Anna Grayson and The Dragon's Lair

A Plea for Help

ONE

Eric was smiling for the first time in days. He was galloping along the cliffs of Grayson Hill on his father’s black stallion Catahecassa. The breeze rising up the cliff wall was warm and salty from the ocean swept rocks below, but his expression fell as he slid to a stop and then stepped down onto the grass near the rocky brink. He dropped the reins as he slowly, and then very carefully, approached the edge shuddered as he looked down.

This was the place… the very spot, he thought nervously. Why does it affect me this way? He felt his stomach twist as his focus zoomed downward… and it was as if his body was suddenly falling. He abruptly jerked back. It’s always the same here and I don’t know why.

Eric had never been afraid of heights. If that were the case, Doctor Pearl would never have allowed him to fly on any Vollucross steed. He looked over again and watched the sea smashing into the rocks at the bottom once more. There was no other place in the world that made him feel light headed just to look down. The wind howled and moaned in the most frightening way, the perfect simulation of a brand of heart wrenching grief he could never have imagined existed in the world. He carefully sat down and looked out at the sea’s horizon, seeking to find his courage once again.

For him, the spot on which Eric sat was the most terrifying place on the entire earth, but he didn’t understand why. The place was beautiful, in a word… stunning; a scenic illustration of God’s creative splendor, undisturbed and unappreciated by man. Eric slowly dropped his legs over the edge and looked down between his knees. He could swear he was hearing it again… a woman screaming as she fell to her death upon those jagged, ocean-swept rocks below. He jerked back again. It’s just the wind; just my imagination; it isn’t real.

He looked back at his father’s horse calmly grazing on the moist grass.“What is it about this place, Cat — I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it.”

It had always been this way for as long as he could remember; the one spot where his courage always failed him. He looked out to the sea again and breathed deep, looking to regain his nerve once more. For Eric, visiting this spot was like training for greater boldness and gathering his strength for what he knew would test him in the coming months. He didn’t know what lay ahead for him and his family, but he thought he knew one truth for sure: courage would be mandatory if survival was to be insured. In response, he knew of no other place where he could go to strengthen his courage and flex the muscles of his mettle. In this spot, overlooking the ocean on the precipice of doom and the black jagged rocks below him, the wind wailed in a way that made his spine quiver. He tried looking down again and felt shaken. The wind howled and the woman screamed through his mind once more. It was always so real to him.

He closed his eyes and tried to bring forth another memory, another challenge that recently visited him, and might brace his resolve there on that spot of doom. He remembered knocking on a heavy, black door.

“Come in.”

Eric opened the door and stuck his head inside. “Mayor Prower? Hello, sir. Eric Grayson here.”

The Mayor of Spellsburg looked up from his very large desk and smiled.

“Eric, my boy. Come in, come in. It’s always good to welcome another Grayson through my door.”

Eric smiled as he entered the Mayor’s office.

“Have a seat, son. Can I get you a sherry?” he asked him kindly, as he stood and came around the desk to pour himself a small glass.

“Uh… no, sir. Thank you.” Eric replied as he sat himself.

Eric thought the mayor looked somewhat distracted as he finished pouring and then replaced the stopper.

“I always enjoy a little splash before dinner,” he said, returning to his desk. “I’m glad you decided to visit with me, Eric. I’ve been meaning to reach out to you so that we might talk.”

“Sir?”

“Yes.” The man groaned as he sat and then took a sip of wine from his glass. “I wanted to speak to you about all this Guardian business.”

“Really? Well… as it turns out that’s why I’ve come to see you as well, sir.”

“I expect you would.” The man leaned back. “I wanted you to know that I don’t blame you personally for getting in with that crowd.”

Eric frowned. “Sir?”

“I know you were just showing a brother’s support for your sister and can’t be held directly responsible for being forced to move from the Server Union and in with that Guardian mob.”

“Guardian mob?” Eric stammered. He leaned forward. “Sir, I in no way regret my becoming a Guardian.”

The mayor smiled. “I know you have to say that, son, but I also know you to be a very level-headed young man with great potential.” He set his wine down and folded his hands across his rather large belly under his robes. “In fact I was thinking about offering you a job.”

“A job, sir? I don’t understand. As you know, I am currently studying to be a beast and creature healer and part of my curriculum requires my spending a lot of time teaching. Professor Bots has been kind enough to take me on as his assistant. I feel very fortunate to be in the position.”

“You may not feel that way for long, my boy, so you should be thinking about your future as well.”

“I… don’t understand.”

Ulric studied him for a time and then, “Eric, you are a gifted young man. Smart, a hard worker and a shrewd thinker, quick on your feet; I like that. And being that your father is a Director, I know you’ve been following the changes within the Ministry of Magic as well. It doesn’t take more than an average wizard to see the writing on the wall.”

Eric frowned again.

“It would behoove you to distance yourself from Chancellor Thordarson with all deliberate haste.”

“Distance myself? For what possible reason would I do such a thing?”

“Thordarson is quickly falling out of favor with the Minister of Magic - because of his support of Albus Dumbledore and the Headmaster’s fanatical ranting about You-Know-Who’s return.” The mayor sighed. “I would never have thought it possible to see such a great man as Dumbledore lose his mind in so short a time, but you never can tell how fast a man’s health will begin to fail him.”

Eric was suddenly incensed. “Dumbledore isn’t losing his mind, sir, and deep down… I think you know that. Surely, it must have come into your own brilliant mind… that he might be right.”

The mayor was surprised and then laughed. “Oh please, Eric, the dead coming back to life? Really… what rubbish am I hearing from you now? I can see Minister Barkelnap’s point when she talks about the falling educational standards within the castle. How can a man of your talent and level-headedness truly believe such a thing?”

“Because I don’t believe He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Namedever really died.”

“Oh now — come, come, Eric. Where would he have been all this time, ay? Are we to believe he just suddenly decided to take a holiday for more than a decade? Even after the madman disappeared, Dumbledore himself said He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named was gone.”

“Gone — but not dead; Dumbledore never said he was dead. His body was never found.”

The mayor smiled and waved the point off. “Just a play on words to explain a failing mind, my boy, that’s all.”

Eric thought for a moment and then asked, “Mr. Mayor, why do you think the Guardians have returned? Surely you know enough about wizard history to understand why the Guardians of old came into existence.”

“The Guardians of old have nothing to do with that gang of purple idiots up at the castle today,” Ulric replied matter-of-factly. He studied Eric and then smiled. “Wait a minute… are you telling me you actually believe You-Know-Who has returned?”

Eric fell back in his seat, his temper flaring. “Yes… I do, sir.”

Ulric’s stare darkened. He rose from his chair and then slowly walked over the gaze out of his office window. Tipping back and forth on his heels, he seemed deep in troubled thought when he finally asked, “Eric… do you like me?”

“Like you, sir?”

He turned to stare back at him. “Yes… it’s a simple question. Do you like me?”

Eric settled himself. “Yes, sir. In fact, I would say I like you a lot.”

“Would you say that I am a decent man and leader to this community, a good mayor to the citizens of Spellsburg?”

“Yes, sir.”

The man smiled. “I’d like to offer you a job in my cabinet and help me with my reelection campaign next year.”

“You… want… me… to help you with your campaign? But… why me?”

The mayor smiled again. “Why? As I’ve already said… I like you, son. You’re smart, you come from an excellent family, and I feel I should be helping you through this difficult time.”

“I still don’t understand.”

“I’m referring to this business with your sister and the two murders in the city. It doesn’t bode well for the Guardians, but it doesn’t mean it should affect your reputation in any negative way.”

“Anna had nothing to do with those crimes!”

“Of course – I’m sure that’s true, son. But as you know…” he paused to look out the window again, “the public is allowed to believe what it wants… and in my experience… even when they’re wrong the repercussions to those in which rumors exist can be dreadful.”

He looked at Eric again. “Son, I’m trying to help you. You must distance yourself from Thordarson and the Guardians. If my offer here in the city doesn’t fit with your ambitions, then I would suggest you return home to California. Put some distance between yourself and this Guardian rabble.”

Eric finally stood. “Mr. Mayor, I would never abandon my sister and leave her to face any hint of scandal regarding these crimes. If you respect my character, sir, how could you ever think I would do such a thing?”

Ulric tried to smile. “I didn’t expect you would, but that’s why I think you should come to work for me. It would allow me the privilege of counseling you on this Guardian business and keep you clear of it.”

Eric closed his eyes and turned away, trying to the best of his ability to hold his anger in check. He finally took a deep breath. “Mr. Mayor… I came here today…”

“I know why you’ve come here, Eric. You wanted to speak to me about the way the Guardians were treated when they created that disturbance at the museum last week.”

Eric was surprised, but happy he didn’t have to explain the reason for his visit. “Yes, sir. The students were only there to protest the way in which some of the magical objects on display were being used to demonstrate their capabilities. The Guardians believe it inappropriate to…”

“I DON’T CARE WHAT THE GUARDIANS BELIEVE!” the mayor hollered back. He seemed to catch himself and then began to nervously adjust his robes after the outburst. He finally looked back to Eric again and forced himself to smile.

“Son… I am the mayor of this city and I cannot allow a few mindless brats to disrupt a public place where our citizens are gathered peacefully. It’s unacceptable.”

“But sir, the response from the museum guards was an outrage. They didn’t need to treat them so harshly and they certainly didn’t have to arrest them. It was almost as if they were given…” Eric hesitated, “previous orders to act way they did to make an example out of them.”

Ulric smiled again. “There… you see? That’s the kind of thing I would warn you to stay clear of if you worked in my office. It won’t do to have you come in here to defend the actions of lawbreakers, Eric. It’s far beneath you… it just won’t do.”

Eric dipped his head and sighed. “It’s a very generous offer, sir, but I’m afraid you wouldn’t like me working with your staff.” He looked at the mayor directly. “I wouldn’t be able to remain silent about this kind of thing.”

Ulric Prower tipped back and sighed. “As you wish, my boy… as you wish. I just want you to remember one thing: I agreed to see you today so that I could speak to you as a friend and a willing mentor. I expect things will get much tougher for Thordarson and the Guardians up at the castle in the weeks ahead. If you have any influence on the Guardians at all… I would suggest you use it to keep them clear of any further trouble of the sort displayed at the museum. That kind of behavior will not be tolerated in my city. I will expel them from Spellsburg if that’s what it takes to keep them in line.”

Eric dipped his head and tried to exhibit a tone of appreciation. “Thank you, sir, for your council and warnings. I’ll make sure they get the message.” He looked at the door. “I have a class starting in about an hour, so I must leave you now.” He stepped forward and stuck out his hand. “And I thank you for your time.”

Ulric looked down at Eric’s hand and then slowly raised his own to shake it. “Make your warnings to the Guardians clear, son. They need to understand this office will not tolerate any more disturbances.”

Eric opened his eyes and stared out at the ocean again, his anger still ranging. He looked down the cliff wall between his knees and when he heard the screams again his mind began to spin, he used his anger to harden his focus. The screams subsided as the ocean below him cleared. He looked up at the blue sky above him and took a deep, cleansing breath. His exercise in courage completed, Eric slowly stood and walked back to his mount.

He was about to put his foot into the stirrup when he thought he heard another scream. He frowned and strained to listen, turning his ear back to the cliff’s edge once more. While he had convinced himself the shrieks were nothing more than the howling wind, this time what he heard seemed much closer. He heard the scream again, weaker this time, but… yes… it was surely there. He walked back to the cliff but didn’t look down. The fading sound was closer to his feet than the rocks below. He squatted down and closed his eyes to listen hard. It sounded like a drowning woman returning to the surface of his mind for one last chance at life.

He straightened to look around and then to a tangle of protruding roots of a tree anchored for centuries in the cliff’s edge. One of the roots looked odd and strangely out of place. He walked over, stooped down, and then lifted a very old and gnarled piece of wood from out of the roots. It was a wand.

TWO

A half a mile away, Anna was visiting the site of her mother’s ancestral home.

“So how does it look to you?” her father asked her.

Anna was amazed that so much had been accomplished since she had left to go to Castlewood. The entire wooden frame of the vast Meliflua mansion was already built and pallets of stone for the exterior were stacked around the foundation and grading. Steel beams could be seen crossing left and right atop the brick foundation at the bottom and huge rafters, soon to be magically lifted into the roof, lay to the side next the forest. Odd looking devices used for lifting sat quiet among the steel gantry, and stacks of bricks were loaded upon towering scaffolds surrounding the estate. Large timbers framed the front and beautiful, white colonnades sat to the side waiting to be installed.

Anna looked at her father with tears in her eyes and walked over to hug him around his waist.

Her father smiled and hugged her back. “I take it then you’re pleased?”

Anna sniffed, looked at him, and then back to the site again. “It’s absolutely beautiful, daddy.” Then she noticed dozens of large windows neatly boxed under a tarp behind them. She frowned and looked up at her him again.

“It’s a little early to be thinking about windows, don’t you think?” she said, remembering the construction schedule.

Her father reached out to put an arm around her. “Anna, I’ve wanted to talk to you about something important and I think now is as good a time as any.”

Anna could hear the serious tone in his voice as they turned to walk along the graded path encircling the construction site.

“Sweetheart, about these murders in Spellsburg.” He looked at her and could immediately see the pain in her face. “You should know that your brother Eric and several of our closest family friends whose council I’ve trusted for years have suggested that I keep you home when the rest of the family returns to Spellsburg after the holiday.”

Anna stopped to stare up at him. “Not go back to Castlewood?”

He turned to face her. “Yes, Anna. Does that really surprise you?”

She thought about it. “Well… no, I guess I should have expected it. Does Chancellor Thordarson want me to stay home?”

He turned to continue walking again, his hands gripped tight behind his back. “No. He wants me to send you back to continue your studies in Pennsylvania.”

“But you would rather I stay home.”

“What I want is to keep you safe. It’s very obvious you’ve become a target of something terribly sinister on the plateau. We don’t understand who’s behind this yet or why it’s happening, so of course my first reaction is to protect you… and the best why in which to do that is to keep away from the danger.”

“But what about my classes? What about the Guardians?”

Her father kept walking, looking up into the trees surrounding them. “I realize your studies are important…” he looked down at her again, “for reasons you might not fully understand yourself and that’s why the Chancellor is arguing hard to get you back.”

They turned together to the back of the mansion to continue along the path.

“What would you have me do, Anna?”

She thought about Wendell’s body in the straw of Swooper’s cell, of Sarah lying in a hospital bed, and then Sidney and Eric staring up at her from her nightmares. She reached up to take her father’s hand as they walked.

“I don’t know, daddy. I’ll admit… I am afraid of what might happen next, but I do want to go back; even if it means I have to stay in the castle for the rest of the year.” She looked up at him. “And it’s not because of my studies that I want to go back. How would it look if I hid myself here, away from all of the questions and suspicions? But more importantly… how could I hope to do the work of magic if I’m too afraid to leave the house?”

He looked at her and smiled. “I had a suspicion that’s what you were thinking.” He kissed her hand. “You’ve probably surmised that I’ve decided to send you back, given the fact I’ve already put some assurances in place for your safety… but there are conditions.”

“Conditions?”

“That’s right and that’s what I wanted to talk to you about this morning.” He stopped again to look down at her. “We believe your mother has returned to Spellsburg.”

Anna’s eyes widened in surprise and then she gulped hard. “The cursed man was right then?”

“We cannot make any assumptions as to why she’s returned, but it’s an important fact you must accept. While this unknown man told you that your mother was there to protect you, she might just as well have another motive. In fact, the Order of the Phoenix has come to the conclusion that she was sent to the plateau to make contact with you for a very specific purpose.”

“Sent? Sent by whom?”

Her father’s stare darkened. “By Voldemort, Anna. We know Victoria is still with him.”

Anna fell back. “She is?” She felt her heart sinking. “So you believe the cursed man was lying to me.”

“Yes, Anna, I do, and I’m not the only one. This stranger you described cannot be trusted, because we now know the information he’s given to you was not true.”

Anna found herself disbelieving what her father was telling her. She looked up at him again. “I don’t understand, daddy. What would be so important that my mother put herself at risk by going back to Spellsburg?”

“The Order of the Phoenix is telling us that Voldemort has taken an interest in the Guardians of Castlewood and in you particularly, because you were the first.” He turned her again to continue their walk. “He also knows a lot more about you than we thought. For example… he knows you broke into Drogo Prison and then into the dungeons to see your mother, that you made it out without being seen or captured by the Crimson Guards. He…” her father hesitated and then, “wants you to join him.”

Anna stopped to glare up at her father and that’s when the man finally saw it for the first time. As his daughter’s wrath suddenly bloomed, he could see the whites of her eyes melting to black.

“Never!” Anna growled.

He could see her lips curling and the points of fangs beneath. The bones in her cheeks widened and the top of her ears were suddenly visible through her hair. Mister Grayson reached out to hug his daughter tight and sooth her anger.

“I know you would never join him, Anna.” He could feel her trembling body soften within his embrace. “But I must keep you safe from all of this?”

He looked at her again. “If I send you back… you must agree to report any contact you have with this cursed man. Do you understand?”

Anna looked up at her father and slowly nodded.

Mister Grayson hesitated and then said, “And… if your mother makes contact with you, you must get away from her and report it to Captain Hayman or to Thordarson immediately.” He saw the hesitation in her posture and then his daughter’s eyes refocus to look right through him as she thought. Her father would have none of it.

“Anna — this is not a suggestion or a request. If I send you back to Castlewood, you must promise me you’ll report any such contact. Are we agreed?”

Anna’s mind was caught between the images of her crying mother screaming back at the evil one within her, refusing to obey the order to kill her own daughter and then the pain of fangs sinking themselves into the flesh of her neck. She remembered her brother lying dead in her dreams. Anna looked away as if to cast the horrible images away forever before returning to her father’s worried expression once more.

“Do you understand me? Are we agreed?”

She finally nodded. “Yes, father.”

“Are you sure you can do this, Anna? I can’t let you go back without your promise. I can’t have you in danger. I couldn’t live with myself knowing that I’ve put you in danger by…”

“I swear,” Anna said, cutting across her father’s fears, “If I see my mother or suspect she might be near, I will immediately report her presence.” She could see his lingering reluctance. “Daddy… I swear it. By the Order of Merlin… I swear.”

Her father smiled and then reached out to hug her again. “Thank you, sweetheart. I know you will never break your word to me, and I know how difficult this is for you, but your promise is dearer to me now than my own life. Thank you.”

As her father held her, Anna’s mind was exploding with the imagines of her mother and of the evil one within her. She prayed she would never think to break her promise to her father.

“I have to ask you something, daddy.”

They pulled apart and it was Anna who turned to continue their walk.

“What is it, sweetheart?”

She took him by the hand again and lovingly put it to her cheek. He could see the changes he had witnessed in her face had disappeared.

“Do you believe my mother killed Sidney?”

Her father looked shaken.

“Do you think she was the one who cursed Sarah?”

The man frowned. He could see where Anna’s mind was going and it immediately made him question his decision again to send her back to Castlewood. “I don’t know, Anna. I hope not.”

“Then who? We know that Michael Wendell and Sidney,” she paused as a chill ran up her spine, “that their blood was missing. Who else…?”

“Anna, it would be foolish to make any assumptions right now, because doing so might put you in greater danger. Do not assume anything. Yes, it could have been Victoria who did these terrible things and if Michael Wendell and Sarah were the only victims… I would lean to believe it more. But Sidney’s death doesn’t fit with the easiest answer given us. There’s no doubt in my mind that you are being targeted, but we must keep an open mind to other possibilities.

Anna nodded in agreement as their walked ended where it had started. Mister Grayson looked at the stack of windows sitting in a pile on the forest’s edge.

“I’ve moved up the schedule for finishing the building project,” he told her.

Anna looked at him and frowned. “But why, daddy? It isn’t necessary to move so quickly, and you said yourself the project would take years if we didn’t empty the family vault.”

“Luckily, the investments I’ve put toward the project have done very well for us. With Sidney’s help, I’ve been able to…” he stopped, the memory of their dead friend smothering his thoughts.

Gathering himself again, he said, “I want the place ready for you as soon as possible, Anna. Given the challenges before all of us… I wanted to make sure I keep my promise to you. From a financial standpoint, it makes no difference now when the project is completed.”

Anna looked skeptical, but as she looked up at the massive framework of her mother’s family home she couldn’t stop herself from smiling. She hugged her father again.

“I love you, daddy.”

“I love you too, pumpkin.”

As they embraced, they stared together at the building and tried to imagine it completed, of something reborn from an old memory.

THREE

Anna was sitting in front of her mirror, enjoying the warm feelings of Christmas filling her heart, when she heard the chimes in the hallway begin to ring. The melody was lovely that evening, more so than any other on a cold winter’s night and Anna smiled as she listened to the tiny voice within the clock begin to sing.

Eleven o’the clock do ring,

While the choir in heaven sing,

Oh, with joy as the hour draw nigh,

One hour ‘til the Savior’s birth on high.

Anna could hear several footsteps outside her door. It was Christmas Eve and it was soon time for the Graysons to make their way down to the family chapel and the midnight celebration. She glanced down at the book near the lamp she had been reading and could almost feel her joy beginning to slip away, saved only by a quick knock.

“Come in.”

The door opened and Eric stuck his head in. “You ready to go? Father is calling us downstairs.”

Anna stood. “I just want to get a wrap… it gotta be cold outside.”

Eric stepped in and came forward as his sister disappeared into the closet.

“You’d better grab something a little heavier than a wrap,” he said loudly, “it’s near freezing tonight and it’s a long walk through the woods to the chapel. Even Cookie is complaining about the cold.”

He looked down and saw the book on Anna’s table. Blood Brothers: My Life Amongst the Vampires by Eldred Worple. He picked it up when he saw a bookmark and found a sentence inside underlined.

‘While my time with the vampires was intellectually stimulating, I never came upon a moment where I could completely trust them. Although it might be true the various potions offered by the wizarding world is more than enough to keep their hunger at bay, I was struck by the feeling that, deep down, most of them did not wish to part from their inner cravings for human blood. In fact, I would surmise to say that each creature I met was but a gesture away from devouring me entirely.’

Anna stepped back into the room in a full length coat and immediately stopped when she saw her brother reading from the book.

He looked up at her and tried to smile. “Interesting reading?”

Anna’s expression fell as she came forward. “I found it so… yes.”

Eric suddenly felt like a man intruding on his sister’s privacy, so he tried to make up for it by passing along what he thought was relevant information.

“You know… I met him once.”

Anna was buttoning her coat. “Met who?”

“The author, Eldred Worple,” he replied, showing Anna the picture on the back of the book.

“Really?”

“A couple of years ago; he came to the summer party here at the house. You met him.”

Anna frowned, “Did I?”

“I’m sure you did. You know how father is always insistent on the value of formalities. If Worple was at the party, then I guarantee you were formally introduced.” Anna still looked unsure.

“Long greasy hair, a mustache, tapestry robes? A nice enough guy, I suppose, but a little full of himself in my opinion.” He raised the book to show her again. “Did you pull this from the family library?” She nodded.

“I thought so. The author brought it with him that night as a gift. Here look.” Eric opened the inside cover and showed her the author’s autograph and the comment above it that read, ‘To my good friend Boris Grayson - living with vampires is always a bloody business.”

Anna’s eyes widened as she looked up at her brother. “Does he know about my mother?”

Eric closed the book and set it back down. “He does, Anna.”

“How?”

“I found the book in the library a few months ago and seeing the personal message, I asked father about it. He told me Mr. Worple was with him the night Victoria was been attacked. He was there when she…” he hesitated, “when… she died.”

“Then he must have seen her go through the transformation.”

Eric nodded. “He did…and in all likelihood… it was that experience that probably drew his interest to vampires in the first place.”

“So… daddy and this Mr. Worple are friends?”

“No… not really. He was with our father that night in Albania just by happenstance. He was visiting the doctor that father asked to go with him to look for Victoria and Worple volunteered to come along.”

Anna was amazed. Once again, the most trivial pieces of information given about her mother seemed so vital to her, and she knew one day she would search for this Eldred Worple and speak to him about his experiences with vampires… and about her mother.

Suddenly, they could hear their father voice magically echoing throughout the entire house. “Christmas waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful.”

Eric smiled at Anna. “Norman Vincent Peale.”

Anna rolled her eyes. “Original or not… why can’t your big brain just enjoy the thought?”

Eric raised a halting hand. “Wait for it…”

“But unless you’re under three years old, chances are that you’ve been told… IT’S TIME TO GO!”

FOUR

“Glory be to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit…”

“Amen,” the crowd within the Grayson chapel replied.

“Merry Christmas, everyone, and I hope you have a happy and very prosperous new year,” said the priest at the altar and then the choir began to sing Joy to the World.

The Grayson family celebrated Christmas mass together with many invited friends and all were awed by the happy work Mister Grayson had put into the celebration within the chapel. Once again, the master of the Grayson estate had worked to magically enhance the size and grandeur of the tiny stone space where they were all happily singing the joys of the holiday together. There were high vaulted ceilings and beautiful lights with strings of garland everywhere, and tiny fairies hid themselves among the fixtures and tapestries, adding a magical glow everywhere the eyes might wonder. There were candles and wreaths, and portraits from the house hanging among the tapestries. It was a joyous occasion. So much so that nobody seemed to mind Uncle Sarasil’s rude attempts to inject his own brand of humor into the music.

“Hark, the Herald Angels sing, Glory to the newborn King.”

“They're coming to take me away, ho-ho, hee-hee, ha-haaa, to the funny farm. Where life is beautiful all the time…”

“Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled."

“and I'll be happy to see those nice young men in their clean white coats and they're coming to take me away, ha-haaa!!!!!”

Joyful, all ye nations rise, koin the triumph of the skies…”

“Ho-ho, hee-hee, ha-haaa…”

They continued to sing with a merry heart, high and loud, off-key and melodiously, for who could know what the dawn of the New Year might bring to the wizarding world.

Anna wasn’t singing. Her eyes were closed tight as she tried with all her strength to concentrate on a different choir working to gather her attention within the chapel.

“Sithmaith — tell us the state of the world?”

“Hark, the Herald Angels sing, glory to the newborn King."

“With trees and flowers and chirping birds and basket weavers who sit and smile and twiddle their thumbs…”

“Your ally is very close to you now, Sithmaith… hear us!”

“Light and life to all He brings, risen with healing in His wings…”

“…they'll put you in the ASPCA, you mangy mutt!!!”

“We hear the ally’s voice in the darkness calling for her release…”

Anna frowned, her mind reaching out through the torrent of madness, “Where is my ally? Where is the vessel that imprisons Leola Grayson?”

“She is close to you now, Sithmaith. Hear us!”

“To the funny farm, where life is beautiful all the time...”

Finally there was silence and Anna could hear the voices of magic all around her, reaching out in desperation to tell her of Leola Grayson’s sudden closeness.

“She is very near to you. Reach out, Sithmaith. Reach out and feel her presence!”

Anna concentrated, and for the first time since the day she had found her mother’s cross in the ruins of the old Jennings estate, she heard a familiar and misty voice.

“Help me, Sithmaith. Release me from this unholy place of darkness. Sithmaith… release me.”

The voice was fading fast. “Leola… I’m here. I can hear you,” Anna replied from the deepest center of her mind.

“Anna? Are you coming?”

Anna opened her eyes and looked back. The church was nearly empty and her father and Eric were standing at the door waving at her to join them.

Anna closed her eyes again. “Where is she? Help me!” she called to the magic around her.

“Her voice is silent, Sithmaith. She is…”

“Where is the vessel? It must be in the chapel. Where is it? I just heard her.”

“She is out of our reach now, Sithmaith.”

“What? But you just said she was close. How can…”

“Anna?”

She looked back again. “Just a minute, father.”

“Where is the vessel?”

“Not here, Sithmaith. She has moved on. But the ally’s strength is reborn again… for she has heard your voice within the shadows and thus… her sorrows bartered for hope.

FIVE

“I don’t understand. How could Leola’s vessel be so close and then not?”

It was four o’clock in the afternoon on Christmas Day, and Anna and Mrs. Porchdow were looking all around the chapel, the interior of which had already been magically reverted back to its more humble normalcy. Anna had tears in her eyes.

“It doesn’t make any sense!” She said, shoving an old pew to the side and dropping to her hands and knees again. She began crawling on the stone floor and looking under the benches.

“What are the voices saying now?” Mrs. Porchdow asked her, as she continued looking around the stone alter.

“They just keep repeating they can’t feel her presence any longer,” Anna replied, frustrated.

“I wonder.” Mrs. Porchdow looked up at Anna again. “You don’t think it might have been something in the church’s decor last night, do you? Something your father might have moved back into storage when he changed the chapel back?”

Anna stared at her and then slowly stood. “Yes… that must be it!” She moved to the center aisle and headed for the door. “Where does he store the stuff?”

After looking through several outbuildings in the woods around the Porchdow cottage, Anna was frustrated again.

“I just don’t understand how the vessel could have been so close and then gone again.”

Mrs. Porchdow was still searching through several boxes recently restacked against the wall. She looked at Anna and then walked over to sit next to her against the door. “I don’t understand it either, Anna.”

“Is this all of it? All the stuff that daddy used to decorate the church?”

Mrs. Porchdow nodded. “Yes, I’m afraid so. I don’t remember seeing anything in the church that isn’t now in a box.”

Anna laid her head on her knees. “How could it be there and then not? It just doesn’t make any sense.”

“What doesn’t make any sense?”

They looked up and found Mr. Porchdow standing in the doorway.

Anna looked at Mrs. Porchdow knowingly and then up again. “I was just telling Edith about one of my classes at school. We were just cleaning up the rest of the Christmas storage.”

“On Christmas Day? You should be up at the house celebrating with your family, not down here in all of this dust and dirt.” He looked over to his wife. “And that woman of mine should be spending more time with her grandchildren on this day.”

Mrs. Porchdow smiled and then looked at Anna. “He’s right. We can finish this before you leave for Castlewood. Our friends would want us to spend what time we can with our family, don’t you think?”

Anna looked around again and sighed. “Yeah, I guess so. We can’t do anything more here anyway.”

Mr. Porchdow removed a newspaper from his back pocket. “Did you all see the editorials in the Seer today?” He unrolled the paper to show them the Happy Christmas title on the front page.

“Samuel! I told you not to show that trash to Anna?”

The man frowned. “When did you tell me that?”

“I told you the first time we saw that nasty editorial and… ” The woman looked at Anna and stopped short.

“What are you talking about?” Anna asked them.

“But that was months ago,” Samuel complained. “You can’t expect me remember something like that. Besides, she’s got a right to know what this fool is writing in the paper.

Anna groaned and then reached up to take the newspaper from the man. “Let me see that.”

“No child. Not on Christmas,” Edith told her. “This day should be dedicated to merriment and not the idiotic rantings in Spellsburg.”

“I want to see it. Where did you say… the editorials?” She started thumbing through the paper.

Mrs. Porchdow glared up at her husband. “Happy now? You might have ruined her Christmas, old man.”

Mr. Porchdow shrugged repentantly as Anna found the opinions.

Editorial Note by Chace Scroggs:

Anna groaned again.

What’s happening in our society when the number one suspect in two murder investigations is allowed to leave the city and return home for the holidays? It’s bad enough the Crimson Guard hasn’t solved the murder of Mr. Michael Wendell or the yet unnamed second victim found in an alley off of Laborer’s Street; now they’ve decided to compound their egregious errors by allowing the most probable suspect to leave their jurisdiction. Miss Anna Grayson of the Guardian Union is the first suspect in both murders. She was seen arguing with Wendell before his murder and then walking with the second victim just hours before his death, and yet this girl was allowed to go home. Who’s to say Miss Grayson won’t disappear and go into hiding now? Her father, Mr. Boris Grayson, Ministry Director of the Wizarding Banking Authority, is a man with the means to hide his daughter from law enforcement officials investigating these two murders.

Unnamed sources within the Crimson ranks have told me that Miss Grayson is indeed the prime suspect, and the only reason the young girl isn’t locked in the city dungeon is because of her father’s position in the ministry and the unwavering support of the Chancellor of Castlewood. In addition, it has also been reported to me that a personal letter was found on the second man’s body that implicated Miss Grayson in the victim’s own writing. Why is this evidence being ignored? Why isn’t the mayor insisting the girl be brought back to Spellsburg to answer for these crimes is beyond this editor’s comprehension?

In the meantime, I guess we’ll have to wait to see if Miss Grayson returns to the plateau on her own to answer a growing list of questions by investigators who privately continue to believe the young girl knows much more about these murders than what she’s currently been willing to share. In this writer’s opinion, justice has been delayed because the chief suspect comes from a powerful family. We can only hope justice delayed is not justice undone.

Anna threw the paper to the side. She couldn’t believe it. “The whole world believes it was me,” she whispered.

Mrs. Porchdow was sympathetic. “That’s not true, Anna. This is only one man’s opinion and nothing more.”

“That’s right,” Mr. Porchdow added. “Opinions are like the bums we sit on… everybody’s got one. I’d like to see things from that editor’s point of view, of course, but I wouldn’t be able to get my head that far up his…”

“Samuel! Don’t be vulgar!”

“Well it’s true. Anybody who really knows our Anna would also know she’s a God-fearing girl who would have nothing to do with this kind of violence. That editor is only writing this trash to stir up trouble. They care more about selling a newspaper than they do about reporting the truth.”

Anna looked up at Samuel and tried to smile. She pushed herself up to stand and then hugged the man. “Thank you, Sam.”


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