“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.
“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.
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