The next day the sun was warm and bright and sent an airy breeze through the open window on the hospital floor around Anna’s bed. She could hear the cheerful banter of the students mingling in the courtyard outside. They seemed so intolerably happy to her.
Doctor Pearl released Anna at three o’clock in the afternoon, but she took her time departing the hospital floor. She wanted to wait until she knew the students would be in the Rotunda, and Anna was thankful to find the corridors and hallways nearly empty when she finally made her way downstairs. When she reached the Server Hall, she saw a few first-years talking excitedly about their scheduled trip home and the upcoming summer holiday. No one seemed to notice her as she made her way down the center of the Gathering Hall, and she kept her focus down at her feet, giving the designed appearance of one in a hurried rush. A mosaic of color from the stained glass spotted the floor around her like spattered paint, marshaling her way toward the girl’s staircase. When she finally reached the fourth floor, Anna paused briefly to listen at her door. She took a deep breath and entered; the room was empty.
Thank goodness – alone at last.
She pushed the door closed with her back and sighed her prayerful thanks as she ambled her way back to the bedroom. Given her three-day stay in a hospital bed, she was astonished at how tired she felt when she saw her four-poster. She kicked off her shoes, tossed her robes onto Gabby’s half-packed trunk, and then crawled across the bed to the open window to look out.
As expected, the town of Spellsburg was very busy. The Castlewood graduation ceremony was scheduled for the following day, and Anna knew this day would likely include touring groups of parents inspecting, musing, and reminiscing about the castle, its towers and grounds. In fact, she could hear the parents talking already, reflecting on the days when they themselves walked through the corridors as students at the academy.
She watched the families strolling along, arm-in-arm, fathers proudly holding their daughters’ hands and mothers hugging their sons. Anna set her chin on her crossed arms and squinted at the pain it caused to her wrist. Why did things have to be this way? she thought jealously, watching a seventh-year boy escorting his mother down the cobbled sidewalk below.
Suddenly, a deep voice invaded the quiet space around her. “Has the Keeper thus decided on its own version of the truth?”
Anna spun around and to her enormous surprise she found the opposite wall of her room filled with thick and graying smoke. The Verosapt had come to life once again, and the gorilla’s enormous head was now looming forward into the open space in front of her.
“What do you want?” Anna groaned, quickly displacing her surprise with bad tempered resentment. “And I wish you’d stop doing that,” she complained. “Why can’t you just stick to coming when you’re called?” She looked away to stare out the window again.
The gorilla fell back, the habitual wave in his upper lip rolling angrily across his fangs. His voice was filled with volleyed hostility.
“Thus it is, I didst not return because I wish it, little one. I find human company… barely tolerable at best.”
“Then why are you here?” Anna snapped back, disgusted by this intrusion of what was supposed to be her self-imposed seclusion.
“I am the representative of the hoards that see, and are bound to answer one question from the Keeper on the day of thine entry.”
Anna glared at him. “But you’ve already told me what I wanted to know. I found my mother in Drogo prison… just like you said I would. What else is there to say?”
“The Verosapt has yet to answer the Keeper’s question.”
Anna frowned, completely perplexed by his growled explanation. The ape rolled his head back and slowly closed his eyes, and then Anna heard the perfect imitation of her own voice echoing into the room from the jungles behind him.
“How did Victoria Grayson die?”
The gorilla looked down at her. “We have yet to fulfill our obligation to the Keeper until we respond. Thou didst bow absent from our answer upon the discovery thy mother was being held in Drogo prison.”
Anna smirked. “You don’t have to answer the question,” she shot back resentfully, looking away again. “I already know how my mother died.” She glared back over her shoulder at him. “Thirteen years dead and dying?” she growled, scathingly. “That was a very funny way to tell me my mother was a vampire. You and your friends back there must have been laughing it up.”
The gorilla glowered at her. “Humans are rare to understand the knowledge presented unto them.”
Anna rolled her eyes and turned her back to him. She wasn’t in the mood to hear anymore of his lectures, but the ape’s unrelenting rumble moved over her again like the thunder from a rising storm.
“The human gives refuge to the ill feelings it nurtures toward its father, for his omissions of truth about the death of the Keeper Victoria.”
Anna spun around, her jaw dropping in disbelieving shock. “What did you say? How dare you…”
“The Verosapt is all-knowing wherein we have eyes to see, little one. Most numerous the insects of the hoard on the warmest days… even thus it is… within the hospital of this school.”
Anna felt angry. The Verosapt had obviously been listening to her argument with her father.
The gorilla continued. “Thou dost believe thy father was cast without love for thy mother — that her imprisonment and his sins of exclusion were done without regard to her memory.”
“Was I wrong?” Anna snapped back, feeling the heat rising out of her chest. “How could he have loved my mother and then sent her to that place?”
“Only one question is allowed,” the creature replied, “but the truth can be found here.”
She heard her own voice filter into the room once more, “How did Victoria Grayson die?”
Anna’s fury was steadily growing. “I told you… I already know how she died, and I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”
The great ape fixed his gruesome glower upon her; he looked unforgiving and vacant of sympathy. “Thy knowledge is flawed, and thus, the interpretation of thy father’s motives are without merit. Let the Verosapt answer the Keeper’s question.”
Again, Anna could hear her own voice echo into the room from the jungles behind him.
“How did Victoria Grayson die?”
“Why are you doing this?” Anna yelled back, angrily.
“How did Victoria Grayson die?” came her own voice in reply.
“… Grayson die?”
“I said — stop it!”
“How did Victoria Grayson die?”
“OKAY! Fine! Tell me what you have to say — and then leave me alone!”
Silence. The clattered voices in the background were immediately and thankfully still.
“Humans are rare to understand the knowledge presented unto them,” repeated the great ape. “Thus… we wilt show thee.” The gorilla began to fall back into the clouds of smoke and then disappeared, but his voice continued to echo into the room around her.
“We take thee back now thirteen and a half years… to the hours just before thy birth.”
And to Anna’s astonishment, the clouds surrounding the scope began to clear, revealing a picture of a heavily wooded forest shadowed in darkness. Anna could hear the crickets in the underbrush buzzing, an owl hooting in the night, and suddenly… something else, a man’s labored breathing.
“Hold on, darling. Please… stay with me!” The man immediately appeared, struggling to carry something heavy in his arms. It was the body of another person, a woman. Her dark, red hair glowed in the moonlight as it swung back and forth over his thick arms. Another man appeared next to the first, jogging by his side.
“Please, Boris, let us help you carry her.”
Several other men now appeared in the scene as well, at least ten in all. They were dressed in robes and carrying wands.
“No… I have her,” Mister Grayson replied. “How much farther, Jonathan?”
“The house I spoke of is just over that ridge, an abandoned mill. It should give her the shelter she needs until the healers arrive,” said the portly man, puffing from exertion. “Please — let us help you, man.”
“No — don’t touch her. Just show me the way.”
“Why can’t we just Apparate her to a safe place?” asked a younger man, running on the other side of Anna’s father. The man reached out and blasted a fallen log out of Mister Grayson’s path with his wand.
“Because peer Apparition can be tricky with two healthy people. We can’t risk the trauma in this case,” replied the man called Jonathan.
“Boris…?” came a weak voice from her father’s arms.
“I’m here, Victoria, I’m here. We’re moving you to a place where the healers can help you. You were attacked by something in the forest. Conserve your strength, sweetheart. You have to remain strong.”
“Boris… I’m so… sorry. I… should have told you the truth.” The woman sobbed.
Mister Grayson was struggling to remain calm while he labored to carry her onward. “Now is not the time, my love. Try not to speak.”
The woman moved a weak hand to her husband’s chest. “Boris… you have to save the baby. No matter what happens to me… the child… will give you my love. The love… that I failed…”
“Don’t say that. We have to work together for the baby’s sake, and you’re going to be a wonderful mother to it.”
“Promise me you’ll save the baby, Boris. Promise me…”
“I will… I promise,” he replied, breathing hard as he struggled forward. The man suddenly stumbled and almost fell with the woman in his arms, and Anna was so enthralled with what was happening that she almost reached out to save her father from toppling over.
And then the scene went dark, replaced by thick and billowing clouds of gray smoke. But before Anna could protest, another image appeared before her again. This time her mother was lying in a bed. The room was dark, except for a few candles and a fire crackling behind the hearth next to her. Anna could see her father was seated by her mother’s bedside, praying while he held his wife’s hand in his. Another man was speaking to him.
“Boris… I’m afraid… your wife’s wounds are very serious. You should know… there is a chance…”
“No!” her father cut him off. “She’s going to make it through this; I know she can pull through. She’s suffered so much already.”
“I’ve done everything I can for Victoria, but there is the baby to think about now. If we move quickly, we still might have a chance to save it.”
The scene widened to include several other men standing in a circle around the bed. They were whispering to one another, and Anna came forward to hear their quiet voices in conversation.
“That’s right, it was a vampire. It looked like a very old one, living wild in the forest.”
The man next to him leaned in. “Is it possible that she might be in danger of…?”
“Shhh — keep your voice down.”
“But the bite of a wild and feeding vampire…”
“I know… I know. But I don’t think Boris realizes it yet… the risk, I mean… the poor fellow. It’s bad enough to lose his wife, and perhaps the child too, but… the bloodlust transformation…” The man paused, shaking his head. “We have to be ready for anything now. Pass the word to the rest of the men; they must be on their guard. I want every man with a wand in his hand.”
“We’re losing her!” yelled the healer, and Mister Grayson jumped to his feet and leaned over his wife.
“Victoria… no! Please… hold on… don’t leave me now…”
There was choking and writhing in the bed, and then a sudden stillness. It was followed by Victoria Grayson’s weak and trembled whisper, “My love… save… save the… baby.” There was a final rattle of life passing away, and then the suffering woman was finally calm.
“Victoria? Oh God… please no… please don’t let this happen. Victoria?” He began to shake his wife. “Victoria, wake up… please wake up!”
Anna watched the final scene of her mother’s passing with tears flooding her eyes. The healer immediately stepped forward to place a steady hand on her father’s shoulder as Mister Grayson sobbed into his wife’s quiet chest.
“Boris?” said the doctor. “Listen to me.” He gripped his friend’s arm. “We must act now if we’re going to spare the child. Please, move aside… and let me try and save your baby.” Anna’s father looked up with tears in his eyes.
“But Victoria… she’d never survive the procedure. You can’t…”
“Boris… Your wife is already gone, and we only have a few minutes in which to act.”
“No… she’s not gone,” he said, rising to stand. He looked around at his friends standing around the bed. “She’s not!”
The healer grabbed Mister Grayson by his arms and pulled the man’s attention to him. “Boris… listen to me now, and I pray you let me finish what I have to say. This day has changed your life forever; I know that — we all understand that. But a minute’s indecision now can mean the difference between fulfilling your wife’s final wishes and increasing the pain of a lifetime tenfold. You must trust me and stand aside, we have but a moment left to save the baby.”
Mister Grayson looked at his friend. “The baby?”
“Yes, Victoria’s child is still with us, and I intend to act for you and try and save it. Please… for God’s heavenly glory… STAND ASIDE!”
Anna’s father was a man caught between life’s devastating cruelty and a moment defining one of its greatest blessings. Boris Grayson’s strength was legendary within the minds of those watching him now. Not of great sorcery or his prowess with a wand, but in his ability to slice the integral parts of complicated issues under enormous pressure and somehow make the right decision. He grimaced, and then bent over as if to collapse, gripping his friend’s arm for steadied strength. Within seconds he straightened, looking unsure of his next decision. He nodded once and then stepped back.
“Do what you have to do,” he moaned, staring painfully at his wife’s body.
“You and you,” yelled the healer, pointing at two men standing against the wall. “Help me move her into position.” The men quickly moved as one toward the bed.
Once again, the picture within the mist went dark, and Anna held her breath waiting for the next scene to appear. But before the picture resumed within the swirling clouds of vapored mist, she heard it. It was a baby’s cry, an infant screaming with strong lungs and voice as the picture returned to the room once more. Her father was standing by the fire, holding a newborn baby wrapped in a blanket from the bed. The healer was rolling down the sleeves of his shirt, looking at the bundle in her father’s arms.
“A strong, baby girl; a miracle, really… considering the circumstances.”
Anna’s father was cradling the baby like his finest possession. “A baby girl…” he said, in barely a whisper. “Your mother wanted a daughter more than anything in the world.” He moved a gentle hand over the infant’s head. “She would have called you... Anna. Welcome to our family… Anna Grayson.”
The man looked up at the now covered body of his dead wife and began to sob. He looked down again at the baby. “How will I tell you of these things, Anna? How will you become what God intended without your beautiful mother by your side?” He began to sob once more, burying his face in the infant’s blankets. Anna was crying with him, feeling every soul-wrenching measure of her father’s grief and loss.
And then a woman’s voice startled the quiet. “Give it to me,” it said, in a soft - almost singing tone. Every head in the room turned and looked upon Victoria Grayson now sitting upright in her deathbed. Her face was radiant and perfect, devoid of any dirt hinting at the many days of struggle and suffering in the forest. Her arms were outstretched.
“Give me the child,” she said, longingly. But there was something different in the woman’s intention and manner that Anna recognized almost immediately, and she understood what was driving the thing she once called her mother; it was… wicked hunger.
“Victoria?” moaned Mister Grayson, gazing disbelievingly at his wife.
“Yes… come to me, my love. Bring me the child,” she said, and Anna found the voice familiar; hypnotic and loving, it moved Anna to wantonly push her father forward toward it. Mister Grayson’s face seemed to fall, his expression dropping into the relaxed appearance of gentle tranquility. He unconsciously raised the baby up as if to give it to its mother, and Victoria purred as she reached out to take it from him.
“No… don’t!” yelled the healer next to the bed, and Victoria suddenly hissed at him through long and murderous fangs. Anna recoiled in shock. Her mother looked powerful and much more threatening than what she saw in the pits of Drogo. The creature leaped from the place of her death, and attacked the screaming man standing by her bedside, burying her fangs deep into his fleshy throat. Anna gasped, involuntarily moving her hands to her own bandaged neck in response.
“My God, stop her!” yelled another voice, and several men suddenly rushed in. They immediately grabbed the vampire and pulled her off the healer.
“Leave her alone,” yelled Mister Grayson, who was frantically moving toward his wife, still clutching the now crying baby in his arms. One of the men was suddenly thrown across the room; an entire dresser followed him, and then a second man after that.
“Subdue her, quickly!” choked the healer, who was holding his bloodied and badly torn neck.
“No… leave my wife alone,” Mister Grayson yelled, pulling out his wand from under his robes.
“Boris… that’s not your wife anymore. She’s been permanently transfigured. Hold her!” the man yelled again.
“No! Get your hands off of her!” Mister Grayson screamed, brandishing his wand at the men. There was a high-pitched scream from the creature as the mob wrestled her kicking and snarling to the floor.
“Listen to me, Boris. I know this is difficult for you to understand right now, but Victoria is gone. This thing is but a shell of the woman you once knew… she’s now a vampire.” The doctor pointed at the men still grappling with the creature. “Control that thing!” They pulled the woman up and shoved her rudely onto the bed as several more men threw their weight on top of her. “Bind her!”
They yanked Victoria to her feet, snapping and growling wildly, and she was instantly wrapped in the strongest chains. A second spell hit her, which encased her entire body in a white shroud up to her neck. Her husband was enraged.
“I told you to stop! Stupefy!” A jet of red light shot from Mister Grayson’s wand hitting one of the men holding his wife square in the chest. The man flew across the room and crashed into the wall on the other side of the bed.
“Grab him!” another man yelled.
“Boris — stop it!”
“Grab him — take his wand!”
Three men tackled Anna’s father, while the vampire twisted and screamed.
“Boris — help me… they’re going to kill me. You must stop them.”
“Get your hands off me!” Mister Grayson screamed. “Release my wife. Release her, I say!”
“Someone take the baby before it’s injured,” yelled the healer. “Boris… control yourself! Think of the baby!”
“I said get off me!”
“Boris… help me!”
“Victoria! Let me go!”
The men finally took the wrapped bundle from Anna’s father and then the wizard’s wand. They then pushed him to the floor screaming for his wife.
Victoria was now bound tight and completely helpless, screaming and cursing the men holding her in the voice of the evil one. Suddenly, the vampire looked up from the floor at her husband being held away from her.
“Boris… please… I always loved you. Please… you have to help me.”
Mister Grayson was pinned on his front to the floor. He raised his head to look up at his wife. He was sobbing. “Victoria! My darling — I will help you. I swear with everything I am — I will always take care of you. I’ll never allow them to harm you. I love you. Victoria… I’ll always love you. Release me! Let me go to my wife. Victoria… Victoria! Please let me go! Please… my wife needs me.”
“They’re going to kill me! Boris… help me…”
“Victoria… Victoria… Victoria!”
The scene finally darkened for a final time, and the screaming voices flooding Anna’s room slowly began to fade as the great ape came forward once again.
“Thus… we hath shed the light of truth into the darkness of doubt and answered the Keeper’s question. We have fulfilled our cause and promise. The hoard is once again… at peace.”
Anna was crying uncontrollably, her face buried deep in her hands. The image of her desperate father lying on the floor, helpless and reaching out, fighting to get to his screaming wife, was something Anna knew she would carry in her soul for the rest of her life. She felt so alone, the weight of her foolishness bearing down upon her chest like an ocean rushing in to drown her.
“What have I done?” she whispered, through her heavy sobs. “What have I done?”
The ape looked down at her with an expression of sympathy Anna would have never thought possible just a moment before. “The Keeper is distraught by the erosion of its misconceptions. The hoard didst hope witnessing these images wouldst given thee a clearer awareness of the reality words alone fail to deliver. The telling of tales abandoned of feeling is fraught with danger, little one. Humans, it would seem, have difficulty grasping the complexity of these realities without sensing the emotions that clingeth to them. Didst our efforts to convey these imagines make a difference in thy opinion?”
Anna looked up, her face wet with tears. “It makes… all the difference in the world,” she said, despondently. “Thank you.” The gorilla leaned back bowed as he slowly fell away into the graying clouds behind him; his eyes portrayed a level of satisfaction Anna had never seen.
“The Keeper is thus… satisfied,” he said proudly, and the jungles behind him began to squawk and clatter with excitement. He looked down at her once more. “We shall cometh again at the time of thy entry to collect once more thy cravings for wisdom and truth. Meantime, thou shouldeth look to thy family for strength and the insight necessary for growth.” He paused, and then, “Thy father is a human of great honor, trusted by many to remain faithful to his ideals. But he is a man now questioning who and what he is, because his daughter has thus misinterpreted his love and ambitions for his wife. Thou hath much to consider and reflect upon in the days to come.” The gorilla’s face folded away within the mist, and the fan of red light immediately closed into a single beam. “Until thee call unto the hoard once more, the Verosapt bids the Keeper farewell. We offer it our continual prayer - that the great Creator of all wilt show thee the healing path of acceptance.” The beam of light disappeared within the ruby of YU once more, which closed quickly with a sharp snap.
Anna sat quietly on her bed, wiping the falling tears from her eyes. She then leapt to her feet, grabbed her robes and shoes, and bolted out of the room. Within minutes, she was pushing open the doors to the Rotunda, searching for her father through a sea of students and their families. As the doors closed behind her, she found the Graysons sitting with Gwen’s family and Sarah Bell. Although the table seemed lively enough, even from across the room she could see her father looked unusually quiet and somber. Anna quickly made her way toward the table until she was sure her voice would be heard.
“Daddy?” she called out, cautiously. Her father looked up.
“Anna!” The man immediately stood, knocking his goblet of wine to the floor. The two stared across the room at one another, each eager for forgiveness.
“Daddy… “ Anna’s voice stumbled as she whimpered, “I am so… sorry.”
Tencha, Dowla, and Damon looked up at their father, completely befuddled by Anna’s unexpected apology. Eric and Gwen, on the other hand, were smiling and Sarah Bell had tears in her eyes as they all turned anxiously for Mister Grayson’s reply. Her father fell back a step and closed his eyes, and only Eric understood his silent prayer of gratitude and thanks. Opening his eyes again, he struggled to smile, and then reached out to his daughter.
Anna ran to him filled with sorrow and fell into his loving arms and full embrace. Her father raised her off her feet and began kissing her on the neck and cheeks while Anna sobbed in pained relief.
“I’m sorry, daddy… I am so, so sorry…” she wailed onto his shoulder.
“Ssshhh… not another word,” he whispered softly into her ear. “You have nothing to apologize for. It was my fault for not telling you what happened.” He set her down again to look at her. “But I’m glad you finally know the truth. I think it’ll be easier for me, knowing I now have somebody to share this burden.” Anna nodded and then hugged him again as the entire family rose together around them.
As the family hugged the two of them, Dowla leaned over to whisper to Tencha.
“Did I miss something here?”
High above them, where the topmost stones of the domed ceiling separated the night sky from the Rotunda below, a solitary spider stopped its spinning for a moment to look down. Its many beady eyes suddenly turned red as it froze to focus on the scene beneath it. And somewhere in a distant jungle, the great ape of the Verosapt sat facing the heavens with his eyes closed, his entire being set with practiced concentration. He smiled.
Anna and Sarah awoke the next day to a beautiful bright and blue morning and began getting ready for their last full day at Castlewood. Anna was quiet while she showered, dressed, and packed, and Sarah knew her roommate well enough now to leave her to her own thoughts. Although Sarah and Gwen did everything they could the night before at dinner to privately entice Anna into telling the story about her trip to Drogo, Anna reluctantly put them off. She wanted to wait until they were on their way home aboard the Allegheny Pride. There, out on the rolling and open sea, Anna would tell them everything.
Tencha, Dowla, and Damon still didn’t understand the fight between Anna and their father and, like everybody else at Castlewood, they had to eventually accept the story of her being attacked by some unknown creature while preparing her mount before the last Vollucross race. But to Anna’s great surprise, she found that Eric knew everything. Gwen and Sarah confessed to Anna they had told her brother about her trip to Drogo after they found her note in the stables, and her father filled Eric in on most of the remaining details during her stay in the hospital.
Eric and Anna were up late that night, talking for several hours in a private corner of the Server Hall after dinner. Her brother was staggered by Anna’s account of her visit to Drogo prison, but not nearly as much by what she had found within its dungeons. Eric was visibly shaken when Anna had confirmed his long-lost stepmother was still alive and now roaming the world as an escaped vampire. Anna told him everything: about her ability to pass through magical barriers and speak to the magic contained in the walls and the objects surrounding them. The only thing Anna purposely left out was the identity of the ally. The ghost of Leola Grayson made it very clear she didn’t want her family to know the truth about her death, and Anna was fixed on keeping her promise and Leola’s confidence. She felt she owed the woman that much for rescuing her from a terrible death at the hands of her own mother.
Eric listened intently and finally tried to put everything into perspective and in terms of their future role as Guardians. He told Anna their father had once confided to him his connection with the Order of the Phoenix, which was the name of the secret society Dumbledore had mentioned while visiting her in the hospital. Dumbledore and Thordarson were now recalling the order to fight against the Dark Lord and his Death Eaters.
Eric wanted to join their father in the order as well, intent on fighting side by side against the evil wizard who had done so much to destroy their family. Although Mister Grayson was very proud of Eric’s brave offer to help, he refused to allow him to join Dumbledore’s order until they knew if the Guardian Union would be sustained. Either way, Eric thought his father meant to keep him out of the Order of the Phoenix.
Mister Grayson knew the Sithmaith would work to protect the elements of magic, even if she had to stand alone and without her army of Guardians to help her. Consequently, Eric understood his father well enough to know he would never abandon Anna to this enormous task without the family’s support.
The only thing left undone the morning Anna and Sarah were packing their trunks was the issue of the last Guardian. After all their hard work, lectures, and presentations, after all the talk of a new order charging ahead to protect the things of magic, they had somehow failed to identify anybody who fit what the Mirror of Enlightenment needed to sustain them. But sustained or not, Anna was relieved to know Eric would somehow stand with her, regardless of the school’s inability to identify the fiftieth Guardian. And perhaps, Anna thought, that was why they hadn’t sustained the union after all. Maybe the magic that created them already had what it wanted in the Order of Merlin, and didn’t require a new Union at Castlewood to do what needed to be done, but Eric knew Professor Thordarson felt differently.
Eric told Anna that immediately following his switch to the Guardians, the Chancellor had confided in her brother his belief there must have been a specific reason Castlewood had become the launching point for the new order, and he wanted to test this theory by setting a goal for the number of order members needed to sustain them. If by the end of the year this number could be attained, it would prove to Thordarson a Guardian Hall should be founded at Castlewood, and they should expect more Guardians to replace those leaving each year.
Still, Anna wanted the order sustained for another reason. She felt the task set before them in keeping the forces of good and evil from destroying everything magical seemed to her a very daunting task if forced to go at it alone. Yes… the thought of that frightened her more than Voldemort himself.
Anna and Sarah watched in fascination as their packed trunks moved by themselves out the window and began floating with hundreds more through the morning sky toward the city gates. They could see the citizens of Spellsburg, some wiping tears from their eyes as they pointed and waved, looking up to watch the trunks gliding slowly through the air like a flock of enormous birds high above them.
Sarah flopped onto her bed frustrated. She raised her wand to her throat once again still trying with all her mental strength to recover her lost voice she had been practicing to quite. Anna sat across from her and smiled.
“You sure you don’t want me to help you?” Anna asked, waving her purple heart.
Sarah rolled her eyes pleadingly, but then shook her head. She raised her wand to her throat again, closed her eyes, and Anna could see her lips repeating the words to the counter spell once more.
“Okay, but if you can’t do it by the time we’re aboard ship…” she pointed her wand at her friend again and Sarah nodded.
As Anna entered the hallway alone outside, she remembered with a jerk of realization that her roommate’s predictions of Voldemort’s return had all come true. Anna stood outside their door shaking her head in stunned amazement. Never again would she question Sarah’s seer abilities.
Anna looked up at the Guardian counter above their door and watched as the purple flames began to form the disappointing message on the clock’s face.
[Guardians needed to sustain the Union:]
A sharp twinge of pain stabbed her in her stomach. They had missed it by just one, just one more person out of the hundreds living at the school. Why would the magic in the mirror bring them this far and not give them what they needed to continue?
Once again, the hallways and corridors were nearly empty as Anna slowly made her way downstairs into the Server gathering space. She traveled through the Tower Room and tunnels to the castle, and then entered the Rotunda where she found several parents mingling about the tables with their children. Anna looked up and waved to her father and Mrs. McConnell, who were seated in the balcony area below a sea of smiling faces projected upon the Rotunda’s domed ceiling.
Anna made her way around the wall and saw the Union of Guardians, un-sustained, trying to enjoy what was to be their last meal together. And from the mood she could see even before reaching their table, they were a highly disappointed group indeed.
A part of Anna felt ashamed to sit among those who should have been her closest friends. Everyone had worked so hard to find the fiftieth Guardian, all that is… except for her. Anna realized she had been so caught up in trying to learn the truth about her mother that she had neglected her part in what might have been their union’s success. When the Guardians finally saw her, they smiled and moved an extra chair between Eric and Gwen, who both stood to give her a hug.
“Sit down, Anna, and try to eat something,” Eric said, pointing to the empty chair. Anna sat and her brother seated himself beside her.
Gwen sat on her left and took Anna’s hand. “How you feeling, Annie-G? You didn’t eat very much last night.”
“Still a little tired, maybe,” Anna replied, somberly.
“Well… it ain’t no wonder, with all that-there hospital food they been tryin’ta stuff down yer gullet. Here… get the girl some real vittles,” ordered TJ, who then reached over to ladle something chunky and smothered in white gravy in the center of Anna’s golden plate.
The rest of the Guardians quickly joined in, piling bacon, eggs, biscuits, pancakes, fruit, and a hilarious array of other food that magically flew its way onto her dish and ended up a foot high under Anna’s chin. Anna stared at her plate and then slowly began to laugh. Everybody joined in and soon the Guardian table was just as loud as any of the others surrounding them. Anna finally picked up her fork and scraped away some of the eggs that had squished out from between her pancakes. She cautiously licked them off the fork and looked around at her fellow Guardians. They were all staring at her; Anna dipped her head.
“I’m sorry… I wasn’t there to help you find the last Guardian,” she said, feeling the overwhelming weight of disappointment falling in on her again. “You’ve all worked so hard to make the Guardian Union a reality, and I feel like I’ve let you down,” she sobbed.
“Hey…” Eric whispered, wrapping an arm around his sister, “what’s all this about, huh? Today is supposed to be a day of celebration… no tears allowed. Come now, Anna. Let’s enjoy this last meal together.”
Gwen reached in with her napkin to wipe at Anna’s face. “It wasn’t your fault we didn’t make it, Anna. You worked just as hard as the rest of us. It just… wasn’t meant to be, I guess.” Anna took Gwen’s napkin and daubed her eyes.
“But why would the mirror let us get this far without allowing us to continue as a Union? What was the point? It doesn’t make any sense.”
“Well I, for one, don’t care what the school does about the Guardian Union. I’m not going back to the Defenders,” said the girl named Teresa Sinclair. “I’m a Guardian now.” She stood and snatched up her goblet. “We’re all Guardians — now and forever!” She lifted her cup. “To the Order of Merlin!” The rest of the students at the table stood and raised their cups high.
“To the Guardians!”
“And I don’t care what Chancellor Thordarson says. Sustained or not, I’m wearing purple until the day I graduate. How about it?”
“Here-here,” agreed several others standing around the table and they all drank.
“May I have your attention please,” came a call from the front. They all turned and found Chancellor Thordarson standing on the platform at the front of the room. He looked unusually solemn in bright red robes with the five Dynasty crests embroidered on his front. Every Guardian at the table immediately noticed their crest was still missing from his robes. They all sat to listen.
“Another year… gone, and once again we find ourselves having to say goodbye. As I look around the room, I see many faces that will be moving on after our graduation ceremony this afternoon, about to embark on another chapter in their lives away from us here at Castlewood. I can only hope your seven years with us have not only been educational, but enjoyable as well. We shall miss you… all. As for the rest of you, I look forward to seeing you once again in the fall, at the beginning of the new school term.”
He paused before announcing that the Defender Union had once again, and for the seventh consecutive year in a row, achieved the highest number of points and would be awarded the Chancellor’s Cup. The elated cheers from the Defenders’ table were nearly equal to the grumbled murmurs of discontent from the other tables surrounding them. Anna wasn’t surprised to see Damon cheering with the rest of his fellow Dynasty members, but what really disappointed her the most was seeing Debbie Dunning seated among her Defender cronies, making crude gestures at some of the Artisans seated at the table next to them.
“And now,” Thordarson continued, “I’d like to ask our Academy student president and all of our Union Knights to join me here on the platform.” Several students around the room stood and began moving toward the front. Eric and Damon rose with them and quickly made their way to the platform’s steps. When they were gathered and facing the audience on the platform, Chancellor Thordarson spoke again.
“I would like to thank our Student President, Nancy Dodimayer, and this year’s Castlewood Knights for their outstanding contribution and work this year.” The parents, teachers, and students all applauded as the Chancellor shook their hands and handed each of them a small scroll of appreciation. Anna grinned. She could see her father and Mrs. McConnell in the balcony standing to applaud, and the two Grayson Knights smiling and waving back at them.
Once again, Thordarson stepped forward. “Yes… yes, a job well done to be sure. And now, it is my great privilege to announce this year’s Senior Valedictorian.” The Chancellor paused importantly as the rest of the Rotunda quickly fell silent. “He is a man who this year not only earned the highest marks of academic excellence, but also the respect and admiration of so many studying at this school. But what was most impressive was that he did all of this while working to help his fellow Guardians in the quest to sustain their new Union. It is, then, my deepest honor to present to you this year’s Valedictorian… Mister Eric Grayson.”
There was thunderous applause from all the students, but especially from both the Server Union and Guardian tables. Looking somewhat embarrassed, Eric stepped forward as the Chancellor shook his hand and placed around his neck an Academy emblem of distinction, which for the first time had dangling below its Castlewood crest, the Guardian coat of arms. The Chancellor kissed Eric on both cheeks and then presented him to the rest of the Rotunda. Anna and the Guardians stood and cheered while Professor Thordarson glanced up to see Eric’s father in the balcony joyously applauding and cheering with the rest. The Chancellor grinned.
Gwen leaned over to Anna and moaned, “Oh… a man with brains and a nice tushy. Okay… wrap him up; I’ll be taking him home with me now.”
Eric waved his acknowledgement to the crowd and humbly stepped back in line with the rest of his fellow Knights as Professor Thordarson motioned to silence the crowd.
“I believe I speak for us all when I say Eric has, indeed, set a very high standard to follow after his departure and we all wish him much success in his future endeavors.” He paused once more and then took a more solemn tone.
“As the Chancellor of this fine school, it is always a privilege to honor those of merit within the walls of these five Dynasties. Unfortunately, it is also my responsibility to make the more difficult decisions contributing to the future academic course and direction of the school as a whole.
“As you know, a new Union was established here at Castlewood in September. It should be understood… there has never been a question as to the validity of the Guardians within the Academy, but only whether this institution should invest in the support of the new order as a lasting Dynasty. A standard was set, and it was decided a goal of fifty Guardians was necessary by the end of the school year to sustain the Union.”
“Here it comes,” Gwen whispered, disappointedly. “The other shoe is about to drop right on our heads.”
“Unfortunately… we did not meet the stated goal necessary for sustainability. Therefore… it is my unfortunate duty to…”
Suddenly, a side door opened with a bang and Professor Titan was seen hurriedly entering the Rotunda. He quickly mounted the steps, motioning to the Chancellor as he stepped onto the platform. He approached Professor Thordarson and whispered something that looked urgent into his ear. The Chancellor’s eyebrows seemed to rise with unexpected surprise as he listened. He then turned to face Titan with a look of clear astonishment. He then nodded, and Titan motioned to a Crimson Guard standing by the exit door. The guard quickly turned to open the door behind him and then made a simple gesture to somebody unseen on the other side.
A lone figure suddenly appeared in the open doorway of the Rotunda wearing a purple robe. Everybody at the Guardian table stood in amazement as they watched the unknown and hooded student walk briskly between the crowded tables toward the platform. Professors Titan and Thordarson met the stranger at the steps, and the Chancellor bent down to speak to the individual in a whisper before straightening and motioned for Eric to join him. Eric came forward eagerly to shake the student’s hand, looking inquiringly at the face under the hood for the first time. He then looked up at the Guardian table, his face breaking into a broad smile while the rest of the students in the hall began to murmur with excitement.
“Who is it?” several voices whispered around them.
Anna slowly rose, too shocked and amazed to believe what was about to happen next. Professor Thordarson turned and walked to the edge of the platform and then made a signaling motion toward her.
“Anna Grayson… Anna? Could you join us here on the platform, please?” Anna was anchored to the spot, too surprised to move.
“Go on…” Gwen said, pushing her friend forward. Anna moved quickly across the room and up the wooden stairs. She then joined the Chancellor who was smiling as he guided her toward the hooded figure.
“Hello…” Anna said, cautiously. “Have… we met?”
The stranger slowly raised her hands and then lifted the hood off her head, and Anna stared unblinkingly at the young girl before her.
“Sarah?” Anna whispered. Sure enough, her own roommate Sarah Bell was standing there, looking almost as surprised as Anna herself. “But I thought…” Anna stammered, “I thought you said the Mirror of Enlightenment had already confirmed you were a Server months ago.”
Her friend looked embarrassed. “I’m sorry, Anna. I… I lied to you when I said I walked through the mirror again.” Anna could see the girl’s cheeks reddening. “I guess… I was just too frightened to go through a second time. I really thought you and Eric would eventually find the fiftieth Guardian long before now… but as the deadline got closer… I knew I had to finally try. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you the truth.” Sarah glanced apologetically up at Eric who turned to look at Anna. The two smiled at each other at the same time.
“Sorry?” Anna yelled. “This is fantastic!” And before Anna could say another word, Eric reached down and lifted the little girl off her feet.
“Sarah Bell…” he said, holding her out straight again to look at her properly, “I’m going kiss you!” And then he did, full on the lips.
Looking stunned as Eric pulled away, Anna could see her roommate turning bright red with embarrassment. Eric set the girl down on her feet again and then looked to the Guardian table.
“We have our fiftieth Guardian!” he yelled, holding up Sarah Bell’s wrist high into the air, and the Guardians suddenly rang out with cheers of fabulous surprise.
Chancellor Thordarson was beaming with satisfaction as he raised his hands toward the assembled crowd and sang out in a very loud voice, “The Guardian Union is… sustained!”
And with that, the entire Rotunda exploded with howls of elated joy and applause. Every parent and teacher in the balcony stood, clapping with the rest as they watched magic’s remarkable plan unfolding before them.
There were only a few unnoticed individuals who were not clapping, of course, and most of them were sitting near or around Debbie Dunning at the Defenders’ table. Debbie had a look of unabashed loathing on her face for all the excitement being displayed around them, and Anna couldn’t help feeling triumphant at seeing her disappointment.
Thordarson raised his hands once more. “This is a time for marvelous celebration. Eat and be merry… for who knows what tomorrow might bring.”
The applause continued as Sarah followed Eric and Anna back to the Guardian table where she was met with several enthusiastic hugs and excited handshakes. And there, the youngest student at Castlewood Academy was seated among those who would become her life-long friends. She sat between Anna and Eric, and within minutes the Guardians were talking enthusiastically about their future together. It was a moment Sarah Bell would travel back to remember one hundred and twenty-two years later, when she would finally pass away as the last of the original fifty Guardians.