Anna Grayson and The Order of Merlin

Fidelius Custodis

Boom!

Anna found herself underwater as another huge wave crashed in on top of her. The cold ocean was rushing in from everywhere.

Thump – boom!

Anna couldn’t breath. She was drowning as she struggled to reach the surface.

Thump – thump – boom! Another wave pushed her back down. She felt the water enter her lungs; panic moved to overwhelm her. Something made of ice grabbed her by the ankle from the depths below and she looked down. There, staring up at her from a blackened pit was the white, half-mutilated face of Leola Grayson. Death was scowling at her.

“Don’t tell them how I died,” she warned. “I want to see you downstairs.”

Thump – thump – thump. Anna gasped and then jerked awake.

“Anna… daddy wants to see you downstairs.” Anna bolted up in her bed and quickly looked around. The bedroom was dark.

Thump – thump – thump, came the rap on her bedroom door again.

“Anna, are you awake?”

“Yes…” she answered gutturally, “come in.” The latch clicked and the door swung open. Anna squinted at the light pouring into the room. It was much later in the morning than she expected. Tencha stepped into the room.

“Up and at’em, doxy-head!” she said, jokingly. “Daddy’s looking for you. Geez… it’s darker than a tomb in here.”

“What time is it?” Anna asked, rubbing her eyes in a broken – still sleepy voice.”

“Almost eleven o’clock. You’ve already missed breakfast.” Her sister crossed the room, tripping over a pile of clothes between the door and the window. She yanked back the curtains, and the light jumped through the opening like an explosion. “See? Sunny and bright. Goodness, you look awful. You feelin’ okay?”

Anna looked up at her. “Yeah, I’m all right. Just didn’t get a lot of sleep last night,” she said, truthfully.

“Well, you’d better get downstairs. Daddy sent me up to get you.”

“Why…? What’s going on?”

“I don’t know. We got a visitor early this morning. Daddy must have been expecting her. He sent Widwick down to the gates to escort her in before there were any alarms. They’ve been in daddy’s office with Eric most of the morning. They’re all acting kind of secretive about something.”

“And they want to see me? Why? Who is it?”

“No idea,” Tencha said indifferently, stooping over to pick up some of her clothes. “Dowla said she thought she heard the woman saying something about Apparating all the way from Hogwarts.” She sniffed at Anna’s dirty shirt and wrinkled her nose before tossing it onto the bed. “Ohhh! That outfit smells like those stables you’re always playing in.”

“Hogwarts? But… who from Hogwarts would be coming to see us?”

“You-got-me…” her sister smiled, turning to primp her hair in Anna’s mirror, “Kind of exciting, ay? Imagine Apparating all that way? It’s got to be some kind of record. What is that… like… six thousand miles or something?” She grinned back at Anna through the mirror and then shrugged. “Anyway, Dowla and I are going shopping. The driver’s waiting outside. You’d better get downstairs as fast as you can. You can fill us in when we get back,” she said, walking toward the door. There was a shout from downstairs. “I’m coming!” Tencha yelled back, closing the bedroom door as she left.

Anna was up and dressed in a flash. Somebody from Hogwarts? I wonder who it could be, she thought, running a fast brush through her hair. She yanked back a ponytail, slammed the bedroom door open against its hinges, and bolted down the staircase. Cookie’s face was staring up at her from the surface of the sphere above his newel post. With a faint POP, the scruffy-faced ghost appeared above the railing, his battered old hat pulled down menacingly over his crumpled brow.

“Arm yerself, little lady. We’ve got trespassers on the prop-per-tay!”

“Who is it, Cookie?” Anna asked him, looking around covertly.

“Dunno. Didn’t catch the name. Went to check her for fraowgs, but she didn’t take kindly to me friskin’ her. Said I was bein’ pro-vok-cat-teeve, whatevern’ that means. I got Eric an yer father keepin’ an eye-onner in the downstairs.

“Thanks Cookie. I’ll check on them for you,” she said, dashing down the staircase.

“Let out a holler if’n ya need ta ra-sile that doggie down.”

As Anna made her way down the hallway toward her father’s office, she stopped to look at the last portrait before the door. There, the image of Leola Grayson looked almost timeless staring down at her. Anna always thought the painting made her feel unwelcome, but now she could feel her opinion of the tragic figure before her changing. The mother of her brothers and sisters was a victim of murder, of MURDER! Somebody had killed her father’s first wife, but why? How could such a thing have happened?

Anna was awake the entire night contemplating what she should do with this information. Leola had made her wishes clear that she did not want her children to know what had happened to her, and some small part of Anna understood why. A mother would want to keep an awful truth secret, especially if she knew it would hurt her children. In fact, Anna wasn’t sure how she could tell her family about this secret. How would her father react to seeing his dead wife again? How would Eric feel about seeing his mother as a ghost?

But there was something else that troubled Anna about these revelations. She couldn’t help wondering if this had anything to do with the death of her own mother. If the evil one had killed Leola, and then was overheard threatening Victoria two years later, then it wouldn’t be hard to see how this person might be connected to Victoria’s death as well. The evil one was forcing Victoria to utilize the Verosapt to find somebody important to her, and soon after that night her mother was dead. Her father always said it was an accident, but then again, everybody assumed Leola’s death was an accident too. How could she keep this from her father? How could she keep this a secret from Eric? Wouldn’t she, Anna, want to know the truth about her mother’s death even if it involved murder? And then, shamefully, Anna realized there was another reason she couldn’t tell anybody, Captain Dunning.

How could she tell her family about Leola’s murder without also telling them who had done it and where they could find the killer? If she told them the murderer was in Drogo’s prison, surely her father would track this person down through his Ministry contacts. He would spare no expense to locate and gather this person in. In doing so, Captain Dunning would assume she had broken her word to him, and for that, he would surely have her thrown out of Castlewood for attacking him in his office. It was all too complicated. She needed someone she could trust to help her sort this out and she knew who more than anybody would understand; she needed Gwen.

Anna peered up at the painting again. The face in the portrait she once thought haughty now seemed somber, almost sad, as if the subject looking down at her was trying to hide the terrible truth about its own demise. Anna knew it wouldn’t be long before the ghost of Leola Grayson came to visit her again. They were now linked together by an awful past working to change the future, and only the faint strands of magic’s consciousness understood how or why. Anna turned to listen at the door. She could hear the voices of people talking inside. She took a deep breath and knocked.

“Anna? Is that you?” her father called. Anna opened the door.

“Good morning, daddy,” Anna said, lightheartedly. “Tencha said you… wanted to see me?” Eric was standing next to an older woman Anna had never seen before. She was wearing dark green robes, square spectacles, and a pointed witches’ hat with a large flat rim.

“Yes. Please… come in. There’s somebody here I want you to meet. Close the door behind you.” Anna did as she was told and then joined them. “Anna, I’d like you to meet Professor Minerva McGonagall.” Anna smiled cordially at the woman who smiled back, but at the same time seemed to be eyeing her rather suspiciously.

“Professor… McGonagall?” Anna said, reaching out to shake the woman’s hand. “My sister tells me you’ve just arrived from Hogwarts?” The awe in Anna’s voice was well received by the woman.

“Yes, Miss Grayson… that is correct,” she replied, in a straightforward Irish draw.

“Did you Apparate the whole way?” Anna asked, her eyes wide with wonder.

“Heavens no, my dear. I made several stops along the way before arriving in Philadelphia and then to a placed called Denver before arriving here.”

“Very impressive, Professor,” Eric added. “I’ve heard of intercontinental Apparating, of course, but I’ve never met anybody who had the ability to actually do it.”

McGonagall straightened, “It just takes a bit of concentration and focus,” she said smartly, as if giving another lesson to one of her classes.

“We watched the first task of the Triwizard Tournament from Spellsburg in November,” said Anna. “It was very impressive.”

McGonagall smiled. “Yes, we’re all very proud of our champions,” the woman replied stiffly. “We just had a wonderful Yule Ball Christmas Day in their honor. Nearly all of our seventh-year students stayed at the school over the holiday to celebrate,” she said, with a note of satisfaction in her voice. There was a pause before Mister Grayson spoke again.

“Anna, Professor McGonagall is here to investigate your new found abilities to transfigure into another form.” Anna’s eyes suddenly widened in startled horror. She glared at Eric accusingly and then wearily toward McGonagall. Her father immediately recognized her unease. “The professor is highly regarded throughout the Wizarding world for her skills in this area, Anna. We’re very lucky to have her sharing some of her time with us, especially over the Christmas holiday. Chancellor Thordarson spoke personally to the Headmaster of Hogwarts to make these arrangements on your behalf.” He could see Anna didn’t think much of the idea at all. “Please Anna, we need to understand what’s going on here, and Professor McGonagall is one of the foremost experts on Animagi. I’m sure she can…”

“Daddy… I appreciate everybody is trying to help, but this is very… ah… I don’t know… personal for me.” Anna looked at McGonagall. “I’m sorry Professor, but I had no idea so many people were at work on my behalf. Had I known…”

“But I do understand, Miss Grayson,” McGonagall interrupted, “however… you should know if it is true you have indeed become an Animagus, then it is not an entirely personal matter to just yourself. By wizard law, all Animagi must be registered with the Improper Use of Magic Office within the Ministry, and I believe the same laws apply here in the United States?” She looked at Mister Grayson who nodded.

Anna looked put-upon. “So… you’re saying that I’ll have to tell everybody about… about my problem?”

McGonagall frowned. “Well… that is a very strange way to put it, but essentially… yes, that is correct. I am interested in understanding why you would describe such a gift as a problem. Most Animagi have to work and study for many years under the watchful eye of the Ministry before attempting this level of magic. When the task is first done, there is usually great joy in the accomplishment,” she explained.

“But Anna didn’t study to become an Animagus, Professor. It just happened,” Eric explained, looking supportively at his sister. Anna nodded in agreement.

“So I’ve been told,” McGonagall replied, skeptically, “and that’s why Professor Thordarson contacted me. What you describe sounds like your sister has become an Animagus, but we need to be sure before putting her through the Ministry’s registry process where she will undoubtedly have to surrender some of her privacy.” She looked at Anna. “So… Miss Grayson, as you can see, we are in fact trying to preserve your confidentiality as much as we possibly can.”

“Forgive me, Professor,” Anna said, folding her arms stubbornly, “not to be rude, but… what makes you such an expert on the Animagi?”

“Anna!” scolded her father. “Professor McGonagall is here at my personal request and invitation. You will show the proper level of respect to a guest in our home.”

Anna looked despondent before peering up again at McGonagall. “I’m… sorry,” she said, reluctantly.

The professor cupped her hands at her waist and stiffened. For a moment Anna thought she saw the slightest flash of a smile. “I suppose it is a fair question,” McGonagall replied. “Put another way, one might ask why a stranger would be invited into your home to make the determination as to whether or not a piece of your private life should be made known to the public. I expect you would wonder what makes me so different that both the Headmaster of Hogwarts and the Chancellor at Castlewood Academy would rely on my opinion in this matter.” The professor’s eyes bore into Anna determinedly before abruptly turning. She walked to the corner of her father’s desk where she removed her hat and then turned to face them again. “Fair enough… observe!” she said, flatly.

In the wink of an eye, it happened. Professor McGonagall’s form suddenly shrank with a rushing blur until she sat upon all fours on the carpet looking up at them. She had turned into a cat.

“Astounding!” Eric said, in a tone of uncontrolled wonder.

Anna smiled gleefully. There was a small, childlike voice clapping inside that wanted to yell out, Ooooowww… do it again! The cat suddenly jumped up on the corner of the desk and then turned. It sprang and, with a soft POP, transformed back into the now standing Professor McGonagall.

“Absolutely amazing, Professor,” said Mister Grayson, admiringly.

“Thank you. I do so enjoy my student’s expression when they see this magic done for the first time.”

“You did it so fast,” Anna observed. “One to the other and then back again, just like that! When I change… it takes me…” She stopped, looking somewhat embarrassed up at her father and brother. McGonagall stepped forward.

“The speed of the transformation is the same for all Animagi unless, of course, something goes wrong.” McGonagall stared at Anna appraisingly before turning to her father. “Mister Grayson, could I have a word alone with Anna, please? I’d like a private moment, if you don’t mind.” Mister Grayson looked at Anna, who seemed uncommitted about the idea.

“Of course, I think that would be best. Eric and I will be in the family room upstairs. If you need anything, please summon Greechins from the next room.” They headed for the office door with the Professor following close behind, whispering to Mister Grayson as they went. After they were gone, McGonagall closed the door and then returned to Anna.

“Now then, Miss Grayson, I’d like you to tell me everything about the circumstances leading to your first transfiguration. I want to know every detail you can recall, and then I would like you to give me an explanation of each and every experience you’ve had since the first.” She walked around her father’s desk and sat in the chair below her mother’s portrait. She motioned to an open chair for Anna to sit opposite the desk and then slid her chair forward to sit straight. Although she hadn’t known this woman for very long, Anna got the impression she must be a very strict teacher at Hogwarts.

“From the beginning, Miss Grayson, if you please.”

So Anna reluctantly began. She told McGonagall about the first night she attacked Damon after her nightmare, and then about the time she turned into the creature at Castlewood after her fight with Debbie Dunning. She relived her change after the attack on Hobbs, and then again during the Vollucross race. Anna described for McGonagall the feelings she shared with the creature, the starving hunger that lead her to attack the sleeping deer in the woods. When she was finished, McGonagall leaned forward in her chair to survey her.

“And you say… it is a struggle to return to your human form once you become this creature?”

“If it’s really dark and cold around me –– yes. The creature seems to prefer the dark and does whatever it can to avoid bright lights. It’s more willing to withdraw if I concentrate on a warm place –– like the beaches here in the summertime.”

“You speak as though the creature had a will of its own. As if it were something separate within you. Would you say this is an accurate description of what you’re feeling?”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Anna replied. Finally, she thought, somebody who understands.

The professor placed the ends of her fingers together, surveying Anna with an unmistakable look of concern. “Now, Miss Grayson, I’d like your permission to watch you go through the transformation.” Anna could see the woman was asking, not demanding, to make this observation and she appreciated the implied respect McGonagall was offering her.

“I… guess that’ll be all right,” Anna said, resignedly. And then, thinking she might actually learn something in the process, she made a request. “It might be better if it was a bit darker in here… and could we lower the temperature a little?”

Without another word, McGonagall raised her wand and made a quick flick to her right. Immediately the room’s globes darkened to a quarter of their original brightness and the temperature dipped ten degrees.

“Cold enough?” she asked, still holding her wand out to the side.

“A little more, please,” Anna replied, closing her eyes. Soon, she could feel her breath fogging the air in front of her face.

“Tell me what you’re doing now, Anna. Walk me through your thoughts.”

“I’m concentrating on the temperature… and transferring the feeling of cold to the inside. I’m calling the Lethifold to me,” she explained, keeping her eyes closed and feeling her way through the folds of her consciousness, probing for the creature through the dark recesses of her soul. She was beckoning it forward.

And then, quite suddenly, it came in a desperate rush. With Anna’s barriers completely down, the dark inkiness seemed to leap forward. McGonagall watched in amazed wonder as Anna’s eyes filled with black, which then began to ooze from her sockets. Anna opened her mouth and began to retch the thing out of her body.

“Good… heavens,” McGonagall whispered, rising slowly to her feet. She watched, as Anna’s body appeared to melt into the carpet and then spread itself across the floorboards in front of her. The professor stepped around the desk and bent low to examine the inky pool. Thick appendages bloomed forward to snatch at her, stopping short of her face before slowly falling into itself again. The professor followed the creature as it began to creep across the floor and up the wall of the office, and then into a high corner where the wall met the ceiling. It shimmered as it skulked, following the lines of shadows across the ceiling above her.

TWO

Thirty minutes later, Mister Grayson and Eric were still waiting in the family room. Mister Grayson was sitting in his winged-back chair and staring into the fire under the mantel. Eric had given up sitting, and was now pacing nervously about the room.

“So… here we are again, eh?” Eric said with a smirk, thinking about the time when the family waited for Doctor Pearl to complete Anna’s sorcerer’s examination. His father didn’t look up. “Do you think she’s all right in there?” Eric said, prodding his father to speak.

“You mean Anna or Professor McGonagall?” his father replied, still looking into the fire.

“I’m serious, father…”

“So am I.” Mister Grayson said, turning to look at his son. “The Lethifold is a highly dangerous, magical creature.”

“But that’s Anna in there. She’s not really that creature… even if it is true she can change…”

“That’s why McGonagall is here, Eric. We need to know what kind of control Anna has after the transformation takes place.”

“Control? I… don’t understand…”

Mister Grayson sighed. “Eric, when you first wrote to me about the things Anna admitted to you, I was very concerned. Not just because of her ability to change, but because of what I started to believe was a lack of restraint.” Eric still looked confused. His father continued. “Do you remember that night when you found Anna unconscious in the chapel?”

“Yes…”

“Do you remember the discussion we had with Mr. Hobbs of the Committee for the Disposal of Dangerous Creatures and then Lieutenant Doyle of the Ministry Authority about the Lethifold?”

“Ah… vaguely.”

“You said something then that came back to me after I received your letter. You said Anna was found lying on top of a dead deer. Do you remember that?”

“Yes… at the time I thought the Lethifold might have killed the deer either immediately before or just after it had taken Anna, and…” Eric suddenly froze, staring at his father in stunned comprehension.

“I think you see where I’m going,” his father replied. “You and I both know Anna would never hurt another animal on purpose, never mind try and kill it. Yet, while she was the Lethifold… that’s exactly what she did. We also know that while she’s had her battles with Damon and the twins on many occasions, she would never in her right mind try to seriously hurt them. But, again, that’s exactly what she tried to do that night in her brother’s bedroom.” He paused again, looking at Eric worriedly. “I’m concerned about her ability to control this thing, whatever it is. And more…” he paused again, staring back into the fire, “I’m concerned about it being a magical creature.” Eric frowned. The fact that his father was concerned about the type of creature Anna had become more than her ability to control it didn’t make any sense to him.

“I… still don’t understand. What are you thinking, father?”

Mister Grayson drew in a deep breath. “I’m terrified, Eric, more than at any time in my entire life.”

Eric almost gasped aloud from shock. He had never heard his father string such words together before in his entire life. They flew into Eric’s head and ricocheted through his brain like a bullet fired in some vacant cave. His father wasn’t looking at him as he spoke, which made his words even more troubling. It was as if his father was afraid to look at him while admitting his fears out loud. Eric found his composure and then walked over. He knelt at his father’s feet next to the hearth.

“What is it, father? What are you afraid of? Please… you can tell me.”

Mister Grayson looked down. He could see the concern in his son’s deep, brown eyes, reflecting the soft glow of the fire next to them. He could see his confessions of fear had not breeched Eric’s total and unwavering faith in his ability to handle the problems that might arise against him and the family.

He reached out to grasp the boy’s neck and firmly brought his son to him. He lowered his face level with Eric’s and then kissed him gently on the forehead. “Do you know in your entire life you have never disappointed me?” Eric flushed, watching his father smile back. “You make me proud to be a Grayson, son. Truly… proud.”

Eric smiled, and then took his father’s hand in his. “You are the head of this family. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t pray my thanks to God for your strength. What’s wrong, father? What’s troubling you?”

Mister Grayson leaned back to gaze down at his son. The moment had finally come; a moment he would never forget for the rest of his life. As a father, it was his job to insure his children were kept safe from harm, properly instructed in the ways of honor, tradition, and faith, to make sure they understood their place in eternity. But there comes a time when a man’s children grow and begin to reach out into the greater world around them. In doing so, they call upon their parents to help them change their relationship from that of just being a father and a son to something much more important. It was time; time to share everything with Eric and allow him to begin the process of taking on his father’s mantel. This was the first step: To share with his first born son his deepest fears and Boris Grayson was enormously proud of Eric’s willingness to listen without losing confidence and trust.

“My suspicions and fears do not come without much deliberation. I believe everything that’s happened has come with a purpose. Although we don’t have all the answers yet, I have a good idea of what’s in our future. Anna’s ability to change into a magical creature is unheard of in all of Wizarding history, and the fact that she doesn’t seem to have total control over its actions confirms my belief that Anna is not an Animagi as we first might have presumed. That’s why I’ve asked for McGonagall’s help. The professor is a true Animagus. She has complete control of her actions and nature regardless of the form she takes. It doesn’t look as if Anna’s ability fits the same definition as we know it.”

“So… what then?” Eric asked, still kneeling at his father’s feet.

“I don’t know yet, but I fear what we’re seeing in Anna is just the beginning. I believe she’s more, much more, than what we’ve witnessed so far. If she were to become, as Chancellor Thordarson suggests, the next Sithmaith, then it would imply our darkest days are but a moonlit shadow of what is to come. Thousands died the last time the elements of magic sought to bring something like this forth. But even more important to me are the words I read to you at Castlewood, the words of Merlin himself.”

Eric frowned, not wanting to bring into his mind the horrifying thoughts of the greatest wizard ever known, but they came anyway despite his efforts to keep them out. What punishment the soul who perverts the nature of a man’s being to protect his own awaits?

Merlin was contemplating his own immortal fate with these words, because of his deeds as the last Sithmaith. And then, suddenly, like a blast of cold wind entering his soul, Eric completely understood his father’s fears. If Anna were the next Sithmaith, she would guide many in a fight to protect the innocence of magic just as Merlin had described. Her fate would be the same as his, the troubled thoughts of God’s judgment shared, and the worry of leading so many others to the gates of oblivion for both their actions and absence in the greatest time of need.

An enormous weight began to crush Eric’s heart for his sister’s sake, and when he looked up into his father’s eyes he found them, like his own, welled with tears. They reached out and held each other in an all-consuming embrace. So much was at risk.

“Uh-hem…”

Mister Grayson and Eric turned to find Professor McGonagall standing in the family room entranceway.

“Where’s Anna?” asked Eric, standing to look around for her.

“She’ll be along momentarily,” McGonagall answered somberly. She entered the room and walked over to the fireplace. “I think I’m satisfied with my conclusions in this matter.” She began to warm her hands near the flames. Slowly rubbing them together, she pushed them forward, spreading her fingers wide against the heat. Mister Grayson sat in his chair watching her, not looking especially interested in prying any immediate answers until the woman was ready to speak.

“And…?” Eric said impatiently.

McGonagall turned to face them. “It is my opinion that Miss Grayson… Anna… is not what we immediately thought her to be.”

“I don’t understand,” Eric replied. “Did she change for you? Was she able to transform into the creature?”

“Oh… yes…” said the professor, turning to the fire again. “An astounding ability for one so young and without training, but I believe we should wait before submitting her name to the Ministry for the purposes of registration.” She turned to look at Mister Grayson. “I don’t believe Anna is an Animagus.”

“What?” Eric blurted out. “But… what else would explain her ability to change?”

McGonagall looked calculatingly at Mister Grayson again. “I am sure there are a few remote possibilities, none of which I am currently able to explain,” she said, furtively. Mister Grayson nodded, and Eric could see there was much more being exchanged between them than what was said.

“Where is she?” asked Eric. “Are you sure she’s all right? I’m going downstairs to check on her.”

“That won’t be necessary,” McGonagall replied, raising a hand to stop him. “Your sister isn’t downstairs anyway.” Eric turned to her and frowned.

“Well then… where is she?”

He saw the woman’s eyes move slightly over her square-rimmed glasses to a place somewhere above his head. Eric immediately spun around and looked up into the ceiling. At first, he would have sworn nothing was there but the hardwood beams radiating up the vaulted ceiling to an octagonal embellishment over their heads. Then, he saw one of the beams begin to move. Something was traveling along its angled edge, a darkness slowly flowing down one of the timbers toward the wall. Mister Grayson got to his feet and stepped into the center of the room watching the thing’s progress. When it reached the wall, the creature spread itself like some massive and inky-stain, flowing onto the floor in a shimmering pool of black. It left no trace of itself behind as it went.

“Good… Lord…” Mister Grayson whispered.

“Anna,” called McGonagall, stepping forward. “Remember what I said about your concentration. Come into the light and warm yourself,” she said, motioning the creature toward the fire. Slowly, and very cautiously, the Lethifold hovered across the floor like a black, satin sheet, its edges rippled as if in a breeze as it went along. The creature stopped and then began to round over on top of itself, taking the form of a girl hunched over on her knees, a blackened copy of Anna Grayson. She looked up and stared at her father.

Mister Grayson recognized the frightened look on his daughter’s face even through the creature’s dark mask; she didn’t know what to expect from him now. What would he say about the thing she had become? He stooped down next to her and looked into her blackened eyes. He reached out, took his daughter’s cold face in his hands, and kissed her gently on the cheek. As he pulled back, he could see tiny lines of black, thin as a spider’s web, reaching out at him from the surface of her face.

“Still and always… a Grayson,” he said, lovingly. Ebony tears fell from Anna’s eyes and disappeared like water to a sponge into her chin as her father moved in to hug her. His loving warmth was against her, and soon the coldness of the creature withdrew, absorbed into the pores of Anna’s body until only she herself remained.

“Unbelievable!” Eric said, in stunned wonder. While he had never doubted his sister’s description of her transfigurations, seeing it first hand was nothing short of terrifying to him.

“Well done, Anna,” said Professor McGonagall. “Your control is getting better each time you try. How did it feel to you this time?” Eric and her father helped Anna to her feet.

She mumbled something indistinguishable at first, and then, “The same as before, professor. The feelings of hunger and fear are still there.”

“But manageable?”

“I… I think so.”

“Excellent. I’m very impressed with your growing ability to control your emotions so well. You should sit and rest.”

THREE

The next day was cold and rainy. Ominous clouds gathered over the ocean below the Grayson estate, signaling an approaching storm. The rain-soaked sand lay barren apart from the small rivers of water cutting their paths to the sea. Anna slept on the couch in the family room for most of the night before being awakened by her father and sent upstairs to bed. Professor McGonagall had already returned to England after leaving instructions with her father to have Anna contact her after she returned to Castlewood. They would continue to correspond on a monthly basis and immediately following any occasion where Anna transfigured into the Lethifold.

Anna liked Professor McGonagall. She was very stern and forthright in her manner, but deep inside, Anna got the sense of an enormously caring heart. It was decided that Anna would not have to register with the Improper Use of Magic Office as an Animagus, or at least not yet. Both McGonagall and her father felt it prudent to wait until her abilities could be fully understood. Although Anna couldn’t remember when McGonagall had left the Grayson estate, she thought she overheard something very strange in her parting conversation with her father.

“We should wait until we know if she will change into something else,” McGonagall had said when they thought Anna was asleep. At the time, Anna was too tired to give the comment much thought, but in the dawn of the next morning, McGonagall’s words seemed to stick in her mind almost like a warning.

What did she mean, change into something else? Everybody knew an Animagus could only turn into one animal. But, then again, they said an Animagus could only turn into non-magical creatures. Eventually, Anna decided she must have heard McGonagall incorrectly, and put the comment out of her head as nothing more than a weary mind grasping for sleep.

On the last day of the holiday break, most of the rooms in the manor were quiet. Eric and Damon were upstairs packing their trunks, and Tencha and Dowla were off on what they called their last-chance shopping spree. Gabby and Widwick were working in the kitchen on the family’s last evening meal, which promised to be extravagant.

Anna slowly made her way downstairs, looking for her father. She entered his office to find his writing quills lying beside several rolls of parchment stacked high upon his desk. The flicking glow of a tiny lamp sat in the corner giving off sporadic spits of green. She could see her father had been at work for several hours already that morning, and could hear his voice resonating through the conference room wall next door. The busy click-clack of Meredith’s shoes meant there were several others in the room as well. He must be in a meeting, Anna thought, sitting down in her father’s chair.

She slowly spun around to peer up at her mother’s portrait and then noticed the cross of gold around the image’s open neck. Anna smiled, tracing the very same chain around her own neck. She marveled at how beautiful the adornment looked on Victoria and, without looking down, wondered if one day it might look as good on her.

Glancing around the office, Anna was unexpectedly impressed with her father’s level of responsibility at the Ministry. Maybe it was her exposure to the world outside over the last several months, or seeing the impression her father left on others away from home, but for the first time in her life she started to understand what the Grayson name meant beyond her narrow view of the world she saw living here at the estate. Her father’s purpose and talents were impressive, and she was suddenly feeling very proud of him.

The door of the conference room flew open and Meredith came bustling in. She was carrying a number of scrolls, which she placed on the couch before turning to exit into the hallway. She hadn’t noticed Anna sitting there. There were a number of swooshing sounds emanating from the fireplaces within the conference room, signaling the end of her father’s meeting. Anna could hear him in agreeable conversation with several individuals before wishing them all a pleasant journey home. Anna stood and quietly crept over to the open door to peek in. Her father was now seated alone at the head of the large conference table writing on a number of scrolls. The air was singed with the smell of spent Floo Power emanating from the many fireplaces surrounding him. She moved to join him.

“Greechins!” her father bellowed and Anna froze. She could hear the thumping footfalls of her father’s employee entering the room from another door.

“Yes, sir?” Mister Grayson didn’t look up.

“I want a clear evening with my family tonight. No meetings or signatures after two o’clock, understand?”

“Of course, sir. I told Mrs. McConnell earlier about the message you received from England’s Minister of Magic. Did she give it to you?”

Mister Grayson dropped his quill and rubbed his eyes. “Yes, she did. I don’t want to talk with Cornelius today. Please… make my apologies to the Minister, and tell him I’ll fit myself into his schedule anytime he likes tomorrow, all right?” The Goblin bowed in reply. “So what’s left?”

“I believe, sir, Mrs. McConnell has collected all your signatures for the day… oh… except for the letter you requested for Drogo.” Anna’s heart took an unexpected leap and she quietly fell back to listen outside the door.

“Oh yes,” Mister Grayson replied, “I had forgotten. I should have taken care of that while I was at Spellsburg… but my mind was on other matters at the time.”

“Totally understandable, sir,” said Greechins, sympathetically. “We were all very concerned about Miss Anna’s injuries at the time. It’s such a relief to see she’s recovered so well. Mrs. McConnell gave me the outline of the letter you wanted, and I have a final draft ready for your review.” The goblin handed Mister Grayson a piece of parchment, which he quickly scanned.

“Very good. I’d like you to make one change here regarding their progress. Say something to the effect that I’m pleased with the recent improvements I saw on the prison grounds, and the enhanced forewarning charms in Spellsburg.”

“Not a problem, sir,” said the goblin, in a gravelly voice. He took the letter back.

“Put the final draft in the office vault when you’re finished and I’ll sign it after the children go to bed.”

Vault? What vault? Anna thought, quickly looking back around in the office behind her. I’ve never seen a vault in here.

“Of course, Mister Grayson. Would an owl tomorrow morning be appropriate?”

“That’ll do. Oh… and could you tell Widwick to clean the fireplaces again. The Ambassador from Sweden arrived this morning with a smudge of soot on his robes. I won’t have that happening to my guests. Please ask him to take care of it.” There was the sound of a sliding chair. “Am I free, then?” Mister Grayson asked pleadingly.

“Yes, sir, until your conference at noon, that is.”

“Very well. I’ll be upstairs with the children.”

Anna turned and ran back to the opposite door at the sound of her father’s approaching steps. She dashed down the hallway, up the stairs, through the kitchen, and out the back door in a flash. When the house was well out of sight, she finally stopped.

“What in the world is going on?” Anna yelled, stomping around in frustration. “He knows where Drogo prison is?” It was such a shock, she could barely think of it as true. Why was her father sending owls there? She heard him speaking of the improvements to the grounds as if he had recently been a visitor there. What was he doing at Drogo?

She soon found herself standing by the cliff’s edge where she had seen the ghost of Leola Grayson. She flopped down frustratingly upon a boulder overlooking the sea. The ocean matched her mood. It looked angry as the wind raked across its dark surface. Anna wrapped her arms around her knees at the biting cold; in her anxious escape from the house, she had forgotten to take a cloak. What was happening? she thought angrily. Who was her father writing to at Drogo?

She began to think about all that had happened over the last few months. First — I find out this evil one had threatened my mother, and then for some unknown reason had altered my birth. Sarah said this person was being kept in Drogo prison near Spellsburg, and now I discover this person killed Leola Grayson.

She tried to remember exactly what the Mirror of Enlightenment had told her. The beast that altered you is a terribly evil thing that looks to escape from a prison of its own making. “What did the voices mean when they said a prison of its own making? If the thing was in Drogo prison, why didn’t the mirror just say that? It killed Leola, and it might have killed my mother too.” Why?

Then something terrible drifted forward out of her memory. The mirror also said, “It will surely kill you for its master’s sake if given a chance and learns of your existence. The Dark Lord is gathering strength, and so are his minions in hiding everywhere.”

“Voldemort?” Anna said out loud. His supporters had tried to assassinate her father many times before he was destroyed in his attempt to kill the Potter family. Could it be Voldemort had sent this murderer to kill Leola to get to her father? Did she then kill Victoria for the same reason? But she was already in the house before her mother’s death. Why didn’t this assassin attack my father while she was here? And why would it want to kill me? Why not Eric, or one of the other Grayson children?”

The thought of her father sending messages to some unknown person at Drogo was frustrating. Anna pounded her forehead with her fists. “I don’t understand!” she yelled out at the sea. Why would Captain Dunning be so adamant about her not saying anything to her father about the prison when he already knew about the place? She had always assumed Dunning was trying to save his own neck by keeping Drogo’s location a secret. Now Anna wasn’t sure what Dunning’s intentions were at all. A deep feeling of frustration and anger began to pour forth. Something important was being kept from her.

Her father had told Greechins to put the letter in the vault. What vault was he talking about? There’s no vault in his office… or…was there? And then it occurred to her what she wanted to do. She stood and, rubbing her cold arms, she turned and headed back up the hill. She was going to find this vault, and see if she could get her hands on the letter. She wanted to know what it said, to whom it was being sent, and what her father’s interests were in Drogo. Something important was missing in her understanding of the things around her, and Anna decided tonight she would take a more aggressive role in finding the answers she so desperately needed.

FOUR

That evening the Graysons were in the dining room for their last family dinner. There was laughing and many toasts, but Anna was unusually quiet. Her somber mood did not go unnoticed.

“Anna, you’re awfully quiet tonight,” Eric said, sitting next to her. She was watching Damon, who was giving a perfect and disparaging imitation of Captain Dunning as the twins howled with laughter. She gave Eric a rye smile.

“It’s strange. After praying I might be allowed to go to Castlewood for so many years, I’m still a little sad about leaving home again,” she replied earnestly.

Eric grinned. “I know what you mean. I love studying back East, but the older I get the more I miss not being here with our father.” He looked over at Mister Grayson who was looking somewhat surprised by Damon’s impersonation of Castlewood’s Captain of the Guard.

“He said that?” Mister Grayson said of Dunning in surprise.

“Yeah,” answered Tencha. “The Graysons are a menace to this school,” she said, in a mocking voice, repeating Dunning words during Michael Wendell’s hearing.

“That’s right…” Dowla added, “and then he said, ‘The Graysons are known troublemakers. Every one of you should be as far away from this place as possible,’” she complained, in her own inaccurate imitation of Dunning.

Their father glowered at them. “Now I’m sorry I didn’t insist on that meeting before my departure,” he heaved, concernedly. He leaned back in his chair, rubbing his chin as if contemplating a chess move. “Troublemakers, huh?” he whispered to himself. His eyes suddenly darted up at them. “It would seem the Captain and I have unfinished business.”

“Cheers!” said Damon, raising his glass of wine toward their father. Mister Grayson leaned in.

“Now listen closely to me, all of you,” he said, very seriously. “You are all to be on your best behavior while at school until I can settle this properly. Do you understand?” He scanned each of them individually to ensure he had their attention.

“Yes, sir,” they replied together.

“I mean it! I’ll do my part to end this harassment, but I don’t want to hear you’ve given Dunning a valid reason to overreact.” He stared at the twins especially, and they nodded. “And that goes for you too, Anna,” he added. Anna looked up in surprise. She glared at Eric, wondering if he had told their father about her arrest. Her brother seemed to know what she was thinking.

“Yes, sir,” she replied, worriedly.

When the conversation finally changed its course, Eric turned to her. “No… I didn’t tell him,” he said, reticently. “And I specifically warned Damon and the twins not to say anything either.” Anna bore through his stare searching for the truth, and then nodded when she was convinced of his loyalty.

In time, the dinner turned happy once again, and after a number of Christmas cheers and farewell toasts, the family headed upstairs for bed. Anna lay awake in the dark for hours until she heard her father coming up the staircase. When she was sure he was in his room, she immediately leapt up. She put on her robe and slippers, and jammed her wand into her pocket. She cracked her door to look out and then quietly stepped into the hallway. Tiptoeing down the staircase, she paused slightly to listen for the familiar sounds of Cookie snoring inside his newel post. She crept down to the entryway and around the railing leading to the basement.

A minute later, Anna was closing the door inside her father’s office. The globes on the walls began to brighten, filling the room in its familiar amber hue. She crossed the space to the conference room door and cracked it open to peek into the large emptiness beyond. The room was dark and cold; she was alone. Anna closed the door and then turned to look carefully, much more deliberately, into her father’s office around her. Several books were missing from their place on the shelves, which she found neatly stacked on his desk among several old scrolls. The portrait of Victoria Grayson was bathed in an eerie, shadowed-filled blue from the lamp above its frame.

Returning to the center of the room, Anna slowly inspected everything. The vault could be anywhere: In the floor, in the walls, behind one of the glass cabinets. Where should I begin? She clasped her hands together almost prayerfully and then stepped forward to place her palms flat to the walls. She closed her eyes in concentration as she moved across its surface, paying close attention to the textured material under her touch as her hands carefully glided across the wall, stopping only when she could feel the slight warmth of one of the globes beneath her fingertips. And then, there was a familiar whisper in the back of her mind; it echoed through the sound her hands made across the plaster and wood.

“Sithmaith…” a voice cooed softly and Anna froze. “Welcome home… Guardian.” Anna immediately jerked her hands away. She had heard a voice similar to this once before at Castlewood. On that first day at the front gate before her hand was sucked into the stone of the archway. Listening carefully, Anna placed her hand on the wall again.

“The protector has returned,” said the voice in her mind.

“Who… are you?” Anna whispered back.

“We are but a thread of the magic you serve. Do not fear…we are as one. What is it you seek, little one?” Anna’s heart was pounding; she could hear the blood pulsing in her ears.

“I… I’m looking for something in this room,” she said, uncertainly. “I’m looking for a safe or a vault I believe my father has hidden here.” More whispers poured from the walls; they vibrated through her fingertips and into her head.

“Nothing under magic’s veil… can be hidden from you, Sithmaith. You are part of the whole… are you not?”

“I… guess so…” Anna answered, unsurely.

“Stand away, Guardian, and direct your sight on that which was meant to be hidden. Focus on what is not seen.” Anna stepped back to the middle of the room and then turned to scan the office once more. Nothing unexpected was there. She closed her eyes and repeated the instructions the voice had given to her.

“Show me what was meant to be hidden,” she whispered, and then opened her eyes again… still nothing. She took another deep-cleansing breath, closed her eyes, and tried to clear her mind. “What can’t I see?” Her eyes slowly peeked out. From the corner of the room she began to see a soft glow. She turned to face the wall between her mother’s portrait and the couch and saw an arched door appearing within a bluish haze. Anna recognized the blanket of color immediately. She had seen it before when she first saw Drogo castle while riding over the mountains of Spellsburg. The black castle had the same eerie haze to it, an envelope of blue mist. Gwen had said Drogo was protected by the Fidelius Charm, which was suppose to keep its location a secret to all but its secret keeper, but Anna was somehow able to see the castle anyway. She looked at the massive black door and then realized, “The vault must be protected by the Fidelius Charm.

She stepped up to the door and placed her hand on its surface. Immediately, the bluish haze disappeared to reveal a massive, steel door as the voice returned.

“Very good, Guardian. You are now the keeper of this secret with one other, with your father, Boris Grayson.”

“But how? How is it that I can be this vault’s secret keeper?”

“We are united, are we not, against the impending storm? We desire your protection, and you may need to tap the fiber of what we are to accomplish your tasks.”

Maat,” “vriendin,” “comitis,” “компаньон”

Anna smiled warily and then, looking up at the door once more, she gathered her resolve. “How can I open this?” she said, pushing at the door’s front and then pulling on its iron handles. There was a rusty placard welded upon its surface that said:

Hand-forged and Protected by Hooksbarb

The best in Gremlin Conjured Enchantments

Anna stood back. “I want to get inside…” she said, angrily. The voices in her head were silent. She placed a hand on the door again.

“You must become one with us to enter…”

“I don’t understand…” Anna started to say, and then, unexpectedly, she felt her hand fall into the metal of the door. Anna let out a yelp of surprise and tried to yank back. It was stuck fast. No… not again… she thought, remembering her experience with the stones at the Castlewood entranceway. The voices in her head were getting louder now.

“Fear not, Guardian, we will become one, and you will pass through this barrier.”

“Pass through?” Anna tried to calm herself. She could feel a tingling sensation touching her hand within the metal of the door. It felt like many tiny fingers touching and stroking her skin, as if coaxing her forward, drawing her onward. She stopped struggling and then inched her hand forward. It slid effortlessly into the door still further and an uncontrollable recklessness began to fill her.

“All right…” she whispered, determinedly. She took deep breath, closed her eyes, and then pushed forward. There was a warm rush of wind passing over her body as Anna stepped through the door and into the vault; only darkness was there to greet her. Anna fumbled desperately in the pockets of her robe for her wand.

“Lumos!” she squeaked in amazement, and the light from her wand tip burst forth inside the massive chamber. She couldn’t believe what had just happened. She had walked straight through a solid metal door; and not just any door, but one undoubtedly protected by an array of magical spells and goblin enchantments. How was that possible? She looked at the back of the door and the many gears, bolts and levers holding it together. There were blue sparkles of magic, like fireflies winking and popping on the surface of the metal outlining the spot where she had passed through. Charms, no doubt, to protect the door from the most determined intruders. But not, it would seem, from magic’s Guardian.

The space inside the vault was cavernous, and looked as if it had been honed from a series of caves extending in several infinite directions in front of her. The walls were coated with the same blue shimmer of magic that winked and glittered like diamonds. Stalactites and stalagmites glistened wet from the floor and ceiling, and there was the echoing sound of dripping water all around her. Several stalagmites had been sheared off at the waist to create tables, and stacks of gold coins were piled upon them everywhere. Precious gems and objects of priceless silver and gold were stacked neatly inside holes meticulously hollowed out of the rock walls. Anna knew the Grayson family was well off, but what she saw here made her gape in awe. Several centuries of ancestral treasure were within these walls, the accumulation of wealth, no doubt, from both the Grayson and Jennings families. Smiling, Anna could only imagine what a thief would say upon seeing such riches.

Then, an obvious problem suddenly dawned on her. There was so much here; how would she find what she was looking for? Reaching back, Anna placed her hand on the door once more.

“Are you there?” she whispered, looking into the shadowed corners of the cave for a response.

“Always… Sithmaith.”

“I’m trying to locate a letter that was placed in here earlier today.” A light suddenly illuminated, showing a small pedestal to her left.

“This would be the newest arrival,” said the voice in her head. A tied sack sat upon a piece of parchment. Anna picked up the heavy sack and looked inside. Hundreds of shiny gold galleons glittered in the light above her. She picked up the paper and moved her wand over to read.

To: The Confederation of Ministries,

Secret Keeper of Saint Drogo’s Hospital for Incurable Lost Causes.

Dear Sir,

I’m sending you my annual contribution toward the continued care, upkeep and maintenance of Saint Drogo hospital. I was pleased with the improvements in the condition of the cells during my last visit and to the prison grounds in general. I was also very impressed with the newly conjured incantations and enchantments put in place for Spellsburg’s greater protection. Thank you again for your continued commitment to improving this facility, and the lives of those unfortunate souls living within its walls. In response to your persistent eagerness to advance the quality of life of the hospital’s residents, I am increasing my yearly donation and await with fervent anticipation the many improvements it may collect.

With warmest regards, Boris Edmond Allister Grayson,

Ministry Director/Wizard and Muggle Banking Cooperation

So, her father not only knew where Drogo prison was located, but he was also sending gold there and visiting the prison on a regular basis. Apparently, he had been doing this for quite a while. The letter had been written to the prison’s secret keeper who was not specifically named. It had to be Captain Dunning, Anna thought angrily. She was still convinced that Dunning was up to something sinister in all of this. Maybe this was it; maybe he was stealing the gold her father was sending to him; but… no. Her father seemed genuinely pleased with how the gold was being spent for improvements to the prison. So what was it then?

Anna reread the letter twice more before placing it down on the pedestal again and turning to the door. Placing her hand on its metal surface, she said, “Thank you… for helping me.”

“The protector is most welcome. A trivial matter compared to your devotion to our continued existence.”

Anna laid her forehead resignedly against the cold steel, “I still don’t know what you expect from me.” There was a long silence before the voice returned.

“The strands of magic speaking to you cannot say what will be the outcome of our future together, but be assured, Sithmaith, we are most pleased with your progress.”

Anna gave a tired smile, suddenly feeling very weary. She slowly turned and fell back against the door, her wand light dipping to her feet. Looking again into the darkness of the caverns in front of her, unanticipated words of frustration seemed to release themselves from her mind. She said them almost rhetorically, without a thought of hearing any response.

“How did my mother die?” she moaned, despairingly. A sudden coldness settled over her body upon hearing her own words, and the long silence that followed seemed to snap her attention forward again. She frowned, almost interpreting the silence as an unwillingness to answer her.

“Polleo – fortis,” said a different voice, deep inside her mind. “You are so… very brave.”

Lejárónyílás…” said another.

“Our champion…”

There was another pause before the first voice came forward again. “The thread that touches you now has not the knowledge of what you seek. For we exist here and nowhere else. But there are many threads that make up the vaporous mysteries you call magic, numerous levels of understanding stretching out into the world that may know more than those speaking to you here. We feel the danger coming, and we recognize our champion, but we are as islands scattered across the deepest waters, all connected, and yet… isolated. Another island, absent but by the morning’s tide, may hold your answers… or they may be as dreams in a distant land across the sea.

It was getting difficult for Anna to bring forth the concentration necessary to understand what the voices were telling her. She immediately thought of the verosapt. “Another island in the sea,” she said to herself, heaving a weary breath. “I’m so tired,” she moaned again, turning longingly in the direction of her bed on the other side of the door. She placed her hands on its surface. “Please, let me pass.” Immediately, one of her hands moved forward and was swallowed by the door. There was another rush of wind through her body as she closed her eyes and stepped forward. In an instant, she was standing in her father’s office once more. She turned and watched the door behind her begin to fade into a bluish haze; it rippled distortedly and then it was gone. Anna headed upstairs and quietly closed the door to her bedroom. She didn’t want to think about anything anymore. She let her robe slide over her shoulders to the floor, and then crawled back into bed. Anna laid her head on her pillow and listened to the sound of the ocean rolling across the beaches outside her window. She imagined herself standing on the beach and reaching out toward those distant islands across the sea. She felt her body being lifted and pulled in their direction, but it was exhaustion and finally sleep that were sweeping her away.

FIVE

“Anna, what are the most important strengths our family possesses?”

It was the next morning, and the Grayson children were once again standing in line waiting to receive their father’s blessing before journeying back to school. Their trunks were packed and loaded, and the cars were warming their engines outside. Mister Grayson had already given his council and advice for the remaining year and was now standing in front of Anna, waiting for an answer to his question. She barely heard him.

“Anna? Are you all right?” he said, frowning at her. She looked up at him and into his brown, absorbing eyes. Deep down, she felt something different she had never felt while in her father’s presence. She realized it was a hole, as if something that was once there was suddenly absent. She knew immediately what was missing.

“Trust,” she said, unwaveringly. She stared up at her father, looking for his reaction. He frowned at her.

“What?” he said in surprise. Anna didn’t flinch. She could feel her brothers and sisters turning to look at her from their place in the line. Gabby, who was standing to her right, jerked up to stare at her.

“Faith, love… and trust,” Anna replied coldly. Her father paused, unsure in what why to respond.

“Okay…” he said, in a long drawing voice. “And tell me, do these strengths depend on our power or abilities?”

“No, they are gifts from God to all of us.” Anna’s father forced a smile. He reached out and hugged her. Suddenly, his warm embrace seemed to fill all that might have been missing in her heart. She hugged him back not wanting to release him again.

“Can I trust you to honor your faith while you’re away and out of my reach? Can I trust you in this line?” he whispered into her ear in a heart-felt moan, his voice already filled with longing.

“Yes, daddy, you can trust me,” she replied earnestly. Her father released her and walked back to fill his space in the line next to Widwick and Mrs. McConnell, both of which were weeping. Their father’s voice boomed over their sobs.

“You must remember that magic is not allowed outside the estate grounds until you’re aboard the Allegheny Pride.” He paused again. “I grant you permission to leave our family home and venture out. Good luck — work hard — and return safe. You’re dismissed!”

The family stepped forward and hugged their father as one. “The thought of letting you go again is… unbearable to me,” he groaned. Then, releasing them, he turned to the side and motioned them toward the door. “Stay the course,” he said with a sniff, “and give Angus my regards on your journey out.” He handed Eric a brown paper bag containing Captain Reye’s gift. “You’d better get going.”

One by one, the children kissed their father, and Anna and Eric hugged Mrs. McConnell before walking out the door and down the stone steps. Stooping low, they threw themselves into the back seat of one of the cars.

Gabby swatted Widwick on the back of his baldhead. “And don’t you’s forget’ta water mys Razormallard in the greenhouse, you worthless pile o’ thorse dung!”

Widwick screeched in surprise, rubbing his throbbing head. He looked back at Gabby with tears of sorrow welling in his eyes. “Iz gonna miss you’s too… you’s old bat!” he replied, shoving Gabby through the car door and onto Anna lap.

“Goodbye, Widwick. I love you!” Anna yelled out with a grabbing wave. There was a series of thumps as the doors were closed and the drivers dropped the cars into gear. With a final wave from their rear windows, the children slowly rolled out of sight. Mister Grayson turned to look at Mrs. McConnell and Widwick who were still wiping their eyes.

“I’ll never get use to seeing them leave,” he said wearily. He turned to reenter the house. “I do … hate it so.”

SIX

Several hours later, Anna was leaning against the railing of the Allegheny Pride, telling Gwen and Sarah Bell everything that had happened over the holiday. When she got to the part where she saw the ghost of Leola Grayson, Sarah cupped her mouth and screamed in frightened amazement.

“And you say, the ghost couldn’t remember who the person was that murdered her?” Gwen asked skeptically.

Anna shook her head. “No… she seemed genuinely surprised when I told her what the Mirror of Enlightenment had said.”

“Weird. And she attacked your father because she actually thought that he was having some kind of an affair with your mother?” Anna shrugged. “My God… how bizarre is that?”

She told them about Professor McGonagall traveling all the way from Hogwarts. The girls stared in amazement when she repeated what McGonagall had said about her not being an Animagus.

“Well, if not an Animagus… what then?” Gwen asked, incredulously.

“I don’t know,” Anna replied, gazing out into the green mist of Neptune’s Veil. She started to think again about the strange comment she thought she heard McGonagall saying to her father. We should wait until we know if Anna will transform into something else. Anna looked at Gwen and Sarah. “You know… I’ve had dreams about becoming other creatures too.” They stared at her in surprise. “They’re just dreams, you know, but I do remember them vividly. They were so real to me at the time. I remember turning into something large with claws during a fight with Damon once, and then flying through the woods at night and attacking Debbie Dunning.”

“Oh, I’ve had that dream too,” said Gwen, her eyes smiling with delight. Anna and Sarah looked stunned as Gwen continued. “My whole arm turned into this big troll’s club,” she said, turning a stiff elbow in her other hand, “and I was chasing Debbie through the corridors, swinging it like a maniac. Oh… it was so sweet!”

Anna snorted. Once again, Gwen’s sense of humor seemed to be the remedy to all her worries. “Well… did you ever catch her?”

Gwen’s face fell disappointedly. “Nah… I got her pinned next to that statue of Leopold the Lippy, you know –– the one with all that moss growing on his face in the North Tower? Anyway…” Gwen turned to make sure nobody around them could hear, “I got the little fatso cringing like the coward she is in a corner…” she growled, suddenly transported to the very moment of unexpected delight, “but when I went to raise my arm to bash her in the head, the club was like… twelve feet long and I couldn’t lift it off the stupid floor. And then my whole shoulder started to turn into wood,” she said, rubbing the side of her neck with a frown. “Then that gorgeous Albert Teneby came running down the hallway to save me.” Sarah started to snicker. “Yeah… he comes over and helps me lift my arm, and then asks if I’d like to go with him to get some ice cream. So, of course, I ask him if my club bothered him, and he says, no… I like girls with a troll’s clubs for arms.”

Anna was laughing. “So… what then? Did Albert Teneby help you carry your club out to Mrs. Smile’s for a cone?” She looked at Sarah who had her knuckles buried in her mouth. Gwen’s face looked like it was filled with pain.

“No… can you believe it? This brainless troll walks up and yanks me up by the wrist, says he wants his club back and then starts to carry me off. I’m screaming at the top of my lungs for Albert to help me and he’s standing there on the drawbridge, waving like an idiot, saying we can get ice cream some other time. And then he goes running off after that pretty little Karen Scott.” Gwen folded her arms in obvious frustration. Then… looking up at Anna, she frowned. “So… what were you saying again?” Anna and Sarah were leaning on each other and laughing hysterically.

SEVEN

Soon the Allegheny Pride was docked along the river’s edge in Pennsylvania, and its students were cramming themselves into several waiting cable cars. They entered Spellsburg once again to the cheering applause of the townspeople wishing them all a Happy New Year. Soon, the three friends were sitting by a warm fire in the Tower Room, and Anna was finishing her account of how she had found her father’s vault and the letter to St. Drogo’s castle. Gwen and Sarah sat mesmerized by the news.

“You were able to pass through a solid metal door? Wow,” Gwen said in amazement. “I wonder if all the Guardians can do that — or just you?” Anna hesitated. She never told her friends about Eric’s belief that she was supposed to be some kind of Guardian leader; what the mirror had called the Sithmaith. She didn’t know if these strange powers were extended to all of the Guardians or not. She looked at Gwen appraisingly.

“I don’t know. Have you ever heard voices speaking to you whenever you touch a magical object?”

Gwen looked disappointed. “No…” she muttered, disparagingly. Then she brightened. “But I did hear singing once when I kissed Joshua Polanowski.”

Anna smiled. “I think that’s probably something different.” She looked at Sarah. “So… how was your Christmas, Sarah? Any problems with talking in your sleep?” Sarah Bell’s face brightened.

“Professor Thordarson was kind enough to take me aside before I left to go home, and he showed me a spell that we usually wouldn’t see until our fifth year. He’s a very nice man.” She began to fumble for something in the pockets of her robes and then pulled out her wand. Pointing it at her own throat, she whispered, “Silencio!” She lowered her wand and then tried to speak. There were no words as she proceeded to carry on with their conversation. Gwen suddenly whipped out her wand and pointed it at her.

“Pump up the volume, girl. Sonorus!” she chanted, looking to increase Sarah’s failed voice. Sarah laughed and continued to move her lips without a sound. She began to toss her head left and right, seemingly blabbering contentedly without a care. She finally stopped and then closed her eyes as if to intensify her concentration. She raised her wand to her throat and moved her lips to the words of the counter spell. She opened her eyes.

“YOU SEE? IT WORKS GREAT!!!!!” Her words boomed into the room like an explosion, and Sarah slapped her hands over her mouth in shock. Anna and Gwen grabbed their ears from the pain of Sarah’s blasting voice reverberating around them in the Tower Room. Several other students seated close by screamed in surprise.

“Hey — keep it down!” yelled a seventh-year across the room.

“Sorry, Sarah. All my fault,” Gwen said, pointing her wand at the girl again. “Quietus!” Sarah’s eyes darted appallingly over the room before slowly lowering her hands again.

“Okay?” she whispered softly.

Gwen shoved her wand back into her robes. “Yeah, you’re fine now,” she giggled.

Sarah smiled. “So now I can do the spell before I go to sleep and not have to worry about what I might say in the night.”

“That’s great,” Anna said, feeling relieved for her friend. “No more worries, then?”

“Nope. Although it did take me the entire day the first morning to get the counter spell to work. It’s so much harder to do a spell without your voice,” Sarah explained. “But now you don’t have to worry about me talking in my sleep.”

Anna’s face fell. “I never said it bothered me. In fact, if you don’t mind, I think I’d rather you didn’t stop yourself from seeing my future.”

Sarah looked stunned. “But… I… thought…”

“Listen,” Anna interrupted, “when you sent me that message before, it was really helpful. Frankly, I’ve been hoping to hear you speak in your sleep again. I kind of like having an early warning system sleeping right next to me.” Sarah smiled appreciatively. She had never considered her ability as anything but dangerous.

“So if you don’t mind,” Anna continued, “I’d just as soon keep the sound turned up.” Sarah’s eyes began to well with tears.

“Are… you sure about this, Anna?”

“Quite sure.”

“Schedules!” bellowed an Artisan Knight who had joined their group by the fire. She handed Gwen a piece of parchment. “Next term’s schedule, Gwen… and I have… Sarah Bell,” she handed Sarah her schedule, “and… Anna Grayson. There you go… enjoy.”

Anna and Sarah leaned into one another to compare their schedules for the upcoming term. “Pretty much the same again, Sarah,” Anna said, smiling triumphantly. “Look, we have Professor Bots this time for Muggle Studies.” Gwen looked over at their schedules to check.

“Professor Bots? Oh you’re so lucky! He’s one of the nicest teachers here at the school. I’ve got her royal-hagness, the infamous Professor Wence.” Anna and Sarah winced in reply. “Yeah… and she’s every bit as bad as she sounds. Gave me lines last year for talking to Donald Riggins in class. ‘I WILL STOP ACTING STUPID AROUND BOYS,’” she recalled, insulted. Sarah started to giggle.

“Oh my…” Anna said, still looking down at her schedule. She glanced over Sarah’s shoulder and then pointed to the last line on the list. “Look… we’ve got flying lessons starting in February.”

EIGHT

“Thirty-six… thirty-seven… thirty-eight… thirty-nine… forty. Forty-one…”

There came a long, lamented scream and then the rattling of bars. Cups and plates of food, just delivered, were slammed against the wall by some, and ravaged by the rest. A crimson-cloaked guard patrolled the gap between the barred cells containing those prisoners considered safe enough to see each other.

“Come over here, laddie,” said a bearded man in molded rags. He had an arm outstretched through the bars. “Let me have a look at your pretty little stick.”

The young guard, who the violent ones liked to call pretty-boy, ignored the man, gripping his wand tight in the pocket of his robes as he walked past.

“Come on, boy, just a peek, ay?”

The guard said nothing. His mind was as far away from this dark place as it could be, strolling the imaginary tree-lined pathway of his parent’s home. The straight, slate path to their front door marked the way back to happiness and love, and all of the things that were missing in this retched place. He imagined his parent’s front door embedded in the rock wall in front of him.

“One-hundred twenty-five… one-hundred twenty-six.”

His slow monotonous steps finally brought his feet to the door’s threshold; he stopped. The guard reached out to touch the invisible latch only his mind's-eye could see; he jiggled it to confirm the door was still locked. Mom and Dad are safe inside, he thought, renewing his resolve. He lifted his right foot and, placing his toe behind the heel opposite, he turned with a snap to face the other way. For the briefest moment, he saw the cells to his left and right and the faces of those watching his every move, staring out at him like a mob of hungry vampires. His gaze dropped to the thin yellow line down the center of the stone floor ending at a steel gate on the other side. He paused, and then closed his eyes. When he opened them again, the horrible place around him had melted away and had turned into the blissful pathway of his home again. The steel gate had transformed itself into the white picket fence to the street where he grew up; he smiled. He stepped forward as one of the prisoners in the cell next to him counted his steps.

“One… two… three… four… five… six… seven…”

As the guard passed the first cell, the prisoner in the next took up the count.

“Eight… nine… ten… eleven… twelve… thirteen… fourteen…”

He couldn’t hear them. Once again, his mind had escaped. While his body remained… the part of him that protected his sanity was guarding his parent’s home from these sick and brutal men. He concentrated solely on the white fence at the end of the pathway and nothing else.

“Sixty-two… sixty-three… sixty-four… sixty-five…”

For a brief moment, his mind suddenly slipped, and in that instant he found himself asking the same old questions. How did I get here? How did I go from my parent’s home to this place? I worked so hard. I was a model student at Castlewood, a Knight. I was well liked and one of the top students in my class at the Law Enforcement Institute. My Captain told me I would go far… but first… he said I had to pay my dues.

“Ninety-eight… ninety-nine… one-hundred. One-hundred and one… one-hundred and two…”

Two more days and it’ll be over until next month. By Saturday, I’ll be enjoying the ‘good duty’ upstairs, walking the ramparts outside in the sunshine. I hope it’s warmer than it was last month.

“One-hundred twenty-three… one-hundred twenty-four… one-hundred twenty-five… one-hundred twenty-six.”

The guard stopped at the metal gate. He reached out and rattled the latch. Still locked — still safe –– all is well. His parents didn’t have to worry about this ugly and murderous throng so long as he was here. He turned again with a snap.

“Hundred twenty-six again!” yelled a toothless old man in the last cell, and the rest of the villains cheered and banged on the bars with their cups. A prisoner on the other side abruptly stuck his hand out to the guard.

“Congratulations, my boy, you just broke your old record! That’s seventeen times in a row at one hundred and twenty-six steps. Ruddy brilliant! Let me be the first to congratulate you.” The guard, in a rare moment of consciousness, turned his head to look at the prisoner. The man jerked his hand still further out to shake. The guard looked down at the hand just a few feet away. It looked bruised and filthy, the nails black. It was the hand of death, attached to the Reaper himself –– easily proven if he was foolish enough to touch it. The guard smiled and then turned his gaze back to the yellow line and the far off wall. He focused his mind once more on the fragrant smells of his home, and watched the cells to his left and right dissolve away. The tree-lined path appeared once more and the front door of his parent’s house was there.

“One… two… three… four… five… six… seven…”

The man in the first cell laughed. “The boy’s a machine,” he yelled, pressing his face hard into the bars. “A bloody head of gears!”

“Come on, Laddie,” said the bearded man again, “let me see your pretty little stick. Oh… if I just had a pretty wand like that, I would be as free as a bird in no time. Please, boy, just give us a peek… ay?”

“Forty-two… forty-three… forty-four… forty-five… forty-six…”

Two floors down, shrieks of self-induced terror were mixed with the sounds of patients throwing themselves against their padded rooms.

“Look, I’m a dragon!” yelled a man in chains. “I’m gonna huff and puff, and tear you head off –– ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ahhhhh-heh-heh-heh…”

Four floors down, the guards were rushing into a cell to control a patient intent on strangling himself with the tentacles whipping about from his own head.

Five floors down, there is only howling despair and complete blackness.

Nine floors down, in the deepest dungeons of Drogo prison, a hideous and cackling voice could be heard resonating through the gloom-filled hallways.

“The Dark Lord is coming… I can feel his touch growing stronger. We who are his faithful servants will soon be rewarded.” The woman let out an ugly, revolting laugh that reverberated through the walls outside her door.

“Shut up –– you old hag!” yelled another voice from the adjoining room next to her.

“My master… is coming. His power is immeasurable!” the woman screeched.

“I said, shut up!”

Another man’s voice, as gentile as the gentleman he thought himself to be, spoke out. “Leave the poor woman be, Reggie. All she has are her delusions.”

“I can’t stand it anymore! Night after night, month after month, she’s screaming the same thing. When’s she gonna get it through her thick head that You-Know-Who is dead. That fiend is never coming back!”

The other man in the room across from him laughed. Through his locked and bolted door, he gushed with his own brand of high speech. “Ahhh… but is the Dark Lord truly gone, Reggie? If he is… then why don’t you call him by his real name? Let me hear you say it. Let me hear you say… Voldemort.” The other man gasped at the sound of the name, and the man across the hall laughed in amusement under his breath. Suddenly, the woman’s voice rang out again.

“How dare you say my master’s name! You are not his disciple. You are not worthy to think upon him with your maggot-eaten, pathetic mind!” the woman shrieked, angrily. The man across the hall laughed through his door again.

“My dear… sweet… lady, are we not all disciples of evil in this place? For you see… evil comes in many different forms, all of which… I find to be… delicious.”


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