel in the mornings leading up to Christmas. Inevitably, each of them would take a turn trying to sneak undetected into the site with the hope of stealing some preview of his joyous work. However, they never succeeded. One by one, each would be caught creeping toward the chapel only to be chased off with ruthless dispatch by the most powerful wizard on the mountain.
This Christmas would be no different; only the children’s level of cunning and determination had changed. They decided to band together this year, equating their plans for conquest in much the same way Professor Van Doorn had defined success in a mountaineering expedition: the success of one meant victory for all.
Eric believed an act of distraction might lead to their getting one of them inside the chapel before the allotted time, and so the children set to work. While Eric and Anna kept their father busy on the other side of the mountain, searching for the family Christmas tree, the other children made their way through the woods in three different directions and then circled back to converge on the chapel. Their strategy had worked to perfection, and by the time the Christmas tree was standing upright in the Grayson family room, Eric and Anna were smiling gleefully in anticipation of their siblings’ success.
Suddenly there were flustered screams of panic at the kitchen door and the sound of approaching footsteps. Eric and Anna stood and stared in stunned amazement as Tencha and Dowla burst into the family room howling at the top of their lungs. There were thin, root-like tentacles protruding out of their cheeks and welts like woody knots bulging from their neck and foreheads. Anna covered her mouth in shock, trying desperately not to laugh.
“Look at us!” Tencha yelled. “I’m turning into a shrub!”
“Daddy, what is this? Make it stop… make it stop!” hollered Dowla, who started to sprout a leafy branch from one of her nostrils.
“Oh dear…” Mister Grayson said in mocked surprise. “What could you have possibly done to cause this?”
“It was you!” Dowla screamed, stomping her foot in frustration. “I saw you near the chapel — hexing us from behind that tree!”
Their father looked taken aback. “I…? But I wasn’t there, my dear,” he said in a faked put-upon voice. “As you can see –– I was tending to the joys of Christmas.” He pointed to the large tree standing in the corner, still wet from the morning cold.
“It was you!” Tencha yelled, pointing an accusing finger.
There was another bang as the front door burst open and the family could hear Cookie cackling with delight in the next room. “What in tar-nation happen’d to ya, boy?” laughed the ghost. “You look a might light on yer feet. Ha-ha-ha-ho-ho-ha, snort.”
There was something of glass crashing, and a series of bumping-thumping sounds traveling through the hallway. Mister Grayson quietly sat down in his favorite chair by the fire without a care, it seemed, to ascertain the reason for the commotion in the next room. Then the doorway was unexpectedly filled by Damon who was floating like a balloon across the threshold with a look of stress-filled pain on his face. He reached out to grab the knob of the door with one hand and the underside of the table nearest him with the other, and then used both to pull his hovering feet down to the floor. He seemed to be ducking and twisting his head around, trying to avoid something buzzing madly over his shoulder. He released the table to swat at the thing and instantly found himself rising off the floor again.
“What in the world?” shrieked Anna, cupping her cheeks in disbelief.
“Would you please…” Damon sneered contemptuously, “get this thing away from me?” Struggling himself to the floor once more, he made another angry swipe at a tiny, creature-like insect buzzing like a small bee above his head. The little pest was a vivid blue, about an inch in length, with minute wings attached to the top of its head that spun in a whizzing blur. It darted over one ear to avoid Damon’s swat, zoomed around his nose, and then turned to zip into his neck. It gave off a loud fizzzz as it struck.
“Ouch!” Damon cried out, smacking himself on the neck again. The moment he was stuck, Damon’s feet began to rise off the floor once more.
“What is it?” yelled Tencha, pulling away the growing roots to the side of her face so she could look out.
“It’s a billywig,” Eric said, amusingly. He looked at his father and smiled.
“Is it, now…?” Mister Grayson said, looking at Damon in false surprise. “Well… I wonder where that came from. You know, it’s said that billywigs are native to Australia, but there have been stories about them guarding magical places against trespassers when enticed with the proper food and habitat.” He grinned amusingly. “Their sting is said to cause uncontrollable levitation.”
“Ouch!” Damon was still swatting at the little creature whose propeller-like wings were spinning its body like a top. Damon’s feet began to hover once more. He made a grab at the doorknob again, missed, and began to float toward the ceiling, hitting his head with a dull thud on one of the beams. The menacing little billywig, spinning and buzzing angrily, continued to chase after him.
“Nasty little devils, aren’t they?” said their father, who started to crack under the pressure of holding in his amusement. The children started to giggle as Mister Grayson’s serious façade completely broke down.
“Get me down!” Damon roared, angrily.
Slapping Eric on the back and laughing, Mister Grayson pointed at Damon bobbing up and down against the ceiling, “It would seem your brother is in for a very happy Christmas after all.”
“Why would you say that?” asked Eric, trying with all his might not to laugh at his brother.
Their father leaned in. “Well… another side effect of the billywig’s sting is uncontrollable fits of giddiness.” Mister Grayson looked up at Damon again and smiled. “He might look angry now… but he should be properly merry within the hour.” The family suddenly erupted into irrepressible howls of laughter.
Christmas Eve was everything the children had expected it would be - wonderful. At eleven o’clock and wearing their best holiday robes, the family made their way down the wooded path toward the chapel, each carrying a simple candle that seemed magically oblivious to the biting evening breeze. Widwick lead the group. He was dressed in a shortened red jumper and hose, and covered in a white outer garment that belonged to his father and his grandfather before him. He carried a gnarled staff of wood, which he used as a walking stick. Gabby was following the family in a white dress and matching leggings. Cookie floated far behind, looking back and grumbling aloud about having to leave the house unguarded. The closer they came to the chapel, the more the path in front of them brightened by the light of tiny pixies and forest fairies. Along the way, they were met by the Porchdow family with two of their nine children who had come to visit their parents for the holiday.
“Merry Christmas, Samuel,” said Mister Grayson, shaking the stable master’s hand.
“And to you, sir. You remember my son John and my daughter Emile, of course,” Mr. Porchdow said, motioning to his children.
“Of course. We’re so happy you could join us. It’s wonderful to see you again. Edith, you look absolutely stunning tonight.” Mrs. Porchdow smiled broadly in her satin robes of powder blue, and returned Mister Grayson’s compliment with a formal dip of thanks.
Several ghosts singing Silent Night joined them as they continued down the path, and when the chapel finally came into view, everyone gasped in surprise. The structure seemed almost alive with tongues of flame, silver, and gold, outlining the stone archway above the entrance. The front doors were open, emitting rays of heavenly light from within, and when they finally entered everybody agreed Mister Grayson had outdone himself as never before in all the years past.
What looked like a simple stone structure pushed into the side of the hill from the outside, opened into a magnificent cathedral within. Portraits from both the Grayson and Porchdow families lined the walls, filled with happy faces waving excitedly down at them. Fairy light filled the ceiling above, filling the room with a golden radiance. Twisted garland was wrapped around marble pillars strung with glass. The bobbles were filled with colored flame that winked and sparkled as far as the eye could see. There were tapestries depicting scenes of miracles past, and saintly statues lit with a brilliance that only the fairies could provide. A white alter sat to the front of the church below an ornate cross of gold. A large marble fireplace was set to the inside of the entranceway, emitting flames of emerald green that bloomed with a WHOOSE as wizards and witches came forward to join the midnight celebration. The Grayson children fell in line next to their father and shook hands with everybody who entered the magnificent church.
“Merry Christmas, Daniel,” said Mister Grayson to a stout man dressed in magnificent robes of red and gold. The man’s wife had her arm looped in his as they entered, and Anna could hear her gasp in surprise when she looked up into the space around them.
“Oh Boris… how marvelous,” the woman whispered, touching his arm.
A flash of green behind them blazed hot as another couple stepped into the church. A tall witch with silver hair and a dazzling gown with red and gold embroidery, stepped across the hearth holding her husband’s hand. Anna heard Damon gasp this time, and then saw him bump Eric toward the couple. Eric looked at him and smiled back eagerly. The woman shook Mister Grayson’s hand and then motioned him toward her husband next to her. Mister Grayson then casually turned to his family.
“These are my children,” he said, proudly. “Eric, Damon, Tencha, Dowla and my youngest, Anna.” The woman bowed to them respectfully, before locking her eyes upon Anna.
“Such a lovely family, Boris,” she said, still staring at the youngest Grayson.
“Attention Graysons,” their father barked, “I would like to introduce the Minister of Magic, the gracious Helawena Barkelnap.” Anna’s mouth dropped. The Minster of Magic? She began to nervously smooth her robes as the Minister made her way down the line, shaking each of the children’s hands in turn. “And her husband,” Mister Grayson continued, “the Director and American Representative to the International Magical Cooperation, Mr. Bernard Barkelnap.”
“Good to see you again, Boris. Merry Christmas to you and your family,” said Mr. Barkelnap jovially.
The Minister of Magic stepped in front of Anna. “So, I understand from speaking to your father that you have started your studies this year at Castlewood.” Anna was taken aback. She hadn’t expected to speak to the Minister of Magic.
“Uh… yes, ma’am,” she replied simply. She looked at her father who was beaming with pride.
“Are you fully recovered then from your recent injuries?” asked the Minister. Anna was almost struck dumb.
“My — what? Ohhh… yeah… I mean… yes, ma’am. I am, thank you.”
“Oh, Boris. She is so lovely. The perfect image of Victoria,” the Minister said, giving Anna’s chin the slightest pinch.
Anna almost gasped out loud as the woman turned to gather in her husband. She knew Victoria Grayson? She knew my mother? Anna almost reached out thinking to ask, but the Minister was soon surrounded by a number of Ministry officials who were all trying to escort her down the center isle to a seat next to them.
As the midnight hour approached, the Christmas service finally began. There was a choir dressed in satin robes of white, singing the holiday favorites in Latin. A ghost named Friar Dannon was wrapped in a hooded robe and delivered the readings to the assembly, and then a sermon on the brotherhood of man –– Wizard and Muggle alike.
At the end of the evening, the family bid their visitors farewell and then returned to the manor filled with an exuberance that only Christmas could bring. They stayed up late into the morning decorating the Christmas tree before resigning themselves to a few hours of sleep before the dawn.
As the morning sun cleared the eastern rise, the family was awakened again by the manor portraits singing Hark the Harold Angels Sing, and before the last stanza had echoed its way through the house, the Graysons were together again in the family room adding their voices in song.
Soon, they were grabbing at the gifts under the tree, and wildly ripping at their wrappings. Anna opened a large box from Eric, which contained a complete volume set of the writings of Merlin. She noticed one of the books with a marked page and opened it to a chapter on the Guardians. She looked at Eric and smiled.
“I get dibs after you,” he said, with a grin.
The twins had gone together this year, and gave Anna a beautiful black evening cloak with a purple velvet collar and extra pockets in the lining. “If you have to wear that awful purple color, you might as well try and be a bit more stylish,” Tencha bristled, appraisingly. Anna thanked them. If for nothing else, she did envy her sister’s excellent taste in clothing, something she refused to acknowledge to anybody in public. Holding up the cloak, she considered herself lucky. It was much better than the terrible pink sweater they had given her the year before. Anna watched in amusement as the twins hugged each other for the earrings they had bought for themselves and given to one another to wrap.
“Ohhh, you have such wonderful taste!” they sang in unison.
Damon had given Anna another book. The Proper Way to Duel, by Wandella Spellish. At least Damon had finally accepted the fact that Anna was in the dueling club to stay. As she paged through the book’s chapter on proper stances, Mister Grayson sat next to her and pushed a small box under her gaze. The box was wrapped in silver paper and a sparkle-red bow.
Anna looked up and grinned. “What’s this?” she cooed, eagerly.
“Something very special I wanted you to have,” he replied in a rather mysterious tone. He leaned back to pick up his tea, and then peered apprehensively at her over its rim as he sipped. Anna knew that look well. This was going to be something special. She carefully unwrapped the gift and found a wooden box sitting neatly in the palm of her hand. Eric noticed the package immediately.
“I’d watch out if I were you, Anna. You know what Father’s ‘little boxes’ can sometimes do,” he said, with a chuckle. Anna smiled and opened the lid. Inside, she found a simple cross of gold with a green emerald mounted in its center.
“Oh, daddy…” Anna lifted the delicate chain from the box, “it’s beautiful.” She held the adornment up to the window and could see the light reflecting into her eyes through the back of the gem. It was dazzling. She hugged her father. “It’s really very lovely.” Her father held her tight in his arms.
“It belonged to your mother,” he said, setting her back and taking the chain from her hand. “Here, let me…” he whispered, undoing the fragile clasp and holding it up to her. Anna stared at him in disbelief, and then turned to pull her hair away from her neck where he carefully connected the two ends back together. Anna gazed down at the cross of gold in marveled wonder. Tiny whispers began to sing unnoticed through her mind as she studied the simple gilding and beaded stone.
“Your mother always said next to her faith and her family this was her most cherished possession. I wanted to wait until you could fully appreciate what it meant to her before passing it on.” Her father looked longingly at the necklace as if unsure he wanted to let it go. Anna took his hands in hers and pressed them lovingly against her cheek.
“Thank you, daddy. I know how much it must mean to you. I’ll wear it, always.”
He softly stroked her hair and nodded. “It looks beautiful on you. It matches your eyes.”
The rest of the day was spent laughing and remembering the many holidays past. As always, Uncle Sarasil joyfully retold the story of their father’s fifth Christmas when he was caught sneaking out of bed in an attempt to steal an early peek at his presents. Apparently, their grandfather had sent him screaming back up the staircase with his buttocks in flames.
Two days later, Doctor Pearl joined the family for dinner and allowed Mister Grayson the opportunity to lavish his praise upon her under several raised glasses of his finest wine. Even in her giggling-tipsy state, the good doctor was able to confirm Mister Grayson’s admiration well placed when she was able to brew an anti-billywig concoction to relieve Damon of his barking fits of laughter.
The celebration continued to draw old friends to the estate throughout the remaining days of the holiday, and Anna and her father spent their evenings looking through the family archives and pictures. A wedding day photograph of her mother and father confirmed why everybody kept saying Anna looked so much like Victoria. It was uncanny. The moving photographs made Anna feel like she was watching an older version of herself in some happy future yet to come.
When Anna asked her father about the comments the Minister of Magic had made about her mother, she was surprised by his reply.
“Because the Minister is… your mother’s aunt,” he said, informatively. “Her maiden name was Helawena Meliflua, your Grandmother’s sister.” Mister Grayson’s eyes rolled up to think, “I guess that makes you… the Minister’s grand niece.” Her father laughed as Anna’s mouth dropped. “If I remember correctly, your grandmother used to call her sister Helen most of the time. The Minister married very late in life, and had no children of her own. She kind of adopted Victoria after your grandmother passed away. Victoria used to stay with Helen in England during her summer breaks away from Castlewood. This was long before Helen became the American Minister of Magic, of course. She used to hold the Director’s post in the Department of International Magical Cooperation, and was our acting ambassador to England at that time.”
“Isn’t that the post Mr. Barkelnap holds now?” Anna asked him.
“That’s right. In fact, that’s where Helen first met Bernard. Clever boy, old Bernie, always knew how to take advantage of the obvious opportunities surrounding him,” her father chuckled. “He married quite well, wouldn’t you say?”
The next day, Anna and Apollo reached the Jennings’ ruins just as the sun was making its final decent below the distant horizon. The evening clouds were purple with subtle hues of bright pink blushing against the remaining sky. The smell of the old house reminded Anna of a smoldering campfire. The sharp smell of latent smoke was always heavy during the wet weather.
Anna slid down the side of Apollo’s saddle to the spongy ground and dropped his reins. She patted the horse on the neck and gave him a hug. “I really missed you, you know…” she told him lovingly. Apollo raised his head to lip her on the forehead and she giggled as she pushed him away. She turned around and walked over to the foundation; its charred and massive beams lay at odd angles among the stones. So this was my mother’s home… the Jennings’ family estate, she thought, reaching out to touch one of the burnt timbers.
“Careful there…” came a voice behind her. She looked around and saw her father crouching low under some branches to enter the clearing on his favorite stallion he liked to call Catahecassa. Anna smiled. She loved seeing her father mounted on a horse. To her, he almost looked regal, like some honored knight making his protective rounds. “The foundation there is very weak,” he warned, lowering himself to the ground. He walked his black horse next to Apollo and casually dropped his reins. The two stallions barely seemed to notice each other as they dipped to sample the wet grass.
“Well — well,” Anna chimed brightly. “Look who’s taking the time to enjoy a ride!” Her father grinned. “You look good in the saddle, handsome knight. You must allow yourself these pleasures of the spirit a little more often.”
Stepping over a mound of muddy ash, her father shrugged. “Believe it or not, I’ve been riding a lot more since you left.”
Anna frowned back at him. “So… I leave… and then you ride? Makes it kind of difficult for somebody to ride with you, doesn’t it?”
Her father gave her a somber smile as he reached over to put a hand on her shoulder. “Let’s just say, I’ve missed you desperately. Sometimes a father doesn’t realize how much he’s neglected his children until they’re away.” He looked back at his horse. “Cat helps me to remember our time together.” Anna smiled and gave him a hug. She loved her father very much.
“So… what are you two doing up here so late?” he asked, looking around. “It’ll be dark soon.”
Anna gazed into his questioning eyes. “I found out this was my mother’s house,” she said, looking back into the ruins again. Her father frowned and then released her. “Professor Titan told me at school,” Anna explained.
“I didn’t realize… you never knew,” her father replied, sadly. He grimaced. “Then again… how could you have known, since I’ve been such an idiot in not talking about your mother or her family?” He looked pensively at the charred remains. “You should have seen the place, Anna. In its day, it was absolutely beautiful. It was much older and a lot bigger than our home.” He raised his hands in front of his face to form a frame, and began to peer through his fingers with a critical eye. “It had very strong architectural links to the old country.” He dropped his hands and looked at her. “It was the only house I’ve ever seen that I liked better than the Grayson estate.”
Anna reached out and broke off a pieced of burnt wood. “There’s something about this place that’s special to me.” She looked up at her father. “Something draws me to it… like… I belong here.” Her father smiled.
“Really?” he said, intrigued. “I’m really happy to hear that.”
Her father looked at the ruins again and took a deep, sighing breath and then shook his head. “You’re all growing up so fast. I suppose it’s natural for a parent to wonder how much time he has left with his children before they leave to make their own way in the world.” He looked at Anna and grinned. “It would make my heart sing to know you might someday live here.” Anna was stunned.
“Are you saying… that might be possible?”
“Of course. This is the site of your ancestral home. You are the last in the Jennings’ line. It makes sense that you should eventually take control of the site.” His eyes bored into her. “And what would the last of the Jennings do with this piece of land if given the opportunity?”
Anna quickly looked at the toppled chimneys, the scattered stone and rubble. She peered up at her father again and a startling blaze erupted in her eyes. “I would rebuild it!” she said, determinedly. Her father straightened, almost glowing with pride.
“Would you now? It would probably cost your entire inheritance and then some,” he said coolly, as if testing her resolve.
Anna smirked. “I never thought about an inheritance. But if true…” she stopped to stare into the ruins again, “it would be worth it.”
“All right then, when the time is right, I’ll do everything I can to help you make your future home what it once was.”
Anna brightened. “You promise?” she said, grabbing him by his robes.
He smiled down at her and nodded. “But, in all fairness, I should tell you I have my own selfish reasons for helping you do this,” he said, firmly.
“Oh… and what’s that?”
He paused, looking at her with an ambitious determination stealing over his face. “Isn’t it obvious? If I help you build your home here… we’ll always be together. It would be a father’s dream come true.” Anna blushed. “And… I couldn’t think of a better neighbor to have, Miss Grayson,” he said, in a serious tone. He stepped back and reached out to shake her hand, as if committing the two of them to the deal.
“Nor can I, Mister Grayson,” she said, confidently. He pulled her roughly to him and they both laughed.
“I’m going to head back down for dinner. Are you coming?”
“Not yet. I want to brush Apollo and this might be my last chance. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
“Not too late,” he warned, tapping her gently on the nose. She smiled and nodded. He walked over to his horse, took the reins, and with a tired groan he saddled himself. Turning toward the gap in the trees, he said, “I’m going to hold you to your promise, Anna Grayson. Good neighbors are so hard to find these days.”
Anna laughed as she watched him gig his horse and trot out of sight. Delighted beyond belief, she looked back at the ruins and smiled. “I can’t believe it! Some day… the Jennings Manor will rise again. And I’ll live here –– next to my father!”
A few minutes later, Anna was galloping wildly through the woods. As much as she loved riding Swooper, deep down her heart still belonged to Apollo. His gentle thumping stride was like a drug to an addict’s body as he moved with ease through the familiar pathways of the Grayson estate. His canter was effortless and casual compared to that of flying on a great winged horse.
They finally skidded to a stop in front of the stables and Anna jumped down. She removed Apollo’s saddle, found her grooming kit, and lovingly set to work with her cleaning chores. She grabbed her currycomb and, with a practiced side-to-side motion, began to brush Apollo’s coat, stopping occasionally to knock the dirt off of the tool on the sole of her boot. When she finished, she switched to a softer brush and expertly swept over his body with short snapping strokes, penetrating his coat down to the skin.
“How does that feel, boy?” she cooed fondly. Apollo shuddered, quietly enjoying his long-awaited brushing. Anna finally moved to her favorite finishing brush, and then started the process over again until Apollo’s coat bloomed with a uniform glow. She worked on his tail against her inner leg, brushing out the tangles, starting at the tip and working her way up. It was, in Anna’s mind, every bit a labor of love.
After cleaning his hooves, Anna set Apollo in his stall and, waving goodbye to Mr. Porchdow, she headed up the darkened path toward the mansion. The light of the full moon penetrated the winter-thin leaves straight to the ground as far as the eye could see. The scene made Anna smile. As much as she liked living at Castlewood, it was wonderful to be in the familiar forests of her home again. There was a wooded aroma here that didn’t exist in Spellsburg or in the Shadowed Forest.
She continued up the hill until she came upon a fork between the moonlit trees. The left path would take her up the final bend toward the house; the right cut a trail deep into the forest below. Anna turned left and had barely taken two full steps when she stopped. She turned back and looked down the other path, frowning and cocking her head as if to listen for something absent to somehow repeat itself. A strange feeling began to descend over her body. Something was out there, but at the same time she somehow knew that whatever it was hadn’t actually arrived yet. She squinted, peering appraisingly through the gloom.
“What is that…?”she mumbled, listening hard for anything strange or unexpected. She unconsciously stepped into the right fork.
As she walked, Anna concentrated on the trail in front of her, twisting into the darkness like a serpent between her feet. There was a recognizable presence all around her, everywhere. It was the strong and familiar feeling she had felt twice before at Castlewood, when she thought something unseen had been watching her. It was an eerie haunting, like a stranger’s face staring out from a passing train. Then, with a sudden jerk, she felt the train stop. Anna stopped too, carefully looking for whatever might be lurking in the dark to step out. She could almost feel the energy emanating from the darkness, a surge of something powerful pressing every hair on her body against the grain. Whatever it was… it was close… very close, andAnna suddenly found herself feeling terribly vulnerable.
And then, what seemed as nothing more than vague existence scattered throughout the forest began to converge. It was as if the thing suddenly realized that Anna knew of its presence. It was coming together from all around her, and Anna quickly headed in the direction she knew it would eventually appear. Her quickened pace abruptly turned into a jog, as her mind located the exact spot she knew the thing would be. Rejecting all caution, she began pelting through the trees with a strange and eager hope of one not wishing to miss something vital to her being.
As she ran, a soft buzzing began to signal in the back of her brain. Just on the other side of those trees, she thought, ducking under another branch and then leaping over a fallen tree. The buzzing in her head was now growing into a high pitch wail. Right there… it’ll be right there. She flew around another tree just as the wail turned into a scream – a warning. Without thinking, something made her reach back and grab a branch just as the ground beneath her dropped away. Anna screamed. Frantically reaching up with her other hand to grab the limb again, she found herself dangling in midair over a rocky precipice. Panicking, she looked into the abyss below her and could see the ocean crashing into the jagged and moonlit rocks covered in glowing foam. She had run straight off the edge of the cliff.
“Oh my God!” Anna screamed, looking up again to check the strength of the limb above her. She wheeled about desperately searching for something else to grab and found another branch near her knees. She threw her legs around it and then looked down once more. The surf smashing into the base of the cliff was joined by a howling wind traversing up the face of the wall. Her horrified mind was screaming, How could I have been so stupid?
She thrashed her body around to look back at the tree. Its many branches were stretched out before her, like a wanting mother fearful for its child. The base of the tree was anchored precariously between two massive boulders set into the side of the cliff. Anna had never had been afraid of heights, but now she felt terrified, hanging haplessly over the cold blackness below her. She thought of her wand. What would I do? What spell could I use to save myself if I fall?
Anna tried to take in a calming breath and then, summoning all of her remaining courage, she began to move one hand over the other, back toward the cliff and praying she wouldn’t find something wet under her grip.
When she felt close enough to consider swinging herself to safety, she suddenly became aware of the presence she had sensed earlier was now taking visible form. Threads of luminous light were approaching from all directions and gathering themselves over the cliff’s edge in front of her. She immediately knew what it was before she heard it spitting its recognizable hiss.
“Ssssssssssssssss,” the thing sizzled angrily, and the remaining blood in Anna’s tired arms swiftly drained out. It was the thing calling itself the ally. Anna moved quickly, already deciding in which direction to run before she flopped down on the wet dirt near the cliff’s edge and dashed behind the trunk of the nearest tree. She cautiously peeked around to watch the thing transforming into a humanoid outline of radiating coldness that pulsated in a white-dazzling glow. Anna looked behind her through the forest, mapping within her mind the quickest path back to the house. The last time she had seen this thing, it had threatened her in a manner she just as soon not have repeated. She decided on the best direction to escape and was slowly starting to back away when the ally spoke to her.
“So, Guardian, have you prepared yourself for the battle to come?”
“Get away from me!” Anna shouted, stumbling back as the phantom began to glide through the air toward her. It crossed over the cliff’s mossy edge, a narrow band of pallid energy following her through the trees. What seemed as nothing more than a token outline of some human form was now evolving into something much more detailed as it finally touched down upon the earthen path.
“Fear not, Sithmaith, we are allies against the approaching chaos,” it said, benevolently, reaching out with both arms as if contemplating an embrace. Anna was having none of it.
“I said, get away! You attacked my father! I want you to leave me and my family alone!” she screamed, whipping out her wand and pointing it at the thing. The apparition stopped and then slowly dropped its arms. To Anna’s surprise, its reply contained a sorrow-filled tone of sympathy and remorse.
“I… grieve…” it said, painfully.
Anna frowned but did not drop her wand. She peered at the figure appraisingly, watching the light twisting itself into a more solidified form. She could see its features becoming thinner, more distinct around its edges within the light surrounding it. The thing looked much frailer than it did before, tall and thin, a woman. Anna’s eyes widened. The mirror said the ally was a woman… a murdered woman. Anna’s curiosity was erupting forward. She wanted to understand who this person was and what had happened to her. The apparition slowly turned and walked back to the cliff’s edge where it folded its arms, as if bracing itself against the cold wind. It stared almost fearfully at the jagged rocks below.
Anna lowered her wand and stepped forward. “Why did you attack my father?” The ally did not respond. It seemed almost lost in the view below her. Anna could hear the sound of the waves pummeling the rocks as they crashed forward and then pulled back. She cautiously took another step closer. “You said magic sent you to help me, but how can you help me… if you continue to attack my father, or my brothers and sisters?” In a blur of brightened light, the thing suddenly turned to face her.
“I would never harm the children!” it said in an appalled and echoing voice. The ghost began to walk toward her again. Anna could see the face of the thing clearing now, its features becoming distinct and more refined. Anna’s mouth dropped in disbelief; she knew that face. She had seen it before in her home, in a painting inside the Grayson manor. She recognized the woman standing before her now.
“I would never harm my children!” the ghost screeched menacingly.
Anna stumbled back in shock. She tripped and fell backwards. “Leola? Leola… Grayson?” she said, in astonishment. The white, luminous specter abruptly stopped, as if surprised at the sound of its own name.
“Ssssssssssssssss,” it hissed softly. “Yesssss… yes…” it said, in surprise. “My name… is Leola. THAT’S MY NAME!” it yelled, covering its face with its hands and dropping to its knees. Anna watched in terrified wonder as the thing began to bloom into a near blinding radiance. The light from its body shot through the darkness of the forest, illuminating everything brighter than the day. The birds around them were instantly awakened, and began to squawk and chatter madly in fright. Finally, the light began to withdraw and settle home within the thing from which it came. Anna squinted to adjust her eyes to the gloom once more. The ghost was still on its knees, rocking back and forth. It was sobbing.
“How have I come to be this way?” the ghost of Leola Grayson said, staring disbelievingly at its luminous hands. She glared up at Anna and then stood to reach out to her; her eyes were glowing. “You are Sithmaith, the one created by magic to fight in its noble cause. Surely you must know what happened to me?” she said, almost pleadingly.
Anna didn’t know what to say. “You don’t remember –– what happened to you? You’re only just now remembering who you are… who you were?” she asked the ghost, suspiciously.
“I’ve been trying…” it replied, “to remember, but my past has been denied me. The magic that brought me to you would only reveal that I should rest and gather my strength for the oncoming storm. My role was to help prepare you for what was to come, to be your guide. Everything for you; nothing of myself was given to me. I’ve been roaming the diverse layers of the world, trying to understand my nature, what I am, who I was, searching between the whispers of magic that sent me and gave me my mission. I found myself very close to you several times since our last meeting.”
Anna frowned. “Hold on…” She remembered the odd feeling of being watched while at Castlewood, “it was you I felt watching me at school! Why? Why were you there?”
“Familiar faces of a family lost to me were near you…” Leola continued, “but I could not reveal myself to them. I could not remember who I was, until now.” Leola looked at Anna pleadingly. “I would always return here to walk the cliff’s edge… looking… searching for… something. There is much… that magic has not told me of my cause, or… of my apparent death.”
“The Mirror of Enlightenment told me… you were… murdered,” Anna said, watching the ghost of her father’s first wife carefully for a reaction. Leola seemed to stumble back and then turned hesitantly toward the cliff again. Her hand passed through the branch of the tree next to her and then stopped as if to grasp it tight. Another flash of light shot through the forest again, this time illuminating the tree next to her in a shimmering glow; every branch, every root, was a bright dazzling white.
“Yes… I remember now. I remember!” she shrieked. Leola looked down over the edge of the cliff. “It happened here,” she said, despondingly. “It attacked me here, in this very spot.”
Anna’s mind was buzzing. She tried to find the right words, but couldn’t seem to string them together properly. How does one ask a person how they were killed? Anna stepped forward. “Who was it that… attacked you?” The ghost looked back at her.
“I… don’t… remember,” she said, looking through Anna as if her misplaced memory was somehow standing behind her.
“Do you remember anything about what happened?”
Leola’s gaze turned to meet Anna again. “I remember… someone. It was…” she looked out over the cliff to the rocks below and then back to Anna once more, “… a voice!”
“A voice? What voice?” Even through the veil of blurred light around her face, Anna could see the ghost looked terrified.
“It was… a demon!”
“What do you mean? Did you see it?”
“I don’t…” Leola struggled, screwing up her face to remember. “I can still hear its voice, a woman’s voice. The screeching cackling sound –– of evil.” Anna’s eyes widened.
“The evil one…” Anna whispered, and in that instant, she knew who it was Leola was describing. It was the same woman her brother Eric had heard with her own mother that night in his room; the same woman who seemed to have some controlling power over Victoria Grayson almost two years after Leola’s death. The same evil Sarah had said was being held in Drogo castle. “But… how could this be?”
“I was murdered by a devil,” repeated the ghost miserably. Anna moved closer. She could see the light within the ghost was weakening, its center dimming and beginning to fade.
“How did it happen? How did this evil one,” Anna paused again. She wanted to say kill you, but thought better of it. “How did it attack you…? Leola…? Can you hear me?”
“I… weaken. I must rest… and… gather my strength.”
“No, please… what did this person do? What do you remember?”
“I… was walking here… looking for… something… something I must have lost. I was searching… trying to find it. I was hit by a spell that paralyzed my body,” she said, wrapping her hands around her arms. “My wand was taken from me, and then…” Leola looked up as if trying to see the face of her murderer. “She was there… I could see its face hovering over me… I knew her… she rolled my body to the edge of the cliff, and then… the thing cast me down. And… I… died.” She started to whimper, and then a long lamented cry echoed into the space around where Anna stood. “Lost to sleep forever… until my awakening again for magic’s sake.”
“But who was it? Who?” Anna yelled back desperately.
Leola looked terrified. “I don’t… remember… I can see her standing over me, I knew her, but I can’t remember her face.” The light from Leola’s form was now pulsating rapidly; the vividness of her body flickered like a candle on the verge of blowing itself out.
“Leola? Please… I have to know… you have to tell me who it was!”
“Don’t tell my children.” The ghost said, looking up at Anna. “Please don’t tell them… how I died,” she pleaded sorrowfully. “And tell him… I’m sorry.” The beseeching form started to float backwards over the edge of the cliff. It hovered just out of Anna’s reach above the wave-drenched rocks hundreds of feet below.
“No… please… I need you to stay with me. I need to know more. The evil one is still out there –– at Drogo castle. The mirror said she would kill me if she knew of my existence, but I don’t know why. You have to tell me more about her! Leola please!”
“Tell him…” her misty voice echoed in saddened reply.
“Tell who? Who are you talking about?”
“Tell Boris I didn’t mean to… to hurt him. I was angry. He was my husband, and you said he was your father. I thought he had betrayed me, betrayed our love with another, with Victoria… my best friend… Victoria.”
Suddenly, Anna understood. When the ghost of Leola attacked her father, she could not remember the details of her own death. Surely, the news of another child by her father would have been confusing to her.
Anna reached out to the ghost. “Please come back. I need you. I want to speak with you about my mother… please…. come back. Don’t leave me now!”
“Tell my husband… I understand, and… I’m glad he has found love again… with another… with Victoria.”
Anna was frantic. “No… you don’t understand! My mother is dead too. She died soon after you. She…” but it was too late. The ghost of Leola Grayson flickered and then bloomed.
“Tell him… please tell him… I love him…and… I am sorry. So very… sorry.” Her translucent body began to sputter; it turned, and then suddenly fell.
“AIIIIIEEEEEEEEEE!” Leola screamed, and Anna watched in horror as the ghost tumbled end over end and down into the blackened sea. The ocean crashed into the wall below, and as it pulled away, a body could be seen lying motionless upon the weed swept rocks. The glow of her lifeless form faded into the depths as another wave spilled forward, and when the water pulled away, the ghost of Leola Grayson was gone. A dizzying wave of nausea hit Anna’s stomach as she lurched back, her eyes clinched tight and wet with tears. She wrapped herself around the base of a tree and retched, she heaved, and then vomited.
“Oh… my God,” she whispered to the moonlit sky above her. “Leola Grayson… my father’s wife… was murdered.” Why? What was this evil killing and controlling members of the Grayson family?