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 I stumbled into the apartment, clutching my arm as tightly as possible and trying to staunch the flow of blood. Regardless, the worn wooden floors still got splattered as I maneuvered through the hallways and living room, eventually making it into the bathroom.

A quick word about Dad’s apartment. Walking into it unwary would be like walking into a mine field, blindfolded and leading a herd of elephants. There were boxes of cursed items scattered in the strangest places, waiting to be reverted to their harmless state, and huge piles of spell books teetering on the edges of tables and chairs and shelves. There were discarded weapons all over the place – everything from guns to samurai swords to throwing stars – and enough booby traps to make a tomb raider cry for mercy. Most of them were deactivated the moment Dad or I walk through the door, but there were a few, mainly the ones around our private quarters, which remained until we personally said the counter-spell.  

I made it to the bathroom, leaving a gory trail behind me. Immediately, I turned on the sink, shoving my arm under it and watching the water run red. I sighed and reached up with my good arm, pulling on the mirror and revealing a cabinet filled with potions and bandages. I rummaged around until I found a small purple bottle of blood replenishing potion, a toxin remover brew, and a thin strip of paper that was covered with black writing that almost looked like hex marks. I popped the cork off of the first bottle, cautiously taking a sip and shuddering at the flavor. Slowly, I drained the bottle, careful not to rush its consumption. Then I took the second potion, chugging that one and resisting the heaving in my stomach. By the time I drained the bottles, the water was only faintly pink as it swirled down the drain.

I picked up the strip of paper just as my father appeared in the doorway, a bundle of clothes in his hands. “Here,” he said, placing them on the counter. “You should take a shower, clean up.”

“What about you?” I asked, taking a long look at his muddy pants and dripping shirt.

He shrugged. “I’ll just change. I’m not as filthy as you.”

I nodded agreement and pulled my arm out of the water, placing the strip of paper in the middle of my ravaged flesh. Dad and I both watched as the strip grew and wrapped around my skin multiple times, encasing my forearm in the perfect bandage. I flexed slightly and looked up as my father turned, walking away. He was just about to turn the corner when he paused, glancing back at me. “You did good tonight, kid,” he said. “Saved my ass.”

“Just returning the favor,” I whispered, closing the door behind me.

I went to the shower and grabbed the faucet, cranking the hot water on and watching it splutter to life. Quickly, I stripped from my clothes, casting a minor cleansing charm on them and ridding them of all grime. I still considered throwing it in the muggle washing machine we had, just to get that clean feeling you got when you slip into freshly washed clothes.

Happily, I slipped into the hot water, gasping at the scalding temperature. I reached out and chose one of the many bottles of shampoo the shelf inside of the tiled space, squeezing a ton onto my palm and smearing it on my hair. Slowly, I worked it in, getting my head so foamy that I couldn’t see through the bubbles. It took me nearly fifteen minutes to rinse it all out, and the second I did I filled my hair with conditioner. I then moved to scrubbing my body with a bar of soap, attacking my hands and nails and calves. I was just trying to scrape muck from under my toes when I heard voices in the living room.

I froze, cocking my head to the side as if that would help me hear. We had very few visitors at Dad’s place, mostly customers who needed us to deal with some feral Chikara or something. Occasionally, people I didn’t know would show up, people who Dad would invite into his bedroom and cast silencing charms on the doors. On these nights, he would only come out to get bottle after bottle of alcohol, getting into an increasingly drunken stupor.

But this person was obviously a customer – the very fact that I could hear the two talking was enough to prove that. I sigh and finish cleaning myself, straining the conditioner out of my hair and turning off the water. I dried myself with a towel and braided my hair, sliding into the oversized sweatpants and hooded military sweatshirt. Then I exited the bathroom, steam still rising from my skin.

 I walked into the living room, which was basically a collection of mismatched furniture that was all so old that it was probably created before my grandmother. Sitting in his favorite red chair was my father, drinking a cup of tea that I knew was spiked with brandy, and across from him was a man I felt like I should recognize. He was tall and pale, with brown hair and a thin face. There were a few freckles across his nose and a long burn mark along his hairline, right where one might wear a hat. He was dressed in rich maroon robes with a small crest over his heart and he, also, was nursing a drink.

Abruptly, as he glanced at me, I realized who he was and blurted out, “Headmaster Longbottom, from Hogwarts.”

He smiled gently and nodded greeting. “The one and only Elaina Riley. It is a pleasure to meet you again.”

I walked across the room and held out my hand, gripping his tightly. “Forgive me for not remembering our first meeting,” I said as we shake hands.

“It was when you were very young – three or four, I think.”

“That would explain it.” I released his grip and moved to my father, perching on the ottoman that he rested his feet on. “What brings you to our home?” I asked.

Dad nudged my thigh with his sock. “We were just discussing that.”

“What did I miss, then?”

“Something is amiss at Hogwarts School,” Headmaster Longbottom said, sighing heavily. “Something – and for the life of us, no one knows what – is on the prowl.”

“What is it doing?”

“It started by disrupting things in the forest, preying on the magical creatures there. The centaurs reported strange tracks in the mud by streams and whatnot. But the animal seemed to grow brave, and the centaurs came to us, saying that several of their number had disappeared. The population of magical creatures on our grounds has drastically dropped in the last month.”

I sensed that there was more to it and my eyebrows rose. “What else?” I asked.

He smiled grimly. “You have your father’s instinct.” I took the complement with a nod and he continued by saying, “The tracks have moved on to the Black Lake. Right next to the castle.”

“You think that it will start coming after students?” I asked.

He nodded.

I frowned, rubbing my neck. My father watched me for a long second before commenting lightly, as if talking about the weather, “Ella, say what’s on your mind. No questions are unwise when dealing with something this serious.”

“I…. I just have trouble getting it,” I said hesitantly. “I mean, if this thing is big enough to take out centaurs, then how can it not have been seen by someone? Aren't there always kids or ghosts or someone looking at the lake?”

Headmaster Longbottom sighed. “A point, my dear, which you would not voice if you have ever seen the castle. Only one side of it faces the lake, and that is the side that is mostly dominated by classrooms. Those rooms are locked during the night, which means that the creature has ample opportunity to prowl about as it pleases. The Gryffindor tower does, of course, face the lake, but it is so high up that it wouldn’t be too outrageous a thing to believe that something well-camouflaged would be hidden.”

I accepted this with a shrug, the gears of my mind still churning. “How big is it?”

The Headmaster reached into his pocket and pulled out a photograph, handing it to me. My father leaned forward and looked over my shoulder as I flipped it over, examining it with caution.

It was a picture of a footprint in the mud. It was similar to the tracks of wolves, but there was an extra joint and all of the fingers seemed to be topped with wicked points. There was a yardstick beside it to demonstrate its awing size – it was roughly three and a half feet long.

I frowned and passed the photo to my father. “Are you aware, sir, that the average adult Greenback dragon has a footprint that is two feet long, and the longest one recorded was four?”

The Headmaster nodded sagely and my father reached out, gently gripping my shoulder as he understood what I was implying. This thing, whatever it was, was almost twice the size of your normal Greenback.
 

Roughly four tons, if the beast happened to have hollow bones and zero percent body fat.
“I assume you want us to come in immediately,” my father said after studying the photo for another minute.

Headmaster Longbottom sighed and scratched the side of his face. “With all due respect, Mr. Riley,” he said slowly, “you don’t exactly blend in with a crowd. To this point, we have kept the students unaware of the issues surrounding this beast. If you were to come, a man with a name many of them know as a hunter, they will realize that there is something wrong.”

My father’s eyebrows rose as he took a long sip of tea. “What are you saying?” he asked. “What are we supposed to do?”

“You’re daughter is sixteen, correct?”

“Yes.”

Headmaster Longbottom gave me a long look, as if examining me closer would prove this true. “Hogwarts is always open to accepting students, regardless of their age or background. It is understood if you, her parent, thought it would be wise to end her homeschooling and allow her to come to our school.”

It grew so silent that you could have heard a feather drop. My mouth opened as I gathered what he was implying, my hands beginning to tremble.

My father’s voice was deadly when he said, “You want me to send my daughter to a school to investigate the biggest monster I have probably ever seen?”

“Yes.”

“Even if this creature was a manageable size, my daughter is my only assistant, and a fucking good one if I do say so myself. She’s saved my life almost as many times as I have saved hers, and she does it unthinkingly. She has the instinct and the head for survival. And you want me to let that disappear when God knows I might need her?”

I felt a stirring in my chest when he said this, a pride and embarrassment that made me want to smile and hide my face all at the same time. My father wasn’t one to insult me – in fact, he complemented me often. But it was usually about my appearance, or if I did something that reminded him of my mother; never about our work.

“I understand that this must be difficult for you,” Headmaster Longbottom said slowly. “She is obviously someone to be proud of. But the students wouldn’t recognize her, and she obviously knows enough magic that she will do more than keep up with her class with practical lessons at the very least. She can investigate and send information back to you.”

“And if this thing decides to attack?” Dad snapped.

“Then you have permission to come to the castle immediately and dispose of it how you wish.”

I could feel my father’s gaze on the side of my face, but I couldn’t bring myself to look at him. I was far to disputed in my mind to appear calm on the surface.

I wanted this. I wanted to go more than anything I had ever wanted before. It was a taste of the freedom that I had been admittedly starved from, the ability to think on my feet, the chance to test myself and see if I was actually suited to hunt monsters for the rest of my life. It was a beautiful opportunity, so perfect that I almost couldn’t stand it.

But it was also terrifying. This animal was bigger than anything I had ever seen before, and it was hunting. It could probably eat half of the Hogwarts student population without getting a stomach ache. Was there any way I could take that?

Dad nudged my thigh again and I finally looked at him. His face was oddly detached, as if he didn’t want his emotions to influence me in the way we both knew they would. But there was something in his eyes, something so burning that it was almost painful, that made me realize that he was almost as torn as I was.

“I want to go,” I whispered, my fists clenching on my lap. “I want to do this.”

“We’ll pay you a substantial sum, of course,” the headmaster chimed. “Approximately one thousand galleons, if that suits you.”

Dad and I both stared at him, so incredulously that he added, “Unless you require more.”

One thousand galleons were enough to keep us in the lap of luxury for years. To require more was a ridiculous idea.

Dad rubbed his face, his fingers rasping against his stubble. “How about this, Headmaster,” he said slowly. “You give us seven hundred and fifty, but you buy my daughter her… school supplies and anything she finds that she needs for the investigation of this beast. I will also send her an allowance, so between the two of us she will not miss anything.”

I felt my heart swell as he turned his tired gaze to me, reaching out and taking my hand. I squeezed it reassuringly as the headmaster cleared his throat, suddenly looking chagrined.

“Well, that might not work out entirely,” he said.

“Why not?” Dad asked.

“We already purchased your daughter’s supplies. But aside from that, this new deal will suit Hogwarts excellently.”

“You bought me my things?” I asked, my eyebrows lodged in my hairline. “How did you know I was going to take the job?”

“Well, my dear girl, we assumed that you were a bit like your father, and, well… if memory serves, he never backed down from a challenge in his days either.”

 

House elves delivered my new equipment the next day and it was decided that I would depart for Hogwarts the morning after, which was what the headmaster had called a Hogsmeade Saturday. He said it would ensure that I could take some time to get settled in the dorm room, but it didn’t matter much to me – I would be spending my first day, classes or not, exploring the castle.

I found most of the items Headmaster Longbottom had brought to be satisfactory – the robes fit, the books were new, and the potions ingredients were fresh. The only thing that I didn’t like was the wand, which I threw in my closet and refused to take back.

Friday night discovered me sitting in my room, my elbows propped up on my windowsill as I watched the evening. An icy wind drifted through the city and into my room, making it so cold that I could see my breath. I was trying very hard not to think about anything in particular, my fingertip tracing the bandages on my arm. Idly, I realized that I would have to come up with a good story for why I had human teeth marks on my flesh; maybe I could tell them I once had a really masochistic boyfriend who wanted to introduce me to the wonders of biting each other.

I grinned grimly at the thought before I sighed, turning my gaze to my room. Everything had been tidied up for my extended leave – the floor vacuumed, the shelves dusted, my things returned to their proper places. I hadn’t actually seen the floor in a few months, but now it was cleared of all stains and dust.

There were footsteps outside my room and a faint knock, making me jump. I called, “Come in!” and reached outside, pulling my window shut.

Dad opened my door, his jacket on and his bag over his shoulder. My heart fell as he stepped in, one hand in his pocket.

“You’re leaving?” I asked, trying not to sound pathetic.

He nodded slowly. “An emergency. A flock of those damned Nintu birds has popped up over Bristol, and they need me to deal with it as soon as possible.”

I sighed and rose, crossing the room and wrapping my arms around him. “I’ll miss you,” I said quietly as he hugged me back.

“I’ll miss you too, Ella.” He pulled away slightly, looking me up and down. “You pack your knives?”

“Yes sir.”

“Your extra spell books?”

“Yes sir.”

“Your money?”

I grinned shakily and nodded. “Yes Father, I’ve packed everything that I will need.”

Dad smiled back and gently cupped my face in his hands, pecking my forehead. “Good luck out there, Elaina. It’s a big world, and you know normal teenagers are a bit different from you.”

“Yeah.” I closed my eyes, fighting the panic beginning to rise in my chest. He was leaving when I needed him most – abandoning me on the night before I left.

“And Ella? I want you to have this.” I looked at him as he held out a small white box with a red bow. “Take care of them, okay?”

With that, he kissed my forehead again and disappeared, walking down the hallway and out the front door. I waited for a long moment before carefully pulling the ribbon off of the box, taking off the lid.

Nestled on a small piece of white cotton were two dog tags on a thin chain, the metal gleaming in the light and their engraved surfaces easily reading:

Charisa Riley

83rd Infantry

Cairo, Egypt

Field Medic

Mom’s tags. The ones my father hadn’t let out of his sight for eleven years.

I closed my eyes and carefully slip the chain over my neck, feeling the foreign weight of the metal against my chest. I suddenly wanted to cry, but tears were pointless; instead, I returned to my window and threw it open, propping my elbows up against the sill and staring at the lights of London.

I knew I would be exhausted, but I didn’t sleep a wink. I watched the sun rise over the buildings and could do nothing to steady the unease that was writhing in my chest.

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