Anna Grayson and The Order of Merlin

The Forbidden Task

As Gwen had predicted, the final days leading up to the third task were extremely busy for the students of Castlewood. Their final exams had finally started, and Anna and the rest of the first-years quickly found themselves struggling to keep up with the difficult pace.

Professors Nevork had them changing the color of their chairs to pink in transfiguration class, and everybody did fairly well except for TJ who, despite her best efforts, couldn’t seem to make the change work. Surrendering to her failure, she fell pouting into her chair where it promptly began to gallop around the room, squealing furiously like a pig.

“Whaa-hoooo,” screamed an excited TJ, whipping the sides of her bucking chair with her wand. “I’m gonna break this little piggy!” she yelled delightedly, until she was thrown to the floor with an enormous crash and the entire class burst into laugher. Getting to her feet, TJ dusted off her robes and looked up. “Now that there’s an eight-five point ride if ever’n there was one.”

Then it was off to Magical Incantations where Professor Titan asked each of them to demonstrate a number of spells and charms, including a few Anna believed would keep Tencha and Dowla on their guard for most of the summer holiday.

Next came Care of Magical Creatures, where the very harsh and surly Professor Motim did not give the expected practical exam. Instead, he tested them individually on their overall knowledge of the creatures they had studied throughout the year. Anna thought she did pretty well until Motim was overheard telling two other students he doubted if any of them could tell the difference between a Diricawl and a Bowtruckle. Anna made the rest of the class snicker in the hallway when she said the Diricawl, much like their instructor, was really just a dodo.

Professor Van Doorn, their Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, had them demonstrate a number of counter spells, as she went about trying to hex each of them in turn. Anna did remarkably well until Van Doorn hit her with a well-placed Banishing Charm, which sent her flying across two rows of desks to the floor.

“You should learn to keep your wand parallel to the floor, Guardian, if you intend to successfully deflect your opponent’s curse,” she hissed, helping a sprawled Anna back to her feet. “Promise me you will practice over the summer, and I’ll give you full marks today.” Rubbing her sore bottom and thinking about sharing another summer with Damon, Anna gladly agreed.

Their exams were finally completed the day before the third task of the Triward Tournament, and the relief felt throughout the castle was palpable in every Hall. All, that is, except for the Guardians. Their failure to find the fiftieth member of their union had reduced their efforts to standing in corridors and handing out leaflets. Eric called in nearly every favor owed him in an effort to get as many students to walk through the Mirror of Enlightenment as he could. In the end, all of their hard work seemed to payoff, and on the evening of June twenty-second, no less than sixty students agreed to pass through the mirror once more. But to everybody’s shock and dismay, no Guardians were found.

Anna never saw Eric so tired. His obsessive pace and dedication to the Guardian cause in the days following his senior exams had left him completely exhausted, and it was then that Anna began to realize how futile it was to remain angry with her brother. Finding herself emotionally drained by the effort, she eventually decided Eric couldn’t possibly have known about her mother being held in Drogo. Upon further reflection, the only people who she thought could have known were her father, perhaps a few ministry officials, and of course the Captain and his sister.

But while Anna’s heart had softened toward Eric, her determination to go to Drogo had not. Her plan was surprisingly simple: she would fly Swooper over the mountains during the third Triwizard task when she knew everybody at the castle would be distracted inside the stadium. She would be missed after the tournament was over, of course, when she was expected to participate in the last Vollucross race afterwards. But, with any luck and by the time somebody realized she was absent, she would already be well out of reach. She would use Swooper’s power of invisibility to get to the prison, and then her own abilities to pass through whatever magical barriers existed to get to the dungeons. From there, she would do whatever was necessary to find her mother.

Anna was awake most of the night before the third task, going over the plan several times in her mind. She could see herself flying low over the treetops, invisible as the Lethifold except as a blackened mist, and landing on the upper walls of Drogo. Step by step, she imagined the obstacles she might find there. What would she do if she passed through an enchanted door and ran into a guard on the other side? Could she pass through in a form that might conceal her? Would it be possible to travel through the doors as the Lethifold? No. She knew enough about the nature of these skills not to believe she could do them simultaneously; she was sure that wouldn’t work. Maybe she could pass through just enough to see what was on the other side and then return if there was danger. She was worried. She wasn’t experienced enough with her newfound abilities to understand their limitations, and now that she had something exceedingly important she needed to do, Anna was upset that she hadn’t taken the time to completely explore them.

She finally saw herself standing in a dark corridor in the lowest dungeons, and imagined several locked rooms on either side. How will I find the right door? She could pass through each one, but if a guard or another prisoner were to see her, there would be an alarm. At three o’clock in the morning, Anna was still visualizing herself trying to escape back to the upper floors of the prison to the sound of screaming sirens and bells blasting in her ears. She could still hear the guards yelling her name in hot pursuit when her mind was swept into an uneasy slumber.

The castle stairs Anna was ascending to escape from Drogo slowly melted away, and she found herself walking up a wooded path that looked wonderfully familiar. She was home again. The sun shown like beams from heaven through the trees, and the dense aroma of the forest around her was delightfully intoxicating. Anna recognized where she was the moment she reached the top of the hill. She breathed deep, her mind searching for the familiar smell of smoke and blackened wood.

She turned expectantly, looking for the burnt ruins of the Jennings estate, but what she found instead stunned her. A massive stone manor loomed high in the woods where there should have been only rubble. The anticipated pile of rock and debris to her right was gone, replaced by a beautiful north wing filled with windows of eight foot mullion glass. The naked and crumbling chimneys she had marveled at growing up were now encased inside towering walls of stone topped by a highly pitched roof of many angles. Anna couldn’t believe her eyes; the Jennings estate was whole again, regal and majestic before her in the fading evening light.

She walked along its front to take in every inch of the beautiful facade. Ornate trim separated the upper floors from the shingled roof, which was covered with blue-gray slate. White colonnades framed the entranceway, directing her eye from the massive stone porch at the bottom to a center pane high at the top. The round window was filled with beautiful stained glass depicting an angel battling a dragon.

“Unbelievable,” Anna whispered. “It’s the most beautiful house I’ve ever seen.”

A flash of orange light caught her eye in the colored window and she could see the two figures in the glass slowly beginning to move. The angel was grimacing as he swung his golden sword down upon the beast, slamming into its scaly back with a loud clang of yellow sparks. The dragon bellowed angrily and reared up to snap wildly at his foe. Its terrible-horned head was glowing with bright, fiery eyes. It opened its mouth wide and sent a stream of green fire at the angel.

“Oh my God.”

Anna watched the angel shriek as its feathered wings and arms were burnt black. The great beast blew a ring of fire around the angel who was then completely engulfed in the killing flames; the screams were hideous. And then, to Anna’s horror, the ugly-green fire within the glass began to spread outside its casings and onto the roof. It poured like lava down the front of the building, illuminating the facade in an eerie and luminescent glow. The window suddenly exploded outward, and Anna dropped to cover her head from the falling multi-colored shards. Bright green flames were pouring out of the window’s frame, and an angry blaze could be seen filling the entire third floor behind it.

Panicking, Anna ran to the front door, which opened on its own before she reached the latch. She dashed through the opening and stopped to yell in the entranceway.

“Fire! There’s a fire in the house upstairs. Is there anybody in here?”

She could hear a raging blaze howling like a storm somewhere in the floors above her. And then, to her horror, Anna heard a scream coming from the upstairs.

“Oh no!”

She ran up the winding staircase to the second floor landing. “Where are you?” She heard another scream coming from a room at the far end of the railing. “Fire — on the third floor! You have to get out!” Anna was running toward the room when she heard something that made her heart stop. It was a woman’s laugh, a horrible and cackling howl that sent a spear of terror straight through her brain.

“The Dark Lord is coming,” said the cold and hideous voice. And then Anna heard another voice, softer this time, mixed with panic.

“No… what are you doing? You can’t do this!”

“It is our Lord’s wish that it be done,” screeched the voice again.

“No… not my mother’s house, not my home!”

“We will have a new home soon enough. It will be done!”

Anna could now see clouds of smoke pouring out of the room and into the hallway where she stood. And then, a figure suddenly appeared in the doorway; the faintest outline of something with a torch in its hand. Anna gasped in horror as the thing looked up; two eyes were peering out at her through the graying haze. They were glowing red like the beast within the stained glass.

“The Dark Lord is coming,” repeated the figure, barely visible except for its demon-like eyes burning through the thick curtain of smoke. “He will rise more powerful and terrible than ever he was.” The figure then raised the torch and touched it to the top of the door’s frame.

“No – don’t!” Anna yelled, but it was too late. The ceiling exploded in flame, and then quickly began to spread across the hallway toward her. Anna turned to run, but found her way blocked by a column of growing fire behind her. She was trapped.

Desperate to escape, Anna looked over the railing and to her horror she saw the entire floor below engulfed in fire, a lake of rising flame. There was more laughter, and Anna wheeled around and screamed. Two eyes, boiling like stoked coals, were fixed directly upon her through a wall of flame set between them. The mouth of the thing opened, revealing hideous fangs as it spoke.

“The Dark Lord is coming,” screeched the voice just a few feet away, and Anna screamed again as the ceiling above them began to collapse. The fire was engulfing her body, burning her flesh to the bone. She watched in horror as her arms began twisting and wilting; the skin bubbled grotesquely and turned black. She screamed in excruciating pain, and then awoke to the fading echo of cackled laughter.

Anna sat up in her bed, breathing in rapid terror. Panicking, she looked quickly at her arms expecting the worst; they were smooth and untouched. She started to cry. She could still see the demon’s eyes glowing red in the dark in front of her, the flames penetrating her skin and spreading through her bones. And the pain, oh God… the terrible-suffering pain.

“It was that thing — that evil woman was the one who started the fire in the Jennings house,” Anna mumbled through her growing sobs, “and that laugh — that horrible screeching voice. What was it the thing had said?”

“The Dark Lord is coming…” a voice answered her.

Anna’s heart jumped as she turned in the direction of Sarah’s bed; the voice had come from there.

“Voldemort… is coming,” whispered the gruff and choppy voice once more. Anna could now see Sarah sitting upright in the dark and staring forward.

“The Dark Mark will burn black, summoning his servants to their master. It will happen tomorrow night! The Dark Lord will rise again!” Anna felt a chill spreading across her back and up through her spine.

And then, very slowly, Sarah’s head began to turn. She stopped to look at Anna. Her eyes were wide and vacant, blank-white eyes staring at her through the darkness.

“Tomorrow… you will find death… in the dungeons of Drogo…”

Anna gasped; her heart was pounding with fear. Sarah’s head slowly turned to face forward again. She muttered something indistinguishable, and then repeated her warning, “… death in the dungeons… of… Drogo.” She was still for a moment, and then crumbled in a heap into her blankets.

“Sarah?” Anna called, tentatively. Her roommate gave out a soft grunt and then rolled over to face the wall, her free hand searching unconsciously for her blankets. Anna slowly fell back and stared up at the ceiling; the cool air coming through her open window was licking at the phantom burns still tingling in her arms. Was Sarah giving me a warning? Should I still go to Drogo if death was waiting for me there? Did it mean she, Anna, would die if she attempted to break in, or was Sarah speaking of what she would find while looking for her mother? Would she find her mother dead?

Anna closed her eyes and found her mind groping for the image in her mother’s portrait. She tried to imagine that person lying dead in a dungeon cell. Was she brave enough to face such a thing? She lay awake for the rest of the night wondering what to do.

TWO

By morning, Anna’s inner struggles had ended. Despite the risks, and now the warnings of seeing death full in the face, her resolve remained unchanged. She was going to Drogo. She had imagined it so many times, it almost seemed as though she had already done the thing. She had created a picture of herself traveling with Swooper to one of the most feared and loathsome places in the wizarding world, and to decide not to go now would be like lying about how important it was to her. Still, now that Anna knew her mother was alive, one important thing seemed to trump every part of reason and caution left to her. She had to know the complete truth about her mother’s condition. No matter how bad or dangerous it might be… she had to see her.

But something else was working to set Sarah’s warning aside. Sarah had said Voldemort was going to rise again. In fact, she said he would rise this very night. But how could that possibly happen? Voldemort was dead. How could the most evil wizard in a century rise again after being dead for more than thirteen years? That was impossible. Sarah had to be wrong. Perhaps what Anna had witnessed last night wasn’t Sarah, the Seer, but just her roommate talking in her sleep. And if Sarah was wrong about Voldemort, she might be wrong about everything else she had said as well.

That morning, Sarah seemed completely unaware of her terrible predictions, and Anna didn’t bother telling her or Gwen what she had said in the night. For doing so would have given away her plan to go to Drogo. She found herself reliving her dream over and over during the day, wondering if it carried any truth. But if Anna were to believe any part of it, it meant the woman who was with her mother in Eric’s room had been with Victoria before the fire that brought them into her father’s house. In fact, according to the dream, this woman purposely set fire to the Jennings estate as part of a plan to do just that; but why? What power did this woman have over her mother that Victoria Grayson would allow this evil thing to destroy her ancestral home? Anna started to believe the dream couldn’t have been based on anything meriting consideration. Because, if it did, it would mean the thing that originally brought Victoria and her father together had been a lie from the very start.

Anna spent the rest of the day with Sarah and Gwen, visiting the city shops and walking among the hundreds of tents that began popping up all over the plateau. Anna tried to act as normal as possible, though her thoughts never strayed far from her future task at hand. It was an effort sometimes to remain focused on the things her friends were discussing, including the local newspaper, which had written a series of articles building up to the Triwizard Tournament’s final task. The stories included some very grisly details, describing how several of the past champions had been maimed and even killed.

“But they said the tournament is supposed to be safer this time,” Sarah said, when she read the part about the tournament of 1430, which ended in a draw when all three champions were eaten by a deadly Chimaera.

“Yeah… that’s what they said, all right, but then they served the champions up to a bunch of dragons, didn’t they? Not to mention nearly drowning one of them in that lake during the second task,” Gwen replied, still frowning at the paper. “If you call that safer, it’s no wonder so many died in the early days. It says here, the champions will have to negotiate some kind of labyrinth tonight, which will contain a number of spells and creatures they’ll have to face as they make their way to the center. The first champion to reach the middle of the maze will be the winner of the tournament.

“Hey — the paper also has the odds for tonight’s vollucross race.” Gwen’s face immediately turned surly. “They still have Anna at long odds against Lannete Cobstone.” She threw the newspaper aside. “I should think after you beat her the last time they would have given you more respect? Anna? Hey… are you all right?” Anna wasn’t listening. Her mind wasn’t on the race or the tournament, but her own forbidden task.

“Anna?” Gwen gave her friend a nudge. “Hey… ‘Pilot to bombardier’…you back there somewhere?”

“Huh? Oh… sorry. Just… a little nervous about tonight, I guess.”

“I was just saying they should have given you better odds to win, don’t you think?”

“Well… the last race was pretty close… and Lannete is a proven winner. If I was going to bet, I’d put my gold on her.”

Gwen looked appalled. “What’s the matter with you? Where’s that steely Grayson determination we’re all counting on? I’m putting my entire purse on Diggory in the third task, and you to win the race afterwards.”

“No… Gwen, please don’t bet your gold on me. Don’t do that.”

Gwen was surprised. “What the heck is wrong with you? We all know you’re going to win. You’re just a little nervous, that’s all. But once you get saddled up, there’s nothing in this world that’s gonna to keep you from your goal.” Anna smiled; she couldn’t help thinking just how right Gwen could be about something.

At three o’clock, the students and teachers headed for the stadium. Although the third task was scheduled to begin at dusk in England, the time difference in the Eastern United States would allow the citizens and visitors of Spellsburg to enjoy the tournament in the warm comfort of the late afternoon sun.

When they got inside the stadium gates, the girls parted. “See you,” Anna said, trying to sound upbeat and hiding the knot of scrambled nerves tightening inside her stomach.

“Good luck,” Sarah said, waving to her brightly.

“Yeah… knock’em dead, champ! I’ve already got another Guardian victory chocked up and counted,” Gwen said confidently, allowing the mass of humanity to push them backwards toward the stands. Watching to make sure they didn’t suspect anything, Anna spied on her friends until the crowd had completely swallowed them. She then turned and headed back to the stables.

When she entered Swooper’s stall, the stallion was jittery and very nervous. The rumble of the crowd outside told all of the winged horses they would soon be flying again. Turning large circles in his stall, he began to beat his powerful wings furiously. When he saw Anna carrying his saddle, he raised up to kick out. For a magical creature born to fly, life was all about these precious moments. Anna reached out to him.

“Swooper, I need your help,” she called out, enticing him back down on all fours again; she patted his neck. “I need you to take me over the northern mountains tonight, and I’m not going to lie to you: What I’m asking you to do is going to be very dangerous — for both of us.”

The thorse looked curiously at her, his large blue eyes bright and alert. Anna heaved his saddle onto his back behind his wing joints. As she worked the buckles and straps, she continued to explain her ambitions, trying to the best of her ability to sound determined.

“I recently found out my mother is being held at Drogo prison,” she said, feeling the words scraping up her throat like they were covered in thorns. “I have to go there and find her, but I can’t do it without your help.” She tightening his cinch straps and then walked around to look at him again. “Will you take me there?” The great horse stared at her appraisingly. “Please… I know I don’t have the right to put you in this kind of danger… but this might be my only chance to find out the truth about her condition. Will you… will you please help me?”

At once, Anna could feel an overwhelming sense of determination blossom from the deepest part of Swooper’s soul. The feeling engulfed Anna’s heart and immediately moved her to tears. She reached out and hugged him.

“Thank you,” she whispered softly.

“Anna…? Why aren’t you upstairs in the stadium with the others?” It was Mr. Kingston, the stable master. It was the first time Anna had ever seen him without his leather apron.

“Oh… hello, Jeremiah. I was just getting Swooper ready for the race,” Anna replied, wiping the tears from her cheeks.

“Are you… all right?”

“Uh-huh…” she said, trying not to look at the man. “I don’t think I’m going to watch the tournament, Jeremiah. I’m… I guess I’m just a little nervous about tonight.”

He smiled. “I don’t know why you would be nervous. I should think your competitors would be nervous if they knew the winner of the last race was preparing her mount so early.” He walked over to her and placed a bracing hand on Anna’s shoulder. “Are you sure you’re all right?”

“Oh-yeah, I’m fine,” she said, pulling Swooper’s bridle out of her bag.

He stared at her appraisingly. “The Triwizard Tournament is probably a once in a lifetime event. You shouldn’t allow yourself to miss it.”

Anna straightened to think. “You know… you’re right… I’ll be along in a few minutes. I just want some time alone with Swooper.”

He stared intently at her again. “All right; I’ll leave you to it, then. Good luck… and be careful out there, okay?”

“I’ll do what I can,” she sighed.

As the stable master turned to walk away, Anna called to him. “Jeremiah?”

The man quickly spooled. “Yes…?”

“If something does happen to me tonight, I just wanted to say…” she paused, realizing she almost started to say goodbye. “Thank you… for everything you’ve done for me this year.”

He frowned. “Of course… but nothing’s going to happen…”

“I mean it, Jeremiah, I couldn’t do…” her words stumbled, “…what I’m going to do tonight if it hadn’t been for you and Pearl. You’re like… a part of my family.” She looked away from him, trying to control her emotions. “I… just wanted…well… I just thought you should know how much you mean to me. That’s all.”

The stable master gave a small kick at the dirt beneath his foot, and then imparted a bashful shrug. He looked up and then nodded.

“You know… it’s been a real joy watching you this year, a delight for these old eyes to see.” He smiled at her. “If you give it your best tonight… if you show the kind of courage I’ve already seen in you long before this day, it would make me proud to know I’ve had a small hand in your success.” Anna smiled back, thinking only of her mother.

Mr. Kingston gave her a wink, turned and opened the gate. He glanced quickly back to watch Anna slipping the bridle over Swooper’s head, and for the briefest moment he had the strange feeling again that something was terribly wrong. Setting his doubts aside, he seated the bolt and headed for the stadium outside. Several hours later, Jeremiah Kingston would wonder why he didn’t act on his fears and suspicions.

THREE

Anna was careful to tell Gwen and Sarah she would be sitting with Eric over the stables during the third task, and she told Eric she would be sitting with Gwen. She didn’t like lying to them, but it was the only way she could insure a good head start before being missed. A few minutes later, Anna could hear Professor Bots’ voice booming over the crowd inside the stadium.

“Ladies and gentlemen: Welcome back to Spellsburg, and welcome to the third and final task of the Triwizard Tournament.” There was a roar from the stadium crowd, and many of the winged horses in the adjoining stables whinnied loudly in reply.

“Come on, Swooper. It’s time to go.” They walked together out the side door leading to the gap in the stadium. As they entered the breach, Anna looked right. The entranceway to the stadium was finally clear of people, and Anna could see the wonderful green lawns extending all the way to the other side. To her left awaited the open forest.

“Good luck, Guardian,” yelled one of the spectators looking down over the railing, and several others in the crowd noticed and started to wave at her. Anna forced a false smile, gave an obligatory wave, and led Swooper around the corner. Outside the stadium wall, she quickly mounted and turned to look one last time inside the gap.

She heard Professor Bots’ magnified voice bellow the incantation, “Projectius Visum Hogwarts!” and the stadium grounds suddenly went dark.

Anna turned toward the forest. “God forgive me… for what I’m about to do.”

She nudged Swooper in the sides and the great horse suddenly bolted forward. Gaining speed until he was at a full gallop, Swooper began to unfurl his massive wings. They lifted off the ground with ease, and with one mighty stroke they soared easily over the rim of the Shadowed Forest. They were finally off, and Anna couldn’t help thinking her fate was finally set. After tonight, she knew her life would never be the same again.

As they climbed higher into the evening sun, Anna turned to look back only once. Vollucross stadium looked like a massive pot with a blackened lid placed upon its crown. A purple glow radiated from its doors and gaps below, and for the first time that day Anna smiled.

Sunset at Hogwarts: Good luck, Harry Potter.

“Let’s go higher,” Anna said, patting Swooper on the neck, and she could feel the steed’s powerful wings rotating in their sockets as they angled back and lifted forward. Soon they were at a thousand feet, two thousand feet, three thousand, and the rocky tops of the Pennsylvania Mountains were passing beneath them. Once they cleared the first ridge, Anna pushed down on the reins and breathed a sigh of relief.

No fear of being seen from the city or the castle now, she thought, asSwooper glided down to within a hundred feet of the trees before angling back again. Anna wanted to hide their approach to the prison for as long as she possibly could. She guided Swooper through a number of low alleyways, trying to keep her northern bearing as they lifted over the second of what she knew would be three sets of mountaintops.

“Swooper… I need you to go invisible now — and stay that way until I know we’re safe again.” She patted her steed once more, and then watched as his form began to ripple and distort in the warm glow of the evening sun to their backs. Soon, only the faint outline remained of her mount, and she could barely see his head moving up and down in unison with his hoof beats. Eventually, that too had disappeared entirely.

“Good boy,” Anna cooed softly, patting the place where his neck should have been.

They started to rise toward the final ridge and Anna knew Drogo would soon fall into view on the other side. So far, everything was going according to plan.

“Swooper, I’m going to change into my other form now, just like we practiced, all right?” She felt the thorse give a nervous jerk at the reins. “You will see the black castle coming into view in the middle of a lake on the other side. If we can get close enough, I’d like to try circling the castle a few times and then continue north to the other side of the lake. We’ll land on the far shore and hide ourselves in the forest if we can.” She could hear Swooper grunt.

“Okay… here I go…”

Anna concentrated hard on the iciness trying to smother her heart ever since her fight with Debbie Dunning the week before. When her thoughts touched the moment when Debbie told her about her mother, a spark of deadly cold blazed to life deep within her chest. To Anna’s surprise, it came much quicker this time: In fact, it almost leapt forth. For some strange reason she didn’t quite understand, it was getting easier to bring the creature forward.

And all at once, it was back; the starving hunger, the coldness… and now something different, a surprising sense of shock and fear. The creature was immediately terrified. The Lethifold was frightened of the light and of finding itself so high off the ground; it was searching desperately for a place to hide itself, and it took all of Anna’s will to control the creature’s fear. She could feel Swooper shiver from her cold touch as he looked back in alarm at the thing creeping over his shoulder and then to his unprotected belly.

For his part, Swooper was at a level of panic far beyond what his nature would normally allow, and his infallible instinct to get away from the creature attaching itself to his chest was enormous. If not for the experiences shared with Anna during their practice runs earlier that week, the thorse would have used the treetops to try and scrape the thing away from his body.

Swooper finally cleared the last row of mountaintops and they were met with a strong, spiraling headwind. And there, the most incredible sight loomed out of the distance to meet them. Just as Anna had remembered it, Drogo Prison stood like a mountain above an ocean of water. A giant island of blackened stone and rock, the prison was engulfed in a rippling miasma of blue light. Even from their distance away, the enormous structure looked menacing, evil and foreboding.

As her mount banked through the last valley approaching the castle’s lake, Anna could see there were no bridges, nothing visible that would allow someone to approach or escape the fortress unseen. They finally crossed over the water’s edge and raced across the surface of the lake: The castle looked ominous in the gloom of the mountains surrounding it.

FOUR

Two Crimson Guards stood on the top of Drogo’s ramparts looking out over the glassy lake three hundred and seventy feet below them.

“Finally… fresh air!” said one of the guards, breathing deep of the warm and fragrant breezes surrounding them. Although fairly young, the man felt his time in the lower floors of Drogo had aged him faster than nature had intended.

“How long you been below?” asked the other guard.

“Too long… almost a month.”

“Yeah… that’s tough duty. I cycled out of there a few weeks ago — once some of you new-bees started to transfer in.” The guard sighed and shook his head. “So… what trick did you use?”

“Trick? What do you mean?”

The older man smiled as he looked out toward the setting sun. “Kid… we all have our tricks for keeping our sanity down there. I imagine myself playing chess with my son.” He smiled and looked warily around them. “If Captain Dunning knew my mind wasn’t in this place one hundred percent of the time, all the time, he’d send my scalp to my wife and the rest of my body down to the Kappas,” he said, motioning over the side of the wall.

The other guard smiled meaningfully. “Yeah, I guess I know what you mean. I imagine myself walking back and forth between my parent’s front door and the picket gate to the street.” He laughed as he looked around to insure nobody could hear them and whispered, “I even check to make sure the door and the gate are locked.”

“Now that’s good. I’ll have to remember that one next week when I’m down on the third floor with the screamers.”

The young man looked out toward the dipping sun. “It’s horrible down there… the worst possible place on earth. Given the chance, half the prisoners would murder you in an instant … and the other half are…” he paused, shaking his head.

“Nuts?”

The kid looked up and grinned, “A squirrel’s winter hoard.”

“Yeah… the poor devils.”

“What…? Are you kidding me? Most of them would try and cut your throat if you handed them a paper knife.”

The older man turned serious. “Listen… you’ve got to find yourself some perspective kid, or you won’t last long enough to see your next transfer. Just keep one important thing in mind.” The man looked down over the edge and the dizzying drop below them. “This place… it ain’t part of the real world.”

“Real world? What’s that supposed to mean?”

The man looked at the younger guard and sighed again. “The real world: You know… the life we all have on the other side of those mountains,” he motioned longingly, pointing toward the gilded glow of the southern mountaintops before them. “You have to believe this place is in no way attached to the people and places we love. If you can somehow remember and know that fact… you just might last long enough to get out of here in one piece.”

Anna and Swooper crossed the lake and turned to circle the base of the castle; their merged forms looked like smoke sliding across the surface of the water. Anna was concentrating hard to remain aware of who she was, while simultaneously taking in every detail of the walls below them, the iron-bolted doors and the arched windows filled with brick. It was more than a fortress, the prison looked like a mountain of solid rock; a hideous heap of blackened stone glowing amidst its charms and enchantments, impenetrable and forbidden.

Swooper completed his first pass and then rose to the third and fourth levels to circle again. They made two more passes before gliding silently several times over the top. Crimson-cloaked guards could be seen walking among the castle’s ramparts and mullions: every door was manned; every entrance appeared to be blocked.

The Lethifold shifted, and Swooper headed to the opposite end of the lake. Miraculously, they had successfully surveyed the entire castle undetected. Three minutes later, Swooper landed at the forest’s edge and moved quickly into the trees. Anna could feel his heavy panting; she could taste the sweat pouring from his body. The Lethifold was starving.

No…I will remain in control.

She fought to remember Professor McGonagall and the words of encouragement she had offered to steady her mind. The Lethifold slid down the horse’s legs to the ground and then disappeared into the darkest part of the woods — safe at last. A few moments later, Anna emerged from the forest and approached Swooper. He had become visible again and was quietly munching the grass, moist from the shadowed dew beneath his feet. They took strength in seeing each other once again as she hugged him.

“We made it, boy,” she said, peering cautiously through the trees at the prison across the lake. The deep-azure haze of the Fidelius Charm had lessened against the glow of the afternoon sun. She looked back at Swooper again.

“Listen… from here I’m going on alone and I want you to stay out of sight until I return. Do you understand? Under no circumstances are you to go anywhere near that place. If I don’t return by morning, I want you to make yourself invisible again and head for home.” The great horse swung around quickly to gaze at her, his concern obvious.

She tried to sound optimistic. “Don’t worry about me; I’ll be back long before morning. But, if I don’t make it back, or if you sense anything dangerous in these woods, get yourself away from this place as fast as possible.” Swooper jerked his head agreeably with a snort and then returned to his grass. Anna looked over at Drogo again.

“I’m going to wait just a little longer for those shadows from the castle to reach us here. And then…” She patiently watched the darkness stretching toward her. They looked like the long fingers of death beckoning, almost daring her to come closer.

A few minutes later, the Lethifold was gliding slowly across the top of the water, following the shadowed pathways toward the island of black stone. The sun’s horrible rays were eclipsed by the castle’s silhouette in front of her, and as she moved along the words she heard from her father’s vault fell into her mind again: Another island, absent but by the morning’s tide, may hold your answers. Even in her present form, the irony of these words did not escape her. An island of answers… loomed before her.

When it reached the other side, the Lethifold stretched out and carefully probed the stone. It reached deep within the cracks and fissures of the castle’s foundation and the blue haze surrounding it immediately disappeared. Suddenly, an unexpected voice spoke to her.

Welcome Guardian.

Several voices began reaching out to her, touching her mind. Excited and wanting, the castle was alive and animated to her presence.

The protector is here! Sithmaith! The Guardian is among us!

Anna’s head exploded with dozens of voices calling out, reaching in to touch her unexpected form. The Lethifold found a small crack in the stone and passed several feet inside the wall before hitting a dead end. It was cool and dark, and contained her fully. She listened to the voices probing her mind, an excited throng of diverse languages and tones. Anna tried to reach out to them like an ambassador landing upon some foreign shore.

My friends, I come with a purpose; I am here to find somebody important to me, she thought, spreading herself out to make as much contact with the stone around her as she could. The multitude suddenly fell silent. And then, one voice sounded in sharp reply for the sake of all the others.

There are many dangers in this place… Sithmaith. The protector should NOT be here.

Anna tried to focus her mind, but the creature she had become made it very difficult. The instincts of the Lethifold wanted to stop trying to converse; these words of the mind were not a part of its desperate nature; only the starving hunger needed her rigorous attention right now. Anna wanted to change back, to set aside the creature’s murderous instincts and fears. It would be far easier to communicate with the voices of magic without the struggle to fight down these urges to stalk for prey. But when her mind went too far in anticipation of its own flesh, she could feel an enormous pressure as her body tried to expand within the crack where she lay. Panicking, Anna refocused her concentration back to the coldness within the stone. She had to remain what she was, where she was, until the proper moment. She reached out to the voices once more.

Can you help me find the person I’m looking for?

The voices began to speak in a clatter of ringing personalities. They were arguing loudly with each other, and if Anna’s form included hands, she would have used them to cover her ears. They were overwhelming her ability to think.

Please… Anna’s mind raged. STOP! The voices immediately ceased.

There are many dangers here, Sithmaith. You must return from which you came.

Please! I think my mother is here — somewhere in this place. I have to find her.

No… another voice screamed. There are terrible things within. The protector must not enter!

I must — I will. I have to find my mother. I’m looking for Victoria Grayson. Do you know where she is?

Again, the voices raged among themselves, arguing in locked debate. Anna found it difficult to concentrate as their clatter began to fade in and out of her mind. The pain was increasing again as her form tried to expand within the crack once more. She couldn’t stay here much longer, but the voices battled on. Finally, one spoke for the rest.

What you seek is treachery personified, little one. The one you search for… is evil.

If Anna’s body had been standing, it would have recoiled in shock.

Evil? Are you saying… that my mother is dangerous?

Most foul.

Where is she? Can you lead me to her?

Beware… it is…

Can you show me the way?

There was a long pause before another voice set deep in her mind came forth.

God did not bring the protector into this world to see you destroyed so easily, little one. Does this quest serve that which brought you into existence?

Please… I can’t go on with my life wondering what happened to my mother. I need to find her; I want to know how she’s surviving. But I can’t do it without your help. Please… I’m begging you… help me. Anna’s mind was loosing its ability to concentrate on her form again. She could feel the expanding pain; the place in which she was hiding felt like it was squeezing in on her.

At last, there came a reply. Very well. We will show you the way.

Relieved, Anna’s pain abated once more.

Thank you… where…?

You must find a way inside these walls, and then down to the lowest levels within.

Down to the dungeons? Anna asked, knowing the answer and repeating the information given to her by the Verosapt.

We will direct your path, once inside.

The Lethifold began to creep unwillingly toward the light, following the crack to the outside. Anna was struggling to move the creature along; it was like dragging a bear by the scruff of the neck.

But know this, Sithmaith. Untold dangers are hidden within the walls you look to breach. The way will be most perilous. At your journey’s end, the thing you seek has the power to destroy you utterly. Thus, we pass to you our strongest warning… the magic that guides you onward cannot come to your aid but by the link we now share. Once inside, we will be limited by the spells and enchantments that define our existence here, and will work to block your path in the manner intended against any intruder.

You would work against me?

We will assist you where and when we can as we guide your way, but the spells that define our presence here cannot be set aside.

Anna was barely listening. She was tired of all the warnings and the voices doing what they could to send her back. She crept up the walls of the castle, staying in the shadows where it was possible, and checking every gap and crevice for a way inside, but every window was barred and protected by spells she could not penetrate in her present form.

I need an entrance, she called out with her mind, an unguarded door or window.

There are several doors on the roof, Guardian, answered another voice.

The Lethifold continued up the wall, falling quickly into the corners as it moved along. When it finally reached the castle’s battlements, she crept between its merlons to the stone platform on the other side. Two guards were standing on the wall talking to each other with their backs turned, and the creature slid into one of the castle’s murder holes to hide.

There are methods of entry to the east, whispered a voice to her.

Yes… I remember, Anna replied, recalling her flyby on Swooper earlier.

With a friendly nod, the guards finally parted and moved down the stone curtain toward the pointed towers. Anna followed one of the guards along the eastern wall, staying near the floor and invisible in the shadows. She froze when the guard stopped to rattle the iron latch on the door standing there. He turned again, and then slowly walked by the Lethifold lurking by his feet. Anna hovered toward the door and slid easily under its bottom edge. She found a winding staircase lined with sputtering torches, which fell into what looked like a dark and bottomless pit. The Lethifold’s senses suddenly erupted forth.

FOOD.

It eagerly skulked around the walls nearest the stone steps. There was food here, hidden in the darkest places.

You must follow these steps into the depths, Sithmaith, said the voices, returning to her mind. They will lead you to a place of chains and screams. Set aside the nature of the creature you’ve become, little one. You must keep your wits while in this place.

The creature was barely listening. The smell of prey was everywhere, and Anna was having trouble concentrating on the task at hand. She wanted to abandon this worthless quest, and seek the things that would relieve her starving hunger. The Lethifold loved this dark place, the smell of food was all around her; it could sense the two guards coming toward it before their voices were heard echoing up the staircase.

Danger approaches… warned one of the magical voices, and Anna halted. Footsteps could now be heard tapping their way up from the pit below, and the Lethifold instinctively spread itself wide along the steps to set its trap.

No… I mustn’t. I must remember who I am… Anna thought, forcing the creature to obey her will and settle back into another corner to hide.

“So when’s visiting day again?” asked one of the guards coming up the stairs.

“Not for another month, I’m afraid,” replied the man behind him.

“Dear Lord… I don’t know if I can wait that long to see somebody normal again. You think the Captain will give us another day to go into town?”

“I doubt it. You know he wants double-guards on duty whenever something special is happening in Spellsburg, and the Triwizard Tournament has brought thousands to the plateau. I’m glad that’ll be over tonight. These fifteen hour shifts are getting old.”

“Tell me about it. I had to pull double-duty last night. I haven’t seen my bunk for thirty-two hours”

“Why’s that?”

“Oh… one of the prisoners on five attacked Robinson during the evening meal last night, broke his arm in the pass-through.”

“The fool: If I’ve told that boy once I’ve told him a hundred times, make the prisoners reach out for the food — not the other way around.”

“I know… but try and tell… I think the boy… but…. his father is an assistant to the… Ministry…”

Their voices faded as they continued up the steps, and the Lethifold poured out of its corner to continue down the staircase behind them.

When the creature got to the bottom, it found two locked doors on either side of a round room.

Which way? Anna called to the voices.

The door to your left is unguarded; it leads to the guard’s sleeping quarters. Right… leads to misery. The barrier is enchanted by a very powerful spell.

Anna concentrated hard and soon the Lethifold had transformed into its human form once again. Although the starving hunger had left her, the fear of being caught increased enormously as Anna placed a hand upon the door.

“Are there guards on the other side?”

Several.

“Are they just on the other side of the door? Would somebody see me if I passed through?” she asked in a whisper. Suddenly, a different voice answered back. To Anna, it sounded small, childlike and frail.

The door is hidden in the shadows and the guards are on the far side of the hallway. I will tell you when you can pass, Sithmaith.

Anna pressed her ear to the door. She couldn’t hear anything.

Now, Guardian… now!

Anna closed her eyes and concentrated on the magic she could feel pulsating within the wood; she took a deep breath and stepped into the door. At once, she thought something must have gone wrong. The exploding pain in her body was so intense, she immediately tried to stop and back out again, but the magic surrounding her body seemed to grab her by the hair and wrench her forward. If the fear of being caught hadn’t been so intense she would have screamed in agony. Daggers, sharp from the wheel, sliced into her flesh and bone to score her soul, and Anna felt her mouth open in a shriek of muted terror as she passed through and fell to the floor on the other side. Her body, wet with sweat, jerked and shuddered in pain. Traversing the magic hidden within the door had been horrendous.

Suddenly, Anna’s head jerked up in alarm; there were dozens of voices all around her now. Thunderous waves of hideous screams and laughter, mixed with those pleading and crying. Anna scrambled back in terror into the shadows behind her.

What is this place?

“I’m starving!” yelled a man’s voice to one of the guards who was standing in the alleyway between a series of cells. A hand was reaching out between the steel bars.

“You’ve been fed and watered, Mario. Fall back,” the guard returned angrily.

“But he took my bowl!”

“And what’s the matter with you, Perkins?”

Another man was sobbing. “I want to go home. Please…” sob, “I’d like to go home now?”

“Oh… sure… by all means…” replied a second guard contemptuously. “In about twenty-five years.”

“Please… I promise… I’ll be good from now on. I promise…”

“Didn’t you say that the first time you were caught kidnapping Muggle children? That last scam at the Muggle orphanage was really sick.”

“But they needed homes and somebody to love them… please…”

You were turning them into guinea pigs and selling them as pets!”

“When I get out of here, Fletcher, I’m going to kill your entire family right in front of you, and then… I’m going to skin you alive,” said a burly prisoner reaching out with both hands as if to strangle another guard.

“I keep telling you, sir,” the younger guard replied, exasperatedly. “I’m not Fletcher. You already killed Fletcher and his family ten years ago. Don’t you remember?”

Anna was surprised to find there were no wounds on her body, as she tried with all her strength to block out the arguing voices and change again. Soon the Lethifold was on the move once more. It crept up the wall to the ceiling and then down the long corridor of cells and the guards standing between them. Suddenly, a voice started screaming below her.

“Lethifold! Oh God… it’s a Lethifold, a Lethifold!” A prisoner was pointing at Anna hovering near one of the lights and she froze flat to the stone. “Kill it! Kill it before it destroys us all,” screamed the man, scrambling into the furthermost corner of his cell.

“Will you — shut up!” yelled one of the guards at the man who then turned to another. “Poor bloke sees deadly magical creatures everywhere.”

Anna continued across the ceiling while the prisoner in the cell stared up at her, peeking out from between his trembling fingers that concealed his face. “Lethifold… oh God… kill it… kill it,” he whispered.

Anna proceeded through a barred door on the other side to another set of steps leading downward again. She listened to the voices within the walls as she sank deeper into the bowels of the prison. The Lethifold could smell the sent of prey in the air, there was more, much more, down these dark steps.

She came upon a set of double doors and stopped. Weakened by the painful memory of the last door she had traversed, the creature’s courage failed completely and it turned to leave.

Through the doors, Guardian; there are no guards in the chamber ahead, no enchantments blocking your path; the way beyond is clear.

The Lethifold fell to the floor and doubled over to change itself back into Anna once again. She was surprised at how easy her ability to change had become. The pain of passing through the last enchanted door had obviously lessened the creature’s motivation to fight against her will. She stood and slowly pushed open the double doors, cautiously peeking through their middle as she stepped forward. They swung inward with an eerie groan as Anna moved inside and let the doors fall away behind her.

Two rows of beds lined the walls to her left and right, and Anna could see a person sleeping quietly on each bed. The bodies were draped in starched white linens that adhered almost lovingly to their forms. Several glowing orbs were floating randomly in the air around Anna, dimly painting what looked like a hospital ward in the palest of blue light. Anna ducked as one of the orbs quickly moved to settle over her head and it followed her as she moved down the line of beds.

Each patient was positioned exactly the same on his or her mattress, their feet perfectly aligned one with the other next to it. Was her mother one of these patients? Anna quickly began to scan the faces of each of the bed’s occupants, looking for a woman. No — a woman with red hair. That’s a man. That one’s too old. Left and right, Anna examined each of them carefully, looking for somebody who might fit what she expected.

Finally, she noticed a chart hanging on one of the footboards of a woman who was stirring slightly in her bed. The woman’s lips were moving as if in prayer, while her eyes stared unblinking up at the ceiling. As she moved, the sheet encasing the woman’s body seemed to grip her tighter in response; the covers looked alive and determined to limit her movements. Anna cautiously lifted the chart off its wooden hook and squinted to read the words written upon the yellowed parchment. A dull, red-X was faded into the page’s background like a watermark, and the orb above Anna’s head immediately lowered over her shoulder so she could read the chart properly. It bathed the words:

Klara Bathory – DOB: Aug 9, 1959

POB: The village of Cachtice, Hungry.

Last Res: Lundo, Mississippi, USA

Family – Confidential

Injuries: Auror Damage

Current Patient Status: RED-X –– EXTREMELY DANGEROUS

Anna felt her body shudder when she read the words, Crime: Muggle bleedings and torture. She looked up at the woman and gasped. Klara Bathory’s eyes were staring down at Anna above an insane smile. The woman then lifted her head off her pillow and tilted it to one side as if to examine her. Anna dropped the chart she was holding and stepped back, bumping into the footboard of the bed behind her, and several voices began to groan around her in response. The woman’s smile was grotesque, her cracked and yellow teeth littered with decay, her eyes wide and blazing with excitement. Anna looked down at the chart lying at her feet; she could see the words EXTREMELY DANGEROUS underlined in the orb’s faint light.

The woman’s head tilted to the other side as she spoke. “Are you… a Muggle, dear?” she asked, hopefully. Anna’s stomach lurched as a spasm of molten lead seemed to rise up and into her throat.

“No…I’m… I’m not,” Anna replied, trying to sound reassuring, and she watched as the woman’s face fell painfully into disappointment. She slowly lowered her head back down on her pillow to stare up at the ceiling again.

“Such a shame,” the woman muttered, sadly. Trembling, Anna picked up the chart and quickly placed it back on its hook. She then continued down the aisle.

Afraid to find another set of eyes staring back at her, Anna avoided looking at the shadowed faces of those lying in the beds and concentrated on the names written upon the charts by their feet. A second orb led the way by her knees, lighting the squeaking footboards as she walked down the aisle.

And then Anna noticed a chart with a faded green circle on its background and the name Victoria written at the top. She stopped and looked up at the woman in the bed. Her face was covered with the linen. Anna grabbed the chart and looked closer at the name:

Victoria Ladderby – DOB: Sept 22, 1972

POB: Cockysville, Maryland, USA

Last Res: Fairbanks, AK.

Family – Norman and Jenny Ladderby (parents), Cockysville, MD

Injuries: Mental Spell Damage (Self Inflicted).

Current Patient Status: GREEN - Harmless.

Crime: Illegal potion testing in an attempt to increase her beauty.

Anna sadly returned the chart to its hook. It wasn’t her mother. She could see another door at the end of the aisle in front of her, and she increased her pace toward it, glancing only sparingly at each of the names as she walked by each of them. One of the last beds was sitting inside a steel cell with leather straps cinched down around the occupant’s ankles and wrists. She glanced at the chart painted with a red-X, and could see the words self-mutilation written upon it. Anna slammed into the door at the end of the hall, desperately working the latch to escape; it was locked. She flipped around and pressed the blades of her shoulders into the door and slowly opened her eyes. The beds stretched out before her, back to the double doors from which she had entered. Her knees weakened and she slowly sank down and covered her face with her hands. For the first time since she had found out her mother was alive, Anna was sure she could not go on. How will I ever find her in this horrible place?

You must pass through the enchanted door, Sithmaith.

Anna jerked up and looked around the room. The voices had returned to her.

You must travel down the steps on the other side.

“I don’t know… if… I can go on,” Anna replied, in a scared and weeping voice. She turned where she sat and placed a single hand on the door’s splintered wood behind her. She could feel the magic’s energy pulsating from within and she whimpered again. She knew this barrier was much more powerful than the last.

“What will I see when I finally reach her?”

The voices were quiet for what seemed like an eternity, and then a scared, child-like whisper replied, Evil… most foul.

And then another voice sounded, this time from the door itself. Go back, Sithmaith. Leave this place; for the spells beyond this door are much stronger and more terrible than those behind you.

Anna began to sob. She had dreamed about seeing her mother for so many years. They were dreams of laughter, and the two of them at play in a place far away from all of this horror and suffering, where the warm sun and green grass never ended. But now she knew those dreams were gone forever, soon to be replaced by the nightmares created by this hell she had willingly chosen to enter. She wiped her face and stood; she reached out again to place both palms on the door. She had to go on. She knew whatever she found in the pit of this place couldn’t be as bad as her future nightmares run amuck. She closed her eyes and reached out to the magic waiting for her within the door; the two linked, and Anna stepped forward.

Once again, she could feel sharp, red-hot knives stabbing into her body. She could sense the Lethifold, hiding deep within her center, almost shriek in terror and then shrink further to retreat. The voice’s warnings were true; the power of this spell was much stronger than the first. Instead of pulling her forward, it resisted her and tried to beat her back. The wood of the door felt as though it was ten feet thick, and each step forward was met with increasing and agonizing torture. A gauntlet of slashing blades ripped at her face, her back and ankles before she fell through to the other side. Hitting the stone floor first with her knees, she crumbled in a heap onto the floor, and lay there panting and shuddering from the lingering pain coursing her body. How could she ever hope to escape from this place? After a few minutes, Anna rose to take inventory of her legs and arms. She expected to see open, bloody wounds, but found none.

She continued on, floor after floor, horror after horror, insanity and malice screaming and reaching through the bars everywhere. The prisoners banged their bodies into hardened doors, crying for mercy and the blood of revenge, but received none. A man claiming to be a dragon saw Anna walking past his door through a spy hole and he tried to summon the guards. Anna barely escaped; changing into the Lethifold again as three guards ran passed her in the hallway. They entered the man’s cell to subdue him.

“Let me go!” yelled the man, pushing two of the guards out of his way and entering the hall outside his padded cell. “I’m going to eat that little redhead I saw walking by my room,” he laughed, running down the aisle. The third guard pulled out his wand and ruthlessly stunned the man square in the back, and then dragged the prisoner by an ankle back to his cell.

Anna had to pass through two other heavily enchanted doors, and evade several more guards before finally coming to the end of the staircase, which sat upon a dirt foundation. She had arrived at what could only be described as the pit of misery itself. The stench of the place was horrible, a foul mixture of excrement, mold, and something more – something burning. The smoky, acrid smell was oddly sickening to her, and suddenly frightfully familiar.

An immense, bronze door, aged black by time itself, stood in her path. A nightmarish sculpture hollowed out of its center portrayed a man grasping the sides of his head in agony; his empty eyes were staring up and his mouth was wide in a frozen scream. Anna could hear the faint rumble of something coming from the other side of the door. Summoning what was left of her courage, she placed a guarded hand upon the surface of the black door and listened for the voices again. She only heard two words.

Not real.

Immediately, the head in the center of the door began to scream, and Anna leapt back in shock. The face was twisting and writhed, pulling at his face and hair as if something unseen was attacking him from inside his mind. And then, to Anna’s surprise, the face began to change. It shook and distorted, its ears becoming longer and bat-like as his head started to shrink. The screams began to change as well, becoming higher and more boyish. His arms unexpectedly snapped straight over his head, pulling his body taut. Finally, he lay quiet and motionless, his head lulled down upon his chest. The figure slowly raised and Anna gasped in horror at the face looking back at her. It was Widwick, the Grayson house elf. His mouth opened, and spittle mixed with blood drooled from his shaking lips.

“Mercy mum… please… have… mercy,” the elf sobbed, pitifully.

“Widwick?” Anna whispered in disbelief. Suddenly, there was a loud CRACK from the other side of the door and the elf’s head snapped back in agony. He screamed.

“Widwick!” Anna yelled, running forward to help her friend.

CRACK

The elf screamed again and was suddenly yanked backward, disappearing into the metal of the door.

“Widwick!” Anna pounded on the barrier and then looked down for a handle. There wasn’t one.

CRACK

“Pain,” said a growling voice from the other side of the door.

CRACK

“Pain!”

“It can’t be…” Anna whimpered stepping back, remembering her nightmare the night she attacked Damon. “It was just a dream… this… this isn’t real.”

CRACK, another agonizing scream, and then a knife of pain shot between Anna’s shoulder blades. She collapsed to the dirt floor.

“NO! This isn’t real. Dreams can’t really happen. Widwick is home… he’s safe. This is a trick!” She looked up, and to her surprise the metal door had now changed. A planked wooden door with iron straps appeared where the other had once stood, and Anna could see the flickering signs of a fire billowing from under its bottom edge.

“No…” she whispered, not wanting to believe what she was seeing.

The glow of the fire beneath the door bloomed red, and she could hear Widwick screaming in the next room. The heat of the air around her was suffocating and thick with smoke; the stones around her were sweating through the rippling and distorted light. She could see all of her belongings from her bedroom appearing in front of her eyes, and doors of window glass rippled into view overlooking what would be a midnight ocean on the other side. Her dressing table emerged from out of the wall next to the planked door; the scissors she had used in the dream to pry the lock were suddenly there.

“No,” Anna closed her eyes and covered her ears, trying to block out the horrible screams.

“No, please… no…” pleaded Widwick’s voice again. A horrible-sizzling sound pierced Anna’s skull, and her feet exploded in burning pain. Her own screams fell in chorus with Widwick’s shrieks from the next room. Suddenly, the pain stopped and Anna didn’t hesitate. She leapt to her feet and slammed her shoulder into the door again.

“Stop it, Damon! Leave him alone!” She raised a foot and stomped the door below the latch now appearing in front of her.

Not real, Sithmaith. Concentrate!

Anna looked at the scissors sitting on the dressing table and moved to grab them, but the voices rang out again to stop her.

Not Real!

She hesitated.

“Aaahhhhhhh,” came another scream, and then the elf’s voice could be heard pleading. “Have mercy, Master — mercy.”

CRACK

“Pain!”

This is false, Sithmaith. This gallery of nightmares is using your worse memories against you.

Anna closed her eyes and tried to focus her mind on one thought. This isn’t real… it’s a trick. Stop it. “I said… STOP IT!”

She put her hands on the door and concentrated on the magic within. She pressed forward through the wood and suddenly felt the slashing pain of a thousand knives cutting deep into her body. And then a barrage of clubs fell upon her: They slammed and broke her bones again and again as the knives continued cutting into her. She was battered on the head and shoulders ruthlessly before emerging on the other side only half conscious. She fell to the floor with a deadening thud and the screaming abruptly stopped.

Anna lay sobbing on the dirt floor, too afraid to look up. A green flicker of light was dancing on the inside of her eyelids as she waited ominously for the whip to crack again. She finally opened her eyes and peered into the blurring darkness. An open archway stood before her, and a small fire burned in the center of its opening. She slowly got to her feet and swayed: Her trembling body was racked with pain and her left arm was completely numb. She could see a long, dark hall on the other side of the archway and a series of bolted doors on its left and right.

“The dungeons…” Anna whispered aloud, and then another voice echoed into the chamber after her own. It came from the fire, which bloomed a bright green as it spoke.

“Where are your keys?” said the voice. Anna stared at the talking flames in disbelief. “Those without keys must be tested to enter.”

And then another voice, human this time, could be heard from one of the locked rooms on the other side of the flames.

“We have a visitor, Reggie. I wonder… whom do you suppose would be coming to see us here?”

Anna slowly moved forward. Holding her deadened shoulder with her other hand, she stared up at the fire. “I wish to pass,” she demanded. She pointed passed the flames. “I want to see my mother. I’ve been told she’s in one of those cells in the next room.” The fire rose to fill the entire archway in response.

“You are without keys, and must be tested to gain entry here. Only those who answer correctly will be allowed to pass.”

“Who do you think it is?” said another voice from the hallway beyond.

“I don’t know, Reggie… somebody obviously looking for her mommy. But I can tell you this… she’s not supposed to be here,” the prisoner sang mockingly.

“Should we call the guards?”

“Now… Reggie. Where are your manners? Why would we do that? After all, when was the last time any of us had a guest?”

“Answer my questions or be labeled an intruder,” echoed the voice from the emerald flames.

“Yes… my dear. Go ahead… answer our jailer’s questions. They’re not that difficult. In fact, we’ll help you if we can,” said one of the voices malevolently from beyond the fire. Anna ignored him. She knew what those voices were coming from the bolted doors beyond — the worst murderers in the prison, no doubt; they couldn’t be trusted. Though the feeling in her arm was returning, Anna was exhausted. The journey had taken an enormous toll on her body and soul, but she was so close. She wasn’t going to give up now, not when she was this close to finally finding her mother.

“Ask your questions,” Anna demanded.

The fire bloomed again. “Very well. The first will test your mind. For only those with reason will pass into the hall beyond.”

“I guess that leaves us out,” chuckled the prisoner named Reggie.

The fire spoke again. “Tell us, with reason, what relation would your father’s sister’s sister-in-law be to you?”

Anna gaped at the fire. “My father’s sister’s what?” she replied unconsciously.

“Oh… come now, child. It’s a simple game,” said one of the voices from the cells beyond the fire. “Even my friend Reggie here, dim as he is, could figure that one out. Think it through. The answer, after all, is apparently the very goal you seek.”

The fire repeated the riddle once more and Anna thought: My father’s sister’s sister-in-law?

“I’m afraid the journey has weakened our visitor’s mind, Reggie. Perhaps you could help her by giving her the answer?”

The other man laughed. “I ain’t got a clue,” Reggie answered, stupidly. “I guess she’ll have go back the way she came, eh?” He laughed again.

“Oh, very well,” said the other prisoner derisively through his locked door. “Young lady… your father’s sister’s sister-in-law… would be… your mother, yes?”

Anna took this answer and rolled it over in her mind. It did seem to fit the riddle.

“My mother?” she repeated, unthinkingly.

The flame bloomed again. “That is correct.” The two men in the hall next to each other began to clap and cheer as the fire spoke once more. “Rational thinking denotes possible entry. The second question will test your cognitive abilities.”

There was another pause and then the fire continued. “A man and his wife were traveling in a forest alone when the woman is attacked by a vicious creature. The man takes his wife to a safe place where he locks her in a room. Soon the woman dies and a stranger has appeared to join the father. Although the first to enter is the last to appear, the father knows the stranger as he would his own flesh. What happened to the woman, and how did the stranger enter the locked room?”

“Ahhh,” sang the voice from one of the cells. “Now that’s different… and not entirely obvious, is it?”

“What was the question again?”

“Quiet — Reggie. I’m trying to help our little friend. Let me think…”

Anna knew the answer immediately. After the fire’s first question, she realized the magic in the archway was probing her thoughts and memories, and using them together with what it knew of its prisoners to form a weapon against her. She stepped forward. “The stranger was a baby,” she said, confidently, “and the woman… died… in childbirth.”

There was another pause, and then, “That is correct.”

“Bravo, my dear. Very good,” said a voice from the cell in surprise. “It might have taken me a bit longer to get that one. I’m impressed.”

“Did she get it?” asked Reggie.

“Rational and cognitive thinking are the keys to your passage. You may enter,” said the flames. The fire blocking the doorway suddenly began to shrink, diminishing quickly until only the soot-covered sand remained. Anna walked through the passage and into the dungeon hall. She reached out and placed her hand to the stone next to her.

“Are you there?” she whispered softly.

Yes, Sithmaith. We are with you, said the magic within the stones.

“Where is my mother?”

“Who is she talking to?” asked the prisoner named Reggie.

“Sssshhh!” snapped the voice in the other cell.

Victoria Grayson is within the center room, replied the shy and timid voice. But be warned: Wickedness and malevolence are all around you… beware Sithmaith.

Anna slowly walked down the dirt aisle, looking at each of the massive black doors to her left and right. She stopped in the center of the row and looked to her right. The placard on the door gave no indication of the prisoner inside. It only said:

Prisoner A02151950D

Anna placed her hand upon the door.

“Ummm…” moaned a man’s voice inside. “Someone’s taken a bath today, Reggie.” Anna snatched her hand away, and she could hear the other prisoner laughing. She turned to face the door behind her.

Prisoner A11101981A

Anna slowly placed her hand on the splintered wood.

Victoria Grayson is within, said the tiny voice. Beware… evil awaits inside.


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