Anna Grayson and The Dragon's Lair

Christmas Break

ONE

Security boarding the Allegheny Pride was extremely tight. Each student was asked a number of questions and their security badges checked multiple times before they were allowed onto the gangway. Once they were aboard, the level of scrutiny was higher still, and any Christmas cheer aboard the great ship was lost as the students and passengers were subjected to a number of spells by a group of surly looking Crimson guards that Anna noticed weren’t wearing any squadron badges. She could only surmise they were from Drogo prison. Some of the younger first-years were still crying about their harrowing trip in the tramcars, which were continually strafed by angry dragons before the Crimson guards were able to chase them off. When they were finally underway, the ocean trip home was quiet and very subdued.

The news of a second murder in Spellsburg had left those traveling home for the holiday feeling frightened and ill at ease. For Anna, the newspaper stories connecting her to the crime had once again left her feeling strangely out of place aboard ship just as much as it did during her first trip to Castlewood. She felt unfit to be around other wizards and witches. It didn’t help, of course, having most of the students staring and covertly pointing at her when she passed by them on the deck and in the passageways as she looked for an empty cabin to hide herself. When she finally found a room where she could be alone, Anna took out the day’s copy of the Spellsburg Seer and read the top story.

2nd MURDER IN SPELLSBURG

For the second time this year a horrifying murder in the city of Spellsburg has caused fear and panic on the plateau. The victim, whose name could not be released until the next of kin was notified, was found yesterday in the alleyway between Wand’s Road and Laborer’s Street, just five short blocks away from Castlewood’s main entrance. Captain Hayman of the Crimson Guard did not give any additional comments to the public other than those released yesterday. In that statement, Hayman’s office confirmed the murder and their continuing investigation to find a motive for the crime and the killer. The Seer has also confirmed that within an hour after finding the body, Miss Anna Grayson was summoned to the scene under Crimson escort. Asked if Miss Grayson was a suspect in the crime, unnamed sources would only confirm the girl knew the murdered man and was helpful in identifying the victim’s body. Readers might recall Miss Grayson was also the first suspect of an ongoing investigation of the yet unsolved murder of Mr. Michael Wendell last September.

Anna huffed and grumbled, “First suspect…” before reading on.

The knowledge that a cold-blooded killer is still on the loose in Spellsburg has brought unwanted scrutiny to those charged with public safety in the city. Unfortunately, these incidents come at a time when the Ministry’s Wizard Authority has been put on high alert after the escape of the murderer Reginald Carter from Drogo prison. That prisoner remains at large. These concerns and reports, together with the rumor mongering by Albus Dumbledore about You-Know-Who’s return, has created an unwanted level of nervousness throughout the city of Spellsburg to a degree unseen in more than a decade.

“Spellsburg used to be a very safe place to live, but now my family is thinking about moving,” said Abigail Lawley of Laborer’s Street. “When is the Crimson Guard going to catch this murder?”

The Mayor’s office released another statement yesterday, confirming they have been in daily contact with Captain Hayman’s office and will continue to receive updates until the killer is found.

Anna threw the paper into the corner and laid her forehead down on the table. She thought about her nightmare the night before and the look on Eric’s face as he lay dying in that dark cave. His warnings to escape were haunting her. She was there again. Victoria Grayson, her mother, the vampire. Was she the one who killed Sidney and Michael Wendell? Was she the reason their bodies were drained of their blood? But why? The cursed man said her mother had returned to the plateau to protect her. If she saw her fight with Michael Wendell on the day she was following the limping man, would that explain why she went after him? But why then would she kill Sidney? Anna started to sob. Sidney was such a kind and gentle man. Why would anybody want to hurt him?

There was a knock at the door and Anna immediately jerked up; she wiped her eyes and looked around. The cabin porthole looked empty.

“Come — in?”

The door opened and Anna groaned under her breath. Damon was standing on the threshold.

“What do you want?”

Damon looked like a person barely able to tolerate the question, but to Anna’s great surprise, her brother didn’t reply. She watched him scan the room to insure they were alone before closing the door behind him. He came around the table to look down at her.

“You’ve been crying. Why?” His voice was hard, as if angered by her emotion.

“No I haven’t,” she lied.

His characteristic sneer finally broke through his guarded façade. “I have to ask you a question.”

Anna was surprised again as he came around the table to sit across from her.

“What question?”

Her brother seemed to be evaluating her, seemingly unsure in how to proceed. He leaned back to cross his arms, but his stare remained as sharp as spears.”

“What happened to you last June?”

Anna frowned. “What are you talking about?”

Her brother sneered again and then came forward. “What attacked you during the third Triwizard task?”

Anna’s eyes widened. “I… I don’t know.” She started to relay the fabricated story Professor Thordarson had given to her. “I was getting my mount ready for the last race; we were walking near the rim of the forest and… and I guess something grabbed me.”

Damon stared at her. “And then…?”

“And then… nothing. That’s all I remember. I was told the Chancellor found me and then returned me by apparition back to the plateau.”

“That’s NOT what happened. I was there when you appeared on the plateau. You were alone. Thordarson wasn’t with you.”

“So?”

“So… side-apparition would bring both of you to the same location, not just you. And anyway — why would he send you back to the middle of the plateau? Why not directly to the hospital floor? For that matter, why not directly onto Doctor Pearl’s lap?”

Anna didn’t know how to respond. Her knowledge of apparition was exceedingly limited.

“You’ve been lying about this since the day it happened, and I’ve over heard enough of father and Eric’s whispering to know something else is going on. I want to know what it is.”

“I don’t know anything more than what I’ve told you, Damon. If you think there’s more to the story then why don’t you ask daddy?”

“Father won’t tell me anything, and I’ve already asked Eric. He’s never been as good a liar as you, and you’re pretty transparent. Something is going on and I want to know what it is. Now there’ve been two murders in Spellsburg and the town thinks you were somehow involved. Everybody is looking at our family like we were the carriers of disease.”

Anna’s stomach dropped. She glanced over to the newspaper and remembered the look of wariness on the student’s faces when she came aboard ship. She looked up at her brother again.

“I… didn’t have anything to do with those murders, Damon.”

“I KNOW THAT!!”

Anna was startled.

“You must think me a complete idiot to believe I would think that of you.” He pounded the table in front of them, his rage building. “Damn it, Anna… what’s this all about? I WANT THE TRUTH — NOW!”

Anna jumped again. She looked at her brother and could see the seething fury in his dark eyes.

“You… believe I didn’t do it?” she whispered.

Damon rolled his eyes. “Don’t be dimwitted. Of course I know that, but I also know there’s more than what you’re saying to Hayman and everybody else as well. What is it? Do you have any idea who might have killed these people? Is it true this Heidelbach person worked for our father?”

“Yes, Sidney worked for daddy.”

“A Muggle; a Muggle man — worked for our father, why?”

Anna frowned at him. “Why is that so hard for you to believe? You know daddy works with the Muggles all the time. That’s what he does. It’s his job to make sure…”

“Don’t tell me what I already know! I understand exactly what our father does in both the Wizarding and Muggle world, but he’s never had any Muggles working directly for him. Why did he need this Muggle? And why was it necessary to tell him about the Wizarding world? Why was he roaming around in the Shadowed Forest?”

“I don’t know.”

“But you were the one who found him!”

“Yes… but I can’t tell you how he got there.”

Damon fell back looking flustered. “You don’t know, or you won’t tell me… which is it?”

Anna peered back at her brother under a lowered brow. She was about to answer when something strange suddenly happened between them. Damon’s stare was boring into her again; she could see the muscles in his neck tightening as his eyebrows began drawing together in their middle, and she could feel a strange and sudden pressure building behind her eyes. It was the Minister’s stare all over again. Damon was using the same kind of concentrated magic to seek the truth.

Immediately, Anna’s anger was set ablaze. She slammed the gate of her mind closed with such force that a flash of purple light ignited between the two of them in response and Damon was hurled back.

Anna rose to her feet. “Don’t you ever do that to me again!” she screamed, pointing an accusing finger at her brother.

Damon looked as if he had been punched in the chest. His eyes blinking, he was trying to regain focus across the table at her. “What… are you talking about?” he finally wheezed.

“I know what you were doing,” Anna yelled back. “You were trying to read my mind. I’m not stupid, you know.”

Damon tried to rise up to argue, but Anna reached across the table and shoved him back down. “If you ever try that with me again — I’ll knock your teeth out!”

Damon looked surprised and then smiled coyly. “Fine… I’m sorry, all right? I’m just trying to understand what’s going on.”

“Then ask! And stop trying to wrench the truth out of me with your stupid mind games.”

Damon was straightening his disheveled robes and trying to reclaim what he could of his dignity. “I didn’t realize they were teaching Occlumency to second-year students.”

Anna slowly sat down, still scowling at him. “What are you talking about?”

“Occlumency — the power to erect magical defenses against mental intrusion.”

“I don’t know anything about this… Occlumency,” Anna huffed. “And since when did sixth-years start taking classes on mind reading?”

Damon smirked. “It’s called Legilimency, and they don’t teach it at Castlewood. I’ve been working on it on my own.”

Anna frowned.

“I wanted to find out what’s going on. I have a right to know what’s been happening to our family.”

“Have you been using these tricks on Eric… or daddy?” Damon remained silent. “You wouldn’t dare try it on daddy… so it must be Eric.”

“No… I didn’t,” Damon finally admitted. “I wouldn’t do it against…”

“Somebody who wasn’t a simple, weak-minded squib?”

Damon smiled as he fell back. “Yeah… all right… something like that.”

“Well — I hope you’ve learned your lesson. The next time you try something like that…”

“Yeah — yeah… teeth knocked out; I heard you.”

“You’d better believe it!”

“So are you going to answer my question or not?”

“What question?”

Damon rolled his eyes. “Why was that Muggle working for our father?”

“I don’t know, Damon. Why don’t you just ask daddy?”

“I already have.”

“And?”

“And… nothing. He would only say it was Ministry business… that having a Muggle representative delivering some of his proposals made business sense.”

“All right, then. So you have your answer.”

“But sending a Muggle to deliver proposals to wizards inside Spellsburg? It doesn’t make any sense.”

Anna remembered her father’s trying to keep Sidney under the watchful eye of the Order of the Phoenix after he had helped them confirm the identity of one of Voldemort’s followers; somebody they called Wormtail.

“Why were you with his man the night before he was murdered?” Damon asked her.

“I met Mr. Heidelbach when daddy was showing me around the Ministry in August. He was a very nice man; he thanked me for helping him when he was lost in the Shadowed Forest. I saw him again when he arrived in Spellsburg on business for daddy and we talked. That’s all.”

Damon looked unconvinced. “Okay… fine; if that’s all you know…”

“That’s all I know, Damon.”

There was silence for a time between them, but Damon never took his eyes off of her. Then he finally asked, “What is this… Sithmaith?”

Once more, Anna was surprised by his question. “What?”

“You heard me. What is this… this word Sithmaith? What does it mean?”

“Why don’t you just go look it up?”

“Because all the library books on the subject were removed and taken to the new Guardian Hall, that’s why.”

“Oh… I didn’t realize…”

“So…?”

After all her denials, Anna had the sudden urge to give Damon something… some small portion of information that might pacify him.

“It means… Bringer of Peace.

Damon frowned at her. “I see. And this… bringer of peace… is supposed to be the leader of the Guardians? Both in the past… and now?”

“That’s what they say.”

“And you… you’re supposed to be this Sithmaith, this leader?”

Once again, Anna was surprised. “I never said that. Who told you that?”

“That’s what the Mirror of Enlightenment called you during the joining ceremony last year.”

“Oh…” Anna had forgotten that fact.

“It would make sense that the first Guardian in more than fifteen hundred years might be this supposed leader,” Damon surmised. Anna didn’t answer him.

“Nothing to say? No acknowledgment? Are you denying you’re their leader, then?”

“Yes… I mean… no… I’m not the leader of the Guardians. I’m only a second-year.”

“So?”

“So… I don’t know enough about anything to be a leader.”

Damon scoffed. “You knew enough about Occlumency to stop me. And you’ve learned enough magic in your first year to keep Dowla and Tencha on their guard all summer.”

“And you,” Anna replied flippantly.

Her brother’s lip curled. “Yes… possibly. So how is it you’ve come so far in such a short a period of time? Does it have anything to do with you being this Sithmaith?”

Anna was annoyed. “I don’t know, Damon. To tell you the truth, I only know what daddy and Chancellor Thordarson have told me, which isn’t much. Yes, the Sithmaith is supposed to be the Guardian leader. And yes, this Bringer of Peace has always been a powerful witch or wizard in the past. But they also said my future is completely up to me to decide. It’s not about what I’m meant to be, but whom I choose to be. I own my own destiny.”

Finally Damon seemed, if not satisfied, at least finished for the moment. After another long pause, he got to his feet. They could feel the great ship splashing down and the cheer of the students on the decks above them.

“I have to go up and prepare for the docking. No doubt that idiot Reye will be waiting for us aboard the BB5.” He leaned in. “You didn’t tell me very much about what’s been going on, Anna, but you should know that I have a right to know what’s happening and especially if any of us are in danger. I trust you to let us know if we should be on our guard.” He straightened and then slid himself around the table to the door.

“Damon…” Anna called without looking back.

Her brother opened the door and turned. “What?”

She looked back at him, thinking of Voldemort. “Be on your guard.”

Her brother frowned at her. “Should I be watchful for anything in particular?”

Anna tried to force a smile. “Just… be careful, okay?”

He frowned again, gripping his wand tight in the pocket of his robes. He nodded cautiously, looked left and right in the hall behind him, and then left the cabin.

Standing in the hallway outside, Damon stopped to think. “So… both our father and the Chancellor have been advising her about her role as a Guardian leader.” He turned and headed for the stairs. “Things are far worse than I thought.”

When Anna reached the top deck, the gangway was already in place and several students were bouncing down the ramp to the docks below. The weather was much colder than the day they set off for Castlewood in September; the skies were a powder blue and the air far less humid.

“So what did your brother, the chinless-one, want to talk to you about?” Gwen asked Anna as they headed down the gangway.

Anna looked back and frowned. “How did you know…?”

“Damon asked me where you were. I guess he found you, then?”

“Yeah, he wanted to know if I knew anything more about the murders than what I was willing to say to Captain Hayman.”

Sarah, who was walking in front of Gwen, looked back. “Wh… what… di…di… did you tell him?” She was still have difficulties speaking directly to Anna

“Only that I didn’t know anything.”

“I’ll bet the doofus thought you actually killed them, didn’t he?” Gwen replied with a growl.

“Actually… he knows I didn’t do it, but he suspects there’s more to the story than what daddy was willing to tell him.

Soon the girls were parting company. “Let us know what Mrs. Porchdow says about… you know,” Gwen whispered and Anna nodded. “Try to have a Merry Christmas, okay?”

“Yes… M…Merry Christmas, An… Anna, to you and your f…f…family,” Sarah Bell added with a forced smile.

Anna tried to smile back. “You too. Merry Christmas. I love you guys.”

They all hugged one last time before turning away to look for the boats that would finally take them home.

TWO

Three hours later, the cars carrying the Grayson children were crunching to a graveled stop in front of the entryway of the Grayson estate, and the front doors of the mansion immediate threw themselves open. Mister Grayson, Mrs. McConnell, Gabby and Widwick were bustling out to greet them with widening smiles and Christmas cheer. Although it had only been three weeks since the master of the Grayson house had seen his children, their reunion was both blissful and festive. And given the somber state of the students sailing home aboard the Allegheny Pride a few hours earlier, the Grayson children were easily provoked into the merriment afforded the holiday.

The evening meal that night was a joyous celebration, the WDs superb. There were many toasts to the family, both those sitting in the dining room and those watching from their portraits, and they went to bed late that night filled with the joy of being together as a family once again. Exhausted as the children were, nobody wanted the first night at home to end.

When Anna entered her bedroom, she found a dusty, vacant smell beneath the scent of Gabby’s favorite magical solvents. The elf had obviously been cleaning the room in excited preparation of her mistress’s return. The thought of Gabby relentless preparation for her homecoming made Anna smile, as she finally fell onto her large four-poster bed. But as it always did in the quiet and passing moments that followed a happy event, Anna’s mind quickly fell to her ally, to the imagines of Michael Wendell lying dead in Swooper’s stall, and to Sidney.

Poor Sidney. The picture of his covered body, lying in the alleyway in Spellsburg, broke down Anna’s mental façade of holiday cheer and she quickly covered her face to keep from crying.

“No… it’s Christmas; try to keep the happy thoughts.” She said, before heading for the bathroom. After a quick shower, Anna fell asleep thinking absent-mindedly of Christmas and the magical voices singing among the decorations within the stone chapel.

The ocean outside crashed forward and then pulled back, the ebb and flow of the evening’s tide the only thing marking the passing of time. Hours felt like minutes as Anna slept on, and she was surprised when she was rudely awakened a few hours later by a tiny voice in the dark.

“Miss Anna? Iz youse awake?”

Anna’s eyes snapped open to see an elf sitting on the bed next to her. “Gabby…? What is it? What’s wrong?”

“Gabby iz sent to collect her mistress. Youse needs to see the gardener.”

“The… what?” Anna replied groggily. “The gardener?”

“Yes — yes. You iz to go downstairs. The gardener… she is sending Gabby to fetch her mistress. She says it iz most important she speak wif youse.”

Anna’s eyes widened. “Mrs. Porchdow?”

“Yes — yes, she iz below the glassy doors now.”

And then the obvious hit Anna as she looked at the doors to her balcony. Mrs. Porchdow wants to talk in the middle of the night? The Ally! She must have something to report. Quick as a flash, Anna jumped out of bed and ran across the room. She tore back the balcony curtains, flipped the lock, and opened the doors. The air outside was warm and wet from the ocean below and the sound of crashing waves immediately threw her mind back to Leola Grayson’s falling body. She stepped outside and looked over the railing. She could see a woman stepping out from the shadows and into the moonlight by cliff’s edge. She could see Mrs. Porchdow’s face smiling as she looked up at her.

“Hi!” Anna called down.

The woman waved her to be quiet and motioned for her to come down.

“All right; I’ll be down in a minute,” Anna whispered back.

A moment later, Anna was creeping down the staircase, listening for Cookie’s familiar snores coming from his newel post. All was quiet. She ran into the kitchen and then to the back door, wrapping her bathrobe tight as she tried to look outside to see. She opened the door and stepped into the light of a very full moon.

“Mrs. Porchdow?”

“Quiet, child.” Edith Porchdow emerged from behind the hedges. She too was still in her nightclothes.

“Come in,” Anna said quickly, motioning her back toward the kitchen.

“No, we should speak outside. The portraits mustn’t hear us.”

Anna nodded, quietly closed the door behind her, and then followed the woman toward the cliff’s edge.

The wind howled up the rocky wall, bending the long grass away from the edge. Almost expectedly, there was the feeling of terrible vulnerability stabbing at Anna’s soul, and one thought kept running through her mind over and over again: I forgot my wand. She found herself looking around warily and immediately knew something else was nearby; somebody unseen was watching the two of them. She could feel its anger suddenly raging as he peered out to watch them from where he was prowling.

The wind howled as a cloud overhead crossed over the moon to darken the woods around them. Anna couldn’t contain herself any longer.

“Well? Did you find her? Did you find Leola?”

Mrs. Porchdow turned; her eyes were already filled with tears.

“No… child. I… I couldn’t find her.” Anna’s heart sank as the woman came forward looking to comfort her. “I’ve looked everywhere… the house, the stables, all over the grounds. And then I heard the voices in the chapel telling me to check the beaches, but I couldn’t find anything there either. I don’t know where to look next…”

“Whoa-whoa-whoa,” Anna interrupted her in surprise. “What voices? You heard voices in the chapel?”

Mrs. Porchdow looked at her and then smiled coyly. “Isn’t that the reason you sent me there in the first place? To hear the voices within the church?”

“So… you… could hear them?”

“Yes I did… not very well, mind you. At first I couldn’t hear anything, and then they were only barely there. Eventually, however, I was able to make out…”

Anna reached out and immediately hugged the woman. “I can’t believe it!” she said excitedly. “You heard them!”

Mrs. Porchdow was surprised at first before realizing why Anna was so happy. She smiled and hugged the girl back.

“Of course I heard then, child; of course I did.”

Anna looked up. “You’re the first Guardian other than me who ever said they could hear them speaking.”

Mrs. Porchdow frowned. What did you think… that you were going mad? That the voices were just your imagination running amuck?”

“Well… after a time, I knew they were real. It just makes me so happy to know somebody else can hear them too.”

The woman smiled back at her. “Well, I can’t say as I heard them all that well, maybe every other word is all: They said to look for Leola’s vessel somewhere on the beach.”

Anna frowned. “The beach? Where on the beach? What are we looking for?”

“I don’t know, exactly. I’ve looked up and down the coast between the cliffs and the water’s edge. It could be anything — a rock, an old shell perhaps; who knows? I started collecting all the driftwood and anything else I could find below the cliffs and brought it up to my tool shed. I didn’t want some of the kids making a bond fire out of it. I think Mr. Porchdow is starting to think I’ve lost my mind with my beach collection. I really don’t know what we’re looking for, but I couldn’t take a chance and leave something important behind.”

“Smart thinking; let’s go take a look… maybe together we can find what we’re looking for.”

Mrs. Porchdow stopped her. “Not tonight, child. It’s late and you should be in bed. I just wanted to tell you what I’ve been doing since you left for school. We can look through my collection in the morning.”

“But…”

“Not another word! Besides…”she sighed reluctantly, “I don’t think I found what we’re looking for anyway.”

Anna frowned. “Why would you say that?”

“I don’t know why, really. I suppose I expect we’ll know it when we find it, when it’s finally in our hands.”

Anna thought and then reluctantly agreed, looking longingly toward the sound of the ocean behind her.

“And don’t you even think about going down to that beach tonight, young lady. You are not allowed off the property unless one of us with you.” She saw Anna looking incredulous. “Your father’s orders,” the woman finished with a final tone of warning.

“We could go back to the chapel again and see if the voices can tell us more about where to look,” Anna added hopefully.

“The chapel is off limits right now,” the woman replied. “Your father has been working there for more than a week in preparation for Christmas. He won’t allow anybody near the place until Christmas Eve.”

Anna suddenly looked to the side. The lurking one she had sensed earlier was coming forward now and the Sithmiath was immediately put on guard.

“What’s wrong?”

“Shush!” Anna motioned warily.

“What in dang-blazes is goin’ on here?” yelled a voice coming out of the darkness. A very angry-looking ghost was crossing the garden toward them.

“Oh — hi, Cookie. Ah… we were just talking.”

The ghost stopped to rise up above them. He looked furious. “Talkin’? What in tar-nation were ya yakin’ about at this time of night?”

“I beg your pardon?” Mrs. Porchdow scoffed angrily. “A conversation can still remain private, even in these days of uncertainly.”

Cookie’s eyes suddenly brightened and looked white hot, and Anna groaned as their phantom protector’s hair suddenly exploded into misty flames.

“Enough of this back-sassin’! I’m the sheriff in this here town, and I say yor bein’ out after curfew is highly suspicious. ‘Xplain yerself, orin’ I’ll have yer hides hangin’ high to dry before sun up!” He glared over at Anna. “And yer daddy’ll take it from there!”

Anna gave a significant look of fear back to Mrs. Porchdow.

“Please, cookie… there’s no reason to tell daddy I was out. I’ll go back inside right away.” She immediately knew she had said the wrong thing.

Cookie’s brow furrowed deep. “Whatdaya hidin’, girl?”

“Nothing! Nothing at all, I just couldn’t sleep so I came out for some air.”

Cookie’s hair started to spark and sputter once again as he glared back at the gardener. “And you?”

“I couldn’t sleep either and went for a walk…”

“In yer sleepin’ wears?”

Mrs. Porchdow closed her eyes, trying with all her strength to hold in her anger. “I saw Anna walking in the garden and so I came over to warn her it wasn’t safe to be outside.”

“Oh — so ya thought ya could do my job betterin’ me, huh?”

Anna could see Mrs. Porchdow had reached her limit of restraint. “Of course not! I didn’t even know you were even out here. What are you doing outside anyway?”

Cookie came forward to point his misty finger at her. “Protectin’ those who shouldn’t be out after dark in the first place, that’s what. Now — you two haul yer carcasses back inside where ya belong, or by gads I’ll sound the alarm. Now… git!”

Mrs. Porchdow was livid. “Now you listen to me, you half-baked ass-rider… I won’t have you…”

“She means that’ll be fine, Cookie!” Anna interrupted her. “I’m really sorry we broke curfew, and we’ll never do it again.” She quickly turned to Mrs. Porchdow. “I’m sorry I got you into trouble, Edith. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.” Anna’s eyes were looking pleadingly at her.

Mrs. Porchdow drew a deep breath. “Apology accepted. So… like I was saying before this… thing… interrupted me…” the woman said, scowling back up at Cookie again. “You’d better go on back inside.”

“Yes, ma’am …” She turned to look at the ghost again. “Goodnight, Cookie.” She opened the kitchen door and quickly fell inside to the sound of Mrs. Porchdow and the ghost arguing behind her.

THREE

“Father — I don’t like what’s happening in Spellsburg and I think Anna could be in great danger if you send her back to Pennsylvania!”

It was the next morning and Mister Grayson and Eric were arguing across his desk in the manor office.

“I agree it would seem somebody is targeting Anna for these deaths in Spellsburg and, as of yet, the Chancellor and I don’t understand the meaning of these moves against her.”

“Who cares what the motives are, father. All that matters now is our agreement that Anna shouldn’t go back.”

An unexpectedly whistle started to emanate from the stone bowl on Mister Grayson’s desk. He leaned forward in his chair and gave a sharp rap on the edge of the bowl with his wand.

“Report!”

A spark of blue sputtered and then ignited with pale flame.

“Director…” came a heavily muffled voice from within the fire, “I must be quick — all lines of communication are now being monitored by the Ministry. I have confirmed the reports from the Order of the Phoenix that Arthur Weasley has been taken to Saint Mango’s hospital a few hours ago.”

“What’s his status? Is he all right?”

“It’s too early to say. The poison from the snake that attacked him was set with highly dark magic. They’ll know more in the next twenty four hours.”

Mister Grayson sighed heavily. “Very well, thank you for the update. Please… give Molly my prayers for a speedy recovery.”

“Very well, sir.”

“Are you still at Castlewood?”

“Yes, sir?”

“Tell Thordarson his owl arrived a few hours ago and I have agreed to send Anna back to him after the holiday.”

“Father — NO!” Eric argued.

There was a moment’s pause before the faceless flames from the bowl spoke again.

“Sir, I agree with your son. Is this move a prudent one, given the current situation here? Wouldn’t it be wiser to keep the girl with you in California?”

Mister Grayson drew another heavy sigh. “I have my reasons for sending her back that have nothing to do with prudence. Things are not always what they seem. Your presence at the castle proves that fact. My family and I thank you.” There was another long pause.

“Very well, sir. Goodnight to you, and Merry Christmas.”

There was a sharp pop and the fames over the bowl were suddenly gone.

“Father, I don’t understand. Why are you sending her back? Why?”

Mister Grayson fell back in his chair, looking bewildered. His Muggle tie under his wizard robes lay lose and unknotted, his normally mirror-finished shoes replaced with house slippers, and he carried the uncharacteristic appearance of one unkempt, tired, and very worried. Eric thought his father looked like a man who hadn’t slept in days. He finally lifted his gaze to stare back at his son.

“Remember when I told you on the BB5 last June that you and Thordarson were the only men I trusted to keep Anna safe?”

Eric frowned. “Yes, sir.”

“It’s important you understand how much it means to me to know you’re in Spellsburg, that you remain close to your sister there. You must protect Anna while she’s is out of my reach.”

“But wouldn’t it be easier to protect her if I understood why sending her back was so important,” Eric replied warily.

Eric’s father stood and then turned to stare at the portrait of Victoria Grayson behind him.

“There are several reasons I feel she must return. First, she’s under investigation for two murders in the city. If she doesn’t go back, the press will immediately assume she’s guilty… that she’s hiding.”

“To hell with the press, Father. Captain Hayman knows Anna is innocent; nothing else matters.”

His father grimaced. “Oh… but it does matter, Eric. It matters a great deal, because the suspicions on your sister also cast a cloud over the Guardians as well, and it puts their mission in very serious jeopardy. Anna must return to show our confidence that she is completely innocent of these crimes.”

Mister Grayson paused to think again. “It might be unfair to say this, but the existence of the Guardians will always draw questions and doubt about their mission within the magical world, just as it did in Merlin’s time. Their purpose cannot be compromised before it has a chance to start. And the Guardians will undoubtedly need a leader if they hope to succeed.”

Eric shook his head, his fear clearly evident. “Anna doesn’t consider herself the leader of the Guardians yet, father. She’s never accepted herself in that role and… I don’t think she’s ready.”

Mister Grayson nodded. “She’s so young; it’s too soon to think she would accept the duties of leadership unless it was forced upon her. You and I must prepare her for what is to come, Eric. Voldemort is growing stronger, and Dumbledore believes he’ll stop at nothing to retrieve the prophecy from the Department of Mysteries in London.”

“Did Dumbledore tell Thordarson what this prophecy was about or why it’s so important to him?”

“No. Dumbledore has decided to keep that information a closely guarded secret,” Mister Grayson took a tired breath, “but Thordarson believes it has something to do with Harry Potter.”

Eric was surprised. “The Boy Who Lived? I don’t understand. Why would a prophecy about the Potter boy be so important to the Dark Lord?”

“I don’t know, but the attack on Arthur Weasley at the Ministry tonight proves its importance and significance to him beyond any doubt.” He turned to face Eric again. “But this works to our advantage. Chancellor Thordarson and I believe as Voldemort wastes time trying to get to the prophecy, it buys us the time we need to prepare Anna and the rest of the Guardians for their mission.”

Eric reluctantly nodded. “And the Guardians cannot prepare themselves if Anna is hiding here at the mansion?”

Mister Grayson turned again to look up at the portrait of his wife. “Yes… but there’s another reason I believe Anna must go back…”

Eric could hear the fear in his father’s words building.

“What is it, Father?”

Mister Grayson signed again. “Our reports tell us…” he stopped again.

“Yes? Please… you must tell me, Father; I beg you to share your suspicions with me. The family is stronger in this together.”

Mister Grayson was solemn, his expression set in grave relief within the soft glow of the golden globes lighting the room around them. “They have confirmed… Victoria Grayson has indeed returned to Spellsburg.”

Eric was stunned. Unable to speak from shock, his mouth fell open and all he could manage of a response was disbelief.

Mister Grayson looked up at the portrait again. “Our spy is telling us… he has sent Victoria to the plateau for one specific purpose.”

Eric was listening intently; there was no reason to explain to whom he was talking about, but the name rolled off his tongue with a quiver anyway. “Voldemort?”

“I know Anna told us this cursed man, this person who supposedly escaped from Voldemort, informed her that this might happen, but the information had to be confirmed. Voldemort is worried about the Guardians, and… he’s sent Victoria to Anna with an offer to join his army of Death Eaters.” He turned to face his son again. “To join them…or die.”

Eric was struggling to rise out of his chair; he was shaking in fear. “She can’t go back,” he whispered. “Father — Anna can’t go back to Spellsburg. The mission of the Guardians will have to wait.”

His father dipped his head, almost too afraid to look at his son. “As a Guardian yourself, you more than anyone should understand this is the only time Anna has to prepare. There’s no time left to us.”

“But she can’t go back; not when we know Voldemort is trying to get to her?”

Mister Grayson looked pale and miserable. He looked like a man barely holding onto his wits with every moment that passed between them.

“Why do you believe Anna kept the secret of Drogo to herself?”

Eric was surprised by his father’s sudden detour.

“What?”

Mister Grayson looked despondently at Eric. “Last year… when she found out Drogo prison was on the plateau, and then later when she learned her mother was being kept a prisoner there, she never came to us. She never reached out to allow me the chance to confirm or deny this information. Have you ever asked yourself… why? Why would she keep quiet about something as important as this?”

Eric thought about the question and then answered. “Anna has always been rather secretive about nearly everything, especially when it comes to the things of magic. Remember the day she admitted she had been playing with that mountain lion on the estate grounds for months before Gabby sounded the alarm? I think it’s outside her nature to share her secrets and deepest fears with anybody.”

Mister Grayson nodded. “Yes, a very good observation on your part, Eric, and one I believe gets to the root of what she’s become. It remains to be seen if her habits of concealment come out of the environment she’s grown up in, or is it something contingent to her role as Sithmaith.”

Eric suddenly realized the obvious. He immediately sat again. “You think she knows more than what she’s saying, don’t you?” Mister Grayson didn’t answer him. “You think Anna already knows her mother is somewhere on the plateau? That… perhaps… she’s already made contact?”

“I don’t know if that’s true or not, but the real question is this: Would she tell anybody if her mother approached her to deliver Voldemort’s message? Would she warn Captain Hayman or the guards of Drogo if her mother confronted her?” He looked at his son. “Would she fight her mother… or embrace her?”

Eric turned angry. “She must fight, father! If Victoria Grayson is trying to get to her, Anna may be unaware if her true ambitions. This cursed man said Victoria was there to protect her from Voldemort, but that could be a lie. Anna could be blinded by love without knowing Voldemort’s intentions. She must be warned!”

There was a knock on the office door and Mister Grayson immediately stood to walk around the desk. “You’re right, Eric.” He opened the door leading to his conference room and found Greechins, his Ministry assistant standing on the other side.

“Mister Grayson, these two visitors just arrived by Ignatia powder. They said you were expecting them?” The goblin stepped aside to allow a large man and a young woman to enter the office space. Eric immediately stood.

“Eric, I believe you remember two of your old classmates and fellow Guardians from Castlewood, John Dell and Ines Valeria?” Mister Grayson said, showing the two inside his office. “Please come in — welcome to the Grayson estate.”

Eric looked surprised. “Ines? John? What… are you doing here?”

John Dell, a formidable man who stood close to seven feet tall seemed to make Mister Grayson’s office cower in his presence. He was wearing tattered working clothes on his massive frame and a large-rimmed and weathered hat that covered his prematurely balding head. John was a bit older than Eric, even though they had graduated in the same year at Castlewood. It was said the brutish boy who came to the academy nearly a man, couldn’t begin his formal wizard training while caring for his ailing mother. Having started school so late in life, he was now in his early twenties, which collected a favored nickname given to him by Eric.

“Old man… it’s good to see you again,” Eric shook his friend’s enormous hand, “really good to see you. Ines… you’re looking as beautiful at ever,” Eric commented, hugging the pretty young girl with raven hair and deep blue eyes.

“Flatterer!” Ines replied quietly with a smile. “You always had a way with words, Grayson.”

Eric smiled as he looked back at Mister Grayson. “I don’t understand, father. Why are they here?”

Mister Grayson pointed to the open couch, “Please… make yourselves comfortable. Greechins will take your hat and cloaks.”

Ines removed her finely tailored cloak and immediately sat. John Dell, not trusting his weight against the couch’s smaller frame, agreed to stand. He removed his hat and dropped it uncaringly on top of the goblins head and shoulders down to his waste.

“Thank you, sir,” the goblin’s voice grumbled echoingly from under the hat. After Greechins left them, Mister Grayson came forward.

“Thank you for coming, both of you. I received your owls earlier today and I’m very happy to know you’ve accepted my offer.”

“Offer? What offer, Father?” Eric asked, stopping short as he lowered himself to sit.

“Yer father has offered us jobs, Eric. We’re going back to Spellsburg,” John Dell answered him.

“What?” Eric looked at Ines.

“That’s right,” the girl added. She looked at Mister Grayson and smiled. “I believe your father is being much too generous with his salary offer for what he’s asked of me, but I can’t dissuade him further without sounding ungrateful.”

“Not other word about what I’m paying you. You’re presence in Spellsburg is worth every penny.”

“Will somebody please tell me what’s going on?” Eric finally said.

Mister Grayson smiled. “John and Ines have agreed to work in Spellsburg for me until the end of term this summer. He looked at John and Ines again. “But let me be sure you understand: You’re not working for me as a Director at the Ministry of Magic. You’re working for me personally.”

John Dell smiled. “Good — I prefer it that way.”


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