Anna Grayson and The Order of Merlin

The Second Task

The first week after the holiday at Castlewood was just like any other Anna had experienced at her Muggle school. The mood in the corridors was somber and rather muted following the excitement of the Christmas break. Anna often caught herself thinking longingly about her father and was doing so again when she received one more unexpected surprise on the last day of the first week. Returning to her room to retrieve a book, she was startled by a loud clang from the Guardian counter above her door. As the hand on the face began to sweep around, the magical device sounded off with a rasp-filled dong at every click of the count until finally shuddering to a stop with a clattering ka-chunk-ching.

“Oh…my…God…” Anna gaped, looking up at the purple numbers blazing into view.

[Guardians needed to sustain the Union:]

[14]

Backing away in disbelief, Anna dashed down the staircase looking for Eric. When she reached the gathering space, she turned to see her brother marching down the center aisle with a long line of students in tow behind him. She could see his face beaming with delight. They were Guardians, all of them, Guardians. They halted in front of Anna while the other Servers in the hall crowded around them.

“Anna, we have ten more. Ten!” Eric couldn’t contain his excitement any longer.

“How…?” Anna stammered. “Why… where did they all come from? Why so many now?” The line of new Guardians parted to surround her.

“Apparently, several students have been thinking about joining us for quite a while, but waited to discuss it with their families over the holiday.”

A seventh-year girl wearing new Guardian robes stepped up to Anna. “Hello, Anna. My name is Ines Valeria, formally of the Searcher Union.”

“Janet Wardrop,” said another girl, reaching out to shake Anna’s hand.

“Isabel Lang.” “Teresa Sinclair.” “John Baird.” “Joe Philias.” “Arty Nelson.” “John Gryskiewicz.” “Marian Nelson.” “Gabriel Laroche.”

“I’m very glad to meet you, and… thank you… for doing this,” Anna said, sincerely. She looked at Ines and smiled. “Especially you.”

“Me?” the girl replied, smiling back. “Whatever do you mean?”

“Well… you’ve been a Searcher almost seven years, and now you change Unions in your last semester at Castlewood?”

The girl grinned and then shrugged. “How do you know I’m not here for my own selfish reasons… as a way, perhaps, to advance my future career opportunities,” Her joking smile turned serious as she looked at the group, “Someday… I believe the entire Wizarding world will be thankful for what we’re starting here. I know I already am.”

Eric stepped in. “Truer words were never spoken, but somehow I doubt the Mirror of Enlightenment would have joined you to us if your intentions were selfish. Welcome, Ines.” He stuck out this hand and shook hers. “Welcome — all of you. I’ve already secured rooms for everybody upstairs. If you’d like to pair up, I’ll have your things moved tonight.”

TWO

After the fourth heavy snowfall in January, Anna’s romance with the winter season had quickly worn off. The hallways inside the school were miserably cold and drafty, the great Union Halls always freezing. Still, through it all, Anna and Sarah considered themselves lucky. At least their room was facing the city inside the ramparts. It was common for the students with rooms facing the plateau to find ice forming on the inside of their windows on the coldest mornings.

But as the piercing cold of January passed into February, the weather turned appallingly bitter. Artic winds raced over the Pennsylvania Mountains and funneled their way through the tiny streets and alleys of Spellsburg, glazing the snow between the buildings like rivers of milky glass. Trying to stay warm, the students tripped and stumbled over each other in huddled groups as they made their way to their classes.

Anna never realized until then how far her father’s efforts to merge electricity and magic at the mansion had improved their lives. While the fires within Castlewood were doing their best to keep up with the demand, she longed for a good Muggle heating system. At least their schools were always warm.

As Gwen had correctly predicted, Muggle Subjects was the most hated class at the school, and to Anna’s surprise, even some of the students born to Muggle families were quick to agree how utterly useless these subjects now seemed to be to them. Why should they study mathematics, and physics, and chemistry? Why was it necessary to study Muggle philosophy and literature? Wasn’t it difficult enough to understand the ways of wizards in the seven years given to them without having to waste their time with this trivial nonsense? Was it really necessary to understand Muggle economics and law? What was so important about geology?

As for Anna, she worked harder in Muggle Studies than in all of her other classes put together. For her, these subject validated a life she had already lived for so many years and wasn’t quite ready to give up as part of her future. She was always mentally on guard; ready to hear the news it was time for her to go home, to go back to being a squib again. After all, her wizarding powers had only just awakened. Was it crazy to think they might disappear just as quickly? Suppose the magic that had given her this new life decided, like it did once before, that it didn’t need her anymore? Muggle Studies might be the only thing left to prepare her for a life outside the Wizarding world. Anna ignored the complaints from the other students around her and concentrated her efforts along two paths: She would take in everything the school had to offer to become the best witch she could possibly be, but she would work just as hard in Muggle Studies… just in case.

As February slowly passed, two subjects were a part of nearly every conversation within the castle: the second task of the Triwizard Tournament to be held on February twenty-fourth, and the start of the upcoming swift-slalom season. It seemed the entire Wizarding world was as excited about the tournament as it had been with the recent Quidditch World Cup, and the success of the first task had aroused an unmatched level of anticipation going farther back than anybody could remember.

“What do you think the champions will have to do this time?” asked a boy of another in Anna’s Defense Against the Dark Arts class.

“Who knows,” shrugged his friend. “Maybe they’ll make them fight some hideous giant,” he added, raising his arms over his head in an animated and very amusing giant-like way.

Each of the students seemed to have a favorite champion. The boys of Castlewood liked Viktor Krum of Bulgaria, given his fame as a seeker in the recent Quidditch World Cup. The girls, on the other hand, seemed to be pulling for the French champion, Fleur Delacour. Gwen, not unexpectedly, was fond of Cedric Diggory. But this wasn’t due to any impressive talent the champion from Hogwarts had shown thus far in the tournament. It was because, in Gwen’s opinion, Cedric was absolutely the most gorgeous specimen of manhood she had ever seen in her life, with the possible exception, of course, of Eric Grayson.

For Anna, she found herself inspired by Harry Potter. While everybody agreed young Harry had done remarkably well in the first task against the Hungarian Horntail, it was the way the boy was able to get to his egg without attacking the dragon that had impressed Anna the most. Since the day she first saw him competing in the tournament, Anna often wondered if Potter might have become a Guardian had he been studying at Castlewood. Then there was the fact that Harry was younger than all the other champions, which, according to the local odds-makers, continued to put the-boy-who-lived at a disadvantage in the tournament. Yes, things were stacked against Potter, and that fact alone gave Anna all the incentive she needed to support him as her favorite champion.

But if the excitement of the Triwizard Tournament wasn’t enough to warm the students in the first freezing weeks February, the beginning of the swift-slalom season certainly did. Anna paid the sport’s enthusiasts little attention until the day of her first flying lesson, which was scheduled to take place inside Slalom Stadium on the plateau’s west pitch. The thought of learning to fly was very exciting to Anna. She had often heard Eric speaking of like a magical right of passage. Deep down, however, it was probably her sister’s revulsion of flying that made Anna’s desire to do it well all the more important.

Sarah Bell, on the other hand, was terrified at the very thought of flying, and Anna understood why. After all, it was only a few months earlier that Sarah was living a normal, all be it confused, life with her Muggle family in Minnesota. She had no idea the Wizarding world even existed, or that her future would include flying without any physical means of supporting herself. Sarah counted down the days to their first lesson as if they were her last scheduled days to breathe, and Anna often pondered amusingly if Sarah’s abilities as a Seer included predicting her own demise.

Finally, the day of their first lesson had arrived, and on a crisp Monday morning the first-year Guardians and Servers huddled their way across the icy plateau toward Slalom Stadium. The sky was a bright cloudless blue, and the snow-covered evergreens shown like porcelain in the forest surrounding Spellsburg. They entered the stadium to find Mr. Kingston unloading a stack of doors from a trolley and arranging them in neat rows in the center of the field.

“Hello Jeremiah,” Anna said, brightly. “Need any help with those?” Mr. Kingston looked up and smiled. His weathered, old face told the story of a man who had worked his entire life outside and never regretted it.

“Well now… if it isn’t Anna Grayson, looking for another way to get her feet off the ground,” he chuckled as the rest of the class gathered around them. “I saw you practicing on Swooper yesterday. You’re really starting to get the hang of those left rolls,” he mused, handing her one of the doors.

“Yeah… yesterday was a good day. Swooper was in perfect form,” she agreed, taking another door from him and handing it to student behind her.

“Ahhh… but today is going to be better –– clear skies, little to no wind, an excellent day for your first flying lesson. Any of you planning on trying a broom today? I have several in the front of the trolley.” Two of the students raised their hands and Jeremiah, looking somewhat dejected, shook his head.

“The quidditch teams won’t be happy to see so few of you willing to go on brooms. They’re having a heck of a time getting good fliers to join their teams this year.”

“Maybe they should switch to doors, then,” suggested a dark-haired girl in the front. Kingston bristled.

“What? And break with all tradition? Not a chance. Some things are more important than following all of these new fads.”

“New fads?” the girl argued. “But the west has been using doors to fly for hundreds of years. My father says they’re a lot safer than…”

“I’m afraid that until more of you are willing to take up a broomstick, the U.S. will never even make it past the regional finals for the Quidditch World Cup,” Kingston replied, cutting the girl off.

“I don’t want to play quidditch — I want to slalom,” yelped a thick-necked boy excitedly from the back.

There was a sudden WHOOSH over their heads, and a formation of three fliers on flattened doors zipped across the open field. The students pointed and oooooed in sharp whispers.

Mr. Kingston tutted loudly, rolling his eyes, “I can’t imagine why,” he said, sardonically.

One of the fliers broke away from the group and headed back. “Good morning class!” said a man, swooping around them in a tight circle before finally landing lightly in their center. A tall, graying wizard in black robes stepped off the door to survey them.

“My name is Norris Barclay, and I’ll be your flying instructor today. How’s everybody feeling this morning? Ready to give it a go?” The group seemed split between those eager to try and the rest, including Sarah Bell, whose opinion ranged from I’m not sure to absolutely not.

“First, let me set your mind at ease by telling you we’ll be dividing you up into three groups this morning. The first group will be for the more traditionalists among us who wish to train on brooms. Mr. Kingston will be your coach today, and you’ll be setting up on the south side of the field over there. The second group will be for those afraid of heights or, for any reason, are hesitant about doing this. You will be training with one of our seventh-year seniors, Mr. Combs.” Another boy floated in from overhead on a door to land next to Barclay.

“Marty Combs is a member of the Defenders’ swift-slalom team and a really superb flyer. But don’t let his obvious skills fool you today. I was here when he took his first lesson, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more terrified beginner.” The boy named Marty Combs chuckled, and then nodded at the group agreeably. “But as you will soon see, he’s turned out to be brilliant.

“So… we’ll have the brooms follow our Mr. Kingston over there, and the rest of you will queue in behind Mr. Combs or myself.” The groups broke up quickly, and soon Anna was standing with a small handful of eager fliers around Mr. Barclay.

“Right, then…” he said, looking around at the group, “so you’re the maniac, speed-demons of the class, ay?” They all laughed. “Well… let’s not waste this beautiful day. Go and pick yourself out a door. You’ll want the arched end to the front, of course. If you’re right footed, I want you standing on the left side of your door, if you’re left footed –– you’ll begin on the right. Come on –– let’s go,” he said, clapping his hands eagerly. The students each picked out a door and took their positions.

“Now then. We’re going to start with the proper stance.” He positioned himself to the left of his door, and then set his right foot in the center of the flattened panels. His left foot followed. Toes pointed toward the front and his left foot slightly behind the right, he bent his knees into a funny little squat.

“This is the proper look you’ll favor starting out.” Anna couldn’t help snickering to herself. She thought Barclay looked rather silly, almost poised to leap off the door at the first sign of trouble.

“So — what are you waiting for, a written invitation? Let’s see what you can do. Take your positions.”

Each of them stepped onto their door to assume the squatty pose. Anna felt absurd. It felt to her like her body was trying to find some invisible chair seated somewhere behind her. Barclay went around tugging at several ankles and adjusting their foot position to suit his eye.

“Right, very good. Now then… I’m going to ask each of you to reach down with your weak foot and push off. Do it with as little pressure as you can. I don’t want anybody taking off on us. Your door should rise slightly off the ground just a few inches.” He resumed his pose again on his own door and then softy pushed off. He slowly rose off the ground to hover just a few inches in the air. “You’ll need to get the feel of things before you get too high. When you’re up, press gently down on the front to move forward. The harder you press the faster you’ll go. You lean left and right to turn, and then back to slow and brake. Got it?” They all nodded. “Okay, let’s see what you can do,” he said challengingly, and they all resumed their positions. “Remember what I said, and… gently… kick off.” Each of the students reached down and pushed the ground away.

Immediately, the scene was bedlam. A yelp of surprise was followed by a number of screams as bodies began to tumble to the ground. One boy started windmilling his arms frantically before doing a back summersault to his chest, his door caroming into the feet of another boy who crashed with a thud onto his panels. The door he was riding shot across the open field with the boy screaming in tow. Swerving at the last minute to avoid crashing into the bleachers, he disappeared through one of the stadium’s open gates. Mr. Barclay, looking very irritated, snapped his fingers at an assistant overhead who sped off after the boy. The remaining doors, now absent of their riders, began to jerk and shudder aimlessly across the field.

As soon as Anna felt her door lift off the ground, she could feel her balance shift and sway out of control. Her feet instinctively popped sideways to center themselves in a more familiar position. The door rocked left and right, and tilted forward and back in a slow gyrating circle. Anna squatted low, raising her arms to steady herself. She pressed down with her toes and heels to remain aloft until the door settled itself into a quiet hover.

“Miss Grayson, that’s not the proper stance,” yelled Barclay, watching her from the side. “Fix it — now!” He looked over at another student who, despite his best efforts to stop, was slowly creeping away from the group. “Mister Donavan, get your left foot back or we’ll be picking you up out of the bleachers.” Two more riders suddenly fell to the ground with a loud oooofff, while the rest of the class, still brushing the snow off their robes, started to giggle.

Anna was struggling again to remain centered. She tried pointing her toes forward as instructed, but immediately started to lose control again. Falling backward, her feet moved to recover and popped to the side once more to keep herself from tumbling off.

“Miss Grayson, what in the world are you doing? That’s the most absurd stance on a door I have ever seen in my life.”

Combs walked over to watch Anna, balancing precariously on her door in her strange sideways stance. “Odd as it is… it does seem to be working for her, doesn’t it?” he said, appraisingly.

Barclay shook his head. “Ridiculous! All right, Grayson, have it your way. Try pressing on the front of your door to move ahead.”

“It’s just like surfing!” Anna yelped gleefully, and her arms began to waver a bit as she slid her right foot forward.

“It’s just like… what?” bellowed Barclay, frowning impatiently back at her.

Anna pressed down on the front of the door and slowly began to move forward. She leaned left, right, slowed, and then moved forward again.

Combs shook his head. “Have you ever seen anything as crazy as that?”

Barclay was grumbling. “Preposterous! She’ll be completely blind to those on her right, and I’ll be the butt of every joke in Spellsburg.”

Anna was completely lost in the rapture of what she was doing. She was actually flying. No engines, no gigantic wings flapping under her, just the subtle sound of the wind through her hair and robes. Before she knew it, Anna found herself on the other side of the stadium and banking to turn, testing her ability to bring forth what was familiar and improve her control. It worked to perfection, and when the arched nose of her door had righted itself once more, Anna smiled and crouched low. Shrugging off any remaining fear, she slammed her right foot down and rocketed forward. The feeling was euphoric. It was surfing without the thunder of the waves beneath her. She could do this; it was as simple as mastering the two-foot swells on the calmest day back home. She covered the distance back to the group in a flash, circling around and rising out of her crouch to finally stop.

Barclay looked unimpressed. “That’ll do, Grayson. Unorthodox as that stance of yours is –– I suppose it’s effective,” he said, with a hint of revulsion still lingering in his voice. He signaled to another rider floating high above the stadium and a fourth-year boy circled down to join them.

“Bobby, be a good lad, and take Grayson here into the field for a couple of turns.”

The boy looked at Anna standing sideways on her door and chuckled. “If you say so, sir. Follow me…” he said, looking at Anna skeptically. He slowly turned and then shot forward. Anna smiled and set off after him.

They flew high into the air until they came upon a series of red and blue poles, standing upright in the breeze. Anna followed the boy through a series of corners, right around the red poles and left around the blue. More poles came into view, yellow and green this time, lying flat in the air. Anna watched the boy moving through his turns and realized he was flying over the green poles and then under the yellow. She mirrored his every move.

When they finished the first lap around the course, Anna saw the boy looking down at Barclay again who was motioning for them to continue. The boy nodded and then looked back.

“All right, eggie, you’ll try not to fall off, won’t you?” he said, with a smirk. He shot forward with a sudden burst of speed that left Anna looking shocked. She stomped down on the front of the door and exploded after him, crouching low as she gathered speed. Soon she was right behind him again, zipping through the course, around the red and blue poles, over and under the green and yellow. Anna was beaming. It was like surfing through the pylons under one of the abandon peers near her home. She zigged and dipped effortlessly through two more laps before seeing the signal to return to the ground. Feeling somewhat disappointed, Anna reluctantly followed the boy down and circled the group to a stop.

“That’ll do, Grayson,” snapped Barclay, staring at her feet with a look of dismay still lingering on his face, “but it escapes me how you can stay aloft in that strange stance of yours.” He looked at the boy Anna had been following. “Whatdaya say, Bobby? Think we should bring her out on the weekends?” The boy looked at Anna and shrugged uncaringly.

“Right. Grayson –– slalom practice for invited students is held every Saturday and Sunday morning at nine o’clock. If you’re interested, I’ll inform your Union Knight of the invitation.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you,” she replied, enthusiastically.

“Don’t thank me yet. It’ll be a lot of extra work and time out of your studies, and first-years are never allowed to participate in any slalom events. It’ll probably be at least a year or two before you get a chance to race… if ever.” He sighed grudgingly. “It’ll probably take that me long to break you out of that ridiculous stance of yours, but… if you’re willing to put in the work, you might get your shot.” He turned to the rest of the class. “The same invitation will go out to you, Donavan.” The boy beamed with delight, punching the boy next to him in the shoulder.

“As for the rest of you, keep practicing. We will have riders out here every weekday morning thirty minutes after sunup to help you with the basics, all right? You’ll need to remain upright on your door for a minimum of five minutes by the end of the year to pass this course. For those of you on brooms, the standards are quite a bit higher.

As they headed back to the castle, Anna was thrilled about their first flying lesson. She couldn’t properly describe to Sarah the feeling of sailing through the air on a silent wave, and the excitement of darting around the floating poles.

For her part, it had also been a glowing morning for Sarah Bell as well. Surprising herself more than anybody, she had already nearly reached the five-minute standard by the end of the class. Sarah attributed her success to her love of skiing and snowboarding, and was thrilled to know that something she had enjoyed so much as a Muggle was helping her to become a better witch. The two girls agreed they would return to Slalom Stadium every morning that week to practice.

THREE

On the predawn twilight morning of February twenty-fourth, the entire school headed down to Vollucross Stadium for the second task of the Triwizard Tournament. The odds-makers of Spellsburg were displayed in their finest yellow robes once more under the torch-lit streetlamps along the way, and boisterous crowds were snappishly bartering for better odds. Anna, Sarah, Gwen, and TJ quickly made their way through the yelling crowds and headed for the plateau, reading the scribbled signs in several of the shops along the way that said, Closed for the Second Task.

The Allegheny Pride had docked several times in the middle of the night, dropping off thousands of sleepy but excited visitors who were cycling up a continuous stream of tramcars and filling the station house. Wizards and witches of every sort were animatedly discussing the tournament as they approached the city gates through the massive Union walls. As the girls followed the crowd, they stared at the sea of glowing tents under the morning stars, covering the plateau outside. There were hundreds and hundreds of makeshift canvas shelters set in neat rows that weren’t there the day before. The crowds made their way through the grassy pathways between the tents, following the corner lampposts and mounted signs with names like Apple Cannon Way, Niffler’s Pass, and several French and Bulgarian streets that Anna couldn’t pronounce.

“What happened to all the snow?” Sarah asked in amazement, looking around at the damp green grass surrounding them.

“Oh… Thordarson always cleans up a bit before these big events,” said Gwen, who was eyeing a brawny, shirtless young man, yawning and stretching at the door of his tent.

Anna noticed several people staring and pointing at them before hearing an old witch in a leather wrap commenting on the color of Gwen’s robes. It was only then that Anna realized, for many of the visitors at the school, this was probably the first time they had ever seen a Guardian.

They waited in line to enter the stadium’s iron gates, and then found their seats among the excited throng in the middle section of the bleachers overlooking the field’s center. Soon the stadium was filled once more to near capacity as the entire town and their visitors slowly squeezed in. A short time later, Chancellor Thordarson and Mayor Ulric were seen entering the stadium just a few seats away under a large canopy, which was glowing a bright, turquoise-blue beneath the morning moon. As the two men found their seats, Professor Bots stood and raised his wand to this throat.

“Sonorous!” he said, excitedly, and his voice began to boom deafeningly over the crowd.

“Ladies and gentlemen, citizens, students and guests, the Honorable Mayor Ulric of Spellsburg and Chancellor Thordarson of Castlewood Academy would like to welcome all of you back to Vollucross Stadium and today’s second task of the legendary Triwizard Tournament.” The crowd roared with excitement.

“As many of you already know, very few details have come out of England on what we can expect to see from Hogwarts today, and I understand the local odds-makers are taking three-to-one wagers on trolls… but we shall see.” The crowd laughed and cheered again, and Mayor Ulric could be seen enthusiastically holding up his own small piece of parchment.

“I believe everything is ready for us now. So without further delay… we take you once again… to Hogwarts!” Bots raised his wand into the air and bellowed, “Projectius Visum Hogwarts!”

The dawning purple sky darkened to black before bursting forward once more over a crisp, blue English morning far away. As it had done before, the projector’s eye swooped over the many spiral turrets of Hogwarts before diving low across a magnificent, glassy lake sitting below the castle. Pelting across the surface of the water, the crowd gasped as the tentacle of something enormous suddenly lifted out of the water to snatch at them. The view finally settled over a number of bleachers surrounding the opposite bank of the lake, and a crowd of smiling faces dressed in black robes could be seen waving at them. Many of the students were lifting banners in the air that said, GO HOGWARTS, and HOGWARTS CHAMPIONS ARE THE BEST!! And then a familiar British voice thundered into Vollucross stadium.

“Hello again to everybody in the Wizarding world watching this projection of the second task of the Triwizard Tournament. This is Patrick O’Shea coming to you live-by-magic from Hogwarts, the legendary school of witchcraft and wizardry, here in merry ol’ England.” The scene overhead changed to show a buoyant, portly man, speaking once again into his wand like a microphone.

“Good morning everyone, and welcome back to Hogwarts. It’s a beautiful cold day here for our champions, as we look to begin the second of what will be three wizarding tasks. But before we start, let me bring in my co-host once again for today’s competition, my good friend, Mr. Beetle Mantooth.”

The same thin man they had seen during the first task stepped into the picture overhead and nodded. He was wearing red robes this time, but the same beaming smile. “Good morning, Beetle. It’s great to have you back for the second task, but I have to say… the champions will have to work pretty hard today to top what we saw last November, ay?”

The other man nodded as he spoke into his wand. “Absolutely, Pat. By all accounts, the champions had a brilliant first task, and the Ministries putting this tournament together couldn’t be happier with the excitement this contest is generating.”

“So what do we know about the task today?” asked O’Shea, smiling back at the projector.

“Well — as you know, Pat, the details about today’s second task have been a closely guarded secret ever since the end of the first task before Christmas. This was because the champions were expected to figure out the clues given to them within the golden eggs that they captured from the dragons. But we’re happy to report the veil of secrecy has finally been lifted, and we’ve been told by Mr. Ludo Bagman what we can expect to see this morning.” He paused teasingly.

“Go on, then… don’t keep our audience in suspense, Beetle,” said O’Shea, bouncing on his toes excitedly. “Tell us what’s happening!”

The tall man laughed. “Right you are, Pat. The second task is going to test the competitor’s resourcefulness and magical abilities underwater. We have learned that the clue given within the golden egg has informed our champions that something important has been taken from each of them. They will have exactly one hour to retrieve what was taken, which is now sitting somewhere at the bottom of the lake.”

O’Shea frowned. “Oh… well, that doesn’t sound too bad, Beetle. I suppose the toughest part would be figuring out how to stay under water long enough to complete the task.”

“Oh –– if only it were that simple, Pat. Because what our champions don’t realize yet is that the thing taken from them is actually a person –– somebody they personally know and care about. It could be a friend, a classmate, or even a member of their own family being held hostage by the lake’s resident merpeople.”

“Oh dear,” Patrick groaned, looking nervously out at the lake below them. “I do hope our champions aren’t late in getting to those hostages down there.”

Beetle laughed. “Not to worry, my friend,” he replied, patting the other commentator on the shoulder. “The audience should know that the hostages are in no danger whatsoever. In agreement with our Ministry judges, the lake’s merpeople have guaranteed the captives won’t be harmed, and the Headmaster of Hogwarts has placed the proper incantations on our brave volunteers at the bottom of the lake to insure their safety at all times.”

“Oh… well… that’s a relief,” O’Shea sighed, turning back to the projector. “So — while the rest of us catch our breath, let’s show the folks back home who the judges will be for today’s event.”

Moving portraits of the judges suddenly expanded to fill the sky above the Spellsburg stadium, and Beetle introduced each of them in turn. The last judge was a new face the audience had not seen during the first task.

“And finally, we have Mr. Percy Weasley, Assistant to the Director of England’s International Magical Cooperation. Mr. Weasley will be sitting in for his boss, Bartemius Crouch, who is out with an unexpected illness. We all know how important this tournament was to Mr. Crouch, so our prayers for a speedy recovery go out to him.

“And there you have it, Pat, our five judges for today’s event. For those who might have missed the first Triwizard task, let me take the time once again to reintroduce our brave and talented champions.”

Four familiar faces filled the sky above the stadium to a jubilant roar of applause. When the champion from Hogwarts, Cedric Diggory, was introduced, Gwen exaggerated a swoon into Anna’s lap.

“Calm down,” Anna giggled, pushing her friend straight again.

“Ohhh… he’s soooo gorgeous. Now that’s a champion if ever I’ve seen one.”

When Beetle had finished telling the audience about the champions, Patrick O’Shea suddenly stepped into the picture again. He seemed out of breath.

“Thank you… Beetle… for those updates. Well… I’ve just come from the field, ladies and gentlemen, and it would seem one of our champions has gone missing. Harry Potter, who did so remarkably well for us in the first task, it seems is a no-show this morning.”

“Ahhh, well, that is a shame,” said Beetle, looking discouraged. “Although Potter was longest on odds to win this tournament, his daring and skill against the dragon in the first task gathered him quite a following on top of being the sentimental favorite.”

Anna slumped into her seat disappointedly as Gwen leaned in. “Well… it would seem Cedric has one less champion to worry about, doesn’t he?” she said, with a grin. Anna glared back disapprovingly.

“It is a disappointment, Beetle,” O’Shea continued. “But, as you said before, this competition would be extraordinarily difficult for the best of wizards, never mind a fourth-year student. I suppose Potter couldn’t come up with a way to remain underwater for the period of time necessary to succeed in his task and thus… had to bow out. Oh well… maybe that will quiet the continuing controversy about Hogwarts competing with two champions then, eh?”

There was a building roar of cheers emanating from the crowd at Hogwarts and the two commentators turned to see what was happening. Smiling and nodding excitedly to each other, they turned back to the projector again.

“It would seem we might have been too quick to judge Harry Potter. We see him now, running across the lawn toward the lake below us. It looks like the boy who conquered You-Know-Who is intent on competing this morning after all.” The crowd in Spellsburg started to cheer, including Anna.

“There… you see?” Anna said, nudging Gwen in the ribs. “We’re not giving up anything to Diggory yet.” Gwen, looking rather bored, shrugged indifferently.

They could see Harry coming out of a dead run before sliding to a stop in front of the judges’ table. He was clutching his side. Some of the judges watching him didn’t seem all that pleased with his late appearance.

“And now we see Mr. Bagman separating the champions properly around the edge of the lake, and it looks like… yes… we’re definitively getting ready to begin. So let’s switch you now to Mr. Bagman of England’s Department of Magical Games and Sports for the start of the second task. Take it away, Ludo!”

The projector switched to a portly man standing next to the judges’ table. He was raising his wand to his throat to increase his voice and his words echoed throughout the stadium in Spellsburg.

“Well, all our champions are ready for the second task, which will start on my whistle. They have precisely an hour to recover what has been taken from them. On the count of three, then: One...two... three!” There was a long and piercing shrill.

The projector above the stadium swiftly split itself into four panels, each centered on one of the champions. Three of the competitors immediately raised their wands as the commentators began describing what each was doing.

“And so, it begins,” said O’Shea. “It looks like… yes… Mr. Diggory has created a magnificent Bubble-Head Charm. That’ll do the trick, all right. Brilliant move by the Hogwarts champion!”

“Miss Delacour is also using the Bubble-Head Charm, Pat,” added Beetle, pointing down at the lake. Sure enough, the French champion was twirling her wand over her head, which produced a perfectly round ball of glass incasing her entire head. She drove into the lake just behind Cedric.

“Merlin’s beard… what in the Wizarding world is that?” yelped O’Shea, and the projector immediately zoomed in on Viktor Krum. In a blur of bending light, he was transforming grotesquely into some kind of hideous creature, and everybody in the audience leaned forward trying to see what the champion from Bulgaria was doing.

“What do you suppose…?” Anna whispered aloud.

Gwen’s head tottered side to side, trying to figure out what they were seeing. “Eeeeeooowww…. something with gills, I think,” she said, curling her lip.

“Good lord,” gasped Beetle in amazement. “He’s turning into a shark. Now that’ll be some nifty transfiguration right there if he can… oh dear.”

The crowd watched in horror as Krum’s fish transformation suddenly stopped at his shoulders. He was half man, half shark; his face hideously replaced by an enormous mouth filled with sharp teeth and the top of his head a pointed snout. His blackened eyes rolled to the sides of his head and bulged grotesquely. Without warning, the boy dove into the iron-colored water and disappeared under a brewing layer of bubbles.

“And there he goes!” yelled O’Shea, who looked over at the other commentator. “Here’s hoping that half-hearted bit of transfiguration holds up for the champion from Durmstrang,” he breathed, skeptically.

“He’s lookin’ like that large-mouth, channel cat by brother Johnnie Ray yanked outta the Soapasee River,” TJ said next to Gwen. She looked at them, grinning. “The water there’s so polluted, the Muggles are findin’ eight-legged frogs by the sud banks.”

But everybody’s attention had now shifted to Harry Potter who had already taken off this shoes and socks and was looking to pull something out of his pocket. He started to wade into the lake while stuffing his mouth with what looked like soggy handfuls of dirty shoelaces. As if sensing the audience’s curiosity, the projector zoomed in on what Harry was doing.

“It seems Potter is… ah,” mumbled O’Shea, watching the boy intently, “to tell you the truth… I’ve no idea what our youngest champion is doing down there. What do you make of it, Beetle?”

The other man, looking totally bewildered, shook his head. “I… can’t… be sure… but Potter seems to be… eating something.”

Finding his voice again, O’Shea straightened. “Let’s go down to our Hogwarts student-reporter near the lake’s edge, Lee Jordan. What are you seeing down there, Lee?” The projector suddenly switched to a boy with long dreadlocks, dressed in black robes and earmuffs, standing next to the judges’ table. The boy turned to face the projector and began speaking into his wand.

“We’re all just as confused down here as everybody else about what Harry is doing, Pat,” the boy said, excitedly. “Let me see if I can get a comment out of one of the judges.

“Mr. Bagman? Mr. Bagman, sir, can you tell us what Harry is doing? He seems to be eating something… but… we can’t tell what it is.” Ludo Bagman jerked up with a look of shared confusion before realizing the projector was focused upon him. His face suddenly brightened as he presented his best toothy smile.

“Oh… well… ah… it would seem… Harry… is ah…” he looked nervously toward the other judges. Weasley and Karkaroff looked just as confused as Bagman. Madame Maxime, who took up half the judges’ table, was grimacing revoltedly at Harry’s worm-like snack.

“Gillyweed,” came a soft voice, and everybody turned to see Professor Dumbledore smiling triumphantly.

“Gillyweed?” Bagman repeated, uncertainly.

“What’s Gillyweed, Mr. Bagman?” snapped Lee Jordan, still standing next to him. Bagman turned to the reporter and then, recovering quickly, smiled once more at the projector.

“Oh… well… ah … gillyweed… is… ahh… a magical substance, of course, … that… ahhh.”

“A Mediterranean water plant that allows the wizard consuming it to breathe underwater for up to one hour,” said Professor Dumbledore serenely.

The rest of the judges began writing on their scrolls as Lee Jordan turned excitedly back to the projector. “Did you hear that, Pat?” he barked happily. “Harry Potter is eating something called gillyweed that will allow him to breathe underwater.”

“Brilliant!” said the commentator to the switching projector. “It looks like young Harry has come to this second task well-prepared after all, Beetle.”

“Right you are, Pat. And now we can see Potter struggling to breathe. It looks as if the transformation he was hoping for is finally taking effect.” The audience in the stadium watched as Harry began grasping his throat in obvious pain. He suddenly drove forward into the lake and disappeared from view.

“And there he goes!” yelled O’Shea, bending over his desk to see. “Harry Potter is last to enter the lake following the other champions.” The two men heaved back with a look of relief on their faces before turning to the audience once more. “So there you have it, ladies and gentlemen. Once again, I think it’s fair to say these champions have impressed everyone with their understanding of the magic required in this task and the boldness with which they’ve carried themselves onward. How ‘bout it, Beetle?”

“I completely agree, Pat. The Bubble-Head charm is a favorite standard among witches and wizards working underwater. When I heard about the details of this task, it was the first thing that came into my mind as an obvious solution. But I am somewhat concerned about Mr. Krum’s use of his shark transfiguration. It seemed rather incomplete to me as he entered the lake. And Harry Potter’s use of gillyweed… now that’s a completely unexpected element in today’s competition. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens next.”

“And speaking of watching what happens,” continued O’Shea, “we’ll be monitoring all of our champions underwater as they search for the hostages. We have stationed several projectors in the lake to track our competitors throughout their journey.”

The picture above Spellsburg stadium abruptly changed to display four panels, each showing a champion swimming underwater, and a fifth panel in the center containing the hostages. The audience pointed at the hostages who were tied to the tail of a giant, stone statue in what looked like the center of an underwater village. The shadow of something quick darted passed their view, and the crowd gave out a long ooooohhh in surprise when the dark silhouette turned to face them.

It was a merman. He looked foreboding with olive-gray skin and fine green hair that streamed and drifted like a cloud of weeds behind him. His bright yellow eyes flashed menacingly over his shoulder at the projector as he propelled himself along with a muscular, silver-scaled tail. Several merpeople could be seen circling the hostages with long spears tipped with sharp stone. They were singing an eerie, almost hypnotic song.

“An hour long you'll have to look,
And to recover what we took.
Your time's half gone, so tarry not
Lest what you seek stays here to rot.”

Streams of tiny bubbles could be seen leaking from the hostages’ mouths, their limp bodies looking lifeless as their heads lulled back and forth in the murky current. Three girls and one boy, tied tight to the statue’s tail, appeared to be unconscious.

In the four panels surrounding the scene, the audience watched the champions racing through the dark water in a desperate search for the hostages. Thin dotted lines below the swimmers showed their actual progress in the direction to the center of the lake. Some of the lines, like that of Cedric Diggory, showed him heading dead on course. Fleur Delacour’s line was moving away from the center, away from the hostages, while Krum and Potter were swimming too far to the north.

“As we can clearly see, it looks like Mr. Diggory has taken an early lead,” said O’Shea, pointing at the dotted lines under each of the champions.

“Ooooooh, a man with a strong sense of direction,” Gwen cooed, loud enough for Anna to hear. “Good looks and brains too. I like that.”

Soon the girls were settled into their seats and, wrapping their robes tight against the bitter cold, they huddled close to watch the champions’ progress. In time, several steaming cups of coffee and hot cocoa were being passed around as the commentators, sensing a lull in the action, tried to keep the audience entertained.

“So Beetle, why don’t you tell the viewers back home about your last trip to Romania? I understand you were asked to track down a dragon that had escaped from its restricted area.”

The other man smiled bashfully, but didn’t hesitate to tell them the story in the grandest possible detail. But despite the dragon hunter’s best efforts, the audience’s patience was as unforgiving as the bitter morning air.

“So I raised my wand at the beast as he bared his teeth at me, and then, just when he was about to snatch me off the cliff…” recounted Beetle, twirling his wand animatedly between his fingers with an air of someone who had practiced the story many times.

“Hold that thought, Beetle. It looks like we’re finally seeing some action around one of the Hogwarts’ champions, Mr. Diggory.” The entire audience in Spellsburg jerked up and leaned forward to look into the panel containing the image of Cedric, who had abruptly stopped swimming and was frantically working to pull his wand out of his belt. His face was matted with determination as he began to wave something away in front of him.

“What do you suppose he’s looking at?” asked O’Shea, glancing over at the other commentator.

“Obviously, there must be something blocking his path,” replied Beetle, who was craning his neck as if to look inside the edge of the picture in front of them.

The audience screamed unexpectedly at the sight of a huge tentacle the size of a tree trunk sweep into view. The twisting, undulating arm was covered with saucer-size suction cups spilling down its length, resembling a table set for fifty. They opened and closed greedily, like so many hungry little mouths as the appendage uncoiled itself like a whip toward the champion.

O’Shea immediately stood. “Good Lord –– what in the magical world is that?”

Cedric tried to avoid the tentacle coming at him. He seemed to be angrily waving the beast off, his expected look of fear displaced by a furious rage.

Anna squinted hard at the image, concentrating on what she could see of the beast in the panel above them. Several others around her began screaming and pointing, but Anna could feel something odd and completely unexpected emanating from the creature.

Then, without warning, two more enormous arms shot forward and snatched Cedric into its clutches. The audience jumped and some covered their eyes, not wanting to see what was to become of the champion from Hogwarts. Cedric was clearly in pain. One of the creature’s giant arms had clamped onto his back and neck, while another arm began wrapping itself tight around the boy’s legs. It was drawing him toward its head, and when the huge monster finally fell into view, the audience shrieked in astounded horror. An enormous, giant-squid filled the panel, which grew to blanket the entire sky above the stadium in Spellsburg. Several more tentacles shot forward and wrapped themselves around Cedric’s body, encasing him tight in its crushing grip.

An old woman sitting beside Sarah suddenly stood and shrieked, “It’s going to eat him!” Her words sent a ripple of shock through the audience around her.

The beast was massive. Its eyes were larger than dinner plates, and its skin rippled with a blazing flame of luminous light that changed color excitedly. They could see its remaining arms unfolding fifty feet across as its mouth finally came into view. It opened wide, showing a hideous, black beak the size of a man’s fist opening and clicking madly. The woman standing next to Sarah swayed and then fainted on top of the row of spectators in front of her.

“My God, Beetle,” O’Shea whispered to the other commentator, “the boy’s going to be eaten alive, and the judges seem oblivious to what’s going on down there.”

Many who were anxiously watching the scene were convinced he was right. For both the audience at Hogwarts and the judges themselves seemed completely unaware of the impending doom about to befall one of their champions. Only Albus Dumbledore seemed absorbedly focused on the lake. He was staring down at the water’s surface fixedly, as if watching one of his students fighting for his life in the murky blackness below where he sat.

Beads of sweat were forming on Anna’s brow as her concentration pressed forward, reaching out to touch the creature about to strip Cedric of his skin. Something wasn’t right about what she was sensing from the beast as compared to what they were all seeing on the projector.

Cedric had somehow freed an arm from the creature’s clutches and was pounding on one of the tentacles wrapped around his chest; his other hand holding his wand was clamped tight against his body. The creature was slowly drawing Cedric in and then in flash of sudden awareness Anna’s mind locked on to what the beast was feeling. She smiled.

Gwen was beside herself. Lost in the moment, she was on her feet and screaming. “No… somebody do something. He’s too handsome to die!”

Anna reached up and grabbed Gwen by the back of her robes and yanked her back down into her seat. “Will you shut up,” she said, grinning. “Your Cedric isn’t in any danger!” Gwen looked at Anna in shock and then up at the projection again. She pointed at the scene as she stared back at her friend in utter disbelief.

Anna smiled and shook her head. “No… danger…” she repeated, knowingly.

“Look at that!” yelled Patrick O’Shea, and those cowering behind their hands in the audience chanced to look up again to see Diggory was suddenly free. “The beast let the boy go! It’s a miracle!”

Sure enough, Cedric had been unexplainably released from the creature’s tentacles, and was frantically trying to swim away. Then, from out of nowhere, another revolving arm shot forward and clamped its suction cups on top of Cedric’s Bubble-Head Charm. It began to shake the boy violently up and down, as if to remove the ball covering his head. Cedric was holding the sphere tight against his shoulders as the creature jerked and thrashed his body about. He pointed his wand at the beast and yelled something that sounded hollow and dull. A jet of yellow bubbles shot from his wand at the squid. Ducking quickly to avoid the blast, the creature released Cedric again and then disappeared into the gloom.

The audience began to yell desperately at Cedric, “Get out of there!” “Swim!” “Get away!”

But Cedric didn’t move. His wand remained rigid in his outstretched hand, as his eyes peered apprehensively into the darkness around him. Then, without warning, a limb shot up from below and rapped the champion on the back. The audience jumped and screamed again. The beast was back, racing around the boy in spurts of jetting speed. Cedric was pointing his wand threateningly at the creature, trying again to wave the beast away. Another tentacle unexpectedly zipped out and thumped him on the back of the head before withdrawing once more.

“You know…?” Beetle toned in appraisingly, frowning up at the projection, “I think… the squid… might just be playing with him.”

O’Shea looked at his colleague in dumbfounded shock. “Playing with him? Are you mad?” He looked again at the creature circling Diggory, which was rippling excitedly with an iridescent sheen that moved back and forth across its body like a wave. “You mean to tell me that thing… is just having a spot of fun?”

Beetle chuckled. “It would seem so. Look!”

Once again, the creature shot forward, this time spreading itself wide to engulf Cedric with its entire body. They could see the champion kicking and pounding through the outer skin of the monster before being turned over and squirt back out again. Cedric whirled about through the water and then spun around to right himself; he looked furious. He pointed his wand at the creature and this time he didn’t hesitate. A boiling stream of bubbles shot forward from his wand, striking the squid right between the eyes. The beast lurched back in shock, looking surprisingly offended. Cedric pointed his wand again at the squid and shouted something through the crystal bubble surrounding his head. The beast spun around and, with one enormous blast of black ink, shot into the murky darkness and out of sight. It was gone. Cedric angrily snapped his wand down, looking leeringly into the gloom. Hesitating only once to look back over his shoulder, he swam away in the opposite direction.

Gwen fell back into her seat with a sigh of relief as she looked over to Anna. “How in the world could you have possibly known?” Anna smiled, looking up at Diggory now swimming toward the center of the lake and then back to Gwen.

“It was the way the creature was acting. It didn’t seem dangerous… it just wanted to play with him, that’s all.” Gwen looked skeptical, but before she and the rest of the audience could catch their collective breath, the commentators were heralding trouble for yet another champion.

In the upper right panel, they watched Fleur Delacour struggling to free herself from two small, horned-creatures, trying angrily to drag the champion down into the weeds.

“Of all the rotten luck,” O’Shea said. “It looks like the champion from Beauxbatons has been accosted by a couple of nasty grindylows.”

“She’d better stay out of those weeds,” Beetle added warningly. “There could be a lot more of them down there waiting for her.”

Anna slowly stood with a look of worry and concern set on her face. Once again, her reaction to what she was seeing seemed out of step with the audience around her, most of which were pointing and laughing at Fleur’s unexpected predicament.

“Get out of there…” Anna whispered, anxiously. Gwen was now standing next to her. She glanced over at Anna, and could tell by her friend’s worried expression that something was terribly wrong.

“What is it?” Gwen asked her cautiously. “What are you seeing?”

Anna looked over at Gwen and frowned. “There are more of them… hiding in the weeds,” she said with a hint of warning in her voice. She looked back up at Fleur who was struggling to stay out of the swaying grass below her. “They’re in the weeds waiting for her.” Gwen gasped and then looked up, but something else had suddenly grabbed Anna’s attention in the panel containing Harry Potter. He had also stopped swimming and seemed to be talking to somebody unseen in front of him.

The rest of the audience appeared oblivious to what Potter was doing, and continued to laugh amusingly at Fleur struggling to free herself from the creatures dragging her down. As soon as Fleur’s body touched the weeds, Anna’s eyes darted back to her panel.

“They’re coming…” she whispered.

“How many?”

Anna looked at Gwen and grimaced. “Uhhhhmm,” she looked back up again, “all of them… I think.”

Sure enough, Fleur was suddenly engulfed by an angry mob of grindylows shooting out of the weeds around her. Their pointed fangs bared, they seized the girl by the robes and began to drag her down and out of sight. The sudden appearance of so many of the beasts, and the sight of countless others leaping into the spot where the girl had disappeared, rudely shocked the laughing audience into stunned silence.

“Oh my goodness, Pat,” said Beetle, grabbing his companion’s shoulder. “She’s in very serious trouble now. Get out of there, you fool!” he yelled, fearfully.

“Yes… get out…” Anna repeated. “Come on… move!”

For a second, Fleur appeared again and the audience shrieked in surprise at what they saw. At least twenty grindylows were clinging to her limbs and body, desperately trying to pull the girl back down. They were biting, scratching and attempting to choke her with her own robes, and Fleur was fighting back with a panicked viciousness few had ever seen in her.

“Yes… that’s it… keep fighting. Get out of the weeds!” Anna yelled, watching the projector rising with the girl as she slowly fought her way back up.

“Oh, my God,” said O’Shea, pointing at the surrounding weeds. From the top view looking down, they could see dozens of the creatures moving through the grass in the girl’s direction. “She had better move before the rest of those devils can get to her…”

“Come on, girl. Swim – SWIM!” yelled Beetle, urgently.

Fleur was slashing her wand like a knife, shooting spells at every creature in sight. There was a pause and then a jet of boiling water blasted forward from her wand, scorching the weeds below down to the mud. Some of the creatures on her back were whacking and clawing at the sphere on her head, trying to remove it.

“Oh no! It looks like Harry Potter is in trouble too,” yelled Beetle, and everybody turned to see Harry in his panel being grabbed by three more grindylows as he struggled desperately to free his wand from his robes. He pointed the wand down and screamed something undistinguishable in the water. A jet of red bubbles shot forward, hitting a grindylow holding his foot. It instantly released him. Harry turned and started to swim away, shooting more spells over his shoulder as he went. A second grindylow grabbed Harry by the foot, and the boy twisted around to kick down at the beast with the heel of his other foot. The blow landed with a thud on the grindylow’s head, sending him floating backward in a sprawl. The crowd cheered triumphantly as the mersong echoed eerily again from out of the darkness.

“…your time's half-gone, so tarry not
Lest what you seek stays here to rot…”

Fleur Delacour’s situation, on the other hand, had become truly desperate. Although she had managed to free herself from most of the grindylows holding her, four more of the creatures were cruelly biting her legs, and trying to drag her back down. The girl kicked and thrashed at her attackers, her fine silver hair flailing and twisting in the darkness as her body worked to break the creature’s vise-like grip. Two of the creatures were now using stones to pound at the champion’s crystal-sphere surrounding her head, and tiny cracks in the glass could be seen growing larger. Suddenly, the water imploded into Fleur’s face in a rush as the power of her Bubble-Head charm finally gave out.

“Manticore molars!” shouted O’Shea, sounding panicked. “Delacour is in very serious trouble now. I’m afraid one of our hostages isn’t going to see their rescuer today. But at least… yes… it looks like the champion from Beauxbatons has freed herself from the creatures and is heading back to the surface.”

Surprisingly, the unexpected failure and implosion of Fleur’s charm had startled the grindylows just as much as it did the champion herself, and the water demons could be seen scattering to the protection of the weeds below her. The projector followed Fleur’s struggling form up until her head broke the surface of the lake where the picture immediately switched to another view floating somewhere above her. She was spitting water and gasping for air as she struggled to swim back to the shore. Madame Maxime was on her enormous feet and galloping urgently toward the lake’s edge. Another witch, dressed in the gowns of a healer, was already stooping to help Fleur out of the water and wrapping her in blankets when the Beauxbaton Headmistress arrived to lift her champion onto the bank.

“Thank goodness she’s safe. What a shame,” Beetle said, sorrowfully. “A spot of bad luck, really, to have run into a den of grindylows like that. If only the power of her charm had been a bit stronger, she might have been able to…”

“Just a minute, Beetle,” said Patrick O’Shea, breaking in. “It now looks like the champion from Bulgaria is in trouble.”

All eyes in the audience immediately flew across the sky to the other side of the stadium where Viktor Krum looked as if he was being attacked by some of the strangest creatures many had ever seen. They were round, balloon-like fish the size of grapefruits, swimming oddly on stalked legs with webbed feet. A single dorsal fin was perched on the top of their head like a mohawk, while their tailless bodies propelled themselves along like frogs through the water. Their round, animated faces were colored a blotchy, grayish-green, and made excited, raspberry-like snorts as they attached themselves to Krum’s legs with their fatty little mouths.

“Blast the luck,” said Beetle, who recognized the creatures immediately. “Plimpies.”

O’Shea looked over at him and frowned. “Plimpies? What the devil is… are… plimpies?”

“Singularly, the creature is called a plimpy. More than one, and you’ve got a nuisance you wouldn’t believe.”

“Are they… dangerous?”

“Well… no… I wouldn’t say they’re exactly dangerous, but they can be a serious problem. You see how they lock their mouths onto the swimmer? They’re looking for snails, which are their primary source of food, and if enough of them can attach themselves…” he suddenly stopped and pointed at Krum. “Ahhh… there… you see? I was afraid of this. Those creatures are going to make it very difficult for Krum to carry on.”

The audience watched as Krum began beating at the creatures that had fastened themselves like leaches to his limbs, causing his body to float unwillingly toward the surface. His shark’s teeth reached back and began snapping viciously at the plimpies, but their rubber-like bodies remained indifferent and unmoved by his attack. The champion started tearing the creatures away by their legs, but to no avail. The snorting little plimpies immediately swam back to reattach themselves, using their long webbed feet to bat away Krum’s efforts to pull them off again. After several minutes of struggling, Krum began tying the feet of the creatures in knots before sending them off with a kick.

“That a’ boy, Viktor,” Beetle sang out happily. “Now you’ve got it. Good lad!” Soon, Krum was plimpy-free and swimming away, leaving the struggling creatures floating haplessly like balloons in his wake. The crowd in Spellsburg finally settled back in their seats to gather themselves and watch, with great relief, the champion’s approach toward the hostages.

“Our three remaining champions are on track now and heading bang-on course toward the center of the lake,” said one of the commentators dully over the exhausted rumble of the crowd. They could see Krum, Diggory, and Potter swimming determinedly through the dark water, the dotted lines below them growing gradually toward the center panel where the sleeping hostages still waited to be rescued.

“I think…” said O’Shea, craning his neck to see, “… yes. It looks like Harry Potter is going to be the first to arrive at the hostages. I don’t think any of the odd-makers expected this, Beetle.”

Beetle was shaking his head in disbelief. “Incredible, Pat. Harry is having an absolutely remarkable tournament. He did a great job finding his direction early in the race, and was able to fight off the grindylow attack quickly enough to minimize his delay. Let’s see if he can get his hostage released and back to the surface under the allotted time.”

The audience watched as Harry entered what looked like a small mervilliage. Weed covered huts appeared through the gloom, which were huddled randomly together leading to a center square. They could see small merchildren peering out of holed windows, their vivid-yellow eyes bright with wonder as they watched Harry swimming by them. Some of the merparents could be seen shooting out of the open doorways carrying pointed spears as they spied Harry moving down the street.

At long last, Harry reached the village square where the hostages were tied to the statue. The Hogwarts champion took a second to survey the sight before him, and then urgently sped forward toward the boy tied between two of the girls. He started pulling and yanking on the weeds trying to free the boy, while the circling merpeople laughed spitefully at his efforts. Harry swam over to one of the more menacing looking mermen. He motioned at the spear one of them was carrying and then back again toward the hostages.

“It looks like Harry wants to barrow the merman’s weapon,” explained Beetle, watching the merman shaking his head. Surprised and then angry, Harry lunged for the spear anyway, but the powerful creature twisted it out of Harry’s grasp and pushed him away.

“Oh –– now –– see here,” complained O’Shea. “The lad only wanted to borrow it!”

Harry was looking desperate. Diving to the bottom, he started digging through the rock-strewn floor, urgently looking for something he could use to free his hostage. He found a stone with a jagged edge and headed back to the statue where he began hacking away at the weedy bonds holding the boy to the others.

“He’d better hurry… his time is almost up,” said Beetle, looking at the running hourglass sitting on the judge’s table.

“Yes… and now we see the other two champions entering the mervillage as well,” said O’Shea, pointing at the other two panels. The crowd looked over and saw Cedric Diggory swimming anxiously through the muddy pathways between the stone huts. The strange looking Viktor Krum had also entered the village on the south side, sending several terrified merchildren darting out of his path.

There was a rising rumble growing in the crowd. “What in the world is Potter doing?” bellowed Beetle, and everybody’s attention returned to his panel. Harry had freed the boy who was now floating upright behind him, and he had started to hammer at the ropes holding the girl next to him.

“I don’t believe it. Harry Potter is trying to free another hostage. Well… as admirable as that might be, I’m not sure the mermen are going to allow that.”

As if hearing the commentator’s words, two mermen suddenly rushed forward to pull Harry away from the girl. They spun him around and began to warn him away menacingly with their spears. Harry was pointing back at the girl he was trying to free with the edged stone, but the merman where angrily shaking their heads and jabbing their spears at him. Frustrated, Harry tried to return to the girl, but was grabbed and pulled away again.

Cedric Diggory finally arrived in the square. Swimming up to Harry, Diggory began shaking his head and pointing at his watch. He pulled a knife from his pocket and cut away the weeds holding the second girl. With a sharp jerk, Cedric pulled the girl away from the statue and started toward the surface.

“And there goes Cedric Diggory with his hostage,” yelled O’Shea brightly, and Gwen let out a whoop of excitement next to Anna.

“Potter should take Diggory’s lead,” Beetle said exasperatedly. “Why doesn’t he just grab his hostage and go?”

The crowd shouting around Anna agreed. “Come on, Harry,” yelled a ruddy-faced man standing behind them. “Take the boy and get back to the surface! I’ve got two galleons on you to place. Come on, boy! What are you waiting for?” Anna and Gwen were transfixed as they watched Harry, who was trying again to free a third hostage only to be dragged away by the mermen once more. A few seconds later, Krum entered the square and started tearing and ripping at the girl’s ropes.

“Oh –– careful there. He’s gonna to tear his hostage in two before he gets her out of the water,” said O’Shea, sounding very worried. Harry must have had the same thought. He tore away from the mermen and raced forward to Krum. Slapping the Durmstrang champion on the back, he handed him the stone he had used to free his hostage.

“What in the world are you doing, idiot boy,” bellowed the man standing behind Anna. “Don’t help the other champions. I’ve got two galleons on you… no!”

Soon the second girl was free, and Krum was swimming away with his hostage in tow. Anna thought the man behind them was close to heart failure from the strain of losing his wager. Harry gathered up the dropped stone he had given to Krum and began cutting the ropes holding the last girl to the statue.

“I think Potter is intent on freeing all the hostages,” Beetle said amusingly. “An admirable quality in a future wizard, but I don’t think that’s going to help his marks in this competition.” Anna looked over at Gwen.

“Admirable qualities…” she said, trying to sound optimistic.

Gwen laughed and shook her head. “Kind of daffy if you ask me. He’s going to start a war down there –– look.”

Once again, several mermen rushed in to pull Harry away from the last hostage, but the champion from Hogwarts was ready for them. He wrenched out his wand with a sharp jerk, and began to count down with his fingers. Three — he pointed the wand warningly at them. Two — he stretched out his arm. With a look of horror on their faces, the mermen darted away in a flash of slivery fins. Harry turned angrily back to the last hostage and began to cut the remaining bonds holding her to the statue. Then, grabbing the other boy by the back of his robes, he started swimming urgently toward the surface.

“And finally… there goes Potter with the last of the hostages. Well, what do you know about that? It’s going to be interesting to see how the judges mark this task, Beetle. Should Harry receive consideration for caring about the other hostages?”

“That’ll be up to the judges, of course. With time running out, Harry must have believed the hostages were in mortal danger and, if you think about it, why wouldn’t he? The champions were never told the hostages had volunteered for this task, only that something important had been taken from them into the lake. Even a sensible Muggle wouldn’t take any chances when it came to a life tied at the bottom of that lake. It’ll be interesting to see how the judges react when they hear what happened.”

Harry broke the surface of the water in a rush of bubbles and foam to the cheers and happy clapping of the crowd around the lake. The two hostages he had rescued immediately woke from their deep sleep, and Harry, together with the help of the other boy, helped the girl swim back to the shore. A moment later, the hostages were being dragged up the muddy bank, and the judges were helping the champions out of the water. Fleur Delacour broke free of Madame Maxime and began hugging the little girl Harry had brought to the surface who, it turned out, was her younger sister.

“It was ze grindylows… zey attacked me… oh Gabrielle, I thought… I thought…” She stood and rushed over to Harry. “You saved 'er. Even though she was not your ostage.” Fleur bent down and kissed Harry on both cheeks. Harry, shivering with cold, looked both tired and very embarrassed.

“Well… points or not…” chuckled Beetle, “that’s the kind of reward any true champion longs to receive.”

Patrick O’Shea, grinning broadly, nodded and then turned serious as he spoke to the audience. “Now we see the Headmaster of Hogwarts being called into conference by one of the merpeople from the lake. It looks like he’s about to find out what happened down there.” The crowd watched as Albus Dumbledore motioned to the other judges to join him. A few minutes later, Ludo Bagman’s magically magnified voice boomed over the crowd once more.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we have reached our decision. Merchieftainess Murcus has told us exactly what happened at the bottom of the lake, and we have therefore decided to award marks out of fifty for each of the champions, as follows…”

“And here come the marks,” O’Shea said, breathlessly.

“Fleur Delacour, though she demonstrated excellent use of the Bubble-Head Charm, was attacked by grindylows as she approached her goal, and failed to retrieve her hostage. We award her twenty-five points.”

“Oh –– that was a bit tight,” said Beetle, resignedly. “I think they could have done better than that for the champion from France.”

“Cedric Diggory,” Bagman continued, “who also used the Bubble-Head Charm, was first to return with his hostage, though he returned one minute outside the time limit of an hour.” Loud applause from the Hogwarts students could be heard reverberating into Vollucross stadium. “We therefore award him forty-seven points.

“Viktor Krum used an incomplete form of Transfiguration, which was nevertheless effective, and was second to return with his hostage. We award him forty points.

“Harry Potter used gillyweed to great effect,” said Bagman. “He returned last, and well outside the time limit of an hour. However, the Merchieftainess informs us that Mr. Potter was first to reach the hostages, and that the delay in his return was due to his determination to return all hostages to safety, not merely his own.”

“Here it comes…” said the commentator.

“Most of the judges… feel that this shows moral fiber and merits full marks. However… Mr. Potter's score is forty-five points.”

“Ohhhh, it looks like there might be some disagreement between the judges on Potter’s marks,” said Beetle excitedly, but the man standing behind Anna and Gwen was elated. He stood and whooped with excitement.

“That’s my boy, HARRY POTTER! Two galleons at five-to-one odds is ten galleons to me!” he bellowed triumphantly, dancing a little jig on his bench, and toppling right over into the crowd behind him. Everybody laughed as Bagman continued.

“The third and final task will take place at dusk on the twenty-fourth of June. The champions will be notified of what is coming precisely one month beforehand. Thank you all for your support of the champions.” Cheers and applause from both Hogwarts and Spellsburg filled the air as the picture above them finally settled back on the two commentators.

“Well… there you have it, Beetle. The second task of the Triwizard Tournament is now history. What did you think?”

“I thought the competitors proved once again why they were chosen to be the champions of their wizarding schools. They simply did an outstanding job. Cedric Diggory was most impressive. He was able to fight off that monstrous giant-squid and still get to the hostages quickly.

“And who among us wasn’t inspired by Harry Potter’s performance? I think we were all extremely happy to see most of the judges taking his decision to try and save the other hostages as something positive rather than taking points off. The students and teachers at Hogwarts are going to be very happy with their champions’ combined scores.”

“Right you are, Beetle. And here are the final results after the second task.”

The picture above the Spellsburg stadium changed to show a set of marks high in the darkened sky:

Champion School 1st Task Score 2nd Task Score Total Score Standings

Diggory Hogwarts 38 47 85 First

Potter Hogwarts 40 45 85 First

Krum Durmstrang 40 40 80 Second

Delacour Beauxbatons 39 25 64 Third

“Tied for first place are Cedric Diggory and Harry Potter of Hogwarts, each with eighty-five points. In second place is Viktor Krum of Durmstrang Academy, with eighty points; and, in third place, Miss Fleur Delacour of the Beauxbatons School of Witchcraft, with sixty-four points. What do you think of the marks, Beetle?”

“Other than the lower than expected score for Miss Delacour in today’s task, I think the marks were fair, and I liked the way the judges were willing to take into account Potter’s determination to do the right thing.”

“I couldn’t agree with you more. So there you have it, ladies and gentlemen, a very exciting second task to be sure, and one we’ll all be talking about for many years to come. As Ludo Bagman just announced, the third and final task will take place at eight o’clock in the evening on the twenty-fourth of June.

“So –– on behalf of my colleague Beetle Mantooth, and our student reporter in the field, Lee Jordan, this is Patrick O’Shea magically signing off from England. We’ll see you again on June twenty-fourth for the third task. Good-day everybody.” The sky above the stadium went dark, and then suddenly brightened to reveal a clear, pale-blue morning over Spellsburg.

“Wasn’t that a fantastic second task?” announced Professor Bots over the continuous roar of the stadium crowd. “Now –– don’t forget, this year’s graduation ceremony is scheduled to take place the same week as the final Triwizard task, so plan on staying a few extra days if you can. And please — be sure to pick up a schedule for this year’s remaining Vollucross races, and Swift Slalom and Quidditch season calendars are available at the gates. We hope to see you again in Spellsburg for one of these incredible events. Thank you all for coming, ladies and gentlemen, and have a safe journey home.”

“So… it looks like Diggory and Potter are going to run away with this thing,” Gwen said, gleefully, rising to her feet to stretch.

Anna smiled. “Yeah… we should have put some gold on our men,” she whispered back, looking around to be sure Doctor Pearl wasn’t around to hear them.

Gwen grinned evilly. “How ‘bout a little wager just between friends, then?”


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