What was I thinkin’, trackin’ it through the woods?, thought Sib, ducking behind a tree. He was a skinny but muscular twelve-year-old blonde boy; the bruises on his arm and neck. They were reminders from the last fight with his brother a few days prior and were still an ugly shade of purple and green. He peeked around the side of the tree in the direction of some incoherent yipping and saw movement through the undergrowth. Now there’s more kobolds! And by the sound of it, a whole war party of ‘em.
He could tell at his first glance of the three-foot-tall lizard-men that he was in trouble. While they were pretty cowardly on their own, they became quite brazen once they formed a war party of a half dozen or so. They might be scaly, thin, and short, but they were also clever and organized. Each carried a four-foot spear which was enough to make Sib realize he didn’t stand a chance against them, magic or no. He bolted again through the overgrown West Virginia woods, trying to escape through the undergrowth.
I’m too far! Way too far to run the whole way home. I’ll never lose 'em this way. He tried to change his path of flight, but every time he turned aside to run a new direction, he was cut off. They’re leadin’ me into a trap. They’re drivin’ me like hunters drive a deer...to the slaughter.
He kept going, pushing ever forward, always looking for a route of escape. He ran from tree to tree, boulder to boulder, but the pursuit was relentless. After a quarter of an hour being chased through the woods, he broke into a full-out sprint thinking that he could outrun them with his longer legs, but he hadn’t gone more than a hundred yards when he skidded to a halt, staring up at the end of his hopes. He was in a ravine with a thirty-foot cliff in front of him. He tried to scramble up the face of the rock wall, but the sandstone was too smooth. Lacking any handholds, he slid back to the forest floor. He turned around thinking about charging back the way he came - trying to break through, but one of the kobolds was already blocking his escape; its spear leveled at Sib’s face. He had nowhere else to run.
The mottled brown and grey kobold approached carefully, spear out. It came close enough so that Sib could catch the moldy earthworm odor of the subterranean creature. The point of the spear touched Sib’s throat as the kobold called to his clan-mates through the forest in his guttural clicking and hissing language. Sib felt as though he couldn’t even swallow without having his throat pierced. He heard the rustle of the other approaching creatures emerging from the bushes around him.
Not yet. Not here. Not like this. He started sliding his hand toward the magic amulet that hung around his neck and tensed himself for a last desperate spell; but before he could move, he and the kobold were startled by a flap of heavy wings overhead. The kobold jumped back and tried to defend itself with the spear, but a gigantic black-winged creature, twice the size of Sib, dropped to the forest floor right in front of him, snapping the kobold’s spear shaft in half as if it were a twig. It crushed the squirming kobold in its talons and with a gust of wind that knocked Sib to the forest floor, it took off again; its struggling prey screaming a pitiful dying yelp.
Sib stared up at the winged creature and the now silent, limp form in its talons. It was carrying its prey to a large oak tree that was overhanging the top of the cliff face. It roosted on a branch, turned toward Sib so that he could see its face. The bird-person had the wings and talons of a giant black vulture, but the torso and head were humanoid. But definitely not human. The jet-black eyes and jaw full of sharp teeth were a dead giveaway about what Sib had to deal with next.
A harpy! Out of the fryin’ pan and into the fire. The harpy let out a terrifying screech that raised the hair on the back of Sib’s neck. I ain't got no spell that’s going to help me with this one. He set out at a full sprint back the way he came, the remaining kobolds scattering like leaves before a storm. Behind him, he heard the sound of the creature lifting off of its roost in pursuit. Within a minute of scrambling over tree roots and ducking under low branches, he had overtaken the kobolds who had thrown their spears away and were dissolving into the underbrush; each kobold for itself.
Sib changed directions, running first one way and then the other. He tried taking off at a right angle, hoping that the harpy would find a kobold to distract it, but every time he glanced back, the creature was hot on his heels, getting closer every second, flying from tree to tree in pursuit.
I can’t outrun it. Where do I go? He looked to his left and saw one of the kobolds find a hole in the ground and wriggle inside. Recognizing that continuing his panicked run was pointless, he realized the only way he could save himself. I can go down! He grabbed his amulet, pointed it at the ground and cast a vanishing spell. “Evanesco lutum!” A four-foot hole in the ground appeared where the solid forest floor was a moment ago. He saw a shadow cast over him and heard the sounds of the flapping of heavy wings. He jumped into the hole and pressed his body down as far as it would go into the raw dirt, feeling a razor-sharp talon tear a swath across the back of his shirt.
The harpy took off again. Lookin' to take another swipe at me. He pointed his wand at the side of his hole and cast his spell again. “Evanesco lutum!” His hole had become a cave and he scrambled inside, hearing the screech as the harpy tore at the ground over his head in an effort to dig him out. He curled up inside, wondering how long he would have to wait until it was safe to come back out. The harpy shifted above, but he could hear that it hadn’t moved from overhead. It’s waitin' me out. Deciding he wanted to live a few more months until his thirteenth birthday, Sib tried to get comfortable.
The longer he sat, the more cramped his legs became. Even after what seemed like an hour, he knew the harpy hadn’t gone anywhere. He would have heard its wings flap - carrying it away. How long had it been waitin' for that kobold to come stumblin' into its territory?
He found himself drifting off, his thoughts becoming hazy. He wondered what his friends would do in this situation. He had four good friends from Gampton Hall Academy where he went to school. Incheon, his best friend, would make a joke. ‘Hey, Sib, I’m going to tell on this bully. After all, snitches get 150 points.’
His friend Lef had helped treat his injured hand last year when it had been crushed by devil’s snare. He could see her finding some new plant that would treat some weird condition. ‘Oooh, a checkered rattlesnake-plantain! These roots are an antidote to wyvern and manticore venom. I didn’t even know it grew here.’
Lily, who was their friend in Featherpenny - a different house than theirs at school - was obsessed with Quidditch. She was the seeker for her house team. She would definitely think about what move she would use to evade the harpy on her broom. ‘I’d start with an inside loop and then transition to a bell tailslide. There’s no way she could follow that.’
Willow, who was the house president of Pathfinder, their house at Gampton Hall Academy, would definitely come up with a plan. ‘The only way I can see is to dig a tunnel. Just far enough to escape.’
Sib shook himself alert. That’s it. I just need to tunnel out. He shifted his legs which had fallen asleep, the pinpricks throbbing through them. “Evanesco lutum,” he whispered, trying not to alert the harpy overhead. His cave grew into a short tunnel. “Evanesco lutum.” “Evanesco lutum.” “Evanesco lutum,” he cast over and over again. His tunnel growing longer and taking him further from the watchful eyes and ears of the harpy.
After about a hundred feet, he fell on his face as the floor of the tunnel collapsed into an underground burrow. He cast 'lumos’ with his amulet as a furry foot-long creature scurried past Sib and burrowed quickly into the dirt on the far side. Sib just had an instant to identify a niffler by its duck-like snout and groundhog-sized body. Nifflers have treasure! He looked down where his foot had punched through the floor of his own tunnel into the creature's den.
He saw several objects glittering in the faint light of his amulet and he reached down to grab them. He sighed when he had discovered the treasure trove: a piece of aluminum foil; a bottle cap; a plain tarnished silver ring; and an empty crystal vial. He pocketed the ring and the vial and dumped the bottle cap and aluminum foil back into the niffler’s nest. I should have known better than expectin' him to find treasure way the heck out here in the backwoods.
He tunneled on about fifty feet further and decided to work his way to the surface since the opening from the start of the tunnel was now just a point in the distance. Carefully, he used the dirt vanishing spell to excavate back toward the forest floor. Once he could peek above the ground, he saw he was well obscured in the middle of a thicket. He crawled to the ground level, but kept his body low and tried to get his bearings. I’d better hurry if I’m gonna make it before sundown. He quietly set off toward home.
He made sure to change his shirt for a spare one he had in his bag before he walked in the door. No need to try to explain that... As he walked into his family's cabin, he was greeted by his mother. She was early middle-aged, thin, and fit, but the creases on her forehead and around her mouth belied the challenges of poverty. She had deep brown eyes and dark brown hair that curled around her face at the ends. She had tied her hair up in a handkerchief as she cooked. “Hey, Sib,” she called. “Whatcha been up to?”
He thought for a moment about what he would say: ‘Well, ma; despite you tellin’ me not to, I tracked a single kobold through the woods back to his lair, but he called out his war party and drove me through the forest and nearly cut off my head, but a harpy came out of nowhere and killed the kobold and scared off the others and then chased me through the woods trying to tear my face off until I dug myself a hole in the ground and tunneled to safety.’
Not feeling like getting a tanned hide, he decided to change his story. “Nuthin’, ma,” he responded. “Just hangin’ out in the woods.”
“Give that back you son of a…”
“Boys!” their mom yelled. “What are you fighting about this time?”
“Arcturus stole my letter from Gampton Hall again!” yelled Sib. His brother, a hulking seventeen-year-old with dark hair, heavy eyebrows and a darker disposition was pushing his hand into Sib's face as he held a letter in the air with the other.
“Arc!” his mom yelled, but Sib’s older brother just burst outside, leaving a swinging storm door behind him. Sib’s mom gestured Sib over to her.
“Sibelius Orion,” she said to him quietly. “You know you will get another one if your brother destroys the letter...which he’s sure to do,” she added in a disapproving undertone. “He can’t help it that he ain’t got no magic.”
“Well I can’t help it if I do,” Sib responded. “And I’ll be damned if I’m going to take much more of his crap.”
“Language, Sib,” his mom reprimanded. “We ain’t got much learnin' in this house, but I won’t have you uncivil.”
“Sorry, ma.” A few moments later, an owl flew in the open window and dropped a letter on the table before flying back out again. “Looks like Arc destroyed that letter,” Sib observed wryly, picking up the envelope and seeing the Gampton Hall Academy postmark.
“Well, then,” his mom said. “Best you hide this one so he don’t find it.”
Sib folded the letter and stuffed it in his back pocket. “Do I have to get everything second-hand this year?”
“Oh, Sib,” she sighed. “You know how I work and it’s just enough to keep us all fed and clothed and a roof over our head. We can’t afford nothin' but.”
“I know, ma,” he said. “It just sucks bein’ poor.”
“Language, Sib,” reminded his mother. “And yes, it sure does.”
Sib was lying on his bed that night, hearing the heavy snores of his brother sleeping in the lower bunk. He pulled out his letter to Gampton Hall and chanced a light spell.
“Lumos.” His wand-amulet glowed with a soft white light. He looked at the amulet - which until the end of last year had been his grandmother’s hemlock wand. He remembered the very last day of school after he and his friends had discovered the truth about their house and had gone to a magical pool in the middle of the ruins of an ancient American Indian magic school. He had dipped his wand into the pool with the others, not caring what happened to it as their wands hadn’t worked for them all year. He had watched the wand twist into the shape it held now. A circle about four inches in diameter, with a horizontal line cutting across the bottom third, a triangle in the middle and a smaller circle on the top. It looked as if a full moon was rising directly above a lakeside mountain. As soon as he and the others had transformed their wands, their magic had worked perfectly - just in time for their final exams.
As Sib unfolded the letter from his mage school, he tried to be as quiet as he could. He knew that he wasn’t supposed to be using magic at home until his seventeenth birthday, but since his mother was also a mage, he figured that the authorities would never be able to distinguish if it was him or her.
Dear Sibelius O. Hooplander,
Welcome back to Gampton Hall Academy. All second-year students should obtain the following before the first day of classes:
-Second-year alchemy kit (available at most major Narrowway alchemy retailers)
-Uniform clothing including white collared shirts, slacks, and black shoes, dress robes and a winter cloak;
-The following textbooks:
The Standard Book of Spells, Grade 2 by Miranda Goshawk
Perfect Potions Through Amazing Alchemy by Gascard Blastenstone
Alteration Transformed by Kirkegaard O.O. Kilosky
Advanced Herbology or How I Learned to Love Mimbulus Mimbletonia, 2nd Ed - by Neville Longbottom
Don’t Tickle A Sleeping Dragon and Other Useful Tips for Magical Creature Care by The National Foundation for the Protection of Magical Creatures (NFPMC)
The History of Magic, Volume 2 by Zephyr Zolock
The Gampton Hall Bus will arrive to pick you up from your place of residence at 7:23 am on Tuesday, September 6 and will return you to your home after the first day. Travel to the school by Firejump Network, broom, or other conveyance is not permitted until Wednesday, September 7.
Chancellor, Gampton Hall Academy
He glanced through the list again. This sounds expensive. He was well aware that what he was looking at was his birthday and Christmas presents from his mom all wrapped into one. He sighed as he knew that was the case, but he felt it was all worth it to be back with his friends and finally able to use magic in the open again.
His brother stirred in the bed below, snorting a little in his sleep. Sib hated his brother. Even if his brother were to have magic, they were separated by too many years. Sib was five years younger than Arc, who would be heading into his graduating year of nomaj high school. If he finishes... They shared almost nothing in common. Sib liked Quidditch, tracking animals through the woods, and camping out. His brother, on the other hand, liked music, skateboarding, and the only magical sport he would watch was Quod-pot; but only because he found it interesting when the ball exploded and some player had to be hauled away to the hospital.
He knew his brother hated him too. Maybe 'resented' is a better word. Of course, there wasn’t a day that went by that Arc didn’t physically abuse him with a headlock, a punch on the arm, or occasionally an all-out brawl like what happened today.
He reached over to his old, battered Stor-All backpack that had been his father’s. He kept everything he owned in this bag since it was magically enchanted. Only he could get to what was inside. It was the only place safe from his brother’s destructive reach. He put the letter back inside and reached a little further down, his fingers brushing the tarnished ring and crystal vial he had found the previous day. He finally found the small book that his friend Lef had sent him over the summer.
It was a simple ebony black book, about the size of a sandwich. Sib rubbed the smooth glossy cover. Feels like obsidian. Cold and clean. He opened the book and it instantly flipped to the page holding the latest message.
Hope you are well. I'm so happy that Lef gave us all these instant messaging books. I think having owls fly into my house every day would definitely make my neighbors suspicious. How do you think it knows when I write a note inside that it should go to you? '
Sib smiled. Willow was nomaj-born, having parents who were non-magical, and was always asking how magical devices work. It knows it should go to me because that's what you want it to do, he thought in response. He continued reading.
'Incheon loaned me 'Quidditch, The Mage's Way of Life' which is fascinating. (You won't believe the size of the owl that ended up delivering it in the middle of the night.) I've been reading up on the latest brooms. I have an idea for next year, but I'm not sure it will work, so I'll save it for our first day back. Can you believe we are only a month away? Let me know when you're going to Narrowway to get your things and I can see if we can go on the same day.
Sib turned the page, grabbed his quill and started on his response.
'Willow, All's good here', he wrote, lying about how he felt. 'Just enjoying the outside whenever I can. We're going to Naroway next Saturday.' He paused, staring at the name of the magical street of shops that everyone went to for school and supplies in the mid-Atlantic wizarding world. That don't look right. He flipped the page, saw how Willow spelled it and then made the correction, jamming in another 'r' and 'w' and using his magic quill to nudge the other letters out of the way to make room.
I wish I could afford a spell-check quill. My spelling stinks. He continued with his letter. 'Hopefuly, I'll see you there. -Sib'
He closed the book, felt it vibrate and then opened it again, revealing the empty page where he had written his note. He put his things back in his bag, extinguished the light and rolled over.
What I look forward to most of all is being away from you! Sib was stuck in a headlock, scratching away at his brother’s forearm, trying to free himself. “Get off!”
“Tell me you give up on magic,” his brother demanded.
“What are you talking about?”
“Tell me...” His brother tightened his grip so that Sib was having trouble breathing. “Tell me you give up on magic.”
“I ain’t...giving up on … nothing,” Sib said, his fingers reaching toward his amulet. “Inpulsa,” he croaked.
His brother let him go and stepped back. “You shocked me,” he said. “You know you ain’t allowed to use magic.”
“I’m allowed to defend myself,” Sib said, rubbing his neck with one hand and holding the amulet with the other.
“Defend yourself?” His brother took a step toward him. “From me?” Sib backed away, but he was against a wall and couldn’t see a way to escape. His brother took another step toward him.
“You stay away from me!” cried Sib, holding out the amulet toward his brother like he was a holy man trying to ward away a vampire. His brother snatched the amulet out of Sib’s hand, breaking the cord that held it around his neck.
“Now that the fancy mage doesn’t have his precious magic amulet,” his brother taunted. “What’s he gonna do?”
“Give that back!” yelled Sib, trying to reach for it, but his brother just held him at a distance with his other arm.
“What happens if I accidentally break this amulet, huh?”
“Don’t you dare,” Sib warned.
“Or what?” Arc replied. “You’ll spit at me? You’ll call me names? Or you gonna tell on me to ma?”
“That wand is Gramma’s. It won’t be but me spittin’ at you. Ma will tan your hide. You know she ain’t got money to get me one of my own.”
“Like I care what ma thinks,” he said. “I’m nothing but a disappointment to her. You’re the golden boy.”
“Even if that were true, that ain’t my fault!” yelled Sib, keeping his eyes on the wand held in his brother’s trembling fists. “All I did was be born with magic.”
“And that was enough,” he said. “Maybe if I bust up this wand, you’ll be nothing but a squib like me.” Before Sib could make a move to stop him, Arc brought the amulet down hard on his knee, cracking it along the center.
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