Anna Grayson and The Order of Merlin

Rescue in the Shadowed Forest

“So let me understand this. You’re actually reading the minds of all of these creatures?”

“I didn’t say that. It’s more like… I don’t know… a way of sensing how they feel. It’s like touching a part of their awareness.”

“I don’t get it. What does that mean, exactly?”

Anna sighed. “It’s hard to explain. I concentrate and, after a while, I can kind of feel… what they’re feeling.”

“Can you teach me how to do this… touchy-feely-thing?”

“I don’t know. Nobody taught me.”

Gwen sat back in her chair looking bemused. “Look, I didn’t want to say anything before, but there’s definitely something different about you. In all of this Guardian stuff, you still seem to stand apart from the rest of us. Don’t get me wrong, I think being a Guardian is pretty cool, but after all those late night sessions with Eric and the rest of the new Guardians about our future mission, I still don’t feel any closer to being what you are than when I first walked out of the mirror months ago. You seem to have all of these special abilities. You’re an Animagus, you can sense how all these creatures feel, and you have this strange connection with magical objects. Not to mention that secret keeper thing… and the way you move around the dueling pit. It’s like you were born to be something I’ll just never be.”

“Don’t say that.”

“Why not? It’s true, isn’t it?”

“But you make it sound like I’m some kind of freak.”

“No-no, that’s not what I mean at all. I don’t think your weird, I just wish I had some of what you got, that’s all.”

Anna was discouraged. She truly loved Gwen; her friend had always been there during Anna’s most difficult times, spreading her humor and a self-assured form of strength that Anna often lacked. But since the end of the second task, Gwen had been acting differently toward her; she was too restrained of some of the more colorful pieces of her character that defined her so well.

More recently, Gwen had exhibited a startling kind of seriousness that appeared completely out of character for her. Worse than that, the change seemed to reveal itself only around Anna. After a time, Anna began to recognize what Gwen was doing and she decided she didn’t like it. There was too much respect, too much value placed on the smallest things Anna said or did. Gwen’s attitude was painfully bordering on admiration and Anna desperately wanted to put a stop to it.

After a long moment of silence, Anna finally spoke. “Do you remember that Christmas back in California after my father gave me Apollo?”

“Your horse?” Gwen replied, puzzled by the abrupt change in their conversation. “Sure… what about it?”

“Do you remember when I made you sneak back up to the stables with me the next night when I was supposed to be sleeping at your house?”

Gwen smiled. “I remember you going on and on about how you and Apollo were going to ride across the country together. I couldn’t shut you up.”

Anna smirked. “But you did finally agree to go with me back to the stables that night… just so I could see him again.”

“Well… I had to. We wouldn’t have gotten a wink of sleep otherwise. Good thing it was a warm night. Can you imagine –– two ten-year old kids hiking back up Grayson Hill in our bare feet and pajamas… in the middle of the night? We must have been a sight.”

Anna smiled. “Do you remember what happened next?”

Gwen frowned suspiciously and then thought. “Well… we made it back to the stables, and I remember you were so worried Mr. Porchdow was going to haul us by our ears back to your father if he caught us out that late,” she reminisced with a chuckle. Gwen suddenly stopped short and stared at Anna. “I remember… oh my God!” She started to laugh.

“We got to Apollo’s stall…” Anna said, coaxing her friend on.

Gwen threw her head back and pounded the table in a fit of laugher so intense that it startled the empty chairs next to them. She pointed at Anna. “And you stepped right in that fresh pile of horse dung!” Gwen screamed hysterically, almost falling off her chair in happy delight. Anna was laughing too, each of them building momentum from the other as they snorted through the rest of the story.

“Oh God… that stunk soooo bad,” Anna said, wrinkling up her nose.

“It was so fresh — it was still steaming,” Gwen howled, covering her face.

“It was warm and squished up between my toes. Remember… when I tried to clean it off with Mr. Porchdow’s gloves?” Anna laughed on, holding her stomach.

Gwen leaned forward, her eyes wet with tears. “But the funniest part… was you… wanting to find a sack to put the poop in. You… you… wanted to save it forever!” And Gwen fell onto the table, laughing and pounding again. “You were so proud!”

“I had to walk all the way back to your house on my heels,” Anna said, giving Gwen a playful slap on the back of her head.

“Ohhh…. my mother was so mad at us. You stunk up the whole house and she threatened to tell your father. Oh my God… I haven’t thought about that in years,” Gwen said, rubbing the tears out of her eyes.

Anna leaned back to smile and then took a deep breath. “Do you remember what you used to call me after that?”

Gwen paused again before suddenly remembering; she jumped to her feet and pointed down at Anna. “Stinky-feet!” she yelled accusingly, and she started to howl again. “Stinky-feet, stinky-feet,” Gwen sang mockingly, her head teetering side to side. “Stinky-feet, stinky-feet, stinky-feet…” and the two girls lost themselves once more in the madness of their delight until the pain stabbing into their ribs forced them to breathe.

After taking a moment to catch their breath, Anna reached out and took her friend’s hand. “Gwen, I have no idea what all this Guardian stuff really means or why I seem to have all these abilities you say I do. I only know I love you, and I can’t stand having you treat me differently than before.” She paused again, and then looked sullenly into her friend’s eyes.

“So — the next time you’re overly impressed with something I’ve fallen into… I want you to remember that night in the stables. I liked you better when you were calling me stinky-feet.”

Gwen gave a snort as they sat in the balmy glow of their amusement, looking only sporadically into each other’s eyes.

“Do you remember the towels?” Gwen finally whispered.

Anna frowned before her memory synced up once more. “Oh my God… your mother’s pink bath towels… we used them to clean my feet.” Anna started laughing again.

“They were… my… my mother’s favorites!!” And Gwen exploded into another wave of delight before pointing at Anna again. “Stinky-feet, stinky-feet!”

TWO

March and April brought heavy rain to the Pennsylvania mountains, and the perfumed smell of budding flowers began to fill the plateau. As the days slowly lengthened, vollucross practice was extended an hour into the evenings as they approached the Easter break and, for Anna, the holiday couldn’t have come soon enough. Although Eric had warned her about the impending mountain of homework that slowly began to build up as the holiday approached, Anna and the other first-years were left struggling to live up to the high expectations set for them by their teachers at Castlewood.

“Does this always happen at the end of the year?” Sarah asked. She was particularly worried about the enormous amount of work in Magical Incantations.

Professor Titan had turned to giving them several pop-spells, which was his way of making sure they were keeping up with their studies outside his classroom. But the fear of being called to the front to demonstrate a given spell was easily outdone by what was happening in their Defense Against the Dark Arts class.

Professor Van Doorn insisted they study the lives of many dark sorcerers, including Honszoil, Tolszewski the Terrible, Grindelwald, and even You-Know-Who… Lord Voldemort. Van Doorn was specifically interested in studying where these wizards had come from, which in most cases seemed to center around two very distinct locations: Durmstrang Academy in Central Europe, and one particular House within Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry called Slytherin.

Coming from a home where the Dark Lord’s name was spoken openly, Anna was surprised when so many people in her class gasped when they heard her say Voldemort’s name out loud. She only made this mistake once.

Professor Van Doorn swooped in so fast across five rows of desks that Anna almost toppled to the floor in shock. “You are either very stupid… or very brave to speak that name openly,” Van Doorn growled, her bat-like form leaning over Anna menacingly. Anna could see the whites of two enormous eyes peering dangerously through her black veil.

“Since you are far too young to protect yourself or those around you adequately… it must be ignorance driving these bad habits. Do not say that name in my class again until you’re sure you have the skill to strike me down with but a single hex.” She slowly pulled back, the power in her black frame palpable to everybody in the room. “Because that’s what it would take to survive… He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named… even-in-my-class — ever!” She turned and glided slowly back to the front of the class while the wolves outside howled in the distance.

“Know this — and listen well, all of you. When it comes to the power of You-Know-Who, all of us together could not raise a wand against him. For doing so would mean instant and painful death before our falling bodies hit the floor.” Anna never repeated the same mistake again in Van Doorn’s class.

While their homework was becoming increasingly more difficult, Doctor Pearl also added two more days of Vollucross practice in the weeks leading up to the Easter break. Anna had already flown in two races following her fall over the Shadowed Forest, and she did remarkably well in the individual events. But even with Eric flying by her side, victory always seemed to elude them. Being one of only two flyers in the Guardian Union, Anna was constantly competing against vastly more experienced riders, including Lannete Cobstone, who had become something of a celebrity at Castlewood with two wins and a second place finish for her Laborer Union. With only the Easter event and the final race set for June on the schedule, Anna found herself marking Lannete as the rider to beat. But Eric’s strategy for success only went as far as getting Anna near enough to Lannete at the end. After that, it was going to be up to Swooper and his blazing speed to bring home the Guardian’s first victory.

When the Easter race ended, The Spellsburg Seer had heralded it as one of the most memorable contests of the past decade. Just as Eric had planned, Anna found herself in second place, just one hundred yards behind Lannete at the Amber Gates. Subsequently, the race to the finish was nail biting as Anna pulled even under Peppercorn’s hooves when the two entered the stadium gap. And when they finally crossed the finish line, Anna and Swooper at long last tasted their first victory by the feather of an outstretched wing. The stadium, already screaming loud enough to break nearly every spell hiding the mountain’s plateau, exploded in wild jubilation. Even those who had lost gold on the outcome happily applauded, feeling their wagers well spent in witnessing such a magnificent finish. When she landed, Anna was hoisted up by her fellow Guardians and carried aloft. Tears of exhilaration were pouring down her face by the time the Guardians found Eric, who had entered the stadium two minutes later in third place and was pushed forward and raised up with his sister. The two riders embraced as their Union tossed them high into the air by their purple robes. It was a moment Anna would remember for the rest of her life.

But despite the remarkable Guardian win, the standings for the school’s most prized possession over all the others, the Chancellor’s Cup, remained unchanged. The Defenders, who had already taken the cup the last six years in a row, were once again far ahead of the other Dynasties, and in their mind the cup was already well won. For their part, the Guardians, owing to there being so few of them at the school, were in last place by a distant margin, but that didn’t seem to matter to any of them. What really mattered was seeing their Union sustained, and to do that… they needed to find new recruits.

Eric’s on-going presentations to the school were inspired. His enthusiasm and oratorical ability for the sake of the Guardian’s cause was most infectious, and soon more guardians were swelling their ranks. The push to reach fifty members after the Triwizard Tournament’s second task started with Heather Thomas, a pretty first-year girl originally from the Defender’s Union, who had become the thirty-seventh Guardian. For a time, her twin brother Andrew was also considered a sure bet when he finally decided to reenter the Mirror of Enlightenment, but to both his sister and Anna’s surprise, he remained a Defender.

Several more Guardians were joined soon afterwards, a few each week, until in early May their number had finally climbed to forty-nine, and any thought of failing to sustain the Union quickly vanished. Even Eric, whose relentless work never seemed to take a break, now found it hard to believe they could fail. His certainty was so high in fact that Eric decided to take some time off from doing his presentations, confident the fiftieth Guardian would soon be announced.

The following week, however, only brought surprising disappointments. While more students than ever were reentering the Mirror of Enlightenment, no new Guardians were announced. Day after day, it seemed their high hopes for success were continually setback. When the expected week of celebration had passed into a second, and then a third without any new announcements, Eric resumed his presentations once more, disappointed but still confident they would find the one individual they needed.

By the time June had arrived, however, Eric’s wall of confidence was starting to show signs of stress, but true to her brother’s character, Anna watched him continually redouble his efforts. He was not to be denied, not when they were so close to success. Despite the concern permeating their Guardian ranks, failure was never a subject open for discussion while Eric was in the room to hear them.

Although Eric’s efforts were generally considered heroic, what Gwen was doing for the Guardian cause might have been called fanatical. She seemed to be taking their failure to find the elusive fiftieth Guardian as something of a personal insult and was tirelessly following Eric around the castle, helping him with leaflets, his research in the library, and modifying his speeches to inspire more passion in those areas where she thought Eric was being far too analytical. At first, Anna amusedly believed Gwen was doing whatever she could just to spend more time with Eric, thinking her friend’s life-long crush on her older brother was showing itself again. But these thoughts quickly evaporated in the beginning of the second week of June when Anna found Eric and Gwen arguing in the hallway after one of his afternoon presentations.

“What in the world do you call that?” Gwen blistered, pointing back to the lecture hall from where Eric had given his speech. “You were completely flat up there. Where was the passion, Eric? My God… they were falling asleep on you in there!”

This, Anna thought, was a bit unfair. Despite the growing hoarseness in Eric’s voice, Anna believed her brother’s efforts were genuinely brilliant. And although the fiftieth Guardian hadn’t been announced yet, more students than ever were choosing to pass through the mirror a second time.

“Calm down,” Eric snapped back. “We had them eating out of our hands in there. Your additions to my presentation were exactly what we needed. It’s only a matter of time before…”

“But you completely dropped the information on the historical sites in Britain that need our protection! You know we’re going to need that to peak the interests of some of our foreign exchange students.”

“Did you finish that? It wasn’t in my outline.”

“Yes it was!”

“No, Gwen, it wasn’t,” Eric said defensively, showing her the two pieces of parchment that were his summary.

“Where did you get this? This is not the outline I gave you yesterday. Where are my notes on the Forbidden Forest at Hogwarts?”

“They’re on my desk back in my room.”

Gwen looked scandalized. “What the hell are they doing there? They won’t do us any good sitting in your room.” Anna could see some of the other Guardians circling around the two of them, trying to hide Eric and Gwen’s argument from the other students leaving the lecture hall.

“You asked me to review those notes when I had a chance. I need to do that before we put them into the presentation,” Eric replied, his voice rising sharply.

“What? You mean to tell me that you haven’t even looked at them yet?”

“Listen… guys,” Anna interrupted, looking around and smiling at some of the other students passing by them, “we need to take this somewhere private. We shouldn’t be seen arguing with each other like this.”

Gwen glared at her. “Then tell your brother to get with the program. We’re running out of time.”

“Gwen, I’m sure Eric is doing all he can to…”

“You need to calm down,” Eric interrupted. “We don’t need anybody on the team panicking right now.”

“What?” Gwen barked, stepping forward. She began banging her finger into Eric’s chest. “Listen… my parents nearly yanked me out of this school for doing what I thought was right for this cause. We’re not going to fail just because you haven’t taken the time to…”

“Enough!” boomed another voice above them. John Dell, the burly seventh-year, formerly of the Laborer Union, was looking irritated. He took a long, slow breath before turning to Eric.

“Eric, your speech was brilliant. I’ve never seen you deliver better.” Gwen tutted loudly, folding her arms seemingly unconvinced. John turned to her. “Gwen, your additions to the presentation have gathered us more potential recruits than ever before. You’re both doing a fantastic job. So go to your separate corners and calm down before I pinch your heads off.” Some of the other Guardians around them started to snicker.

After a long pause, Eric nodded. “You’re right, John.” He turned to Gwen. “Listen — I’ll meet you in the gathering space for lunch. We can go over the changes you made last night there together, all right?”

Gwen heaved, and then shrugged. “Fine… and… look, Eric, I’m sorry…” and Anna could tell she really meant it. “It’s just that… we’re so close now, and we’re almost out of time.”

“I know, I know, but… try not to worry about it. We’ll find the person we’re looking for.” He looked around at his fellow Guardians and could tell they were all just as concerned as Gwen. “We’re going to make it. I just know we’re going to get it done.”

“Here — here,” echoed several voices around them.

“Lunch then?” Gwen grunted and Eric nodded. She turned to go with Anna running to catch up.

As John Dell watched the crowd fall out of sight, he turned to Eric again. “You know, old friend, you need to get more sleep. Everybody can see these presentations are talking a toll on you. Although I don’t think your yawning took anything away from the message, it’s probably what set Gwen off.”

Eric sighed. “I’ll be all right, John.” His friend looked skeptical. “I’ll hit the sack early tonight… I promise.”

THREE

As she was walking back to the city after Vollucross practice that night, it occurred to Anna that despite the argument she had witnessed between Eric and Gwen, it had been a very good day. Slalom practice had gone well that morning and most of her classes were uneventful. And although her homework was starting to become increasingly heavy, Anna was enjoying herself immensely.

Vollucross always followed her last class, and Anna had grown accustom to ending her day soaring high above the lush, green-covered hills surrounding Spellsburg and taking in the breathtaking sights of the valley below the plateau. But despite the splendor of this end of day ritual, now was the time she looked forward to the most. Walking alone near the rim of the forest, with the last of the evening’s sun warming her face and gilding the tops of all the trees, the glowing red horizon and bruising clouds always reminded her of home; she loved this time of day.

The only thing that bothered her about her quiet walks back to the city was the occasional feeling that something unwelcome was always near by. She never saw anything, of course, but she could feel something was there; like a faint breath echoing through the back of her mind, or the sound of footsteps occasionally falling out of sync with her own, she could feel a presence watching her every move. But every time these feelings of uneasiness peaked her senses enough to look back, nothing was ever there. Anna eventually convinced herself it was probably something eyeing her from the forest, perhaps some creature living near the edge of the woods.

“Eric would probably think the pressure was finally getting to me,” she observed with a smirk.

Her brother had made it clear he thought Anna was far too busy for a first-year student. What with vollucross and slalom practice several times a week on top of her lessons, not to mention helping him and the other Guardians with their recruiting efforts, Eric believed Anna’s schedule was going to take a very heavy toll at the most inopportune time - like during their final exams.

Anna tried to reassure to her brother she was all right, that her time in the air was her only true outlet, her way of keeping all the pressure in check. Anna didn’t tell her brother the truth: that deep down she still lacked the confidence to believe she belonged at Castlewood, and it was only when she was flying that she could set most of her doubts aside. When she was in the air, the feelings of not belonging always fell away into the vastness of the open spaces around her. Sailing over the Shadowed Forest on Swooper was the only time she finally allowed herself to believe she was exactly where she should be, studying the magical heritage that was her birthright. When she was racing around the colored gates above Slalom Stadium, Anna felt more alive and appreciative of her surroundings than anywhere else. And despite Mr. Barclay’s fervent attempts to change her stance on a door, Anna continued to do it her own way; she was intent to show him and everybody else at the school, that regardless of how she might have come at Castlewood, Anna Grayson was here to stay. Anna closed her eyes as she walked and breathed deep the woody aroma of the forest around her. She loved this place.

And then, without warning, she found her pace slowing and then come to a sudden stop. She turned cautiously to look back. Was it a sound? No… more like a feeling; very much like the sensation she experienced when the ally had been watching her earlier that year; but it wasn’t the ally this time. The iciness of the air surrounding her was clearly absent. Anna lowered her brow to peer down the grassy dents her steps had made in the path behind her. Somebody was there, she was sure of it this time.

A low rumble began to brew forth from the deepest regions of Anna’s chest. Who was it that had been watching her all this time, day after day, following nearly every practice, hiding somewhere along the forest’s edge and out of sight? For Anna only now began to realize… whoever it was had been there several times before now. Her memory of those odd feelings she had felt on each of the days leading up to that moment came flooding back to her. She unexpectedly understood something she should have known all along. Somebody… was following her.

Anna could feel something hot rising from her stomach and flowing up like boiling water into her chest. The low rumble turned into a growl that rattled her throat before another sound suddenly snatched her aroused attention out of its trance, like a dry twig beneath one’s foot.

Snap.

Anna’s eyes quickly darted into the forest next to her. Something hidden was there in the darkness just out of sight. But what she was sensing now was clearly different from what she knew was following down that grassy path behind her. The growl in her chest changed to something soft and absorbing, and a gentle buzz began to emanate from her throat as Anna stepped closer to the wooded edge to peer in. The buzz became a soft purr as she pushed a branch blocking her view aside. She could feel the beating heart of something between her ears as she leaned in. A dark hole in the bushes just a few feet inside was drawing her mind’s attention forward. It was there; she could feel its warmth, like a loved one’s tender embrace. The loud purr in Anna’s throat abruptly stopped as she spoke.

“Trog? Is that you?” She listened for a response. There was no reply, but she could feel the creature’s inquisitive disposition change to one of surprise at hearing its own name.

“It’s okay… it’s me… Anna Grayson. You saved me in the forest when I fell from my horse. Do you… remember me?” Anna waited and listened. She could hear the creature’s two hearts synchronize their rhythm, pumping as one. He was scared; he was backing away.

“Please… don’t go. I couldn’t possibly harm you. You realize that, don’t you?” The creature suddenly halted and then turned curiously back to her again. Anna could feel its mass moving in close, like a huge locomotive rolling toward her.

Anna caught herself leaning back as she spoke. “I never thanked you properly for saving my life. That was a very kind thing you did for me.” Still nothing: A single beam of golden light was edging its way from behind Anna’s right shoulder. If only the sun would move just a few more inches to the left, it would light the dark gap where she knew the creature was crouching and looking out to see.

“Anyway… thank you for your kindness. If there’s anything I can do to help you, I hope you will trust me enough to let me…”

The giant creature suddenly stood to move forward before stopping short again. Anna froze, her heart hammering against her ribs. He was right there, just out of sight. She leaned to the left, allowing the light over her shoulder to pierce the shadowy gap as the thing crouched down again. Then something unexpected fell into view and Anna smiled. Two emerald-green eyes narrowed to stare at her from out of the darkness. The eyes, set across either side of an olive-green nose she could barely see, were framed with black lashes that blinked curiously down at her. The green of Trog’s eyes were speckled with black, which only heightened the tenderness in his remarkable gaze. They were beautiful.

“You… have healed, have you?” came a deep and caring voice. Anna could see the wrinkles in the corners of the creature’s eyes lifting from what could only be a smile beneath. She smiled back. Never in her entire life had she seen eyes such as these. They seemed to emote a kind of gentleness usually reserved between babies and their mothers. Such tenderness in a gaze surely existed nowhere else in the wizarding world.

“Yes… I am, thank you. Can… I see you? I would really like to meet you, Trog,” Anna said, hopefully. There was a pause, and then a sense of disappointment began to envelop her heart. She supposed she had expected the creature to walk out of the darkness now that they had spoken, but she suddenly realized that wasn’t going to happen.

“I… cannot,” said the voice with a hint of disappointment resonating between his words.

“Why not?”

“It… is not allowed.”

“I don’t understand. We’ve already been together once before. Why can’t I see you?”

“It would be improper, it would.”

“Why would it be improper? Certainly not to me,” Anna said, taking a step forward.

“Stop!”

“But…”

“Contact with the students is improper. It is not allowed, it isn’t.”

Anna stepped back, her disappointment growing. “Why can’t the students see you? I saw you in the forest. What’s the difference?”

“Trog got into trouble, he did, because he was seen that day.”

“What? You got into trouble… for saving my life? For trying to rescue me?”

“Yes, trouble.”

“But… why, by whom? Who would care if you…?”

“The Captain,” said the deep voice, and Anna froze.

“Captain Dunning? But…I don’t understand?”

“The Captain makes the rules, he does. Came into the forest looking for Trog after I helped you, he did. The Captain said I had interfered and was banned from the castle for the rest of the year, I was. He was angry. Angry very much, he was.”

“Captain Dunning was angry about you helping me? But… that’s horrible. I could have died out there if it hadn’t been for you.”

“Trog… must not to be seen.”

“But I saw you on my first day at Castlewood, in the hallway with the rest of the other first-years. You were dressed in a crimson guard’s robes, covered from head to toe in…” Anna stopped. She suddenly realized while Trog had been in the castle on that first day he had been covered to hide the fact that he was not a wizard.

Anna looked at Trog and frowned. “Even when you’re in the castle…”

“Trog cannot be seen. It is not allowed.”

“But you’re allowed to move about. You were helping the students in the castle on the first day.”

“Sometimes Trog is allowed to help, he is, when more guards are needed on special days. I am a guard in training, I am, you see,” said Trog, a hint of pride building in his voice. “Captain Ramsey was Trog’s friend, he was, before Captain Dunning replaced him at the castle. Ramsey put me in training, he did. Said I was useful to his men, he did.

“But the new captain does not believe creatures that live in the forest should be allowed in the castle. Captain Dunning said… he said… I was not useful anymore… he did,” and Anna could hear Trog’s tumbling disappointment pouring out of the dark gap.

“Well I don’t give an owl’s hoot about what Captain Dunning says,” Anna said with a sharp spike of fury. “That man’s mouth is worse than a mandrake pulled by its stems!”

The bushes in front of Anna started to tremble and quake. And then, without warning, a loud and earthmoving howl suddenly blasted forth. It was laughter; laughter unlike Anna had never heard before. Robust and full of life, it boomed through the trees, causing the birds above them to scatter. It blew Anna’s hair back as if in a stiff wind and she couldn’t help laughing with him.

“Well — it’s — true!” she said, feeling somewhat embarrassed.

Trog finally recovered. “Mandrake… delicious, they are.” He took a long, drawing breath. “The captain is a good man, he is. He just doesn’t like the creatures of the forest that much.”

Anna scoffed. Only a creature as kind as this, she thought, could find anything nice to say about Castlewood’s Captain of the Guard. She didn’t bother setting Trog right.

“They just don’t know you, Trog,” Anna said, supportively. “Nobody at the castle knows you or understands how kind you are. If they only knew…”

“The Chancellor likes Trog, he does,” the creature interrupted brightly.

“Chancellor Thordarson? You… you know the Chancellor?” Anna was surprised.

“Yes. Professor Thordarson shared tea with Trog when Captain Ramsey first brought me to the castle for training, he did. I don’t much like tea,” the deep and bottomless voice added.

“You… had tea, with Professor Thordarson? With — the Chancellor — up at the castle?” Anna rambled, awe-struck. “Wow… I’m impressed.”

“Yes… the Chancellor is a kind man, he is. He came into the woods to find me after Captain Dunning banned me from the castle, he did. He brought me a bucket of grubs and tea, and sat on the stump outside my cave with me. He said he would talk with the captain about using me at this year’s graduation, he would. He is… a nice wizard, the professor.” Anna smiled. She couldn’t have agreed more.

“That’s when the Chancellor asked me for my favor, he did,” Trog added.

“Favor? What favor?” Anna could see the creature’s eyes coming into view again through the gap in the bushes. His beautiful emeralds blinked at her and wrinkled their edges again.

“Professor Thordarson asked me to watch over Anna Grayson whenever I saw her near the Shadowed Forest, he did.”

“He… what?”

“Anna Grayson, he said, has a very important job to do. She must be allowed to be what she was intended to be, she must.”

For a moment, Anna was dumbstruck. When she finally found her voice again, it was weak and shaky. “I… can’t believe the Chancellor asked you to watch out for me,” she said, in amazement.

“Why not? The shadows of the forest contain many dangers, they do. Unless…” Trog hesitated, “…unless you would rather not have a creature of the forest give you his favor. I… I would understand if you felt…”

Anna jerked up. Realizing what she had done, she moved to recover quickly. “Oh, no… no… Trog, it’s not that I mind. It’s just that… I’m surprised the Chancellor would do this on my behalf. He’s a very important man and… I’m just astonished he would care enough to ask you to watch over me.” There was a pause while Anna retreated to think. I can’t believe Professor Thordarson would go to so much trouble. Why would he do this?

“So… you don’t mind Trog giving you his favor, do you?” the creature asked, the hope in his voice building.

Anna smiled. “It would be an honor to be looked after by somebody as important to the Chancellor as you.” She could see those remarkable green eyes shining with pride.

“Good!” Trog said, brightly. “You will try to be more careful when you fly, will you? No more falling off the winged beasts?” Anna nodded bashfully. And then the green eyes abruptly fell away, and Anna could barely see what looked like the pointed bulge of an ear to the side.

“What’s the matter?”

“Sssshhh!” Trog whispered sharply. “You are being followed, you are.” Anna frowned, and then leaned back out of the bushes to stare down the rim of the forest again.

“Yeah… I know. Whatever it is… it’s been following me nearly everyday after practice.”

The green eyes returned to her. “You knew somebody was there, did you?”

“Well… I didn’t know for sure until tonight. Who is it?”

“Trog does not know; another student in red bands. What do they want with Anna Grayson? You have my favor, you do.” Anna looked back again. She could feel her blood heating up once more.

“Red bands, ay?” She looked back at Trog. “No… it’s all right. I think I know who it is. I’ll take care of it myself.”

Trog’s eyes widened; he seemed surprised. “You… are sure, are you?”

“Quite sure,” Anna replied determinedly.

“As you wish. I will leave you to it, I will. Farewell, Anna Grayson, and remember to stay vigilant when near the forest’s edge,” warned the creature, who quickly disappeared into the shadows once more.

“Wait… Trog?” Anna quickly stepped forward to let the remaining light flood the gap in front of her. Nothing was there. She listened hard for the sound of the creature’s heartbeat, but he was already gone.

“For a creature so big, you certainly are fast,” Anna said, remembering how quick and silent Trog moved through the hallways of Castlewood on her first day. She stepped back and stared down the grassy path behind her again.

“I know you’re there,” she said in a deep growl.

And then, all at once, a simple idea occurred to her and a creeping smile began to curl Anna’s lips. She stepped into the trees again, set her bag down, and then sat. Thinking of the woods in her far away home, she leaned back against a gnarled oak and closed her eyes. She could see her body falling away as her mind reached out and then swooped back down to the ground behind her. The bushes and trees rushed by her in a blur as her senses focused on the faint breathing sounds of the person following her. Anna could feel the thing hiding in the woods in the direction of the stadium. She remembered chasing the little chipmunk through the trees back home, and knew the creature she was hunting this time… would be far easier to catch.

Anna was getting closer. She could hear the thing’s heart beating as her mind raced through the underbrush along the edge of the forest. She was passing it now, and Anna’s ghostly form turned to double back and then slowed. Crouched low and peeking through the trees back to where Anna had disappeared was Debbie Dunning. She was spying again. Anna’s body smiled under the tree where she sat.

What to do… what to do?

Anna could smell Debbie’s sweat as the girl craned her neck to look over the bushes from her hiding place. Anna swooped in next to her. Dunning wouldn’t be able to see her any more than the Committee for the Disposal of Dangerous Creatures did at home, but Anna reached out anyway.

What to do… what to do?

Then, for the second time that evening, something deep in the woods snatched at Anna’s attention. Her ethereal form slowly turned away from Dunning and then paused to peer into the Shadowed Forest again. She could feel something faintly pulling at her consciousness, something familiar and recurring was there. It reminded her of the Drummond woman she had found lost in the woods back at the Grayson estate. The whimpering and crying, a creature adrift with the feelings of being completely lost and without hope; they were there once more. But… how could this be? The Drummond woman couldn’t be here, lost in the Shadowed Forest three thousand miles away from home, and yet…the sounds and forlorn feelings of sadness were all clearly there.

Anna’s mind raced deep into the forest, searching desperately for the source of the sound, knowing without question that the vague and almost imperceptible call for help was as real as the woods surrounding her. She covered huge sections of ground in seconds, stopping only twice to narrow her focus before resuming the search again. She was close now. She could hear the thing’s rattled breath. It was lost and sick, made ill by the enchanted place surrounding it. And then, at last, Anna found what she was looking for in the woods. It was a man, lying on his side, wet and shivering on the cold forest floor.

“Are you okay?” she asked, reaching out unthinkingly to sooth the poor man. She had barely laid a ghostly hand upon his shoulder when he startled and shook violently at her touch. Anna snapped back. “Oh — I’m sorry — I’m sorry. Can you hear me? Can you see me?” The man did not answer.

“Follow… must find… find it,” he mumbled to himself shakily.

Anna couldn’t believe her eyes, but there was little doubt about what she was now seeing. It was a Muggle. But… how could a Muggle make it all the way up this mountain nearly in sight of Castlewood? What was more, how could he have survived all the magical beasts and creatures living in the forest around him? The very thought of it was ludicrous, and yet here he was, shivering before her in the cold.

The man’s head suddenly jerked up. “Mustn’t sleep. Must… keep looking… find the gold, find the place where he’s hiding it.” Anna was desperate to help the man, but in her present state, she realized there was very little she could do for him.

Anna heard a growl from the bushes beside her and she looked up to see several yellow, cat-like eyes peering through the gloom in the underbrush. She had seen these creatures once before when she herself had been injured and lying near death in the woods. Anna made a motion to reach out to the creatures and could tell by the way they fell back they could see her.

“This man needs a healer. Would you watch over him until I can find somebody who can help him?” The horned creatures stared at her nervously for a moment and then began screeching and yowling to one another from out of their many hiding places.

“Thanks — I’ll be right back,” Anna replied, not completely certain their clan had agreed to help. Anna twisted round to return to the plateau, her eyes snapped open, and she found herself sitting alone once again against the old oak.

FOUR

Anna jumped to her feet and bolted out of the woods onto the grassy plateau. The sun was nearly down now. Only a reddish hue remained of the light above her.

“Help… somebody help!”

She ran back to the spot where she knew Debbie Dunning had been hiding earlier, but nobody was there. She looked left and right, down the curving edge of the forest back to the stadium and then in the opposite direction toward the city gates.

“Somebody help! There’s a Muggle in the forest and he’s been injured!” Anna knew time was running out for the man, and she had no idea if the creatures watching over him would protect him… or eventually try and eat him. She made her decision in an instant. Throwing her bag to the ground, she raced back into the Shadowed Forest. She knew exactly where the man was lying, but couldn’t know how long it would take to get to him on foot.

The forest was completely dark now, but Anna kept moving through the trees, retracing her mind’s path back to the man. Although the journey was much more difficult this time, the trek seemed easy considering a man’s life was clearly at risk. The Guardian raced through the bushes of the forest, ducking where she could see in the darkness, and cutting around the worst areas she knew would block her way. She pressed on harder when she thought of the man’s labored breathing and the creatures hungrily watching over him. Her heart felt like it was going to explode from the effort.

I have to find him, she thought recklessly, as she leapt over a fallen tree and then tripped and tumbled headfirst down a steep embankment. She was on her feet again before the lingering pain in her ribs had a chance to complain. “Hold on… I’m coming… please God… help me get there,” she breathed heavily.

Anna finally arrived at the exact spot where she left the Muggle, but to her horror, she found the forest floor empty. Her heart sank.

Frantic, she began searching behind the trees, in the bushes, under the ferns. “Where are you?” she yelled, stopping quickly to listen. A faint breeze rustled through the canopy over her head; only the wavering drone of the evening’s cicada answered her call. It was completely black now: Only the blue-white moon above served to illuminate the faintest shadows around her. Anna’s body ached as she wiped her face of the sweat and scratches left from her effort to get to this spot.

“Hello? Please answer me. I’m here to help you,” Anna called out, desperately. Her heart sank in the silence. “They took him,” she whimpered, “those little beasts must have…” Suddenly, her head snapped around. There was a yowling cry echoing through the woods and Anna stopped breathing to listen. She heard another long screech pierce the night.

“Oh God.” She dashed into the woods again.

She finally found him. Crawling on his hands and knees, Anna could see the Muggle struggling to get to his feet once more. The horned beasts she had left to watch over the man were encircled around him, crying out in the dark like a hideous cult about to initiate some ominous ritual. They scattered as Anna ran over to the man who had fallen once more on his front. She turned him over. Shivering from cold, the Muggle looked into her face in disbelief, his eyes wild with fear.

“Follow… the gold,” he said, shaking uncontrollably.

“I’m here to help you. We have to get you out of these woods,” Anna said, her eyes impulsively darting into the trees surrounding the two of them, looking for any latent predators.

“Are you injured? Can you stand?”

The man looked at her as if she was speaking to him in some unknown language. He stared in disbelief, trying to decide if the young girl hovering over him was real. He finally reached up and grabbed Anna by the collar.

“Are you… a phantom… come to haunt me again?” he said distrustfully, running a dirty hand down the smoothness of Anna’s hair. His eyes began darting somewhere over her head, looking for something he might have seen before. “I’ve… seen things… terrible things; things chasing me in the woods. I think… they wanted to eat me!” Anna pulled him up into a sitting position.

“Are you hurt?” The man didn’t respond. “Are you injured?” She began to scan over his body in what little moonlight was available to her. Deciding any Muggle found in the Shadowed Forest would undoubtedly have his memory modified, Anna took out her wand.

“Lumos!” She held her light high to inspect the man properly. Other than the obvious signs of extreme exposure, she thought he looked well enough to travel. All that mattered now was getting him out of the forest.

Lowering her shoulder under his arm, Anna heaved the man to his feet and pointed him right. Then, leading him out of the clearing and into the woods, she turned back to the creatures that had cared for him.

“Thank your clan… for watching over him,” she said, gratefully. The horned beasts gave a soft yowl in response before darting into the undergrowth, their thick, skunk-like tails standing erect as they disappeared into moon-lit shadows. Anna swallowed hard, turned again, and then pushed the man onward.

Their journey together was very difficult. After struggling for ten minutes, Anna’s legs felt like lead, and the deep spasms of pain in her back were complaining bitterly of the man’s weight. She tried to take her mind off her body and focus it on the task at hand.

“So… tell me,” she huffed, stopping to guide the Muggle around a fallen tree. “How did you come… to be… in these woods?” The man didn’t answer her. He was mumbling and whispering to himself absent-mindedly, showing as little regard for Anna’s presence as when her ghostly form had first found him. Only every other word was distinguishable in his repeated mutterings.

“Must… gold. Must find where he’s sending it…”

“The gold… yes, I know… you said that,” Anna said breathlessly, turning him once more to where she thought was the shortest path back to the plateau. “Can you tell me your name, then?”

“He’s hiding the gold somewhere up here,” the man mumbled under his breath.

“I can assure you, sir… there isn’t any gold in this forest.”

Without warning, the man pulled away to glare at her reproachfully. His ability to stand upright on his own surprised her.

“There is!” he blasted back furiously. Then, looking about to ensure nobody else could hear them, he leaned in furtively. “I’ve gone through all of his personal accounts over the last ten years. He thought himself so clever… never thought I’d found out, but I know what he’s been doing. He’s been hiding it up here, sending it all to her.”

Anna rested her sore back against the trunk of a tree. She thought the man was clearly near the end of his mental rope. She found herself wondering where Trog’s cave might be. I could really use his strength right now, she thought wearily. Her mind fumbled through the catalog of spells she had studied at the school, but she couldn’t think of anything that would help her in their present situation. She looked down at her wand’s light.

“Wait a second…” she looked up into the high canopy for a moment and then pointed her wand skyward. “Relashio!” A blinding, purple light suddenly shot into the air. It twisted in a spiral, traveling upward nearly fifty feet before hitting the canopy and exploding into a shower of yellow sparks. Large twigs and branches began to rain down upon their heads and the man screamed in terror as he ducked behind a tree to hide himself. What little connection the two might have shared in their short journey together was now completely lost as the man took off in a panic through the woods.

“No, wait… STOP! Oh – no,” Anna moaned, before reluctantly chasing after him. She caught up with him only after the man had nearly knocked himself unconscious on a low hanging branch in the darkness.

“Please stop… please!” Anna panted, holding a dagger of a stitch in her side. She watched the man feebly trying to get to his feet once more. He staggered: Hitting the top of his head on the same branch a second time, his knees buckled and he crumbled to the ground once again in pained exhaustion. Anna dropped to her knees next to him.

“I’m… sorry,” she wheezed. “I didn’t… mean to frighten you. I won’t do it again, okay?”

After a long rest, Anna helped the man to his feet again and shouldered him onward. “At least you were heading in the right direction this time,” she said, sounding exasperated.

“Must… find… Drogo…” the man said in a sobbing whisper and Anna froze.

“What did you say?” Anna stepped out from under his shoulder to look at him again.

“Follow the gold…” repeated the man breathlessly. “He’s sending it to Drogo.”

Anna’s jaw dropped, her mind suddenly racing in several directions at once. There was only one person in the whole world that Anna knew was sending gold to Drogo prison. But… how would this Muggle know about that, and why would he risk his life to travel up here looking for it? It was impossible to believe what she was thinking. She tried to refocus her mind.

“Listen… my name is Anna… Anna Grayson.” She held her breath, looking for any reaction. The man’s face suddenly jerked up.

“Grayson! Yes — yes! Grayson gold… on its way to Drogo. I have to find the gold… find out where he’s hiding it… and then I’ll have him. I’ll get to the truth of what he’s doing up here.”

Anna’s brain was reeling. What she thought was just a stranger lost in the forest was now something completely different. Somehow, inexplicably, this man was intent on finding Drogo prison and the gold her father was sending there. But why, and who was this man?

“Stay where you are!” came a voice behind them, and Anna wheeled around to find Debbie Dunning standing there. The wand in her outstretched hand was pointed directly at them.

“Debbie…?” Anna said in surprise, and at the sound of her name Dunning’s arm stiffened.

“I’ve got you now, Grayson,” the girl said, steadily. She was standing rigid with a look of utter triumph in sharp relief in the pale moonlight. “I knew that if I followed you long enough you would trip up and do something stupid. The Shadowed Forest is out of bounds, Grayson; that’s a very serious offense for a first-year student.” Debbie smiled. “I’m afraid this will call for a punishment far worse than cleaning out those bins in the stables.”

Despite Debbie’s insolence, Anna was actually happy to see her. “Listen…” Anna said, trying to explain, “…we’ve got to call for help. This man…”

“Pity more Graysons aren’t here with you,” Debbie interrupted her, “I could’ve had the lot of you on the next boat out of here.”

“Must follow the Grayson gold…” muttered the Muggle.

“Who is that with you?” Debbie yelped in surprise, her wand quickly moving to point at the stranger she only now realized was standing behind Anna in the shadows.

“I found this man in the forest back there. He’s lost, and he’s … not right in the head.”

“Follow the gold…” whispered the man again.

“Sssshhh,” Anna warned before turning to Dunning again. “I heard him calling for help from the plateau and I came to see… if I could help.”

Debbie looked unimpressed. “What nonsense is this?” She pointed her wand toward the ground and bellowed, “Lumos!” She pointed her light at the man still muttering under his breath. “What is… is that… a Muggle?”

“Yes. As I said, he’s lost and very weak. I heard him calling for help.”

Debbie looked in the direction of the woods from which she had come and then turned to stare back at Anna. “You’re lying,” she sneered, adjusting her aim again. “The plateau is close to a mile away. You couldn’t possibly have heard anybody calling for help back there. What are you on about, Grayson? What are you hiding?”

“I’m not hiding anything? We have to get this man to a healer immediately.” She turned and grabbed the man’s arm and stepped him forward. “So either help me, or get out of my way.”

Debbie smiled as she pointed her wand at Anna again. “You’re not going anywhere until I get to the bottom of this,” she said menacingly. “You’ve been caught out of bounds, and meeting with a Muggle in the Shadowed Forest. You will explain this, now!” Anna could feel her stomach tighten with rage.

“Find the gold… must find the Grayson gold…” drummed the Muggle hypnotically.

“Quiet!” Anna snapped back.

“What was that, Muggle? What did you say?”

“He didn’t say anything. I told you, he’s not right in his mind. The Muggle repelling charms in the forest are confusing him.”

“Shut-up, Grayson! Don’t make things worse for yourself by trying to hamper an investigation.”

“I’m not hampering anything, and you’re not a proper investigator anyway! I don’t have to explain myself to you.” Anna stepped forward again, pulling the man along with her.

“Relashio!” Debbie barked, and a flash of sparks exploded at Anna’s feet. The Muggle screamed and then fell to the ground.

“Stop it! You’re scaring him. I told you… he doesn’t understand any of this!”

“You’re not going anywhere until I say,” Debbie sneered.

“Must find the Grayson gold,” said the man shakily. “He’s sending it to…”

“Be quiet!” Anna warned.

“What Grayson gold is he talking about? Is that why you were meeting him here?”

“I told you, I wasn’t meeting him. I was helping him.”

Dunning wasn’t listening. “Muggle! Tell me about this gold!”

“Leave him be… he’s not well…”

Debbie glared at Anna. “If you open your mouth once more, I’ll stun it shut,” she warned.

Anna had heard enough, she wasn’t going to let Debbie Dunning put the man’s life at risk any longer. Anna made a move to raise her wand.

“Expelliarmus!” Debbie yelled, and as the light of the girl’s wand was extinguished, Anna’s wand was yanked away. Like steel to a magnet, it soared straight into Debbie’s waiting hand.

“Give that back!” Anna roared angrily.

Debbie stared at the purple heart in her hand with a look of one holding something covered in mud. “Careful now… I can still break it in half, you know,” she said, twisting an ugly smile.

Anna glared back at her. “And I can still break your face!” she growled, stepping forward.

Debbie’s smile fell, replaced by a sharp mark of recollection. She recovered quickly. “But not before I cut your Muggle friend there in half,” she replied, taking aim at the man again. “Now… step… back!”

Anna had no choice. She moved back until she was even with the man next to her again and she put a hand under his arm in an effort to sooth him.

“That’s better… good. Now Muggle… we’re going to have a little talk, you and I. Do you understand?” The man wasn’t listening to her.

“Must… find Drogo,” he said, looking around as if to choose in which direction to resume his quest.

“Drogo, did you say?” Debbie shot back in alarm. “What about Drogo?”

The man swayed dangerously to survey the woods around him, but nothing Debbie said seemed to breach the fog engulfing his confused mind. A few words occasionally snapped his attention straight: Drogo, and gold, and the name of Grayson.

Anna’s mouth had gone dry with fear. She had no idea what the man would say next. And though she wanted to know his story more than anybody, she didn’t want Debbie Dunning anywhere near him to listen.

“Have to find Drogo… find out where he’s hiding the gold,” the man repeated.

Debbie’s eyes brightened. And then… a strange look of triumph seemed to pass over her face. “So, Muggle, you’re looking for the gold that was sent to Drogo prison. I… see.” She looked at Anna and smiled. “Now we’re getting somewhere. Whose gold are you searching for?” She turned to stare at Anna again, her face a bizarre study of unbent conquest. “And… who were they sending it to?”

The man looked up quickly. “Grayson gold — gold, I believe, Boris Grayson has taken from several accounts around the world.”

“That’s a lie,” Anna snapped back.” My father didn’t take anything. That gold was sent as a donation for the…” she suddenly stopped, glaring furiously at Debbie. “It’s of no concern to anybody outside my family.”

“For the health and welfare of those in Drogo prison…” Debbie finished with a smile, and Anna’s eyes widened in surprise. Debbie looked on the verge of giddy delight. “What’s the matter, Anna? Your little secret not as safe as you might have thought?” Her eyes were sparkling. “Don’t worry. I already know all about what you’re hiding in Drogo Prison.”

What once was a steady, building anger within Anna’s gut was suddenly shunted for the sake of uncertainty. “What are you talking about?” she blurted out angrily.

Debbie’s attention seemed to wander for the briefest moment. “What I don’t understand is… how you found out Drogo was even up here,” the girl continued. “Top secret information, that is. Only a small number of wizards in the entire world know Drogo’s real location.”

Anna glowered back at her. “I’ve known about Drogo all year. So what? If it’s supposed to be such a well kept secret, why do you know about it?”

Debbie shook her head derisively. “Because my brother is Captain of the Crimson Guard, of course, you brainless twit. He’s responsible for all the guards on this plateau, including those of his lieutenants in the city, in the castle, and… those stationed at Drogo too.” She paused and then pointed her wand at them again. “That’s how I came to learn… about your family secret there.” Anna frowned.

“Oh… how I’ve longed to be the one to tell everybody at Castlewood about you.” Debbie’s lips curled into a sneer. “The Graysons — who always put their family honor above all; always… so proud. Oh… if only I could tell them the truth,” she said mockingly.

Anna was caught speechless. The line separating her anger and confusion had now been reduced to a razor’s thin edge. She had no idea what Dunning was talking about. What Grayson family secret did she think she knew? Anna found her brain caught between two extremes. She desperately wanted to know what Debbie was ranting about, but she also knew from the pleasure it seemed to be giving her it wasn’t going to be good.

“I can’t tell you how long I’ve waited for this opportunity,” Debbie continued. “I couldn’t say anything before, of course, because it would mean by brother’s job if I told anybody what he told me about the high and mighty Grayson clan.”

Anna’s blood was pounding in her ears. She could feel a deadly coldness swelling in her heart. “Either tell me what you’re talking about, Dunning, or shut your mouth. I don’t know what you and that brother of yours think you know about my family, but if you’re planning on walking out of these woods in one piece…”

“Didn’t you ever wonder why my brother didn’t throw you off this mountain after you attacked him in his office?” Debbie said, cutting Anna short. “Didn’t you wonder why he didn’t stomp you like a bug the moment you raised a hand to strike him? Did you really think my brother would allow a student, worst of all –– a Grayson, to do what you did without a self preserving reason?”

Anna couldn’t find a way to answer. At the time, she knew Captain Dunning was hiding something. She had convinced herself it was because she had accidentally found Drogo’s location that kept him from expelling her after she attacked him; but now… she wasn’t sure of anything.

“Other than a select few out of the Ministry, nobody knows where Drogo is except for my brother and the men under his command in the Shadowed Forest. Even Drogo’s guards must have their memories modified after their tour of duty there is over. These precautions are meant to keep Drogo’s location a secret after the men are reassigned. Not even those who have family imprisoned there are allowed to know where their relatives are locked up. If word ever got out that somebody had discovered Drogo’s location without the Secret Keeper’s knowledge…”

“It would mean your brother’s job,” Anna finished for her.

Debbie shrugged. “He could have modified your memory at the time, of course, but that would’ve been much too risky to do on a student. He should have done it anyway… but your attack on him made that completely unnecessary, didn’t it? My brother knew you would never utter a word about Drogo if he threatened your expulsion from Castlewood.”

The man next to Anna began to moan again, holding his head in obvious pain. Anna could see the charms of the forest were extracting a terrible toll on him.

“So… how did you find out about Drogo, anyway?” Debbie asked. “Did your father tell you?” The sinister shadow of something evil was invading the girl’s voice. Anna glared at her, not willing to reply. “No… I suppose not,” Debbie answered herself. “Not even the powerful Boris Grayson is allowed to know where the prison is. My brother told me your father always uses a blind port key within the Ministry just like everyone else when he comes in for a visit. So how did you find out?”

“If you must know, I saw it during vollucross practice,” Anna growled back.

“Liar!” Debbie seethed. “Nobody can see Drogo from the air. You couldn’t see Drogo even if you were standing right next to it.”

Anna grinned. For the briefest moment, she was enjoying Debbie’s uncertainty. “Have it your way, then. I suppose it just came to me in a dream.”

There was a pause between them before Debbie raised Anna’s wand. She seemed to be studying it pryingly. “You told me in the dueling hall this belonged to your mother, isn’t that right?”

Anna was surprised by the question. Although she couldn’t remember giving Debbie this bit of information, she couldn’t remember much of anything about that day in the pit. Except, of course, for the blood, she remembered everything about Debbie Dunning’s blood. A low growl rumbled deep within Anna’s chest as she peered out at Debbie from under her lowered brow.

“Yes… that was my mother’s wand,” she said, suddenly finding it difficult to speak.

“So many little secrets…” Debbie cooed, in a light singsong voice. “The Graysons do love their privacies.” She looked at Anna again and smiled. “Tell me, when was the last time your mother saw her wand?” The Muggle groaned again. He sounded like Gwen in response to Debbie’s question.

“What?” Anna snapped back.

Debbie smirked in the relaxed and contemptuous way Anna always hated. “So… how is ol’ mummy these days?”

The words hit Anna like a blow to the stomach. She glared at Debbie angrily. “My mother is dead,” she snarled back before raising a pointed finger, “and be careful what you say next, Dunning. One more word about my mother… and I’ll tear your head off.”

Debbie smiled at the threat. “Dead, is she? Oh… what a shame. I had assumed that she was just letting you borrow her wand.”

“Must find Drogo…” the Muggle moaned again. His words snapped Anna’s attention away from Debbie. Feeling enormous pity for the man, she reached over and took him by the arm once more.

“By the way… how did your mother die, anyway?”

Anna jerked up and glared back at the girl. She had heard enough. “None of your business. Now give me back my wand!”

“Oh… but why? We were having such a friendly little chat. It’s fun sharing secrets just between us girls, don’t you think? I would have thought that, after all this time, you would want to tell somebody about the secret your family keeps locked away inside Drogo prison.”

“Drogo?” yelped the Muggle. “Where is it? Is it close by? I’ve been looking for it.”

“What are you talking about?” Anna snarled back. “My family… they don’t… what the hell…?”

“The secret’s out, Anna; the big one,” Debbie retorted, triumphantly. “The one I’ve been dying to tell your little Guardian friends all year long. I wonder… how many will go back to their old Unions once they find out the truth. Oh, boo-hoo… no more Guardian Union, one more attempt for Grayson glory wasted away.”

“Shut up!” Anna screamed, balling her fists in rage. “Shut… up!” Her frustration began to spill out in a rush. “You and that brother of yours are the foulest people I’ve ever known. You’re evil, hateful — rotten to the center, and as much as I’ve tried to avoid the both of you, you just keep coming. Following me everywhere, looking to get me into trouble. And now you dare to threaten a lie against by family? I’ve had enough of you. If it means being thrown out of Castlewood to see your brother gone, then for the sake of all the other students I’m ready to do it. In fact, I can’t wait!”

Debbie looked surprisingly calm as she raised her wand at Anna. “Would you really? Would you go down in flames just to ruin my brother?”

“Yes! I’m tired of this. Castlewood isn’t worth seeing the two of you everyday. I’ve had it!”

“And what about the rest of your family? Would you also see them disgraced for the sake of ruining my brother?”

“This has nothing to do with my family. I was the one who hit your brother. The rest of my family didn’t have anything to do with that.”

“But once the secret gets out about what you’re hiding in Drogo, I’m not so sure the rest of your clan will be able to show their faces on this plateau ever again.”

“For the last time –– my family doesn’t have any secrets!”

Debbie’s eyes suddenly sparkled maliciously in the pallid moonlight. She stepped forward. “Oh really? What about…that little secret… concerning your mother being locked up in the dungeons of Drogo?”

Anna was horror-struck. At Debbie’s words, she stumbled back on weakened knees. There was something that suddenly flashed hot down in her throat. “How… dare you…” Anna whispered, barely getting the words out of her mouth. “How dare you… say such a thing!”

Debbie was smiling triumphantly, enjoying the pain her words instilled in Anna’s reaction.

“You stand there… and dare… to even speak of my mother, and then say something like that? I’m gonna rip you apart!” Anna suddenly came forward.

“Stop — or your Muggle friend gets it,” Debbie yelled back.

It took Anna another two full steps before halting. She pointed threateningly at Debbie. “If you say another word, I’m warning you…”

“Oh… I guess the truth would cause a bit of pain,” Debbie sighed in mocked remorse, and then she smiled again. “It does my heart good to see a Grayson in pain. It’s no wonder, having a lunatic for a mother can be somewhat difficult to…”

“I said, shut your disgusting mouth! I won’t have you telling lies about my mother.”

“Lies?”

“Yes, lies. My mother is dead.”

Debbie shrugged. “Well… I suppose being dead in one’s mind might be considered dead in reality, but I don’t think her jailers at Drogo would agree.”

“My mother is not in Drogo Prison! She died thirteen years ago. It was an accident.”

“Now who’s lying?” Debbie said insufferably. “You can’t hide anymore, Anna. My brother told me the truth after you attacked him earlier this year. I’ve never seen him so angry than on that day, and I couldn’t believe it when he told me what you did. I couldn’t believe he didn’t kill you on the spot. That’s when I told him I would do it. I would gladly make your life a living hell every moment of every day. We saw our chance that day in the dueling hall, but again you got away with putting your hands on a member of the Dunning family, on me! That’s the day I saw you for what you really are… a freak. Another Grayson secret kept hidden from the world. Anna Grayson, the half-human beast; some kind of deranged creature on the path to being just like her mother — locked in a cage.”

Anna could barely hear Debbie’s words. Her blood boiled with rage while her heart began giving off sharp crackling sounds, freezing into a mass of blackened ice. The Lethifold wanted to belch forth from out of her soul and attack, but Anna knew something bigger was coming. From the deepest regions of her core, a bottomless growl issued forth, and Anna realized something terrible was trying to push its way forward. Although she didn’t know what it was, she clearly understood its nature; it wanted to finish what it started when it tried to kill Debbie in the dueling hall.

“I can’t wait to tell the whole world the truth,” Debbie continued. “Anna Grayson’s mother, a prisoner inside Saint Drogo’s Hospital for Incurable Lost Causes.”

“SHUT UP!” Anna screamed, dropping to her knees to seize her buzzing head. She glared up at Debbie’s form now blurring in and out of focus in front of her and Anna snarled. Crouching low, she wanted with all her strength to spring at the thing laughing at her just a few feet away.

“Oh my God…” came a voice to her right, and Anna snapped around to glare at the Muggle who was sprawled on the ground next to her. He began kicking his feet outward, trying to scramble away from her. He could see the narrow cat-like eyes staring hungrily at him, her jaws widening, and fangs – luminescent, white daggers glowing in the moonlight. Anna raised a hand to strike at the man and then caught herself. She stared disbelievingly at the massive black claws now protruding from her own half-fingers.

“Don’t hurt me,” the man yelled, trying desperately to move away from her.

“Lumos!” yelled Dunning, and a beam of white light cut the space between them once more.

Anna turned to hide her face. No. She couldn’t let Debbie see her like this. A cold stillness hovered within the darkness surrounding them; even the insects were quiet in the unexpected light of Debbie’s wand.

“I don’t believe it,” Dunning said softly, staring at Anna’s back crouched low on the ground before her. “You really… didn’t know… did you?”

Anna was taking slow calming breaths. It’s a lie. Debbie is lying. It wasn’t true.

“Oh… this is even better than I could have imagined,” Debbie gloated evilly. “So… daddy Grayson didn’t even tell his own daughter that her mother was still alive, did he?” She laughed derisively. “Oh… how very nice.”

Anna was staring at her hands, flexing them in what little moonlight was available to see; they had returned to normal. It took every bit of strength she possessed to push the beast within her back down again; to rip the creature’s lock on her will away and swallow it back down. She glared up into Dunning’s light.

“You’re lying, and I don’t have to listen to your vicious ranting anymore. Come on,” Anna said, grabbing the cowering man by the arm and yanking him rudely to his feet again. “I’m getting you out of here.”

“Relashio!” Debbie bellowed, and Anna looked up in time to see the canopy above them exploding in a shower of sparks. The Muggle began screaming again.

Diffindo — Relashio — Diffindo — Relashio!” Debbie was firing her wand upward. Again and again, the blasts exploded into the trees and branches above them. Huge pieces of wood and debris were falling down like rain as Debbie continued to plow her way through, trying to get a signal out into the night sky. Anna was sheltering the crying man, trying to calm his terrified panic. Finally, Debbie broke through and they saw an explosion like fireworks high in the sky beyond the treetops.

“Periculum!” Debbie bellowed again, sending another stream of red sparks streaking into the air.

“That ought to bring half the town,” Debbie bragged. “Our Muggle friend will soon be on his way home again, minus the ability to remember where he’s been, of course.” Debbie smiled. “What do you think? I suppose I could save the guards a lot of trouble and try wiping his memory myself. I’ve never done it before, but I’ve always wanted to try.” She raised her wand.

“You leave him alone,” Anna yelled back, stepping in front of the man.

“Have it your way,” Debbie said insipidly, lowering her arm. “But I would think, you of all people, would want to keep this man quiet, given what he could tell them about your family.”

Anna glared at her. “This man can’t hurt my family, and nobody’s going to believe your ugly lies.”

Debbie frowned. “You know… I’m getting tired of you calling me a liar. I guess I can understand why you wouldn’t want to believe me, seeing how that would make your father the one who’s been lying to you.” She walked over to the man cowering low against a tree and paused to stoop down.

“But there is one sure way of finding out if what I’ve told you is true.” She looked down at the man. “Muggle — you never answered my question.”

“What? I’m sorry… are the fireworks over?” the man answered, somewhat bemusedly.

“Idiot…” Debbie muttered. “Tell me Muggle… you said Boris Grayson was sending gold to Drogo?”

“Yes — yes… Grayson gold… I must find Drogo.”

Debbie looked up and smiled wickedly at Anna again as she spoke. “And… to whom was Grayson sending this gold?”

The man looked up at the two girls in turn and, for a moment that seemed undying, Anna’s heart stopped.

“He was sending it … to his wife… for the care of his wife at Drogo.”

Anna stood there looking at the man, his words echoing through her head like gunshot in an abandoned cave. She could hear her father’s voice argue back — She died in an accident. But was that really the truth, or was there another truth?

Anna turned to Debbie. “If you repeat these lies to anybody… I’ll see to it you and that brother of yours are...”

Debbie was smiling. “I don’t have to say anything now, because… you see…” she leaned in, coming so close Anna could feel her breath brushing against her cheek, “I prefer to destroy my enemies…from within.” Anna angrily stepped forward and found the point of her own wand pressing into her chest. Debbie was laughing maliciously as Anna snatched the purple heart out of her hand.

“Just remember what I said, Dunning. If I hear you repeating any of this to anybody…”

“Who goes there?” came another voice from the woods. “Identify yourself, immediately!”

“It’s Debbie Dunning,” Debbie hollered back. “We’re over here.”

“You the one sending up the sparks?”

A moment later, at least twenty Crimson Guards began pouring out of the woods and on doors and brooms through the burnt gap in the canopy overhead.

FIVE

Later that night, Doctor Pearl was escorting the Muggle away on a floating door. Anna could see the man looked unconscious.

“The poor dear,” Pearl said, shaking her head. “Lost for three days in the Shadowed Forest… with no food or water? It’s a wonder he survived the nights, never mind the creatures in these woods. You’re in good hands now,” she said lovingly, taking the man’s limp hand in her own as one would a lost child. “You’ll be right as rain in no time.”

“And you say… you’ve never seen this man before, Miss Grayson?” asked John Hayman. The lieutenant was standing next to Anna with a quill in his hand, writing his report on a piece of rolled parchment.

“No… I’ve never seen him before tonight,” Anna replied.

“But he knows your father. He kept repeating Boris Grayson’s name when I was questioning him. Any idea why he might have come up here?”

“No… I only know what he said while I was with him. He was looking for a place called… Drogo Prison,” Anna explained, glowering over at Debbie who was giving her own account of the evening to another guard. Was she telling them lies about her mother?

“Yes… I heard him mention that too,” Hayman replied. “He also said something about looking for gold before we wiped away his memory. Poor devil; God only knows how he even heard about Drogo Prison, never mind why he might have thought it was up here, of all places.” Anna watched Hayman’s face for any furtive signals. There weren’t any. She could tell the lieutenant had no idea Drogo was just over the northern mountains.

“Strange… very strange indeed,” he hummed. “The Ministry is going to have a difficult time explaining all of this.”

“Sir…” interrupted another guard, walking up to them.

“Yes, Tom. What is it?”

“We found a photo ID on the Muggle.” He handed the man’s wallet to Hayman, who flipped it open.

“Says here his name is Sidney Heidelbach… from Chicago.” He looked up at Anna again. “Ring any bells?” Anna shook her head. Hayman heaved and then shrugged unknowingly. “Well… it’s a good thing you heard him calling for help. I don’t think he would have lasted another night out here in these woods.”

“Can I go back to the castle now?” Anna asked the lieutenant, trying to sound tired.

“Yes… of course. I think that would be best. I’ll have a couple of my men escort you back.” He snapped his fingers and a Crimson Guard stepped forward and nodded.

“This way, Miss Grayson,” the guard said, pushing the branch of a tree aside to show her the way out.

Anna said nothing the entire trip back to the city. Too many thoughts were stampeding through her head to allow for idle conversation. What Debbie Dunning said wasn’t true. It couldn’t be true. And yet, everything Anna could sense of the truth told her that Debbie did believe it. And what about this Muggle man, this Sidney Heidelbach person? What was his connection to all of this, and how could this stranger confirm what Debbie had said? It had to be a lie. My father wouldn’t… he couldn’t have lied to me, not about my mother. How could Victoria Grayson, the woman my father loved so much, be locked away in Drogo prison?

She began searching her memory for every conversation she had shared with her father about her mother. Had he been hiding something from her for all these years? Was it possible that her mother was alive? And then, as Anna was about to step across the drawbridge toward the castle, she stopped. She remembered the words her father had said when he was comparing Anna’s anger to that of her mother.

“You must… stay your control, because… even the briefest moments of madness can lead… to the loss of one’s sanity. Never allow your anger to go that far, Anna. For even touching the edge of madness… is like summoning the abyss.”

Tears began to leak down Anna’s checks. Had his words represented some practical knowledge, or were they from his own personal experiences, something he had seen… perhaps… in her mother?

“Miss Grayson?” Anna looked up and saw her Crimson escort standing in the castle’s gate. “It’s getting late, you should be inside,” he said, motioning her through the iron portcullis. Anna ran across the bridge, through the archway and into the courtyard, barely noticing the tiny whispers inside the walls as she passed. When the sound of the gate closed behind her, she stopped again and looked into the night sky. The stars were blurred from the tears welling in her eyes.

“No… it’s not true. It can’t be true. Debbie is a liar!” She looked up at the castle’s enormous edifice, and could see the silhouette of a man pacing across the window in the Chancellor’s office.

“There has to be a way to find the truth,” she said, staring at the shadow behind the glass. “There must be some way I can…” she saw the glimmer of something red flash in the window, and it suddenly hit her.

“Of course…” she whispered, surprised that she hadn’t thought of it right away. She marched determinedly up the steps and burst through the front doors of the castle where another guard stood on duty inside the foyer.

“Curfew begins in ten minutes, Guardian. Do you know where you’re going?”

Anna never looked back. “Yes… I know exactly where I’m going,” she said, running up the marble staircase. “I have an appointment… with a gorilla.”

The guard frowned as Anna disappeared at the top of the stairs and into the hallway beyond.


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