“You know this is crazy, right?”
TJ looked at Gwen and shrugged. “Yeah… least two sandwiches short of’a picnic, I imagine,” she sighed.
“So what the hell are we doing here? We should be banging on Captain Hayman’s door instead of flying into the Shadowed Forest in the middle of the night.” Gwen looked into the woods and heard the wind moaning ominously back at them, almost daring them to enter. She looked at TJ skeptically again. “Do you really want to go in there?”
TJ stared into the woods and would have sworn she heard the forest growling. “If’n I owned both this forest and hell…” TJ looked back at Gwen, “I’d rent out the forest and live in hell.”
“So why are we doing this? God… I think Anna’s lost her mind!”
TJ stiffened. “If Hayman and Thordarson won’t listen to us… then nobody’s gonna do squat less’in we do it ourselves, Gwen.” She peered into the woods once more. “If Anna Grayson is goin’ in there to stop a bunch’a egg thieves… then she ain’t goin’ in alone. I’ll warrant’ya that.”
TJ looked back at the castle. “And besides… Anna ain’t the only one who’s gone completely loco about these bushwhackers stealin’ from the nests. Sarah’s da’one who’s gone plumb bat crazy about it. She might be small… but I think that girl’s out for blood tonight.”
Gwen nodded just as a howl in the darkness stole their attention once again. Suddenly, two purple-draped Guardians on doors zoomed overhead and straight into the Shadowed Forest.
“Come on!” Anna yelled.
Gwen shuddered. “The guards should be handling this… not a bunch of girls playing cops.”
TJ frowned at her friend. “You know… we once had a Muggle Gov’ner in Texas who was a girl. She used to say… ‘Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire ever could…’”
TJ mounted her broom and smiled at Gwen. “’…xcept’ she did it backwards and in high heels!’”
In a shot, TJ was off and turned to follow Anna and Sarah into the moonlight.
Gwen stood there alone watching the others moving away over the trees and found her mind wondering where they had found the courage to do what they were doing. She tried to summon her own mettle in some way that might be useful to her friends as she mounted her broom and watched the ground begin to fall away. When she was above the trees, she could swear there were dozens of glowing eyes watching her from below and hoping, in her mind, she might fall and deliver to them as tasty meal.
And then, in that moment of uncertainty and self-doubt, something happened to Gwen that she would remember for the rest of her life. It came first as a warm breeze. Sliding like a serpent across the top of the trees in front of her, it lifted her hair on end and fell into her brain like a drug. She could smell the deep aroma of the woods and all the living things contained within it. She breathed deep and then smiled when she finally realized that life itself had a scent to it. The earthy dampness from the rain, the wood in the trees, the breath of everything breathing; it was shocking to know that you can actually smell something growing. More than that, you could know what the creatures within the woods were feeling if only you took the time to become conscious of it. It was all right there for her inspection and awareness, to feel what they were feeling, to know what they knew. It carved out a place of peace in her soul and left her wondering why she had never noticed it before.
Emotions had a smell to them as well… and what Gwen was sensing made her snarl in response. It wasn’t hunger or wanting from the creatures below that she had imagined; it was fear. And then, quite suddenly, the wind traveling across the canopy brought with it more than just her missing courage, and Gwen knew she had much more to offer to their crusade than what she originally believed was possible. Real courage came to understand some things are far more important than your own safety, and some beliefs are actually worth giving up your life. These thieves were stealing the children from their mothers, and nothing it seemed of the dragon’s strength or the Ministry’s power could stop them. But Gwen was a Guardian of magic now, a new warrior in the battle for right, who believed their cause was righteous and worth fighting to protect. Gwen felt her heart hardening to give her cause strength and she snarled again at those who would steal the gifts most magical. And in that moment of realization, the girl truly expected the heavens to open above her and the saints themselves to deliver a warning to those who would steal anything that belonged in the forest… but it was Sarah Bell’s voice she heard instead.
‘They cannot be allowed!’
“No they won’t!” Gwen growled ominously, as she looked down again at the dozens of glowing eyes blinking up at her from out of the darkness.
The creatures watched as the Guardian’s robes ballooned in the wind, filling her body with mythical courage born from ages passed. And her eyes were glowing as well. Filled with purple rage, she suddenly shot forward to follow her friends and the creatures below turned to quickly follow. The first Guardian led battle in more than fifteen centuries was about to begin and Gwendolyn Reese was ready to give everything of herself to see it won.
When Gwen caught up with the others, she found TJ smiling back at her.
“You ready for this, roomie?”
Gwen tried to let her newly found courage answer for her. She reached down and pulled out her wand. “I left my high heels at home, but I’m ready. So what’s the plan?”
She looked over to see Anna and Sarah squatting low on their doors and conversing with one another as they flew along. Sarah nodded, tilted back, and then disappeared somewhere in the darkness above them. Gwen was impressed with Sarah’s skills on her door. Apparently, all of those months of Slalom practice had paid off immeasurably. She looked over and was startled to see Sarah on her other side.
“Gwen… follow me!” And before Gwen could ask why, the girl leaned over and disappeared in the darkness once more.
Gwen looked over to Anna and found their leader and TJ had vanished as well. The girl tilted her broom over to follow the small trace of Sarah’s robes she could barely see billowing in the moonlight just above the trees going the other way. Where the hell is she going?
Anna and TJ were flying side by side in close formation. The air was mercifully warm but seemed as forbidding as the Forest a few feet below them.
“Anna — you sure you know how’da get to the Lair again?” TJ hollered across the space between them.
Anna raised her wand and flashed a purple light twice in the darkness. “Positive. I could get us there in my sleep if I had to.” TJ smiled and set aside her doubts.
“I’ve never understood why’n these varmints traveled through the forest to get to the lair instead of using brooms? Their way seems a’lot more dangerous ta’me.”
“The Crimson Guard would see them entering and exiting the woods on brooms during the day.” Anna looked over at her. “And the dragons would see them coming ten miles away. I know the Collector is paying them a lot of gold… but traveling at night through the forest seems suicidal to me too.”
“Suicidal… right.” TJ nodded. “I was thinkin’ it’ be the same fer’ us too, don’t’cha think?”
Anna suddenly looked worried. “I’m hoping the dragons will forgive four Guardians trying to protect their nests.” Anna answered before quickly flashing her wand over her head twice again.
“So how we expectin’ to find them down in the forest if’n they’re even out tonight?”
Anna looked over and shook her head. “To tell you the truth… I hadn’t quite worked that out yet.”
The two girls traveled quietly through the night over the top of the trees, looking for any signs of intrusion in the forest below them. After another twenty minutes, they swung into a valley and entered a flattened area where the darkness seemed to increase dramatically and the air turned cold. In the quiet, TJ heard the first distant roar.
“Anna… you see that? Look down there.”
The two slowed and finally stopped to hover. Ahead of them, sitting low on the forest floor, a small light was flickering in the distance. Anna growled and then raised her wand again to flash three times.
TJ leaned in. “So whadaya think? Is that them?”
Anna frowned and then looked at her friend. “It looks like a small fire.”
TJ was suddenly skeptical. “Ya’think? Well that’d be pretty stupid, wouldn’t it?” She looked at Anna again. “I mean… if you’re tryin’ to keep a low profile… why in the world would’ya build a fire?”
Anna’s expression fell as the seer’s warning suddenly came racing forward, ‘Beware the fires that burn within the forest.’
“TJ — we have to get out of here!”
“What? Why? What about…?”
“Right now! Let’s go!” Anna quickly turned around and found three wizards on brooms hovering there behind them with their wands out.
“Hello girls. Strange place to be flying around, isn’t it? You lost?”
TJ was surprised as she looked over at Anna. She could already see her friend’s anger rising up through her otherwise calm expression. “How’d you know?” TJ asked her.
Anna looked over. “That it was a trap? Like you said…” Anna glared back at the men, “it’d be pretty stupid to build fire so close to the lair.”
“Alright, we know you’re carrying wands, so let’s have them,” one of the men said.
Anna rolled her eyes and looked at TJ as she pulled out her wand.
“EASY NOW!” then man said, warningly. “I wouldn’t want to stun you this high up.” He motioned with his wand. “Okay… now drop them over the side… and… do it… slowly.”
Anna held her purple heart out to the side and TJ did the same.
“You sure about this?” TJ whispered to her, and then watched as Anna drop her purple heart into the trees below. TJ sighed and did the same.
“Very good,” the man said, adjusting his seat on his broom before looking over at his two friends. “I thought they said catching them would be difficult.”
The other men laughed as TJ flinched and looked over at Anna again. “They knew we was comin’!”
Suddenly, two of the men were struck in the back with red hexes and the third man wheeled around to see Gwen and Sarah Bell zooming down at them from above.
“Damn!” the man yelled, raising his wand to take aim.
“Stupefy!” Anna yelled, pointing open palm at the last man who was instantly blasted off his broom. They watched him fall and then crash through the canopy below.
“Accio wands!” Anna yelled. She reached out and caught five wands rising up from out of the darkness. She snapped three of them in two and then handed TJ’s wand back to her.
“Thanks! Ya’gotta teach me that trick. Doing magic without a wand is downright handy.”
Gwen and Sarah flew in next to them. “Anna, are you alright? It’s a good thing you suggested splitting up,” Gwen said with a satisfied smile.
They heard a moan in the trees below.
“Do you think they’re alright?” Sarah said, worriedly.
Anna looked down again and sneered. “I’ve given up caring.” She looked at her friends again. “Listen, we’re in a lot of trouble here. They were expecting us tonight!”
“What? How?” Gwen was shocked.
“It’s true. The one Anna put down said so,” TJ told them.
“Then… how many more do you think are out there?”
Suddenly, hexes and spells of every kind were shooting past them from above and below.
“Lots!” Anna yelled out. “Remember the plan — if any of us goes down, we all head for the forest floor!” she hollered, and the four Guardians immediately scattered.
Sarah Bell turned and zoomed straight up, following the battle plan she had worked out with Anna on the way in. Another bolt just missed her right ear as she turned to look back and saw three more poachers on her tail. Sarah zigged and zagged on her door to avoid their curses, but her courage was strengthened. Now that the shock of actually seeing the poachers had passed, the thought of these wizards stealing eggs from the nests was more than obscene to the girl. She sneered as another curse just missed her leg and Sarah suddenly wheeled about to fire back.
One of her pursuers was struck directly in the chest. He stiffened and then toppled like a statue off his door.
Another hex shot passed her as Sarah bravely dove down at her pursuers. She heard the body of the wizard she had frozen hit the trees somewhere below and snarled again as she took aim at another. Like Anna Grayson… this Guardian had stopped caring.
“Thieves!” Sarah screamed, as she fired again and again.
Gwen was chasing another wizard on a broom, firing spell after spell at him as a second was casting several hexes at her back. Finally, Gwen hit the man in front just as a spell from behind hit her other arm. The left side of her body instantly went numb and Gwen almost toppled over her broom. She looked under her arm just in time to see the wizard chasing her falling off of his broom. TJ had stupefied him from behind.
“Are you a’right?” TJ yelled over at her.
“Yeah… but I’m going to have to land… I can’t feel my left arm… I can’t steer this thing.”
“Okay… get’a the ground and I’ll tell the others! We’ll join you quick as we can!”
TJ zoomed off as Gwen slowly turned to look for a gap in the trees.
In the meantime, Anna found herself completely outnumbered. No less than five poachers were chasing after her on doors and brooms through the trees below the canopy. Hexes were flying back and forth as the Guardian dodged and weaved over and under several branches, turning and firing and then turning again. Although her Vollucross experience was helping her, there were no pathways cut through the woods she could follow. Limbs and branches tore at her robes and skin as Anna tried to increase the distance between herself and her pursuers. Suddenly, Anna looked up to see a large tree coming into view within a clearing and she smiled. She leveled to peer back. One of the men was missing, lost no doubt somewhere in the forest behind them. Anna looked ahead and raised her wand.
“Silencio!” A wave of magic shot forward and hit the tree and the vines strangling it instantly came to life in angry response.
Anna smiled again as she entered the clearing and then turned to circle around the tree as the blackened tendrils of the Devil’s Snare reached out for her. Its hissing silenced, the four other wizards entering the clearing were taken completely by surprise as the hooked vines suddenly lashed out at them. One of the men tried to yell out a warning but was immediately batted off of his door and into another tree standing steadfast and unyielding to the side. Another wizard was quickly ensnared and disappeared into the vines strangling folds. A third was hit by one of Anna’s curses, which sent him spinning out of control and crashing into another tree where he crumbled to the ground. He looked up angrily at Anna and then reached for his wand again, but a large trap door suddenly flew open behind him and a massive spider the size of an elephant lunged out to grab the man and dragged him down into its hole. The man’s screams were muffled as the door slammed shut behind him.
Anna circled the Devil’s Snare again, dodging and weaving its swinging tendrils as the last wizard chasing after her continued firing from the other side. They circled around the tree again and again until the man was nearly knocked off his broom by one of the angry vines. He recovered quickly and then turned into the woods to flee with Anna chasing and firing at his back.
Suddenly, the man was struck by another hex in the front and hollered in pain as he toppled over the side and crashed to the ground. Anna looked up to find Gwen standing between the trees pointing her wand up at him.
Anna slowed to hover. “Nice shot! Anybody after you? What’s the matter with your arm?”
Gwen was holding her left shoulder with her wand hand. “I’m okay… it’s nothing. The feeling is starting to come back, but I’m grounded. I crashed my broom back in the trees.
Anna landed and ran over to her friend and caught her just before she fell over. “You’re not okay. Let’s find a place for you to sit.”
“Forget about me. Gwen and Sarah are still up there. You have to get up there and help them.”
Anna set her friend down. “Did anybody see you fall?”
“Yeah, TJ got the one chasing me and she went looking for you and Sarah to tell you I was in the forest.”
“Then they’re probably somewhere close. That was the plan, remember?”
Anna and Gwen turned to see TJ helping Sarah through the trees.
“Sarah… are you alright?” Gwen said, quickly rising to stand again.
TJ set Sarah down. “She’s a little out of it. She was hit by a binding curse and the heavy chains sent her crashin’ inta’the woods.”
“Oh my God, Sarah?” Anna squatted down to look into her roommate’s eyes. “Sarah?”
“I slowed her momentum ‘fore she crashed,” TJ added quickly. “She’s a wheel down an’a axle draggin’, but she’ll be okay. She’s just a little loopy from the spell, is all.”
“I’m alright,” Sarah moaned wearily.
TJ looked at Anna and Gwen. “She’ll need a little more time to recover.” The girl looked around. “So where do we stand, Guardians? How many poacher-scumbags did’we git?
“Well… I got four of them, and Gwen took out a fifth,” Anna reported.
“I got two others before I fell,” Gwen added.
“And I took out two as well,” TJ told them.
“I saw another get taken by something in the forest,” Gwen said. She suddenly looked repulsed. “I can’t even tell you what the heck it was; it just came out of the dark, ran right by me, and attacked the man.” Gwen heaved sorrowfully. “It could have easily taken me… but I think…” she looked down at her purple sleeves and sighed. “I don’t think I’ll ever take these Guardian robes off again.” She looked down at Sarah. “What about Sarah? Did she get any smugglers?”
TJ smiled. “I counted seven fall by her wand.”
“Seven!” Gwen was both surprised and impressed.
“Yep… and they weren’t no lucky shots neither. Girl was chasin’ and puttin’em down quick! I never seen anythin’ like it. She’s a menace on dat board o’hers. She turns faster, shoots faster…” TJ smiled, “I tell ya’… church is out with this girl. They never had a chance.”
Anna looked into Sarah face again. “Sarah, honey… can you hear me?”
Sarah looked exhausted as she peered up at them. She smiled tiredly. “Nine…” she moaned.
“I got nine,” she whispered.
“Good — God,” Gwen yelped.
Anna smiled and smoothed her friend’s hair. “You rest here, okay?” She stood again and looked around. So that’s nineteen poachers in all.
“Yeah… but’cha gotta figure… some of ‘dem probably already recovered by now,” TJ told them, “least those who didn’t crash.”
“My goodness… how many do you think are out here?” Gwen looked worried again. “We no longer have the element of surprise on our side.”
Anna turned in the direction of the fire she had seen earlier. “I don’t know how many there are,” she looked back at her friends, “but we never had the element of surprise… so there could be a lot more.” She pointed toward the fire in the distance. “And that’s where they’ll be.”
“So whadaya’ wanna’ do?”
Gwen looked at TJ. “They could be using the fire to warm any eggs they took before traveling back to the city.”
Anna shook her head. “I think the fire was meant to draw us to this spot.” She looked back at Gwen. “But I guess we should check anyway.”
“So you’re sayin’ they might be waitin’ fer’ us again?” TJ didn’t like the sound of that.
“Could be… yeah.”
“Anna’s right… we have to check it out.”
The three girls turned to see Sarah Bell walking toward them with her wand in her hand.
Anna smiled. “You sure you’re up for it, roomie?”
Sarah was smiling back, but her expression suddenly fell as she quickly raised her wand at them.
“Stupefy!” she yelled, and a flash of red light streaked passed them and hit another man pointing his wand from behind a tree.
Sarah lowered her wand before looking at Anna once more. “I’m good… let’s go!”
Anna nodded and then headed toward the distant fire with Sarah and Gwen following close behind them.
TJ eyed the stunned wizard Sarah had hexed. “Jim-man-ny!” she whispered, looking wide-eyed at Sarah’s back. “She’s gonna bag herself a baker’s dozen b’fore the night’s done.” She smirked at the unconscious man again.
“Low down bushwhacker!” She spotted the man’s wand lying next to his open hand and stomped it into splinters. “I hope the critters livin’ in the darkest places find ya b’fore ya wake!” she said scathingly, before turning to follow the other Guardians through the trees.
The four girls traveled watchfully in the direction of the fire with their wands out, quietly climbing over fallen trees and rocks and circling the camp one time completely before getting close enough to hear several voices in the center of the clearing. On a few occasions, they found the remains of broken eggs and even a few dead and mutilated embryos discarded among the roots. Anna could hear whimpering behind her and turned to find Sarah Bell covering her mouth in shocked revulsion.
Anna caught her eye and nodded. “I know… terrible.”
“Monstrous…” Sarah murmured back.
Suddenly, there was another frantic whisper. “Anna!”
Anna and Sarah turned to see Gwen and TJ staring down at something between the fallen trees. They look horrified.
Gwen turned away and ran past them covering her mouth. “I think I’m going to be sick,” she moaned.
Anna and Sarah joined TJ who was pointing down at a spot where the moonlight had illuminated a path through the canopy. The body of a man still in his robes was face down in the leaf litter. His head and the top of his shoulders had been pulled into a burrow beneath one of the toppled trees and they could see something with gray eyes slowly crewing.
“Oh my God,” Sarah whispered. She turned away as TJ leaned into Anna.
“Anna… if’in we don’t come up wit’a plan soon, somebody’ll find our crewed heads in’a barrow too.”
Anna looked at TJ and then over to Sarah who was offering Gwen what comfort she could. “I’m going in to see how many are down there.”
TJ grabbed her arm. “What? Not alone? Girl that’s nuts!” TJ whispered back, worriedly.
Anna smiled. “Don’t worry… I’ve got the best disguise in the world. Trust me… I’ll be right back.”
A minute later, TJ was standing next to Sarah and Gwen.
Sarah looked around and frowned. “Where’s Anna?”
“She’s gone down’ta check out the camp and report back.”
“What!” Gwen pulled out her wand again. “All by herself? How could you let her do that?”
TJ tilted her head to the side and shrugged. “There was no stoppin’ her.” She pointed to a spot below them and the two girls leaned over a fallen tree to peer down.
“I don’t see anything,” Gwen whispered nervously.
“Yeah… I’m thinkin’ that’s the whole point. Look… right there! See it?”
The girls looked again, struggling hard to focus on where TJ was pointing. There was nothing to see until a shadows under one of the trees begin to move. It stopped and quickly disappeared once more and Gwen concentrated hard to see what she knew was there, but nearly invisible.
“She’s gotta teach me that Lethifold thang’,” TJ whispered longingly.
“Well — well — well…” said a voice behind them and the girls turned to find another wizard standing there with his wand pointed down at them.
“Three in a sack—imagine that?” He said with a broadening smile. “Which one of you is Anna Grayson?”
The three girls didn’t say a word; they were too terrified to move. But it wasn’t the poacher or his wand that frightened them. They were watching a misshapen shadow emerging from the woods behind the man. Twisted, distorted and silent, they could tell the thing was massive by the way its silhouette blackened the entire Shadowed Forest behind him.
“On your feet, girlies. Let’s get you down by the fire so we can see which of you has the red hair.”
There was a shushing sound and the awful smell of something putrid filling air. The man frowned and then slowly turned to look back. They heard him gasp, but his terror was immediately cut short when something resembling a twisted dagger unexpectedly shot out of his back. It was dripping with black in the moonlight and Sarah almost shrieked before TJ was able to cover her mouth. The wizard dropped his wand and his body slowly went limp and began to twitch oddly. There was a dreadful, breathing wail that sounded like the wind had suddenly come to life. It sucked the dirt and leaves into the air all around them and when the girls looked up again the man was gone.
“Shhhh… “TJ whispered into Sarah’s ear. “It’s gone now. Whatever it was… it’s gone.” She released Sarah and felt the girl trembling in her arms.
“Sweet Jesus… how are we going to get out of here?” Gwen whimpered.
“What’s the matter? What’s happened?” They looked up and found Anna standing over them.
TJ looked between the trees where the other poacher had disappeared. “Nothin’…” she said, still trembling, “just… another bushwhacker down, is all.”
Anna stooped down to look closely at her friends. “There’s five more poachers down by the fire. Gwen was right… there’s also a pile of eggs being warmed for transport, at least fifty by my count.”
Sarah suddenly straightened; she looked horrified. “Fifty!”
“I’m afraid so… and there’s more.” Anna looked around cautiously. “Their leader is with them tonight as well. He’s down there directing everything.”
“You mean the limping man?” Gwen asked her.
“No… it’s the one they call the Collector. I couldn’t see his face under his robes, but I heard one of the poachers talking to him. They’re moving the eggs tonight. If we don’t stop them now, who knows how many more will end up getting destroyed?”
The moonlight above them suddenly went dark again and a strange hissing sound could be heard somewhere in the woods surrounding them once more. Anna slowly stood and then looked around warily. She looked down at her friends and could see the fear in all of them. She thought for a moment and then bent down.
“Listen to me. I know we’ve already been through a lot tonight and we’ve all seen some really terrible things, but you have to trust me when I tell you that nothing in this forest will ever harm you.”
Anna stood before them again and wrapped her body within her purple robes. “You are members of the Order of Merlin, Guardians of magic and the protectors of these lands. Every one of you came here tonight to defend and safeguard this magical place from men like those working to strip this forest for profit. We’ve done some things to stop them, but we’re not finished yet. There are still those eggs down by the fire, stolen from their mother’s nests, and I need your help to take them back. I can’t do this alone. Will you come with me? Can you fight on?” The stars were revealed behind her again and the smell of rotting flesh began to slowly dissipate.
Gwen looked at TJ and then the two of them stood.
“Let’s finish this, boss,” TJ whispered determinedly. “There’s still some fight left in this dog and there ain’t no way I’ve come this far to let those eggs go.”
The three girls looked down at Sarah Bell and wondered if the girl could go on. Sarah wiped her nose and then pushed herself up to stand. She pulled out her wand again and a look of steely determination seemed to slide across her face.
“Showtime,” she whispered.
One of the poachers was stacking the fire-warmed eggs into a wooden cart for transport. He looked up when he saw two of his friends limping out of the woods and into the clearing. One had the other’s arm over his shoulder before helping him to sit.
“Well… did you get her?” asked a hooded man.
“No Collector,” said one of the men who then collapsed next to the fire. “They were too much for us.”
Another poacher marched over and kicked the man’s legs. “What do you mean they were too much for you? There were only two of them!”
“No… there were four… all girls, all in purple robes.”
The hooded man they called the Collector sneered. “Was she with them?”
The man looked up. “Yeah… the red-headed girl was leading them.” He pointed into the woods. “She’s on foot now, somewhere close by… I’m sure of it.”
The other man kicked him again. “Did you at least kill the others?”
The man remained silent, too afraid to speak.
“IDIOTS!” the man screamed. “You’ve put the greatest haul we’ve ever had at risk with your incompetence. Four school girls… and you couldn’t put them down?”
The one they called the Collector placed a hand on the angry man’s shoulder. “Easy… have a care. It’s not important. Only Anna Grayson is important to us.”
The man whipped around and frowned. “To hell with Anna Grayson. We’ve given blood for these eggs and I want what’s owed us. That’s all that ever mattered to me!”
He turned on the man on the ground again. “Where are the rest of your men?”
The man looked up at him and then around at the surrounding forest. “I think they’re gone.”
“Gone!” The poacher kicked the man again. “What do you mean they’re gone? Gone where?”
“It wasn’t our fault. As soon as we started to get the upper hand against them….” the man hesitated.
“What?” The leader bent down and fisted the other by his collar. “Tell me… where are the other men?”
“The forest… I think the forest took them.”
“Took them? What the hell does that mean?”
“It’s true,” said the other man sitting next to him. “As soon as the girls were down on the ground, we thought we could capture them easily, but the forest and some of creatures in it started to attack us.”
“And the girls?” asked the Collector serenely. “Did the forest attack the Guardians as well?”
The two men looked at each other and one of them shook his head.
“Interesting…” hummed the hooded man, “perhaps…. there might be something to this Guardian legend after all.”
The Collector chuckled and then turned to look into the dark woods surrounding them. The light of the fire made it difficult to see past the shadows, but he had to admit, “They could be out there right now, watching us… getting ready to attack.”
“Yeah… maybe,” The other man said, glaring disbelievingly down at what was left of their group. He turned to look at the Collector. “But so what! There’s still seven of us here to protect the cargo.”
The Collector smiled under his hood before turning to look up at the star-scattered sky. “More than two dozen men… defeated by four Guardians barely old enough to hold a wand.” He looked at the poachers again. “You have to admit… it’s very impressive.” He casually peered over to stare into the woods to the side and smiled again. “It’s no wonder you want her so badly, Tom,” he whispered to himself.
The Collector walked over to the fire and pointed his wand down. “Aqua Eructo…” he whispered, and a jet of water began to douse the flames.
“What the hell are you doing? We’re not ready to leave yet,” complained the poacher. “We need more time to…”
“I believe, gentlemen… that we’ve run out of time.”
A purple hex suddenly came streaking out of the forest and struck one of the men directly in the chest. The spell sent him flying into the cart, breaking its axle and toppling the rolling eggs to the ground. Four Guardians suddenly rushed into clearing, firing hexes and spells in every direction among the remaining poachers. Anna was focused on the one they called the Collector, and was immediately astonished at how fast the man moved to disappear into the forest. She began to chase after him, but was tackled by two men who tried to take her wand.
“This is the one we want,” yelled one of the men. “Bind her — and kill the others!”
A moment later, the two men found themselves lying face down in the dirt. They looked at each other in surprise and then down again at the blackened ground beneath them.
“Where’d she go?”
The two men scrambled to their feet to look around as the battle around them continued.
“Did she Apparate?”
A growl turned their attention around where they saw a blackened version of Anna Grayson growing seemingly out of the ground before them. When she got to her full height, her eyes opened and she snarled at them through blackened fangs. She stretched out her palms and blasted the men off their feet.
“Petrificus Totalus!”Another poacher fell petrified onto his back, as Gwen ran by to fire at another wizard aiming at TJ.
The Guardians were moving with military precision until their numbers were equal and then slowly fell to the girl’s advantage. There were four poachers left, then three, and then two. Finally, there was only one who tried to escape on a broom before TJ set his trigs on fire and sent him crashing into the woods like a streaking comet.
“Stop!” roared a voice from out of the shadows. “Drop your wands!”
Anna wheeled around to point her recovered wand at the voice hidden behind a tree and then snarled angrily.
From the corner of her eye, Anna saw TJ already beginning to fall back. In all of their battles together in dueling hall, she immediately understood the girl was moving to outflank whoever it was hiding in the woods.
“DO NOT MOVE, Guardian,” the man yelled at TJ, “or the young one dies!”
Gwen crouched low to take aim at the hooded Collector stepping out from behind the trees. He was holding a wand to Sarah Bell’s neck.
“I said drop your wands… NOW!”
Anna’s eyes widened. “You!”
She could finally see under the man’s hood and the wrappings covering his face and hands.
“The cursed man,” Anna whispered in surprise.