Anna Grayson and The Dragon's Lair

Guardian Hall

ONE

As Eric escorted the girls up the winding road toward the castle, a Crimson Guard suddenly appeared from an adjoining ally.

“Halt citizen.” Eric immediately noticed the small badge pined upon his Crimson breast. It had the letter ‘D’ embossed upon it. “I need to see your identification, please,” said the guard stiffly.

Eric glanced over to Anna, but did not argue or question the order. He immediately withdrew a folded piece of parchment from the pocket of his robes.

“And yours?” the guard said, pointing at Anna.

“They’re students. This lot doesn’t have their papers yet because they’ve only just arrived,” Eric explained.

The guard looked at the group skeptically and then down at Eric’s papers again. He began to wave his wand over the top of the parchment.

“You can vouch for all of them, Mr. Grayson?” asked the guard without bothering to look up.

“Yes, I can.”

“Have you been with them since they disembarked from the ship?”

“Most of the time, yes.”

The guard stared at the three girls and then pointed his wand down into the paper. “Stigma-Noxius!” A silvery ‘X’ lit the page and then flew off in a circle around the group before landing upon Eric’s chest. The guard looked up to force a smile.

“I suppose there will be a number of new students heading toward the castle within the next few minutes?” Eric nodded. “Very well. Sorry to bother you, sir.” And with a slight dip, he said, “Have a good day.”

“Thank you — and you the same,” Eric replied as they watched the guard disappear into the ally again.

Anna looked at Eric and the silver ‘X’ blazing upon his chest. “Wow,” Daddy said the security was going to be tight, but I had no idea…” she reached up to touch the brand, which immediately spit a spark through her finger.

“Ouch! Hey!”

“No — no!” Eric warned, “Don’t touch. The security brand is for me only and should last the rest of the day; certainly long enough to get you up to the castle.”

Eric led them across the drawbridge and through the heavy portcullis. Anna smiled as she passed through the tunnel leading them through onto the stately grounds. She could hear the voices of magic vibrating excitedly around her from the stones within the walls. Finally, Eric turned to bid them farewell.

“This is where I leave you,” he said, leaning in to kiss Anna’s forehead.

“Oh? Can’t you come to dinner with us in the Rotunda? All of the families will be watching from the ceiling.” Anna recalled the previous year when her father’s image had been magically projected onto the Rotunda’s dome to watch the first-years joined to their union halls.

“I’m afraid not. I have to prepare for my new job starting tomorrow.”

Anna looked taken aback. “New job? But you’re supposed to be here to continue your studies. What job?

Her brother smiled. “My studies won’t take all of my time, Anna. You seem to forget… I came of age almost a year ago. I have to find work if I want to continue to live in Spellsburg.”

“But, surely… daddy is helping you…”

Eric rolled his eyes. “Our father would help me… of course, if I let him, but being an adult also means making my own way in the world.”

“I think you’re taking a very admirable attitude, Eric,” Gwen said satisfactory. Anna looked appalled at her friend. “Hey… Gabby and Widwick won’t be around to wash your clothes forever, you know. The man’s gonna to have to fix his own soup sometime.” She looked at Eric and smiled. “At least, that is, until some young maiden decides to do it for him.” Eric grinned.

Anna scowled at Gwen. “Let’s see if you feel the same way when you turn seventeen.”

Her friend giggled. “Huh… by then, I will have completely changed my opinion on the matter entirely. By the way,” she said, turning to Eric again, “where exactly are you staying in the city?”

“I’ve taken lodging over at The Blotter. I’ll have a clear view of the new Guardian Hall to the south.”

Now Gwen looked appalled. “You mean that three-story dump of a hotel off of Leth Alley?”

“Oh… it isn’t all that bad,” Eric chuckled, “and the rent is very reasonable.”

“Leth Alley?” Anna interrupted, looking back at Gwen.

“It’s a really scary part of town. Most of the students wouldn’t be caught dead in there. Very rough back in those dark alleys,” she finished warningly. “I take back what I said before,” Gwen said warningly, glancing back over her shoulder at Eric, “Anna… you ought to report this to your father right away.”

“You will not!” Eric said laughing. He could see Anna looking fearfully at him. “Now — now… it’s not all that bad… really. With some curtains and a wand to the floor, I’ll have it shipshape in no time.” Anna and Gwen still looked skeptical.

“Anyway — I’m off,” he said, taking Anna’s hand in his. “And I’ll see you tomorrow morning, little sister.”

“You will?” Anna replied in surprise. “How’s that?”

Eric smiled and then shook his head. “You’ll see… it’ll be my little surprise for you.” He kissed her again. “Have a good dinner. I’ll expect to hear about all the new Guardians tomorrow.” He shook Sarah Bell’s hand and then turned to glare at Gwen. “Trouble-maker!” he whispered, before quickly turning to head off.

As Anna watched Eric go, she couldn’t help but to feel Castlewood would be a completely different place without her brother by her side. She glanced over to find Gwen looking like a little girl who had just had her favorite toy taken away from her. Anna could tell she felt the same way about her brother.

Soon the first-years were separated from the rest and hurriedly led away by a rather gruff looking Crimson Guard, while the rest of the students proceeded to the Rotunda and their dinner. As Anna, Sarah, and Gwen entered the Great Rotunda, they immediately found their purple-draped table and the rest of their Guardian Hall waiting for them

“There they are,” said TJ, rising to give them all a friendly wave. “Over here, y’all,” she said in her jovial, Texas-twang, pointing to a set of empty seats next to her.

Anna said hello to everybody while taking inventory of their number as she sat. There were still nearly fifty of them in all given the fact there were so few seventh-years reentering the Mirror of Enlightenment the previous year.

“So how was your holiday?” TJ and Janet Wardrop asked simultaneously. The two girls immediately looked at each other in horror and in a rushed to pull out their wands.

JINX!” - “JINX!” They said nearly in chorus.

Red ribbons suddenly flew from their wands with a crack and began to fly about the room. Several other students stopped their conversations and watched in amusement as the ribbons turned to fly back to their owners. One of the ribbons hit TJ directly in the face and sent her flying backwards over her chair while the other froze in the form of a bloody claw, reaching longingly for Janet’s mouth. The entire Rotunda burst into riotous howls of laughter. Janet was leaning back against her chair in anticipation of the red hand’s attack and then peered up to see it still frozen in mid air staining to get to her. She raised her wand again.

Finite Chirotha!” he whispered fearfully and the hand immediately fizzled in a puff of red smoke.

Anna jumped to her feet. “What the hell did you do!” She looked down to see TJ struggling to get to her feet, with a red hand clasped tight across her mouth. Anna reached down to help her friend up and found TJ pointing at the thing attached to her face. She was looking at Anna pleadingly.

“What the hell is that thing?” Anna said, looking back to find her fellow Guardians laughing hysterically. TJ grabbed Anna’s shoulders and pulled her around to look at her. She started pointing at the thing on her face.

“TJ… what should I…” Anna began to say, when suddenly there was another crack and the hand was gone. TJ wheezed and started to cough.

“Ah, you shouldn’t have said her name,” Janet said amusingly. Now we’ll have to listen to that twang all through dinner.

TJ looked up at Anna. “Thanks for that, it was gettin’ hard to breathe.”

“What happened to you?”

“It was the jinx curse,” Gwen explained. “It’s been attached to the entire castle since the end of last term. Nobody knows who did it.” Anna helped TJ back to her chair as Gwen continued. “Some think it was one of the seventh years after graduation, but I don’t think so.”

“Neither do I,” said Janet. “I believe it was a teacher.”

Anna looked skeptical. “A teacher? Why would a teacher put a curse on the entire castle?”

“Who knows, but you don’t see the Chancellor or anybody else trying to remove it, do you? It’s the only thing that makes sense.”

“I don’t understand. Were the two of you forced to attack each other?”

TJ rolled her eyes. “Nah… if you’re caught sayin’ the same thang as somebody else, you have to say JINX, else you end up in-da’ moat outside.”

“So what was that claw-thing that attacked you?”

“Punishment for bein’ too slow on the draw. Once the thang grabs ya, you can’t get away ‘til someone says yer name.”

Within minutes, the Guardian’s happy reunion was cut short as Chancellor Thordarson stood in his observation box and motioned the students for their attention. He was dressed in splendid ropes of deepest black and silver trim, and sporting his usual dark sunglasses that always made him look like a bandit.

“The beginning of a new year,” he said joyfully. “It is so very good to see you all back again, safe and sound, with eager minds ready to learn. I have a few announcements to make, but… not to worry… I will be brief.”

He paused to take what seemed to Anna a very deep and reluctant breath. “There has been quite a bit of news out of the Old Country regarding the return of Lord Voldemort.” There was an auditable gasp at the name from the crowd of students. “I myself made this announcement before your departure in June, sharing to my best of ability, this dreadful news. Although there does seem to be a reluctance on the part of the Ministry — and yes — maybe some of your own parents, to believe he has returned, I stand by my statements of two months ago, and that of several other learned wizards much greater than I, that he has indeed come back.”

To Anna’s great surprise, there was an audible growl of growing decent and shaking of heads among the students, which the Chancellor seemed to ignore.

Gwen leaned into Anna. “Learned wizards? Who the heck is more learned than Thordarson?”

Anna looked at Gwen and then at several others looking over at them. “Dumbledore,” Anna replied cautiously.

The chancellor continued. “While the Ministry and your parents read and debate what is being said, they are still depending on us here at the Academy to carry on with your studies, and that is precisely what we intend to do.” Finally there seemed to be some acknowledged agreement within the Rotunda.

“There will, however, be heightened security both inside the grounds and in the city of Spellsburg, which — I am sure, many of you have already witnessed first hand while in route to the castle. Although this additional security is not in direct response to Lord Voldemort’s return — I for one am extremely pleased with its deterring effects to anything outside the norm. You will do well not to leave the castle until you have been given your security papers, which should be forthcoming within the next two days.”

He gazed worriedly up at them, turning his head left to the right and then all the way into the back. “I beg you; do not risk yourself to the unknown. Stay vigilant and alert to anything suspicious, and report anything that seems out of place to my staff or a member of the Crimson Guard.

Finally, he glanced behind him as Professor Titan leaned in to whisper something into his ear.

“Oh, yes… I almost forgot.” He turned his attention back to the students. “I am also very pleased to announce the addition of a new member of staff here at Castlewood, who will be teaching highly specialized classes to our new Guardian Union.”

Anna and the rest of the Guardians looked up, straining their necks to see.

“It gives me great pleasure to present Professor Bartholomaeus Qwaad, formally of the Ministry of Magic.”

A tall and stern looking man with broad shoulders stood to acknowledge the smattering of light applause within the room. The man quickly nodded and then took his seat once again.

“Professor Qwaad will be teaching Care of Magical Objects, The Study of Magical Places, and Auror Defensive Skills, Level One.” There was a sharp gasp of gleeful surprise from the Guardian table.

“Auror Defense Training?” said the fourth-year Guardian named John Gryskiewicz. “Outstanding!” There were several excited nods from the others at the table.

“Oh my…” Gwen moaned worriedly. “My mother is going to freak when she hears about this.” She looked at Anna and Sarah. “She only barely tolerates my decision to join the Guardians anyway. When she hears about this…”

“But you didn’t join the Guardians, you were selected,” Sarah reminded her.

“Yeah? Try telling that to my father,” Gwen growled back. “He still believes all this Guardians stuff was my crackpot idea just to worry my mother to death. Anna? What’s the matter?” She noticed Anna looking very worried.

“Barthel Qwaad?” Anna moaned out loud.

“Barthel?” Gwen said, looking back at the new teacher. “I thought his name was Barf-a-loud, or something like that.”

Anna looked at her. “It is… but they call him Barthel for short. He used to work in the Hall of Wonders at the Ministry.”

“The Hall of Wonders…” TJ said, astonished. You’ve been inside da’ HOW?”

“Yeah…” Anna unthinkingly, not noticing the stunned faces all around her, “I had an appointment to see the Minister and I saw Qwaad there. He was working as a special secretary to the Minister.”

“Hold on,” and a sixth-year girl from across the table. “You met with the Minister of Magic?”

Anna could see the whole table now looking wide-eyed at her. She was suddenly embarrassed. “Oh… yeah, I did. The Minister is… well… she’s kind of like… a relative.”

“The Minister of Magic is one of your relatives?”

“Her aunt, actually,” Gwen added, amused by all the startled faces now staring at them. “Yeah… Minister Barkelnap is Anna’s grandmother’s sister. I guess I forgot to tell you,” she finished with a chuckle.

Everybody remained speechless.

“Yeah… well… never mind that,” Anna hastened to add, leaning in. “Listen… the Minister and I had kind of a fight when she threatened to assign somebody from her office to watch over the Guardians.”

“Watch over us?” said one of the boys, “What the heck does that mean?”

Anna looked back up at Qwaad sitting at the front. She could see he was staring directly at her, as if listening to her every word. “The Ministry has threatened to expel me or any body else from Castlewood for repeating what the Chancellor just told us. If we tell anybody You-Know-Who is back, the Minister’s spies will report us and we’ll be sent home.”

Once again her fellow Guardians looked stunned.

“And you’re believin’ this Qwaad-person, the new teacher, is the Minister’s rat?” TJ asked her worriedly.

Anna looked up at the man again. He was still staring at her. “I’m almost sure of it.”

After a very long pause, a fifth-year John Baird spoke. “Well… I, for one, don’t have a problem at all with this.”

Everybody turned to look at him.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Gwen retorted angrily.

“It means… I don’t have a problem keeping my mouth shut about You-Know-Who’s return. In fact… it would seem a fair trade to get Auror training… just for keeping quiet.”

Gwen was suddenly incensed. “You’re not serious? Can’t you see this guy Qwaad is going to make trouble for us? Are you so blind you can’t see that?”

“No — I don’t see it that way at all,” the boy countered. “Listen — we’ll only get into trouble if we’re caught running around saying You-Know-Who is back, yeah? Well… I’m not planning on saying that because…” he paused for a moment, looking around at the rest, “because I don’t believe it.”

Anna was stunned. “You don’t believe Thordarson? You don’t believe Dumbledore? The greatest wizards of our time… you don’t believe them?”

“No… I don’t,” the boy replied flatly. “And I’m not the only one. Haven’t you heard…? He leaned in cautiously. “Dumbledore has been thrown out of the Wizarding gamot. Nobody believes him.”

“Thordarson does!” Anna snapped back.

“Yeah… well… obviously that doesn’t count for very much these days, does it? I heard my father telling my mom that the Minister asked for Thordarson’s resignation from his post as Chancellor.”

“His resignation? You’re not serious?” said another girl sitting next to him.

“Of course I’m serious,” the boy said smugly. “Thordarson refused, of course, and apparently the school’s Board of Governors had to put it to a vote. He barely squeaked by on a seven-to-five opinion to keep him on this year. Thordarson’s support of Dumbledore and his bogus claims of You-Know-Who’s return almost got him sacked.”

“They’re not bogus claims,” Anna yelped. “There was a witness to his rising again.”

“What…? You mean that crackpot kid out at Hogwarts, Harry Potter? You’ve got to be joking? Haven’t you been reading the papers? Potter is a loon; everybody knows that. His brains were all scrambled up by that curse that hit him when he was a baby.”

“He is not a loon!” Anna said, jumping to her feet.

The other boy looked surprised by Anna’s sudden outburst, but smiled anyway. “Look… the fact is… Harry Potter is the only one who actually saw You-Know-Who rising from the dead. And for some stupid reason that nobody really understands, Dumbledore believes Potter, and Thordarson believes Dumbledore… and now you believe Thordarson. But it all comes back to Potter, doesn’t it, and whether or not you believe his story? And I — just don’t.”

“I don’t believe it just because Thordarson believes it. I know myself that it’s true,” Anna countered angrily.

The other boy looked surprised. “Is that right? Care to fill the rest of us in, then? What proof do you have that he’s returned. Did you see him the day after you met with the Minister of Magic or something?”

Anna stood there fuming. She had lived through so much recently, breaking into Drogo, finding Victoria Grayson possessed by mental illness because of Voldemort’s cruel torture to get to her father, finding her mother… a vampire. And now she was being challenged by this idiot boy; it was unbearable to her, but she couldn’t tell them about her mother. Finally, Gwen stood beside her and whispered into her ear.

“Anna… I understand what you’re thinking right now. You don’t have to tell them anything. It isn’t worth it — and it wouldn’t convince him anyway. Come on… please… sit down.”

Anna finally sat, still staring angrily at the boy across the table.

“What? Nothing to say? No proof?” boy sneered back skeptically.

“Shut up, John. You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Gwen yelped sharply, leaning in to sooth Anna’s rage.

“Oh — come on, I’m not the only one who believes Dumbledore is off his rocker.” He looked around the table. “Listen… I say we take advantage of the things the Ministry is offering in these special classes with Qwaad. All we have to do…”

“Is sell your soul!” Anna blistered back.

“…is keep… your mouth… shut!” he retorted angrily.

“It’s not going to work,” Anna said sarcastically. “Do you really believe Qwaad is going to let you train to be an Auror? Do you think the special secretary to the Minister is going to help us and stop the Ministry from abusing the magical objects and places around us? Do you really think they’re interested in helping you do that?”

“I only know what I see, Anna. And I see the Ministry offering some pretty cool classes, far better than what we could have hoped for in our old Unions.”

“Rubbish!” Anna barked, falling back angrily into her chair. “You don’t know. You weren’t there to hear the Minister’s exact words… the tone in her voice. She wasn’t interested in helping us; she wants to control us.”

“Well — it all comes back to the same thing, doesn’t it?” the boy said with a note of finality in his voice. “It all comes down to whether or not you believe You-Know-Who is back. Give a show of hands: who here at this table believes He-Who-Should-Not-Be-Named has risen from the dead?”

Gwen and Sarah’s hands shot up. Anna waited. Finally, TJ’s hand slowly lifted her hand as well and then, and to everyone’s great surprise, so did the Guardian Knight Gabriel Laroche. Anna waited again, her eyes scanning the faces surrounding her at the Guardian table. She could see it in their eyes; their skeptical stares suddenly looking uncomfortable.

John was counting around the table mockingly. “Let’s see… that’s about five-to-thirty nine. Well… whaddaya know about that? The motion is soundly defeated. It looks like You-Know-Who isn’t as alive as we were lead to believe,” he finished sardonically.

Anna leapt to her feet again. “The truth isn’t up to popular opinion or some stupid, idiotic vote. He’s back! I know he’s back. Why do you think the Guardians were brought back last year? Do you think this was all just a coincidence, an interesting but unconnected mistake? Do you think we’re here by accident?”

Anna was fuming, her breathing short. “I’m finished arguing with you about this. I’m done trying to convince you of the truth. Time is on our side. He will eventually show himself again — and when he does — I can only hope you’ll be ready to do your job and protect the innocent in the battle to come, because — it’s going to be bloody!” She banged her fist on the tabletop. “There’s going to be killings again. These very halls will be attacked! And it’s going to be your job to stop it! And if you can’t accept that, then you don’t deserve to be in this Union. You don’t deserve to be a Guardian! So go ahead — all of you — stick your heads in the sand! Try to ignore it all you want — but I’m telling you — HE’S BACK! VOLDEMORT IS BACK!!!”

Anna’s words echoed into the domed ceiling around them as she stood resolute, breathing heavy. It took a full ten seconds to finally realize how quiet the Rotunda had gone all around her.

“Anna…?” came a soft voice next to her, “You’d better sit down.” It was Gwen. She was tugging on Anna’s robes, trying to pull her down into her seat.

“I will not! Not until they understand. Not until they all hear me!”

“Anna… I think everybody heard you.” Anna looked up, still breathing hard. She could see everybody in the Rotunda was now staring at her. Anna flushed. She could see them all shaking their heads in troubled disbelief. It was the same look shared by her so-called Guardian allies. Nobody believed her. She wanted to scream at them. Don’t they understand? Can’t they see Voldemort was back? How could they all be so stupid? She wanted to yell at the top of her voice, but the painful growl of a spent voice behind her kept her from raging on.

“Guardian… you will come with me.”

Anna turned to find Professor Van Doorn standing beside her. The black veil that covered her face scarcely moved as she spoke.

Anna was still gasping hard, almost snarling in reply. “They have to know the truth. They have to be made to understand. I have to…” her voice was climbing again as she turned to look at the students in the Rotunda once more.

Suddenly, a gloved hand shot forward from out of the black cloak to grab her like a vise on the shoulder, and the spider-like woman jerked her backward into her clutches.

“No… you’ve said enough for one night, little one. Your screeching is at an end. You will come with me.”

Anna looked back at the woman and couldn’t help being forcibly turned by her steady and building grip. Anna looked up at Thordarson, who suddenly looked very old and deeply concerned. She could see him nodding for her to obey. Anna fell back into the spider’s steady grip without a fight and was escorted along the wall and through a door to an adjoining room. Inside, she found several empty chairs sitting around a table beside a warm fire.

“Sit!” the woman behind her hissed.

Anna was still too angry. She turned to glare back at the woman in black.

“I said — SIT DOWN!” the woman snarled again. An overt threat of retaliation was well placed within her graveled voice as a howl from outside underscored her order.

“Fine!” Anna scoffed, throwing herself into the nearest chair by the fire. Perhaps, she thought, the flames might keep the woman away from her.

“What do you mean by disrupting our meal?”

Anna sat there, lost for words, her mind buzzing with resentment. Who the hell cares about food now? How can they all act as if everything was just normal? Van Doorn’s question was absurd and Anna wouldn’t have bothered to respond at all had the veiled woman not insisted.

“ANSWER ME!”

Anna jumped. “I… I’m sorry. I was angry… and I guess I lost my temper.”

Van Doorn’s breathing seemed to stop for too long a time before her familiar and rattled moan issued forth again. Even with her face covered, Anna could tell she was very angry.

“You bring too much attention to yourself, Guardian. It is most unbecoming in one with good breeding… and unacceptable in children. You have much to learn when it comes to subtle persuasion.”

“I wasn’t trying to be subtle. I was trying to get their attention.”

“And you think it best to gather their attention by screaming at them while at dinner?”

“I’ll do whatever it takes to get them to see the truth. I’ll scream at the top of my lungs if…”

“YOU WILL NOT!!” The woman yelled back. “Not here at this school — and not under this Chancellor’s rule.”

Her voice was a dog’s howl, its painful, ripping sound made its way through Anna’s skull to stab at her brain.

“Unwarranted shrieking is not the proper way in which to deliver the truth, little one. And if you insist upon doing it again, you’ll spend the next week locked in the owlry with the other animals that brainlessly howl and screech, but for no other reason than to hear themselves rage.”

Anna suddenly looked at Van Doorn in a new light. Truth; she said ‘truth’. “You know I’m right… don’t you? You believe me… you know he’s back.”

Van Doorn seemed to grow a foot taller as she approached her.

“No… I do not believe you, Anna Grayson.”

“Then what did you mean when you said…”

“I don’t have to believe you, because I don’t need you to know the Dark Lord has returned. I don’t need any wizard or even his Death Eaters to bend my beliefs to this truth.”

Anna frowned curiously. “How…?”

“I need none of these things, because you see… I know the Dark Lord has never really been gone.”

Anna frowned again. “Never been… what do you mean?”

“The problem with convincing others of the Dark Lord’s return has been made difficult because of idiots like you, trying to spin the truth into a lie with these dim-witted tales of evil wizards rising from the dead. You… are a fool! Nobody can rise from the dead, and trying to convince others of this idiocy is persuasion based on madness.”

“But you know he’s out there. Harry Potter saw him come back.”

“Yes, Grayson, the Dark Lord has been returned to a bodily form — so much the better for those of us who would fight to the death to see him truly destroyed once and for all.”

Anna frowned. “How could it be better to have him come back?”

Van Dorm’s black, spider-like dress seemed to come alive with her anger. It moved on its own to snatch at the air around Anna’s feet. It reminded the Guardian of another creature she had come to know all too well.

“Haven’t you been listening to me, child,” the woman growled. “Haven’t I already told you the Dark Lord wasn’t really dead? Can’t you see that to destroy him utterly, this had to happen? Now is the time to strike, while what’s left of him is contained again within a body we might fight. If this new shell is destroyed, then the thing we call a man will be no more.”

“That’s not going to work,” Anna said bluntly.

If Anna could have seen Van Doorn’s eyes through her ebony veil, she would have known they were staring at her in shock. Her voice rattle forth, “What’s not going to work, young one?”

“You can’t kill Voldemort by destroying...”

“Do not say that name, you stupid fool!”

Anna took a calming breath. “Fine… I won’t say his name, but I still say he can’t be killed by just simply destroying his body.

Van Doorn seemed taken aback by this statement, and Anna was immediately sorry she said it. Her father had insisted that she never tell anybody about Voldemort’s horcruxes. It was Dumbledore’s warning and wish it never be repeated.

“Why would you say such a thing?” Van Doorn challenged her. “What is it you think you know, little one?”

“Nothing… I didn’t mean to say anything.”

Van Doorn studied her. “You have a habit of saying meaningless dribble, but not meaning to say something is not the same as saying you were mistaken.” Van Doorn turned and stopped to stare out the rain-swept window. “This castle carries many secrets, Anna Grayson. Its voices call to me in the night. When I first came here to teach the dark arts to its students, I thought the voices were part of the curse that nearly destroyed me many years ago. Now I know different. I now know the truth from those I hear in the darkness.” Van Doorn looked over at her. “And I know who they are.”

Anna was holding her breath. She too knew about the voices within the castle, the voices of magic surrounding them. Could it be Van Doorn could hear them too?

The woman in black slowly turned to face her again. “I hear your voice among them. I know you speak to those I hear whispering through these corridors and stone walls. Their call is insignificant and mute unless you are here within the castle. I cannot speak to them as you do, but I know you carry their secrets. You know more than most… Sithmaith.”

Anna looked away. She could feel this powerful woman probing her mind in much the same way as the Minister of Magic. Once again, Anna slammed the door to her mind with a bone jarring bang and she could see the ex-Auror faintly fall back.

“So powerful,” she murmured. “So much in one… so small. Very well… you will not betray your loyalties, but I would advise you to tell all you know to Thordarson. He is a very powerful wizard and can do more with your secrets than ever you could hope on your own.”

Anna finally stood. “I have already told him all I know. You’ll have to trust me on this, but you were right when you accused me of saying too much.”

The woman in black turned again and headed for the door. “Detention,” she growled in a painful whisper.

“What?”

The woman turned to stare at her without reply.

“I have detention? But… Professor…”

“You see?” Van Doorn interrupted her. “It is not necessary to shout to gather one’s attention; a lesson you would do well to learn.” She heaved a rattle breath again. “You will serve detention with me this Saturday night in the North Tower as punishment for disturbing the evening’s meal in such a callous and rude way.” She opened the door and the unmistakable roar of the Mirror of Enlightenment could be heard booming into the adjoining room.

“She belongs to… THE SERVER’S UNION!”

“Eight o’clock in my office,” Van Doorn growled through the torrent of applause and yelling.

“Fine.” Anna mumbled back. She stood and headed for the door.

As she passed the woman in black, she could hear her whisper, “Your voice is very distinct in the darkest, little one. I… will be listening.”

Anna paused for a moment without looking up and then continued out the door. She made her way back to the Guardian table, thankful for the booming screams of delight and clapping for the new first-years being joined to their union halls.

“He belongs to… THE DEFENDER’S UNION!”

Anna sat down between Sarah and Gwen.

“So… what happened?” asked Gwen worriedly.

“Spider-woman gave me detention!”

“Detention…? Before day-one? I didn’t know they could do that.”

“I’m sorry, Anna,” said John. “It was my fault you got into trouble. I shouldn’t have said anything.”

Anna looked at him. Now that her anger had overflowed, she found herself repentant as well. “No… it was my big mouth that did it. I’m…. sorry everyone… about my outburst, I mean. Mind you, it still doesn’t change what I said or what I believe about You-Know-Who’s return… but… I guess I could have been a little less….” She shrugged.

There was another uncomfortable pause before Gwen finally said, “Anna Grayson being quiet with her opinion? Oh come on… that’ll be the day.” A few laughed at the table.

“So… any new Guardians yet?” Anna asked, looking down their table.

“Nope… still just us,” TJ replied. “I was really hopin’ for a gang-load of eggs, but there aren’t that many first-years left’ta hope for more’in fifty again.

“Isn’t that the girl we saw in the lower passageways on the ship?” Sarah asked them, pointing at the first-year making her way up the steps of the platform. Sure enough, Anna could now see it was the same very rude girl who shoved past them outside their cabin door.

“Oh yeah. little Miss-attitude is getting ready to enter the mirror. She’s has to be a Defender for sure,” Gwen replied interestedly. “I have no doubt she’ll fall into Debbie Dunning’s click in no time.”

Several students in the Rotunda were pointing at the ceiling above, and the Guardians looked up in surprise as a multitude of faces projected into the domed ceiling over their heads began to rise. At least a hundred individuals were now standing for the girl who was being escorted by Professor Titan to the front of the mirror.

“Wow… quite a fan-base for such a little snot,” Gwen smirked. “What do you think? They can’t be all family?”

“Can’t be,” Anna replied, spying curiously up at the crowd who were watching the events within the Rotunda with keen interest. “It looks like a whole town.” Anna watched the girl’s reaction to the show of support given to her and was surprised when she seemed to scoff angrily at their presence

“What’s her problem?” Anna said staring back at Gwen.

“Who knows; she’s got some nerve. Sarah here didn’t have anybody from her family witnessing her joining, but you didn’t see her acting like an ass.”

“Enter… and prepare to be Joined,” boomed a powerful voice from within the mirror. The girl looked up again at the many faces watching her and then seemed to resign herself to the process. She grabbed up her robes in a huff and quickly stepped through the mirror.

There was a balloon of bellowing smoke spilling out the back of the mirror and the entire Rotunda waited for the mist to take form. But to everybody’s surprise, the mist did not coalesce into anything at all. It swirled and looked to finally take a shape, only to fall again into evaporating clouds of white and nothingness over and over again. Finally, the clouds began to melt away, leaving the girl standing alone on the stage.

“She belongs to… THE GUARDIAN UNION!”

Finally, the Guardian table leapt to their feet and began to clap furiously for the newest member of their union.

Anna’s jaw dropped and then looked in shock over to Gwen and Sarah.

“No way! She can’t be one of us,” Gwen yelped loathingly.

“I don’t believe it,” Anna agreed, watching both those in the ceiling and the rest of the Guardians clapping as the girl came forward to join their table.

Sure enough, the applause at the Guardian table was short-lived as the strange and now angry young girl slapped away the first congratulatory hands offered her at the table. She walked passed them to sit by herself at the farthest end. Looking up, Anna could plainly see the worried concern on the faces of all those who had come to watch the girl’s joining.

“Well ain’t dat’ a fine howdy-do?” TJ said, scathingly. “I’ve seen happier pusses on frogs used fer bait.”

“She acted the same way when we saw her on the ship on the way in,” Gwen told the others. “Definitely — a serious attitude problem there.”

“What’s her name? Did anybody catch her name?” Anna asked, looking around the table again.

“I think it was Unity Yolland,” Sarah said concernedly.

“Unity Yolland…” Anna whispered. She looked back up into the ceiling and could see all those who were standing were now seating themselves again. All, that is, except for one man and a woman who stood holding each other and cautiously waving down at the girl now seated away from all the rest of the Guardians. Anna looked at the girl and saw her callously folding her arms in disgust, her eyes glancing scathingly upward toward the two in the ceiling.

The boy seated next to her leaned in. “Unity? Was that your name?” he asked her politely, reaching out to shake her hand. The girl batted his gesture away.

“Nox,” she growled back.

“Excuse me?”

“I said my name is Nox,” the girl replied angrily. She pulled out her wand and set it next to her plate as she stared back at the boy. “It means ‘lights out’ for anybody stupid enough to call me Unity.”

The girl sitting next to her frowned. “Nox? You really want to be called Nox? But I think Unity is a beautiful name.”

The girl suddenly snatched up her wand and, quick as a flash, she stuck its point under the girl’s chin. “Call me Unity again and I’ll turn your head to stone!”

“First year!” yelled the Guardian Knight Gabriel, “We never draw ours wands in anger while in the Rotunda. Put that away… right now!”

The new girl looked around at the table and all of the Guardians now frowning at her. She looked again at the girl next to her and slowly lowered her arm. She smiled evilly as she reached back to pocket her wand.

“Like I said… it’s Nox.”

The girl stood and picked up her plate. “Fine! Your given name doesn’t suit you anyway.” She stood and walked over to the other end of the table to sit.

Just as TJ had predicted, only a few first-years were selected to become Guardians, which swelled their Union ranks to exactly fifty once again. Unlike the first girl, however, the other new Guardians seemed very happy to be among them. One Muggle born girl was from Sarah Bell’s home state of Minnesota, and the two seemed to instantly hit it off as they discussed their shared love of skiing.

Gwen rolled her eyes. “Great… that’s all we need… somebody to give Sarah even more encouragement to break her neck with those stupid sticks on her feet.”

In all, there were three new Guardians boys from Arkansas, Texas and Florida, and another girl from California who already had a sister in the Searcher Union. Anna was pleased with the Guardians even though she was disappointed there weren’t more of them. To her, all the new faces seemed to lend a sense of permanence to the Guardians at Castlewood.

And then Professor Thordarson was on his feet again and announced to the school that a girl from the Searcher Union, Valentia Olivo, had been selected as the new Student President. Soon afterwards, the Union Knights were announced and once again Damon was given his sword as a Knight for the Defenders, and a seventh-year Guardian named Gabriel Laroche also became a knight.

“Just a few more announcements before we send you off to bed,” Thordarson said in his now familiar, jovial manner. “Day-one schedules will be handed out to our new first-years by the knights who will also escort them to their halls. Vollucross and Swift Slalom tryouts have been postponed one week to allow for the time necessary to issue security passes to all our students.” He stepped forward on the stage.

“Finally, you may have also noticed our Captain of the Guard has also changed from last year.” Several of the students in the hall started murmuring with snickers and unrestrained pleasure at this news.

“Our new Captain of the Guard will be a familiar face to those who have lived within the walls of Castlewood before now. But for those who’s holiday reveling has befuddled an otherwise well-rested mind, let us bring him out. The new Castlewood Captain of the Guard is John Hayman.” The Chancellor motioned to the side. “John… if you please.”

The new Captain of the Guard stepped forward onto the stage and every Crimson Guard within the Rotunda suddenly snapped to attention around them. Hayman shook the Thordarson’s hand before stepping back to straighten and then salute the Chancellor. There was warm applause from the crowd as Captain Hayman calmly waved and then quickly left the stage.

“Excellent!” Gwen said merrily. She looked over at Anna. “No more Gregory Dunning to worry about, eh? That means Debbie Dunning has finally been declawed too. That alone should save you at least a dozen detentions this year, Anna.” Anna wasn’t smiling.

Lieutenant Dunning is still here,” Anna growled back, looking put off.

“Lieutenant Dunning?”

“That’s right,” Anna answered, “Dunning wasn’t sacked; he was demoted. He now works for Captain Hayman, but Dunning is still in charge of the castle.” She looked around at the Defender’s table searching for Debbie Dunning.

“That means old Double-D will have her claws nice and sharp, just waiting for any of us to step out of line.”

“You… you’re sure about this, Anna,” asked the new Guardian Knight Gabriel Laroche.

“Absolutely sure,” Anna scowled back.

“Hmmm… well… while I think all of the students would have welcomed this change in the captaincy, I think it’s clear we should try to avoid Debbie Dunning as much as possible,” Gabriel observed. “I think her actions last year made it clear Debbie is no friend of the Guardians. I seem to recall us getting more than our fair share of detentions, so keep your heads low around her, all of you. That especially goes for you, Anna.” The table turned to look Anna’s way.

“Trust me… I’ll do everything I can to stay out of her way,” Anna replied honestly.

“Yeah… or at least til she gets back in the duelin’ hall again, ay?” TJ said with a snort.

As the students headed out to their Halls, the Guardians were especially giddy with excitement. They were looking forward to seeing their newly built Union Hall, which for the first time would be opened to its new residents. As they made their way through the marble tunnels leading to the tower room, the anticipation was steadily building. Soon, they were standing in front of a beautiful purple door with the double dragon crest mounted within their center. Above the doors were the words:

ENTER GUARDIANS – PROTECTORS OF MAGIC.

“Very nice,” Gabriel said as she turned to face the group. “I think Anna should go in first.” The entie union turned to smile back at her in agreement.

“No… it’s all right, go ahead,” Anna urged them.

Gabriel rolled her eyes. “You dedicated its first stone; I think you should be the first to cross its threshold.”

Anna smiled and then walked toward the Crimson Guard, standing at the door. He snapped straight, turned and waved his wand at the latch, which responded with a soft click. He pulled the doors open and then motioned the Guardians through.

The scene before their eyes was… well… there was no other way to put it other than to say it was disappointing. There were no furnishings, no books or carpets, no fires to warm the immense but completely empty space. Just a vast room with thirty foot arched ceilings high above them. Nowhere were the expected scenes of painted chivalry and heroic deeds Anna loved about the Server Hall. There was no stained glass; just blank windows open to the dark and raining sky outside. The coldness beyond the windows seemed to mirror the feelings inside as the Guardians stared around them in utter disbelief.

Only the new first-year Unity Yolland moved forward. “Lovely,” she grumbled reproachfully as she bumped passed them to look around.

Finally, Gabriel was able to gather in her own disappointment enough to speak. Looking back at all of them, she frowned. “Well, what did you expect? A party? Fancy decorations? It’s a brand new hall for goodness sake. It’s up to us to make it what it’s supposed to be.”

“But there nothing here,” Sarah Bell moaned. “Do you think there are any beds upstairs?”

“Of course there will be beds,” Gabriel chided her. She could see the Guardians’ disappointment growing. “Look… we can make this space anything we want it to be if we work together. So… who wants to volunteer to do some Guardian research? We’ll need to form a few teams to lead the rest to get this place set up properly.

“Well… I think some nice purple curtains would go well in those windows,” said Janet Wardrop.

“There you got — perfect!” Gabriel answered back encouragingly. “What else?”

“And I suppose…Gwen and I could speak to some of our Artisan friends about painting the ceilings,” said Isabel Lang, looking at Gwen who still seemed to be in the throws of shock.

“Good! Who else?”

“What about a library and carpets, we’ll need those,” said Teresa Sinclair.

“And definitely something on the walls,” added John Baird.

“Now you’re getting the hang of it,” Gabriel replied, inspired. “We’ll let you and the other seventh-years take the lead and put the rest of us to work. We’ll all meet together each night after class to check our progress.” They all agreed.

“It looks like somebody has already tried to help out a little,” said a boy named Joseph Philis, pointing at a painting next to the door behind them. They all crowded around the painting, which contained the image of Merlin and his Guardians that Anna first saw the year before on the hospital floor. Next to the portrait was a note.

Please accept this gift from the staff of Castlewood on this – the first night in your new home. May it bond you together for the benefit of us all. Sincerely, Elimar Thordarson, Chancellor of Castlewood Academy.

“Kind of a gloomy thing,” said a boy name Arthur Nelson. “But… I guess it’s a start.”

“Box!”

The group turned to find the girl calling herself Nox squatting alone in the middle of the hallway and looking at something small sitting in the center of the floor at her feet. The Guardians walked over as Nox straightened to point down.

“You want me to blast it?” she said with a sneer, whipping out her wand.

“Hold on,” Anna said, grabbing the girl’s wrist to stop her. She stooped down to take a closer look. Her eyes widened. “I know what this is…”

“Anna… there’s a card under it.”

Anna carefully lifted the box and picked up the card beneath. She read the familiar scribble and then looked up. “It’s from my brother, Eric. Stand back.”

They all moved back as Anna lifted the lid off the tiny, cube-like box sitting in the center of her palm. Suddenly there was a rush of blinding wind as a raging storm blew forth from out of the box. It whirled and turned, becoming a whipping-whirling tornado in the center of the great space. Thick clouds of smoke appeared to reveal two dragons battling and clawing at each other before a golden sword moved down their center to stop them. At last, the fighting dragons became part of an immense tapestry hanging from the stone arches high above them.

As the group struggled to catch their breath again, the Yolland girl stepped in to peer up at the adornment.

“Destruction and chaos,” she said flippantly. “I like it!”

TWO

Thirty minutes later, Anna and Sarah were unpacking their trunks in their room.

“I see you brought your kaleidoscope again,” Sarah said with a smile. She watched as Anna carefully removed the ancient instrument from its wooden box and then set it gently down on her dresser.

Anna stepped back to gaze at it. “Yeah… I thought about leaving it at home, but… well… I don’t know. It seemed almost wrong to leave it behind.”

“Do you know what you’re going to ask it on your birthday?”

Anna hesitated. “I won’t lie to you, I’ve been thinking about asking about my mother.” She looked back at Sarah and found her expression worrisome.

“Really?”

Anna looked at the scope again and shrugged. “Well.. yeah… I mean, what’s more important than finding out if my mother is safe?”

There was a quick knock at the front door.

“Anna? Sarah? Open up — quick!”

“That sounds like Gwen,” Sarah said as she opened the door.

Sure enough, Gwen was standing in the hallway in her pajamas.

“Good — you’re both still up. Come over to our room, I want to show you something.” Anna looked at Sarah and then the two followed Gwen across the hallway. They entered a dark bedroom to find TJ, also in her pajamas, looking out the window.

“Are they still there?” Gwen whispered, as she moved onto the bed to look out.

“Yeah… they’s there. Still pokin’ around the edge of the forest,” TJ replied, in a low and secretive voice.

“Who’s poking around the forest?” Anna asked them.

“They is… look!”

Anna and Sarah crowded into the window to look out. There was a very long pause before, “I don’t see anything. What are you looking at?”

“Wait a sec… hold on… there! You see ‘em’?”

Anna looked out again and this time she did see something moving in the trees just inside the rim of the forest.

“Yes,” Anna agreed, leaning further out. “Who is it?”

“There’s two of them… actin’ real suspicious. If you hada’ asked me, I woulda’ said they’s a couple of peepin’ Toms, until Gwen reminded me the girl’s bedrooms are four floors up. Look… there they go again!”

Anna saw one of the two men flash something bright for an instant.

“See?” Gwen said, pointing down animatedly to the man in the forest. “He used his wand to flash a signal to somebody. That’s got to be what it is. They’ve been doing that about every minute or so. We think the other man is carrying something, but I can’t make out what it is.”

“It looks like a sack. Look… somebody else is moving toward them!” Anna said, and all four girls dropped their heads to peer over the window ledge. They watched as the two men in the woods moved together toward a hooded, limping man coming at them along the forest’s edge from the north. The three men finally met and they stepped into the forest together.

“What in the bloody blazes do ya figure they’r up to?” TJ said, falling back to look at the others.

“I don’t know,” Anna said, mystified by what they saw. “They weren’t Crimson Guards, that’s for sure. No cloaks.”

“Yeah… and nobody is supposed to be outside the city walls after the station house shuts down,” Gwen added. They all looked at her. “Saw it posted on the wall next to The Wompum Emporium earlier today. Some kind of new security thing.”

They all looked outside again.

“Well… whoever gimpy and his friends’re doing… they’re gone now,” TJ finished, moving away from the window.

Suddenly there was a flash of white light, and the girls moved quickly back to the window again in time to see another bolt of lightning fired from out of the forest toward the lower levels of the building below them.

“What are they doing?” yelped Sarah, ducking as another curse slammed into the side of their building.

“Geez… they’re shootin’ at us! They musta’ seen us spying on ‘em,” TJ yelled back.

“No! Look! The Crimson Guards are coming, they must have seen them!” Anna yelled back.

They could see several figures in red-cloaks running from the building toward the edge of the forest. They were firing several spells into the trees where the three men had disappeared.

“Oh boy, the guards are gonna catch those peepers fer sure now!” TJ yelped happily. “Sick ‘em boys!”

“Maybe not — look!”

The girls followed the line of trees along the edge of the forest and could see the limping man moving as quickly as his legs could carry him away from the battle.

“Look… he’s carrying the sack from the other man,” TJ said. She suddenly stuck her head out the window and started to shout. “Hey… he’s over here! The peeper’s down there!” she yelled at the Crimson Guards.

TJ! Get down!” Anna warned.

“But he’s gettin’ away!”

Anna was horrified to see the limping man turn and look up at their window above him. Although his face was buried deep in the folds of his hood, she could see the sack he was carrying disappear under his robes as his other hand came around.

“Watch out!” Anna yelled, grabbing TJ by her bottoms and yanking her back.

“Ouch!” TJ slammed her head on the upper sash.

“Get in here!”

Anna saw a flash in the woods below and yanked TJ inside by the waist again. A curse hit the wall above the window as all four girls toppled backward to the floor.

TJ was livid. “That wood-born varmint took a shot at us!” She stood and ran to her dresser and then whipped her wand about.

“Are you crazy? Stay down, you maniac!” Gwen yelled at her, but it was too late. TJ was already at the window again.

“Where’d he go? That low-down skunk of a peeper… where’s he at?”

“You there… in the window. Get back inside!” yelled one of the guards below them. Another blast of red light smashed into the window frame from the limping man, propelling both TJ and Anna across the room in a boom of splintered wood and glass. They both hit the wall opposite and then fell to the floor.

“Anna! TJ! Are you all right?”

Anna looked up at TJ who was laying on top of her, her wand still clutched tight in her fist.

“Alrighty then…” TJ said, looking around at the dust and debris filling the room. “I guess we’ll just stay low for a while. Best let the guards take it from here.”


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