Mister Grayson was kneeling against the hole in the wall, muttering painfully into the night sky around him. “Please, God, no…Don’t let this happen…Don’t take her from me…Please no!”
“Father!” yelled Eric, running over to him. He grabbed Mister Grayson by the arms and turned him around to see his face. “It isn’t too late. We have to go out and search for her before that thing gets away. We can still find her. Do you hear me, father? Come on!” Eric was urgently shaking his father, who seemed to be in the deepest throws of despair. Mister Grayson looked up into his Eric’s determined face and immediately took strength in his son’s resolve.
“Yes…. YES! You’re right, son; it isn’t too late.” He grabbed Eric by the arm and used it to stand, his familiar assuredness returning quickly. Eric could see his father’s legendary mind formulating a plan of counterattack even as he spoke. “There is a way, but we’ll need help. I want you to place a call into the Ministry immediately. Try and make contact with a Dorna Smattigan in the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures. Tell her what’s happened, and tell her to get her team over here right away. Tell her to contact the Committee for the Disposal of Dangerous Creatures. She’ll know who’s on call, and she’ll rally the necessary departments. I’ll try to contain the creature and keep it on the grounds.”
“But how, father? How?” asked Eric, but Mister Grayson was already turning to face the opening to the woods again. He raised his arms into the cold evening air and, with his wand stretched out before him, he shouted, “Rutilus Capturus!” Immediately, a thick brass colored light shot from the end of his wand into the dark sky. It exploded like a skyrocket in the blackness over the trees, and then rained down to the ground like a golden cage surrounding the woods around them. Eric looked up in astonishment as the walls of the great dome touched down, silhouetting every tree by the light of its golden backdrop. His father turned.
“That should hold the creature on the grounds until help arrives. I don’t think it can move fast enough to have gotten as far as my boundaries,” he said breathlessly, a note of increased hope building in his voice.
Eric looked out over the grounds and the far-off dome deep in the woods. “I agree,” he said triumphantly. “Brilliant, father!”
“Let’s not pat ourselves too soon… we haven’t got her back yet. I’m going out to begin the search. Every second counts now.”
“I’ll make the calls and then join you,” said Eric as he turned toward the door.
“NO!” Mister Grayson grabbed Eric by the arm. “You will wait here with the others until the Ministry gets here,” he said sternly.
“But — father!” Eric started to protest.
“Stay here, I say! You must protect them while I’m in the woods,” Mister Grayson argued back, pointing to the other children. “The creature might strike again, and I can’t be worried about them while I’m searching for Anna. Join me when help arrives. The creature was last seen heading west — that’s where I’m going. Take a Ministry wizard with you when they arrive and join me when you can, but do not go out on your own. Do you understand? There is safety in numbers. Ask them to search the north and the south simultaneously, and then we’ll head east if we can’t locate it. I’ll alert the Porchdows and ask Samuel to join me. With any luck…” but his voice waned as he headed for the children still standing in the blasted doorway.
“What should we do, daddy?” asked Dowla, fearful tears building in her eyes.
Mister Grayson looked at each of his children in turn. “You girls get your wands and stay with Damon. If anything happens, send red sparks into the air.” He handed Damon his wand back. “Guard the house, son,” he said, with a determined look etched into his face. He grabbed and hugged them all. “We’ll find her... I promise,” he said, and then he left them with Eric following close behind.
Anna was cold, colder than she had ever felt in her entire life. As she floated along the ground and through the woods surrounding her, the panic she felt earlier began to subside. If she had the ability to cry, she would have already done so. Her father, her own family, was trying to kill her. Why had they attacked her?
Time passed quickly as she moved along, and as it did she found it harder to concentrate. A few moments later, Anna could barely remember why she had been afraid, or even why she was fleeing. The starvation deep within her body had replaced her fear. She was hunting again. A bright golden glow, as if from a dropping curtain, was falling in the woods in front of her. She turned away to avoid the light, and headed back into the darkest corners of the woods again.
Anna slowly hovered, ever reaching, across the fallen needles and leaves, checking every crevice and hole, looking for anything that might keep her alive and bring to an end the aching stabbing pains of hunger. She could barely breathe the air around her cold body. It was oppressive, stifling and desiccated, like that of a dry desert, and she knew the air in this strange place was working against her; soon, it would destroy her. She had to find a place underground where the air would be cool, wet, and breathable again; but first, she had to feed if she was going to survive the night. Anna knew her own death was very near. The forces of starvation and breathless suffocation were fighting to finish her. She crept stealthily along the ground, and fell upon a mound of dirt two feet high above the litter of the forest floor. She halted.
It was food. Her icy body quickly stretched itself over the warm mound, and then reached desperately inside the many holes dotting its exterior. She reached deep and found them all sleeping underground. Ants: thousands of them. They were instantly immobilized by her cold touch, and she immediately absorbed them wholly into her dark folds. She could feel her strength slowly increasing, and the more of the tiny creatures she consumed, the more aggressive she became, reaching deeper still into their dark home.
After fifteen minutes, she moved on, still hungry, but strengthened enough to continue her search for more. She knew she wouldn’t be able to continue much longer. She was suffocating; and just as she found herself choosing between breathing and hunting, she found it. There was a warm glow in front of her, lying close to the base of a dead tree. Food! Anna raced to the spot… she could taste its breath, loaded with the smell of sweet carbon, an exhilarating mixture of warmth and moisture wafting over her senses like an intoxicating drink. Unlike the tiny insects she was forced to consume earlier, this serving was bigger — much bigger.
She quietly crept up on the warm creature sleeping in the darkness, and then, ever so slowly, her folds surrounded it. She couldn’t fail this time. She couldn’t let it escape as her prey had done before; this time, her very life depended on her success. She could see the animal curled in a bed of leaves, its breathing smooth and shallow, a fully-grown deer in unsuspecting slumber. Anna rose slightly and then quickly launched her black shroud-like body onto the creature. In less than a second, she had completely engulfed the animal, clamping it down within her smothering grip. The deer woke with a start, and cried out in shock at being attacked in its sleep. It struggled hopelessly against its attacker, trying to kick and twist its way free, but the Lethifold had a throttling hold. The deer could feel the thing’s coldness seeping into its mouth and lungs, filling all the spaces in which air might exist. There was no escape.
Shhh…Quite now… go back to sleep. Everything is all right, Anna tried to tell the creature struggling under her, and, eventually, the deer fell into the endless sleep from which captured prey never awaken.
Over the next hour, Anna fully absorbed everything about the animal, and she could feel the sharp knives of starvation slowly ebbing away. Finally, a satisfying contentment passed through the deepest part of her being; Anna had never felt so satisfied. Even her ability to breath seemed easier, but she still had needs. She had to find shelter, a place she could breathe the moist humid air her body needed to fully digest this meal.
And that’s when she heard them, the many voices in the woods surrounding her. They were coming; those who wanted to hurt her, to kill her. She had to escape, find a place to hide. She turned and headed away from the noise of the things walking in her direction, each proceeded by ugly beams of bright white light. She had to flee; she was now the prey. Anna quickly began drifting through the woods away from the strange voices and pounding feet. Although her meal had strengthened her, the hot, unbreathable air was hampering her movement.
Then something unexpected appeared ahead of her; a dim flickering light coming from a small stone building pushed into the side of a hill. The structure was somehow familiar to her, and, for some unexplainable reason, she knew she would be safe there within its walls. Anna’s vision was clearing as she concentrated on the tiny dim lights she could see through the cracks in the walls. A single word kept coming into her mind as she approached…Sanctuary! This place would protect her.
She moved to the door and quickly squeezed under its bottom edge. A single candle was glowing on a stone alter at the front of the room opposite. Unrecognizable images hung on the walls, delivering the strangest form of comfort and strength to her. The air was mercifully damp and moist, and she knew she had the place in which she would survive the night if left undisturbed.
As her body slowly began to warm, she could feel the icy black coldness encasing her form begin to fall away. The heavy shadows floating around her eyes were starting to clear once more, and she could feel something hard pushing upward under her body, like some uncomfortable mattress rising out of the floor beneath her. Anna was exhausted, and although she could hear the voices of her pursuers coming closer outside, she didn’t have the energy to care anymore. She finally closed her mind, surrendering to her approaching fate, and fell into a deep sleep.
In the far off distance, Anna could hear the rattling of a door. It opened, and the light of several wands suddenly moved into her hiding place. There was anxious yelling, and more thumping steps could be heard running toward the building outside. There was the scream of a familiar name, “ANNA!” that came from an almost recognizable voice closest to where she lay. She felt her body being turned and lifted into the air by a set of strong caring arms. They were running now; through the woods at great speed as more voices gathered in around her.
“Clear the way!”
“We found her!”
“We found the girl!”
“Is she alive?”
“Call the healers!”
“Make way — get her to the house!”
Several lights flickered and flashed as the person carrying her continued to run through the woods; she could hear his strained breathing as he moved along. Loud whistles and columns of colored light shot into the air above her, exploding in a shower of dazzling red sparks. Anna opened her eyes and looked up into the grimacing face of her brother Eric, who was struggling to carry her to safety.
“Eric…you found me…I’m cold…so cold… I couldn’t breathe… I…” but Anna’s returning and muttered voice, mixed with sobs, trailed off into an inaudible whimper.
“I have you, Anna. I have you. You’re all right now. I’m taking you back to the house. You’re safe now,” her brother panted, as the Grayson estate finally came into view. “Get my father; find a healer — quick!” he screamed. “Almost there, Anna; hang in there… you’re almost home.”
Bright lights burst into Anna’s head as Eric kicked open the front doors into the entryway. A dozen wizards and witches followed them in, yelling for help.
“Where’s the healer?”
“We need help over here!”
“Eric’s found the girl!”
“Hoppin toadstools! Git the misses into the parlor — quick! I’ll git the whisky!” yelled Cookie, floating from atop his newel post. He then zoomed out of the room toward the kitchen. Many of the images in the paintings were pointing worriedly at Anna as her brother carried her across the room.
“Somebody find daddy! Tell him they found Anna,” screamed Dowla’s familiar voice.
Eric carried his sister into the family room and finally laid her limp shaking body on a couch next to a warm fire. A number of blankets were thrown on top of her, and several hands reached in to wrap her tight.
“Let me through…Get out of the way!” yelled Mister Grayson, who ran into the house to find his daughter barely conscious on the couch. “Anna! Is she all right? Is she…?” but her father’s voice was growing faint as Anna’s mind began to slip away. “You’re safe now, honey…Daddy is here.” His words startled her.
“No — we’re not safe. The creature is here…It’s still here…It’s inside me…” Anna muttered, as panic finally gave in to exhaustion, and everything faded to black.
When Anna awoke, her eyes were throbbing from the noonday light before she opened her eyelids. She kept them closed. For the first time since the night before she was finally warm. She could hear her father, who was sitting in a chair next to her bed, speaking to Eric.
“So — you found her lying on the floor inside the old stone chapel?” asked Mister Grayson in a soft whisper.
“Yes, sir…After the ministry arrived I spoke with Smattigan about the creature. She told me almost nothing is known about the Lethifold, other than that one encounter with Belby in New Guinea sometime in the eighteenth century,” Eric replied.
Eric had heard the story of Flavius Belby, a wizard who had once been the only known survivor of a Lethifold attack. His encounter was well documented in the book, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which was required reading for all wizarding students attending Castlewood.
Anna’s brother continued. “The CDDC wizards were very impressed with your knowledge that the patronus charm is the only known defense against the Lethifold, and how you were able to keep your mind focused enough to conjure it under the pressure of the moment. They believe your spell probably saved Anna’s life. They can’t be sure, of course, because they haven’t been able to find the creature yet. After I found Anna in the chapel, they started to believe you might have killed the creature before it had a chance to fully absorb her.”
Eric’s father seemed unconvinced. “Hmmm…I don’t know about that. I’m not convinced the creature is gone. It could still be out there… waiting for darkness before continuing its escape.” said Mister Grayson, in a very reserved tone.
“But father — why else would the creature release her if not because it died from some kind of injury it received from your spell? When I found Anna, she was lying on top of a dead deer. Apparently the creature attacked that animal after it entered the woods. Both the deer and Anna were found together, but the Lethifold couldn’t be located. It must be dead.”
Mister Grayson sighed. “I disagree. I have reason to believe it’s not that simple. I believe there might be something different about Anna that kept her from being killed last night.”
“What?” whispered Eric in shock, “What do you mean, father? What could Anna have done to protect herself? She looked completely absorbed when we saw her in Damon’s room?”
Anna lay in her bed motionless, listening to their conversation. She was terrified. She suddenly realized her father and Eric did not know the truth. They didn’t know what Anna knew deep inside. The creature they saw last night did not take her, as they believed. She was never attacked; she had become that monster. Anna could still feel the creature’s coldness deep within her soul, even as she lay there in her own bed listening. It wanted to come out again. Anna knew it was still there, ready to pounce, ready to kill. Should she tell her father? She had to. If she didn’t tell the truth, and they believed the creature was gone, what would happen if she turned into that thing again? What if she attacked Eric or her father while they slept? No…She wouldn’t allow that to happen. She would rather die, locked in a cage, than allow the thing inside her to hurt her family. Her thoughts were interrupted by her father’s voice once again.
“I won’t try to explain now why I believe Anna has some kind of protection. Even if it turns out to be true, I couldn’t account as to how such a thing might be possible. That’s why I want the Ministry to continue their search here on the grounds before pursuing my suspicions.”
Just then, there was a knock on Anna’s bedroom door, and Eric stood to answer it. A very short, portly man was standing in the doorway slowly turning a bright orange beret in his hands. He seemed rather worried.
“Sorry to disturb you, Eric, but… could we have a word with your father, please?”
Eric motioned to his father to join them. Anna kept her eyes closed as Mister Grayson leaned over to check her, and then turned toward the open doorway.
“Hello, sir. My name is Hobbs — Charles Hobbs — from the CDDC. I won’t keep you long; I just wanted to report our findings.” said the short Ministry wizard. There was second, taller man standing next to Hobbs in the hallway.
“You’ve found the creature then?” asked Mister Grayson, hopefully.
Anna wanted to scream out, to tell them her secret. They couldn’t have found it, daddy. The creature is still here. It’s hiding inside of me.
“No, sir, there are no signs of the beast anywhere on the grounds. As a result of our findings, we have decided to drop the Rutilus dome,” said the wizard nervously.
“What! That should have been cleared with me first! What are you people…”
“Sir, please…Let me finish,” interrupted Hobbs, glancing over to ensure Anna was still sleeping. “Mister Grayson… we wouldn’t have taken the dome down unless we were one-hundred percent certain the beast was not on the estate property, and the chances of our team missing something like this are far less than the trouble we’re causing by leaving the spell in place. We cannot keep the Muggles from noticing something so large for very long. We’ve already had to perform a memory charm on three Muggles so far who were found around the outer rim. One of them, Mister Grayson, was a reporter from one of the local newspapers.”
Mister Grayson dropped his head in despair. He hated the thought of modifying the memory of any Muggle.
“Besides, we believe the ministry can provide ample protection for you and your family, at least until your children have left for school in the next few days. After that, we will find a more permanent solution.” Hobbs finished, and then looked up at Mister Grayson who was staring at him with a stern look of disapproval. “Be reasonable, Director,” persisted Hobbs, “the Muggles…”
“All right — all right! You’re right, of course,” Mister Grayson said, waving the man off with a frustrated gesture, “but I want to personally review your security plans on a daily basis,” he said, poking his finger into the wizard’s barrel-like chest.
“Of course, sir. A man in your position should be given every opportunity to improve what it is we’re doing,” replied the wizard with a reassuring smile. He then paused to glance over to the man standing next to him. “Mister Grayson,” Hobbs continued, in an uneasy tone, “it’s time for us to discuss how this could have happened. I mean…A Lethifold! Wow… I should say. There are many of us on the grounds today, sir, who really hope to capture this creature alive. What a find! It’s really quite exciting,” he said, a bright enthusiastic smile budding eagerly on his face. Mister Grayson did not share the man’s enthusiasm for a creature that had just attacked two of his children.
Eric was furious, “That thing tried to kill us! This isn’t supposed to be an opportunity for you to study some new pet we’ve just picked up…” but this father grasped Eric by the shoulder and stopped him from saying more. Mister Grayson’s eyes were burning into Hobb’s face, a deadly twist coiling in his upper lip.
Hobbs, looking very uncomfortable, tried to recover. “Ahhh — yes — sorry, sir. I — ahhh, well, begging your pardon…In light of the circumstances, here today, I mean…I didn’t mean to offend...”
“You were saying…?” said Mister Grayson, in a very impatient tone.
“Ah…yes…Well, the thing is, sir… How did the creature get here? That’s the question, isn’t it?” Hobbs said, still sounding amused. “This beast is extremely rare, and has only been known to live in the most humid and remote tropics. To find one here on the coast of California is…well — it’s unheard of, sir, isn’t it? Something like this couldn’t possibly survive here for that long a time. It would be impossible. The dry air alone would probably kill it within hours of its arrival. In fact, that’s probably why your daughter survived the attack in the first place. This thing must have absorbed her, but died either from your spell,” he leaned in close to Mister Grayson to whisper, “which was brilliant by the way, sir…” he fell back, “or from the dry climate. The environment in this part of the world would be most dangerous to a creature like that, and probably wouldn’t allow it to properly digest its meal. We’re thinking it most certainly died, leaving the girl behind as it...ah…well…as it passed on.”
Eric spoke again. “But if the creature died because it was traveling in an area hostile to its survival, then how did it get here in the first place?”
“Ah… yes,” replied Hobbs, looking down and spinning his hat again. “That is an important question, and the reason we have contacted the Office of Wizard Law Enforcement,” said Hobbs, who then stepped aside to motion the man standing behind him forward
“Hello, Mister Grayson. My name is Lieutenant Farren Doyle of the Ministry Authority,” said the tall man, who then entered the room and weakly reached out to shake Mister Grayson’s hand.
“What?” said Eric in surprise, “but… there’s been no crime here? This was simply a strange case of a rare creature attacking a member of our fam…”
“Eric — please,” Mister Grayson interrupted. “The call to the Wizard Authority is prudent and, frankly, in this case, it was expected.”
Stunned by his father’s words, Eric stood dumbstruck. Mr. Doyle was looking into Mister Grayson’s eyes, impressed with the man’s ability to quickly understand what was not obvious to his son.
“You recognize our concern here, Director?” said Doyle, in a lowered voice. “I’m here to ensure your security, and to try and ascertain if the circumstances surrounding these attacks were a random opportunity taken by an unbelievably rare creature,” the detective paused, shrugging his shoulders deliberately, “or… something more. I think you understand my meaning, Mister Grayson. Your position as Director, sir, is somewhat unique in the Wizarding world, and has been known to be… somewhat dangerous to you personally.” The wizard detective seemed to be looking down, but his eyes were peering up into Mister Grayson’s gaze, waiting for his reaction.
“Dangerous? What are you talking about?” laughed Eric, who then turned to look at his father with a dismissive smile. The very idea that his father’s position might be somehow dangerous was rather silly, and he found the detective’s comments almost too ridiculous to consider. Mister Grayson, however, didn’t seem at all surprised by Doyle’s observations. In fact, he was nodding his head in agreement. Eric’s face dropped, “Father…What’s he saying? What is he talking about?”
“Eric,” Doyle whispered. “Your father is a very well-known man throughout the Wizarding world. Not only that, but he holds a position that, by its very existence, allows wizards and Muggles to share and depend on each other as never before. Well…think about that for a moment. Not everybody would agree this is a good thing.” Eric still seemed unsure of what Doyle was trying to say.
Mister Grayson folded his arms and then turned toward his son. “There are forces in this world, Eric,” he said, offhandedly, “who would do anything to stop what we have been able to accomplish out of my office. There were once dark forces looking for any opportunity to stop our getting so close to the Muggles. Although, I must admit, attacking my family in this manner is somewhat unorthodox…we should have anticipated it anyway. I blame myself for not…”
“What? What do you mean, ‘We should have anticipated this’?” Eric yelped, in an unusually high voice. “Father, you never could have foreseen…”
“I mean to say… It’s been tried before…” Mister Grayson said, placing his hand on Eric’s chest to calm him. “There have been other assassination attempts on my life in the past.”