The House on the Edge
Book 2 of the Anna Grayson Series
It was midday in the Shadowed Forest. Forbidden to most and feared by all but fools, two men moved cautiously through the gloom, each laboring to carry a burlap bag over their shoulder. Although the bags were not heavy, they held tight to the knotted ends with both hands. They were very happy about their newly acquired, but ill-gotten gains.
The leader of this misbegotten gang of fools, which started the day with three, was Thomas Deiver; a small time hood from the American west coast, little known for more than his dreams of making it big at the expense of any Muggle who fell into his path. Although his ambitions had always been bigger than his reason, Thomas had taken a step up in the level of audacity with his crime that day. He had a buyer waiting for the stolen items in their possession, and the galleons gained in the transaction would finally put him in the black for the first time in his adult life.
Suddenly, one of the men stumbled and almost fell. “Careful, you fool!” Deiver yelled angrily at the other. “I didn’t come all this way just to have you break one of them with your clumsiness.”
“Sorry, Tommy,” said the second man, who adjusted the tail of the bag between his neck and shoulder to continue. “God, these things are hot… mine’s still smoking.”
Samuel Cragmyer was a bit older than Deiver, but always defaulted to Tommy’s wisdom on this kind of job. It wasn’t just because Sam was bit slower than the average wizard; the two had known each other ever since they were children, growing up in the remote village of Charmston near the Canadian border in Washington State. Their fathers were friends in a village filled with the Scrub of the Wizarding world’s outer fringe.
The children of this village, like all of their parents, were called Squibs,those born without magical ability. Centuries of mixing with the non-magical population, those they called Muggles, had lessened many Wizarding families to the point where their own magical blood had been diluted to near non-existence. These families eventually banded together in small communities throughout the country, in fear of the watchful eye of the Ministry of Magic. Although powerless now as wizards and witches, these village families still had something the regular Muggle population did not: They knew of the existence of magic and how those calling themselves wizards sought to use it.
Being born a squib in a scrub village was an unusually humble life even by Muggle standards. Unable to participate fully in the Wizarding world for lack of ability, the people of these communities devoted themselves to a simple existence, knowing they dare not reveal their lost magical heritage to anyone; for the punishment of such a crime was indeed great.
Once in a great while, however, something truly wondrous would happen in these small non-magical places. A child was born as a reminder of their magical past, a true wizard. As rare as a squib born to a pure blood family, these new wizards were celebrated by the entire village as something of a miracle. More than a token of their proud heritage, the village of squibs knew the presence of a new sorcerer in their magically dark community would keep the Ministry away. For if a Scrub village went without a new wizard for more than two generations, wizard law required the memory of all its citizens be obliterated of any remaining knowledge of magic’s existence. After that, only the Tonnanarsus, or The Book of Births, would magically record the names of those born in America with magical talent. As a result, only the family of the newly born sorcerer would come to know of magic’s existence once more.
This path to extinction for a squib community was an unfortunate but necessary practice in keeping the ways of magic a secret from the Muggles. It had always been the way of things, and maybe it was this fact alone that had set Thomas and Samuel down the road to a series of disappointments in the scrub town in which they were born.
Still, at Samuel’s birth, the village joyously and ceremoniously celebrated its first wizard in nearly fifty years. There were parties and speeches, honoring and toasting the Cragmyer clan for their magical gift to the community, but each family celebrated privately as well. For it also meant the wolves of the Ministry would be prohibited from creeping in like thieves in the night and robbing them of their remaining memories and magical heritage.
And then, even before this first miracle could be fully absorbed into the shared consciousness of the scrub community, a second happened just a few months later. Thomas was born a wizard to another family just two houses away, and it seemed God himself had moved to directly intervene in the village’s purpose and survival. So long as these boys continued to live within town in which they were born, the squib of Charmston knew the wolves would be kept at bay.
But as the boys grew to become adults, their celebrated lives soon fell into disrepute as their lust for crime shamed both their families and eventually the entire village. Consequently, a meeting was held in the local church one late, autumn night and it was decided the boys should leave. It would seem the community would rather see their famous sons gone and risk the wolves rather than to suffer any more of their sinful deeds. And so, two days later, Thomas Deiver and Samuel Cragmyer were reluctantly escorted to the edge of the village with a request never to return. And just after midnight that very night, the Ministry moved in to expunge the village of its remaining memories of magic’s existence.
Perhaps it was the guilt of their home town’s fate that lead the boys to a life of crime in the years that followed, or maybe it was because they couldn’t seem to make a proper living for themselves afterward. In reality it was probably the awareness that, while they might have been treated as icons at home, to the rest of the Wizarding world their magical abilities were considered poor at best. In the end, they roamed from town to town, taking advantage of the Muggles wherever their travels took them for the sake of food and shelter.
The Ministry was watching them closely, of course, and had given them several warnings regarding their criminal exploits. They even spent some time in wizard jail the year following a series of robberies in San Francisco. Yes - the boys had fallen far, but in their mind today was the day everything would finally be put to right.
Sam spoke again. “Where do you think Ollie’s gone to?” The man stopped to adjust his sack again, looking back down the path for their missing partner.
“Who knows; we got separated at the cliffs,” Thomas replied uncaringly. He could see his friend’s worried expression. “Now… come on; don’t worry, Sammy. He knew the trail we were going to take back well enough. He’ll be along.”
Just then they heard a yell and the two men turned to look back through the gloom of the woods behind them. There was a rush of wind over their heads and the sound reminiscent of a ship’s sail unfurling high above the trees. The two men immediately dropped to crouch low, their eyes scanning the heavens through the blue and green openings in the canopy above them. They looked fearfully at each other, holding their breath. There was another rush of wind over their heads again, this time going in the opposite direction.
A third man unexpectedly came crashing through the brush behind them, laboring to carry two sacks over his shoulders. He was running toward them in a panic.
“Oliver!” yelled Sam, grinning at his friend’s approach. “Over here!” The man didn’t stop to acknowledge their presence in any way. Without saying a word, he lumbered straight passed them.
Thomas looked at Sam contemptuously. “Where’d you find this guy, in a hospital ward for wayward loons?”
“Oliver!” Sam yelled. “Wait!” He looked back. “Come on, Tommy. We have to catch him before he gets lost.” Sam rushed onward, but it didn’t take long to catch the fleeing man laboring as he was to carry twice the load of his friends.
“Oliver… stop! Where are you going?” Samuel caught his friend by the shoulder and wheeled him around, pinning his back against a tree. “Hold on!” he barked with a mixed giggle. “What’s the hurry?” Samuel’s smile fell as he stared into his friend’s eyes. They looked wild, almost lost in panic.
“Ollie…? What’s the matter with you?”
Thomas finally caught up. He sat his bag down on the ground and bent over, wheezing and clutching the stabbing stitch in his side. He glanced up wincingly at Oliver Dishong, who looked like a man ready to collapse from exertion, his two sacks held tight in his sweaty grip.
“Well — well,” Thomas said with a chuckle. “It would seem, Sammy, that your friend here was a bit greedy. Here we are struggling to carry one and he has the audacity to grab two.” Thomas took a deep breath and straightened. “You look tired, ol’ man; I’d be happy to carry one of those sacks for you if you’d like.” Thomas laughed, expecting the man to tell him to go straight to hell. Oliver glared back at him, a look of absent-minded terror moving across his sweaty face.
“Have them!” he snapped, throwing one of the sacks uncaringly down at Thomas’s feet.
He began looking up into the sky, searching seemingly for something invisible above them. Reaching into his shirt, Oliver took out a crucifix connected to a thin chain around his neck. He kissed the cross and blessed himself, still looking fearfully into the shadow-filled canopy. Thomas and Sam were both taken aback by the uncaring generosity displayed by the newest member of their group.
“Well… if you say so, friend,” Thomas replied coyly, reaching down to grab up the now discarded sack. “Shame you had to carry it all this way just to give it up like…”
“There’s something wrong with him, Tommy,” Sam injected worriedly, staring into Oliver’s panic-stricken face.
Thomas smirked. “The only thing wrong with him is he’s taken more than he can carry. Just give him a rest and we’ll be off before you can say…”
“I’m serious, Tommy. Look at his eyes.”
Thomas groaned. Still clutching the pain in his side, he blandly stepped forward to look over Sam’s shoulder. Oliver seemed lost, terrorized by fear, his anxious glances darting everywhere at once. The smile on Thomas’s face fell. The whites of the man’s eyes were blood red and tiny veins of green were slowly creping inward toward his dark pupils.
“God…” Thomas whispered. He immediately dropped his sacks and grabbed at the one Oliver still had draped over his back. “Get rid of that!” he demanded, tossing it angrily to the ground. “Take off his pack — quickly!”
“Why? What’s wrong with him?”
“Just do it!”
Sam did as he was told, stripping away Oliver’s gear and belts as Thomas did the same. When he was free of his own pack, Thomas pulled it around to open it. He removed a silk pouch and a wand, stood, and grabbed Oliver by the shoulders. He began scanning over the man’s body, looking for any rips or tears in his clothing.
“What is it? Whatcha lookin’ for, Tommy?”
Thomas quickly spun their friend around and pinned his front to the tree. And there he found it, a bloody gash in the lower part of the man’s shirt. Thomas stepped back, almost too afraid to look, but then swiftly moved forward again.
“Lay him down! Quickly — get him on the ground!” Working together, the two men put the man down and then Thomas yanked up Oliver’s shirt.
“Dear God!” gasped Sam. “What the hell?”
There was a very long and ugly wound in the man’s back near his waist. It was flayed, swollen, and oozed an iridescent green spew.
“Damn! He’s been bitten; the fool’s gone and gotten himself bitten!”
A bubble of disgorged stench oozed from out of the ripped muscle and popped, splashing blood across the man’s back.
“Oh… God,” Sam cried, covering his nose. “Why does it stink so bad?”
“Poison!” Thomas yelped. He grabbed the silk pouch and began to fumble with its silver strings. He removed a tiny flask of blue liquid, popped its cork, and quickly dumped its contents into Oliver’s open wound. The man screamed in pain, thrashing his arms and legs as Thomas tried to steady him.
“Hold him, Sammy. Hold him down!” Sam did as he was told, turning his head and retching from the yellow smoke now reeking the foulest stench from his friend’s back.
“Hold him still so I can finish it,” Thomas yelled, reaching for his wand. He lowered its tip down into the wound and began to chant the appropriate charm. Nothing happened.
“Damn! It isn’t working. It won’t heal…”
“Why not? Why isn’t it working, Tommy? Why?”
Thomas looked around them, gritting his teeth. “It’s this place. Magic doesn’t work here. We’re still too close to the cliffs.” He stuffed the flask and his wand into his pack again. “Come on! We’ve got to move him further away.”
“How far do we have to go before magic starts working again?” Sam asked, as Thomas stood to push his arms through the loops of his pack.
“I don’t know… another mile, maybe two. If we can get him far enough away, there’s still a chance we can save him. Come on — get’im to his feet. We have to go!”
They hoisted their friend up by his arms and he screamed in agony.
“I know it hurts, friend, but we’ve got to move you to make you better.” Sam stooped down to retrieve their gear.
“Leave it!” Thomas scolded him. “Just take the sacks.”
The two men hoisted their friend up by his arms once again and began to stumble forward through the woods, carrying the four sacks as they went along. After a time, Sam’s legs gave out and the three men fell to the ground in a heap.
“Try it… now… Tommy. See… if the magic… is… is working yet,” Sam wheezed, rolling onto his back to catch his breath. Thomas raised his wand into the air.
“Relashio!” he bellowed in a winded shout. Nothing happened. “Still… not… far enough,” he panted, dropping his arm to the leaf-littered dirt with a thud. “Come on… on your feet. We’ve got to keep moving.”
Suddenly, there was a horrible screech above the trees as something huge sailed over their heads. The two men froze. Holding his breath, Samuel immediately thought his heart was beating much too loud through his chest.
“Shhhhh! Quiet, you idiot,” Thomas shot back. “Not… another… sound…” They waited, looking up into the canopy for any noise, any hint of movement. Oliver groaned.
“We’ve got to get him out of here,” Sam whined, rolling his friend over to look at him again. The veins in the man’s face were bright green now, and his body was visibly shaking with fever. The putrid smell was still wafting off of his back like yellow steam. “Come on, Tommy. Let’s go!”
“I said — shut up!” Thomas snapped, still trying to keep his voice to a whisper. He scanned the heavens once more, listening for anything unexpected. They waited there another thirty seconds while Oliver continued to moan.
“All right… we’re off.”
They lifted the wounded man onto his feet again and took up the sacks. Grabbing Oliver by the back of his belt, they dragged their friend a few steps onward when, suddenly, there was a terrible crash above their heads. The sound of breaking trees, ripping and splintering, filled the air before something hit the ground in front of them with a loud and earthshaking BOOM.
The men squinted through the falling dust and dirt around them, holding their breath to keep from choking on the drifting debris. There was a low rumble that seemed to vibrate the very ground under their feet. They slowly looked up and saw two glowing orbs through the dust-filled haze, and then a monstrous creature stepped forward. It was a dragon.
“Vipertooth…” Thomas whispered fearfully.
“Oh God — Oh God — Oh God…” Sam sniveled in a terrified whimper.
“Don’t… move…” Thomas warned his friend. “If you move… we’re all dead.”
The dragon was small compared to most of its breed, but standing a full ten feet above the three men without magic to protect them, it looked like the devil’s own version of crouching death. Its smooth-scaled, copper body glistened in the sunlight now pouring through the hole torn open in the upper canopy. It had short black horns on top of its head and terrible yellow fangs that dripped pools of iridescent stench. There was an ugly, jagged scar that stretched across the belly of the beast from some previous battle. The dragon unfurled its tattered wings and, pointing its hooked thumbs skyward, it roared angrily down upon the men. Sparkling, green spit flew from its mouth, spattering the trees around Thomas and Samuel who were now cowering in fear.
Oliver’s eyes popped opened, and all at once he let out a scream at the sight of the creature looming before them.
“Dragon!” he yelled, pushing his friends away from him. Stumbling backward, the man fell to the ground, screamed again, and then quickly got to his feet. “Dragon!” he shrieked, turning away to run.
The dragon shook its head and bellowed angrily before moving with surprising speed to give chase. Thomas and Sam dove to the side as the great beast passed between them, its thundering steps bouncing their bodies off the ground as it crashed through the trees after their friend.
Sam quickly got to his feet. “No, Oliver! Don’t run!” he screamed out. “Come back!”
“DRAGON… DRAGON!” the man screamed, disappearing into the woods with the dragon in howling pursuit. There was the sound of breaking trees and another hideous roar.
There was a loud crack, a burst of bright light bouncing through the trees around them, and then there was only silence. Thomas and Sam stood in stunned shock at what had just happened.
Finally, deciding the worst, Thomas picked up two of the sacks. “Come on… let’s go.”
“But… what about Oliver? We just can’t leave him…”
“He’s dead, Sammy!” Thomas snapped back angrily. “And unless you want to end your life the same way, I suggest you get moving!” He turned and started to limp away.
Sam stood there looking back in the direction his friend had disappeared. He finally bent down to pick up his sacks and then slowly turned to follow Thomas through the trees.
After traveling silently for another mile, the two men collapsed again. Thomas took out his wand and pointed it down at his boots.
“Scourgify!” he said, in a panted whisper. Instantly, his boots were made clean. He smiled, breathing heavily as he lifted to look over at his friend.
“We did it, Sammy. We’re out. Magic… is… working again.” He looked up from one elbow into the sky around them. “And the two of us together can certainly hold off any Vipertooth that might show up now.” He smiled and patted his friend on the leg. “We did it, Sammy! They said it couldn’t be done, and we did it! Just another few miles over that rise and we’ll pick up our doors and be out of this bloody valley faster than you can say, ‘Get your galleons.’”
“Poor Oliver,” Sam whimpered, in a heart felt groan. “We were gonna go to the races tonight in Spellsburg. We were going to bet on the Thorses.”
“Yeah, well… look at the bright side…” Thomas got to his feet and reached down. “Our profits have just doubled. Come on, let’s get out of here.” He hoisted his friend up by the arm. “If we’re going to make it back to Spellsburg before dark, we’d better get going.”
“Good evening, gentlemen.”
Thomas and Sam whipped about to find a slight figure in a purple hooded robe standing in the path in front of them. The unknown stranger was leaning against a tree.
“What the…? Who the hell are you?” Thomas snapped, pulling out his wand again. The new arrival straightened and then stepped forward. Stopping a few paces in front of them, the face of the stranger was hidden in the folds of their hood. On her left shoulder was a golden embroidery depicting a dragon.
“You men are trespassing on protected lands. You’re under arrest for the poaching of dragon eggs from the cliffs of Knowtor… from the Dragon’s Lair.”
Thomas looked at Sam and then smirked. “Oh… is that right? Well… I had no idea we were on protected lands, and we weren’t poaching anything. We found these eggs under a tree back there in the forest.” He pointed his wand at the stranger. “You know what they say: Finders-keepers.”
“Tommy… do you know what that is?” Sam said, pointing at the figure blocking their way; there was a touch of awe invading his voice. “That there’s… one of them Guardians. I’ve heard of them before, but I never thought I’d ever get to see one.”
Thomas looked unimpressed as he turned to face the stranger once more. “Is that so? A Guardian, huh? Well, I was wondering about the funky robes,” he replied, jokingly, spying the thick embroidery of gold depicting a dragon on their left shoulder. He crinkled up his nose. “You ought to find yourself a new color, friend. Purple is way out of style, even for a soft spoken gentleman like yourself.”
“I am the assigned protector of the Lair and the entire Shadowed Forest surrounding you. Everything in which you encroach is under my watch and guard. You will surrender those eggs and follow me to the nearest detention center for processing.”
The Guardian lowered their hood to reveal a beautiful woman standing before them. She had long, blonde hair and a look of unruffled calm on her very pretty face. Although she was probably in her early forties, her preserved beauty could easily pass for a maiden fifteen years younger.
“Well now,” Thomas swooned, gazing appreciatively at the woman. “Under normal circumstances, I might suggest a candlelit dinner for two, but as it is, we have a scheduled appointment with a buyer in the city. So… unless you plan to take on the both of us, I would suggest you step aside, my good lady.” He lifted his wand again and pointed it at her.
“You’re not going anywhere with those eggs,” the Guardian told them and, as if to emphasize the warning, a bird-like creature suddenly zoomed in to land upon the woman’s shoulder. A hoary pixie turned to glare back at the men and growled threateningly.
“Kilw da-wizzids… tak ya noos,” the creature grumbled through a blackened gap of missing teeth.
Thomas rolled his eyes. “I’m already tired of this. All right, gorgeous… don’t say I didn’t give you proper warning.” He stretched out his arm. “Stupefy!” A bolt of red light shot forward, but the Guardian whirled and was suddenly gone.
Both men stood there looking stunned.
“Where’d she go, Tommy?” Sam asked him, looking wildly around them. “Did she Disapparate?”
Thomas whipped his wand around behind them and then quickly to his left. This was clearly unexpected.
“Nobody can Apparate or Disapparate on this mountain. Keep your eyes open. She still might be...”
A flash of purple light suddenly smashed into Sam’s back, knocking him to the ground.
“Drop those wands — now!” yelled the Guardian, appearing to their right. “Surrender before you get yourself killed… or worse… before you harm those eggs.” She whirled again and disappeared.
Thomas helped his friend back to his feet. “Are you all right?”
Sam was wincing in pain. “I think so… just knocked… the breath out of me. Get us out of here, Tommy.”
“Right-you-are,” Thomas replied. Looking around fearfully for the woman, he grabbed his friend by the arm and pushed him forward but then stopped again; the Guardian had reappeared once more to block their path.
“Halt! You should know… your doors are not where you left them. Your exit from this valley and the mountains beyond are blocked. There is no escape.”
Thomas Deiver seethed with rage. He had witnessed a lot this day. He had seen his best friend hurt, a member of their party eaten alive by a dragon, and worst of all, his plans for living comfortably for the next two years put in serious jeopardy by the woman now standing before them. He’d always believed a man’s fate made most of the important decisions for him. If you needed air, you simply breathed; if you were hungry, you ate something; if you needed a better life and somebody was standing in your way, you moved them. Although he had never been violent man, Thomas was surprised at how simple his next decision would be.
“Move aside!” Thomas growled, pointing his wand at the Guardian again.
“Thief!” the woman retorted.
“I said… get out of my way!”
The woman looked at Thomas and could tell the man had reached his limit. She had seen desperate men like this so many times before that day. There had been so many battles; so many good friends lost. But she had been given the power to do whatever was necessary to stop men such as this, including ending their lives for lesser examples of greed. She had been forced, albeit reluctantly, to act with brutal dispatch many times in the past.
Although they had no way of knowing it, Thomas and Sam were at a great disadvantage. For the woman standing in front of them wasn’t at all what she seemed. This was a true warrior; a soldier who had seen more death and destruction than a hundred men twice her age. And although she took her charge very seriously, she did not want to repeat the same old exercise again. It always left her feeling empty inside. So very…
“What did you say?” Thomas said, still pointing his wand at the whispering woman. His response seemed to startle her out of a momentary lapse. She straightened, as if setting aside any remaining notion of flexibility.
“I said… you will lay down those sacks and submit to an escort off these protected lands.”
“Hold on. We’ve given blood for this booty today,” Sam argued back. “We won’t give it back now. Tell her, Tommy. Tell her we won’t give them back. If we give up now, Oliver will have died for nothing.”
“Don’t worry, Sammy. We’re not doing anything of the sort.” Thomas looked at the Guardian with unyielding determination. “If you don’t move aside… we’ll be forced to hurt you.”
Slowly and unsteadily, Sam raised his wand in agreement and the two men separated to each side of the path. They were both resolute to survive the day as close to the original plan as possible.
The Guardian leisurely reached up to raise her hood back over her head. A long and remorseful sigh left her lips as she gripped her wand tight.
“Showtime…” she whispered softly to herself.
And then there was a loud crack and a flash of purple light. A moment later, another hooded figure was standing to the side of the road in black robes between the trees.
“What the hell?” Sam yelped in surprise, jerking his wand back and forth between the first stranger and now to the second.
“Tommy… I thought you said nobody could Apparate in these woods?”
Thomas looked just as surprised as his friend, lost for words at the sight of yet another wizard appearing from out of nowhere. He quickly realized their chances for a good night’s sleep had gone from better than even to nearly zero.
“Hello, Sarah,” said the black hooded figure to the Guardian.
“Sithmaith!” replied the Guardian in obvious surprise. “Where did you come…? I’m… sorry if this trivial matter has disturbed you. I’ll have this taken care of in short order,” the Guardian said, raising her wand again at the two men.
“Oh, it wasn’t any trouble. I was in the neighborhood and felt their incursion the same as you. I see you have things well in hand. So… how have you been?” The Guardian dropped her wand and lowered her hood again.
“Very well, thank you. It’s… been a long time.”
“Too long… old friend. All my fault; and how are the children?”
“Oh… they’re a handful. Little Eric is walking now.”
Thomas and Sam looked at each other in complete disbelief. Here they were expecting the fight of their lives and their opponents were conversing like two old friends about to pour tea.
Sam shrugged at Thomas who then spoke. “Ah… excuse me…” he said, wagging his wand as if to remind the two of them of their unfinished business, “but if you two are done…?”
“Hold on, gentlemen,” replied the black hooded stranger with a halt. “We’ll be with you in a second.” The stranger looked at the Guardian again, “And Robert? How is that gorgeous husband of yours?”
“Very well, thank you. And… how is your family?”
The old pixie buzzed in again to land upon the Guardian’s shoulder. He turned and his eyes widened with surprise then he saw the woman in black. He immediately took off again, buzzed around the Guardian’s head twice and then disappeared into the forest behind her.
“Si-ath-me-ath… tak-ya-noos… tak-ya-life!”
The Guardian sighed. “My apologies; he’s gotten very old… and a little senile.”
The other woman smiled. “He never was quite right in the head, was he?”
“No… but he still remembers you.”
“Oh — now — come — on,” Thomas bellowed, frustrated. “Can we get on with it? We have an appointment!” The two women stopped conversing and slowly turned to face the men again.
The one in black sighed. “Oh… very well, then.” She lowered her hood to reveal a head of long, red hair slightly touched by gray at the temples. This woman looked a little older than the first, but just as stunningly beautiful. She spoke in a very amiable manner.
“Now… my dear fellows, pleasantries aside, my friend Sarah here has an enormous amount of responsibility. Of course, you wouldn’t know this, but she looks after the entire Shadowed Forest and all of the magical creatures in and around the mountains surrounding you.
“And… as if that wasn’t enough, she has a husband and three wonderful children that look to her for support. Surely you can understand that a woman in her position shouldn’t be bothered with the sporadic dalliances of men such as yourselves, intent on making her job more difficult.”
The woman took a single step forward and then, quite unexpectedly, her image shot forward within a brilliant band of color to within just a few feet of them.
“I beg you see this from a mother’s prospective.” Both men stumbled backwards in shock at seeing the stranger move so quickly at them. A moment later, the two men found themselves looking into an empty path once more; the stranger had moved back to stand next to her friend.
“You will drop those sacks, and accept your arrest,” demanded the Guardian called Sarah. The two men looked at each other and straightened, their resolve becoming stronger.
“We will not,” Sam answered, defiantly.
“Gentlemen… please. See the madness in what it is you do,” said the woman in black. “Surely you can see that Sarah needs to return to her children? Furthermore, the dragon eggs you carry in those sacks also have a mother, and I assure you… she would be most upset if she were to return to her nest to find some of them missing. This would be unnecessarily distressing to the poor creature.”
“Poor creature?” Sam yelled back, angrily. “You mean the man-eating beast that just killed our friend? I have a mind to stomp these eggs right now in Oliver’s memory.”
“Nonsense… a sentry can hardly be blamed for attacking somebody trying to steal her clan’s eggs.” the woman replied. “Besides, your Oliver is completely unharmed. He is well and currently in the protective care of the Crimson Guard.”
Sam eyes widened in surprise. “You’re lying!” he shouted, thrusting his wand forward at them again.
The woman smiled. “I assure you, by the Order of Merlin, the man is now resting well and getting the proper attention to his wounds as we speak. You see?” The woman held something up in her hand. A small cross dropped and dangled with a jerk from its chain. “I borrowed this from him to show you he was completely safe.”
“Where is he?” Thomas shouted, disbelievingly.
“At Saint Drogo’s castle.”
“Dear God,” whimpered Sam. “But that’s… impossible. Nobody knows where Drogo is. How could he have gotten there?”
“I delivered him there myself, in much the same way you saw me appear here just a few moments ago. Be assured, gentlemen, he won’t be staying there for very long. He’s to be delivered to the Ministry for proper handling soon enough. So… you see? There is no loss, no harm done. Please… see the reason in all of this, I beg you.”
“How do we know this isn’t a trick?” Sam yelled back.
“Well… unless I could have somehow reached inside the belly of the beast to retrieve this, it’s the only explanation that makes sense… wouldn’t you agree?” the woman said, still holding out Oliver’s cross out to them.
The two men looked at each other, unsure of what to do. Finally, and surprisingly, it was Sam who made the decision for them. Although he wasn’t the leader of this expedition, he wasn’t willing to give up on their quest so easily, especially now since, by death or arrest, they had lost his friend. A flaw in Samuel’s character dictated his first response would stubbornly linger long after whatever logic or truth came to follow. It had always been that way with Sam Cragmyer and the root cause of most of the difficulties in his life to date. He stretched out his arm and there was a flash.
A blast of red from the Guardian’s wand smashed into Sam’s chest, knocking him thirty feet backwards and into the woods. Thomas was horrified as he watched his childhood friend fall, and then turned angrily to face the Guardians alone. There was a crack and a flash of light where the woman in black stood. She had Disapparated again. Another crack in the woods behind him revealed her standing over Sam’s body, lying in a heap on the forest floor.
“Get away from him, you devil!” Thomas screamed, taking a step toward her, but he was too late. The woman was already stooping down next to the crumpled man. There was another crack, a flash, and they were both gone. Thomas shot a spell into the spot where they once were together, but it ricocheted harmlessly off the ground and into the shadows beyond.
“Damn it!” Thomas yelled, spinning around just in time to see the pixie flying into his face.
“Kilw da-wizzids!” screamed the creature, as he buried what teeth he had left into the man’s nose.
“Ahhhh!” Thomas fell to the ground and rolled over and over, pulling and yanking on the creature to dislodge him from his face. The pixie finally let go and flew into forest, giggling maliciously.
Thomas quickly got to his feet again, holding his blooded nose as he turned to point his wand at the remaining Guardian. She wasn’t there, and neither it turned out were the eggs.
Thomas ran back to the spot where the sacks once lay just a few seconds before. The women had been flawless in their assault, attacking one to distract the other and capturing Sam while sweeping the treasure of their expedition away with expert precision. He stood staring down at the ground, disbelieving and bewildered. He was alone in the most deadly forest on the continent, two friends gone, maybe dead, and nothing to show for all their trouble but the pain in his back and the dirt rolling down his tortured and bloody face. His ability to escape also seemed remote with his door taken, two Guardians working at his capture, and an angry dragon flying overhead looking for the eggs he no longer possessed. All was lost.
Thomas thought about the village where he was born, the warm and friendly home that seemed so far away in that moment. How had it come to this? His parents and the town had treated him like royalty, like the second coming of the man Jesus himself. And now… he was nothing, just a simple thief about to disappoint them all once again. Only one thought delivered a spark of hope to the man: Perhaps his family wouldn’t remember him at all now that their memory of magic had been wiped away. He groaned. It would be better not to remember him now.
There was an unexpected sound behind him like rolling thunder and Thomas froze. He could now see the shadow of something enormous was standing at his back.
Oh God, he thought, paralyzed by fear.
The shadow of the thing stretched out a full twenty feet before him, blocking out the sun and turning the air cold; he moved to turn, but stopped when he heard the rumble change into a deep and penetrating growl. The sound shook him to the bone, making him shudder in terror. It felt as though a boulder was crushing his lungs, and he wet himself there on the spot despite all his strength to stop it.
Oh please… please, he prayed, feeling the hot breath of something heating the back of his neck. The smell of the thing was awful, putrid and rancid, like rotting death. Thomas slowly turned his eyes, and then his head and shoulders followed to look up.
“Dear God!” he whimpered.
Standing before him at least ten feet tall was a monstrous cat. Its fur looked like that of a leopard, but it had horns wrapping down around its ears, which pointed outward away from at its shining, silver eyes.
Thomas’s legs went weak and he dropped to his knees without a breath of hope to survive another second. This was the end. His arms felt chained down; he couldn’t raise his wand even to defend himself.
The monster leaned down at him, placing its snout just inches from his face and growled a foul, green fog through six-inch fangs. Thomas’s eyes were clinched tight, but still they turned away. The thing leaned back and let out a terrible roar that shook the very ground beneath the man’s knees. A blast of hot wind and spit hit him hard, blowing him onto his back. He opened his eyes in horror as the pressure of the roar began to crush his skull between his hands pressing against his ears; the trees shook and swayed violently around him. The head of the beast quickly swooped in, opening its enormous mouth to crush him utterly. Thomas screamed his last warning to his parents two thousand miles away: their wanting son was about to die.
And then, unexpectedly, all was quiet. Thomas cautiously dropped his hands to look up and to his astonishment he saw the beast walking away from him. After about ten paces, it turned and sat to stare back. Why hadn’t it attacked him, killed him straight away? Was it playing with him like some lowly mouse, waiting for him to run? Was that all he was to this creature, some plaything to be enjoyed before being disemboweled? At once Thomas lost his fear and a blistering anger replaced his panic. He scrambled back to his feet.
“What’s the matter beast? Are you too full from eating whatever you do in this hideous forest to taste my flesh? Well – come on! I’m right here!” he screamed, waving the beast forward.
The monster began to ripple in the failing light. Its form distorted and twisted, shrinking as it faded. And then, another form stepped out of the leftover glow bending around it. It was the black draped woman once again.
Thomas’s eyes widened as he fell back to the ground in disbelief. “Animagus!”
The woman with red hair smiled as she came forward and squatted down next to him. “In a way… yes,” she said, kindly, “but in most ways… no.” She offered him her hand.
The man frowned and then groaned as he stood. “Was it really necessary to scare me to death like that,” he said, suddenly embarrassed by his soiled pants.
The woman spoke in a motherly tone as she helped to dust the man off.
“Yes, I believe it was necessary, Thomas. You have shown a total disregard for the respect owed this place and the magical creatures living around you. I know not in life what drove you to do this, but I thought if I could give you a truer sense of your place in these woods, you might understand the danger you’ve placed yourself and your friends in by coming here. There have been no less than a dozen predators stalking the three of you since you entered this valley, and it was only because of the Guardian Sarah Bell that you still live.”
Thomas looked surprised and then stubbornly ungrateful. “I suppose you expect me to thank her, then?”
“For saving your life when she could have left you to be captured, poisoned and eaten alive? I suppose that would be up to you to decide.” She could see the man shudder. She reached out and handed him Oliver’s cross. “I will take you to your friends now.”
Thomas nodded and dropped his head in complete defeat as the woman placed her hand upon his shoulder. There was a flash, a loud crack, and the two were gone.
A few minutes later, the woman reappeared once again on the cliffs of Knowtor. She looked down at the nests tucked into the rocky crevices of the walls lining an endless chasm below. Dragons soared in the open air, rising high in the thermals all around her.
She could see Sarah Bell heading toward her, stepping carefully around the thin edge overlooking the bottomless expanse below.
“The eggs have been returned to their mother, Anna,” Sarah said, walking over to join her.
Anna Grayson smiled, looking out at the dragons flying level in their line of sight. “They’re getting used to seeing you here, Sarah. You’ve gained their trust,” she observed, happily.
“Only took me twenty years,” Sarah huffed dully. “But they still won’t let me fly among them. It’ll probably take another twenty years for that.”
Anna grinned. “I’ve missed you,” she moaned, looking longingly at her old roommate.
“Me too.” They hugged each other. “You know…I never did thank you,” Sarah said, still holding her friend.
“For assigning me here… to this duty, I mean. I know I told you I didn’t want it when you first suggested it, that it would be too much for me to handle… but I’ve grown to love this place,” she said pensively, looking out over the vast basin in front of them.
“I know what you mean. I’ve always believed this to be a most… special place. I’ll never forget the feeling I had when I first saw it.” They watched the dragons flying back and forth, a few tipping their wings to ward off their cousins veering too close to their nests.
“It’s beautiful,” the two women whispered together.
They’re eyes widened as they pointed their fingers at each other.
They both laughed out loud and hugged again. Finally, Sarah took a reluctant breath.
“Well… I’d better get back. The children will be hungry and looking for their supper.” She paused before looking at Anna again. “I suppose I couldn’t talk you into coming to dinner tonight?”
Anna thought, looking back up at the dragons flying over the chasm. She smiled. “Of course; I’d love to come. It’ll be nice to see the children again… and Robert too.”
Sarah’s face immediately brightened. “Oh excellent! Oh they’ll be so excited to know you’re coming.” She hugged Anna again. “We’ll see you tonight then, around six?” Anna nodded.
Sarah Bell turned to walk up the thin ledge where the path entered the forest again. She turned to wave back.
“See you tonight. Don’t forget!”
Anna smiled, waved, and nodded again as Sarah disappeared into the forest.
When her friend was out of sight, Anna turned and sat on an outstretched pitch of rock overlooking the open space in front of her.
“This… is… such a beautiful place,” she whispered admiringly.
Suddenly, a huge Vipertooth bull rose up, its battle-tattered wings spreading wide before her. It bellowed loudly as Anna stood again to face him.
“Hello, Taurus. You’re looking good, you old bat,” she said, jokingly. The great beast barked his pleasure at seeing her again, folded its wings, and then dropped, corkscrewing winningly into the thick clouds below.
“Showoff,” Anna whispered, smiling as she leaned over to watch him disappear into the fog.
She remembered the first time she saw the valley stretching out before her. It was one of those rare places in the Wizarding world where the reaction at seeing it revisited was just as striking as the first time discovered. She reached up to turn a jade bracelet on her wrist and smiled: You wait for the other, call to him. Come to me, oh come to me… do come to me.
She sat down again and remembered the year where the circumstances of her life had first brought her to this place. It all began in her second year at Castlewood more than thirty years ago. So much had happened in her life leading up to that time. She remembered being so happy about going to Castlewood to study magic, where she saw her first snowfall in these same Pennsylvania Mountains. She had discovered the truth about her mother’s death, her cursed insanity and rebirth as a vampire, and then her alliance with the Dark Lord, Voldemort. As difficult and challenging as those days were for her, it was but a prelude to what was to come in her second year living in Spellsburg.
Anna leaned back and whispered, “That was quite a year. It was full of excitement and discovery… but then… there was that murder.”
The House on the Edge
From amid the black and purple eddies of nothingness, a consciousness is suddenly aware of its surroundings again.
Where am I? Who am I? What is this place?
She is floating alone through a vast blackness with but a single thought – How do I escape?
She can neither hear nor see anything but the ebb and flow of some strange wave of heaviness, working to drown her in this unknown place. She swims against the presence holding her down, pulling her back; for she only knows one absolute truth: If she surrenders to her burden and allows the thing to freely press her down, down to the bottom of this endless pit of darkness, she can never return. She will become a part of what she can only narrowly see around her in these brief moments of clarity; she will become nobody, nothing, a nonentity without thought.
A flash of light is seen somewhere above her and a panicked excitement begins to build. She is swimming now, through the dark and dry waters pressing in against her. There it is again. Another brief glimpse of pallid light is penetrating the purple swirls of loneliness. She swims faster and finally sees a window of light, as bright as the gates of paradise itself, its frame bending and distorting under the massive weight of the malevolence surrounding her.
From out of the deepest crypts of her prison, Victoria Grayson is finally allowed to see a glimpse of the world through her own eyes, but her evil keeper is always in control. Sometimes when Voldemort’s servant is preoccupied or disturbed with the work of her Master, she loosens her grip on Victoria’s chains and the prisoner is allowed to peer out and into the places surrounding the two of them. But in these rare moments of awareness, when Victoria is able to discern the light within the swirls of cloudy madness, she momentarily forgets she is but a passenger in her own body.
She sticks her head out the window and frowns. It’s very dark outside and horrifyingly cold. She finds herself in some unknown forest. Equaled only by one of her lingering nightmares…this is indeed a very terrifying and lonely place to be alone. Whether it is a form of self-imposed isolation or abandonment, neither her friends nor her enemies are here to tell her how it is that she has come to be here… standing alone within the shadowed-filled night.
But being alone is not always a terrible place to be, especially when one considers what she’s left behind. No… being alone can, on occasion, clear the head and make one reflect upon the journeys yet to come. The poet Dykes once said, “We should cherish the short internals of time we share with others during our life’s quest, but we must always be prepared to walk alone in the darkness.” Was this the type of place the versifier was describing?
It brings to mind her truest hope that, at journey’s end and looking back, the trip she took was one of solace and noble objectives; a footpath of good intentions over the granite peaks of sinful trickery and deception. For if not, she risks the fall through darkness such as this, or worse, being shoved by the Creator into the well of her past deeds. Falling into the abyss and hell’s waiting arms, knowing it’s too late to scream for help, leaving the faces of love behind forever, passing through the fangs of despair and into the belly of ever deepening darkness.
Despite any good intentions that might have brought her here, fate has once again plotted against the woman in putting her on the path where she stands tonight. The hour is late, the moon is new, and there is only the cold night all around. It hides the predators peering out from the woods surrounding her. In the distance, she can see an ominous house sitting on a shore overlooking a lake as black as the hearts of those inside.
And now Victoria Grayson can feel her jailer once again, controlling her every move and pressing her back down into the dark catacombs of nothingness once more. Her warden is but a silhouette of gloom, drifting through the trees toward the house by the water’s edge. Like Victoria, its sundry pace and winding course deceive its reluctance to be here. Finally, the shape of the thing solidifies into a solitary shadow standing at the door. A tenuous fist is raised, and a single blow is delivered to the wood. The woman falls back at the approaching steps coming from the other side. The door opens.
A very short, round man in a dirty cloak and rumpled hood stood there, gaping at her. His eyes widened at the sight of the person standing on his threshold.
“The M-M-Master is expecting you,” stammered the balding man, still holding the door’s latch. The visitor lowered its hood and could see the beady, black eyes of the man scanning over the features of her face. She could tell by the nervous curl at the corners of his dry lips, he liked what he saw.
“Stand aside,” growled the visitor, and the man obeyed without regret. The woman entered a warm space, lit by the blaze of a well-stoked fire on the other side of the room.
“May I t-t-take your cloak, madam?” asked the man, reaching out longingly to her. Her eyes flashed malevolently at him and he immediately yanked back.
“Where is our Lord?”
The man nervously glanced over to a closed door beside the hearth, and the woman could now hear the voices coming through its splintered wood from the other side.
“H-H-He’s busy at the moment… you’ll have to wait. Can I g-g-get you some tea?” The man asked her, rolling his dirty hands together eagerly, wanting to please.
The woman’s eyes flashed again as she moved toward him. “I don’t drink tea…” she said, raising her voice in a manner unfitting her beauty. She took another step closer again. “What else have you to offer me?”
The man stumbled back and tripped on the leg of a chair behind him. He barely recovered in time to think he might have saved some portion of his dignity as he struggled to straighten again. He looked up embarrassed before realizing… the woman had disappeared. He looked around in shocked surprise, trying to understand where his visitor might have gone.
“Well? What else can I drink?” whispered a cracking voice into his left ear.
“Eeeyaah!” screeched the man, darting away from the now giggling woman standing beside him.
“I w-w-wish you w-w-wouldn’t do that, madam. It’s very unbecoming of you.”
The woman frowned. “Unbecoming, you say?” She started to sway hypnotically before him. “But I thought you liked me, Peter. I thought we were old friends, you and I.” Her image began to blur as she swayed, enticing the fleshy man forward toward her.
“Are we not the loveliest of friends?”
The man she called Peter blinked, and then seemed to catch himself from falling into her stare. He looked away, moving his hand unconsciously over his throat.
“That was a long time ago, madam; a very long time, indeed.”
“Oh… Peter, why do you hurt me so? Can’t we still be friends? After all, you were one of my oldest companions, and remain a devoted ally in the service of our Master, even after all of our time apart. The Dark Lord has seen to that.”
The woman started to sway again. She was beautiful in Peter’s eyes, lovelier than when he first saw her at Hogwarts so many years ago. He could feel her smooth and supple arms wrapping around his body, even while she stood across the room away from him. He closed his eyes to breathe the sweet perfume now invading the room and his senses, and her purring gently pushed his remaining will aside. Her velvety voice was angelic and loving, and the man finally understood; if he just gave into her, he would be rewarded tenfold of anything she intended to take from him. He shuddered at her touch, at her breath against his chin, her lips touching his cheeks… and then his neck.
“Well, well, well… what a becoming sight to see,” said a voice intruded from across the room.
Peter’s eyes popped open, and he gazed in shock at the woman’s blood-red eyes staring hungrily back at him. He yelped and stumbled backward again. Unable to recover himself as before, he toppled over the chair behind him and fell to the floor with a heavy thud.
A man standing by the fire sneered. “Get up you weak-minded oaf. Are you so easily smitten by this creature that you would leave our Master wanting?” The man speaking to Peter was tall, with oily curtains of black hair hanging down around his face. The disgust in his voice was dripping with loathing as the servant pushed himself to stand once more.
“Severus Snape…” purred the woman in surprise. “What is Dumbledore’s lackey doing here? I thought our Master would have killed all his of traitors by now.”
The man’s eyes flashed evilly in reply. “Once again, you show a total lack of awareness of the things moving about you. I’m afraid all those years inside Drogo’s dungeons have withered your already fragile mind.” The man called Snape frowned. “By the way, what exactly are we calling you these days, or have you failed to find a way to dispose of what’s left of Victoria Jennings in that splintered head of yours?”
“The other you speak of is no more: She is dead to all: Only I remain,” said the woman in a high cackling voice.
Snape smiled. “Oh — really? Are you sure? You still look the same to me, and Peter here proves you embody the same insufferable manner of creating mischief wherever you go.”
“You… are a traitor!” screeched the woman. “Our Lord should have killed you!”
Snape rolled his eyes. “Is it truly beyond your already blunted comprehension to grasp the realities of the situation before you? Our Lord trusts me, and the manner in which I do his bidding.”
He paused for a moment, and then, “Besides, I remember a time when you were cavorting with the enemies of our Lord long before me. I remember you arriving at Hogwarts as an exchange student, being sorted into Gryffindor house, and then fast becoming friends with that whelp Potter and his hapless sidekick Black.” The woman’s eyes widened with impulsive fear, and Snape could see her gaze move to the closed door next to him.
“Even that dim-witted fool standing behind you was smitten by your charms back then, Victoria,” Snape finished.
The woman’s body seemed to relax itself before turning to face Snape again. She smiled unexpectedly.
“I too remember a great… many… things, Severus. I’m especially fond of my memories of you hanging upside down, held aloft by James Potter’s wand. You were always dangling about, showing off your rags for underwear to the hoards of laughing students around you, frothing pink suds of soap from that nasty little mouth of yours.” Snape’s nose flared angrily.
“To tell you the truth, Severus… I always felt sorry for you in those days; always a victim to Potter’s pranks, always falling short of gaining the upper hand against him. You needn’t have tried so hard, you know, for he was far better than you in every way imaginable. I could have told you so at the time, of course, but I knew you would never listen to me. I knew I could never charm you… could I, Severus?”
She purred evilly and then smiled again. “No… you never would have been interested in somebody like me. But I knew your secret, Severus. I knew who it was that held your heart in her hands all along.” She smiled again, and she could see Snape’s body stiffen.
“What rubbish is this?” he sneered. “There has never been…”
“Oh… please, Severus. A woman always knows these things. I could see it from the moment I arrived at Hogwarts. I could see you staring… and wanting her. You always changed your manner to look absent when she glanced your way… but I could tell, even if she could not.” Snape’s eyes were hardening. She could see the veins in his neck thicken with rage. The sight of it pleased her.
“Lilly… Evans…” Victoria said maliciously. “You… were in love with her.”
“Shut your mouth!” Snape snapped in offended rage, but she could see him peeking uneasily back at the door next to him. The woman’s repulsive giggle drew his attention back to her.
“Oh, but Severus… it was so obvious,” Victoria moaned. “Or at least it was… to me. Lilly was my friend. You knew that, of course. She was assigned to be my guide when I first arrived at the school for that one fateful year of study at Hogwarts. I saw your roving eyes moving her way each and every day we were together. I could see your heart in that ogled stare. A woman can always tell, Severus. The tenderness in your eyes was apparent every time you looked at her.”
Snape looked like a man ready to explode. She could see his hands clinch tight onto something inside the pocket of his robes.
“Go ahead, Snape. Do it!” the woman whispered eagerly. “I’d love to taste your blood before I leave this foul house.”
The man called Peter stood gazing at the two of them, unsure of what to do.
“Wormtail… do we have another guest in the house with us tonight?” came a cold voice from the other side of the closed door. The question instantly broke the hostility residing within the room, and Snape’s hardened face turned a withered smile.
“Well… it would seem your time has come once more, Jennings. The Dark Lord is waiting to speak with you again,” he said, motioning her toward the door. He could see the unrestrained alarm rise up on the woman’s face as clearly as if she had found herself naked in a crowded room.
“Victoria? Is that you I hear beyond my door?” added the voice from within the room again. “Come in here. I wish to speak to you in private.”
The woman looked at Peter, who was visibly shaking with fear. “You’d b-b-better go to him, madam. You shouldn’t keep the Master waiting.”
She looked at Snape, who was still smiling.
“I surely hope your meeting isn’t as… ah… painful as it was last time, Victoria,” he said amusedly. “You’d better be getting along now.”
Victoria stiffened. “I have nothing to fear from our Master. I am one of his most trusted servants. Didn’t I prove myself to him after all those years I was locked away?” She slowly moved toward the door, but stopped to stare apprehensively at the rusted knob.
Snape quickly moved forward. “Here… let me get that for you.” He reached in and opened the door in front of her.
“Come in, Victoria. I was expecting to see you yesterday,” said the icy voice from within the room. Victoria Grayson twitched a quick smile before stepping inside and Snape was obliged to close the door behind her.
The room was bathed in darkness and another fire was crackling loudly next to a winged chair sitting in the far corner. The paintings hanging on the walls around them were awash in the fire’s dancing light; the Muggle eyes looking down upon her from the frames appeared black, but alive. The man sitting in the chair was clothed in shadows, and although she should have been most comfortable sharing the darkness with him, the woman was clearly afraid. She could see his eyes glowing red through the dusty gloom.
“You look pale, Victoria,” said the man, in a surprisingly consoling tone. “Have you fed tonight?”
“Yes, Master. I have. Thank you for…”
“And how is your companion within?” he interrupted her, his voice suddenly cold and uncaring. “Has she been giving you any trouble?”
“She often does, Master. The little wench tries to dissuade me from my Lord’s bidding where and when she can.”
“But I thought you said you were in control of her.” His tone was now high and exceedingly hostile.
“Oh — I am, Master, I am. She does not keep me from my duties. But it is an effort… to keep her locked down inside me.” Throwing her remaining caution behind her, the woman once known as Victoria Grayson came forward quickly and fell to the feet of the man seated in the chair.
“I beg you, Master… release me from the burden of her. You promised me you would do away with what remains of her inside me. Please… destroy her and give me my own name. You promised me… you said...”
The woman looked up and over the knees at the wizard above her. She could see his snake-like features distorted grotesquely in the light of the fire next to him. The sight of him made her tremble.
“But Master… what further need… would she be to us? I wish to serve you without the burden of her thoughts within my mind. It is becoming intolerable to bear.”
The wizard tilted his head to stare down at her, a look of affection once again moving uncharacteristically across his face. “Then perhaps I should empower her to do my bidding… if you are not up to the task,” he replied cruelly; the woman’s eyes widened in horror.
“No… please, Master, no. I’ve been your faithful servant from the beginning, even when her retched husband locked me away in the dungeons of Drogo. I remain yours to command!” She dropped her head again and began to sob at the wizard’s feet.
The man rarely called Voldemort by his minions smiled. “I still need Victoria Grayson,” he said, in almost sweet reply.
Instantly, the woman’s sobbing ceased. She slowly raised her head again to stare back up at him, and he could see the unrestrained fear moving across her face.
“Please, Master. She knows nothing more than what she’s already given you. I know her heart well. She has held nothing back. Please… do not hurt us again.”
Tears of blood were now pouring out of the woman’s eyes and down her pale cheeks; Voldemort was unrelenting.
“But I have new questions to ask of the prisoner you guard within,” he said. “I have an interest in her daughter, born the very night you came to find me in Albania nearly fourteen years ago. I am most interested in the child she’s given the name… Anna Grayson.”
The woman’s eyes widened again. She could feel Victoria begin to stir deep within her mind at the sound of the child’s name, and the intensity of the force within her was surprisingly powerful. The woman grabbed the sides of her head and shut her eyes, forcing the presence within back down once more.
“I see her fighting within you,” Voldemort cooed evilly. “Release her. I will speak with her once again as we did before.”
The woman was horrified. “Please, my Lord… no. Not again… please. What information might she have that I cannot give to you freely and without pain?”
Voldemort leaned forward. “I am interested in how her daughter came to visit you in Drogo. How is it that one so young could enter Drogo undetected, and then steal her way down to the dungeons to see you? How did Anna Grayson exit the prison after your escape and make her way back to Castlewood with the life-threatening injuries you described to me in our last meeting together?”
The woman was near a level of panic so intense she could barely speak. “I… it was the incompetence of the Crimson Guards within the prison, my Lord. The girl was nothing more than food for the taking. There was nothing special about her.”
“Nothing special? Then tell me, my faithful servant, how did she enter your cell?” Voldemort asked her. “The doors to Drogo’s dungeons are legendary in the manner of magic used to keep them locked and those inside prisoner. How did this young girl manage to force her way in without an army of Death Eaters to help her?”
“Please… Master, do not hurt us again. I’ll do anything you ask of me.”
Voldemort was unmoved as he stood. “This same Anna Grayson was the first of several new Guardians to arrive at Castlewood Academy last year. I find the timing of a new Guardian sect in the Wizarding world most disturbing. Why… after so many centuries… has the Order of Merlin come into existence again?” He slowly looked down at the form now cringing in fear below him. “It… vexes me, and I shall have my answers.”
“No… please… no. Not again… please…”
“Enough! Release Victoria Jennings. I wish to question her now.”
“Please, Master… please.” The woman crawled forward and began kissing the wizard’s naked feet.
“Your Master demands to speak to the other. Release her, I say!” His words were as a hot gust of blinding wind against the woman’s body. She was hurled backward across the room. “I would speak to the mother of this... Anna Grayson!”
Voldemort’s servant could feel Victoria’s mind exploding forward once again at the sound of her daughter’s name. And as she did, the other could feel her own mind slipping downward through the torrent of heated emotion erupting beneath her. After working so long to keep Victoria Grayson locked deep within the lowest crypts of her mind, the servant was appalled at the level of strength her prisoner was able to bring forth as she began to rise within her. Victoria was still there, as strong as ever, and now more powerful at the sound of her child’s name; a child she never knew existed before her escape from Drogo just two months ago. The last angry thought the evil one had as she finally gave way to Victoria Grayson’s will was knowing she would someday have to kill the child if she was ever to have this body to herself.
“I said… I would speak to the one called Victoria Grayson!” Voldemort demanded again.
The woman’s eyes snapped open and she quickly scrambled to her knees. Victoria was breathing heavily from the work of swimming through the many barriers the evil one had placed in her path. She was once again gulping the air of freedom from the surface of her own mind. Although kneeling helplessly before the most evil wizard in more than a century was like finding a deadly cobra above her breathing hole, the woman didn’t care. She was in control once more. She was free.
“I won’t tell you anything!” Victoria growled angrily, looking back up into Voldemort’s blazing, snake-like eyes. The devil above her only smiled.
“Ah… so there you are, at last. I was beginning to think my faithful servant had finally vanquished you completely of her own volition. I am pleased to see you again, Victoria. I have a few more questions for you; questions… about your daughter.”
Victoria’s eyes widened. “My daughter is of no interest to you, my evil Lord. You leave her alone!”
Voldemort smiled again. He could hear the fear billowing from out of the anger once so predominant in the woman’s voice.
“Oh… you misunderstand me, woman. I did not ask for your help; Lord Voldemort takes what he wants. You will tell me what I want to know, or suffer the consequences once again.” He raised his wand; his face was gray, bloodless, and cold, his eyes blazing.
On the other side of the door, Peter Pettigrew was warming his hands by the fire, while Severus Snape stood with his arms crossed, staring into the flames next to him.
“The M-M-Master and I will be moving on again, Severus. He would not be caught unaware in one place t-t-too long. He said he would c-c-contact you again in the usual way.” Peter rubbed his forearm with a wince of expectant pain.
All at once, there came a loud roar from the next room, “Crucio!”
They could hear the woman screaming, her body slamming against the wood of the floor on the other side of the door. The screaming was a terrible mix of two voices: That of Victoria Grayson and the other a high pitched shrill coming from the Death Eater sharing her body. There was a crash of furniture, and then more hideous screams blasting through the door again.
“Oh, dear…” Pettigrew moaned. “I’ll be r-r-repairing the fixtures all night again.”
Snape looked over and sneered at him. “I’ll leave you to it then. Ensure Nagini is properly fed this time — you know the consequences of your failures.”
He raised his hood and then pivoted toward the front door. Turning the latch, he looked back one last time at the door next to the fire. There was another shriek of pain from the room beyond. He smiled cruelly before stepping outside and into the night.
Walking a few steps outside, there was a crack and a flash of light and then the man called Severus Snape was gone. Only the echoed cries of screaming pain could be heard through the darkness surrounding the black lake.