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The Fifth House by pathfinder

Format: Novel
Chapters: 30
Word Count: 96,750
Status: COMPLETED

Rating: 12+
Warnings: Mild violence

Genres: Mystery, Action/Adventure, Young Adult
Characters: OC
Pairings:

First Published: 01/04/2016
Last Chapter: 03/16/2020
Last Updated: 09/23/2020

Summary:




(Banner by beyondtherain@tda)

Willow is a normal 11-year old American girl.  Once she attends a new school, her whole life changes instantly.  Many challenges await her: getting through initiation, learning magic, and making friends.  Although attending Gampton Hall Academy to learn the ways of magic, she finds her wand isn't working, but no one understands why.  As mystery after mystery unravel, will Willow and her friends discover the secret of the fifth house in time?



Chapter 1: The Invitation
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Willow stared out of the side window of the car at the heavy rain that was falling in streams down the glass.  It was dark and the raindrops on the roof sounded like loud radio static as the windshield wipers flipped from side to side in a steady beat.  She always had a sense of dread when she was riding in a car during a heavy rainstorm, especially at night.

“Willow,” said her mother.  “I want to talk to you about what happened at school this past year.”  

Willow sighed.  The bullying that had happened this past year at school was a topic that had not come up at all over the past two weeks since the school year ended.  

“Mom, it’s my eleventh birthday and I don’t want to ruin it by talking about that now,” Willow replied.  They were riding home along a winding two-lane road through the forested hills of her central Pennsylvania town, having just finished a late birthday dinner at her favorite pizza place.  She could see her reflection in the side window of the car with each set of headlights that flashed at them going the opposite direction.  She was twirling the ends of her shoulder-length wavy dirty-blonde hair.  She turned her head toward the front of the car to watch the passing headlights of the oncoming traffic.

“I know, honey,” said her mom, looking over at her, “but I’ve been talking to grandpa and he wants me to look into private schools for you.”

“Mom, keep your eyes on the road!” cried Willow.  “You know it freaks me out driving in a rainstorm at night.”

“Fine,” her mom said, turning her head back around toward the road.  “But I told him I would look into it.”

“Really, mom?” replied Willow.  “You can’t be serious.  You’re really going to pull me out of school?”

“I didn’t say that,” said Willow’s mom.  “I just think we need a cha…”

It happened fast.  Willow saw a flash of headlights and then heard the jackhammering of truck brakes before she could spin her head towards the front windshield to see what was going on.  Her body thrust forward and the seatbelt locked as her mom slammed on the brakes of their car, but Willow could see that it was already too late.  The huge white shape of a truck trailer was jackknifing toward them; a five thousand pound wall of inevitability, crushing everything in its path.  Her mom stuck her arm across Willow’s body in an attempt to protect her just before the car hit.  Willow tensed her whole body for the impact and heard the hollow boom and sickening crunch of crushing plastic and metal and shattering glass and Willow could think of only one thing as she gripped her mom’s arm and closed her eyes…HOME!  She could feel herself being squeezed as the passenger compartment disintegrated; first intense pressure, a loss of breath, and an instant later…nothing.

 

The first thing Willow noticed was the silence.  She could still hear the rain, but it was more distant.  She felt her mother shift beside her and her mom’s arm was still tightly in her grasp.

  “Are you okay?” her mom asked, breathing heavily.  Willow let go of her mom’s arm and touched her own shoulder, her arm, her leg.  Nothing seemed to be broken.  

  “I…I feel like I’m going to barf,” she replied, “but I don’t think anything’s broken.  Mom, where are we?”  There was silence as they both looked around.  They were inside a house.  Willow recognized the shelves and television from her own house.

“We’re in our living room,” her mom said.  “Willow, what happened?”

“I don’t remember…” Willow started.  The queasy feeling was passing.  “A second ago, the car was being crushed by the truck trailer.”

“How…how did we get here?” her mom asked.

“I don’t know,” Willow said.   “Are we…dead?”  Her mom reached out a hand to Willow’s arm and pinched her, hard.  “Ow!” exclaimed Willow.  “What was that for?”

“I don’t think we’re dead,” said her mom.  She got up and turned on the light on her way to the garage.  After opening the door to the garage, glancing inside and closing it again, she turned around and headed across the living room toward the front door.  “The car isn’t there,” she said, gesturing back over her shoulder. She opened the front door to check the driveway and the street.  “Not outside, either.”

“Mom,” Willow asked.  “Where’s the car?” 

“I don’t know.  Unless we both had the same hallucination, it’s underneath a truck, but how we got here, I have no idea.”  There was nothing for them to do since they had no second vehicle to go in search of their car.  Willow’s mom started pacing through the living room, which was something she did when she was thinking.  Willow was suddenly very tired and lay down on the couch just wanting to close her eyes for a second.

 

She was awakened by a knock on the door.  Willow glanced at the clock and saw that it was after eleven. She was just getting up to answer it when her mom came out of the kitchen and opened the door.  Willow, standing behind her, saw a police officer, standing in the rain that was still falling outside, although not as heavily as before.

“Ma’am, are you Heather Carter?” she asked; a middle-aged woman in rain jacket and a light gray and black state troopers' uniform.  After Willow’s mom nodded, the officer continued.  “I’m Corporal Steinbergs of the Pennsylvania State Police.  A vehicle registered in your name was involved in a serious accident earlier this evening.  I'm trying to determine who was driving it.” 

“I..” stammered Willow’s mom.  “I was driving.  I...I can’t remember how we got back here, though.”

The officer named Steinbergs looked surprised.  “Uh...may I come in ma’am?” she asked.

“Yes,” answered Willow’s mom. “Yes, of course, come in out of the rain.”

“Are you injured?” Corporal Steinbergs asked after she came inside.  “Do you remember anything?”

“No, we’re…we’re fine,” Willow’s mom said. “I remember hearing the car hit and then the next thing I know my daughter and I were here.”

“Okay Mrs. Carter,” said Officer Steinbergs.  “I'm going to take a minute to call the paramedics to come here and check you both out for injuries and concussion.”  She used her CB radio to request an ambulance and while they were all waiting, she took them through the events of the entire evening; the birthday dinner, the drive home, the jackknifing truck, and then being here.  Neither of them could remember anything after the crash.  Corporal Steinbergs did a basic check for head injuries, but couldn’t see anything.  After the paramedics arrived, she stood back as Willow and her mom got a more thorough evaluation.

  “Well, Officer,” said the Paramedic after checking out both Willow and her mom.    “They don’t have a scratch on them and no sign of a concussion.  They just have some light bruising from the seat belt, but nothing like what they should have from a full-on collision.”

“This whole thing doesn’t make any sense at all,” said Corporal Steinbergs, shaking her head in puzzlement.  “Both of the front seatbelts in the car were still fastened.  If you really were driving that car, then the only conclusion I can draw is that you were both thrown clear of the car when it hit, and then you wandered back here somehow.  The fact that you’re alive at all is a miracle, let alone unhurt.”

“Why do you say that?” Willow’s mom asked.

“Because if you had been in that car, neither of you would have survived.”  Willow’s mom put her hand over her mouth in shock.

  After Willow watched the paramedics and the State Trooper leave, she turned back to her mom.  “Did you call anybody after the accident?” she asked.

“Nobody, Willow.  I haven’t made a call all day.  I thought of that too and checked my cellphone.”

“So we walked home?” asked Willow. 

“We couldn’t have,” said her mom.  “It’s almost ten miles from here…and we weren’t wet.  Not even our hair.”

“So what?” said Willow.  “Did we just magically teleport?”

“Maybe we got a ride from a stranger…” her mom’s voice trailed off as she thought to herself.  Neither of them had any answers and Willow went to bed with questions flying through her mind.

 

“Mail for you on the counter,” her mom said the next day.  She had been on the phone all morning with the insurance company trying to figure out how long they would be without a car.

“Is it another birthday card?” Willow asked.

“I don’t think so.  It wasn’t with the other mail in the mailbox, it was lying on the front porch.”

“Who’s it from?” Willow asked.

“I don’t know,” her mom replied with a half-smile.  “Here’s a thought - why don’t you open it?,” she said playfully.

Looking at the large envelope, Willow didn’t recognize the return address: ‘Gampton Hall Academy’.  Opening it, she pulled out two letters on strange heavy-grade paper.  She saw that one was addressed to ‘Willow Carter’, and the other to ‘Ms. Heather Carter’.  Leaving the letter to her mom on the counter, she proceeded to open the one addressed to her.

 

Dear Miss Carter; 

Based on your past endeavors, you have been recommended to attend Gampton Hall Academy starting in September of this year.   The administrators of the Academy are pleased to notify you of your automatic admission to our program and wish to invite you and your mother to attend an open house on Wednesday, July 5 in which you will see the school, meet the teachers, and discover our unique curriculum.  We are sure that you will find attendance at Gampton Hall a life-changing experience.

Sincerely, 

Hobilard McCracken, Chancellor

 

Noticing that Willow lowered the paper to the counter, her mom looked up from the phone where she was on hold.  “So what is it?” she asked.

Willow looked over toward her.  “It’s an acceptance letter to a school I’ve never heard of.  Have you ever heard of Gampton Hall Academy?”

“Hampton what?" her mom asked.

"Gampton Hall"

"No, can’t say that I have,” her mom replied.  “Go look it up on the internet.”

“Okay, oh, here’s a letter for you.”

Cradling the phone between her shoulder and ear, Willow’s mom opened the letter and began to read as Willow opened up the laptop and googled the academy.  After both reading in silence for several minutes, her mom spoke up.  “Seems like a nice place.  It says here that it’s a selective private school, but they’re offering a scholarship to cover your cost of attendance and are chipping in for books.  Can’t say that about public school.  At least we don’t have to rule it out right away.  What did you find?”

“Pretty much the same thing,” replied Willow.  “I’m looking for where this school is located - I don’t see an address or anything.”

“Oh, they gave us directions to get there in my letter,” said her mom.  “It looks like it’s about 20 minutes away, so not much further than Middle School anyway.  What do you think?  Willing to take a look?”

Willow knew that her grandfather was pushing her mom hard for Willow to attend private school after the bullying incident that spring.  With the wrecked car for her mom to worry about, Willow didn’t want to start an argument over schools.  She decided that she could always go and then find a reason that it wouldn’t work.  “Sure, I’ll go - if we have a car,” said Willow.  “I don’t know if private school is the right place for me, but it won’t hurt to go look.”  

“Good.  I’ll send the notice back that we’ll attend,” said her mom and she must have stopped being on hold because she resumed her phone conversation.  While her mom was talking on the phone, Willow picked up the letter that her mom had been reading.

 

Dear Ms. Carter, 

Gampton Hall Academy is a private, endowed school for children of grades 6-12.  The school has an excellent reputation in the area and has an exemplary post-graduation placement rate.  Our school is one of only five in the nation offering our uniquely challenging curriculum and numerous extracurricular activities.

Our endowment allows us to extend a scholarship to your daughter covering the full cost of tuition as well as a stipend toward the purchase of textbooks and other school materials.  

I would like to invite you to attend an informal one-on-one meeting with our school representatives to discuss the possibilities of attendance at our school for your daughter.  As we explore this option, I would like to understand more fully your needs for your daughter’s education and would like to share with you the unique opportunities your daughter would experience as a student at Gampton Hall.  

If you are available, we would like to meet with you and your daughter on July 5th at 10am.  If that date and time work for you, please RSVP and leave the letter on your front porch, where our special couriers will come and pick it up.  Directions to the school as well as a campus map are included with this letter.  We are looking forward to meeting with you.

Sincerely,

Hobilard McCracken, Chancellor

Gampton Hall Academy

 

Willow set down the letter and thought to herself.  Endowments, extra activities?  The students probably wear uniforms and live in mansions.  It should be easy to figure out that I don’t fit in.  Walking away, she promptly forgot all about Gampton Hall.
 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 



Chapter 2: Gampton Hall
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June flew by and it wasn’t until Willow and her mom were at the Fourth of July fireworks and waiting for the show to start that her mom reminded her about the coming school visit. 

“So,” she said.  “Have you thought about what you’re going to ask at the open house tomorrow?” 

Willow paused, trying to figure out what her mom was talking about when it came back to her. “Oh, right, that private school.  No, I hadn’t really thought about it.”

“I figure we’ll just wing it,” her mom replied as the radio announced the beginning of the show.
 

 

As they drove out to the school the next day, Willow had no idea what to expect.  She looked out of the window and actually hoped she would find a reason to hate it.  She didn’t want to start at a new school even though she had grown distant from her friends toward the end of the year.  It was a warm summer day, but not as humid as it had been a few days before.  There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and Willow watched the blur of green forest that lined both sides of the two-lane road they were taking.

 

“Do we make a left turn off of here or...” her mom was glancing at Willow who was holding the page with directions.

 Willow looked down at the paper.  “Yes, it says that we go about four miles up this road and then take a left.” 

 Willow looked in front of the car and saw a large sign saying ‘Gampton Hall Academy Portal - Next Left’.  “It’s the next left, mom.”

 “Okay, and how do you know that?” she responded as she slowed down to make the turn.

 “The sign - didn’t you see it?”

 “Nope, not unless the sign was made of leaves,” she joked, “and how far on this road?”

 “This is it.  We just follow this for about a mile and we should be there.”

 “Whoa!” Willow’s mom pulled the steering wheel hard to the side and Willow bounced around in her seat. 

“Mom!  That squirrel came out of nowhere!”

 “I know,” her mom said.  “Now I feel queasy - a little flashback from a couple of weeks ago.” 

Willow was feeling ill too.  She felt like someone had pulled her stomach out through her eyeballs, but it seemed to be fading fast.  After another minute, they saw the sign for Gampton Hall Academy and turned into the entrance driveway. 

On the right side of the entrance road there were tall hedgerows and on the left the grass covered a gradual slope that led to the edge of the woods.  Above the hedgerows, they could see the tops of greenhouses that stood just on the other side. 

 

“Greenhouses?” her mother remarked in a surprised voice.  “They must have a horticulture program here.”

The road branched just after the greenhouses, with a small service road turning off to the right toward a parking area marked ‘Employees Only’.  Continuing straight, they passed through an open wrought-iron gate with ‘G H’ worked into the ornate ironwork on each side.  The hedgerows stopped at the gates and were replaced on the right side by elegant formal gardens with a gigantic stone mansion in the background.

Willow’s mom slowed the car to a crawl and she leaned over the steering wheel to look at the place.

“Holy cow.  This place is a palace!” she remarked, her eyes darting between the road and the building. 

The road curved to the right and they came upon a large circular drop-off where they stopped the car and got out.  Neither of them could take their eyes off the place.  Willow thought this looked unlike anything she’d ever seen.  There were three square stone towers along the front of the building, with the central one being five stories tall – except it appeared that each story was fifteen or twenty feet instead of the normal ten.  There was a long four story building that connected the three towers set back from the main structure to create courtyards between the towers.  The courtyard on the right looked to contain a circular greenhouse, the one on the left a patio.  The roof was steeply pitched and there were two stories of dormer windows on the towers and on the setback building.  It was the most incredible place Willow had ever seen in her life.

“This is the most incredible place I’ve ever seen in my life,” her mom said, echoing Willow’s thoughts.  “It looks like a royal estate from somewhere in Europe.” 

Willow tore her eyes away from the building to look around at the remainder of the grounds.  To her right were the formal gardens and the entrance road where they had come in.  To her left, there was a well-manicured lawn disappearing into trees.  For the first time, she noticed the sound of rushing water in the background.

“Mom, do you hear the sound of water?  Are we near a river?”

“I have no idea, Willow.  Judging by the sound of it, it’s pretty big.”

Looking behind her, Willow could see acres of lawn sloping away from the school with a practice field and a stadium before more woods.

“I guess your school mascot is a magician.” said her mom, who was pointing to the statue in the center of the drop-off area.  In it, Willow saw a marble statue of a wizard holding a wand.  The water was pouring from the tip of the wand into a large pool - currently inhabited by two ducks. 

As they turned back to the school building, a man in a polo shirt and khakis was walking down the path toward the three of them.

“Hello,” he said as he approached. “You must be the Carters.  I’m James Abrams.”  He extended a hand and Willow’s mom shook it, introducing herself and Willow.

“I’m a fellow parent of a student here and I’ve been assigned to be your liaison for your visit today,” Mr. Abrams said.  “I want you to know that I was in your exact same place three years ago.  I have an ninth grader here and I can tell you that when I took this visit that you’re taking now... well, it really opened my eyes to a whole new world.”

 

“We’ll meet with Mr. Puterschmidt first,” Mr. Abrams continued, as they walked up the path towards the front entrance.  “He’s one of our professors and will go over what the school is all about and then we’ll do a tour.  I’m sure you’ll have lots of questions, so I want you to know that you can ask me anything.”

They followed Mr. Abrams up the stairs to the arched entryway.  Willow looked at the language over the doorway, where a Latin motto was etched into the stone:

Novum limes, novum spes, novum magus.

“Mom,” said Willow, pointing to the engraved motto.  “Didn’t you take Latin?”

“Sure…a thousand years ago,” she replied.  “Let’s see…new path, new something, new…magician?”

“Not bad...it's 'new path, new frontier, new wizardry',” explained Mr. Abrams.

“Kinda weird,” whispered her mom into Willow’s ear.  Willow nodded, smiling and they followed Mr. Abrams into the school.

After going through the arched opening and entering the large wooden double doors, they came into a grand entrance hall.  Willow immediately had the odd feeling that she had walked into a room that had been filled with conversation a moment before, but was now silent.  Only their footfalls echoed through the vast hall.

She looked around from the ornate entryway.  The ceiling towered twenty feet overhead and columns lined the entire entrance hall.  Willow thought that her whole house would have easily fit in this hall with room to spare.  Off to her right was the entrance to the circular greenhouse which formed a sort of conservatory and to her left was a giant spiral staircase which wound its way up the entire height of the school.  Further in the entrance hall to the left was a grand gallery lined with portraits and fireplaces.

“Wow.  This place is incredible.” Willow’s mom said to Mr. Abrams.  “When was it built?”

“The school was founded in 1720 and the oldest parts of this building date from that time,” he replied, “but it’s been added to significantly since then.”

“I had no idea this area was even settled in 1720,” said her mom.  Mr. Abrams smiled, but didn't respond.

As they moved into the school, Willow looked at the pictures on the wall and stopped dead when a painting of a red-haired woman in a long green robe winked at her.  She stared back at the picture, but it didn’t move.

Her mom touched her arm. “Are you okay, honey?”

 

“Yeah, I...I think I’m just a bit nervous,” she replied.  She looked away and followed her mother and Mr. Abrams as they led the way through the entrance hall to a door marked ‘Chancellor’. 

Mr. Abrams opened the door to the Chancellor’s reception area which was currently empty.  “The Chancellor typically isn’t here during the summer,” he said to them, “but we’ll be using his office to meet with Mr. Puterschmidt.”  He walked through the reception area to the Chancellor’s office and held the second door open as Willow and her mom entered the room.  The office itself was octagon-shaped with incredible views to the rear of the school from the windows along the back of the room.  A very large ornate desk stood near the center with two leather wingback chairs facing the windows.  Sitting on the edge of the desk was a middle-aged man with a bald crown and hair all around the sides of his head.  He was wearing a brown robe and Willow had an instant image of him as a medieval monk.

“Hello!" he said as they entered, and he held out a hand to shake with Willow and her mom.  "My name is John Puterschmidt and I’m one of the teachers here at Gampton Hall.  I’m very excited that you’ve decided to join us.  Please, come and make yourselves comfortable.” He gestured to the leather chairs and Willow and her mom walked to them and sat down.   As Willow watched him, she noticed that he had a facial tic where every third blink of his eyes, he would squinch his eyebrows and cheeks in a hard blink.  She found it slightly distracting.

“I think you did the right thing in coming here to see us today,” he said, smiling at them.  (Blink)  “But I believe that you may have a difficult time accepting what this school is all about.  You see, this is a school for magic.”

Willow looked at her mom who had a puzzled expression on her face.  Her mom thought for a second and then said, “You mean it’s a school to teach magic tricks?”

“Not tricks, Ms. Carter.  Real magic." (Blink)  "It’s been our experience that seeing is believing and in this case, I think a demonstration or two is in order.”  Mr. Puterschmidt turned to Mr. Abrams.  “Mr. Abrams, they are free to pick me up and explore the room if it helps convince them.”  He then turned back to Willow and her mom. 

“Now don’t be alarmed," (Blink) "but I am going to turn myself into a rabbit.”

Willow remembered the moment vividly afterwards.  Mr. Puterschmidt didn’t disappear in a puff of smoke and a rabbit remained.  He didn’t wave a cape and have a rabbit appear behind it.  Willow watched as Mr. Puterschmidt’s whole body shrunk down - hair, robe, and all - while ears sprouted from his head and fur and a cotton ball tail appeared.  Mr. Puterschmidt had become a small brown rabbit.

Willow’s mom had stood up so suddenly in alarm that her chair was knocked aside.  “What the...” she managed before Mr. Abrams spoke up.

“What Mr. Puterschmidt just did is a kind of alteration magic.  He didn’t really become a rabbit, he merely took its shape.  Here, I’ll show you.”  Mr. Abrams turned to the rabbit.

“Mr. Puterschmidt, would you please hop around the desk and then stand on one leg?” 

Hearing this request, the rabbit proceeded to hop around the desk.  As it was doing so, Mr. Abrams continued.

“I had exactly the same reaction when I saw it the first time.”

Willow’s mom looked at him.  “So you’re not...”

“A mage?  No.  I’m a nomaj like yourself.  Completely non-magical.”

Willow was busy watching the rabbit, which having circled the desk was standing on one leg.  As it - he, Willow reminded herself - was perched on one of his back feet, he changed back and Mr. Puterschmidt was standing once more in front of them, balanced on one foot.

As he set his foot down, Mr. Puterschmidt looked apologetic.  “Please don’t be upset.  It’s just that if I told you this was a school for magic without anything to back it up, you’d think I was mad.”

“I…I think I’m mad,” Willow’s mom stammered, “or that was the most amazing magic trick I’ve ever seen.  How exactly….”

“Here, please sit down,” said Mr. Puterschmidt, and he pulled out a wand of wood and waved it at the chair which had been knocked down.  The chair immediately sprung back up into place.  (Blink)  He pointed it again at a side table and muttered “accio glasses” at which two drinking glasses leaped into the air and floated directly toward him.  The glasses hovered in front of him for a moment and he took each in turn, pointing his wand inside and saying “aguamenti” to fill them each with water.

“Please do sit down,” he said to Willow’s mom who apparently hadn’t heard his first request.  “The next thing I’m about to say might also be shocking.”

“I think I’m all shocked out, thank you,” Willow’s mom said as she sat down again.  She very nervously grasped the glass of water floating in front of her, but didn’t take a sip.

“Your daughter has the ability to do all that I have just done and more.” Mr. Puterschmidt explained.  “In short, she is magical." (Blink)  "Historically, we would have referred to her as a ‘witch’, but this has certain negative connotations in the nomaj world, you see.”

“I can’t say I’m following you,” said Willow’s mom.  “You’re going to tell me that you can train my daughter to turn into a rabbit?”

Mr. Puterschmidt chuckled a little.  “Not exactly.  That particular bit of magic takes many, many years of careful study and Willow here would likely take her own individual form rather than a rabbit." (Blink)  "But my point is that Willow can do magic, and with proper training here at Gampton Hall, she can learn to use and craft magic to do any number of things.  It is, I realize, quite unbelievable from your point of view, which is why we choose the whole transfiguration demonstration to make a point.”

Mr. Abrams chimed in.  “You are not the first non-magical parent to find out that their child had this talent.  Nor was I, nor were the parents who discovered it two hundred years ago.  The plain fact is that there is an entire magical world out there that has existed in complete secrecy for hundreds of years, and this is your daughter’s first step into that world.”  He gestured toward Willow.

Willow had been silent up to this point.  She was speechless and not a little scared.  Her mind was racing.  I knew I was different, she thought, but I didn’t really think there was anything to it. 

“How do you know that my daughter has magic?” Willow’s mom asked.  “She’s never done any magic at home.”

“Oh, but she has,” Mr. Puterschmidt responded. “For example,” and at this he looked down at a piece of parchment on the desk.  “Willow, what were you doing at 8:46 this morning?” (Blink)

Willow jumped at being called out, but it was her mom that spoke up first.

 

“What do you mean?” she said.  “Is someone spying on us?”

Mr. Abrams chimed in to the conversation. “No, Ms. Carter.  Macoosa...er, sorry, the Magical Congress of the United States of America - which is shortened to an acronym and pronounced 'Macoosa'...  well, that organization can merely tell that magic happened at your particular residence at a particular time.  They cannot tell who did it, or what the charm was specifically.  They merely detect that magic has happened in a certain location.  I assure you that nobody is spying on you.  But as you can imagine, the magical community goes to great lengths to ensure that this all stays secret.”

Mr. Puterschmidt turned to Willow.  “So what were you doing this morning at 8:46?”

It took her a moment to puzzle out the question and then remember back to what she was doing at a quarter to nine that morning.  “Uh, brushing my teeth?” she responded, hoping that the ‘right’ answer wasn’t what she thought it was.  Her fingers had been nervously twirling the ends of her hair and she dropped them to her side.

“Hmmm, probably not,” mused Mr. Puterschmidt. “And after that?”

Willow stopped for a moment and her cheeks grew red.  “My hair,” she responded in a low voice.

“Ah, yes, I see you can tell what I’m getting at.  And could you show your mother how you do that?”

Not seeing any way around the request, Willow stood up and pulled the elastic from her ponytail, letting her hair hang down her back.  She closed her eyes and concentrated - like she had been doing every day since she was eight and her hair twisted itself into an elaborate french braid without being touched.  She heard her mother gasp behind her and feared what her mother might call her or say to her that would make her feel even worse than she already did about hiding this.

Willow sat back down and turned to her mom, whose mouth was hanging open in wonder.  “How long have you...” her mom began, pointing at her own hair and twirling her finger.

“For about three years now.” Willow responded.

“And can you do the thing...with the rabbit?” her mom asked.

“No.  The only thing I can do is my hair.  I don’t know how to do anything else.  I didn’t even know there was anything else until now.” 

Mr. Puterschmidt interrupted at this point.  “Ms. Carter, what you’re dealing with is incredible, we know.  Most of our students come from magical families and are familiar with all of this, but nomaj-born students are not that rare.  We have fifteen students here at Gampton Hall who come from non-magical families, however Willow would be the only one in her incoming class.”

“That’s where I come in,” Mr. Abrams interjected.  “My son is one of those fifteen students and I understand the shock you are in right now.  I was in that very seat three years ago and my wife and I went through the same demonstration with the same reaction.  I want you to know that I’m here to help guide this transition, if you choose to take it.”

“We’d like to show you around the school now,” Mr. Puterschmidt said.  “Mr. Abrams and I will escort you around and we’ll answer any questions you have along the way.”  Mr. Puterschmidt walked past Willow’s mom and opened the office door.  “Mr. Abrams and I will wait in the outer office.  Please take as much time as you need.”  He held the office door open as he and Mr. Abrams walked out and closed it after them.

Willow’s mom turned back and was looking at her again.  “Willow, I...had no idea.  Why didn’t you tell me?”

Willow couldn’t meet her mom’s gaze and was instead looking at the floor.  “Because it’s not normal, mom.  I knew that, so I just hid it from everyone.  I’m...I’m sorry.”

The next thing she knew, her mother had crossed to her and wrapped her in an embrace.  “Willow, I love you.  I’ll always love you no matter what.  I need you to know that you can tell me anything.  It breaks my heart to think that you’ve been hiding this from everyone for three years.”

Willow hugged her back and they both broke out in tears.  After a few moments, Willow’s mom pulled herself away and looked at her.  “I think we both need a tissue before we go on this tour,” she said to Willow.  “Mr. Puterschmidt will think you used ‘aqua-whatsit’ on me.”  Smiling, Willow felt better than she had in a long time now that her secret was out.

 

 



Chapter 3: The Choice
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The tour was amazing, but Willow was focused on everything that had happened so far, so she only caught bits and pieces of the conversation that her mom was having with Mr. Puterschmidt and Mr. Abrams.  Instead, she kept looking at the portraits and pictures on the wall in which the subjects were animated and kept waving at them, or calling out “hello” to them.  

“They aren’t alive,” Mr. Puterschmidt explained.  “The pictures and photos capture a moment in time, and you could carry on a conversation with them, but they don’t age and the figures in them can’t move except within the canvases.”  Willow watched as one of the figures, a man in colonial-era garb, rang a ball as he rode on the back of a pegasus from frame to frame.  "Henry!" cried Mr. Puterschmidt at the figure, who had been clanging away, heedless of their presence.  "Will you please keep that racket down while I give this tour?"

The figure, now chastised, let the bell drop to his side.  "Fine, Jack.  See if I tell you the next time the British are coming."  He and his pegasus zoomed out of the frame and Willow caught glimpses of him flying through portraits all down the main entryway.

"Some of these characters are more colorful than others," apologized Mr. Puterschmidt.

They walked up one flight using the grand central staircase, which was open in the middle and wound its way up the central tower of the school.  The staircase itself was ten feet wide and the space in the middle at least twenty feet across. Mr. Puterschmidt went up the flight of stairs backwards, floating in the air.

"There are many different kinds of magic" he was saying.  "I'm partial to Alteration magic, which is primarily focused on the art of changing the nature of objects.  So, for example, I can make almost anything be almost anything else.  Are you with me so far?"

Willow nodded, only now realizing that she hadn't been noticing his blink.  It was still there, it just seemed much less obvious.  She was much more distracted with the idea of magic.  "Why did you say 'almost'?" she asked him.

"Magic has its limits and rules; much like laws.  Most can be bent, some outright broken, but there are always consequences.  You'll learn all about them in my class."  Once on the second floor, he asked, "Willow, would you like to see a demonstration?"

After she nodded, he pointed his wand at her mom and a red bolt of energy shot out of the end and struck the center of her purse.  Suddenly, Willow's mom was holding a sandwich.  She dropped it in revulsion and stepped away.  The sandwich had dropped to the floor and fell into pieces, smearing mayonaisse across the stone tiles.

"What happened to my purse?" Willow's mom asked.  "Where did it go?"

"Your purse is the sandwich," Mr. Puterschmidt replied.

"Oh," muttered her mom, staring in disbelief at the pile of food on the floor.  "I don't even want to imagine where my phone is."

Chuckling, Mr. Puterschmidt cast a second red beam of magic at the fallen sandwich, and it changed back into the purse, now resting on the floor.  "There are also spells from a different type of magic called Thaumaturgy," he explained.  "You'll learn a number of very useful charms in that class including creating light and this one: accio!”  The purse flew through the air right into Mr. Puterschmidt’s hand and he held it out for Willow’s mom to take. 

 

As Mr. Puterschmidt turned away, Willow caught her mom nervously glancing inside the purse.  Probably looking to see if any lunchmeant was inside, she thought.

Continuing on their way, they went through a hallway to the library which covered three floors of a far wing of the building.  As Willow stepped inside, she saw shelves and shelves of books stacked to the ceiling on every floor.  Mr. Puterschmidt was telling them that it held more than thirty thousand volumes.  The center of the library was a huge open space, three stories tall.  As she walked through, she had the sense of energy all around, like the charged feeling in the air just before the first crack of a thunderstorm.  Climbing up the wrought-iron spiral staircase in the library to the third floor, Mr. Puterschmidt led them into another hallway directly above the one they had just taken.  They passed classrooms marked ‘Symbology’, ‘History of Magic’, and ‘Numerology’. 

 “There are also more scholarly subjects at the school,” Mr. Puterschmidt said as they passed the classrooms, “like Symbology, where you’ll study the magical properties of ancient runes; History of Magic; and Numerology - the study of the magical properties of numbers.  But if you’re like me, you’ll want to stick to where the real action is: Alteration.”   He winked at Willow and blinked hard at the same time, and Willow had to turn her head away so he wouldn’t catch her smile at his mini eye-convulsion.  

As they continued through the hallway, Mr. Puterschmidt was explaining more about the history of the school to Willow’s mom.  “We used to be a boarding school,” he explained, “like our parent school in the United Kingdom, or like the other magical schools in America, but the school was losing out on too many nomaj families who found it very hard to send their children away for the year, especially as boarding schools were disappearing in the nomaj world.  If you and Willow choose to attend Gampton Hall, she would ride a bus to school and be dropped off in the afternoon just like she did before.”

Mr. Puterschmidt halted suddenly as he came upon another classroom.  “Now here’s a subject you might think interesting,” said Mr. Puterschmidt, turning to Willow.  Willow looked up to see ‘Nomaj Studies’ marked on the door.  “Mages instituted the International Statute of Secrecy in 1692 and we’ve hidden our world pretty thoroughly from them ever since,” he said.  “But there are still times when we need to interact and communicate.  I think you’ll do quite well in these classes.”

Willow’s mom spoke up.  “But if the magical community only went into hiding in 1692, there’d be records and evidence from before that time, wouldn’t there?”

“Well,” Mr. Puterschmidt replied, hesitating.  “History can be changed by those with sufficient motivation, and after the Salem witch trials, the magical community certainly had that.”  He turned and led them back towards the stairs.  "There has been bad blood between the wizarding world and the nomaj community throughout American history.  MACUSA has been very diligent at keeping us secreted away.  I'd hate to imagine what would happen if our secret ever got out."

They descended back down to the first level through yet another stairway and into another great room, bigger and taller than the great entrance hall.  The ceilings in this room towered seventy feet overhead and was large enough for hundreds of people to dine.  Mr. Puterschmidt explained that this was the banquet hall for assemblies and lunch and from there, they walked through the conservatory and back to the main entrance hall.  Willow lingered for a moment inside the conservatory examining several plants she had never seen before.  Catching up, Willow saw that Mr. Puterschmidt and her mom were just finishing a conversation.

“...so you see,” Mr. Puterschmidt was saying.  “Willow would not be allowed to do any magic outside of school until she is seventeen.  Even then, she cannot do any magic in the presence of nomaj.  You excepted, of course.” 

 As they were standing in the entrance hallway, they were startled by the appearance of an owl, which flew right up to Mr. Puterschmidt and perched on his outstretched arm.  He reached over with his free hand and started untying something from its leg.

“Is that a purse too?” Willow’s mom asked.

"Purse?" he questioned, and then catching on said "Oh no, no.  We use owls to convey messages."  Looking down at the paper he frowned and then turned to Willow.  “I have to excuse myself here, as we seem to be having some slight trouble with a few magical creatures, but you are free to walk the grounds and the first floor of the school at your leisure.  Do you have any other questions for me before I go?”

“Yes,” Willow said.  “About two weeks ago, my mom and I were in a car accident and we don’t remember how we got home.  Could I have used my magic to teleport us?”

“Teleport?” responded Mr. Puterschmidt in surprise.  “I highly doubt it.  Teleportation is very advanced magic and is only taught when you turn seventeen.  Without a wand and without training?  That would be impossible I’m afraid.”

Willow nodded and smiled sheepishly.  She thought for a moment that it had been her who had saved them.

“Well,” Mr. Puterschmidt continued.  “Mr. Abrams will escort you and answer any other questions you may have.  I hope to see you here on September fifth.”  After shaking their hands, he nodded to Mr. Abrams and walked away.  
 

"So," Mr. Abrams started. "Do you want to see the dragons or the mermaids first?"

 

"Dragons?" Willow's mom asked.  "You're joking, right?"

 

"Actually, yes," replied Mr. Abrams.  "Although I'm told they do exist."

 

"What doesn't anymore," Willow heard her mom mutter.  They headed off towards the back lawn of the school.

 

"As a nomaj, I'm not a very good tour guide," Mr. Abrams mentioned apoogetically.  "I really don't know what magical animals they have here, but I know they hod a class called 'Care of Magical Creatures' and I know you get hands-on experience.  My son never cared for it, though." 

 

"So what did he like?" Willow asked.

 

"Quod-pot," Mr. Abrams replied.

 

"Sorry?" Willow said, thinking she misheard him.

 

"It's a ball game played on flying broomsticks," and then seeing Willow's mom's incredulous look he continued.  "Look, I know it's all a bit too much, so let's stick with the basics and you'll grow into it.  Come on, let's go to the greenhouses and then I'll take you through the gardens on the way back to the car."

 

After a quick tour of the greenhouses and gardens, Mr. Abrams walked them toward the fountain in front of the school.  “Your world has completely changed today,” he said. “It took years for it to be real to me...and some things I still can’t get used to.  That being said, you have to make a difficult decision, because this is not something you can go back and forth on.  Either you commit to magical society, or you live your nomaj life as you had been living it.”  

He handed Willow two envelopes, one blue and one red.  “You can only open one of these,” he said to her.  “Open the red envelope to accept attendance at Gampton Hall.  Inside, you’ll find the list of required books and supplies as well as directions on how to get to those magical shops.  Open the blue envelope and you can live your life as you had been living it.  You’ll still be magical and will always be able to put your hair into that beautiful braid, but that will be about the limit of what you’ll ever be able to do.”

“Does anyone ever open the blue envelope?” asked Willow.

“Yes,” said Mr. Abrams.  “It’s been known to happen.  For some families, this is just too much to accept.”

He shook hands with Willow’s mom as they reached the car.  “I will tell you this, though.  I believe that this was the right move for my son. I wouldn’t be here talking to you if I didn’t.”

“Well, thank you for an earth-shattering experience.” Willow’s mom responded.    “If we have more questions...”

“Of course.  My contact information is in the envelopes.”  Mr. Abrams turned to Willow.  “I’m not supposed to tell you this, but if you do decide to come here, you might want to wear a swimsuit under your clothes on the first day.”

“A swimsuit?  Why?” Willow asked.

“I can’t tell you more, but yes, a swimsuit.  Good luck.”  He waved to them and then headed back inside the school.

There was no conversation for the first two minutes after they got into the car.  Willow’s mom didn’t even take the car out of ‘park’.  

“I didn’t think that anything could ever make me doubt everything I knew about the world so completely as what we’ve just been through,” her mom said.  “It’s just all so strange and yet bizarrely familiar,” she continued. “I don’t even know what to say, but this is going to take some time for me to process.”  

“I want to go here.” Willow blurted out from the seat beside her.

“What if it’s all just an elaborate hoax?” her mother asked.

“Am I a hoax mom?”

Willow’s mom turned to her and smiled.  “Of course not.  You’re right.  It’s just that...I can’t tell anyone about this, can I?” she asked.

“What do you mean?” Willow responded.

“Am I just supposed to tell grandpa that you’re a wizard and you’re going to magic school, which happens to be twenty minutes from our house, but it’s all okay because I saw a man turn himself into a bunny?  He’d think I had lost it.”

“Just tell him I’m going to private school,” Willow said.  “That part’s true at least.”

Willow’s mom reached down and shifted the car into ‘drive’.

“What do you think magical college costs?” she asked.

“So you’re okay with this?” Willow responded, the excitement building in her voice.

“Yes, I think I’m getting there,” Willow’s mom said.  “If you are going to turn yourself into a bunny, you’re going to need some training, don’t you think?”

Her mom might have doubts, but Willow finally felt she found somewhere she could belong.  The rest of the car ride home was uneventful, except that Willow was hit by that same queasy feeling before they turned onto the main road to head back to their house.  Figuring it was just nerves, she thought again of the strange suggestion from Mr. Abrams.  She didn’t even see a pool on the tour, but maybe they swam in the river...or were thrown in.
 

 

 

When they got home, Willow put both envelopes on the kitchen island and looked at her mother.  Her mom looked back at her. 

“Well, Willow?  What are you waiting for?” 

Reaching for the red envelope with the word ‘Accept’ on it, she tore it open.  The instant she did, the blue envelope marked ‘Decline’ disappeared in a puff of smoke.  

“I hope there wasn’t anything important in that one,” her mom joked.

Inside the red envelope were three letters: a congratulatory note; required books and supplies to get before the first day of school; and directions to a place called “Narrowway” where she could find the shops that sold these items.  Setting the congratulatory letter aside, she handed the direction letter to her mom and read the letter outlining what she would need to get.
 

Welcome to Gampton Hall Academy.  All first-year students should obtain the following before the first day of classes:

- A wand and beginning alchemy set (available at most Narrowway Alchemy retailers).

- Uniform clothing including white collared shirt/blouse, slacks/skirt and black shoes, dress robes and a winter cloak.

- The following textbooks:

The Standard Book of Spells, Grade 1 by Miranda Goshawk
Alchemy for Beginners, 3rd Ed by Gascard Blastenstone
Anything Can Be Anything Else – A Study in Alteration by Winslow Whipporwill
Knowing Snakeweed from Wormseed - An Introduction to Herbology by Neville Longbottom
Magical Creatures from Acromantula to Yeti by Tadwallader Scamander
The History of Magic, Volume 1 by Zephyr Zolock


 
“What strange names these books and authors have,” Willow remarked as she read through the list and handed it over to her mom.  “Do you think I should be worried that I don’t know what ‘snakeweed’ or ‘wormseed’ are?”

“No,” said her mom.  “Like Mr. Puterschmidt told us, you aren’t the first non-magical student they’ve had, so I think you’ll be okay.”

“What does that one say?” Willow pointed to the letter her mom held.

“It’s directions on how to get to a place called ‘Narrowway’ which apparently is in lower Manhattan,” her mom said.  “It says once we get there, we’ll have to go to a place called ‘Gringott’s Wizard Bank’ to get money.  I get the feeling these stores don’t take credit cards.  There’s also a note in here that says Mr. Abrams will meet up with us when we go.  We’ll just need to send him a note on the date and time.”     

“Mom, this is all so awesome.”



Chapter 4: A Trip to Narrowway
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“Here we are,” her mom said, looking up from the Narrowway direction letter.  “Wait...this is the Woolworth Building."  It had been a month since Willow and her mom had toured Gampton Hall.  They were standing in front of an early twentieth century skyscraper in downtown Manhattan.  They walked up and into the lobby, escaping the mid-morning heat that was building under the August sun.

“Hi,” Willow’s mom said to the receptionist.  "I'm looking for a place called Narrowway."

“You know, you're the second person to ask me about that this week," the receptionist replied in a soft, welcoming voice.  "I don't know where it is, but Jerry was able to help the last couple."  She turned to a door the led into a back room.  "Jerr!" she growled to a person inside.  "There's another person asking about that Narrow place.  Now get off your butt and help them."  She turned and smiled at Willow and her mom.  "He'll be right out," she said, seamlessly switching back to her sweet voice.

 

Jerry emerged a second later.  "Oh, hey you," he said to Willow's mom as he led them back out the door.  "First time to MACUSA?"

 

“We’re actually looking for Narrowway,” replied her mom.

Right, Narrowway's in MACUSA, only you can't get in by the front door.  Come along with me." He led them down to Broadway and around to the side of the building along Barclay Street.  "I'm just a squib, but MACUSA keeps me around the lobby just for helping out the newly minted mages," he said and winked at the two of them.

 

Willow looked at her mom and mouthed the word "squib?", but her mom just shrugged her shoulders and tried to stay on Jerry's heels who was striding past two coffee shops and the entrance to a branch of New York University. 

 

"It's right around here," he said and turned right into a recessed alcove off of the street that held a dumpster.  He led them beside the dumpster, still reeking from whatever slop was dumped in there yesterday and up to a nondescript metal door that had a stone owl over the opening.  "Here we are.  Just follow the signs."  He left them and turned without another word to head back the way he came.

 

"This is not quite what I was expecting," said Willow's mom, looking at the inauspicious steel door.

 

"Me either," replied Willow.  "But it stinks out here, so I'm going in."  She pulled the handle on the door which made a clicking sound and they entered.  They were standing inside to a small square room with no furniture, people or anything on the wall.  There were two exit corridors.  One on the right labeled "To Narrowway" and one on the left labeled "To MACUSA Offices".

 

"I don't see any signs," Willow's mom said.  "Which way do we go?"


“You mean like that one?” Willow piped up, pointing to the large arrow sign with ‘To Narrowway’ written on it.

“Ha-ha, Willow, now seriously, did you see any signs?” She said, looking blankly around.

“I ... am serious,” Willow said.  “There is a great big arrow sign right there that says ‘To Narrowway’ and points down this hallway.”

“Uh, honey,” her mother said, “that wall is blank.”

“Maybe to you, but I can see it just fine.”

“Well then, perhaps you should lead the way,” said her mother.  As she turned down the right-hand hallway, Willow glanced back and saw her mom look at her with a worried expression on her face.

After walking down the hallway for about fifty feet, they emerged into a small brightly lit lobby area with several blazing fireplaces going, although the temperature in the room was comfortable.  As Willow and her mom were looking around, a man in a robe and pointy hat appeared from out of nowhere in the middle of the fireplace flames.  Stepping out of the green-tinged fire, he tipped his hat to them and walked toward a large front door leading outside.

“That man just…” Willow’s mom stammered.

“Yeah, mom.  I saw it.”

They stood still as three more people appeared in the flames of the fireplaces and walked toward the exit before a woman in green robes and a pointy hat stopped to talk to them.

“Are you lost?” she asked.

“We were going to Narrowway,” Willow’s mom began. “But how did you appear out of the fireplace like that?” 

“Oh...nomaj!” the lady exclaimed.  “How quaint. Well, you see, I use floo powder, toss it into my fire at home, say where I’m headed and ‘whoop!’  Here I am.”

“I see,” said Willow’s mom in a way that sounded to Willow that she didn’t see at all.

“I’m late for an appointment, so I must be off,” the lady said to them, “but Narrowway is right outside that door.  You have a good day.”  With a flourish of her robe, she walked outside into the street.

Willow looked at her mother.  “I guess we’d better head out too,” she said.  

“Well, it doesn't really live up to its name, does it?” her mother remarked as they stepped onto a street wide enough to park a tractor trailer sideways.  The weather was the same with the mid-morning sun climbing into the cloudless sky, but the temperature was cooler than it was before they entered the building. 

 

"I don't understand," said Willow.  "Are we back outside?  Where did all the skyscrapers go?"  As she looked over the top of the buildings that lined the street, she saw nothing but the tops of the trees with blue skies in the background as if they had just stepped from the bustle of Manhattan to a small village in New England just by walking in the garbage door of the Woolworth Building.

 

"Maybe we're not supposed to understand," said Willow's mom, gazing around at the street, buildings and sky.

 

Tall four-story brick and stone buildings lined either side of the street.  The road wasn’t straight, but instead curved out of sight to the right a half block ahead.  Willow saw that the bottom level of most of the buildings were stores, restaurants, and businesses.  She looked at some of the names around her: 'Tommy’s Tailoring'; 'Runwicket Alchemy Supplies'; 'Gutbusters Restaurant'.

“So how do we find Gringotts?” Willow asked.

“Beats me, I guess we’ll just have to ask,” her mom replied and wandered over to Gutbusters to ask one of the servers there for directions.  Willow watched the server point down the road to her right and twist her hand twice.  Willow saw her mom point to a newspaper and the server handed it to her.

“Two turns this way,” said her mom after walking back over to where Willow was waiting.  “I didn’t ask what a turn is, but we’ll figure it out.  Take a look at this.”  She handed the newspaper to Willow.  It had the large words ‘The New York Ghost’ across the top and looked like a normal newspaper, but each of the photographs moved, just like the portraits at Gampton Hall.  Willow stared at the headline: ‘Dinwiddy Dark Magic Den Destroyed; Dastardly Denizens Detained,’ and started reading aloud.

“Forty-five minutes ago, agents from MACUSA's Department of Magical Law Enforcement surrounded a residence outside of Dinwiddy suspected of housing individuals in the act of performing Dark Magic.  After fifteen minutes of negotiation with the residents, the house was stormed by eight Department agents.  With a minimum of resistance, the residence was successfully raided and the suspects were hauled away for questioning.  Agents remain; continuing to collect evidence.”  As Willow watched, the newspaper story grew longer, adding another line, which she continued reading. “‘Such evil-doers must be stamped out,’ said Secretary Trueworthy of the event ten seconds ago. ‘The Department has zero tolerance for any Dark Magic.’”  Looking back at the previous sentence, she could see the words ‘ten seconds ago’ change to ‘twenty seconds ago’.

“I guess they don’t need computers if their news can be updated every ten seconds,” Willow said, folding the newspaper and handing it back to her mom.  Her mom put it in her purse and together they set off in the direction of the Bank.

Every store they passed was something new and amazing to Willow.  She saw one called ‘Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes’ which looked like a joke shop, another called ‘Quod De-pot’ with brooms in the window, and one called ‘Sugar Rush’ that was obviously a candy store.  After the road took a sharp turn right, Willow noticed that the entire road necked down to a space between two buildings that only one person could pass at a time.  As they got nearer, they noticed that some people to the right of the wall were disappearing while others appeared on the left - seemingly from nowhere, heading in the direction they had just come from.  There was a third group of people lined up in a queue waiting to pass through the narrow opening.

“Narrowway,” said her mom, staring at the gathering of mages.  “Now I get it.  Where are those people coming from?” she asked, pointing to the ones appearing on the left.

Willow thought for a moment.  “Maybe they’re transporting themselves from the other side?  Mr. Puterschmidt said that people can do that.”

“Well I certainly can’t,” said her mom and they got in line to squeeze between the two buildings.  After they threaded the gap, the street spread out again into the broad tree-lined avenue from the other side of the blockage.  They continued on, following the street as it took another sharp turn left before straightening out and reaching a four-way intersection.  One corner of the crossing was dominated by a large marble building that was unmistakably a bank.  Mr. Abrams was waiting for them in front of the bank and came over to greet them.

“Heather, Willow - right on time,” he said to them.  “I trust you didn’t have any difficulty?”

“Only figuring out which way to go once we go into the Woolworth Building,” Willow’s mom replied.  “Willow was following signs, but I couldn’t see them.” 

“Oh, yes,” Mr. Abrams responded.  “They are very strict about the Statute of Secrecy.  Only mages are able to see the signs and buttons that lead you here.  Even I needed a guide to get here today.”  He smiled at the look of wonder on their faces.  "How do you like the weather in here?"

 

"Where are we, exactly?" asked Willow's mom.

 

"Oh, we're still inside the Woolworth Building," Mr. Abrams replied.  "The space around us is enchanted to make it look like we're outside.  The ceiling looks much higher than it is and mimics the weather in Manhattan.  The only good thing is that when it's raining, the drops never make it to the street.  All of MACUSA is inside the Woolworth Building.  It's said to include hundreds of stories - but I've never been to any of them except here."

 

"But we walked for blocks," said Willow.  "How can we still be in the same building?" 

 

"Space doesn't work the same way int he magical world as it does in the one we're used to.  My son tells me that they fit forty stories in where the thirteenth floor was supposed to be."

“Well, James,” her mom said, shaking her head at the wonder of it all.  “Where should we begin?”

“You’ll need magical money here,” he said.  “The bank has an exchange set up to change out money for you.  They’ll provide you with dragots."

“Whatsits?” Willow’s mom asked.

“Dragots,” Mr. Abrams replied. “It's mage money.  Before we go in, I should let you know that the creatures who work in this bank are not human.”

“Oh, so just like bankers in the nomaj world then?” joked Willow’s mom.

Laughing, Mr. Abrams continued. “Not quite.  These are goblins and while they aren’t exactly friendly, they do behave themselves.”

Willow and her mom looked at each other with alarm and then her mom looked back at Mr. Abrams.  “So it’s safe for us to go in there?” she asked. 

Smiling, he nodded his head.  “Yes, quite safe,” he said.  “But just don’t give them any reason to get upset at you.  They can bear a grudge.  Come on, I’ll go too.”

As they approached the bank, Willow looked at a statue that was set up just outside of the doors.  She immediately noticed two things different about it:  the first was that it was carved out of glass, but it appeared to move and shift in the light as if there was water inside.  The second was that the figure was not human; it was a small creature with ears and a nose that were large and pointy, small eyes and very long fingers and feet.

“Is that a goblin?” she asked, looking at the bottom of the statue where the sign was damaged, reading ‘Morlock the’ while the rest of the sign had been ripped away.  Mr. Abrams nodded at her question.  Willow reached out to touch the statue and her fingers disappeared inside.  Jerking them back, she stared at her fingers, now dripping wet.  “That statue is made of water,” she said in surprise.

“Uhhh, yes,” responded Mr. Abrams, hastily pulling a handkerchief out of his pocket.  “Quick, dry off your hands before we walk in.  The goblins think that statue is...well...bad luck and we don’t want to get off on the wrong foot.”

“Okay,” said Willow, drying her hands and then handing back the handkerchief.  “Why?”

“I don’t know, exactly,” he responded.  “I’ve never asked them.”  He put the handkerchief back in his pocket and they entered the bank. 

After they went through the large brass doors, Willow looked around to see that it looked just like any other bank lobby; except for the goblins, she thought.  Although they’re not nearly as green and warty as I’ve been told. 

Mr. Abrams and her mother approached the counter while Willow waited just behind, staring around at the goblins while trying not to look like she was staring around at the goblins.

“What do you want?” growled a goblin at her mother when they reached the window.

Taken aback, Willow’s mom hesitated.  “Uh...I’d like to change nomaj money.”  She passed a few bills through the window and turned to Mr. Abrams, muttering “so much for friendly customer service.”

“You can always take your business to another bank,” the goblin behind the counter said to her, smiling evilly after having heard the complaint.

Her mom turned to Mr. Abrams.  “Let me guess...there isn’t another bank.”  Mr. Abrams shook his head ‘no’.  She turned back to the goblin at the window and gave a forced smile and half-laugh.  “Sorry,” she said.  “It’s my first time with...with, uh...being here.”

The goblin harrumphed and set a stack of gold coins and a few silver ones on the counter, pushing them through to Willow’s mom.  She picked up the coins and said “thank you” to the uninterested goblin who had already turned away.  As they stepped away from the counter, the goblin called out to the next customer:  “What do you want?”

Willow turned to follow her mom and Mr. Abrams, but her shirt snagged on the brass post that held the queue line and it tipped, falling to the floor with a loud ‘clang!’ that reverberated throughout the open bank lobby.  Every eye in the building turned to look at her.  Mr. Abrams rushed over to help. 

“Oh, bad luck,” he said as he helped her up and reset the brass post to its previous place.

Bad luck, thought Willow, staring at her fingers.

As they headed toward the door, Willow saw her mom turn her head to make sure no goblins were around and then asked Mr. Abrams “how do I know if this is right?”

“It’s right,” he reassured her.  “They aren’t friendly, but they do know their business.”  The gold ones are dragots and the silver ones are called 'sprinks'.  Ninety three to a dragot."

 

"Why not a hundred?" Willow's mom asked.

 

"There's no reason to make the math easy," he replied.  "You'll see when we start shopping."

They left the bank and went down the stairs, Willow giving the statue a wide berth.  Once they were back in the intersection, Mr. Abrams turned to Willow and asked “So would you like to get your uniform first or your wand?”

Willow smiled.  “Definitely my wand.”  She couldn’t wait to start turning rocks into ice cream and stray cats into unicorns.

As they walked out of the bank, Willow looked at the other stores on the three corners of the intersection.  Opposite the bank on the far side of the street was a building marked ‘New York Ghost, Narrowway Branch’, with the store to her right called ‘Dragonstones Jewelry’, and the one on her left ‘Familiars’.  Drawn to the animals in the window of this last store, Willow grabbed her mother’s hand to draw her over to the store window.

“Mom, look at those cute puffballs,” Willow said, pointing to what looked like big, tan, fluffy basketball-sized puffs rolling around a cage by the window.

“What is that?” her mom said.  She was staring at a large scaly reptile in a cage set further back in the store.  “It looks like a mini alligator....with wings?”

They were still staring at the creatures when Mr. Abrams, who had followed them, addressed Willow.  “I see you’ve found the puffskeins,” he observed.  “Very popular with students, but I’m afraid they won’t let you buy one.” 

“Why not?” asked Willow.

“Because you live in a nomaj household,” he said.  “Not only can you not do magic outside of school, but the proprietors can’t sell you magical animals, and you can’t take any magical objects out where nomaj could see them.  It’s a rotten rule, but if we’re to maintain the secret nature of the magical world, we have to follow them.”

Seeing that Willow was deflated, her mom put her hand on Willow’s shoulder.  “Don’t worry about it,” she said.  “There will be plenty of amazing things that you’ll get to see and do.  Now weren’t we looking for a wand?”

Leaving the pet store, they headed down the left-hand street where Mr. Abrams led them to a store called ‘Narrowway Wands’.  Willow wasn’t sure what a wand store was supposed to look like, but she stopped in her tracks when she walked inside:  it was a color explosion.  The walls flickered from neon green to red to electric blue and back again.  The store was brightly lit and white glass-fronted display cases were spread around the room with wands carefully displayed throughout.  As she continued into the store, Willow thought that the decor wouldn’t be out of place if this store was selling cupcakes...or fireworks.  

The proprietor, a young brown haired woman with glasses was helping an older man in a red robe whose wand was apparently broken in two places.  The young woman looked up as they entered and called out to them.  “Be with you in just a moment.”

While she was waiting, Willow looked at the display cases nearest to her and read some of the labels:  ‘Ash, Chimera horn, 12 3/4 inches, pliable’; ‘Chestnut, Pegasus tail hair, 10 inches, swishy’; ‘American elm, dragon heartstring, 9 ½ inches, reasonably springy’.

Willow was startled out of her reading by the proprietor, who had come over without her hearing.  “You must be headed off to school in the fall,” she said to Willow.  "Which one are you going to?"

 

Confused, Willow asked "Which what?"

 

"Which school," the lady smiled.  "You didn't think yours was the only one?  Are you going to Ilvermorny or one of the others?"

 

"Gampton Hall," Willow responded. "I didn't know there were others." Although now she remembered Mr. Puterschmidt mentioning something about that during the tour.

 

The lady nodded.  "Ah, yes.  Gampton Hall.  Ilvermorny is the largest and most prestigious - or at least they think so," she said as an aside.  "It has more than eight hundred students,but there are others: Gampton Hall, the Rocky Mountain Institute, and the American School of Magic on Sutil Island have between two and three hundred each.  Gampton is the only one that's not a boarding school though."

 

She held out her hand.  "I'm Miss Caitlyn Chantrix.” She held out her hand.  Willow shook it and introduced herself.

“Pleased to meet you Willow,” said Miss Chantrix.  “I think I can definitely help the right wand find you.  Could I see your hands please?”

Willow held out her hands and Miss Chantrix looked at the fronts and backs of both of them. “Your date of birth, please?” she asked Willow.

“June 16th.” 

“And your height?” she asked.

“4 feet, 11 inches”

“Excellent,” said Miss Chantrix.  “Let’s pull a few wands to see what works.”  She turned toward a doorway that led to the back of the store.  “Hey, Binky!  Could you come here, please.”

At her call, a small creature came through the door.  At first glance, Willow thought it was a goblin, but it was much smaller and had huge eyes instead of the small beady ones of the goblins.  

“James, is that like a baby goblin?” her mom was asking Mr. Abrams quietly.

“No,” he replied.  “That’s an elf.”

 

"Hm," Willow's mom replied.  "Somehow I thought they would be taller."

Miss Chantrix had turned to the elf.  “I’ll need you to pull some wands for me.  Let’s go with oak, between eleven and a half and twelve inches, less pliable, and various cores.”  The elf nodded and disappeared into the back room.  Not thirty seconds later, the elf re-emerged with an armful of foot-long boxes and set them on a low table.  Miss Chantrix thanked him and he left them while she sorted through the boxes and picked one out. 

“Let’s start with this one,” she said, handing Willow a wooden wand about a foot long.  It was light in Willow’s hand and as she took it she looked back at Miss Chantrix.  “What am I supposed to do with it?” she asked.

“Oh, just flick and swish, it will do the rest,” Miss Chantrix said, demonstrating with her free hand.

Willow flicked and swished and a light strand drooped out of the end of the wand like a string of chewed bubblegum and dropped in a puddle on the floor before disappearing.

“No good, I’ll take that back,” Miss Chantrix said and held out her hand. 

Willow handed back the wand and took the next one she was offered.  This time it blew glowing bubbles out of the end.

“Nope, that one isn’t it, either,” said Miss Chantrix.

“How do you know when you choose the right one?” Willow asked.

“It’s the wand that chooses the mage - not the other way, and we’ll both know when it finds you - trust me.”

Four wands later, Willow’s wand was shooting a single spark out of the end.

“Oh, I think we’re close,” said Miss Chantrix with excitement in her voice.  “Here, try this one.”

As soon as Willow touched it, it felt right.  Better than the others, but if she tried to describe why she couldn’t.  She flicked her wrist and a fountain of sparks shot out of the end in rainbow colors.

“It looks like our wand has chosen,” Miss Chantrix said; “eleven and three quarter inches, white oak, solid, with a griffon feather core.”

As Willow’s mother paid for the wand, Willow continued shooting sparks, thinking all the time, I’m doing magic!

After Willow thanked Miss Chantrix, she stepped outside and looked for something she could turn into a butterfly.  Seeing a piece of paper lying in the gutter of the road, she pointed her wand at it.  Red sparks shot from the end of the wand...and nothing happened.  She tried again, but the piece of paper just sat there, unchanged.  Mr. Abrams came over to her.

“I don’t know much about magic,” he said to Willow, “just what I have been able to pick up from my son, but casting spells requires quite a bit of training.  If I remember correctly, at the end of his first year, he could only do three or four spells.  It takes long hard study to be a good mage.  Just be patient.”

Sighing, Willow nodded her head to Mr. Abrams and put her wand back in its case.  

“I guess I won’t be turning flowers into ice cream after all,” Willow said to her mom when she had emerged from the store.

Willow’s mom smiled at her.  “Well, when you do, I’ll take chocolate.”

Their next stop was the bookstore to pick up her textbooks for the year.  As they brought the books up to the salesman, Willow watched as he touched the price tag on each book with his wand and she saw little colored glowing dots float in the air above the pile of books.  The glowing dots shuffled around in the air and settled into a single groups which then turned into numbers that the salesman read off. “That will be nineteen dragots, twelve sprinks, please,” he said to Willow’s mom.

While her mom had the books put on the Gampton Hall account, Willow turned to Mr. Abrams.

“Is that why I don’t need a math book?” she asked him.

“Yes,” he said.  “It seems that all math problems are magically solved.  There’s a subject at Gampton Hall called ‘Numerology’, but my son never took it so I don’t know the details.  I believe it has to do with the magical properties of numbers rather than arithmetic.”

After visits to the alchemy store to buy a school starter kit and a trip to the clothing store for uniforms, a heavy cloak, and a dress robe, their arms were full.  Mr. Abrams led them to the end of the dead-end street.  

“I would have stopped here first if it wasn’t so far out of the way,” he said, “but this will be a big help to carry all your school supplies every day.”  He opened the door to ‘Bags by Bumble’.  Judging by the window display, Willow saw that this store sold backpacks and handbags.

Walking inside, the salesman greeted them warmly and asked what they were looking for.  Mr. Abrams spoke up for them.  “Willow here will be attending Gampton Hall this fall and will need a Stor-all.”

“Of course,” the salesman said to Willow.  “Come this way and I’ll show you what we have.” 

Willow set her things down on the counter and followed him while her mother was perusing the leather purses on display.  As Willow and the salesman walked to a wall display of backpacks, he introduced himself.  “My name’s Neal, and I think you’ll find we have the best selection here of anywhere in the Mid-Atlantic.”

“I...I don’t really know what I’m supposed to look for.” Willow said.

“Oh!  Are you nomaj born?” Neal asked.  Seeing Willow nod her head, he told her what a Stor-all was.  “It’s a bag that is larger inside than out.  It helps you carry around much more than you could with a nomaj backpack.  Even when you load it with alchemy supplies and all of your books, it still isn’t heavy.  Trust me, it’s a huge back-saver.”  He looked at the wall for a few seconds and then turned back to Willow.

“Actually, wait here for a moment,” he said.  “I think I have something that you could use.”

Having been left alone, Willow wandered over to see what her mom was looking at.

“These bags are beautiful,” her mom said to Willow as she walked over.  “Do you think we could spare a few of those dragots to buy one?”

“I’m sure we could, mom.  Which one do you like?”

“I can’t decide between the pink and the black,” her mom said.

The salesman had returned with a light brown leather bag under his arm. “Oh, I see you’re admiring our Granger collection.” he said to Willow’s mom.  “You do know they won’t work for you, right?”

“What do you mean ‘work for me’?” Willow’s mom asked.

“The storage magic, it doesn’t work for nomaj.”

“Oh.” Willow’s mom was taken aback.  “I...but it looks like a regular bag to me.” she said.

“It will work exactly like a plain non-magical bag for you,” said Neal.  “But if you’d hand it to your daughter...” he waited while Willow’s mom handed her the pink bag.

“Willow, put your arm in that bag,” Neal said to her.

Willow opened the purse and looked inside.  It looked like it was bigger inside than outside.  She stuck her hand in, and then her arm to the elbow and then her whole arm up to the shoulder.  Willow’s mom stared in wonder as her daughter’s arm appeared to have vanished inside the bag.

Neal explained.  “You can store almost anything in there if you can use magic, so your daughter could use it, but you can’t.”

“Oh, I don’t mind,” said Willow’s mom.  “I think they’re wonderful - even if I can’t use the magic.”

Turning to Willow, Neal handed her the bag he had brought from the back room.  “This is a special bag,” he said.  “It was actually mine, but it has a pocket inside that can’t be detected by anyone but the bag’s owner.  By giving it to you, the magic will transfer as well.  I found it to be really useful when I first went to Gampton Hall since I am a nomaj-born too.  I hid Hershey bars in it and gave them out to the other students who had never had one.  They don’t move like chocolate frogs, but it’s better than toe jam-flavored Bertie Botts beans.  It really helped me make friends in those first few months when I didn’t know anyone or anything.”

“Wow.  Thank you.” Willow replied.  “Uh, how much...?” 

“Nothing,” he replied. “I’m just glad that someone else will be able to use it.  It has been sitting unused for ten years now.”  He smiled and continued in a whisper to Willow.  “Besides, maybe your mom is going to buy that Granger anyway.”



Chapter 5: A Bumpy Ride
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It was the morning of September the fifth - the first day of school - and Willow stood on the sidewalk waiting for the bus.  It wasn’t warm, and there were low clouds that blocked the sun, but her hands were sweating anyway as she twirled her hair.  She glanced at her watch - it was 7:28 and the bus was nowhere to be seen.  The past month since she had come back from Narrowway seemed to have dragged on as she anticipated this day, but now that it was here, Willow was incredibly nervous.   It was now 7:30.  She looked down to the end of the block, but there was no sight or sound of the bus coming.  She reached in her pocket again to look at the invitation to check the schedule for the tenth time, but just as she was pulling it out of her pocket she heard a loud noise.

“BANG!”  

When she looked up, a small yellow school bus stood where a second before was an empty street.  It was yellow with a black stripe and the words “Gampton Hall Academy” spelled out in block letters along the side.  The door opened to show a very old lady in the driver’s seat.  She must have been about eighty years old.

“First day?” she asked Willow.

Willow nodded.

“Well, hop on sweetie, we have twenty more stops to go this morning.”  

With twenty more stops, we'll be jammed in here like sardines, she thought as she stepped up onto the bus which looked from the outside like it was already full.  As she got to the top of the stairs and looked toward the back of the bus, her mouth, which was half open to ask where they would all sit, dropped open and then shut again without making a sound.  The bus was huge inside.   Not just huge; impossibly huge.  There was no way that the amount of space inside the bus - easily enough to hold a full sized tractor trailer - could have ever fit inside the small school bus that she had just boarded.

“You’ll want to sit down dear,” said the driver.  “This is going to get a little bumpy.” 

And before Willow could even think of sitting down, she was thrown toward the back of the bus as the world outside the window blurred.

“BANG!”

As she picked herself up off the floor and sat down in the first available seat, she saw that she had already gotten a black mark across her sleeve and a small cut on her left hand.  She set her book bag on the seat next to her and started digging through it to find a tissue.

What bad luck to start my first day at magic school, she thought to herself and she started to hold a tissue on her left hand to make sure the blood didn’t get all over her black dress robe.  She looked out of the window and saw the world blurred.  This was all too much too fast.  She had just boarded a bus that appeared out of nowhere, that was larger inside than out, and now she was traveling at what appeared to be hundreds of miles an hour.  

“BANG!” 

As the bus shifted again, Willow was thrown forward, but the seats were all well-padded and her body just bounced off the seat in front of hers.  The doors opened again, and another student got on.  Before he could be thrown on the floor like Willow had, he jumped on a broom and soared down the length of the bus. 

People fly on brooms? she wondered, watching him fly to the back.  They probably brew potions with 'eye of newt' too.  She tried to imagine everything else she could remember about witches and kept coming back to the stories where they eat little children.  As the bus door closed, Willow remembered to brace herself as the bus leaped forward again toward the next stop.  As the world outside continued to blur by, she turned toward the back of the bus.  

She was startled by what she saw.  How is that even possible? she thought as she gazed at the magic that was being performed two rows behind her.  She stared intently as a group of paper soldiers created by one older girl battled a group of paper dinosaurs created by the boy she was with, the papers shredding into confetti as they were defeated.

As the bus shifted with another series of bangs, she looked further back, where the bus was spattered in a rainbow of colors.  Are they playing paintball?  Where are their guns?  She soon saw that these kids were shooting each other out of the end of their wands.

"BANG!"

With each loud bang, the bus gained another student or two.  Willow noticed one new student who had obviously never been on the bus before only after she was lying on the ground just like Willow had been.

“The same thing happened to me,” said Willow to the girl.  “Here, let me help you up.”  Willow reached out a hand, helping the girl to her feet.

“Thanks, do we just uh, sit anywhere?” the new girl asked, looking around.  She was a short black girl, shorter than Willow with black curly hair and very dark brown eyes.

“You can sit next to me,” said Willow.  “Who knows when we’ll suddenly stop again.  My name’s Willow.”

“Hi Willow, I’m Lef.”

“Lef?  That’s a funny name.”

“Short for Maleficent.  It’s a family name, but I prefer the shorter one.”  Lef settled back into the bus seat as Willow turned to ask a question.

“Are you from a magic family or a...nomaj one?” Willow stumbled over the name, remembering it from Narrowway.

“Magic,” said Lef.  “I take it you’re nomaj-born?  What’s that like?”

“Compared to this?  Boring.  We’re not even at school yet and I’ve already seen the most amazing magic.”

“Really, like what?” Lef looked puzzled.

“There were enchanted papers fighting each other just over there.”  Willow pointed to the remains of the soldier and dinosaur paper battle.  “About halfway back, kids are shooting paint out of their wands, and I saw people flying on brooms!  It’s awesome.”

“Oh,” Lef looked disappointed.  “I hate to tell you this, but that’s all simple magic.”

“Not simple for me,” Willow answered in a hushed voice.

“Don’t worry,” said Lef.  “We’ll probably be doing all that and more before Christmas.”

“BANG!”

Lef looked down at Willow’s hand, which still had the tissue held on it.

“Did you cut yourself?” Lef asked.

“Yeah, when I fell down,” said Willow.  “It’s really not that bad, I just don’t want to get blood all over my robe.”

Lef dug in her bag for a few seconds and then pulled out a paper envelope.  Opening it, she handed Willow a leaf from the inside.  “Here,” Lef said. “Eat this.  It should help with the cut.”

“What is it?” Willow asked, taking the leaf and holding it in her fingers.

“It’s motherwort.  Look,” Lef said, reaching over, tearing the top half of the leaf and putting it in her mouth.  “It’s okay.”

Following Lef’s example, Willow took the rest of the leaf and put it in her mouth.  Chewing it, it tasted like a dirty sock dipped in ear wax.  “Ugh!  This is awful.”

“Yes, I know,” Lef said, cringing herself as she swallowed her half of the leaf.

“What does it do?” Willow asked after she swallowed.

“It fixes the cut,” Lef replied.  “Take a look.” 

Looking down, Willow lifted the tissue and was amazed to find her skin completely healed.  She lifted her hand close to her eyes and couldn’t find a single remnant of the wound.

“That’s amazing,” she said to Lef.  “Where did you get that?” 

“It’s just motherwort,” Lef responded.  “I picked it from my garden this morning.  You don’t have this in the nomaj world?”

“No, we don’t,” said Willow.  “Thanks!”

After another 15 minutes, the bus halted and the doors opened, but nobody got on.  The little old lady at the front of the bus had turned in her seat and yelled out to the bus, “ Gampton Hall Academy!  Last stop!”

Willow looked out of the window.  They were in the middle of the woods with a cobblestone driveway leading off further into the dense trees.  A number of horse-drawn carriages were lined up along the side of the driveway, clearly staged to ferry the students further.

Lef and Willow grabbed their bags and stood up to exit the bus.  As they stepped to the ground, they looked toward the carriages and the beautiful white horses tied to them.  As Willow stared at them, she realized that they were not, in fact, horses.

“That horse has wings!” she said.

“Yeah,” Lef answered, matter-of-factly. “It’s a Pegasus.”

“Pegasus!” exclaimed Willow.  “You mean like ‘My Little Pony Rainbow Dash’ Pegasus?” 

“I don’t know what a pony-rainbow-dash is, but that” Lef pointed at the closest one “is a Pegasus.”

Willow stood wide-eyed, staring at the snow white horses with large feathered wings folded along their backs.  Two of them were hooked up to each carriage, one in front of the other.  The carriages looked like something straight out of the 1700s with large wooden wheels and open windows.

“First years over here!”  A female voice carried over the milling students in the direction opposite the carriages.  “First years this way!”

“That’s us,” Lef said. “I guess we’re not getting a carriage ride after all.”  She started to walk in that direction.  “Are you coming?” she asked.  “Or are you going to look at your pony dash things some more?”

“No, I’m coming.”  Willow started walking toward the voice while still looking over her shoulder at the majestic beasts.

“Firsties!” they heard the voice continuing.  Willow and Lef walked past four other buses which were lined up with students milling all over the area, slowly working their way toward the carriages, joining with friends along the way.  A few of the older students were calling out to the first years who were walking in the opposite direction.

“Hope you can swim, newbie!” 

“Have a good trip down the falls!”

“Hey, noobs! Try not to get your feet wet!”

Wondering what was meant by these taunts, Willow and Lef followed the sound of the voice calling for the first years and ended up gathering with about forty other first year students near the edge of the woods.  At the head of the group stood a fit reddish-brown haired woman in school robes.  She was tall, standing more than 5 and a half feet, but was relatively thin.  She was pointing fingers at the group, counting them.  

“Hold still, you guys,” she said.  “I can’t get an accurate count with you jumping around like blink dogs.”

Willow turned to Lef, “like a what dog?”

“A blink dog, it’s a...” but Lef was cut off by the red-haired woman.

“Thirty-seven.  Okay, that’s all of you,” she said.  “Follow me down to the boats.”  She set off on a well-worn trail through the woods that led slowly downhill.  There were roots and leaves on the ground so Willow and Lef had to pay attention to where they were stepping.  Twice Willow helped Lef back up after she had tripped over a root.  A couple of boys were chasing each other and fell down, knocking over two other first-years.  The red-haired woman yelled back toward the boys. 

“Don’t make me come back there!  No fooling around or I’ll feed you to the manticore!”  

The two boys stopped their antics at the sound of this threat.

“What was she going to feed them to?” Willow asked Lef.

“A manticore,” Lef answered, and guessing what was going to come next added “look, you’re going to have to get used to the fact that everything about the world you just joined is new to you.”

“You’re telling me.” Willow said as they reached the bottom of the trail which opened up on a large boat house with a long dock that extended into a river.  Six boats were tied up alongside the dock.  The river itself was very wide - easily a half mile to the other side and forested along both banks.

The red-haired woman had gathered them together at the start of the dock.  “Alright, six to a boat with seven and me in the larger one at the front,” she said.  “No pushing!  I don’t want anyone getting soaked...yet.”  Willow only heard his last word because she was standing right next to the red-haired woman when she turned toward the docks.  

Yet.  This must have been what the warning was about when she had first visited the Academy.  Do they dunk us or what?  Willow decided she was going to ride in the first boat with the red-haired woman, figuring that she wouldn’t want to get wet herself and that Willow might be spared the worst of it.  

She looked over to see the two boys that had been chasing each other step into one of the boats and watched it bend and shift like it was made of rubber.  “These are kind of wobbly boats,” one of the boys called out to the red-haired woman.

“Well, you wouldn’t want them too stiff or they would just smash apart on the rocks,” she replied with a big grin on her face.

The boys turned to each other. “Rocks?  Where are we going?”

Willow and Lef found their way to the first boat and got in while the red-haired woman did another head count to ensure she had everyone.  

“Alright, everybody put your bags in the bottom of the boats and hold on,” she said.  She stepped into the first boat and pointed her wand at the rope holding them to the dock.  The rope untied itself from the cleat and coiled neatly in a pile at the front of the boat.  Looking back toward the other boats, Willow saw the other ropes untying themselves in order until all six boats were gliding away from the dock in the current, drifting along in a row like a mother duck and her ducklings.

The red-haired woman sat down in the front of the boat, conjured a hat out of thin air using her wand, put the hat low on her head, leaned back, and put her feet out in front of her, eyes closed.  Willow, who was sitting next to her thought she caught a wink before the red-haired woman shut her eyes and appeared to doze off.

Willow and Lef were at the front of their boat, facing backwards toward the other five first years.  Everyone looked nervous, but after about fifteen minutes of silently drifting with the current, they started talking to each other.  Willow and Lef remained silent, staring out at the water and forested hillsides beside the river.  They continued to look out for another few minutes, hardly noticing that the chatter in the rest of the boat had stopped.

“Are we moving faster than we were?” Lef asked.

“Yeah, I think we are,” Willow said.  “The river looks like it’s getting narrower.   Do you hear that?  It sounds like thunder, but it just keeps going.”

“Kinda sounds like a waterfall...," said Lef.  "You don’t think...”  They both turned to look where they were headed and saw what the others in their boat had seen a moment before.  The hills rose up before them and the river grew narrower until it funneled through a small slit between two hills.  In between they could make out the roar and spray of the rapids.

“Must be time to shoot the narrows,” the red-haired woman announced without lifting the hat from her eyes.  All of them jumped as they didn’t realize that she was awake.  “Hold on,” she continued as she sat up and made her hat vanish with a flick of her wand.  “This is going to get a little bumpy.” 

 

 

 

(My Little Pony: Copyright Hasbro; Rainbow Dash created by Lauren Faust)
 

 


Chapter 6: The Sorting
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Willow looked around her to find something to hold on to.  Finding nothing obvious, she grabbed onto her seat with both hands and pulled herself lower onto the bench.  She looked across at Lef, who was also holding on, but with a huge grin on her face.

“This is going to be great!” Lef shouted to her over the increasing roar of the rapids.

Willow shook her head.  “Are you insane?” she called back, but Lef obviously didn’t hear her and instead, had turned around in her seat to face forward.  Willow tried to make herself even smaller.  When they hit the first dip, the wooden boat bent with the rapids just as if it were a rubber raft, although Willow could feel the wooden seat clenched in her hands.  She could see the other five boats following hers into the rushing maelstrom, each twisting and dipping in turn as they entered just behind the lead boat. 

Are they trying to kill us on our first day? she thought, nearly losing her breakfast when the bottom dropped out of the boat as it descended into another trough.  As the spray and foaming water soaked her to the skin, she looked down to see their bags wallowing in six inches of water.  She looked up in time to see two of the students in the back of the second boat get launched into the air.  Willow was sure they were going to be thrown out of the boat and drown, but they just hovered in the air and then landed back down in their seats.  Maybe this school wasn’t trying to kill them on their first day after all.  Willow looked over to yell this to Lef, but Lef was holding her hands up in the air like this was some kind of roller coaster ride.

What have I gotten myself into? Willow thought as another wave crashed over her side of the boat.

By the time they reached the other end of the rapids, they were all soaked to the skin.  About a foot of water sloshed around in the bottom of the boat.  Willow was pretty sure her bag and everything it contained were ruined.  As she glanced back toward the canyon, she saw that all of the other boats were still lined up and were also filled with soaked and unhappy First Years.  Lef and the red-haired woman appeared to be the only two who were smiling.

“That never gets old,” said the red-haired woman as she wrung water from her hair.  

Willow saw that the river appeared to split ahead, flowing around the point of a large island which was covered in thick woods.  The portion of the river flowing to the right side of the island descended into a second set of rapids, but the boats were making their own way to the left side of the island where there was smooth water.  After about five more minutes of drifting along, Willow could see a dock ahead jutting out into the river.

The red-haired woman was looking forward from the boat to this dock and boathouse which were very similar to the one they had just left.  As the boats bumped up against the dock, the red-haired woman again took out her wand and pointed it at the coiled rope at Willow's feet which jumped up and tied itself to the dock.  Looking back, Willow could see the same happen to the ropes in the other five boats.  Willow and Lef grabbed their bags from the pool at the bottom of the boat and stepped onto the dock, their soaked robes and feet leaving puddles everywhere they stood.

“Line up at the base of the dock single file,” the red-haired woman called.  “We’ll go into the sorting from there.” 

“Wasn’t that awesome?” said Lef, water still dripping from her hair and face.

“No,” replied Willow, who was chilled from the river water, but thankful for the advice from Mr. Abrams to wear the swimsuit.

Willow opened up her bag to see how ruined her school books and supplies were only to discover that everything was perfectly dry.  The only water that was in her bag was that which was dripping from her soaked hair as she looked in.

“Everything is dry,” she remarked to Lef.

“Of course,” Lef responded.  “Why wouldn’t it be?” as if it were completely natural for a bag’s contents to be perfectly dry after having been immersed in water for a quarter of an hour.

I have so much to learn, thought Willow as she closed her bag back up and carried it toward the unhappy line of sodden first year students.

As they started to climb a set of stone stairs, Willow tried to remember if she had heard anything about the process of sorting from her visit two months ago.  She couldn’t remember any of the house names, although she knew that Mr. Puterschmidt had mentioned them during the tour with her mom. 

“Which house do you think you’ll be in?” she asked Lef.

“Muratroyd,” Lef replied without hesitation. “Everyone in my family is from Murgatroyd House...although that might be because it's my family name.”

“Oh...does it go by what your family is?  What do they do with...,” Willow trailed off.

“Nomaj-born?” Lef finished for her.  “I don't know how that works.  Everyone always ends up in the house their family was in.  It’s all explained by the hat.” 

“The hat?” 

“Yes,” said Lef.  “There is a hat that sings a song that explains the four houses: landowners, merchants, craftsmen, and farmers. My dad told me all about it.  I’m sure you’ll be fine.”  

Willow was as confused as ever and wished she had been able to pay more attention during the tour.  As the first years squished their way single file from the dock up the stone staircase to an underpass through a grassy hill, she tried to remember more about her first visit to the school.  She couldn’t figure out where they were or where they were going.

As they emerged on the other side of the tunnel and into the gardens with the school mansion in the background, she instantly recognized they were approaching the front of the school from the same direction that she and her mother had come two months ago.  Except that instead of the main entrance, they were headed for an entrance just off of the gardens at the far right edge of the school building.   

Many of the other first years were gazing in wonder.  They were obviously seeing Gampton Hall for the first time.  They wound their way through the gardens and into the garden entrance to the school building.  They climbed up the stone staircase and through the double doors.  Just before entering the school, Willow looked behind and saw the trail of dripping water they had left behind them as if a giant snail had just oozed its way up from the docks.  

Once inside, the line of first years snaked its way past two classrooms marked ‘Thaumaturgy’ and a smaller staircase until they were stopped just outside two large double doors.  Willow could hear a large assembly going on behind them.  After the red-haired woman had opened the door and signaled to someone inside, she heard some loud cheering, which apparently was their cue to file into the banquet hall.

Following the others, she walked into the vast room, which she recognized from the site tour.  Waiting inside were hundreds of students sitting at long tables.  There were two tables much larger than the others.  One was decked out in red and gold, stretched the full length of the room and bent to travel along the back of the room too.  The second table, in blue and bronze, was nearly as long as the red one.  Two other tables were in the remaining space.  Less than half the size of the blue table, one was decked in green and silver, the other in yellow and black.  About forty students sat at each of these tables.

The red-haired woman led them in the door and off to the left where they stood at the front of the room beside a raised platform with a fifth table at it.  This fifth table was clearly for the teachers.

“Ursula!” called out the man standing at the very center of the teachers’ table.  He was in his fifties, with silvering hair and middle height. “How good to see you made it.  Any casualties to report?”

“No, Chancellor,” the red-haired woman replied.  “All present and accounted for although a bit wet around the ears.”  There was a cheer and laughter from the assembled students at this.

“Excellent.  Well, let’s fix that right away,” replied the Chancellor, who took out his wand and waved it in small circles at the line of first year students.  Immediately, Willow felt like she was in the center of a small tornado.  Wind whipped about her robes and hair and in a few seconds died away again, leaving her completely dry; hair, skin, clothes and shoes.  The Chancellor then turned toward the students sitting at the tables. 

“Welcome to another year at Gampton Hall Academy,” he said.  “I’m very excited to get started and I know you are too.  Most of you already know the rules, but I’ll go over them again for the benefit of our newest members.” He gestured at the First Years.  

“Each of you will be sorted into one of four houses, which you see arrayed at the four tables in front of you.  These four houses will be your home for the entire seven years of your study here at Gampton Hall.  Everyone is expected to be on their best behavior and to encourage this, we have a competition between houses for the most points.  Points are awarded for good behavior, and deducted for bad behavior.  The house with the greatest number of points at the end of the year will be awarded the House Championship.”  The Chancellor turned to the red and gold table.  “I believe Hammersmith House has won the house cup for…is it fourteen straight years?”

“Fifteen!” called out a voice from the red and gold table.

“Right.  Fifteen,” said the Chancellor and he turned back to the first years.  “Regardless, listen to your teachers, respect the school rules, study hard and you will all do fine.”  He now turned back to the student tables.

“As you know, the kitchen and the third floor north corridor are strictly off limits and will remain so for this year.  Furthermore, no student is to enter the North Woods,” he continued.  “Since you’ve been here last, we are concerned about increased sightings of the Wendigo near the four brothers...”

Willow leaned forward to whisper in Lef’s ear.  “I don’t know what those things are.”

Lef shook her head.  “The Wendigo is really bad news.  I’ll tell you later.” 

The Chancellor was continuing to talk about limitations for the students.  “These rules are for your protection.  Furthermore, possession of any objects from Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes is not allowed and all items will be confiscated upon discovery.”  There was a general groan from the gathered students.  The Chancellor looked around and responded to their disapproval.  “After what happened in the gallery last year, you should not be surprised!  Mr. Vernon, the custodian, was cleaning that up for months!”  A few snickers were heard from the student tables.  “Finally,” the Chancellor continued, “parental permission will be required for admission to the restricted section of the school library and field trips into Gampton.  No exceptions.”  

The Chancellor made a gesture toward an alcove above the teacher’s table and organ music began to echo through the banquet hall.  “Let us now sing the school song!” he called above the opening notes.  

Willow didn’t know any of the words, but as she looked around at the other first years, they didn’t seem to know it either.  They were all staring around at each other as the rest of the school sang their way through three verses of something that sounded to Willow like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.  At the conclusion of the song, the Chancellor opened his arms toward the students.  

“Now, without further ado, let us commence the sorting ceremony,” he said and then he turned and spoke directly to the first years.  

“The sorting hat was a gift from the Headmaster of Hogwarts School in Scotland who was serving there when Gampton Hall Academy was founded in 1720,” he explained.  “It is a replica of the hat that Hogwarts has been using for the better part of a thousand years to sort students into one of four houses.  Our hat, which we have nicknamed ‘Amrose’ after that headmaster, has been doing the same for the past three hundred years.  I would go into the nature of the houses, but you’ll hear it from Amrose, so I’ll refrain from mentioning it here, other than by saying that in general it will place you in the house relating to whether your family are craftsmen or women; merchants; farmers; or landowners.”

“Miss Mercana will call you by name.  Once called, you will proceed to stand next to Amrose and it will be placed on your head.  The hat will look into your mind and will announce the house to which you belong.  Once announced, you will sit at the table with your classmates and you will remain in that house for your full seven years at Gampton Hall.”  The Chancellor turned to address the hat, which was sitting on a stool, “Amrose, I yield the floor to you.”

The hat, which appeared to Willow to be an old rumply witch’s hat made of grey felt, suddenly moved.  A slit opened along the cone of the hat which she saw was a mouth and it started to sing in a melodious tenor voice:

 
Another year at Gampton Hall,

We shift our brains from stop to crawl.

Before our roast, assembled host,

We should start with a roll call: 

 

Hammersmith and bright Suncorn,

Featherpenny greets the morn, 

Teachers here, ghosts reappear,

Murgatroyd - they seem reborn.

 

Wake your brain from its long rest, 
Dress robes on and bold house crest;
Shining bright, a guiding light,
Don’t dread the coming mental test.

 Instead witches, wizards cheer,
We bring hope and new frontiers.
The floors are wet and the stage set,
To start sorting our first years.

We greet once more as through the door,
Walk those who would seek magic lore.
First imported and then sorted,
Fully into houses four.

But this hat now sees things anew,

A fresh perspective coming through.
Dark fog lifted, I'm now gifted,

With new rules for sorting too.

 

Let us call to craftsmen wearing,

Fire and metal, rarely sharing.

Hammersmith, but now forthwith

Ever stronger, brave and daring.

 

Suncorn, old, was those who farm,

Embracing soil's hearty charm, 

Now protecting and affecting,

Ways to save each mage from harm.

 

Featherpenny, silver rings,

The merchant class will change to bring, 

Wit and knowledge at this college,

To cause their great house flag to swing.

 

Murgatroyd, under duress,

Land and flocks did they possess, 

Now are cunning and have stunning,

Sources of resourcefulness.

 

For those conflicted deep inside,
Among the houses yet untried,
Those in balance, many talents,
No longer will this hat decide

An ancient house that once was part,
Of Gampton's founding shall restart.
Of old vacated, reinstated,
To get back what is at heart.

That house shall use the ancient ways,
To find the path that once was blazed,
By ancient ones, the first to come,
To make whole what has decayed.

So with the Fox, the Cougar too, 

Snapping Turtle and Owl, the new,

Elk shall stand, no longer banned,

Four houses are just one too few.

Old rules
I will at last revive,
To ensure our school survives,
And while imprudent sort these students,
Fully into houses five.
 

As the hat finished its song, Willow could tell that this was not how they expected it to go.  There was nothing but silence in the room.  She was watching the teachers as they stared at each other, as puzzled as the students on what this sorting song meant.  The Chancellor had gone over to the teachers table and was in a lively, although whispered conversation with a very old man in green and silver tipped teachers' robes.  After a moment, the room began to buzz with excited conversations at the other tables.  

 

Willow took the break to look more around the banquet hall.  She noticed the banners hanging on the wall and recognized the animals from the song.  The cougar was on the red and gold Hammersmith banner withe the owl on the blue one for Featherpenny.  Suncorn's yellow banner had a turtle on it and the green banner of Murgatroyd displayed a fox.  She didn't see an elk anywhere.

 

Two minutes of conversation passed before the Chancellor turned back toward the hat and spoke up as the room settled down.  "Well, that was...enlightening, thank you Amrose," he said.  He then turned toward the room.  "Let's proceed with the sorting then shall we?"  Hearing no objections, nor any noise at all from the completely silent hall, he continued. "Miss Mercana, you may begin."

The red-haired woman walked toward the hat, picking up a roll of parchment from a side table along the way.  Unrolling it, she called out to the first years.  

"William Abbott!" 

A blonde haired boy approached the hat, and Miss Mercana spun him around so he faced the student tables.  When the hat was put on his head, he jumped.  The students throughout the hall laughed at this - obviously it was something that happened every sorting.

Maybe you get shocked when it’s put on, thought Willow.  After a moment the hat called out.

“Suncorn!”

The table decked out in yellow and black let out a loud cheer and Miss Mercana pointed William Abbot in that direction.  As William walked toward the table, his robes changed and yellow and black trim appeared to match the students who were sitting at his table.  Miss Mercana called out the next name.

“Mohammed Azazi!”  

After walking to the table and having the hat put on his head, Mohammed also jumped a moment later, which made the students at the tables laugh again.  When the hat called out "Featherpenny!” the blue and bronze-decked table yelled and clapped their hands as Mohammed went over to sit with them.

Miss Mercana called two more names; Lauren Beaudelaire, who went to Murgatroyd and Babbity Broombreaker who was sorted to Suncorn.  Each house name was greeted by more loud applause and yelling from those two tables before Willow heard her own name.

"Willow Carter!"  

Willow stepped forward and approached the hat.  She turned toward the student tables as she had seen the others do and waited for Miss Mercana to place the hat on her head.  "Don't worry," Miss Mercana whispered to her "this doesn't hurt...much".  Willow knew she was kidding by the smile on her face and immediately a smirk appeared on Willow’s face in spite of her nervousness.  Miss Mercana placed the hat on Willow's head and Willow jumped just as several other students did because there was a loud voice inside her head that wasn't her own.

Well, let's see now, the voice said.  I think we can rule that one out right away.

What one?  Willow thought.  But the hat ignored her question - or didn't hear it and continued on.

But these others...not quite so clear, it said.  I can hardly see a winner... 

What does that mean?  Willow thought.  

Hmmm, really quite balanced, the hat continued, ignoring her.  Yes...yes, I think you'll be the first.

The first what?   Willow thought again.

You'll see, said the voice and now out loud to the room: "Pathfinder!"
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



Chapter 7: The Fifth House
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There was no cheering.  Instead, a general buzz filled the room.  Willow looked around at the confusion and wondered if she had done something wrong.  She glanced up at Miss Mercana.

“Did I break the hat?” she asked.

“No, I don’t think you could have done that,” Miss Mercana said as she removed Amrose from Willow’s head.  “But I’ll be a monkey’s aunt if I could tell you what it means,” she continued.  “You just hang with me a second and we’ll see what’s going on.”

Willow turned to see the Chancellor re-engaged with the older professor in the green and silver trimmed robes.  The elder man looked baffled and when he shrugged his shoulders a few seconds later, the Chancellor came over to where Willow was standing.

“Well dear,” the Chancellor said.  “Let’s just have you step aside for a bit while we figure out where the hat went wrong.”  He then turned to Miss Mercana.  “Ursula, let’s continue and see whether Amrose has lost his marbles.  I’d hate to lose an entire sorting while we get a new hat.”

Willow was led back over to where the first years were waiting and went to stand next to Lef.  Willow wasn’t sure what it meant and didn’t know what was going to happen next.  Just my luck: maybe they will have to send me back home.  She looked up at Lef, who was looking back at her.

“I didn’t expect that,” Lef whispered as Miss Mercana called out the next name on the list.

“Cortana Colebrick!”

At the announcement of her name, a small, thin girl with short black hair started walking toward Miss Mercana and glanced over at Willow as she passed.  Willow watched Miss Mercana whisper something to Cortana before she put on the hat, but Cortana didn’t smile.  The entire audience was silent as the hat pondered Cortana’s fate.

“Featherpenny!”

The blue and bronze table broke into cheers and Cortana headed directly over, not looking back at where the rest of the first years waited.

“Devlin Dolohov!” called Miss Mercana.

Devlin went to Murgatroyd and he was followed by two Hammersmiths, two more Murgatroyds, two Featherpennies, and one Suncorn which were sorted to raucous cheers from their tables.  

So is it just me? thought Willow, wondering if she did - in fact - break the hat.

“Sibelius Hooplander!”

“Pathfinder!” the hat announced after long deliberation.

After more confusion, Sibelius was pointed over to where Willow was standing and the Chancellor gestured for Miss Mercana to continue.  Willow looked at Sibelius, but he was staring at his shoes and didn’t look up.  He was a small but muscular boy with blond hair and tanned skin.  She noticed that he had a large bruise on his face - like he had recently been in a fight.

At least I’m not the only one who broke the hat, thought Willow.

The hat continued sorting, sending one Hammersmith, one Featherpenny and two consecutive Murgatroyd students to their new houses.  As the latest Murgatroyd was announced, the green and silver table were all standing up, both from excitement and from the fact that there was no more room for the first years to sit down.  With three Suncorns, one Hammersmith and another Murgatroyd, Willow could see that the students at the red and gold table were confused.  They had room for at least twenty new students, but only four new Hammersmiths were sitting there and the sorting was half over.

“Maleficent Murgatroyd!” called Miss Mercana.

Lef went over to the hat and turned toward the audience.  Willow noticed that she didn’t jump when the hat was put on her head.  She must have known what was coming, Willow thought.  Lef hadn’t hesitated when she said she would be put in her own family house, so Willow was confused why the hat was taking so long to figure it out.  Instead it thought for a while and then announced: 

“Pathfinder!”

Lef, looking confused, but not upset, walked over to where Willow was without being prompted.  “I really didn’t expect that either,” she whispered to Willow.

Willow didn't know what to say:  Lef, I'm so glad the hat refused to sort you too?  It seemed inappropriate somehow, so she kept silent.  At least the only girl with her was also the only girl in this school she knew.

Miss Mercana continued with the roll call.  Norbert Nuffledim was next and went to Hammersmith followed by Otto Otterbanger - Featherpenny; and Patrick Parkinson -  Murgatroyd.  After this last name was called and the cheering had faded, one of the older students at the green and silver table waved his wand and the table grew another wing to seat all the new Murgatroyds.

“Mabeobsa Ryong!” called out Miss Mercana.  Willow watched an Asian boy cross to the hat.

“Pathfinder!”

He came over to stand with Willow, Lef, and the other unsorted boy, Sibelius.  The newest arrival had a puzzled look on his face, but didn’t say anything.  Willow still didn’t know what was going on, but at least several others were in the same situation.  They couldn’t send all four of us back home, could they?  They’d have to re-sort us somehow.  Maybe we’ll have to wait until the Chancellor fixes the hat.  Her thoughts were whirling as Miss Mercana called another name that Willow didn't catch.

“Suncorn!”

But what will happen to the four of us? As Miss Mercana called out another name, Willow wished she knew more about this new world she was in.  She felt totally out of place...and totally helpless.  Her thoughts were interrupted by the hat's sorting: 

“Pathfind...!”

“Oh, for heavens’ sake,” The Chancellor broke in before the hat had even finished.  “Miss Smith, I know your mother, you belong in Featherpenny.  Off you go.”  The Chancellor hustled the girl off to the Ravenclaw table as the table cheered this unusual sorting.  “Ursula, please call the next name.” 

“Oliver Q. Snipplewicket!” she read off.

Oliver went to Featherpenny, as did two more students.  Two others went to  Hammersmith before Zoey Zygax was sorted to Suncorn and Willow stood with the other three unsorted first years in front of the room.

The Chancellor came over to look at the group.  “Miss Murgatroyd, your family has all been in your family's house since the founding of the school,” he said. “So you belong there...I don’t know what the hat was thinking.”  Lef looked back at Willow before she headed over to the new wing of the green and silver table.

The Chancellor looked at the three remaining students.  

“As for the rest, you go to Hammersmith,” he said, gesturing to Willow.  “You to Suncorn,” now pointing at the Asian boy. “And you to Featherpenny,” he said, gesturing to the boy who was still staring at his shoes.

Nobody in the room cheered.  Willow started walking toward the red and gold table.  The section reserved for first years could have easily fit twenty new students, but only seven sat there when she took her seat.

Nobody welcomed Willow to the table and everybody seemed to be looking away from her as if they wanted to pretend she wasn’t there.  She noticed that the trim on her robe didn’t change like it had for all the other sorted students.  It was still the same black it was when she had come in.

The Chancellor spoke to the group again. “Everyone should now go to your house homerooms for announcements and initiation,” he said.  “Meanwhile we will be setting up the club tables and preparing for the celebratory luncheon.  Dismissed.”

Willow looked around to see where she was supposed to go.  One of the older Hammersmiths came over to the eight first year students.  She was much older - probably a senior. 

“Alright, newbies,” she said.  “I’m Pamela Jian-de, house president for Hammersmith.  Follow me up to the Cougar homeroom.”  All of the first years got up and formed a line behind her.  The rest of the Hammersmiths had gone ahead, leaving through doors on three sides of the banquet room.  Waiting until the crowd had dispersed, Pamela led the way out of the banquet room through the conservatory.  Willow remembered this walk from her visit two months previously.  She was listening to a conversation going on just behind her among three other Hammersmith first year girls.

“My dad’s assistant told me all about this,” one of them was saying.  “The Hammersmiths don’t tell the first years the password to get into the homeroom.  They make us figure it out on our own.  Of course, I was able to get the password right away.”

At the far side of the greenhouses, they waited in the main hall for the rest of the students to go up or down the grand staircase.  Willow turned around to the three girls who were talking.

“Hi, I’m Willow,” she said.

“Oh, yes,” said the girl who had been talking.  “You’re that unsorted girl.  Well?... don’t tell me you don’t know my name?”

“No, I don’t,” said Willow.  Should I? 

“I’m Felicity Trueworthy?” she said, clearly looking for some recognition.

“Hi Felicity,” said Willow, who had never heard of that name.

“Daughter of Secretary Trueworthy?” she continued.

“Okay,” Willow responded, unsure of what she was supposed to say.

“Secretary for the Department of Magical Law Enforcement?” Felicity went on.

“Okay,” Willow responded again, feeling more and more like she was supposed to know something she didn’t.

“Oh my God, what am I doing?” Felicity said as she turned back to her friends.  “I might as well be talking to a nomaj.”  The two other girls giggled and the three of them pushed past Willow as the group moved again.

Oh, this is going wonderfully, Willow thought as she followed the others.  I'll probably get eaten by a dragon next.

As they approached the huge main circular stairwell, Willow couldn’t help but notice that the railings were missing on each of the landings.

“Isn’t that a safety hazard?” Willow asked nobody in particular.

“Oh, that’s how most of the upper class students go down,” said a first year boy who was just in front of her.  Second years and up can jump.” 

As they climbed the stairway, Willow could look down and see the bottom, nearly forty feet below.  Looking up, she saw the long climb to the fourth floor more than sixty feet above.

“No thanks,” Willow replied.  “I’ll stick to the stairs.” 

They climbed up the grand staircase, past the second and third floor landings, until they stood at the very top.  Willow and the other first years were all winded as they reached the fourth floor.  There was a classroom to the right marked “Mysticism”, but they turned left, heading toward the back of the school and entered a dead-end corridor.  At the far end of this corridor was a giant painting of a woman dressed in a colonial-era dress.

“Stop here,” said Pamela, halting them about thirty feet short of the painting. 

From the conversation she had overheard from Felicity, Willow could tell that Pamela was going to say the password to get into the Hammersmith homeroom without being overheard by the first years.  She watched as Pamela walked to the end of the corridor.  After Pamela spoke to the painting, Willow noticed a small pink string that was suddenly whipping across the floor toward one of the first year boys.  Willow turned back to Pamela and saw the painting swing open, revealing a doorway behind and Pamela beckoned for them all to walk through it.  As Willow was nearing the door, Pamela pulled her aside.

“Listen, newbie,” she said.  “I’m not convinced you belong in Hammersmith since the hat didn’t put you here, but you’ll need this if you’re coming into our house.” She waved her wand and the trim on Willow’s robes changed to the red and gold of her new house.  “I’ll dole out some advice too,” Pamela continued.  “I saw you talking to that Murgatroyd girl, and I’d stay away from them if I were you.  They’re all cheaters and thieves...always have been, always will be.”  Pamela then turned and walked through the door herself, leaving Willow staring after her.  

I only find one friend here, and now I can’t even talk to her?  How can this day get worse?

Inside the lounge, Willow could see a huge space, extending more than a hundred feet long and at least twenty feet wide away to her right.  Looking up, she could see that a tower extended upward from where she was standing, with balconies ringing the inside two stories in the air.  The room was packed and all the seats were taken by the older students.  Finding a corner, Willow just tried to stay out of the way.  A moment later, Pamela emerged on one of the balconies overhead, touched her wand to her throat and spoke to the room as loud as if she were speaking into a microphone.

“Welcome back House Hammersmith!” she called out and the room erupted into a cheer.  “And welcome new Hammersmiths!” she continued, to another round of cheers.  “A few announcements are in order:  First, Quidditch tryouts will be held a week from Saturday - and as usual, no one under fourth year will be eligible.  All issues you deal with must be handled in-house before you take them to a teacher...”

What's Quidditch? thought Willow, but then realized she wouldn't have to care for another three years.

As Pamela droned on regarding house rules, Willow was barely listening.  Instead, she was looking around at the room thinking, much as she did about the great hall downstairs, that her entire house could fit in this room.  But then again, my house wasn't made to fit a hundred people.  She was startled out of her thoughts by the call to initiate the first years.  

“Let’s have all the first years assembled on top of the table,” said Pamela pointing to a table on the other side of the tower room from where Willow stood.  Winding her way between students, Willow reached the table with the other first years and climbed on top to stand facing the crowd.

This day is getting worse, she thought.

“Now, newbies,” Pamela continued. “You should understand a few rules for being in Hammersmith.  First off, nobody here is allowed to help you.  If you need something, don’t know a spell, need a book, need directions - do not ask your fellow Cougars because we are forbidden to offer you any help at all.  You need to figure it out on your own.”

Great, thought Willow.  Maybe being eaten by a dragon wouldn't be so bad after all.

“Secondly,” Pamela said, “there are certain areas and places that you as first years are forbidden to go.  You cannot use the lifts that the others will use to go up to different floors and instead you must use the stairs to go everywhere in the school.  Don’t even try the jumps before your second year starts.  Nobody here wants to scrape your innards off the floor of the potions dungeons a hundred feet below us.”  There was general laughter at this from the assembled Hammersmiths.  “You may not go into Gampton when the rest of the school has a field trip and you may not get into the restricted section of the library, so don’t bother asking your parents for permission.” 

“Finally,” Pamela continued, “we want to ‘encourage’ you in your studies, so to give you an extra incentive to learn, we’re going to make all of you wear a special first-year badge on your robes at all times.  It will stay there until you can find a way to remove it.”

Pamela waved her wand and eight badges levitated from a table on the other side of the room toward each of the eight first years.  Willow reached out in the air and took the badge that was floating in front of her.  It was neon green and had the word ‘Newbie‘ in glowing orange letters on the front.  It didn’t have a pin on the back or any obvious way to attach it to her robes.  She looked over at the other first years and saw that they were just holding it up to their robes and it was staying in place on its own.  Willow held it up to her robes below her left shoulder and watched as it sewed itself on.  In a moment, it looked like it had always been part of the fabric.

“That’s it, newbies,” Pamela said to them.  “The first and last piece of advice you’ll get before your second year is to watch your back.  Nobody else will.” The crowd around them cheered and broke into a chant, calling ‘Newbie! Newbie!, Newbie!’

Willow could only think of one thing:  why didn't I open the blue envelope?  This certainly wasn’t the warm welcome she thought she would get.  What a rotten place to be.  She didn’t know anybody or anything and now she couldn’t expect help from anyone  She wanted to cry, but held herself together long enough to grab her bag and wind her way through the crowd to the far back corner of the room. 

Do the teachers know that the Hammersmiths treat their new students like this?  She thought for a second about finding out, but then realized that might not be the smartest move.  She wondered how many friends she would make if the first thing she did was to rat out her new house.  After she found a corner, she turned around and watched the second years being herded together to make their first jump down the center of the stairway.  They looked like cattle going to the slaughterhouse; their terrified expressions broadcasting their fear.

This whole place is screwed up.  I don't understand how they think this is a good way to treat people.  As much as I don't want to go back to where I had trouble with bullying, it would be better than this.  There's nobody I can go to for help.  Willow’s eyes were brimming with tears and she reached in her bag to get a tissue without seeing where she was reaching.  Instead of a tissue, she grabbed a Hershey’s chocolate bar.  Wiping her eyes on the sleeve of her robe instead, she muttered:

"I guess I'll just help myself."



Chapter 8: The Broom Ride
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“So you have to wear that ugly glowing badge everywhere?” her mother asked that evening after Willow had told her about the day’s events.

“Yes,” Willow replied.  “Somehow it transferred to all of my uniform shirts as well.  And apparently, it’s really hard to remove.  I heard a couple of second years say they weren’t able to remove theirs until January.”

“Well do you want me to give it a try?” her mother asked.

“No,” Willow said.  “I’ve already tried everything I can think of.  I’m pretty sure it has to come off by magic.”

"And does everyone else in the school have to wear this badge?" her mom questioned.  "It seems they go out of their way to single out the first years.  Do you think I should go talk to the Chancellor about it?"

"No, mom," replied Willow.  "It's fine."  Willow's first thought was that she didn't want to be 'that girl.'  Just what I need, to be the newbie who ran home to get her mom's help.

“Okay, so then what happened after they gave you the badges and told you everything you can’t do?” her mom asked.

“We went back down to the main hall and gallery and signed up for after-school activities,” Willow said.  “They have all kinds of clubs, but unfortunately most of them required try-outs or magic spells that I can’t do.” 

“Like what clubs?” asked her mom.

“Well, there’s wizard chess club, quidditch, photography, dance, herbology, music...” 

“I don’t know what half of those things are, but what about music?” her mother said. “You can sing.”

“Not like they do,” Willow said.  “They can cast a spell on their voices so that each person sings in four-part harmony, or has a vocal range from baritone to soprano.  It’s awesome - but I can’t do it.”

“So did you sign up for anything?” her mother asked.

“Oh, yes.  I signed up for care of magical creatures club.  I want to take care of a pegasus!  Doesn’t that sound amazing, mom?”

“Sure,” said her mom.  “I just hope they don’t have dragons.”

 

Since they dismissed the school right after lunch on the first day, Willow’s second day at school was actually her first day of classes.  She looked at her schedule as she nervously waited for the bus.  

“BANG!” 

Willow looked up to see the same bus as yesterday and boarded it when the door opened, swinging into the first open seat.  Looking backwards, the bus wasn’t gigantic inside anymore.  There were only eight students on the bus and none of them were doing magic. 

“BANG!”

The bus lurched forward and they were racing ahead just as they had the day before.  But instead of twenty stops, there were only four more before the bus pulled up to the front door of Gampton Hall.  Lef had never gotten on.  Willow didn’t know what was happening as she exited the bus and started walking into the school.  She looked at the student behind her and checked to make sure that it wasn’t a Hammersmith before speaking up.

“Why are there so few of us today?” she asked a girl wearing blue and bronze who looked a year or two older than her.

“This is the nomaj-born bus,” said the girl.  “Everyone else can travel in by floo powder, or fly a broom, or teleport just outside the school grounds.  The whole school only travels on the bus for the first day.” 

Willow was upset that she wouldn’t get to see anyone she knew on the bus.  As she walked into the grand entry hallway, she could see a bustle of activity and saw students appearing in the fireplaces that lined the walls of the gallery, but she didn’t see Lef anywhere. 

It doesn't matter, she thought as she headed to the central staircase.  I don't even know what I would say to her if she was here:  'Hey, Lef, are you really a lying thief like the other Murgatroyds?'  What if she said 'no'?  Heavy with the weight of loneliness, she headed up to the Hammersmith homeroom to wait for the first bell.  

When she reached the dead-end corridor outside of her homeroom, she realized that she didn’t know the password.  Coming up the stairs just behind her, she recognized four of the first-year Hammersmith boys.

“How are we going to get in?” Willow asked them.

“Sasquatch,” said one of the boys.  Willow wasn’t sure if he was calling her a sasquatch, or just spouting nonsense.

“Excuse me?” she said.

“Sasquatch,” the boy repeated.  “It’s the password.” 

“How did you find out?” asked Willow.

“I can’t tell, but I’m willing to share,” he said.  “Can you believe that Felicity knew and wouldn’t tell us?”  

“She even called us ‘newbies’ like she wasn’t one herself,” said another of the boys.

“Sasquatch!” called the first boy when they reached the painting.

“Correct!” the lady responded and the portrait swung open to reveal the passage into the Hammersmith homeroom.

“Thanks,” said Willow and introduced herself. 

“Norbert,” said the boy.  “This is Wilber, Achalis, and Pete.” The three boys nodded their heads at Willow.

Maybe today isn’t going to be so bad, she thought.  Willow hadn’t walked four steps in the room before she was confronted by one of the older students who had been talking to Felicity.

“Hey,” he said.  “You’re nomaj born, aren’t you?” 

“Yes,” Willow replied.

“Here,” he said, handing her a piece of candy.  “Nomaj and first-year.  You’re really not going to get a break.  This one’s on me.  Go on, try it.”

Willow looked at the candy which was labeled as a ‘chocolate toffee surprise’.  Opening it, she saw that it looked like a small chocolate bar, similar to a mini candy bar she might get at home.  It had three 'w's embossed on the top.  It looked and smelled just like a regular chocolate bar, so she took a bite.  It was really good.  The older student who had handed her the candy started getting a big grin on his face.  

“How are you feeling, newby?  You’re looking kind of...green.”  Several other students started laughing.  Willow stopped chewing and turned away.  Norbert was standing about ten feet away and was shaking his head back and forth and he gestured for her to come over.  As she was walking over, she could see everyone else around looking at her and laughing or smiling.  

“If I knew you were nomaj-born, I would have told you,” he said.

“Told me what?” 

“Don’t ever eat anything that anybody ever gives you...especially not a Hammersmith,” he said to her.

“Why not?” asked Willow.  “Why is everyone looking at me?”

“Because you just ate a chocolate toffee surprise from Three Dubs and it’s turned your hair green.“

Willow reached behind her and pulled her ponytail over her shoulder to look at it.  It was colored bright neon green and was practically glowing.

 

"Three Dubs?" Willow questioned.

 

"Three W's", Norbert clarified.  "You know - Weasley's Wizard Wheezes."

 

"The joke shop in Narrowway?"

 

"That's the one."

Oh yes, she thought.  Today is going to be bad.

“Will it stay like this?” she asked, dreading the answer.

“No,” replied Norbert.  “It lasts a couple of hours, but don’t eat any more of that candy.” Willow tossed the uneaten portion of the chocolate bar in the nearest trash can.  The day was getting worse by the moment.

After morning announcements, Willow started walking toward the door to head off to her first class.  She was approached by a red-haired girl who was probably a year or two ahead of her.  

“Hey noobie.  I saw what happened and I thought that was pretty low.  Listen, I know I’m not supposed to help, but I’ll give you directions to get to your first lesson.  Where are you headed?”

“Care of Magical Creatures,” Willow replied.

“Easy,” she replied.  “Follow me.”  She led Willow over to the giant spiral staircase.  “Now you just follow these stairs all the way to the bottom.  After you reach the bottom, just hang a left and follow the hallway to the end.”  Willow nodded and said ‘thanks.‘  The girl took two steps and plummeted over the edge of the central opening of the stair tower. 



It didn’t take Willow long to figure out that she was in the wrong place.  As she descended to the bottom level of the stairway, she took a left and immediately faced the sneering looks of older students in green and silver uniforms who were headed in the opposite direction.

“Wrong way, noob,” said one.

“Got directions from one of your ‘buddies’?” said another.  "Was it the same one that gave you that Three Dubs candy?"  Willow halted in her tracks. 

Something tells me that I'm not supposed to be here, she thought.  She had no idea where she was or where she was supposed to be.  Unsure of what to do or where to go, she froze in the middle of the hallway as several more students passed staring at her.  She overheard one mutter “Hammersmith” as he shook his head.

“You are in the wrong place, newbie,” said an older girl who was walking the way that Willow had come.  “Where are you headed?  Potions?”  

Willow shook her head  ‘no’, and mumbled “Care of Magical Creatures” toward her shoes.

“Woah.  They did a number on you, didn’t they?” she said.  “Follow me, because there’s nothing down that hallway except the Murgatroyd homeroom and you definitely don’t belong there.”  Willow didn’t see that she had any choice and followed the her back toward the central stairway.  

“Listen, noob,” she said as they walked.  “Here’s a word of advice: stop taking advice from anybody.  Everyone is going to mess with you as long as you have that badge on your uniform...and the green hair doesn’t help.”  Nearing the bottom of the stairs, she headed toward the lifts and pointed at the stairs.  “Not that you should listen to me, but up two levels and then out the back door.  Look for the Comic Building behind the school.” 

“Comic Building?,” Willow asked.

“Care of Magical Creatures - C.O.M.C.,” she said.  “It’s pronounced ‘Comic’.  Good luck noob.  You’re going to need it.”  She stepped into the lift and shot upwards and out of sight.



The directions that the Murgatroyd student gave her were correct but she was still lucky that she made it to class on time.   She had to jog across the long, well-groomed back lawn toward a small stone building that was separate from the main school and just entered the classroom door when the bell rang marking the beginning of the period.  She was the last to enter the room and saw that the tables were set up in groups of three.  On the right, the three tables were filled with the nine Murgatroyd first years.  Lef was in the middle of the front table, but there was no room for Willow to sit there.  All of the Hammersmith first years were lined up on the left-hand tables.  The only room for Willow was at the very back table with the Hammersmith boy who had helped her that morning.

“Hi Willow,” said Norbert.

“Hi,” she said as she sat down next to him.  

As soon as Willow sat down, the teacher came into the room.  It was the same red-haired woman who had run them down the rapids on the first day.

“My name is Miss Mercana,” she said to them, “and I’ll be your instructor for Care of Magical Creatures.  The first thing I’d like you to do is to take a good look around at this classroom, because it’s the last time you’ll be in here this year.”  She gave Willow and the others a moment to think about this before she continued.  “We’re going to spend every class outside with the animals we are going to study.  So grab your bags and follow me.  Today, we’ll start with the Kivinoid.”  She led the way out toward the edge of the North Woods and stopped at what appeared to be a glowing transparent half-dome.  

“Spread out so you can all see inside,” she called out to them.  “This is a Kivinoid.”

Willow looked into the half dome and could see that it extended below the surface so that the creature was actually enclosed in a sphere that was half buried in the ground.  The creature itself looked like a tree trunk laid on its side.  It had rings of shining gems along its flank and its mouth opened at one end like flower petals.  Willow thought it looked like a giant earthworm with hula hoops of diamonds around its middle.

“The Kivinoid eats rocks,” Miss Mercana explained.  “It processes the minerals into silicon and diamond which is what makes up those rings around its middle.  We keep it in this enclosure - otherwise it would burrow away.  We feed it rocks with a high percentage of precious metals.  It digests those rocks and the different minerals take different times to move through its digestive system.” 

Lef, who was standing on the opposite side of Miss Mercana from where Willow was, spoke up.  

“I don’t think I understand,” she said. 

“It poops gold,” Miss Mercana explained.

The boys all roared with laughter at this and even Willow smiled.  They spent the rest of the lesson drawing a sketch, learning about the Kivinoid life cycle and collecting rocks and throwing them to the Kivinoid to watch it gobble them up.  Willow wanted to talk to Lef - to find out if it was true what Pamela had said about her house - but she seemed to be constantly surrounded by the other two Murgatroyd girls and Willow never got the chance during class.  When the bell rang for them to move to their next class, Lef and her housemates moved off toward a different entrance into the school from the Hammersmiths.  

Willow’s next class was Nomaj Studies.  She remembered from her tour that Mr. Puterschmidt had said she would have no problem with the class, but the class had hardly started when she was confused by something the teacher said.

“Mrs. McCracken,” Willow asked.  “Are you suggesting that a nomaj power plant is an actual living plant?” 

“Well of course it is,” said Mrs. McCracken who to Willow appeared to be older than her bus driver.  “What else could produce so much energy?” 

“Burning coal?” said Willow.  “Or oil, or natural gas?” 

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Mrs. McCracken.  “Have you ever been to see a power plant young lady?” 

“No, ma’am,” replied Willow.

“Well then, you aren’t in the position to know are you?” 

“But...” started Willow, but Mrs. McCracken cut her off.

“Do you want to teach this class young lady?” she asked with a tone of anger in her voice.

Abashed, Willow lowered her head and said “No, ma’am.” 

Apparently satisfied, Mrs. McCracken returned to address the rest of the class.  “Well then, let’s go on, shall we?” she said.

The rest of that class was pure garbage.  I can't believe that these people let her teach about Nomaj Studies, she thought.  It was clear as day that Mrs. McCracken didn’t know a thing about the world in which Willow grew up.

Her mood improved in her next two classes which were Art and Astronomy.  In Art, she learned about the portraits and photographs around the school and how the first years would all work on a moving portrait as part of their class project during the year.  After lunch, her mood improved as she discovered that her hair was fading back to its normal color and she knew she only had one more class for the day.  

Astronomy was interesting, both because she had to climb the north stair all the way to the top - six stories above the ground floor, but also because it was held in the middle of the day.  Their teacher, Mr. Cosmuto, gathered them together on the top floor and then led them up onto the tower roof.  As the Hammersmith and Featherpenny students watched, Mr. Cosmuto waved his wand and the sky immediately grew dark as if the sun had instantly been moved to the far side of the world.  They spent the rest of the lesson learning about the stars and starting to identify some of the constellations before he waved his wand again to make the sun and blue sky reappear.

"Mr. Cosmuto?" Willow asked at the end of class.  "Won't it mess everyone up that the sun just disappeared for an hour?"

Laughing, Mr. Cosmuto waved his wand with a flourish.  "It would - if I were actually that powerful.  But this was a localized effect; the sun didn't disappear for anyone but the few of us on the observation deck."

I wonder if anyone could really be powerful enough to move the earth and sun, thought Willow as she picked up her bag, uncomfortable with the idea.

Normally at the end of the day, Willow would be going to Care of Magical Creatures club, but for the first week, the first years would be taking broom-riding lessons.  After leaving Astronomy, Willow headed out of the front door of the school and across the driveway to stand looking at the practice field and the stadium.  When she and her mom had come to visit, Willow had just thought that the fields were for soccer and football, but now that she looked at them, their dimensions were all wrong and there were three giant hoops on poles sticking up in the air instead of a goal.  Willow was at a loss to explain what they were for, but that was nothing new for her second day in magical school.  

Standing on the practice field with all of the other thirty six first-year students, Willow was listening as their teacher, Mrs. Broombreaker was lecturing them on riding a broom.

“Broom riding is like being magical,” Mrs. Broombreaker was saying to them.  “Either you have it or you don’t.  We’ll know by the end of the class today whether you have what it takes to be a champion Quidditch player or whether you should stick to floo powder.”

So Quidditch has to do with brooms, Willow thought as she looked at the broom she has been handed.  It had a wood shaft about three feet long and ended in a small bunch of twigs that were tightly bound together.  I wouldn’t want to actually try to sweep with this thing.

“Please place the broom between your legs and gently push off from the ground,” Mrs. Broombreaker called out to the group.  “I said gently!” she called to a Featherpenny boy who was trying to launch himself upward with both legs.  Willow smiled:  the boy was hopping around the field like an animated frog on a stick.

Willow placed the broom that had been given to her between her legs and pushed off the ground using her toes.  Very gently, she felt her weight shift onto the broom and she was floating off the ground.

“Uh, Mrs. Broombreaker?” Willow called out.  “How do we get back down?”

“Oh, excellent,” Mrs. Broombreaker said.  “Very few people get it right the first time.  You two are doing an extraordinary job.”

Willow looked behind her to see a Featherpenny girl sitting comfortably on her broom.  The girl was sitting up without holding on and was putting her very long straight brown hair into a ponytail.

“I hope she lets us really fly,” said the girl, who was wearing glasses with dark blue frames.  

I hope she doesn't, thought Willow, holding the the broom handle in a death grip.

Ten minutes later, about half of the class had been able to push off the ground.  Mrs. Broombreaker told them to take a lap around the practice field, but not to go higher than four or five feet in the air.  As soon as Mrs. Broombreaker said “go”, the Featherpenny girl took off.  Willow watched her race away, and inadvertently leaned forward, which made her broom move forward as well. 

Oh, I'm going to die, she thought as she started gaining speed.  But that fear vanished almost immediately as she pulled back on the broom handle and slowed down.  Just like the reins of a horse... Okay, let's see what else this thing can do.  She leaned forward again to gain speed and as she shifted her weight and pressure side to side, the broom swerved in response, obeying her very thoughts.

Before long, she was flying around the field; pushing her broom to go faster and faster, cutting left and right.  I see why they fly on brooms, she thought, pulling back and stopping when she reached the end of the first lap.  This is awesome.

Mrs. Broombreaker was still working with the students who couldn’t get off the ground and all the remaining flyers were still on the other side of the field, taking a more leisurely pace than Willow and the Featherpenny girl had done.  The girl with the long hair and glasses had finished well ahead of her and was waiting back at the start.

“Race you,” she challenged.

Willow smiled.  “Where to?” she said.

“Twice around the field.  You say when.”

Willow nodded and getting a good grip on her broom with both hands she said “ready...set...go!” and took off.  The two of them went tearing away from the starting point, picking up speed with every second.  As her hair streamed behind her, Willow felt exhilarated; the air rushing in her face like the gusts before an approaching thunderstorm.

Willow glanced back and saw the girl was right on her heels.  Looking ahead, she saw trouble as she was coming up on the group of students who were still working on their first lap.  She shifted her weight and dodged to avoid the group.  Left! she commanded in her mind.  Right!  Willow glanced back to see if the Featherpenny girl was able to dodge them, but she was gone.  Hearing laughter from above her head, Willow looked up to see her flying about six feet over her head and slightly ahead of her.  Willow hunched down and tried to move faster.

The Featherpenny girl kept pace and was right beside Willow as they turned to finish the lap.  Willow managed to glance over toward the students who were just learning to hover and saw that both they and Mrs. Broombreaker had set aside their brooms and were watching the race.  

As they started their second lap, they were still neck and neck.  I wonder why nobody else is flying as fast as us?  Willow thought, looking ahead to where the gaggle of first years had halted their progress around the field to watch the action.  This isn't that hard.

As they approached the flock of staring students, Willow saw that they were coming on fast.  Too fast, she realized and taking a cue from the Featherpenny girl, she pulled up on the handle of her broom to go higher.  I'll just fly over them, she thought, but she was moving too fast and ended up about forty feet above the field.  Meanwhile, her competition had pulled ahead.  Pushing down on the broom handle, Willow shifted her weight forward to descend and picked up speed as she did so.  She pulled up to level her flight before she got too close to the ground, but the Featherpenny girl was uncatchable - matching every effort of Willow's with speed of her own.  She crossed the finish line a second before Willow got there.

“That was awesome racing,” the Featherpenny girl said to Willow after she had dismounted.  “How long have you been flying?” 

Willow also got off her broom.  “What do you mean?" she asked.  "I started with you about five minutes ago."

“What!” exclaimed the Featherpenny girl, adjusting her blue-trimmed roes.  “You mean this is the first time you’ve ever been on a broom?”

“Yeah.  Is that good?” Willow asked.

The Featherpenny girl laughed.  “Yes...yes, that is unbelievably good seeing as how I've been flying since I was four.  I’m Lily by the way.” 

“I’m Willow.”

Mrs. Broombreaker came over to the two girls.  

“You two should try out for your house Quidditch teams,” she said.  Then, noticing the trim on Willow’s uniform, “Oh, but you’re Hammersmith.  I’m afraid they don’t let anyone try out before fourth year.”

“Four years of practice and you’ll be one heck of a Quidditch player,” said Lily.

“Thanks,” replied Willow.  “By the way, have you ever tried a Hershey bar?”
 

 


Chapter 9: History
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Willow’s second day of classes started with Herbology and Mr. Diatomungi.  Just as they spent almost no time in the Care of Magical Creatures classroom, Mr. Diatomungi told them they would spend almost every day either in the greenhouses, in the gardens, or in the woods as part of their lessons.  For the first class, the professor had them divide up into pairs to do a scavenger hunt among the flowers and plants where the first years had walked on their way to the sorting.  Willow would have normally paired with Norbert, but he linked up with the three other Hammersmith first year boys to make two teams.

Lucky me, she thought, I'm going to get stuck by myself.  She looked around as the rest of the class paired off.  She felt like she was the last one standing in a game of musical chairs.  As the teams formed, she looked around and saw that only three people remained: her, Lef, and Merigold Martinez - who was one of the two girls that hung out with Felicity Trueworthy.

Great, she thought.  I think I'd rather get stuck by myself.

Mr. Diatomungi put the three of them together into a team.  Willow wanted to talk to them and avoid them at the same time.  After an uncomfortable silence, Willow realized that they felt the same way too.  Marigold had crossed her arms, obviously ticked off that she had been left out of her clique.  Lef was ignoring the two Hammersmiths and was staring at the scavenger hunt list, glancing up and down as if making a mental map.  

This is going to be interesting, Willow thought, just like putting salt on a slug...except I'm the slug. 

During the scavenger hunt, two things became obviously clear to her.  The first was that Lef was amazing at Herbology.  She knew almost all of the plants by sight.  The second thing that was obvious was that Marigold knew nothing about Herbology, although she thought she did.  Lef had to prevent her from grabbing one plant that would have caused her to break out in warts and another one that would have put her to sleep for the rest of the day.  Instead of being thankful for the good advice, Marigold was awful about it.

“I knew that,” Marigold said after Lef had warned her about the skunkweed pods she was about to grab.  “If you two hadn’t distracted me, I wouldn’t have even come this close.  I can’t believe I get stuck with a Murgatroyd and a nothing.  This is the worst class ever.”

Lef should have let her grab the skunkweed, thought Willow, who looked down at her feet after being called a ‘nothing’.

“She’s not a nothing,” said Lef to Marigold.  “She’s a Hammersmith - just like you.”

Marigold muttered something that Willow couldn’t hear, but didn’t complain for the rest of the class.

How can she be that nice and still be in Murgatroyd House?  Willow questioned.  It doesn't seem to fit with everything that the Hammersmiths said about the house...  She wanted to talk to Lef about it, but she didn’t know where to start, so Willow didn’t say anything to her except “thanks.” 

If it hadn't been for Marigold's interference, Willow was sure that her group would have finished the entire list.  I know I should talk to Lef, but I'll just do it later, she reasoned to herself as she grabbed her bag at the end of class...except she knew it wasn't the right answer.

Willow’s next lesson that day was History of Magic with the Suncorns.  As she entered, Willow recognized their teacher as the very old man in the green and silver robes from the sorting.  He was the one who the Chancellor had been talking to when the sorting hat malfunctioned.  He introduced himself as Mr. Zolock and proceeded to divide them up by house.  The Hammersmiths went to one side of the classroom, which had been cleared of desks and the Suncorns to the other.  He told the Suncorn group to stay where they were and cast a spell in the air which made a muffled humming noise.  Mr. Zolock then beckoned for the Hammersmiths to gather around him while they played a little role-playing.  Willow pressed in with the other half of the class.

“I’ll tell you what’s been going on,” Mr. Zolock said.  “Those people over there,” Mr. Zolock gestured toward the Suncorns, “have taken everything you hold dear from you.  They have taken away your wands, saying that you don’t deserve to carry them.  They have taken the goods produced by your hard work and kept them for their own.  They are not willing to negotiate.  What are you going to do?”

After a moment of silence, Norbert spoke up.  “We should fight!” he said.

“Of course,” Mr. Zolock responded, “but you’ll need some soldiers for that.”  

He waved his wand in the air and an army of foot-high armored figures appeared on the floor in rank and file.  A group of one hundred of them was lined up in front of each of the Hammersmiths in a ten-by-ten square. 

“Each of you will control a regiment,” he said.  “So while you get yourselves set for battle, I’ll go speak to the other side.”

He left and crossed over to the Suncorns.  Willow tried to overhear what was being said on the other side of the classroom, but all she could hear was a buzzing noise.  Meanwhile, Felicity had assumed control of the Hammersmith side.

“Of course I’ll be the general,” she said, “and I’ll take the center.”

She set up her two friends, Marigold and Francesca next to her and pointed two boys to take the far left side and Norbert and the boy named Pete on the far right side.  She didn’t even look at Willow or give her any instructions.  After a moment, Willow went to the far left side of the line and waited.

On the Suncorn side, Mr. Zolock was getting them excited as well.  They also had figures in front of them and began to line up opposite the Hammersmith soldiers on the other side of the room.  Willow saw that they had many fewer figures than her side did.  Only ten per student by Willow’s count.

Once set, Mr. Zolock waved his wand and the buzzing sound barrier disappeared.  He looked at both sides and said “begin!” before stepping out of the way.

Felicity started giving orders right away, yelling for the boys to attack from both sides.

From the other side of the room, Norbert jumped up and down, pointed toward the opposing line, and yelled "Charge!"  Willow saw his figures start running toward the Suncorn side.  Hesitating, Willow just watched to see what would happen.  The other three Hammersmith boys followed Norbert's prompt and screamed for their own soldiers to move forward.

They look like Barbies in armor, thought Willow, smiling at the image.  The size was right, but these figures were strangely shaped with long fingers holding their ghostly blue weapons and long pointy boots.  As the sea of soldiers streamed across the floor and entered the Suncorn side, Willow noticed that the figures on the far side were much taller, appearing to be twice the height of her own soldiers.  Are they supposed to be giants?  she wondered, but her attention shifted to the right side of the line where a flash of light and squeaky screaming marked the first shots fired.

Oh, thought Willow.  This isn't going to go well for us.  The glowing blue Suncorn figures could clearly use magic and were knocking down the front ranks of Norbert's soldiers with blasts from their matchstick-sized wands.  The Hammersmith figures were blasted around like small armored bowling pins.

Willow glanced at Felicity.  Maybe she will tell me what to do.  But Felicity was consumed with her own troops, screaming at them to move faster, her arms waving in the air.  Yeah, and maybe I'm a chocolate cupcake.  Willow, feeling ignored and useless, stood by her own regiment, bewildered about what to do; but clearly seeing that charging the enemy was a suicide mission.

The fight wasn’t even close.  Even though the Suncorns had one tenth the number of figures, their soldiers could perform magic and cut down the Hammersmith side like a lawnmower over weeds.  While Willow watched, the floor became littered with bodies.  When Mr. Zolock finally called a halt, three-quarters of the Hammersmith figures had been destroyed, while more than half of the opposing side was still standing.  Willow had never moved her soldiers at all.  They were still standing in front of her, kicking the dirt and sticking their fingers in the earholes of their helmets.

Mr. Zolock looked around.

“This looks about right,” he said.  “Does anyone know what this battle was all about?”  

One of the Suncorn boys that Willow recognized as one of the unsorted ones raised his hand and Mr. Zolock pointed to him.  

“The other side looked like goblins,” he said.  “Was it from the goblin wars?” 

Willow didn’t realize that she was controlling goblin figures since she only ever saw their backs.

“Yes, very good,” Mr. Zolock said.  “And your name?”

“Mabeobsa Ryong,” he answered, “but I go by ‘Incheon’.” 

“Well, Incheon, five points to Suncorn for your answer.”  Mr. Zolock turned back to the class.  “This was, in fact, a reenactment of the battle of Hogsmeade, fought in England nearly four hundred years ago.”  Turning to Norbert, Mr. Zolock asked him, “did you feel that your side was justified in its actions?”

“Yes,” Norbert replied.  “The other side had taken everything from us and there didn't seem any other option.”

“Very good,” Mr. Zolock responded.  He turned to a small boy on the Suncorn side. “And did you feel that your side had any options?”

“No, we had to defend ourselves.” he responded.

Mr. Zolock then spent the rest of the lesson describing the outcome of the battle and how it affected goblin-wizard relations for the next several hundred years.

“I hope you see that both sides of this battle had reasons they did what they did,” Mr. Zolock lectured to them in summary.  “I want you to remember this about the history you’re going to learn this year.  History is not just about dates and places; history is about people - about fear, passion, and misunderstanding. It’s about bravery and cowardice, wisdom and folly, charity and ruthlessness, power and exploitation.  My goal is for you to understand why history happened the way it did.”

Packing her bag at the end of class, Willow was amazed that someone had made history so interesting.  Every history class she had been taught was as boring as watching a sloth run a marathon.  As she was walking toward the door, Mr. Zolock called out to her.

“Miss... Carter, is it?" he asked.  "Could you stay back for a moment?”  

Nodding her head, Willow went over to where he was standing in the middle of the carnage.

“I noticed you never moved your figures,” he said, pointing to her figures which had now broken ranks and were napping, cooking phantom food or arm-wrestling one another out of boredom.  “Any reason why?” 

Willow thought for a moment.  “Felicity never gave me any direction and by the time I was ready to act on my own, the battle was already decided,” she said.  “I didn’t want to just send my soldiers to be destroyed.” 

“Interesting,” Mr. Zolock said, “and also historically accurate.”  He then changed the subject.  “I couldn’t help but notice that you don’t seem to be fitting in with your classmates.”

“The sorting song said that Hammersmith was brave and daring,” replied Willow.  “I just thought they’d do things differently.”

“Ah, the sorting hat song," he sighed.  "I will tell you that for at least the last two hundred years, the hat did not sing that version fothe song and that Hammersmith was not the house of the brave and daring. It simply sorted students into that house whose families were involved in some kind of crafting or manufacturing.  It all dates back to the founding..." He paused for a moment as he caught Willow's eyes beginning to glaze over.

 

"Besides, even if they’re brave doesn’t mean they’re right,” said Mr. Zolock.  “Look at the goblins.  What they did was brave, but horribly unwise."  He gestured towards Willow's camp of goblin figures.  "Now Morlock the Bold on the other hand did exactly what you did during the battle and was labeled as a coward and a traitor by the goblins for his actions, even though he ended up bridging the rift between the two sides after this battle.  He's only 'Morlock the Bold' in our history books: you don't want to know what the goblins call him.  Don't be afraid to be different, Miss Carter."

"Thank you, sir," she replied.

"Well, if you ever need somebody to talk to, please don’t hesitate to come talk to me,” Mr. Zolock offered.

“Now that you mention it," said Willow.  "Can you tell me anything about what happened at the sorting?”

“I wish I could,” responded Mr. Zolock.  “There’s absolutely no record of anything the hat talked about during the sorting song.  I have no idea why it started sorting students differently.  And there is no fifth house, but of course quite a bit was lost in the library fire of 1764.”

After leaving History of Magic, Willow sat through her Thaumaturgy class with Mr. Hendershot where she tried levitating a feather with no success.  She couldn’t even get it to wiggle.  After Thaumaturgy was Alteration, where Mr. Puterschmidt amazed the class with his transformation into a rabbit and back.  Willow didn’t have any more luck turning a pencil into a quill than she did with the feather.  After lunch, she spent the afternoon with Mr. Holmes in a double Alchemy class learning some of the fundamentals about brewing potions.



By the weekend, Willow had been loaded with homework.  She had papers to write for Herbology, History of Magic, and Alteration, not to mention a description on how an airplane worked for Nomaj Studies.  It was clear that Mrs. McCracken thought that a plane flapped its wings like a bird in order to fly.  She also had to work on her star charts for Astronomy and had to finish labeling her drawing of a Kivinoid for Care of Magical Creatures.  

After working late on Saturday night on her star chart, Willow fell asleep at her desk.  She had the most incredibly vivid dream.  In it, a gigantic American Indian was standing in a clearing in the forest near a circle of giant stones.  He was wearing buckskin pants and no shirt and was holding a huge bow.  He was speaking to Willow in a strange language which she didn’t understand at first, but the more she listened, the more she thought she understood.

...I am the Hunter...” 

She felt herself falling and woke with a start as she fell off her chair onto the floor.    Her mom opened her door a moment later.  

“Are you alright?” her mom asked her.

“Yes, I just fell asleep on my desk and was having a weird dream when I fell.  I’m okay.” 

“You’ve been working all day, no wonder you fell asleep,” her mom said.  “Why don’t you get to bed now?  We’ll go out for breakfast tomorrow and you can finish your homework tomorrow afternoon, okay?”

“Okay,” Willow replied.  “Mom, do you know if there are any American Indian constellations?” 

“Constellations?  I don’t think so, honey.  I think they’re all from the ancient middle-east.  What makes you ask that question?” 

“Nothing, just trying to figure out a dream, that’s all.  Good night mom.” 

“Good night sweetheart,” replied her mom, tucking her into bed.
 

 


Chapter 10: A Very Special Task
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During the following week, Willow started Care of Magical Creatures Club.  Her first lesson was less than what she expected.  One of the older Suncorn boys in the club told her to clean out the pegasus stalls.

“But can’t you do that with magic?” asked Willow.  “I thought I’d get to work with a pegasus, not clean up after one.”

“As a first year?  Ha, ha!  No, newbie.  You’ve got to work your way up.  Everyone starts by mucking out the stalls.  It’s always been that way.”

That doesn’t make it right, she thought as she picked up the shovel.  Well, I may hurt tomorrow, but a little hard work never killed anybody.  Resigning herself to the dirty job, she set to work and had the stalls cleaned out a half hour later.  She had just emptied the last wheelbarrow of manure outside the pegasus barn when she saw Miss Mercana walking by.

“Hello Willow, I’m glad to see you making an effort this afternoon,” Miss Mercana said to her.  “I’m working with the wyverns today, which are too dangerous for anyone who’s below a Junior.  I’d like you to work with James over there to take care of the blink dogs.”

Willow headed over to where Miss Mercana had pointed to meet a brown-haired Hammersmith boy in the telltale red and gold uniform.  He looked to be about three years older than Willow.

“Ah, you must be the newbie,” said the boy.  “I’m James and I’ll be your slave driver for the afternoon.”

“Hi?” replied Willow.  I don’t like how this is starting, she thought, dreading what might come next.

“Alright, first task for you,” he said.  “I need you to put these collars on the blink dogs.  You’ll have to be quick since they’re kind of jumpy.”

Collars on dogs?  Easy, she thought.  She nodded and took the handful of collars that James held out for her.  I’ll show James what I can do.

She walked through the gates into the enclosure, seeing a pack of about eight dogs near the middle of the pen.  She started to approach them slowly.  These animals looked like regular dogs - almost like a labrador - so she couldn’t see that this would be too difficult of a challenge.  One of the dogs came close to her, sniffing the air to catch her scent.  She put out the back of her hand to allow the dog to smell her, just like she would do with a normal dog.  The blink dog took a few sniffs and then wagged its tail.  Thinking this was a good sign, Willow reached forward with the other hand that had the collar and tried to get it around the dog’s neck, but as soon as she thought she had it, the dog was gone.  The dog didn’t run away - it disappeared in an instant.

Looking around, she saw that the dog was now six feet away from her, still wagging its tail.  She approached again and went through the same routine.  She slowed down her attempt to put the collar on, but as soon as the collar touched the dog’s fur, he blinked away.  She looked up at James, who was laughing at her.

What a jerk, she thought.  She stood up and took a deep breath.  Okay, what do you know about dogs...what do they love more than anything else?  She immediately glanced around the enclosure and saw what she was looking for, a large storage box located right next to the dog’s food bowls.  Bingo.

She walked to the opposite side of the enclosure and opened the box.  As soon as she opened it, the dogs came bounding over, barking all around her.  Pulling out the bag of food, she poured portions into each of the food bowls and then proceeded to put their collars on while they were chowing down.  Having threaded on the last collar, she walked back over to where James was waiting.  He wasn’t laughing now.

“Nice job, newbie,” he said sarcastically.  “Clever and resourceful...they should have stuck you in Featherpenny or Murgatroyd.  Follow me to the hellbender salamanders.”  He led the way toward a path that followed the edge of the North Woods.  They continued on the trail until they came to a stone wall that enclosed an area about fifty feet across.

“Salamanders?” Willow asked.  “You mean the little slimy lizard things that live near water?”

“Lizard things, yes,” James replied.  “But you won’t get anything but steam if you put water near these creatures.”  He stopped and looked over the wall into the enclosed area.  “Here we are.  Now, newbie, these hellbenders heat the school during the winter, but during the warmer months, we have to keep them outside.  Your next task is going to be to catch one of these bad boys in this cage.  Good luck.”  He handed a metal box with holes over to Willow.  Looking at it, she thought it might once have been steel, but now had been completely blackened by fire.  

Willow looked over the side of the wall.  The entire floor of the enclosure was black and covered with scorched ash.  She could see several fires burning below, the heat was pouring upward in waves like the air above a dark car roof on a blistering summer day.  Definitely no water down there, she thought, trying to figure out where the salamanders might be.  As she looked closer at the burning fires, she could see something moving inside the flames.  There were creatures inside the flames.  What the...how is that possible? she wondered.  And yet - there they are.  Now it makes sense that they heat the school.  The creatures in the fire had the shape of normal salamanders, but they were much larger - about a foot long and deep purple - almost black.  Their skin flickered as if it too was made from flames.  How in the world am I going to catch one of those?  It’s not like I can whip out their food bowl.  She set the cage down on the ground and thought out the problem.

“Give up yet, newbie?” said James.

“No,” replied Willow.  “I’ll figure it out.”  There was no way she was going to give up now, but she was going to have to think fast and start fishing for ideas.

“Fishing,” she muttered to herself.

“Excuse me?” said James.

“Is there more to this cage?” Willow asked.  “A pole and a way to lower it down?  I know nobody can go down there.”

James looked downtrodden, like Willow had just popped his last balloon.  “Yeah.  It’s over there.”  He pointed to the right side of the wall, around a corner from where Willow was standing.  Once there, she saw the long pole with the hook on the end...and a few logs.  Problem number two solved as well.  It had obviously been staged so that James could appear the hero when Willow gave up.

She loaded the logs into the cage, connected the hook to the top and lowered it so that it was right next to a salamander that was close to the wall.  She could barely see what she was doing, with the heat rising up in her face like a blast furnace.  The sweat was dripping from her forehead when the cage hit the ground.  The door opened toward the dying fire and the wood inside the cage was already starting to smoke from the nearby coals.  Now there’s nothing left to do but wait.  

Willow had never had a problem with waiting, but after fifteen minutes, James was fidgeting.  

“You set it down too far away,” he said.  “We’ve been waiting here forever.”

“Just be patient for another minute,” said Willow, peering over the edge.  “Yes, he’s moving now.”  The salamander entered the cage and Willow hit a trigger on the pole that closed the door to the cage.  She started raising it.  Just like reeling in a fish.  Once the cage was at her level, she put the pole over her shoulder and followed James, looking very much like a tramp with his life’s belongings tied in a sack at the end of a stick.  

“Are you sure you don’t belong in Suncorn?” James asked as they walked.  “They’re the only ones I know that can wait as long as that without going insane.”

I don’t know where I belong, thought Willow, but she just shrugged at him. 

James was scowling.  He had obviously wanted her to fail and as they handed over the salamander cage to a sophomore wearing Suncorn's yellow-trimmed robes, Willow thought she caught a wicked gleam in James' eye.

“Come on,” he said, another malicious smile on his face. “Let’s go feed the manticore now.”   Willow didn’t know what a manticore was, but she was pretty sure this was going to be another uncomfortable challenge.

“Listen, newbie, you did a pretty good job with the dogs and hellbenders, but you’ll have to be brave to feed the manticore.  You’ll have to get in the pen, toss in his food and get out before he finishes.  If he’s still hungry, he’ll come after you and sting you with his tail, and you’ll spend the rest of the week in the hospital - if you’re not dead.”

Willow wasn’t sure how much of this was true and how much was meant to frighten her.  Either way it was working.  Being nomaj-born definitely put her at a disadvantage.  If she knew what a manticore was, at least she’d be prepared for what she had to do.

“Take this slab of steak and drop it on top of that stump and then high-tail it out of there.  I don’t want to have to drag your body out on my watch.”

Willow looked at the large bloody slab of meat sitting on the table next to her.  So the manticore was a meat-eater - not good to know.  She took a pair of tongs and picked up the slab, which now was dripping, so she had to hold it away from herself to make sure she didn’t get any blood on her pants or shoes.  James was standing by the gate, waiting for her to go in.

“Have fun.” he said to her as he opened the gate.  As soon as Willow was through, he quickly shut it again.  Willow continued forward cautiously.  She couldn’t see the manticore, but there was a hut-like structure in the back of the pen that was shrouded in darkness.  She was about forty feet from the tree stump, about eighty feet from the hut.  

What am I doing? she wondered.  Why am I walking into a pen with a slab of meat on a stick to feed a beast I’ve never heard of?  She continued forward at a slow walk, her eyes on the pen.  She decided that if she saw anything move, she was going to drop the steak and make a break for it.  I’m okay with not being brave...as long as I can keep being alive. 

How fast could a manticore be, anyway?  She finally made it to the stump and there was still no movement from the hut.  She leaned over and glanced down at the stump as she dropped the meat on top.  When she looked up again, the manticore had left the pen and was bearing down on her like lightning.  It looked like a mountain lion, but with a human-like face and a giant scorpion tail.  It was bounding toward her and Willow was frozen in place, her mind numb.

Her thoughts were sluggish; unfocused, but growing more urgent as the creature bore down on her.  Run.  You should run.  Run, you idiot!  Legs, move!  She was just turning to run toward the fence when the manticore, who ignored the steak entirely, knocked her to the ground, pinning her underneath its front paws.  She turned her head to try to roll over and escape, only to see the giant scorpion tail plunge toward her.  As it pressed into her back, she screamed.

The next thing she knew, the manticore had been knocked from her back and another shape stood over her.  The manticore retreated back toward its pen and Willow looked up at her rescuer, thinking it would be James.  Instead, it was Miss Mercana, who was in an absolute rage.

“Willow, get out of the enclosure now,” she said in a firm voice.  Willow could hear the anger behind it.  She didn’t waste another second and ran toward the fence, Miss Mercana right behind her.  Once outside the gate, Miss Mercana whirled on James and exploded.

“What were you thinking!” she screamed at James.  “Have you any brains in that head of yours!  She could have been seriously mauled and you couldn’t have done a thing about it!” James started to open his mouth, but Miss Mercana cut him off.  “No, don’t give me any excuses.  Get out of my sight!  Go!”

Willow was on the ground, tears pouring down her face. Miss Mercana turned to her.

“I’m so sorry, Willow,” she said.  “I should have known better than to put you with James.  Can you stand?”

Willow nodded her head and pushed herself off the ground.

Miss Mercana pointed to the nearby Care of Magical Creatures building.  “Come into my office.”

Willow walked toward the building where she had her first Care of Magical Creatures class and entered into Miss Mercana’s office which was on the far side.  In her office there was a large comfortable leather chair across from a desk.  Miss Mercana pointed Willow toward the leather chair while she went behind the desk and sat down.

Willow, who had been trying to catch her breath and stop crying, finally choked out, “Am I poisoned from the stinger?”

Miss Mercana took a second to think about what she was asking and then answered with a shake of her head, “No.  The manticore we have here is just a baby. The stinger doesn’t develop until it’s two or three years old.  It was actually trying to play with you, but it still could have mauled you with its claws.  The fact that they’re resistant to magic makes them even more dangerous.  What other tricks did James play on you?” she asked.

Willow told her about the blink dogs and the hellbenders.  By the time Willow had told her how James had a scowl on his face after she had reeled in the salamander, Miss Mercana was laughing.

“Ha, I bet he was eating his liver!” she said.  “Good job Willow.  You seem to have a pretty good head on your shoulders.  I think maybe I can use you for a very special task.  You see, I was hoping you might watch Fred for me.”

Great, now I have to babysit another student? she thought; but then said “okay”, since she felt it would have been rude to turn Miss Mercana down.  Especially after she had just saved Willow from being attacked by the manticore.  

Miss Mercana got up from the desk.  “Hang out here for a minute while I go introduce you.”  She walked to a door in the back of the room which opened to a staircase and she climbed up to the second floor.  

After she left the room, Willow glanced around at the office.  Everything in it was related to magical creatures.  She saw antlers, horns and a number of skulls that didn’t belong to any animal Willow could recognize.  Why is there a wooden bear here? she thought, looking at a small carved brown bear figure sitting on Miss Mercana’s desk.  They aren’t magical.  She was still puzzling over this when Miss Mercana returned holding a large covered cage in her hands.

Oh, thought Willow.  Fred is a cat.

Miss Mercana set the cage on the desk and removed the cover.  Willow gasped.  Inside was definitely not a cat, but what looked like a miniature dragon.  Willow remembered that this was the creature that she and her mother had seen in Narrowway at the pet store.  The miniature dragon was about eighteen inches long, scaly with large bat-like wings and a long tail.

Miss Mercana looked at the creature.  “Fred, meet Willow.” and gesturing to her, “Willow, Fred.  Fred’s a pseudodragon* and he’s fully grown, so you don’t have to worry about him eating your dog.  I just need someone to look after him for one or two days a month and I was hoping you might be able to do it.”

Remembering the ban on magical animals, Willow’s face dropped.  “Miss Mercana, I’m so sorry, but I live in a nomaj house.  I don’t think they’ll let me take Fred home.”

She smiled.  “I wouldn’t worry about that.  The stores can’t sell you a magical animal, but you can certainly have one in your house.  If anybody asks, you can tell them it’s an iguana.”

Willow smiled back.  Fred did bear a resemblance to an iguana.  If iguanas had wings; and a long neck; and burped fire.

 




The sugar maple trees were starting to turn bright orange by the beginning of October when she first got to bring Fred home to stay with her.  She didn’t think about it until she walked in the door, but somehow, she had completely forgotten to tell her mother about him.

“You brought a what home?” said her mother as Willow carried in the cage that evening.

“A pseudodragon.  It’s what we saw in the magical animal store when we went to Narroway.”  Willow set Fred down on the kitchen counter and pulled off the cover so her mom could see.

Fred had apparently been napping and uncurled as Willow and her mom looked in at him.  He hiccuped and the mail caught on fire from the flames that shot from his mouth.

After throwing the mail in the sink and running water over it, Willow’s mom turned to her.  “You brought a fire-breathing dragon into our home? “she yelled.  “What in the world were you thinking?  Our house is made of wood!”

Willow hadn’t thought of that.

“Did you just think you could keep it in your room?” Willow’s mom continued.  “What are we supposed to do with it?”

“I’m just supposed to look after him for tonight,” Willow said.  “I can take him back tomorrow.  It’s just...”

“Just what?” said Willow’s mom, her eyes growing wider.

Knowing that her mom was about to go off on her, she quickly blurted it out.  “It’s just that I promised to watch after him one day a month for the whole school year and I can put him somewhere safe and I need to do this, mom.”

Willow’s mom gave her ‘the look.’  “So now I have to worry about our house burning down tonight and every month for the rest of the year?”  her mom asked, her voice rising in anger.  “Willow, this is incredibly irresponsible.  You’re going to take back this dragon tomorrow and not bring it back here.”

Willow was getting upset and felt the emotion rise in her.  “You don’t understand,” she said to her mom.  “You’re just a nomaj.”

“Just a nomaj?” her mom yelled.  “What does that mean?  I think you are trying to insult me, but nomaj or not, I’m still your mother and this is my house!”

Willow ran up to her room and slammed the door before her mom had even finished yelling at her.  Why does she have to be so mean?  Why can’t she understand that I’m magical and that I have to start doing the things that other mages do?  I’m not making friends, everyone is mean to me and there’s nothing I can do about it.  Now, finally, I have something of my own and she’s going to take it away!  She collapsed on her bed, the tears streaming from her eyes.  

After about ten minutes, she felt better for having released the pent up emotions of the last two months.  Okay, she acknowledged, maybe I shouldn’t have brought a fire breathing dragon into the house.

 

A short while later, her mom knocked on her door.  “Willow, please come down to dinner.  I’d like to talk.”

As Willow came downstairs, she noticed that Fred was gone.  “Where’s...”

Her mom cut her off.  “The dragon is safely in the garage - away from anything that can catch on fire.  Go take a look.”

Willow went out to the garage.  The car had been moved out to the driveway and in the middle was Fred’s cage, wrapped in aluminum foil.  She went over and peeled back a corner to look inside.  The foil was warm and Fred was curled up, fast asleep.

Willow came back in and sat down at the table.  “I didn’t think about his fire-breathing when I brought him home,” Willow said to her mom in a low voice.

“I know,” said her mom.  “It’s not something that you and I usually think about.  I recognize now what Mr. Abrams meant when he said our world would be completely different.  I know I’m going to have to get more comfortable with your magic.  So for starters, I’d like to read your textbooks.”

“You want to what?” asked Willow.

“It’s not like I can go to the library and check out a book on mages can I?  If I’m going to live in your world, I need information and the only way I can think of is to use your textbooks.”

“I’m kind of using them, mom,” said Willow.

“I’ll read them in the evenings,” her mom replied.  “And only when you don’t need them to do homework.  I’m also going to send a message to Mr. Abrams to see if there is anything else I can do.”

“Does this mean I can keep Fred?” Willow asked.

“Who’s Fred? her mother questioned.

“The pseudodragon.  Can we keep him here?”

“Oh.  Yes, we can keep it here - but you might want to ask your teacher if it has a fire-proof cage before winter sets in.”

Willow got up from the table and hugged her mom.  “Thank you.  It means everything to me.”

 

"Just please tell me it doesn't get much bigger," her mom said.  "We only have a one-car garage."

 

(* Blink dogs and pseudodragons originally created by Gary Gygax, Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual, TSR, 1977)





 



Chapter 11: The Quidditch Game
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Willow didn’t get to ask Miss Mercana about Fred's fire-breathing until Friday of that week when she brought him back.

“Just put him next to your fireplace,” Miss Mercana said.  “He doesn’t mind the heat.”

“I don’t have a fireplace,” Willow responded.

“Don’t have a fireplace?  I thought everyone had one.”

“We don’t,” replied Willow.  “Lots of nomaj houses don’t have fireplaces anymore..or they burn natural gas instead of wood.”  Would floo powder work in a gas fireplace?  she thought, but the idea was interrupted by Miss Mercana.

“Well, you learn something new every day.  I’ll tell you what, Willow.  I’ll work on a special covering that you can put over his cage which will be fireproof.  I’ll have it ready for you before next month.  You shouldn’t have to worry that your house is going to burn down when Fred’s visiting.”  

At least one thing is going right, she thought, walking to her next class.  She dreaded the thought of going back to her classroom - none of her magic seemed to be working at all.

 

As October passed by, Willow still wasn’t able to do much in Alteration, Thaumaturgy, or Alchemy class, but half of the students were having as much trouble as she was.  The fact that she still hadn’t made any friends didn’t help.  Twice she had helped out Norbert and the other three Hammersmith first-year boys who had gotten bad directions, but the four of them seemed to stick together and inadvertently left Willow out.  

At least they’re not trying to exclude me on purpose, she thought, sitting in the Gryffindor homeroom on a rainy late October morning.  She was sitting by herself, as usual, but she was going out of her way to avoid Felicity.  I didn’t think it was possible for her to be more unbearable.  Ever since she walked into school without her ‘Newbie’ badge earlier that week, she had been lording it over Willow and the other first years who still wore theirs.

I wish Lef wasn’t in Murgatroyd...or I was.  At least I’d be able to talk to somebody.  Maybe I could be in Featherpenny with Lily.  She daydreamed about being elsewhere before being brought back to the present by the morning bell.  Oh who am I kidding...this is no more than I deserve.  Besides, Lef and Lily seem to be getting along just fine with their housemates.  She felt alone...she was alone, and there really wasn’t anything she could do about it.



“What are you doing?” Willow asked her mom who was lying on the couch reading one of Willow’s books one evening.

“Pickin’ blueberries,” Willow’s mom responded playfully.

“I mean which book are you reading?” Willow said.

“Why aren’t all mages filthy rich?” her mom said, ignoring Willow’s question.  “If you can transfigure bellybutton lint into gold, why doesn’t everybody have a zillion doubloons – or whatever you call them?”

“Dragots, mom, and I don’t know,” said Willow.

“Are there any poor wizarding families?” asked her mom.

Willow had to think about it.  “I think so.  There’s a first-year boy in Featherpenny who gets teased all the time because he wears second-hand robes and uses his dad’s wand or something.”

Frowning, her mom asked. “Why doesn’t his family just make gold?”

“I...I don’t know,” said Willow.  She had never thought of this before.

 

The next day, she approached Mr. Puterschmidt to relay the question.

“My mom asked me about Alteration yesterday and I didn’t know the answer,” she told him.  “If mages can transfigure objects, why can’t we all just change dirt into gold and be rich?”

“Willow, that’s an excellent question,” Mr. Puterschmidt replied.  “Now that you bring it up, I think that Gamp’s Law and its exceptions would be an excellent topic for today’s class.”

He turned and waved his wand at the whiteboard on which appeared:

Gamp’s Law of Elemental Transfiguration: Anything Can Be Anything Else.

Willow took her seat and waited while the rest of the class filtered in.

“Willow here has asked a very important question,” Mr. Puterschmidt began when the class was all seated.  “If this is Gamp’s Law of Elemental Transfiguration, why aren’t we all rich after turning dirt into gold?”  

“Yes, Incheon?” Mr. Puterschmidt had called on one of the Suncorn boys.  Willow remembered him as the unsorted boy in her History of Magic class.

“Because the gold doesn’t stick around,” Incheon answered.  “It vanishes, just like leprechaun gold.”

“Very good,” Mr. Puterschmidt said.  “Five points to Suncorn.  There are five known exceptions to Gamp’s Law.”   He waved at the board, on which appeared:

First Exception: Gold (and other precious metals)

“This is also why transfigured gold is illegal to spend.”  He pointed his wand at the room and suddenly, everyone’s quill turned into a shiny dragot.  “It’s not illegal to create the coin.  Many of you are familiar with leprechaun gold created every St. Patrick’s Day, which is nothing more than transfigured gold.  But you also know that if you tried to pass it off as real gold - you’d be in real trouble, because eventually it turns back into the dust from which it was made.  That is why all wise merchants cast a detection spell on gold during a transaction to ensure they are getting the real thing...especially near the middle of March.”  He waved his wand and called out “detego!”  Willow looked down at the gold coin which now appeared to be a quill that had been crushed up into the shape of a coin.  Mr. Puterschmidt flicked his wand a second time and the dragot-shaped feathers turned back into quills. Turning back to the board, he changed the writing to the next exception:

Second Exception: Food

“Most of you are familiar with this one...” Mr. Puterschmidt continued with the lesson, but Willow was thinking of the Featherpenny boy everyone made fun of.  He’s not poor because his family can’t do magic.  They’re poor because...well, because some people are poor.   It’s not like he chose to be poor any more than I chose to be nomaj-born.

 

That night after telling her mom about the exception rule, Willow brought up the subject of the upcoming Quidditch game between Hammersmith and Featherpenny.

“I’d like to go see the game this weekend,” she said to her mom.  “I’ve never seen one before.”

“Sure, I’m interested myself,” her mom replied.  “Wait, is that the one where the ball explodes?”

“No, that one’s called Quodpot,” Willow replied.  “I hear the kids talk about it at school, but I think it’s just for adults and maybe the older kids.  If there was a game with an exploding ball, I’m not sure you’d ever get me to go watch it.”

“That makes two of us,” her mom said.  “Find out how we get there and I’m in.”

“Okay,” said Willow.  “Just promise you won’t embarrass me.”

“Honey, I’m like a fish out of water.  I’m so far out of my element, I am almost guaranteed to embarrass you, but I’ll try.”

 

It turned out that several other nomaj families liked to attend the games and Willow and her mom could just drive over that Saturday.  The ride to the school on roads surrounded by the woods was beautiful as the fall foliage was a riot of red, orange, yellow and brown.  It was fifty degrees and there wasn’t a cloud in the late October sky as they followed the same directions to get to the school that they had used that past July.  After their trip to Narrowway, Willow realized that the signs pointing the way were visible just to her and she was able to watch out for them.

“Whoa!” said her mom after they turned onto the road that led to the school.  “There must be dip in the road or something.  Did you feel your stomach bottom out just now?”

“Yeah,” Willow replied.  “Weird.”

They arrived and entered past the open gate and parked in the driveway by the wizard fountain with about a half-dozen other cars.

“Wow, these people are coming from all over,” said Willow’s mom.  “Look, New Jersey, Maryland, Michigan.  That’s a heck of a drive for a game of whatever it’s called.”

“Quidditch, mom,” Willow reminded her.  “Remember the embarrassment thing?”

“Right,” her mom said.  They walked toward the stadium which was half full already.  More people were streaming in across the grounds, coming out of the front doors of the school building, flying in on brooms and appearing in groups holding on to old shoes and tin cans and other garbage.  Willow’s mom opened her mouth, but Willow spoke up first.

“I don’t know how they’re doing that,” Willow said, referring to the groups of people appearing out of nowhere.  Her mom didn’t respond.  It looks like they can teleport, she thought.  I wonder why they have to carry garbage with them?

The stands were decked out with one side in gold and red and the other in blue and bronze.  The Hammersmith side was almost entirely full already.  Willow wasn’t wearing her house colors, so she suggested they sit on the Featherpenny side as there was more room.

“Fine with me,” said her mom.  “Who are we rooting for and how will I know who’s winning?”  

Willow knew almost nothing about Quidditch except that it was played on brooms, so she said, “I’m in Hammersmith house, so I guess I’ll root for them.  As for the game; I have no idea, mom.  We’ll just have to figure it out together.”

This sport is beyond bizarre, thought Willow after watching the first five minutes of play.  How does anybody know what to watch?  Between what they could observe and hearing the announcer call out the action, Willow and her mom were able to figure out the majority of it.

“So that one that has the ball...the quaffle,” said her mom.  “I get that she’s trying to get it in those hoops.   And that one flying around the goals, he’s the goalie, but what’s the job of the ones carrying the bats?”

“The beaters, you mean?” responded Willow.  “They keep hitting that other two balls - the budgers or something - at the other team’s chasers.  I think that’s their whole point...just to get in the way and make them drop the quaffle thing.”

This really fast, Willow thought, watching the movement of ten of the players around the three balls in play.  They looked like seagulls bombarding a careless boy with a container of french fries.  How do they not ram into each other?  The thought had no sooner entered her head when a Hammersmith chaser slammed headlong into a Featherpenny beater.  The collision threw both of them off their brooms and they tumbled toward the ground, thirty feet below.  Both Willow and her mom took a deep inward breath, anticipating the impact, but the two of them slowed as they neared the ground.  Glancing to her left, Willow saw Mrs. Broombreaker, the referee, holding her wand out at the two unconscious players.  She must have cushioned their fall, she thought.  This game is awesome...I wish I could play.

“Why aren’t they stopping play?” asked her mom.  “Those two just suffered a concussion.”  The school nurse, Mrs. Praecuro, was hustling on to the field to tend to the two boys while the action continued above.  “There’s no way I want you to play this game.”

After a few moments of care, the two boys appeared to be okay, and both were helped from the field as the game continued overhead as if nothing had happened.  One of the Featherpenny chasers had swooped down to grab the flattened baseball bat from his fallen teammate and became the second beater.

After four Hammersmith and two Featherpenny goals, Willow’s mom leaned over and spoke to her.  “What are those two doing up there?” she asked, pointing to two players who had been circling the field above the action.  “They’re just floating around.  Are they observers?”

The mage just in front of them, who was wearing a hat which looked like a giant stuffed owl, overheard and turned around to explain.  His hat had been flapping its wings and hooting every time Featherpenny scored.

“They’re the seekers,” he said.  “They’re looking for the snitch, which looks like a small ball...,” he touched his index finger to his thumb to make a circle, indicating the size “...with wings.  If they catch it, they score one hundred and fifty points and the game ends.”

“Thank you,” Willow’s mom said to the mage.  “So they need to catch a flying walnut while riding a broom before the other team gets up fifteen goals.”

“That’s right,” the wizard continued. “Our seeker this year is a first year.  It’s the first time in seventy years a first year has been made seeker for Featherpenny.  Her name is Lily Smith.”

Willow perked up at the name. “Lily?”

“Do you know her?” asked her mom.

“Yeah, we had broom-flying lessons together.  She was the only one who beat me.” Willow suddenly found herself rooting for Lily instead of her own house team.

It was one hundred to seventy with Hammersmith in the lead when Lily and the oppoosing seeker saw the snitch.  Willow could tell because suddenly, the two seekers started plummeting toward the field like eagles diving after their prey.  Lily had started moving first and the Hammersmith seeker followed a second later.  The crowd started cheering madly and Willow had to stand to see over the roaring, flapping and hooting of the man sitting in front of them.

They’re going to hit the ground!  thought Willow.  “Pull up!  Pull up, Lily!” she screamed.  Willow was sure Lily was going to plow headlong into the turf below when she pulled out of her dive at the last instant.  Willow could see the parallel tracks that Lily’s feet made in the grass as they brushed the ground before she gained elevation again.  Willow let out a heavy breath, not realizing she had been holding it during the last moments.  

The Hammersmith seeker had pulled up sooner and was rapidly gaining on Lily as the two of them drove towards the far left side of the field.  Willow caught just a glimpse of something small and golden that was moving just beyond Lily’s outstretched arm.  With one move, the other seeker pulled even, pushed Lily out of the way and grabbed the snitch.

The crowd on the opposite side of the field erupted into cheers, while the crowd surrounding Willow and her mom let out a collective sigh of disappointment as the match ended.  My house just won, thought Willow, and I couldn’t be less happy about it.

As Willow and her mom grabbed their things to leave, the wizard who spoke to them earlier said good-bye.  “Oh well,” he sighed.  “That young lady can really fly, but there’s only so much you can do on an old Nimbus Two Thousand.”



Chapter 12: Remedial Lessons
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By the end of October, Willow knew that something was wrong.  Almost everyone else in her class was able to perform simple magic, but she still hadn’t been able to do much more than shoot colored sparks from her wand.

On the Monday after the Quidditch game, Willow was asked to report to the Chancellor’s office instead of going to her Care of Magical Creatures club after classes ended.

“Hello, Willow, please sit down,” said the Chancellor as he gestured toward the two wingback chairs that faced his desk.  Willow sat down, remembering several trips to the Principal’s office at her nomaj school.  This is probably not going to be good.

“It’s come to my attention,” The Chancellor began, “that you are having some trouble keeping up with your classmates in a few of your subjects.”  He looked down at a list on his desk. “Let’s see...Alteration, Thaumaturgy and Alchemy, but there’s nothing to be concerned about at this point in time.  Typically, we have a couple of students who have some challenges with their wands, but it seems this year, we have quite a few more than usual.  In other years, we added additional lessons over lunch or after classes, but this many students warrants a special class.”

So now I’m in special education, she thought, trying to imagine how much more abuse would be heaped on her when it was found out.  Awesome.

“We’ve rearranged your schedule,” the Chancellor continued, “temporarily of course, to help you and your fellow students get caught up.  This will provide you with a little more one-on-one attention, and I’m sure you’ll be right as rain in no time.”  He handed a piece of parchment over to Willow, and she leaned forward to take it.  She hoped he didn’t notice that her hand was shaking as she took her new schedule.  He smiled at her and asked “Do you have any questions for me?”

Yes!  Willow thought.  Why won’t my wand work?  What’s wrong with me?  Am I going to get thrown out of school?, but she shook her head ‘no’ and looked out of the window instead of looking the Chancellor in the eye.

“Very well,” he said, standing up and moving toward the door.  “You’ll begin your revised schedule starting tomorrow.  Good day.”  He opened the door and Willow stood up to go.  Leaving the Chancellor’s office she saw the blonde Featherpenny boy who everyone teased over being poor waiting to go next.  His knuckles were red and scabbed and he was staring down at them, not looking up as she walked by.

While she was walking back to the Hammersmith homeroom, she looked over her new schedule.  Tuesdays and Thursdays were the same, but on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, her Alteration, Thaumaturgy, and Alchemy classes were moved around.  She now had Remedial Alteration in the morning, followed by Remedial Alchemy which ran right through lunch and she didn’t get a lunch break until one o’clock.  This was followed by Remedial Thaumaturgy in the afternoon.  It’s not like I can hide this, she thought, her last hope evaporating.  I’m sure they’ll notice when their favorite target doesn’t show up to lunch anymore.

She stopped at the bottom of the staircase leading up to Hammersmith tower and stared up to the domed ceiling eighty feet above.  I really don’t want to go back up there right now, she thought.  The first thing they’ll do is start asking me questions: why were you called away?; why do you have to go to remedial classes?; why are you even here since you stink at magic?  She needed to be somewhere else - anywhere else - so she could be alone.

Willow went to the manticore pen because she knew that nobody would be there; the others tended to stay away from animals that hunt and eat humans.  She sat down by the wall toward the end by the manticore’s hut.  I might be magical, but I obviously don’t have what it takes to fit in here.  I can’t do magic, I can’t make friends...this sucks.  Tears started running down her face and she dreaded the conversation she would have to have with her mom later.  

As she sat there, her sobbing was interrupted by a strange sound like a small motor.  It took her a moment to realize it was coming from the other side of the wall.  Standing up, she could see that the manticore had come out of its hut and had curled up on the other side of the wall from her like a large cat and had started purring.

“Oh,” Willow said as she wiped the tears from her eyes.  “It’s just you.”  She looked in at the manticore.  “I don’t know if you have a name,” said Willow, “but I think I’ll call you Corey.”  The manticore looked up at her with its human-like face, but didn’t stop purring.  “Corey, I don’t know how much longer I’ll be here at this school since I stink at magic,” Willow continued, “but at least I know I can come visit you and not be graded or judged or jinxed with extra ears for an afternoon just because I’m wearing a stupid badge.”  

“Do you believe in karma?” she continued after a moment, not expecting an answer.  “It’s like every bad thing that I’ve done in my entire life has all come back to me in the last two months.  I’m sure I deserve some of it, but getting hit all at once is too much.” 

She stared at him for a few moments, looking at the light brown fur covering his cat-like frame and staring at the contrasting black exoskeleton of his long curled scorpion tail.  How are you even possible? she wondered.  What sick combination of creatures made you?  How much power would a witch or wizard have to have in order to create something like you?  She shivered at the thought.  

Willow stayed there for the rest of the hour talking to Corey instead of what she would have normally done in Care of Magical Creatures club; which was mostly cleaning up poo.  As she got up to go get her bag and make the bus, she called out to the still purring creature.  “I have to go now, but I’ll see you tomorrow, okay?” The manticore blinked at her and watched her leave without making a sound.  As she made her way back to the school, she wondered what she was doing.  There's definitely something wrong when my only friend is a monster that would sooner eat me than look at me.



The following Wednesday’s Remedial classes were awful.   Mr. Puterschmidt didn’t say how bad the Remedial Alteration class was out loud, but Willow thought his characteristic blinking seemed even more agitated than usual by the end.  Not one of the seven students in the class could turn the pencil into a quill.  After an hour’s effort, Lily, the Featherpenny seeker, had managed to get the eraser to sprout feathers, but that was about it.

All seven of them transitioned to Remedial Alchemy, where they were joined by two more Suncorn boys.  Willow had just been over to talk to Lily about the Quidditch match she had watched when the teacher entered.  It was not Mr. Holmes, their regular Alchemy teacher, but instead was a tall woman in her late thirties with dark eyebrows and blonde hair.  

“My name is Mrs. Black and I’m just as unhappy to be in this class as you are,” she announced in a strong british accent before she had even made it to the front of the room, “so I want all of you to work harder than you have been, pay attention to detail, and ask questions if you don’t know what you’re doing.”  She reached the front of the classroom and turned around to look at them.

“Right, there’s nine of you, so we’ll work in tables of three.  I don’t really care what house you’re in, so you three,” she said, pointing to Norbert, Incheon and a Murgatroyd boy.

“You three,” Mrs. Black said, pointing to Willow, Lily and the Featherpenny boy who Willow knew as the unsorted one who was always getting teased about his family being poor.

“And you three,” Mrs. Black concluded, pointing to Lef and the two Suncorn boys.

“We’ll start with a simple restoration potion on page eighty-seven of your books and I’ll be around to figure out where you need help,” Mrs. Black announced.  Everyone stayed frozen in place as if her voice were a stunning spell.

“Well?  What are you waiting for, let’s go!”

At this prompt, Willow turned to her bag to pull out her cauldron, but the Featherpenny boy had already put his on the table and was working to start the fire underneath.

“Oh, thanks.  I’m Willow by the way.”

“Sibelius, but I go by ‘Sib’.”  He turned to Lily.  “The fire needs started, but I stink at it. Can you git it goin’?  Willow smiled and thought to herself.  At least I’m not the only one who can’t start a fire under the cauldron.

Willow couldn’t have picked a better table if she had tried.  Sib, who had a thick West Virginia accent, paid attention to every detail and even saved their potion when he stopped Willow from adding a yellow jelly baby, when it should have been a cinnamon jellybaby instead.  Lily was the only one of the three of them who could pass off a spell, and even this took every effort of will she had.  By the end of the class, they had a decent potion, or at least more decent than the black tar generated by Norbert’s table, or the stinky green slime that formed in Lef’s cauldron.

When the bell rung, marking the end of the double period, Mrs. Black spoke to them after vanishing the contents of all three cauldrons.

“That was not the worst class I have ever had, but it was quite a long way from good.  You all need to do a better job of paying attention to detail.  I’ve given out homework for Friday to those who need it.  Good afternoon.”  At that, Mrs. Black walked past them and out of the classroom door.  Charming, thought Willow as she put her things back in her bag.  A regular Mary Poppins.

Willow walked out of the class at the same time as Lef, who was fuming.

“Those idiots!” Lef raged out loud.  “They didn’t pay attention to anything and were busy making fart jokes the entire class.  Because of them, I now have to write twelve inches of parchment on the difference between ‘yellow jelly babies’ and ‘cinnamon jellybabies’.  I better not get stuck with them for Remedial Thaumaturgy.”

As they headed off for their late lunch, Willow couldn’t help but notice that of the nine students in this potions class, four of them had been the ones who were unsorted at the beginning of the year.

Once in the banquet hall, Willow automatically gravitated towards Norbert as the only other Hammersmith and the others did the same, dividing up to four different tables by house.  There was very little conversation.  

 

That night, Willow’s dream returned. The American Indian was in the woods and Willow could see him through the leaves.  He turned to the side and took a great glowing bow off of his arm and started speaking to her.

...I have come in search of you.  I am the Hunter.  Avada Kedavra”.  With the last words a glowing arrow formed in the drawn bow and was shot out, waking Willow up.

She woke up with those two words on her mind.  Avada Kedavra?  That doesn’t make any sense.  Why would I dream nonsense when everything else was crystal clear?  She decided that she would ask someone about it when she got to school, wondering if maybe she had heard it in a lesson.  She drifted back into an uneasy sleep.



“Avada what?” replied Miss Mercana to Willow’s question.  

“Kedavra,” said Willow.  I thought maybe it was a person or a place that I overheard somewhere.  But it doesn’t really matter.”

“I’ve never heard of it, but if anyone would know,” said Miss Mercana, “it’s Mr. Zolock.  Give him a try.” 

Thanking her, Willow left Care of Magical Creatures and headed off to her next class.  Since she didn’t have History of Magic that day, she had to wait until classes were over to go and see Mr. Zolock in his office.  



At the end of the day, she traveled up the south stair to the teacher’s offices and found the one with Mr. Zolock’s name on it.  She knocked and walked in after Mr. Zolock called for her to enter.

His office looked like a miniature version of the main library, with books stacked from floor to ceiling along three walls and windows looking out over the gardens on the fourth.  A fire was blazing in the fireplace, but it was only comfortably warm in his office.  Mr. Zolock was sitting in a wingback chair next to the fire instead of behind his desk.

“Willow, hello,” he said.  “I was just reading some nomaj history...fascinating subject.  What brings you up here today?”

“Hello Mr. Zolock,” Willow said.  “It’s just that I heard a name and I was wondering if you might be able to tell me who or where it is.”

“Well, I can try,” Mr. Zolock responded.  “What is it?”

“Avada Kedavra,” said Willow.

“Good heavens!” he said, nearly falling out of his seat. “Where in the world did you hear those words?”

Shocked by the reaction, Willow told the truth - not having time to come up with a cover.  “I...I dreamt it,” she said.

“Now, I don’t believe that for a moment,” Mr. Zolock responded.  “You must have heard that from someone, but nobody has taught that in...why it must be over twelve years now.

“But who is it?” Willow pressed.

“It’s not a person, it’s a curse!” Mr. Zolock cried.  “A horrible curse!  A killing curse! Why anyone would ever mention those words is beyond me, but you must promise never to utter them again to anyone for any reason, ever!”

“Okay!” Willow responded, more shocked and disturbed than she was before.

“Now who was it that said it to you?” Mr. Zolock asked again.

“I’m telling the truth, sir.  Nobody told me.”  Willow was pleading now.

“Well, I understand why you’re covering for whoever mentioned it,” he said.  “They could be in some serious trouble.  Dark magic has been banned for over a decade and the penalties for using it - even mentioning it - would be truly severe.  Make sure you tell them when you see them next.”

Willow left Mr. Zolock’s office in a daze.  How could I have a dream about dark magic that nobody has heard of in twelve years?  How is it even possible to dream something that you don’t know?  And why am I dreaming about an evil American Indian wizard when it has nothing to do with...anything, really.



Chapter 13: The Closet Under the Stairs
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“Mom, I think I want to quit,” Willow said to her mom later that week while they were eating dinner.

“Why, honey?” her mom asked, setting her fork down and looking at her.  “I know you’ve been having trouble with magic, but that’s not your fault.  We didn’t even know it existed until four months ago.  They can’t expect you to catch up to everyone else.  They’ve all had an eleven year head start.”

“It’s not just that,” said Willow.  “I don’t have anybody to talk to and I have to wear this stupid badge and the other students treat the first years like we’re nothing.  I just don’t like it there.” 

“I want you to stick it out...at least until Christmas,” said her mom, reaching over to touch Willow’s hand.  “You’ve just been having a tough transition.  I still think you should reach out to that girl in your Horticulture class.”

“It’s Herbology, mom; and I told you, she’s in Murgatroyd and I’m not supposed to talk to them.”

“Or what?” her mom said, standing up to clear her plate.  “Or they’ll treat you like you’re nothing and turn your hair green?”  She was smiling.  “I think you can risk saying ‘hello’.  You can’t be the only one who’s having trouble.  You said yourself that there are a bunch of people in remedial lessons.  You just need to reach out to them and you all should support one another.  Don’t you remember what we talked about at the end of last year?”

The lessons about bullying, Willow thought as she looked down at her plate of half-eaten chicken.  I know I’m supposed to reach out and find people who care about me, but why would a Murgatroyd care about anyone at all? 

“Willow,” her mom said.  “What’s the worst that’s going to happen if you reach out?  She might say she’s not interested and you’ll be right where you are now.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

Or all pain, no gain...but I have to do something.  “All right, mom,” Willow said.  “But if I’m still miserable by Christmas can I stop going?”

“If you reach out and things are still awful?...yes,” her mom replied.

 

She saw Lef in their Herbology class early the next day and decided to risk a conversation, even though Marigold was with them.

“Lef, if you aren’t doing anything, do you want to go to the Quidditch game this weekend?” Willow asked.

“Uh...sure,” said Lef.  “Are you sure you want to hang out with a Murgatroyd? Nobody else does.”

“Yes,” said Willow, “nobody wants to hang out with a newbie either, so I think it will be fine.” 

Marigold spoke up after hearing this agreement.  “Why don’t you both do us all a favor and get hit with a bludger,” she said.  “Neither of you belong here anyway.”

Willow wanted to hit Marigold for being so mean, and started toward her, but Lef pulled Willow away.

“Forget her,” Lef said.  “She’s not worth the detention.  Besides, she’ll probably electrocute herself when she re-pots her lightningrod.”

“Why doesn’t it bother you?” replied Willow, turning away from Marigold.

“It does,” said Lef.  “But being in Murgatroyd, you get used to the snide remarks.  It comes from everywhere.”

So I’m not the only one, thought Willow.  It hadn’t occurred to her that the bullying was happening to anyone else.  Strangely, that made her day a little more bearable.

 

The game that weekend was busier than usual.  Apparently, dignitaries from MACUSA were coming and the Chancellor went all-out with decorations, entertainment and a catered meal.  Willow was able to arrange a ride on the school bus, which was running on that Saturday specifically for the game.  

“So how did you get here?” she asked Lef when they met by the stands.

“Oh, I just used the Firejump Network,” she replied.

“Firejump?” asked Willow.

“Oh, right,” Lef replied.  “I guess your house wouldn’t be connected.  It’s the way that people travel through fireplaces.  You use a special material called floo powder and toss it into the fire and then you can step in and say where you want to go.” 

Willow remembered the mage who had stepped out of the fire during her first trip to Narrowway.  “And you can travel anywhere like that?” 

“Anywhere that has a fire and is connected to the Firejump Network,” Lef clarified.  

I guess nobody would need cars then, thought Willow as they walked to the nearly empty Murgatroyd section for the game against Hammersmith.  It was a cold, blustery day in early November and Willow’s nose and hands were cold even before they sat down.  

Twenty minutes in, Willow was shivering.  “I think I’ve seen enough of this,” she said to Lef.  “Do you mind if we go inside for a while?”

Lef agreed and they left the game with Hammersmith up ninety to ten.  They walked into the school’s front door and Willow started rubbing her hands together to warm them up.  

“The nomaj bus I rode won’t leave until the game is over.  Do you want to take a look around?”

“Sure,” said Lef.  “Where do you want to go?”

“Have you ever seen the Hammersmith homeroom?” Willow asked.

“No,” said Lef.  “I haven’t even been on the fourth floor, unless you count the north stairway to the Astronomy tower.”

Willow led the way up to the fourth floor.  The school was deserted except for the sounds of people organizing the party to be held for the dignitaries after the game, and that had been limited to the banquet hall.

Nearing the top of the stairs to the fourth story, Lef tripped over the last step and fell to the floor.  The green Murgatroyd flag that she had been carrying for the Quidditch game skidded across the floor and dropped over the edge of the stairway.  Willow had frozen in place, but Lef scooted over to the open edge to watch the flag drop nearly a hundred feet down the open center of the main stairway.  

“Not a good place to be clumsy,” Lef said after hearing the distant ‘click’ of the wooden stick hitting the ground six stories below.

“Are you?” asked Willow.

“Yes,” said Lef.  “Good thing my house is in the second basement.” 

Note to self, thought Willow.  Don’t walk in front of Lef near the stairway.

“Can you cover your ears and hum?” asked Willow once they reached the portrait that led into the Hammersmith homeroom.  “You aren’t supposed to hear the password.”  Lef smiled and did what Willow asked.  “Sasquatch,” Willow said at the portrait and it swung open to reveal the empty lounge.

“Whoa,” said Lef as she stepped through the portrait hole.  “This place is amazing.  You could probably fit four or five Murgatroyd homerooms in here.”

“Well, Hammersmith has four or five times as many students,” Willow replied.  “Do you know why?”

“No,” responded Lef.  “But it's been that way for a long time.  When my dad went here about thirty years ago, the houses were just as unequal, although there were more in Suncorn than now.”

“Really?” questioned Willow.  "So the Suncorn homeroom must be really roomy by now." 

“Well, the rooms change size of course,” replied Lef, as if that was a perfectly normal thing for a room to do.

“What do you mean, they change size?” asked Willow.  “Do you mean they put up a partition or something?”

“No,” started Lef and then, nodding to herself, she continued.  “Of course, you’re nomaj-born.  It’s like the school bus.  It’s big when it needs to be on the first day and then gets smaller when there are fewer students.”

“And the school can do that too?”

“Yes.  There were fewer students here a hundred years ago, because the population was smaller, so everything about the school was smaller then.  Gampton Hall has grown to fit the need.”

Willow was still trying to wrap her head around the idea of a building that grows when they left through the portrait hole and headed back toward the main stairway.  

“Do you want to see the Murgatroyd homeroom now?” Lef asked her.

“Sure,” replied Willow, being careful to let Lef go first as they approached the steps.  

“Can we stop for a second?” asked Lef, partway down the stairs.  “I have to use the bathroom.  They got off on the next floor and headed to where they thought the bathrooms were.

“Are we on the second floor or the third?” Willow asked.

“I’m completely turned around,” Lef replied.

“Look, let’s just follow this hall and find the nearest stairs and then we can figure it out,” Willow said.  She looked over at one of the doors.  It had ‘D.A.D.A.’ on it.  “What’s Dada?” she asked.

“No idea,” said Lef, “Does that look like a doorway to you?”  She was pointing at a large stone archway with writing across the top and masonry sealing the center.

“Yeah, but it’s blocked up,” said Willow.  “It has an inscription:  ‘Speak Our Name and Enter’.”

“Bathroom!” said Lef.  The door didn’t change.

“You two are very lost,” said a voice behind them.  Willow and Lef jumped when they heard it and whirled around.  It was Mr. Zolock.  “You know that you are in the restricted corridor?” he asked.

“No, Mr. Zolock,” said Willow.  “We were looking for the bathroom and got turned around.”

“Well, I assure you that you won’t find any bathrooms in this corridor,” he said.  “This way.”  He led them back toward the main staircase. 

“Mr. Zolock,” said Willow.  “What was that doorway?”

“I don’t know.  I’ve never found anything in the school’s archives that tells what name it’s looking for.  All the ones I could come up with have been tried.”

“What about Dada?” asked Lef.  “I’ve never heard of it.” 

“Defense Against the Dark Arts,” replied Mr. Zolock.  “Since dark magic was banned a dozen years ago, we have not been able to teach it.”

“I don’t understand,” said Willow.  “Why can’t you still teach people to defend themselves?” 

“In order to properly teach Defense Against the Dark Arts,” explained Mr. Zolock, “you have to understand and be able to demonstrate dark magic itself.  That’s why this hallway is off limits and all the doors locked.”

Once they reached the main stairway, Mr. Zolock turned to them.  “Last time I checked, there were bathrooms on the first floor,” he said.  “Any particular reason you were wandering so far?”

“I...I wanted to show Lef the Hammersmith homeroom,” Willow told him, deciding that honesty was probably best.  “We were heading for the Murgatroyd homeroom next.”

“Well in that case,” Mr. Zolock said, “you should go down the south stair instead.  Mr. Vernon, the Custodian, is working on the main level in preparation for the party and will certainly throw you two out if he catches you wandering around.  Follow me.”

Wow, thought Willow.  I guess Mr. Z is pretty cool about us just wandering around where we shouldn’t.  I wonder what the big deal is?  She looked over at Lef who just shrugged her shoulders and they both followed him to the main stairway.

At the second floor, Mr. Zolock left the stairway, crossed the main hall and exited out onto the roof above where the conservatory was.  From the roof, they could look to the front of the school and down toward the stadium on the right.  To the left, they could look down into the conservatory to see the preparations ongoing.  White tablecloths and silverware? thought Willow as she looked at the people scurrying around under the glass.  There must be some fancy party happening.  The three of them continued to the east tower, where Mr. Zolock opened a hidden door for them to pass through.  Once he closed it behind them, he showed them the hidden stone to press to open it again.

“It comes in handy to go between my office and the History of Magic classrooms,” he said in answer to their unasked question.    They both nodded in acknowledgement.  Secret doors, growing rooms, a giant death pit in the middle of the stairway, Willow thought.  This place is actually really cool...except for that last one.  As Mr. Zolock led them into the hallway, he pointed out the bathrooms that Lef could use.  

“Thanks, Mr. Zolock,” they both said as he left to head back to the teachers’ lounge.  After using the bathroom, they headed down the south stair to where it ended on the first basement level.  

“The Murgatroyd homeroom is a level below us,” Lef said.  “So we’ll have to use the main stairway to get there.”  Just as they started to head down the hallway, they heard someone coming.  Looking at each other, they both mouthed the word ‘Custodian’ and looked around for somewhere to hide.  There was a door under the stairs that looked to be a storage closet.  Finding it unlocked, they hurried inside and pulled the door closed.  It was pitch black inside.

“Where is that light coming from?” whispered Willow.

“It’s not coming from the door,” Lef whispered back.

Willow turned and saw another doorway opening in the back of the storage closet.  “Look behind you,” she whispered.

Lef turned and seeing the opening said “cool, let’s go check it out.”

Uhhhh, let’s not, thought Willow fearing what new death trap might be waiting around the corner.  But since I don’t really want to hang out in this dark storage closet by myself, either...

She quietly followed Lef toward the doorway.  It led to a short hallway and into what looked to Willow like an industrial kitchen with stoves, refrigerators, and men and women all busily at work preparing hors d’oeuvres on platters.

“What is this place?” asked Lef.  “They’re preparing food, but I don’t recognize any of those boxes.” 

“That’s an oven, there’s a walk-in freezer over there and that’s a gas cooktop,” said Willow, pointing to the appliances.  “They’re nomaj,” she continued in surprise.  Then, realizing that Lef had never seen a nomaj kitchen she said “Our food is prepared by nomaj.” 

“Oh, hello girls,” said one of the ladies working in the kitchen when she saw them.  “I can’t get you anything right now, we’re all in a rush to get these dishes finished for the event upstairs.”

“Uh...that’s okay...we’re...we’re not that hungry,” said Willow, trying to puzzle out what was going on.  What are nomaj doing in a magic school?

“Would you two be a dear and help me get these puff pastries in the oven then?” the lady asked them.  “I have to grab the panna cotta from the walk-in.” 

After she walked away, Lef looked over at Willow.  “Which one of these things is an oven?” she asked.

“Just follow my lead,” said Willow.  She put on the oven mitts and opened the oven.  Warning Lef not to touch any of the hot surfaces, they put the sheets of puff pastries in and Willow shut the door.  The lady was coming back with a tray of champagne glasses filled with white custard.

“Thank you so much,” she said, setting a timer.  “Usually the kids pretend they’ve never seen the inside of a kitchen before.  We’ve been running around like crazy today and with all the fanciness going on, you would think the Chancellor is entertaining the President.”  She pulled out a container of chocolate syrup and another container of raspberries and proceeded to cover the custard with a layer of the syrup and top each one with a few raspberries.  She set two of them in front of the girls with a couple of spoons.

“For your help,” she said as she continued to work.  “You can be the official taste testers.”

Now I understand why the kitchens are off limits, thought Willow after taking a bite of the heavenly dessert.  Otherwise, we’d all be four hundred pounds.

After they finished off their dessert, they gave up on trying to go to the Murgatroyd homeroom and instead wandered back outside toward the stadium.  

“We should definitely come to all the Quidditch games,” said Willow, hearing the roar of the crowd which she knew meant that the snitch had been caught.

“But we didn’t watch any of it,” Lef responded.

“Not to see the games,” replied Willow.  “I had much more fun exploring the school.  Just imagine what we’ll see next time!”

“Why were there nomaj in the kitchens?” asked Lef.

“I have no idea,” said Willow.  “But I know who we can ask.”

 



“Nomaj in the kitchen?” Mr. Zolock smiled. “I guess you’d have to have gone into the kitchen to figure that out huh?”  He held up his hands and continued. “Don’t sweat it, I nipped a few sandwiches in my day from the staff.”

“But why nomaj?” asked Lef.  “Why not mages?”

“Well, that’s simply supply and demand,” Mr. Zolock said.  Willow and Lef both had puzzled looks on their faces, so he continued.  “There are very few mages in this country.  About fifteen thousand at last census - and that’s in a nation of three hundred million nomaj.  We’re spread out quite a bit over the whole country and we almost all have specialized jobs.  There are just not enough of us around to provide services like cooking, and since we can’t create food out of thin air...”  He stopped and looked at the girls.  “Mr. Puterschmidt has gone over the exceptions to Gamp’s Law hasn’t he?” The girls nodded and he continued.  “Well, since we can’t create food out of thin air, we found that hiring nomaj was much less expensive than hiring a mage to do it.  Besides, the chefs down there are fantastic.”  

“But what if they find out about the school, or wander through the wrong door,” Lef questioned.  “Won’t they find out about the magic world?”

“They would if they could get into the school,” replied Mr. Zolock.  “All the doors out of the kitchen are magically enchanted.  If they went out wandering, they’d just find normal hallways and classrooms.  The same goes if they tried to go over the fence or through the hedge.  They wouldn’t get anywhere.  Besides, when each of them were hired they believe they were given a tour of the school, so they’ve already seen it.”

Wondering if she had heard Mr. Zolock right, Willow asked, “What do you mean they ‘believe’ they were given a tour?”

“Curiosity killed the cat, Willow,” he responded.  “If they believe they’ve already seen something, they don’t need to see it again.  We just ‘alter’ their memories a bit.”

“You can do that?” Willow questioned.

“Of course!” he replied.  “It happens every time a nomaj sees something they shouldn’t.  Now, what did you get when you went there?”

“A custard dessert with chocolate and raspberries,” said Lef.  “It was awesome.”



Chapter 14: The Usefulness of Friendship
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Although that dessert from the kitchen may have been awesome, what Willow thought wasn’t awesome was sitting through the parent-teacher meetings with her mom a week later.  They sat in the Chancellor’s office just as they had been sitting during their first visit with Mr. Puterschmidt.

“We’re just concerned because Willow is falling behind the other students,” the Chancellor explained to Willow’s mom.  “We’ve placed her in a series of classes that will provide her with more attention and hopefully, she’ll be able to catch up.”

“Hopefully?” asked Willow’s mom.  “You mean you don’t know?”

“Oh, certainly, certainly,” sputtered the Chancellor.  “What I mean to say is that we have it all under control and Willow should be caught up in no time.”

“What can I do to help?” asked her mom, not sounding reassured by the Chancellor’s clarification.

“Uh, to be honest, Ms. Carter,” replied the Chancellor.  “We’re not sure there’s anything you can do.  She’s certainly doing well enough in all of her other classes - that is, all those that don’t require the use of a wand.  It’s just that in Willow’s case, the bond between wand and witch is not developing as quickly as we would like.”

“Could there be something wrong with her wand?” her mom asked.  “We could go back to Narrowway and get a new one.” 

“I wouldn’t think so,” said the Chancellor.  “Miss Chantrix knows wands and it’s highly improbable that she made an error.”

“So what is it, then?” asked Willow’s mom.  There was a pause in the conversation.  It was obvious to Willow that the Chancellor was thinking about how he wanted to answer that question.

“We’re not exactly sure, Ms. Carter,” he said.  “It’s not unusual to have two or three students who require some extra help each year, but they usually catch up by the holiday break.  This year, we have quite a few more and we are looking to both Mysticism and Numerology to figure it out.  Needless to say, we’re doing everything we can do.”

“How many more?” asked Willow’s mom, ignoring the two subjects she didn’t recognize.

“We have seven this year, although those numbers should decrease before we get to Thanksgiving.”

“So a fifth of your first year students are having difficulty, and you don’t know why?” said Willow’s mom.  Willow could hear by the tone of her voice that her mom was getting upset.

“Well, I can’t do the math in my head,” the Chancellor said.  “But yes, it’s certainly more than we usually have and we are continuing to work with the students.  As I’ve indicated, I’m sure we’ll have this resolved and everyone back up to speed by Christmas.”

“And if you don’t?” asked Willow’s mom.

“Please, Ms. Carter,” said the Chancellor.  “It’s inconceivable that magical students will still have trouble that far into the school year.  In the three hundred year history of Gampton Hall no child has ever been expelled for failure to pass the end of year tests and I don’t see that happening this time.  If you’ll just be patient, I’m sure we’ll get to the root of the problem and everyone will be right as rain in no time.”

 

“It was like talking to a politician,” fumed her mom on the way home from the conference.  “I can’t believe they don’t have any idea why your wand isn’t working the way it should.”  Without waiting for Willow to say anything, her mom continued venting.  “Inconceivable?...what’s inconceivable is them not knowing how to educate kids.  You should have seen how defensive he got when I told him how miserable your Nomaj Studies teacher is...hemming and hawing.  You would think it was his mother.”

“It is his mother, mom,” said Willow.

“Oh, great,” her mom said.  Willow could see her roll her eyes.  “Now we get to deal with nepotism too?”

“What’s nepotism?” Willow asked.

“It’s where you give special privileges - or jobs - to your relatives instead of basing it on merit,” fumed her mom.  “It’s considered unethical in the real world.”

“My world’s real,” said Willow.

There was silence for a moment as her mom thought about what she had just said.  “I’m sorry Willow,” she said.  “I know it’s real.  I’m just so...I just wish there was something I could do to help, but I feel so...useless.”

“I don’t think you’re useless mom,” Willow said.  “You help me all the time.  You helped me reach out to Lef.”

“Thanks Willow.  You know, it’s ironic, but I feel more involved in your schoolwork and interests now than when you were in the nomaj world.  I just can’t help but wonder if there is something I could be doing to help you.  I think we’ll pay a visit to the wand store in Narrowway over Christmas break to talk to the owner.  What do you think?”   

“Okay Mom.”

“Besides, I think I want to go back and get that Granger purse I passed on when we went in August.”

After a while of driving quietly, her mom changed the subject.  “I wonder what they did before wands?” she asked out loud.

“What are you talking about?” Willow said.  

“Wands,” her mom replied.  “They don’t create magic, right?  A wand without a mage is just a stick.  If I were to pick one up, it would act and feel just like a stick.  But in the hand of a mage, it acts like an amplifier or antenna to make you more powerful.  What did mages use before they had wands?”

“I suppose the same thing I did,” said Willow.  “I used my hair.  But why does that matter? Willow asked.  “We all use wands now.”

“Just wondering,” said her mom.



Willow and Lef were watching the Quidditch game on the Saturday before Thanksgiving between Suncorn and Featherpenny.  They stayed until the score was two hundred to forty in Suncorn’s favor when then decided that Lily wasn’t going to be able to beat them by catching the snitch.  

“Do you want to see the Murgatroyd homeroom?” Lef asked her while the snitch continued to elude both seekers.

“Sure,” replied Willow and they headed up to the school.  They went to the bottom of the main stairs - two floors below the entrance level and they were walking down the hall toward the Murgatroyd homeroom when they heard sniffling in one of the rooms.  

“Is that an animal?” Willow whispered.

“It sounds like crying” Lef replied.  They approached the door and opened it slowly. Willow was surprised to see Sib at one of the potions tables, wiping his eyes on his sleeve.  Seeing them, he yelled.

“Do you want to make fun of me like everyone else?” he hollered.  “Just leave me alone!”  Willow and Lef were so shocked, they backed away and closed the door without a word.

“We should go,” whispered Lef.

What would I have done last year?  Walked away...or something else?  Willow asked herself.  Now I need to do what I should have done then...

“No, we shouldn’t.”  Willow took Lef’s hand and they went back into the potions lab.  Willow walked over to the table where Sib was sitting and took a seat.  She looked right at him.

“No, Sib,” Willow said.  “Lef and I aren’t going away.  I had trouble with bullying in my nomaj school and I know you need some friends.  We’re all in the same situation here and it’s about time we stuck together.”

While Sib sat next to them, wiping his eyes, Willow asked Lef to tell her about the Murgatroyd homeroom.

“Well, you would think it would be a dungeon like these Alchemy rooms,” Lef explained.  “But it actually has windows and a huge balcony along the cliff that looks out over the river rapids.  It’s quite beautiful.  It’s smaller than your Hammersmith tower room, but it’s really cozy with the fireplaces going.  There’s only about thirty of us, so everyone has plenty of room.”

“The Featherpenny tower is small,” said Sib, who had stopped crying.  “And it looks out over the river rapids too...except from six stories higher.  My house has a game where they spit off their balcony and try to have it land on the Murgatroyd balcony.”  He looked at Lef.  “I ain’t playing it anymore.”  

“It’s okay,” said Lef.  “The Murgatroyds put up a water-repellent charm around the balcony to protect us from getting soaked from the spray of the rapids.  It works against rain - and spit too, so we can sit out there whenever we want.”

“Clever,” said Willow.  

“Now if you could just get in the kitchen,” said Sib.  “I heard Incheon say he knew the way in since he’s in Suncorn, and their homeroom is right next door.”

“We know the way in,” said Lef.

“Then what are we waitin’ for?” asked Sib.  Willow noticed that he smiled for the first time since she had known him. 

 

By Thanksgiving at least a part of what the Chancellor had said in the parent-teacher meeting was true.  There were only five students left in remedial lessons.  Along with Willow were Lily and Sib from Featherpenny, Lef from Murgatroyd, and Incheon from Suncorn.  On the day before Thanksgiving break, their Remedial Alchemy teacher, Mrs. Black, let them have a free period.  Willow thought it was more because she wasn’t having any success with them rather than out of goodwill.  

The five of them sat in the back of the classroom.  Sib and Incheon were playing a magical card game while Willow and Lef were playing wizard chess on Lef’s set.  Lily was digging into a book on Quidditch in preparation for her last match, coming up in another two weeks.  The latest two students to go back to regular lessons from the Remedial Alchemy class were the two Suncorn boys who had been in a group with Lef.

“At least I don’t have to listen to any more fart jokes,” Lef said, after Willow called for her knight to take Lef’s bishop.

“Did someone say fart jokes?” asked Incheon.  “Hey, Sib, why did the cockatrice cross the road?”

“Dunno,” said Sib.  “Why?”

Incheon stuck out his tongue and blew a raspberry, “pthhbbbbbbb!”  

Laughing, Sib said, “good one!  What’s the difference between a wizard and a warlock?”  Incheon shrugged his shoulders.

“Pthhhbbbbbb!”

Lef just shook her head and declared checkmate on Willow for the second time in a row.  

“Why is it that only kids that were unsorted are in remedial lessons?” Willow asked.

“Lily’s in remedial lessons,” Sib said.

“Yeah, for how much longer?” Willow questioned, looking over at Lily, whose cheeks were flushed.

“She said I could probably go back to regular classes after Winter break.”  Lily answered, seeming to shrink under the four pairs of staring eyes.  Willow brought their attention back.  

“I think being unsorted has something to do with why we can’t do magic,” Willow said to them.  “Maybe we were sorted.  Maybe we’re the fifth house.”

“You heard the teachers, there is no fifth house.” Lef answered.

“As far as they know, but Mr. Zolock said that there was a fire that destroyed the records from the first days of the school.  Maybe there was something in there.  If only I could remember what the hat said about it.”

“An ancient house that once was part; of our school's founding shall restart.  Of old vacated, reinstated; to get back what is at heart,” recited Incheon, who hadn’t looked up from his cards.  

The rest of them were staring at him; he had been reciting the hat’s song from memory.  

“What?”  he said, looking around at them.  “I have an audiographic memory.”  The other four still had blank looks on their faces.  “I can remember things that people say to me, plays, songs, speeches - you know, that sort of stuff - word for word.  I know Robilard’s Warlock Words of Wisdom too.  Want to hear them?”

“Maybe later.” Sib responded.  “What about the rest of the hat speech?”

“That house shall use the ancient ways; to find the path that once was blazed; by ancient ones, the first to come; to make whole what has decayed,” Incheon finished.

“I think that’s it,” said Willow.  “We need to find the path that once was blazed.  After all, the hat did call us ‘Pathfinders’.”

“But where do we start looking?” said Incheon.

“The song talked about ancient ones - the first to come,” said Willow  “That must mean the founders of the school.  I think we should look to see what’s in the archives.”  They decided to go to the library during lunch after the Thanksgiving break to see what they could find.

“Awesome,” said Incheon in a sarcastic voice.  “More homework.”



Chapter 15: The Meaning of Dreams
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It was the Sunday night after Thanksgiving when Willow had another disturbing dream.  In it, she was standing in the forest grove, watching it burn.  In the midst of it was the giant American Indian, screaming a word that sounded like ‘Peshtang!’  That was the only word he said, as he just screamed it over and over.  She woke up in a sweat.  Peshtang?  I wonder if that’s a dark curse too?  It took her a long time to fall back asleep, the silhouette of the man against the flames seemed etched on the back of her eyelids. 

 

The following day at lunch, Willow, Lef, Incheon and Sib were all sitting together.  Lily had gone off to work on some of her new Quidditch moves with the Featherpenny team.   

“Lef, I need a favor,” Willow said to her.  “I need you to ask Mr. Zolock about something I heard.” 

“Okay.  Why can’t you ask?” Lef questioned.

“Well, I got in trouble last time, so I’m afraid to ask again,” Willow said.

“So you want me to get in trouble instead?”

“No, it’s...I just think that if someone different asks, he won’t get upset.”

“Alright,” Lef said, unconvinced.  “What do you want me to ask him?” 

“What ‘Peshtang‘ means,” said Willow.  The three others stared at her.  “What?” Willow asked them.  “What did I say?” 

“Where did you hear that?” asked Lef, her eyes fixed on Willow's.

“It...it was in a dream” said Willow.

“With a giant American Indian in the middle of burnin’ woods?” asked Sib.

Willow looked at Sib.  “How did you...how is that even possible for two people to have the same dream?” she asked.

“Not two people,” said Lef.  “I dreamed it too.  He just kept screaming ‘Peshtang’ over and over.  It was creepy.”

“Wait, so we all had exactly the same dream?” asked Willow, looking at Incheon.

“Yep,” said Incheon.  “Me too.  That is too weird.  Did you guys also have the one where the giant pickle in underpants chases you with a bologna sandwich?”

“Uh....no?” said Willow.

“Oh,” said Incheon.  “I guess that one was just me.” 

“What do you think it means?” asked Willow, turning to the others.

“That I’m hungry for a bologna sandwich?” said Incheon.

“She means the dream about the burning woods, Incheon,” said Lef.

“Oh...right,” he replied.  “I have no idea.”

“Did you have any of the other dreams?” Willow asked the others.  Everyone nodded their head.  

“There was one where he shot a glowing arrow from his bow,” said Sib.  

“I wonder if anyone else had them? asked Willow.  "I’m going to ask Norbert.  Each of you should ask someone too.”

 

Nobody seemed to have had the dreams besides the four of them.  Willow was able to confront Norbert in the Hammersmith homeroom the next morning to ask about the dream, but he didn’t know anything about it.  In Care of Magical Creatures, Lef told Willow that she checked with two of her first-year housemates and neither of them had the dream.  Likewise, after Nomaj Studies, Sib told her that neither Oliver nor Otto from Featherpenny had the dream, and Incheon said nobody in Suncorn knew what he was talking about when he brought it up, and that -more importantly- nobody else had his pickle-in-underpants dream either.

Willow, Lef and Sib met at the library after scarfing a quick lunch.  Incheon was still eating his meal, and told them to start without him.  Lily wasn’t with them as she was spending every free hour practicing with the Featherpenny team in preparation for their upcoming match against Murgatroyd.  

 

“Now we know that only the four of us shared the dreams,” said Willow.  “And we were the ones who were unsorted.  While we’re looking for anything on the school’s founders, we should probably keep our eyes out for the word ‘Peshtang’ too, since Mr. Zolock didn’t know anything about it when you asked, Lef.”  

They went into the archive section of the library and started searching the shelves.  All of the books in this section were hundreds of years old, and the room smelled of slowly decaying parchment.  Willow looked at the titles of the books: ‘Historia Herbologia’; ‘A Treatise of Magical Nature; ‘The Compleat Potion Master’; ‘Arithmancia Universalis’.  Nothing looked like it was useful.  After five more minutes of searching, Sib found something.

“Hey,” he said “look at this.”  He had a book entitled ‘A General History of Gampton Hall and its Environs’.

“Great,” said Willow.  “You check that out while we see what else we can find.” 

Over the next half hour, they all found something to look through.  Sib was still going through the book he had found while Willow was looking through ‘The Book of Gampton Hall’ and Lef was reading ‘An Account of the Lives and Works of the First Settlers of Gampton', which referenced the nearby wizard village which was settled at the same time as the school.

“This is useless,” said Willow after looking through the whole volume.  “This book’s first chapter starts in 1765, but we know that Gampton Hall was founded in 1720.  It’s like the first forty-five years didn’t happen at all.”

“I know,” said Lef.  “There’s nothing in here about the founding of Gampton Hall, or ‘Peshtang’ or ‘Pathfinder’.  What have you found, Sib?”

“Nuthin’,” he said.  “When they wrote ‘A General History’, they meant it.  This book’s got no details at all.  It don’t even say when it was written.”

Incheon walked in with five minutes to go before they had to leave for their next class.  “Wummmf I miff?” he tried to say through a completely full mouth, his cheeks puffed out in a comical impersonation of a chipmunk.

“Incheon, why did you stuff your face so full you couldn’t talk?” asked Lef.

“Weww I caww eee iww wuh wiwawy”, he said, still working his way through whatever he had stuffed in there.  The rest of them watched as he spent the next thirty seconds chewing and swallowing a mouthful of food.

“Now why did you stuff your face so full you couldn’t talk?” asked Lef again.

“Well, I can’t eat in the library,” he said.  “And I’m not throwing away a perfectly good sandwich.  Now, am I too late to help?” 

“Yes,” said Willow.  “We didn’t find anything here.”

“Perfect,” said Incheon.

As Willow and Sib headed off to climb the North stair to Astronomy class, Willow was wondering what to do next.  I wonder if Mr. Z would know anything about shared dreams?

 

“Shared, you say?” questioned Mr. Zolock when Willow stopped by to see him before going down to Care of Magical Creatures Club.  “That sounds like something Penelope would know.” 

“Penelope, sir?” inquired Willow.

“Miss Pyx,” said Mr. Zolock.  “She’s the Mysticism teacher.”

“You think she can tell me what it means?” asked Willow.

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” replied Mr. Zolock.  “But if anyone can, it’s her.”

“Before I go,” said Willow, changing the subject. “A group of us went to the archives to look for information on the founding of Gampton Hall, but we couldn’t find anything.  Do you know why?”

“I’m afraid all the books relating to the history of Gampton Hall before 1764 were lost in the fire,” said Mr. Zolock.  “The remainder of the original collection is there, but strangely enough, not a single history text remains.  It’s tragic.  I’d just die to know what those first years were like.”

 

Willow was able to stop in the Mysticism classroom the next morning instead of going to the Hammersmith homeroom.  She walked into the classroom and saw Miss Pyx setting crystal balls out on tables around the room.

“Hello, Miss Pyx,” said Willow.  “Mr. Zolock suggested I come find you.  Could I ask you about something?” 

“Certainly,” said Miss Pyx, setting down the crystal ball in her hands and coming over to where Willow was standing. “Although I don’t think we’ve met.”

“I’m Willow Carter.” 

“Of course,” said Miss Pyx with a smile.  “Well, that’s one mystery solved.”

Willow looked at her with a puzzled look.  “Ma’am?” 

“Well,” said Miss Pyx, ”I start each day with divination.  Today I saw in the crystal that I would have a very important visit from a tree, which of course didn’t make much sense at the time, but here you are.   Now, Willow, what important news do you bring?” 

“What does it mean when a group of people share a dream?” Willow asked.

“Do you mean a vision or an unconscious dream?” asked Miss Pyx.

“While we’re sleeping,” said Willow.

“Well, that’s extremely rare,” Miss Pyx said.  “There have been cases, but...” She paused and looked at Willow.  “Is this a hypothetical question?”

“Actually, no,” said Willow.  “Three of my friends and I shared the same dreams.”

“Wait,” said Miss Pyx.  “Dreams, plural?”

“Yes,” replied Willow.  “Three of them.” 

“Well, Willow,” said Miss Pyx.  “You have my attention.  Please, sit down and tell me about what you dreamed.”

After Miss Pyx and Willow sat down at one of the tables, Willow told her about the first dream, where the American Indian said he was a hunter and the second one in which he said that he had been looking for them and then shot out the glowing arrow.  She then told Miss Pyx about visiting Mr. Zolock and finding out what the figure had said was a dark magic curse.  Miss Pix’s eyes opened like the Cheshire Cat's when she said this, but she asked Willow to go on.  Then Willow relayed the third dream with the American Indian screaming ‘Peshtang’ in the burning woods.  Miss Pyx hung on every word. When Willow finished, the teacher looked down at the table for a moment before she looked back up with a troubled look on her face.

“I don’t know what your dream means, Willow,” she said.  “It doesn’t have the normal symbols and references that I teach in oneiromancy…” She saw Willow’s confusion and clarified; “…it’s the study of a dreams’ meaning.  I’m also troubled about the reference to Dark Magic, which you shouldn’t know anything about...not even in your subconscious mind.”  Miss Pyx turned and started staring out the window “...path of darkness...” she muttered to herself.

“Miss Pyx?” said Willow.  “Are you alright?” 

Coming back to the present, she turned her head to look at Willow.   “Who else has had these dreams?” she asked.

Willow rattled off Lef, Incheon, and Sib’s names for her.  “Are we in trouble?” Willow asked.

“No, I...” Miss Pyx stopped and took a deep breath. “I have to talk to the Chancellor,” she said.  “Can you come with me?  I’ll write you a note if you are going to be late to your next class.” 

Willow nodded and followed her down the main staircase three floors to the Chancellor’s office.  What’s going on? thought Willow as they approached the Chancellor’s door.  Why are a bunch of weird dreams so important?  They entered and addressed the secretary.

“Andrea, I have to see the Chancellor,” Miss Pyx said to her.  “It’s urgent.” 

Urgent?  Willow was trying to figure out what was happening. I had these dreams months ago...it’s not like it’s the end of the world or anything.

“I can delay his morning meeting,” the secretary said. “Go on in, Penelope.”

Miss Pyx turned to Willow.  “I need you to wait out here,” she said.  “I’ll come get you in a few minutes.”

The secretary directed Willow to the waiting area while Miss Pyx crossed the room and entered the Chancellor’s office, closing the door behind her.  Willow tried to overhear the conversation, but it was too muffled by the closed door.  She heard the Chancellor remark “dark magic!” and “my goodness!” and then later, “go?” from Miss Pyx, but the rest was lost.  

He certainly sounded hot and bothered about it, thought Willow.  I hope we’re not in trouble.  After ten minutes, both Miss Pyx and the Chancellor emerged from his office.  The Chancellor left without even a glance in Willow’s direction, but Miss Pyx came over to talk to her.

“Come back to my office, Willow,” she said in a low voice.  “I have some information for you.”

 

“There is a prophecy,” started Miss Pyx when they got back to her office and she had closed the door.  “This prophecy relates the exposure of the magical world to the nomaj, the downfall of the current magical government, and the endangerment of everything the magical community holds dear.”  She took a deep breath and continued.  “No one outside of the highest government officials knows the entire prophecy.  Nobody here at Gampton Hall knows more than a few pieces of it.  We have been instructed by MACUSA to enforce their ban on Dark Arts, and to inform them immediately if we determine that the fifth house has started at Gampton Hall.”

“The hat…” said Willow.

“Yes,” said Miss Pyx.  “When I told the Chancellor about who had these dreams and about their dark magic content, he agreed that MACUSA should be informed.” 

“Why are you telling me all this?” asked Willow.

“Because the Chancellor also decided that the four of you should be expelled from the school.”



Chapter 16: Unwelcome Back
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“Expelled? But we didn’t do anything!” cried Willow.

“I know,” said Miss Pyx, looking out of the window.  “He can’t expel you on his own, but as soon as he tells MACUSA, they’ll be after his head if he doesn’t do something.  He’ll have to get a majority of the teachers to agree in order to get rid of you, so I’ll work with Zephyr to prevent that from happening.  You need to know that he’ll be doing what he can to get you out of this school.  I’ll help…but I don’t know if it will be enough.”  

This is so not fair!  How can they throw us out for having some stupid dreams that nobody understands anyway? thought Willow as Miss Pyx handed her a note to excuse her lateness.  What am I going to do? 

Miss Pyx left to seek out Mr. Zolock and Willow followed her out to head toward the greenhouses for Herbology class.  On the way, Willow wondered about what she had heard.  Prophecies?  Why don’t we have mysticism in our first year?  At least I might understand what everybody is so excited about.  And I don’t even want to think about getting expelled.  I’m having enough trouble just casting a charm, I don’t need this too!  

She couldn’t concentrate at all in Herbology, and she accidentally squished her turquoise elfcup when she wasn’t paying attention. Even though Lef kept asking what was going on, she knew she couldn’t discuss it in front of Marigold.  Even when the five of them were alone in Remedial Alteration and Alchemy, she never had enough time to tell them everything she had heard that morning.  Finally at lunch, she spilled everything she could remember about that morning to Incheon, Lef, and Sib.  Lily, as usual, was out practicing on the Quidditch field.  

“Did he say he was expellin’ us?” asked Sib.

“He can’t expel us,” said Incheon.  They all looked at him.  “He may be the Chancellor, but he still has to follow the bylaws of the school.  He can’t expel us unless we do something that qualifies us for expulsion.”

“Like?” prodded Lef.

“Like blatant violation of the school rules,” explained Incheon.  “We’d have to do something really bad for him to recommend expulsion.  Even then, we’d have to go before a tribunal and a majority of the teachers would have to agree before we were out.”

“How do you know all that?” asked Willow.

“My mom read the bylaws to me before the first day of school,” Incheon said.  “She knew if I heard them recited, I’d remember them word-for-word...so I wouldn’t have any excuses.”

“Clever,” said Willow.

“So it sounds like we’re safe...for now,” Sib stated.

“So do we tell Lily?” asked Lef.

“A week before her final Qudditch match?” exclaimed Incheon.  “No way.  She’d be furious at the distraction, and since I live four houses away from her, I’d get the brunt of it.”



The first week of December passed quickly.  They had given up on searching the library and were at a loss about what to do next with the founding of the school; the word ‘Peshtang’; the prophecy; or any of it.  They all decided to just forget about it as well as they could until after the holiday and instead they decided to meet up at Lily’s final Quidditch game on the ninth.

“I don’t understand,” said Willow as she watched the Featherpennies score another goal against the Murgatroyd team.  “What do you mean they have to score four hundred and fifty points?  Hammersmith hasn’t lost a game all year.”

“It don’t go by how many games you won,” explained Sib.  “It’s all about the total number of points you score.”

“So you could lose every game but one and win the championship if you scored enough points in that one game?”  Willow asked.

“Actually, the math works out so you could lose every game and still win the championship,” said Incheon.  “Pretty awesome, huh?”

After fifteen more minutes and three more Featherpenny goals, Willow saw Lily and the Murgatroyd seekers dive in unison towards the field.  “They must see the snitch!” said Willow.  The crowd around her started cheering.  

“It’s too early,” said Lef in Willow’s ear, speaking loud to be heard over the noise. 

Willow didn’t understand and looked back at Lef, puzzled.  "Too early for what?"

“Featherpenny hasn’t scored enough,” Lef explained, seeing her confusion.  “If Lily grabs the snitch now, they'll win the game, but lose the championship.  Watch.”  Willow followed the action and sure enough, Lily was following the snitch, but not reaching out for it at all.  She was simply swerving to prevent the Murgatroyd seeker from getting to it.  Meanwhile, Featherpenny had scored again, but had only made 140 points.  Lily has to hold them off for another sixteen goals, thought Willow.  At this rate, that will only take another....hour?

It only took about forty-five more seconds before the match ended.  Although Lily held off the Murgatroyd seeker for a while, he eventually managed to sneak around her and grab the snitch to end the match.  Now probably wouldn’t be the best time to tell Lily about the prophecy, thought Willow as she headed toward the bus.  Maybe she’ll be in a better mood next week.



The Monday after the final Quiddich game, they told Lily all about the dreams they had, the research they did on ‘Peshtang’, and the conversation with Miss Pyx.

“So are we getting expelled?” Lily asked, staring at them in amazement.

“Not you, Lily,” said Willow.  “Just the four of us who were sorted into Pathfinder, and we think we’re okay as long as we don’t do something incredibly stupid.”

Lily opened her mouth to say something, hesitated, and then asked “What about the prophecy you mentioned.  Does anyone know any more about that?”

“No,” said Willow.  “The only people who know it are the Chancellor and Miss Pyx, and she said they only know bits and pieces.”

There wasn’t much more they could do.  The final two weeks before the Christmas break passed without them accomplishing anything...either in class or on their own.  After classes ended on the final day, they said good-bye in the gallery before they headed their different ways for the holiday.  For the first time in her life, Willow wasn’t looking forward to Christmas break.  I wish we could just figure this out together, she thought as she boarded the bus.  But where will we start?

 

Christmas break was a full two weeks and with her mom also off from her job teaching, she and Willow were able to plan a two-day trip to New York, both to do some sightseeing and to re-visit Narrowway.  On the train ride into the city, Willow debated whether to tell her mom everything.  So what if I tell her about the possible expulsion?  It’s not like she can do anything about it...or me either for that matter.  It’s not like she knows any more than I do about prophecies and dreams and stupid magical rules.  All I’ll do is upset her.

Instead, she tried to put those issues behind her and enjoy the break and the trip to New York.  They spent a couple of days in the city, including a trip back to Narrowway.  After wandering through some of the magical stores and going to Bags by Bumble for her mom to buy the Granger purse that she had passed on the first time they came, they went to Narrowway Wands to see Miss Chantrix.

“What seems to be the issue, Ms. Carter?” Miss Chantrix asked when they went in to see her.

“Willow’s wand doesn’t seem to be working as well as it should,” said her mom.  I was hoping you could take a look.”

“Really?” questioned Miss Chantrix.  “Well, let’s see.”  She held out her hand for Willow’s wand.  Willow handed it over and she looked at it.  “Eleven and three quarter inches, white oak, griffon feather, solid.  It looks to be in good condition.” She handed it back to Willow.  “Now, swish and flick for me,” Miss Chantrix directed.  Willow flicked and red sparks shot from the end of the wand, just as they had done five months before.  “That seems okay to me,” Miss Chantrix said.  “Now, Willow, come over to the desk and levitate that empty box.”

Wingardium leviosa,” said Willow and with a swish and flick she concentrated on levitating the empty wand box.  Instead of barely floating above the table as had happened at school, the empty box immediately leapt off the table and floated across the room...just as she had been trying to do all year.

“It...it’s working!” said Willow in amazement.  “I haven’t been able to levitate anything all year and now I can do it!”  In her excitement, her concentration was broken and the empty box clattered to the floor.

“Try ‘lumos’,” Miss Chantrix said.  Willow cast the spell and the tip of her wand lit up like a Fourth of July sparkler, but with a constant glow.  Why does it work now? she wondered. 

“But it doesn’t work while you’re at Gampton Hall?” asked Miss Chantrix.

“No,” replied Willow.  “It hasn’t been working all year.  I can’t get any of my charms to work and my Alteration spells aren’t any better.”

“It is bizarre,” said Miss Chantrix.  “I’ve had three other students in here with the exact same issue.  They all say that their wands don’t work at Gampton Hall, but they all worked just fine while they were here.” 

I can guess who those other three were, thought Willow. 

“When did the problem start?” Miss Chantrix asked.

“Right at the beginning of the school year.”

“And just out of curiosity, what house did Amrose put you in?”

“He didn’t,” Willow responded.  “I was unsorted.  He said ‘Pathfinder’ when he was on my head.”

Miss Chantrix didn’t say anything, but instead put her hand on her chin, clearly thinking the problem through.  After a moment, Willow’s mom spoke up.  “What do you think is the issue?” she asked.

“Normally when someone’s wand doesn’t work, it’s because the wand has changed loyalty,” Miss Chantrix responded and then turned to Willow.  “Willow, no one has stolen your wand from you or has disarmed you in a fight, have they?”

“No ma’am,” said Willow.

“I didn’t think so,” said Miss Chantrix and she turned to Willow’s mom.  “Well Ms. Carter, there’s good news and bad news.  The good news is that there is nothing wrong with your daughter’s wand and there is nothing wrong with your daughter.  The wand has chosen Willow and it has not changed its allegiance.”

“And the bad news?” asked Willow’s mom.

“The bad news is that something happened at school that is preventing the wand from working the way it should while she’s there.”

“Would another wand work?” asked her mom.

“No,” replied Miss Chantrix.  “It’s not the wand.  It’s Gampton Hall.  The problem is there.”  She turned to Willow.  “I’ll write to Mr. Zolock and see what he can tell me about what happened.  Until then, just keep working at it.”  Willow and her mom left feeling more confused than before.  So if Miss Chantrix can’t help us...who can?

 

As they walked back to the Narrowway exit, Willow looked up to see the fountain outside of the bank and unconsciously rubbed her hand.  She remembered how upset Mr. Abrams was when she had dipped it in the water.  Could I be cursed? she thought.

 

"Mom?" she asked.  "Could we...ask someone in the bank about that statue?"

 

"Hm?" her mom replied.

 

"Mr. Abrams told me that it was bad luck to touch it.  Maybe I was cursed."  

 

"I don't think they'd have a cursed fountain in the middle of a busy intersection, Willow," she responded.  Then, seeing Willow's discomfort, she smiled and took her hand.  "Come on."  She led Willow up to the two goblins at the door to the bank.  "Excuse me sir.  What happens if someone touches the water in the fountain?"

 

"The statue of Morlock the back-stabber?" he barked at Willow's mom.  "Morlock the treasonous?"

 

"Uhhh...yes?" she replied.

 

"Nothing," the goblin replied with a wave of his hand.  "It's bad luck for a goblin to touch the traitor's statue.  You humans can sully yourselves however you wish."


Feeling only slightly better, Willow gave her mom's hand a little squeeze and they headed on their way back home.

 

 

On Willow’s first day back, she had to report to the Chancellor’s office again instead of staying for morning announcements.  She entered the office and saw Sib, Incheon, and Lef all waiting.

“Good,” said Mrs. Scheunemeyer, the secretary.  “You’re all here.  You can go in, the Chancellor is waiting for you.”  The three others stood up and joined Willow to go into the Chancellor’s office.  As they entered, he looked up from the papers on his desk.

“Ah!  Good morning and welcome back.  Please, sit down,” he said as he pulled out his wand and made each of the two wingback chairs in front of his desk double.  Each of the four of them chose a chair and sat down.

“I’d like to congratulate you on your performance so far,” the Chancellor said to them.  “Mrs. Black, Mr. Hendershot and Mr. Puterschmidt have all told me how much you’ve improved.”  Willow glanced at the others, who were looking back.  What is he talking about? she thought.  We haven’t improved at all.  There’s no way our teachers would have said so. 

“In fact, they have all recommended that you return to your regular classes”, the Chancellor continued as he reached behind to grab some papers from his desk.  “I’ve revised your schedules to reflect your original lessons.”  He started handing out the schedules, starting with Willow and ending with Incheon.  “Do any of you have any questions?”

Yes!  Why are you putting us back in regular classes when you know we can’t do magic?  But as soon as she thought it, she knew.

 “He knew perfectly well we can’t do magic,” Willow said to the others after they left the Chancellor’s office and were walking through the main hall.  “He’s canceling our Remedial Lessons because he wants us to fail.”

“But can he expel us for failing our exams?” asked Lef.  They all looked at Incheon.

“I don’t know,” said Incheon.  “There isn’t anything about that in the bylaws.”

“This means we can’t eat together either, doesn’t it?” asked Lef.

“Nope,” said Sib.  “We’re gonna have to scarf our lunch and meet up after.”

“So where should we meet?” Lef asked the group.

“The Alchemy lab where you and Lef met me during Lily’s game,” said Sib.  “It’s empty at lunchtime.  I’ll let Lily know in first period.”

The bell rang, signaling the end of the morning announcement period.  “See you then,” said Willow and she and Lef headed off to Herbology.



Willow was scarfing her lunch that day so that she could get down to the potions room to meet the others.  Halfway through her barbecue chicken sandwich, she heard a thumping noise just behind her and whirled to see that two senior Hammersmith boys had punted her bag to the far side of the Banquet Hall.

“Whoops,” one of them said.  “Sorry, newbie, it was an accident.” 

Willow got out of her seat and walked across the room to collect her bag.  Those jerks!  This whole initiation thing is so stupid.   Just because it’s always been this way doesn’t make it okay.  She was furious, but she knew she couldn’t do a thing about what those boys were doing.  Halfway through, Lily got up from her spot at a nearby table, picked up Willow's bag and handed it back to her. 

“Thanks Lily,” Willow said, peeking inside to see that everything was still inside.

“Do you want to finish your lunch?” she asked Willow.

“No,” she answered. “I’ve lost my appetite.”  The two of them left the banquet room and headed toward the main staircase to go down to the potions rooms on the second basement level.  As they passed the first basement they were startled by the Suncorn Ghost emerging from the wall in front of them.

Each of the houses at Gampton had its own house ghost.  Mr. Zolock had held an entire class on the Hammersmith House ghost, Bjorn Harstad, to explain when he had lived (Civil War), how he had died (dueling a wizard from Louisiana), and the general nature of a half-life after death.  Willow had seen very few of the ghosts during her first four months at Gampton Hall and the appearance of the Suncorn house ghost right in front of her came as a surprise.

“Oh, hello Espee,” said Willow.  “If you were trying to scare us, that was a great hiding place.”

“There are much better hiding places than that,” the Suncorn ghost softly replied.  Willow had never seen Espee up close and she was interested to see that the ghost appeared to be young - only in her twenties if she were alive.  Willow opened her mouth to ask how old she was when the ghost’s facial expression seemed to change.

“It’s here!” Espee cried.  “I’ll take you to it!” She drifted across the floor and disappeared through the wall on the opposite side of the stairs.  Willow looked back at Lily.

“I wonder what that was all about,” she said.

“Beats me,” Lily replied.

 

When they reached the potions classroom, Lef, Sib and Incheon were already there.  The five of them sat opening gifts from each other while Willow recounted what happened at lunch and the encounter with the Suncorn ghost.  She asked Incheon if he knew what was wrong with Espee.

Oh, yeah,” Incheon said, rolling his eyes.  “We all say that ‘Es-pee’ are her initials and it stands for ‘Split Personality’.  She does that all the time.  She’ll be perfectly fine one minute and then the next, she’ll get a crazed look in her eyes and start shouting about the thing that’s hidden.”

“So what’s hidden?” asked Lily.

“Who knows?  Every time someone tries to follow her, she keeps disappearing through walls, and if you ask her about it, she pretends to have no idea what you’re talking about.  It gets old after a while, so everybody just ignores her.”

Willow set aside the sugar-coated lemon bombs and the fizzing face-kickers that Incheon had given her, and picked up the gift from Sib.  Sib doesn’t have enough money to buy gifts, she thought as she looked at the box.

“Sib, you didn’t have to give me anything,” she said.

“It’s alright,” he replied.  “Just go on and open it.”

She opened the box and pulled out a wooden carving.  Looking at it, she recognized it as a pseudodragon.  It looks exactly like Fred.  She was amazed at the likeness, and there was also an elaborate design carved into his body.

“It’s beautiful,” she said.  “How did you get it to look exactly like him?” Willow asked, holding the carving up to the light to see the detail.

“Incheon took a picture for me,” Sib replied.  “Here.”  Sib took the picture out of his bag and handed it to Willow.  “I don’t need it anymore, so you can have it.”

Willow took the picture and saw Fred walking around in the frame.  When the Fred in the picture saw her, he started flying in loops, happy to see her.

“I didn’t know nomaj could do magic,” Incheon said when he looked at the magic kit that Willow had gotten him.

“They can’t,” replied Willow.  “At least not like us.  Most of it is slight-of-hand, but since we haven’t had much luck doing real magic, I thought you might find it fun.  Besides, since it isn’t from Three Dubs, it can’t be confiscated.”

“We should name our club,” said Lef, changing the subject.  “After all, if we’re going to hang out in a windowless basement for the rest of the year, we might as well have a group name.”

“What should our club be called?” asked Lily.

“How about ‘Pathfinders’,” suggested Willow.

“But that won’t include Lily,” said Lef.

“I don’t mind...really,” said Lily, who was blushing.

“Why don’t we use the first letters of our names to spell something?” said Lef. “I, S, W, L, L”

“Awesome.” said Incheon.  “We’ll be SWILL.  I’ve always wanted to be in a club named after liquid garbage.”

“How about ‘Pathfinders’,” suggested Willow again.

“Okay, fine,” said Lef.

“Aw, that’s no fun at all,” Incheon whined.



Although they no longer were able to eat lunch together, one thing that stayed the same over the next two months was the bullying.  If anything, it was getting worse since Willow was now one of only two first years who was still wearing the Newbie badge.  Late in February, Willow and Lily showed up five minutes late getting to Nomaj Studies class.

“Young witches, why weren’t you on time to class?” Mrs. McCracken asked them when they walked in, interrupting her in the middle of her lesson on household pets.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. McCracken,” started Willow.  “I got hit with a jelly-legs curse and I had trouble with the stairs.”

“You seem to be fine now,” replied the professor, eyeing her over the glasses that were perched low on her nose.

“Lily was able to unjinx me, but it took a couple of tries.  It’s not her fault.” Willow replied.

“Hmmph,” Mrs. McCracken grunted.  “Late is late.  That will be five points from both of your houses.”

“But...she was just helping me,” said Willow.  

“No more of that, young lady,” she said, cutting Willow off.  “You’ve interrupted this class enough with your tardiness.  Now take your seat.”

Sulking back to her seat, Willow sat down and spent the rest of the lesson thinking about how to exact revenge on her while Mrs. McCracken tried to convince the class that nomaj kept cockroaches as pets, housing them in roach motels; not realizing that roach motels were a brand of roach-killer.

 

That night, Willow dreamed again.  This time, she was standing near a pool of water in the forest glen.  The pool was surrounded by a series of huge stones arranged in a circle.  Like Stonehenge, she thought in the dream.  The Hunter was nowhere to be seen.  Although she had no control, she could see herself approach the pool and place her wand in the water.  Immediately, the wand split in half down the shaft and started to curl back on itself on both sides, forming wooden whirls and circles as the wand was destroyed.  No! she screamed in her mind.  Grab it!  Get it out of the water!  

She sat bolt upright in bed, waking herself up from the dream.  What was that all about? she thought.  Was that dark magic too?  It certainly seemed like it.  After a while, as she drifted back to sleep, it occurred to her that the hands that had put the wand in the water were tanned and muscular, unlike her own.  So whose hands were they?



“Are you telling Miss Pyx about it?” asked Lef the next morning in Herbology.

“The last time I talked to her about a dream, we almost got expelled.  I’m not telling anyone except the Pathfinders,” Willow responded, trimming some of the leaves off of the Asphodel plant they were growing inside the greenhouse.

The five of them had decided to meet up at the library instead of their potions room after eating lunch.  They were going to start looking to see if anyone had ever been expelled from Gampton Hall for having failed their first year exams.  Willow was puzzling through how to find out.  Maybe if I compare the number of people in first year classes with senior year classes seven years later, I can see if the numbers are the same.    



Willow walked out of the cafeteria with Incheon on their way to the library.  Halfway there, three Hammersmith girls on the way back from the restroom approached the two of them.

“Oh hello newbie,” said a tall, skinny, blonde Hammersmith fifth year.  “I wanted to practice a jinx I’ve been working on and you make the perfect practice target.”  She pulled out her wand and pointed it at Willow.

“Ladies,” piped up Incheon, stepping between Willow and the blonde Hammersmith.  “Can you turn me into a toad too?  There’s a girl I want to impress, but I’ll need to be more attractive than I am now.”

The blond girl smiled at the joke, “Sorry, noob.  You’re going to have to stay as ugly as you are.”  She lowered her wand and the three girls walked away.

“Wow, thanks,” said Willow.  “That was almost really bad for me.  How did you think of making a joke?”

“I’m always thinking of making a joke,” replied Incheon.  “Hey, what’s the difference between a warlock and a wizard?”

“I know...I know,” replied Willow.

When they reached the library, Willow recounted what had happened in the hallway.

“Why are the Hammersmiths so mean to you?” Lef said, sitting down next to her at a large table in one of the quiet corners.

“It’s tradition,” said Willow.  “Until I get this stupid badge off my uniform, they get to do whatever nasty thing they want to me.  I even talked to Mr. Zolock about it and he told me it’s a tradition that’s been going on forever.  It was even that way when he went here seventy years ago.”

“No,” said Lef, “I mean, why do they enjoy being so mean to you?”

“Oh.”  Willow remembered back to what happened last year in her nomaj school. “They enjoy the rush -- the power over others.  They think it makes them popular and they think that bullying gets them respect.”  There was silence for a moment.

“How do you know that?” asked Sib, who was sitting across from her.

Willow sighed.  I guess it’s time I told them.  I just hope they understand... 

“I told you that I had trouble with bullying in my nomaj school,” she said.  “I wasn’t in trouble for being bullied.  I was in trouble for being the bully.”
 

 


Chapter 17: A Walk in the Woods
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Sib was staring at Willow and Lily had opened her mouth to say something, but it was Lef who spoke up first.  “But you aren’t mean…” she said.

“I used to be,” Willow replied.  “I used to make fun of people who weren’t as smart or thin or as well off as I was.  I thought it made me popular, but it just made me a jerk.  I lost all of my friends afterwards and I kinda feel this is punishment for how I treated people all last year.”  

“I hope my brother figures it out like you did,” said Sib.  “Otherwise, he’s going to be in for one heck of a jinxing on my seventeenth birthday.”

“Why is that?” asked Lef.

“He’s a squib,” explained Sib.  The rest of them all nodded their heads, as if this explained everything.

“What’s a squib?” Willow asked.

“A squib is a person in a magic family that don’t have no magic,” Sib explained.  “He couldn’t go to Gampton Hall and I could and he has to get along as well as he can in nomaj school.  He’s angry and bitter and he takes out that on me whenever he can.  That’s why I come in all busted up all the time.”

“That’s awful,” Willow said.  “Don’t your parents stop it?”

“My ma ain’t around much, what with workin’ an all,” Sib said, “so my brother and I mostly take care of ourselves.  My pa ain’t around no more.”

“Mine isn’t either,” said Willow, suddenly remembering the day five years ago when her father left and didn’t come back.  

“That’s it!” exclaimed Lily, disrupting Willow’s thoughts.  Everyone in the library heard her.

“SHHHHH!” hushed Mrs. Moore, the Librarian.

“Sorry,” Lily said to the Librarian and then turned to the others.  “Listen, I have to go.  I think I know how to figure out if anyone’s been expelled.  I’ll catch up with you tomorrow.”  She grabbed her bag and headed for the library staircase, continuing to climb up until she went through the third story door to the Featherpenny tower.

The rest of them watched her go and then began to put away the books they had gotten out.  They don’t hate me, thought Willow as she put away the book she had been looking through.  I told them that I was a bully last year and they just shrugged and moved on...as if I just told them that I hated Quidditch.  Maybe I really have changed.  The four of them left the library after the bell rang and Sib and Willow headed to the Astronomy tower.  Willow noticed that Lily never made it to Astronomy class.  

On the way out of Astronomy, she and Sib had to walk down to the second level, over to the main staircase and then back up to the fourth floor to get to the Featherpenny and Hammersmith homerooms.  They were discussing Lily’s absence from Astronomy class and what it might mean.

“Well, I just hope she’s found something,” said Willow as they descended the north stairway.

“So do I,” said Sib.  “Just to keep my brother from lording it up on me if I was to get expelled.” 

“Expelled?”  Both Sib and Willow jumped as they thought they were the last to leave Astronomy tower.  They whirled around to see the Suncorn ghost behind them.

“Oh, hello, Espee,” said Willow.  “We were just saying that we will probably be expelled if we can’t pass the final exams, and at this rate, we’re not going to.”

“Nobody gets expelled from the Academy!” she exclaimed.  “If you’re magical, you’re magical - there is a place for everyone.  When I was Chancellor, I would never have allowed such nonsense.”

“You were Chancellor? said Willow. “But you’re so young.”

“Oh, thank you, dear.  I don’t feel a day over two hundred and fifty.”  She floated along beside them for a moment and then stopped.  Sib and Willow turned toward her.  Espee had her eyes wide open and was staring at them.

“It’s hidden!” she cried out.  “They wanted it destroyed, but I hid it!”

“Where is it hidden?” asked Sib.

“Somewhere Hammersmith and Murgatroyd would never look,” Espee said and then looked down at the floor.

“And where would they never look?” pressed Sib.

“Where would who never look, dear?” Espee said, changing back to her normal voice.

“Hammersmith and Murgatroyd?” said Sib.

“How should I know?”  Espee replied.  “I’m Suncorn.” Without another word, she floated away through the wall.

“Well, that was less than helpful,” said Willow.  “Now I see what Incheon was talking about.”

After getting her cloak from her locker, she met up with Sib to head downstairs for after-school activities.  Sib was in Herbology club with Lef, so he and Willow walked down the five flights of stairs to get to the basement level to walk out.  Lily was still nowhere to be found.

 

The next day after lunch, Lily told them that she still hadn’t had any luck, but she was still looking.  She still wouldn’t tell the others what she was doing – just that they didn’t have to do any more research.

“Fine with me,” said Incheon.  “That was exhausting.”

“But you never even opened a book,” said Lef, staring at him.

“Oh, I know, but just watching you guys work made me tired.”

“Are any of you setting up for the game?” Willow asked, changing the subject.  Gampton Hall was hosting the first game of the North American Quidditch Championship.  The first game was scheduled for that Saturday at their stadium and Miss Mercana had asked Willow to assist with setup that Thursday afternoon.  

“You mean the one against Canada?” asked Sib.  “Yeah, I was going to help.”  After the others responded, Incheon was the only one who said he hadn’t planned on coming.

“But it sounds like work,” he said.  “Can’t I just come and supervise?”

“It’s not like you’ll do any work even if you do come,” said Lily.

“I can work hard if I choose to,” said Incheon defensively.  “I just never choose to.”

 

The first of March felt like an extension of February.  It was a cold winter day, with overcast skies of low dark grey clouds which threatened to start snow showers at any moment.  After school activities were cancelled that afternoon to allow everyone in the school an opportunity to help set up before the game which was scheduled for the following Saturday.  Willow had never had everyone together after classes, so she decided to introduce them all to Corey.  She led the way down to the manticore enclosure and called out to Corey.  He came out of his pen and bounded toward her, but stopped short when he saw everyone else who was standing nearby.

“It’s okay, Corey,” Willow called to him.  “They’re with me.  They’re my friends.”  Corey slowly approached them.

“It…it understands you?” asked Lef.

“What?  Oh…yeah,” replied Willow.  “At least I like to think he does.  I come and talk to him every day.”  As Corey approached, the others backed away from the fence that separated them from the manticore.

“What’s wrong?” asked Willow, noticing them backing away.

“That’s a manticore,” said Incheon, pointing at Corey.  “It has a giant stinger on its tail, is completely resistant to magic and eats mages for breakfast…so nothing’s wrong – I just don’t want to be dead.”

“He won’t hurt you, he didn’t even hurt me when he stung me,” explained Willow.  “He’s just a cub.”

“You aren’t making me feel any better,” said Lily.  “I can see it just fine from back here.”  They watched Corey for a while and then Sib spoke up.

“Why is Espee beckoning to us from the woods?”

Looking up, Lef asked “Are you sure it’s us?”

“She’s looking right at us,” Sib said.  “And there’s nobody else on this side of the school.  Think we should check it out?”

“Normally, I’d say we’re wasting our time,” said Incheon, rubbing his hands together to keep them warm, “but since it means I can avoid work, let’s go.”

“But that’s out of bounds,” said Lily.  “we’ll get in trouble.”

“Espee is in there,” said Willow.  “We should just go see what she wants.”  They headed over to the edge of the woods, but as they got closer, Espee kept retreating further and further into the trees, all the time beckoning for them to follow.  At the edge of the woods, Lily stopped.  

“I can’t go,” she said.  “I’ll be in big trouble if I get caught.  You guys go without me.”  

“Okay,” Willow replied.  “We’ll come find you as soon as we get back.”  As Willow turned to follow the others into the woods, she thought that maybe Lily was right.  Perhaps charging into the North Woods after a mentally disturbed ghost isn’t the best idea.  But the others had already plunged in and Willow had to hurry to catch up.  They had to move quickly to follow the ghost.  They were almost running through the woods.  After five minutes of scrambling over branches and ducking under tree limbs, Incheon called forward to Sib, asking how much further they would have to follow.

“Just to where she’s standing” said Sib, who had taken the lead – easily finding his way among the trees while the others had all struggled to keep pace.  Willow was helping Lef up off the ground where she had fallen for the fourth time after tripping over her own feet.  Willow could see the ghostly shape of Espee next to a large rock wall just ahead.  They approached where the ghost was waiting and saw that she was standing facing a gigantic rock cliff as high as a two-story house.  As they got closer, Willow could see that she was actually looking into an opening in the wall that led into a cave.  

Sib approached the ghost.  “Espee?” he said.  “What are you looking at?”

Espee looked up as if she had been in a daze.  “Hello there,” she said.  “Oh, I see you’ve brought some friends.  Hello Incheon.” 

“Hello Espee,” panted Incheon.  “What is...this place?”

“I don’t know,” said Espee.  “But there’s something deep inside that cave that shouldn’t be here.  I can’t see it, even though I’ve tried.”

Willow looked at Sib.  “Do you think this could be the place she was talking about?” she asked him.  Sib nodded.

“Espee,” Sib asked.  “Is this the place that Hammersmith and Murgatroyd would never find?” 

“Hmmm?” replied Espy.  “No, I don’t think so.  The Chancellor was just out here last week and he was in Hammersmith, why?”

“Uhhh, no reason,” said Sib and then turned to the others.  “I can’t do lumos hardly at all.  How long can you guys keep your wand lit up?”

“Only a few seconds,” said Willow sadly.  Lef and Incheon said the same.  “It won’t be enough to explore that cave,” Sib decided.

“Okay,” said Incheon.  “Who can get us a lantern while not asking us any questions?”   

“Felicity has the best lumos spell in first year,” said Lef.  “She could do it.”

“No way,” said Willow.  “There is no way that we can ask her for a favor.”

“Who else can we ask?” said Sib.  “I ain’t met any of the older students who were willin’ to help us out.”

“What about a teacher?” said Willow.  “We could ask Miss Mercana.”

“Except the first thing she’ll ask is what we need it for,” said Incheon.  “I’m with Lef.  We need someone who doesn’t care what we’re doing.”

“I don’t like this at all,” said Willow.  I can’t imagine anyone I would want to ask less than Felicity.

 

They found Felicity outside of the stadium working on a huge sign to be hung from the seating area during the game.  “Sure,” she said when Willow asked if she would cast a permanent lumos spell for them.  “I’ll do it...for a dragot.”  She had an evil smile on her face.

“A dragot!” exclaimed Willow.  “It’s just a simple spell.” 

“Well, if it’s so simple, you can do it yourself.” 

“Where am I supposed to find a dragot?” Willow asked.

“I don’t care.  Why don’t you ask your Featherpenny boyfriend,” Felicity said to Sib with a look of disgust on her face.  Sib stepped up, ready to say something, but Willow got in his way.

“Come on,” she said to him.  “Let’s go.”

“So where are we going to find a dragot?” asked Lef, after they had walked away.

“Can we make a Galleon?” asked Willow.  “Lily might be able to transfigure one from a rock or something.” 

“This close to St. Patrick’s Day?” said Incheon.  “Felicity’s not an idiot, she’d be sure to check for fake gold.  We’d have to get our hands on some real gold to make it work.”

“I know where we can find some gold,” said Willow.  “Remember our first Care of Magical Creatures lesson?”  Everyone else looked at her blankly.  “Kivinoid poo?” she said, looking for a shred of recognition.  Incheon smiled.

“Willow, can you go and get us that gold?” he asked.

“I don’t know how I feel about stealing gold,” said Lef.

“Oh, we won’t steal it,” said Incheon.  “We’re just going to borrow it.”  He looked at Willow.

“Wait here,” Willow said and she sprinted off toward the Kivinoid enclosure.  The area was deserted when she got there, but she knew exactly where they kept the net to scoop up a lump of gold from the bottom of the enclosure like she had done before in Care of Magical Creatures Club.  Grabbing the snitch-sized lump of gold, she ran back to where the others were waiting.  Lily was with them, the others having found her and told her about the help they needed.

“Okay, now what?” Willow panted when she reached them, still trying to catch her breath.

“Now,” said Incheon.  “Lily, can you transfigure this lump of gold into a dragot shape?  Your spell will last longer than any of ours.”

Lily pulled out her wand and concentrated on the lump of gold.  She pointed at it, gripping her wand so tightly that it bent in the middle.  A red jet of light shot out of the end and the lump became a bright, shiny dragot.

“Perfect.  Let’s go,” Incheon said and headed back toward Felicity.



Chapter 18: The Wendigo
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“Here you go,” Incheon said to Felicity once they reached her again.

“Oh, right,” Felicity said back to him sarcastically.  “Like that’s not leprechaun gold.” 

“Go ahead and test it,” challenged Incheon, holding it out to her.

Detego!” said Felicity, waving her wand at the dragot.  

We’re doomed, thought Willow, holding her breath, this is where our plan falls apart.  But the coin didn’t change. 

“Okay, I’ll take it,” said Felicity and she held out her hand.

“Not so fast,” said Incheon, who closed his fingers around the coin and pulled back his hand.  “You have to hold up your end of the bargain.   

“Fine,” she said.  Felicity picked up a snitch-sized rock from the ground and set it on the table where she was working.  She pointed her wand at it and chanted “lumos perpetuus.”  The rock glowed like the tail end of a giant firefly.

Incheon put the gold coin in Felicity’s hand and took the glowing rock.  “A deal is a deal.  Thanks.”

“Whatever, losers,” Felicity responded, pocketing the coin and turning back to her sign.

“How are we going to put the gold back if you just gave it to Felicity?” asked Lef after they were out of earshot.

“Who said I gave the gold to Felicity?” said Incheon.  He held up his empty left hand, brushed his right hand across it and a shining gold dragot appeared in his previously empty hand.  He handed the coin over to Lef.

“So what did you give to her?” Lily asked him, still looking at the dragot in Lef’s hand.

“She got a little early St. Patrick’s day present.” said Incheon with a smile.

“But how did you switch it out for leprechaun gold?  You had the real one in your left hand the whole time,” said Lef, who handed the coin over to Willow.

“I’m glad you think so,” said Incheon, “and I’m glad Felicity thought so too.  I guess nomaj magic works after all.”  He winked at Willow.  

“Can we just throw it back into the Kivinoid enclosure looking like a coin?” asked Lily.

“Don’t worry,” said Willow.  “It’s already turned back into the nugget.”  She held it up to show to them.

“Sorry my spells don’t last very long,” said Lily.

“It was just long enough,” said Sib.  

 

After saying goodbye to Lily again and stopping by the Kivinoid enclosure to throw the gold nugget back in, they headed back into the woods.  The sky was getting darker as it got closer to sunset.  In the darkness of the woods, they found they could use the artificial light from the rock Felicity had created to get back to where the cave was.  Sib’s sense of direction in the woods was uncanny.  Willow didn’t know how they would ever find their way back to the cave, but Sib took them right there.  

He took the stone and led the way into the cavern.  It was rough and natural for the first fifty feet, but then the tunnel changed into straight walls and a flat ceiling which were obviously carved out of the rock.  This tunnel was made by someone, throught Willow, dragging her hand across the unnaturally cut side walls.  She could feel the bone-cold smoothness of them and it gave her the chills.   

“Maybe I should just wait with Espee,” she said and looked over her shoulder.  There was nothing but darkness behind her.  I’m not walking through that without a light.  “Never mind,” she continued, although the rest of them apparently weren’t paying attention to her.  Willow could see them standing still just ahead at a dead end.  There was no door or window and the tunnel just appeared to stop abruptly.  Sib was kneeling down near the ground.

“Take a look,” he called out to them.  “This footprint is half in and half out of this wall.  There must be a way through, but I don’t see anything.”  They all started looking around for a lever or some other contraption that might work the door.  The only thing they found was a small pink beetle.

“I’ve never seen a bug like this one,” said Lef.  “It is really pretty, though.”  Willow went over to look at it.  It looked like a large ladybug, but with bright pink wings instead of red.  While she leaned over to look closer, Incheon was using a quill from his bag to entice the bug to crawl into a small white box.  Willow remembered that the box was something he had received for Christmas.

“What is that box?” she asked him.

“Oh, it’s a Freshsaver,” he said, and then when Willow was still looking for further explanation he added, “It’s used to keep whatever’s put inside in suspended animation.  It’s supposed to be used for food so it stays fresh no matter how long it’s been inside, but nothing I have lasts long enough to go bad.  I can look him up later when I get home.”  The five of them continued to look around the cave for a few more minutes, but by then, Willow was shivering from standing around.

“Can we go back to the school before all the light is gone?” she asked, still creeped out by the cave.  “I still have to stop and pick up Fred.”  The others agreed and they started heading back.

“How often do you have to watch him?” asked Incheon as they reached the woods again. 

“Once a month,” said Willow. “But it’s not a big deal.  I like taking care of him.”

“Hm,” grunted Incheon.  They spent a moment looking for Espee, but she was nowhere to be found. 

 

It was getting darker by the time they returned to the edge of the woods and the first flakes of snow were drifting down from the sky.  Seeing a light on in Miss Mercana’s office, Willow waved the others in that direction.

“Come on, maybe we can ask Miss Mercana what that bug is while I’m getting Fred.”  Once they reached the door, Willow knocked and Miss Mercana let them in.

“Hello, Willow,” Miss Mercana said to her, seemingly in a rush.  “I was looking everywhere for you.  I need you to take Fred now.”

“Sure, Miss Mercana,” said Willow.  “But first, we found this bug and we were hoping you could tell us what it is.”  Incheon stepped forward and dumped the small pink bug from his freshsaver onto her desk.  Miss Mercana’s eyes grew huge and she grabbed a large textbook that was on her desk, raised it over her head and slammed it down on the bug as hard as she could.  Willow jumped when Miss Mercana had crushed the bug, causing little bits of bug guts to splatter over the desktop.  She opened her mouth, but wasn’t able to say anything because Miss Mercana started grilling them right away.

“Where did you find this!” she cried.  “Were there more of them?”  There was a note of panic in her voice.

“In...in the woods,” Willow managed to say.  “We only found the one.”

“Where in the woods did you find it?”  Miss Mercana said to them.  “Willow, this is incredibly important, so please tell me the truth.” 

“In a cave...a man-made cave.”

“And you only found one?  Are you sure?” she quizzed.

“Yes, but...but it was dark.” 

“I knew they were going to get out,” Miss Mercana was thinking out loud.  “I have to talk to Ruluff.”  She quickly went over to the window and whistled loudly.  Turning back to her desk, she scribbled something on a scrap of parchment.  When she turned around, it was just in time for an owl to land on her windowsill.

“I need you to take this to Ruluff Hendershot,” she told the owl.  “He should be in his office.  Quickly, please.”  She rolled up the paper and tied it to the owl’s leg. As soon as she let the owl go, it spread its wings and flew off the windowsill in the direction of the school.

“So what was it?” asked Willow, pointing at the book which covered the squashed remains of the pink bug.

Miss Mercana sighed and stared down at the floor, her arms planted on the desktop.  “It was a devourer,” she said.  “One of the nastiest enemies of the magic world.”  She looked up at the five of them.  “It is a small bug that is highly resistant to magic, but feeds off of magical power.  If they had gotten loose and started to breed, they would consume everything magical about this place...and I mean everything: books, plants, brooms, wands, and even the magical protections that hide the school from the nomaj.  This bug,” she pointed to the book that was on top of the crushed beetle, “has the potential to destroy all of Gampton Hall.”

“So if I had taken that bug home...” said Incheon.

“...it would probably have destroyed your home and every other magical home around you,” Miss Mercana finished and then glanced at the clock.  “You all have to go now,” she told the four of them.  “Promise me you will never go back to that cave again.”  She didn’t let up until they each had said “I promise.”  After handing Fred’s cage over to Willow, she held the door open and they all left the cottage.

The snow was really flying as they walked into the gathering darkness.  They all started firing off questions to each other as soon as they were well away from Miss Mercana’s office.

“Why was that bug in that cave?” 

“What was that cave for anyway?” 

“Do you think there could be more of them?”

“Incheon, what are you doing?”  This last question was from Willow, who was watching Incheon pull a long pink stringy thing from his backpack.

“I want to know what’s going on,” he said.  “Besides, this is way better than doing work.”  Incheon stopped and started sneaking back towards Miss Mercana’s building, moving from shadow to shadow.  In a moment, he disappeared in the falling snow.

“What’s he doing?” Willow asked Sib.

“He’s got extendable ears with him,” Sib explained.  “He’s going to use them to listen in on the conversation.”

“Extendable ears?” said Willow.

“Yeah,” Sib replied.  “They're from Three Dubs.  They let you listen in on people talkin’ from pretty far away.”  Willow remembered the first day of school when Norbert had used the same long pink stringy thing to hear the password.  So that’s how he did it, she said to herself.

Willow left the others standing near the blink dogs’ pen while she took Fred up to the school.  She stashed him in a nearby Alteration classroom and then headed back to meet the others.  They watched Miss Mercana’s office door while they waited for Incheon.  Willow saw a shadow enter the door and assumed it was Mr. Hendershot.  She could see him and Miss Mercana talking animatedly to each other through the window.  Miss Mercana was waving her arms around and was obviously very upset.  Two minutes later, she saw the office door open and Miss Mercana left, heading into the woods through the snow in a hurry.  Mr. Hendershot left a moment later and headed back toward the castle.  

“What do you think that was all about?” asked Lef.

“Beats me,” said Willow, “but Incheon is headed this way.”  When he had caught up, they all asked him what he had heard.

“Well,” began Incheon.  “I didn’t hear the conversation very well because every time a snowflake hit the ears, it made a crackling sound.  But I heard Miss Mercana tell him that the devourers had gotten loose and that Mr. Hendershot was going to have to deal with it because she didn’t have time.  Then he said something about how the Chancellor was going to be in heap of trouble over this and Mr. Hendershot thought he even might be removed.  Then she said that if the Chancellor left then she’d have to go too since nobody else would help her.”

“Help her what?” asked Lef.

“Dunno,” said Incheon, shrugging his shoulders.  “After that, there was some more that I couldn’t hear and then she left in a hurry and headed off into the woods.”

“Well, if she needs help, then maybe we could do it,” said Willow.

“But she made us promise to stay away from the cave,” said Lef.

“She didn’t head toward the cave,” said Incheon.  “She went off in a different direction.”

“Come on,” said Willow and she moved off into the snow shower.  Sib ended up leading the way since he still had the glowing stone that Felicity had enchanted.  They made it to the edge of the woods in time to find the tracks that Miss Mercana had left in the snow.  

“The snow’s letting up, so we should be able to follow these,” said Sib, looking up into the sky.  Without waiting for the others, he began tracking Miss Mercana through the woods.  Willow quickly lost her sense of direction, but continued following the path they were making through the forest, all the time thinking about what had just happened.  First we follow a half-crazed ghost, find a hidden cave, discover a bug that eats magic, and now we’re going back into the woods.  We had better be able to find Miss Mercana before we find something even worse...or I freeze to death.

“You’re shivering,” Lef said to her.

“Yeah...aren’t you?”

“No, of course not, but...oh, I forgot.  Our parents put a warmth charm on our cloaks, so they keep us warm and dry even in a snowstorm.  Here, take this for a while.”  Lef unbuttoned her cloak and held it out to Willow.

“But what are you going to do?” asked Willow, reaching for the cloak with shivering hands.

“I’ll wear yours for a while and then we’ll switch out,” Lef responded.  Willow took off her cloak and handed it over to Lef and swung Lef’s cloak around herself.  It was amazing, like being wrapped in an electric blanket in front of a warm fire.

“Th...thanks,” Willow said to her, still shivering, but getting warmer already.  Lef swung Willow’s cloak around herself and continued on.  They kept following Sib for another five minutes while the last remaining light from the dusk was disappearing.  Willow looked up and could see glimpses of stars as the clouds began to break up.  Sib stopped so suddenly that the rest bumped into each other behind him.  Incheon, who was the last one in the line called forward.

“What’s up Sib?” 

“Shhhh!” hushed Sib.  Then he whispered back to them.  “The tracks disappear just ahead at that gate.”  They followed him as he approached a gated area.  Willow looked inside and saw an enclosure, very similar to the one that held the blink dogs and the salamanders.

“There!” whispered Sib, pointing into the darkness at a large black shape lumbering around inside and he held the glowing rock up in the air.  It was starting to lose its enchantment.

Willow looked in the direction that Sib was pointing, and all at once, the full moon came out from behind the clouds, showing a large reddish-brown bear lumbering toward a small cave.  

“I didn’t know we had bears.” she said to the others.

“You didn’t know we had devourers, either,” Incheon responded.

“But bears aren’t magical,” Willow said.

“The tracks end here at the gate,” said Sib.  “She went in here, but she hasn’t come back out...at least not by this way.”

“Miss Mercana!” called Willow, startling the others.  Willow looked at them.  “We did come here to find her.”  Willow called out two more times, but there was no response.  

“Sib,” said Lef.  “Do you see her anywhere in the pen?  Maybe the bear got her.”

“No,” responded Sib after looking around the pen for a few seconds.  “She ain’t in there.  She musta left by another gate.  I’d go lookin’ but the lumos spell is wearin’ off.”  He held up the rock that had lost most of its glow and chucked it into the woods.

“It’s getting late” said Lef to the group and then turned to Willow.  “We’d better head back or the late bus will leave without you.”

As they walked back toward the school, they could just follow their tracks through the snow by the light of the full moon.  After a minute, Sib stepped aside and picked up a large broken evergreen branch and started dragging it through the woods behind him.

“Yinz go ahead,” he called.

“Why are you dragging that through the woods?” Willow asked him.

“We aint’ supposed to be in the North Woods, so I’m coverin' our tracks just in case.”

Willow could see that their footprints were being obliterated by the evergreen branch that Sib was dragging along on the ground.  She was wondering what happened to Miss Mercana and why she had to run off in such a hurry.  I hope she’s not in trouble over the devourers.  I wonder what would have happened if we didn’t find that cave?  Would that bug have gotten out and destroyed the school?                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               
She was jolted out of her thoughts when, halfway back, Lef pulled up abruptly.  “Look at this!” she exclaimed, bending down to look at a couple of plants poking through the snow.  “Dittany and motherwort!  Incheon, give me your freshsaver.”

Incheon reached into his cloak and handed over the white case.  Lef plucked the leaves off the plants and placed them inside before she handed it back.  “You almost never find it this early in the year” she said.  “Our luck.”

Willow heard the snap of a branch nearby.  “Did you hear that?” she asked.

“Hear what?” Incheon said.

“I heard it,” said Sib.  “Somethin’s movin’ out there.” 

Willow looked at Lef and whispered.  “You never told me what that creature was that they saw in the North Woods.  You know, from the sorting.”

“You mean the Wendigo?” whispered Lef back.  “I’m sure it wouldn’t be this close to the school, it’s supposed to be really reclusive.”

“What’s a Wendigo?” asked Willow.

“It’s a shape-changer that eats people,” said Incheon matter-of-factly.

“It’s a what!” exclaimed Willow.  “Why didn’t you mention that the first time we went in the North Woods?”

“SHHHH!" hissed Sib.  "We need to move,” He was staring intently into the dark woods.

“What do you mean?” asked Incheon.

“I mean we need to move, now!” Sib yelled, turning and starting to rush toward them.  “Run!”

Willow turned and started running after the others, Sib right on her heels.  Incheon was helping Lef, who had stumbled over the end of her cloak and had her legs tangled up.  He grabbed one of Lef’s arms and dragged her upright.  As Willow ran, she kept glancing over her shoulder.  She could see bushes move and heard twigs snap off to her right, but the light was too dim to see what was chasing them.  

“Faster!” yelled Sib, who still right behind Willow.  Willow could hear the sound of Incheon and Lef crunching through the snow that still blanketed the dead leaves.  She kept her eyes on the ground, where she could follow their footprints in front of her.  Even though she was running as fast as she could, Sib was still right on her heels.  Willow’s lungs were burning as she sucked in the cold air.  

Suddenly, she lost her footing and went sprawling sideways on the forest floor, her hands plowing through the snow cover and dead leaves.  Willow saw everyone stop ahead of her.  Not like this, she thought.  Don’t let me die here!

“Keep going!” Sib yelled to the others as he came back to where Willow was lying on the ground, trying to push herself up.  “Can you run?” he asked, holding out his hand to help her.

“Yes, I’m...I’m alright,” said Willow, taking Sib’s hand to pull her up.  They took off again, following the footprints of the others.  They heard the snapping of a branch not more than ten feet away and Willow thought they were caught for sure.  She had never run so fast in her life, throwing caution to the wind and going flat out despite the snow, branches and leaves that littered the path.  And yet as fast as she ran, the cracking of branches and rustling of the pursuit was always just behind her and Sib.

Her lungs were straining almost to bursting when Willow finally saw the edge of the woods ahead.  She caught a glimpse of two figures just beyond the treeline and Willow could tell right away that something was wrong.  Someone was lying on the ground face up and the other was bending down to help.  Sib ran in front of Willow and headed straight toward them.  As Willow burst from the edge of the woods, she saw Sib bearing down on the two others.

“I’ve got her!” yelled Sib to the standing figure ahead.  “Go!”

In the moonlight, Willow saw that the standing figure was Incheon and he started backing away, ready to turn.  In one motion, Sib reached down, grabbed Lef’s leg and lifted it, rolling on the ground right at her middle and pulled her up on his back.  He got up from his knees and kept on running, Lef perched on his shoulders with legs on one side and head on the other. 

They were headed towards the school, but Incheon collapsed to the ground, gasping for breath just past the blink dogs’ pen.  The blink dogs meanwhile were barking and blinking away at the end of their pen nearest to the forest.  Looking back, they didn’t see any movement from within the woods.  Willow stopped with the rest of them, her hands on her knees, trying to catch her breath while she watched the trees.  Sib had set Lef down on the ground and was breathing heavily.

“What did...you see?” Willow asked Sib in between breaths.

“Eyes,” replied Sib.  “I saw...grey glowing eyes.”   He stopped and stared at something that was in the direction of the woods.  Willow turned and watched a small object fly through the air.  It landed at their feet, plowing a path through the accumulated snow.  It was a rock.  A rock that still had just a bit of its glow left.
 

 


Chapter 19: A Former Chancellor
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“I’m never going back...in the North Woods again...for as long as I live,” said Willow in between breaths as they stood in the school lobby after breaking into a second panic-stricken run that had carried them up to the back doors.

“I don’t think I will neither,” Sib said, staring through the night to the edge of the forest.  The blink dogs had stopped barking, but were still on the far end of their enclosure, pacing to and fro.  “At least I know I wasn’t seein’ things.  Somethin’ followed us through the woods.”

“Was it...the Wendingy?” asked Willow, stumbling over the name.

“Wendigo?  answered Sib.  “Dunno.  I never really saw anything except the eyes, but I think that was enough for me.”

To Willow, it seemed like half a day had passed since they first saw Espee by the manticore’s pen, but it was only six-thirty.  They helped Lef over to the gallery.  She still couldn’t put any weight on her ankle, but she insisted that they send her home through the Firejump Network instead of tracking down the school nurse.  

After watching her disappear in the green flames of the fire, Willow, Incheon and Sib headed out of the front door of the school to where everyone else had been setting up for the past two hours.  They found Lily and helped her finish hanging a few banners while they told her all about the cave, the conversation with Miss Mercana and the flight through the woods.  When they told her about the glowing stone being thrown back at them, she stood amazed.

"I didn't know it was really real...I thought it was just a story to scare kids," she said.

“Somethin’ picked up that rock and threw it back at us,” replied Sib.  “And it wasn’t no story.”

“It did manage to scare kids though,” said Willow.  “I thought I was going to get caught for sure.”

“So shouldn’t we tell somebody about it?” asked Lily.  “You know, that the Wendigo is near the school?”

“And get in trouble for going out of bounds?” questioned Incheon.  “Yeah, that’d be brilliant.  Then we’d be scared stupid and get expelled for it too.”

“So what are you going to do?” asked Lily.

Willow looked at Sib and Incheon, who just shrugged.  “I guess we’re not going to do anything,” she said, picking up a corner of a banner to help hang it.  “Except avoid the North Woods for the rest of our lives.”

As they were finishing with the last of the decorations, they headed off in different directions to go home.  Lily, Incheon and Sib headed off toward the gallery to take the Firejump Network home.  Willow was going to board the late bus at seven but wasn’t the last to leave.  As a matter of fact, when she went inside to get Fred, there seemed to be a large number of unfamiliar wizards and witches milling around the school lobby talking in excited whispers.

I don’t recognize any of these people, she thought.  Is there another official visit going on that I don’t remember?  Unable to come up with any reason why so many adults would be pouring into the school on a Thursday night, she put it out of her mind and made her way to the bus.

When she got home, her mom was engrossed in a live news broadcast on TV.  Willow read the words “Live: Meteor explosion in Pennsylvania” on the bottom of the screen and asked her what was going on.

“Apparently there was a meteor explosion south of Harrisburg,” she replied.  “There didn’t appear to be any damage on the ground, but this is a great idea for a class topic at school.  Maybe a few of my students will even stay awake for it.”  She smiled and winked at Willow and then turned back to the screen.

“How was your day?” Willow’s mom asked in an absent way, her attention focused on the news.

Willow thought for a moment about what to tell her mom.  Well, mom - first we followed a mentally disturbed ghost into the out-of-bounds woods, found a cave, stole some gold, cheated a fellow student out of a spell, explored the cave, found an incredibly dangerous bug, eavesdropped on a teacher, followed her back into the out-of-bounds woods and then got chased by a flesh-eating monster back to the school grounds.

Instead, Willow set Fred on the kitchen floor and muttered “fine.”

 

  “You know I’m going to the game today, right?”  Willow said that Saturday.   “Are you okay with me leaving Fred here?  We’re supposed to keep him all weekend.”

“Sure,” her mom replied.  “The neighbor’s dog keeps peeing in our yard, so I was hoping Fred might eat him.”  For a minute, Willow wasn’t sure whether her mom was joking.  “We’ll be fine,” Willow’s mom reassured her.  “Just leave out his food and try to be home in time for dinner.”

When Willow arrived at the school, Lily and Incheon were already there.  Since both of them lived in Gampton, they had just flown on brooms from their houses, which were only about a mile away.  Sib had mentioned that he couldn’t make the game when he talked to them the previous day.  Lef arrived by floo powder shortly afterwards and met them in the entrance hall, walking without a limp.

“How’s your ankle?” asked Willow.

“Fine, thank you,” replied Lef.  “It’s good to have a grandmother who works at Nimmick.” 

“Nimmick?” said Willow.  “What’s that?” 

“The National Magical Medical Center,” replied Lef.  “N-M-M-C.  It’s the hospital for magical injuries.  My grandma was able to fix up my ankle.  It was just sprained.”  She handed Willow her cloak from the previous day.  

“Oh,” exclaimed Willow.  “I completely forgot about it.”  She took off her cloak, which she didn’t remember until that instant was really Lef’s.  They exchanged and then the four of them headed for the stands.  They found a good spot among other Gampton Hall fans to cheer for their school against Petite Ile Marecageuse, which Willow figured out was from Canada by listening to the accents of the visiting spectators.  After sitting in the biting cold for an hour, Willow was surprised to find that although her cheeks and nose were getting frostbitten, the rest of her was quite toasty.

“Did you add a layer to my cloak or something?” she asked Lef, who was sitting next to her.

“Like it?” she responded.  “I asked my mom to put a charm on it so it stays warm.”

“Wow.  Thank you,” said Willow.  “But she didn’t put a charm on my nose and ears, so I think I need to go inside for a while and warm up.”  

“Thanks for suggesting it,” said Incheon.  “I didn’t want to be the first one to bail.” The Gampton Hall team, which was mostly the Hammersmith team with one Featherpenny chaser was being pummeled by the team from Canada and when they left the score was one hundred and forty to fifty.

Once inside the main hall, they went to the conservatory and sat down among the plants to warm up.  There was a cart placed nearby serving beverages and Lef brought them four hot chocolates.  The four of them were alone and they were able to talk about what had happened the previous day.

“Espee isn’t crazy,” said Willow to Incheon.  “She knew there was something terrible in that cave and she led us to it.”

“Okay, but what about all the ranting and raving?” Incheon responded.

“I don’t know,” Willow responded puzzling over what had happened.  “She said she was Chancellor, do you know when?” 

“No idea,” said Incheon, finishing his hot chocolate in two gulps.  “When did she say that?”

“Earlier this week.  Sib and I were walking from Astronomy to our homerooms when she said that nobody was expelled when she was Chancellor.” 

“And did she start ranting about the thing that’s hidden?” asked Incheon.

“Well, yeah,” admitted Willow.

“Right,” he said.  “That’s why I wouldn’t put too much faith in anything she said. But if you’re all hot and bothered about it, you can look for her on the list of Chancellors.” 

“What list of Chancellors?”

“Come on,” Incheon said, standing up and heading toward the gallery.  About halfway down the gallery hall and across from the fireplaces was a large plaque that had all the school’s Chancellors on it.  Looking at it, Willow saw that there had been about thirty of them over the years.

“There’s no Espee up there,” said Incheon, glancing at it.  “There’s no ‘Split Personality’ either.”

“Unless ‘Espee’ isn’t her name,” said Lef, spilling some of her hot chocolate down her front while trying to talk and drink at the same time.   

“Hm,” muttered Willow, handing Lef a napkin.  “Maybe it’s her initials: ‘S.P.’  She said she didn’t feel a day over two hundred and fifty, so it would be before 1800.”  Willow walked over to the list and started running her hands over the names, carved into the golden surface of the plaque.  “No...no...man’s name...no...wait.”  Willow’s finger hovered on the Chancellor for a single year.  “Sally Bedford, 1764.  S.B...it’s not S.P., it’s S.B., but if you say it fast, it sounds like ‘Espee’.  I bet Espee is Esbee - for Sally Bedford.”

“So...” Lef asked, “now what?”

“Why was she the only Chancellor on this list who served for one year?” asked Willow.  

“I’ll see what I can get from her gravestone,” said Incheon.

“Her gravestone?”

“Yeah, all the early Chancellors are buried in Gampton,” he replied.  “I’ll go over tomorrow and take a picture.” 

As they stood there, they heard a roar from the stadium that could only mean that one team or the other had caught the snitch.  Recognizing that the end of the game meant they would all head home, they said their goodbyes and decided to get together at lunchtime on Monday in the library to see what Incheon had found. 



Instead of the photograph that Inchon had took, they sat around Sib, who had come in with fresh bruises and his arm in a sling.  None of them had seen him in classes before lunch.

“What happened?” they all asked him.

“Same thing that always happens, my brother was wailin’ away at me as he always does, but then he pushed me off the front porch and I landed on my arm and broke it.”

“Did he say he was sorry?” asked Lef.

“Ha!” laughed Sib.  “That’ll be the day.  Naw, he didn’t say nothin’ to me, but he didn’t touch me or talk to me the rest of the day yesterday, so I kinda figure he knew he went too far.  I asked the nurse to fix the bones this mornin’, but my shoulder’s still pretty sore so she’s havin’ me wear this stupid sling around.”

After Sib’s explanation, they brought him up to speed on what they had discovered about Esbee the previous day.  Incheon pulled out the photograph he had taken and showed it to them.  It showed a simple white headstone with an inscription:

 
Sally Bedford
Born December 5, 1740
Died June 15, 1764
Head of Suncorn House 1760-1764
Sixth Chancellor of Gampton Hall Academy 1764


 

“Wow,” said Lef.  “She was only 24 years old.”

“I have a question,” said Willow looking at the others.  “Is it rude to ask a ghost how they died?”

“I don’t know,” responded Lef.  “I’ve never tried asking the Murgatroyd Ghost anything.”

“No, it isn’t rude,” answered Lily.  “It’s like asking a teacher how they came to be at Gampton Hall.  I’ve asked the Librarian.”

“But the librarian isn’t dead,” said Willow.  “She’s right over there.”  Willow nodded her head toward Mrs. Moore who was busy re-shelving books.

“The Librarian is the name of the Featherpenny ghost,” explained Lily.  “She mostly stays on the upper levels of the library or in our lounge.”

“Oh, right” replied Willow, remembering now.  “So how did she die?” 

“Kinda sad, really,” replied Lily.  “She got an infection from a paper cut and didn’t get it looked at in time.”

“Oh, that’s terrible,” said Lef.

“No, that’s ironic,” said Incheon.  “The Librarian was killed by a book.”  Lily frowned at him.  

“The next one of us that sees Esbee should ask her how she died,” Willow said to the others.  “Maybe that will give us a clue about the hidden archive.”

“Or maybe...” said Incheon.  “Maybe we’ll find out that we’re just chasing ghosts.”

“Since we’re not going anywhere else,” said Lef holding up her wand.  “We might as well give it a try.” 

It didn’t take long to find her.  Willow, Sib and Lily were leaving Alchemy when they saw her on the way toward the main staircase.  The resulting discussion was less than Willow had hoped for.  

“I can’t say I remember, exactly,” Esbee said.  “One minute I was in the basement hallway outside the Suncorn homeroom covered in ashes and then ‘poof’ here I am...”  She then got that glazed look on her face and said something else which neither Willow, Sib nor Lily understood and disappeared through the wall.

“What was that word she said?” asked Willow.

“I don’t know,” replied Lily.  “It sounded like ‘imperious’, but I don’t know what that means.”

For the rest of that week, Willow thought about all the places around the school that Hammersmith and Murgatroyd wouldn’t go.  She ruled out all of the classrooms and the common spaces, the teacher’s offices and the gardens.  She thought for a while it might be the Suncorn homeroom.  That was where Esbee had last remembered where she was before she died, but Incheon said he knew for a fact that teachers used their homeroom all the time as a shortcut to get out to the gardens - including the Chancellor, who they knew was in Hammersmith.  



“Just ‘flick and swish’,” said Mr. Hendershot, directing Willow toward the pillow she was trying to levitate in her Thaumaturgy class.  Willow actually felt somewhat sorry for him.  He had tried everything he could think of to help Willow and Lef ever since they came back to regular classes.  Everyone else in the class besides her and Lef had moved on to levitating desks and other heavy objects.  Willow concentrated on the pillow and directed her wand at it.

“Wingardium leviosa!” she said as she flicked and swished her wand at the pillow.  Willow concentrated with all her might to make the pillow lift up in the air.  After a second, one side of the pillow started to rise in the air and then it just flopped over.  Willow had previously told him about her experience in Miss Chantrix’s shop, so he knew she could do it, he just didn’t know how to make it work here at Gampton Hall.  

“Well,” said Mr. Hendershot with a sigh.  “Just keep working at it you two.”  After he left, Willow and Sib were approached by Felicity, Marigold, and Felicity’s other friend, Francesca.

“Oh, I see you’re still having trouble with levitation,” said Felicity with a sneer.  “Just like everything else.  Perhaps you belong in the kitchen with the other nomaj.”  As they walked away, Willow turned to Lef.

“I wonder...” she said.
 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 



Chapter 20: Ashes
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“Lef, do the Murgatroyds ever go into the kitchen?” Willow asked as the two of them walked from Thaumaturgy to Alteration class.

“Not that I know of,” Lef replied.  “They usually stay away from nomaj - but so does everyone else.  Why?”

“Because when Felicity spoke of the kitchen with such disdain, it made me wonder if that might be the place that Hammersmith and Murgatroyd would never go,” she said.  “I think it might be worth a try.”

“I don’t know,” responded Lef.  “It seems to me that somebody from those houses has been in there.”

“Do we have any other leads?” asked Willow.

“No,” Lef responded with a sigh.  “I suppose not.  When do you want to go?”

“Right after school.  We’ll wait until the Suncorn homeroom clears out and then head into the closet.”

Willow relayed the plan to Lily and Sib in Alchemy class, but she was too loud about it and Felicity, a table away, overheard her.

“That’s off limits, you know,” said Felicity.  “You’re going to make Hammersmith lose points.” 

“Look, we just have to get in there for a minute,” explained Willow.

“Off limits, noob” repeated Felicity.  “Don’t you understand the rules?”

“Fine.  We won’t go,” Willow responded.  Felicity would probably rat us out if she could, she thought.



“But you needed to get in there,” whispered Lily to her when class was over and Felicity left the room.

“I do, but I just had to get her off our back,” Willow explained.  “I’m meeting the others in fifteen minutes.  You don’t have to go, Lily.” 

“It’s okay,” she replied.  “I want to go.”

The basement corridor was deserted.  Incheon gave them the all-clear that the Suncorn homeroom was empty and Lef confirmed that the Custodian was on the second basement level.  The nurse’s office was dark and vacant.

“The coast is clear,” said Lily.  “Let’s go.”

They all piled into the storage compartment under the south stairs.  Willow was the last one in, and before she closed the door, she was sure she caught movement from the hallway outside.  Is somebody there? she thought, staring to the end of the hallway to see what it was.

“What’s the matter?” whispered Lef.

“Nothing,” responded Willow after another moment.  “I thought I saw something, but I’m probably just nervous.”  A second after Willow closed the door, the interior doorway to the kitchen opened up.  After going through, they all stared around the kitchen.  It looked different without the lights on.  Willow tried the electric light switch on the wall, but it didn’t work.  Moving into the room, they found that there was enough light coming in through the windows for them to find their way around.  To Willow it looked the same as the first time she and Lef had been in here, except for the quiet of the empty room. 

“It could be anywhere in here,” said Lily.  “There must be a thousand drawers, cabinets, and closets.  Where would we even start?” 

“What was here in 1764?”  Sib chimed in.  

“Man, I don’t know how old this stuff is,” Incheon said, looking around. “These cooker things could be hundreds of years old.”

“Not quite hundreds,” Willow said, smiling.  She saw that she was the only one who knew anything about a nomaj kitchen.  “Most of these things were made in the last twenty years.  Not much made in the nomaj world would last for that long.  Maybe an old farmhouse would, but it’s usually just the stone fireplace that...” she trailed off.  “An old fireplace - look around the walls for where that would have been.”

They split up and looked around the perimeter of the room.  It was Sib who ended up finding it.  “Over here,” he called to them.  “Look behind this big silver box.  I can make out the stone outline.”

“Great, now we just need to move a five hundred pound metal freezer,” said Willow, deflated that she had found what she was looking for, but unable to reach it.

“Easy, just use Wingardium Leviosa.  You know, flick and swish.”  Incheon joked.  None of them had so much as lifted a book, let alone a five hundred pound freezer.

“I think I can do it,” said Lily.  “I’m still struggling with my charms, but I’ll give it a try.”

Willow watched as Lily closed her eyes and gripped her wand so hard, she nearly bent it to the breaking point.  “Wingardium leviosa,” Lily called; flick and swish.  The freezer twitched and slowly lifted about an inch off the floor.  As Lily was struggling to hold the spell, Incheon and Sib quickly grabbed the freezer and shifted it to the side just enough to squeeze through the gap.  
“Clear!” called Sib, and the freezer dropped to the floor with a bang.  Lily sat down on the floor - completely exhausted.  Lef ran over to her to make sure she was alright.  

“I’m okay,” Lily said to her.  “I just need a minute.”

Willow squeezed through the gap to stand behind the freezer.  She was in a space about eight feet wide, four feet deep and four feet high walled in with stone on all sides.  She had to stoop to not hit her head.  The stones on the floor and side walls were black with the soot and ash of countless fires, but when she brushed against one, her hand came away dusty, but clean.  

“What are we looking for exactly?" said Sib, who followed her in.  Incheon stood outside looking in as there wasn’t enough room for more than two.

“I’m not sure,” said Willow, “and since we can’t do magic to save our lives, let’s hope it’s a loose stone or something that’s hiding the archives.”

They began pushing on stones randomly and soon decided to work methodically to wiggle each one.  This is going to take forever, Willow thought, working her way up from the floor.  There has to be a better way.

Standing on the far side of the freezer Incheon looked in and said “I still say that we’re chasing ghosts.  Look, in hundreds of years of lighting a fire in a fireplace, you would think they would touch quite a few of those stones.  How would you know which ones?”

“You’re right.” Willow replied, dropping her hands to her sides.  “They would have to clean this fireplace and would have touched every stone in it.  It can’t be that... “ 

“What if it were two?” asked Incheon with a smile. "Or maybe you have to touch every stone simultaneously."

“I get it,” Willow said, “they’d have to be on opposite sides, so that nobody could accidentally touch them at the same time.” 

"Right..." said Incheon.  "Um, I'm going to go make some good use of my time."  Willow watched him walk away from the opening.

Willow and Sib began their search, this time from the top.  Within two minutes they had it, but only by looking on the outside of the fireplace.  Just below the mantel, near the edges of the fireplace, they both touched a stone that looked like a pentagon.  The stones began to glow and the bricks in the bottom of the back wall of the fireplace rearranged themselves into a small opening, about two feet square.  

“Well,” said Sib.  “We found something...but what is it?”

“For the ashes, maybe?”, guessed Willow.  “...covered in ashes...” she muttered to herself, remembering what Esbee had said.  She got down on her hands and knees to peer through the small doorway into the blackness.  The room beyond it was dark and little light from the kitchen penetrated.  “We’ll have to go in.” 

“Uh, Ladies first?” said Sib, staring questioningly at Willow.

“Here, let me through,” said Lily as she wiggled her way into the recessed fireplace.  “I’m the only one of us that can keep lumos going for more than a few seconds.  Taking a few deep breaths, Lily closed her eyes and said “lumos”.  The tip of her wand flickered into life.  Only as bright as candlelight, it began to dim as she spoke up.  “I have to concentrate on the light.  One of you will have to come with me to look around.”  She sat down at the edge of the opening and crawled inside on her hands and knees.

Willow looked at Sib.  “Rock, paper, scissors?” she suggested.

“Rock, paper, what?” replied Sib, but Willow had already followed Lily and was crawling after her, into the darkness.

Once inside, Willow’s eyes adjusted quickly to the dim light emitted by Lily’s wand.  The room was a large, circular stone-walled area.  She could barely make out the ceiling high above, but it must have been over fifteen feet high.  She followed Lily, who was slowly walking around the room, concentrating on the light.  Willow could see that she was starting to shake from the effort.  Willow looked down and noticed that the floor was covered in a thin layer of ashes.  She couldn’t figure out what this room was, but quickly forgot about that mystery and started looking around. 

At first, Willow thought she had made a mistake and that there was nothing here, but as they reached the far side of the chamber, she saw that there was a chest tucked up against the far wall, blackened and scorched.  Going over to it, Willow tried the lock, but it didn’t budge.  When she tried to lift the chest, the metal straps that were holding the lid together gave out and Willow fell on her butt, holding the chest lid in her hand.  The light started to dim.

“Are you okay?” said Lily.

“Yes, I’m fine,” said Willow, getting up and going back to the chest.  “Just give me a few more seconds of light.”

Lily concentrated again and the light grew brighter.  Willow looked in the chest and saw that it was full of books and rolled-up paintings.  Without another thought, Willow grabbed the corner of the chest and dragged it over to the opening where they had come in.

“I’m losing it,” said Lily.  Willow could hear the exhaustion in her voice.

“It’s alright,” replied Willow.  “You can let go.  We’ll have enough light to pass these books through the opening.”  The light went out and Lily, exhausted, sat down on the sooty floor.  Willow helped her over to lean against the wall.  Then, with Sib’s help, Willow managed to pass the contents of the chest through the hole.  She thought for a moment of taking the chest to carry the books, but she saw that it was too big to fit through the small opening.  Leaving it, she helped Lily towards the exit.

“Do you think you can crawl?” Willow asked her.

“Yes, just let me go first.”  Lily sat down and started crawling through.  Willow followed her out.  Once they were all out, Willow had them all divide the pile of books and papers between them. 

“Think we should close that?” asked Sib, pointing to the opening.  

Willow nodded and they both reached up to touch the same pentagon stones that had opened it.  In a second, the square doorway had vanished, leaving nothing but blackened stone where it used to be.  Willow and Sib put their books into their bags and had just emerged from behind the freezer when the door to the kitchen slammed open.  Standing next to him, Willow heard Sib mutter one word.  

“Busted.”



“A sandwich!” the Chancellor yelled at them.  “You all went out of bounds to get a sandwich!  What were you thinking!”  He was pacing in front of his desk as the five of them sat in chairs opposite him.  The gigantic triple-decker sandwich that Incheon had made while the others were in the hidden room was sitting on the edge of the Chancellor’s desk.

“I was hungry?” said Incheon.

“Mr. Ryong, do not get smart with me,” bellowed the Chancellor, “I have already confiscated about a dozen illegal Weasley products from your bag.”  He turned and glared over the rest of them.  “The rules are in place for a reason and I will not have students out of bounds at this Academy, is that understood?”  

“Yes sir.” They all responded more or less together.  

“And as for these books,” said the Chancellor as he pointed at the pile of books that had been divided up between them.  “Where did these come from?”

Willow thought fast.  There was a reason that Esbee hid the archive from Hammersmith and Murgatroyd.  “The archives at the library, sir,” she answered. 

“Well, unlike other books from the library,” the Chancellor responded, “books from the archives cannot be removed.  You will return these to Mrs. Moore immediately and will apologize to her.  Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, sir,” they all responded again.

“Now, each of you will have a written note in your file and twenty five points will be taken from each of your houses.  I assure you that future transgressions will be dealt with much more severely.  It will also be detention for all of you.  As you seem so fond of the kitchen, you’ll be washing dishes - without magic.”  The Chancellor turned to the back of the room.  “Mr. Hendershot, please see these children return these books to the library.” He then turned to Willow and the others.  “Dismissed.”

Mr. Hendershot, who was the one who had caught them in the kitchen escorted them to the library.  Mrs. Moore wasn’t there, but they left the books on her desk with a note.  After leaving the library, Mr. Hendershot turned to the five of them.

“Look, you five.  I don’t know what you did to tick off the Chancellor, but you were already on the hot seat with him.  He was threatening to expel four of you just for going into the kitchen before I talked him back to reason.  I don’t think he’ll be so lenient next time.”

“It certainly wouldn’t have helped any if you two had gone in all covered in soot,” he continued, addressing Willow and Lily.  “I don’t know how you two got so dirty, but he would have been even more upset if you had dragged that mess into his office.  Just be careful.”

“Thanks Mr. Hendershot,” said Willow.  He had used ‘scourgify’ to clean the ashes off of her and Lily on their way to the Chancellor’s office.  Mr. Hendershot left them to go back into the library and once he left, Willow turned to the others.  “And how did he know we were in the kitchen?” Willow asked, already knowing the answer.  “Felicity…” she whispered under her breath. I’d bet anything it was her I saw in the hallway.

“Good job with the sandwich diversion, Incheon,” said Lily, breaking up Willow’s mental trial.  “What gave you that idea?”

“I was being truthful to the Chancellor about being hungry,” he responded.  “Making that sandwich is the only reason I went along in the first place.”

“The worst part is that he went through all our bags and we lost the archives,” said Lef.  “I don’t know how we’ll get them back now.” 

“He didn’t get all the archives,” said Willow with a smile.  “He might have gone through my bag, but he didn’t find the books or pictures that I put in there.”   

“So then the worst part is that I lost my sandwich,” sighed Incheon.



Chapter 21: A Part of the Prophecy
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“There were American Indians at this school?” Willow asked the others.  They had found an empty Thaumaturgy classroom and were huddled over the things Willow had stashed in the hidden pocket of her bag.  Willow was staring at one of the paintings: it showed five young American Indians in leather outfits standing next to two wizards in dress robes.  They were under a purple and white banner, but the symbol on the banner had been badly smudged and Willow couldn’t make it out.  The figures in the painting moved around and opened and closed their mouths, but no sounds came from them.  Meanwhile, Lily was looking at the other painting while Sib, Lef, and Incheon looked through the books.

“Let me see,” said Incheon, reaching out for the picture.  “I can’t read these books.  I don’t know what language it is, but it hurts my eyes just to look at it.”
 

Willow switched Incheon for his book and opened it up.  It was titled ‘The History and Present State of Gampton Hall’, and was dated 1763.  She flipped to the first page and tried to read.  As soon as she looked at the words, they grew all blurry and she couldn’t focus on them.  It wasn’t that the words were written in a different language, it was as if the words refused to be read at all.  Flipping through several more pages and finding the same problem, she set the book aside.  Sib and Lef had given up on the books too and were looking over Incheon’s shoulder at the painting.  Incheon and Lily exchanged pictures and they all looked up when Lef took a huge inward breath.

 

She pointed at the photograph that Lily had just handed to Incheon.  “That’s Damian Bones.”

 

“Who?” they all asked her.

 

“Damian Bones, you know…the Murgatroyd Ghost.  He’s the one on the right.”

 

“Well,” said Lily, “that’s easy – we can just ask him about it."

 

“I wouldn’t,” said Lef.  “We spend most of our time avoiding him.  He’s fine as long as you don’t set him off.”

 

“What sets him off?” asked Lily.

“Talking to him.”

“I guess that might put a damper on our plans to ask him then,” said Incheon.

“What do we do now?” asked Lef.  “We can’t read the books and I don’t know what to do with the pictures.”

“I think we should give the books to Mr. Zolock,” said Willow.  “I don’t know what’s wrong with the writing, but I think he might be able to figure it out.  Besides, I wanted to ask if he knows anything about ‘imperious’ or whatever it was that Esbee said.”

 


 
“Good heavens!” exclaimed Mr. Zolock when they mentioned the word.  “Are you going to tell me you heard that in a dream?”

“No, sir,” said Willow.  “We heard it from Esbee.”

“Now Willow,” said Mr. Zolock, slipping into his lecture tone of voice.  “Would you have me believe that our kind-natured Suncorn ghost went spouting off about unforgivable curses?”

Willow stared back at him, speechless.  Why would Esbee talk about curses?, she wondered.

“We heard it too, sir,” said Lily, speaking up for Willow.  “Both Sib and I heard her say…that word.”

“Is this true?” Mr. Zolock asked Sib.

“Yessir,” replied Sib.  “She said imper...”

“Enough!” Mr. Zolock interrupted.  “In what context?”

“Just that word,” said Willow.  “I asked her how she died and she told me she was standing outside the Suncorn homeroom and couldn’t remember any more.  She sort of glazed over and then said that word.  Then she drifted through the wall.  I just thought it might have something to do with how she died.”

Mr. Zolock walked over and stared out the window for a minute, then he turned back to Willow.

“Twice now you have come to me with dark magic that you should not have known...could not have known.  I need you to tell me truthfully how you learned of it the first time.”

“It was a dream, Mr. Zolock,” said Willow.  “Honestly.” 

“We all shared it,” said Lef.  “Everyone except Lily.  It was the one where the Hunter said ‘Ava...”

“Stop!” interrupted Mr. Zolock.  “Never repeat those words.  So this was the shared dream that you mentioned.” 

“Yes, sir,” replied Willow.

“This has to be part of the prophecy,” said Mr. Zolock, half to himself. 

“The prophecy sir?” asked Willow.  “Do you mean the same one that Miss Pyx mentioned?”  

“Yes, but nobody outside of MACUSA knows the entirety of it.  I only know a few pieces:
 

The end of the era of magic is nearing;

The nomaj will rise and replace the mage;

Gampton Hall's fifth house will mark the beginning

Only those who follow the path of darkness can avoid the end


Mr. Zolock was pacing nervously around the room.  “That’s the part of the prophecy that MACUSA used twelve years ago to ban all dark magic.  It's why the dark arts have been banned for the past decade, why the Defense Against the Dark Arts corridor is closed down, and why you shouldn't know anything about either of those two curses.  Everyone is convinced that the end of the era of magic will be the end of the Statute of Secrecy...that the nomaj will find out about us.”

“But my mom’s a nomaj and she knows about magic,” said Willow.

“She and the other nomaj parents of students here are the exception, Willow.  I’m talking about all the magical protections being gone and all three hundred million nomaj in America suddenly realizing that there are spells and mages and manticores all around them.  What do you think would happen?”

“I...I don’t know,” said Willow.

“I think we would be in danger of total extinction,” Mr. Zolock said.

“But what does that have to do with us?” asked Willow.

“Gampton's fifth house will mark the begining,” Mr. Zolock replied.  "The Chancellor thought the Sorting Hat’s strange behavior during the induction could have been related to the fifth house and he’s been on pins and needles all year.  Then, when Miss Pyx took him the news of your dream - the darkness that it contained - his greatest fears were confirmed.” 

“But we didn’t do it on purpose!” said Willow.

“I know,” said Mr. Zolock soothingly.  “And so does Miss Pyx.  She knew the Chancellor was going to overreact and so she came to me for help.  I didn’t really believe that you dreamed all this...until now.  I’m willing to help however I can.”

“We want to know about the fifth house,” said Lily.

“As I told Willow,” Mr. Zolock said, “I don’t know anything about it.  To my knowledge there has never been a fifth house at Gampton Hall.”

“Well,” said Willow, taking a chance, “you said that there was a fire that destroyed the archives in 1764.  Esbee led us to a couple of books that we can’t read, but we know they were written before the fire.  We were hoping you could take a look and tell us if there’s anything in them about the Pathfinder house.”  Willow took out the three books and handed them to him.  Mr. Zolock took them, set two of them on his desk and opened the third.  He flipped it open to the first page and then after a second, started thumbing through the entire volume.

“You said she led you to these?” he asked.  “How exactly?”  

Willow took a breath.  Well, he said he wanted to help, she thought.  We’ve got to trust someone...and we can keep the paintings just in case.  She proceeded to tell him about her hunch about the kitchen, their finding the fireplace opening and the strange room beyond.

“Hmmm.  You found the old salamander pens.”

“Salamanders?”

“Yes.  In the early years of the school, the salamanders were kept indoors all year in a central pen.  The door that you found was opened to have the salamanders crawl into the cooking fires so that they would burn hotter.  Once the house elves were replaced by nomaj in the late 1800s, we sealed up the salamander pen and changed to nomaj appliances.”

“But the chest that held the books was just sitting in there,” said Willow. “How could nobody have seen it for a hundred and fifty years?”

“Nobody ever went in there, Willow.  The chamber was fed wood from the top and magically emptied.  The chest that held the archives must have been protected against the flames by a spell.  Once the room was built, there was no reason to re-enter.  There is nothing in there...which made it a perfect hiding place.”  He turned back to look at the book.  “And as for this, there appears to be a confundus charm cast on it.”  He reached across his desk to grab his wand.  “Deliquo!” he said, and then when nothing happened, “discutere!”...“summoveo!”…“abstergo!” accompanying each spell with a wave of his wand.  He looked Willow.  “Someone doesn’t want this book to be read.”

“Do you think you can break the spell?” asked Willow.

“I’ll certainly try.  Will you leave these with me?” he asked, gesturing at the three books.

“Yes, sir.  There are some others that we left with Mrs. Moore.”

“Very well,” said Mr. Zolock.  “And Willow…?”  Willow looked up at him.  “The same rule as last time applies to the curse.  Not a word to anyone…ever.  That goes for all of you.”

“Yes sir,” they all replied before leaving.



They were sitting in the potions dungeon at lunch a week later.  It was the first time they had been able to sit together since they dropped off the books with Mr. Zolock.  They had spent every lunch period of the past week washing dishes as part of their detention.  Willow’s hands were still dry and cracked from all the washing the five of them had done.  Sib and Incheon were playing wizard chess, while Lef was busy working on her homework and Willow and Lily were looking at the paintings.

“Lily, why don’t you ever play wizard chess with us?” asked Incheon, who had just been beaten by Sib after twenty minutes of play.  Incheon was twirling a piece of leprechaun gold in his fingers and wearing a bright green shamrock pin that flashed back and forth between ‘Kiss Me’ and ‘I’m Irish’.

“It’s not really a challenge,” she replied.

“Prove it,” Sib said, and turned the wizard chess board toward her.  

“Fine,” Lily said with a sigh.  “Pawn to e4.”  At her command, the pawn in front of her king moved forward two spaces.

Willow looked up from the painting.  “Where are we?” she asked nobody in particular.  Sib mirrored the move that Lily had made, moving his king’s pawn.

“Duh, we’re at Gampton Hall.” responded Incheon, watching as Lily moved one of her bishops.

“No, I mean where is Gampton Hall,” Willow asked again. 

“Duh, where we are,” said Incheon.   Sib called for his knight to move.

“Where in the nomaj world is Gampton Hall?” Willow asked, ignoring him.  “Lef, where do you live?”

“Dinwiddy,” she replied, now absorbed in the game as Lily called for her queen to move out diagonally to the far right side of the board.

“What state is that in?” Willow asked her.

“I don’t know...Maryland maybe?  I was never very good at nomaj geography.”  

Willow shook her head.  “Look, there were hundreds of American Indian tribes in the United States.  I could research the American Indians that were here if I knew where this school was located.  I thought it was 20 minutes from my house in Pennsylvania, but it seems to be 20 minutes from everywhere.”  

“Knight to f6,” called Sib, a note of excitement in his voice as he moved into position to take Lily’s queen.

“How can we find out where the nearest nomaj town is?” continued Willow.

“Duh, ask a nomaj,” Incheon responded.  

“You’re not being helpful at all,” said Willow, turning to him.

“Yes, I know,” said Incheon, smiling.  

“Queen to f7,” Lily said absently.  As her queen slid diagonally and crushed the pawn in front of the queen’s rook, Sib’s king fell over.  “Checkmate.”

“Four moves?” laughed Incheon.  “I can’t believe she trounced you in four moves, Sib!  Move over and watch a master at work…but I’ll be white this time.”  After the pieces were reset, he called out “pawn to f4.”  The pawn in front of his king’s bishop moved out two spaces.  Lily countered by calling for the pawn in front of her king to move out one space.  

“Pawn to g4,” Incheon called.  The pawn in front of his king’s knight moved out two spaces.  “Check it out,” he said.  “I’m building a wall of pawns.”

“Queen to h4.  Checkmate.”  Incheon’s king fell with a thud on the board.

“Two moves, Incheon?” said Sib.  “I don’t think it’s possible to lose any faster than you just did.”

“So you mean I set a record?  I’m good with that.”

Lily handed her painting to Willow.  “Look at their wands,” she said.

“What wands?” 

“Exactly.”

“Well,” Willow asked.  “If they didn’t have wands, how did they use magic?”

“If they were nomaj, you could ask one where we are,” joked Incheon.

“Still not helpful,” said Willow, frowning.

Lily looked up from where she was sitting. “He is being helpful,” she said to Willow.  “Go ask a nomaj.”

“In the kitchen!” said Willow.

“But how are you going to get in the kitchen?” asked Lef.  “You can’t just go waltzing in.”

“If I could go during class, I would be sure that Felicity wouldn’t turn me in,” said Willow.  “The kitchen is near the nurse’s office.  If I can just fake an illness, maybe I can get down there.”

“Why fake an illness when you can suffer through a real one?” said Incheon.  “Here, I’ve been wanting to use these forever.”  He pulled a small box from his bag and set it in front of Willow.  She looked at the lid which labeled it as a ‘Skipping Snackbox’. “I got it from my brother for Christmas,” Incheon continued.  “Luckily it wasn’t in my bag last week when the Chancellor pilfered all of my best stuff.  It’s from Three Dubs.  Do you want a terrible nosebleed, a raging fever, or uncontrollable vomiting?”  He raised one eyebrow in expectation of Willow’s response.

“Um…The fever sounds the least disgusting,” said Willow after thinking for a second.  “I’ll take that.  How long does it last?”

“Oh, I don’t know.  Just take the other half of the candy and the fever goes away.  I’m glad you didn’t pick the barfing.  I want to save it for after I eat some blueberry pie.  Maximum effect, you know.”

Willow wasn’t sure what to say. “Well that’s…uh..”

“…gross,” finished Lily.

 

Willow made the mistake of taking the candy before she walked up the four flights of stairs to the Astronomy classroom.  By the time she reached the door, she was already burning hot and had chills running through her entire body.

“Willow!” exclaimed Mr. Cosmuto.  “You look awful.”  He came over to her and as soon as he touched her arm said “You’re burning up.  Off to the nurse’s office immediately.”  He turned to Lily, who had helped Willow up the last flight of stairs.  “Lily, will you go with her to make sure she makes it okay?”

“Of course, sir.”  Willow stumbled back out the door and was reaching out for the railing to the stairs when Lily caught her.

“You need to take the other half of that candy…now,” she whispered to Willow.  Willow felt completely disoriented and started looking in her bag.  She almost instantly forgot what she was looking for.

“Wha?...” began Willow.  Her vision was blurry and she couldn’t focus on anything.

“The other half of the candy,” whispered Lily.  Realizing what she was looking for again, Willow found the other half of the candy and shoved it into her mouth.  She felt better with every downward step so that by the time they reached the basement level, she could walk on her own.  She felt sticky from sweating through her clothes as her fever broke, but there was nothing she could do about it.  They followed the hallway around to where the Nurse’s office was.  

“All clear,” whispered Lily, after checking the empty Custodian’s office.  The Nurse’s office was lit, but the door was closed.  They snuck by and Willow said goodbye to Lily at the door under the stairs that led to the kitchen.  Willow watched Lily retracing their steps as she closed the door behind her and turned around to go into the kitchen.

“Oh, hello dear.  Are you lost?” said the first kitchen worker she saw.

“No, ma’am,” Willow remembered back to what she would have said in her nomaj school.  “I’m doing a school project on...commuting and I...I was just wondering where everyone lives who works here.”

“Well,” she said.  “We live all over....Jonie there lives in Millersville, Rick lives over toward Quarryville and I live in Lancaster.  What about you dear, where do you live?”

Willow hadn’t counted on being asked this question.  She blurted out the first thing that came to mind.  “Oh…I live just west of here.”

“You mean on the other side of the river?  What, from York?  Your bus ride must be forever,” she said.

“Oh it’s not that bad…” Willow said, edging back to the door before she was asked more awkward questions.  Before she left, she thought she had to make sure of something.

“That’s Lancaster, Pennsylvania, right?” 

“Are you all right, dearie?” the worker asked, a worried expression on her face.

“Yeah...I’m just…getting over a fever.  Thanks.”

 

 



Chapter 22: A Rare Condition
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“Here’s what I found,” said Willow as she handed Lef a printout of the information she had researched online the previous night.  The other four were staring at the paper she had just handed over.

“What is this?…” said Lef.  “It’s the weirdest parchment I’ve ever seen.”

“It’s paper,” said Willow.  “It’s what nomaj use instead of parchment.”

“How come we never learned about this in Nomaj Studies?” asked Incheon, touching the paper like it might bite him.

“Because Mrs. McCracken has no idea what she’s talking about,” replied Willow. “Oh, I hope you haven’t been listening to her.  She couldn’t tell a toaster from a television.  Just read the article, will you?”  Lef shrugged and read out loud.

“The Susquehannock were a tribe of American Indians that were native to the Susquehanna River basin from the Chesapeake Bay to the New York border.  They had a large settlement at Conestoga, near present-day Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  Originally numbering in the hundreds of settlements up and down the river, disease brought by European colonists wiped out the vast majority of the tribe in the late 1600s.  By the early 1700s many of the survivors had dispersed into surrounding tribes.  The remaining Susquehannocks consolidated at Conestoga Town and lived there in relative peace with the first European settlers moving inland from Philadelphia. In 1763, a group of settlers known as the Paxton Boys killed all of the Susquehannocks in Conestoga Town, believing that they were involved in the unrelated Pontiac’s Rebellion occurring in western Pennsylvania.  This massacre wiped out the tribe, ending its existence.”  

They were all silent for a moment.

“How did you find this information?” asked Lily.

“Oh, I just googled it,” Willow replied.

“I hope that’s not as disgusting as it sounds,” replied Incheon.

“It’s a search engine on the internet,” Willow tried to explain.

“The what-net?”

“What kind of engine?”

“Look, never mind,” said Willow.  “It’s a nomaj thing.  All of this information has to be linked.”

“What do you mean?” asked Lef.

Willow started ticking items off on her fingers.  “The fact that the Paxton Boys wiped out the local American Indians in 1763; The fire in the library that destroyed the archives in 1764; the fact that Esbee died that same year and that she led us to the archive; the American Indians in the photo; the Pathfinders.”

“So who’s Paxton?” asked Lef.

“I don’t know, but I think we should try to find out.” 

“Let me guess,” said Incheon.  “More work?”

 

The cold winds of March were giving way to the cold rains of April.  Willow was staring out of the window in Thaumaturgy class when Mr. Hendershot broke up her daydreaming by bringing in the Sorting Hat for a demonstration.  

“Does anyone know the difference between inherent magic and attached magic?”  He set the hat on his desk, and seeing no hands in the air, he proceeded.  “Think of it this way,” he continued.  “Applied magic can be reversed, inherent magic cannot.  For example,” he pointed his wand at the sorting hat, “Let’s make Amrose green, and double his size, and cover him with feathers.”  With each phrase, Mr. Hendershot’s spells changed the hat so that there was now a large green feathered cone sitting on his desk.  He picked up a glass pitcher of clear liquid that was on his desk and held it up.

“This liquid is enchanted to lift all charms...that is, to eliminate all spells that have ever been cast on the hat.”  He walked over and poured the water over the hat.  Willow watched as the hat simultaneously shrunk to its normal size, lost its feathers and turned back to its dingy gray-brown color.

“Amrose, how are you feeling?” Mr. Hendershot asked.

“Wet,” replied the hat, grumpily.  Mr. Hendershot turned to the class.  “Do I have a volunteer to see if he is still able to sort you?”

Willow instantly raised her hand, desperate to ask Amrose a question.  After Mr. Hendershot called on her, she walked toward the the front of the class.

“Here, let me hold your wand for you while you put Amrose on,” he said to her.  She handed over her wand and put Amrose on her head.

Oh,” said Amrose inside Willow’s head, “you again.” 

Amrose!” Willow thought.  “What do you know about the Pathfinders?  The Fifth House?”

“There has always been a fifth house,” the voice spoke inside her head, “ever since the founding of the school...and that is where you belong.”

“Pathfinder!” Amrose called out loud to the room.  Mr. Hendershot approached Willow to remove the hat and Willow thought of one more question, remembering the prophecy that Mr. Zolock had told them.  

“Amrose, when was the first time you were drenched with the spell removal potion?”

“Why it was at this lesson, just last year now that you mentio...” Amrose’s last thoughts faded away as Mr. Hendershot lifted the hat from Willow’s head and she went back to her seat.  

“Well, now we see the difference,” Mr. Hendershot told them as he handed back Willow’s wand.  “The spells that I cast are gone, but Amrose is still a talking sorting hat.  That part of his magic is inherent and cannot be ‘washed’ away, just as your magic cannot be taken away either...”  Willow hardly paid attention for the rest of the lecture.  She was thinking of the books they had given to Mr. Zolock...and her wand. 



“I have to get some of that potion,” Willow said to Lef as they walked out of the classroom after the bell rang.

“Why?” she asked.  “What do you want it for?”

“Our wands,” responded Willow.  “If there’s a spell or curse cast on our wands, that potion would wash it away.  Do you have a phial on you?”

“Sure,” Lef said as she reached in her bag.  “I always have a couple of extras in case I drop another one.”

“Thanks,” replied Willow, taking the phial.  “Don’t wait for me.” 

Willow waited outside the Thaumaturgy classroom, hoping that Mr. Hendershot would leave.  Sure enough, he came out of the room a moment later.  Willow bent down as if her shoe was untied and pretended to work on her laces as he turned the opposite way and headed toward the stairs that led to the teachers’ offices.  Willow quietly opened the  door to the classroom and looked around.  The room was dark and the glass pitcher with the clear liquid was still sitting on the desk at the front of the room.  Willow approached and unstoppered the phial.  She poured some of the liquid into the bottle and tightened the stopper.

“Forget something, Willow?” 

Willow jumped and nearly dropped the bottle onto the floor.  She spun around and saw that Mr. Hendershot was entering the classroom.  

“Uh...yes...I just needed to um...my wand!” she said at last, grabbing it from her pocket and holding it up in the air while the glass phial with the potion went into her other pocket. 

“I nearly forgot the potion,” said Mr. Hendershot.  He approached the desk and took the pitcher.  “Mrs. Black would be furious if I just left this lying around.  This potion could be dangerous if it gets misused.  Well, have a good day.”  He left the room and Willow followed him a moment later.  That was close...too close.

 

She was sitting at her kitchen counter that evening with a pair of pliers and a rubber jar opener.  When Mr. Hendershot had surprised her in the Thaumaturgy classroom, she had over-tightened the lid to the phial and neither she nor any of the others had been able to open it at school.  Her mom was in the living room, crunching away on potato chips while Willow tried for the seventh time to get the top loose.

Seventh time’s a charm, she thought to herself...just like the third through sixth times.  This time, her effort worked and the lid to the phial twisted free.  Willow took the potion and poured it into a glass.  As she reached over to pull her wand from her bag, her mom came barging into the kitchen coughing and sputtering.  Before Willow had a chance to say anything, her mom swooped over to the counter, grabbed the glass with the potion in it and drank it in one gulp.

“Ugh...” said her mom after swallowing.  “Thanks.  I nearly choked on that chip.” 

“Uh...,” said Willow.

“Have a lot of homework?” asked her mom.

“Uh...,” replied Willow, pointing at the empty glass.

“Oh, right, sorry,” said her mom and she went to the refrigerator, filling the glass with water.  “Here you go.”

“Uh...,” started Willow again.  “How are you...feeling?” 

“Fine, now that I can swallow again.  So, what are you working on?” 

“Nothing, now,” replied Willow with a sigh.

She watched her mom for the next two hours, making sure there were no ill effects from the potion.  I guess spell removal potions don’t have any effect on nomaj, she thought as she drifted off to sleep.   

 

She told her friends about the failed effort with the spell removal potion the following day.  They couldn’t think of another way to get their hands on the potion, so they concentrated on something they could do.  They worked over lunch the rest of that week looking through the history section in the library as well as lists of students to try to find anything useful. 

Willow and Lef were going through very old yearbooks looking for anyone named ‘Paxton’, when they looked up and stared at Incheon.  They were both mesmerized by him busily pulling books off the shelves left and right.

Lef leaned across the table toward her.  “What did you say to him that got him so excited about doing work?” she asked.

“Nothing,” responded Willow.  “I just said that I had to go pick up Fred this afternoon and he got this weird look on his face and off he went.”  Meanwhile, Lily was staring upwards toward the top of the library.

“I’ll be back in a couple of minutes,” she said to Sib, Lef, and Willow.  She got up from the table and started toward the library stairs.  Willow looked up to see the Featherpenny ghost floating three stories above them.

“I wonder if Mr. Zolock could use that same spell removal potion that Mr. Hendershot used on those encoded books,” Willow said to Sib. 

“Beats me,” Sib replied.  “But I got a chance to put the hat back on my head in that lesson.  It didn’t tell me nothing I didn’t already know.  I’m still Pathfinder.”

Lily came back down the spiral staircase.  She hurried over to their table and sat down.  

“Nobody has ever been officially expelled from Gampton Hall,” she said to them.  

“What do you mean ‘officially’?” asked Willow.

“One person was asked to leave, and she did, but no reason was ever given about her departure, and you’re not going to believe who she was.” 

“Well?” asked Lef.

“Ursula Mercana,” said Lily.

“But why?” asked Willow.

“Because she has arktanthropy,” said Incheon, who had snuck into the conversation from the other side of the table.

“She has what?” asked Willow.

“Don’t you mean ‘lycanthropy’?” asked Sib.

“You mean she’s a werewolf?” said Lef in disbelief.

“‘Were’ - yes,  wolf - no,” Incheon responded.

“What are you guys talking about?” hissed Willow.  “Sib, you just said she has ‘lancanthopy’ or something.  What’s going on?”

“Lycanthropy,” explained Lily.  “It’s the name of the infection that turns people into werewolves.” 

“Not a wolf...” said Incheon.

Ignoring him, Lily continued.  “A long time ago, werewolves were accepted into society since for 29 days of every month, they are just like you and me.  They needed to hide themselves for one day a month since the bite of a werewolf infects the victim with lycanthropy, and that’s how it spreads.  But it was never really under control, and because of that spread, all the werewolves were either killed or rounded up and imprisoned a decade before we were born.”  Lily turned to Incheon.  “Are you saying that nobody knows she’s a werewolf?”

“I keep telling you, she’s not a werewolf,” Incheon said.

“Wait,” said Lef.  “Now I’m confused.  First you say she’s a werewolf and now you’re saying she’s not?”

Incheon took the book in his hands, opened to a marked page and passed it across to Lily.  “Read,” he said to her.

“Although extremely rare,” Lily read out loud from the marked page, “there have been reported cases of arktanthropy, from arktos, Greek for bear and anthropos, ‘man’.  In these cases, the victim suffers similarly to that of the lycanthrope with the exception of taking the shape of a bear at the rising of the full moon.  ‘Werebears’ as they are sometimes called are typically docile while in bear form and do not attack unless threatened. However, they have been subject to the same treatment as werewolves and are shunned from most societies.”

“But how do you know?” said Lef, looking at Incheon.

“Oh, I don’t...not for sure.  But I have a boatload of evidence pointing to it.  I had already noticed that she gives Willow the pseudodragon one day a month.  But it wasn’t until just last month that I noticed the coincidence with the full moon.  Once we saw the bear enclosure, I wasn’t so sure, since I didn’t know werebears even existed.  But when you said you have to take it again today - on the eve of the full moon, all I had to do was to find out whether her condition was possible.”

“Well I think you’re wrong,” said Willow.  “I’ve worked with her since the beginning of the year and there’s no way she’s a monster.”

“If Incheon is right, she’ll turn into a bear this weekend, while you have Fred,” said Lef.

“Let’s go,” said Willow, grabbing her things and walking out of the library. 

“Where are you going?” asked Lily.

“To see Miss Mercana.”  

 

 

 

 

 

(* Werebears created by Gary Gygax, Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual, TSR, 1977)



Chapter 23: Return to the North Woods
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Willow marched out of the school, not bothering with her cloak in the chilly April air.  The others were following behind as she headed straight to Miss Mercana’s office door.  After knocking, Miss Mercana called from inside.  

“Come in.”  

Willow entered and walked over to Miss Mercana’s desk, but the other four just huddled inside the door.  Before speaking up Willow heard Incheon muttering to the others.

“Like watching a quidditch pile-up happen...”

“Hello, Willow,” said Miss Mercana.  “Are you here to pick up Fred early?”

“No, ma’am,” said Willow.  Now that she was here, she didn’t know how to ask what she wanted to know...and wasn’t sure she wanted to know the answer anyway.  “Why do I always watch Fred during the full moon?” she finally managed to ask.

“I don’t know what you mean,” replied Miss Mercana.  She crossed her arms and sat back in her chair.

“Why do we have a bear enclosure in the woods?” Willow was still dancing around asking her the question directly.

“How would you know that?” Miss Mercana’s eyes were now wide, her gaze boring into Willow.  

“Miss Mercana,” said Sib, butting into the conversation.  “We know you have...what’s that word again, Incheon?”

“Arktanthropy.”

“Right, that,” said Sib.  “We ain’t gonna tell nobody, but we gotta know if that’s the reason you got expelled from Gampton Hall.”

Willow took a huge breath.  She never could have gotten through this without the others.  Miss Mercana looked deflated.  Her arms fell to her sides and she looked down at the floor.

“Come back after classes,” she said in a barely audible whisper.

“Miss Mercana...” Lily started, but she was cut off.

“After classes,” she said more forcefully.  “There’s not enough time now.  Go.”  The five of them left the classroom and headed back to the school building.  They heard the bell ring from outside signaling the end of their lunch.  As Willow, Lily and Sib headed for Alchemy, Willow’s head was abuzz.  How could Miss Mercana be a monster?  She had always been so nice to her and had even saved her when Corey first attacked.  None of it made sense.



After the last bell rang, they all met in the back of the school before they headed down to Miss Mercana’s office.  The early April air was still cold, but the rain that had been falling earlier in the afternoon had cleared away.

“What do you know?” Miss Mercana asked them after she had ushered them into the room, she was standing and didn’t offer for any of them to sit down.

“After we found the devourer, we stuck around to find out what was going on,” said Incheon.  “We heard that you were in trouble too, but we didn’t know why.  We followed you when you left and went into the woods.” 

“We just wanted to help,” said Willow.  “Instead, all we found was the bear enclosure.” 

“We know that you were the only person who has ever been expelled from Gampton Hall,” said Lily.  “And since we’re about to be the second through sixth, we wanted to know how it happened to you.”

“Since you give the pseudodragon to Willow every full moon, I think you have arktanthropy,” said Incheon.  “But I don’t know for sure that’s why you were expelled.”

“But we ain’t gonna tell nobody that you have it.” finished Sib.  “We just need help is all.”

Miss Mercana half-smiled at them.  “Okay, so you’ve figured me out.  Sooner than most of the teachers, I’ll grant you.  Now what do you want from me?” 

Willow was shocked.  She thought for sure that Miss Mercana would deny it...that she would show them that she wasn’t a werebear.  She couldn’t say anything.  It was Sib that broke the momentary silence.

“Ma’am,” he asked. “We don’t want to be expelled, and we was hopin’ you might be able to tell us how to not have that happen.”

“Well you’re wrong in thinking I was expelled,” Miss Mercana said.  “I was simply asked to leave and I left.”

“What’s the difference?” asked Incheon.

“If you’re going to be expelled, you have to do something rather awful and then a tribunal of professors has to agree with the Chancellor’s recommendation.  If you’re going to leave, you just have to stop coming.”

“But what happened?” asked Lef.

“Arktanthropy happened,” replied Miss Mercana.  “I was stupid and unlucky and got mauled by a werebear during the full moon when I was in my sophomore year.  My mom and I hid it as best we could, but there are only so many full moons that you can miss in a school year before someone starts asking questions.  Eventually I was discovered and it was only because the Chancellor was my uncle that I was able to leave without it being plastered all over the front page of the New York Ghost.”

“Chancellor McCracken is your uncle?” said Willow.

“Yes.  How else do you think I’m able to stay here and work this job?  You five aren’t the only ones who know about my condition.  If he goes, I won’t be far behind.  Now as for you getting expelled.  Well, it’s no secret that the Chancellor has it in for four of you, and he’s looking for an excuse to get you out of the school.  I don’t know that there’s much I can do.  The Chancellor has been under an incredible amount of pressure from MACUSA from the sorting and it just got worse when your dreams came to light.  It all has to do with the prophecy.”

“The prophecy again,” said Willow.  “Is it really so important?”

"Most people believe that the prophecy relates to the end of the Statute of Secrecy.  Being discovered by the nomaj is every mage’s worst nightmare.  It would mean the end of the world as we know it.”

“But nobody knows what the prophecy says,” said Willow.

“That’s true,” replied Miss Mercana.  “But it doesn’t stop MACUSA from making all its decisions based on it.  Even the devourers...” she hesitated after mentioning the bugs.  

“Can you tell us about that cave where we found the devourer?” asked Sib.  “There was a secret door that we couldn’t get through.”

“Nor would you ever have been able to get through,” she replied.  “Come with me, I’ll give you what answers I can, but I don’t think you’re going to like them.”  She grabbed her cloak and led the way out of her office and into the woods, toward where Esbee had led them before.  Willow was scared to retrace their steps, but followed along with the others.  After a minute of following Miss Mercana into the woods, Willow pulled Lef aside and they waited until everyone else had passed.  “Is it a good idea to let her lead us into the woods?” she asked.  “Won’t she turn into a bear and attack us all?” 

Lef looked at her with a puzzled look on her face.  “Why would she do that?  Werebears are docile.”  Lef looked toward Miss Mercana.  “Besides, the full moon hasn’t risen yet.  She probably needs our help more than anything.” 

For the next ten minutes, they wound their way through the damp leafless woods.  While a few trees were starting to bud, Willow still thought it was creepy.  She didn’t feel comfortable following Miss Mercana, knowing what she knew, but they were approaching the part of the woods where the cave should have been.  Instead of dense woods with a small rock outcropping, Miss Mercana led them into a clearing in the woods consisting of blasted tree stumps, scorched ground and a small pond at the base of a blackened, melted cliff.  It looked to Willow like a fire bomb had exploded.

“This is where the cliff cave used to be,” Miss Mercana explained.  “It was where we bred and kept devourers.  When you came back to my office with one, we knew the protections we had put in place had been breached and we had to destroy this place before any more got out.  That night, fifty mages descended on this area and poured out enough energy at these rocks to melt them into the ground.  This hole is all that’s left of that mistake.  I heard there were even nomaj reports of the light given off by this event.”

Willow remembered the mages congregating in the building that evening and the story on the TV news about the meteor strike from a month ago...near Lancaster.  

“Why were you breeding devourers?” asked Lily.  “I thought you said they were incredibly dangerous.”

“They are,” she replied.  “We were breeding them because we were told to.  Even though we all voiced our concerns, it’s not like someone in my condition can refuse and still hope to keep my job.” 

“But who told you to?” Lily continued.

“Well, the Chancellor told me to, but it was actually someone at MACUSA who told him to do it.  I know you’re going to ask why and the short answer is ‘I don’t know’, but I can tell you what I think.”

“Although I don’t know what the prophecy says,” she continued, “I do know that part of it suggests the government is going to be overwhelmed because it doesn’t have enough mages to fight.  Ever since I started here, the Chancellor has been asking me to see if I can train wyverns and manticores to obey a mage’s command.  That’s the reason we have those creatures here.  Normally, they wouldn’t be anywhere near us.  They are both incredibly dangerous to wizard-kind, and manticores in particular are dangerous because they are inherently resistant to magic.  This is a trait they share with very few other magical creatures - one of which is the devourer.  I think the Department of Magic was having us breed devourers so that they could transfigure them into manticores if they ever believed that those manticores could be controlled to fight for us.”

“I don’t understand,” said Lef.  “Why wouldn’t they just transfigure rocks or rats or something into manticores.  Why devourers?”

“The third exception to Gamp’s elemental law of Transfiguration,” explained Incheon.  “I only remember it because we were lectured on it, but the third exception is 'essence'.  Don’t you remember the cockatrice?”

Willow remembered back to that lesson with Mr. Puterschmidt.  He had transfigured a worm into what she thought was the most ugly looking rooster she’d ever seen. It didn’t have any feathers and where the chicken wings should have been looked like bat wings instead.  Several students, upon seeing it yelled and covered their eyes.  In their natural state, cockatrices turn people into stone with their gaze, but since the worm wasn’t inherently magical and couldn’t turn people into stone, neither could the transfigured cockatrice.

“Since the rats aren’t magically resistant,” said Willow out loud, “when they were transfigured into manticores, the manticores wouldn’t be magically resistant either.”

“Exactly, Willow” said Miss Mercana.  “A devourer transfigured into a manticore would have the same magic resistance as the original bug...assuming you could transfigure it in the first place.”  Willow smiled at her in spite of herself.

“But why wouldn’t they just use manticores?” Lily asked.  “Why go to all the trouble?”

“Because manticores are incredibly rare.  Only one has ever been caught in the last decade, and that’s only because it was an infant when its mother was killed. That’s the one we have here.  Breeding them is next to impossible.”

As they walked back out of the woods toward the school, Lef was asking Miss Mercana about being a werebear.

“What will happen if others find out?” she asked.  Willow was walking right behind them and overheard the conversation.  “Would they send you to jail too?”

“Probably not,” said Miss Mercana.  “Many of the teachers already know or have figured it out, but if any of the parents knew, I’d lose my job for sure.  Lycanthropes have been hunted to near extinction and although they didn’t put the same restrictions on werebears as they did on werewolves, there’s no way the parents would let me stay here.”

“Is there anything we can do to help?” asked Lef.

“Thank you Lef,” she replied warmly.  “But honestly, I don’t know how you can.  My employment here depends entirely on the Chancellor remaining.  If he goes, I go, and with the debacle at the sorting and now the devourers, I don’t see how MACUSA will let him stay for another year.” 

“What will happen to you?” Lef continued.

“I don’t know,” said Miss Mercana.  “I doubt anyone will come looking for me, but I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it.”

They heard the snap of a twig behind them and the five of them immediately spun their heads around and Willow felt adrenalin kick in.  She readied herself to run, but Miss Mercana continued as if nothing had happened.

“Don’t we have to worry about the Wendigo?” Willow asked.

“Wendigo?” replied Miss Mercana.  “Not here.  Why?”

“When we left the bear enclosure, we was followed all the way out,” said Sib.  “I heard something chasing us through the woods and saw its eyes.  I thought it might have been the Wendigo.” 

“That’s doubtful,” said Miss Mercana, holding a branch out of the way as they passed underneath.  “My guess is that the dryads were the ones following you.  They like to play tricks on people.  That’s one of the reasons we have the blink dogs.  The dogs frighten the dryads away and keep them from causing trouble on the school grounds.”

“Dryads!” said Sib.  “I wouldn’t have guessed.” 

“Besides,” added Miss Mercana with a half-smile. “If it had been Wendigo hunting you, you wouldn’t have heard a sound.”

 



Once they left the woods, Willow reached over and took Lef’s hand.  “Go with me to pick up Fred,” she whispered.

“Oh come on,” replied Lef.  “You can’t tell me you’re afraid of her now?  She’s the same person she’s been all year.”

“Just come with me, please?” begged Willow.  

“All right,” Lef nodded her head and followed her as she went to Miss Mercana’s office to get Fred. After they walked inside, Miss Mercana looked at Willow.  Willow’s gaze faltered and she looked at the floor.  It was Lef who broke the silence.

“Miss Mercana,” she said.  “Did you know that Sib carved a pseudodragon out of wood?  It has a remarkable likeness to Fred.”

“Really?  I’d like to see that,” she said.  Willow took her bag from her back and reached inside.  Pulling out the pseudodragon carving, she put it on Miss Mercana’s desk.

“It’s beautiful,” said Miss Mercana.  “You said Sib carved this, Lef?”

Lef nodded and Miss Mercana looked over the carving, handing it back to Willow after a minute.  Reluctantly, Willow reached out and took it from her, putting it back in her bag.

“I see you don’t feel the same way about me as you did a few hours ago,” Miss Mercana said to Willow.  “I, on the other hand, feel just the opposite.”  Willow looked up at her with a puzzled expression on her face.  “Now that you know what affects me,” she continued.  “You aren’t just keeping Fred as a favor, you’re keeping him safe.  I don’t think anything would happen to him if he were to stay with me, but I don’t have control when I’m in bear form, so I feel that much more comfortable with you watching him.  Thank you.”

“You’re…you’re welcome,” stammered Willow.  She took Fred’s cage from Miss Mercana and walked out of her office, feeling foolish for being afraid.



Chapter 24: Through the Gate
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 Mid April brought torrential downpours and Willow and Lef were on their way back to the school building from the Herbology greenhouses.  They ran from the greenhouses to the doors of the school, but were drenched when they reached the doorway.  Shaking off as much water as they could, they continued to the north stairway.  As they reached the first floor, Lef was just about to say goodbye on her way to Alteration class when the Murgatroyd ghost drifted through the wall.  Willow watched as Lef instinctively ducked out of the way, but Willow approached him.

“Excuse me…uh…,” it occurred to Willow that she didn’t remember his name.

“Damian Bones!” whispered Lef.

“...Mr. Bones” continued Willow. The ghost turned and looked at her with glowing eyes.  Taking his silence as a go-ahead to ask, Willow said “have you ever heard of anyone by the name of Paxton?”  The Murgatroyd ghost first withdrew in fear and then his face burned with a fury that Willow had never seen before.  He responded in a voice of cold steel, not looking at her, but over her shoulder.  

“I know of no man by that name,” he replied in a deep rasping voice.  Without another word, he vanished through the wall.

“Well, at least you didn’t set him off,” said Lef.



The next day, Willow and Incheon stayed after History of Magic class to talk to Mr. Zolock about his research.

“Sir,” Willow asked him after the last students had left the classroom, “have you been able to find anything?  Did you uncover anyone named ‘Paxton’?”

“Paxton?  No, nothing like that.  Whatever spell was put on those books was quite substantial.  I’ve been trying everything I can think of.  I don’t suppose the word ‘Andaste’ means anything to you?”

Willow looked at Incheon, who shook his head.  “No, sir,” replied Willow.

“No, I suppose not.  It seems to be scattered throughout, but I can’t make heads or tails of it.  Well, I’ll just keep at it.  I tell you, if I do get those books deciphered, I’ll have enough to keep me busy for decades!”

“Sir,” said Willow.  “We were in Alteration class last week and Mr. Hendershot poured water all over the sorting hat to wash away all the enchantments.  Is that something you could do with the books?”

“A good idea, Willow,” responded Mr. Zolock.  “But one that I’ve already tried...to no avail.  I’m afraid the enchantment is much more sophisticated than I originally thought." 

“Mr. Zolock,” said Willow.  “Is it possible that the same could be done with our wands?  I mean, if there is a curse or spell on them that’s keeping them from working right, maybe that would fix it?"

“Again, a clever idea.  But although you don’t know it, that’s already been tried too.” 

“What do you mean?” asked Willow.

“I received an owl telegram from Miss Chantrix after the holiday letting me know that several students had visited her over the break.  She then went on to explain the difficulty with your wands.  I can’t say I understand what is going on, but it seems too much of a coincidence to be a chance occurrence.  I asked Mr. Hendershot to try the dispel draught on your wands.  Don’t you remember him taking your wand when you tried on the sorting hat?”

“What?  No.  What did he do with it?” 

“While you had the hat on your head and the class was distracted watching you, he ‘washed‘ your wand in the mixture.  When you didn’t see any difference afterwards, we knew it wasn’t an enchantment.  It’s something much deeper...inherent magic in the school, you see.”

As they walked away, Incheon asked “Okay, where do we go from here?”

“Beats me,” replied Willow.  “I don’t even know where to start.  We’ve searched all over the island and haven’t found any answers.  Where else could we look?”

The others were at a loss too.  They spent the rest of April enjoying as much as they could in the warming spring air.  But by the end of the month, Willow was starting to feel as if she might never see this school again.  

 

“What did you make of that dream?” asked Incheon at lunch at the end of April.  Willow had taken Fred home the day before and they had all shared another dream.  In this one, the American Indian was walking away from her and she followed.  He didn’t say anything, but passed by the circle of rocks where the wands had been destroyed and past the burned-out remains of a number of buildings.  The Hunter at last came to a flat stone with an archway engraved on it.  There was something familiar about the arch that Willow couldn’t put her finger on.  He muttered a word that sounded like ‘Gampton Hall’ and the entrance glowed with a strange blue light.

“That arch seemed familiar, but I don’t know why,” said Willow.

“It’s in the restricted corridor,” replied Lef.  “Don’t you remember from when we first started exploring?”

“Of course!” exclaimed Willow.  “The one that had the inscription on it.  ‘Say our name and enter.’”

“What are you two talkin’ about?” asked Sib.

“Back at the beginning of the school year,” Willow recalled for them, “Lef and I got lost and ended up walking down the restricted corridor on the third floor.   Before Mr. Zolock found us, we saw a doorway that looked exactly like the one in the dream.  It has an engraving above it that reads ‘say our name and enter’.”

“But we know they were the Susquehannock tribe, right?” asked Lef.

“Right.  I think we should give it a try,” said Willow.  “Who’s in?”  Seeing nodding heads all around, Willow told them to meet up in the third floor grand hallway - and to make sure nobody followed them.



Willow and Sib were in the fourth floor hallway, waiting for Lily to come out of the Featherpenny homeroom before they headed down to the third floor.  Felicity came out of the Hammersmith homeroom and stopped in front of the two of them.

“Well, if it isn’t the newby and her rich boyfriend,” sneered Felicity.

“Can it Felicity,” replied Willow.  “I know what you did.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about, newbie” Felicity retorted.

“Yes you do, and stop calling me newbie.  You’re a newbie too.”

“Do I have a badge on my uniform?” asked Felicity, pointing to the blank space where her badge used to be, “then I’m not a newbie.  As soon as you can cast ‘dismoveo’ to remove it, then you wouldn’t be either.  But I wouldn’t feel too bad about your incompetence.  I know for a fact that your family has a long history of failing out.”

“What are you talking about?” said Willow. “I’m nomaj-born.”

“Oh, that’s too rich!” squealed Felicity.  “You mean mommy never told you that she failed out of Gampton Hall?  Or that you’re following in her footsteps?”

“You’re full of it,” said Willow.  “That’s not true and you know it.”

“Oh, I saw it with my own two eyes on my dad’s desk.  ‘Heather Carter’ was right there on the list of wandless mages.  That is your mom’s name isn’t it?”

“Yeah, but she’s never been to Gampton Hall...she’s always been nomaj.”

“As far as you know,” Felicity said in a voice that suggested Willow’s mom had been lying to her.  “Now get out of my way before I hex you.”  Felicity pulled out her wand and pointed it at Willow.  Willow was speechless, her head whirling with what Felicity had been saying.  Sib stepped in front of her.

“Go ahead.  Hex her,” he dared Felicity.  “Problem is if you do, I’ll hit you as hard as I can.  You can’t hex both of us.  Now that I think of it, you’d better hex me instead - I guarantee I hit harder than she does.”

Willow pulled Sib aside and backed him out of the way.  

“Thanks, Sib,” she said to him as Felicity passed by, “but I don’t think bullying a bully is going to help.”

 

“Susquehannock,” said Willow, standing in front of the archway. 

Nothing happened.  She looked around at the others.  “I really thought it would work.”
 

"What about the dream?" asked Sib.  "Gampton Hall!" he cried, but the wall remained unchanged.

 

“Oh, well,” said Lily.  “It was worth a try anyway.”  All of them turned and started back down the corridor.

“Incheon,” Willow asked. “What was that word that Mr. Zolock said to us?”

Incheon thought for a second and then said “You mean Andaste?” As soon as Incheon said the word, Willow saw a glow coming from behind them.  They all whirled and saw the archway glowing with a blue light, the inside swirling like mist in a slight breeze.

“Holy cow!” said Incheon, walking back to the doorway.  He stuck his hand inside and looked back at them.  “Seems okay.  Then Incheon got a strange look in his eye and Willow saw his arm jerk into the doorway.  “Whoa!” he said.  “Help me!”  His whole body disappeared through the glowing arch.

“Should we go for help?” asked Willow.

“There’s no time,” said Sib and he, Lily and Lef charged through the arch.  Willow was left alone in the hallway.

“Should I go for help?” she asked the empty hallway.  A second later Lef’s head poked through the glowing door.

“It’s okay Willow,” Lef’s head said.  “That was Incheon’s idea of a joke.  Come on.”  Lef’s disembodied hand stuck out from the door and Willow took it.  As she disappeared through the portal, Willow looked back down the hallway and saw something move, but she was through before she could tell who or what it was.  

Once through the doorway, Willow looked around to see where she was.  They were outside, standing in a small clearing in the woods.  The sky was cloudy and the light breeze rustled the first leaves of spring.  Ferns and small bushes pushed up through last fall’s leaf litter.  Willow looked behind her to see a large boulder with an archway carved into it.  She couldn’t read the writing that was written across the top.

“It’s just like the dream,” said Lef in wonder as she looked around.  “The burning huts were just over there.” She pointed to the right.

“The circle of stones is that way,” said Sib, pointing left.  He started walking that way through the woods.  Willow stood looking around while she stood next to Lily.

“Lily, we could get in big trouble,” said Willow.  “You didn’t have to go with us.”

“Yes, I did.” 

“But why?” Willow asked. “You’re in Featherpenny.” 

“Don’t tell the others,” Lily said in a whisper, “I’m Pathfinder too.” 

“What the what?” exclaimed Willow.  “You mean you’ve had the dreams?”  Lily nodded.  “Why have you been keeping it a secret?” 

“Because I have to stay in Featherpenny,” Lily explained.  “My mother would never accept me being anywhere else...and neither would the Librarian.”

“The ghost?” said Willow.  “What does she have to do with it?”

“She’s the one I asked to help find out about Miss Mercana,” replied Lily.  “She did it because she’s my mom’s grandmother.”

“What the what?” said Willow again.  “Your great grandmother is the Featherpenny house ghost?”  Willow paused for a second, thinking.  “I guess that would make it hard to be anywhere else.”

“Please don’t tell the others,” said Lily, who took Willow’s hand.  “Now come on.”  Lily started pulling Willow into the woods on the left, following the trail left by the other three.  They could just see the others still moving in the distance when they suddenly heard a shout.

“Ow!  Leggo!” 

Willow turned to Lily.  “What’s happening?” she asked.

“Probably another one of Incheon’s jokes,” Lily replied, but Willow noticed that she was walking faster through the underbrush.

“Get off me, unghh!” they heard through the woods.

“That’s not Incheon, that’s Sib,” said Willow and both she and Lily took off at a run, crashing through the trees to where the others stood around the large circle of stones.  Willow saw the stones were covered with vines and Sib was standing near them, his hand buried to the wrist in the plants.

“Hold still, Sib!” pleaded Lef.  “It’s Devil’s Snare.  It will only get tighter the more you pull.” 

Sib was having none of it, he had planted one foot against the stones and was pulling with all his might, not realizing that the Devil’s Snare was now wrapping itself around his ankle.  “It’s crushing my hand!” he screamed.   “Ahhhhhh!”  Willow heard a sickening ‘pop’ and Sib fell to his knee, his hand and ankle now completely wrapped up in the Devil’s Snare, but he was still pulling.

Lef reared back and smacked Sib across the face - hard.  The slap echoed all around them and Sib went still with shock.  Willow was just as surprised.  Lef had never so much as swatted a fly.  She screamed in Sib’s face.  

“I said hold still, you idiot!  You can’t move or the Devil’s Snare will never let you go!”  Sib stood perfectly still.  Willow could see the sheen of sweat on his face and could see him shaking in pain, but as he stood unmoving, the Devil’s Snare slowly relaxed its hold.  First he was able to free his foot, and with Lef holding his forearm, the vine released his hand a moment later.  Willow could see blood dripping from Sib’s wrist.  Lef led him a few feet away and had him sit on a rock while she kneeled down to look at his hand.

“Incheon,” she commanded.  “Get your freshsaver.  It should still have that dittany and motherwort that I found a couple of months ago.”  Incheon immediately threw his bag on the ground and started groping around inside.  A second later, he had it and tossed it over to Lef.  After it bounced off her outstretched hand, Lef picked it up off the ground, opened it up and handed a few leaves to Sib.

“Chew these,” she said.  “It will help stop the bleeding.”  Sib put the leaves in his mouth and started chewing.  Willow remembered the taste from the first day of school and she could tell from the look on Sib’s face that these didn’t taste any better.  “I know,” said Lef.  “It tastes like dirty socks rubbed in stinky cheese but we don’t have anything else.”  In a minute, Sib was breathing more normally, but he was still cradling his hand.  “I can’t do anything about the break,” she continued.  “We’ll have to get you back to the school nurse for that.”

“Not without lookin’ around first,” said Sib, his voice quavering with the pain he still had in his hand.  “We come this far.  We gotta see if it’s there.”  Without him even mentioning it, they all knew that he was talking about the pool in the middle of the circle of stones.

“But how are we going to get past the Devil’s Snare?” asked Incheon.

“Light and warmth,” replied Lef.  “It moves away from them.  That’s why it’s growing in the shade of those evergreens.  It’s always dark.” 

Incheon walked up to the vines.  “Lumos solem!” he called, and a brief glow flared from the end of his wand.  The Devil’s Snare retreated from the light and then just as quickly returned when the light from Incheon’s wand faded.  He turned to the rest of them.  “Lily,  I think we need you.”

Lily walked over to the edge of the circle of rocks.  “Lumos solem!” she called and her wand flickered into a warm glow.  The vines directly around her wand retreated, but not enough to crawl through as it formed only a small hole.  Lily concentrated and the light grew brighter, but after a moment, Lily’s wand faded out and she sat down on the ground, exhausted from the effort.  “It wasn’t... enough,” she panted.

“We need a couple of torches,” said Sib.  “Incheon, I need you to go and scoop up a big pile of those dry pine needles under the trees.  Lef, can you find us some birch bark from a dead tree?  I think I saw one over there”  He nodded his head back the way they had come.  “Willow, hunt around for a couple of long branches.”  As the others dispersed, Willow searched around on the forest floor and soon found two branches that were about an inch around and three feet long.  She brought them back to see Lef carrying an armful of white bark.  Sib told them how to wrap the bark around the end of the sticks and secure it with some wire that Sib had pulled from his bag. 

“Why do you have wire in your Stor-All, Sib?” Willow asked.

“I keep everything I own in there,” he said.  “It’s the only place my brother can’t get to.” 

 

"Clever," Willow replied.  Sib gave her a half smile.

Meanwhile, Lef and Incheon were shooting sparks from the end of their wands into the pile of pine needles in an attempt to start a fire.  By the time Willow had tied on the last strip of bark, the pile of pine needles was smoking.  Sib told them how to blow air into the bottom of the pile to make the flames spread.  “It’s going to flame out quick,” he explained to Willow, “so make sure you get one of them torches lit right away.  They ain’t going to burn more than five or ten minutes, either, so we’re gonna have to get in and out of them stones quick.”

Willow almost missed the opportunity.  The pine needles burst into flame and she had to quickly put one of the torches into the fire before it went out.  Luckily, the flames caught on and the torch flared up.  She lit the second torch using the first and they hurried over to the Devil’s snare.  She handed one of the torches to Incheon and held on to the other.  They held them out toward the Devil’s Snare and it retreated from the heat of the flames.  Soon they had an archway big enough for them to walk through.  Lily led the way, followed by Lef and Sib.  Willow and Incheon stayed near the opening in the Devil’s snare.

“I’ll...uh...stay here and keep the Devil’s Snare back,” said Willow, not wanting Incheon to know how scared she was.

“Good...good idea,” Incheon replied.  Willow noticed that his hands were shaking and she didn’t feel so bad.  Lily, Lef, and Sib had gone forward and were kneeling near the pool of water in the center.  Willow looked around.  Everything was exactly like her dream...except aged and covered in vines.  The pool of water remained crystal clear instead of being covered by scum or cloudy as she would have expected.

“Watch out for the pool,” she called to the others.  “It might be acid or something.”  The image of a wand splitting and curling back on itself came to the forefront of her mind.

“It’s not,” called back Lily.  “We put a couple of leaves in and it didn’t do anything.  It’s weird.” 

“It’s creepy,” muttered Willow and looked over to see Incheon squinting toward the other side of the circle of stones.  “What do you see?” she asked him and she turned to look where he was peering.  It was then that she saw it for herself.  The Hunter’s ghost was standing in the shadows on the far side.

“The gh..gho...gho” Willow stammered, pointing to the shadow.  She couldn’t speak louder than a whisper.  Her heart was beating in her chest and the adrenaline was screaming for her to run.  The ghost moved quickly, floating from the shadows on the edge of the circle of stones toward the pool in the center where Lily, Lef and Sib were still staring at the water.

“Watch out!” yelled Incheon, who had finally realized what the ghost was as he came out of the shadows.  He turned on his heels and bolted from the opening, tearing off through the woods.  Willow couldn’t move.  She was rooted to the spot and her mind was screaming for her to run, but she couldn’t make her legs obey.  Lef, Lily, and Sib were backing away from the pool.  As the ghost reached the edge of the water, he started to pull the longbow off his shoulder and that was when Willow yelled. 

“He’s going to curse us!  Run!”

Willow dropped the torch and took off as fast as her legs could carry her back toward the stone archway.  She crashed through branches and tripped over logs.  Her chest was heaving as she struggled through the underbrush, scratching her face and snagging her hair on passing branches. She glanced over her shoulder to see Sib, Lef, and Lily right behind her, but couldn’t see the ghost anywhere.  She turned back around just in time to slam her shin into the stump of a fallen tree and she fell over onto the ground.  Her left leg screaming in pain, she tried to struggle upward and was limping through the woods toward the clearing ahead when Lef caught up and helped her the rest of the way.

“Where’s Incheon?” Lef said.  

“I...I don’t know,” replied Willow.  “He took off and I didn’t see where he went.”

“Well, at least you had the sense...to drop the torch,” panted Lily, right behind them.  “Otherwise, we would have been trapped...inside the Devil’s Snare with him.”  Still running, the four of them burst into the clearing where the stone archway was.  There was no sign of Incheon anywhere.

“How are we going to get back?”  Lef asked.

“We used their name to get here, so we’ll use ours to get back,” said Lily.  “Gampton Hall!” she called out and the gate glowed blue. 

“Incheon!” whispered Willow.  “Incheon where are you!”

“Should we go back without him?” asked Sib.  “I don’t know how much time we have before the ghost shows.”  They huddled around the entrance to the stone doorway.  Willow was staring around, her heart pounding in her chest.

“What are you guys waiting for?” a voice said from behind them.

Willow jumped in the air and spun around.  When her head turned, she saw Incheon’s head and arms were sticking through the glowing stone doorway, the torch still burning.

“You scared me half to death!” Willow said to him.  “I thought the Hunter got you.”

“Sib, what am I supposed to do with this torch?” Incheon asked.  “I probably shouldn’t carry it around the school.”  He was waving it around from the doorway.

Sib took the torch with his good hand and started rubbing the burning end into the dirt.  Lily reached over and took it from him.

“Sib, you go and get that hand looked at,” she said.  “I’ll do this.”  

They heard the snap of a branch in the woods and Willow’s panic set in anew.  She got up and bolted through the archway, practically knocking Incheon over in the process.  The two of them kept running down the hallway and stopped where it met the great hall on the third floor.  They both had their hands on their knees and were looking back toward the gateway which was now out of sight around the corner.  Sib and Lef were just emerging.

“Well,” said Incheon.  “We know one thing for sure.”

“What‘s that?” asked Willow.

“With the way we both bolted, there’s no way we belong in Hammersmith.”

“I could have told you as much.” Willow and Incheon spun around to see the Chancellor standing over them.



Chapter 25: Consequences
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There were only three of them sitting outside the Chancellor’s office in the waiting area.  Willow, Lef and Incheon were all staring at the floor, waiting for the inevitable punishment.  Sib had been excused to see the school nurse after he told the Chancellor he had slammed his hand in a door.  Lily had never been caught.  Sib was the last one to turn the corner and he told the Chancellor that there were only the four of them and then winked at Willow when the Chancellor’s back was turned.  After a cursory look down the hallway, the Chancellor had escorted the four of them to his office and then had Mrs. Scheunemeyer assist Sib to the Nurse’s office.  He left them and went into his office, closing the door behind him.  It was understood that they were to wait.

“It was Felicity, I just know it,” whispered Willow to the others.  “I saw someone moving in the hallway and I’m sure it was her...just like when we were in the kitchen.”

“Well it doesn’t matter now, does it?” said Lef.  “It’s not like we can jinx her when she turns her back anyway.”  Their conversation was interrupted by several teachers who entered the outer office door and proceeded to the Chancellor’s office without looking at the three of them.  Willow saw that it was Mr. Puterschmidt, Miss Pyx, and Mr. Zolock.  As soon as the door was closed, Incheon started digging in his bag.  He pulled out a set of extendable ears and the pink string wound its way across the floor and slipped under the Chancellor’s inner office door.  

“I thought the chancellor took all your Weasley items,” said Lef.

“Yeah.  I had to express order this one by owl post,” Incheon responded as he put the end of the pink string to his ears.  “Miss Pyx is talking now,” he whispered.

“Immediate expulsion!” roared the Chancellor a moment later.  Willow didn’t need the extendable ears to hear that through the door.  Incheon put his ear back up to the end of the pink string after wincing away when the Chancellor yelled.

“Mr. Puterschmidt is sticking up for us, saying that going into that hallway isn’t that bad,” Incheon relayed.  “Now the Chancellor is saying we don’t respect authority and we’re a menace.”  Incheon looked at Willow and Lef.  “He’s right about us not respecting authority,” he said.

“Not his authority anyway,” muttered Willow.

“Now Miss Pyx is telling him that we should just get a detention,” continued Incheon.  “She says she’s done some divination and...”  Incheon stopped talking.

“And what?” whispered Lef.

Incheon dropped the string from his ear and started pulling it back into his bag.

“Well?” said Willow.

“She’s done divination and none of us are going to pass our final exams, so he doesn’t have to worry about expelling us,” Incheon said, finishing putting the extendable ears back in his bag.

The three of them sat in silence.  Willow’s thoughts were interrupted by the Chancellor’s office door opening.  Mr. Zolock, Miss Pyx and Mr. Puterschmidt walked past them, again not looking in their direction and left the outer office.  

“You three!” called the Chancellor, “into my office.”

 

The lecture from the Chancellor was unpleasant, the loss of fifty points from each of their houses worse, and the impending detention more so, but Willow thought the letter home to her mother was the worst of all.

“Willow, I’m so disappointed in you!” her mother said that evening.  “What were you doing out of bounds, when you knew better?”

“We were trying to find a way to get our magic to work,” replied Willow.  

“But why couldn’t you ask for help?”

“Nobody can help us, mom, I’ve tried and I don’t want to be expelled.”

“Expelled?  Who’s talking about expelling you?”

“If we don’t pass our final exams, then we’re automatically expelled.  None of us except Lily can do any magic.  I don’t know what else to do.”

“And you bring this up now?  A month before your final exams?  What were you thinking?  I need to go speak to Mr....McCracken.”

“But he wants us to be expelled!” 

“Why would he want that?”

“I don’t know for sure, mom, but it has something to do with a prophecy and us being in the fifth house.  He’s close to being fired and he thinks he can save his job by getting rid of us.  I’ve talked to everyone already.  Nobody can help me.”

“Willow, I want to help you!”

“There’s nothing you can do, there’s nothing anyone can do!”  Willow yelled and ran upstairs to her room, slammed the door and collapsed on her bed.  Her body was wracked with sobs.  She was going to lose everything.



The sky had faded into dusk when her mother knocked on the door and came in. 

“Willow, please tell me what’s going on,” she said, sitting down on the edge of the bed.

Willow had told her about the sorting long ago, but now she told her about the shared dreams that she and the others had had about the Hunter and the grove, about finding the archive, what she learned from Mr. Zolock and Miss Mercana about the prophecy, and her latest visit to the grove through the door in the school hallway.  She left out the part that Miss Mercana was a werebear, thinking that this was not the time.

“Mr. Zolock hasn’t been able to break the spell on the archive books, so none of us know what to do next,” Willow concluded, wiping the tears from her cheeks with her sleeves.  “The Chancellor wants us expelled and there doesn’t seem that anyone can do anything about it.”

“Well, that would explain why he cancelled our parent-teacher visit for the spring and won’t return my letters,” her mom said, getting up to pace the room.  After a minute, she paused.  “Besides the Chancellor, was anyone else upset that you were in that corridor?”

“Uh...” Willow thought for a moment.  “No.  They didn’t seem to think it was a big deal.” 

“And while you were in the grove, did you put your wand in the water?” 

“No!” exclaimed Willow.  “In the dream, it destroyed the wand, splitting it in two and twisting it.”  Her mom got up and stared out the window for a minute before continuing.

“Or changed it...” her mom muttered.

“What?” asked Willow.

“Honey,” Willow’s mom turned back toward her.  “You have to find your magic if you’re not going to be expelled.  We know there’s nothing wrong with your wand after visiting Narrowway over Christmas.  It’s just waiting for something, but there’s no way to know what that something is.  I believe you were shown all of these dreams for a reason.  You said the grove in your dream is real and the doorway is real, why isn’t the transformation of your wand real?  And you’re right in that I don’t understand any of this, but I think you need to go back.”

“But what about the ghost?  The Hunter?” said Willow.

“Your school is full of ghosts, and nobody is troubled about them.  Why should this one be any different?”

Willow thought about the killing curse, but didn’t bring it up to her mom.  

 

They didn’t talk about it any more that night, or in the two weeks that followed.  By the second Saturday in May, the date of the last Quiddich game of the year, Willow told her mom that she was going to stay late for her detention and probably wouldn’t be home in time for dinner.

“I’ll have dinner for you when you get home,” her mom replied.  “And Willow, see if you can’t get back to the grove while you’re at it.”

“Uh...okay mom.”

Although it was a warm day, the skies were overcast and gray.  There was a steady rain falling and the Ilvermorny Team was in dead last place of all the five schools playing for the North American Quiddich Championship.  Willow, Lef, Sib, and Incheon didn’t even stop by the Quiddich game.  Instead, they sat in the conservatory sipping hot chocolate while Willow told them about the conversation she had with her mom.

“She wants you to go back!” exclaimed Incheon.

“I know,” replied Willow.  “I didn’t tell her about the Hunter using the killing curse.  I’m sure she’d feel differently if she knew about that, but I didn’t want her to know that we had almost been killed.  Still...do you think we could just see if we can get there?”  They weren’t doing anything else except waiting for the game to end, so they climbed the stairs to the third level and started toward the forbidden corridor when they saw Miss Pyx standing in the middle of the hallway.

“Ah, there you are.  I’ve been waiting for you,” she said to them.

“Waiting?” said Willow.  “Why?”

“I have something for you.  It’s something you’re going to need.”  Miss Pyx held out a small white sphere, about the size of a pool cue ball and handed it to Willow.

“What is it?” asked Willow

“A light in the darkness,” replied Miss Pyx.

“I…I don’t understand,” said Willow.

“If you’re going to get your magic back, you are going to encounter darkness.  It’s a sunspot.  When you hold it in the air, it will produce a brilliant light.”

“But I thought you said that we were all destined to fail our finals?” said Incheon.

“I did say that,” said Miss Pyx smiling, “but it wasn’t meant for your ears.  I lied to the Chancellor about what I saw in my divination to have him drop his attempt to get you expelled.  I have no idea how you’re going to do on your finals.  What I really saw was five students in darkness, headed into deeper darkness...which is strange, since there are only four of you.”

“So can we go down the hallway?” asked Willow.

“No,” replied Miss Pyx.  “The Chancellor is in his office.  He knew you would be on the grounds today and is paying close attention.  Going down this hallway today would mean a third violation and would certainly get you expelled.  You’ll have to get through another day.”

They couldn’t do anything but turn around and go back the way they came. After thanking Miss Pyx for the sunspot, they sat in the conservatory not saying anything until they heard the roar of the crowd outside which marked the end of the game.

“I suppose we’d better get started if we want to finish before dark,” said Lef.

They met Mr. Zolock near the stadium entrance as the last of the fans were leaving and using portkeys, brooms, or walking toward the school to use floo powder to get home.

“Ah, there you are,” he said to them.  His clothes were perfectly dry and the raindrops appeared to be avoiding him as they fell.  “Come on inside.”

They walked into the stadium and looked around.  It was a disaster.  Wet streamers, cups, wrappers, banners, and all sorts of debris were all over the field.

“This is going to take forever!” said Incheon.

“You said it,” agreed Sib.

“So,” said Mr. Zolock, “you went through the portal?  What was on the other side?”

They were all stunned.  Willow spoke up first.

“How...how did you know?” she asked.

“It was Sib’s injury,” said Mr. Zolock.  “He couldn’t have slammed his hand in a door because I locked them all myself.  He had to have done it somewhere else.  Now, how did you get in?  What did you see?”

“I’d love to tell you about it, but shouldn’t we get started with cleaning up?” asked Willow.

“Ah, yes, the clean-up,” said Mr. Zolock and he took out his wand.  “Scourgify!” cried Mr. Zolock and as Willow watched the stadium began cleaning itself up.

“But didn’t the Chancellor say we couldn’t use magic?” asked Lef.

You didn’t,” said Mr. Zolock, smiling at them.  “Now, tell me what happened.”

Willow told him about using the word ‘Andaste’ to get in and what they found when they were inside.  Sib jumped into the conversation to explain how Lef had saved him from losing his hand on the Devil’s snare.  Incheon added how Sib had figured out how to get inside the ring and Lef told Mr. Zolock what they had found inside the circle of stones and the flight back to the gate after they had seen the ghost. 

“Andaste...Andaste...of course!,” said Mr. Zolock.  “Say our name and enter.  ‘Andaste’ must be what they called themselves.  That’s why I kept seeing that word all over the archives in my feeble efforts to decode it.  I think you need to go back,” 

Willow looked at the others and they were as confused as she was.

“What about the Hunter?” she asked.  “He was the one who used the killing curse!” 

“What did he use it on?” asked Mr. Zolock in a calm tone of voice.

“What do you mean?”

“Did he use it on a person, or did he use it on a deer?”

“What difference does that make?” Willow asked.

“It makes all the difference in the world,” explained Mr. Zolock.  “Are bullets and arrows evil?”

“Evil?  No, I guess not, but they can be used to kill.” 

“True, but you said the key word - ‘used’.  Evil is all about what you mean to do.  Magic is the same way.  Certain spells aren’t necessarily evil, it’s how they are used that make them so.”

“But the killing curse?” asked Lef.

“Can be used to humanely kill a deer...and has been used by indigenous witches and wizards for ages to do what would otherwise be done by a bow and arrow or a spear.  How do you know the Hunter, as you call him, wasn’t hunting?”

“I...don’t know,” said Willow.

“It don’t matter anyway,” said Sib.  “We can’t get back into the hallway.”

“Well,” said Mr. Zolock.  “I’ll talk to the Chancellor and see what I can do.”


Chapter 26: A Trojan Dragon
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A week had passed and Mr. Zolock had so far failed to convince the Chancellor.  “He won’t listen to reason!” he had told them.  “I’ve tried everything short of dragging him through the portal, but he still said that until I decode those archived books and understand exactly what was happening, he would not allow anyone in that corridor.”  

To add insult to injury, Willow found that someone stolen her pseudodragon carving.  She had taken it out of her bag and set it aside for just a moment.  When she had come back the carving of Fred was gone. 

I bet it was Felicity, she said to herself, fuming over the loss and angry at herself for forgetting to put it back in her bag.  Three times Willow had approached the third floor corridor that week and all three times, there was a teacher standing guard at the entrance.  

She had a hard time studying for finals, but she knew her future was riding on them and she could at least do well on the written exam.  She had found out that the exams on the first day of finals were all written examinations that covered the topics that didn’t involve casting magic: Care of Magical Creatures, History of Magic, Herbology, Nomaj Studies, and Astronomy.  It was the second day that she dreaded.  The second day was a demonstration of practical wand work in Thaumaturgy, Alteration and Alchemy.  



Willow rode the bus to school on the last Wednesday in May; the first day of finals.  As she went over the constellations in her head for the three hundredth time, she carried Fred’s cage from the bus into the main hallway.  Lef, Sib and Incheon were there, standing with Mr. Zolock.

“Ah. Hello, Willow,” he said, “I’d like you and your friends to join me in my office.”  Willow knew she didn’t have enough time to drop off Fred and meet Mr. Zolock before exams, so she lugged Fred’s cage with her past the Thaumaturgy corridor and up the south stairs to Mr. Zolock’s office on the second floor.  He held the door open for them when they entered and then closed it behind him, glancing around to ensure that nobody else was lingering in the hallway.

“I’ve tried everything,” he said as he sat down in his wingback chair.  He waved his wand and four small chairs were summoned.  “I even escorted the Chancellor to the grove to show him, but he still insists that the potential danger is there.  He said that the guard on the doorway will continue until I’ve deciphered the archive books you’ve found and can prove there is no danger.”

“So there’s no way we can get back,” said Willow.  

“Oh, I think I know a way,” said Mr. Zolock.  “It turns out that the hallway will be unguarded tomorrow morning before the practical magic exams.”

“So we’ll just go tomorrow morning,” said Incheon.

“Well, there is a problem with that,” said Mr. Zolock.  “The reason there will be no guard is because no students will be allowed into the building before the finals start.  Once they do open the door, all the students will be escorted directly into the banquet hall for testing.”

“So we’re doomed,” said Willow.

“Not quite yet, Miss Carter,” said Mr. Zolock.  “If you can all get here early enough, say seven o’clock, I’ll have a fire going and will leave the window open.  You’ll need to find a way to get here by floo powder or broom, but it will get you into the school.  Once you’re here, I think we can figure out a way to get you up to that third floor hallway.”  He looked at the clock on the wall, which showed the minute hand a little bit before ‘finals’.  “Oh, look at the time!  You’d better hurry if you want to drop off that pseudodragon and still make your first day of finals on time.”

Willow practically ran from Mr. Zolock’s office, hoping she wouldn’t be late for finals.  She was lucky in that Miss Mercana was actually standing in the great hall when Willow was running through and was able to pass off Fred to her.

“I saw that you were running late, so I thought I would shorten your trip,” she said to Willow.  “Good luck on your finals today.”

“Thanks Miss Mercana,” Willow said.  “Good luck grading them.”

“Oh, we don’t grade the exams.  None of the teachers actually do the final scoring.  We find out how you did at the same time you do.  Now hurry up, you don’t want to be late.”  

Willow turned on her heels and ran toward the banquet hall where the finals were being held.  She made it inside just as the bell rang to mark the start.  The entire banquet hall had been changed from its normal dining tables to rows and rows of single desks.  Every student was inside, sitting at one of the desks and most had already started on the papers in front of them.  Willow didn’t see that there was any specific place for her to sit, so she found a desk off to her left and sat down.  As soon as she sat, a roll of parchment, quill and ink appeared on her desk.  She put her bag under her chair and unrolled the parchment.  It was her first final - Care of Magical Creatures.  She took a deep breath, picked up the quill, dipped it in ink and began to write.

She was nearly at the bottom of the parchment, finishing the last question on the difference between nixies, pixies, sprites, and dryads when a bell rang and the parchment in front of her abruptly vanished.   As everyone’s parchment disappeared, there was a general mumbling around the room.  As she looked up, she saw that most others were in the middle of writing at the end too.  A minute later, a new parchment appeared on her desk, and all the desks around her.  Opening it, Willow saw that it was her Astronomy final.  She heaved a big sigh and got to work drawing the constellation Orion.  

She worked through Astronomy and Herbology before they all stopped for lunch.  Instead of eating in the banquet hall, like they had been doing all year, everyone left the building to a huge white tent set up behind the school.  Willow, Lef, Lily, Sib, and Incheon found a table away from the others and sat down.  Almost immediately, food appeared and Incheon was the first to dig in.

“Lef, what did you put for the question on Fringed Bleeding Heart?” Lily asked while Willow and Sib grabbed a bacon cheeseburger from the platter in front of them.  After Lef explained the Herbology question, Lily grilled Willow on the Care of Magical Creatures test.  When Lily was done questioning them on every answer they put down on the tests, the rest of them told her what Mr. Zolock had said that morning, making sure nobody near was listening to their conversation.   

“Well,” she said.  “I suppose Incheon and I can just ride our brooms over tomorrow.  How about you, Lef?” 

“I can come by floo powder,” she said.  “I didn’t know Mr. Zolock’s office was connected to the network.”

“Sib?” questioned Lily.  “Are you coming by floo powder too?” 

“I don’t know,” he replied.  “My ma keeps the powder, so I’d have to make up some excuse why I was comin’ early.  I’ll think of somethin’”.

“What about you, Willow?” Lily asked.  “Floo powder too?”

“I don’t have a fireplace,” she answered, just now realizing her problem.  “And I don’t have a broom.  I...I don’t know how I’m going to get here tomorrow.” 

The rest of them just looked at her.

“Don’t worry,” Lef said.  “We’ll think of something.”

Even though the weather was perfect, Willow couldn’t enjoy it.  Her thoughts were already on tomorrow and whether there was anything she could do about it.

 

The written exams on Nomaj Studies and History of Magic were in the afternoon.  Willow knew that the Nomaj Studies exam wasn’t graded by Mrs. McCracken, so she had no trouble answering the questions about cars, cellphones, and farming without trying to remember Mrs. McCracken’s ridiculous explanations. She finished that exam and completed her History of Magic Exam, finishing her last paragraph on the goblin Morlock the Bold, who had refrained from fighting in the Battle of Hogsmeade, just as she had done on the second day of classes.

After the last bell had rung and the History of Magic parchment vanished, she set down her quill and started rubbing her hand, which ached from writing non-stop over the past two hours.  When she found the others in the lobby, Lily was busy grilling Incheon on his answers.

“I don’t know!” said Incheon.  “Why are you asking me the difference between a television and a toaster?”

Willow turned to Lef.  “Any ideas?” she asked.  Lef just shook her head.  At that moment, an owl flew right over Willow’s head and dropped a package about the size of an apple.  Willow had barely reacted when Lily grabbed it out of the air right in front of her face.

“Sorry,” Lily said.  “Quidditch reflex.”  She looked at the tag and then handed the package to Willow.  “It’s for you.”

Willow opened it and was surprised to find the wooden carved pseudodragon that Sib had made for her.  There was a note as well:

 

‘I think this belongs to you.  Make sure you’re holding it at 7am tomorrow and it will get you where you need to go.’

 

It was unsigned, but Willow was sure it was from Mr. Zolock.  “I guess I know how I’m getting here tomorrow,” she said to the others.  “Mr. Zolock must have enchanted this to be a portkey.  I wonder how he found it.”

“Has anyone seen Sib?” Lef asked.  The rest of them all shook their heads.  “Do you think everything is alright?” she continued.  “Did he ever say how he was getting here tomorrow morning?”

Nobody saw him before they had to leave.  As Willow rode the bus back home, she hoped Sib would be there tomorrow.  She told the bus driver she didn’t need to be picked up the next day and went inside.

 

“Any luck getting back to the grove?” her mom asked after Willow had told her about the first day of finals.

“No,” Willow responded.  “We’re going to try tomorrow with Mr. Zolock’s help, but if we get caught I’m going to be expelled for sure.”  Willow remembered something that Felicity had said to her a month before, just before her trip to the grove.  “Mom, were you ever a student at Gampton Hall?” 

Her mom hesitated before responding.  “No, I don’t think so, honey, but there’s something I want to show you.”  Willow’s mom left the room and came back a moment later with the Granger she had purchased over the holiday break.  “I’ve been using this since Christmas, but sometime in April, it changed.”  She proceeded to open the purse and reach inside, only her hand didn’t stop at the wrist.  Her forearm, elbow and bicep all disappeared inside the purse until it was hanging on her shoulder.

“But I thought the magic didn’t work for you,” said Willow.

“It doesn’t work for nomaj,” her mom replied.

“You mean you’re...you’re a mage?  You can do magic?”

“I don’t know what it means, Willow.  Like I said, this bag was perfectly normal until two months ago.  I wrote to James Abrams and Caitlyn Chantrix and even Neal at Bags by Bumble.  There’s no mistake.  This bag does not work for nomaj.”

“Two months ago...” started Willow and then she bolted upright with the memory.  “The spell removal potion!”

“The what?” asked her mom.

“I brought home a spell removal potion to try it on my wand at the beginning of April, but before I got a chance, you came into the kitchen choking on something and drank it.”

“I did what?”

“Drank a magical potion...the bag didn’t change, mom; you did!” exclaimed Willow.  As she thought for a moment she said “...so it made you magical?  I don’t understand.”

“That makes two of us,” replied her mom.

“But did you go to Gampton Hall?” asked Willow.

“No,” replied her mom.  “I remember very clearly going to nomaj middle and high school.  I’ve never had a wand and I’ve never been to Narrowway.”

“So how can you be magical but not go to magic school?” Willow asked.

“That’s a great question.  If you get the chance, I’d like you to ask Mr. Zolock another question: What happens if you open the blue envelope.”

“You mean the invitation to attend school?”

“Yes,” her mom said.  “We had a choice to open the red envelope to accept or the blue envelope to decline.  I want to know what happens to people who open the blue envelope.  I think it might answer our questions.”

As Willow drifted off to sleep that night, the thought that Felicity wasn’t lying was swirling through her head.  My mom is a wandless mage.  She just hoped that she wouldn’t end up that way herself.

 

“You have to let go of me mom, or you’ll end up at school too,” Willow said as her mom hugged her the next morning.  “Mr. Zolock will help us into the grove and we can try to fix our wands and get back before finals start.” 

“Good luck,” responded her mom.  “And no matter what happens, know that I love you.”  As the clock struck seven, Willow’s room blurred and she recognized the feeling of having her bellybutton pulled out the top of her head that she had felt nearly a year ago as they drove to Gampton Hall and every time they had driven to and from the school.  The next thing she knew, she was standing in Mr. Zolock’s office, a little dizzy and quite queasy.  Mr. Zolock was putting wood in the fire and was surprised to see her. 

“Oh, hello Willow,” said Mr. Zolock when he saw her appear. 

“Hello, Mr. Zolock,” Willow said back.  “So they put a portkey on the road.”

“Oh…yes, they set up a magic portal on the road so nomaj parents don’t really know how far away their children are each day and it also helps when they travel in for Quidditch or parent-teacher visits.  I didn’t know you were coming by portkey.” 

“But you sent me the pseudodragon, with the note...” replied Willow, showing him the wooden carving in her hand.  

“I’m afraid I didn’t Willow,” he said, taking it from her.  “I didn’t even realize until now that you couldn’t use floo powder to get here.  But no time for that now, go open up the window so Incheon can get in.”  Willow ran over to the window as Mr. Zolock stoked the fire in his fireplace.  

So who had helped her?  Who knew she needed to get here and how did they find her carving?  After opening the window, she turned back to him.  Looking at him in the light of the fire, Willow thought he looked very pale and haggard, as if he hadn’t slept in days.

“Mr. Zolock, are you feeling alright?” she asked.

“Yes, Willow.  I’m feeling great,” he said, wiping his brow with his sleeve.  “Just a little overtired.  You see, I’ve finally broken the code.”

“On the books?” asked Willow.

“Yes!  Of course I had some help, but I’ll take them to the Chancellor as soon as he gets back.  The little I’ve been able to read so far reinforces everything you’ve found out all year.  Unfortunately, he won’t be back in time for your finals today, so we’ll still have to find a way to get you into that corridor.”  A green flash appeared behind him and Lef stepped out of the fireplace.

“Hello, Mr. Zolock,” she said.  “I didn’t know you had your fireplace connected to the Firejump Network.”

“Yes, indeed,” he replied.  “One of the perks of being an emeritus professor - a direct connection from office to home.”  They were interrupted by Lily and Incheon flying in the window on their brooms.  

“Miss Smith,” said Mr. Zolock to Lily.  “I didn’t expect to see you here with the others.”

“Oh…I, uh…I just wanted to help,” she replied, avoiding eye contact with Mr. Zolock, who was preoccupied with putting their brooms in the corner of his office.  Willow glanced at the clock.  It showed fifty-five minutes left until ‘finals’.  Sib was still nowhere to be found. 

“Should we go?” asked Lily.

“He said he’d be here,” said Lef.  “He would wait for us.”  

As they stood watching the clock, Willow asked Mr. Zolock about the blue envelope.

“Have you ever heard of an unbreakable vow, Willow?” he asked in return.

“No, sir.”

“It is a vow taken that cannot be broken on pain of death.  I took an unbreakable vow not to reveal several secrets about Gampton Hall.  The blue envelope is one of them.  If I answered your question, I wouldn’t make it out of the room alive.  I’m afraid nobody can give you the answer you seek.”

The silence was broken by a gentle knock on the door.  Mr. Zolock went over and opened it a crack, and then he pulled it wide open while Sib snuck in under his arm.  

“Sorry I’m late,” he said.  “I had to put the slip on the Murgatroyd Ghost.  I don’t know if he’d turn me in, but better safe than sorry.”

“Sib, where have you been?” said Willow.  “After you disappeared yesterday, we didn’t know if you were going to make it.”  

“My brother has hidden the floo powder before and I didn’t know if he was going to sabotage me again, so I decided to just crash here for the night.  I was in the Featherpenny student lounge.”

“All night?” said Lef.  “Oh, Sib, I’m so sorry you had to do that.”

“Don’t be,” he replied.  “The couch up there is more comfortable than my bed.”

“Mr. Zolock,” said Willow.  “How are we going to get to the hallway without getting caught?”

“Well,” he explained.  “I wasn’t sure before, but this wood carving gives me an excellent idea.  Let me tell you of a nomaj story that I quite enjoy.  It seems that some warriors from a place called Greece were laying siege to the walled city of Troy and could not get in for the longest time.  In the end, they decided to pack up and leave, but not before providing a mighty gift to the Trojans in the form of a giant wooden horse.”  Mr. Zolock held up Willow’s pseudodragon carving.  “The Trojans, believing they were victorious, brought the gift inside their walls and celebrated.  What they didn’t know is that inside the horse were Greek soldiers, who snuck out that night and opened up the gates from within, allowing the returning Greek army to storm the city.”  

He placed the small wooden carving on the floor and gestured for everyone to stand back.  Waving his wand at it, it grew until it nearly filled the room.  With a few more spells that Willow didn’t recognize, he waved them all to the side of the giant wood carving nearest his desk.  “I've put a door on this side, if you’ll just climb in.”

“But aren’t other people going to notice a giant dragon being wheeled through the school?” Lily asked as they climbed inside the wooden pseudodragon.

“Oh, yes they would, if it stayed giant.  In you go, quickly now.”  Once they were all inside, he closed the door.  The five of them were stuffed together, and could see out of the pseudodragon’s sides through small holes.  Willow watched as Mr. Zolock waved his wand at them a second time and then he and the room began to grow gigantic.  By the time it was done, Mr. Zolock must have stood over one hundred feet tall and the entire room had the same gigantic dimensions.  The giant Mr. Zolock reached over and picked up the wooden pseudodragon and held it in the palm of his hand.

“I hope you are alright in there,” he said to them.  “I’ll get you to that hallway as quick as I can.”  He left the room and began his descent down the stairs to get to the first floor corridor. “I wish my old bones could move a little faster.”

“Zephyr!” called out a voice once they had reached the first floor corridor.  “I was just going to look for you.  Could I borrow a moment of your time?”  Mr. Zolock had been moving along the first floor corridor toward the main staircase when he was stopped by Mr. Hendershot.

“Well, I’m kind of busy at the moment,” Mr. Zolock replied.  “Can I meet with you later, Ruluff?”

“I’m afraid not,” Mr. Hendershot replied, “but this will only take a minute, honestly.”

Sighing and whispering “I’m sorry,” Mr. Zolock followed the other teacher into the open Thaumaturgy classroom.

“I know I should have decided before now,” Mr. Hendershot said to Mr. Zolock, “but I’m on the fence about which problem I should tell the proctors to give the students in their finals today.  For the levitation test, would you recommend that I have them levitate the instructor?”

“Only if you have the nurse in the room,” Mr. Zolock replied.  “Someone is bound to get nervous and drop him or her.  Why not a stack of cauldrons?  Extra points for putting them down in a different arrangement than they were stacked.”

“Of course!  Thank you.”

Inside the wooden pseudodragon, Lily whispered “This isn’t fair.  We’ll know about the exam!” 

“So don’t listen, then,” hissed back Incheon.  “But be quiet about it, because I want to know.”

“One more thing, Zephyr,” Mr. Hendershot continued.  “For the lumos spell, I was thinking of using Devil’s Snare and...”  Mr. Zolock cut him off.

“Oh, I wouldn’t use Devil’s snare.  It was tried about thirty years ago with disastrous results.  You wouldn’t believe the carnage.  We had to cancel the rest of the day.  How about creating a lantern?  Extra points for making it last the longest or glow the brightest?”

“Yes, you’re right.  Thank you so much Zephyr.”

Mr. Zolock left the classroom and headed toward the main stairway.  “Brings a whole new meaning to ‘insider information’, doesn’t it?” he mumbled to them.  Instead of climbing the stairs, he used the lifts to whisk himself up to the third floor main hallway and into the forbidden corridor.  He held the pseudodragon up to his eyes to look at them.

“This is where we part ways,” he said to them.  “You don’t have much time...forty minutes by my watch, so I’ll do my best to delay the start of the finals.  I don’t know how, but I’m sure something will come up.”

He waved his wand and they levitated through the air and around the far corner near the portal.  As soon as the pseudodragon touched the ground, the gigantic hallway around them suddenly shrunk down until the wooden carving nearly touched the ceiling. Willow, who was nearest the door, opened it and they clambered out.  When the door was closed again, the carving shrunk back down on its own and Willow put it in her bag.

“Everybody ready?”  Getting nods all around, she turned to the portal.

“Andaste,” she called out.  

Nothing happened.

“Andaste.”

Again, nothing.

“It’s not working,” said Lef.

“What’s wrong with it?” Incheon asked.

“Andaste!” called Lily.

“It has been sealed by the Chancellor.”  The five of them whipped around to see Damian Bones behind them, floating in midair.  “You cannot enter.”  

“So we’re doomed,” said Willow.

“Not yet,” said the ghost.  “There is another way...”

 

(*The story of the Trojan Horse from Virgil’s Aeneid)



Chapter 27: Another Way
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“The journey to the grove is through the kitchen,” Damian Bones intoned.  “However, the kitchen, when empty, is enchanted to detect entry just as this hallway is enchanted, so we will need to distract those that are watching.” 

“Wait, so that means...” started Lily.

“...that nobody ratted us out.” finished Willow.  “But I would swear I saw someone when we went through the passage.”

“Of course you did,” replied the ghost.  “I am the one who has been watching your actions.”

“But why?” asked Lily.

“There is no time for words now,” the ghost said.  “If you want to get into the grove, you have to move quickly…and you will need a diversion.”

“I’ll do it,” said Sib.

“No,” said Lily.  “I’ll do it.  I’m the only one who can still pass the finals...I hope.”

“And what are you going to use?” said Sib.

“Here,” said Lef, reaching into her bag.  “Use these.” Lef handed Lily three large plant pods.

“Are these…?” started Lily.

“…skunkweed seed pods, yes” finished Lef.  “I was going to use them during finals as a last-ditch effort in case we failed today, but I think this is better.”

“Awesome, Lef,” said Incheon.  “I’m so proud of you.  You’ll be a troublemaker in no time.”

“What do I do with them?” Lily asked. 

Turning to the ghost, Willow asked, “Where does the alarm sound?”

“In the teachers’ lounge on the second floor and in the Chancellor’s administration office,” the ghost responded.  “The Chancellor’s office is vacant today, so you will just have to empty the lounge.”

“Point the rounded end under the door and step on them,” Lef said.  The stink will shoot into the room and everyone in there should come pouring out.  Just make sure you don’t get any on yourself – you’ll reek for a month.”

“And don’t be around when they do pour out of the room,” said Willow. 

“Got it.  Any ideas on how I should escape?” said Lily.

“Willow - the door that Mr. Zolock showed us!” said Lef.  Willow proceeded to tell Lily how to get in and out of the second floor teacher’s wing using the secret door.  When Lily said she understood, they all turned back to the ghost.

“The rest of you meet me outside the kitchen entrance,” he said.  Without a backward glance, the ghost vanished through the wall.

“We’d better get moving,” said Willow.  “We’re running out of time.  Good luck Lily!”

“Good luck to you,” Lily said as she took off down the hall, peeking around the corner to see if the way was clear.  Waving the others forward, she ran quietly along the hallway and down the grand stairway.

Willow watched her go and then she, Lef, Incheon and Sib made a run for the main stairs together.  Reaching it without seeing anyone, they started their descent into the dark basement. 

When they reached the second level, there was no sign of Lily.  Willow figured she had to be out on the roof of the conservatory by now.  She turned to continue down the stairs toward the first floor when Lef tripped and crashed into her.  Willow fell to the floor and her legs dropped off the side of the ledge, dangling over the sixty foot drop to the hard stone floor of the second basement below.  Willow scrabbled at the floor, trying to hold on to something to prevent her from dropping over the edge, but her nails just dragged over the stone floor as she slid further and further.

“Help me!” she called as she dropped over the edge.  An instant later, Sib caught her wrist and held her as she dangled in the air.

“Willow,” whispered Sib.  “I ain’t gonna drop you, but you gotta be quiet.”  Willow’s voice was caught in her throat.  She couldn’t have screamed even if she wanted to.  Sib started pulling her back up onto the second floor ledge.  Slowly, she inched up over the edge as Sib grabbed her other hand and lifted her.  When she could get a leg up, Willow swung up her feet, caught the lip of the floor and rolled onto the landing.  Incheon was leaning over the edge and then quickly pulled back his head and hushed them.

“Someone’s coming,” he hissed.  “They must have heard us.”  They lay still on the floor, Willow’s heart pounding so loud she was sure someone could hear it a floor away.  They heard the voice of the Custodian on the first floor.

“Hello?  Is someone there?” he called.  Then, a moment later they heard a second voice.

“Mr. Vernon, come quickly.  Something terrible has happened in the banquet hall.”  Willow heard the sound of running feet and the four of them sat up.

“That must be Mr. Zolock’s delay,” said Incheon.  “Let’s keep going.”  They hurried down the stairs to the basement level without seeing anyone else.  Willow stayed behind Lef and kept well away from the open edge when they passed the first floor.

Once they reached the basement, Willow saw that Lef was crying.

“I’m so sorry,” Lef sobbed.  “I almost got you killed with my stupid clumsiness.”  Willow stopped and hugged her.  

“I’m all right now,” Willow said.  “Besides, if we hadn’t stopped on the second floor, the Custodian would have grabbed us for sure.  Now come on, we’re losing time.” Willow grabbed her hand and they ran down the hallway.

The ghost was waiting for them outside of the kitchen, and Willow’s heart was still pounding in her chest when they reached him.

“Why didn’t you jump down the stairs?” the ghost asked.

“We can’t,” said Incheon.  “Only upper classmen can use the center.”

“Hmmph,” grunted the ghost.  “First years were always so gullible.”

“You mean we can jump down the center?” asked Incheon.

“Of course,” said the ghost dismissively.

“You mean I didn’t just almost die?” said Willow, casting the ghost a disbelieving eye.

“Do you really think the Professors would allow a gigantic death trap to exist in the middle of the school?” he replied.  

Changing the subject, Lef asked “How are we going to know when the coast is clear?”

“You won’t.” The ghost said, who had drifted to the closet under the stairs. “But you have no choice.  You must enter the kitchen now.”

Sib opened the door to the storage unit under the stairs and when the four of them had piled in, closed it again.  Once closed, the door to the kitchen appeared on the other side. They rushed in and turned to the ghost.  

“Now where?”

“We must get to the fireplace,” said the ghost.  “There is a chamber beyond it.”  The four of them turned toward the ghost.

“So you knew about the archive?” asked Willow.

“The archive?"  He looked confused.  "Well, yes, of course,” he replied.  “I was the one who put the unbreakable scramble spell on the books.”  They went over to where the fireplace was.  Luckily, no one had shifted the freezer back into place so they were able to squeeze through. 

“But Mr. Zolock broke the code,” said Willow, who was standing opposite Sib in the fireplace, looking for the correct stone to push.

“No,” replied the ghost, staring at her. “I told him how to break it.  Did he tell you that I knew of the archive?”

“No, it’s because this is where the archive was hidden,” Willow replied.  “But I don’t understand why Esbee would say that it was somewhere a Murgatroyd or a Hammersmith would never look.” 

“Clever girl, that Esbee,” replied the ghost.  “It's not a Murgatroyd or a Hammersmith - she meant the head of the houses; specifically me as head of Murgatroyd and Fulwar Bellows, head of Hammersmith House.  We were the ones planning to destroy the archives.  I never knew where she hid it.  But she’s right, I would never have come back here, and Fulwar was deathly afraid of house elves - of all things.” 

As Sib and Incheon triggered the stones, the opening appeared and the ghost drifted through the back of the fireplace wall.  Willow crawled through first.

"What happened to Esbee?" she asked the ghost once she stood up.

"She would not reveal where she had hidden the archives, so Fulwar cast the Imperious Curse on her."

"What does that do?" Lef asked after she followed Willow through the small doorway.

"They are fools to not teach you these things," the ghost said.  "The Imperious Curse puts the victim entirely under the caster's control.  It was Fulwar's intention to have her reveal the location of the archive, but she resisted the magic and must have been able to break free long enough to hide the archive here."

"But what happened to Esbee then?" asked Willow, helping Incheon through the opening.  "She said she was here just before she turned into a ghost."

"I do not know," the ghost replied. "I was not there, but I assume that she was killed when Fulwar lost control of his temper.  He was quite dangerous when that happened.  She was under the Imperious Curse when she died, which is why she is of two minds...one under the curse, the other her own."

After Sib climbed through the small doorway, they found themselves in the dusty circular room that had once been the salamander pen.  The broken and blackened chest still stood to the side where Willow had left it.

“To proceed, we must close the doorway from this side,” said the ghost.  “Press here, and here.”  He indicated two stones that were on either side of the small doorway.  Willow and Lef, who were closest, pressed them and the opening disappeared, leaving them in pitch black.  Willow waved her hand in front of her face, but could see nothing. “Did anyone think to bring a light?” asked Incheon.  Willow remembered the orb that Miss Pyx had given them and felt around in her bag until she found it.  Raising it into the air, it burst into light, shining so brightly that Willow had to squint.

“Now the way opens,” voiced the ghost.  Willow’s eyes detected the sound of stone grinding on stone and when she turned toward it, saw the outline of a doorway appear on the side opposite where the fireplace opening was. Looking inside, Willow saw a tunnel that descended through the rock toward a blueish light.  Willow felt a chill through her entire body as the ghost passed through her to lead the way into the tunnel.  Willow started to move toward the tunnel when somebody stumbled and fell into her, nearly knocking her over.

“Sorry,” whispered Lef.  “Tripped over something.”  Lef moved past Willow and led the way after the ghost with Sib, Willow and Incheon following.  The tunnel itself was carved from solid rock and had rough sides.  It was about three feet wide and six feet tall, so they all descended single file, Willow’s orb lighting the way from the middle of the line.   

As they got closer to the blue light, what started as a low rumble became a roar.  About a hundred feet into the tunnel, they reached a point where the rock walls stopped and changed to what looked like transparent glass walls that were somehow moving.  As Willow got closer, she could see that water was flowing around this tunnel and she could identify the roar as that of rapids.

“We must be under the river!” yelled Lef, trying to make herself heard over the rush of water.  She put out her hand to touch the wall and her hand disappeared into the river, spraying her and Sib.  Willow stared at the tunnel.  It wasn’t glass – the walls were water.  The water tunnel extended another three hundred feet before it started ascending again.  Careful not to touch the walls or lean against them, they walked on wet river stones that formed the bottom of the path, trying not to fall over into the roaring torrent. 

“Sib!” yelled Willow.  “Hold on to Lef!  She’s bound to eat it on these stones!”  Nodding, Sib reached forward and grabbed the back of Lef’s bag.  Not a minute later, Lef slipped and fell sideways into the rushing river water.  Willow watched as her head disappeared through the side of the tunnel.  Sib pulled her back sputtering and dripping wet from the top of her head to her shoulders.  Lef said something to him and he nodded and then she continued forward. 

It was with relief that Willow stepped into the stone tunnel on the other side of the river, back onto a roughly-hewn stone floor.  The noise of the river carried some way up this tunnel so that they couldn’t speak to each other until they were nearly halfway up. 

“Are you okay, Lef?” Willow called up to her.

“Yes.  Wet, but okay,” she called back over her shoulder.

The ascending tunnel ended in a large cave and they could see another rectangular opening lit up around the edges with daylight.

“Push from the inside and it will open.”  They all jumped.  In the tunnel they had forgotten about the ghost and they hadn’t realized he was still with them until he spoke.  Sib edged around Lef and put his hands on the door.  Pushing lightly, the door didn’t move.  He moved his feet and put his shoulder up against the door and it shifted slightly.  Lef helped him push it open and this extra effort was enough to open the door so they could squeeze through. 

 

"How did you know about this tunnel?" Willow asked the ghost.

 

"I didn't," he responded.  "I told you I would never have thought of the room where Susan hid the archives.  She was the one who told me."

 

"Esbee?"

 

"Yes," he continued.  "After you found the archives, she sought me out and told me about the path.  She knew of its existence from when the river was used to put out the kitchen fires.  She must have known you would need it."  He gestured for them to squeeze through the doorway.

Lef went through first, followed by Sib.  Willow could see the outline of the ghost just standing near the doorway.

“Aren’t you coming too?” she asked him.

“I am afraid,” said the ghost.

“Afraid of what?” said Incheon.  “You’re already dead.”

“Except I am not.  I am afraid that what I have done is unforgivable and that I will never escape this curse of undeath,” said the ghost.

“What do you mean?” asked Willow.  “What’s out there?”

“Redemption...or damnation.  Come, you all should know,” said the ghost.  “It is part of the history of your house.”  The ghost moved forward through the stone door.  Willow followed behind, squeezing through the gap followed by Incheon.

They looked around, squinting in the bright morning sunlight.  Sib spoke up.  “I know we’re looking for the stones, but can anyone tell which way to go?  Last thing I want to do is wander through these woods for the next hour.”

Damien Bones spoke.  “The grove is a hundred yards to the south.”  He pointed the way.

“How do you know that?” asked Sib.

“Because I have been here many times in my years at Gampton Hall.  The last time I came here it was to burn the American Indian school to the ground.”  They all turned and stared at him.

“Is that what you’re seeking forgiveness for?” asked Willow as she put the glowing orb back in her bag.

“No, much worse than that,” said the ghost.  “Three hundred years ago when Gampton Hall was founded, I helped choose its location to be close to the Susquehannock school that already existed where we are now.  We built our school nearby and invited them to send their students to us to learn our ways and we would send our students to learn theirs.  They had their own school, which is translated to ‘Pathfinder’ in English.  Over time, they learned a great deal from us, and we from them, but it was not enough for me.  I wanted all of their secrets.  I wanted to know and use the power of the grove.  My desire for power blinded me and several of us thought we could take by threat and force what we wanted.  Our threats were met with silence and withdrawal.  They no longer sent their students and barred our access to their school…”        

“Peshtang!”  Willow and the others jumped as the ghost was interrupted by the Hunter, who appeared twenty feet away, pointing an accusing finger at the Murgatroyd Ghost. 

Willow spoke to Damian Bones, but didn’t take her eyes off the Hunter.  “Why does he call you that?”  The hunter had lowered his finger but his eyes were ablaze with hatred.

“Peshtang is the Susquehannock name of the village where I lived while I was alive - only we called it Paxton.”

“The Paxton Boys!” said Incheon.

“Since they would not share their secrets with us,” said the Slytherin Ghost, “Fulwar Bellows and I stirred up the nomaj from the nearby town of Paxton to attack and destroy Conestoga Town and any American Indians who were found there.  That action destroyed his tribe and all their medicine men and women who trained here.“

“There is a blackness that takes your soul when you take the life of another,” the ghost continued.  “I could never forgive myself for what I had done and have remained at Gampton Hall after my death in penance ever since.  I could not live with what I had done, but my soul could not rest either.  I am here to beg forgiveness for something that cannot be forgiven.” The ghost fell to his knees and bowed his head.

The Hunter reached behind him and pulled his bow off his shoulder.  “Let the Great Spirit judge you!” he cried and pulled the string on the bow back.  A glowing transparent arrow appeared in the bow.  Sib jumped in front of the ghost and waved his arms in the air.

“Wait!” he cried.  “He’s asking forgiveness, don’t you see?  He’s helping us!”

Avada Kadavra!” the Hunter said and he released the arrow.  Willow watched as it passed right through Sib’s chest and out his back.  Sib stood motionless, looking down at his chest.

“Sib!” Willow yelled, moving toward him to help, but looking behind him to see the ghost arrow buried in Damien Bones’ chest.  Sib also turned and they all watched as the ghost faded from sight, a look of peace on his face.

“Sib, are you okay?” Lef asked, running over to him.

“Oh, I think I pooped my pants,” said Sib, still holding his chest.  He hopped a couple of times and then said “nope, I’m okay.”  They all turned toward the Hunter.

Peshtang has gone to be judged by the Great Spirit,” said the Hunter.

“Remind me not to tick off the Hunter,” said Sib.  The Hunter gestured for them to follow and he set off into the woods in the direction of the grove.  The four of them had to run to keep pace with him.  Following Sib, they crashed through bushes and brambles until they reached the clearing where the circle of stones stood.  The Devil’s Snare still entangled the entrance.

“Ah yes, my favorite,” said Sib. “Devil’s Snare.”

“We came prepared this time,” said Willow, who pulled the orb from her bag again and lifted it into the air.  The sunspot burst into light and the Devils’ snare retreated all around them to get away from the blazing brightness.  In a matter of seconds, the path was open and they all rushed inside.  Willow put the orb back into her bag and the four of them knelt by the pool of water.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” asked Incheon.

“No,” said Willow, “But we don’t have any options.  If we go back are we going to pass the finals?”

“No,” replied Incheon.

“So we are going to get expelled.  And what is the first thing they will do when we get expelled?”

“Take our wands.”

“Exactly.  So what do we have to lose?”  Turning to the pool, Willow tightly gripped her wand and plunged it wrist-deep in the water.  The pool started to glow and then, just as in the dream, Willow’s wand began to warp and bend, twisting back on itself in both directions, the wood swirling to make strange shapes.  She loosened her grip on the wand and held on with just two fingers as it formed a complete circle.  Inside this circle was a smaller circle on top of a triangle on top of a horizontal line.  A long string extended from the top so it formed a talisman that could be worn around the neck.  When it stopped moving, Willow pulled it out of the water and held it up.  Red sparks flew out of the face of it. 

“Lumos Solem!” said Willow and light flared from it as bright as the sun, lighting up the center of the grove.  The Devil’s Snare, which had been growing back around them, retreated all around the grove to get away from the light.  “I think my wand has found what it was waiting for,” she said.  “Now come on, we have to hurry!”

Lef, Sib and Incheon plunged their wands into the water and watched as theirs twisted into the same shape as Willow’s.  Once theirs were done, they stood up and put them around their necks.

“It has to be nearly eight,” said Sib.  “We’re gonna to have to run the whole way back to make it before finals start.”

“Can’t we just go in late?” asked Willow.

“Once the doors close, they don’t open them again,” said Lef.  

“Let’s go,” said Sib and he started to lead them back to the water tunnel.  The Hunter blocked their path and pointed them toward the archway.

“But it was sealed,” said Willow.  The Hunter just shook his head and continued to point at the archway.  “Well, it’s worth a shot,” she said.  Sib was the first one to the door.  

“Gampton Hall!” he called.  The door glowed and they dashed through.



Chapter 28: Finals
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They emerged into the third floor corridor at a run. 

“We’ll have to jump down the stairs!” called Lef over her shoulder.

“What!” exclaimed Willow.  “No way!”

“We have to,” said Sib.  “We’ll never make it if we don’t.”   Sib and Lef were in the lead and they charged right off the edge of the stairway without hesitation.

“First floor!” Willow heard them yell as they plunged downward.  Willow slowed down, and stopped at the edge of the drop-off, unwilling to make the leap of faith, but Incheon barreled into her from behind.  The two of them dropped like bricks from a clock tower.  

Incheon caught her hand and called out “first floor!”  Willow’s heart leapt upwards as she dropped, seeing the dark grey stone of the Alchemy labs four stories below her approach at dizzying speed.  She thought she was going to die, but couldn’t scream with her breath frozen in her throat.  It was over in seconds.  She felt herself getting lighter and her descent slowing as they passed the second story and emerged onto the first.  As if she had landed on an invisible parachute, she felt herself gently guided to the first floor landing next to the stairway where Sib and Lef were waiting.  

Willow had trouble standing, but Sib grabbed her hand and pulled her upright.  Without another word, they took off toward the banquet hall, jumping the stairs in the conservatory and bursting through the door on the other side.  As they entered the corridor, Willow could see the doors to the room just closing.

“Wait!  We’re here!” called Sib.

The doors opened back up and a very grey-faced elderly man who they didn’t recognize stepped aside to let them through.

“You four are lucky the start of finals was delayed.  Once these doors are shut, we do not open them again until the end of the test.”

Once they were inside the door, the four of them were leaning over with their hands on their knees, trying to catch their breath.

“What year are you?” the grey-faced man asked.

“Fir...first years,” gasped Incheon.

“Very well, if you’ll follow me, please.”  

The banquet hall had been made even greater for finals.  The room had been sub-divided into seven large classrooms on either side of a central corridor.  The grey-faced man led them to the last room on the right and held the door while the four of them entered.

The room was filled with every first year student, mostly grouped by house, but as there were only thirty seven desks - one for each student - , Lef, Sib, Incheon and Willow split up to find a seat where they could.  Willow ended up sitting in the second row and looked around to find Lily.  She saw her sitting in the front row and Lily gave her a look that said ‘Well? Did you do it?’.  Willow smiled at her and held up her amulet-wand.  Lily stared at it, unblinking, but her attention was drawn away by the gray-faced man who had walked to the front of the class.

“My name is Mr. Groomfelter.  I will be your exam proctor today.  Your exams today will be in three parts.  You will spend an hour and a half in each part. With a lunch break before starting the third.  I will divide you up alphabetically to each of three rooms.    Starting with Mr. Abbott to Mr. Gencarelli, please report to the first exam.”  He gestured to a door on the left side of the room.  “Miss Gutbuster to Miss Moosebickle to the second room.”  He pointed behind him.  “And Miss Murgatroyd to Miss Zygax to the third,” he said, pointing to Willow’s right.  Good luck to all of you.”

Willow stood up and moved toward the door on the left.  She passed Lily on the way, who stopped to look closer at the amulet-wand.  

“It’s awesome.  Does it work?” she said to Willow.

“Perfectly,” Willow responded.  “Are you going to be all right with the finals?”

“Yeah, I think so.  Besides, do I have an option at this point?”

“I suppose not,” said Willow.  “Thank you for doing what you did.  It was really brave and selfless of you.”

“Any of you would have done the same,” said Lily. “I just happened to be the one who could do the most magic....looking at your amulet, it makes me understand how I was able to do more than all of you.”

Willow looked at her with a puzzled expression.

“My wand ‘wants’ to be in a circle, and I have the only wand that can bend.  The more I bend it to cast my spells, the better chance I have at success.”  She held up her wand.  “Twelve inches, yew, unicorn hair, quite bendy” and she bent it into an arch.  As Lily started heading to the door on the right, she called out “good luck!”

“You too,” Willow replied, heading for the first door.

Once inside the left-hand door, Willow looked around at the other students.  Including herself, they were divided evenly with three students from each house.  From Hammersmith house there was Pete Docos, who was one of the boys who hung out with Norbert, and Francesca Florenzano, Felicity’s friend.  There were nine others from the other three houses, but none of the Pathfinders were with her.  There were three mages inside judging their charms.  Willow was selected to go first, working with a very elderly woman.

She took a glance at Willow’s talisman.  “I’ve never seen a wand that looks like that - may I ask who made it?”

Taken off guard by this question, Willow wasn’t sure how to answer.  “Um...The Hunter ma’am?” 

“Hunter, you say?   Hm. I’ve never heard of her.  Well, shall we get started?”

 

After the last final was over, Willow had found Lily, Incheon and Lef sitting in the conservatory.  Incheon was laughing and telling Sib about their section.  

“Ha!  You should have seen the look on Felicity’s face when Lef cast her lumos spell.  It must have been twice as bright as the one Felicity had generated.  Oh, she nearly exploded with jealousy.  Ha! Ha!”  

“I guess you all did pretty well, then?”  Willow asked.

“Yes,” replied Lef, “but it helped that the potion we did was the same one those two idiot Suncorn boys screwed up on our first day of Remedial Alchemy.  I remembered to use cinnamon jellybaby and not yellow jelly baby because of it.  Judging by the smell, quite a few people made that mistake.”

“The little Thaumaturgy hint we got while we were in the dragon helped too,” said Lily.  I don’t know if I could have done as well as I did if I didn’t know what was coming.”

“Speaking of which,” said Willow.  “We should go find Mr. Zolock to thank him for his help.”  Everyone agreed and they left the conservatory headed in the direction of the teacher’s wing.  They made it as far as his door before they were stopped by a pile of flowers and wreaths.

“What’s with all the flowers?” said Incheon.

“Beats me,” replied Willow.  After stepping over the bouquets, they tried knocking, but there was no answer.  They wandered down the hall toward the teachers’ lounge.  Apparently they had gotten most of the smell out, but there was still a lingering hint of skunk as they peeked inside.  The lounge too was empty.  As they turned around, they were confronted by the Hammersmith Ghost.

“Hello Mr. Harstad,” called Willow.  “Have you seen Mr. Zolock?”

“Zephyr?” the ghost replied in a peppy voice.  “Why yes, I saw him down near the nurse’s office.  He’s looking better than ever.”

“That’s good,” said Willow, “because he looked just awful this morning.”  They retraced their steps back to the south stairs and followed them to the bottom.  They passed by the closet under the stairs where they had begun their fateful journey seven hours before and stopped outside the Nurse’s office.  They didn’t see anyone in the hall, so they knocked on the door.  The nurse answered, here eyes red and puffy from crying.

“Oh!” said Willow.  “Are you alright, Mrs. Praecuro?”

“I’ll be alright,” she said, holding back more tears.  “I’m just so upset about his passing.  He didn’t want to go, you know.  The last thing he said was ‘I have so much left to do.’” 

“Whose passing?” Willow asked.

“Oh, dear,” she said.  “It hasn’t been announced.  It was Mr. Zolock.”  

The five of them were stunned.  Willow sat down on the floor in the middle of the hallway.  Did they do this to him?  Was it their attempt to get back to the grove?  Was the stress of this morning too much?  The others hadn’t said anything and Mrs. Praecuro began to sob again.

“What are you crying about Patty?” said a voice.  Mrs. Praecuro stopped crying and started looking for where the voice had come from.  Willow looked up and didn’t see anyone.  A second later, a ghost phased through the wall on the side of the hallway.  Willow was shocked to see that it was the ghost of Mr. Zolock.

“Zephyr?” sobbed Mrs. Praecuro.  “Is...is that really you?”

“Well, yes and no, Patty,” the ghost replied.  “My body is gone, but I’ve left an imprint of my soul here.”

“Mr. Zolock?” said Willow.

“Ah, there you are,” he said, turning toward the five students.  “I’ve been looking for you everywhere.”

“You’re...you’re a ghost!” exclaimed Incheon.

“Yes, but of course I am.  You don’t think I could just leave with all that research to do?  I’ve been the authority on Gampton Hall history for more than forty years now.  I don’t know of anyone else who could do it.  Besides, I heard there was a vacancy in the Murgatroyd House, so perhaps I'll apply to be their new house ghost.  What do you think?”

“That’s...something,” replied Willow, unsure of what to say in a situation like this.  Congratulations?  Sorry?

“Looking at your talisman, I see you made it to the grove and back,” the ghost said to them and floated closer to look at Willow’s.  “Absolutely fascinating!  This must be why your wands haven’t worked all year.  Pathfinder wands must have all been like this.”

“Mr. Zolock,” asked Lef.  “What happened?”

“Oh,” he sighed.  “Well, I was exhausted from staying up last night decoding all the books after Damian Bones gave me the key to undoing the spell.  Then after I helped you into the corridor, I quickly headed down to the first floor using the jump...which is something I haven’t done in over two decades.  I’ll tell you, it didn’t do my heart any good being in my throat during the drop.  Hurrying to the banquet hall, I rushed in - as much as an ancient old man like me could rush - and found Mrs. Black.   I was telling her about the hidden archives in hopes it would delay the start of the finals when my body decided it was done with this world.  I fell to the floor and with my last thoughts left an imprint of my soul behind to finish all that I had started.  And here I am,” he said, spreading his hands out to his sides. 

“We didn’t get to say thanks,” said Lef.  “Or good-bye.”

“The thanks should come from me,” said Mr. Zolock.  “I have never had such purpose as I do now because of what you five have done.  And as for the good-bye, there’s no need for that at all.  I’ll be here for many years to come and I’ll want to hear all about your journey when you return in the fall.  Now, you’d better hurry along to the assembly,” the ghost said to the students.  “I think four of you will appreciate the surprise that’s waiting.”

Saying goodbye to the ghost and to Mrs. Praecuro, they turned to head back to the Banquet Hall.  After a few steps, Willow stopped and called to the others, “you go ahead, I’ll catch up in a minute.”  Mrs. Praecuro had gone back into her office, but the ghost of Mr. Zolock was still in the hallway, floating back and forth.  Willow approached him.

“Willow, watch!” he said, and proceeded to do a double flip in mid-air.  “I haven’t felt this good in fifty years!”

“Mr. Zolock,” started Willow.  “When I asked before about the blue envelope, you said you couldn’t tell me anything while you were alive.  But now that you’re...”  She hesitated.

“Dead,” Mr. Zolock finished for her.  “Deceased, kicked the bucket...  Yes, I see what you mean, I should no longer be held to the vow.  Very well, I always thought you should know anyway, but the blue envelope hides your magic and permanently changes your memory.”

“What?” asked Willow.

“Yes.  It completely removes any memory of Gampton Hall existing, so that the person could move on with their nomaj life and never be the wiser.  It also suppresses any magic you have so that you are essentially nomaj.”

“So my mom could have been invited to Gampton Hall and if my grandfather had opened the blue envelope...”  

“Poof!” said the ghost.  “No memory of ever being magical or having visited.”  

“But she would still be a mage?  

“Is a mage, Willow.  I was here when she visited.”

“So she did visit here!  Could she have done magic...I mean before she took the dispel potion?”

“The blue envelope merely hides her magic...it doesn’t eliminate it,” replied Mr. Zolock.  “In a dire enough circumstance, it's possible she could have 'broken through' so to speak.  But she would only have been able to do a spell that she had learned by the age of eleven.”

“Could she have apparated?” asked Willow who briefly explained the car crash from the previous summer.

“That’s a very difficult spell that most mages don't learn until senior year,” he said.   Seeing Willow's hopes drop, he added, “But anything’s possible.  A mother’s love is an extremely powerful force.” 



Chapter 29: The Fifth House Reinstated
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  In amazement over finding out that her mom really was a mage, Willow slowly wandered back toward the banquet hall thinking of that fateful day in April when her mom had drunk the spell removal potion by accident.  It must have washed away the effects of the blue envelope...but it didn't restore her  memory of Gampton Hall. 

As she reached the top of the stairs and stepped onto the first floor, she pulled her dress robes from her bag and put them on for the final ceremonies in the banquet hall.  She entered the hall and saw that the room had been completely renovated back to the festive atmosphere she remembered from the sorting.  

In addition to the normal four house tables, there was a new small round table set up next to the Murgatroyd one that was decked out in purple and white.  Willow wondered what the table was for, but nothing came to mind.  Seeing Sib, Lily, Incheon and Lef already sitting at their house tables, she went to the far end of the Hammersmith table and sat down between the four first-year boys who were happily ignoring her; and Felicity, Marigold, and Francesca who were unhappily ignoring her.

Mrs. Black, who Willow remembered from their Remedial Alchemy class, got up in front of the teachers’ table, touching her wand to her throat before talking to make her voice like a loudspeaker.  Willow noticed that the Chancellor was nowhere to be found.

“For those of you who do not know me,” she began, “I am Mrs. Patricia Black, Senior Alchemy Master here at Gampton Hall.  In the Chancellor’s absence, I have been asked to lead this end-of-year celebration.”

“To start, I want to acknowledge a terrible tragedy that occurred this morning before the start of your practical final exams.  Professor Zephyr Zolock, who has taught here for over sixty years, passed away this morning.” 

The entire room launched into a buzz of conversations.  Mrs. Black raised her voice and the conversations quieted somewhat.  “I would like to take a moment of silence to recognize the long and honorable life of this man, whom many of us regarded as a dear friend and mentor.”  As she bowed her head, a hush fell over the room.  Willow bowed her head too and was thinking of what the ghost version of Mr. Zolock would think of this when a loud voice called out from the back of the room.

“Could we just get on with the celebration and stop with all this hanging our heads?”  Every pair of eyes in the entire hall swung to the back of the room to find Mr. Zolock’s ghost hovering in the air above the tables.  “I appreciate the sentiment, Pansy, but there will be plenty of time for that at the funeral.  Meanwhile, the students here at Gampton Hall will enjoy my company for many years to come.”  Again, the entire room erupted into muddled conversation over this surprise.  

“Very well, Zephyr,” said Mrs. Black, after the hubbub died down.  Looking back at the student tables, she continued.  “I then would like to call your attention to the small table located at the side of the room.” She gestured to the small, empty table draped in purple and white that Willow had noticed upon walking in.  “The first forty years of Gampton Hall’s history were believed to have been lost in a fire in 1764.  However, before Mr. Zolock’s...transition, he had found and deciphered a series of books that constitute the lost archive of the first forty years of the school’s history.  Although we have not yet been able to review all of the information in those books, we have discovered enough to correct one error that has occurred.”


“Gampton Hall Academy was founded with five houses, not four.  The four houses that we have always known; Featherpenny, Murgatroyd, Suncorn, and Hammersmith were joined by a house of American Indians who had a magical academy nearby.  For forty years, these houses co-existed in peace and harmony.  In 1763, this all changed.  In that year, the nearby American Indian settlement was destroyed, their school was burned to the ground, Amrose was subjected to a spell that prevented him from sorting anyone into the fifth house, and all of the library books that referenced that house were subjected to a confusion charm and hidden away.  Shortly thereafter, the books were collected and were going to be destroyed.  Instead of destroying the books, the Chancellor of the school at that time hid them where they would not be discovered and she did not divulge that information, even when subjected to dark magic.” 

“Two hundred and fifty years later, Mr. Hendershot made a fateful decision to use Amrose to demonstrate a cleansing spell that removes all enchantments.  Once freed from the spells cast on him, Amrose was able to sort students into five houses, not four.  I would now like the members of the Pathfinder house to take your places at the new table.”

Willow realized that Mrs. Black was talking about her.  After hesitating for a moment, she stood up and started walking past the Hammersmith table toward the purple one.  One of the older students whispered to her.  “This doesn’t change anything, newbie.” 

 

Willow stopped and looked down at the neon green ‘newbie’ badge on her dress robes.  Lifting her talisman, she cast a spell.  “Dismoveo”.  The badge curled away and dropped off the front of her robes into her free hand.  “My name...” she said as she dropped the badge on the table “...is Willow.”  She turned her back and walked away.  Lef was already sitting down at the small purple table and Incheon and Sib were just reaching it.  As she took her seat, a new flag appeared at the front of the room next to the four others.  It was purple and white with the silhouette of an elk in the center.

Incheon was sitting next to Willow.  He leaned over and whispered to her.  “Isn’t Lily joining us?” 

Willow stared at him.  “How did you know?” she whispered back.

He pointed at his head.  “I have an audiographic memory, remember.  I knew there were five unsorted students, but it took me a while to figure out it was her.”

“She has to stay in Featherpenny...at least for now,” Willow whispered back.  Incheon nodded and turned back to Mrs. Black.

“And now for the awarding of the Gampton Hall House Championship,” Mrs. Black said.  “With the re-introduction of our lost house, the points for those members should be re-allocated.”  She waved her wand at a large scoreboard-like display on one wall of the banquet hall and a new area appeared labeled ‘Pathfinder’.  As Willow watched, the point total for the other four houses increased; each gaining nearly seventy five points. Pathfinder kept dropping and dropping, finally coming to a halt at negative two hundred and eighty five points.

“I’m not sure we’ve ever had a house with that many negative points,” said Mrs. Black.  

“Awesome,” whispered Incheon.  “We set a record on our first day.”

Mrs. Black pointed toward the red and gold table.  “The point tally shows that Hammersmith house has won the House Championship.  I believe this makes sixteen years in a row.  Congratulations.”  With a wave of her wand, the decorations in the room changed from the multicolored rainbow of all of the houses to gold and crimson and the Hammersmith table burst into rowdy cheers.

 

After the ceremony was over, the four of them stayed at the purple table while the rest of the students headed off to their house homerooms for the last time of the year.  The Pathfinders didn’t have a homeroom to go to.  As the last students walked out of the banquet room, Mrs. Black approached the Pathfinder table.

“We’re hoping to have a homeroom for you by the time you return in the fall,” she said.  “In the meantime, you’ll have to choose a house president.”

“It’s Willow,” said Sib without a second’s hesitation.

“Wait,” said Willow.  “Shouldn’t we vote?”

“It’s Willow,” said Incheon and Lef together.

“Very well, Willow,” said Mrs. Black.  “It looks like you’ve been elected.  You’ll need to establish your house rules.  Hopefully we’ll have some guidance for you on Pathfinder traditions when you return in the fall as well.”  She hesitated for a minute as if deciding whether to say what she had on her mind.  “Zephyr told me why he thought your wands didn’t work and what you had to go through to solve this mystery.  I’m impressed at what you’ve accomplished, but I hope you’ll pay a little more attention to the rules now that I’m Chancellor.”

“You’re Chancellor?” asked Willow.

“But what about Mr. McCracken?” said Incheon.

“Mr. McCracken was asked to step down and he has done so.  It seems we’ll have quite a few changes at Gampton Hall when you return in the fall.  Have a good summer and I’ll see you all in September.”  She left them alone in the huge empty hall.

“Can we have no house rules?” asked Incheon.

“Well,” replied Willow.  “One rule I know we’re not going to have is hazing the first-year students.  Wearing that badge all year has been awful.”

“Oh no!” said Lef. “I just remembered that if Mr. McCracken is gone, then that means that Miss Mercana is gone too.”

“Maybe we can convince her to stay,” said Willow.  “Come on.  Just sitting here by ourselves in this empty banquet hall is creepy.”

 

When they reached Miss Mercana’s office, they found the door slightly open.  Knocking on it, it swung open and Willow could see Miss Mercana inside, packing her things into a stor-all.

“Oh, hello Willow,” she said.  “Come in.”  As the four of them walked inside, she gazed for a minute at the talismans that they wore around their necks.  “I guess you got my message then.” 

“Message?” asked Willow.

“The one I sent with the wooden carving of Fred.”

“You sent that?” said Willow.  “But...how did you know that I needed a way here?  Mr. Zolock was the only one who knew.”

“Not the only one,” said Miss Mercana.  “There was a spy in the room by the name of Fred.”  She gestured at the pseudodragon who was out of his cage and curled up in a beam of sunshine by the window.  “Fred heard your conversation and told me what had happened.  By a lucky chance, after we met yesterday morning, I confiscated your wooden carving from James who had accidentally ‘found’ it.”

“You mean Fred can talk?” said Willow.

“No,” replied Miss Mercana.  “He communicates telepathically.”

“He’s a mind-reader?” 

“Not exactly,” Miss Mercana explained.  “He can’t read your thoughts.  He hears what people are saying and then ‘speaks’ in your mind.”

“But why didn’t he ever speak to me while I had him at my house?” asked Willow.

“Oh, he probably did, but unless you concentrate on it, it’s hard to catch.  It took me months to learn to hear him.  But you’ll have lots of practice over the summer.”

“What do you mean?”

“I need you to take him with you, Willow.  I can’t bring him along with me where I’m going.”

“But that’s why we came,” said Willow.  “We don’t want you to go.”

“And I don’t want to go, but that choice isn’t up to either of us.  Listen, I’ll be fine,” she continued.  “I’ll keep in touch with you next year and even see the four of you every once in a while.”

“But isn’t there anything we can do?” asked Lef.

“Yes,” replied Miss Mercana.  “You should try to find out all you can about that prophecy.  Everyone believes that the events of this year have set the prophecy in motion, but I’m not convinced that it means what they think it does.  In any case, it’s going to play a big role in all of our lives over the next few years.”

 

The four of them slowly walked back up to the school, pausing for a moment outside of the manticore pen to allow Willow to say goodbye to Corey.  Corey just looked back at her and slowly blinked his eyes.  As they approached the back door of the school, they noticed a wispy shape drifting toward them from the building.  

“Is that...” started Willow, shifting Fred’s cage to her other hand.

“...the Hunter,” finished Sib.  “What’s he doin’ here?”  They stopped as he approached them.

It was my role to protect the children from harm,” he said to them in a somber voice.  “I failed in that task and after my death, I continued to wander those woods alone for two hundred and fifty years.  Thank you for finding me.

“But ain’t you goin’ now that you’ve avenged those children?” asked Sib.  The ghost shook his head.  

I have new wards,” he said, pointing at the four of them.

“So you’ll be our house ghost?” asked Willow.  The Hunter nodded.

I will work with the others to show them the Pathfinder way.  It will be ready when you return.

“Thank you for finding us,” said Lef.  



After saying good-bye to the Hunter, they met Lily in the lobby.  They all promised to write to each other over the summer.

“Willow,” said Lily.  “How are we supposed to write to you?  Can we use owl post?”

“I don’t know,” said Willow.  “I’m pretty sure that owls delivering letters might be a problem for my nomaj neighbors.  But we’ll think of something...we certainly had enough practice solving mysteries.”  

She hugged everyone and left Gampton Hall for the last time that year.  Although she was sad to leave, she was also excited to go home.  She smiled as she looked out of the window on that last bus ride.  After all, it’s not every day that you get to tell your mom she’s a witch and have her be happy about it.



Chapter 30: Author's Note
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Book 2 - The Prophecy is posted here.

 

If you're reading this, it means you've most likely slogged your way through over 96,000 words - or roughly 20,000 more than The Philosopher's/Sorcerer's Stone (which was my length goal setting out).  First, I would like to say thank you.  I know it was a time investment on your part and I appreciate it.  I would also appreciate any feedback you might have on what you liked, what you didn't like, or even ideas about what adventures you think might await the Pathfinders in the future.  (I have my own ideas, but I'm open to suggestions)

 

Here's the origin of the story: 

 

Six years ago (2014-15), I spent the entire school year reading the Harry Potter series to my daughter - one chapter a night.  From September through May we managed to finish the entire series.  When she reached the end, she was hungry for more (but of course there isn't any more...at least none that I knew about.)

 

It made me think that perhaps I could write a story for her.  A story like The Sorcerer's Stone that introduces a young nomaj like my daughter into a magical world.  One that follows all the rules of Harry Potter's world, but one that is her own story, set in her own home, in her familiar surroundings.  So I set out to create that story.  After all, how hard can it be?

 

It turns out that it can be very hard, very frustrating, and very humbling.  I spent six months writing the story (this is all before Pottermore came out with the idea for Ilvermorny).  I knew the story had to be set in a contemporary setting (my daughter has no idea that there was life before Google), I needed to set it in America mostly because I'm awful at writing dialogue in British english, and I needed to have the perspective of a completely nomaj family stepping into this universe.  As I've told other reviewers, I've always been fascinated by what could have possibly convinced Mr. and Mrs. Granger to send their kid off to Hogwarts.  How would that interaction go here in America, short of just casting a confundus charm on the parents?   So the story grew over those six months from a basic idea into the final form you see now.

 

About the time that I completed the story using my own ideas, Pottermore began releasing more and more information about Ilvermorny, the American wizarding school.  The more I read, the more my own story became less and less canon and the more frustrated I got with how to fix it.  In the end, I walked away from the story in mid-2016.  Now, four years later, I've had enough time away to wrestle with that problem.  My assumption is thus:  If the population of witches and wizards is roughly proportional everywhere, then I can take the population of the United Kingdom and Ireland in 1990 and compare it to my best guess at the population of students at Hogwarts (I guessed around 300).  Translating that across the pond, there would be over 1600 students at Ilvermorny (and more if there's no Canadian school.)  Thinking this was too many for a single boarding school,  I decided that Ilvermorny was going to be the largest and most prestigious American school - but that there would be others: namely - Gampton Hall Academy.  Poof!  Problem solved. 

 

I used the harrypotterfanfiction.com forum community to help me along the way.  I'm incredibly indebted to the reviewers who took the time to review my writing, provide feedback, and give such great ideas.   I know I'm a better writer for having worked with them.  Thanks especially to Nick (elderflowers) who stuck with me to the end, even though our writing styles are profoundly different.

 

I hope you enjoyed the story. Book 2 - The Prophecy is posted here.

 

-Drew (aka Pathfinder or Ameripuff) 



http://www.harrypotterfanfiction.com