Sib left the Mysticism classroom, his mind a jumbled stew of thoughts. Should I have told her about the manticore? It wouldn’t matter, there’s nothin’ she could do about it anyway. Should I tell the others about what I’m seein’? ...And have everyone look at me strange because I’m seein’ things that nobody else can? It’s like the dreams...
All last year, Sib had been haunted by recurring dreams - all having to do with the Hunter and the circle of stones. They were extremely vivid, but he didn’t dare to tell anyone about them because he knew they weren’t normal. He eventually discovered that all of the Pathfinders were having the same dreams - making them realize that it was the Hunter who was trying to talk to them and to guide them into finding the truth about Pathfinder House.
And then there’s grandma… His grandmother had been in the National Magical Medical Center since the time he was born. She was completely paralyzed - except for her eyes, which she used to communicate with Sib and his family when they went to visit. Sib’s mom had told him that her paralyzation had something to do with Mysticism. He didn’t want to end up the same way. No, he thought as he reached the Pathfinder lounge. I ain’t tellin’ nobody. He walked into the lounge just in time to hear Willow’s reminder.
“Remember,” Willow called to the others as they were gathering their things to head to their clubs or leave for the day. “Mandatory tryouts for the Pathfinder Quidditch team on Monday!” She turned to Sib, practically exploding with excitement. “This is going to be so great!”
They are god-awful. Sib stood watching the tryouts after school on the following Monday. Hye-lin seemed to be able to hold her own on a broom, but Quinta couldn't even get off the ground. Hedges and Beene were at least flying but spent the entire time trying to butt into each other.
“I’ll knock you off!” Beene said, ramming his broom into Hedges’.
“Just try it!” Hedges responded and they proceeded to bash into each other like a pair of dim-witted goats. The rest of them were trying to ignore the boys.
Willow was still trying to convince Lef to play. “Please,” she pleaded.
“I stink,” replied Lef. “And I hate playing Quidditch.”
“But she can’t fly at all,” Willow said, pointing at Quinta, who was stomping on her broom; cursing it as if it had punched her mother. “If you don’t play, we won’t have a team.”
“You mean you won’t have a team,” Lef clarified. “Nobody else is thrilled with the idea of going up against players six years older than us.”
“Fine. I won’t have a team. But you know how much I’ve wanted this. Come on...please?”
Lef thought for a moment. “Okay, I’ll do it. But I reserve the right to quit.”
“Done.” Willow blew her whistle and the four first years came over to where she was. “The four second years are going to play, so there are only three spots left.”
“Oh, thank god,” said Quinta. “I thought you were going to make me do this.” She took her broom and threw it like a javelin back toward the field.
“Now, we’ll need to figure out positions,” Willow said.
“Uh...,” Sib interrupted.
“What?” Willow looked at him.
“You really think giving them a couple of bats is a good idea?” he said, gesturing his head towards the boys, who had fallen to the ground off of their brooms and were busy wrestling in the dirt.
“I guess not.”
“And since you’re the only one who can really fly,” Sib continued. “I think we got us a seeker. Incheon and I will be the beaters and Lef ain’t flying far, so she’ll goaltend.”
“...So we have three new chasers,” Willow finished for him.
“Looks like you got your team.”
“What number do you want for your jersey?” Willow asked them after they had returned to the lounge. “The keeper is number one and the seeker gets number seven, but you can pick from the rest.”
“I want eighty-four,” Incheon said.
“There are only seven players,” Willow explained. “So there’s one through seven.”
“That’s great,” Incheon responded. “I want eighty-four.”
“I’ll take zero since that’s how many points we’ll score,” said Sib.
“Will you two be serious?” Willow demanded.
“Do you want us to play or not?” asked Sib. Willow stared at him, but Sib didn’t blink.
“Fine,” she said, giving up. She turned to the others who were distracted by Hedges and Beene. The two were pushing and shoving each other in the back of the room.
“I want my favorite number!” Beene yelled.
“No!” Hedges responded. “I want my favorite number and I called it first.” They started wrestling each other again.
“Hey, idiots!” Quinta yelled at them. They both stopped fighting and turned to her. “What’s your favorite number?”
“Eight,” Beene said.
“Thirteen” Hedges called at the same time. They immediately resumed fighting with each other.
Willow shook her head and turned to Hye-lin. “And you?”
“Eleven,” she said.
“So we have zero, one, seven, eight, eleven, thirteen and eighty-four,” she summarized. "We’re going to look ridiculous.”
“And the numbers won’t help either,” added Incheon.
“Are you really set on this?” Sib asked Willow.
“Okay,” he said. “But you’d best prepare yourself, ‘cause it ain’t gonna be pretty.”
“What do you mean I have to scoop poop?,” Sib asked Willow as they were standing outside of the Pegasus barn. “Ain't I carin' for magical creatures in ‘Care of Magical Creatures Club’?”
“You’ll definitely get out within a month, but everybody has to rotate through the barns.”
“But why can’t I just vanish it with ‘evanesco’?”
“Because Mr. Diatomungi needs the manure for his mushrooms,” Willow responded. “Look, just put your head down and plow through and you’ll be out with the blink dogs and salamanders in no time.”
“And where are you goin’?”
“I’m headed down to see Corey. I’ll see you in a bit.”
Great, he thought as he grabbed a pitchfork and headed to a stall in the back of the barn. She goes off to hang out with her best friend, the man-eating manticore, and I’m going to scoop poop for an hour. I’m going to murder Incheon for signing me up for this... He had worked through four stalls and was spreading fresh hay on the ground when he was startled by the sound of someone talking right next to him.
“Over here,” the voice said. “We can talk in private.” Sib looked around, but couldn’t see anyone next to him. Then he noticed that the barn had a rounded roof as the barn was a half-cylinder laid on its side. He was hearing voices perfectly from the opposite side and the voices were carrying across the ceiling. Not wanting to disturb them, and desperately bored from the monotonous work, he crouched down and waited in silence to hear the conversation.
“The wyverns and the manticore.” Sib recognized the voice as Mr. Woodhead’s, their COMC teacher.
“What about them?” a second voice asked. Sib didn’t know who this was, and his view to the opposite side was blocked by bales of hay stacked up in the center of the barn. He guessed it was one of the older students.
“Why are they here? Whose idea was it to have them in the first place?”
“I don’t know,” replied the student. “The wyverns were here when I started and the manticore arrived the summer before last. Miss Mercana was the one who took care of them mostly.” Sib remembered Miss Mercana fondly. She was their COMC teacher from last year. She was removed from the post because people found out she had arktanthropy: she was a were-bear.
“Well, we’re going to have to get rid of them,” Mr. Woodhead said.
“What? You mean release them?”
“Into the wild?” Mr. Woodhead exclaimed. “Are you mad? No - I mean we’re going to have to put them down.”
“I...I don’t know how to do that.”
“Neither do I. We’ll have to call in MACUSA. BPMS has a ‘cleaner’ they call it. Shoots a green light at creatures too dangerous to release and they’re done.”
“But they’re called the Body for the Protection of Magical Species,” the student protested.
“In this case, you and I are the magical species that need protecting,” Mr. Woodhead responded. “Wyverns and manticores don’t have any place near people. Both are cold-blooded killers and with magical resistance to boot. I’m not putting myself or any of you in that kind of danger. Don’t worry,” he continued. “MACUSA knows what they’re doing. I’ll try to get them in here in a week or so. Until then, nobody goes near them, you hear me?”
Sib heard the two of them shuffle off. I have to tell Willow! But what’s she going to say? And worse...what’s she going to try to do?
“We have to convince Mr. Woodhead,” she said when Sib had found her. “I don’t know about the wyverns; they were always pretty nasty, but we can’t let them kill Corey.”
“I’m not sure how willin’ Mr. Woodhead is gonna be when he hears that I was snoopin’ on their conversation,” replied Sib. “So you might want to start thinkin’ about your best jailbreak plan in case you can’t convince him.”
“He just has to listen to reason,” said Willow. Sib saw the conviction in her eyes - like the Pathfinder Quidditch team, there was no way of talking her out of it.
“Alright,” replied Sib. “But could you - you know - kinda’ leave me out of it? I only been in COMC club for a week and I don’t want to get tossed before I actually get to care for a magical creature.”
“Yeah, okay,” Willow dismissed him. She was already planning how to make her argument, her face wrinkled in thought like a trial lawyer on a big case. “I’m going to see him right now. I’ll see you later.” She strode up toward Mr. Woodhead’s office, with purpose and energy in each step. Sib didn’t see her for the rest of his time mucking out stalls and he figured she would update them all in the student lounge the next morning.
“I can’t believe he wouldn’t see reason,” Willow was fuming. She had indeed tried - relentlessly it sounded - to convince Mr. Woodhead of the manticore’s good qualities. She was pacing back and forth in the Pathfinder lounge the following morning, preventing anyone from leaving while she vented. “He said he didn’t want to accept the liability! As if that matters when he’s talking about cold-blooded murder.”
“What’s it called when a manticore eats a person,” asked Incheon. “Are they warm-blooded?”
“Hush,” Lef said to him.
“We’ll just open the gate and let him go,” Willow said with resolve.
“Right,” piped up Incheon. “I’m sure he’ll just bound off into the woods like a puppy and not start murdering the students all around him. Because, you know, manticores are nice like that.”
“We can lure him into the forest with food!” Willow clarified.
“You can lure him into the forest because you’re food,” Incheon said.
Willow stomped her foot in frustration. “I don’t know what to do!”
“Have you asked Miss Mercana?” asked Sib.
“You’re right! She’ll know what to do. I’ll send Fred to visit her tonight.” Sib remembered Fred - he was a pseudodragon; a dragon-like creature about the size of a small dog. He had been Miss Mercana’s, but she had given Fred to Willow at the end of last year. Like an owl, Fred could pass messages back and forth between them.
“What if we snuck it out?” suggested Hye-lin, caught up in the conversation.
“In what?” Incheon asked. “Do you have a giant manticore-proof cage in your back pocket?” Hye-lin shot him a glance that made Sib flinch.
“What if it isn’t a giant cage?” asked Lef.
Incheon turned to her. “I suppose you’re volunteering to stuff the manticore into a wand box?”
“The small carved dragon,” Lef said. “The one we got inside last year. We could use it to smuggle the manticore out.”
Sib nodded. During the previous year, he had carved a small wooden pseudodragon as a gift for Willow at Christmastime. At the end of the year, Mr. Zolock - before he died - had enchanted the pseudodragon carving to grow into a giant hollow shape that they had all crawled into and then he had shrunk it down again with them inside to avoid detection. It might work.
“That’s an amazing plan, Lef,” Willow congratulated her. “Thanks! I’ll just need to ask Miss Mercana where we can take Corey once we get him out.”
“Great,” said Incheon. “Can Sib and I get to class now? We have to cut across the school three times to avoid death by jinx and we’re already going to be late.”
“And cost us more points?” scolded Willow. “I’m sure the Hammersmiths have had their revenge. You haven’t been jinxed in two weeks.”
“And I don’t intend on breaking that record, either,” Incheon replied. He waved for Sib to follow and they hurried out, Sib scoping ahead to see if the path was clear.
“So Miss Mercana just said ‘meet me in Gampton’?” Incheon asked. Willow nodded at him, handing him a piece of paper. Willow had sent messages to all of them to meet her in the village of Gampton on Saturday morning. Sib and Incheon were already waiting when she arrived in the village square. Sib had to give up his hike through the woods, but he felt some responsibility for the whole thing since he was the one who had overheard Mr. Woodhead in the first place. “It’s not that Gampton is a metropolis,” Incheon continued, handing the small scrap of paper back to Willow. “But where, exactly, are we meeting her?”
“I don’t know,” replied Willow. “Oh, look!” she exclaimed. “Here come Lily and Hye-lin on their brooms.”
“Ugh,” replied Incheon. “I feel my breakfast coming back up.”
“Oh, come on,” Sib joked. “Lily isn’t that bad.” Incheon smiled at him and then frowned when Hye-lin landed and gave him the finger when she thought nobody was looking.
“I see you two have made up nicely,” Sib said to him.
“Hm,” Incheon grunted. Lef joined them a moment later, having used the Firejump Network like Sib to apparate near the square.
Sib looked around while they were waiting. He had been to Gampton before to visit Incheon, but he had jumped directly into his house and hadn’t seen the village proper. They were in the village square, the grey cobblestones beneath their feet lining a street that was wide enough for two carriages to easily pass, but the streets around them were currently empty. There was a statue of a mage in the middle of the square. Sib saw the name ‘Gamp’ on the base, but he didn’t know who that was. He was sure Mr. Zolock would know a funny story or be able to show a reenactment of a battle he was in.
There were trees lining the sidewalks, casting a pleasant shade on the square. Shops of all kinds lined the four streets that led from where they were standing. Sib saw an owl post office on one corner; and a small grocery, a jewelry store, and a branch of Gringott’s Wizard Bank on the other three. His observations were interrupted by the arrival of Fred, flying lazily down to them from the treetops above, his leathery wings nearly transparent where the sun hit them. He landed on Willow’s shoulder, furled his wings and turned his long serpentine neck to look at her.
“This way,” Willow said after a moment, pointing them to the street between the post office and the jewelry store.
“How do you know that?” asked Hye-lin. “He didn’t say anything.”
“Fred can talk telepathically,” replied Willow. “I had trouble hearing it at first, but I worked at it all summer. Fred said Miss Mercana is waiting in the woods on this side of town.” The village street ended after three blocks. There were a series of small cape-cod style cottages at the cul-de-sac where the street stopped, but a path led past them into the woods beyond.
“Do you live near here, Lily?” Willow asked her.
“No. Incheon, Hye-lin, and I live on the opposite side of the village, closer to the river.” They had reached the tree line of the forest and Willow saw a figure ahead, draped in a dark green cloak. Her reddish-brown hair - now shot with streaks of grey, Sib noticed - was pinned up in a messy bun. As they approached Sib thought she looked like she’d been sleeping outside for a while.
“Hi Miss Mercana,” greeted Willow. “How are you?”
“I’ve been better,” she replied but smiled warmly at them all. “Man, I forgot how much I missed teaching you guys.” She glanced at them all and stopped at Hye-lin. “I don’t think we’ve met.”
Hye-lin introduced herself as a first-year student at Gampton Hall and Miss Mercana nodded. “Nice to meet you Hye-lin.” She turned back to Willow. “Your plan to get Corey out by shrinking him within the wooden carving won’t work.”
“Why not? We can figure out a way to work the spells.” Sib had his doubts, but he was sure that Willow didn’t.
“Because manticores are resistant to magic. He won’t shrink.”
“So even if we got him inside the wooden pseudodragon…”
“He would be crushed when you tried to shrink it again.”
“I won’t be crushed,” said Incheon.
“You be quiet,” hushed Lef.
“So what do I do?” lamented Willow.
“I don’t know. But if you can find a way to get him out, get him to the Wendigo circle. I can take it from there.”
“The Wendigo circle?”
“It’s a giant circular patch on the ground where nothing grows. It’s just outside the school grounds, beyond my old bear enclosure.”
"Why is it called the Wendigo circle?"
"No idea. Ask Professor Zolock...he’ll know. Anyway, that’s not the reason I asked you to meet me here today." She handed Willow something from inside her robe. Sib saw that it was a newspaper and Willow opened it up and gasped. “That’s why I wanted to show you in person,” Miss Mercana said. “They published the prophecy...or at least a version of it.” She gestured to Willow. “Go ahead, read it out loud to the others.”
Willow swallowed heavily and started reading the article. “The headline says ‘Prophecy Revealed’ in big type. Here’s the rest of it.”
"Sources from within MACUSA have, for the first time, revealed the entirety of the prophecy as it relates to the possible revealing of the magic world to the nomaj. This prophecy, given to MACUSA fourteen years ago, has long been the subject of conjecture and discussion at the highest levels of government and it was classified as ‘top secret’ by the government because of its possible inflammatory contents."
"Shunted away in a dusty corridor with other prophecies, this prediction had little effect on our daily lives with the exception of the banning of all dark arts and their teaching at all schools in the United States shortly after the prophecy was given.'Good riddance,' one MACUSA official, who asked to remain anonymous, was quoted as saying. 'It gave us a good reason to do what we had wanted to do all along'.”
"But now, things are different. Starting in September, Gampton Hall Academy has started sorting new students into a fifth house, known as Pathfinder. Where did this fifth house come from? What prompted Gampton Hall administrators to allow this to happen? We interviewed the former Chancellor of Gampton Hall Academy, Mr. Hobilard McCracken about the happenings at Gampton Hall. 'It all started with a band of misfit students.' "
“Hey,” piped up Incheon. “I thought it was just one misfit student and then the rest of you.”
“Quiet,” hushed Lef. “Let her read.”
Willow continued. “They were poking around where they shouldn’t have been,' McCracken added. 'And discovered secrets at the school that were meant to stay hidden and safe. I warned them, but now there’s no going back. The fifth house has indeed started under the new administration.”
“That’s a lie,” piped up Sib. “It started at the beginnin' of last year!”
“Quiet,” hushed Lef. “Let her finish the article. It’s probably not the only lie.”
“The current Chancellor, Mrs. Patricia Black, could not be reached for comment. Now, with Gampton Hall Academy sorting students into a fifth house, another series of questions has arisen. How will we protect ourselves from the nomaj? And how will we maintain our way of life? Here, exclusively in the New York Ghost, the prophecy has been published so that we can see for ourselves the danger it portends:"
“I see five bloody harvests, five years of darkness; and at the end...there is nothing. The end of the era of magic is nearing. The nomaj will rise and replace the mage. Legions of mages will become powerless. We must suppress the magic deprived and magic depraved. Gampton Hall’s fifth house will mark the beginning. Only those who follow MACUSA can avoid the end.”
“That isn’t right,” said Incheon. They all looked at him. “At least from what Mr. Zolock told us last year, what he said is different from what you just read.” Sib had every reason to believe Incheon as he had an audiographic memory. He was able to remember everything he heard - word for word.
“Is there anything else?” asked Lef.
"Yes," said Willow. "One more paragraph. With the implications clear regarding who will reveal the secret and where safety lies, MACUSA has enacted swift and rigorous legislation aimed at protecting the public and ensuring the continued safety of the magical world. Effectively immediately, the ‘MFA’ or Magical Freedom Act has been implemented. This act empowers MACUSA to search for and prosecute more fully and comprehensively those who would aid in the violation of the Statute of Secrecy. The Act creates a registry for human-hybrid individuals to ensure proper governmental oversight and control. All exemptions for wandless mages have been suspended indefinitely as has parole for all those accused or prosecuted for the use of dark magic. Let us at the New York Ghost hope that MACUSA is doing enough.”
My pa, thought Sib. He ain’t gettin’ out.
“My mom,” said Willow. “She won’t be able to get a wand.”
“Miss Mercana,” added Lef. “Does the human-hybrid thing apply to you?”
“Oh yes,” she nodded. “Were-bears count. I’m supposed to surrender myself to twenty-four-hour surveillance...in Spellhold prison. Some freedom act, huh?”
“So what are you going to do?” asked Willow.
“For now, I’m going to make myself scarce. I wanted to tell you so that you didn’t send Fred to me. It’s a whole lot harder to hide when there’s a pseudodragon flying around.”
“Is there anything we can do?” Sib asked.
“Yes,” she replied. “Find out the truth of the prophecy. And I mean the whole truth. Not just what it actually said, but what it actually means.”
“And how do we do that?”
“I have no idea, but you figured out the Pathfinder thing last year, and before the end of next week, you’re going to figure out how to sneak a manticore out of Gampton Hall too. I believe in you.” She turned and talked just to Willow. “Don’t send Fred until you are ready to bust Corey out and then I’ll meet you at the Wendigo circle. Good luck.” She waved goodbye to them and disappeared into the woods.
They were all quiet as they walked back towards the village until Hye-lin spoke out. “Pathfinder house is exciting!” she said. “Is it always like this?”
“Like what?” Willow asked.
“You know. Breaking the rules, discovering mysteries, meeting outlaws.”
“No, not always,” Incheon responded. “There was that one day last spring when nobody was trying to murder us. You remember that, Sib?”
Sib glanced at Hye-lin and for a second he thought he caught her smiling but as soon as he looked again, the smile was gone. She and Lily had reached their brooms. “Bye!” called Lily and Hye-lin to the group.
“See ya, pukeface,” Hye-lin added to Incheon before flying off.
Willow was tying her shoe and her foot wiggled on a loose cobblestone. She picked up the stone, leaving a hollow brick-shaped hole in the roadbed. She looked up at Lef, Incheon and Sib. “The only way I can see is to dig a tunnel. Just far enough to escape.” Sib was overcome with deja-vu. He stepped back, suddenly unsteady on his feet.
“Whoa there, boss...” Incheon reached out to steady him. “You alright?”
“Yeah,” replied Sib. "Just a wicked case of deja-vu." Except he realized it wasn’t deja-vu after all. He had heard Willow say that exact phrase in that exact same way when he was stuck in the woods waiting out the harpy. It was how he knew to dig a tunnel to escape. If one of my visions is coming true...what about the manticore?
(* Blink dogs and pseudodragons originally created by Gary Gygax, Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual, TSR, 1977)
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