Anna Grayson and The Dragon's Lair

Not a Rat

ONE

The Care of Magical Objects class was a rude disappointment to the Guardians. They continued to clean the castle silver, day after long day, week after week, until the canvas bin was empty of all its magical treasures. Afterward, there was some short-lived excitement the end of their cleaning tasks might bring something a little more exciting to the class. Unfortunately, a second bin replaced the first filled to the top with pewter objects of armor, which again their teacher expected them to clean. All the time, Qwaad sat with his legs up on his desk, eating his apples, and reading the latest news from the Spellsburg Seer.

It turned out their Care of Magic Places class was just as useless. It consisted of the Guardians traveling about the castle in single file behind Qwaad and cleaning random hallways and unoccupied classes. Passing students could be heard snickering as they worked, and some even stooped to calling them house elves. There was only one within the castle who seemed to be really enjoying these new Guardian duties and that was Lieutenant Dunning. During their classes, Dunning could be found talking to Qwaad enthusiastically about his teaching methods and occasionally stopping during their many conversations to point out a missed spot of dirt on the floor that one of the Guardians had neglected.

Auror training was disappointing as well. Far from learning any new magic to protect themselves, they were told to learn the names of every Auror who had ever existed, and especially those who had been awarded special letters or metals of merit for their heroic deeds in the name of the Ministry of Magic.

Very little of anything good could be said about these classes but that they only occurred once a week. This fact, however, did not stop some of the parents from protesting the treatment of their children at the hands of Professor Qwaad. Unfortunately it did nothing to solve their problems and as October gave way to November, these complaints faded into the gloom of acceptance to match the unsought of winter. Through it all, Chancellor Thordarson said nothing about the plight of the Guardians within the castle. He was immeasurable preoccupied, or so Anna tried to convince herself, with the tasks of his post and those of the Order of the Phoenix.

The only Guardian who didn’t seem to mind these cleaning chores was the strange and very rude first year, Nox Yolland. Although the girl complained bitterly about nearly everything around her, she seemed to joyously throw herself into the work given them even as the fourth bin of portrait frames rolled into their class to be polished.

Eventually, the mystery of the girl’s odd behavior came to light when it was learned her parents were protesting the treatment of their daughter most forcibly by writing to Professor Thordarson nearly every day. In time, Anna and Gwen came to believe the girl’s enthusiasm for the work demanded of her was in direct rebellion to her parent’s efforts to stop what was happening.

“She’s a loon, that one,” Gwen whispered, as they continued to scrub the Rotunda floor with boar-brushes and pails of soapy water to the dismay of the resident house elves. “She acts like this is fun.”

Anna looked back at the girl, who was whistling enthusiastically while she scrubbed. “Yeah… she’s got some serious parent issues, to be sure.”

“Who cares; I just wish she’d stop that stupid noise.” Gwen looked back. “Hey! Would you mind knocking off the whistling?”

The girl stopped her happy back and forth motion for a moment to look up at Gwen. She grinned evilly, and then began to whistle louder as she returned to her portion of the floor.

Gwen was furious. “I said — knock it off!”

The girl continued unabated, turning up the volume more again.

“That’s it — I’ve had it with that little horror!” Gwen yelped, slamming her brush down on the floor before rising to stand.

Anna reached over to stop her. “Leave her alone, Gwen. Can’t you see she’s just being an idiot?”

Gwen wasn’t listening. She stormed over to the girl still working on her knees.

“Hey you — first-year! I said stop that!”

The girl ignored her.

“I said SHUT IT!” Gwen demanded, kicking the girl’s brush out of her hand. The Yolland girl suddenly leapt to her feet and immediately shoved Gwen hard to the floor. A second later the girl was on top of Gwen, screaming at the top of her lungs and pelting her with punches.

Anna rushed forward to grab the girl’s arms as Gwen pushed her back. “Get off of me you lunatic!”

The girl fell back and then stretched forward to kick at Gwen again. Anna grabbed the girl from behind as Gwen got to her feet. “What the hell is wrong with you?”

The girl struggled against Anna, seething with what seemed like blood in her eyes for Gwen.

“Calm down!” Anna warned the struggling girl, who had now taken to stomping at Anna’s feet behind her.

“Get off me!” the girl screamed.

“Not until you calm down.”

“Get off!”

“Stop it!”

“What’s all this?” yelled Professor Qwaad, who had just entered the room with Lieutenant Dunning hot on his heels.

“Fighting, Grayson?”

“No!” Anna yelped, immediately releasing the girl and holding up her hands.

Freed at last, Nox immediately turned on Anna. Grabbing her by the hair she shoved Anna backward and they fell to the floor together. Rolling over and over, the wild first-year began punching every part of Anna she could find while the rest of the class stood watching them in amazement. Professor Qwaad and Captain Dunning did nothing to stop the battle.

“Leave it to Grayson to pick a fight with another student three years younger than herself,” Dunning said with a sneer, crossing his arms indignantly to watch the two girls rolling across the wet floor.

“Yes… so it would seem,” Qwaad replied coolly. “Is it common for the Graysons to display this level of depravity?”

Dunning smiled. “It’s been my experience that you’ll find this one to be the worst of the Grayson lot.”

Humph… I see. I’ll have to keep that in mind.

“Professor Qwaad!” the Guardian Knight Laroche yelled, pointing down at Anna who had finally managed to pin the thrashing girl beneath her.

“Well… I suppose we should stop them,” Qwaad said, almost uncaringly.

“Allow me…”

“By all means…”

“No!” Gwen yelled, as Dunning suddenly whipped out his wand and thrust it forward. There was a flash and a bolt of light that hit Anna square in the back. There was a whirl of spinning radiance as Anna’s body shrank and changed itself into that of a squeaking rat.

Stunned for a moment at the sight of her foe sitting on her chest as a rat, Nox leapt to her feet and began to stomp down at the now fleeing rodent.

“Stop her,” Gwen yelled, and two others in the class moved forward to her grab the girl and stop her from attacking Anna.

Qwaad looked over at Dunning. “Good one — although I would have preferred something without legs in which to run.”

Dunning smiled as he watched Anna jump into one of the buckets of soapy water. He stooped low before the now wet and shivering rat struggling to keep herself from drowning.

“So… how does it feel to you, Grayson, to be picked on by somebody so much bigger than you?” Anna could only reply with a teeth chattering squeak.

“I think this look suits you, Grayson. Maybe I’ll have you cleaning all the rat traps in the castle during your detention.” He stared evilly into Anna’s eyes and smirked.

Then he watched in surprise as her eyes began to change from a vivid green to jet-black. Her teeth we’re suddenly bared, and then fanged, and then the booming roar of a lion bellowed forth from her tiny body to blow Dunning backward to his back. He looked down at his feet in astonishment to see the rat changing as it flopped out of the bucket. Growing larger by the second, its head began to push pointed horns out its skull and the fur on its face was changing to copper colored scales. Her body lengthened until she stood above Dunning, a terrible mixture of a rat and something reptilian struggling to come forward.

Finally, there was a flash of light and Anna stood wet and shivering in her robes. Her eyes were liquid back as she glared down at the lieutenant still lying at her feet.

“I’m not a rat!” Anna screamed angrily.

Lieutenant Dunning scrambled to his feet and then looked down disbelievingly at his wand.

“You will serve detention, Miss Grayson,” Qwaad announced quietly as the bell in the hallway rang out. “In my office Saturday night, you and your little boxing buddy both,” he added. The first year Nox Yolland stood with the rest of the class staring at Anna in utter disbelief.

“Stow the brushes and buckets in the closet, please. You’re dismissed.”

As the class slowly gathered their bags and headed out, they were looking back at Anna as if for the very first time.

When they were in the hallway, Gwen raised her wand, “Fervesco.” A stream of hot air began to blow from her wand, which she used to dry Anna’s robes.

“How in the world did you do that?” asked Gabriel.

“Do what?” Anna replied; her teeth were still chattering uncontrollably.

“Break Dunning’s transfiguration spell… how did you do it?” Some of the other Guardians were now gathered around them as well, including the Yolland girl who looked just as surprised as anybody.

“I dunno… I just kept saying to myself, I’m not a rat.”

“That was bloody brilliant… you blowing Dunning on his butt like that,” laughed another fifth-year.

“Yeah — but while you was changin’ back, it looked like you took’a side turn on the trail’ta change into that pet dragon of yers,” TJ added with a chuckle.

“You have a pet dragon?” yelped another third-year.

“All right,” Gwen said loudly, cutting the conversation short. “I think we’re done here.” She lifted her wand away from Anna’s robes and looked back at Nox. “And you! You need to stop acting the ass before you get yourself and everybody else expelled!”

The girl looked taken aback. “What are you talking about?”

Gwen looked at rest of the Guardians in surprise. “What am I talking about? I’m talking about you rolling around on the floor, attacking everybody at the slightest provocation, that’s what!”

The girl smiled evilly. “It was a pretty good fight, ay?” And to everybody’s surprise, the girl turned and walked away. Halfway down the corridor, they could hear her whistling again.

Gwen was left open-mouthed.

TJ shook her head. “That girl’s crazier than an outhouse rat.” She quickly looked over at Anna who was scowling at her. “No offense.”

TWO

A few days later, Anna and Gwen were heading to Slalom Stadium. Although she wasn’t allowed to do anything more than practice in her first year, Anna was hopeful she would be permitted to compete in this her second year. She moved excitedly across the plateau with her new flying door under her arm.

The two girls entered the stadium to find a number of eager racers mingling together in the center of the field.

“Wow there’s a lot more people than there was last year,” Anna observed worriedly.

Gwen wasn’t paying attention. “Look, they have the pixies out today.” She was pointing to a stack of crates tucked into the side of the stands. She trotted over to the bamboo cages filled with small, blue creatures with buzzing wings.

Anna followed and then smiled at the Pixies. “Hello there, Blue-Dish,” she cooed, looking at one of the creatures and the nameplate above her cage. She stuck her finger between the bars and watched the creature move away. “I’m not going to hurt you, girl; come over here.”

“Girl?” Gwen laughed, frowning into the cage next to her. “How do you know it’s a girl?”

Anna shrugged. “I don’t know; she just looks like a girl to me.”

There came a growl from the far end of the cages and the two looked over to find another pixie cringing in the corner of his pin. A third was reaching through the bars toward the other, snarling maliciously.

“Hey,” Anna called out, “leave him alone!” The pixie pulled his arm back with a look of surprise.

“Oh, Anna… look; you scared him. I think he was only playing with the other one.”

Gwen walked over to the cage containing the attacking pixie, and to Anna’s surprise she poked a finger between the bars in an attempt to coax the little creature toward her.

Anna yanked her back just in time as the pixie lunged forward with its teeth bared at Gwen’s hand; it was snapping and snarling madly.

“What the hell?” Gwen said disbelievingly. “If you hadn’t pulled me back, he might have taken my fingers off.” She slammed the cage with her fist where the pixie was now chewing at the bars. “You little monster! I need these fingers to play the piano.” The pixie giggled maliciously and then crossed his eyes mockingly at her before turning his gaze up at Anna.

Anna was glaring back at him with a deep, almost penetrating stare. The pixie took a deep breath and then seemed to turn away, but then rushed forward at the bars again, snarling and showing his sharp teeth. Anna never flinched, but came forward in reply, showing her own teeth and blackened eyes. She hit the bars of the cage with her head and let out a deep growl of challenging anger.

The pixie flew backward against the opposite wall of the cage and then fell into a rage. He began buzzing around in his enclosure, picking up his bedding and throwing it against the sides. He grabbed his water dish, bit it, and then threw it over his shoulder in a fury. Anna continued to watch him closely, her face pushed angrily into the bars, her teeth dripping with spit. Gwen pulled her back.

“Get back, Anna. He’s gonna take your nose off.”

“Tak ya noos,” repeated the creature within the cage.

Anna scowled back at him. “Mowgawk,” she growled under her breath.

Gwen looked up to see the placard above the cage. “Mowgawk? What the hell kind of name is that?”

The pixie was still glaring at Anna from the back of his cage. “Moo-gak,” the thing screamed back. “Moo-gak, Moo-gak, Moo-gak… tak ya noos. Heh-heh-heh.” He threw the water dish at her again.

Anna looked at Gwen and then smiled coyly. “Nasty little cuss, in’t he?” She looked left and right at the other pixies in the surrounding cages. They were cringing in fear of the now barking and howling Mowgawk.

The girls headed to the center of the stadium where they could see a safety net had been stretched below those flying on their doors overhead. The flyers were chasing each other as they weaved over, under, and around several floating poles suspended in midair, as the students below watched the fliers in awe. Gwen moved to the bleachers as Anna moved to join the group.

“Welcome to Slalom Stadium,” said one of the instructors to the group. “My name is Norris Barclay, and I think I know everybody here from last year, right? Good! Well then, welcome back to competition flying and our season’s first Slalom practice. Most of you second-years received your invitation to join us at the end of last year, so this would be your first time with us. I’d like you to go with Donavan and Grayson over to the south side of the pitch. Those two got their invites at the beginning of last year after showing some promise and they’ve been with us ever since. They’ve got a year of practice under their belt already and have been instructed to take you though your practice drills today. I or one of our seventh-years will be along in a little bit to check on you.”

And so… the second-years set off across the field, talking excitedly as they followed Anna and the Donavan boy.

“I see you got yourself a new door, Anna,” Donavan said, as they lead the group along. What brand is it?”

Anna stopped to allow the group to catch up before laying her door flat to hover just above the ground. “Oh… it’s homemade. A family friend made it for me. Isn’t it wonderful?”

Donavan squatted down to take a closer look. “Wow… very impressive,” he said. “How’s it fly?”

Anna smiled. “I really don’t know; I guess I’ll find out today.”

As the group gathered around them, Anna stepped onto her door and kicked off. She immediately could sense the design would favor what Mr. Barclay called Anna’s awkward stance. She shot forward and immediately into a series of quick turns and then banked high to return. Braking hard with her back foot, Anna suddenly toppled forward to the ground and the group started to laugh.

“Very impressive, Grayson,” Donavan said, amusedly. “Don’t worry everyone… Grayson here is usually better than this on warmer days.”

“Wow! What a ride,” Anna replied, picking herself up quickly, and then snatching her hovering door out of the air again.

“All right… let’s get started,” Donavan told the group. “Anna and I have been instructed on how to get you going today, but before we do, let’s go over some of the rules of Swift Slalom.” He could hear several in the group begin to grumble boringly. “I know most of you probably already know the rules well enough already or you wouldn’t be here, but we’re doing it anyway.” He moved to the center of the group.

“Swift Slalom consists of racing through the gates you see over head, which are properly called porticos. You must pass the vertical red gates on the left and the blue gates to the right. You have to fly over the green horizontal gates and under the yellow.”

Anna stepped forward. “The first racer to complete three laps and pass the Cornish Pixie will be declared the winner.

Everybody in the crowd seemed to understand and were nodding excitedly.

“Like professional slalom racing, the pixies you’ll be chasing will have the ability to change the color and thus the horizontal or vertical position of your gates,” Donavan added. “And, of course, missing a gate or falling off your door will automatically invoke a penalty by porting you back into the center of the field.

“The standard rules apply for blocking and bumping, and the Chancellor insists there be safety nets under the gates at all times here at Castlewood. Touching of falling into the safety net will invoke another half-lap penalty as you and your door are ported back the center of the field,” Anna instructed them.

“And touching a pixie can lead to immediate disqualification,” Donavan said. “Oh, and by the way, some of these pixies can be extremely nasty, especially the one they call Mowgawk. Watch out for him,” he warned. “That one’s about as close to insane as a pixie can get.” Anna smiled and nodded in agreement.

Soon the group was up and flying, chasing Anna and Donavan through the gates. Anna was very impressed with her new door. Its speed and pinpoint turns made her smile at every gate. Soon she was lapping the slower second-year riders, testing her control and speed.

Ten minutes later, a horn sounded and there was a bang below from one the pixie cages. A streak of blue shot out of an open door and a tiny pixie moved to join the race. The creature took the lead through the first turn and all the racers quickly fell in line it to give chase. Anna found herself a half lap behind everybody at the start, but immediately turned on the speed to catch the rest. One by one Anna passed the other riders, maneuvering quickly through the gates. Up ahead, she could see those closest to the winged pixie trying to pull away from Donavan who was also in hot pursuit.

As the group closed in, the pixie reached out and touched one of the gates, which instantly changed color from red to blue. Donavan had to snap his door sharply to the right to avoid missing the turn. There were flashes of light in front of him, as all the other riders who missed the gate were ported out of the race. They reappeared again in the center of the field where they quickly zoomed forward to start again.

Anna continued to move up through the crowd of doors and ducked a flying elbow that narrowly missed her cheek.

“No blocking up there without pads!” yelled Mr. Barclay below them.

Anna flew wide around another student, dove under a yellow gate, and then fell in close behind Donavan.

The pixie they were chasing was very quick, its nearly translucent wings beating furiously as it darted and weaved in an attempt to cause dysfunction behind him. To Anna, its attempts to ward off the chasing Donavan seemed feeble at best, as it changed the color of the gates almost predictably at every third turn.

Donavan quickly passed the little creature with a brilliant swooping roll over a green pole, and a second later, Anna took advantage of the pixie’s wide turn to pass as well. They crossed the finish line, one and two, with Donavan pumping his fist in triumph.

Beat you again, Grayson,” Donavan chimed happily, looking back at her at he straightened.

“Typical… give a guy a half-a-lap head start and he’s bragging,” Anna shot back.

Below, Barclay and another seventh-year stood watching them.

“Donavan and Grayson seem to be coming along all right,” said the student, appraisingly.

Barclay smirked. “Never could break Grayson of that sideways stance of hers. Oh well… there’s no denying they’ve earned their chance. Go ahead and put them on the slate for race day.”

THREE

“Did you hear about Sarah’s detention?”

Gwen and Anna were walking together across the plateau toward the city after slalom practice. Anna looked at her friend in surprise.

“Sarah? Detention? For… what?”

“Well… I wasn’t there, but Gabriel told me she was informed of Sarah’s detention for… get this… rudeness to a teacher.”

Anna’s mouth dropped. “Sarah Bell was rude to a teacher? No way — that’s impossible. What teacher?”

“The Muggles Studies teacher, Professor Bots. From what Gabriel says, Sarah was talking to herself in class and she was starting to get kind of loud and disruptive. When Bots told her to be quiet, she apparently told him off.”

“I don’t believe it. That doesn’t sound like Sarah at all. What does she have to do for her detention?”

“Nothing too bad, just lines after dinner because it was her first one and… well… because it’s Sarah Bell.” Gwen shrugged. “Who would have thought?

“Listen, Anna, can I meet you later for dinner? I kind of have a date with that four-year Guardian, John Gryskiewicz.” Gwen was looking at Anna hopefully as they reached the city gate.

“Sure. I was thinking about going out to visit Swooper anyway. So when did you and John hook up?”

“Well… we haven’t yet, really, but we’ve been talking a lot lately, and he sent me an owl asking me to meet him at the Witches Brew Theater. We’re hoping to see a show together. I’ll see you tonight.” And Gwen set off at a fast pace through the city’s arched gate.

A few minutes later, Anna was entering Vollucross Stadium. She was looking forward to a seeing Swooper again when she heard a voice.

“Beware, Guardian…”

Anna looked around in surprise. Although she wasn’t touching anything magical, the voice sounded familiar to her.

“Who is it?” Anna called back, looking for the source of the whispering voice.

There was a rattled heave. “I bring news once again of the plot against you.”

Anna’s breath froze in her chest. It was the same man Anna had seen hiding in the alley on her first day back to Castlewood. She squinted hard and could barely see the shadow of a hunched form hiding behind the bleachers between them. Anna rushed forward to peer between the wooden seats and into the opening in the back.

“Do not look upon me! Must I warn you again that I am cursed? I would not repay your mother’s kindness to me by passing my curse on to her only child.”

“Where is she? Where is my mother?”

“I do not know. I can only report… that she has finally freed herself from the Dark Lord’s clutches.”

“What? How do you know this?”

There was a long pause and Anna found herself looking for a way to navigate around the obstacles separating the two of them. She could see no way to get to the man without first traveling a hundred yards in either direction between the rising seats.

“I have been sent to warn you again that the plot against you has begun, and your enemies are closer than you realize. You should not be alone like this in the open.”

Anna suddenly became fearful. She slowly looked around her, almost realizing too late how vulnerable she had left herself in coming to the stadium by herself.

“You are in grave danger here, Guardian. You are far too close to the forest. All you care about… your family… your friends… many are in jeopardy.”

Anna’s heart was racing. “My family? My friends? Why would they be in danger too? Please… sir, I don’t understand; is there no way you can let me see you.”

Anna tried to fit her head between the seats to see through to the other side. She could just see the shadow of the man move away.

“No, that is impossible! I told you, I am cursed.” The man began to cough and wheeze through his protest. “I will not make your mother my enemy by destroying her child.”

“But sir, what am I to do? You told me before that my mother was coming to Spellsburg. Is that still true?”

There was another pause, and then, “She is already here, Guardian. Victoria Grayson has arrived.”

Anna jumped back at these words, slamming her head on the seats above.

“No! She… she can’t be here. They’ll catch her and she’ll be sent back to…” she suddenly halted.

“Where is my mother now, and why does she send you again to give me these messages? Why doesn’t she come to me herself?”

“She is hiding in the Shadowed Forest, child, in a place they cannot hope to find her. But she is angry… very angry.”

“Angry?”

“She is angry at the servant of He-Who-Would-Destroy-You. The Dark Lord’s servant is also here… and plotting your doom.”

Anna gulped hard.

“Why would Voldemort…”

The man suddenly fell back and hissed, and Anna was angry with herself for delaying his answer.

“Why would He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named want…” she hesitated, “to kill me? I’m nobody, just a student at Castlewood…”

“Nobody?” the man broke in. “Was it nobody who entered the dungeons of Drogo undetected? Was it a ghost who entered Victoria’s enchanted door and then released her mother? How was this done?”

Anna hesitated; she could feel the man’s mind reach out desperately for an answer, but she remained silent.

“Ah… you see… there is a secret to it.” The man said before coughing again. “Something so secret that your mother, even with his servant’s help, could not freely explain to their master. The Dark Lord would be curious about this power you possess, but there is more that feeds his ambitions against you.”

He paused again to take in a gasped breath. Anna scowled. “I don’t understand; what more?”

The man recovered quickly. “Your status in the ancient order, the keeper of all keys, that would unlock your mother’s prison door and every other door sent impenetrable by magic, reside in the first of the order reborn. The Dark Lord knows what you are, child.”

Anna’s eyes widened.

He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, even by his servants, is drawn to power like a moth to flame. It has always been so for the man who has become what he is. He would possess this power; possess it… or insure it is never used against him.” The man took another rattled breath. “Nothing you care about is safe, not your family, not your friends… many others are also in jeopardy.”

Anna frowned. She immediately picked up on his warning. “Others? What others? Who are you talking about?”

The man started coughing again and Anna listened closely to what she thought would be his failing heart, but its beat was strong and surprisingly steady.

“The creatures you love are not safe,” replied the sickly voice, “for they will surely be used against you.”

“The… creatures? I don’t…” and then, like a bolt of lightening, it suddenly hit her. Why this pitiful creature of a man had exposed himself in the middle of the day like this. Why he had chosen this particular spot to stop her. Anna had been heading for the stables, heading for…

“Swooper?”

Anna pushed back from the man’s hiding place to look behind her.

“No, Guardian! You must not! You have been warned of the danger.”

Anna was barely listening as she took a few steps toward the stables now visible under the bleachers on the other side of the field.

“Child — NO! Listen to your mother’s servant, I beg you please: You are not alone; it is not safe to be here! Go back — go back!”

But the man’s panicked warnings were fading quickly now as Anna pelted toward the stables.

Swooper! Not Swooper. They couldn’t — they won’t be allowed to hurt him. She crossed the field and entered the stables, pulling out her wand as she crossed the threshold. She stopped to listen, her wand raised and pointing into the areas too dark to see.

“Mr. Kinston? Sir? Are you in here?”

She slid to the side of the wall and cautiously looked into the first stall. It was empty.

“Jeremiah?”

And then she heard it, the bellowing cry of a friend.

“Swooper?” Throwing any care for her own safety aside, Anna raced down the center of the stalls and to the farthest enclosure on the right.

“Swooper?” she looked inside, but the stall was empty. “Swooper, where are you?”

She fumbled at the gate’s latch and threw the door open to move inside. There was a cry of pain in an empty dent of straw in the center of the stall and Anna’s breath left her.

“Oh God — no! Swooper!”

She ran forward, tripped on something heavy buried in front of her, and then fell on top of the invisible mound that was her horse. There was another cry of pain beneath her, as she felt around to find his head.

“Swooper, what’s the matter? What’s wrong? Show yourself to me!” She felt something wet and warm beneath her hand but found nothing as she pulled away to look at her fingers. And then, very slowly, something began to appear there. Her hand began to change from white to red. It was blood.

“Oh — God! Swooper!” She threw herself onto the animal again and closed her eyes to listen. His heartbeat was still strong, but his breathing sounded hampered.

“Swooper, you have to show yourself. Please boy, come on, I can’t see what’s wrong when you’re invisible. Show me what’s happened to you.” And then she could see the familiar ripple of distorted light bending around the hole in the straw under her. A massive red spot was visible first, and Anna gasped in horror at the wound in the horses’ neck. The rest of the creature finally appeared to her and Anna fell on top of him crying.

“Oh no, Swooper. What happened to you? Who did this?”

Swooper raised his head and kicked out to try and stand.

“No Swooper, lie still. Don’t move. I have to find Mr. Kingston and Doctor Pearl; they’ll know what to do to fix you. Please be still and I’ll go for help.” Anna stood and began to walk backward, torn between running for help and leaving her friend behind.

“I’ll be right back. Don’t worry, I’ll…” but Anna tripped again on something heavy, buried in the straw behind her. She tumbled back and slammed her head on the gate next to her. A flash of white light hit her brain like a hammer, almost sending her into unconsciousness and it was only Swooper’s worried cry that kept her from blacking out entirely. Anna struggled to pull herself forward, and then…

“My wand! I dropped my wand… where is it?”

She began digging around in the straw, looking for the purple heart, when her hands fell upon something buried beneath. She frowned and then realized this is what she had tripped on coming into the stall. She moved her hands around, trying to find what it was and then screamed in horror as she looked down upon a face looking up at her. Anna scrambled backward against the gate, trying to get away.

“Anna… is that you?”

Anna looked up to find Mr. Kingston looking down over the gate at her.

“Jeremiah!” Anna tried to stand, but fell again as fear and nausea moved to overwhelm her.

“Why is Swooper lying down like that?” Kingston asked, pushing the gate back to step inside.

“Swooper’s been injured, he’s bleeding,” Anna screamed.

“Bleeding? What do you mean?” The man rushed in and then stopped. “What the hell?” He could see the face of the man, half buried in the straw, staring up at him. Kingston bent down and began to brush away the straw from the man’s body and then lifted a limp hand to feel for a pulse.

“Cold…” Kingston whispered. He moved the straw away from the man’s shoulders and Anna covered her mouth to scream. The man’s throat had been completely ripped out, the area between his chin and chest a bloody mess of torn flesh.

“It looks like he was attached by some kind of wild animal. He’s… he’s dead.” Mr. Kingston looked back at Anna, who had turned away from the grizzly sight and was crying.

“I know this man,” Kingston said disbelievingly, looking down again at the dead man staring back. “Anna… do you know who this is?”

Anna, still crying, looked down at the face and nodded. “It’s… it’s Michael Wendell!”


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