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.”
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