Another forest thousands of miles away: Although nowhere near as dense or foreboding, the woods in this place were similarly and eerily quiet. Nothing it would seem was breathing. Even the crickets, generally oblivious to everything around them, were strangely quiet… waiting for the thing skulking near them to pass. A spider sitting frozen in the circle of its web suddenly began to move quickly toward the safety of a nearby hollow. A lone bird bravely called out a warning to its kind and then fell silent. It was coming.
The thing that terrified them glided forward from both sides of a dead stump and smoothly poured over its top like thickening smoke from an approaching fire. The creatures in the forest watched the thing’s progression with pounding hearts and muscles seized in fright, but more than fear kept them from running away; instinct was also holding them back, locking them deep within their existing hiding places, muted and trembling. Some peered out with half an eye, but an inner desire for survival pushed them back… an approaching fire would frighten them less than the thing coming at them now.
Black and cold as ice, as thick and smothering as lava from a smoldering vent, the Lethifold came forward; death was on the move. It quickly averted the bits of sunlight cutting its way through the broad canopy to the leaf-strewn ground. Shifting with stealthy desire, it checked every nook and cranny as it went along, touching and examining everything in its path. Then it abruptly halted. It could smell it now - the breathing of something nearby, anxious and afraid. The molecules of exhaled carbon from the creature in hiding were collaborating with doom.
The tiny rabbit knew the thing was coming. It could feel the temperature in its burrow dropping. It felt as if the stream outside had overflowed its banks and filled its tunnels with icy death. It tried to back away, retreating deeper into its hole until it could feel the dirt at the end pressing into its back. Still, the temperature dropped; it was close. The frightened animal looked up, searching for the shards of light normally twisting their way through the roots and dirt of its hollowed-out home, but the blackness had already killed what little light would give him comfort. It was in his home now and there was nowhere in which to escape. The thing reached out to touch the animal and it pressed back in shock yet again, its haunches curled up and over its shoulders in response. The blackness stroked its head and licked his body with rime. And then… it was swiftly warm again and the frightened creature opened its eyes to see the infinitesimal daylight from the outside reaching into his home once more. Death’s darkest burglar had suddenly vanished.
The Lethifold moved on. Caressing those it found cringing in fear, the magical creature tried to reassure them in its own failing way that it meant them no harm. It turned to slowly head for a clearing through the trees and as it left the forest, the Lethifold could see a tall man with black, wavy hair signaling her to his side.
“Anna… come over here, sweetheart. I want to show you something.”
The creature halted to ball itself into a sphere and then elongated straight to stand. It took the shape of a human figure walking forward toward the man, changing its color from ebony-black to a robed girl of thirteen with flowing red hair. The man, who was struggling with an armful of old scrolls, smiled as she approached.
“You’re getting pretty good at changing back at will. Your command of the creature’s instincts is impressive. Come here, sweetheart.”
Anna Grayson smiled and dropped down to the soft, moss-covered path and then hurried to her father’s side.
“What’s up, Herr Director?”
Her father looked troubled. “Anna, there’s only a few more days left before you leave for Castlewood again and I have to make sure you understand what we’re doing while you’re away. I won’t have you demanding the workers redo everything when you return for Christmas, so you need do concentrate on the task at hand.”
Anna smiled and then tried to look apologetic. “Yes, sir.”
They rounded the turn through the woods together and came upon the site of the old Jennings’ estate. Although the original building had burned to the ground almost fifteen years earlier, its foundation had recently been swept clean of the debris, but Anna could still smell the lingering aroma of charred wood and stone. They stopped together to inspect the site. Even without the crumbled, stone walls surrounding it, the century old footings of her mother’s ancestral home were still impressive.
“Do you think that smell will ever go away?”
Her father’s attention never left his scrolls. “Smell? What smell?”
“That smoky, burnt smell.”
Her father looked up to frown and then sniffed at the air around them. “I don’t smell anything.” He looked at his daughter and smiled. “Must be those Guardian senses of yours.” His expression turned serious as he looked back at the site. “Years of rain seeping into the foundations… it could be a long time before whatever you smell goes away. Should I have the builders look into the methods of ridding us of it?”
Anna shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. It’s a lot better since you had the site cleared. Besides…I’m not sure I’d like the place as much without that smell. It’s always been here since the first day I found it.”
Her father smiled again. “Anna… are you sure you want to do this? I mean… you could do so much more with your inheritance than building a big house to live here next to me. I would think an ambitious young-lady would prefer to travel the world before settling down in one place.”
He saw Anna smiling coyly at him; he understood her well. “I know we’ve discussed this before, but now’s the time to reconsider if you’re not sure. We will begin the reconstruction the day after you leave for school. It’ll take two years to complete if we hope to do it without emptying the family vault. So you need to be sure…”
“Daddy,” Anna stopped him, “this is where I want to be. This is the only spot I’ve ever truly wanted to live.”
Her father looked unsure. “It’s not that the thought of having you near me for the rest of my days isn’t anything but delightful, it’s just… well… it’s a big world out there. There are so many things you should see before deciding where it is you’ll finally settle.”
“And I plan to see it all, daddy. Because of your generosity, I can travel wherever the voices of magic tell me to go… but I know now I’ll always return here to rest.”
She looked up at him and her expression hardened. “I hate to tell you this, daddy, but even if you decided to live at Hogwarts, I’d still want to live here in my mother’s old home.”
Mister Grayson looked surprised at first and then he smiled. “Now that’s the first time I’ve been truly convinced of your convictions, young lady.” He looked down at his scrolls and then back up at her once more. “We won’t speak of it again.”
“Good — finally!”
Her father stepped onto the foundation and pointed to the bits of a crumbled fireplace next to her. “I’m afraid that can’t be saved.”
Anna frowned and stooped down to pick up a piece of broken marble. “Are you sure, daddy? Is there nothing that can be done?”
“I’m afraid not, and the drawings I have tell me nothing of the detail that once existed there. Can you tell me anything about it from your dreams?”
Anna closed her eyes and thought back. Over the last two months, several reoccurring dreams had invaded her sleep; dreams of walking through the Jennings’ estate while the foundations were being cleared. They were incredibly detailed dreams and she shared them with her father to validate his own memories of the once vast estate.
Anna’s eyes opened again. “Nope… can’t remember anything about this spot.” She looked up at her father and set the pieces of marble back down. “But I’ll be mindful to look carefully the next time,” she said assuredly. Her father smiled as he rolled up the parchment.
Anna straightened and looked out over the vast ocean beyond the woods.
“Where do you think she is right now, daddy?” Her question was filled with guarded apprehension, but her father immediately knew her meaning.
“I don’t know, sweetheart. Victoria has undoubtedly returned to You-Know-Who… now that he’s come back. We must be on our guard at all times.” His tone frightened her. It was filled with a level of dread she had rarely heard in him before that day.
“But what about the Order of the Phoenix? What are they doing about You-Know-Who? Do they know where he’s hiding yet?”
Her father sighed. “Ever since Harry Potter witnessed his return two months ago, the Order has been put on high alert. Dumbledore has his spies everywhere, so it won’t be long before that villain shows himself.” He looked at her. “The Ministry is working against us on this, so we have to be careful.”
Anna shook her head. “But why won’t they believe Dumbledore, daddy? You-Know-Who is only in hiding because he fears the Ministry. Why aren’t they working to capture him? I don’t understand why he should be allowed to…”
“You don’t know what it was like in the days before You-Know-Who’s disappearance, Anna. It was a harrowing time for everyone. The Dark Mark was everywhere, and whole families were being murdered by his Death Eaters. Nobody knew who they could trust, because so many were under the curse of enslavement. It hasn’t been easy to convince anybody of his return.” Her father shook his head.
“I guess you can’t blame them; who would want to revisit a time when so many died without cause or reason. The original members of the Order have always been watchful he would someday return. But other than the Order, only a handful of wizards have been willing to listen to us.” He could see Anna shaking her head in disgust.
“Your mother is with him now, Anna; I’m sure of it. And that means… we have to assume he has full knowledge of your entry into Drogo last June.” She slowly looked back at him, her eyes narrowing angrily.
“He knows about the Guardians of Castlewood too,” her father continued. Anna slowly stepped toward him, her brow darkening as she came nearer.
“You must be protected while out of my reach.” Anna stopped in front of him. He could see her rage seething just below the surface of her carefully controlled expression.
“He’s hurting her again… isn’t he?” Anna’s tone was barely hiding her anger and disgust.
Her father looked away, but she could see the truth he was desperately trying to hide from her. Anna was forcing him to consider the obvious. He still loved Victoria Grayson very much.
“Daddy? The truth… that fiend is hurting my mother… isn’t he?”
Mister Grayson looked at her and then reached out. Without saying a word they came together for support. The man held his daughter close, dispelling anything remaining but the truth. The woman most important to both of them was in the clutches of the most evil and murderous wizard the living world had ever known. Yes, Victoria Grayson was in very grave danger.
Mister Grayson was surprised at how easy Anna’s rigid body fell into his arms and then softened. He kissed her lightly on the top of the head, thinking to sooth her troubled mind even while his own was set upon the jagged rocks of worry and doubt.
Anna peered over her father’s embrace and into the site of her mother’s home. She realized, in that dreadful moment, she wasn’t doing the highest and most honorable work of the Guardians. She wasn’t struggling to keep her isolated distance from the forces of good and evil squaring off to face one another once more. Her eyes were fixed, liquid black, and filled with hate for the evil they called Voldemort.
Anna and her father were quiet as they walked back down the path toward the Grayson estate. It would seem the discussion about her mother had extinguished all the happiness they might have experienced that day. Anna could feel the blackness of the Lethifold inside her pressing forward, probing to see what all the emotional upheaval was about within her. Its immergence was strongest as they walked through the shadows, and retreated deeper within when her path intersected the beams of sunlight knifing their way through the canopy above them. It was always the same. Her wrath and anger seemed to unconsciously summon the creature forward.
“Everything is fine here,”she told the blackness under her breath. The guardian’s senses were indeed strong this day and set on edge as they walked along. She could smell the salt of the ocean half a mile away, the pungent moss growing at the base of every tree, the damp and earthly woods, and the sharp scent of crushed grass in the path under her feet behind them. Even the grubs chewing at the roots beneath them did not escape her attention. It was this same sharp sense of awareness that brought her out of the stupor of quiet malaise and stopped her in her tracks.
Something Anna missed before had now become obvious as she peered into the deepest part of the woods to her right. She frowned, not quite sure what had gathered her attention, but she knew something wasn’t right. She tilted her head to the side, trying to understand what it was that had inspired her to stop.
“Anna? What’s the matter, sweetheart?”
She looked up in surprise; she had almost forgotten that her father was beside her. She looked back into the woods again and squinted hard, focusing her concentration forward.
“I don’t know,” she said, honestly, “but… there seems to be…” she stopped again, looking to explain what she was feeling, but it was difficult to describe what she herself could not understand. Her father stepped in next to her and the warmth of his body immediately began to interfere with her awareness. She took three steps deeper into the woods in response.
“Something… is different,” she finally said. “Something is… missing.”
Her father came forward to stand next to her once more. Again, Anna could feel his presence interfering with the task at hand, and whatever had triggered her senses was starting to drift away. Finally, it was gone entirely. Anna looked up into the canopy and breathed deep. Whatever it was that had summoned her concentration forward had left her now. She opened her eyes and looked up at her father.
“It’s nothing… I guess,” she said with a shrug. “Better to think something might be missing than to find something that shouldn’t be there, right?”
Her father frowned. “I… suppose. Are you sure everything is all right?”
He stared back into the forest again, and Anna was amazed at the level of trust she saw in his worried response. He had taken her observation so seriously. It made her smile as she took him by the arm.
“I love you, daddy.”
Her father looked down and grinned. “Me too, pumpkin. Ready to head back?”
The Guardian looked again into the forest. She nodded and then continued down the path holding her father’s hand.
“When are you going to tell me what happened last night?” she asked him. Her tone was unusually casual given the subject.
He looked down at her. “Happened? What do you mean?”
Anna returned a look of condescending boredom.
He smiled back. “So you were awake, were you?”
“Yes… something woke me up even before the alarms in the forest starting going off, but after all the sirens started… who could sleep? Especially with Eric rushing into my bedroom in the dark,” she added with a growl.
“He was only trying to protect you.”
“Yeah… well he’s lucky I didn’t hex him right through the window.”
She looked up at her father again. “So what happened?”
Mister Grayson stopped to look around. “We’re not really sure,” he told her. “There are numerous reasons why the alarms might have been set off. A level 4 or 5 magical creature, perhaps, or somebody trying to force their way through the protective enchantments…”
“Or the use of dark magic?” Anna added.
Her father looked at her. “Yes… that would also do it.” He continued walking up the hill. “But… a dozen wizards from the Office of Law Enforcement quickly arrived along with three Aurors who were on standby duty.”
He smiled at her. “But nothing was found. Whatever it was didn’t hang around very long with so strong a force building up.” He looked around again. “They checked the entire forest and cliffs, looking for any signs of mischief, but found nothing.” He finally smiled. “After the search was completed, I thought it might have been your Thorse from Castlewood.”
“Swooper? Why would Swooper come here?”
“Oh I don’t know. The two of you have bonded fairly well, and it wouldn’t be the first time a breed of Threstral brook out of their stalls and went looking for their rider.”
Anna grinned and looked around. “But surely he would have been seen, or found me here in the forest this morning if it was him.”
“Yes… it wasn’t your mount. Maybe a unicorn though.” He looked at her and smiled once more, trying his best to sooth her concerns. “They have been known to visit us from time to time when they sense the magic within these woods.”
Mister Grayson quickly moved to change the subject. “So… are you ready for our trip today?”
Anna shrugged. “A little nervous, I guess.” She took another few steps before asking him, “Daddy, I don’t understand… why would the Minister of Magic want to see me?”
“Well… first of all, you have to remember Helawena Barkelnap is more than just the Minister of Magic. She’s also your Great Aunt, the sister of your Grandmother Jennings. Although I suppose it would be natural for Helen to want to speak to you after everything that’s happened last year, but I’m afraid there might more to it than just a reunion of our two families.” He looked down at Anna again and he could see the doubt and concern moving across her face.
He sighed. “I believe the Minister is going to cause some trouble for us today.”
“Trouble? What do you mean?”
He let go of Anna’s hand and gripped his own behind his back as they continued to walk. She loved it when her father reverted into this stance. It always meant his mind was moving into a much deeper place of reflection. “There have been a lot of firings at the Ministry as of late, Anna. It would seem the Minister is on something of a warpath — cleaning house of anybody who might suggest Dumbledore and Thordarson are right about You-Know-Who’s return.”
Anna was shocked. “Can she really do that?”
Her father looked down at her. “She’s already done it, and the Minister has sent enough owls as of late to confirm her ambitions to purge the Ministry of anybody who would show Dumbledore any support.” He broke off, as if to change the subject to something of greater importance.
“The point is: you must be mindful of what you say to your aunt today, Anna.” He paused worriedly, and then, “Your Aunt Helawena… is not to be trusted.”
Anna looked at her father in surprise. “Daddy… the Minister? But… she’s a member of our family!”
He stopped and then shook his head. “It doesn’t please me to say it, Anna, but you have to be careful not to tell her anything about the Guardians that she doesn’t already know, and especially nothing about your increased abilities.” The man could see the uncertainty in his daughter’s face as he continued.
“Anna… you must understand, Minister Barkelnap is first and foremost a politician. As such, her primary concern will be to hold onto power. To do that, she has to make sure the Wizarding community doesn’t feel threatened by any unsubstantiated reports that You-Know-Who has returned. No Minister of Magic in any country is going to acknowledge this terrifying truth without clear and unquestionable evidence. It would be most challenging for them to hold onto power and enjoy the benefits of their office if they had to spend all of their time hunting and fighting You-Know-Who and his Death Eaters.”
“But… I don’t understand. Why wouldn’t the Minister believe it? Dumbledore said Harry Potter witnessed You-Know-Who’s rising first hand. He was there!”
“According to the Ministry,” her father interrupted, “Harry Potter is nothing more than an attention seeking, self-absorbed boy studying at Hogwarts.”
Anna looked at her father in complete astonishment. “Daddy… Harry Potter is… is… you said it yourself: the battles between Potter and You-Know-Who remain unfinished.”
“Harry Potter’s account of the evil wizard’s return is being dismissed by the Minister of Magic in England, and it would seem the rest of the Wizarding world has decided to follow his lead on the matter for the reasons I’ve already explained to you. If London doesn’t take these claims of You-Know-Who’s return seriously, there’s no reason to believe the other Ministers would do so on their own. Surely you can see the Ministers in the rest of the world would do anything to avoid panicking the public and thus, put their position into jeopardy.”
“Please… Anna. You must understand; I’m not trying to explain their incompetence. I’m only warning you to be mindful of what you tell the Minister.” He turned and began to walk them forward again.
“Another thing, I would be careful about agreeing to anything the Minister might suggest in the way of assigning Ministry control over the Guardians.”
Anna stopped. “Ministry control? What do you mean?”
Her father turned to her again. “I get the feeling the Minister is more than a little concerned about the reemergence of the Guardians at a time when we’re supposed to be at peace. Helawena Barkelnap is an extremely gifted student of history, Anna. She’ll know better than I did what the emergence of the Guardians might mean. While she’s been working hard in public to put the best spin on the Guardian’s emergence, I know this must be concerning to her, especially in light of these new reports of You-Know-Who’s return. I believe she has it in her mind to put the Guardians under her direct control as a way of keeping them quiet and out of trouble.”
Anna’s mouth dropped and then quickly slammed shut again. She could almost hear the magic surrounding them screaming its objection.
“I won’t let that happen, daddy. The Guardians must remain separate.”
Mister Grayson raised his brow in surprise, and then a small smile began to curl the corners of his lips. “Now that’s a very interesting way to put your opinion, young lady.”
“What do you mean?”
“You said, “I won’t let that happen. You didn’t say ‘The Guardians’ or ‘we’ might protest. You said… I.” He stared at her, and Anna thought she saw something unexpected in his face. Was it pride?
She hesitated. “I just meant… well… I should think all of the Guardians might object to controls being placed upon us. It doesn’t match well with our mission… in the traditional sense as I’ve come to understand it.”
Mister Grayson smiled. “Ah… so you have been reading those books I’ve been giving you. Excellent.” Anna nodded as they turned together again.
“All I’m saying, sweetheart, is you must be cautious in your talks with the Minister today. She’ll test your knowledge and resolve during your meeting; I’m sure of it. Be respectful and courteous, but remember my warnings. And also remember this: Sometimes… the easiest way through a negotiation is to agree with everything presented to you. It’s only later that you find just how much you’ve really lost.”