Anna Grayson and The Dragon's Lair

A Question of Love

ONE

That night Anna was very tired as she got ready for bed. She spent most of the night with Eric, telling him what she could about her Ally, the ghost of his mother Leola Grayson, and how she had become an important part of Anna’s life. Although it was a terrible blow to realize an imprint of his dead mother was still roaming the world without his knowledge, Anna couldn’t part with the joy she felt at having her strength returned in Leola’s presence.

Eric listened closely to the story of how magic’s Ally had first contacted Anna and how Leola had saved his sister from her own mother in Drogo Prison. Although, Eric already knew a ghost calling itself the Ally had entered the house a year ago to attack their father, Anna found herself having to explain why that attack had taken place. This led Anna into revealing her most guarded and terrible secret: That her own mother, Victoria Jennings, had actually murdered Eric’s mother Leola. To Eric, this revelation was far beyond shocking; the truth seized his heart in horrified despair. His mother had been killed, murdered by her best friend, and Voldemort had tortured Victoria Jennings into doing it as part of a plan to kill their father. The thought of it nearly unhinged Eric’s mind from reality, but the shock of this truth was quickly followed by yet another surprise. For Eric suddenly realized he had been a witness to his mother’s death on those jagged rocks below the cliffs. His vision of a woman falling to her death at the place overlooking the sea, and where his personal courage had always been tested, was where the murder had actually taken place.

In the end, Anna told her brother everything. But even after it was done, she knew there was one more thing she had to ask of him that might destroy whatever relationship remained between the two of them. While revealing her most dreadful secret had been terribly difficult, Anna was frightened more to ask Eric for his promise not to tell their father. This had been Leola’s remaining wish, and in Anna’s mind it was hard to imagine the Graysons continuing as a family if this terrible secret were ever revealed.

After careful consideration of Anna’s request, Eric finally agreed not to tell their father or the rest of their family. There was something within Eric that drove him to believe Anna’s secret should never be revealed to anyone. Separate from being too painful to disclose, there was another part of Eric that defined him as a Guardian who was reluctant to reveal anything about the Sithmaith’s secret alley. Even if that alley was the ghost of his dead mother.

Although Eric left her room that night pledging his continued love and devotion to his sister, Anna couldn’t set aside the feeling that some portion of that love had been lost forever. In fact, it took nearly a year before her brother would truly forgive his sister for keeping the truth about his mother’s death a secret from him. The pain of it was deep and was only finally set aside after the countless months he spent walking alone with the ghost of Leola Grayson. Their walks through the woods of Grayson Hill and along the cliffs overlooking the ocean was a time of healing for Eric, and soon he even began to understand why Anna had kept the secret for so long.

There finally came a night after Leola had left her son alone on the cliffs that Eric realized he was standing at the very spot where his mother had fallen to her death. Eric breathed deep at the breeze racing across ocean before finally looking down. He found there was nothing left of the fear that sought to test his courage in that awful place, and it was in that moment when Eric’s heart toward Anna was finally and forever healed.

TWO

The knock on Anna’s door a few minutes later made her sigh. Perhaps her talk with Eric wasn’t finished after all.

“Yes?”

The door opened and her father stepped into the doorway.

Anna smiled. “Good evening, Minister.”

The man rolled his eyes. “If we’re to keep formal titles between us… then how shall I address you, Miss Grayson?”

Anna looked amused. “Sorry… I love you, daddy.”

He smiled back. “That’s better.” He looked into the hallway behind him, stepped inside, and then closed the door.

“How are you, sweetheart?” He suddenly looked concerned. “I mean… really.”

“I’m… okay, I guess. I think I’ll feel better after a good night’s sleep. It’s been a long day.”

He studied her and then, “I won’t keep you long, but I have a couple of things I wanted to discuss.”

He looked back at her door again and then turned to whisper, “I’m worried about Eric. When I saw him tonight I thought he looked ill. He finally admitted that he wasn’t feeling well… but I think he’s keeping something from me. Do you know what’s troubling him?”

Anna didn’t want to lie to her father. “Yes, daddy. I do… but I can’t tell you what it is.”

Her father was taken aback. “Can’t tell me? Why?”

Anna got out of her bed and then turned to walk worriedly around the room wringing her hands. As she thought, she occasionally looked back at him in a way that told him she was struggling to tell him anything.

“Anna? What is it, honey? What’s wrong?”

Anna frowned. She had been worried about having this conversation ever since their return from Spellsburg.

“Daddy… how are we going to make this work?”

“Make what work, sweetheart?”

“Us… you, me and Eric all living here together.”

Mister Grayson jerked back and frowned. “I don’t understand what you’re talking about.”

“Well… you’re the Minister of Magic now and Eric and I are supposed to be Guardians.” She looked at him morosely. “How are we supposed to remain neutral in this battle to come when the three of us are all living together?”

Comprehension dawned on the man and his brow immediately furrowed. “Now wait a minute… Guardian or not… I’m still your father, young lady, and you will continue to live under my roof until you come of age. If your brother decides to leave the house to pursue his life’s work, whether it that be for the Guardians or something else, I can’t stop him, but you’ll remain here. Do you understand me?”

Anna smiled. “Yes, daddy, and thank you… but I’m not talking about room and board.” Her father looked angry again, but she raised a hand to stop him. “Or about you loving us.

“I’m talking about our knowing things as Guardians and not being able to share them with you even if it means…” she hesitated, but Mister Grayson understood her meaning clear enough.

“Even if it means you know where Voldemort is, or could assist us in stopping his ambitions for the wizarding world,” he added.

“Exactly,” Anna replied, looking longingly for an answer to the dilemma she had been struggling to resolve on her own.

Mister Grayson turned to think about it and once again Anna was impressed with her father’s analytical mind at work. After a moment, the man seemed to settle himself with an idea and then turned to her again.

“Anna… I’m not going to stand here and tell you that you shouldn’t tell me if you come to realize lives will be at risk. That, I’m afraid, will be up to your conscious and whatever rules you surmise are part of your becoming a Guardian. I must trust you will always do the right thing where the safety of others is put into question.”

He straightened. “Having said that… I too must remain guarded around you. If you were to, for example, overhear any Ministry plans that run contrary to your mission, your response to what you hear might not be to my liking.”

Anna frowned and her father suddenly looked uncomfortable. “For instance: you and your friends went into the Shadowed Forest to stop those smugglers from stealing from the nests of Knowtor.”

“Yes…?”

“Now that I know you’re safe again, I will admit your actions seemed admirable. However, if I were to make a decision regarding those cliffs that put the dragons as risk…” Anna gasped and her father immediately held up his hand, “albeit… with all the best intentions for the world’s survival… I should think you and the Guardians would move to protect the cliffs from me as well.”

Anna thought about it and then nodded. “Yes… we probably would.”

“So you see…” he continued, “your question to me is the same question I have for you: how are we going to make this work?” Anna’s expression turned glum. It was obvious their dilemma was much more complicated that she first thought.

“I have a suggestion. I want us to live our lives as normal as is possible regardless of my new responsibilities as Minister and yours as a Guardian. If there comes a time where one of us begins to fill uncomfortable about an issue or a question regarding those responsibilities, or if we feel something has crossed the line of propriety… one only needs to tell the other that the subject is ‘Ministry’ or ‘Guardian’ business. We need to agree not to take such a statement personally, and the assumption from the both of us must be that the other is doing what they fill is right for the welfare of others, and in your case… for the benefit of magic.”

Anna thought about it and then looked at her father again. “Do you think that will really work?”

He shrugged. “I think… it’s the best we can offer one another.”

Anna turned to think again. She wondered if she really could keep something as vital as the security of others from her father if it ran contrary to her mission.

She looked at him and then sighed. “Let’s give it a try, daddy.”

“So…” he continued, “you can’t tell me what’s bothering Eric because…”

She heaved and shook her head. “It is Guardian business, daddy. I’m sorry.”

Her father frowned again, already realizing how difficult their arrangement was going to be for the both of them.

“Alright… then I’m forced to wait and see if Eric will eventually tell me himself what’s troubling him.”

They stood there looking at each other and Anna couldn’t help hearing his heartbeat beginning to quicken.

“I can tell there’s something else bothering you, daddy. What is it?”

He smiled and then reached into the pocket of his robes to retrieve a large red ruby. “Captain Hayman asked me to return this to you after we got home.” He handed the gem to her. “He said it was a piece to your kaleidoscope.”

Anna took it from him and gazed into its facetted surface to see several eyes staring back at her. “The Ruby of YU,” she whispered. She turned to look back at the kaleidoscope sitting on her dresser. “The most important piece of all,” she moaned.

“I know you never had the opportunity to ask the one question given you by the scope,” her father said and Anna looked at him knowingly. She understood what he would ask if given the opportunity; where is Voldemort?

Anna walked over and set the stone down next to the scope. “I can’t, daddy. I just… can’t help you in that way.”

Her father stared at her back for a long moment before he mumbled, “Anna… you don’t know how fine you are to me. You… are so courageous.”

She looked over her shoulder at him and smirked. “You mean… stubborn.”

Her father came over and took her by the hands and then, to Anna’s astonishment, she watched him drop to his knees before her.

“No… Anna. No… I mean fearless. You are one of so few who knows enough to put what is honorable before what is easy. In your mind, you have made an oath to keep what is magical safe… from Voldemort and from me. While it might be easy to say no to those you consider evil, it takes real courage to refuse me. Aristotle once said, ‘You will never do anything in this world without courage. It is the greatest quality of the mind next to your honor.’”

Her father wrapped his arms around his daughter and put his head against her stomach. “I’m so ashamed.”

Anna frowned. She had never heard her father say anything so surprising. “Ashamed, daddy? You? Why?”

“Do you remember what I told you last summer about the goals of politicians?”

Anna had to think back. “Yes… you said their main objective would be to hold onto power. But that isn’t you, daddy. You’re not like that at all.”

“I have so much responsibility now, Anna. You have no idea of the decisions I now have to make each and every day as the Minister of Magic. Already… I can feel the allure of so much power beginning to consume me.”

Anna wrapped her arms around her father’s head against her. “Oh, daddy. You’re only doing what you know is best for everyone. You have nothing to be ashamed of… and you’re going to be a wonderful Minister. I just know it.”

Her father looked up at her. “I know my asking you to use the scope in my favor runs against your conscious… and cannot say I won’t ask you again in the future. So, before the allure of power begins to erode what I claim to be as a man and as your father… let me call upon you now to hold onto your honor and what magic expects of you always,” The man hesitated, “because I don’t know if I can afford to be so understanding of the Guardian’s purpose tomorrow.”

Anna could feel the beginning of tears forming in her eyes. “I will, daddy, because whatever I have within me that knows what is right… comes from you.”

He smiled, kissed her hands, and then stood. “I love you,” he said, hugging her again.

“I love you too. Goodnight, daddy.”

He walked over and opened the bedroom door to leave, but he stopped to look back at the kaleidoscope once again.

Anna looked at the scope and then back to her father. “Please, Minister… I cannot.”

He smiled back at her. “I’ll let you get some sleep.”

The door closed and Anna dropped her head. She couldn’t imagine the pressure her father had to endure to insure every decision he made for both his family and the entire country was the correct one.

Anna sat in front of her mirror again and slowly began to brush her hair. All the while, she never took her eyes of the Ruby of YU and the eyes within staring back at her. To be honest, since finding her Ally again, Anna’s mind had never been far removed from the Verosapt and the knowledge of the hoard. She knew her father was in possession of the ruby on the trip home, but found herself uninterested in asking for it.

A few weeks ago, Anna would have crawled through hell itself to retrieve the ruby and get the answers to the questions most important to her. Now that the ruby had been returned, she found herself wanting for nothing. Certainly, she could ask where Voldemort was hiding, but to what end? She would never betray her neutrality for magic’s sake.

She could ask where her mother was hiding, but she already knew the answer. Victoria Grayson was in the Shadowed Forest, working to restrain Voldemort’s servant for as long as possible. And perhaps the servant would be reluctant to return to her master anyway given her failure to kill the first Guardian of Castlewood.

Her Ally had been returned to her and was now somewhere within the temporal folds of magic, renewing her strength for the battle to come.

Anna knew who had enslaved Sarah Bell and killed Michael Wendell, Sidney Heidelbach and the Spellsburg editor. All of those evils had been perpetrated by the same man, the vampire Arief Sugianto, the Walpurgis Collector, who in the most obvious twist of fate had been murdered by Voldemort.

The limping man had been identified and imprisoned, and what few smugglers had survived their incursions into the Shadowed Forest had been captured and the Ruby of YU was returned.

There were other questions she could ask, of course. Questions the entire wizarding world had been asking for years: why did Voldemort want to kill Harry Potter when he was a baby, and how did the Boy-Who-Lived actually survive? But those answers were really unnecessary but to satisfy her own curiosity at the expense of the Potter boy’s privacy.

What about Voldemort’s horcruxes? She might tell Thordarson and Dumbledore where to find them, but how again would that hold up to remaining neutral? She repeated the words Leola had said about one of Voldemort’s vessels… just a few simple words given to her by magic’s Ally. She rolled them around in her mind and found herself completely mystified by their meaning. Perhaps, Anna thought, she might pass them on to somebody who would understand their significance and sharing the information didn’t seem to put anything magical at risk. Perhaps she might point the right person in the right direction. Her Ally wanted her to have the information, but to what end? She wasn’t interested in looking for horcruxes herself. For doing so would only suit one purpose… to destroy Voldemort finally and forever, but that wasn’t her mission.

In the end, Anna decided there wasn’t anything she really needed from the Verosapt. She looked at the ruby sitting next to the scope and the many red eyes peering back at her from out of its facetted surface. She reached out and set the stone upon its mounting again and watched it magically fuse itself in place.

As she suspected would happened, a beam of red light shot into the ceiling and spread itself wide like a fan before her. In its center, a glowing billow of smoke began to swirl forth. The sound of chattering birds and buzzing insects filled the entire room as if from some far-off jungle and Anna watched as a very large object began to come forward on its knuckles and the face of an old gorilla appeared amid the red glow once more.

Knowing the Speaker of the Hoard wasn’t known for his good temper, Anna immediately moved to keep the rest of her family from hearing his roar. She raised her hand and flipped her fingers and a frosted curtain began to rise from the floor to enclose the entire bedroom.

“Thus it is again… the Keeper has at last called upon the wisdom of the Hoard.”

Anna frowned. While the great ape had always looked nearly ancient to her, he now appeared battered and scarred. His silver-gray fur was singed and there were several areas upon his face that looked burned.

“My god… what’s happened to you?” Anna asked him.

The great ape growled. “Thou art a witness, Keeper, to human treachery,” he replied heatedly, his deep, penetrating stare seething with contempt.

“What happened?”

“Thine naivety is below thy station, daughter of Victoria. You knoweth well the crimes done our person, clan and forest!” he yelled.

Anna cringed at the uproar and looked around the room to insure her spell of concealment remained intact. Tthen she remembered.

“Oh my God… the fire… when the kaleidoscope was nearly destroyed…”

“Human treachery,” the ape growled.

“But it wasn’t a human that damaged the scope… it was a dragon. You see… I rescued a dragon from a number of poachers who were trying…”

The gorilla suddenly roared loud enough to shake the plaster from the ceiling. “The Verosapt is all-knowing, child, where we haveth eyes to bear witness, and did’st behold your actions through dragon’s gaze, helpless to his fate but to watch! The little one, his journey monstrous with riotous chaos, brought to evil sedition before his first rap. Stolen with silkest foot from his mother, and beit the very grounds of Knowtor. Betrayal outside his mother’s case to light, first seen with eyes not of the hoard and absent his birther’s loving gaze for her delight and more. What actions mixt a creature to endure the cold and sunless journeys and death nearly brought absent his mother’s flames? All for malice’s sake, and as PROFIT AGAINST US!” he seethed.

Anna’s head dropped “Alright… yes… you’re right,” she admitted, “but most of the wizards responsible were killed,” she moaned, “taken by the forest.”

“But not all!” the ape raged back. “Justice awaits with clever intentions; her soft hand doeth guide to death’s joyous embrace for those the hoard still see.”

Anna frowned and then realized the obvious. “You saw all of it… didn’t you? The poachers, the Collector, the Death Eaters,” her eyes widened, “and Voldemort!”

The gorilla’s fangs were bared. “Where’in we have eyes to see.”

Anna turned to stare out her balcony window and toward the sea. The evil the hoard must see each and every day, she thought with wonder. It’s no wonder the view humans and wizards with such animosity.

“The time of thine entry has passed and cros’d rivers of patience long. Ask thy question; for unto you the hoard must abide in truth and you with me henceforth ‘til done. Sweet the smell of morn that hears not duty’s call to my ear bent. What matter cause to please us, but to resolve freely our part and by right of birth dost you stand Keeper of Verosapt?”

Anna looked over her shoulder at him. “I didn’t call you and I don’t have any questions to ask.”

An eyebrow was raised. “More human deceit…” he grumbled back.

Anna frowned and then turned to face him.

“No… really. I’ve thought about it and can’t think of anything I need to really know.”

“An odious truth for the Keeper be it so, for thus it is… the Verosapt wouldst be free of human intervention. Yet, here we are hence forth and forever more. I say again… ask thy question!”

“I told you… I don’t have any questions to ask; at least… nothing from me. I could ask a question for the Ministry of Magic or my father, of course…” she looked at him again. “But I won’t do that. The Guardians must remain neutral in the fight to come.”

The gorilla sneered. “Oh visions death foreknown and more my sisters burning; a lake of fire consuming all the eyes that see.” He studied her. “Is it thus the truth thou speaketh?”

Anna was resolute. “Yes… it is. I cannot help the Ministry in the battle to come. I can only work to prevent it from destroying magic.”

“Thus it is… you have not the cravings for knowledge still, of good gone and evil grown, from days passed through time?”

Anna shook her head.

“Hmmmm… then, human, place thy hand upon the blood-stone and we shall knoweth the truth within you.”

Anna frowned suspiciously.

“Upon the Ruby of YU, human. Thus it is… we wilt knoweth the Keeper’s heart be true.”

Anna raised her hand and cautiously placed it upon the ruby. The great ape looked down to stare at her fingers before a yellow light shot up through the back of Anna’s hand. It turned green and then blue, green again, orange, white, purple, and then to red. The light changed again and again, blazing through Anna’s hand before settling again on purple and the gorilla groaned.

“Thine heart doeth ache, little one, for there exists still a question within that you fear to ask.”

Anna was surprised. “No there isn’t.”

“Thou art still the proper owner of the scope,” the ape admitted glumly. “If indeed you hath no matters left undone, you wouldeth no longer be the Keeper of the eyes that see.” He peered out at her again. “Doeth not the righteous the unrighteous slain? Doeth not the evil who would be God set his souls in vessels unknown? Of hell set open upon the lands doeth pour fire midnight and morn?” The great ape stared at her knowingly. “Or be it… ask thy lasting question thou keepeth hidden deep…yet touched thrice o’er the cycle of seasons past.”

Anna frowned. “I don’t know what you mean,” she replied flatly.

“Touched thrice by Nouméa o’er the cycle of seasons past.

The Guardian blinked and then thought. “You mean… the Ore of Nouméa?”

“The ore is of magical matter true, thousands of years in creation ‘fore humans knew magic not. Thy heart’s deepeth secret was thus revealed thrice by the ore. Thrice to the only parts of Nouméa given by God to exist and speaketh within the heart of man with wise evaluation of right and wrong. Thus it is, your soul was set bare in the fiery presence of Nouméa and there thy heart’s lasting question was surely revealed.”

Anna recalled first touching the Ore of Nouméa on the edge of the Shadowed Forest after Nox had stolen it from the museum. She remembered hearing the voices of magic from within the ore speaking to her.

Your heart is now open, we see the truth

The love above all that binds you to youth

Set in sadness and wanting none other

Anna smiled. “The holder of your heart remains…”

“Thy mother…” the great ape finished.

Anna looked at him. “Yes… I remember now, but you said I’ve been in contact with the ore three times. I only remember seeing it once.”

“Thine memory only recalls the time more recent at thrice, but first… in the dungeons of Drogo.”

“What?” Anna swallowed hard… in Drogo? Where?”

“Within thus the archway outside the lower dungeons. Recall the flames of Nouméa did’st ask you about thine mother before entry.”

Anna’s mouth dropped. “The flames that blocked the entranceway… came from the Ore of Nouméa?”

“Thus, it is, the ore is buried there in the sand beloweth the archway.”

Anna’s mind was already racing ahead. “So that was the first time and the ore at the museum was the third…”

“The second occurrence did’st cometh within what humans assert to call the Hall of Wonders.”

Anna remembered a small pebble with a wick of green flame setting in a jade cube. She remembered the magic inside the drawer whispering to her mind about the depth of love. Anna never realized it was talking about her mother.

Three times she had been in contact with the only known pieces of the ore from Nouméa, and on all three occasions the ore sought to divulge her deepest desires and reveal the one question she had never dared to ask anybody… not even herself. She looked up into the gorilla’s deep penetrating stare and shuddered.

“Doeth now the Keeper seeth the question closest to its heart?” he asked her, knowingly. A tear rolled down Anna’s cheek. “The Keeper must ask thy question of the hoard that sees… and lend us to peace.”

She was trembling as she thought. Her mother had been tortured and broken, and forced into murdering her best friend. Worst of all, she was then compelled to accept the presence of another consciousness within her own mind. The servant was a devoted follower of a madman, and the other was meant to be a woman who at one time was a friend, a wife and a mother, or at least… that’s what Anna wanted to believe.

The truth was Anna had faced both her mother and Voldemort’s servant twice and on both occasions the line separating these two personalities was difficult to discern. Her Aunt Helawena wanted to bring her mother home, to put to an end to the spells placed upon her, and allow Victoria to return to her family, but was that really possible? There was only one way to really know for sure; one question that would determine once and for all what was truly possible.

“The hoard of the Verosapt expect thy examination, Keeper. Search deep thy soul for the knowledge thou seeketh with strength adjoined from above and alloweth desire to spring from wanting, but with worry yet allied. The jungles of the world await.”

Anna turned to face the creature squarely. After everything she had said to deny it, she knew he was right; there was something she wanted to know more than anything. She took a deep breath. “Does my mother… really love me?” The beast stared at her meaningfully with an all-seeing knowledge of her deepest desires. He raised an eyebrow and Anna felt pressed to explain. “I mean… given what she’s become… is she really capable of loving anybody?”

A wave of a thousand voices suddenly rang out. They were hooting, squawking and calling as one and the great ape of the hoard displayed his fangs in keen anticipation of their input.

“I am the representative of creature truth and knowledge,” he said with building pride. “Passed to me through the eyes of my brother creatures. The Keeper is wise to thwart the plots, trickeries and wiles meant to expel certainty and set truth to suffer. Thou hast asked the question within thy heart, and thus it is… we shalt seek to answer thee.”

He tilted his head back to listen to the increasing clatter of the world’s masses behind him and the entire hoard offered their voices from every corner of the globe to resolve Anna’s question. The great ape fell back into the clouds of smoke and after a full minute had passed his voice echoed into the room around her.

“We take thee back now nearest fifteen years…”

The clouds around the kaleidoscope began to clear and the chatter from the world’s forest and deepest oceans began to subside. Anna came forward, but at first there was nothing to see within the graying mist. And then she heard it. It was a soft melody, a haunting really, something she had heard so many times in her dreams since before her trip to Drogo castle. The melody was a favorite lullaby sung by her mother. The mist began to clear and Anna saw her own bedroom again, the very same from which she was presently standing, but the furniture and hangings were different; it was a nursery. Victoria Grayson finally came into view and her image took Anna’s breath away. The woman was radiant. Far from the retched soul Anna had found in Drogo the previous summer, her mother was beautiful and very happy with her pregnant state.

The woman was singing as she folded her unborn baby’s clothes and caressed her stomach. She looked around suddenly and smiled. For a moment, Anna thought she was smiling directly at her as she watched the woman, but a little boy ran into the room and dove into Victoria’s waiting arms.

“There’s my big boy!” Victoria sang, sweeping little Eric into the air and then onto her hip. The boy laughed as the two of them fell onto the large bed and she began to tickle him. He screamed and laughed loudly and Anna smiled. Eric’s laughter was the same as a little boy as it was the man he had become. Suddenly, Victoria yanked up the boy’s shirt and began blowing raspberries into his stomach and Eric, howling with laughter, tried desperately to push her away.

The woman stopped unexpectedly and groaned at a sudden bolt of pain in her lower stomach.

“Are you okay, mommy?” the boy asked her.

She smiled back at him. “Oh yes… I can feel your baby sister kicking again. I think we must have jostled her a little too much.”

“She kicked you? Is she mad?”

Victoria smiled. “No… no, of course not. She just wants to play too.”

“Can I feel her again?”

Victoria took the boy’s hand and gently placed it upon her stomach. “Right there.”

The boy waited. “I don’t feel anything.”

“Hold on… wait for it.”

“Ohhhh!” Eric yanked his hand away. “Was that the baby?”

“Yes… that’s your little sister. Oh my… she’s getting stronger.” She looked at him and smiled. “You know… I spoke with daddy about what we wanted to name her, and he really liked your suggestion.”

“Anna?”

“Yes… that’s the name we love the most.”

“Yippy!” he yelped and started clapping.

Victoria lay back on the bed and ran her hands over her stomach as she began to sing again.

“Mommy… you love Anna a lot, don’t you?” he asked her.

“Oh yes… I love her with all my heart.”

“More than me, or Tencha, or Dowla, or Damon?”

She looked at the boy and then pulled him down on top of her. “I love all of you so much. I love my big-boy Eric, his sisters Tencha and Dowla and baby Damon too. And now… I get to love Anna as well.”

“Can you really love all those people?”

She smoothed his hair. “I sure can. In fact, the more children you have, the more your love grows. You see… I love you a lot now, but when Anna comes, I’ll be able to love all of you even more because of her. And I’ll be able to love her a lot more, because I love you.”

“And daddy too?” he asked her.

“Oh yes. You see… Daddy is the source of all the love in this big house. It’s because of him that all of us each other.”

“NEAT!” Eric chirped.

“Did you eat lunch yet?”

“Not yet. Gabby and Widwick are making me a sandwich downstairs.”

“Well… why don’t you go downstairs and let me finish folding Anna’s new clothes and then I’ll come down to feed your little brother.”

“Okay, mommy.” He started to get up.

“Kiss-Kiss?” she called to him and the boy smiled. He ran around to the other side of the bed and kissed her on the lips.

“Thank you, sweetheart. I’ll be down in a minute.”

The boy ran to the door, opened it, turned and say, “Goodbye, Anna. I’ll see you downstairs too.” He gave his mother a quirky thumbs up before leaving.

Victoria fell back onto the bed and smiled.

And then as if from a far off corner of the room unseen, another voice was heard.

“Don’t get attached to the brat too much, Victoria. He’s becoming a distraction!”

The woman immediately bolted upright on the bed. “He’s not a distraction. He’s my son.”

“So you say,” screeched the voice again and Anna cringed. It was the other one sharing her mind.

“But only because you killed his real mother.”

“I didn’t… you did that!” Victoria squeaked.

“Deny it all you want, Victoria, but you were there. You helped to throw her body over the cliffs… heh-heh-heh.”

“You’re a murderer,” Victoria whispered.

“WE were doing our master’s bidding. Your pregnancy will soon come to any end and when our strength has returned… we will finish what we’ve started here and he will die!”

“No!”

“It will be done! The master has commanded it!”

“No! I love Boris… he is my life now!”

“Stupid girl! Would you bring the wrath of our beloved Dark Lord upon us again? Boris Grayson will die!”

Victoria suddenly leapt from the bed and seized the sides of her head in pain. “Your murdering has come to an end, fiend…” she struggled to tell the servant.

“No… I am the stronger one. I control this body now… the master has seen to that. You serve me!” the thing screeched.

And then to Anna’s surprise, Victoria stopped struggling to smile. “Not any more, or haven’t you noticed… that I speak now for both of us. It’s my voice the world hears when they see the two of us.”

“That is because I allow it… for now.”

“You’re lying… you have felt my strength increasing… despite the spells your master has placed upon us. I have a weapon now that keeps you away.”

“Weapon…. ha-ha-ha-ha…” the servant cackled. “A weapon? What foolishness is this you speak? You have no weapons unshared with me, you stupid girl.”

“Ah… but there is. For my weapon is love. You and your master cannot know what it’s like to truly love someone the way I love Boris… and,” Victoria smiled down and ran her hands lovingly over her stomach, “the way I love my baby… Anna.”

The thing inside her only laughed again. “ha-ha-ha-ha…” and Victoria’s smiled fell away. “What is love... but a stupid emotion left to the weak!”

“You’re wrong. My love for my baby is growing stronger every day and with it you will weaken. I can feel you weakening Death Eater. The only reason you haven’t already tried to kill my husband is because of the love we have for each other. And when my Anna is born… my love will become even stronger and you’ll be forced to flee and will be no more!”

“Traitor! The master will punish you most severely for speaking such lies! We are his to command!”

“No… my love for Anna will destroy you. Let me show you the strength of love, murderer.”

Victoria walked over to the mirror and gazed into her own reflection. She placed her hands on her belly again and smiled. “I love you Anna, my darling baby girl.”

She looked up into the mirror again and her expression dropped. “Stop it!” the servant commanded. “Stop this silly nonsense at once.”

But Victoria’s smile returned. “I love you, my dear, sweet child. And together…” she looked into the face of the Death Eater again, “we will send her away!”

“No! You cannot… I am the master here. Stop!”

“You will go away. Love commands you to be gone!”

“No! Stop!”

“My love for Anna and my husband and my children will be my weapon. YOU WILL BE GONE!”

And suddenly, the other presence disappeared from Victoria’s face entirely. She serenely leaned in into the mirror to look deep into her own eyes and smiled. “Love conquers all!” she whispered.

Victoria looked down at her baby again. “Let’s go and see what daddy is doing.” She left the room and the scene finally darkened, but before Anna could wipe the tears out of her eyes another swirling mass of gray clouds bloomed forward and the great ape’s voice was heard again.

“We take thee to the present… somewhere within the Shadowed Forest.”

Anna looked up in surprise. “What?”

The clouds began to clear once more and Anna saw it was raining and she was staring at the entrance to a dark cave. Her view entered the cave, like she was borrowing the eyes of some small creature of the hoard. She was running along the ground where finally, from out of the darkness, Anna heard the horrible voice of the servant once again.

“You shall be punished for your insolence!” A woman screamed.

“I won’t allow you to kill my daughter,” a whimpering voice said in reply. “I don’t care what he does to us.”

“What our lord commands shall be done, you pathetic swine of a girl!”

“No… love conquers all, you fiend.”

“Shut your nasty little mouth. You have failed to obey and will be punished most severely.”

“You mean… WE will be punished. If I must have you within me… then you will suffer as well!”

“No… the lord will be merciful!”

“When have you ever seen his mercy, Death Eater?”

Slumped in a corner of the back of the cave, Victoria Grayson was wet and shivering in the cold.

“We will never return to him,” her mother said.

“We will. We must prostrate ourselves before him and kiss his feet and we will beg him for his forgiveness,” replied the servant.

“And then he will kill us both,” Victoria warned her. “And I will finally be free of you!”

“No! He will surely forgive me. I am his greatest servant.”

“And I hate him more than any other creature breathing or whoever breathed.”

“Blasphemer! You are not worthy of him. He will fulfill his promise to do away with you and give me my own name!”

“I would rather die a thousand times… before allowing you to hurt my daughter with what remains of me.”

“You… pathetic little wench! You are nothing. I am the master’s servant. I remain in control of you now and always!”

“Not always, murderer, not when my daughter’s love is near to help me.” Victoria looked up to close her eyes and then smiled. “I can feel her love even as we speak. She must be very close to us.”

“She will die just as the master has commanded!”

“So close,” Victoria whispered. “I feel her presence,” her eyes began to scan the cave, “she’s all around me right now.”

“You foolish girl… you feel nothing!”

“Anna… if you can hear me, darling, I love you and I will never, ever let this thing within hurt you again!”

“Fool… she is not here. I would smell her blood if she were present.” The Death Eater seemed to look directly at Anna through the distance between them and then she unexpectedly smiled.

“Ahhh… but we do have company here in our hiding place,” said the servant eagerly. “And we hunger for warm flesh.” The servant crawled forward on her hands and knees, looking like a huntress eyeing her pray. “A tasty little rat will suffice until bigger prey comes to us.” She crouched low, still looking into the eyes of the Verosapt and directly at Anna.

She skulked forward again and Anna fell back in response. It was as if her mother was about to crawl right though the view of her like a window into her own bedroom.

“But’s what is this? Whoever heard of a rat with red eyes?” The servant laughed maliciously. “A little spy, perhaps? Hmmm… maybe your daughter is here with us after all, Victoria.” She came closer, her lips curling an ugly smile and Anna stepped back again. “My master wants you dead, Anna Grayson… and so you WILL BE DEAD… very soon.”

The whites of her eyes filled with blood and she unexpectedly lunged forward, baring her deadly fangs. Her face suddenly filled the entire room and Anna screamed as she fell backward to the floor. There was a sharp squeal of sudden pain and a tiny part of the hoard was no more. Anna looked up and saw the great ape looking down at her from out of the cloudy mist.

“The Keeper’s question was one of deep emotion but devoid of witness. Thus, the hoard did’st hope the sharing of these images wouldst given thee a clearer understanding of thy mother’s mind. The telling of tales abandoned of feeling is fraught with danger, little one, more so when the solution to thine question is hidden deep within the mind of another and where the hoard cannot see. Did’st our efforts to convey these imagines answer thy question?”

Anna slowly got to her feet and then sat down on the edge of her bed. Her mother was stronger against the servant within the two visions the Verosapt had shared with her. She wiped the tears from eyes and looked up.

“My mother can be strong; strong enough sometimes to push the Death Eater aside.”

The great ape raised a single brow. “Thus it is… thy mother doeth contain strength enough of spirit undiminished… when allowed to meditate and reap oft upon her memories of love and joy… for her husband, her family… and… for the Keeper… her only daughter… you.”

Anna thought about it and then slowly nodded. “Love conquers all,” she whispered.

The gorilla cocked his head. “Alas… not eternally; yet against the devil’s multitudes … love can equal victory infinite.” The great ape came forward again and his head seemed to fill the entire room.

“But be thee warned and not far deceived, for love can corrupt no less than hate to waste, and love though present and its presence many a sign, thy mother’s other serves but to eternize woe till death in you becomes its final remedy. Even thus in fallen state to her master true, and in latest failure in death shall pay, she would live in thy destruction, though fallen state, content.”

He watched her closely as Anna turned to think.

“As to the Keeper’s question of love, you mother’s other did’st reveal her Dark Lord’s evil promise more.”

Anna looked at him. “What promise?”

“Albe’t repentance delivered, she doth hope to undo her ruinous failure with many acts done well may’st cover and secure her master’s promise… for a new name.”

Anna frowned. “I… don’t understand. What new name?”

“Her Dark Lord intends to end what is left of the Keeper Victoria and thus deliver unto his servant her greatest desire.”

“And what is that?”

“To serve him - unhampered by the Keeper’s thoughts embedded still.”

Anna stared at him. “So you’re saying… that Voldemort intends to kill my mother anyway?”

“Thus… he will try, but doubtful to succeed.”

“Why not?”

“He destroys not that which he knoweth not, and erewhile existed as testament to a mother’s strength that cannot thusly… be set aside. Strength added from above, the basis resideth, and so it is the one thing the Dark One despaireth without hope to destroy. For doing so wouldeth, Amen, destroy the servant as well, but with evil yet linked. It is this your mother’s weapon hidden, testament to her daughter true, and rightly so… the answer given thy question.”

Anna stared at him searchingly.

“It is love, Keeper. It is Victoria’s love for you that redeems her quite from evil ambitions and death’s covetous clutches still. Love… and memories kept secret, devoted to heart, indeed, conquers all.”

The great ape stared at her, his narrowed eyes suddenly relaxing. “Dost the Keeper understand us?”

Anna gazed up at the great ape and then smiled.

The creature’s lip curled in a way that taunted his gratification before he began to fall back. “The Keeper is thus… satisfied,” he announced loudly, and the jungles behind him began to chatter with excitement. “We shall cometh again at the time of thy entry to collect once again thy thirst for insight and truth.”

He stopped to look down once more and added, “Thy mother, once a human, is set with great and greatest love true… for her kin, her mate and her daughter still. The blood-lust transformation has added unto the Dark Lord’s ambition to pervert Victoria’s faith and forsake God her Creator, and made her into a creature removed from the hoard. But his falsities and lies have never set to diminish the weapon of love less sadistic within. Thou shalt suffer less the pain in course and happy echoes, and idle weapons dropped giv’n these meditations. Use thy reflections as thy shield and helmes to protect and prostrate not or bend to sorrow still, little one. Think or’d thy mother’s strength of heart… and knoweth true… the same heart doeth set within thine chest from the womb.”

The gorilla’s face folded away within the mist, and the fan of red light immediately closed into a single beam. “Until thee call unto the hoard once more, the Verosapt bids the Keeper farewell. May the great Creator of all show thee the healing path of acceptance. Meantime… we pray thee fair well in the times ahead.” The beam of light disappeared within the ruby once more, which closed again with a sharp click.

THREE

Albus Dumbledore was sitting at his desk at Hogwarts and reading the latest headline from the Daily Prophet. It was dated June twentieth:

HARRY POTTER VINDICATED!

The old wizard was smiling, but then frowned at the smaller headline beneath it.

READERS CALL FOR FUDGE’S RESIGNATION

“Poor Cornelius.”

A moment later, the crimson phoenix perched next to the Headmaster’s desk screeched loudly as a tiny owl zoomed in the open window.

Dumbledore looked up and grinned at the bird who was twittering madly as he circled in the high ceiling. The owl finally landing upon the headmaster’s wrist to shake off the morning dew before showing him a bit of parchment tied to its leg. The wizard’s blue eyes sparkled as he examined the owl and untied the note.

“Otus Megalotis,” he said, knowingly. He unfolded the parchment and smiled again.

“Why… it’s from the first Guardian of Castlewood.” He looked down at the bird who hopped down upon the desk to nip at the paper.

“Yes… I expect it would be very important, given it was delivered by such an impressive owl from across an entire ocean.” Hobbs puffed up his chest with pride as he glanced over his shoulder at the phoenix staring down at him.

Dumbledore’s amusement slowly fell as he read Anna’s note.

Dear Sir,

I thought it critical to write to you about some important information that has come into my possession. It’s in regard to the subject my father spoke to you about after my first trip to the Ministry of Magic almost one year ago. I think I know where one of the objects that you were discussing might be found.

Dumbledore recalled his conversation with Boris Grayson after Anna freed a trapped soul within the Hall of Wonders; the same soul who had told Anna about Voldemort’s horcruxes. The wizard stirred uneasily in his chair before reading on.

I can only pass on a few words that were delivered to me recently by a source I cannot reveal. I do not understand their meaning, or whether they might make a difference in the state of the wizarding world today, but I give them to you with the hope that you might find them meaningful:

Look for a ring in the house of Gaunt.

Staggered, Dumbledore rose from his chair and looked out the window to focus his thoughts, ‘The house of Gaunt’? His eyes widened. “Little Hangleton!” He looked down at the note again.

I leave this information with my prayer they might be put to good use. I wish you the greatest success in your quest, and please know you take my admiration and respect with you always.

Most Sincerely, Anna Grayson.

There was a fire in the headmaster’s eyes, as he raised the parchment and then watched it burst into flames.

“Put to good use?” The old wizard slowly lifted his wand from out of his robes and smiled. “I can assure you, my young Guardian, I most certainly will.”

With a swooping wave of this arm, there was a loud crack and the Headmaster of Hogwarts was gone.

FOUR

Trog and Glors were arguing in the rain as they walked through the woods.

“I won’t have it, no!” Glors argued.

“But she is the one, she is. She hears the voices, she does,” Trog argued back.

“She is a human, she is. She does not know these forests or the mountains beyond, she cannot! I will protect my mountain from all intruders, I will!”

“Anna Grayson is the one the voices have chosen, she is, and I know her in my bones. She is honorable and will protect our forest, she will. We must help her!”

“Bah! Are you blinded, Trog? Not some human cub, no! You saw what the wizards did in our forest and to the flying ones. They stole from the nests for gold, they did.” Glors howled her frustration at the rain falling down upon them and then turned to knock over a tree with one swipe of her massive horns. “They are all the same, they are. Treacherous wizards – thieves all, they are!”

“The Guardians are different, they are, and she is the one that will lead them. I have seen her honor and the voices say she is the one, she is.”

He looked up into the darkening sky and sighed. “I must gather the wood for the fires, I must.” He looked around the wet ground and groaned miserably. “It will be difficult to find wood that doesn’t smoke, it will.”

Trog looked at Glors and could see she was completely wet with rain through to her beard. He heaved remorsefully.

“Come into my cave tonight, you must,” he told her, caringly. “You are rain-wet all over, you are. Let me build a fire to warm your bones.”

Glors looked at him and frowned. “The rut has ended, ogre. Where are your senses?”

Trog yanked on his beard angrily. “Warm your bones, I will, nothing more!”

Glors smiled behind his back and then stopped to stare at the clearing in the forest. She sneered and then grumbled back, “You know nothing, do you, when offering the evening fires without remembering to souse those of breakfast?”

Trog frowned and then looked up to see the entrance to his cave in the clearing and the strange green reflections dancing on the inner walls.

“I had no breakfast fires, this morning, I did not,” he whispered.

Glors frowned. “Who then is making fires for you, husband?” she growled back. “We will battle tonight if another beard is forgetting the rut has passed, we will!”

The two crept up to the cave’s entrance and peeked inside. They could see the strange light prancing across the ceiling as they entered. In the middle of the space, where a circle of rocks formed a depression used to make his daily fire, Trog could see that somebody had cleared away the old coals and there in the sand sat a small stone with a wick of green flame.

Glors frowned. “Strange, it is.” She looked over at him. “How is it a rock burns, it does, and consumes nothing?”

Next to the circle of stones sat a note on one of his sitting stumps. Trog picked up the note and leaned in close to the burning stone to see. The flame on the stone suddenly bloomed and burst into a much larger fire, filling the entire cave with light and welcomed warmth. Trog’s eyes widened in surprise, for he had seen a stone like this only once before. It was something the wizards called the Ore of Nouméa. The ogre smiled eagerly and then looked down at the note to read:

Dearest Trog, I hope you will accept this gift in thanks for all you’ve done for the Guardians. I pray it will always keep your cave as warm as the hearts that beat within you. I hope you have a restful summer, Trog, my good friend and greatest ogre, and know that you have my greatest devotion always. Love, Anna.

Trog smiled as he looked at the flames and at the steam that it caused to his wet clothes. The flames danced in his eyes as he whispered, “Always… warm?” The ogre stepped closer to the flames and watched them bloom once more. The blaze grew larger and hotter as he reached out, until the center of the stones was an inferno of green light that reached nearly to the ceiling.

Of course, the ogre couldn’t have known about Anna’s second trip to the Hall of Wonders to visit an old witch she had once seen studying a magical object there. A jade cube with drawers of silver and gold, and within each drawer an object of priceless value was kept. Anna remembered seeing a small pebble with a wick of green flame that had whispered a message about the deepest love within her heart. It wasn’t until that second visit, however, that Anna realized the magic within this rare ore from Nouméa was talking about Anna’s love for her mother. The jade cube was more than willing to surrender all of its contents to magic’s Sithmaith, but Anna thought better of raising any suspicions within the HOW if she had nothing in which to trade. So she gave the cube the only treasure she had in her possession… a cross of gold with a centered emerald that hung from a chain around her neck.

Ever since the discussion with her Aunt Helen about Victoria Grayson’s possible return, Anna had stopped thinking of the necklace as something that belonged to her. Instead, she had decided to keep it safe for her mother, and what better place to insure its security than in a magical cube within the lowest catacombs of the Ministry of Magic. She insisted, of course, that the magic guarding the contents of the cube understood that no other object should be accepted in trade for her mother’s necklace until Anna herself returned one day to reclaim it.

The old witch helping Anna was very surprised that the cube would trade one of only three known pieces of ore from Nouméa for the simple necklace. But, then again, the woman also had to admit, even after all her years of study, she really didn’t understand the magic within the cube at all.

Outside cave in the rain, every creature within a mile could hear Trog’s howl of happy excitement. “Wonderful! Marvelous, it is!” the ogre hollered in jubilation. He started dancing around the building fire, his stomping feet heavy enough to make the ground around his cave shake.

The ogre finally had to step back before he felt himself burst into flames from the heat of the ore and fell into Glors’s open arms behind him. She was impressed by the gift, but amused more by Trog’s delight in it.

Trog could feel Glors’s body soften against his back as she leaned down to whisper into his ear. “I am dry now, husband, and warmed well by this unending fire. I will sleep with you until the rains end, I will.” She reached around and lovingly tugged on his beard.

Trog smiled as he looked up over his shoulder at her. Her massive horns were shining beautifully in the fire’s dancing light.

“But the rut has ended,” he whispered softly. “Where are your senses, ogre?”

She growled affectionately into his ear again. “The waning moon is still nearly full, it is, husband.” She tugged on his beard again. “And your cave… is very warm.”

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