Sib watched the bus appear with a 'Bang!' out of nothingness and pull to a stop in front of him. His mother had walked with him to the nearest road and they were waiting together. “Make sure you go see the school nurse first thing,” she said to him. “You’d think I’d be half decent at fixin’ broken bones by this point, but I ain’t.”
“It’s alright ma,” Sib replied. “I’ll take care of it.” He climbed on board, waving good-bye with his good arm and found a seat near the front. The other fifty or sixty students inside were all goofing off with their friends, but Sib sat alone since he knew that his friends were on a different bus than his. As the bus jumped from stop to stop at incredible speeds, he stared through the window at the blurring world thinking about the year ahead.
His thoughts were interrupted when a student plopped on the seat next to him. The new kid started talking immediately and it was obvious he was off to his first day ever at Gampton Hall. “My brother told me that the sorting hat went nuts last year,” he said to Sib.
“It didn’t go nuts,” Sib replied. “It just started workin' the way it was supposed to.”
“Well, I hope it doesn’t put me in the fifth house,” the kid whispered. “You know, Pathfinder.” He didn’t realize that the house was Sib’s.
“What’s the matter with Pathfinder?,” Sib quizzed him. “It’s just as good as the other houses."
“Well, first off it’s cursed,” the kid replied as if he knew what he was talking about. “You know, the prophecy and all.”
“It ain’t cursed, I tell ya,” Sib was starting to get annoyed. Does everyone talk about Pathfinder like this?
“Plus, they don’t even have a Quidditch team,” the student continued. “I hope I get ‘Hammersmith’.”
The bus slammed to a halt and the driver called to the students. “Last stop, Gampton Hall Academy! Everybody off!”
As Sib moved to stand up, he continued with the first-year. “The hat’s going to put you where you belong.”
“Well, I don’t belong in Pathfinder.” He climbed off the bus, Sib following him. The first-year looked around as he got outside, unsure of where to go.
Sib pointed him in the right direction and remembered that part of the initiation for first-year students was a river boat ride through a series of fear-inducing rapids. In bitterness, he sent the student off. “Try not to wet yourself,” he hissed.
His arm began throbbing again and the banter on the bus had cemented Sib’s bad mood. He walked over toward the carriages that carried all of the remaining students to the front door of the school. Other students continued to mill about, getting off the buses, finding friends, and migrating to the long line of pegasus-pulled carriages lined up on the side of the road. The carriages were old, and Sib ran his free hand along the side of the nearest one. There might be two hundred and fifty years of history in this wood, he thought. He looked to the creatures who were hitched up to pull each of the carriages. Giant white horses with beautiful angelic feathered wings were lined up two to a carriage - one in front of the other. Willow would go nuts over these. He smiled, thinking of Willow’s love for almost all critters. Wonder how she would feel about harpies?
“Aren’t they beautiful?” a voice called out behind him. Sib turned and saw Willow admiring the pegasi.
“I was figurin’ you’d like seein' them again,” he replied, knowing that Willow had been in Care of Magical Creatures Club the previous year and had helped take care of them.
“That one is William,” she said pointing to the horse in front. “And this one is Chippy. I’m not surprised that Chippy’s not leading. He’s a lazy lump.” She went over to the lazy one and started petting the side of his neck. “Oh,” she said, noticing Sib’s arm in a sling. “What happened?”
“My stupid brother,” he replied. Willow was familiar enough with his situation and frequent injuries that she didn’t need to ask any more questions. He returned to the subject of pegasi. “I guess you still like him, lazy and all,” said Sib, nodding at Chippy. Willow just smiled and continued rubbing the pegasus' neck.
“Oh, hey, Willow,” another student called out. Sib recognized him as a fellow second-year; a tall skinny brown-haired kid with severe acne.
“Hi Norbert,” Willow replied, turning her head toward him. Sib remembered that Norbert had been in Hammersmith house, which was where Willow had spent almost all of last year before discovering that she truly belonged in Pathfinder. “How are you?”
“Fine, but I’m kinda worried about my brother,” he said to both of them.
“What’s up?” Willow asked.
“Well, he’s not the fastest broom in the shed, if you know what I mean.”
“Is that so?” asked Sib.
“I’d say he’s dumb as a rock, but I’d be insulting several of the more clever rocks.”
“Oh come on,” said Sib. “He ain’t as slow as all that?”
Norbert turned to the group of people walking by. “Beene!” he called. A young boy looking like a smaller version of Norbert emerged from the group and wandered over. “Beene, you’re supposed to go with the first years.” He pointed the opposite direction that Beene had been walking “That way.”
“Okay, got it,” Beene said and started walking the direction Norbert had pointed.
“That’s the third time I’ve told him,” Norbert said. “I feel sorry for whatever house he ends up sorted to.” He sighed. “Well, see you in the banquet hall.”
Sib and Willow waited for only a few more minutes before they were joined by their other friends; Incheon, a heavyset Korean boy with short hair that his mother had plastered down with what looked like snail slime; Lef, a short, thin and cute black girl, whose normally frizzy hair had been straightened and hung to her shoulders; and Lily: pale, wearing blue-framed glasses and having long straight brown hair that hung down to her waist. They greeted each other and climbed on the carriage that was being pulled by William and Chippy. They each found a comfortable spot to sit. Incheon and Willow were careful to sit in the middle - away from the doors and windows.
“Heights,” explained Incheon. Sib was well aware that his friend was not a fan. “What happened to your arm?” Incheon asked.
“My brother decided that he don’t like bein’ a squib,” explained Sib. “So he sat on me and then jumped on my arm. My ma did what she could, but she told me to go to the school nurse to fix it right.”
“Let me see that,” said Lef. Lef was amazing with anything having to do with healing. “Are you okay with me giving it a try?” she asked after looking it over.
“Sure,” replied Sib. “Even if you can’t get it right, I can still go to Mrs. Praecuro after.”
“Well, you wouldn’t be able to get to the school nurse for hours,” she said. She took her amulet in her hand and pointed it at Sib’s arm.
“Brackium Emendo!” she called. Sib took a sudden inhale. “Sorry!” cried Lef. “Did I hurt you?”
“No, it…” he started. “It just felt weird. Like the bone was movin’ around inside my arm.” It immediately felt better. Sib pulled his arm out of the sling and carefully moved it around. “Lef,” he said. “You are awesome...no matter what Incheon says about you.”
“Hey!,” replied Incheon, getting in on the joke. “That was supposed to be a secret.” Their banter was interrupted by the sudden movement of the carriages. Almost instantly, they picked up speed and lifted off of the ground, the pegasus wings making a rhythmic deep beating sound as they pulled the carriage into the air.
“Oh, I don’t like this,” Willow said.
“You’ll be fine,” said Lef, who was leaning out the window. “Just don’t barf.”
“Or if you do,” said Sib who was on Willow’s other side. “Barf that way.” He pointed toward Lef. He turned to the window on his side of the carriage and looked down to see the ground dropping further and further away as they climbed into the sky. He looked around and could see the forest in almost every direction with a few breaks here and there for a farmstead or small village. Looking forward, he could see the carriages were all flying in one long line; a procession of pegasi pulling them into the air and over a river which now lay beneath them, almost a mile across.
“I can see the rapids!” Lef called from the other side. “And look! There are the boats!” She was half hanging out of the window; gesturing to the others with both arms. Willow leaned over and grabbed Lef’s legs, which were up on the seat. Lef looked back at her.
“I know how clumsy you are, Lef, and keeping you from dying is distracting me from the terror I’m feeling right now,” Willow said to her. Lef just shook her head and turned back to the view.
Sib returned to his window and could see the island that held Gampton Hall and the magical town of Gampton laid out in front of him. It was several miles long but narrower in width. Shaped like the iris of a snake’s eye.
“Lily,” asked Willow. “Don’t you and Incheon live in Gampton?”
“So a bus picks you up on the first day too?”
“Well, it doesn’t seem to make sense. The bus picks you up on the island, zooms you over to the mainland, and then you take the carriages right back to Gampton Hall.”
“I guess they just wanted us to enjoy this magnificent ride,” replied Incheon, looking green and holding on to the seat with white knuckles.
“I get the impression that things make sense differently in the nomaj world,” Lily observed.
“Yeah,” Willow replied. “It just seems like a waste of energy.”
“There’s no lack of energy in the magic world,” Lily responded. “We can leave the lights on all the time and it doesn’t matter; or fly around the world a hundred times.” Sib looked ahead of their carriage and saw the procession start to descend. He felt his stomach lurch upwards as the carriage started to dive. Willow let out a little scream.
“It’s alright,” Sib soothed. “We’re just comin’ down to land.”
“I think I’ll call out sick on the first day next year,” said Willow.
“I think I’m going to be sick the first day this year,” said Incheon, who looked ready to hurl.
Lef came back in from the window, reached in her bag and pulled out a couple of small envelopes, handing one each to Incheon and Willow. “Here, eat these.”
“Why didn’t you give this to me fifteen minutes ago?” complained Incheon after eating the small flower petal that was inside.
“Because it’s foeniculum. It’s usually used to soothe babies,” replied Lef.
“Then why do you have it?”
“‘Cause I knew you were a big baby,” Lef retorted. “But you feel better, don’t you?”
“Hm.” Incheon grunted.
The carriage jostled as it touched down on the gravel driveway outside of the school and the carriages rolled to a halt; the doors opening on their own. The group got out and moved together with the other students toward the main stairs of Gampton Hall. Sib glanced up at the gigantic mansion, so unlike his humble cabin in every way. It was designed like a European villa, with three square towers along the front and a long building running the entire length along the back. The sharply pitched roof held two floors of dormers and the courtyards in the front held a patio on the left and a conservatory on the right. Despite the fact that Gampton Hall was about as different from Sib's house as one could get, he smiled as he walked up the main stairs thinking about how he felt equally at home in both places. He followed the others into the entrance hall, through the conservatory, and finally entered the grand banquet hall. The ceilings in the hall towered seventy feet over their heads.
“I’ll see you later,” Lily called to them as she moved off toward Featherpenny's blue and silver-trimmed table of about eighty students. Sib looked around and saw another table of about a hundred students on the far side of the room and recognized the red and gold of Hammersmith. The smaller silver and green Murgatroyd table and the yellow and black Suncorn tables were on the opposite side of the room. In the very center was a table sized for ten that was decked out in purple and white.
“This is us,” Willow called to them. After they sat down, she burst into an announcement. “I want to start a Quidditch team.” There was a moment of silence while Lef and Incheon looked at her.
“Are you insane?” said Lef. “We’ll lose every game!”
“We’re not just going to lose,” added Sib, knowing this would be the reaction. “We’re going to get destroyed. We’re talking epic beatings...for the record book.”
“I’m in,” said Incheon.
“What?” questioned Sib. “Why?”
“Record beatings,” said Incheon. When the others gave him a puzzled look, he continued. “Like you said, we aren’t just going to lose. We’re going to set a record for the worst team in the history of Gampton Hall. We’ll be immortalized.” He looked dreamy.
“Now you’re insane,” said Sib.
“Naw,” replied Incheon. “Just hungry.” He pulled something to eat out of his own Stor-All. “Where are those little twerps anyway?”
“We were those little twerps just one year ago,” reminded Willow.
At the prompting, a loud knock came from one of the side doors. Mrs. Black, the Chancellor of the school and a woman whose appearance and bearing fit her name went over to the double doors. She was middle-aged, had jet black hair and carried a stern look that never left her face. Somehow her British accent exaggerated this rigidity. She opened the double doors, greeting a burly, bearded teacher that Sib didn’t recognize. Shortly after, a trail of soaking wet first-year students dragged themselves into the banquet hall and stood near the front; puddles forming under their feet.
Mrs. Black went to stand in the center front of the hall and touched her wand to her throat, magnifying her own voice. “Welcome back everyone. I’m excited to start a new year at Gampton Hall. Before we sort the first years, I have a few announcements.”
“We have a number of new members of the staff this year and I would like to introduce them: Mr. Woodhead, our new Care of Magical Creatures instructor.” The man who had brought in the first year students waved his hand.
“He looks like a lumberjack,” Sib heard Willow whisper to Lef.
“What’s a lumberjack?” asked Lef.
The students in the room clapped and Mrs. Black continued after it faded. “Mr. Holmes will be taking over all Alchemy lessons this year.” As the long-haired man waved, Sib clapped with the others. Mr. Holmes had been their Alchemy teacher this past year and was apparently taking over the advanced Alchemy lessons that Mrs. Black had been teaching. “Miss Anastasia Knox will be assisting Mr. Zolock with History of Magic.” There was rowdy applause at this announcement. Mr. Zolock had been an incredibly popular teacher and everyone was glad to hear that he wasn’t going to let death interfere with his plans to teach.
“Miss Knox must be here to help with the enchantments since ghosts can’t cast spells,” guessed Lef as Mrs. Black continued.
“And finally, Mr. Albert Butsack will be taking over Nomaj Studies.” A mix of polite clapping and impolite twittering at the unfortunate name followed.
“I will warn all of you that I will be paying greater attention to the rules this year,” Mrs. Black continued. “I’ll not repeat them, but you know where they are posted and you are all expected to abide by them.” The room was silent and Sib heard a student quietly muffle a cough from across the room. “House points will be awarded for beneficial actions and taken away for detrimental ones. Out of bounds locations in the school include the kitchens and the north woods.” Mrs. Black was looking directly at the Pathfinder table when she said that.
“What?” whispered Incheon. “Why would she think we would wander out of bounds?” Sib smiled. He and the other Pathfinders had wandered out of bounds at least a dozen times the previous year, racking up a record tally of negative points.
“What about the Wendigo?” Willow asked, referring to a dangerous creature that had stalked the grounds the previous year.
“Maybe it’s gone,” Sib said, hoping it was true.
Mrs. Black was wrapping up. “...and, as we have discovered, it is entirely possible for a house to rack up a deficit of points for continued misbehavior.” Sib remembered that his house had finished the previous year with negative two hundred and eighty-five points. “Now, let’s commence with the sorting.” She turned around, grabbing a stool and a battered hat and moved them to the area in front of the first-year students. She turned to the first years and spoke to them. “The hat was a gift to Gampton Hall when the school was founded and has been sorting students ever since. We call it ‘Amrose’ after the name of the Hogwarts Chancellor who gifted it. Amrose will look into your mind and sort you into one of five houses.” She looked at the hat. “Amrose, do you have anything you want to say before we start?”
“Certainly!” bellowed the hat.
“Then I yield the floor to you.”
The battered hat, which was speaking from a slit on the cone began his song in a melodious baritone voice:
Sorry sopping students standing
Waiting to be sorted
While questions of my mental state
Are what have been reported
I’m here to tell you all the truth
That I am well and good
And I have come back here and now
To do what ‘ere I should
Old spells that once held me in check
Are lifted now, it’s true
Two centuries of waiting and
I’m back, long overdue
I’ll sort each student true to form
Based on their truth at heart
I’ll see inside your mind and then
Make sure it’s right from start
For those few who are strong and true
Who charge headfirst forthwith
You’ll find your home forevermore
In brave house Hammersmith
In Featherpenny wise and witty
Students will find home
To search for knowledge near and far
Inside a dusty tome
For healers true, there’s bright Suncorn
Whose aim is to protect
They’ll never tire; faithful all
Depend, defend, deflect
House Murgatroyd the cunning bunch
will ever use street smarts,
their guile, their wits, and stealthy ways
unlike their counterparts
Of those who try me on their head
And fate cannot decide
I place them in the house of elk
Pathfinder to reside
The old fifth house is new again
and sparked the Prophecy
it’s up to all together to
Despite the coming thunderstorm’s
Ever distant grumble
Deny the call to darkness deep
Upon which many stumble
Remain faithful to Gampton Hall
Cougar, Elk, Owl, and Fox
Snapping turtle too should stay true
Both witches and warlocks
Mrs. Black nodded her head at the conclusion of the hat’s song. "Sage advice, Amrose. Thank you." She turned back to the waiting students. “The hat has reminded me that I have left you here ‘sorry and sopping.’ Let me address that.” She raised her wand, twirled it in the air and each new student was surrounded by a tornado of wind that whipped their wet cloaks around them. A moment later the wind subsided leaving them all dry, but windswept. “Mr. Woodhead? You may begin.” The man who had led in the first year students nodded his head.
"What was that all about?" Lef asked.
"I have no idea, but it sounds like we're in for an interesting year," Willow responded.
The conversation was interrupted by Mr. Woodhead reading the first name off of the list. “Appleby, Jennifer!”
Sib noticed that Incheon had his hands folded like he was praying and was mumbling to himself. “Oh please not her.”
“What?” Sib asked as Jennifer Appleby was sorted into Suncorn.
Mr. Woodhead called the next student. “Bae, Hye-lin!”
“Please,” pleaded Incheon to nobody in particular. “Please don’t let her be in this house…”
After a moment of silence, the hat announced “Pathfinder!”, and Sib started clapping and cheering with Willow and Lef.
Incheon looked like someone had spit in his ice cream. “Son of a…”
“Bittner, Suzanne!” Mr. Woodhead called out as Hye-lin approached the Pathfinder table. She was a petite Korean girl who had her hair put up in a french braid. She nodded to Willow, Lef, and Sib and then looked at Incheon.
“Puke-face,” she said in greeting to him. She sat down, turning her back to Incheon to watch the rest of the sorting.
“Friend of yours?” asked Sib.
“Hm,” grunted Incheon.
The sorting continued, students going to Hammersmith, Featherpenny, Suncorn, and Murgatroyd while Sib tried not to let his thoughts wander.
One boy pushed another in line. “Go!”
The boy named Adam stumbled out of the line after being shoved. He was small, but overweight and his stick-straight black hair looked like it hadn't seen a comb in years. “Shut up!” he responded back to the boy who had pushed him. “I know my own name!” He shoved back.
“No, you shut up,” the first one responded, escalating the conflict by grabbing the other and trying to get the boy named Adam into a headlock.
Mrs. Black pointed her wand at the wrestling first years. “Petrificus Totalus!” The two boys completely froze and fell over sideways on the floor with a loud clunk. Both were completely paralyzed. The room erupted into laughter. Mr. Woodhead went over to the boys, dragged the one named Adam away from the other and set his petrified frame against the stool. He placed the hat on the boy’s still-paralyzed head and waited for Amrose to decide.
“Naturally,” Incheon said. His voice dripping with sarcasm. “We’re making out like bandits on this one.”
Mrs. Black pointed her wand at Adam. “Finite Incantatem.” The boy collapsed on the floor, finally free of the body-bind spell. She did the same with the other student. Adam got to his feet and wandered over to the Pathfinder table.
“Hiya,” said the boy to his new housemates. “You can call me Hedges.”
“That’s great, Hedges,” said Incheon. “Sit down and try not to hurt yourself.”
More students were sorted to Murgatroyd and Suncorn before Sib recognized Norbert’s brother being called.
“I go by Beene,” the first-year boy said to Mr. Woodhead. He was the one who had been wrestling with Hedges earlier in the sorting.
“Beene,” the boy said. “I don’t go by Bradley - everyone just calls me Beene.”
Mr. Woodhead looked at him blankly. “I don’t care,” he said. “Just sit on the stool.” The room broke into giggles. Beene walked over to the stool and sat on it, waiting for the hat.
When Mr. Woodhead placed it on his head, Beene looked startled. “Oooh!” he cried. “It’s talking to me!” The room erupted into fresh peals of laughter again.
“Dear God,” said Incheon. “Don’t tell me he’s just figuring out how it works now.”
“Pathfinder!” the hat called out.
“Oh, we’re really getting the cream of the crop on this one,” Incheon intoned, slapping the table as the others clapped. He turned to Sib. “Remind me to murder Amrose when I see him next.”
“Aw, come on Incheon,” Sib said. “It won’t be that bad.”
Beene made his way to the table and was trying to sit next to Hedges. “Move over,” he said.
“You move over,” Hedges responded. The surrounding tables were looking toward them.
“I’m standing here,” Beene said. “You’re the one that has to move.” They began pushing and shoving each other. Sib leaned over and whispered to Willow. “We’d better fix this before Mrs. Black body-binds our whole table." She nodded.
“Boys,” Willow said in a soft voice. They were still shouting at each other.
“Shut your face!” “No, you shut your face!”
“Boys, please,” pleaded Willow in a slightly louder voice. They continued to ignore her and push each other, each trying to force themselves onto the bench at the table. Mrs. Black was approaching them. Sib knew he had to act.
“Hey!” Sib yelled at them. The whole room was looking at their table now. “You, Beene!” Sib pointed at a spot next to Incheon. “Sit there and shut up.”
“Told you to shut up,” Hedges said to Beene.
“And you, Hedges!” Sib yelled. “Shut your trap too. Not a sound for the rest of the sorting.” Mrs. Black, who had also been observing the ruckus had come halfway towards their table.
“If it’s alright with you, Miss Carter, we’ll continue with the sorting now?” Willow looked abashed.
“Sorry, Mrs. Black.”
Mrs. Black turned back to Mr. Woodhead and nodded at him. He read the next name. “Parker, Neal!”
Sib leaned over to Incheon. “Never mind. It’s that bad.” After Neal was sorted to Featherpenny, they heard the next name announced.
“Rodriguez, Quinta!” A small Hispanic girl took the stool, looking like she couldn’t care less about where she was sorted.
After a few moments, the hat decided. “Pathfinder!” Quinta wandered over to the table to applause from the group and sat at the empty spot next to Hedges.
“Hi, I’m Hedges.”
“Listen, special sauce,” she hissed back. “Just keep your stupid pie hole shut and we’ll get along just fine.”
“Oooh, you’re fun,” said Incheon. Quinta glared daggers at him but didn’t respond.
The dozen remaining students were sorted, evenly divided between the four other houses. At the conclusion of the sorting, Mrs. Black announced that the houses would report to their respective homerooms for initiation and that they should all return to the banquet hall for club sign-ups in another hour. All of the students at the tables around them got up and started moving towards the exit doors.
“You know,” said Incheon, perking up. “I thought this year was going to be bad, but now I think I was wrong.”
“That’s the spirit, Incheon,” Willow said.
“It’s not going to be bad,” he continued. “It’s going to be the most horrific dragon-dung flavored popsicle of a year ever and I’m going to end up eating every bite.”
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