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We stopped outside the Gryffindor locker rooms long enough for James to stash his broom and for me to run up to the bleachers and grab my bag. I had long sense cast a drying spell on us, but the cold was still deep in our bones and we hurried into the castle. Once inside, we climbed the stairs, talking about nothing in particular. We discussed the Quidditch teams we supported and detested, the foods we disliked and coveted, and stories of our childhood. The latter was a cause for my hesitation, but James saved me by producing a long anecdote about the first disastrous time he ever rode a broomstick. We were just reaching the seventh floor when I remembered my letter and paused.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, half-turning towards me.

“Nothing. I just wrote a letter to my dad and should probably send it before he flips out because of the lack of contact.”

James took a step back, moving as if to follow me. “Do you want me to come?” he asked.

“No, that’s fine. I know where the owelry is – I’ll just catch up with you in the common room.”

“If you’re sure…”

“I am.”

James paused for a minute more before dodging forward, snatching my hand and giving it a squeeze. “Then I’ll see you in a bit.”

I blinked at him as he let go and began to run, rushing down the corridor before I could respond. I sighed but couldn’t deny the prickle of a smile tugging at my lips as I turned, making my way down the hallway. Slowly, I climbed the twisting tower as I arrived at it, making my way to the pellet-coated top room.

I wasn’t alone. As I slipped inside, a boy looked up from the owl he was picking, flinching slightly as if I had surprised him.

“I’m sorry,” I said, not really knowing why I said it.

“Its fine,” he replied with a gentle smile. “I’m just a wee bit jumpy today, you know?”

I nodded and rolled my eyes in exaggeration, “Oh yeah, I know the feeling.”

The boy let go of his owl and held out his hand. “I’m Connor O’Brian.”

I glanced him up and down as I took his hand, smirking as I said, “A brilliant Scotsman, huh?”

He tapped the Ravenclaw badge on his chest, nodding. “Yes, lassie.”

“Now you’re exaggerating it.”

He grinned and chuckled. “Well, maybe a bit. But anyway, you’re Elaina Riley, aren’t you?”

“What if I am?”

“Then I would like to welcome you to Hogwarts, home of the kookiest bunch you’ll ever happen upon.”

I smiled and nodded, uttering a quiet, “Thank you.”

“So how are you getting along? I mean, with your first day.”

“Oh, it’s fine. A little hectic.” I shrugged as I reached into my bag, pulling out my letter and scanning the owls lining the walls. “Which of these are good for distance?”

“Those, there.” Connor pointed. “Where’s the bird flying?”

“London.”

“That’s not too far. You should be able to get away with any of these but the ones closest to the window.”

I took the parchment and rolled it up into a small scroll. I selected a large, tawny owl and coaxed it from its perch, tying the letter to its leg. “Godspeed, little bird.”

The creature sent a fierce glower my way before ruffling its feathers and taking off, seeming to purposely dig its talons into my forearm so to leave bloody streaks on my skin. I cursed and pulled my sleeve down over the marks, glaring at the owl as it flew away.

“Hey! Right nasty piece of work that you picked, huh?” Connor exclaimed, taking a few steps forward and reaching for my arm. I tried to keep it away from him, but he managed to pull my shirt up and examine my new wounds. “Ouch.”

“It’s fine.” I said, pulling away.

Connor stared at it for a long minute before he said, “You know, we have a medical kit up in Ravenclaw Tower. Do you want to come up and I can clean that for you?”

I smiled. “No, thanks. I can deal with it when I get back to my common room.”

“Are you sure? Because it’s no trouble.”

“I’m sure. I’m pretty good with medical magic.”

“Then why aren’t you in Ravenclaw?”

I shrugged slightly, gripping my bag tightly. “I don’t know,” I admitted. “Maybe I’m a bit to idiotically hasty. I am a leap before I look kind of person.”

“Even we smart lads need lasses like you in our house.”

“Well, I suppose the lions I am now coupled with need someone with brains to help them survive.”

Connor laughed as I turned and made my way to the door. To my slight surprise, he followed me, saying, “So who were you writing? You’re pap?”

“Yeah. I miss him, and I’m pretty sure he misses me.”

“That’s only right.”

Before he could ask another question, I countered with, “How big is your family?”

“Quite a good size. There are my folks, then me, the oldest. Then we’ve got Alexi, Sean, Brian, and Matte, all of us at Hogwarts. Then there are three wee ones, Mackenzie, Laura, and Owen.”

“Wow, that’s large!”’

Our conversation for the next few minutes consisted how big his family was. That carried us to the Gryffindor portrait, where we paused. “Well, thank you for making sure I got here all right,” I said, smiling.

“Oh, it wasn’t a problem.” He seemed to think for a minute before saying, “You know, I quite enjoyed your company, Miss Riley. If it’s of any interest to you, perhaps on Friday you would like to… follow tradition with me and some of my mates? Only, of course, if you aren’t doing it with your friends.”

I will be perfectly honest when I say that I had no idea what he meant by ‘following tradition with him and his mates’. But I wasn’t open to admit a lack of knowledge, so I shrugged and said, “They haven’t brought it up yet, but I’ll talk to them and get back to you.”

Connor grinned and bowed slightly. “Then I shall see you later, Miss Riley.”

I watched him leave for a minute, wondering if this was what Oak had meant about interest. I brushed it off, however, and said the password, entering the common room.

I slipped inside to the sound of a voice yelling. Well, not just any voice – it was P.J., and her screams were directed at her closest friends.

“There’s something wrong with her!” she yelled, her face being colored with an angry flush. “I’m telling you, she isn’t right!”

“There’s nothing about her that you need to worry about, Patricia.” Rhyad said firmly. “She’s - .”

“You’re wrong!” P.J. growled. “She’s hiding something! She isn’t being honest.”

“Her mother just died! She isn’t going to be all fluffy about life!” James retorted.

“But it goes beyond that! Everything she says has some kind of hesitation in it!”

“Of course she’s hesitant! She’s trying to make friends and doesn’t want to make us reject her!”

“You might be ready to love her and welcome her with open arms,” P.J. spat with a dangerous quiver in her voice, “but I’m not. I’m watching her, and the minute she crosses the line you can come crawling back to me and admit that I was right.”

She shoved past my friends and began to storm out the portrait hole when she saw me standing there. Her face paled slightly, but there wasn’t a single apologetic glimmer in her eyes as she marched past me. I looked up and saw our companions staring at me, their eyes wide and their throats constricting as they swallowed.

“I think I should go upstairs,” I managed quietly, gripping my bag tightly as I began to walk on the extreme outskirts of the room.

“Elaina,” James started, reaching for me. Annalie, however, grabbed his arm and whispered something I couldn’t hear. I brushed past them and walked up the staircase, rushing until I had reached a place where I would not be seen. I leaned heavily against the wall, closing my eyes and focusing on the churning emotions inside of me.

I was torn between pleasure and an odd amount of pain. My friends had defended me against one of their own, protecting my weak ties to them instead of helping one of their closest companions. I had made connections.

But on the other hand, P.J.’s words still swam around my head. How I couldn’t be trusted. How she was right and they should reject me.

Why did that hurt? Why did it create a sudden glob of unidentified materials in my throat? I should have been able to brush it off, laugh, say she was just being pissy and jagged. It should have been no issue whatsoever.

But it was. It made me feel as if she had physically stabbed me or something.

I sighed and beat my head gently against the stone behind me. Ignore her, Elaina, I told myself. She doesn’t matter.

But she did. She had some say when it came to the others. If she protested enough, she could probably have then all against me.

I turned and thumped up the stairs, entering our dorm room and throwing myself onto my bed. I changed out of my clothes and left them in a pile on the floor, worming my way beneath the covers and deciding that I would pretend I was asleep, regardless of who walked in.

 

The next few days took on a sense of monotony. Going to classes in the morning and afternoon, working on homework in the evenings, occasionally going to Quidditch practice with my friends. P.J. and I avoided each other like the plague, only speaking to each other when absolutely necessary. I learned that I had a few classes with Connor and found that whenever my companions were absent I seemed to have him as my designated escort.

This was the unbroken cycle until the Thursday of my first week, when I overheard a group of kids talking about Tradition night coming up. I paused in marching up the staircase for so long that Annalie and Oak looked back at me, both of them frowning. “What’s wrong?” Annalie asked.

“What’s Tradition?” I replied, taking a few steps up to them. “I keep hearing people talking about it.”

“Oh.” She smiled. “I’m sorry. I kept forgetting that you don’t know.”

“So what is it?”

“Every year, on Halloween night, the students dress up and go into Hogsmeade, trick-or-treating.”

“In the beginning,” Oak interjected, “it used to be just the seventh-years. But then some guy invited his sixth-year girlfriend, and then more sixth-years were invited, then fifth, then a couple of fourth… in the end, everyone was formally invited to attend. Of course, usually the firsties are too terrified to do anything outside the lines, but the second-years are a little bit braver, and only the lame third-years don’t go out.”

I smiled slightly and brushed my hair out of my face, chuckling lightly. “So are you guys going?”

“Of course!”Oak snorted. “It’s practically required by our last year!”

Holding up my hands in a pacifying manner, I laughed and said, “Okay, okay. Relax.”

“And you’re coming with us.”

 My eyebrows rose. “Thanks for the heads up!”

“Come on – like we would ever go anywhere without you.” Annalie said with a gentle smile. “We’re friends now. We aren’t about to abandon you on the finest night of the year!”

I grinned and acted excited, but on the inside the gears in my head were churning. It was dangerous to be out and about at night, walking through a town of strangers asking for candy. But being out at night might help me catch sight of this evil creepy beasty that had been plaguing the good people of Hogwarts. I know my father was expecting for me to have some sort of solid evidence by now; in fact, he was probably very disappointed.

I guess my face fell, because Annalie immediately asked, “What’s wrong?”

Blinking quickly as if coming out of a reverie, I shrugged. “Just trying to think of my costume.”

“Don’t you worry for a minute,” Oak said, throwing an arm around my neck and pulling me roughly to his side. “Annalie here has enough clothes to support a third-world country and enough money to buy what she doesn’t have!”

 

Halloween night. Ghosts and ghouls and monsters about. The halls, even though past curfew, were loaded with kids who were trying to be sly and failing miserably. Jack-o-lanterns floating in the air, bats flapping about, not to mention the multi-hued cobwebs. People dressed as everything from apples to zebras, all waiting for Professor Longbottom to unlock the front door so they could rush out into the night.

There in the corner of the stairs, sitting tight against the balustrade, was me. I was dressed in a long red cape and a knee-length blue skirt, clutching a deep wicker basket. Beneath my hood were two piggy-tails that tickled my shoulders, and even my shoes had changed from my usual sneakers to shiny black flats.

Annalie not only had tons of clothes, like Oak had said, but she liked shoving people into them.

“Wow, she really did a number on you.”

I looked up, smiling at James as he plopped down on the staircase beside me. He was dressed in a toga and a laurel wreath, a thin, shimmery material covering his arms and legs.

“Julius Caesar?” I guessed.

“Nah, ancient Olympian athlete. I would have gone naked, but Longbottom wouldn’t let me out of the castle starkers.”

I laughed in spite of myself, nudging him in the ribs with my elbow. He snorted and grabbed my arm, pulling me over his lap. “Don’t hit people; it’s not nice,” he chided in a way that was too childish to be taken seriously.

“Don’t try to molest little girls; that’s not nice either,” I countered.

He chuckled and let me go, crossing his arms behind his head. “So this is going to be fun,” he said, nodding at the doors.

“Is it?”

“Haven’t you ever been trick-or-treating before?”

No, I hadn’t. Halloween was prime night for monster-hunting, with all of the innocent little civilians running into places that they should avoid. The black things feasted while Dad and I worked our asses to the ground trying to make sure they starved.

But, of course, that isn’t a very pleasant conversation piece, is it?

“No. It just wasn’t something I got to do. We moved around so much that we never really knew a neighborhood well enough to wander around it at night.”

James openly gaped at me for a long moment before exclaiming, “Then you have no idea what you’re missing! Some of my best memories were of trick-or-treating!”

“Really?” I smiled encouragingly. “Like what?”

He thought for a minute, momentarily distracted from my lack of experience. “I don’t know. All of them were great – you know, each Halloween is kind of special in its own way. You see, we lived in a pretty safe place, so my parents weren’t worried about taking us when we were really young. But I remember,” he grinned widely, “When I was seven, my dad took me to London to trick-or-treat. Godric’s Hollow was great and all, but every time you went trick-or-treating you always stumbled across the loonies who tried to give you apples or toothpaste.” He scoffed for a minute before continuing, “So he took me to do big-time trick-or-treating, to apartment buildings that you just had to walk a few steps before you hit another jackpot. I was so proud! That first year, I got so many sweets that I was on a sugar high until Easter.”

I laughed again. “That’s so nice.”

“Yeah. It became kind of a tradition to go to London after that, once everyone was old enough.” 

I opened my mouth, but whatever I was going to say was cut off by a loud, “Hey-lo, people!”

James and I glanced up the stairs and blinked at what looked like an army of our friends. Oak was in the front of the group, dressed as a pirate with a squawking parrot on his shoulder, while beside him Rhyad was dressed in the scholarly robes of the Renaissance. Annalie wore a pale blue gown with fairy wings and glistened so much that it looked as if she had been in a glitter factory explosion. P.J. wore a bumblebee costume, complete with a stinger on her backside.

“You guys look great!” I exclaimed flatteringly, smiling at them.

“So do you. I swear, you're years younger!” Annalie offered.

“Enough jabber!” Oak interrupted, crossing his arms. “We have to come up with our battle plan!”

Rhyad sighed and shook his head, asking, “Have you no manners?”

“No, and I’m proud of it!”

“Why don’t we just go with the usual plot?” P.J. crossed her arms, putting her weight on her back foot and making her antennae wiggle. “We go to the far end of town and work our way back.”

“But we always do that!”

“And it’s foolproof – we always get more candy than anyone else.”

Oak sighed as if disappointed in her lack of ingenuity but didn’t dispute her. Then, suddenly, the room grew hushed as everyone looked up behind us. I turned and smiled to myself as Headmaster Longbottom made his way towards the base of the staircase, dressed in a bathrobe as if he had completely forgotten about us until the last minute. He saw me and nodded sagely, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a large round metal ring adorned with a single key.

Everyone stared as he reached the door, inserting the key and turning it slowly. He didn’t open the barrier, however, instead turning to address us.

“Remember, you are allowed to do this as long as you are courteous and safe. Do not go anywhere alone, do not go down dark alleys, and do not accept candy from strangers…. Wait, scratch that last bit.”

We all laughed as, at long last, he stepped aside and let us pass.

It was like a wave of bodies rushing out into the cold, almost incontrollable in its sprinting. I giggled in spite of myself, reaching around so I could grab a hold of James’s toga. “Don’t lose me!” he called as someone delivered an elbow to my ribs. “I’ll take you to where we need to get!”

We ran with the crowd until it began to disperse into large clusters of people. We managed to hook up with Connor’s bunch of friends where we were greeted with roars of welcome. Connor introduced me and my hand was passed around like a bottle of cheep booze at a party, everyone wanting to welcome me to Hogwarts. James managed to behave himself by not growling at everyone, instead starting up a conversation with some of the boys about their favorite magical sport. The rest of us took up time telling lewd joke after lewd joke, pausing only when we were laughing too hard to breathe.

We finally arrived at Hogsmeade, where we took a minute to say our goodbyes. “Maybe we’ll see you later,” Connor added hopefully as James began to lead me up a gently sloping street.

“Bye!” I replied when James reached back and snatched my hand, dragging me up the road.

“That wasn’t so painful, was it?” I asked as we began the climb through the thatch-roofed buildings.

“What wasn’t painful?”

“Being nice.”

“I am nice!”

“Yeah, but your defensiveness usually makes that one of your less noticeable qualities.”

James stopped abruptly and pushed me up against the side of a building, a shutter pressing into my back. I gasped as he placed his hands on my waist, his thumbs even with the edge of my skirt. “If you wish,” he breathed darkly, “I can show you just how nice I can be.”

I smirked and leaned my head against the window, cocking my head to the side. “What is with you and sexual innuendos?”

“Oh, there’s no implication. I’m being dead serious.” He leaned forward until his forehead was pressed against mine, his eyelashes so long that they brushed my cheeks and his breath hot on my lips.

“You’re not good enough to be serious.” I turned my head to the side and wormed my way free of his grip, taking a few steps up the hill. “We should get going,” I said. “We don’t want the others to start without us.”

“They won’t,” he replied, trailing after me. “They’re cool like that.”

“I know.”

A slightly uncomfortable silence settled around us as we climbed the hill, finally reaching the top when I thought I could take the hush no longer. The street ended in a loop lined with illuminated windows, many costumed children screaming as they went from house to house. Our friends were waiting at the far end of the road, and we rushed to greet them.

“There you two are!” Oak exclaimed, grinning widely as he pulled me into an unexpected hug. “We were wondering if you had gotten trampled or something!”

“Thanks for being concerned enough to go back and look for us,” James retorted, rolling his eyes.

“Oh, don’t be such a pussy,” P.J. snapped, rolling her eyes. “Can we just get going all ready?”

The others laughed, smirking as they all filed towards the largest house on the street. I trailed after them, listening to their hitching excited banter and trying to get into the spirit of the holiday. When we reached the doorstep, Rhyad reached out and knocked on the wooden barrier, a hush passing over us as we waited briefly.

The door opened to reveal a witch holding a candy bowl, a smile plastered on her face and her hair curly beneath a black hat. “Trick or treat!” Everyone around me chimed. I smiled and tried to go along with it as she began passing out chocolate and bubble gum and all sorts of sweet treats. I thanked her quietly and followed my companions as they rushed away, moving on to the next house.

I will admit, as time began to pass I had a better and better time. We began to joke about every little thing that was even remotely funny, excitement and the novelty of the night getting to us. Our bags grew heavier as our hearts grew lighter, all of us laughing and jabbering and happy.

Was this what it was like to be a normal teenager? Joyous and light without a care in the world outside Quidditch? I guess I would never really know, but I could still enjoy it while I could.

Or, well, not…

There was a quiet, soft curse and a clatter, and I turned around in time to watch Annalie bring her ankle closer to her body and press her fingers against it. “Ow,” she breathed softly, her face scrunching up in restrained pain.

“Are you all right?” I asked, rushing to her side. I knelt and lit the tips of my fingers, casting the illumination over her quickly swelling ankle.

“I-I tripped,” she spluttered, her eyes wincing at me.

I felt the others crowd around me as I gently turned her leg, examining the quickly swelling appendage. “It looks sprained,” I said, looking at her pale face.

“Oh, so now you’re a medical genius?” P.J. snapped, glaring furiously at me.

I met her gaze evenly, my voice cold as I said, “When you’re dealing with people who are sick, they tend to be frail. They break and sprain a lot, so you get kind of adept at telling what their damages are.”

Her face was worth the lie – pure remorse, from her chin to the roots of her hair. I turned my attention back to Annalie, whispering a charm to make bandages shoot from my hand, enveloping her ankle. “That won’t make it better, but it should help you be able to get back to the castle,” I said, carefully helping her up. “I’ll take you.”

“Nonsense,” she replied, wincing slightly. “This is the only trick-or-treat that you can have. I won’t let my leg ruin it.”

“I’ll take you,” Rhyad announced immediately, taking her arm.

“No, no I’m fine,” she insisted, but her eyes flickered past my shoulder and fixed on some point there. I glanced in the direction of her stare and saw Oak standing close behind me, concern on his brow but no offer on his lips.

I blinked as Rhyad assured her that it was no problem, that he was probably too mature to go prancing around in a scholar’s robes anyway. Annalie sighed slightly and gave Oak one last longing glance before waving to the rest of us, allowing Rhyad to help her hobble away.

We watched them as they made their way down the road until they disappeared around a corner. James sighed faintly before suggesting, “I guess we should keep going, then?”

We all nodded and, slowly, made our way to the next house.

We were more subdued at first, but then we met up with another group of Gryffindor kids who, though a year younger than us, easily lifted everyone’s spirits. Everyone’s but mine, that is.

Maybe it was just the absence of Annalie that was getting to me, but I had a rotten feeling in the pit of my stomach. A cluster of clouds far overhead was enjoying blocking out the moon, the chilly wind encouraging each puff to stay over our source of light longer. The sound of the yelling children around me seemed to take a haunting tone, like each playful scream was just a forerunner to a horrified one soon to come.

I tried to shake it off as the Halloween specter casting its evil gaze on my back, but my mind wouldn’t let it go. My basket was a little over half full when I paused, smiling apologetically to James. “Sorry,” I said, “but I’m wiped. It’s been a long week.”

“Don’t go!” he cried, reaching back to snatch my hand. “Please! This is too much fun!”

I smiled and shook my head, repeating, “Sorry.”

He stared at me for a long minute before sighing. “I’ll walk you back to the castle,” he said.

“No, you won’t. Stay and have fun.”

“But-!”

“I’m a big girl James – I won’t get lost.”

“Elaina,” he started, a dangerously determined look entering his eyes.

I reached out and clasped my hand over his mouth, shaking my head again. “Stay,” I said firmly before twirling around and starting to walk down the street.

“Oh, come on Ella!” He cried after me.

“Goodbye James.”

He didn’t like it, but he had no choice but to let me go. I smirked to myself as walked down the street, trying to make my way out of the village. I was mildly surprised by how many people recognized me and called greetings, asking how the trick-or-treating was. Responding as cordially as possible, I tried not to reveal how little I knew about any of them; many of their names had escaped me, if I had even learned them at all.

Eventually, I escaped the town, exiting onto the long dark pathway that led back to the castle. I passed some small first years who were already exhausted, brushing past them as superiority gave me the right to, and the occasional frightened animal that was searching for a midnight snack. The eerie feeling was still thick on the back of my neck, goose bumps covering my skin that weren’t created from the cold.

Finally, I had walked far enough that I could see the glowing castle ahead. My speeding heart relaxed slightly as I neared it, getting close enough that I could see the individual windowpanes.

But then it happened. A deep, dark growl that made my lungs stop working and my stomach turn to fluid in my abdomen, a burning scent that made my nostrils want to shrivel up and die filling the air.

I froze, every one of my senses slamming open so that I could hear everything, from the wind in the trees to a dense, moist heartbeat thudding behind me.

Very slowly, I turned until I was facing the way I had come, the castle’s comfort disappearing. I tried to see something, anything, but there was nothing but blackness beneath the clouded moon and lack of stars.

At that point, I knew I had two options. I could immediately turn and sprint away, seeking shelter in the castle, or I could try and find where the growling was coming from and potentially solve the mystery of the Hogwarts' Beast.

Would I have been my father’s daughter if I had done the former?

“Lucmagniroc,” I whispered, making my hands alight in a bright light that burned my pupils. I ignored the sting and held my fists high in the air, casting the sphere of light as far as it could go.

But it didn’t go as far as it should have. Behind me, it stretched at least a dozen feet, but in front of me it was cut short two yards from my feet. Instead, there was another curved wall, a black-grey color that seemed to be filled with floating fluffy bits. I swallowed thickly and tried to examine it, my eyes sweeping its surface and trying to find some flaw. But it was as perfect an orb as mine would have been if it hadn’t broken my plane.

I struggled to swallow my fear as I reached out and, with the tip of my trembling middle finger, stroked the black wall.

It felt like air, only thicker, silkier. I was preparing myself to submerge my entire hand in the stuff when there was another hideous, bone-rattling growl that was so much more threatening than the one I had heard just seconds before. It was the kind of sound that makes your joints stiffen up so that even if you wanted to flee you couldn’t, and your lungs stop working so that it’s easier for the beast to kill you.

Then, through the blackness, two spheres of fiery light that were so hot that they seemed to burn my soul appeared, a warm red on the outside and the coldest, most burning blue imaginable in the middle. Immediately, a quick realization dawned on me that thawed my limbs and made me turn to sprint towards the castle.

I had just brushed up against the beast of Hogwarts.

I thanked both God and my father as I ran, taking leaps that carried me farther and farther with each step. Years of practice made me quicker than the beast that was chasing after me, its footsteps shaking the ground beneath us as it tried to catch me. I wanted to scream, but logic told me that wasting my breath on screeches would do nothing but wear me out. So I tried to keep my balance as I sprinted down the pathway, listening to the harsh beast breathing in my ear.

Instinct told me to roll to the side and I listened. I jumped to the left, twisting just enough so that I landed on my back. The sudden contact with the ground stole my breath, making me gasp for air, but I felt a huge, smoky body fly over me and hit the pathway near my head with a disgusting crunch.

I didn’t pause, didn’t hesitate as I forced myself back onto my feet and sprinted into the underbrush that was the forerunner to the forest that surrounded the school grounds. The brambles and branches clung to my clothes, holding me back so badly that I was forced to tear my cape from my neck, leaving it like a bloody stain behind me. For a few precious minutes, there was nothing in the world besides the cracking branches and the fierce wind, but the moment I paused in my head-first hurtle for breath was the second I heard the monster crashing after me.

Back to running, fighting the underbrush, trying to escape. After great deal of struggling, the bushes opened up into taller trees, and those trees grew even more towering until I knew I was in the Dark Forest. That gave me hope and revived my exhausted body, making me continue to move onward.

When I exploded out of the woods, I knew I was free. My running grew more pointed as I flashed up the sloping lawn, bursting into the opening hall of the castle and collapsing onto the floor.

I don’t know how long I spent on the floor, panting so furiously that I didn’t know if my lungs were going to give out. My hands stroked the floor as if the motion was necessary to my survival, assuring me that I was still alive and hadn’t been eaten by the beast that was, undoubtedly, pacing outside these walls.

When I finally gathered the energy to lift myself into a sitting position, I took a minute to examine my appearance. I was cut and battered and bruised everywhere, but much more noticeably I was covered with a fine layer of black stuff. When I pinched my skirt between my fingers and brought a few granules of powder to my nose, I inhaled the smell of smoke.

“Very interesting,” I murmured to myself, slowly getting to my blistered feet.

“That’s one word for your appearance, dear.” One of the portraits chimed tiredly.

I jumped and clutched my chest, the thought of talking picture frames just one thing to many for my heart to bear. I turned and sprinted up the staircase, refusing to stop running until I had reached the safety of the common room.

 

E/N: So… longest chapter ever and a glimpse of the beast. What do you think?
 

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