Anna Grayson and The Dragon's Lair

The New Minister of Magic

ONE

The Mayor of Spellsburg stood at the podium beaming brightly as he brought his wand around and whispered, “Sonorus!”

He cleared his throat and then, “Dear ladies and good gentlemen: It gives me great pleasure today to introduce our guest speaker at this year’s graduation ceremony. He is a man of great distinction and honor and to whom I am proud to call one of my closest friends.”

Eric leaned over to Anna. “It’s amazing how quickly Mayor Prower can cozy up to power, don’t you think?”

Anna looked up at her brother and sneered. “Maybe we should remind him about all the threats he made against you last September.” Her brother smiled before turning his attention back to the raised platform where a number of dignitaries sat listening to the mayor at the podium.

“Thus… without further ado, please welcome in his first public appearance as our new Minister of Magic — the Honorable Mister Boris Grayson.”

There was a shouted cheer and great applause from the students, their families and the townspeople. They stood to clap for Anna’s father who slowly stepped forward to shake the mayor’s hand and then turned to hug Chancellor Thordarson, as a number of newspaper photographers pressed forward to take several flashing pictures. Mister Grayson finally turned to face the audience, placed a hand on his heart, and then bowed to their happy support. Eric and Anna cheered and Damon began to whistle loudly.

“Thank you,” Mister Grayson replied, trying his best to motion everyone to take their seats. Finally, when the summer morning was beginning to quiet once again, the Mayor handed the Minister his voice enhancing wand.

“Thank you, Mayor Prower, for your kind words and welcome… and congratulations to all of our seventh year graduates who will soon take their leave of this academy and join the rest of us outside these honored walls.” He smiled. “We look forward to your contributions as fully trained wizards and witches. You are, in every way possible, invigorating to those of us hampered by the old ways and perplexed sometimes by the ever changing world around us.” He ginned at the murmur of laughter below him.

“Like so many other excited parents today, I am especially proud of my daughters, Tencha and Dowla, who will be graduating today from the splendid Searcher’s Union.” There was an abrupt cheer from the Searchers and Tencha and Dowla could be seen jumping up and down and waving happily back at their father.

“I love you, daddy!” Tencha yelled out.

“I love you too, sweetheart,” their father said, and then he shrugged exaggeratedly. “Although it must be said… given all the heartburn the two of you have imparted onto the Captain of the Guard over these last seven years… I’m sure the Chancellor is as surprised as I am that you’ve made it through unscathed.”

The crowd of students laughed again as Chancellor Thordarson shook his head disagreeably at the Minister’s words.

Mister Grayson paused to look out over the large crowd, and for those who really knew the man they could see his worry and concern.

“A very influential Muggle and author named David Foster Wallace told a story once in a setting much like this one and I beg your indulgence as I reclaim his thoughts:

“He said two young fish were swimming alone together when they came upon an older fish swimming the other way. The old fish nodded as he passed and said ‘Good morning, boys. How's the water today?’ The two younger fish swam on for a bit before one looked at the other and said, ‘What the heck is water?’” There was an amused rumble of laughter once more.

“Wallace went on to comment about the value of simple awareness; the awareness of what is real and essential, of the things hidden so well and in plain sight all around us that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over again: This is water. This… is water." The Minister looked out, seeking to make eye contact with everyone listening to him.

“It is my wish that all of you remain vigilant to the beauty surrounding you, to the finest details in the everyday things that we see and the effect they have upon you. For they are the wonders rarely noticed in our busy lives, but especially during these times of worry and doubt… and particularly when we find ourselves living in fear.

“I must admit, I come to you today in all humility and with a worried heart. So much has been revealed to the Wizarding World over the last few days about You-Know-Who’s return and with him… those they call his Death Eaters.” His face seemed somber and very serious as he stood before them.

“The challenges facing us in the days ahead will be great.” He swallowed hard and then smiled. “But I wanted to share with you my determination, my resolve and purpose, and the Ministry’s decided response to this threat to our citizens and to our way of life.”

His gaze reached back to the farthest rows. “We will learn much about ourselves in the coming weeks, about who we are and what we’re willing to sacrifice in the face of evil and malice.” Several more pictures flashed and the sound of scratching quills was heightened. “The Ministry will be publishing a set of guidelines and security spells for our families and their protection. In addition, our Aurors and officers from the Department of Magical Law Enforcement will be visiting you in your towns and villages, offering their experience and assistance in the face of this threat.

“Our enemies would laugh at these precautions, thinking them feeble as compared to their own ambitions, but hear me now: I warn all those who would work to usurp power unto themselves, to threaten the innocent for the sake of control, and to redefine what it means to be a witch or wizard in their lust for genocide. WE… will be ready for you!”

The crowd suddenly leapt to their feet to scream their agreement and several sparks were shot into the air as the crowd cheered and clapped loudly.

The Minister continued over the roar. “While we remain ever vigilant to the finest blessings our world and God have to offer us for the sake of day to day happiness, we also will be looking for your treachery and sedition as well, and we will not stand idly by and allow you to take control. You will not find us absentminded to our duties and responsibilities to our families, to our personal honor and heritage.” The crowd cheered again.

“We… will fight you! We will fight you with all our strength, heart and soul, as God-fearing people should in the face of wickedness and criminal malevolence.” More sparks popped and flew into the air.

“Yes… we will fight you. And you… will NOT WIN!”

Anna and Eric cheered as Chancellor Thordarson and the entire crowd came to their feet to applaud again. After a long chant from the townspeople of heart and soul, the minister finally smiled at them again.

“Good citizens of Spellsburg and honored guests, I see the determination in your eyes and it is equal to my own. I see your zeal for truth the justice far surpassing what is written in law. I am truly strengthened by your resolve, and I hope too - you in mine, but it isn’t enough to only fight against these new threats. We must also work to correct the mistakes of the past even if they were done with the best of intentions. For what can we really do to protect ourselves from those looking to take advantage of our mistrust in each another?”

The Minister paused again. “There are long established practices brought upon decent people in the wizarding world by the ministry that must be examined. Our citizens should not live in fear of the ministry if we are to work productively together with virtuous intent. One such practice is memory alteration. Whether upon our non-wizarding brethren, or those in our squib communities living together in harmony and in full knowledge of our magical world… we should be mindful of the spells that seek to rob them of their memories — and worse… of their heritage.”

Some of the Guardians looked over at Nox, who suddenly appeared completely absorbed by the Minister’s words. The girl glanced over to her parents who were listening so intently to the Minister’s speech that they suddenly looked petrified in their chairs.

“So few understand the repercussions these actions have on these communities, even as they perform the magic that enables this forgetfulness. They do not see the terrible results that come from robbing a people of their past, of their inheritance, but for no other reason than unwarranted fear and concern.” Mister Grayson looked directly down at Nox. “And they certainly do not see, nor do they understand, the unbelievable sacrifices made by those who would stay behind to save their families, their friends and neighbors from these terrible practices.” The girl’s eyes widened.

Mister Grayson looked out over the crowd again. “We cannot hope to succeed in our quest for justice when we offer injustice to these families and lock their wizarding children into a lesser life. We cannot pray to God for fairness when we force others to sacrifice their future to protect those they love and the communities that helped to raise them. The children of these wonderful families have been compelled to abandon any hope that they would be allowed to offer the world of their talents and share with us their inspired dreams. I can only pray they will forgive us of our unthinking misdeeds against them.”

Anna looked at Nox’s parents. She could see her father hugging his wife as she laid her head upon his shoulder. They were clearly fighting her emotions and tears.

“Thus, after first taking all the necessary precautions to ensure our readiness to battle You-Know-Whoand his minions, I am prepared to make my first public decree as your new Minister of Magic. In consultative agreement with my fellow ministers in the Americas, from this day forward, the practice of mass oblivation of our squib communities is henceforth and… hopefully… forever banned.”

There was a happy scream somewhere within the crowd and the Guardians jumped to their feet to cheer. They whooped and hollered for Nox who sat in her chair completely astonished and lost in shocked surprise. Her parents were hugging each other and crying as those around them stood to applaud and pat them on the shoulder.

Anna slowly raised her wand and… without saying a word… purple sparks suddenly shot high into the air and exploded in a loud boom in the morning sky.

Nox finally rose to her feet and quickly moved through the crowd to join her parents. They hugged and kissed their daughter and raised their faces to the heavens in praise for their freedom from fear.

As the crowd finally quieted again, the Minister of Magic smiled and said, “As we work to right these wrongs, I beg you to stay vigilant and to remain mindful of the slightest changes that seem out of place around you, and… please… do not hesitate to call upon those of us who are in your service and given to keep your trust. Preserve a good cheer and… God bless you all.”

There was thunderous applause as the Mister Grayson finally turned to shake the Chancellor’s hand and numerous blasts from several wands shot into the air once more.

Finally the Chancellor of Castlewood Academy stepped up to the podium and raised his hands to quiet the crowd. After another full minute again of heart and soul, the cheering crowd finally fell quiet and took their seats again.

“Thank you, Minister Grayson, for your inspired words and heart felt encouragement to us all. I think I can speak for everybody here today when I say we look forward to your continued wisdom and skillful leadership.” He paused importantly and then reached out his hand to summon his orb-topped staff. The staff slowly floated across the stage until it stopped to settled by his side.

Thordarson looked out over the large crowd and said, “This staff is an important artifact of the past. It represents the authority entrusted to every chancellor of Castlewood Academy since the school’s founding more than two hundred years ago. But very few also know that it binds me to our school’s magical heritage and to maintain those virtuous doctrines the academy represents, and to honor those who put themselves at risk to uphold these principles.”

The chancellor waved his staff and there was a flash and a thick tome suddenly appeared, floating above the stage. The chancellor smiled and then opened the book to look into the dusty pages within.

“This is the Tonnanarsus, the Castlewood Academy Book of Births. Within these pages reside the names of every witch or wizard born in North America. Next to their name is the date of their birth, the date in which their letter of invitation was sent, and any honors given them during their time with us here at Spellsburg.”

He turned and smiled again. “I now call to the stage the following individuals: Miss Tanya Joe Wangstaff.” Everybody in the crowd turned to find Tanya Joe frowning up at the stage.

Suddenly, Gabriel was standing by her side. “TJ you will follow me, please.”

TJ smiled, as if the whole thing were some kind of joke. “What’s goin’ on, Gabs?”

“This way,” Gabriel replied, motioning her toward the steps.

“Gwendolyn Reese,” The chancellor continued.

Once again, Gabriel moved through the rows of standing Guardians until she stood before Gwen who was still carrying her sore shoulder in a sling. She motioned Gwen toward the stage. “I’m so proud of you guys,” the Guardian Knight whispered. There was a smattering of light applause as Gwen moved forward with TJ.

“Ms. Sarah Bell,” Thordarson said with great pride.

Like TJ and Gwen, Sarah looked surprised at being called out. She was sitting on the end of the row and struggled to stand on a set of crutches.

“Mr. Bell… as we discussed… if you please,” Thordarson said, motioning Sarah’s father to assist his daughter. Mr. Bell quickly came forward to stand by Sarah’s side.

“Daddy? What’s happening?” Sarah asked him.

Without saying a word, Sarah’s father swept his daughter into his arms and then carried her to the stage as Gabriel followed close behind carrying her crutches. The applause continued a little louder as the man followed TJ and Gwen up the steps where he finally set Sarah down on her feet again and Gabriel helped to put her clutches under her arms. Sarah’s father bent down to look into his daughter’s eyes and then kissed her on her cheek.

“You will always be my baby-girl. I love you, sweetheart. Your mother and I are so very proud of you.”

“Daddy?”

Her father turned and left the stage with Sarah looking embarrassed and in happy tears.

“John Dell,” the Chancellor called out again.

The crowd turned to find John standing in the back alone with his arm draped in a plaid wrap. Somebody tapped him on the shoulder and he turned to find Eric, dressed in his finest robes, standing there behind him.

“Come with me, old man,” Eric told him with a swat on the back. John smiled and then followed his friend to the stage. Some of John’s old friends from the Server Union recognized him and cheered loudly as he ascended the staircase.

“And finally…” Thordarson continued, “I would like to call to the stage... Trog… of the Shadowed Forest.”

“Attennnnn — huh!” Somebody in the Crimson ranks barked, and immediately three whole squadrons of Crimson Guardian snapped to attention.

“Right — Face!” Lieutenant Dunning bellowed loudly again.

“HAAA—HUH!” The Guards shouted together before snapping to turn right and bringing their heels together again with a loud crack.

Dunning moved silently down the line to stop in front of the huge figure standing alone at the end of the column, draped in crimson robes and matching mask. The lieutenant turned to face Trog and then snapped to attention.

“You will follow me to the stage, please,” Dunning said stoically, and without another word he quickly turned on his heels to face the other way and began leading the two of them toward the front. There was no applause; only a sea of astonished faces watching in stunned silence.

As the two slowly marched forward, Trog leaned over to whisper down at the lieutenant’s back. “I am sorry about this, I am, Lieutenant, sir,” the ogre said meaningfully. He could see Dunning’s shoulders stiffen.

“LINE… HALT!” Dunning shouted.

The two men immediately stopped together at attention and Dunning spun again on his heels to face Trog once more. The ogre stood straight, staring over the top of the lieutenant’s head and clearly looking worried.

Dunning stared up at the creature for a long moment and then looked down. He slowly removed a white glove from his hand and then stuck it out to Trog.

“I was wrong about you, ogre. If you’re brave enough to fight Death Eaters in the Shadowed Forest, then I will always be proud to have you under my command.”

Trog looked down at Dunning’s hand extended out to him and smiled under his mask before gleefully shaking it hard enough to remove it from the man’s shoulder.

“You are hereby promoted from Crimson Guard in training to squad leader. Do you accept the duties and responsibilities offered you?”

Trog looked taken aback. “I… am… unworthy, I am,” he replied.

“Oh — shut it!” Dunning whispered back, and for the first time anybody could remember, the man actually smiled. “Can I count on you or not?”

Trog released the lieutenant’s hand and snapped to attention. “You can, sir. I accept, I do!”

Dunning slowly leaned in and whispered, “Good. So, from now on… I’ll be counting on you to keep the Guardians in line. I know she’s your friend, but can I trust you to make your duties a priority and keep her out of trouble?” The lieutenant watched the ogre’s eyes moving up to look into the crowd and to Anna smiling at him in the distance. The ogre looked down at Dunning again.

“She is the first, she is, and so much more than you know.” Dunning frowned when he noticed the green in the ogre’s eyes unexpectedly change to purple and back again. “And… I will keep her out of trouble, I will, I swear…” Trog growled ominously, “even if I must sit upon her head.”

“I will hold you to your promise, ogre,” Dunning replied flatly, putting on his glove again. Then he reached up to straighten Trog’s robes upon his shoulders. “Now then,” he said with a huff, “you will follow me to the stage.” He clicked his heels as he came to attention once more, turned with a snap, and then matched ahead.

“Way to go, Trog,” whispered a voice from out of the Crimson ranks and Dunning glared back in response.

“Quiet!”

The lieutenant stopped and then motioned Trog up the groaning staircase where he found the Chancellor of Castlewood and the Minister of Magic smiling up at him.

“Now that we’re all here…” Thordarson raised his arms into the air. Nouméa-Incenda-Captus!”

At once, there was another flash of light and a pedestal appeared in front of the Chancellor, and on the pedestal sat a familiar object to all of the Guardians; the Living Ore of Nouméa engulfed in green flames. Thordarson waved his staff and several pages within the Book of Births were flipped over to a list of names inside.

“For outstanding bravery in the face of a life-threatening enemy to the entire wizarding world.” The Ore of Nouméa suddenly bloomed and fingers of fire leapt from its surface to write the Chancellor’s words in the air for all to see. “For exemplary courage dedicated to the protection of the City of Spellsburg, Castlewood Academy, its students, teachers and residents,” The words were again ablaze in green flames above them. “And for stopping the destruction of a protected species in the Shadowed Forest and the Cliffs of Knowtor… these individuals: Tanja Joe Wagstaff, Gwendolyn Reese, Sarah Bell, John Dell and Trog of the Shadowed Forest are hereby awarded the Order of Merlin, second class, on this day, June twentieth, nineteen hundred and ninety six.” The words of flame were etched into the air as the Minister of Magic came forward with the Mayor of Spellsburg by his side. The Mayor was holding a pillow of blue velvet with several metals and ribbons displayed. The Minister lifted one of the metals and reached out to pin it upon TJ’s robes under her left shoulder.

“Tanya Joe Wangstaff of the Great State of Texas; on behalf of several grateful wizard and muggle nations, I hereby award you the Order of Merlin.”

TJ looked down at her metal and then up again at Boris Grayson. “Much obliged, sir,” she said simply. “It’s a perty-thang, and plumb worth the bruises — that’s a fact.”

The Minister smiled down at her and then kissed her on each of her cheeks and as he did… he whispered into her ear, “Thank you for fighting to protect all of us.” He looked meaningfully into the girl’s eyes and then straightened before stepping to the side to let Mayor Prowler come forward.

“Tanya Joe… it’s my understanding that you prefer to be called TJ?” the mayor asked her.

TJ smiled widely. “I’d be honored, sir.”

“TJ… I have already informed your family of the honors presented to you today and I have collected this letter for you from your father. You should read it in private on your way home today. I believe he’s the only man in the world who could be more proud of you than the residents of our grateful city.”

The mayor shook TJ’s hand and then kissed her on both cheeks as the crowd applauded and the Minister moved to face Gwen. The Minister lifted another metal from the mayor’s pillow and then moved forward.

“Mister Grayson… what about Anna, sir? Why isn’t she up here on the stage with us? She was the one who…”

“Gwendolyn Prentis Reese of the great State of California: on behalf of several grateful wizard and muggle nations, I hereby award you the Order of Merlin.” The Minister said loudly, pinning the metal upon Gwen’s robes. He then kissed her on the cheeks and whispered, “Thank you Gwen for being such a good friend to Anna and fighting by her side.”

Gwen stared at him and then nodded. “I love Anna like a sister, Mister Grayson… but she deserves…”

“That’s Minister Grayson….” the major said, correcting her, “if you please.” Prower shook Gwen’s hand. “I have a letter here from your parents as well. On behalf of a grateful city, thank you, Ms. Reese.”

Gwen nodded, took the letter, and then watched as the Minister stood before Sarah.

“Sarah Mary Bell of the great State of Minnesota: on behalf of several grateful wizard and muggle nations, I hereby award you the Order of Merlin.”

Again the Minister of Magic pinned the metal on Sarah, kissed her and then leaned in to whisper, “You more than all the others, Sarah… I owe the greatest debt of thanks. Thank you for fighting to protect the cause of magic and remaining loyal to Anna even after the evil treachery done against your person.” Sarah looked up at Mister Grayson in surprise. “Chancellor Thordarson told me about the unforgivable curse placed upon you, Sarah, and the moral fortitude it took to fight against it. I hope you and your family will come to visit us on Grayson Hill this summer, so that I might properly show a father’s gratitude.”

Sarah smiled. “Thank you, Sir. I would be honored to come.”

The Minister nodded and then stepped to the side again as the mayor shook Sarah’s hand. “Miss Bell… I do not have a letter from your parents, but I think…” he turned to direct her attention to Sarah’s parents who were watching from the audience, “they are in the very best seat in which to watch your presentation. They honor us with their presence in our city today.”

The crowd applauded again as the Minister moved to place another metal on John.

“Johnathan Albert Dell of Ontario Canada: on behalf of several grateful wizard and muggle nations, I hereby award you the Order of Merlin.”

“Thank you, Minister.”

Boris shook John’s hand and then quietly reached into his pocket to pull out another small envelope. “This is a note again for the services you’ve rendered to my family, John. I can’t thank you enough for everything you and Valeria Ines did for us this year.”

John looked down at the envelope and frowned. “More hazard pay, sir? You know I can’t take that. We agreed on a fair salary at Christmas and I’m more than happy with our agreement.”

The Minister smiled. “Eric told me you’d say that, so I give you this choice: either take this small portion of what I owe you…” he suddenly gripped John’s hand very tight and then leaned in to whisper, “or put up with my daughter using that bracelet you gave her to call you to her side every day this summer long until you do.”

He stepped back and watched John Dell change his surprised expression to think. He reluctantly heaved and took the note from the Minister’s hand.

“Good man,” the Minister said coyly, stepping to the side once again.

“Are you all right, Anna?” Eric whispered into his sister’s ear. She was standing alone in the back of the crowd.

Anna turned to smile back. “Isn’t it wonderful, Eric? The Order of Merlin! Oh it’s so exciting!”

Eric smiled as he watched their father on the stage. “I hope you understand the only reason you’re not up there is because father and the Chancellor didn’t want to bring any attention to your involvement in the Shadowed Forest.”

Anna was still smiling. “I don’t care about that, so long as everybody knows what our friends did. They were all so very brave.”

Eric kissed the side of his sister’s head and then slid his hand around her shoulder as they watched their father take the last metal from the pillow. He reached as high as he could to pin it on Trog’s crimson robes.

“Trog of the great State of Pennsylvania and the Shadowed Forest: on behalf of several grateful wizard and muggle nations, I hereby award you the Order of Merlin.” The Minister said loudly, and the crowd applauded again. Mister Grayson shook Trog’s enormous hand and then whispered, “Are you sure Glors won’t be joining us today, so that I might show my respect and a wizard’s admiration for what the two of you have done for us?”

Trog smiled to show the bottom row of his brick-like teeth under his mask. “No, Minister. My Glors is a stubborn one, she is, and she finds humans to be…” he suddenly hesitated.

“Yes?” the mayor said, interestedly. “She finds humans to be… what?”

Trog straightened. “She says they smell funny, they do.”

“Smell funny?!” the mayor bristled. “Of all the…”

The Minister laughed. Then he thought for a moment and said, “Please tell your mate that the Minister of Magic owes her a life debt. Would she understand what that means?”

Trog was surprised. “She does indeed, sir. All too well, she does. Are you sure, Minister? The owing of a life debt to a mountain ogre is a very serious obligation, it is. If I tell her what you’ve said… Glors will hold you to it, she will!”

“And so she should, Trog, because it’s true. You tell her exactly what I said, word for word. A life debt is owed and one day I hope to pay her back for the courage the both of you have given us.”

Chancellor Thordarson raised his staff high into the air again and then commanded, Nouméa-Captus!”

The writing in the air over the Ore of Nouméa was immediately sucked into the Book of Births and burned into the pages next to the names of those on the stage. When the words were captured, the book slammed itself shut and the crowd cheered and applauded loudly again. There was another flash and the ore and the book disappeared.

As Trog and the Guardians left the stage, the shadow of something huge unexpectedly passed over the platform and there was a panicked scream somewhere in the crowd. Everybody looked up to see a large Vipertooth circling above them and Anna’s eyes widened as she tried to shield her eyes from the sun.

“It’s a dragon… and it’s going to attack!” somebody yelled.

“Guards!” the mayor yelled, and immediately several Guards bolted onto the stage to surround the Minister of Magic. Dozens of chairs were tipped over and many in the audience began running from the field.

The dragon continued to slowly circle overhead in a soundless almost lazy manner, dipping its wings to look down at the crowd before turning to fly over again.

“What in the world are you waiting for? Fire—FIRE!” Prower yelled at the guards. The reaction to this order was immediately evident in the dragon’s posture. It suddenly whipped about and halted in midair to reveal a set of open claws.

“SILENCE!” said a roar over their heads, and everybody looked up to see Chancellor Thordarson glaring out at them. The orb upon his staff lit his face in the brightest of blue light.

“Please… everybody remain calm. I see no immediate danger here to anybody unless you overreact.”

“But we must protect ourselves and the Minister!” Prower yelled back.

Thordarson frowned as he looked over to the podium. “I didn’t realize the Minister was in any danger.”

Mister Grayson pushed through the circle of guards surrounding him to look up at the dragon.

“Boris?” Thordarson asked again. There was a tone of amusement in his voice.

Mister Grayson looked at the Chancellor and then smiled. He pushed the wand of one of the guards down. “Lower your wands, please,” he told them. Looking very surprised, they slowly obeyed.

The dragon barked loudly and then turned to fall into a gliding circling once more.

“What’s it doing here if not preparing to strike?” the mayor asked.

“Fortunately… we do have two experts here to help us answer that question. Professors Motim and Grayson are our Care of Magical Creatures teachers at the Academy. I’m wondering what they would say about this?”

Still looking up at the circling dragon, Eric walked to the front of the stage where Professor Motim could be seen with a small telescope inspecting the creature overhead.

“What do you think, Professor?” Eric whispered.

“Hmmmm”, Motim murmured, still looking through the glass. “Flapping slow and easy with no aggressive posture that I can see. I don’t know.” He abruptly whacked Eric in the chest with the scope. “Take a look for yourself.”

Eric peered up through the glass to watch the creature through its turns. “She’s not showing the normal hunting deportment.”

“No… not at all,” Motim agreed, “and she certainly wouldn’t be barking like if she intended to make a dive on expected prey.” He turned to look up at the Chancellor and shook his head. “If she meant to attack… she would have already carried somebody off.”

Sarah and Gwen were standing by Anna who was looking at the Guardian Tower several hundred yards away.

“What do you think it’s doing, Anna?” Gwen asked her.

Anna looked back up at the dragon once more. “I don’t know… but…”

“But she’s not the only one,” Sarah Bell answered.

Gwen and Anna looked at Sarah who was also staring at the top of the Guardian Tower.

“What?” Gwen looked at her. “What do you mean?”

Sarah looked at Anna. “Something else is coming,” she said worriedly.

Anna glanced down at Sarah and then smiled. She was very impressed with her roommate’s awareness. “Can you tell what it is yet?” Anna asked her.

Sarah looked up at the tower again. “Another dragon.”

“It’s coming down,” somebody yelled, and immediately the guards raised their wands again. Sure enough, they could see the beast descending toward the platform in a lazy, almost indifferent manner, giving off a rather humorous bark between each flap of its great wings.

“You might want to step aside, Minister,” Thordarson suggested, and Boris, Mayor Prower and the guards suddenly began to scatter. A few seconds later, the beast landed with a heavy and wood-crunching thud upon the platform. There were a few screams from the watching crowd who began backing away from the stage. Husbands moved to protect their wives and children in fear.

The dragon watched the crowd as they backed away and snarled at the wizards who raised their wands.

“Well… hi there again.”

The creature whipped about to find Tanya Joe standing at the base of the platform below her. Its horned head quickly came forward to inspect the Guardian closely.

“What in God’s name are you doing, child?” Prower whispered. “Get back! Get back, I say!” he commanded, trying to wave her off.

TJ ignored him. “I remember you,” she told the beast. “You-wuz in the courtyard after Christmas, weren’tcha?”

The dragon’s eyes narrowed as her head came forward to sniff at TJ’s robes and then turned its head sideways to inspect her back. TJ’s eyes widened when the creature bumped her in the rear.

“Oops! Careful there… if you’wer a boy - I’d have to cuff ya on the nose for gettin’ fresh.” She looked around at all the Crimson guards pointing their wands and her smile fell. She looked up at the dragon once more with worried concern.

“I’ll grant ya-got more backbone than two ah-yer kind put together, but right now, hon… I’m thinkin’ yer shootin’ craps with the devil here.”

The dragon looked over at the wands pointed at her and growled ominously.

TJ looked at the guards. “Ya might just wanna lower dim’ wands, boys. She don’t mean no harm, but this one could start a fight in an empty house, if provoked.” Nobody moved.

TJ heaved worriedly again as she reached up to tap the crawl of the dragon to gather its attention. The dragon whipped its head about to look down at her.

“Listen, girlfriend… you’d better say whatcha’ came here ta’say and then move along, if-in ya git ma’meanin’.”

The dragon’s curled its lips and then raised its head high. It barked into the air and then rose up on its hind legs to roar loudly. The crowd covered their ears as the creature screeched and howled into the morning air.

TJ looked at the mayor. “You’d better add some water to the soup, cause I think we’re getting’ comp’ny!”

Gwen looked down at Sarah Bell who was still watching the Guardian Tower intently. She could feel the girl gripping her hand tight.

“It’s coming,” Sarah said, knowingly.

And then, rising up from behind the Guardian Hall, another enormous dragon came into view. It flapped forward to clear the wall and then dipped its wings to glide forward over the platform. In its claws below, dangling precariously underneath, was the most incredible and welcome sight the Guardians had witnessed all year. The dragon stopped in mid-air to flap in place before setting the Mirror of Enlightenment down upon the stage and then folded its wings back to remain perched on top. The crowd and townspeople stood in the field around their chairs completed stunned.

It was TJ who first started to applaud and she was quickly joined by Sarah Bell and Anna and then Mister Grayson. The two dragons raised their heads high and barked together as the rest of the crowd slowly joined in.

Several more shadows began to darken the field around them and everybody looked up to watch a number of dragons slowly flapping across the blue sky. One after another, then three, and then more than a dozen glided unhurriedly through the air and then turned as one to head north.

Eric pointed to the Shadowed Forest in the distance and the Crimson Guards turned to see several more dragons moving north. It was the most beautiful formation of flight Spellsburg had ever seen, a series of V-shaped groupings moving as one toward some unknown destination. The dragon, still perched atop the Mirror of Enlightenment, raised her wings and barked again before gently lifting off to join the retreat. The Mirror wobbled precariously as the other dragon raised her head to watch the group heading away and then raised her wings across the entire stage, causing the Minster and several of the guards surrounding him to duck low.

The dragon twisted its head upside down to look down at TJ once more and Texan tried to twist her head over sideways to look back. The creature sniffed at her and then moved forward to stare directly into TJ’s eyes. The Guardian gulped loudly as the dragon suddenly opened its mouth and then licked her entire front, from her stomach to her chin and then up through her face.

“UUUUUGGGHHH!” TJ groaned loudly, and the rest of the Guardians started to laugh.

TJ peered up through the goo now dripping down her face. “Lordy-be… was’at really necessary?” The dragon raised its head again to bark in a tone that sounded like laugher to everybody watching them.

“Alright — alright… so we’ve swapped spit and doused the fires… it’s time to hit the road!”

The great beast barked again and then leapt into the air. With three great flaps of its enormous wings, it finally dipped down and shot over the crowd and across the open field. She turned quickly, flapped several times again, and then joined the end of the line of dragons heading north.

Gwen looked at Anna. “Where do you think they’re going?”

Anna smiled as she watched the remaining dragons flying away into the morning sky.

“Home…” Anna whispered. She looked at Gwen and Sarah Bell. “Back to the cliffs.”

TWO

Anna was smiling on the deck of the Allegheny Pride as she watched Gwen carrying Sarah Bell’s skis up the gangway.

“I still don’t understand why these stupid things didn’t go with the trunks,” Gwen complained.

Anna looked up to watch hundreds of black trunks snaking their way through the air from the top of the plateau and then down toward the great ship being prepared for the trip home. The familiar sound of barking officers gathered Gwen’s attention as she straightened to watch with interest some of the ship’s burly crew hustling about the deck.

“I told you… if it doesn’t fit in the trunk then they have to be carried or left behind. We can’t use any magic to make them fit.”

Anna smiled. She might have been the only one to really notice it, but ever since the death of the vampire Sugianto, Sarah’s stutter had thankfully ended. The last reminisces of the unforgivable evil done to her friend was finally and forever gone.

“Left behind…” Gwen grumbled under her breath, “now there’s an idea worth consideration.” She looked at Anna.

“Hey Super-G!” She looked around meaningfully. “Is your dad… err… I mean… the Minister… on board yet?” Her smile looked strained. “Boy… it’s weird to think of your dad as the Minister of Magic.”

Anna sighed. “No… daddy and Eric took an early ship this morning.”

“What?” Gwen was heartbroken. “But I didn’t get to say goodbye to Eric.”

“Neither did I,” Anna replied sullenly. “I know I’ll see them in a few hours when I get home again, but I get the feeling I won’t get to see a lot of daddy this summer. I don’t think I’m going to like his being the Minister.”

Gwen’s expression slowly turned wicked. “Well there’s one good thing that’s already come out of your father getting the top job.”

Anna frowned and Gwen leaned in furtively. “Debbie Dunning.”

Anna looked annoyed. “What about her?”

“Haven’t you noticed? She’s been going out of her way to avoid anybody she knows is close to you since your dad became the Minister.” Gwen directed Anna’s attention to Debbie and her gaggle of Defender friends talking surreptitiously by themselves near one of the masts. Gwen looked back at Anna and bounced her eyebrows. “Watch this.”

Anna frowned as Gwen yelled out, “Hey TJ! TJ… over here!”

Tanya Joe was still wearing her Order of Merlin metal proudly on her chest as she stepped off the gangway and dropped onto the ship’s deck. She looked up to see Gwen motioning covertly toward the Dunning girl to her right. TJ smiled and then returned a furtive little nod. Anna watched as TJ headed toward the back of the ship and then suddenly reversed course to sneak up behind Debbie.

“Hey’ya double-D … how’ya doin’, girl?” TJ said happily, slapping Dunning on the back as she walked by. Debbie looked up and her eyes nearly popped out of her head. She quickly turned and ran headlong into the mast before escaping down the staircase and the cabins below.

Gwen started laughing hysterically as TJ walked up to give them two happy thumbs-up. “Is’zat what you’wer hankerin’ fer?”

“What the heck is her problem?” Anna said, looking mystified.

TJ shrugged. “Girl’s lost her vertical hold just thinkin’ bout somebody at school with more power than’er brother. Yer daddy becomin’ Minister? Oh that’s put’a big’o hole in her fence.”

“I don’t know why. It’s not like I’ll be owling my father whenever Debbie gets out of line.”

“Yeah… but she don’t know that,” TJ laughed back.

“What do you mean?”

Gwen rolled her eyes. “You’re kidding me, right? You really can’t see the advantages of having your father become the Minister of Magic?”

“Not really. In fact, it probably puts a bigger target on his back for the Death Eaters, and I wouldn’t call that an advantage.”

“Yeah? We’ll I’d say yer’ brother’s got it figured out well enough,” TJ suggested, pointing at Damon who was standing among a large crowd of students and looking lording and self-important.

Anna wasn’t sure what to think about the sudden popularity of her family, so she moved to change the subject.

“So… I took Swooper out for a quick flight this morning.”

“Yeah? So he’s fully recovered then?”

“I think so. Jeremiah wouldn’t let me take him outside the stadium because of the dragon alert, but he was really happy to finally get into the air again.”

Suddenly, Gabriel stepped in to join them. “Hi guys. Congratulations again on your Ministry honors. You’ve made all the Guardians so proud.” The girl was looking at TJ and Gwen who smiled back, but Sarah looked brooding and cold toward the Guardian Knight.

“Anna… could I have a word in private,” Gabriel asked her.

Anna frowned. “Sure… anything wrong?”

“I just need a minute.” She took Anna by the arm and led her over to the railing. She looked back at the others and noticed Sarah’s curdled expression.

“I think Sarah is still angry with me for trying to lock her away the night you went into the Shadowed Forest.”

Anna shrugged. “Don’t worry about it. Deep down, I think she really knows you were only trying to protect us.”

“Really, Anna? Do you really believe that? I hope so, because that’s why I wanted to talk to you. I’m really sorry I didn’t press Dunning hard enough to let you out of the dungeons, but I really thought you would be putting yourself in terrible danger otherwise.”

Anna smirked. “And you were exactly right, Gabriel. In fact, I nearly got us all killed.”

Gabriel stared at her and then came forward to hug Anna. “But you didn’t… and you were so very brave. I promise to listen more earnestly the next time, okay?”

Anna hugged her back and then whispered something she prayed was true. “I hope there never is a next time.”

They pulled back and Gabriel sniffed. “Anyway… that’s all I wanted to say. I hope you have a good summer and I’ll look forward to seeing all of you again in September, okay?”

Anna smiled and nodded as the girl turned and quickly disappeared into the crowd.

“What was all that about?” Gwen asked her.

Anna looked at her friends and shrugged. “She just wanted to apologize for trying to stop us that night.”

“She should be more than sorry,” Sarah fired back bitterly. “She should be sacked for not helping us.”

There was another long pause until Gwen decided she wanted talk about the subject that had been bothering all of them since the graduation ceremony.

“Anna… I don’t understand why you didn’t get a metal too. I mean… you were the one who first alerted us to the smugglers going into the Shadowed Forest and you fought harder than any of us to stop them. You were the one You-Know-Who was after.” Gwen thought about it and then added, “And as for your mother…” she tried to sound delicate. “You probably saved all of us there too.”

“That’s right,” TJ said, looking down at Sarah who already had tears in her eyes. “It ain’t right we should be da-ones gittin’ alda credit.” The girl looked down at the metal pinned to her robes and then lifted it off.

“The Order of Merlin – Second Class,” the metal said in a squeaky little voice. TJ handed it to Anna. “For outstanding bravery in the face of a life-threatening enemy. For exemplary courage…” TJ shook the metal angrily until it stopped.

“Here… take mine.”

Anna smiled. “No, TJ, you keep it. That’s not necessary.”

“But it is!” Gwen said, reaching into her pocket to hand her metal to Anna as well.

“The Order of Merlin – Second Class,” the adornment peeped again. “For outstanding bravery in the face of a life-threatening…”

“Oh shut it!” Gwen barked at the metal.

Anna smiled again and then reached inside her robes to pull out a small, velvet box. She opened the box and showed it to her friends. The Order of Merlin sat in the bottom with Anna’s name on the tiny placard below it.

“Daddy and Chancellor Thordarson gave it to me before we went out for the graduation ceremony.”

“But why? The whole world should know what you did that night in the forest,” Gwen argued back.

Anna heaved reluctantly. “Voldemort came to the Shadowed Forest to force me to join him or kill me, and now that he’s failed on both scores… he’ll never offer me anything more than a very painful death.” She looked at them with tears filling her eyes. “And now that my father in the Minister,” she shook her head mournfully. “Voldemort tried to have him killed several times even before he became the Minister of Magic. Now…” she shuddered.

Gwen looked sympathetic as took hold of Anna’s hand.

“The Chancellor has always tried to keep the skills the Guardians might possess a secret from the rest of the wizarding world, and now I think we can all understand why. Going forward… my father and Thordarson are going to work very hard to keep every one of us out of the limelight.”

Anna closed the velvet box, thought about it, and then to the surprise of all her friends… she dropped it over the side of the ship’s railing.

Gwen looked horrified as she dashed over just in time to see the box hit the water. “What the hell are you doing?”

Anna smiled and then took Gwen’s metal from her friend’s hand and then pinned it on her robes.

“For outstanding bravery in the face of a life-threatening enemy to the entire wizarding world,” Anna whispered.

She reached over to take TJ’s metal and pinned it back onto her robes as well. “For exemplary courage dedicated to the protection of the City of Spellsburg, Castlewood Academy, its students, teachers and residents.”

Anna looked at Sarah and then reached out to hug her roommate. “For stopping the destruction of a protected species in the Shadowed Forest and the Cliffs of Knowtor,” she looked into Sarah’s eyes and then kissed her on the cheek, “and for demonstrating moral fortitude in the face of the unforgivable.” A tear leaked down Sarah’s cheek where Anna had kissed her. “You’ve had to suffer more than any of us, Sarah. The only thing I can think to say is… I love you.”

Anna looked over at Gwen and TJ. “I love all of you. Thank you for going with me and standing by me when…” Anna shuddered as her friends came forward.

The four girls hugged each other for a long time and sobbed quietly together until another member of the deck crew forced them apart.

TJ frowned at the man’s unconscious rudeness, sniffed, and then started wiping the front of Gwen’s robes. “Fer the best anyhow; y’all don’t need dragon spit all over yer’robes too.”

“That’s not necessary…” Anna said, as TJ brushed her off. “I get the feeling all of the Guardians are probably immune to Vipertooth venom.”

“Who said anythin’bout da’ venom? It’s just plain disgustin’,” TJ began wiping off Sarah as well, “and it smells worse than bull-snot!”

They all looked at each other and Gwen was already shaking her head. “I don’t even want to hear how you know what bull-snot smells like.” They all laughed.

“What’s in the box, Sarah?” Anna asked her roommate.

The other girls looked down at a square-handled object wrapped in a blanket.

Sarah smiled. “Oh it’s just an old friend of yours that I decided to take home with me,” she replied.

Anna frowned. “A friend of mine?”

“Yeah… I caught him trying to steal your book bag while you were at lunch,” Sarah said, looking irritated as she turned to remove the cover. They could see the box was actually a cage and inside the cage was the most surprising sight.

A half-blackened pixie was lying in the bottom of the cage under a rag. It peered up with one eye in the unexpected sunlight and then jumped to his feet to growl at them.

“Moo-gak… tak ya noos.”

“Oh my God… Mowgawk!” Anna yelped.

“Yeah… Professor Bots said I could take him home with me and see if I could teach him some manners,” Sarah explained.

“Manners! Are you kidding me? That thing’s a killer!” Gwen bellowed, disbelievingly.

Sarah crossed her arms to study the creature. “Oh I don’t know. Maybe what he needs is just a different environment and some people that really care about him. My brothers and sisters have been begging me to bring home a magical creature all year.”

“And you chose him?” Gwen shook her head and looked at TJ. “I think she’s lost her mind again.”

Anna was staring at the pixie intently and when their eyes met, the Guardian could feel nothing but malice pouring out of Mowgawk’s heart. She watched as the creature put a hand to his burnt face and then snarled at her.

“Ana-gray-sin, heh-heh. Moo-gak… tak ya noos.” He suddenly grabbed the bars to his cage and began yanking them madly back and forth. “Tak-ya-life, tak-ya-life, tak-ya-life!”

Sarah whacked the side of the cage. “HEY! Settle down, you nasty little bugger!” The blow sent the creature tumbling backward into his rags. The pixie was furious but backed away when Sarah poked her finger through the bars at him. “Now lay down or I’ll clip your wings!”

To everybody’s surprise, Mowgawk started to shrink back before angrily throwing his rag to the side and crawled under. The he mumbled something under his breath as he rolled over to show them his back.

“Ana-gray-sin... Moo-gak… tak ya noos, heh-heh.”

Sarah smiled up at them. “You see? You just have to be firm.”

Gwen was shaking her head. “Yeah? Well you’d better hope that thing never gets out of his cage, or he’s liable to rip your throat out while you sleep.”

TJ had to agree. “That frog’s two bubbles short of plumb, that’s fer’sure.”

“Maybe so…” Anna replied. She looked over at her roommate and smiled. “But I think Sarah can handle him.”


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