/ Language: English / Genre:antique / Series: James Potter

James Potter and the Curse of the Gatekeeper

G. Lippert


antiqueG.NormanLippertJames Potter and the Curse of the GatekeeperengG.NormanLippertcalibre 0.8.211.10.2011f2d73ab0-12d9-4347-9207-0e03eccec6791.0

JAMES POTTER AND THE CURSE OF THE GATEKEEPER

G. Norman Lippert

Based upon the characters and worlds of J. K. Rowling

Dear Reader,

        A word before we begin. You don't mind, do you? I'd like to discuss, for just a moment, who this story is for, and who it isn't.

        If you are the sort of Harry Potter fan prone to get exercised about the proper capitalization of terms like 'Umgubular Slashkilter', then this story is probably not for you.

        If you are among that most faithful of fans who simply cannot countenance any slight discrepancy in the number of buttons on Professor McGonagall's tartan dress robes (six; tortoise-shell) or is driven to fisticuffs about the relative pulling and carrying strengths of Thestrals (1,120 kilograms and 70 kilograms, respectively) or breaks into cold, nervous sweats at the thought of improperly scheduled dates of any given season's Quidditch matches, (See HPL; 'Quidditch'), then this story might not be for you.

        If, in short, you are among that most delightful and vigilant cadre of HP fans who believe that the Harry Potter stories and themes exist only to support the "canon" minutae of the Harry Potter universe, and not the other way around, then this story is most assuredly and emphatically not for you.

        If, on the other hand, you simply loved the Harry Potter stories and characters and were sad to see them come to an end, then welcome. If you delight in shared adventure more than solitary navel-gazing, then come ahead and join hands. If you prefer battling evil over battling one another, then you are among friends. If, in short, you believe that the story is king above all else, then this story, most definitely and affectionately, is for you. Enter and join us on the ongoing journey! I hope you have a grand time.

        For the rest of you, surely there is an argument going on somewhere about who the best movie Dumbledore was. I'd hate for you to miss it.

(Note: this book is a sequel to another story called "James Potter and the Hall of Elders' Crossing". While this story might stand on its own with a little imaginative help from the reader, it will be much better appreciated as part of the series.)

—GNL

CONTENTS

Prologue

1. Endings and Beginnings

2. The Borley

3. The Sorting

4. Trial of the Golden Cord

5. Albus and the Broom

6. the King of the Cats

7. Amsera Certh

8. The Audition

9. The Lady of the Lake

10. The Beacon Stone

11. The Circle of Nine

12. Questions of Trust

13. Christmas at Hogwarts

14. Artis Decerto

15. Out of Hogsmeade

16. Unexpected Confrontations

17. The Bloodline

18. The Triumvirate

19. The Sacrifice

20. The Long Ride Home

For Greer A Rose by any other name.

PROLOGUE

Rain fell in great sheets, hitting the pavement hard enough to send up a blattering, dirty mist. A small man stood on the corner, under the only working streetlamp, and studied the street.

          Abandoned apartment buildings lined one side, dark and hulking, like dead dinosaurs. The other side was dominated by an equally dismal factory behind a chain-link fence. Warning signs on the fence squeaked and rattled in the wind. One car was parked along the street, looking as if it had been there long enough to become part of the local ecosystem. The small man shuffled his feet, his bald head glistening with rain. He glanced back, toward the busier streets from which he'd just come, and then made a harrumphing noise. He pulled his fist out of his overcoat pocket and held it up to the light. When he opened his hand, there was a small, sodden bit of parchment inside it. He read the words on the parchment for the tenth time. Blue-inked letters spelled the street name and nothing else. The man shook his head, annoyed.

        He was about to close the bit of parchment into his fist again when the words bled away in the dripping rain. The little man blinked at the space where they had been. Slowly, new words appeared on the paper, as if inked by an invisible hand: an address.

        The little man frowned at the parchment, and then shoved it back into his pocket. Glancing aside, he located a number over the door of the nearest abandoned apartment. He sighed and walked out of the yellow glow of the streetlight, splashing heedlessly in the flooded gutter.

        As most people who knew how to look would know, the little man wasn't a man at all. He was a goblin. His name was Forge and he hated venturing into the human world. Not that anyone had ever noticed his unusual size or strange features. He wore boots with four-inch heels and a Visum-ineptio charm that caused people to see him as a kindly old man with a severe stoop. He simply didn't like humans. They were dirty, inefficient, and rowdy. Forge liked his world to be like his workshop: neat, organized, and constantly swept of any useless bits. It wasn't so much that Forge wished humans didn't exist; he was simply glad that they had their own special world to live in, and that he rarely had to go there, rather like a zoo.

        He'd almost decided not to come out tonight. Something hadn't felt right about this appointment. Considering Forge's unique skills, it was not unusual that he didn't know the name of a client, but he was accustomed to a certain amount of decorum, not just a note and a number. Forge knew what the number meant however. It was the pay being offered for his services, and it was quite a surprising number indeed. Surprising enough to get Forge out of his workshop, chasing down the mysterious address in this decrepit stretch of human wasteland even in spite of his trepidation. After all, Forge was a goblin.

        He stopped walking and stared up at the number of the apartment next to him. He glanced across the street, furrowing his brow. The factory fence had ended half a block earlier. In its place was an empty lot, choked with weeds, blowing trash and broken bottles. An abandoned lorry leaned drunkenly in the corner, settling into the mud and tall grass. A wooden sign in the center of the lot had half fallen over. 'Future Home of Chimera Condominiums and Recreational Complex', it read in faded letters. Forge took his fist out of his pocket again and opened it. The address was gone from the parchment. Two new words spelled themselves out:

        Turn around.

        Forge dropped his fist to his side. He stared at the vacant lot, chewing his lips. Was he being warned to go back? Part of him hoped so, but he doubted it. Slowly, he turned around on the spot so that he stood in the center of the deserted street, looking up at the dark bulk of the apartment building. A broken window stared down at him like the eye of a skull. The wind gusted, lifting the curtains of the broken window, making them flutter. Forge sighed and looked down at the parchment again:

        Walk. Backwards.

        "Well," Forge muttered to himself, "in for a Knut, in for a Galleon." He began to walk backwards, lifting his boots carefully to avoid tripping over the curb or the piles of rotting trash. He stepped carefully onto the footpath and continued, feeling for the muddy weed bed of the vacant lot. The footpath seemed wider than he'd expected. Each step backwards found solid, smooth stone. Forge glanced down. There were worn, carefully laid flagstones beneath his boots instead of the rough cement slabs of the footpath. He looked up again and drew in a whistling breath. Two monstrous shapes leered down at him. They were gargoyles, each perched atop a stone pillar. Rain splattered and ran down their horrible faces. Between the pillars was a tall wrought-iron gate. As Forge watched, it swung shut with a rattling, resounding crash, closing him inside. He turned on the spot, his heart pounding, and saw that the wrought-iron formed a fence all around the lot. It was six feet tall and spiked with angry points. Nor was the lot any longer filled with trash. It was a lawn, carefully cropped, each blade of grass eerily sharp and exactly the same length as its fellows. The rain beaded on the grass like crystal. Where the abandoned lorry had stood was now a long, black carriage, immaculately shiny and covered with gothic scrollwork. There were no yokes for horses on the carriage. Forge shuddered, and then looked up toward the center of the lot.

        In the place of the leaning sign was a house. It was not huge, but it was almost unnaturally tall. Its shuttered windows looked twenty feet high and the mansard roof that topped it almost seemed to rake outward, like a vulture brooding. Pillars framed the front door, which was painted black and had a giant brass door knocker in the center. Forge swallowed, drew himself up, and approached the door.

        As he climbed the steps, Forge wasn't surprised to see that the brass door knocker had been crafted to resemble a coiled snake with glittering emerald eyes. Nor was he surprised to see it stir to life at his approach. The head rose from its brass coils and flicked a golden tongue.

        "You bear the parchment?" the snake hissed.

        "You best believe I do. Open the door before I catch my death in this rain."

        "Sssshow ussss."

        "I didn't come all this way to argue with a bit of enchanted metallurgy. Open the blasted door and tell your master I've arrived."

        The snake's head rose very slightly so that it looked down at Forge's head. The eyes glowed green and the tongue flickered. "Sssshow ussss the parchment."

        Forge looked up at the snake's head. It weaved slightly, flicking the air with its tongue. Forge had grown up with a metalsmith father and knew how enchanted ornaments were made. Even so, there was something about the weaving brass head and the flickering golden tongue that worried him. He stuffed his hand into the pocket of his coat and retrieved the parchment.

        "Here. See?" he said, trying to keep the tremor out of his voice. "Now open the door."

        The snake stretched out toward the parchment in Forge's hand. It reared, and then spat a bolt of green flame. Forge yanked his hand away, yelping as the flame consumed the parchment in midair. The snake's eyes glowed brighter as it uncoiled even further from the door, leaning out toward Forge's face. Forge wouldn't have thought it was possible, but the sculpture seemed to grin at him.

        "Prossssccceeed," it said. The door unlocked and swung ponderously open.

        Forge entered slowly, peering around. He found himself in a long hallway, laid with rich, if rather threadbare, red carpet. There were thick doors on either side, lacquered to a mirror-black shine. All of them were closed except for the one at the very end. Voices came from beyond, echoing so that Forge couldn't quite understand them. He opened his mouth to announce himself when the door suddenly slammed shut behind him. Startled, he glanced back at it, his eyes wide, and then listened again. The voices were still speaking. The masters of the house must have heard the slam of the door; therefore, they must know he'd arrived. Water dripped steadily from the tail of Forge's overcoat as he walked quietly down the hall, toward the open door and the voices.

        Beyond the door was another dark room. There was a bench along one side and a long, ornately framed mirror on the other. A second open door showed a corner of a third room. Forge thought it looked like a library. Firelight flickered on the walls and shadows moved. The voices had become more distinct.

        "It is very dark," said a woman's raspy voice. "We are rather far away, my lord. It is impossible to be certain."

        "Pray do not say that," a man's voice replied. "'Impossible' is such a very… final word. Perhaps you would care to be a bit more nuanced, madam."

        "Yes," the woman said quickly. "I err, my lord. Let me look again."

        There was a stirring, as of someone moving in a large chair, and a different man's voice spoke impatiently, "Just tell us what you see, woman. We will decide what it is."

        The woman moaned, either in fear or concentration. "There are three figures… small. They are… no, they are not small. They are young. One is larger, another is fair-haired. They are… there is commotion. Fighting."

        Forge listened, unsure of what he was supposed to do. He looked around the darker antechamber of the library and saw a coat rack standing next to the door. He shrugged off his overcoat and hung it there. Water pattered from it to the wooden floor. Apparently, he was meant to wait until this current interview was over. He approached the bench but did not sit on it. In the mirror across from the bench, Forge could see a reflection of the library beyond the doorway. Three large chairs were turned to face the fireplace. He could only see their backs.

        "There is another figure," the woman's voice rasped. "Thin and tall. A wraith, if I know my psychic signatures. The boys are fighting her. I see… I see a cloud of embers descending. I fear I am losing the vision…"

        "Let me look," the impatient voice demanded.

        "Be still, Gregor. Divination isn't your strong suit," the first voice said silkily. "Let the woman exercise her talents."

        In the mirror, Forge saw a hand moving on the arm of one of the chairs. It was very white and had a large black ring on it. The shadow of the woman moved on the wall of the library. Forge recognized the stoop and hat of a hag. She was bent over her crystal ball.

        "No…," the hag breathed, now lost in her work. "This is not the fog of distance or any sort of Confusion Hex. This is something else. Something is descending on the place. Something is… forming."

        There was a tense silence. Forge felt it, and knew that the two men were listening very intently.

        "The fight is done…," the hag said in a singsong voice, now completely immersed in her divination. "There is a ghost now as well… it is assisting the wraith… or perhaps it is the other way around. There is much conflict in the ether. But the fog has descended. It is forming… it is making a… a…"

        The hag suddenly gasped. Forge saw her shadow lurch backwards, clapping her hands to her head. There was clatter and a crash as something fell.

        "Keep looking!" the impatient voice, Gregor, shouted. "Look and tell, or so help me…"

        "Stop," the other man's voice said, almost playfully. There was a smile in it. "Gregor, leave the poor woman alone. Obviously, she has seen something that has upset her a great deal."

        The hag was panting, and then, strangely, horribly, another voice spoke. It was very thin, high, cold, but nonsensical. Forge couldn't hear its actual words, but it seemed gleeful, somehow. The few remaining hairs at the base of Forge's neck stuck straight up.

        "What did you see?" Gregor demanded, ignoring the thin, muttering voice. "What was it?"

        "Let us not overtax the poor woman," the first voice said. "She has performed her services quite well. We shall see that she receives payment as agreed. Thank you, madam."

        "It was a man," the hag panted, her voice trembling. "But then…"

        "Yes, thank you," the man's voice said soothingly. "I believe we've heard enough. Gregor, perhaps you'd be so kind as to show our guest—"

        "Horrible," she keened, and then sobbed hugely. Forge watched the hag's shadow dip, and then another shape, a fat man, jumped up, supporting her.

        "Yes," the first voice said, dismissing her. "He was horrible, this man. Thank you."

        "No!" the hag shouted. Forge saw her shadow lunge, pulling away from the shadow of Gregor. "Not the man! He was awful enough, but then…"

        There was a pause as the hag seemed to crumple again. The white hand on the arm of the chair rose slightly. The black ring twinkled in the firelight. "And then?"

        The hag shuddered. "Something else. Something… came through… it was…"

        She didn't seem able to continue. The white hand on the arm of the chair remained still, poised in a gesture that looked almost like a benediction. Firelight flickered and snapped. The horrible, otherworldly voice buzzed and gibbered quietly to itself.

        "Smoke," the hag finally said. Her voice had gone high, nearly falsetto. She sounded like a child. "Black fire. Ash and… and… eyes… and nothing. Living nothing."

        There was a pause, and then the white hand closed into a loose fist. "Well," the first man's voice said casually, "that changes things a bit. Perhaps you should like to be paid here and now, madam. Tonight. Lemuel, please escort our guest… er… some place else, won't you? You'll find a proper place to pay her, I'm certain."

        Shadows moved. A heretofore unseen figure arose and led the hag away from the firelight. Forge felt a sudden panic that they would come through the antechamber and find him, and then he remembered he was supposed to be here. They were expecting him. He wondered fleetingly if it was too late to sneak back out. Price or no price, this was looking to be a very bad group with which to get involved. To Forge's relief, Lemuel led the hag out through another door at the back of the library. Lemuel moved like a trained servant, though rather older than Forge had expected. The hag lolled as she walked, her eyes grey and blank. Neither of them paid Forge any mind.

        "Then it is done," Gregor said as the rear door of the library closed. "Merlinus is returned. Your plan is complete."

        "The plan is far from complete, but yes, up to this point, everything has proceeded as expected. The Delacroix woman will be disposed of. The Potter boy will be mortified to know that he was the tool to bring about our ends. And Merlinus Ambrosius is loosed upon the world yet again. But, Gregor, you should be careful in calling this my plan. You know whose design this is. I'll not take credit for the work of the Dark Lord."

        Gregor ignored the rebuke. "How can we be certain that Merlin will be one of us?"

        "We cannot. Merlin's loyalties never belonged to anyone but himself. This is why the Dark Lord was never interested in such an alliance while he was living. Merlin himself was never the prize, as you know."

Forge heard Gregor shift again in his seat. "Not everyone believes these tales," he said quietly.

        "Only fools doubt the existence of the Otherworlds. Even the Muggles believe in Heaven and Hell. All that concerns us is that the Dark Lord believed in them. If he had not fallen, we would never have resorted to it. But even he saw the value of a fail-safe."

        "Yes," Gregor replied. "The fail-safe. The Bloodline."

        "No," the first voice said quietly. "The Bloodline is not yet perfect. It knows not who it is. Its power is undiscovered, divided, and dim. The Bloodline has not yet been sharpened by the gauntlet of death, as was the Dark Lord, its creator. It must be… refined."

        "And this is the work of the Otherworlder?"

        "Among other things."

        Gregor sighed theatrically. "Even so, the faithful are scattered. Many are in Azkaban. More are dead. The dog, Fletcher, is in the custody of the Ministry. The Langlock Jinx silences him, and his identity is still undiscovered, but if your conspiracy crumbles, connections will be made. Potter will recognize him from his days with the Order. They will find a way to communicate with him. Sacarhina and Recreant will be incriminated first, but you will be next. After all, you were there with them in the cave of the throne. You yourself performed the curse upon them. Fletcher will betray you."

        "Fletcher has nothing that the Ministry can use against us," the silky voice soothed. "Like all weak governments, they are far too enamored with their ideals of justice to be effective against a truly wily enemy. Potter will watch us when and where he can, but that is all. Let him. He believes the battle is over. He saw the Dark Lord cut down at his own thieving hand. And shall I shock you, my friend? Perhaps that was for the best. After all, the seed must die for the flower to blossom. Perhaps it was best that our Lord was cut down by the coward, Harry Potter. He and his allies have been lured these many years into a false sense of security. They believe that we, like them, are cowards, that we will not rise up again with vengeance in our hearts, stronger than ever. And let us not forget the legend, Gregor. We may indeed be the tools in the hand of our greatest forefather. It may well be our mission to close the circle of ancient revenge, a circle that was begun over a thousand years ago. My friend, I dare to suggest that the plan that was put into motion by the death of the Dark Lord may be even greater than his original intention. Given what we have discovered, I am certain that he would agree with me."

        Gregor's shadow leaned forward. "Are you certain, my friend?"

        "Call it an educated guess. After all, I was among his closest and most loyal servants. You know as well as I the… difficulties we face. For now."

        There was a clink as Gregor reached for a wine glass. "Perhaps we shouldn't say any more in front of our guest."

        "Ah, yes," the silky voice replied. "How insufferably rude of me to speak as if he were not here. Mr. Forge, do join us, won't you?"

        Forge jumped. He'd become so transfixed by the conversation that he'd forgotten that they were waiting for him. He peeked around the door into the library. Firelight flashed along the edges of the leather chairs.

        "Yes, thank you, Mr. Forge," the silky voice said airily. The white hand beckoned. As it did, two of the three chairs began to turn. They revolved silently, as if on bearings, and Forge saw that they floated very slightly off the floor. "Tell me, my goblin friend, have you ever heard of the Transitus Nihilo?"

        "No, sir," Forge said instantly, relieved that his voice didn't betray his nervousness. "I'm just a simple trade goblin. I don't know about any of these things. In fact, I'd be willing to wager that I'll forget every word you've said by the time I'm fifty steps from this house."

        The chairs stopped turning and Forge saw the men sitting there. The one on the left had long whiteblonde hair framing a handsome, rather aged face. He was smiling disarmingly, as if inviting Forge to share a joke. The one on the right, Gregor, was fatter and red-cheeked, with the expression of long indulgence that belied a life of pureblood leisure.

        "Fear not, my friend," the pale man said. "We crave your services rather more than your blood. Allow me to enlighten you. The Transitus Nihilo is the crossing place. It is the Void between our world and the next. Tell me, you believe in the next world, don't you?"

        "I'll believe in whatever you ask me to believe if it gets me back out your door in less than two pieces, my lord."

        The man laughed. "That's what I love about goblins, Gregor. They are as candid as the day is long." He turned back to Forge. "I'll give you something else you might choose to believe in, my new friend. Our ancient forefathers believed that there was more to our world than that which we see and feel with our senses. They believed in the existence of unseen entities, beings greater than us, more powerful, immortal and inhuman. They exist not only in the beyond, but in the nothingness in between. They had words for them. I won't bother you with the names, for there were hundreds of them. But there was one being in particular that drew the interest of ambitious men. It is sometimes called the Gatekeeper, or the Being of Smoke and Ash. It does not break into our world, for it knows us not. It is made of the Void, it is our exact opposite; therefore, it neither suspects our existence, nor the existence of anything else. It is bound by its own perfect ignorance of us. And this, you think, is a good thing, yes, Mr. Forge?"

        The goblin stood stiffly, staring into the man's bright eyes. He nodded.

        "Yes, of course you do. Because a creature of such unadulterated inhumanity, such thoughtless power, if it were descended upon us, would be nothing less than the Destroyer, wouldn't it? Thus, it is a good thing that it is out there… and we are down here. Little children go to sleep each night understanding the truth of this: there are bad things lurking in the world, yes, but not the worst of things. It knows us not. And yet…" The man looked away for a moment, his eyes narrowed. "What if something made it aware of us? After all, we move in and out of the crossing place all the time, do we not? When we die, yes, we pass through. But when we perform certain kinds of magic, when we Disapparate, do we not also dip fleetingly into the Void? Fortunately, the Gatekeeper lives outside of time, so it does not notice our tiny, timebound existences. But what if one of us bent the rules just a bit? What if one of us, a particularly powerful one, stepped out of time and into the Void? What if one of us stayed there long enough for the Gatekeeper to take notice?"

        The goblin hadn't been paying much attention, being rather preoccupied with doing whatever he needed to do to get out of the house alive, but suddenly he remembered the words of the hag: Black fire. Ash… eyes… and nothing. Living nothing.

"What have you done?" Forge asked quietly.

        "Me?" the pale man replied, raising his eyebrows. "Not a thing. I'm just passing the time. Gregor here tends to believe in fantastic stories like this. It amuses him."

        Gregor grunted and rolled his eyes. The horrible, mewling voice came again. It seemed to be coming from the chair that still faced the fire. Forge felt the skin of his scalp tighten. The voice was mad. It chilled him.

        "But let us get down to business, as it were," the pale man continued. "Mr. Forge, we require your services. We understand that you are a bit of an expert on, er, restoration. Would that be accurate?"

        Forge shifted. "I am just a simple trade goblin, sir—"

        "You are a master forger," the pale man said suddenly, his voice as cold as an ice pick. "Tell me you are. I'd hate to think that I've summoned you here in vain."

        "Y-yes, sir," Forge answered quickly, trying not to tremble.

        "Excellent," the pale man replied breezily, leaning comfortably back in his chair. "And I have come to understand that this expertise of yours extends to restoring portraits. Would that also be correct? Don't lie to me, Mr. Forge. I'll know."

        Forge gulped and glanced at Gregor. The man seemed to be paying no attention. He stared idly at the wine in his glass as he swirled it.

        "I… yes," Forge said. "It takes more time, of course. It isn't merely a matter of replacing the paint. The correct potions must be determined for each color… unimportant bits have to be scraped and reused to get the proper compositions… it's very delicate, but I have achieved a level of success."

        "That's very fascinating," the pale man said, his blue eyes boring into the goblin. He's mad, Forge thought. Completely nutters. I wonder if the other one knows it. I wonder if they are both mad, but in different ways.

        The pale man stood. "We have a job for you, Mr. Forge. It will be rather difficult, I am afraid, but I suspect a goblin of your obvious skills will find it a worthy challenge indeed. It is a priceless family heirloom, you see. For the longest time, we believed it was lost. Funny, isn't it, how things tend to turn up when you need them most? It's been rather dreadfully damaged by, er, vandals. But if there was anything you thought you could do to help, we'd be most eternally… grateful."

        The thin voice was gibbering again as the pale man began to turn the middle chair. Suddenly, Forge absolutely did not want to see what was there. He wanted to run, or at least avert his eyes. He knew if he did, they would probably kill him. He watched and listened, and as the chair turned, the voice finally became intelligible.

        "Show meee himmm!" it rasped in its awful, tiny, broken voice. "Show him meee!" And it began to laugh, high and crackling, a thoroughly mad, fragmented, twisted laugh.

        The portrait was not large. It was almost entirely destroyed. Only a few shreds and scraps remained: the corner of the mouth, two fingers of a thin, pale hand, a single glittering red eye. It had been slashed. The back of the frame showed dozens of deep gouges and punctures.

        "Make him repairrr meeee…," the portrait screamed in its thin, insectile voice. "Do it, Luciussssss! Make him repairrr meeeeee…"

        "It will be his pleasure, my Lord," the pale man smiled, looking up at Forge, his eyes wet, glistening.

        "M-my Lord?" Gregor said, as if shocked to hear the decimated portrait speak so clearly. "You remain! But we thought…"

        "It matterssss not!" the portrait of Voldemort cried. "The Gatekeeper isss descended! The work of our forefather is at hand! Vennngeance!"

        Gregor seemed hopelessly at a loss by this sudden change of events. "But… but how will we find it, my Lord?"

        "Weeee will not…," the portrait hissed. The sound of its broken voice flapped a shred of the canvas. Forge dreaded the sight of the horrible thing, dreaded what they were going to make him do to it. But he dreaded most what he knew it was going to say next.

        The painting sighed deeply and said, on the exhale, "It will find ussss…"

1. ENDINGS AND BEGINNINGS

"C ome on, James!" Albus cried, hopping impatiently. "Let me give it a try. Nobody will tell!" "You know I can't, you Skrewt," James replied calmly, swinging a leg over his Thunderstreak. "You're underage. You'll just have to learn in school like everybody else does." He kicked off, leaning forward so that the broom rocketed out over the garden.

        "You just want me to look as much a fool as you did on a broom your first year!" Albus called, running after his brother. "It won't work! I'm gonna be brilliant! I'll fly circles around you, you watch!"

        James smiled as the wind whipped through his hair. He pulled up and banked, circling back toward Albus. Albus stopped, frowning, and ducked as James flew past, tousling his younger brother's hair.

        James hugged his broom and climbed into a streaking corkscrew, pulling up into the blue dome of the sky. Below, the Burrow spun lazily, casting its shadow out over the garden and the nearby fields. James drew a deep breath of the rushing air, and then dipped his broom, pulling it to a sudden, practiced stop. He knew he shouldn't show off in front of his brother, but he was quite proud of his increasing skills. His dad had been working with him over the summer, and James had become cautiously confident that he'd make the House team this year after all.

        "About time, Potter," Ted called, swinging in next to James on his old but well-maintained Nimbus 2000. "Three-on-three is hard enough, even with experienced players. You'll need to play Beater and Seeker. Just keep an eye on Angelina. She'll let you think she's delicate as a flower until she drafts you into a tree. George is playing Beater and Keeper as well, so he'll be plenty busy, but his long-range Bludger will still find you if you don't watch it. But the one you've really got to keep an eye on is—"

        Something red and green roared between Ted and James, forcing them into opposite tumbles. James gripped his broom and swung it around, craning to look. His mum spun to a stop and drifted gently over him, grinning, her cheeks flushed and her hair pulled back in a neat ponytail. She was wearing her Holyhead Harpies tunic.

        "What do you think, James? Still fits!"

        James heard the sound of an appreciative whistle behind him. He looked and saw his dad smiling at Ginny, pulling his broom into position thirty feet away.

        "Dad! Mum!" James reproached, stifling a grin. "Quit it! You're both an embarrassment!"

        Ginny blew a stray hair out of her face. "You just watch your back out there, love. I may be your mum, but that doesn't mean I won't broadside you to get to the Snitch." She grinned at him, and then spun on her broom and zoomed to the opposite side of the pitch.

        "She's not serious," James said, turning to Ted.

        "You better hope not," Ted answered, watching Ginny fly off. "I've played against her before, and I tend to think your only hope is that she won't Bludger her own son in the back of the head."

        "You're a great help," James said, but Ted had already dropped back into formation.

        "Knock James off his broom, Mum!" Albus yelled from below. James glanced down and saw him standing at the edge of the orchard. Nearby, Lily, Rose, and Hugo sat on a huge tartan blanket, grinning and squinting up into the sunlight. Charlie's twins, Harold and Jules, were perched in a gnarled old oak tree by the barn.

        Rose nudged Lily with her elbow. "Go for it, Aunt Ginny! Knock him flying! You can always have another kid! One with better manners and less stinky feet!"

        "I heard that!" James called down.

        "I should hope so," Rose said primly, putting her fists on her hips and smiling coquettishly. Lily giggled.

        "Enough, Rose," Aunt Hermione admonished from a deck chair at the edge of the garden.

        "I'd play on your team, Harry, if I could," Ron yelled from the chair next to her. "But three-onthree's the tradition. Maybe somebody will get hurt enough not to play and I'll be able to sub in, eh?"

        Hermione grimaced and scowled at him.

        "What? A guy can hope, can't he?" Ron protested. He looked back up at Harry. "Looks like we'll have to host an all-out tournament by next year!"

        Harry nodded. "None of us were kidding when we said we wanted to have enough kids to make a Quidditch team, were we?" he called back.

        Charlie stood in the center of the garden, below the players. He had one foot on the family's bedraggled old Quidditch trunk. He held a Quaffle, yellow with age and grass-stained, in his right hand.

        "The Annual Weasley Family Quidditch Match is now underway!" he boomed, grinning. "I want to see a mean match. I want to see plenty of blagging, loads of bumphing, and a good bit of blatching. Any player not bloody by the end of the match will be deemed unfit to remain a Weasley and will have to defect to the Potters. Understood?"

        "Throw the Quaffle or get on a broom, Freckles!" Harry yelled, resulting in a round of laughter and catcalls. Charlie grinned crookedly.

        "Ball up!" he shouted, lobbing the Quaffle and releasing his foot from the Quidditch trunk. The lid exploded open and the balls soared into the air.

        James gulped, gripped his broom, and lunged into the fray.

        Technically, it wasn't James' first Quidditch match. He'd played several matches over the summer with whoever happened to be around. Granted, most of them had been two-on-two matches, sometimes using 'ghost players', which Ted provided from a small box he'd bought from George. Apparently, it was a Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes test product. When the tiny wooden box was opened, it released four Boggarts, all of which had been specially hexed to only take the shapes of famous dead Quidditch players. They looked extremely convincing even if they were a bit transparent. The problem was that the Boggarts didn't have the slightest idea how to play Quidditch; thus, despite their impressive appearance, they tended to simply swoop randomly over the pitch, their arms in the air, making ghostly noises. Also, Bludgers flew right through them.

        "Still," George had concluded, "they do add a certain something to a match lacking the right number of players, don't they?"

        None of the matches James had taken part in that summer compared to this, however. Not only did the Weasleys tend to be fiercely competitive, but all the players knew each other eerily well. This was sometimes a benefit, such as when George ducked beneath a Bludger and lobbed the Quaffle over his head, knowing Angelina would be directly behind him to swat it into the goal with her Beater club. It was also sometimes a dread drawback, such as when Ginny predicted Ted's favorite maneuver and plucked the Quaffle from beneath his arm the very moment he swooped to score. Despite the fervor of the match, there was plenty of laughter and hearty encouragement on all sides. James knew he'd probably influence the match very little. He was mostly concerned with staying on his broom and not letting his own mum make a complete fool out of him in front of Rose and the rest. To his great pleasure, however, he did manage a few lucky swats with his club, sending the old Bludgers careening into the fracas and even occasionally striking their marks. One of them caromed off of George's broomtail, sending him into a wild, momentary spin. When he recovered, he glanced back at James and gave him a huge, toothy grin.

        "Look at James!" he called to the other players. "Giving the 'old guard' a warning shot! Next one will be my head, eh, James? Nice shot!" And he dove back into the melee.

        Ron couldn't help jumping up and down at the edge of the pitch, shouting instructions and warnings through cupped hands.

        "Dragon formation!" he bellowed furiously. "Dragon formation, George at the wing! Harry's left is weak since that hit with Angelina! They've no defence against it! Ginny, you're drifting to the right! Fix your tail! Your tail! Oh, come down here and give me your broom!"

        Right next to him, Albus matched him shout for shout, sometimes shoving his uncle aside with both hands. "They're planning a Waterloo Skidoo, Dad! Stack up and plow the center! Ted! Mum's stopped to fix her broomtail! She's exposed! Forget she's a girl and Bludger her back to the Stone Age!"

        Hermione had moved to the blanket to sit with Fleur. The two of them were pointedly ignoring the match, lost in their own animated conversation.

        And then, just as the sun was beginning to redden, James caught a flash of gold flickering near the fifth story of the Burrow. He glanced around, opening his mouth to alert the Seeker, and then remembered he was playing Seeker. His heart trip-hammered and he lunged forward, touching his chin to his broom handle. He shot forward, banking around Angelina and a wildly spinning Bludger. The rickety walls of the Burrow swayed in front of him, its windows winking daggers of burnished sunlight at him, half blinding him. There it was again, the flash of gold, darting through a stand of birch trees at the corner. James leaned, and the Thunderstreak responded with perfect control, ticking down and to the right, homing in on the Snitch. He strained forward, nearly climbing off the end of his broom, and reached for the tarnished golden ball.

        The Snitch suddenly bobbed upwards, just over James' reaching hand. He shot under it, swore loudly, and then tucked his head as he whipped through the branches of the birch trees. They tore at him, but he barely noticed. He leaned so hard that he nearly fell off his broom, slewing to a halt and craning his head back to find the Snitch. The setting sun dazzled his eyes. James squinted and saw the tiny golden form of the Snitch. It hung in the air near the corner of the Burrow's roof, bobbing in the air like a bumblebee. A darker shape appeared behind it, blocking the sun. It was Ginny. She saw the Snitch, and then saw James. She grinned, and hugged her broom, rocketing forward.

        "Oh no you don't!" James growled. He lunged, forcing himself to keep his eyes on the Snitch and not to check to see where his mum was. The Snitch seemed to sense the pursuit. It zigged out over the pitch, threading through the players. James hugged his broom, willing it to go even faster, and was suddenly reminded that the Thunderstreak was equipped with a rudimentary ability to read its owner's mind. It leapt forward, faster than James had ever gone before. He dipped under Ted and his dad, who had noticed the Snitch flash past them. James heard them cheering him on raucously. A shadow fell over the end of his broom and James couldn't help glancing up. His mum was directly over him, swooping toward the Snitch, her tunic flapping. James did the first thing that occurred to him. Suddenly, wildly, he steered to the left, away from the Snitch, still reaching forward as if to grab it. Instantly, he corrected and threw himself forward on his broom. It had worked! He sensed the movement over him as Ginny feinted left, believing James had seen the Snitch move aside. She'd been watching him rather than the Snitch itself! The Snitch didn't dodge away from him this time. He strained forward, brushed it with his fingers as it flew, and then clamped his hand on it. The wings buzzed against his palm for a moment before going still. The game was over.

        James turned on his broom exultantly, holding the Snitch over his head. Far behind him, Harry and Ted threw their hands into the air. They were shouting at him. A second later, James realized they weren't celebrating. They were making warning signs. James hadn't stopped his broom. He whipped around to see where he was going just as the gnarled apple tree at the back of the pitch loomed over him. The breath socked out of him as a branch swept him from his broom. There was a sickly sensation of weightlessness, and then he thumped to the ground.

        "Ooh," he moaned. Running footsteps approached and a moment later his mum was kneeling over him.

        "James! Tell me you're all right!" she commanded. Lily peered in next to her, her eyes wide.

        "He's all right, everybody," Ted said as he landed nearby, laughing. "He only dropped eight feet. Besides, all those rotten apples broke his fall."

        James sat up and felt the sticky mush of a dozen rotten apples plastered to his back. He moaned and shook his head, flinging gobbets of apple pulp from his hair.

        "Gah!" Lily cried, sputtering. "Warn me next time you do that, idiot!"

        Suddenly, James remembered the Snitch. He glanced down at it in his hand, and then showed it to his mum. A huge grin broke out on his face.

        Ginny smiled down at him crookedly. "Nicely done, son. Just don't expect to beat me twice."

        "Did we win, then?" James asked as Ginny gave him her hand and pulled him to his feet.

        "I hear Albus and your uncle arguing about it even as we speak, but I'd guess you did."

        In the near distance, James heard Ron and Albus heatedly arguing the final score.

        "Excellent grab, James," Harry said to his son, brushing rotten apple off the back of James' shirt as they returned to the Burrow.

        "Yeah," Ted agreed happily, "great use of the old dodge and feint. I was sure your mum was gonna beat you to the gold, but you really took the biscuit, didn't you?"

        "I'll say," George said sourly, turning and walking backwards so as to glare pointedly at Ginny, his broom slung over his shoulder. "In fact, if I recall correctly, I think it was a member of this very family that invented that maneuver."

        Ginny looked innocently at her brother. "I haven't the faintest idea what you mean, George."

        "No? Hmm! Well, if I remember right—and I do—the Harpies' announcers used to call it the 'Ginevra Gambit'. Funny thing, you falling for a maneuver named after you, isn't it? Right suspicious, in fact."

        Ginny simply shrugged and smiled. George continued to walk backwards, fuming at her. Finally, Angelina tripped him.

        "James, why don't you go gather your brother and cousins for dinner?" Harry said, ruffling his son's hair. "Your grandfather will be home soon and we all want to be there for the big surprise."

        "Now look what you did, Dad," James said, trying to matt his hair back down. "I look like an old picture of you."

        "That rotten apple's even better than Hermione's hair gel goo," Ted commented. "You should tell her about it. Ron says she spends more money on Muggle hair potions than she does on food."

        "What?" Hermione shrilled, bumping Ron with her hip. "You did not!"

        James didn't wait for the rest. He tossed his Thunderstreak to his dad and turned toward the sound of his cousins' voices.

        "Hey, it's almost dinner, you lot," he called as he entered the shadow of the Weasley family's small stone garage. As always, the doors were thrown wide open. The cool, familiar smell of the dirt floor and dusty shelves surrounded him. He sighed happily.

        "Nice grab, James!" the twins, Harold and Jules, called in unison as James approached.

        "Thanks!"

        "Too bad you spoiled it by getting intimate with an apple tree," Rose said from where she sat, kicking her legs idly. "What a downer."

        "Hey," James said, ignoring Rose's remarks. "That's Merlin's car! What's it doing here?"

        Rose glanced down at the bonnet of the car she was sitting on. The old Anglia had been meticulously cleaned and was half-repainted, but one headlight still hung askew from its socket. "This isn't Merlin's, you nitwit," Rose chided. "It's Grandfather's. Don't you remember the stories about the flying Ford? Your dad and my dad took it for a joyride back when they were in school. They ended up losing it in the Forbidden Forest. All Merlin did was find it. When he discovered whose it was, he arranged to have it returned here. Grandfather's been getting it back into shape over the summer."

        "He's making some pretty keen modifications to it too!" Hugo announced, popping his head out the driver's side window. "Watch this!"

        He disappeared again and the car rocked a bit as he and Albus moved around in the front seat.

        "That's probably not a good idea—" James began, and then jumped back as a pair of wood and canvas wings shot out of the sides of the automobile, squeaking and ratcheting as they unfolded. They began to flap up and down violently, making the entire car bounce and rock. A moment later, they screeched to a stop.

        "It's a good thing you know how to turn those off!" James exclaimed, his eyes wide.

        "I didn't!" Albus answered, working buttons and levers on the car's dashboard. "They stopped on their own. Looks like they aren't quite finished yet. I hope we didn't break them. Hey, Hugo, climb back there and jump on them a little, why don't you?"

        "No, let us!" the twins cried, scrambling toward the wings.

        "No!" James called, throwing up his hands. "Nobody jump on anything! Granddad will leather you with a hex if you break his stuff!"

        Hugo scowled, ignoring James. "Too bad Uncle Percy and Aunt Audrey aren't here. Lucy's the mechanical one. I bet she could get this thing in the air."

        "I wonder why it needs the wings anyway," Rose commented. "I thought it flew on its own."

        "Uncle Harry smashed it into the Whomping Willow at Hogwarts, remember?" Hugo called out. "Totally crippled it. That's why it ran off into the Forest and turned all feral."

        "You've got it all wrong," Albus said. "Your dad was driving. If my dad had been behind the wheel, they'd have made a four-point landing."

        "Yeah," Rose agreed, "probably right through the windows of the Great Hall."

        The twins guffawed and ran around the car, pretending to fly and crash. Harold mimicked the Whomping Willow, thrashing at his brother, who feigned death and keeled over.

        "Anyway," Hugo continued, "everybody knows about the Alma Alerons and their flying cars. I bet Granddad wanted to see if he could make this fly even better."

        James grinned. "Come on, you lot. He'll be home soon. If we don't get inside, we'll miss the surprise."

        "And the cake," Rose added.

        That got their attention. Jules and Harold spun on their heels and darted past James, yelling and trying to push each other out of the way. Albus shrugged and followed Hugo out the driver's door of the car. Rose slid off the bonnet and brushed the dust from her bottom with her hands.

        "Grandfather's quite peculiar, isn't he?" she said, glancing around at the Anglia and the collection of mismatched Muggle objects that filled the shelves nearby. James had seen them a hundred times, but there were always a few new things. He followed Rose as she approached the collection and ran her hand lightly over some of the items, drawing lines in the dust with her fingers. Alongside the assortment of batteries and electric can openers, extension cords and nose hair trimmers, James saw the newer additions. There was an old laptop computer, a video game controller, and a digital alarm clock in the shape of a cartoon character.

"Why do you suppose he loves all this stuff so much?" Rose asked.

        "I don't know," James said. "I think part of it is because he grew up a wizard, not like us. My dad grew up with Muggles. Your mum too. They brought a bit of the Muggle world with them, so to us, it's no mystery. But for Granddad, the Muggle world is as foreign as aliens would be to us. He just loves figuring out how it all works, and what they use it for."

        "He could just take a Muggle Studies course, nowadays, couldn't he?" Rose said as the two of them turned toward the door. "They didn't have classes like that when he was a kid."

        James shrugged. "I guess so. I don't think he wants to learn it like that though. That's not the point for him. I don't really know what he thinks the point is though."

        Rose tilted her head. "He just loves the mystery of it, don't you think?"

        "Well, what's the point of a mystery if you never find out?" James frowned.

        "You're such a boy, James. The moment the mystery is solved, it's not a mystery anymore."

        "Granddad's a boy too, you know."

        "No, Grandfather's a man."

        James rolled his eyes. "What's the difference, then?"

        Rose sniffed. "Well, a man can catch the Snitch and not come out smelling like a rancid cider house."

        James chased her the rest of the way to the back door.

        Inside, Grandma Weasley was frantically arranging the final details as the family milled around, mostly trying to stay out of her way.

        "Hugo! Dominique! You get your fingers away from that cake this moment!" she admonished as she passed by the table, her arms full of plates and cutlery. "Fleur, would you be a dear and help me with the pudding? It's Arthur's favorite and I want it right in the middle of the table. Oh, when did this family become so large that we can't eat indoors without sitting on each other's laps?"

        "It's your fault entirely, Mum," George said reasonably. "You can't go having seven kids and not expect the lot of us to see it as a dare to have more."

        "Don't you start," Angelina said, grimacing and throwing an arm around his neck.

        "You knew what you were getting into when you got engaged to me," George replied airily. "The thing I love best about you is your childbearing hips."

        Angelina tightened her grip around his neck, dragging him into the parlor where everyone was gathering.

        "How'd the match go, James?" Bill asked from his seat next to his son Louis.

        James shrugged and grinned. "Pretty good. Nobody got killed. I caught the Snitch."

        Louis smiled crookedly. "Rose told us all about it already."

        James rolled his eyes as Bill laughed and clapped him on the shoulder.

        "Oh! Arthur will be here any moment!" Molly fretted, wringing her hands on her apron and glancing around at her gathered family. "I just know I'm forgetting something. He's so dreadfully hard to surprise. James! You didn't change your shirt! You're covered with rotten apple! No! Don't sit on the sofa! It's too late now to do anything about it, I suppose…"

        "Mum," Charlie soothed, "calm down. It's a birthday party, not a military campaign."

        She heaved a quick sigh, letting Charlie massage her shoulders for a moment. "All I can say is it's a good thing he agreed to that consultant position at the Ministry. At least it gets him away from the Burrow a few times a week. Otherwise, I'd never have got him out of the place long enough to arrange such a thing. Especially since that Merlin character returned that awful car… Oh! That's what I forgot! Ronald! Do you have the—"

        "Socket wrench set," Ron nodded wearily. "Fresh from the Muggle hardware store. All wrapped and on the table along with everyone else's gifts. He'll love it, Mum. Calm down or George and I will have to break out the Firewhisky."

        "Shh!" James' mum hissed, looking hard at the fireplace. "Here he comes!"

        She leaned in, gripping Harry's arm and pulling him with her. The room fell silent as everyone drew their breath, preparing to shout.

        The ash in the fieldstone fireplace swirled, and then suddenly erupted into flame. It flared, and a figure materialized out of it, plopping onto the floor in front of the grate with a practiced hop.

        "Surprise--" everyone shouted, but the strength of the shout faded on the second syllable. The new arrival wasn't Arthur Weasley. There was a sudden, awkward silence as everyone stared at the unexpected form of Kingsley Shacklebolt.

        Kingsley's face was grave. He looked over the room, scanning faces, until he saw Molly.

        "Oh no," Molly said simply.

        Kingsley's face didn't change. Together, both he and Molly looked aside, toward the Weasley family clock.

        "Oh no!" Molly said again. She slowly raised her right hand to her mouth, her eyes wide, shining.

        Everyone in the room looked toward the magical clock, the clock that showed every Weasley family member's whereabouts and well-being. Most of the family members' hands were pointed toward The Burrow: Parlor. Arthur Weasley's hand of the clock was pointed straight down, toward two small red words.

        No More.

"Arthur Weasley was among the rarest and most honorable of men," Kingsley said in his calm, measured voice. "With those whom he loved, he was faultlessly gentle, loyal, and wise. With those who deserved his ire, he was fair, unflagging, and when necessary, fierce. Few who grew up with him would ever have guessed that this soft-spoken, even comical man would someday face the greatest enemies of his time. And yet he did, firmly, and with the kind of quiet courage that comes only from loving well, and being wellloved."

        James sat in the second row, between Albus and Lily. He stared furiously at Kingsley's face as he spoke, concentrating on the words, trying very hard not to look at the shiny wooden box behind the big man. The lid was open, showing a snowy white, cushioned interior. Next to James, Lily sniffed quietly and leaned against her mother's shoulder. Albus sat ramrod straight, his face blank and pale. The tiny church at Ottery St. Catchpole was packed and hot.

        "During Arthur's lifetime," Kingsley went on, "he saw both great and horrible things. In his family, he witnessed the purest of delights, and more importantly, was the sort of man who knew how to enjoy them. He also faced the most terrible of trials and endured the greatest sacrifices. And yet his heart was pure enough to not become embittered by them. Hatred had no foothold in this man. Viciousness knew him not. Corruption could not bend him."

        Dimly, James was aware of the many family members and friends who'd travelled from far and wide to be present. He'd seen Hagrid come in, and even now he could hear the half-giant blowing his nose in the row behind him. Luna was there along with her skinny new beau, Rolf Scamander, who in his brown suit and huge glasses looked, to James, vaguely like a human version of one of those insects cleverly disguised by nature to resemble a dried stick. Neville Longbottom was present as well as the Diggorys, who lived nearby in the village. A surprising number of Granddad's co-workers from the Ministry had also come, most straight from London.

        Directly in front of James sat his grandmother. Molly's shoulders shook, but she made no sound. Next to her, Bill put his arm around her. His eyes glistened. He frowned very slightly as Kingsley went on.

        "There are men who devote their lives to fairness, who study, and campaign, and lead charges. There are men who seek power and influence, who arise to positions of great authority and make momentous decisions. And there are men who devote their lives to training for war, whose skills with the wand and the sword are legendary, who are the first into battle and the last to retreat. Arthur Weasley was not any of these men. He was better. His benevolence had no root in guilt. His position was not born of pride. And his fight was not for the sake of glory. In his steadfast heart, he was effortlessly what most of us try to be by sheer willpower. He was a man without guile. A man of duty and loyalty. A man with the strength of right, and love. But mostly, Arthur Weasley… was a father… and a husband… and a friend."

        For the first time, Kingsley lowered his eyes. He pressed his lips together, and then removed his glasses. Still looking down at the small podium before him, he concluded:

        "Arthur Weasley was the best of his kind. And we shall miss him."

        In the silence that followed, James fought back his tears. It was so confusing. When he'd first understood what was happening that afternoon as they'd all stood in the parlor looking at Granddad's hand on the Weasley clock, he'd felt strangely numb. He'd known he should've felt sorrow, or anger, or fear, but instead, he'd felt just a strange, ringing emptiness. As the family had dissolved into confused conversation— demands of explanations, expressions of grief—Harry had taken Lily, Albus, and James upstairs to the bedroom they'd so often shared.

        "Do you understand what this means?" he had asked them, looking each one in the eyes, his face serious and sad. Lily and Albus had nodded dumbly. James hadn't nodded. If he'd understood what had happened to Granddad, he'd have felt something, wouldn't he? Harry had gathered all three of them into an embrace, and James could feel his dad's cheek on his shoulder. It had felt hot.

        Now, as James watched his grandma and Uncle Bill approach the casket, he could barely grope around the edges of this sudden, monumental grief. His throat ached from holding it in. His eyes burned and he blinked yet again, forcing back the tears. He was ashamed to let it all out, and yet it felt wrong to hold it in. He was torn in the middle.

        Why did Granddad have to die of a stupid heart attack, of all things? Great wizards just didn't die of such things, did they? This was the man who'd faced Voldemort's snake and survived to tell of it. How could a man who'd fought the most vicious villains of all time, who'd made such terrible sacrifices, have died so stupidly in the end? The unfairness of it was like a weight of stones on James' heart. Hadn't Granddad earned a reprieve from something like this? Didn't he deserve at least a few more years to watch his grandchildren grow up? He was going to miss James' first year on the Gryffindor Quidditch team. He'd not attend George's and Angelina's wedding, nor know the names of their children. He'd never unwrap his Muggle socket wrench set, never use it to finish the homemade wings on his prize Ford Anglia. It would sit there in the garage, half-painted and with one headlight still hanging out, until it rusted and lost whatever soul Granddad had given it. Nobody else cared about it. Eventually, it would be towed away somewhere and disposed of. Buried.

        At the end of the aisle, Harry stood up, helping Ginny to her feet. Lily and Albus stood as well, but James remained seated. He stared straight ahead, his cheeks burning. He simply couldn't do it. After a moment, Ginny led Albus and Lily up the aisle to the casket. James felt his dad sit back down next to him. Neither tried to talk to each other, but James felt a hand on his back. It comforted him a little. But just a little.

        A few minutes later, the room was almost entirely empty. James blinked and looked around. He'd barely noticed everyone trickling away, heading outside into the blinding summer sun. Harry still sat next to him. James glanced up at him, studying his dad's face for a moment, and then lowered his eyes. Together, they stood and walked up the aisle.

        James had never been to a funeral before, but he'd heard about one. Albus' namesake, Dumbledore the Headmaster, had meant a terrible lot to his dad. He'd heard about how, at Dumbledore's funeral, Fawkes the phoenix had suddenly flown overhead and the tomb had briefly, gloriously, burst into flames. As James approached his granddad's casket, he wished something like that would happen. James hadn't known Dumbledore, but how could that old man have been nobler than his granddad? Why wouldn't something glorious and beautiful like that happen for Arthur Weasley? And yet, sadly, James knew it wouldn't.

        He climbed the steps to the casket and looked in. He couldn't have done it if his dad hadn't been there with him, with his big hand on James' shoulder. Granddad looked the same, but different. His face was wrong, somehow. James couldn't see specifically what it was, and then he realized: Granddad was just dead. That's all. Suddenly, shockingly, a memory leapt into James' head. In it, he saw Granddad sitting on a stool out in the old family garage, holding a much younger James on his knee, showing him a toy aeroplane. He held it up in front of young James' wondering eyes and made it fly back and forth over the workbench, imitating jet noises. James hadn't known it at the time, but he saw it now in his memory: Granddad was making the plane fly backwards, tail-first. He smiled down at the boy James, his eyes twinkling. "It's like a broom with a hundred Muggles in it," he said, chuckling. "You know, I've never actually seen one fly. I hope to someday, James, my boy. I truly do."

        James closed his eyes as hard as he could, but it was no use. He sobbed a great, dry sob and leaned on the edge of the casket. Harry Potter put an arm around his son's shoulder and held him tightly, rocking him slowly while he cried, hopelessly and helplessly, like the child that he still was.

        "It wasn't really his birthday, of course," Molly was saying to Audrey, Percy's wife, as they stood in the sunlight of the Burrow's backyard, punch glasses in their hands. "He was actually born in February. This was going to be his seventy-eighth-and-a-half birthday party, more or less. Why, it was the only way we could surprise him! Of course, I should've known that he'd find a way to have the last laugh, God bless him. Oh Audrey."

        James ladled himself a glass of punch and moved away from the table, not wishing to hear any more. Hagrid was seated rather uncomfortably on one of the tiny lawn chairs, pressing it into the ground.

        "I knew Arthur back when he was still in school, yeh know," Hagrid said to Andromeda Tonks, who was seated at the table with him. "Never knew of a gentler soul, did I. Always ready with a smile an' a story. An' sharp in 'is own way. Sharp as a talon."

        James slipped past as inconspicuously as possible. He loved Hagrid, but he felt weary and washed out from his tears back at the church. He didn't think he could bear hearing any stories about his granddad as a young man just now. It was too sad.

        He saw Rose, Albus, and Louis seated at one of the portable tables at the edge of the lawn and went to join them.

        "I hear Grandmother might sell the Burrow," Louis said as James pulled over a chair.

        "She can't do that," Rose said, shocked. "It's been the Weasley home since… since… well, since I don't know how long, but since before our parents were even born! It's like a part of the family!"

        Louis shrugged. "Dad says it's too big for her to manage all alone. I mean, the place is seven stories tall, not even counting the attic and the cellar. Besides, it takes a lot of magic just to keep the place upright. Now that the kids are all moved out, and Grandfather gone, it's just too much work for her all by herself."

        "It just doesn't seem right," Rose insisted, kicking the table leg. She glanced up, widening her eyes. "So why shouldn't somebody just move back in with her? George could bring Angelina here when they get married, couldn't he?"

        James glanced out over the yard at the knot of family and friends milling morosely in the sun. "George can't stay at the Burrow," he said. "He has the shops to run. Besides, Angelina's taking a tutoring job in Hogsmeade. They're looking at renting a flat just down the street from the shop."

        "I hear Ted is going to live in the upstairs part," Louis said, brightening. "He wants to try out for the National Quidditch Team, so George said he could live with them and work at the shop while he trains."

        "He can't be serious," Rose grimaced. "Ted's all right, but does he really think he can make the national team?"

        Louis shrugged again. "Mum says it's a mistake for George to take him in. She says that Ted just doesn't know what to do with himself and that he should just buck up and find some regular work."

        "Aunt Fleur thinks that about pretty much everybody," Rose commented.

        "Are you two looking forward to starting school next week?" James said before Louis could reply.

        "Is the main ingredient of Halflinger Root potion Halflinger Root?" Rose said, sitting up excitedly.

        James blinked. "I assume the answer to that is 'yes'."

        "The new Headmaster's made some changes since last year, you know," Louis pointed out. "No more sharing dorms between different years. Much more regulated class schedules. No more putting off secondary classes until your last year. He pretty much completely wiped out the changes made by that guy that was Headmaster before McGonagall. Tyram Wossname."

        "I kind of liked having some of the other years in my dorm last year," James muttered.

        "Yeah, well, Mum says it was Tyram's 'forward-thinking' business that led to the Progressive Element and all this reforming Voldemort rubbish," Louis said wisely, raising his eyebrows.

        James didn't have a response to that. He wasn't surprised in the least, however, that Merlin had made some very conscious choices to take Hogwarts back to its pre-battle standards and procedures.

        "What house do you think we'll get into, James?" Rose asked. "Dad thinks I'll be a Gryffindor, but what would you expect from him? Personally, I hope I get into Ravenclaw."

        "I haven't the faintest idea what houses you'll be sorted to," James said. "The Sorting Hat itself doesn't even seem to know until it sits on your head. I wouldn't be surprised if it takes one look at you and throws eleven O.W.L.s at you."

        Rose arranged the napkin on the table in front of her. "Just because I'm my mum's daughter, doesn't mean I'm some unnatural genius, you know."

        "No," Louis agreed. "But the fact that you've read the entire Encyclopaedia of Magical Poisons and Antidotes and can actually remember the exact page number for Barglenarf salve… does."

        "That didn't actually happen!" Rose insisted, her cheeks going red. "Mum's been telling that story for months and it's pure rot. She bought me those encyclopaedias for my tenth birthday, for Merlin's sake. The only reason I read them at all is because I wanted to learn how to make the Draught of… er…"

        Louis smiled politely and raised his eyebrows. "The Draught of…?"

        "Well, it hardly matters," Rose said stiffly, still fiddling with her napkin. "But I simply can't help it if I have a mind for details. Besides, it was just a cure for poison ivy. And I didn't remember the exact page. Just the chapter it was in."

        "Well, that's different, then," Louis replied sardonically.

        "Don't try that expression on me," Rose said, throwing the napkin at him and hitting him in the face. "Nobody does it like Aunt Fleur. She was practically born with that look on her face."

        "Well, I expect to get into Hufflepuff," Louis said, tossing the napkin back to Rose and trying to look composed. "It's the house most known for diligence and hard work. I plan to take school very seriously."

        Rose rolled her eyes and soundlessly mimicked Louis' words. James smiled.

        "What about you, Albus?" Louis said, nudging James' brother.

        Albus sat back and glanced around. "What's it matter, really?"

        "What does it matter?" Louis repeated incredulously. "It's only the single most defining thing about your school life. I mean, what if you get sorted into the wrong house?"

        "And what house would that be?" Albus asked pointedly.

        "Well, I don't know," Louis answered, throwing up his hands. "It's different for everybody, isn't it?"

        "Albus Severus Potter," Rose said meaningfully. "Louis hasn't figured it out, yet. So much for diligence and hard work."

        Louis frowned at Rose. "I figured out Albus' full name quite a few years ago, thanks."

        "It's his initials, you git," Rose said primly. "A. S. P. An asp is a kind of snake."

        "So what's that supposed to mean, then?"

        "Albus is afraid he'll get sent to the Slytherins," James said, rolling his eyes. "It's been a bit of a family joke for some time. First Potter to go to the snakes."

        "Oh shut up, why don't you?" Albus said dourly.

        "What?" James replied. "It's possible, you know. I almost got sent there myself."

        "Yeah, that's what you keep saying," Albus said quietly. "But then, glory be, you ended up in Gryffindor. The first-born son of Harry Potter goes to his dear old dad's house. Who'd've thought it?"

        "It's true, Al. But come on, Slytherin can't be all that bad anymore," James reasoned. "Ralph's there, and he's all right. Maybe you can join forces with him and turn the old Slytherin legends inside out, eh?"

        Albus scowled, leaned forward, and rested his chin on his forearm.

        "Green really is your color, Albus," Rose said thoughtfully. "Goes with your eyes and your darker hair."

        "Yeah," Louis chimed in, "and I hear their dormitories have hot and cold running dragon's blood."

        Albus suddenly stood and skulked away from the table as the others watched. Rose glanced aside at Louis, one eyebrow raised.

        "What?" he said defensively. "It was the best thing I could think of. Hot and cold running… you know, they say Slytherin families hunt dragons." He rolled his eyes. "Never mind, it's probably over your head."

        "It's unwise to believe everything you hear," a voice said from directly behind them. James turned and looked up into the face of a man with pale skin and sharp features. A dark-haired woman stood next to him.

        The man smiled tightly. "Please forgive the interruption. I was about to ask if this was the correct home, but I see the evidence right here in front of me. I cannot but assume I am speaking to Mr. James Potter, yes?"

         James nodded, looking back and forth between the man and the dark-haired woman. They were both good-looking in a rather cold way, and both were dressed in very tasteful black. James was suddenly sure that if Zane, his American friend, were present, he'd make some comment about how brave it was for them to be out in the daylight, or how they managed to comb their hair so nicely, not being able to see themselves in mirrors. Needless to say, he was quite glad Zane wasn't present.

        "Perhaps," the man went on, "you'd be kind enough to direct me to your father, James. My name is—"

        "Draco?"

        James glanced aside and saw his mum approaching slowly. She looked at the newcomer with a mixture of disbelief and caution.

        "Ginny," the man said. There was a long, uncomfortable pause, and then the dark-haired woman spoke.

        "We're very sorry for your loss, Mrs. Potter." She tried to smile, but it was a rather strained attempt.

        "Does Harry know you're…," Ginny asked, still looking at the man.

        "I think he does now," Draco said, raising his chin slightly and glancing past Ginny.

        Harry stepped next to his wife and looked the pale man up and down.

        "It's good to see you, Draco."

        Draco nodded slowly, not quite making eye contact with Harry. "Yes, it has been quite a long time. When we heard about Mr. Weasley's passing, I thought it would be… appropriate… for us to offer our condolences."

        James recognized the pale man now, even though he'd never seen him in person. He compared this grown man to the few pictures he'd seen of the young Draco Malfoy. The eyes were the same, and so was the white-blonde hair combed back from the temples. There was still the trace of a sneer there too, just like in the old school photos, but as James looked, he thought the sneer was no longer particularly mean, or even conscious. Draco had simply been doing it for so long that it was now just part of the topography of his face.

        Harry studied Draco for a long moment, and then smiled. James recognized it as his dad's polite smile.

        "Thank you, Draco. Ginny and I appreciate it. We really do. This must be your wife?"

        Draco put an arm around the thin woman's waist. "Of course, I apologize. This is Astoria."

        Harry bowed and Ginny shook the woman's hand lightly.

        Ginny brightened and said, "Would you like to come up to the house for some refreshments?"

        Astoria half turned to Draco, raising her eyebrows.

        "I'll have some of whatever he's having," Draco said, glancing toward James and smiling a small, crooked smile. "Thank you, darling."

        Ginny led the way between the tables and Astoria followed, glancing back once toward Harry and Draco.

        "So how are things at Gringotts, Draco?" Harry asked, making no effort to lead the pale man into the throng gathered near the house. "I understand humans are almost unheard of in the bank offices, and yet here you are, vice chairman of something or other, or so I've heard. We'd have had a good laugh back in our school days if someone had told us you'd end up a big wheel at the wizarding bank of England."

        "Back in our school days," Draco said quietly, still not looking directly at Harry, "we'd have had a good laugh if someone had told us we'd someday stand in the same yard without pointing wands at each other."

        Harry's smile faded. "Yes," he admitted in a lower voice. "There is that."

        There was a long pause. James could hear the babble of subdued voices closer to the house and the twittering of birds in the orchard. He glanced over toward Rose, who was also watching the scene with rapt interest. She raised her eyebrows and shook her head minutely.

        "You know," Draco said in a different tone of voice, laughing a little humorlessly, "to tell you the truth, there isn't a single thing about the way life looks today that I would have predicted during our last years at Hogwarts."

        Harry's smile had gone entirely. He stood and watched the pale man, his eyes unreadable.

        "We are all taught things, growing up," Draco went on. "And rarely do we have the sheer audacity to question them. We grow to take the shape of whatever our families define for us. The weight of generations of belief presses down, and makes us in their image. And most of the time that is a good thing." Draco finally looked Harry in the eye, and for the first time since his arrival, the sneer was gone from his face. "Most of the time, it really is a good thing, Harry. But sometimes we grow up, time passes, and long, long after any hope of rejecting those defining beliefs, we look back. And we wonder."

        James looked from Draco to his dad. His dad's face was still unreadable. After a long moment, Harry glanced back toward the house and sighed.

        "Look, Draco, whatever you have to say, whatever you think needs to happen here…"

        Draco shook his head. "Nothing needs to happen here. I didn't come here to ask your forgiveness, Harry. I just came to tell you and your family that I am sorry for your loss. Despite what you might expect, I know Arthur Weasley was a strong man. He was an honorable man. My father wouldn't tend to agree with me, but it's like I said. We get older. Some of us look back, and wonder."

        Harry nodded slightly. "Thank you, Draco."

        Draco took a step closer to Harry. "There was one other reason I came today though. I think I should admit that to you. I came to prove something to myself."

        Harry didn't blink. "What were you hoping to prove?"

        Draco smiled a little, not taking his eyes from Harry's. "I wanted to prove to myself that I could come and speak to you. And more importantly, that you'd hear me."

        Draco extended his right hand. Without looking down, Harry slowly shook it. James could hardly believe what he was seeing, knowing the history of these two men. It was hardly a tearful reconciliation, and James had the distinct impression that if Draco knew anyone in his family could see it, he'd never have done it. But it was amazing, nonetheless. The handshake was over in seconds, and less than five minutes later, both Draco and Astoria had left, driving away in their very large, very black automobile. But the image of that handshake, somehow both daring and vulnerable, tenuous as a soap bubble, stuck in James' mind for a long time.

        Most of the immediate family stayed over that night at the Burrow, and James felt a particular sadness in knowing it might be the last time the family gathered in the old home. A palpable sense of loss and coldness filled the rooms despite the bustle of evening activity. It was almost as if everyone was mentally throwing dustcovers over the furniture, taking down the pictures, and dividing up the dishes. James felt a vague, aimless anger about it. It was bad enough that Granddad had died. Now it seemed that the Burrow was dying too. Nothing felt normal or comfortable. Even the bedroom he'd shared with Albus and Lily for so many years seemed cold and empty. It had never once crossed his mind that this room might someday belong to someone else, someone he didn't know. Worse, what if the new owners simply tore down the house and built a new one? What if they were Muggles, who wouldn't know how to maintain such a place? He couldn't bear the thought. Angrily, he slammed the door and began to put on his pyjamas.

        "Hrmm!" Lily muttered, rolling over in her bed and covering her head with a pillow.

        "Never mind us," Albus griped from the big bed in the corner. "We're just trying to sleep. Let us know if we're bothering you."

        "Sorry," James muttered, plopping onto the bed and kicking off his shoes.

        Albus sat up and stared at the door of the room. James glanced aside to where Albus was looking. They'd seen it a thousand times before: the inside of the door was covered with worn etchings and carved words. This room had belonged to many people throughout the years, and most of them had made some sort of mark on that door, to Grandma Weasley's constant annoyance. Still, she'd made no effort to fix the door, which wouldn't have been all that difficult for a witch. James thought he knew why. In the very center of the door, much older than the rest of the carvings, was a series of carven hash-marks, the kind used to mark off days. Above the hash-marks were the words 'Days To Freedom!' Below the last set of hash-marks, which was very large, the same hand had scrawled 'Fred And George To HOGWARTS And BEYOND! Long Live Fred And George!'

        "You think Grandma will really sell the place?" James asked, still gazing at the carvings on the door.

        Albus didn't answer. After a moment, he rolled over, facing the wall and pulling most of the covers with him.

        James stripped off his shirt and grabbed his pyjama top. He slid to the floor and padded toward the bathroom door to brush his teeth.

        The bathroom was shared by three bedrooms and the third-floor hallway. Lucy, Percy's daughter, was sitting on the edge of the ancient claw-foot tub, studiously brushing her glossy black hair.

        "Hi, James," she said, glancing up briefly.

        "Hi, Lucy."

        "It's good to see you. I missed everybody this summer," Lucy said, drawing the brush over a lock of her hair. "Daddy says we'll be able to spend more time at home next year. I was pretty happy about that until today. I mean, by next year…"

        James nodded. "Yeah."

        "Did you like your first year of school?" Lucy asked, looking up. "Are you looking forward to going back?"

        James nodded and picked up the glass that stood on the side of the sink. It was packed with the family's toothbrushes. He grimaced and turned the glass, trying to find his own.

        "I can't wait to start school," Lucy said, returning to her brushing. "Daddy says I should enjoy being free while I can, but it doesn't feel free living with him and Mummy in hotel rooms for weeks at a time. Mummy says it's best for us to travel with him on all his international trips, so we can all stay together as a family. She likes all the travelling though. She's always dragging Molly and me out to some historical thing or other, telling us to smile while she takes pictures of us in front of this statue or that rock that some famous person from some great battle stood on or something. I write lots of letters, but not that many people write back, or at least not as often as I'd like."

        She glanced meaningfully at James. He saw her in the mirror as he brushed his teeth.

        "What's wrong with Albus?" Lucy asked, standing and putting away her brush.

        James rinsed his toothbrush. "What do you mean?"

        "He was awfully quiet tonight. It's not like him."

        "Well, I guess everybody is a little quieter than usual," James replied. He glanced aside at Lucy and smiled crookedly. "Well, almost everybody."

        She bumped him playfully as she passed him. At the door, she stopped and looked over her shoulder.

        "We'll probably be gone when you get up in the morning," she said simply. "We have to get back to Denmark first thing, Daddy says."

        "Oh," James said. "Well, happy travels, Lucy. Sorry about all that. Uncle Percy's quite the man at the Ministry, according to Dad. Things won't always be like this, don't you think?"

        Lucy smiled. "It won't much matter by next year, will it? I'll be with you, Albus, Louis, Rose, and Hugo at Hogwarts. Won't that be fun?"

        James nodded. There was something rather disquieting about talking to Cousin Lucy. It wasn't that he didn't love her. In many ways, he liked her better than many of his other cousins, particularly Louis. She was just so different. It made sense that she would be different, since she'd been adopted by Uncle Percy and Aunt Audrey back when they believed they couldn't have kids of their own. Talking to Lucy, much like talking to Luna Lovegood, was a rather literal affair. She was extremely, almost eerily, intelligent, but unlike most people, Lucy didn't much joke or tease. She always said exactly what she was thinking.

        "Write me a letter or two this year, won't you James?" she said, her black eyes serious. "Tell me how school is going. Make me laugh. You're good at that."

        James nodded again. "OK, Lucy. I will. I promise."

        Gently, Lucy closed the door to the bedroom she shared with her sister. James turned toward the door to his own bedroom when a movement caught his eye. He stopped and glanced aside, following the motion. It had been in the hall adjacent. The door was slightly open, but the hallway beyond was dark. Someone was probably waiting outside for him to finish. He pushed the door open and leaned out.

        "I'm done," he announced. "Bathroom's all yours."

        The hallway was empty. James looked in both directions. The stairs at the end of the hall were notoriously creaky; he'd surely have heard someone on them. He frowned, and was about to turn away when the movement came again. It flickered in the moonbeams cast by the landing's large window. A shadow danced for a moment and then went still.

        James stepped out of the bathroom, keeping his eyes on the pale window shape cast across the floor and wall. He could no longer see whatever had moved. He took a few steps toward the landing and his foot creaked on a floorboard. At the sound, a shadow leapt in the moon-glow. It scampered over the shape of the window like some kind of lizard, but with much longer, many-jointed arms and legs. There was a suggestion of a large head and pointy ears, and then, suddenly, the shape was gone.

        James stopped in the hall, the hairs on his arms prickling. The shadow had made a noise as it moved, like dead leaves blowing on a stone. As James strained his ears, he could still hear it. A faint scuttling came from the stairs below the landing. Without thinking, he followed.

        As always, the stairs were unbearably creaky. James had completely lost the sound by the time he reached the main floor. The Weasley family clock ticked to itself in the darkness of the parlor as he crept through, heading for the kitchen. One candle guttered in a volcano of wax on the windowsill. Moonlight played across the room, reflected from the dozens of pots and pans that hung over the counter. James stopped and cocked his head, listening.

        The scuttling came again, and he saw it. The tiny shadow flickered and jumped over the fronts of the cabinets, flashing in and out of the moonlight. It seemed to scamper up the pantry. James glanced around quickly, trying to locate the figure that was casting the shadow, but he couldn't find it.

        The shadow stopped in a corner of the ceiling and seemed to look down at James for a moment. The tiny shape looked a little bit like a house-elf except for the proportions and the unusual number of joints in the arms and legs. Then it leapt again, out of the shadow. James lunged in the creature's direction, sensing the thing was heading for the back door. To his surprise, the back door was wide open.

        James jumped out into the cooling night air. He looked around wildly, straining his ears for the tiny, scuttling sound. There was no sign of the tiny shape.

        "Good evening, James," a voice from behind him said, and he nearly barked in surprise. He spun around and saw his dad seated on the woodpile, a small glass in his hand. Harry laughed.

        "Sorry, son. I didn't mean to startle you. What are you so wound up about?"

        James looked around again, his brow furrowed. "I thought… I thought I saw something."

        Harry glanced around as well. "Well, there's a lot of somethings to be seen in this house, you know. There's the ghoul in the attic, and the garden gnomes. They usually stay out of the house, but there are always a few brave ones that'll sneak in at night and nick a turnip or two. They think harvesting the vegetables is stealing from them, so they get a little mercenary about it sometimes."

        James padded over to the woodpile and climbed up next to his dad.

        "What are you drinking?" he asked, peering at his father's glass.

        Harry laughed again, quietly. "It's more a question of what I'm not drinking. It's Firewhisky. Never got much of a taste for the stuff, but tradition's tradition."

        "What's the tradition?"

        Harry sighed. "It's just a way to remember. A sip to commemorate your grandfather and all he meant to us. I did this with Grandfather and George on the night we buried your Uncle Fred."

        James was silent for a while. He looked out over the yard and the dark orchard. Just below the crest of the hill, the peak of the garage could be seen in the moonlight. Crickets chirred their constant summer song.

        "I'm glad to have you out here with me, James," Harry said.

        James glanced up at him. "Why didn't you come and get me, then?"

        Harry's shoulders lifted once. "I didn't know I wanted you here until you appeared."

        James leaned back against the smooth stone of the house's foundation. It was pleasantly cool after the warmth of the day. The sky was unusually clear. The misty band of the Milky Way stretched like an arm across the sky, reaching down toward the glow of the village beyond the orchard.

        "Your granddad was like a father to me, you know," Harry said. "I was just sitting here thinking about that. I used to call him that all the time, of course, but I never really thought about it. I never realized how true it was. I guess I didn't need to, until now."

        James looked up at the moon. "Well, it would make sense. I mean, your own dad died when you were just a baby. You never even knew him."

        Harry nodded. "And my Uncle Vernon… well, I wish I could say he did his best to be a father to me, but you've heard enough about how things were with them to know that's not true. Honestly, I never even knew what I was missing. I just knew that things weren't the way they were supposed to be."

        "Until you married Mum and became an honorary Weasley?"

        Harry smiled down at James and nodded. "I suppose."

        "You suppose?"

        The smile faded slowly from his dad's face. He looked away again, out over the darkness of the yard.

        "There was Sirius," Harry said. "He was the first father I ever knew. Technically, he was my godfather, but I didn't care. He asked me to come and live with him, to be family. But it didn't work out. He ended up on the run from the Ministry, moving from place to place, always in hiding. Still, he did his best. Bought me my Firebolt, which is still my favorite broom of all time."

        Harry stopped. He reached up and took off his glasses. James remained silent.

        "So I was just sitting here thinking about how Granddad is really the third father I've lost, that I'm back to where I started. If you want to know the truth, son, I was sitting here feeling sorry for myself. Sirius was killed before we had the chance to take even a single family picture to remember him by. Sometimes, I can barely remember what he looked like, except for in his wanted poster. But the hole he left in my heart has never been filled. I tried to fill it with my old Headmaster Dumbledore for a while, but then he was killed, too. Granddad made me forget for a long, long time, but now, even he's gone. I mean, honestly, this should be a bit easier for me. I've had… I've had practice. And yet, if you want to know the truth, I think your mum is handling it even better than me. I'm angry, James. I want the people back that I've lost. I can't seem to just move on like the rest. Just now, I was sitting here thinking that Granddad was just one too many. I didn't want to accept it anymore. But what could I do? There's no way to bring them back, and wishing for it just makes us bitter. I was thinking all those things, and then do you know what happened?"

        James looked up at his dad again, his brow furrowed. "What?"

        Harry smiled slowly. "You jumped out that door like a jack-in-the-box and scared me so that I nearly dropped my glass."

        James smiled back, and then laughed. "So when you startled me, you were just getting back at me, eh?"

        "Perhaps," Harry admitted, still smiling. "But I realized something in that moment, and that was why I was glad you came out here, that you sat down with me. I remembered that I have another chance at the father and child relationship, but from the other side. I have you, and Albus, and Lily. I can try my best to give you three what I missed for so much of my life. And you know what's really magical? When I do, I get a little of it back, like a reflection, from all three of you."

        James looked hard at his dad, frowning a little. He thought he understood, but only very dimly. Finally, he looked down at the glass in his dad's hand.

        "So are you going to drink that?"

        Harry lowered his eyes to the glass of Firewhisky, and then raised it. "You know, son," he said, examining the moon through the amber liquid, "I think it's time to start some new traditions. Don't you think?" He held the glass a little higher, at arm's length.

        "This is for you, Arthur," he said firmly. "For the father you were to all of us, not the least of which to me. And for you, Dumbledore, for doing your formidable best right to the end… and for my real dad, James the First, who I never knew but have always loved…"

        James stared at the glass in his dad's hand as Harry paused. Finally, in a softer voice, he finished:

        "And for you, Sirius Black, wherever you are. I miss you. I miss you all."

        Almost casually, Harry flung the Firewhisky from the glass. It made an arc in the moonlight, sparkling and spreading, and vanished into the dimness of the yard. Harry drew a deep breath and sighed, shuddering a little as he let it out. He leaned back and put his arm around his son. They sat that way for some time, watching the moon and listening to the crickets in the orchard. Eventually, James drifted to sleep. His dad carried him to bed.

2. THE BORLEY

"Y ou'll be fine, James," Ginny said as she backed the car carefully into a slot next to the footpath. "It doesn't hurt, you know. Your dad's been wearing them since he was six. You're lucky you

went this long without needing them."

        James fumed in the front seat. Behind him, Lily whined for the tenth time, "I want to wear glasses too!"

        Ginny blew the hair out of her face and jammed the shifter into 'Park'. "Lily, if you're fortunate, you'll never have to wear anything other than sunglasses, but those you can wear all you want, love."

        "I don't want to wear sunglasses," Lily pouted. "I want real glasses, like James. Why does he get real glasses?"

        "My eyes aren't that bad," James insisted, not moving to get out of the car. "I can read my school books just fine. I don't see why—"

        "They aren't that bad yet," Ginny said firmly. "These are corrective lenses. Hopefully, they'll keep your eyesight from getting any worse. Why are you being so difficult about this?"

        James scowled. "I just don't want to wear them. I'll look like a sodding idiot."

        "Don't say that word," Ginny said automatically. "Besides, they don't make your father look like an idiot. Now come on. Lily, you stay here with Kreacher and have a little snack, OK? I'll be able to see you from the window and I'll be back out in just a minute. You'll keep an eye out, won't you, Kreacher?"

        In the backseat, Kreacher squirmed in his bright blue child seat. "It'd be an easier task if Kreacher wasn't imprisoned in this Muggle torture device, Mistress, but as you wish."

        "We've been through this, Kreacher. Regardless of what Muggles think they see when they look at you, children are required to ride in a safety seat. It's bad enough that you insist on wearing nothing but a tea towel. People aren't accustomed to seeing a five-year-old in a nappy."

        "It's the best disguise poor Kreacher can manage, Mistress," he croaked morosely. "Kreacher has never been accustomed to the society of Muggles, but Kreacher does his best with what small magic he has at his disposal."

        Ginny rolled her eyes as she climbed out of the car. "Just tap the horn if you need anything, all right? Your 'small magic' can manage that, I'm fairly certain."

        Ginny led James toward the office.

        "Why do we have to go to a Muggle eye doctor anyway?" James complained quietly. "Aren't there magical eye doctors with, like, invisible glasses? Or spells that magically fix your eyes?"

        Ginny smiled. "Not everything has a magical solution, James. A Muggle eye doctor is as good as a magical one, and this one's more convenient than Diagon Alley. You've already been here for your exam. I don't see what you're so afraid of."

        "I'm not afraid," James said disgustedly as they entered the lobby of the office. He looked around at the tiny waiting area. It was exactly the same as the last time he'd been there, right down to the number of fish in the grimy aquarium and the magazines on the end table.

        "James Potter," Ginny told the fat woman behind the glass partition. "We have a two o'clock appointment with Doctor Prendergast."

        James plopped into the same chair he'd sat in the last time he'd been there. He kicked his heel on the thin carpet, grumbling to himself.

        A few minutes later, Dr. Prendergast emerged, smiling, skinny, and red-cheeked. He tucked his own glasses into a pocket of his white coat.

        "Do come back, James," he said jovially. "Your mother can come too if she likes."

        Ginny glanced at James. "Do you want me to? I can go get Lily and bring her back with us."

        He sighed and stood up. "No. Go ahead and check on her. Kreacher's probably trying to feed her caviare for a snack again."

        Ginny grinned at Dr. Prendergast and then threw a quick warning look at James. "The glasses are already paid for, James. Just come out to the car once you're done with the doctor, all right?"

         "Is Kreacher some sort of family pet?" Dr. Prendergast asked James as he led him into the examination room.

        "He's my half-brother," James replied. "He lives in the basement. We feed him a bucket of fish heads twice a week."

        Dr. Prendergast blinked at James, his smile growing somewhat brittle. "That's very, ahem, amusing, James. What an interesting imagination."

        James sat on the edge of the examination chair as the doctor put on his own glasses and rummaged in a cabinet. He produced a box and opened it on the table.

        "Here we are," he said happily, extracting a pair of black eyeglasses. To James, they looked three times wider than his head. He slumped.

        "Let me just help you get them on and we'll test the prescription. Won't take a minute."

        He held them out to James, and then slipped them onto his head. James closed his eyes as the glasses settled onto his ears. When he opened them again, the world looked very slightly smaller and warped a bit around the edges. He glanced around, trying to get used to the feeling.

        "There!" the doctor said brightly. "And how does that feel?"

        James sighed again. "All right, I guess. It's a little weird."

        "That's perfectly natural. You'll get used to them in no time at all."

        James had already determined that he would not let that happen. He intended to wear the dreaded glasses for his mum to see for the next two days, and then to stick them in his trunk the moment he got on the Hogwarts Express. He didn't really need them anyway. He was sure of it.

        Dr. Prendergast sat James on a stool in the corner of the examination room and turned him toward the eye chart on the opposite wall. James covered one eye at a time and read down the chart in a dejected monotone. The doctor nodded happily, removed his own glasses again and opened the blinds of the small room, letting in the afternoon sunlight.

        "That's very good, James," he said, opening the examination room door. "We're mostly done. Just let me schedule your follow-up appointment and you can be off."

        When James was alone in the room, he stood up and approached the mirror next to the window. The glasses weren't really that bad, he thought, but they were bad enough. They felt heavy and clunky on his face. He scowled and took them off.

        In the mirror, something moved behind his reflection. James glanced up, and then turned around. The sunlight poured into the room, brightening it considerably. James saw his own shadow on the wall, projected onto a large poster showing a diagram of an eyeball. Another shadow scampered past his. James recognized it immediately as the same shape he'd seen a few nights earlier in the hallway at the Burrow. Without thinking, he reached for his wand in his back pocket, but of course it wasn't there. He wasn't yet allowed to do any magic out of school, and his mum forbade him from carrying it when they were out in the Muggle world.

        The shadowy shape shimmied up the wall and leapt. James widened his eyes, surprised and bewildered, as the shadow seemed to come off the wall, leaping out of the beam of sunlight. It made a slightly darker shape in the room, almost invisible. The shadow wasn't being cast by the creature; somehow, the creature was its shadow. It landed on the small table next to the examination chair. To James' shock, it began to pick up some of Doctor Prendergast's tools and fling them around the room. They clattered and bounced off the walls. James jammed his glasses into the pocket of his jeans and jumped to catch some of the flying tools.

        "Stop!" he whispered harshly at the tiny shadow imp. "What are you doing? You're going to get me into trouble!"

        James ducked beneath the examination chair, scooping up the scattered tools. Meanwhile, having cleared off the table, the shadow imp jumped to the stool and scampered up the wall. It reached the cabinet and darted behind a row of thick books. One by one, the books began to pop off the shelf. James dumped the tools onto the table with one hand and lunged to catch the first few books with the other. Unable to catch them all, James bent to scoop them off the floor. A particularly large volume struck him in the back of the head, making him drop the books he'd already collected. Angrily, he spun on his heels, looking for the creature, meaning to grab it if he could. It jumped from the bookshelf to the wall, snagging a corner of the poster. The poster popped free and fell like a sail, covering James' head. He struggled out from under it and lunged at the creature. It leapt to the ceiling fan and sat perched on one of the slowly revolving blades. It seemed to be taunting James.

        "This is a Muggle place!" James hissed at the creature. "But I'm a wizard! You can thank your lucky stars I don't have my wand with me!"

        The creature recoiled at that, as if it had understood. It spun and jumped toward the window. James, still partly caught under the fallen poster, threw himself over the examination chair, reaching for the creature. He landed hard on the chair, which moved. It rolled on its casters, scooting across the floor and striking the wall below the window just as the door opened.

        James looked up into the face of Dr. Prendergast, whose eyes widened.

        "Look," James said quickly, clambering off the examination chair, "I don't know what it was, but it wasn't me! I didn't do any magic, I didn't knock all your books down, or tear your poster off the wall, or make any of this mess. All of this was done by some weird little shadow monster. You probably don't believe in shadow monsters, and that's fine, because I myself didn't even know they existed until now, so that's all right, but we'll probably all end up Obliviated anyway, so who really cares, right?"

        Dr. Prendergast's gaze remained locked on James. His eyes looked rather magnified behind his glasses. James took a moment to glance around at the mess that had been made of the examination room. To his great surprise, there wasn't any mess. The books sat neatly on their shelves. The poster hung on the wall, perfectly intact. The eye examination tools lay neatly on a cloth on the table in the corner.

        "Ah, ah hah, hah!" Dr. Prendergast laughed, smiling a little nervously. "This is like the story about your brother eating fish heads out of a bucket, I see. Like I said before, Mr. Potter, what a very, er, interesting imagination. Here is your reminder for your next appointment. I believe your mother is, ahem, waiting for you outside."

        On the morning of the first of September, James was feeling unusually surly. The weather seemed to match his mood, having turned cool and foggy, covering the city like a wet blanket. James stared through his reflection in the car window as the family wove through the city toward King's Cross station. He'd made an attempt to tell his mum about the weird shadow creature he'd seen twice now, but she had been irritable and harried and had told him to save the inexplicable imaginary creatures for Luna Lovegood, who rather specialized in them. James had determined to ask Luna about it the next time he saw her, but for now, preparing for his return to Hogwarts and managing his strangely churlish brother, Albus, were enough to keep him busy. Soon enough, he'd put the shadow imp out of his mind.

        Things had begun badly that morning. James, excited about going back to school, had his trunk packed and ready, waiting beside the front door of the Potter family home. When he tromped back upstairs to collect his owl, Nobby, Albus was still sitting on the bed in his room, tying his shoes. His trunk sat open next to the desk, half-packed.

        "Come on, Al," James said, setting Nobby's cage on the desk. "Dad's already pulling the car around front. If we don't get packed and on the road we'll be late."

        Albus made no effort to hurry. He slumped off his bed and stalked out of the room. James watched him go, rolled his eyes, and began piling Albus' school books into the trunk. Albus' new snowy owl, who was as yet unnamed, sat in her cage next to Nobby's, clicking her beak nervously.

        "At least you don't have anything to pack," he griped to the owls. "Or a troublesome little brother."

        "Albus," Ginny's voice called from downstairs, "James, it's time to go."

        James grabbed Albus' new robes and a handful of clothes from the closet, stuffed them into the trunk, and slammed the lid. If Albus got to Hogwarts without a clean pair of underpants, it was his own fault. James grabbed the handle and lugged the trunk toward the door, meeting Albus as he came back.

        "Is that my trunk?" Albus demanded.

        James pulled the trunk past him, into the hallway. "Just get the owls, will you? We're going to be late."

        "I wasn't done packing!"

        "Well, I guess you're done now, aren't you?" James said, feeling suddenly angry. "Dad and Mum are waiting. What, did you decide you don't want to go to school after all?"

        Without answering, Albus collected the owls' cages rather noisily and followed James down to the car.

        As the family arrived at King's Cross station, James tried to lighten the mood.

        "Just think, Al, by tonight, you'll be all settled in, sitting in front of the giant snake's head fireplace and drinking a flagon of Butterbeer with your new snakey mates."

        Albus scowled and opened the car door, stepping out into the fog of the parking structure. James followed.

        "Can I push a trolley at least?" Lily asked, displaying her best pout.

        "I'm sorry, Lily," Harry said, piling the trunks and owl cages onto two trolleys. "They're rather heavy, and we're in a hurry. You'll be seeing Hugo in a few minutes, though. If all goes well, Aunt Hermione and Uncle Ron will be joining us for lunch as soon as the train leaves. Won't that be nice?"

        "I don't want lunch," Lily said petulantly.

        The family entered the large doors of the station and threaded through the commuters, attracting some curious stares as the owls hooted and fluttered their wings. Lily followed her parents, whining idly about her desire to go to Hogwarts with her brothers this year instead of two years from now.

        "I've been in the Slytherin common room," James said to Albus as they approached the platform. "Ralph showed me. Zane's even been in the girls' sleeping quarters. It's kind of like a five star hotel in Middle Ages Transylvania, if you know what I mean. You'll love it."

        Albus turned to look at James. "I won't! I won't be in Slytherin!"

        "Give it a rest, James," Ginny admonished.

        "I only said he might be," James said defensively, grinning at Albus. "There's nothing wrong with that. He might be in Slyth—"

        He saw his mum's warning expression and fell silent. Feeling a little peeved, he took the trolley from her, glanced over his shoulder at Albus, and then pushed forward, running toward the partition. Just as it had last year, the partition seemed to dissolve. He flashed through it and pulled the trolley to a stop on platform nine and three-quarters. It was as crowded as it had been the last time he'd been there, although the mingled fog and steam made it hard to see everyone. Out of the dense mist, James could hear the chug and hiss of the Hogwarts Express, and for the first time all morning, he felt a bit better. Without waiting for the rest of the family, he pushed his trolley through the crowd toward the sound of the train.

        "James!" a voice called out. James glanced around and saw his Cousin Lucy standing next to Uncle Percy, who was apparently lost in animated conversation with a man in a pinstriped cloak. Percy's wife, Audrey, stood nearby, holding Lucy's sister's hand and looking over a schedule of departures.

        "Hi, Lucy," James said, pushing the trolley over to her. "I didn't expect to see you here. What's going on?"

        "We're on our way back already," she shrugged. "Daddy got a call. There was some sort of magical disturbance in Wandsworth and the Ministry needs him back. At least we get to go home for awhile. Where's Albus?"

        James gestured back the way he'd come. "Albus is still in a snit. He's been grumpy ever since the Burrow."

        Lucy nodded understandingly but said nothing.

        "Well, I better get my trunk on board," James said. "We're already late. See you, Lucy."

        "Bye, James," Lucy replied, then added. "Keep an eye on Albus, all right?"

        James felt a tiny twinge of guilt at that. He nodded. "Sure, Lucy. I'm his big brother."

        Lucy smiled and waved. James turned and ran toward the train, pushing his trolley. As he met the porter, he saw Teddy Lupin moving through the fog with Victoire at his side, lost in hushed conversation. Satisfied that his things would be loaded safely onto the train, James trotted to catch up to them.

        "Hey, Ted, Victoire," he called.

        They stopped near the station, but Victoire continued talking, her head close to Ted's.

        "It's time," she said, her face serious. "I do not wish to spend the year away at school with this secret between us."

        "It isn't between us, Vic," Ted said reasonably. "You know your parents aren't ready to know about us. Your mum already thinks I'm a bum waiting to happen. Give me some time to arrange things in Hogsmeade. Once I've proven I'm serious…"

        "To whom do you need to prove yourself?" Victoire asked, stepping back and placing her fists on her hips. "My parents, or yourself?"

        Ted rolled his eyes. He glanced at James. "This is what it's like dating a girl whose family I've known all my life," he said. "They know me too well for my charms to work on them."

        "Your charms work just fine," Victoire sniffed. "In fact, if it wasn't for your charms, you wouldn't even have this problem."

        "Sorry to interrupt," James said, raising his hands, palms out. "I just wanted to say hello. I'll just fade away into the mist again."

        "Wait a minute," Ted said, his face growing thoughtful. "I've got an idea."

        Suddenly, he grabbed Victoire and hugged her to him. She resisted for a moment, but then he kissed her, and she relaxed. Slowly, she dropped the handbag she was carrying and wrapped her arms around Ted's neck. James took a step backwards and looked around nervously.

        "Er, like I said—" he began but stopped as Ted held up a finger, still kissing Victoire. Finally, he broke away and looked aside at James, smiling crookedly.

        "You saw that, right?" he asked.

        "I don't think I saw anything but that," James replied uncomfortably.

        "Good. Now do me a favor."

        Victoire looked at Ted, her arms still around his neck. "Teddy, no…"

        Ted's smile didn't waver. "Go tell everybody what you saw."

        "What?" James blinked.

        "Just tell them. Say I came to see Victoire off, and you saw us snogging right here on the platform. Say you interrupted us and I told you to shove off. It's the juiciest bit of gossip on the platform this morning, and you get to be the one to share it. It'll get the word out about us and we won't even have to say a thing," he turned back to Victoire. "Happy?"

        She tilted her head haughtily at him but smiled. "You're a rogue," she replied.

        Ted shrugged. "I'm simply good at coming up with reasons to kiss you. So what do you think, James? Are you up to the task?"

        James grinned. "I learned how to lie from Zane. I'll make it as juicy as possible."

        "Excellent," Ted replied. "And just to make it as realistic as possible," he made his face stern and looked at James, "shove off, will you? I'm busy."

        With that, he kissed Victoire again. She grinned and giggled, pushing away from him playfully. James turned on his heels and trotted back into the crowd. After a moment, he saw his family gathered with Uncle Ron and Aunt Hermione near the train. They were all looking back toward the station. James followed the direction of their gaze and saw Draco Malfoy standing with his wife and son near the partition. Draco nodded curtly in their direction, and then turned to his son. The son had the same sharp features and white-blonde hair. He glanced toward James, seeming to recognize him. After a moment, the boy looked away again, as if bored.

        James remembered the news he was supposed to share. He ran toward his family, dodging and weaving through the crowd. As he approached, he heard Uncle Ron say to Rose in a pointed voice, "Don't get too friendly with him though, Rosie. Granddad Weasley would never forgive you if you married a pureblood." James was glad to interrupt the uncomfortable pause that followed.

        "Hey!" he yelled as he approached. Rose saw him first and smiled. The rest of the family turned curiously. "Teddy's back there. Just seen him. And guess what he's doing? Snogging Victoire!"

        The adults looked down at James rather blankly. James raised his eyebrows, exasperated at their lack of response. "Our Teddy! Teddy Lupin! Snogging our Victoire! Our cousin! And I asked him what he was doing— "

        "You interrupted them?" Ginny said incredulously. "You are so like Ron…"

        James plowed on, committed to telling it like Ted asked. "—and he said he'd come to see her off! And then he told me to go away! He's snogging her!"

        Lily spoke up, "Oh, it would be lovely if they got married."

        James rolled his eyes, ignoring the rest of the conversation. Well, at least he'd succeeded in getting the word out. Ted would be satisfied. After a moment, James heard his dad saying, "Why don't we just invite him to come live with us and have done with it?"

        "Yeah!" James agreed instantly. "I don't mind sharing with Al. Teddy could have my room!"

        "No," Harry interjected. "You and Al will share a room only when I want the house demolished." He checked his watch, and smiled. "It's nearly eleven. You'd better get on board."

        James hugged his mum and dad and a minute later climbed aboard the train, leaving the noise and steam behind him. He clumped into the nearest compartment with Rose right behind him. She pushed the window open and leaned out to wave. James joined her and glanced out. Albus was still on the platform with their dad squatted next to him. James remembered Harry doing the same thing with him last year, and didn't doubt that Albus and he were having a very similar conversation. Ginny saw James and waved at him. Lily skulked nearby, loosely holding her mum's free hand.

        Albus disengaged from his dad, hugged his mum, and then clambered onto the train. A moment later, he entered the compartment with James and Rose. There was a commotion behind them as several other students crowded into the compartment, leaning toward the open window, chattering excitedly.

        "Why are they all staring?" Albus asked as he and Rose turned.

        On the platform, Ron shrugged and called up, "Don't let it worry you. It's me. I'm extremely famous."

        Albus smiled, and then laughed a little. Rose chuckled at her father. With a loud rattle and a jerk, the train began to move. James couldn't help noticing that his brother seemed to feel a little bit better. Albus smiled, allowing some excitement to show on his face as he waved. Alongside the train, their father walked, one hand raised and a wistful smile on his face. The train slowly gathered speed and James watched his parents get smaller and smaller on the platform. Rose leaned out the window and waved heartily at Ron and Hermione, then pulled herself in with a sigh, drawing the window shut.

        "Well," she said, plopping onto the seat across from James, "we're off!"

        James nodded. Albus watched out the window until the platform was out of sight, and then joined Rose on the seat. He leaned back and watched the window as London began to stream past.

        "So what do you think, Al?" James asked, remembering Lucy's admonition on the platform. "Looking forward to your first year?"

        Albus looked at James for a long moment, and then sighed hugely. "I'd be looking forward to it a lot more if I knew you'd packed me some socks."

        James blinked, smiling a little, and kicked his brother's foot. "You never change them anyway. I didn't think you'd need any more than what's on your feet already."

        "That's disgusting," Rose announced.

        There was a loud knock on the compartment door and the three looked up.

        Ralph leaned in, his face flushed and smiling. "Hi, everybody. Room for one more?"

        "So Zane is going to Alma Aleron this year?" Rose asked, feigning disinterest.

        "You knew he was ever since he visited with his parents last July," Albus said.

        "Well, he wasn't completely sure then, was he? He said there was a chance his father might get his contract extended."

        "No," Albus insisted. "He said even if that happened, he'd probably end up going back to the States with his sister and mum. You're just sweet on him and can't help thinking that one bat of your eyes should have been enough to get him to climb mountains and forge mighty rivers to be at Hogwarts with you this year."

        Rose rolled her eyes theatrically. "That's patently ridiculous. I barely know him, and what I do know of him, I find completely insufferable."

        "Insufferable enough to try to make the Draught of Enamor?" Albus grinned.

        Rose whipped her head around and gaped at Albus. "I never…!"

        Albus shrugged, still grinning. "You need to learn to lock your diary with more than the silly little Forget-me-knot Charm that came with it. You of all people should know how easy those are to jinx open."

        "Why, you rat!" Rose cried, her voice rising so that it was nearly inaudible. "If I knew how to perform any curses, I'd turn your head into a marshmallow!"

        "Is this what things are always like in your family?" Ralph asked James, munching a licorice wand.

        "Pretty much," James nodded. "It's a good thing Louis hasn't found us yet. He really brings out the worst in Rose."

        "This isn't her worst?"

        James dug in his bag and produced his wand. Finally, now that he was on the train, he was allowed to use it again. He was tempted to strike up a game of Winkles and Augers with Ralph, but he knew that Ralph would defeat him easily with his unorthodox green-tipped wand. James would've liked to believe that Ralph's skills were only due to the fact that his wand had once been a part of Merlin's magical staff, but he knew better. Ralph was talented, and he probably didn't even know the limit of his own talents. Being beat by Ralph at Winkles and Augers was particularly galling because Ralph tended to apologize for it.

        "It is a shame that Zane couldn't come back with us this year," James said. "It's going to be a bit weird without him."

        "Well, it was always a bit weird with him too," Ralph said. "So maybe it'll all even out. Besides, we'll still get to see him. He says that the Alma Alerons have some experimental new communication methods. He's going to be on the testing team for them."

        James nodded. "Sounds like old Chancellor Franklyn has been hard at work since he left."

        "I'll say," Ralph agreed. "Dad visited them over the summer and they took him on a tour of the school and grounds. The whole campus is packed into a single yard surrounded by a stone wall in some old neighborhood of Philadelphia. You'd never even notice it if you walked past it. Talk about unplotted space! They even have a Timelock!"

        James furrowed his brow. "What's a Timelock?"

        "Oh, it's totally cool," Ralph enthused. "It's the only way into the school. It's kind of like an airlock. You know how when rockets connect to a space station, they have this locked off chamber between them?"

        James raised his eyebrows sardonically.

        "Oh yeah," Ralph said, "I keep forgetting you were raised by wizards. All right, an airlock is kind of a closed chamber between two places with really different atmospheres. It has doors on both sides. When you go into the airlock on your side, you bring your atmosphere in with you. Then the doors lock and your atmosphere is swapped out for a new one. That's the only way a spacewalker can get inside the breathable environment of a space station."

        James' expression didn't change.

        "All right," Ralph said defensively, "so I grew up watching science-fiction films. Not all of us were born with a silver wand in our mouths, you know."

        James laughed. "Go on, Ralphinator. So what's a Timelock?"

        "Well, that's just it! It's an airlock for time! Not only is the Alma Aleron campus hidden inside some magical stone wall that makes it seem loads smaller than it is, it's hidden in time, too! You have to go in through the Timelock to exchange your time for whatever time the campus is occupying on any given day."

        "That's impossible," Rose chimed in, lowering the book she'd been reading. "Time travel is not only highly unstable, but extremely risky. The Ministry has even outlawed Time-Turners because too many people were fiddling around in the temporal fluxstream, making history all wonky."

        "The 'temporal fluxstream'?" Ralph repeated, blinking.

        "'Wonky'?" Albus grinned.

        "Rose takes a little bit of getting used to," James said. "But she's the person to go to if you need a cure for poison ivy."

        "Or the occasional love potion," Albus added.

        "It would've worked if I'd succeeded in getting him to drink it," Rose pointed out primly. "And I was only testing it on him. I just find him slightly less obnoxious than any of you."

        "What kind of wand did you get, Rosie?" James asked, changing the subject.

        "Only my dad's allowed to call me that, Jameson," Rose replied, reaching for her bag.

        James smiled. "'Jameson' isn't even my real name."

        "It's willow," Rose said, flourishing her wand daintily and holding it up. "Eight inches, with a Pegasus feather core."

        "What about yours, Albus?" Ralph asked, popping the last bit of licorice wand into his mouth.

        Albus' face changed a little and he shrugged. "It's a wand. Eight and a half inches. It's made out of yew."

        Ralph nodded. "So what's the core made of?"

        Albus glanced aside, out the window, his face darkening. "What's your wand core made of, Ralph?" he asked pointedly.

        Ralph blinked. He reached into his bag and produced his wand. James looked at it, remembering it well. It was at least a foot long, and thick as a broomstick. The end was whittled to a dull point and painted lime green. It looked as silly as always, and yet James knew, perhaps more than anyone, what that wand was capable of in Ralph's hand. It had saved James' life at least once.

        "Well," Ralph admitted, "I used to think it had a yeti whisker core—"

        "A yeti whisker?" Albus said, leaning forward and grinning.

        "We've been through this," Rose sighed. "Nobody knows what's inside Ralph's wand except maybe Merlin. And I'm sure not going to ask him. He creeps me out."

        James looked at Rose. "He does? Why?"

        Rose gave James an expression of exasperated disdain. "He's only the most famously self-serving wizard in the history of the magical world, you know."

        "Yeah, I suppose, but he's not evil."

        "Hasn't it occurred to you that a wizard as powerful as Merlin could be all the scarier because he's not evil but just selfish?"

        James frowned incredulously. "Where in the world did you get that? Your own parents were part of the committee that succeeded in getting him appointed Headmaster."

        Rose put her wand back into her bag and shoved it under her seat. "Let's just say even his strongest supporters think there's a lot we don't know about him."

        "Like what?" James demanded.

        "Like things we don't know," Rose repeated pedantically. "That's pretty much the point: we don't know them."

        James scoffed and turned away, fingering his wand.

        The sky outside the train window was still grey as slate, promising rain. Fields marched past monotonously. James decided to go see if he could find any of his other friends. He stood and shoved the door open.

        "Hey," Ralph said, not looking up from the tabloid he'd flipped open, "if you see the cart lady, send her back down this way, would you? I'm starved."

        James nodded and stepped out. He was about to close the door again when Albus squeezed through, joining James in the corridor.

        "Why didn't you tell Ralph what your wand core was?" James asked as they walked.

        "What business is it of his?" Albus replied, as if daring James to respond.

        James shrugged. After a moment, Albus sighed.

        "Look, it's bad enough everyone makes those jokes about my name. Asp, a kind of snake, ha ha. If word gets out that my wand core is a dragon heartstring…"

        "I think it's kind of cool," James said. "Nobody messes with a dragon."

        "Except for Uncle Charlie and Harold and Jules," Albus said, allowing a small grin.

        "Yeah, but they're totally dotty. They're almost as bad as Hagrid when it comes to dragons." James stopped in the corridor and looked at Albus. "It really isn't a big deal, you know. I tease you about it, but really, it's only because when I was being sorted, I actually considered—"

        Something flickered past them in the corridor. James saw it and whipped around, gasping.

        "What?" Albus asked, glancing around.

        James shook his head, still studying the shadows of the corridor. "I don't know. Something. I think I've seen it before, but I don't know what it is yet."

        "I see your first year of school has you just brimming with knowledge," Albus said.

        James held up his hand toward Albus, silencing him. The light in the corridor was watery and indirect, full of flitting shadows as the train passed through a stand of woods, but James was certain he recognized the shape and movement of the tiny shadow imp. He was intent on finding it.

        There was a sudden noise and burst of air, making James jump. He glanced up as a large man with very short dark hair stepped into the corridor from the adjoining car. He slid the connecting door shut easily, slamming it into place.

        "Bitter day out there, boys," he boomed, stalking toward them down the aisle. "You'd best be getting to your compartments. It's not wise to be gallivanting about a moving train."

        "We're just, er, looking for our friends," James replied.

        "Same as me, then," the man grinned, sidling past. "Better luck finding them than I've had, eh?"

        The large man moved to the end of the corridor and yanked the door open, letting in another burst of air and noise from the connecting breezeway between the cars. A moment later, he slammed the door.

        "Was he a teacher?" Albus asked, looking after the man.

        "I've never seen him before," James answered, distracted. He noticed that the door through which the man had come was not entirely closed. It had slid slightly back open when he'd slammed it. A whistle of cool air pushed through it.

        The shadow imp suddenly landed in front of the door, examining the small opening. James saw it and his eyes widened. The creature seemed to turn back to him, as if daring him to follow. The crack was far too narrow even for the tiny shadow shape, but then it turned and squeezed through, pouring through the space like smoke.

        James bolted toward it.

        "What is it?" Albus said, following.

        "Did you see it?" James asked, trying to keep his footing on the swaying floor.

"Yeah! Looked like a shadow, but standing all by itself!"

        James reached the door and yanked it open. Misty air and the deafening clack of the train's wheels poured in. The tiny connecting breezeway rocked disconcertingly, but the creature was there, capering in the alcove of the doorway leading into the next car. James reached for it, but it slipped beneath the door, making itself so flat as to virtually disappear.

        "Come on!" James said, yanking the next door open. "I want to see what this thing is! I owe it a thrashing!"

        The next car of the train was exactly like the previous. Compartments all along the right side were full of Hogwarts students, chattering and laughing. James ignored them as he chased the creature down the corridor. It scampered in and out of the shifting light, capering up the walls and leaping over the floor. James realized he still had his wand in his hand. Quickly, he tried to remember all the spells Professor Franklyn had taught him last year in Defence Against the Dark Arts.

        "There it goes!" Albus stopped, pointing. "It's heading for the engine! We can't go in there, can we?"

        James was determined to follow the shadow creature. He ran forward as it shimmied into the sliver of light between the door and the wall. James could see through the tiny window of the door. The next car wasn't a passenger car, but the coal car that fuelled the engine. The noise of the crimson locomotive was noticeably louder here. He reached for the door handle and pulled, but it was locked.

        "Are you sure that's a good idea?" Albus said as James pointed his wand at the door.

        "Alohomora!" James said loudly. There was a yellow flash and the door slid partway open. James grabbed the handle and yanked the door aside.

        Cool, misty air and bits of soot blew into the compartment. The coal car was a black iron wall on the other side of a connecting knuckle. Beneath the giant knuckle, the ties of the train tracks flickered past. The shadow imp danced on the knuckle, maintaining a dizzying balance in the barreling wind and noise.

        James pointed his wand. "What are you?" he called down to it. "What are you doing here?"

        The creature suddenly bent down. It wrapped its many-jointed arms around the pin that secured the knuckle together. It began to pull fiercely, trying to force the pin out and disconnect the train.

        "Stop it!" James commanded, trying to keep his wand steady in the push of wind and mist. "Stop it or I'll Stun you! I know how to do it!"

        The creature increased its ferocity, yanking on the pin wildly. James drew his breath.

        "Stupefy!" he yelled at the exact moment that a large hand grabbed his wrist, pulling it up. The spell rebounded off the iron wall of the coal car and vanished into the blowing mist outside. James spun as far as he could, his arm still held upright in a vice-like grip.

        "That would not be a wise idea," Merlin said in his calm, rumbling voice. He was standing directly behind James, resplendent in his dress robes and oiled beard, his eyes locked on the shadow creature. He released James' hand but did not step back.

        James shifted aside as the wizard moved forward. Albus was standing nearby, his eyes wide.

        Merlin spoke to the creature. James couldn't understand the words but recognized the language Merlin had used when speaking to Headmistress McGonagall on the Sylvven Tower, the night after his arrival. It was a very dense language, full of corners and tongue-twisting piles of consonants.

        The imp stopped pulling the pin of the knuckle and slowly stood up, as if transfixed. It stepped into the compartment, almost between Merlin's feet, and stopped, swaying slightly as the train rocked. Merlin slid the door shut, closing off the wind and the clack of the wheels. He stepped back, still keeping his eyes on the shadowy shape.

        "Mr. Potter," he said calmly, "would you be so kind as to stand guard for a moment? I need to retrieve something from my compartment. I'm afraid I was rather unprepared when I saw you running past in pursuit of the Borley."

        "The Borley?" James said, looking down at the slowly swaying creature. "Er, yeah, sure. What do I need to do to guard it?"

        "Absolutely nothing," Merlin said. "I've entranced it, but the words won't last long. Just watch it in case it awakens again."

        "What should we do if it does?" Albus interjected, pushing between Merlin and James.

        Merlin looked down at him. "Tell me which way it goes," he rumbled. He turned to stalk heavily down the corridor. "Oh, and boys?" he said, looking back at them over his shoulder. "Whatever you do, use no magic in the Borley's presence."

        A moment later, the connecting door opened and slammed as Merlin passed through.

        "What in the world is a Borley?" Albus asked, staring down at the entranced shadow shape.

        "I've no idea."

        "So that was Merlin, eh?"

        James nodded. "He's pretty hard to miss."

        Halfway down the corridor, a compartment door slid open. Both Potters looked up as a boy stepped out into the corridor. The boy glanced back in the direction Merlin had gone, and then turned to James and Albus. His face was cold, disinterested, and very pale. James recognized the son of Draco Malfoy.

        "Mischief already?" the boy commented. "And already in trouble with the new Headmaster to boot."

        "Well, it's no business of yours either way," James said, trying to stand in front of the tiny shadow creature.

        "I know you," the boy said, smiling and narrowing his eyes. "The two Potters. I can't remember your first names. What's the point, really?"

        "What do you want?" James asked, trying to put some authority into his voice. He was a secondyear, after all. It wasn't much, but it was something.

        "At first, I wanted to see if you were as thick as I'd heard. The story among the Slytherins is that the older of you has delusions of being a great hero, just like your father supposedly was. But now that I see that you're both only a pair of frightened kids, I just want to see what you have cornered there," the boy said, gesturing toward the floor at James' feet.

        Albus stepped forward. "Like he said, it's none of your business. Why don't you shove off, Scorpius?"

        "As a matter of fact, I don't plan to," the pale boy said, still smiling indulgently. "I'm the curious type, I am. Let's have a look, why don't we?"

        "I saw your dad last week," James said. He realized he still had his wand in his hand.

        "Yes," Scorpius said, rolling his eyes. "At the old man's funeral. He thought it was the noble thing to do, I suppose. Mother didn't agree, but she goes along with Father's ideas like a good wife should. Personally, I didn't see the point. It's hard to feel bad about one dead Weasley when there are so many more to take his place."

        James felt something rush past him and glanced down, certain that the shadow creature had reawakened. He was only aware of what was happening when he heard the thump that followed. Albus had rushed Scorpius, throwing him against the wall of the compartment hard enough to make the boy stagger. They collapsed to the floor in an untidy jumble.

        "How dare you? Get your hands off me!" Scorpius cried, struggling as Albus wrestled to keep him down.

        "Take that back!" Albus yelled furiously. "Take it back right now!"

        More doors opened along the corridor. Curious students gathered, some grinning and pointing.

        "James," Sabrina Hildegard, a fellow Gryffindor, said as she stepped into the corridor. "What's going on? First, the connecting door is left open, and then—"

        There was a sudden crack and a flash of red. Scorpius clambered to his feet, his face livid. He pointed his wand wildly, but Albus lunged at him.

        "No!" James shouted. "Albus, stop!"

        There was a furor of voices and clamoring figures as Scorpius stumbled backwards, trying to evade Albus' reaching arms. Another spell ricocheted off the ceiling of the compartment. Suddenly, James remembered the Borley. He spun around, looking for it, but the creature was gone. Desperately, he scanned the corridor.

        "No spells!" he shouted, holding up his hands, but no one noticed him. James was jostled as more students pressed into the narrow space, crowding to see the fight. He spun around, looking for the creature, and suddenly saw it. The Borley leapt within the shadows of the milling students. It was much larger than it had been at first, and seemed rather more solid. It jumped to the floor and James heard a thump as it landed. Unthinkingly, he pointed his wand at it. The Borley saw him and lunged as if to attack. James pulled his wand up and ducked. The creature went over his head and disappeared into the throng that filled the corridor.

        "BE STILL!" a very large voice boomed, and James didn't have to guess who it belonged to. He grimaced and slumped against the wall.

        The crowd of onlookers silenced immediately. A moment later, the corridor had emptied again as the milling students slipped sheepishly back into their compartments, leaving James, Albus, and Scorpius. Albus had a handful of Scorpius' robes. Scorpius still had his wand in his hand. He tried to slip it surreptitiously into his robes.

        Merlin rolled his eyes slowly. "So," he said in his low, rumbling voice, "can any of you tell me in which direction it went?"

3. THE SORTING

"Y ou can't take ten points from Gryffindor before we even get to school!" James insisted, trotting to keep up with Merlin's massive stride. Albus followed, glancing back angrily.

                      "Deducting points from the offender's house is the preferred method of discipline at Hogwarts, Mr. Potter," Merlin said distractedly. "I asked you to guard the Borley. And not to allow any magic to be used in its presence. Failing that, you were to at least point me in the direction of its escape. I'd not be fulfilling my duties as Headmaster if I didn't mete out some form of discipline for your complete disregard of my direction."

        "But Scorpius did the magic!" James insisted, jumping in front of the Headmaster and forcing him to stop. "It's not my fault he's a hotheaded git! I did everything I could to stop him!"

        Merlin was scanning the corridor slowly. "Did you truly do everything you could, Mr. Potter?"

        James threw up his hands. "Well, I suppose I could have sat on Albus to prevent him from attacking the bloody loudmouth!"

        Merlin nodded, and then looked down at James, giving him his full attention for the first time. "It is true, what they say, Mr. Potter: I come from a much different age. When I give instruction, I do not do so lightly. It will behoove you to remember that a lack of effort in carrying out those instructions goes much poorer with me than an excess of effort. Do you understand?"

        James worked through the sentence in his head, nodding slightly. He glanced up at the Headmaster and shook his head.

        "It means," Merlin replied slowly, "that I expect you to do everything within your power to carry out my requests. If sitting on your brother might have helped, then next time, I expect you to do exactly that. The Borley has escaped, and more importantly, your negligence has allowed it to gain power. It will not be as easy to transfix next time. And you should be aware that, up until a few minutes ago, it was relatively harmless."

        Merlin's lowered brow and glittering eyes made the point very clearly. James still felt unjustly accused, but he nodded his understanding.

        "What is it?" Albus asked. "This Borley thing."

        Merlin turned away, half dismissing the boys. "They are a form of Shade: shadow creatures. They are purely magical beings, and as such, they feed on magic. They'll taunt young or foolish wizards into using magic on them so that they might feed and grow. When they are tiny, they are harmless. As they grow…"

        James looked around the compartment, following Merlin. "What do they grow into?"

        "I believe," Merlin said gravely, "that you call them 'Dementors'."

        Both James and Albus knew about Dementors. James shuddered.

        "I think I saw this same Borley a week ago, back at my grandparents' house," James commented. "And then later, at the eye doctor's. It made a horrible mess, but a few minutes later, when the doctor came into the room, the mess had vanished. Everything was back to normal. I thought I'd imagined it."

        "You didn't imagine it," Merlin said, stopping at the end of the corridor and turning. "The Borleys come from a realm outside of history. They can manipulate tiny pockets of time, bunching minutes together like a wrinkle in a rug and then poking directly through them. You saw its actions, so you remembered them even after it leapt back in time and undid them."

        Albus screwed up his face in concentration. He shook his head. "But why would it do that?"

        "It's a defensive reflex," Merlin said curtly. "They use it to cover their tracks. It's somewhat akin to a squid squirting ink to confuse its enemy."

        "Confused me all right," James nodded.

        "So if you can't catch them using magic," Albus asked, "how do you catch them? What do you do with them after you, er, transfix them? You said you needed to go get something. Is it in that bag?"

        "Please return to your compartment, boys," Merlin ordered, turning and opening his own compartment. He shouldered the large, black bag. "We will be arriving at the station soon. You should get into your robes."

        "Yeah, but—" Albus began but was silenced by the closing of the compartment door. The windows were smoked, blocking any view of the interior.

        "Well, that was educational," Albus commented as they retraced their steps back along the train's corridors.

        James said nothing. He felt rankled by the way he'd been held responsible for the escape of the Borley. How could Merlin have blamed him and allowed Scorpius to get away without even a stern look? James had been looking forward to the start of the school year partly because he had a sort of rapport with Merlin, the new Headmaster. After all, James had been inadvertently responsible for the famous wizard's return from the distant past. Also, they had worked together at the end of the last term to thwart a cunning plot to cause a war between the Muggle and magical worlds. And yet, even before their arrival at Hogwarts, James seemed to have gotten on Merlin's bad side.

        As he and Albus returned to their compartment, James remembered the words Rose had said at the beginning of their trip: a wizard as powerful as Merlin could be all the scarier because he's not evil but just selfish.

        But of course that was ridiculous, wasn't it? Merlin wasn't selfish, just different. James knew Merlin as well as anyone did. He'd even been consulted about whether or not the famous wizard would be a good Headmaster. He wasn't dangerous. He was just from a much different time. Merlin had said so himself. He came from a much more serious, grave age. Not only was it important for James to remember that fact, it was important for him to help the rest of the students understand it as well.

        By the time Albus yanked the door to their compartment open, it had begun to rain in earnest. The windows of the train were streaked and spattered with huge drops. Ralph was asleep on his seat with his tabloid open on his chest. Rose was buried in her book, barely noticing the brothers' return. And James was becoming rather certain that this year might not be quite as fun as he'd first thought.

        As the light began to fade from the day and the rain finally abated, James, Albus, and Ralph dug their robes out of their satchels. Both James and Albus' robes were rather sadly wrinkled. Rose looked up from her book and clucked her tongue at them.

        "Haven't you two ever learned how to fold your clothes?"

        "Boys don't learn things like that," Albus said, trying to smooth out the front of his robe with his hands. "We learn cool things. Secret boy things that I'm not even allowed to tell you about. Girls get stuck learning how to pack clothes so their husbands look good when they go out to their jobs."

        "I'm not even going to respond to that," Rose said, shaking her head sadly. "I only hope your sister is learning her lessons better than you did. The son of a famous woman Quidditch player should know better."

        Ralph raised his eyebrows. "I think I know an Anti-Wrinkling Spell. You want me to try it out?"

        "No thanks, Ralph," James said quickly, "no offense, but I still remember you burning a bald stripe on Victoire's head last year."

        "That was a Disarming Spell," Ralph said defensively. "My wand is a little sensitive about those. The problem isn't getting them to work but keeping them from working too well."

        "Hmm!" Rose said pointedly, "I wonder why that might be?"

"So you really tackled him, eh?" Ralph said to Albus, reverting to a former topic.

        "Knocked him clean off his feet," James said, nudging his brother. "It was pretty good even if it did get me into trouble."

        "You need to learn some self-control, Albus," Rose said, finally putting her book aside. "He may be hard to like, but you are at Hogwarts now. You can't go around tackling everyone who says something you don't like."

        "Something I don't like?" Albus said, glaring at Rose. "Did you miss the part where he insulted our dead granddad? There's such a thing as honor, you know! I'll do it again if he so much as looks at me sideways."

        "I didn't say you shouldn't retaliate, Albus," Rose said meaningfully. "I just said we're at Hogwarts now. You retaliate with magic."

        "Yikes," James said, laughing a little nervously. "The apple really fell far from the tree with you, Rosie."

        Rose looked hurt. "I may be my mum's daughter, but I'll have you remember that I'm a Weasley, too."

        Albus grimaced. "Well, I can't do any real magic yet. Besides, it felt so good to knock him down."

        Rose shot James a serious look. "Then I hope you're getting your bum in gear. Looks like you'll be spending a lot of the year sitting on your little brother."

        "He's his own problem from now on," James said. "Besides, Scorpius deserved it. That stupid twit was trying to Stun Albus. His parents have been teaching him curses already. It's a good thing Albus has a good reach."

        "Well, all I can say is I'm going to be doing some research on this Borley creature," Rose said as the train slowed, entering Hogsmeade station.

        Albus raised his eyebrows in mock surprise. "You mean there's a magical creature you haven't learned about already?"

        "Sounds like trouble to me," Ralph admitted. "If Merlin said the thing had turned dangerous, I'd guess it's definitely something to look out for."

        James zipped his satchel and slipped it over his shoulders. "I just want to know why it's been following me around. Why'd it pick me?"

        "Obviously, it thought it could trick you into using magic on it," Rose reasoned. "It almost worked too."

        "That's why it ran away when you threatened it at the doctor's office," Ralph added, raising his eyebrows. "You said you told it you were a wizard, but that you didn't have your wand with you. It realized there was no point in making a mess if you weren't going to zap it, so it covered its tracks by jumping back a few minutes and undoing everything."

        "Yeah, well, aren't you all brilliant?" James grumbled. "I'd like to see how you lot would've handled it if you'd been there. Besides, it was Scorpius and Albus that finally allowed the thing to get a little magical snack and turn all scary."

        "Don't blame me," Albus said, still trying to press the wrinkles out of his robes with his hands. "If you'd have attacked Scorpius with me, you could've disarmed him before anything happened. I bet old Merlin would've approved of that."

        A few minutes later, the train shuddered to a stop. All around there came the sound of opening doors, footsteps, and chattering, excited voices as the train's occupants filled the corridors, streaming toward the exits. James, Albus, Rose, and Ralph gathered their things and joined the throng.

        As they climbed out onto the wet platform of Hogsmeade station, James caught sight of Hagrid standing under a nearby lamppost, barely fitting under it.

        "First-years," he called in his great, gruff voice. "First-years, this way! The rest of yeh go an' find the carriages out front. If yeh don' know where to go, follow the ones that do. Step lively now."

        James grabbed Albus' robe, stopping him.

        "Hey," he said, quietly, "I mean it. Don't worry about the Sorting, little brother."

        "I'm not, actually," Albus replied, shrugging. "I remembered something Dad told me back at platform nine and three-quarters."

        James blinked. "Well, good. What'd he say?"

        "He said that the Sorting Hat will take my wishes into account. He said that if I really don't want to, the Hat won't make me be a Slytherin."

        "You, a Slytherin?" Scorpius' voice sneered behind them. James rolled his eyes. He should've known the little squid was the spying sort.

        "Get away from us, Scorpius," Albus said, gritting his teeth.

        "Or what?" the boy grinned. "Are you going to risk getting your brother into trouble again by rushing me? That only works once, Potter."

        Albus nodded. "I'll do that and more if you don't watch yourself."

        "That's why you'd never make it into Slytherin," Scorpius said airily, turning to walk away. "As you saw on the train, Slytherins fight with their brains and a wand. Your sort has to rely on brute force. But what do you expect from a son of Harry Potter?"

        Albus tensed to lunge at Scorpius again, but James grabbed his shoulder. "Don't you dare go after him again, you dolt. That's just what he wants you to do."

        "He's ragging on Dad!" Albus hissed.

        "He's trying to provoke you. Save it for later. You've got the whole school year to hate him."

        "That's right, Potter," Scorpius said as he turned back, still grinning. "Listen to your brother. He knows what happens when you go up against a Slytherin. Did he tell you what happened when he tried to steal the Slytherin Captain's Quidditch broom last year? Nasty business, that. I hear you ended up facedown in the mud."

        James let go of Albus' shoulder, his face flushing with anger. "You just want to watch it, Malfoy. We're not afraid of the Slytherins."

        "Then you really are as foolish as you look," Scorpius said, his grin vanishing. "A Malfoy is back in the House of Slytherin again. We don't play politics. You best watch yourselves." He glared at the two brothers, then turned, his cloak flapping, and disappeared into the throng.

        "Arrogant little nutter, isn't he?" Albus said. James glanced at him and grinned.

"See you in the Great Hall, Al."

        "Yeah," Albus replied, nodding toward the carriages. "Have fun with the Thestrals. Don't let them frighten you too much."

        "You're the one who has nightmares about them, not me," James said, rolling his eyes. "Like I told you, they're invisible."

        Albus simply looked at James, a curious expression on his face.

        "What?" James asked.

        "Nothing," Albus said quickly. "I was just thinking of something else Dad said on the platform, right before I got on the train."

        James stopped and furrowed his brow. "What'd he say?"

        Albus shrugged. "He said James might have a little surprise with the Thestrals."

        With that, Albus turned, shouldered his pack, and walked toward Hagrid at the far end of the platform.

        They weren't invisible; at least not completely. James hung back, sincerely apprehensive to get too close to the horrible-looking, semi-transparent creatures hitched to the carriages. The nearest one beat its great leathery wings slowly. It turned to look at him, its blank white eyes bulging grotesquely.

        "You can see them, eh?" a voice asked. James glanced up, startled, and saw the stout face and red cheeks of his friend Damien Damascus. Damien was also looking at the Thestrals, his brow slightly furrowed. "I started seeing them at the beginning of my fourth year. Shocked me good, I'll tell you. I thought the carriages were just magical, that they pulled themselves up to the castle. Noah took me aside and told me all about the Thestrals. He'd been seeing them since his second year. Come on, they're harmless. They're actually kind of cool when you get used to them."

        James threw his bag into the carriage and climbed into the rear seat.

        "Hi, James," Sabrina said as she heaved herself into the front seat. She still wore a quill in her wavy red hair. It bounced jauntily as she turned to look over her shoulder. "So what was the drama in the train? Merlin looked like he was going to shoot death bolts from his eyes."

        James ran his hand through his hair wearily. "Don't remind me. I already got ten points taken from Gryffindor."

        "Not the best way to start the year off," Petra Morganstern said, joining Sabrina on the front seat. "That kind of thing can get your fellow Gryffindors a bit peeved. Fortunately, we seventh-years are above being petty about such things."

        "Sabrina and I are sixth-years," Damien pointed out. "And I don't know about her, but I'm still as petty as they come. I haven't forgiven you lot for losing us the House Cup last year. To Hufflepuff, of all things."

        "You'll forgive us for trying to save the world," Petra said lightly, arranging her robes on the seat. "Besides, I recall you were involved in that escapade as well."

        "That may be, but unlike the rest of you, my involvement was never proved. That's why our dear departed Ted saw fit to make me the official Gremlins scapegoat. Allegations just roll right off me."

        Sabrina nodded seriously. "I'm glad you found a good use for that oily hide of yours."

        There was a sudden jerk and the carriage rolled forward. James looked and saw the ghostly Thestral trotting ahead, pulling the carriage. He squinted at it, trying to see it more clearly.

        Damien leaned toward him and asked in a quiet voice, "So who died?"

        "What?" James blurted, turning to look at the bigger boy. He lowered his own voice and asked, "How'd you know?"

        "My aunt died when I was in my third year," Damien replied. "It was silly, really. Broom accident on her way back from visiting my grandparents. Mum warned her not to fly with a storm coming on, but Aunt Aggie always thought she was indestructible. She stayed alive in St. Mungo's long enough for us all to get there and see her. She died while I was there, in the room. When I came back the next year, I saw the Thestrals for the first time. I thought I was going daft until Noah pulled me aside and told me about them. He said that they become visible to anyone who has witnessed and accepted a death. So who died?"

        James sat back in his seat and took a deep breath. "My Granddad Weasley," he said in a soft voice. "He had a heart attack."

        Damien raised his eyebrows. "Old Arthur Weasley?"

        "You knew him?"

        "Well, not in person," he replied, "but he was the father-in-law of your dad, and let's face it, your dad's a celebrity. Besides, Arthur Weasley faced Voldy's snake, didn't he? Not bad for a Ministry quillpusher! Lots of people know about that. They say that it proves courage is more important than magic when it comes to the sticking point."

        James looked at Damien, surprised. "Do they really?"

        "Sure they do," Damien said. "I mean, the people who say that are also the kind of people who buy Hair-growth Charms and read The Quibbler, but still, yeah, they say it all right."

        James looked back out at the hazy shape of the Thestral. It trotted along, pulling the carriage easily despite the fact that it looked skinny enough to break in half.

        "Why is it only partly visible?" James finally asked.

        "Is it?" Damien leaned forward. "Looks solid enough to me."

        "I can see the street right through it," James said, shuddering.

        "Well, like I said," Damien replied, settling back in his seat as the great castle rose over the nearby trees, "the Thestrals become visible to anyone who has seen and accepted a death. It doesn't sound like you saw your granddad die with your own eyes like I did with my aunt, but he meant enough to you for it to mean the same thing."

        "We were waiting for him to come home," James replied hollowly. "We were just waiting for him to come through the Floo. Somebody did, but it wasn't Granddad. It was the messenger telling us he'd died."

        "So you went from believing he was right there with you, to the knowledge of his death, all in a matter of seconds," Damien said, nodding. "That was close enough to give you a half-look at the Thestrals. But I don't think that's all there is to it. Sounds like you haven't quite accepted it yet either, have you?"

        James sighed, not answering. Instead, he looked up at the sprawling, monstrous shape of the castle as it loomed ahead. Its myriad windows were lit against the misty, cloudy evening. James thought he could see the Gryffindor Tower, where his bed was waiting for him. It was nice to be back even if things did feel very different. It had felt that way ever since the funeral, just knowing that Granddad was no longer out there somewhere, like he'd always been. No, James realized, he hadn't accepted Granddad's death. Not yet. And what was more, he didn't want to. It didn't feel fair to Granddad. Accepting his death felt like giving up on him.

        For a moment, James wondered if Albus felt the same way, and then he remembered how Albus had attacked Scorpius in the corridor of the train, tackling him and yelling "Take it back! Take it back right now!" Albus hadn't accepted Granddad's death either. It just looked different in him, mainly because Albus had now found someone at whom to point his anger and grief. It probably wasn't the healthiest way to manage things, but James couldn't think of anything better. To be sure, Scorpius made it rather easy for Albus to hate him. James had grown up with Albus, and he knew just how passionate the boy could be. Thinking that, James didn't know whether to despise Scorpius or pity him.

        James marveled at time's ability to alter one's perception. Merely one year earlier, he had entered the Great Hall for the first time, filled with apprehension and worry. Now he threw himself happily into the noise of the gathered students, greeting friends he hadn't seen all summer and being welcomed into the hearty fracas of the Gryffindor table. The floating candles filled the hall with warmth and light, forming an exciting contrast against the sullen grey clouds represented on the room's ceiling. Peeves swooped randomly throughout the candles, blowing raspberries on the tiny flames in an effort to put them out, but they simply relit themselves with small pops as he passed. James sat down at the Gryffindor table and grabbed a handful of Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans from a nearby bowl. Bravely, he popped one into his mouth without checking the color. A moment later, he screwed up his face, not quite daring to spit the candy out.

        "You'll want to be especially careful with those, James," a fellow second-year, Graham Warton, called. "Those were provided free of charge by your pals at Weasleys'. They partnered with Bertie Bott's for a whole new line of novelty flavors, and we get to be the test market."

        "What is it?" James managed to say, swallowing the horrid bean and grabbing a pitcher of pumpkin juice.

        "Judging by the color of your tongue, I'd say that one was Lemon-Lima-Bean," Graham said, squinting studiously. "There's also Mint-Chocolate-Chipmunk and Peanut-Pickle-Brittle."

        "Damien just ate one of the Steak-and-Kidney-Stone beans!" Noah Metzker called from the end of the table, pointing. "Everybody, duck! I think he's going to blow!"

        James couldn't help laughing as Damien struggled to swallow the bean. Petra pounded him gravely on the back until Damien shoved her away, lunging for his goblet.

        A hush rippled over the rowdy students and James looked up to see Merlin approach the huge podium on the hall's dais. He had donned a blazing red robe with a high golden collar, and James recognized it as Merlin's rather ancient version of a dress robe. The sleeves and collar of the robe were encrusted with braided scrollwork that glittered with actual gold and jewels. The giant man's beard glistened with oil and he carried his staff with him, knocking it pointedly on the floor as he approached. He was so tall that he made the podium appear small. He leaned over it slightly, his eyes unreadable as they roamed over the silenced assembly.

        "Greetings, students and faculty of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry," he said slowly, his deep voice echoing all round. "My name is Merlinus Ambrosius, and if you have somehow managed not to learn of it on the wizarding wireless or in the newspapers, I am the new Headmaster of this institution. As such, I will expect to hear no more of the rather distressing verbal tendency of this age to use my name as an oath or an expression of amazement. You should know that neither I nor my underpants find it the least bit amusing."

        James knew that the comment would have been funny if Merlin hadn't said it with such pointed gravity. He glared out at the assembly of students, daring anyone to so much as chuckle. Apparently satisfied, he straightened and smiled disarmingly.

        "Very well, then. As Headmaster, I succeed Madam Minerva McGonagall, who, as you can see, has deigned to remain at the school to serve as my advisor and to continue in her duties as Professor of Transfiguration."

        There was a burst of applause, which seemed to take Merlin off guard. He blinked out over the crowd, and then smiled slightly. The applause grew to a sustained ovation and Merlin stepped back from the podium, acknowledging the former Headmistress. On the floor before the podium, the first-years were lining up behind Professor Longbottom. James saw Albus and Rose, both of whom were looking around the room in awe. Rose glanced up at the dais just as the newly retitled Professor McGonagall pushed her chair back. She stood and raised one hand, smiling tightly. On the floor, Rose elbowed Albus and pointed.

        "Thank you," McGonagall called over the sound of the applause, trying to drown it out. "Thank you, this is all very kind, but I know you all too well not to know that at least some of you are applauding my long-awaited departure for your own reasons entirely. Still, the sentiment is quite appreciated."

        Laughter rounded out the applause as Professor McGonagall settled back into her chair. Merlin approached the podium again.

        "Besides finding yourselves with a new Headmaster, those of you who are returning this year will find several more changes. Not the least of these is the installation of our new Wizard Literature professor, Juliet Knowles Revalvier, who is herself an accomplished writer, as many of you may know. Additionally, allow me to introduce to you your new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, Professor Kendrick Debellows."

        A wave of awed whispering filled the hall as a large man half-rose from his seat on the dais. He smiled a huge, winning smile and raised his hand. James remembered him from the train. He was the man who'd passed him and Albus when they'd been looking for the Borley. James hadn't recognized him then, but he did now. His hair was going grey and cut severely short, and he had gained rather a lot of weight in the years since his famous exploits as leader of the Harriers, the wizarding world's elite special forces squadron. Across the room, at the Slytherin table, James saw Ralph looking puzzled. His friend Trenton was leaning over to him, apparently explaining who Kendrick Debellows was. On the floor below the dais, James saw Scorpius Malfoy turn away, his face vaguely disgusted.

        "I've got a whole collection of Debellows action figures at home," James heard Noah whisper meaningfully. "I collected them when I was little. I used to sic them on Steven's cat until one of them nearly tied its tail in a knot."

        "I see many of you are familiar with Professor Debellows," Merlin commented from the podium. "I trust you will therefore find his classes interesting as well as challenging. And now I believe we will witness one of this school's longest and most important traditions: the Sorting of our newest students into their houses. Professor McGonagall, if you would do us the honors."

        Exactly as last year, a wooden stool had been placed on the dais. Atop it, the worn and ancient Sorting Hat sat, looking like nothing more than a dusty cast-off from a forgotten wardrobe. James knew that in his parents' day, and for centuries before, the Hat had sung a song prior to each year's Sorting. Last year, however, the Hat had not produced a song. James hadn't thought about it much; he'd merely assumed that after all those centuries the Hat deserved the occasional break. Now, the ancient Hat stirred on its stool, apparently preparing to sing. The fold that formed the mouth seemed to open, to take a deep breath, and then the Hat's high, lilting voice filled the waiting silence.

"A thousand years and more have I resided at my post

        And watched the tide of years forever ebb upon my host

 Fair Hogwarts alters not despite the weight of ages raging

        For Hogwarts knows that time revolves, while she is only aging

 The rise of villains coincides, to keep the balance rightly

        With dawning heroes in whose eyes good justice blazes brightly

 In recent past, dread Voldemort rose up with might so scary

        That fate did send a hero boy, the orphan Potter, Harry

 And thus unveiled the drama of time's everlasting scheme

        The players change, the venues shift, but constant is the theme

 The root of evil always finds a new and fertile garden

        But valor's heart is ever strong to bring us fate's good pardon

 And this, you see, brings us to me, the Hat that does the Sorting,

        For 'tis my task to keep the balance right for evil thwarting

 For witnessed I the dawn of that long battle that endures

        And long as that old struggle lasts, my duty hope ensures

I see the seed that guarantees the role of every student

        And place them best into the House that grows that seed most prudent

 In Hufflepuff, the seed of loyalty and diligence

        For Ravenclaw, the vine of knowledge grows with common sense

 Brave Gryffindor breeds valor and courageousness of heart

        And Slytherin gives those who love ambition their good start

 They go there hence into their House as sign of their vocation

        But many sense it gives a hint of deeper motivation

Make no mistake, judge not the one upon their house of Sorting

        But always look instead to gauge the way of their comporting

For good can come of any House, regardless of its banner

        And evil, too, can spread its leaves within the finest manor

 Beneath my brim now come and sit to hear my declaration

        But be assured, you bring along your heart's own inclination

 It matters not what happens while you sit upon this chair

        The true judge of your character is what's beneath your hair."

        As the Sorting Hat finished its song, the Hall erupted into applause. James grinned, craning to look across the room toward Ralph, who smiled back a little sheepishly. If anyone needed to hear the Hat's most recent song, it was Ralph, whose assignment to Slytherin had been a source of rather constant consternation during the previous year. As the applause died away, Professor McGonagall approached the Hat, producing a long parchment from her robes. She unrolled it and studied it through her tiny spectacles. She nodded to herself, lowered the parchment, and picked up the Sorting Hat by its tip.

        "Cameron Creevey," she announced loudly. "Please join me on the dais."

        A very small, very nervous-looking boy climbed the steps and clambered onto the stool. There's no way I looked that young and scared when I sat on that stool, James thought to himself, smiling. He remembered it very well: the voice of the magical Hat in his head considering him, debating which house would best suit him. It had been a close call. Moments before he'd climbed the dais, as then-Headmistress McGonagall had called his name, the Slytherin table had broken out in applause. A beautiful, albeit severe-looking, darkhaired girl named Tabitha Violetus Corsica had led the applause, and as James looked back on the memory, he thought for the first time that the Slytherins' applause had merely been a ruse, intended to sway him into accepting an assignment to Slytherin. As scared as he'd been, as worried as he'd been about the responsibility of following in his famous father's footsteps, James had almost fallen for it. For a fleeting moment, under the brim of the Sorting Hat, James had considered becoming a Slytherin, and the Hat had concurred. Only at the last second had James firmed his resolve, proving that he meant to be a Gryffindor, like his parents before him.

        "Gryffindor!" the Sorting Hat proclaimed. Professor McGonagall lifted the Hat from Creevey's head as the Gryffindor table exploded into cheers. Cameron Creevey grinned in obvious relief as he ran down the steps. He crammed into the front of the table, sitting between Damien and a seventh-year named Hugo Paulson.

        "Thomas Danforth," Professor McGonagall called, reading from her parchment. A moment later, the Ravenclaw table cheered as the bespectacled boy smiled sheepishly, joining his new housemates. As the Sorting continued, James glanced around the hall, picking out all the faces he knew. There was Victoire, sitting resplendently amidst her seventh-year Hufflepuff friends. Gennifer Tellus and Horace Birch whispered to each other at the end of the Ravenclaw table, and James remembered Zane telling him that they had begun seeing each other over the summer. Across the room, Tabitha Corsica sat smiling politely, her hands folded neatly on the table in front of her. On her left sat Philia Goyle, whose bricklike face was as expressionless as ever. Tom Squallus sat on Tabitha's right, his blonde hair combed neatly and his eyes almost unnaturally bright and alert. It almost looked like the trio of Slytherins were up to something, but James reminded himself that they always looked like that. They were probably just waiting for the Sorting of their new mate—

        "Scorpius Malfoy," Professor McGonagall called, lowering her parchment and glancing down at the remaining first-years. Scorpius curled the corner of his mouth as he turned. He climbed the steps and sat jauntily on the stool, one leg kicked out in front of him. The Hat threw his face into shadow as Professor McGonagall lowered it.

        Several seconds went by. The room had become rather restless as the older students got bored with the ceremony, but they silenced again as the pause grew longer. The Hat sat perfectly still on Scorpius' head. Scorpius himself didn't move. James looked around, surprised at the delay. Everybody knew that the Malfoys were Slytherins. Their family was known to have been among Voldemort's strongest supporters. Lucius Malfoy, Scorpius' grandfather, was said to still be in hiding for crimes he'd committed as a Death Eater, although James' dad had denied it. "He just likes to believe he's the most wanted man in the wizarding world," Harry had chuckled to Ginny one morning over breakfast. "His worst punishment is living in a world where his idol is dead." Still, there couldn't be any question about a Malfoy's house, could there? They nearly defined what it was to be a Slytherin. Perhaps something was wrong with the Hat. James nudged Graham, who glanced at him and shrugged curiously.

        "Gryffindor!" the Sorting Hat suddenly sang out, pointing its peak at the ceiling.

        Complete, stunned silence filled the hall as the Hat was lifted from Scorpius' head. His chin drooped and he closed his eyes. After a long moment, he climbed off the stool and clumped slowly down the stairs. The Gryffindor table remained absolutely silent as Scorpius approached it. He passed the head of the table, where most of the newly named Gryffindors sat staring, wide-eyed. James watched as Scorpius stalked the entire length of the table, not raising his eyes. When he reached the end, he stopped for a moment, apparently unwilling to actually sit down. Finally, he slumped onto a bench on the end. He raised his eyes, and James saw that they were tinged with red. Scorpius glared at James. After a long moment, he pressed his lips together and turned his gaze to the front of the hall.

        "Albus Potter," McGonagall called into the silence. James couldn't help glancing aside at the Slytherin table. Tabitha wasn't rising to applaud this time. Strangely though, she was still smiling her polite smile, apparently completely unperturbed by Malfoy's Sorting.

        Albus looked back over his shoulder as he climbed the steps to the dais. James assumed he was looking at him; he smiled encouragingly and nodded to his brother up on the dais. Albus showed no sign that he'd seen him. He approached the stool and stared down at it for a moment. Professor McGonagall nodded curtly to him. Albus squared his shoulders, turned, and sat down.

        There was no idle chatter now as the Sorting Hat settled onto Albus' head. Every eye in the room watched. Everyone knew that Albus was going to go to Gryffindor. James had only ever joked about it because he was so sure it was only a joke. A Potter could never really be sent to Slytherin. But as James thought that, he remembered the look of hate on Albus' face when Malfoy had insulted him on the Hogsmeade platform. Albus had always been a passionate boy. That could be a very good thing, a beautiful thing. But, as James had very recently thought, it could also be a little scary. Too late, James realized that Albus had not turned to look back at him, James, when he'd climbed the stairs to his Sorting. He'd turned to look back at Scorpius, to make sure he was watching. He wanted to make sure Scorpius wouldn't miss what was about to happen.

        "Slytherin!" the Hat proclaimed loudly. There was a sustained, collective gasp, filling the hall. Professor McGonagall raised the Hat from Albus' head, and even she seemed surprised at the pronouncement.

        Albus was grinning happily, but he wasn't looking at the table belonging to his new house, which had erupted into wild applause. Albus was looking down the length of the Gryffindor table. James didn't need to follow his brother's gaze to know who he was looking at, but he did anyway.

        Scorpius Malfoy stared back at Albus, his eyes baleful, his mouth a grim, white line of pure hatred.

4. TRIAL OF THE GOLDEN CORD

As dinner appeared on the tables and the assembly began to eat, James couldn't help craning to see what was happening at the Slytherin table. Albus was seated next to Ralph, but he was deep in animated conversation with Trenton Bloch, Ralph's best Slytherin friend. As James watched, the two boys erupted into raucous laughter. Even Ralph was smiling and nodding as he gnawed a chicken leg.

        "Something wrong with your neck, James?" Graham asked around a mouthful of stew.

        "I'm just trying to see what's going on," James said. "It just isn't right! Albus can't be a Slytherin!"

        Rose, beaming about her own Sorting into Gryffindor House, leaned toward James. "You keep on saying that, but as I recall, you were the one winding him up all summer about becoming exactly that."

        "Well, yeah, but I was never serious!"

        Graham followed James' gaze, peering across the hall to the table under the green banner. "Looks like he's having a grand time of it. Even Corsica is talking to him."

        "Well," James exclaimed stridently, "she would, wouldn't she? She was trying to make all nice with me last year as well, up until she called my dad a liar in front of the whole school. She's probably just as pleased as can be that they've got a Potter in Slytherin. Who knows what kind of propaganda she'll fill his head with? It'll be her crowning achievement."

        "Albus can take care of himself, James," Noah said dismissively. "Besides, you said yourself you were almost sent to Slytherin last year."

        "I should go check on him," James said, moving to stand. Damien reached over and pushed him back into his seat.

        "Let him be," Damien said. "He looks to be doing just fine."

        "But he's in Slytherin!" James cried, exasperated. "He can't go to Slytherin! He's a Potter!"

        "You want to talk about surprises," Rose said, lowering her voice, "even as we speak, a Malfoy is sitting at the end of the Gryffindor table."

        James had nearly forgotten about Scorpius. He turned, following Rose's glance. Scorpius wasn't eating. The Gryffindors nearest him were studiously ignoring him, laughing and joking loudly. Scorpius caught James looking at him. He narrowed his eyes and smiled grotesquely, making a parody of those around him. Then he rolled his eyes and turned away.

        "That's the one that really baffles me," Graham muttered. "How's a greasy git like him end up a Gryffindor?"

        Rose reached for another roll. "You don't know what's in his heart," she said. "The Sorting Hat sees who you really are, not what your family has always been. Maybe there's more to Scorpius Malfoy than meets the eye."

        James shook his head. "Not a chance. I heard the way he talked about Granddad. He's horrible. Besides, he was as proud as a peacock about his Slytherin heritage."

        "None of that makes him a Slytherin," Rose commented carefully.

        "That's true," Damien concurred. "Being nasty isn't necessarily a ticket into Slytherin. Like the Hat said, Slytherins are usually known for ambition. Maybe after a few decades of backing the losing horse, guys like Malfoy are finding raw ambition a little harder to come by."

        "So that makes him Gryffindor material?" Graham asked disgustedly. "I can barely stand to look at him. What's Gryffindor about him?"

        Nobody had any response to that. James couldn't help glancing aside again, looking down the length of the table to where Scorpius sat. The boy looked completely disinterested and aloof, but James knew it was a façade. He'd seen the expression on Scorpius' face when he first sat down at the Gryffindor table. James remembered his own fears on the night of his Sorting, worried that he'd not make it into Gryffindor, that he'd disappoint his family and fail to live up to the expectations of the son of Harry Potter. Was Scorpius dealing with the same sort of situation in reverse? James suspected he was, but his pride wouldn't let him show it. And then there was Albus, who, to James' complete amazement, had apparently allowed the Sorting Hat to send him to Slytherin just to spite Scorpius.

        Without planning it, James climbed off the bench. He walked to the end of the table and stopped next to Scorpius. The pale boy pretended not to notice him.

        "Well," James began, not entirely sure what to say, "looks like we're going to be housemates."

        Scorpius still didn't look at James. He seemed to be gazing out over the other tables, his eyes halflidded, as if bored.

        "I suppose we didn't get off too well, back on the train," James continued. He felt the eyes of the rest of the table upon him, and he hoped that this was a good idea. "But since we're going to be living in the same rooms for the rest of the year, I thought maybe it'd be best just to start over. Welcome to Gryffindor, Scorpius."

        James stuck his hand out, the same way he'd seen Scorpius' dad do it when he'd spoken to Harry at the funeral. Scorpius was still staring idly out over the hall. Slowly, he turned his head, looking disdainfully at James' proffered hand.

        "Well, that's very sweet, Potter, but don't go wasting your manners on me," Scorpius said, allowing a crooked grin to curl his lip. "We may have to share a house, but that doesn't make us mates. You think I'm all broken-hearted at not being selected for Slytherin? Well, you're wrong. I'm perfectly happy being a Gryffindor. In fact, I consider it a golden opportunity. I intend to prove to you what it really means to be a Gryffindor. After all these years of sloppy heroics and lucky breaks, I might just show you what courage really looks like."

        James realized he still had his hand sticking out. "Yeah," he replied, dropping his arm to his side. "Well, good luck with that, then. Have it your way." He turned away, but Scorpius spoke again, stopping him.

        "I'm not so sure about little Albus as a Slytherin though," he said conversationally. "At first, I was concerned they might just eat him alive. But now it looks like I was wrong. Little Potter boy might have a bit more Slytherin in him than I thought. ASP, indeed."

        James looked back at Scorpius, who was still grinning crookedly. "I thought you didn't even know our first names."

        Scorpius shrugged languidly. "I guess I was lying," he replied. "That was back when I thought I was going to be a Slytherin. Now that I'm a member of the scarlet and gold, I'll make it a point to always be truthful, won't I?"

        Amazingly, a few of the Gryffindors chuckled at that. Scorpius reached for his goblet and raised it, as if saluting.

        "Here's to new legacies," he announced, raising one eyebrow sardonically. "There's a toast you can agree with, right, Potter?"

James finally caught up with Albus as he was leaving the Great Hall in the company of his new housemates. Albus appeared to be quite popular among the Slytherins as they gathered around him, laughing raucously.

        "Really, it's not all it's cracked up to be," Albus was saying. "I mean sure, growing up the son of the most famous wizard in the world has its perks, but it doesn't get me any special privileges here at Hogwarts. Especially with you lot, eh?"

        There was another round of laughter. Obviously, Albus was making the most of his rather shocking house assignment. James shouldered his way into the crowd and grabbed Albus' elbow.

        "Hey, easy, big brother," Albus called as James pulled him away. "This is my brother, James, everybody. He gets his bossiness from Mum's side of the family. Don't start the party without me, eh?"

        Albus turned back to James near the base of the stairs. He pulled his elbow out of James' grip, his face turning annoyed. "What's the big idea, James? I want to see my new rooms."

        "Slytherin!" James hissed, glancing back over his shoulder at the waiting gang of students. Tabitha Corsica smiled crookedly and nodded in his direction.

        "Yeah, Slytherin," Albus shrugged. "Same as you've been saying all summer."

        James turned back. "Don't pretend I talked you into this, Al. You knew I was just ribbing you. Tell me the truth. Did you do this just to spite Scorpius?"

        Albus rolled his eyes. "Get off my back, James. How was I to know Malfoy was going to get Sorted into Gryffindor?"

        "I saw the way you looked back at him when you went up to the dais. You wanted to show him up! That's a stupid reason to go to Slytherin. Come on, Al! This affects your whole school life! You're a Slytherin, now!"

        "I didn't choose this, you know," Albus said, lowering his voice and looking James in the eye. "The Sorting Hat does the Sorting. That's what it's for, James."

        "But Dad said—"

        "Yeah, well, maybe things have changed. Or maybe the Hat didn't think I wanted to be a Gryffindor bad enough. Either way, when I put it on, the only thing that came into my head was a vision of me in the house of the green and silver. And the truth is, for the first time ever, I kind of liked it."

        James frowned. "But all summer long, you were completely dotty about it. I mean really, Al, I wouldn't have wound you up so much about it if it hadn't gotten such a rise out of you."

        Albus shrugged and looked around, taking in the stairway and the Entrance Hall. "Maybe I did it just to spite you, then. That'll teach you to rag on me about stuff. I might just go and do it after all, eh?"

        James grimaced, exasperated.

        "Don't get your knickers in a twist, James," Albus said, clapping James on the shoulder. "Time's have changed, haven't they? The other thing Dad told me on the platform was that if I did become a Slytherin, they'd have gotten themselves a brilliant new member. You can be king of Gryffindor House, all right? I'll work my magic in Slytherin and we'll have all of Hogwarts by the tail."

        James shook his head but smiled a little. "You are the boldest little twonk ever, Al. I almost believe you. Are you sure you know what you're doing?"

        "Not in the least," Albus nodded gravely. "But it's never stopped me before. Listen, don't tell Mum and Dad about this yet. I want to tell them myself, right?"

        James grimaced. "What do you think I am, a squealer?"

        "Well, you did squeal on Ted and Victoire at the station this morning."

        "I told you—"

        Albus raised his hands, backing away. "That's between you and your conscience, big brother. I best be getting back to my new housemates. Ralph says they have sweet broom cakes and real Turkish Delight down there first night. I can't wait to have that flagon of Butterbeer in front of the snake's head fireplace, eh?"

        James sighed as Albus rejoined his new housemates heading down into the cellars. As he turned to climb the staircase, he was met by Rose.

        "Ralph says he'll keep an eye on Albus," Rose said reassuringly. "Frankly, Slytherin probably is a better fit for him. He's always been a bit of a wild horse, you know."

        "Yeah, I know," James agreed. "I just didn't expect it to really happen. It feels really weird having a Potter in Slytherin."

        "Are you jealous?"

        "What?" James exclaimed, looking sideways at Rose as they reached the landing. "Why in the world would I be jealous?"

        Rose shrugged noncommittally. "I hear the Gremlins have a little something planned for tonight."

        "How do you know about that already?"

        "Well," Rose replied self-deprecatingly, "it was partly my idea. They liked it so much they asked me to come along. In all fairness though, it wouldn't have been possible without you."

        James remembered last year's first night when the Gremlins had bewitched him to look like a green alien and convinced him to clamber out of a makeshift flying saucer, much to the amazement of a local Muggle farmer. "They aren't still raising the Wocket are they?"

        "No, apparently they retired the Wocket when Ted graduated. Muggle-baiting is pretty tasteless, really, and besides, it's not much good now that the Headmaster has seen it and knows where it was hidden."

        "You sure know an awful lot about this, Rose."

        "Apparently, being a Weasley carries a lot of weight in certain circles," she replied happily.

        As they entered the common room, James couldn't help smiling. The familiar babble of laughter and conversation filled the room like a cauldron. The bust of Godric Gryffindor swooped dangerously overhead as a group of fifth- and sixth-years played Winkles and Augers with it. Cameron Creevey had already arrived and was sitting with a few other new Gryffindors on a sofa near the crackling fireplace. Cameron noticed James and his eyes widened a little. He nudged the girl next to him.

        "Hey, James," Heth Thomas, one of Gryffindor's Beaters, called from across the room. "You going to try out for the Quidditch team again this year? We're taking odds on how big a hole you'll make in the pitch."

        "I'd be careful getting in on that action," James replied, grinning. "I've been practicing this summer."

        "Right," Graham interjected, "whenever you weren't grounded from your broom by your dad, I hear."

        This was greeted with hoots of good-natured laughter. James made a sarcastic mime of laughing along. The truth of it was that he enjoyed the ribbing. He was looking forward to the try-outs. The more they expected him to repeat last year's performance, the better he'd look.

        Noah, Petra, Damien, and Sabrina were crowded around a table in the corner of the rowdy common room. Damien and Sabrina were busily hunched over a large sheet of parchment, quills in their hands. They appeared to be arguing in hushed tones, pointing at bits of the parchment. Noah and Petra looked up and waved James and Rose over.

        "We've not got much time," Noah said. "But fortunately, that's Damien and Sabrina's problem. Besides, what can go wrong? We've got a Weasley back at Hogwarts again. All is well with the world."

        "How do you spell 'forsooth'?" Sabrina asked without looking up.

        "It won't matter," Damien said tersely, "if we don't know, nobody will."

        "What's the plan?" James asked, plopping into a chair nearby.

        Noah looked at Rose, then back at James. "We think it'd be best if you didn't know. For now."

        "You'll thank us later, James," Rose agreed.

        "What?" James said, frowning. "Why in the world shouldn't I know?"

        "Trust us, James," Petra said. "It'll be much better for you if you can honestly claim ignorance."

        "That's what Ted said last year at the debate, too," James grumbled. He opened his mouth to protest further, but a sudden change in the atmosphere distracted him. Someone else was entering the common room. James glanced around to see who it was.

        Scorpius Malfoy clambered awkwardly through the portrait hole, getting his robes caught on the uneven bricks. He straightened and yanked at his robes, irritated. Finally, he turned and took in the room, his pale face grim.

        "Quaint," he drawled. "How perfectly whimsical. I expect we'll be roasting marshmallows over the fireplace and singing happy sing-alongs round about midnight, yes? Perhaps someone could point me in the direction of the dormitories."

        "Oi," Graham answered, hooking a thumb over his shoulder. "It's up those stairs, Malfoy. We'll save you a marshmallow."

        James watched Scorpius hoist his satchel and stalk across the floor, threading between the suddenly silent students that filled the room. Hugo Paulson, a huge seventh year, was lounging in a high-back chair with his legs sprawled in front of him, blocking Scorpius' path. Scorpius stopped, waiting for Hugo to move. Hugo pretended to notice Malfoy for the first time. He grinned and moved his legs. Scorpius rolled his eyes and continued on.

        James knew he should warn Scorpius, but he couldn't quite bring himself to do it. The rest of the Gryffindors watched with bright, avid eyes as the pale boy scowled once back over his shoulder, and then disappeared into the dimness of the staircase.

        He made it to the fourth step before the alarm sounded. The stair steps flattened, transforming into a rough stone slide. Scorpius struggled for purchase on the smooth surface, but it was no use. He slid back down into the common room and crashed to the floor. There was a roar of laughter. Hugo jumped up, braying uproariously, and grabbed Scorpius' arm, hoisting him to his feet.

        "The age-old girls' dorm swap. We should really get some signs, shouldn't we? It's all in good fun, Malfoy," Hugo announced, clapping the boy on the back. "We got to initiate you somehow, don't we?"

        Scorpius retrieved his satchel and shot a look of cold fury at Graham. Without a word, he stalked back across the room to the opposite staircase.

"That was mean," Rose said mildly after Scorpius had gone.

        "He took it better than I expected, really," Noah commented. "Knowing his kind, I'd have thought he'd Avada Kedavra somebody just for spite."

        "He's probably up there putting the Cruciatus Curse on some spiders even now," Graham replied.

        "Stop it, all of you," Petra said. "You're as bad as they are. There's a very good reason that the Sorting Hat sent him here. Give him a chance to prove it."

        "It was just a joke, Petra," Graham muttered. "Hugo did worse to me at least once a week last year."

        Gradually, the babble of voices returned to the room. Damien and Sabrina went back to their strange, hushed work. Rose leaned over to James.

        "Do you think Petra's right?" she asked quietly. "Do you think he really does belong in Gryffindor?"

        James thought back to last year when Ralph had gotten sorted into Slytherin. James had been certain that it had been a mistake. Now, knowing more about Ralph, he saw that the Hat might have known best after all.

        He answered Rose, "Hagrid says the Hat knows what it's doing. I mean, you can't fool the Sorting Hat, can you?"

        Rose didn't seem convinced. "Somebody fooled the Goblet of Fire, back in our parents' day. Anything's possible."

        "But why would he want to come to Gryffindor?"

        Rose shrugged. "I just hope he really is the real thing. Because if he's not, things are going to get very ugly. Especially after tonight."

        "What's that mean?" James asked suspiciously.

        Rose ignored him. "Why don't you run up and check on him?"

        "Blimey, Rose! First, Cousin Lucy guilts me about how I'm supposed to look after Albus, now you want me to go nursemaid Scorpius-bleeding-Malfoy?"

        "Just do it, James. By the time you come back, I bet Damien and Sabrina will be done and it'll be time to go."

        "Sheesh," James said, climbing to his feet. "I'd never have pegged you for fancying the bad boy type."

        "I don't fancy him," she frowned. "Just make sure he's going to be busy up there for a while, why don't you?"

        James grumbled to himself as he crossed to the boys' dormitory stairs.

        "It's just James. Don't stun me or anything," he called up as he climbed the steps. To his surprise, he found Scorpius in the second years' dormitory rather than the first years'. "Hey! That's my bed!"

        James stopped at the top of the staircase, pointing. Scorpius had shoved James' trunk aside haphazardly and put his own trunk at the foot of the bed. He glanced up dismissively as he unpacked his things.

        "Is it really?" Scorpius replied indolently. "Does it have your name on it?"

        "As a matter of fact, it bloody well does," James exclaimed. "I carved it right there on the headboard plain as the nose on your pasty white face!"

        "Where?" Scorpius said, squinting at the headboard. He produced his wand from his robes and aimed it lazily with his wrist. A flash of purple light burst across the head of the bed. When it was gone, James' name had vanished, buried under an ugly black burn mark. "I don't see it. Maybe you're a bit confused."

        Scorpius turned, looking about the room. He pointed his wand again, producing another flash of purple light.

        "There," he said, turning back to his trunk. "Now that bed has your name on it. Happy?"

        James stalked over to a bed on the opposite side of the room. Glowing purple letters were scrawled across the headboard. In gothic script, they spelled 'WHINY POTTER GIT'.

        "Look, you can't just…," James began, and then stopped, leaning in toward the letters. "And how'd you even do that? That was a nonverbal spell!"

        "Is this better?" Scorpius asked, pointing his wand once more. "Mobiliarcha."

        James' trunk shot across the floor, barely missing his legs. It struck the bed and burst open, belching half of James' things. Scorpius grinned crookedly as he levitated his books out of his own trunk. He floated them neatly into position on the windowsill.

        James spluttered, "Look, Malfoy, this isn't even your dorm! You're a first year! You can't just move in wherever you want!"

        "Seems that the first years' dorm is unusually full this year," Malfoy replied without looking at James. "My fellow first year Gryffindors informed me that I'd have to find lodging elsewhere. Frankly, I don't care where I stay in this benighted tower, but if my being here annoys you, then I believe I'll stay. If you don't like it, speak to the headmaster. He's a mate of yours, after all, isn't he?"

        "They were just winding you up, you prat," James exclaimed hopelessly.

        "Is it time for the sing-along yet?" Scorpius asked, finally glancing at James and pocketing his wand. "Or did you just come up to see how a wizard unpacks?"

        James turned on his heels and tramped angrily down the stairs.

        "If whatever you have in mind has anything to do with Malfoy," he said as he plopped back into the chair near the table, "it's probably too nice."

        "That's the spirit," Damien replied without looking up from his parchment. James peered at it. He could see that Damien and Sabrina were drawing something, but it was covered in arrows, geometric scribbles, and scrawled notes.

        "We can thank old Professor Stonewall for this one," Noah grinned. "Who says Technomancy has no practical purpose? Come on, it's time."

        "If we still had your dad's Cloak, we wouldn't need a lookout," Damien explained reasonably. "But since we don't, that's your job."

        Sabrina was virtually bouncing with excitement. The quill in her thick hair wobbled. "I'm going down to the landing," she announced quietly. "Catch up as soon as you can. You have to do the scriptey part."

        Damien nodded. Noah, Rose, Petra, and Sabrina darted down the stairs at the end of the corridor.

        James sighed. "Fine, I'm the lookout. What do I do if somebody comes?"

        "All right, this is your story: you were going to the bathroom and you got lost," Damien replied. "Pretend that you're doubled over with the runs or something. Groan a lot, really loud. We'll hear you and know someone is coming."

        James was appalled. "That is so wrong on so many levels! For one thing, I'm a second-year! How is it I got lost on the way to the bathroom?"

        "Use your imagination," Damien said blandly. "Maybe you have to go so bad that you're delirious or something. Just be sure to groan really loud so we can hear you."

        James opened his mouth to protest but Damien was already trotting down the stairs as lightly as he could. Resigning himself to his duty, James leaned against the wall and watched. He still didn't know what the Gremlins were up to, but he knew it had something to do with the new Heracles window. That was what Rose had meant when she'd said they couldn't have done it without him. He had broken that window last year, knocking a Muggle intruder through it during a midnight chase. Filch had fumed that there'd be no way to replace the window, and he'd been right. Fortunately, magic being what it is, it wasn't necessary to manufacture a perfect duplicate. The school had simply procured a special kind of stained glass window with magically imprintable glass. Petra explained that the window could be charmed so that the glass represented any desired pattern. Filch, being rather a traditionalist, had seen to it that the window represented the old Heracles window right down to the crack in Heracles' right little finger.

        James determined to get a peek at what the Gremlins were doing to the window. Carefully, he straightened and tiptoed to the edge of the staircase. He could hear Sabrina and Damien whispering animatedly, but he couldn't see anything. James turned to go back to his hiding place and ran face-first into Merlin's beard.

        "Bleah!" James spat, recoiling. "What are you trying to do, sneaking up on a bloke like that?"

        Merlin's face was as impassive as ever. "I take it you are on sentinel duty, Mr. Potter?"

        James deflated. "I was until I got a face full of beard. What is that stuff you put in it? Smells like the stuff Mum cleans pots with."

        "Fear not, Mr. Potter. I shall assure anyone who asks that you were positively prostrate with bowel difficulties. I came to ask a small favor of you. You do not have to do it, but if you do, I will consider it compensation for the points that were deducted from your house."

        James scrubbed at his face, shuddering, trying to get Merlin's beard oil off. "Yeah, sure, what do you have in mind?"

        "I need you to convince Mr. Deedle and a third person of your choosing to help me retrieve some items for my office. They are essential to my work, but I require some assistance in acquiring them. You might say they have been in storage for quite some time."

        "Like a thousand years or so?" James replied, feeling piqued. "I didn't know they had rental lockers for that long. How do you know your stuff's still there?"

        "That is my concern, Mr. Potter, not yours. May I assume your help?"

        "Doesn't sound like you need us," James muttered. "Why don't you get some of the other teachers to help you?"

        "Because I am a cautious man," Merlin answered, smiling slightly. "I'd prefer to keep my inventory somewhat private, as there are those who might question the origins of some of my tools. This is why I have specifically chosen you and Mr. Deedle. You two have already proven, perhaps to a fault, that you know how to manage secrets."

        "So I get Gryffindor's ten points back if we help you get your stuff? Sounds fair enough. I'm guessing that the deal only counts if we don't tell anyone though, right?" James said, looking up at the big man.

        Merlin nodded. "Thus, you should choose your third helper carefully. We leave tomorrow afternoon. Meet me at the entrance to the old rotunda, and be prepared to walk."

        Merlin turned to leave, his great robe swaying about him.

        "Uh, Headmaster?" James called, keeping his voice low so as not to alert the Gremlins in the landing below. Merlin stopped and half turned back to James, one eyebrow raised. James asked, "Any sign of the Borley?"

        Merlin shook his head. "But fear not, Mr. Potter. I have every reason to believe yours is the last one. It will show itself in due course. Perhaps next time, you will be better equipped to handle it."

        A moment later, the big man had gone, somehow melting into the shadows of the corridor, his footfalls making no noise whatsoever. There was definitely something creepy about the ancient wizard. He seemed to carry a sense of wildness and night air with him, even inside the halls of the school. Obviously, Merlin had secret ways of knowing what was going on in the halls. After all, he'd known exactly where to find James and what he was up to. It occurred to James that it'd probably be a challenge to sneak past Merlin even with the Invisibility Cloak on.

        Shortly, the Gremlins tiptoed up the staircase again. Rose was the last up, and she was covering her mouth to stifle a giggle.

        As they threaded their way back to the Gryffindor common room, Petra asked, "Did you see anyone, James?"

        James glanced at her, considering. After a moment, he shook his head. "No one worth mentioning."

        It was the closest thing to the truth he could think of.

        The next morning, as James was tramping down the stairway to breakfast, he was stopped by a noisy crowd gathered around the landing. Filch stood in the middle of it, staring up at the Heracles window. His cheeks were livid red and his eyebrows worked angrily. James could see the window clearly from his vantage point halfway up the staircase. The image of Heracles was gone. In its place was a fairly good representation of Salazar Slytherin. Strangely, he seemed to be grinning giddily and skipping down a winding path. He was arm in arm with a boy with unruly dark hair: Albus. A banner floated over their heads containing the words 'A MATCH MADE IN HEAVEN?'. Worse, behind them, lying stricken on the path, was a pale boy with sharp features and white-blonde hair. The caricature of Scorpius had a word balloon coming out of its mouth. It read, 'FORSOOTH SALAZAR! BEHOLD MINE BREAKING HEART!'

        "It's a line from a classic wizard love sonnet," Damien said smugly as he crowded in next to James. "One in ten people will probably get it, but it appeals to me somehow."

        "You are such a geek, Damien," Sabrina said affectionately.

        The sun presided over an unusually warm afternoon as James met Ralph near the great arch of the old rotunda. Beams of golden light made stripes across the marble floor and partway up the remains of the statues of the original founders. Nothing but their feet and parts of their legs remained after all these years. The broken bits were worn smooth from centuries of curious hands.

        "She's coming," James said as he trotted to a stop next to his friend. "She just takes forever to get ready. What is it about girls and getting ready?"

        Ralph shrugged. "Fiera Hutchins says that girls take longer to get ready because they actually get ready. She says boys just matt their hair down with spit, slap on some cologne, and call it done."

        "So what's wrong with that?" James muttered.

        Rose approached them from behind. She was looking cool and, James had to admit, much more prepared than he was. "I told you I was right behind you," she admonished.

        "What's in the basket?" Ralph asked, nodding at the small satchel slung over her shoulder.

        "Let's see," Rose said, cocking her hip. "My wand, some water, a few biscuits, a Bug-repellent Charm, a field knife, a pair of Omnioculars, an extra pair of socks, and some sunglasses." She looked back and forth between Ralph and James. "What? You said we were supposed to come prepared to walk!"

        James shook his head. "How can you be so like your mum and your dad at the same time?"

        "Just fortunate, I guess," Rose sniffed.

        "We're supposed to be prepared to walk?" Ralph asked, furrowing his brow. "Is that anything like hiking?"

        James set out across the rotunda floor. "Come on, Merlin said he'd meet us at the entrance, and when he gives directions, he means them."

"I don't even own hiking shoes," Ralph lamented, following.

        The three stepped out into the warmth of the afternoon. At one time, centuries ago, the rotunda entrance had been the main entry to Hogwarts castle. Now it was virtually unused. The portico's huge doors were almost always left open, looking out over a long field of weeds and heather, ending at the edge of the Forest.

        "Those are creepy," Rose said, looking back into the gloom of the rotunda at the remains of the statues. "They must have been enormous before they were broken. Whatever happened to them?"

        "The statues of the founders?" James replied. "They were destroyed. A long time ago. In a battle or something."

        "You don't know, do you?" Rose challenged, raising her eyebrows.

        James didn't, but he wasn't about to admit it. He made a show of watching for Merlin.

        Ralph frowned thoughtfully. "I wonder what ever happened to the pieces. You think they're still here, stored away in a cellar or something?"

        "I wouldn't be surprised," Rose agreed. "There's room enough here for them to keep everything. They say the original founders themselves are buried here somewhere, although nobody knows where. All except Salazar Slytherin."

        Ralph blinked at her. "Why isn't he buried here?"

        "I thought you said you read Hogwarts: A History?"

        Ralph turned to James. "Is she always like this? If so, remind me not to ask her any more questions."

        "He's not buried here," James answered, "because he had a big row with the other founders and got kicked out of the school."

        Ralph grimaced. "I probably don't want to know what that was about, do I?"

        "I'm sure you can guess," James replied. "It's a good thing times have changed, eh?"

        "Times never change," a deep voice said. James glanced up and saw Merlin climbing the steps from the field below. "But people do. Greetings, my friends. Are we ready to disembark?"

        "If that means are we ready to hike," Ralph said tentatively, "I'm not sure I'm prepared to answer that."

        Merlin turned on the steps and began to descend again into the grassy weeds at the bottom. James looked at Rose and Ralph, then shrugged and ran down the steps to follow.

        "So how are we getting there, Headmaster?" Rose called. "Portkey? Broom? Side-Along Apparition?"

        "I thought Mr. Potter had already informed you," Merlin replied without looking back. "We are going to walk."

        "The whole way?" Ralph said, tripping over a patch of heather.

        Merlin seemed to be enjoying himself. "It'll become easier as we go, Mr. Deedle. In my day—and I admit that that day was quite a long time ago indeed—people walked virtually everywhere. It is good for wizards and witches to move within nature. It reminds us of who we are."

        "I know who I am," Ralph grumbled. "I'm a bloke with cruddy shoes and a preference for food that comes in wrappers."

        They reached the edge of the Forest and Merlin stepped into it without breaking his stride. There was no path, but Merlin seemed to know where to step. He barely made a footprint or bent a stalk of grass. James paused for a moment at the edge of the woods. Merlin wasn't slowing, and James knew that if he didn't keep up, he would quickly lose the big wizard in the density of the trees. He plunged in after him, trying as well as he could to match Merlin's giant stride.

        "Hold up a minute," Rose called, plucking burs from her jeans as she walked. "Not all of us can commune with the oneness of nature and all that."

        As they progressed, however, James noticed a strange thing. In some small way, he did seem to be connecting with the woods around him. It was as if the Forest blended with Merlin as he moved, opening for him and closing up again once he was past. If James, Ralph, and Rose kept close enough, they travelled in the wake of that opening. Briars bent away from them, streams sprouted smooth, dry stepping stones, and even the grass and brush laid down flat, softening the ground for their feet. No branches snagged them despite the fact that the woods were exceedingly dense. Even the reddening sunlight seemed to wend its way through the thick treetops, laying down a trail of light for them.

        "Hey, James," Ralph said quietly, "how far do you think we've gone?"

        "We've only been at it for half an hour or so," James replied, glancing up at the sun. "We can't have gone much further than Hogsmeade, depending on what direction we're heading in. It's hard to tell, isn't it?"

        Ralph nodded. "Yeah, it is. I swear it feels like we've been walking only a few minutes and about a week at the same time."

        "Your mind is playing tricks on you," Rose said. "It happens on long trips. The monotony gets to you. We're probably hardly out of sight of the castle. If only the trees would thin out a bit."

        As Rose spoke, Merlin stepped into a blaze of orange light. James squinted as he followed, then gasped, catching himself and throwing out his hands to stop Ralph and Rose. They bumped him from behind.

        "Hey," Rose replied, dropping her satchel, "why are we stopping—"

        Her voice trailed away as she looked up. A blindingly beautiful sunset filled the view before them, blazing with oranges and pinks and deep lavenders, but that was only half of it. Fifteen feet in front of James' feet, the stony ground fell away, plunging dizzyingly to a rocky beach pounded with surf. Mist roared up on the wind, wetting their faces and beading on their eyelashes.

        "Is that the ocean?" Rose asked breathlessly. "That's impossible!"

        A voice called indistinctly. James tore his eyes from the sight below him and saw Merlin some distance away. He was standing on a narrow path that threaded along the crags of the cliff. He waved for them to follow. After a few awed moments, they did.

        The roar of the ocean and the whipping wind filled their ears as they skirted the cliff, catching up with Merlin. While they were still some distance behind him, Rose slipped in next to James.

        Keeping her voice low, she said, "James, why did you ask me to come along on this trip?"

        "That's easy," James replied, treading as quickly as he could on the uneven path along the cliff. "I had to pick someone who could keep a secret. Besides, I knew you had some doubts about Merlin. I wanted you to see him up close and personal."

        "I have to tell you that so far I'm not feeling much better about him," Rose confided. "Somehow, he just walked us about a hundred kilometers in a half hour. But still, I'm just wondering, James: why didn't you ask Albus to come?"

        James glanced over his shoulder at Rose. "I don't know. You were the first person I thought of."

        "I just think it's curious, that's all."

        Ralph had caught up to them. "Why'd you ask me to come?" he asked, panting a little.

        "Merlin asked for you specifically, Ralph. He said he knew you and me were good at keeping secrets."

        Rose frowned. "I want to know who he's keeping secrets from."

        "Shh," James hissed as they neared Merlin.

        He had stopped at the crown of a steep, rocky promontory. As the three climbed to meet him, they realized they were at the point of a narrow peninsula. Only when they joined Merlin at the top did they see that the peninsula extended ahead of them, making a natural bridge out over the crashing surf far below. The peninsula was barely as wide as the path, with a sheer drop on either side. At the far end, the stony bridge connected to an enormous craggy monolith, nearly the same size and shape as a Hogwarts turret. The top seemed roughly flat and was covered with blowing grass.

        "We're not going out on that," Ralph stated flatly. "I mean, we're not, right? That would be totally mad."

        Even as he finished speaking, Merlin stepped out onto the rocky spine. "Follow closely, my friends. It is less dangerous than it looks, but it is not harmless. I will catch you if you fall, but let us work to avoid that necessity."

        Fortunately, James wasn't particularly afraid of heights. Keeping his eyes on the large man striding easily along the narrow path, James stepped forward to follow.

        "Oh bugger," Ralph muttered from behind, his voice almost lost in the whipping, salty wind.

        It was actually quite exhilarating, in a giddy, terrifying sort of way. The wind shifted restlessly, tugging at James' sleeves and pant legs. He knew he shouldn't look down, and yet he couldn't help studying the path, watching for the firmest footing. Occasionally, James saw hints of stonework and large bricks embedded in the path as if it had been shored up in the distant past, perhaps repeatedly. Dry weeds grew sparsely in the rocks, hissing in the incessant, shifting wind. On either side, the surf pounded and boomed against the rocks far below.

        "This is insane," Ralph called in a high, wavering voice. "What do we do if we fall off the side? Call out, 'Oh Headmaster, I'm plummeting on the right side, a little help when you get a mo'?'"

        James thought about how Merlin had found him in the halls the previous night, and how he'd known exactly what they were up to. "I think he has ways of knowing what's going on. Don't worry about it, Ralph."

        Rose, directly behind James, said, "That's fabulously reassuring."

        Finally, the path began to widen. The cliffs were obscured as they walked through a sort of gate made by a tumble of worn boulders and scree. James finally allowed himself to look around as he stepped into the clearing atop the monstrous monolith. It was indeed covered in long grass and brush, but it wasn't entirely flat. Instead, it was vaguely funnel-shaped, dipping to a hidden depression in the middle. Merlin was standing in a narrow path that threaded down into the center.

        "Exhilarating," he called heartily. He looked grimly happy, his cloak whipping freely about his legs and his beard streaming in the wind.

        "Actually," James answered, "yeah, it was!"

        Rose and Ralph caught up and gathered near the wizard.

        "Are we there yet?" Ralph asked, raking his hair out of his eyes with his fingers.

        Merlin turned and looked into the middle of the plateau, which dipped out of sight. "We are. Watch your step from this point. It gets a bit tricky."

        "Oh, good," Ralph muttered helplessly.

        "Buck up, Ralph," Rose said, tying her hair back with a short length of ribbon. "This is the best adventure you'll never be able to tell anyone about."

        "I don't know why everyone seems to think I like adventures. I never even read adventure stories."

        "Stay close," Merlin said again as he began to descend the path.

        As the four worked their way down the funnel-shaped plateau, the dry grass began to give way. James stopped for a moment as the true nature of the monolith became apparent. The center grew steeper and steeper, dropping deep into a natural pit fifty feet across. The path transitioned to huge stone steps, and then to a narrow stairway carved around the inside of the pit. The stairs were obviously ancient, rounded and slick with moss. The heart of the pit was filled with ocean water, roiling and heaving in and out of a hundred fissures worn through the stone. The boom of the waves was nearly deafening.

        Finally, just above the level of the surf, the stairway met a large cave. Merlin led the three into the dimness. He stopped and tapped his staff on the rocky floor, lighting it. Purplish light filled the space, making hard shadows in every crag and crack.

        "Nice hiding place," James said, whistling.

        "It sure is," Rose agreed, "considering it's underwater half the day. We're in the middle of low tide right now."

        "Is that where you have your stuff hidden?" Ralph asked, pointing toward a large door-shaped hole in the rear of the cave wall. "There's writing over the door, but I can't read it."

        Rose peered at it, stepping closer. "It's Welsh, isn't it?"

        "It's an old form of what you'd call Welsh, I suppose," Merlin said, approaching the door. "Roughly translated, it reads, 'This is the cache of Merlinus Ambrosius; do not enter on pain of death.'"

        Ralph squinted at the barely legible letters. "So much for secret riddles and magical passwords."

        "I do not believe in toying with the lives of treasure seekers," Merlin replied. "The mention of my name was enough to repel most who came this far. Those that ventured further deserved fair warning."

        "Isn't there some sort of key or something?" Rose asked.

        "No, Miss Weasley. The trick is not to get in. In fact, quite the reverse. Which is why you and Mr. Deedle will wait out here."

        Ralph brightened. "That's the first good news I've heard since we started this trip. But why?"

        "Your wand is a fragment of my staff," Merlin smiled grimly. "Thus, it is the only other magical instrument on the earth that can reverse the doorway."

        Ralph nodded, waving his hand. "Good enough for me. Just tell me what to do when the time comes. Happy pot-holing."

        Rose asked, "What about me?"

        Merlin produced something from the depths of his robes and handed it to her. It was a small mirror with an ornate golden frame. "Do you know how to make an Occido Beam?"

        James saw Rose struggle not to roll her eyes. "I know how to reflect the sun with a mirror, yes."

        Merlin nodded and looked at James. "Follow me, Mr. Potter, and stay close."

        With that, he turned and stepped through the doorway. His staff lit the interior of the chamber with its purple glow. James glanced at Ralph and Rose, shrugged, and followed Merlin into the cavern.

        Immediately, his footsteps crunched unpleasantly.

        "Ugh!" he exclaimed. "Bones!"

        The floor was covered thickly with tiny skeletons. The remains of birds, fish and rodents were piled several inches deep. Merlin didn't pay them any attention.

        "An unfortunate cost," he said, moving deeper into the cavern. "The one-way stone is rather unforgiving. My rune-warnings are rather less effective now than they were a few centuries ago."

        "You made warnings for the birds and rats?" James asked.

        Merlin looked back at him. "Of course, Mr. Potter. The creatures do not enter to thieve, but merely for shelter and food. I embedded a Hex of Dread in the stone of this place. It told their small minds that there was no good thing to be found here, and to stay away. I underestimated the longevity of those hexes however. I am not happy to be responsible for the loss of these creatures. I will repay the earth for their sacrifice."

        "What do you mean by 'one-way stone'?" James asked, but as he turned back toward the doorway, he saw for himself. The entry was gone, replaced by rough, seamless rock. By all appearances, James and Merlin were trapped inside a sealed cave. He shuddered and hugged himself, glancing around the dark, craggy space. Something caught his eye.

        "Er," he said, trying to keep his voice calm, "that's not the bones of a bird or a rat, is it?"

        Merlin followed James' gaze and saw the human skeleton leaning against a dark alcove. The skeleton was draped with the remains of rough armor. A rusted sword lay near the skeleton's hand.

        "I wouldn't get too close, Mr. Potter," Merlin warned mildly as James took a step nearer the skeleton, morbidly fascinated.

        "Wow," James breathed, "there are still rings on the fingers. And hair on the skull. Gah, there's the remains of a mustache! Who do you think—"

        The skeleton suddenly lunged forward, throwing up its arms and waving the remains of the decrepit sword. James leapt backwards, tumbling into Merlin.

        "Avaunt!" the skeleton cried, waving its arms and swiveling its head. "Reveal yourself lest I run you through for sport!"

        "It's all right, James," Merlin said wryly, helping James get his feet under him. "Just stay back from it." Then, to the skeleton, he said, "You cannot see us because you have no eyes, Farrigan."

        "Merlinus!" the skeleton cried. "Where are you, you devil's son? How dare you trap me?"

        "How dare you breach my boundary and attempt to steal my cache, my old friend?"

        "Friend, pah!" the skeleton spat. Its jawbone squeaked as it spoke. "You were quit of the world. Dead! What good was it to you?"

        "You hoped I was dead, but you knew otherwise. My cache was bequeathed to no one but me, either way. Austramaddux made you well aware of that."

        "Austramaddux is a mongrel cur," the skeleton of Farrigan growled. "I'll put his head on my wall for this trickery. And what mean you that I have no eyes? It is merely dark. Light your staff if you are Merlinus, curse you."

        Merlin looked at James, his eyes hard. "He will be released from his bond to this world when we leave. It was part of the curse of anyone who dared breach this place that they should remain until my return. Now that that time is come, the curse will end. Can you bear to wait with him? He is quite harmless as long as you keep your distance."

        James looked at the skeleton. It lolled against the wall, working to pull its leg bones together and make them work. It muttered squeakily to itself. James swallowed.

        "Yeah, I guess. How long will you be?"

        "Mere minutes," Merlin replied, then he raised his voice. "Miss Weasley, can you hear me?"

        Rose's voice came through the invisible entrance clearly. "I'm right here. I'm looking right at you through the door. What's going on in there?"

        "Nothing consequential. Can you direct the Occido Beam now? The waning sunlight should be finding its way through a large crack to the left of the cave mouth."

        James heard Rose's footsteps as she walked away. A moment later, a narrow beam of sunlight speared the dusty air of the cavern, penetrating the one-way stone of the doorway.

        "Very good, Miss Weasley," Merlin said. "Up just a bit, please."

        The beam of sunlight pierced the depths of the cave. It bobbed and roamed as Merlin directed Rose, carefully aligning the beam. Finally, it lit upon a shiny burnished symbol embedded in a far distant wall. It flared brightly and suddenly, amazingly, a long golden cord dropped out of the beam of sunlight.

        "Thank you, Miss Weasley," Merlin called, reaching to collect the end of the cord. "You have done exceptionally well. Whatever you or Mr. Deedle do from this point on, under no circumstances should you enter the cavern, regardless of what you hear."

        James felt a chill as Merlin turned to him.

        "Your duty is very simple, Mr. Potter, but absolutely essential. You must hold the end of this cord."

        James took the cord in his hands as Merlin handed it to him. It was thin, finely woven from bright golden threads. "All I have to do is hold it?"

        Merlin nodded, maintaining eye contact with James. "But be sure, James Potter, as long as you hold this cord, you hold my life in your hands. You cannot let go for any reason until I return. Do you understand?"

        James frowned, puzzled. He nodded. Without another word, Merlin turned and walked into the dimmer recesses of the cave, holding his staff ahead of him. The cave was apparently rather deeper than James had initially believed. As the wizard strode slowly away, his staff illuminated a much larger cavern connected to the one James stood in. The floor was very dark, nearly black. Strangely, Merlin was walking on the golden cord, placing each foot carefully on its length. The cord stretched into the depths of the cavern, disappearing into darkness. With a start, James saw that the floor of the larger cavern was not simply dark, as he had initially thought. It wasn't there at all. Merlin was walking on the cord alone, suspended over an apparently bottomless abyss.

        There was a dry chuffing sound and James glanced over at the skeleton. It appeared to be laughing.

        "Off to get his treasures, is he?" it said. "Left you in the lurch, methinks. Favor me with your name, oh demon."

        "I'm not a demon," James said. "My name is James."

        "Ah, a great name, that is. Tell me, Master James, if you are not a servant demon, why do you hold the son of the devil's cord?"

        James shook his head. He knew he shouldn't talk to the pathetic Farrigan. It chuffed laughter again, wearily, and dropped its sword. The rusted blade broke off the hilt and the skeleton drew a great sigh, crackling its ribs.

        "I have divined my state now," Farrigan said. "Austramaddux was right about the trap. I have been here an age, have not I? I am long dead, bound to this earth only by the curse of that abomination. And for what? I came not to thieve, but to destroy. Can you understand that, oh James, who holds the cord of the very man? I came to end it once and for all. But I have failed, and now it is begun. It is a good thing I am dead after all, and shall not see of it, yes?" The skeleton chuckled.

        James' curiosity got the better of him. "What is it? What is begun?"

        "Say not that you be such a fool as to be blind to Merlinus' skullduggery," the skeleton replied, turning its head toward the sound of James' voice. "You, who even now assist him in his aims. Tell me not that you have not heard of the Curse, my young friend."

        "I don't know what you're talking about," James answered. "Merlin's not who you think he is. I don't know what he was like in your time, but he's different now. He's good."

        The skeleton threw itself forward, cackling and beating its bony thighs with its hands. Finger joints broke away and pattered amongst the animal bones. "If you believe that, then perhaps your world deserves what is to be dealt it."

        "What is it?" James asked, feeling simultaneously fearful and annoyed.

        The skeleton of Farrigan stopped cackling. It twisted its head toward James again, its blank eyes penetrating. "How can you not know that the Gate is rent open? Merlinus has torn the curtain. His return to the world of men is a rift, connecting the realms. Things have come through, and are even now loose among men."

        "The Borleys," James said to himself, considering.

        The skeleton nodded. "But that is not all. It is coming. The Gatekeeper. The Sentinel of Worlds! Merlinus is its Ambassador. Fool! Even now, you hold the cord in your hands! Release it! Perhaps the Gate may still be shut! Release the cord and rid the world of the Curse, for it is nearly complete! Believe not the lies! Release it and send him to his deserved doom!"

        "No," James said, gripping the cord tightly, as if his fingers might betray him. He looked out along the length of the cord, but he could no longer see Merlinus. He could feel no weight on the cord. He knew he shouldn't pay any attention to the deranged skeleton. Obviously, Farrigan was an ancient enemy of Merlinus. Probably, he had broken into the cavern to steal the cache, as Merlin alleged, and become trapped by the one-way stone. The skeleton was lying. There was no Curse. And yet…

        What if the skeleton was telling the truth? James had been responsible for bringing Merlin back into the world, duped by the horrible Madame Delacroix and her accomplices. He, James, had been consulted about whether or not Merlin should become the new Headmaster of Hogwarts. If there was any truth to what the skeleton said, it would be entirely on James' head. Perhaps it was destiny, then, that had placed the cord in his hands, the cord that could cut Merlin off again, undoing all that James had unwittingly done. Perhaps now was his only chance to set things right again.

        "I sense your struggle, boy," the skeleton said quietly. "You know what your purpose is, do you not? Do it. How hard can it be? It is no effort at all. Simply let go. Your friends await you outside, ready to release you from this place. They need not know what became of the wizard. Tell them he simply fell and is no more. Only you will know what you have saved your world from. Do it now. Do it while you still can."

        James looked again. He could see Merlin now. He was returning along the length of the cord, a small box in one hand, his staff held aloft in the other. The cord was perfectly motionless as the big man placed his footsteps on it. James could still feel not the slightest tension on the cord. He squeezed it in his hands, thinking hard. Could he do it? Should he? Would he ever have such a chance again?

        "Do it, boy!" the skeleton of Farrigan whispered harshly, leaning forward. "Close your eyes, do not watch, and let go!"

        The cord was slick with sweat in James' hand. He almost did it. His fingers twitched. And then he remembered something Merlin had said the year before, shortly after he'd come back into the world. You have rather a talent for looking beyond the flat of the mirror, James Potter, he'd told him. That had been a compliment, James assumed, and it meant that he was not easily fooled. Of course, Madame Delacroix had fooled him, but that had required the use of a very carefully hexed voodoo doll. Merlin had implied that words alone were not enough to dupe James.

        Thinking that, James turned to the skeleton one last time. "How do I know you are telling me the truth?"

        The skeleton seemed to sputter. "You know by the evidence of your own soul! You sense the rightness of my allegations! Now drop the cord! End it!"

        James narrowed his eyes. "You know, I don't think I will. I don't know what things were like in your time, but in my world, we don't kill people just because somebody says they're troublesome."

        "Then your world deserves its own doom," the skeleton replied, rattling back against the cavern wall. "I wash my hands of you. The Doombringer is come."

        James decided it was best not to argue with the skeleton. Now that he'd made up his mind, he knew there was no point in it. He looked out along the cord and saw that Merlin was nearly back. His face was still grim, but there was a twinkle in his dark eyes.

        "Our task is complete, Mr. Potter," he said as he stepped onto the stone of the cave floor. "You may release the cord. We will require it no longer."

        James let the cord drop to the floor. It slithered away and dropped silently into the dark abyss. Sighing, James glanced over at the skeleton, but it didn't move.

        "I'd expect to hear no more from him," Merlin said quietly. "He has done what he remained to do."

"What's that mean?" James said, turning to the wizard. "Why did I have to hold that cord?"

        "Trust, Mr. Potter," Merlin replied, smiling a little sorrowfully. "It is a scarce commodity among those whose hearts are bent on evil. This is why trust was the final test before my cache."

        "You knew he would be here?" James nodded toward the skeleton.

        "Him, or someone like him. His duty was to challenge your trust. After all, it isn't really trust at all if there isn't a struggle."

        James looked up at Merlin's face. "I almost let go," he said quietly. "All I had to do was hold the cord, and I almost didn't do it."

        Merlin nodded gravely. "Doing what is right is nearly always simple, Mr. Potter. But it is never easy."

        There didn't seem to be anything more to say. James and Merlin walked back to the rough stone wall that bore the hidden door.

        "Mr. Deedle," Merlin called, "by your leave, we shall come out now."

        James heard Ralph's voice clearly through the apparently impenetrable stone as if he was only a few feet away. "Er, all right then. What do I do?"

        "Point your wand at the doorway and say 'Braut Tir'."

        There was a pause. James heard Ralph whisper, "What's that? I missed the accent!"

        "Just do it, Ralph," Rose rasped impatiently, "they're standing right there. What's the worst that can happen?"

        Ralph said the incantation. There was a slight pop and the doorway appeared. The light of the sunset flooded the cave. James squinted out at Ralph and Rose as Merlin extinguished his staff.

        "What'd I do?" Ralph exclaimed, stumbling backwards a step. "I sealed them in! The entrance disappeared!" Even Rose's eyes had widened in fear.

        "What's wrong with you two?" James asked, stepping through the doorway with Merlin right behind him.

        Ralph's eyes widened even further. "Whoa," he said, awed. "You just, like, walked right through a stone wall. You're not, er, dead, are you?"

        "They're fine, you prat," Rose grinned, smacking Ralph on the shoulder.

        "One-way stone," James shrugged, glancing back at the now solid wall of the cave. The door was completely invisible. "Is it closed forever?"

        Merlin nodded. "I require it no more. Let us return. The daylight will be gone soon and the tide rises even as we speak.

        James looked and saw that the waves were slopping over the lip of the cavern mouth. Each wave pushed more water onto the rough floor. Merlin still carried the small box under his arm as he turned to lead them up the narrow, curving stairway.

        "So that's it?" Ralph called up from the rear. "You have all your stuff in that little box?"

        "Are you surprised, Mr. Deedle?" Merlin replied. "Would you prefer to heft a pile of trunks?"

        Ralph chuckled humorlessly. "You'd be on your own if that was the case. I can barely manage to drag myself out of here."

        The return trip across the peninsula bridge was rather easier than it had been on their first crossing. The cliffs of the shoreline were a welcome sight and the wind was less than it had been an hour ago. Merlin was the last to cross. When he joined James, Rose, and Ralph on the crown of the promontory overlooking the peninsula, he turned to look back. Almost casually, he thrust his staff out over the bridge.

        "Discordium," he said quietly. There was no flash of light or obvious magical blast of power, and yet the middle of the bridge shuddered visibly. As if in slow motion, the spine of rock disintegrated and crumbled massively into the ocean below, sending up enormous, crashing geysers of water.

        "Well, that's that then, isn't it?" Rose said, impressed.

        Merlin smiled down at her. Finally, just as the sun touched its golden reflection on the ocean horizon, they turned to depart.

        As they made their way back, following in Merlin's enchanted path, Rose drew close to James again.

        "Ralph and I heard you talking in there," she said quietly. "But it didn't sound like you were talking to Merlin. Was there something in there we couldn't see from the doorway?"

        James didn't answer right away. For some reason, he felt reticent to tell Rose and Ralph about the skeleton of Farrigan. He glanced at Rose. "That was me," he said, shrugging. "I was just… talking to myself. It was creepy in there while Merlin went for the box."

        Rose tightened her lips and looked closely at James as she walked. He knew she knew he was lying. He looked away and trotted closer to Merlin.

        "Headmaster," he said after a while, "what are the Borleys?"

        Merlin was walking directly in front of James, his long stride cruising straight through the Forest like a knife. The last shreds of dusk on his robes gave him a vague, ghostly cast.

        "As I explained to you on the train, Mr. Potter, the Borleys are shadow creatures."

        "Yeah, I remember, but where do they come from?"

        Merlin's normally deep voice dropped a bit lower. "Your companion in the cave was talkative, wasn't he?"

        James followed Merlin closely. He wished he could see the wizard's face. They moved through the darkening woods swiftly, making very little noise. The wind shifted capriciously in the trees, rustling them, almost as if to cover Merlin's voice.

        James went on, "He said that the Borleys came with you from between the worlds when you returned."

        Merlin's voice was still low and rumbling. "There is a grain of truth in all fictions, Mr. Potter. Perhaps you know what barnacles are? Disgusting creatures that accumulate on the hulls of ships after a long sea journey. They weigh down the ship and must eventually be removed and destroyed. You may think of the Borleys as the magical equivalent."

        "So they did come back with you?"

        "This is so. I have been hard at work hunting them since my return. Most remained near me and were easy to capture. Two followed Mr. Deedle and Mr. Walker. Those I was able to track and capture before either boy became aware of them. Yours, Mr. Potter, was rather wilier. I believe it is the last of them."

        James had been curious about something ever since that day on the train. "How do you catch them if you can't use magic on them?"

        "Old elements, James Potter," Merlin replied, and his voice had that strange, hypnotic quality that James had last heard when the wizard was talking a confession out of Denniston Dolohov, Ralph's father, last spring. The Forest was becoming quite dark, and James wished again that he could see Merlin's face. He had the creepy sensation that Merlin was talking to him without using an audible voice. Merlin went on, "Old elements that few in this age even know of, much less understand. I have a very curious bag, a Darkbag, which has nothing in it. When I say that it contains nothing, Mr. Potter, I do not mean that it is merely empty. The bag is full, packed even, with the last remaining relic of pure darkness, left over from the dawn of time. It is into this bag that the Borleys go, for there is only one thing that a creature of shadow needs to exist in, and that is light."

        "Does it kill them?" James asked quietly.

        "Nothing can kill a Shade, Mr. Potter. They can only be contained. They remain locked in the Darkbag, starved for magic, desperate for escape, but utterly diminished with no light to define them. The Ministry of Magic has utilized a similar, albeit crude, method for containing Dementors ever since they were deemed untrustworthy as guards of Azkaban. They are sealed in the cellars of their old ward, Azkaban itself, captive in chambers rendered magically lightless. There, their powers are greatly diminished, though not decimated. They howl, Mr. Potter. I am told it is a dreadful sound, and I believe it."

        James shivered. After a minute, he asked, "So what happens if the Darkbag gets torn open?"

        For the first time, Merlin turned. James saw one eye of the wizard looking back at him over his shoulder. Still, he didn't break his stride. "The Borleys would escape as a swarm, of course, Mr. Potter. Starved for magic, they would attack the first source of magic they found and devour it."

        "D-devour it?" James said. "But you said they were harmless. Like barnacles."

        "I said that one Borley, in its entry state, was mostly harmless. Many Borleys, some in advanced states, and all desperate from their imprisonment, would be anything but harmless. In the event of the Darkbag's destruction, the barnacles would become piranhas. But this is impossible, Mr. Potter. I am the keeper of the Darkbag, and that means it is utterly safe."

        James sighed. "Is that the famous Merlin bluster you told me about last year?"

        Merlin finally stopped. He turned and squatted, his eyes level with James. He smiled and his eyes twinkled in the rising moonlight. "No, Mr. Potter," he said in his normal voice. "That is the famous Merlin oath you have not yet learned of. You may count on it."

        "Finally," Ralph said as he and Rose caught up to them. "A break. Rose, you still have those biscuits? How about a sharesy?"

        When they finally reached the castle, Merlin led them straight through the halls and up the spiral staircase to his office. Apart from the enormous desk and the dozens of portraits that lined the walls of the Headmaster's office, the room was unnaturally empty. James glanced around and saw the portraits of Severus Snape and Albus Dumbledore, his brother's two namesakes. Both portrait frames were, for the moment, unoccupied.

        "I wanted to thank you three for your assistance this afternoon," Merlin said, and he sounded almost hearty now that they had returned. "Thus, I thought you might like to see my cache opened."

        Rose widened her eyes with interest. "You're going to show us what's in it?"

        "Not precisely, Miss Weasley, although you will certainly see its contents in time. No, I mean that perhaps you might like to see it opened. It is, if I do say so myself, rather a good bit."

        James smiled quizzically. "Well, sure. If you say so. Let's have a look."

        Merlin seemed pleased. He carefully bent and set the small wooden box on the floor. There was a clasp on the front, holding the lid shut. Merlin lifted the latch and stood back.

        Slowly, the lid began to rise. It seemed to lift like a drawer out of the box, sliding upwards much further than the depth of the box should have allowed. There was another drawer embedded in the front of the first drawer. James moved around the box and saw that there were, in fact, drawers on all four sides of the main drawer. The vertical drawer reached man's height and stopped with a shudder. With a soft click, the drawers on all four sides began to roll out. The sides of each new drawer bore yet more drawers. Slowly, they unrolled, each surface revealing more and more compartments. It was beautiful to watch, and yet it boggled the mind. James' eyes seemed to resist what they were seeing. They watered a bit as the box expanded, filling the center of the room. Finally, after about a minute, the drawers stopped. James, Rose, and Ralph walked around the mass of drawers, doors, and complicated locks and hinges.

        "That was definitely a good bit," James said, awed.

        "Much better than a pile of trunks," Rose agreed.

        "Wonderful," Ralph sighed. "Mysteries and enigmas galore." He looked pleadingly at James. "Can we go eat now?"

        James grinned. The three students headed toward the door leading out of the Headmaster's office. James was the last to go through, but just as he was leaving, Merlin called his name. James stopped and turned as Ralph and Rose started down the spiral staircase.

        "I have returned your subtracted ten points, Mr. Potter, and added ten as well," Merlin said. "You did very well in the cavern. You will remember, of course, that secrecy is essential."

        "Sure," James replied. "Not a word to anyone."

        Merlin nodded, meeting James at the door. "Of course," he said, lowering his voice, "I do not know precisely what Lord Farrigan said to you while I retrieved the box, but I expect his words would also not bear repeating to anyone within these halls. That includes Mr. Deedle and Miss Weasley. As you know, the dead can be very… persuasive. I'd hate to see any conspiracies take root."

        James looked up at the Headmaster. The big man was like a giant next to him. James nodded slowly. Merlin seemed satisfied.

        "Thank you, Mr. Potter," he said. "Do enjoy your dinner. You've earned it."

        A moment later, James found himself standing next to the closed door of the Headmaster's office. He looked at it thoughtfully, his brow slightly furrowed.

        "Come on, James!" Rose called up. "The gargoyle says it's cherry posset for dessert tonight! I never get sweets like that at home!"

        James shook his head slightly. If Merlin didn't want James to tell Rose and Ralph what the skeleton had said, then there was surely a good reason. But Merlin had only said he shouldn't tell anyone within the halls of Hogwarts. If it came to it, there was technically no reason James couldn't tell his parents, and they could tell whomever they wished, couldn't they? Satisfied with that, James turned and climbed down the spiral staircase to join his friends.

5. ALBUS AND THE BROOM

James met Ralph at the base of the steps on Monday morning. The halls were already filled with the clamor and bustle of the start of school, and even though James knew he'd probably be missing the freedoms of summer by the end of his first week, for the moment he was still looking forward to classes.

        "Got my schedule all set," Ralph proclaimed happily as they entered the Great Hall for breakfast. "Got Defence Against the Dark Arts with that Debellows bloke first thing this morning."

        "Check that," James said. "I'm there too. Strange that he didn't require a book. He must just be so smart about the whole thing that he doesn't need one. This should be excellent."

        "Debellows rules," Graham said as James and Ralph plunked down at the table. "You know he once took on two vampires at once with only a Beater bat and a Muggle pencil."

        "A pencil?" Ralph furrowed his brow.

        "To stab them with, of course. It was the closest thing he had to a wooden stake."

        Ralph screwed up his face, thinking. "That must have been one bloody sharp pencil."

        Rose had already finished her breakfast, having arrived earlier. "I hear that this is going to be a very practical Defence Against the Dark Arts class, even for first-years. Apparently, Debellows prefers a hands-on approach."

        "Well, just look at the fellow," Noah said, turning to gaze at the man still finishing his breakfast at the teachers' table. "He looks like he's ready to pounce even when he's sitting still."

        Sabrina leaned over the table and said in a stage-whisper, "I think Noah has a bit of a man-crush on him."

        "Oh shut up," Noah replied. "You didn't grow up collecting Debellows Harrier action cards. I just can't believe he's going to teach us how to battle the Dark Arts. I hope he shows us how to do the Perseuspinch maneuver."

        "I had an action figure that did that," Graham nodded. "I tried to use it on my mum, once. Got me in no end of Barney."

        "I have to wait until Wednesday for my first class with him," Rose complained. "Tell me how it goes tonight, won't you?"

        James nodded, his mouth full of toast. Across the room, James could see Albus sitting in the middle of the Slytherin table, smiling and laughing with his new friends. Strangely enough, most of those around him were older students. Tabitha Corsica and Philia Goyle smiled and nodded as Albus spoke.

        "Come on," Ralph said, pulling James' collar. "Let's get to class a little early. I want to see what this Debellows is all about."

        "Hang on," James said, collecting his bag. He climbed off his bench and skirted the edge of the hall, heading around toward the Slytherin table.

        "Hey, Al," he called.

        Albus looked up, following the sound of James' voice. "Hi, James! Didn't see you all weekend. What's up?"

        "Can you spare a minute to walk with your brother to first class? I want to hear about your adventures in your new house."

        "That's sweet," Tabitha said warmly. "Go ahead, Albus. We'll chat again at lunch and make arrangements for Wednesday."

        "Excellent!" Albus nodded happily. "All right, come on, big brother. I've got Herbology with Neville first thing."

        As they broke away from the Slytherin table, Albus was positively bursting with excitement. "I got my ring key already, see? Spent the whole weekend getting the grand tour with the Fang and Talons. Did you know the Slytherin rooms have their own casting range? We can practice almost any spells and curses we want on these enchanted dummies. If you get a curse right, the dummy drops on the floor and does this hilarious imitation of the effect. Not that I'm any good at the wandwork yet, but Tabby says I shouldn't rush it."

        James nearly choked. "'Tabby'?"

        "Yeah," Albus nodded. "Tabitha Corsica. She's the unofficial head of Fang and Talons. I mean, nobody is really an official anything in the club. It's really just a joke with the Slytherins."

        James looked back at Ralph, his eyebrows raised.

        "Tabitha tried to get me in last year, before the debate. It's kind of a secret society, although there's not much secret about it if you're a Slytherin."

        "Tabby says it's fine for me to talk to you about it, James," Albus assured. "But I'd keep it hush-hush if I was you. I mean, we don't want just anybody to know about it. What fun would that be?"

        "So what's going on with Tabitha this Wednesday?" James asked.

        "What?"

        "This Wednesday," James said, stopping as they reached the archway leading outside to the greenhouses. "Tabitha said she'd make arrangements with you about something."

        "Oh, that," Albus said, glancing out at the glass buildings twinkling in the morning sunlight. "That's just for Quidditch try-outs. She says she'd love to see me get on the team."

        James smiled uncomfortably. "But you don't have a broom or anything. Trust me, those house brooms are useless. I couldn't even fly in a straight line until I got my Thunderstreak."

        "That's not going to be a problem," Albus said, shouldering his pack and grinning. "Tabby says she'll let me use her broom for the try-out."

        James' mouth dropped open, but Albus turned away before he could say anything. "Got to be off, big brother," he called over his shoulder. "Can't be late to first class!" He strode out into the sunlight, joining a few other first-year Slytherins who'd been skulking nearby. James turned to Ralph, his mouth still hanging open.

        "First I heard of it," Ralph said, raising his hands, palm out. "I'm not part of 'Tabby's' crew, you know."

        "But that broom…," James sputtered, "it's… it's evil!"

        "Come on," Ralph said. "Let it go for now. Class starts in five minutes."

        As James turned reluctantly to follow Ralph, he passed Scorpius on his way out to the greenhouses. Scorpius smirked at James and bumped him with his shoulder. James almost said something, but a nearby Slytherin beat him to it.

        "Forsooth, mine breaking heart, Malfoy!" the boy called, clutching his chest. There was a chorus of laughter. Scorpius ignored them.

        "Why isn't Debellows having class in the Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom?" Ralph asked, studying his schedule as they threaded through the crowded corridors. "This is taking us all the way to the other side of the castle."

        James shrugged, distracted. "Couldn't guess."

        They reached the designated room and filed in with the rest of the second-years. The classroom was huge with a very high ceiling and high windows along one wall. There were no chairs or desks. Instead, there were padded mats on the floors, old-fashioned dumbbells arranged in a long rack, and an assortment of clockwork dummies and complicated apparatuses covered with pads and pommels.

        Morgan Patonia, the Hufflepuff, walked in and stopped, looking around the space. "Hmph. Welcome to the Hogwarts gymnasium," she said in a bewildered voice. "I didn't even know we had one of these."

        The class shuffled nervously around the space, not quite sure what to do with themselves. Kevin Murdock, the Slytherin with whom James had had Technomancy the previous year, grabbed a couple of the dumbbells and hefted them, showing off for a pair of Ravenclaw girls who rolled their eyes.

        "Greetings, class!" a voice boomed heartily. James turned to see Professor Debellows striding into the room from a rear door. He was dressed in a short tunic and sandals and had a towel slung around his neck. "As you know, I am your new teacher for Defence Against the Dark Arts, Kendrick Debellows. I hate being called Professor anything, so feel free to call me by my first name. We'll not stand on protocol in this class. I want you all to think of me as your friend and partner. Do have a seat, all of you."

        James saw Ralph glance around, as if he expected a row of chairs to have suddenly appeared. The rest of the class was doing the same thing, their faces vaguely confused.

        "On the mats!" Debellows laughed. "My word, this is going to be a learning experience for all of us, I daresay. On the mats, students. Anywhere you like. That's the spirit."

        James hunkered down with his back against one of the clockwork dummies. As he leaned against it, it emitted a soft click and a whirring sound. The arm of the dummy popped upwards and the hand balled into a huge, padded fist. James boggled up at it, then at Ralph. Ralph looked characteristically worried as he settled uncomfortably on the mat.

        "I don't know what kind of classes you are used to in the past, students," Debellows said, clasping his hands behind his back and rocking on his heels. "In fact, I have specifically asked not to be told of the methods of your previous Defence teachers. I have my way of doing things, a way that proved very successful during my years as the leader of the Harriers, and I intend to implement the same methods here. Many of you will be familiar with my exploits, but let me assure you: this is not a lecture class. We will not be discussing my adventures at great length, although they may from time to time prove instructive and illustrative. No, this is going to be a class where we do things. To learn is to perform! And perform you shall. You will most likely end up sore and exhausted. You may return from our classes bruised, sweaty, and bedraggled. But you will become strong! I will do my best to teach you everything I have gleaned from my years of confronting the Dark Arts. Now, I will require a volunteer."

        Debellows' gimlet eyes roamed eagerly over the crowd of second-years. A Ravenclaw named Joseph Torrance raised his hand tentatively.

        "Excellent, that's it, don't be shy," Debellow's called heartily. "Come on up here, young man. I don't know your name, but I'll call you Ignatious."

        "My name's Joseph," the boy said, joining Debellows at the front of the room.

        "Joe, then. Fine, fine. What I want you to do, Joe, is pretend to be a werewolf. I want you to attack me."

        "Attack you, sir?" Joseph said a bit uncertainly.

        "Yes, yes, as a werewolf. Just lunge at me, go for the throat. Don't be afraid to hurt me."

        Joseph swallowed, glancing out at the room, then back at Debellows. Gamely, he crouched, raised his hands with his fingers hooked, and charged, making a fair attempt at a ravenous howl. Just as he jumped, Debellows spun. In a blur of motion, he hooked one leg over the boy, spun him upwards into the air, produced his wand, and shouted an unintelligible command. Joseph froze in midair a moment before he'd have crashed to the mat. His face was still contorted in a comedic growl.

        The class had barely had time to gasp before it was over. There was a moment of awed silence, and then a burst of applause. Graham nudged Morgan, nodding excitedly and pointing.

        "He's perfectly all right," Debellows called, shaking back the sleeves of his tunic. "He's not even paralyzed, just suspended. Isn't that right, Ignatious?" He patted the boy on his upraised foot.

        "It's Joseph, sir," the boy replied, shaking himself and glaring nervously down at the floor.

        "Joe, yes, certainly. The point, of course, is not to harm the poor creature, but simply to get its feet off the ground. If it cannot touch the ground, it cannot charge. If it cannot charge… well, the rest is elementary, as you can see. Brace yourself, Joe."

        Joseph barely had time to thrust his hands out in front of him before Debellows tapped him with his wand. The boy toppled to the mat.

        Debellows looked brightly out over the students. "Any questions?"

        Graham shot his hand into the air. "What was that incantation, sir?"

        "Tsk, tsk, tsk," Debellows chided, ticking his finger at Graham. "Let's not get ahead of ourselves, Mr., ah, young man. 'Stamina before spells' is my motto. Did you happen to notice the maneuver I used to get the werewolf into the air first? That is the key to the entire affair. The spellwork is merely the icing on the cake. No, in this class, we will apply ourselves to the discipline of physically preparing ourselves for the challenges we may face as defenders of right. Did you know, class, that a fit-enough wizard may overcome even the Imperius Curse if he has enough stamina and mental force of will? It is true. For too long, the focus of civilian Defence Against the Dark Arts has been quick and dirty spellwork, protection charms, and tricky hexes. Here, I will not make you merely proficient in theory. Here, I will make you into warriors!"

        He beamed out at the room, his dark crew cut bristling. After a moment, Kevin Murdock began to clap. The rest of the class joined in halfheartedly.

        "I know you probably aren't excited about my approach," Debellows said, raising one hand. "There are those who do not utilize the same methods as I do; those who do not respect the importance of physical prowess, who believe that Expelliarmus spells and Patronuses are more than enough to battle the most evil of foes. In the Harriers, we call those people 'Aurors'." He grinned, and there was a smattering of laughter. Kevin Murdock smirked back at James, nudging a fellow Slytherin. Debellows went on, "But I think you'll find my approach quite effective in the long run. And I promise you: I will not ask any of you to do anything that I am not willing to do right alongside you. And now!" He clapped his hands together eagerly. "Let us see where we stand. How many of you have ever heard of the Gauntlet?"

        James glanced around the room. No one raised their hand this time. Debellows seemed undeterred.

        "The Gauntlet is an ancient tool used by those training for battle. It is a sort of clockwork obstacle course. Granted, being wizards, we have outfitted ours with certain, er, specialized capabilities. There is no point to the Gauntlet other than to surpass it. Surely, you have all heard the phrase 'run the gauntlet'? I am about to illustrate what that phrase actually means."

        Debellows paced briskly across the room and stopped at the end of the line of clockwork apparatuses. He clasped his hands to his elbows and twisted back and forth at the waist, jumped from foot to foot half a dozen times, and then finally dropped to a crouch. He extended one arm, pointing his wand at the line of devices.

        "Defendeum!" he barked.

        Immediately, the apparatuses ratcheted, whirred, and clanked to life. Debellows launched forward, tucking and rolling beneath the first device as it swung a padded club across his path. With a grunt, the man leapt into the remaining clockwork. He moved in a sort of muscular ballet, lunging, crouching, and leaping through the mechanical melee. He dodged spinning wheels of padded fists, ducked under Stunning Spells fired from a bank of pop-up wands, leapt over kicking pommels and snapping padded jaws, and finally dove, flipped, and landed neatly on his feet at the end of the Gauntlet.

        There was no applause this time. James stared, horrified, at the wildly thrashing clockwork monstrosity.

        "So!" Debellows called over the noise of the Gauntlet, jamming his fists onto his hips. "Who'll be first up, then?"

        "He's completely daft!" Graham exclaimed as he limped his way to History of Magic. "He must've taken one too many Stupefies to the brain when he was a Harrier or something!"

        "No spells until Year Four," Ralph said, shaking his head. "And what was that stuff at the end? Who's Artis Decerto?"

        "It's not a who, it's a what," Rose said, falling in next to Ralph. "It's a sort of magical version of karate."

        James nursed his elbow where it'd been pummeled in the Gauntlet. "Where are you going, Rose?"

        "History of Magic," she replied primly.

        Ralph glanced at her. "Our History of Magic?"

        "I don't know what you mean by that," Rose said, pulling herself to her full height, which was approximately to Ralph's Adam's apple. "My schedule has me in History of Magic, second period, Professor Binns. I can't help it if my advisor suggested I skip to some higher-level classes. So things didn't go so well with Professor Debellows?"

        "We aren't supposed to call him 'Professor'," Graham said sourly. "He wants to be our mate, don't you know."

        "The kind of mate that makes you do fifty pushups if you can't manage to avoid getting plastered by a giant, padded fist," Ralph said mournfully.

        "I hate to say it, but it will probably do some of you some good," Rose said, eyeing the boys appraisingly.

        "Just wait until you have your first class with him," James growled. "See how perky you are afterwards."

        As they filed into the History of Magic classroom, the ghostly Professor Binns seemed to be in midlecture. His back was turned as he wrote on the chalkboard with a piece of phantom chalk. Strangely, he seemed to be writing notes on top of older notes, creating a nonsensical mish-mash. There was the distinct impression that the chalkboard contained years of the professor's ghostly writings, layer upon layer fading into dimness. As James knew, Binns had only the slightest grip on temporal reality. Last year, Ted had told James that the school had tried to move the History of Magic classroom to another wing so as to make space for the visiting Alma Alerons. Unfortunately, Professor Binns continued to promptly appear in the old room every day to perform his lectures despite the fact that the classroom had been temporarily converted to an Alma Aleron girls' dormitory. No amount of persuasion could convince the ghost to relocate his classes, and the room was shortly converted back to a classroom.

        Awkwardly, the students found their seats and began to produce parchments and quills. After a minute, Rose cleared her throat rather loudly and called the professor's name. Binns stopped writing on the chalkboard and turned, peering mistily back at Rose through his spectacles.

        "Yes, Miss Granger?"

        There was a ripple of laughter and Rose reddened. "I'm not Miss Granger, sir. I'm Rose Weasley, her daughter. I, er, think we missed the first part of your lecture."

        "Another generation already," Binns muttered to himself. "Very well, then."

        The ghost reached for a phantom eraser and began to swipe it across the chalkboard, producing absolutely no effect.

        "You'll never make sense of his notes. You just have to listen to his lecture," Graham whispered confidentially. "It's a challenge, but the good news is that he's been giving the same tests for forty years. The answers are carved right into the tops of the desks. See?"

        James had had Professor Binns last year, but he'd not heard this particular legend. He looked down at the worn graffiti carved into the desktop. Sure enough, buried in the center, was a list of numbered terms and phrases. At the top, like a headline, was the phrase, 'WHEN IN DOUBT, JUST SAY "GOBLIN REBELLION"'.

        "That's cheating," Rose said without much conviction. "Er, technically."

        "You will recall," Binns said, removing his glasses and wiping them absently on his ancient, ghostly lapel, "last year, we completed our studies with the end of the magical Dark Ages, in which men and wizards finally parted ways after centuries of unrest. The magical world allowed the Muggle kingdoms to believe that they had dispersed and eventually died out. Contrariwise, of course, the magical world developed in secret, as it has existed ever since, bypassing the typical frictions inherent in the interaction of the magical and the nonmagical. This brings us to the very beginnings of the modern age of wizard history, in which strictly magical establishments came into existence. This year, we will study the histories of those establishments, from governments to economy to education. Initially, nearly all of those details were managed inside the same walls, and by the same people. You may be aware that this very castle was the center of the magical world for quite some time before it was exclusively classified as a place of learning."

        Rose studiously scribbled notes on her parchment. Ralph was watching her with curious fascination, either because of her persistence in taking notes or because her handwriting was so meticulously precise. James wished Zane was here to make an amusing drawing of Professor Binns. Idly, he doodled on his own parchment.

        "Magical photography," Binns continued, "while much older than the Muggle equivalent, was still in its infancy at the founding of Hogwarts. Here, in what was, at the time, still an experimental medium, we see the only remaining photographic representation of the original founders of Hogwarts."

        James looked up to see the professor pointing his ghostly wand at a small, framed picture on the wall. James squinted at it but couldn't quite make it out. He hadn't known there were any photos of the founders and he was quite curious to see what they really looked like. He glanced around the room, but no one else seemed to be having any difficulty making out the ancient photo. James pressed his lips together. It was going to have to happen sooner or later. As quietly as he could, he reached into his bag and found the little pocket that held his new glasses. He slipped them out and, as surreptitiously as possible, put them on. Immediately, the ancient photo came into focus.

        "Technically, it is not a photograph as we would know it, but a sort of flash-painting created with specially hexed paints. In any event, the result is a faithful, if crude, image. Here we see all four of the original founders standing in front of their statues in the original rotunda. This was taken rather late in their careers, upon the occasion of the naming and dedication of Hogwarts as a school of witchcraft and wizardry over ten centuries ago."

        James studied the ancient image. It was indeed very grainy and only in black and white. Still, he could clearly make out the four figures, two witches and two wizards. Godric Gryffindor's long face wore his famous mustache and pointed goatee. Salazar Slytherin's features were pinched, with sharp cheeks and chin. He was perfectly bald. Helga Hufflepuff was tall and severe-looking, with long braided hair. Rowena Ravenclaw wore her greying black hair loose, framing a beautiful, smiling face with large, dark eyes. Behind them could be seen their statues, but only from the waist down. The statues had indeed been very large.

        "Look," Graham whispered, pointing at the photo, "there's the ghost in the plinth! You can see it off on the side, next to the statue on the far right, just like in Rita Skeeter's book!"

        Ralph looked puzzled. "The ghost in the plinth?"

        Rose made a pained face. "It's just a myth, Ralph," she whispered. "It was in a book that came out a few years ago: The Founders' Codex. It says that there are secrets buried in a bunch of ancient paintings and pictures and things. Supposedly, there's a ghostly face hidden in the shadows of the statue plinth in the founders' photo."

        "It's right there," Graham rasped. "Skeeter says it was hexed into the photo by Salazar Slytherin himself as a warning of his final curse. It's supposed to be the face of the heir of Slytherin. Of course, that's old news now. The Chamber of Secrets is well-known. It was on the Hogwarts tour up until a few years ago when they shut it down for being unsafe."

        A Hufflepuff named Ashley Doone whispered from the row behind James, "I can see the ghost in the plinth, too! It looks like… like it's wearing glasses! Why, James," she said conspiratorially, "I think the ghost in the plinth is you!"

        James spun to glare back at her. She grinned and covered her mouth. When James turned back, Rose and Ralph were also looking at him.

        "Since when do you wear glasses?" Ralph asked in a whisper.

"I don't!" James rasped. "I just need them to see… things. Far away. Sometimes. Hardly ever!"

"They're kind of cute, James," Rose smiled. "In a brainy sort of way."

        James yanked the glasses off and jammed them back into his bag. Rose looked back at the ancient photo as Professor Binns burbled on obliviously.

        "And Ashley's right," Rose whispered, smiling playfully. "The ghost in the plinth does look a little bit like you. I didn't even see it at first."

        "Go jump off a turret," James mumbled, returning to his doodling.

        That evening, after dinner, James and Rose sat amongst a pile of books and parchments at a corner table in the Gryffindor common room.

        "It's only our first day back," James complained. "I can't believe I'm already sick of homework."

        Rose dipped her quill. "If you'd stop complaining about it and just do it, it wouldn't seem like so much work."

        "Thanks for the pep talk," James grumbled, flipping randomly through an enormous dusty book. "So how many classes am I going to be sharing with you this year anyway? I mean, besides History of Magic and Transfiguration. It's a little embarrassing, you know."

        "I can't imagine why," Rose said without looking up from her parchment, "it's no reflection on you that I got my mum's grasp of basic magical principles. You, on the other hand, got your dad's grasp of slouching off your studies until the very last minute. It's simple genetics."

        James sat up. "You're already done with your Transfiguration homework, then? Maybe you could give me a hand with mine since you're so smart. After all, we're family."

        "You obviously have me confused with someone else," Rose said, stuffing her books into her bag and zipping it. "That might've worked on my mum back in the day, but that's only because she had an overdeveloped sense of responsibility. My Weasley heritage offsets that nicely. By the way, shouldn't you be wearing your glasses to do your homework?"

        James threw her a wilting look. "I only need them to see far away, thank you very much. I'd appreciate it if you kept the whole glasses thing to yourself."

        "It's no big deal. Lots of people wear glasses."

        "Lots of perfect spods," James groused dismally.

        "Damien wears them," Rose pointed out. "And Professor McGonagall. Fiera Hutchins wears them and they look totally cute on her, even if she is a Slytherin. And Clarence Templeton, and Scorpius…"

James nearly knocked his books off the table. "Scorpius wears glasses? How do you know?"

        Rose blinked at James. "I saw him wearing them in Herbology. He needs them to read, I would guess. Unlike you, he seemed perfectly comfortable wearing them in class. They look rather sporting, in fact. They're rimless, with tortoiseshell sides—"

        "All right, all right," James said, waving his hand dismissively. "This isn't making it any better."

        "Despite what you may think," Rose said, leaning in and lowering her voice, "he's not stupid. He may not be the nicest boy in school, but he knows his stuff."

        "He knows how to cast a few spells, big deal," James said, crossing his arms. "His parents probably hired him one of those goblin tutors just to make sure he could show the rest of us up."

        Rose shrugged and looked pointedly across the room. "Looks like he's done with his homework, at any rate."

        James followed his cousin's gaze. Scorpius sat slouched in the high-back chair near the fireplace. He was idly flicking his wand, floating a bit of paper folded to resemble a bat. It bobbed and swooped easily.

        "Bloody show-off," James grumbled under his breath.

        Cameron Creevey saw James looking. He stood and approached the table tentatively. "Hey, James! How was your first day?"

        "Lousy," James griped. "You any good at Transfiguration, Cameron?"

        Cameron shook his head. "I haven't even had my first class, sorry. I just wanted to ask you: is it true about last year? About the aligning of the planets and how you were there for Merlin's return and all that stuff about how you sent that Muggle news fellow packing?"

        "Well," James began, and then shrugged tiredly, "yeah, sure, I guess. It's probably all true enough, but it wasn't like it sounds. I was trying to stop Merlin's return, you know. So really, it was all a big bust."

        Cameron grinned, showing a lot of pink gums. "That's totally excellent!" he exclaimed. "My dad, he's Dennis Creevey, he went to school with your dad, Harry Potter, right?"

        "Sure, if you say so," James agreed, smiling. The boy's enthusiasm was rather contagious. "But I'm not like him, Cameron, really. I'm just a kid. See? No lightning bolt scar. Besides, I had loads of help."

        "Yeah, I heard," Cameron nodded. "Ralph Deedle, whose dad's real name is Dolohov! Nobody saw that one coming, did they? Still, makes sense in hindsight. At least that's what my dad says."

        Rose smirked and pretended to read one of James' books. James shook his head wonderingly. "Where did you get all this, Cameron?"

        "Oh, all the first-years have been talking about it. We can't wait to see what you get up to this year!"

        James frowned. "This year?"

        "Sure!" Cameron enthused. "I mean, it's just like in your dad's day! Every year, he got in some great adventure, didn't he? We've got all the old Daily Prophet articles at home as well as the novelizations. I know the books are a little exaggerated, but my dad, he was there for some of it, and he says they don't even do the real stories justice. My favorite is the one about the Triwizard Tournament, especially the bits with the dragon!"

        James held up his hands, stopping Cameron. "Look, those books are about my dad. Not me. Things are different these days, aren't they? There's no more Voldemort, no more big, scary, evil society bent on taking over the world. Last year was a fluke, all right? Besides, I wasn't a hero like my dad was. If I hadn't had Ralph and Zane—"

        "Zane?" Cameron interrupted. "He's the one from the States?"

        "Yes," James laughed, exasperated. "He—"

        James jumped as something rapped against the window behind him. He spun around, eyes wide. The window was perfectly black. He stared at his reflection in the old glass. "What the—"

        The rap came again, louder, shaking the window in its pane. A small object had thrown itself against the window from the outside. It looked like a moth, but with glowing green wings. James focused on it, furrowing his brow.

        "What is it?" Rose asked, coming around the table to join James.

        James shook his head. The moth threw itself against the window again, rattling the glass with its wings. It was remarkably strong considering its size.

        "It's a lunarfly," Rose said, recognizing the flying shape. "Let it in before it knocks itself senseless. They're harmless."

        James unlatched the window and swung it open just as the lunarfly dove again. It shot through the open window and past James. Cameron ducked as the glowing moth spun out over the room. It swooped wildly, flitting through the students scattered around the room, leaving a trail of faintly glowing dust behind it. Scorpius sat up and peered at the moth, narrowing his eyes, as it wove and arced, drawing dusty greenish lines in the air. Finally, as if exhausted, the moth fluttered to a halt on the table, landing on James' pile of books. It folded its wings and twitched its antennae at James.

        "Whoa!" Cameron said excitedly. James raised his eyes.

        The lines of glowing dust had condensed into a shape. It floated in the air, drifting very slowly toward the ground. James recognized the shape. He grinned.

        "Cameron, meet Zane," James said, gesturing to the familiar face formed by the glowing dust. "Zane, we were just talking about you. How'd you know?"

        The dusty representation of Zane's face smiled. "It works! Hi, James! Hold on a second. Raphael, Anna, tell Professor Franklyn it works. I'm getting through! They can see me! All right, anyway. Hey, everybody. Hi, Rose! Where's the Ralphinator?"

        "He and Albus are down with the Slytherins," James replied. "Zane, what is this?"

        Zane's shimmering face grimaced as if to say it's a long story. "You ever hear the bit about the Chaos Butterfly? The one that flaps its wings in Paris and causes a hurricane in Los Angeles? Well, this is that butterfly. It's a moth, really, but the point is it doesn't cause the hurricanes, it just knows when they're going to happen. Franklyn says it has some sort of psychic connection to the cosmos. Anyway, it can tune into stuff thousands of miles away. The trick was just to get it to tune into the right thing. At the moment, it's tuned in to my face over here at Alma Aleron. So how do I look?"

        James leaned in, studying the strange, glowing phenomenon. "Like a seasick ghost."

        "That's as good as it gets, for now," Zane nodded. "Still, it's a big leap for the Department of Experimental Magical Communications. Raphael says we'll probably get a grant for this. Anyway, I've only got a minute before the dust settles. How are you all doing?"

        "Fine," James replied. "Tell Cameron here that there aren't going to be any more exciting adventures this year."

        "There better not be," Zane agreed. "James swore them off last year, Cam. That's the only reason I let my parents drag me back to America. Anyway, I'm fading out, I can tell. I'll be in touch, you guys. We have a few other techniques to test out. Should be fun!"

        "All right, Zane," James called as the glowing face began to disintegrate. "See you later!"

        "Wait!" Zane's voice cried, growing faint. "Did I hear you say your brother was with the Slyth…" His voice vanished as the glowing moth dust faded out of the air. On the table in front of James, the moth flexed its wings. It took off again and flitted silently through the open window. James clasped it shut.

        "That was dead brilliant!" Cameron suddenly exclaimed. James smiled, shook his head, and shooed the smaller boy away. The rest of the Gryffindors in the common room went back to their business.

        "That's complete nonsense," Rose said, settling back into her seat. "There's no such thing as the Chaos Butterfly. It's just a metaphor."

        James grinned smugly at Rose. "You do fancy him!"

        Rose scowled at him. "Now why in the world would you say that?"

        "Because," James said simply, "you waited until he was gone to say that."

        Rose blushed and looked away, fuming.

        "See?" James said, nudging her. "I'm not a dolt about everything, am I?"

        Rose harrumphed and gathered her bag. "Enjoy your Transfiguration homework," she said, standing. "And by the way, I saw your History of Magic homework answers. You got three of them wrong, and I'm not going to tell you which ones." She batted her eyes and smiled sweetly. "Goodnight, then!"

        James slumped in his chair, watching her stalk up the stairs to the girls' dormitory. Across the room, Cameron grinned at him.

        No more adventures this year, James thought. That was a good thing, wasn't it? Of course it was. Besides, the trio was broken. Zane was gone, back across the ocean and in a completely different time zone. That had never happened to Harry Potter. It had always been Harry, Ron, and Hermione, the magic trio, inseparable even to this day. Not so for James, and that, he told himself, was just fine. Let Albus have an adventure if there was one to be had. After all, he was the one everyone said looked just like Dad when he'd been younger.

        James' forehead itched. Without thinking about it, he scratched it, pushing his unruly hair up. Just like he'd told Cameron, there was no lightning bolt scar there. James wasn't his father.

        When James lowered his hand, he saw Scorpius Malfoy staring at him from across the room. His face was inscrutable. After a moment, Scorpius looked away, as if bored. If there was any proof that the era of Harry Potter style adventures was over, it was sitting right over there: Scorpius Malfoy with a Gryffindor crest embroidered on his robes.

        James sighed, opened his Transfiguration textbook, and began his homework.

        The first days of school passed in a blur. James attended his classes and made a concerted effort to take notes and tackle his homework. His diligence sprang partly from his own resolve not to get behind early in the year, but was also partly due to the presence of Rose in many of his classes. She served as a constant, disgruntled source of competition since James was determined not to allow his first-year cousin to outperform him despite her natural braininess.

        One class Rose didn't share with James was Care of Magical Creatures, which was still taught by Hagrid. Hagrid embarrassed James by greeting him with a gigantic, bone-cracking bear hug at the beginning of class.

        "I didn't have th' chance to say so at th' service, James," Hagrid said in what he thought was a confidential voice, "but I'm so sorry about your Granddad. Arthur was a great man, 'e was."

        James nodded, a little annoyed at having been reminded of his granddad's death. It had been a few days since he'd thought about it. Hagrid invited the class to sit on the multitude of pumpkins maturing in his garden. He spent the period explaining what the class was about and describing the animals he'd introduce the students to over the course of the year. James didn't listen particularly closely, gazing instead out over the lake, his thoughts far away and melancholy.

        During his Wednesday free period, James sat with Ralph and Rose at a table in the library. He took the opportunity to write a short letter to his parents. When he was finished, it occurred to him to write a note to his Cousin Lucy as well, as he'd promised. He dipped his quill and jotted the first things that came to his mind.

Dear Lucy,

Hi! I hope Uncle P. and Aunt A. aren't dragging you all over the place too much, but if

they are, I hope you are having some fun and seeing some cool stuff. The school year is starting all

right. The new Defence teacher is Kendrick Debellows, the famous Harrier. Ask your dad if you

don't know who he is. He's pretty hardcore, and he doesn't have much good to say about Aurors,

so that class looks to be a bust. Al would say hi if he knew I was writing you. He ended up in

Slyth after all! I promised I would let him tell Mum and Dad, but he didn't say I couldn't tell

you. Rose is sitting right here and she says hi and get a picture of anything cool you see if you are

anyplace interesting, even if you're sick of seeing it all. Tell Mol we all said hello. Send a letter

and any pics back with Nobby, all right?

Sincerely,

James

        James let Rose sign the letter to Lucy as well. When they were done, he took the letter back and reread it. Then, thoughtfully, he added:

        P.S. If you get bored, you could do me a little favor. Look up anything you can find about something called the Gatekeeper or the Sentinel of Worlds. It might be a bit hard to dig up, but I know you like figuring stuff out, and it'd be a great help to me. But don't say anything to anyone else about it. I promised to keep it a secret. Thanks.

         James finished writing, then quickly sealed both letters and stuffed them into his satchel. That afternoon, after their last classes, Rose and Ralph accompanied James to the Owlery. There, James attached the letters to Nobby's leg whilst Rose and Ralph stood near the door.

        "I'm glad I brought a cat," Rose said, wrinkling her nose. "This place is right rancid."

        "Cats can't deliver post," James replied.

        "Well, an owl can't snuggle up on your lap by the fireplace."

        Ralph nodded. "Or cough a hairball on your shoe."

        Rose elbowed him. James finished attaching the letters to Nobby and stood back.

        "Take Mum and Dad's letter first, Nobby. Lucy might send some stuff back."

        Nobby screeched agreement. He spread his wings, balanced on the perch for a moment, and then launched. James craned his head as Nobby thrust upward, past the ranks of his fellow owls, and disappeared through a window at the top of the Owlery.

        As the three students made their way back through the castle to dinner, James asked Rose pointedly, "So how was your first Defence Against the Dark Arts class?"

        Rose pressed her lips together and hefted her satchel. "He wouldn't let me run the Gauntlet."

        Ralph glanced at her. "Well, that's a good thing, right?"

        "No, Ralph, it isn't. The boys all had to run it. Debellows says girls are 'too delicate' for it. He set us up doing one-on-one drills with each other. None of the other girls take it seriously, either. It was a complete waste of time."

        "I hadn't really noticed it," James said, "but now that you mention it, he doesn't have any girls run the Gauntlet in our class either."

        "Or face the clockwork ogre," Ralph added. "That club may be padded, but it packs a wallop."

        "You should be glad you're a girl, then, Rose," James said fervently. "It's your free pass out of that bruise factory."

        Rose shook her head, annoyed. "You're both completely missing the point! Girls aren't any less capable than boys. I bet I could beat most of you through the Gauntlet if I had a chance."

        James stared incredulously at her. "You want to go through that thing?"

        "Well," she replied, hedging a bit, "not really. I mean, it does look pretty brutal. But it's the principle of the matter."

        Ralph shook his head. "This is the first time in my life I wish I'd been born a girl."

        "I'm going to write Mum and Dad about it," Rose declared firmly. "When Mum hears that…"

        Rose's voice trailed away as a cold push of air suddenly rippled her robes. James and Ralph felt it as well. The three stopped in the corridor, glancing around.

        James frowned. "What was that?"

        Neither of the others responded. There didn't appear to be any obvious source of the breeze. There were no windows in this section of the castle. Closed doors lined the walls, lit by a series of lanterns hung on chains. As James looked, the lantern at the end of the corridor winked out. James nudged Ralph and pointed.

        Ralph's voice wavered. "Was that already burnt out, or did it just—"

        The lantern next to it flickered and died, as if someone had blown the flame out.

        "Maybe it's just the wind," Rose said uncertainly. "Come on, let's—"

        Two more lanterns blinked out in quick succession. James glanced at Rose, then Ralph, his eyes wide. Suddenly, much stronger than before, a cold wind tore down the corridor, streaming through their robes and whipping their hair. It blew the rest of the lanterns out, throwing the corridor into murky darkness.

        "Look!" Rose cried breathlessly, her voice unnaturally high. James and Ralph followed her shaking, pointing hand. There was a figure moving down the corridor. It floated above the floor, its head lowered, obscuring the face. It drifted toward them swiftly and silently. James grabbed Ralph and Rose's sleeves, pulling them as he attempted to back away, but his legs felt frozen. The figure was moving too quickly. It was nearly upon them. Suddenly, just as it heaved directly in front of them, it raised its head.

        Ralph gasped. Rose uttered a little scream. James blinked.

        "Cedric?" he exclaimed, his heart pounding. "What are you doing?!"

        The ghost of Cedric Diggory straightened and grinned at them. "I've been practicing," he said in his distant, ghostly voice.

        "Y-you know him?" Rose stammered, recovering a little.

        "Yeah, we know him," Ralph replied. "That wasn't right, Ced. What was that all about anyway?"

        Cedric looked taken aback. "I'm the 'Specter of Silence'. I've been practicing over the summer, trying to create a little mystique. What, was it too much?"

        James nodded, his eyes wide. "Yeah, I'd say it was a bit much! Can you, you know, fix the lights?"

        The ghost glanced back at the snuffed lanterns. "Actually, they're a lot easier to put out than to relight. Hold on."

        Cedric closed his eyes and screwed up his face. After a moment, two of the lanterns flickered back alight.

        "That's a bit better," Rose sighed. "But still. Don't do that again, all right? At least not to me."

        Cedric smiled. "You must be Hermione's daughter. You have her hair, although it's a bit redder."

        "I prefer the term 'auburn'," Rose said. "Anyway, yes. Nice to meet you, er, Cedric. I remember hearing about you. Care to accompany us to dinner?"

        Cedric looked thoughtful. "I don't think so. It's not good for the mystique, hanging about in the Great Hall with everyone there."

        "All the other ghosts do it," Ralph commented. "The Bloody Baron's down there nearly every meal, waving his sword around and teaching the first-years bad words."

        "Yeah…," Cedric agreed doubtfully. "That's fine for him. He's been around since forever…"

        James narrowed his eyes. "How many people have seen you, Cedric? I mean, not counting us?"

        The ghost floated nervously. "Besides you? Er… does the portrait of Snape count?"

        James shook his head.

        "What about the Muggle intruder?"

        "No."

        "Well," Cedric admitted, "that's pretty much it, then."

        "Wait a minute," Rose said, raising her hand. "You're a shy ghost?"

        Cedric grimaced. "Not 'shy'. I was never shy. I've just been… busy."

        "Busy learning how to blow out lanterns and practicing being the 'Specter of Silence'?" James clarified, tilting his head.

        "Look, it's just different, that's all," the ghost said. "I haven't been down to a dinner in the Great Hall since the night I died, over twenty years ago."

        Ralph spoke up, "So? Not much has changed, I'm guessing. From the looks of things down there, they've been running it pretty much the same since the founders themselves. Come on, it'll be fun even if you can't exactly eat the food."

        Cedric shook his head sadly. "I can't. Not yet." He heaved a ghostly sigh. "Last time I was there, I sat with my friends. I was on my way out to what I hoped would be a victory in the final challenge of the Triwizard Tournament. Everybody toasted me with their pumpkin juice and wished me good luck. I promised them I'd tell them all about my adventure the next day at dinner, with or without the victory cup…" Cedric's ghostly eyes had gone thoughtful. "Cho Chang met me by the door on the way out of the hall. She wished me luck in the maze. I wanted to kiss her, but I didn't, not right there in the entrance to the Great Hall with everyone looking. I promised myself I would kiss her afterwards. Actually, I think I cared even more about that than I did about winning the cup. Kissing Cho was going to be the real prize…" Cedric paused, and then blinked, shaking himself. He glanced at James, Rose, and Ralph, as if remembering they were there. "But that never happened, of course. It feels like it was yesterday. It feels like if I went down to dinner now, Cho would be there, watching for me. There would be Stebbins, and Cadwallader, and Muriel, all anxious for me to regale them with the details of my trip through the maze. That's how it feels to me, but it's not true. They wouldn't be down there. Not really. They've all grown and moved on. I'm just a distant memory. Instead, my old table would be full of people I don't know. They'd not even recognize me." He shook his head again. "Maybe someday I'll be able to come down. But not yet. I can't."

        Rose reached out to pat Cedric's arm, but her hand went right through it. "I'm so sorry, Cedric," she said. "You can come with us whenever you want to. Your old friends won't be there, but there might be some new friends waiting."

        Cedric nodded and smiled, but James didn't think the ghost believed Rose's words.

        "Will we be seeing you around?" James asked him.

        "Sure," Cedric agreed. "Maybe the whole 'Specter of Silence' thing is a bit too much. Next time, I'll tone it down."

        The three students turned and made their way back along the corridor. As they rounded the corner, James glanced back. There was no sign of Cedric's ghost, but James had a sense that he was still there anyway. James waved goodbye, then caught up to Ralph and Rose.

        As they passed the great open doorway looking out over the courtyard, James stopped. In the blue evening gloom, a small group of students was gathered near the gate. James noticed they were all Slytherins, and Albus was standing in the center of them. With a start, James realized it was Wednesday night, the night Tabitha Corsica had planned to 'make arrangements' with Albus.

        "Hold up," James said quietly, stopping Ralph and Rose. As casually as he could, he sauntered over to the door and slipped into the shadows, watching the group of Slytherins.

        "What's going on out there?" Rose asked, joining James. James shushed her.

        Tabitha was talking to Albus, smiling prettily, nodding her head. Philia Goyle and Tom Squallus hovered nearby along with a few other Slytherins whom James didn't know. James couldn't hear what they were saying. As the crowd shifted, James saw that Tabitha Corsica was holding something tall and thin, wrapped in a black sleeve.

        "That's most of the Slytherin Quidditch team," Ralph explained in a low voice. "There's Beetlebrick. He's the Keeper. Fiera and Havelock are Beaters."

        James narrowed his eyes. "One guess what Corsica has in that black cover."

        The Slytherins suddenly turned and began to walk out of the courtyard. Albus was leading, laughing, and gesturing happily. James slipped through the doorway, following.

        "Where are you going?" Ralph asked.

        "What's it look like? I'm going to follow them. Corsica is planning to put Al on that flying curse of hers."

        Ralph grimaced. "What are you planning to do, stop them?"

        "I know you can't help me, Ralph," James said quickly, "since they're your housemates and all. But I'm going to go see what they're planning, at least."

        "It's not that," Ralph replied. "I just think it's Albus' choice. I sort of think maybe… you shouldn't get involved."

        "I'll take that into consideration," James muttered darkly. He jumped out into the quickly darkening courtyard. A moment later, he heard footsteps as someone followed him.

        "You don't have to come, Rose," James said, stopping at the courtyard gate.

        "What kind of a thing is that to say?" she whispered harshly. "I was going to spy on them whether you did or not."

        James smiled at her. Together, they hunkered down and slunk around the edge of the gate, watching for the departing Slytherins. The gloom of the approaching night made it difficult to see. After a moment, Rose pointed. James followed her direction and saw the robed figures cresting a hill a hundred yards away. They were heading for the Quidditch pitch, of course. Keeping as low as they could, Rose and James followed.

        As they neared the pitch, James motioned for Rose to follow him. He led her in a curving path around the side of the Gryffindor grandstand. As quietly as they could, they crept up the wooden staircase to the lowest level. There, they crouched before the guardrail and peered down into the dark pitch.

        The group of Slytherins stood on the centerline. James could hear their voices indistinctly. Tabitha seemed to be the one speaking. There was some motion as the figures moved about, and James silently cursed himself for leaving his glasses in his bag.

        "What's going on?" he whispered helplessly. "I can barely see who is who."

        "Tabitha just took the cover off of a broom," Rose whispered back. "She seems to be explaining how it works to Albus. He looks pretty anxious to fly it. He can barely stand still. Looks like he has to go to the loo."

        James could see what happened next. Tabitha held the broom out to Albus. He took it in both hands and looked at it, then looked back up at her. James couldn't see his face, but he knew Albus was grinning that infectious, reckless grin of his. Finally, the other Slytherins stepped back away from him, leaving him in the center of a rough circle. Albus hefted the broom with one hand, as if testing its weight and balance on his palm. Then, deftly, he tossed it into the air. It came down and bobbed next to him at hip height. James struggled with the urge to shout out, to warn Albus. James had ridden that broom once, and it had been a dreadful disaster. There was something extremely unusual about the magic of it. It had fought James and very nearly killed him. When Tabitha rode it during Quidditch matches, it seemed to exercise a very suspicious influence over the brooms around it, and even, James suspected, the Snitch itself. Rose hooked her hand into James' collar and pulled him down. James hadn't realized he'd begun to stand, preparing to call a warning to his brother. He glanced at her, his eyes wide.

        "Don't," she mouthed, shaking her head.

        James looked back down at the pitch. Albus reached out and wrapped his hand around the handle of the floating broom. Quickly, as if purposely not thinking about it, he swung a leg over it, straddled it, and kicked off. The broom shot straight up, spinning slowly and carrying Albus high into the deepening night. It reached the top level of the grandstands and stopped gently. Albus was merely a black shape outlined against the dusky sky. As James watched, he crouched low over the broomstick. It shot forward, perfectly in control. Distantly, Albus ballyhooed happily, his voice echoing over the nearby hills.

        Rose leaned toward James. "I had flying lessons with Albus on Tuesday," she whispered. "He couldn't fly like that then."

        James pressed his lips into a thin line. He glared down at the assembly of Slytherins on the field but couldn't make anything out. If any of them were directly influencing Albus' flight with their wands, he couldn't tell it.

        In the silence of the descending night, James could hear the swish and flap of his brother's inaugural flight. Albus flickered and swooped over the pitch and the nearby hills, whooping with delight. Finally, after a few minutes of random soaring, he dipped into a long, curving bank over all four of the house grandstands, picking up speed. James and Rose crouched as low as they could as Albus swept in over the Gryffindor gangway. He turned the broomstick easily and pulled it to a hovering stop near the flags that topped the grandstand. James held his breath, hoping that the shadow of the seats was enough to hide him and Rose. Albus took a deep breath, aimed the broom back down toward the pitch, and suddenly stopped. He seemed to be looking directly at James, but in the darkness, it was very hard to tell. He was probably looking past James, down to the Slytherins standing in the center of the pitch below. Finally, Albus leaned forward. The broomstick pitched into a steep dive, sweeping over the rows of seats. James crouched as low as he could, fearing Albus might actually graze him when he passed over the guardrail. As James ducked, a hand reached down and tousled his hair, fleetingly. The wind of Albus' passing subsided, and James heard his brother laughing as he swooped into the darkness of the pitch.

        "That little prat!" James rasped. Rose shushed him.

        Albus descended in a tightening circle, finally bringing the broom to a landing as gentle as a dandelion seed. The Slytherins applauded and collapsed around Albus, congratulating him.

        "A natural," Tabitha's voice rang out on the breeze. "Just like your father."

        "'Natural' nothing!" James hissed under his breath. Rose tugged at his robes, pulling him down into the shadows again. Together, they watched the group of Slytherins walk back across the pitch, their voices lost in the rising wind. As James watched, he saw Albus glance up at him and grin.

        After a minute, James and Rose climbed down from the grandstand and retraced their steps back to the castle.

        "You saw the way he operated that broom," James exclaimed, struggling to keep his voice low. "Or to be perfectly accurate, the way it operated him!"

        Rose answered thoughtfully, "I admit it looked a little suspicious. But you said yourself you could barely control a broom until you got your Thunderstreak. Maybe Albus just needed to get on the right sort of broom to show his stuff."

        James shook his head, exasperated. "You don't understand. I tried to ride that broom myself, once. It about murdered me!"

        "Well, you weren't supposed to be riding it, then, were you? Some new brooms are smart that way. Even yours has the 'Extra-Gestural Enhancement' option, doesn't it? Once it bonded with you, anybody else who tried to ride it would have serious trouble."

        "Look," James said, throwing up his hands, "you just have to trust me on this, Rose. That broom's cursed, somehow. And Tabitha is probably the one that cursed it."

        Rose looked sideways at him. "Why would you say that?"

        James shook his head. "It's a long story. But I'm telling you, there's something especially wicked about her. You probably wouldn't believe me even if I told you. Hardly anybody else does."

        "Well," Rose replied, keeping her voice as even as possible, "maybe there's a good reason for that."

        "Who's side are you on anyway?"

        "Excuse me," Rose said, getting angry. "You mean am I on James Potter's side or Albus Potter's side? Because I didn't know I needed to choose."

        James sighed hugely. "Just forget it. Sorry, Rose."

        Rose looked at him for a long moment as they neared the courtyard gate. "Flying runs in the Potter blood, James. You can't know that Albus isn't just that good by his nature. The whole reason first-years are allowed to try out for Quidditch is because of how good your dad was his first year. But if there is something strange about that broom, or Tabitha Corsica herself, I'll be the first one to help you tell Albus about it. All right?"

        James smiled wanly. "You promise?"

        Rose nodded. Together, they entered the courtyard and climbed into the light of the main hall. Ralph was sitting on the bottom of the main staircase, waiting for them. James smiled.

"He flew it, I'm guessing," Ralph said, getting up to join them.

"How'd you know?" Rose asked.

        "Albus and the rest just passed me on the way in to dinner," Ralph said. "Albus came over and told me to give you a message when you came in. He said he might just steal your place at the next family Quidditch match."

        James rolled his eyes and glanced at Rose. "Don't you laugh," he said, pointing a finger at her.

        "I didn't say anything," she replied, covering her mouth with her hand. "Come on. Let's get inside for dinner before they close the doors on us."

6. THE KING OF THE CATS

Thursday morning, James and Ralph's first class was Wizard Literature. The classroom was a semicircular gallery attached to the rear of the library. Windows lined the curving wall, filling the room with morning sunlight. The new Wizard Literature teacher, Juliet Revalvier, sat at her desk, leafing through a large book as the students found their seats. Compared to most of the Hogwarts teaching staff, Professor Revalvier was relatively young and petite. Her dark blonde hair was cut shoulder-length, framing an open, friendly face. With her reading glasses on, James thought she looked a bit like a brainy pixie.

        "Not you again," Ralph whispered as Rose slipped into the seat next to him.

        "I specifically asked to test into this class if I could," Rose explained, pulling her Wizlit textbook out of her book bag. "I've got all of Revalvier's books on the classics of magical literature. You know, she even wrote a few novels herself, a couple of decades ago, although they were mostly marketed to Muggles under a made-up name. It was all a bit controversial."

        "Yeah, I know about those," James said, remembering Cameron Creevey and his mention of the novelizations of the adventures of Harry Potter. "That was her, was it?"

        "Well, her and a few other people. It was a test project, spearheaded by one of the big wizard publishing companies. I think the problem was that it was, if anything, rather too much of a success. The Ministry ended up getting involved and there was quite a hoo-ha. Apparently, publishing true accounts of the wizarding world as fiction in the Muggle world is a violation of the Law of Secrecy, although the Wizengamot never convicted her of anything. She was stripped of most of her royalties, which explains why she ended up here, teaching."

        As if on cue, Professor Revalvier closed her book and stood, tucking her reading glasses into her robe. She consulted the clock on the back wall of the room and cleared her throat.

        "Behold, what manner of worlds are these," she said, smiling a little and letting her gaze roam from face to face across the room, "that conjure from the souls of men so readily the primest keystones of the heart? How were wrought these realms that no hand can touch, yet spear to the foundation of all that is most genuine? Dare I declare the pedestal upon which these kingdoms arise and the bricks its walls comprise? Not stone nor wood nor precious jewels can stand the trials of time, further than the realms begotten of words and thoughts and rhyme."

        The professor took a deep breath, then, in a different voice, said, "That was a quote from one of the magical world's oldest and most revered ballads, The Heraldium. There is no record of the author of that work, nor any reliable date of when it was penned. We know nothing of the time in which it was written: not who was king, not in what city it originated, not even the language that framed it. And yet the ballad itself persists. If there was any proof of the theme of the ballad—that there is no kingdom more beautiful, effective, and everlasting than the kingdom made of words—then that proof is The Heraldium itself, which has long outlasted the civilization that birthed it."

        Out of the corner of his eye, James saw Rose scribbling notes feverishly. This, he knew, was just the sort of stuff she lived for. He looked down at his own parchment, which was still blank, and wondered if it was worth the effort to take his own notes, or if there was any hope of Rose letting him crib off of her.

        "The magical world is very old, and therefore has a very rich literary history, as evidenced by the library adjacent," Revalvier went on, gesturing toward the packed bookshelves lining the back of the room. "We have no hope of exploring even a tenth of that history. We will, however, choose major works representative of each age, and by digging into them as deeply as we can, seek to better understand the times from which they come. Many people find literature boring. Those unfortunate people have simply never had the stories opened well for them. I will do my best to open these stories well for you, students. With any luck, we will see these tales come alive. And not just the tales in the special section of the library where the books must be chained to the shelves to keep them from escaping."

        There was a ripple of polite laughter. Revalvier accepted it with a deprecating smile.

        "We will begin our exploration of the world of magical literature with a challenge. Rather than a famous classic or a revered ballad, let us begin with something a bit more accessible. Let us have some volunteers. Will someone tell me, please, what was your favorite bedtime story whilst growing up?"

        James looked around the room. A Ravenclaw girl named Kendra Corner raised her hand. Revalvier nodded at her encouragingly.

        "Like, any story?" Kendra asked. "Even if it's short?"

        Revalvier smiled. "Especially if it is short, Miss Corner."

        "Well," Kendra said, her cheeks reddening a little, "my favorite story when I was little was The Three Foolish Harridans."

        "Very good, Miss Corner," Revalvier said. "I imagine many of us have heard that account of the three old women taking their goods to market. A very old story, that, and an excellent example. Anyone else?"

        Graham answered next, "The story I remember most is the one about the giant and the beanstalk. Some Muggle kid finds some magic beans, and then climbs the magical beanstalk that grows out of them. A giant lives at the top, and the Muggle kid tries to pinch the giant's stuff, but the giant catches the kid and smashes him up into bread. The moral was about how careless magic brings trouble for everybody."

        "Another classic example, Mr. Warton," Revalvier agreed, "although yours illustrates how stories tend to evolve over time, based on shifts in culture."

        Several others described their favorite stories, ending with Rose, whose favorite story, not surprisingly, was one of the tales of Beedle the Bard. "Babbitty Rabbitty and her Cackling Stump. My mum read it to me from a very old version of the book she got from a former Headmaster, Albus Dumbledore," she said with some pride.

        "Certainly, most of us are very familiar with The Tales of Beedle the Bard," Professor Revalvier said, leaning comfortably on her desk, "though not all of us were fortunate enough to be read them from such an illustrious source. Indeed, these are all very good examples of classic wizarding literature. They all have some very important things in common. They are all quite old. They are all primarily passed on by word of mouth. And they are all meant to teach important life lessons. Less obviously, these stories tell us subtle things about the times in which they were created. For instance, the days of frail old women pushing cartloads of goods to market are long past, and yet they seem familiar to us because we all grew up with the story of The Three Foolish Harridans. The beauty of great literature, even in the form of children's stories, is that they teach us things about life, history, the world we live in, and even about ourselves, without us ever knowing it. The point is, the very best lessons in life are the ones we are not aware of learning. These are the lessons literature can teach us."

        "Let us look at another example, one which was not mentioned so far. When I was a little girl, my favorite bedtime story was a tale called The King of the Cats. Do any of you know that story?"

        Tentatively, Ralph raised his hand. "I think I know that one, but my version might be a little different. I grew up with Muggles. Or so I thought."

        "Many stories with magical origins have found their way into Muggle myth and legend, Mr. Deedle. Would you care to tell us the version you are familiar with?"

        Ralph sucked his upper lip for a moment, thinking. "Well, all right," he agreed. He took a deep breath and began. "This man is going for a walk in the country one day, really far away from where he lives. No one else is around and there aren't any houses for days in any direction. All of a sudden, he sees a whole bunch of mice. At first, he thinks that he should chase them off, but then he notices that they aren't acting like regular mice. They seem to be walking in a sort of procession, and they are carrying something. The man crouches down behind some bushes because he doesn't want to scare the mice, but he's really curious about what they are carrying. As they pass in front of him, he sees that they are carrying another mouse on a little tiny bed. The man realizes that the mouse on the bed is dead, and that this is a little mouse funeral procession.

        "As quietly as he can, he follows the procession deep into the woods until they come to a big, wide clearing, all bright in the sun. In the center of the clearing is a tiny stone stairway leading to nothing. It just goes up and stops. There is a big cat sitting at the bottom of the stairs, blocking them. It's all striped and golden and very serious and solemn-looking. The cat watches the mouse procession as it crosses the clearing, getting closer and closer. The man almost calls out to the mice because he is sure the cat will eat them, funeral or not. But then the mice finally get to the cat and stop right in front of its paws. They put the tiny bed down and back away. The big gold cat is watching the whole time with its huge green eyes. Finally, it bends down and says something to the dead mouse. The mouse jumps up, alive and dancing. It darts between the golden cat's legs and runs up the little stone staircase. The man watches, still hiding, as the mouse runs right past the end of the stone stairs, still going up. The mouse climbs further into the sky, as if on invisible stairs, until it is completely out of sight. The man can hardly believe what he is seeing.

        "When he looks down again, the rest of the mice are all gone. Only the big golden cat remains, and it is staring right at him with its big green eyes. The man is scared of the cat, so he turns on his heels and runs as fast as he can out of the woods. He doesn't stop running until he gets back on the path, and he runs the whole path all the way back to his own land and into his own house. That night, the man sits down at dinner with his family. He tells them everything he saw that day, and the last thing he says is, 'That cat was surely the King of the Mice!' Just then, the big old family cat, which up to that moment had been sleeping in front of the fire, jumps up on its hind feet and says, plain as day, 'Then I am the King of the Cats!' And it leaps up the chimney and is never seen again."

        Ralph finished telling the story and the room fell strangely quiet. Professor Revalvier had her eyes closed, as if soaking in the story. The bright morning sunlight made the room feel strangely sleepy. It seemed to buzz with warmth, trancelike, as if time had slowed down while Ralph spoke.

        "That was a wonderful telling, Mr. Deedle," Professor Revalvier said, opening her eyes slowly. "It was indeed slightly different than the version I remember from my youth, but interestingly so. Have any of the rest of you heard that story before?"

        There were no hands in the room. Ralph glanced around, apparently rather surprised.

        "What is curious about that story?" Revalvier asked the class. "Can anyone point out a specific difference from this tale and the others we mentioned earlier?"

        Murdock raised his hand. "For one thing, it doesn't make any sense."

        The professor inclined her head slightly. "Is that so? Does anyone else agree with Mr. Murdock's judgment?"

        There were nods throughout the room.

        "Not that I didn't like it," Morgan Patonia added, raising her hand. "It was nice. But it was also a little creepy."

        Revalvier narrowed her eyes. "And contrary to what might be expected, the creepiness is somewhat appealing, yes?"

        More nods in the room, although they were accompanied by puzzled looks.

        "Why do you suppose your parents might not have told you this story, apart from Mr. Deedle, of course?"

        There was a long pause. Finally, Rose raised her hand.

        "All the stories I got told when I was growing up were nice stories," she said. "They sometimes had evil witches and wizards in them, but they didn't have any dead mice or anything. And they all ended happily, or at least had a moral to them that made them seem happy even if the main characters were unlucky or did the wrong thing."

        Revalvier looked thoughtful. "And this story is not happy? Nor has a moral?"

        James knew not to respond to an obvious question like that. Obvious answers were never the right answers. Revalvier seemed to approve of the silence.

        "Tonight's homework, students, is for you to write down the story of The King of the Cats," she said, walking behind her desk. "I'd prefer that you not consult each other about how the story went. The point of this exercise is not to perfectly repeat the story as told by Mr. Deedle, but to write it as you remember it. If your version is somewhat different, all the better. Looking at how magical stories change through retelling is a very interesting way to learn things about the teller of the story. In this case, the teller is you, yourselves. We shall see after you have finished this task if you still feel that the story has no moral."

        Revalvier sat down behind her desk and put her reading glasses back on. "You are exempted, of course, Mr. Deedle. A reward for your delightful recital of the story. And now, class, please turn in your textbooks to chapter one."

        The remainder of the class was spent in a lecture about the historical background of the golden age of magical literature, from which sprang some of the most well-known (and least read) wizard classics. Revalvier assured the students that she would do 'everything necessary' to make the stories relevant to them, and James had some hope that she might actually succeed in that endeavor. He was quite curious about how she meant to do it, and looked forward to finding out.

        As they left the class, James said to Ralph, "Nice work, speaking up like that. You saved yourself an essay."

        Rose asked, "Did your dad really tell you that story when you were a kid?"

        "Actually, no," Ralph admitted. "My grandma did, whenever I went to stay with her."

        James glanced at Ralph. "I assumed it'd been your dad too. After all, he had the wizard background, growing up."

        Rose commented, "Well, it's just like Professor Revalvier said. Lots of wizard stories leak out into Muggle culture as legends and myths. Obviously, The King of the Cats is like that. That's how Ralph's grandma knew it."

        Ralph nodded. "She was full of stories like that. They were all a little weird and eerie, but I liked that about them. They were… well, they were sort of magical. I had really mad dreams whenever she told me those stories. Not bad dreams exactly, but…" He shook his head, unable to find the right word.

        "That happens to me whenever I eat my Uncle Dmitri's special paprikash," Graham interjected. "He makes it every Christmas. He says the magic ingredient is powdered Mandrake root, but Mum says the magic ingredient is a pint of goblin rum."

        James had expected the Wizlit essay to be fairly easy, but as he sat in the library that night with his quill and parchment, he found himself staring out the window at the moon, tapping his quill idly. Finally, he shook his head as if clearing it.

        "It's really strange," he commented to Ralph, who was bent over his Arithmancy problems. "I can totally remember you telling us the story in class. I could probably sit here and tell it back to you right now. But when I try to write it down, it goes all murky in my head."

        Ralph sat back and stretched. "What do you mean? If you could tell it, why can't you write it?"

        "Beats me. I mean, I know it starts with a guy walking through the woods. I write down that much, and suddenly, I can't remember if it's day or night when he's walking. I start to imagine where he might be walking to. Why's he so far away from his own home? And why is it no one else lives anywhere around for miles and miles? It's mice he sees, right? Only, when I start to write, I keep imagining squirrels. Or voles."

        "Voles?" Ralph repeated, making a face. "What in the world is a vole?"

        "I don't know," James said, throwing up his hands. "Some kind of little animal, I guess. But that's just the thing. The story sort of squirts away whenever I try to write it down. It's like it wants to become something else entirely."

        Ralph thought about it and finally shook his head. "That doesn't make a bit of sense. You want me to tell you how it goes again?"

        James sighed. "No. Revalvier said we're not supposed to do it that way. She made it sound like we were supposed to write it down however we remembered it. I just didn't expect it to fight back. I mean, it's just a bedtime story."

        Ralph shrugged. "Well, it is a magical bedtime story."

        "Not your version," James replied. "Your Muggle grandma told you. I figured it had to be your mum's mum because as far as you knew, your dad was an orphan."

        Ralph nodded but remained silent.

        James was about to make another attempt at his version of The King of the Cats when Petra Morganstern walked slowly around the end of a nearby bookshelf.

        "Hi, Petra," James said, trying to keep his voice low enough not to earn a stern look from the librarian.

        Petra was rather listlessly scanning the bookshelf, her bag dangling from one hand. She seemed not to have heard him.

        "I say hi, Petra!" James repeated, framing his mouth with his hands.

        Petra turned and raised her eyes. She saw James and blinked, her large blue eyes distant. "Oh," she said. "Hi, James. Sorry. I didn't see you." She turned back to the bookshelves. "I'm not really sure what I'm looking for…"

        James watched Petra as she moved down the aisle, dragging her bag. "What's with her?" he whispered to Ralph as she got out of earshot.

        Ralph shook his head. "I don't know."

        Rose plunked a pile of books on the table and sat down. "No harm getting a head start on Wizlit," she proclaimed happily. "These are the ten books the textbook says are a must-read for every thinking witch and wizard. I've read four of them before, but it never hurts to get a bit of a refresher."

        "Hey, Rose," James interrupted, leaning close. "What's going on with Petra?"

        "Petra?" Rose repeated, distracted. "Why should anything be going on with her?"

        "She just went by a minute ago looking like her owl just died."

        Rose thought for a moment. "I couldn't guess. She seemed fine at lunch today, although she left early when she got the package."

        "What package?" Ralph asked.

        "Oh, you two were already gone," Rose explained, pulling the top book off of her stack and opening it. "A box came by Ministry owl for her. Apparently, it was from her father. She left right afterwards. I assumed she wanted to open it in private."

        James tilted his head. "Why would a package from her father come by Ministry owl?"

        Rose raised her eyebrows. "I assume her father works there. Loads of people send personal mail using company post. Dad does it sometimes, although Mum says he shouldn't. Things like that get her a little uptight."

        "Maybe it was bad news from home," Ralph mused.

        "It looked like more than just a letter," Rose replied. "I assumed it was sweets from her mum or a birthday present or something."

        James frowned, looking in the direction Petra had wandered. "If sweets from her mum make her look like that, Petra's mum must be a pretty rotten cook."

        Rose suddenly brightened. She leaned in and whispered, "I just ran into Fiona Fourcompass over in the reference section, and she said she knows why this week's Muggle Studies classes have been postponed so far!"

        Ralph said, "I thought it was just because Professor Curry wasn't back from some sort of research trip. Fine by me, too. She can go off researching for the whole term."

        "That's sort of true," Rose nodded. "But it's what she's been researching that's key. She got back yesterday, and tomorrow afternoon there's going to be a big assembly of all the Muggle Studies classes for all years. She's going to make an announcement about this term's class, and whatever it is will affect everybody!"

        James looked skeptical. "Fiona Fourcompass told you that? How would she know?"

        "She saw Professor Curry earlier today, outside her office," Rose explained earnestly. "She was unpacking from her trip and she told Fiona about the assembly. She said afternoon classes will let out early so everyone can attend."

        "Did she mention what the big deal was?" Ralph asked.

Rose shook her head. "She didn't say, and Fiona didn't ask. I'm really curious though."

        "Well," James replied, "she had us playing football last year, and that was actually pretty fun. Maybe it'll be something like that. But why the whole school at once?"

        "That'd be quite a football match," Ralph agreed.

        A little while later, James, Ralph, and Rose noticed it was getting rather late. Most of the other students had gone and the librarian was blowing out the lanterns near the deserted tables. The three packed their books, quills, and parchments into their bags and threaded their way through the bookshelves.

        "Hey, Rose," James asked, "have you started your Wizlit homework yet?"

        "The King of the Cats essay? I finished it first thing. Why?"

        James glanced at her. "Just curious, that's all. It wasn't… difficult?"

        Rose shouldered her book bag. "Man walks through the woods, sees a bunch of mice having a funeral procession, follows them, so on and so forth. Easiest homework I had all night."

        James frowned thoughtfully. "Oh. Well, good."

        "I got a little confused when I got to the part with the skunk though," Rose added, angling toward the library doors.

        "The skunk?" Ralph asked, blinking.

        "Yeah. I couldn't remember if it was in front of the stairs or sitting on them. I forgot the color of its stripe too. It was green, right?"

        Ralph stared at her, and then looked back at James. James shrugged and shook his head.

        As they left the library, James saw that there was one other person still there. Sitting at a table in the rear alcove, alone in a pool of lamplight, was Petra. Her head was lowered, her long dark hair hanging on either side of her face like a curtain. On the table in front of her was a single piece of parchment. James waited to see if she'd look up, but she never moved. It pained him a little to see Petra so suddenly melancholy. He considered calling to her but decided not to. Most likely, he would see her later in the common room anyway. Perhaps she'd be in better spirits then.

        James said goodnight to Ralph as they parted ways at the stairs. Rose accompanied James to the common room where they sat by the fireplace and watched a rowdy Winkles and Augers match for a while. Finally, they headed up the stairs to their respective dormitories. Scorpius was already in bed. He was sitting up, reading a book called True Stories of Dragons and Dragon Hunters. He was wearing his rimless spectacles, and they did, in fact, manage to make him look more dashing than dorky. He glanced over his glasses as James entered the room.

        "Nice bedtime story," James muttered.

        "Would you prefer The Three Foolish Harridans?" Scorpius drawled, turning a page. "Or maybe one of Revalvier's old bedtime stories about your father?"

        James threw back the blankets on his new bed. The words 'WHINY POTTER GIT' still glowed a faint purple on the headboard. James' efforts to remove them had been entirely unsuccessful. He dressed in his pyjamas and climbed under the covers, throwing a disgruntled look at Scorpius.

        "I hear your brother is looking good to make the Slytherin Quidditch team," Scorpius commented, his eyes still on his book.

        James sat up again. "You keeping close tabs on your dad's house, Scorpius? Is he planning to come for the matches? I wonder who he'll support. A bit of a stumper, that one."

        "I understand Albus is riding Corsica's broom," Scorpius said, finally looking James in the eye.

        James met Scorpius' gaze, unsure what to say. Was Scorpius teasing him? Or was this some kind of warning? "Yeah, I know," James finally admitted. "I saw him. So what?"

        "I had flying with dear little Albus earlier this week, along with your cousin Rose. Improved since then, has he?"

        James rolled over. "What's it to you anyway?"

        "Nothing, really," Scorpius said. "Just trying to make a little conversation. You intend to try out for the Gryffindor team, I assume?"

        "Maybe I am," James admitted. "Are you?"

        Scorpius didn't answer right away. James looked back over his shoulder. Scorpius glanced up from his book again. "No, Potter," he said, sighing. "Organized sport is so… parochial. Let's just say I'll be using my talents in less obvious ways."

        James rolled his eyes and flopped over onto his side again. Scorpius was just trying to pique him. That's what his talent was, and apparently, James was his favorite target.

        It wasn't until James was falling asleep that it occurred to him that he had not seen Petra come up to the common room after all.

        James was just finishing his breakfast the next morning when Nobby swooped over him and dropped a letter onto his plate. James scooped it up quickly and waved at Nobby, who banked and flapped upwards through the rafters, disappearing through a window along with the rest of the morning's owls.

        The letter was from Lucy, and it was surprisingly fat.

        "What's that?" Rose asked, leaning toward James.

        "A response from Lucy," James replied, quickly stuffing the letter into his bag.

        "So read it already," Rose said, reaching for another piece of toast.

        James clambered over the bench and stood. "Can't. I have to get to class. I've got to get to the North Tower. Divination this morning."

        "I'm in the same class, James. We have plenty of time."

        "I, uh, left my homework in the dorm. I better go and grab it."

        Rose glared suspiciously at James, but he turned and trotted away before she could argue. He took a rather circuitous route in the direction of the North Tower but stopped at an empty stairway. He sat on the bottom step and retrieved Lucy's letter from his bag. As he tore it open he saw that the parchment was wrapped around a folded newspaper clipping. He read the letter first.

Dear James,

        Thanks for writing. We're currently at home, which is very nice for me, but not so nice for getting any pictures of anything interesting for Rose, sorry. I had a feeling about Albus. Really, I don't think anyone will be very surprised about his ending up in Slytherin. I wondered if I might end up there myself. Is that awful of me? I do hope it's not. Daddy told me all about your Debellows teacher. He seems quite impressed with him, and is very proud to have met him a few times.

        I looked up the Gatekeeper like you asked. There was actually quite a lot of information about it. I just had to know where to look. Fortunately, since we're home, I have access to the wizarding library over in Notting Hill. Mum takes me there once a week, although she'd die if she knew what sections I had to go to research this. The Gatekeeper has loads of names, and all of them are pretty scary, which makes sense once you know what it is. According to the old myths, the Gatekeeper is the Guardian between the worlds of the living and the dead. It lives in something called the Transitus Nihilo—the Void between the worlds—and is a purely magical being. Basically, it's just this huge, lurking entity because it has no body and no boundary since it lives in pure nothingness. Supposedly, it doesn't even know about earth or humans because it is too arrogant to assume that there could be any living thing other than itself. But the scariest thing about it is something called 'the Curse of the Gatekeeper'. Salazar Slytherin talked a lot about it. He said it would be his 'Final Judgment' on those that betrayed him. Basically, the Curse says that someday the Gatekeeper will be summoned by a person called the Ambassador, who is a wizard powerful enough to travel into the Void. The Gatekeeper follows the Ambassador back, and its descent is a sign of total doom. Once it's here, the Gatekeeper feeds on horror and pain, sucking it out of people like a vampire sucks blood. The legends say it will study humans, learning how best to terrify them, and in the greatest numbers. Apparently though, it'll need to partner with a willing human host, a host that will be prepared to kill for it to prove their worth. All the prophecies say this host will be a child of tragedy—probably meaning an orphan, somebody with nothing to lose. Very, very gruesome stuff.

        I am really curious, James: why are you asking about this? I'd be surprised if you are studying something like this in school. Why do you need to keep it a secret? This is seriously scary old magic. The book I read about it in nearly nipped my thumb off. Tell me, OK?

Love,

Lucy

        P.S. This is a clipping from a Muggle newspaper I saw on the way home from the library. It's probably nothing, but I couldn't help noticing it after what I'd just read about. It's not connected, do you think?

        James slowly folded the letter, his eyes wide. A cold sweat had beaded on his forehead. Lucy's words were eerily similar to some of the things Farrigan, the skeleton in the cave, had said. But surely, Merlin couldn't really be the Ambassador of such a horrible creature, could he? At least not knowingly. But either way, what if his long trek into the Void had summoned the thing called the Gatekeeper? James shook his head fretfully. The newspaper clipping slipped off his lap and fell onto the floor. James peered at it. He could tell by the colors and typeface that the clipping came from a Muggle tabloid. Reluctantly, he picked it up and unfolded it. He read the headline, grimaced, and then plunged into the article.

Entire Family Terrorized by 'Alien Ghost Demon'; Two Driven Insane

The quaint seaside village of Kensington Flats was rocked early this summer by rumors of a ghostly creature residents came to call the 'creature of smoke and ash'. Recognized by its fantastic appearance, the entity appeared on several occasions over the third week of May. In one instance, no less than a dozen villagers claimed to witness the entity in the Colt and Cockerel, a small pub on the village's outskirts. While none were willing to speak directly to Inside View, earlier reports claim that the entity exuded a 'palpable air of horror and panic, resulting in a sense of spreading, even contagious, insanity'.

These visitations culminated on the night of 17 May when the home of Herbert Bleeker was terrorized for as long as three hours by the entity. Neighbors claimed to hear unearthly noises coming from the house as well as all manner of shrieks and strange lights. Mr. Bleeker, a grocer, along with his wife and adult son, Charlie, were inside the home at the time, although neighbors were apparently too frightened to check on them. The next morning, all three Bleekers were found on their front lawn, looking, as one witness described, 'like they'd had their brains scrambled'. Later checked into an asylum in neighboring Dunfief, the Bleekers were described as unresponsive and delirious.

Twenty-four hours later, Charlie Bleeker began to respond to doctors. He described the visitation of the entity as an evening of freakish terrors. "It was like it was dissecting our brains from the inside out," Bleeker is heard to have said. "It was like we were radios, and it was tuning us, trying to make us feel the worst horrors imaginable! It was monstrous! Terrible! Like it didn't even know what we were but wasn't going to stop until it found out!"

Mr. Bleeker slipped back into incoherence after this short outburst, although he appears to be responding moderately well to treatments. His parents, however, remain virtually comatose. Professor Liam Kirkwood of the Department of Paranormal Research at the University of Northern Heatherdown says such manifestations are on the increase. "Similar reports have emerged all across the country, and beyond. Most likely, this is the work of an alien species, researching humankind for its own unknowable reasons. We can only hope that whatever it is, its goals are not as frightening as it initially seems."

Inside View will follow these occurrences, providing further updates as circumstances dictate.

        Slowly, James folded the tabloid clipping. He stuffed it and Lucy's letter back into the envelope. It couldn't be connected, he told himself. It was just a tabloid story. A lot of them were rather sensational, weren't they? Aliens and monsters and saints' faces being burned onto toast. Even so, the thought of the 'creature of smoke and ash' made him shudder. What if it was the Gatekeeper? What if it was already loosed on the earth and Merlin didn't even know it? Or worse, what if he knew it and was responsible for it? It simply couldn't be. It was too horrible. James determined he would have to find out, one way or another. He didn't know how he'd do it, but he would find a way. Having decided that, he felt a tiny bit better. He put the letter back into his bag, shouldered it, and ran the rest of the way to the North Tower.

        "Hup, hup, students!" Kendrick Debellows cried heartily, pacing the length of the promenade overlooking the lake. "It's not even October yet! The water's still balmy. It's best if you jump in directly. Take it all on one shot and you'll be used to it in no time."

        James stood between Ralph and Graham, his toes curled over the edge of the deck. The water below looked cold and murky. His face reflected back at him, his expression tense and worried.

        "I don't know what's worse," Graham muttered through gritted teeth, "the idea of jumping into that water, or being seen wearing this idiotic outfit."

        None of the students had packed swimwear, of course. Debellows, being rather insufferably persistent in his goals, had somehow located a closet of very old bathing suits once worn by an official Hogwarts water wrestling team. The one-piece suits extended to the elbows and knees and were striped in faded burgundy and grey. A Hogwarts crest was embroidered in the center of the chest.

        "Who ever heard of 'water wrestling', anyway?" Ralph said.

        "Oh, it was huge for a while, back in the old days," Graham replied. "The mermen had a team. You wouldn't think they'd be all that strong, looking at them, but I guess they were really wiry."

        "Students wore these to wrestle mermen?" James said, glancing down at his oversized swimsuit.

        "Yeah, but the mermen cheated sometimes," Graham explained. "The whole event was scrapped when the merman captain was found with a Grindylow hidden under his cape. He was apparently using it to batten on to his opponent and pull them down."

        On the grass bordering the edge of the lake, the second-year girls were supposedly running reflex drills, waving pommel-tipped sticks at each other. Most of them seemed to have abandoned the activity, choosing instead to stand in groups and watch the boys, smirking or looking bored. Debellows ignored them.

        "This is very simple, students," Debellows called. "Jump in, swim out to the buoy, circle it, and swim back to the promenade. It may look far-off, but I assure you it is quite manageable. I did it myself six times just this morning. Brisk, it was! Now, does anyone else not know how to swim?"

        The boys stared grimly, none daring to raise their hands. A few minutes earlier, Ralph's friend Trenton Bloch had admitted he had not yet learned how to swim. This had seemed, to James, a potentially inspired way to get out of the dip into the gloomy lake. Rather than excusing Trenton, however, Debellows had produced a set of inflatable rubber arm floaties. To Trenton's horror, Debellows had blown up the floaties himself, and then rammed them up the boy's arms. Trenton stood miserably at the far end of the promenade, arms akimbo. A couple of girls on the bank snickered at him.

        "This is a test of will, my friends!" Debellows barked. "In the Harriers, not only did we have to learn to swim at distance, but we were trained for water combat, facing all sorts of aquatic beasts, from Snarracudas to Shrieking Eels. You will not face any combat on this endeavor, but we may introduce a Marshweed course later in the spring if Professor Longbottom is able to produce a sufficiently tame hybrid. For now, consider this a pleasure swim. And now, on one… two…" Debellows raised his wand, pointing it skyward. He grinned happily. "Three!" he shouted, firing a loud crack from his wand.

        The boys scuffled, slithered, and variously lowered themselves into the water. Their splashes were accompanied by a chorus of groans and complaints.

        "Are there still mermen in here?" Ralph hissed through his teeth, lowering himself into the cold, black water.

        James nodded. "But my dad says it's the mermaids you have to worry about."

        "That's wonderful," Ralph gasped, dropping up to his chin and trying not to splash. Gamely, he threw himself into a jerky breaststroke, heading for the orange buoy some fifty yards away. James followed him.

        Ralph was a surprisingly good swimmer. By the time James rounded the buoy, finally getting somewhat accustomed to the water, Ralph was climbing the ladder onto the promenade. Debellows grabbed his hand and hoisted him up, nodding approvingly.

        James completed his lap and grabbed the slick, seaweed-covered ladder. He'd swallowed an accidental gulp of the lake water and it rolled nauseously in his belly as he pulled himself up. He stumbled onto the deck and joined Ralph and Graham. All three stood shivering, streaming water from their oversized swimsuits.

        "Let's double-time it, Bloch!" Debellows boomed, cupping his hands to his mouth. "Pretend you've got a Slagbelly chasing you. It could be true, in fact! I hear they've been sighted on the far side of the lake. And I understand they're attracted to splashes."

        "Professor Debellows," a voice called. James turned, his teeth chattering. Professor McGonagall stood at the castle end of the promenade. She glanced quickly around but kept her face neutral. "The students are expected to be in the amphitheater in fifteen minutes. You do recall that today's class is to be concluded early."

        "We are very nearly finished, Madam," Debellows called, clapping Ralph on the shoulder. "I daresay we will beat you to the assembly if you don't hurry." He turned, addressing the boys on the deck. "You heard the professor! Gather your shoes and form a line. I'll dry you as you pass by, then we'll have ourselves a nice trot around to the amphitheater. You can change afterwards."

        Debellows produced his wand and pointed it at James, who was nearest. A blast of hot air erupted from the tip, pushing James backwards a step. A moment later, he was mostly dry. His hair stuck straight up from his head like a corona.

        "We have to wear these stupid swimsuits to the assembly?" James asked incredulously.

        "They're perfectly decent, Mr. Potter," Debellows replied dismissively. "Even rather stylish, if you ask me. We haven't a moment to lose, students. The amphitheater can be found around the East Rampart. Let's prove ourselves exemplary and precede the rest of the classes there, shall we? Now run, my friends! And Mr. Bloch! Will you be finishing your lap this term, or shall I send Mr. Deedle in to retrieve you?"

        By the time James got to the outside amphitheater entrance, he was sweaty and out of breath. Most of the other classes were already gathering, their voices ringing in the natural acoustics of the space. James grimaced, seeing the hundreds of robed figures milling about. It was nearly impossible to remain inconspicuous in the oversized, striped swimsuits. James and Ralph huddled near the back, trying unsuccessfully to hide behind each other. Scorpius was the first to notice them. He walked past with a group of first-year Gryffindors, smirking. Cameron saw James and made to grin and wave. His grin turned slightly puzzled when he saw James' attire.

        "I see none of the second-year girls are wearing swimsuits," Rose commented, slipping in next to James. "Defence Against the Dark Arts, I assume?"

        James nodded. "It's OK though. Debellows says these are actually quite stylish. Come on, let's find a seat."

        James' last time in the amphitheater had been the previous term, on the night of the first all-school debate. That had been a fairly unpleasant occasion, in which Tabitha Corsica had proclaimed from the stage that Harry Potter was a fraud and a liar. An all-out riot had been barely prevented by a well-timed bit of absurd fireworks, produced by Ted Lupin and the Gremlins. Now, by daylight, the amphitheater was quite cheerful. The huge stage was mostly bare; as James looked, a couple of older Ravenclaw boys climbed up from the orchestra pit. They bowed deeply on the edge of the stage, and then began to make faces and blow raspberries at the crowd. There was some scattered applause and hooting until Professor McGonagall shooed them back to their seats.

        As James, Ralph, and Rose sidled into a row, Noah Metzker called from nearby. "Interesting choice of uniform, you two. The stripes say 'Azkaban', but the cut says 'exercise yard'."

        "Har, har," James groused. "You'll be next, Metzker."

        "Actually, we already did the lake run," Noah replied seriously. "Just wait until sixth year. Debellows shoots Stinging Hexes at you from the shore. It's supposed to teach you 'the mental discipline of overcoming pain'."

        Damien nodded gravely. "All I had to overcome was a burning desire to clip him upside the ear."

        James noticed that Petra wasn't sitting with the rest of the Gremlins. She sat at the end of the aisle, several rows down. She stared blankly at the stage.

        Finally, Professor Tina Curry climbed the steps to the stage. She wore a sporty blue cloak over her robes. Her frizzy hair had been teased into a loose bun.

        "Greetings, students," she called, raising her wand to her throat. Her amplified voice echoed around the amphitheater. The babble of voices subsided.

        "Thank you for attending this rather unusual first class," Curry continued. "Since nearly all of you are taking Muggle Studies this term, following the new year-specific curriculum, I thought it'd be rather a treat for us all to begin the term's endeavor together. As most of you know, I am Tina Curry, Professor of Muggle Studies, and it is the goal of this class to teach us to understand the ways and means of the Muggle world. We do this for a variety of reasons, but primarily because, being witches and wizards, we have the benefit of knowing of the Muggle world, whereas they know nothing of us. It is, therefore, incumbent upon us to study the Muggle world, to understand it as well as possible, so that we may, whenever necessary, mingle in that world and work comfortably within it. Further, we must recall our shared humanity, valuing our differences without creating prejudices from them. Thus, as an exercise, this class encourages us to immerse ourselves in the Muggle world, utilizing some of the ingenious tools and methods that they have developed to compensate for their non-magical nature. Last term, many of you will recall that we played a Muggle sport called 'football', using only our feet and a simple, unenchanted ball. This term, we will attempt something on a far greater scale. This endeavor will require the cooperation of every class. Every one of us will have a specific duty, and we will accomplish those duties using no spells, potions, or charms. This term, students, we will be producing a theatrical presentation of the famous wizard play, The Triumvirate."

        A wave of chatter moved through the assembly. James couldn't tell if the general response was positive or negative.

        "What's that about?" Ralph asked.

        Rose whispered, "It's a story about a love triangle between a young witch princess named Astra and two wizards, Treus and Donovan. Donovan's older and richer, Treus is younger, a captain in the king's army. I saw it with my mum once when I was little. It's got a huge cast. Should be interesting."

        Near the front of the assembly, Havelock Baumgarten, one of the Slytherin Beaters, stood up, raising his hand peremptorily. "Professor Curry, The Triumvirate is a classically magical production," he said in his cultured, rather smarmy voice. "By its nature, it is dependent on key magical elements. The dream sequence alone has the heroine flying, imagining phantom armies, and witnessing the predicted sinking of Treus' galleon in a hurricane. How can we possibly expect to remain faithful to the story if we insist on strictly Muggle methods?"

        "A legitimate concern, Mr. Baumgarten," Curry replied. "However, I have just returned from a tour of some of the Muggle world's better theatre productions, and I must say that the sheer ingenuity and resourcefulness of those presentations amazed even me. In fact, you may be interested to learn that even Muggles refer to the 'magic' of theatre."

        From the crowd, Victoire spoke up, "But how can Astra fly without levitation?"

        "You'd be quite surprised what can be accomplished with ropes and pulleys, Miss Weasley," Curry said, smiling. "In fact, I think all of you will be quite impressed by the amount of mundane 'magic' that can be done simply with paint, costumes, props, lights, and a seemingly endless number of stage-hands. This is why I have asked the school to involve all classes in this rather extensive production. The sheer number of teams and skills required assures that every one of us will play a vital role in the production. I will serve as director, of course. The production will run one night only, in this very amphitheater, the last week of the school term. Your parents and families will all be invited to attend. It will be, I am quite sure, an evening that all of us will remember."

        The assembly broke apart into hushed babbling again as everyone considered this rather unusual plan. Professor Curry cleared her throat.

        "To this end," she said, raising her voice over the chattering crowd, "I have posted several sign-up parchments in the hall immediately adjacent to the amphitheater. Anyone who wishes may try out for a part. Auditions will be scheduled in class, and parts will be awarded by the end of next week. Those who do not wish to act onstage may sign up for the orchestra, the props department, the costume shop, light crew, stage crew, and et cetera. I am sure everyone will find an area they will enjoy working in. And now, allow me to be the first to welcome you all to the world of the theatre! The assembly will conclude now, allowing you plenty of time to consider your options and sign up for whatever you wish. Thank you, students, and good evening."

        As the assembly broke up and trickled toward the huge castle archway, Rose said, "You should sign up for a part, James. You're tall for your age. I bet you could play Treus."

        James grimaced. "No way,"

        "Why not?" Rose insisted. "Don't tell me you're afraid to get up on stage in front of everyone."

        "No," James said, his face reddening a bit. "It's just silly. I mean, if we were doing The Last Assault of Keirkengard, I might sign up. At least in that story there's sword fights and explosions. I was thinking about signing up for the stage crew."

        "Yeah," Ralph agreed. "I'm going to sign up for that or the props department. This could be kind of fun. I saw a play in London when I was a kid. It was wicked. I always thought it'd be neat to work behind the scenes."

        "I'm putting my name down for Donovan," Noah proclaimed. "I've got that older, mysterious rogue look down already. I should be a shoo-in."

        "It's too bad Ted's gone this year," Sabrina commented. "He'd love this. I wonder how he's doing with his Quidditch training."

        Damien said, "We'll see him Hogsmeade weekend. We have a plan to meet him at the Triple Sticks."

        "As long as he can get off work from Weasleys'," Noah interjected. "I hear George's been working him like a dog. Ted's not complaining though. He gets paid on commission, and he's pretty much a walking advertisement, isn't he?"

        The crowd of students thronged near the archway as everyone milled around the sign-up parchments. Rose broke away, pressing toward the far end of the hallway. "I'm going to sign up for Astra," she called. "It's probably a long shot, but I can always fall back on costume shop if that doesn't work out."

        Ralph also shouldered his way into the throng, heading for the props department sign-up parchment. James watched his friend go, and then scanned the nearby parchments. The crowd was finally thinning a bit as most of the students happily found their way to an early dinner. James glanced around, still hanging back. Satisfied that no one was watching, he slipped quickly over to the actors' sign-up parchments. He glanced over them, finding the parchment he was looking for. Grabbing the quill dangling from a bit of string, he signed his name to the parchment titled 'TREUS'.

        It was completely silly, he assured himself. He'd never get the part. It was just a lark, a personal dare. Still, there was something exciting and giddy about the idea of playing the dashing male lead. He couldn't bring himself to admit it to Rose or Ralph. If by some remarkable fluke he were to get the role, he'd probably acknowledge that he'd secretly wanted to play it. Otherwise, no one would ever know, and that was just fine. Before stepping away, James peered quickly at the other names on the parchment. He'd been halfcertain that Scorpius' name would be on the list. It wasn't, and he felt a bit silly for looking.

        James sauntered as casually as possible over to the group still gathered around the stage crew sign-up parchment. Ralph was just finishing signing his name.

        "I'm on stage crew and props department," Ralph said. "I hope I can be on both. What'd you sign up for, James?"

        James finished signing his name on the stage crew parchment. He turned, keeping his face blank, and gestured with the quill before letting it drop back on its string.

        Ralph nodded and smiled. "We'll work together, maybe. Trenton's signed up for stage crew too, and so is Beetlebrick. He's not so bad if you can stay off the topic of Quidditch. Did you see what Albus signed up for?"

        James shook his head. In fact, he hadn't seen his brother the entire assembly. "We can ask him at dinner," James replied. "Come on."

It wasn't the first time James had sat at the Slytherin table. The previous year, he had frequently joined Ralph and Zane for meals under the green and silver banner. Only now, however, did James realize how comforting it had been to have his mischievous American friend, who'd been a Ravenclaw, alongside him in those instances. There were no seats near Albus, who persisted in being rather a popular character in his new house. James reluctantly sat with Ralph and Trenton Bloch near the end of the table.

        James was distracted throughout the meal. He was annoyed at having to go to such lengths to attract the attention of his younger brother. It was supposed to be the other way around, wasn't it? Albus was simply being gullible. He believed that the Slytherins were drawn to him for his wit and personality, but James knew that they were just using him. Having a Potter amongst the Slytherins was a sort of moral victory for Tabitha Corsica and her stupid Fang and Talons club. James wanted to warn Albus that the Slytherins' friendship wasn't sincere, but he was also a little angry with him for being so easily taken in.

        Albus finally stood up from the table along with the group of older Slytherins that always seemed to accompany him. James shoved his plate away and stood as well, meaning to head Albus off near the door. He wanted to warn him about Tabitha's broom, but that wasn't all he meant to say. Albus was accepting this whole Slytherin assignment too easily, and James couldn't help feeling it was a betrayal of his family. He firmed his jaw as he turned to catch up to the departing Slytherins near the door.

        "James," a voice rang out. James glanced back and stopped. Tabitha Corsica was approaching him from behind, smiling pleasantly. She had apparently broken away from Albus' constant entourage. James merely looked at her.

        "I'm glad to see that you still feel comfortable dining at the Slytherin table," Tabitha said, affecting a warm smile. "I know there was some… unpleasantness last year. I am glad to see that it hasn't strained interhouse relations."

        James shook his head, his anger rising. "Just stuff it, Corsica. There are no 'inter-house relations'. Just because Ralph is my friend, it doesn't mean I'm all smiles about what you and your lot stand for. I haven't forgotten the debate."

        "Nor have I forgotten that you attempted to steal my broomstick before the tournament match last year," Tabitha said, batting her eyes coquettishly. "But I've decided to let bygones be bygones. I'd have thought you might feel a bit different, considering everything."

        "Considering that Albus ended up going to the Slytherins just to spite Scorpius?" James spat. "He doesn't know what he's doing. And you're taking advantage of him."

        Tabitha frowned slightly. "I'm sorry you feel that way, James. We happen to think that Albus fits in with us very nicely. He tells me that you witnessed his remarkable practice flight the other night, and I want you to know that I am quite glad you did. There was no trickery there. Albus is very talented. He will make a valuable addition to the Slytherin Quidditch team. And since you mention Scorpius Malfoy, I would think that the fact of his Sorting would prove to you precisely what I've been saying all along."

        James glanced toward the door. Albus was leaving without so much as a look back. "What's Scorpius have to do with anything?" he asked.

        "Well," Tabitha replied, arching her eyebrows, "Scorpius has either broken from the tradition of his father, choosing courage and valor over ambition, thus proving his worth as a Gryffindor. Or the Slytherins have changed, no longer to be the house of greed and corruption, as was the case in the day of Scorpius' father. Either way…," she smiled, waiting for James to give her his full attention, "it is proof that the Sorting Hat knows its business. Your brother is in Slytherin because that, James, is where he belongs. I truly hope you will not feel the continued need to interfere with that."

        "He's my brother," James replied. "I'll interfere wherever I see fit."

        "I'm not threatening you, James," Tabitha said, the smile going out of her voice, "I'm doing you the favor of warning you. Your brother is special. It may well be that we Slytherins are the only house that could recognize that. Albus has a destiny. I tell you this as a friend: if anyone attempts to stand in the way of that destiny, even you, they do so at their own risk."

        James studied Tabitha's face. She seemed remarkably sincere, and yet it was so hard to trust anything she said. "What do you think you know about Al's destiny?"

        Tabitha smiled a little again. "That's for him to tell if he chooses. But I expect he hardly realizes it himself yet. My advice, James: watch and wait. And enjoy your brother's success. It's what he would do for you."

        With that, Tabitha turned, her robes sweeping delicately, and left the Great Hall.

7. AMSERA CERTH

After dinner, James was accompanied by Ralph and Rose to the Gryffindor common room. On the way, he told them about his conversation with Tabitha and her unsettling proclamation of Albus' potential, but neither of them seemed particularly impressed.

        "That's the way she always talks," Ralph said dismissively. "Even some of the Slytherins tend to view her as a bit of a drama queen."

        "You mean anyone other than you and Trenton?" James asked, arching an eyebrow.

        "They do seem to sincerely like Albus," Rose commented, stepping through the portrait hole. "Maybe it's all true. Maybe Albus is the boy of destiny. Apparently, that kind of thing runs in the family, just like dark hair and Quidditch skills."

        "It's not funny," James said, but he couldn't help smiling a little.

        "You should just come with me down to the Slytherin common room one of these nights," Ralph suggested. "See for yourself how Albus gets along with everybody. Honestly, he does seem to fit in pretty well. It'll put your mind at ease."

        The three made their way across the crowded common room, joining Noah, Damien, and Sabrina on a pair of couches in a dark corner.

        "We were just talking about you, James," Noah proclaimed, patting the couch cushion next to him. James flung himself onto the couch, happy to be among his friends.

        "We've got an idea," Sabrina said wisely, tapping the side of her nose.

        "Does it have anything to do with the Heracles window again?" Ralph asked, grinning. "That was a big hit even with the Slytherins. Filch still hasn't gotten it entirely back to rights. Heracles' face keeps reverting to Malfoy's overnight."

        "It's all in the wrist," Damien said proudly, flexing his hand.

        "No, this is even better," Noah replied, leaning forward on the couch and lowering his voice. "It's this Debellows disaster that's got everybody in a lather. Seems that people don't so much mind a little physical training; I mean the guy does have a point that battling the Dark Arts does sometimes require a little actual fighting. But this whole no-spells thing for the younger years is just over the top. And so it got us thinking…"

        "This has happened before!" Sabrina said, smacking James on the shoulder.

        James glanced around at the Gremlins. "I'm missing something," he admitted.

        "Back in your dad's day," Damien replied, rolling his eyes. "The reign of Umbridge the Terrible. Don't tell me we know more about your dad's school exploits than you do."

        "It wouldn't surprise me," James said, smiling crookedly. "It seems I haven't read any of the right books."

        Rose made an annoyed noise. "Umbridge was the D.A.D.A. teacher," she explained. "She refused to teach them any usable defensive techniques because she was a Ministry tool, back when the Ministry was trying to squash any and all rumors about the return of 'He Who Must Not be Named'." She pronounced the euphemism with obvious sarcasm.

        "I remember," James finally said, nodding. "But that's not what Debellows is about."

        Sabrina cut James off. "It amounts to the same thing. So your plan is to solve it the same way."

        "Oh no," James said, shaking his head. "No way. I'm not starting up another Dumbledore's Army. I just got done telling Cameron Creevey the other night that I'm not my father. I don't want people thinking I'm trying to relive all of his old adventures."

        "Not to fear," Noah said, throwing his arm around James' shoulders. "No one will be thinking that. For one thing, we can't use that name."

        "Agreed," Damien replied. "Too old-school. Maybe 'Merlin's Army'?"

        Sabrina shook her head. "Too copycat. How about just the 'Real D.A.D.A.'?"

        "Too long and too commercial," Damien replied.

        "Look," Noah interrupted, "the name doesn't matter. The point is, you lot need to know this stuff. If you don't get it until you're as old and excellent as we are, it'll be too little, too late. You need to take matters into your own hands."

        "But I can't teach any of it!" James exclaimed. "I barely know any of it myself!"

        "Then I guess you need to find someone to teach it to you," Noah answered, shrugging.

        "So why don't you three do it?" James shot back.

        "Can't happen," Damien said matter-of-factly. "As great and inspiring as we may seem, we aren't teachers. You ever hear of muscle memory? It means that my hand knows how to cast an Expelliarmus spell, but my brain doesn't keep track of it anymore. It'd be like trying to explain how to walk. It's just second nature by now. No, you need a natural teacher; someone like your dad, back with the original Dumbledore's Army."

        James turned to Ralph and Rose. "Shouldn't you two be speaking up, telling me what a ridiculous and irresponsible idea this is?"

        "Actually," Rose said thoughtfully, "I think it makes a good bit of sense. I mean, it's true that we really aren't learning anything useful in Debellows' class. Especially the girls."

        "And honestly," Ralph added, "I need all the help I can get with defensive magic. That's one area I've never really gotten a handle on."

        "I'll say," James grudgingly agreed. "But still, this could get us into a load of trouble!"

        "I don't see why," Rose reasoned. "There are lots of extracurricular classes and clubs. It's not like in our parents' day when Umbridge forbade anyone from practicing defensive spells. It could be a completely sanctioned school club. All we'd have to do is get the Headmaster's permission. You could ask, James. Merlin owes you one, after all."

        James glanced at Rose. She shrugged.

        "This leaves just one problem," Ralph commented. "Who will we get to teach?"

        "You'd need somebody with a good, basic grasp of the defensive arts," Sabrina said. "Someone who's a natural leader and teacher, with some experience in actual battle."

        An idea occurred to James. His eyes widened, and then he slumped slowly in his seat.

        "What?" Rose asked, frowning.

        "I think I just thought of the perfect teacher," James replied dolefully.

        Ralph said, "So why is that a problem?"

        "Because," James grinned crookedly, "I don't think he'll ever agree to do it."

        Rose narrowed her eyes. After a moment, she smiled knowingly.

        "Who?" Noah asked.

        "Can't tell," James answered. "But if we can talk him into it, I'll let you know."

        The Gremlins seemed a bit annoyed at James' secrecy but were generally content that their idea had been adopted. After a while, the group broke up, leaving only James, Ralph, and Rose in the dark corner.

        "Do you think Cedric would ever do it?" Rose asked earnestly, keeping her voice low.

        "Oh!" Ralph exclaimed, smacking his forehead. "I knew I should've known who you two were talking about."

        "All we can do is ask him," James answered. "People say he had natural leadership skills. He was good enough to get into the Triwizard Tournament, and he made it through all the challenges, so he has plenty of experience."

        "And from his perspective, it's all still fresh," Rose agreed.

        Ralph asked, "But where can we find him? Last year, he just seemed to show up when he wanted to. We still don't really know where he hangs out."

        James looked hard at Ralph, thinking. "Actually, I might have an idea about that."

        "We should ask the Headmaster first," Rose said. "That way, we don't bother Cedric with it unless it's for sure. Let's all go together; tomorrow, after lunch. That'll give us a chance to figure out the best way to present the idea."

        James nodded. "Sounds all right, I suppose."

        "You don't think it's a good idea?" Rose asked, putting her head on one side.

        "No, I guess it's a good idea," James admitted. "I just hate the idea of looking like I'm trying too hard. You know, doing everything like my dad did. Like I told Cameron, I'm not the one with the lightning bolt scar on my forehead."

        Rose studied James. "Then why do you keep rubbing it?"

        James dropped his hand, suddenly realizing that he was indeed touching his forehead. "What do you mean?"

        "You've been rubbing at your forehead for the last few days," Rose replied. "You look like an advertisement for Haberdasher's Anti-Headache Headwear."

        "It's true," Ralph added, nodding. "Maybe you should wear your glasses more if not wearing them is making your head hurt."

        James was somewhat annoyed. "It's not my bloody glasses. I don't know what it is. I've just got an itch, that's all."

        "You've got a constant itch on your forehead?" Ralph blinked.

        "It's not 'constant'," James said. He glanced at Ralph and Rose. "Is it?"

        Rose looked a bit concerned. "Maybe you should go see Madam Curio down in the hospital wing, James."

        "That's the last thing I need," James said, chuckling. "It's nothing, really. I'd barely even noticed it. It does seem a little weird though."

        "You've just been thinking about it all too much," Rose said reasonably. "No one is expecting you to be your father. Don't obsess over it."

        James agreed, and he hoped Rose was right. As he said goodnight and climbed the stairs, he wondered about the phantom itch on his forehead. He really hadn't given it any thought until now, but it was a just a little bit strange, wasn't it, having a persistent itch in the place of his father's famous scar? No way would he be asking Madam Curio about it. It was bad enough, what with Cameron Creevey expecting him to shoot fireworks out of his bum on one hand, and Scorpius Malfoy accusing him of delusions of grandeur on the other. The last thing he needed was for a rumor to get started that James Potter was scratching at a phantom lightning bolt scar. Especially on top of the fact that he very well might be starting a club reminiscent of his dad's Dumbledore's Army.

        As James was getting ready for bed, it occurred to him that, had he not had the conversation with Tabitha Corsica and gone away feeling worried and peeved, he might not have agreed so easily to the creation of the new D.A.D.A. club after all. Her words had left him feeling small and ridiculous, but the idea of starting a new Defence Club gave him a feeling of importance again. Was that reason enough to go through with it? He hoped it was a good idea, but really, he wasn't overly concerned about it. There were still two hurdles that needed to be overcome for the club to happen. The first was to get Merlin's approval, the second was to find Cedric and ask him to teach it. If either refused, then the club would never be. That seemed like good enough odds to James. Thinking that, he closed his eyes and drifted to sleep.

        A grey, humid afternoon greeted James, Rose, and Ralph as they finished their Saturday lunch and headed out to wander the school grounds. It was one of those strange days at the beginning of autumn when it is too muggy to wear a jacket but too wet and breezy to go without. Rose huddled in a heavy jumper as James and Ralph threw rocks into the lake, admiring the splashes.

        "I think we should just ask him straight up," Ralph said, heaving a stone sidearm. "Like you said last night, Rose, there's no reason for him to say no."

        "That's what I thought then," Rose replied. "But that was last night."

        James glanced back at her. "A lot's changed since then, has it?"

        "I stayed up late last night, reading," Rose said. "I wanted to get a head start on some of the books our Wizlit textbook suggested, like I told you in the library."

        "You sure don't waste time," Ralph commented.

        "I happen to like reading. Besides, not surprisingly, our Headmaster shows up occasionally in some of those books and I thought it'd be worth checking into his history a bit more before we talked to him."

        Ralph lowered his throwing arm and looked up at the sky, squinting. "It's so weird. I was there when it happened, but I keep forgetting our Headmaster is the famous Merlin from all the old legends and myths. It's a little hard to wrap your mind around, isn't it?"

        "I told you a lot of people find it a bit unsettling that Merlinus Ambrosius is Headmaster of Hogwarts," Rose said meaningfully. "And I found out why, a little bit. There's loads of stories about him in the old books of the kings. It's almost impossible to figure out what's made-up and what might be real, but even if only a tiny bit of it is true, it's pretty worrying."

        "Like what?" James asked, prying a large rock out of the bank of the lake.

        "Like kings used to hire him to curse armies. Not bad armies, necessarily; just any army that any king with enough treasure happened to dislike. More than once, when Merlin got to the army he was paid to curse, they would send out people to pay him more to go back and curse the king that'd originally hired him. And he did!"

        "Sounds pretty practical, if you ask me," Ralph said, heaving a stone with both hands. It splashed nearby, wetting both James' and Ralph's shoes.

        "This isn't funny, Ralph," Rose admonished. "He was a magical mercenary. A man like that wouldn't have any loyalty at all! Some of those armies he cursed… they got completely slaughtered, sometimes even before they got to the battle! There'd be floods, cyclones, even earthquakes where the ground would open up right beneath the army camp, swallowing them all whole."

        "That can't be true," James commented. "I mean, Merlin's powerful, but nobody can do that."

        "You're forgetting where Merlin gets his magic from," Rose replied as if she'd been prepared for such an argument. "According to the legends, Merlin can tap into the power of nature. We saw him doing that the night he took us to get his stuff. Nature is huge, and it was even huger back then, with less civilization. Who knows what a wizard like that would be able to do?"

        Ralph brushed his hands off on his jeans. "I don't think 'huger' is a word."

        "Don't you start correcting me," Rose said, looking back and forth between James and Ralph. "Why are neither of you taking this seriously?"

        "Because like I said, we were there, Rose," Ralph replied. "We saw the man Reapparate from the Dark Ages. We worked with him in the days after. He helped us get rid of that Muggle reporter, who was going to blow the lid off the whole magical world. He was completely brilliant about it. He may have been a loose cannon in the past, but he's different now, isn't he? He's trying to be good, and he seems to be doing pretty well with it."

        "Well," Rose said, "it isn't just that he was a loose cannon."

        James plopped down on the grass next to her. "What? Did he put ketchup on his eggs? Did he draw mustaches on portraits?"

        Rose looked at him, and then looked away. "According to some of the legends, he was supposed to be the bearer of an awful curse. His returning was to be an omen of the end of the world."

        James felt a twinge of worry at that, but kept his voice even. "This is the part where it's hard to separate the fact from the loony made-up stuff, right?"

        "Laugh if you want," Rose said, "but the prophecy shows up in a lot of places. Some call him the Harbinger of Doom. Other places just call him the Ambassador; of what, it never says. It gets pretty creepy," she admitted, shuddering. "Especially when you are reading it in the middle of the night."

        "So far, he's just been the Ambassador of an extra ten points for Gryffindor and Slytherin because we helped him go get some magic box," Ralph said, shrugging. "Come on, it's almost two. He'll be expecting us."

        "You coming, James?" Rose asked, climbing to her feet.

        James glanced up. "What? Oh. Yeah, sure."

        The three plodded through the foggy afternoon, heading for the courtyard. In the distance, thunder rumbled like a veiled threat and the wind began to switch. James was thinking rather nervously of the skeleton in the cave, Farrigan, the long lost associate of Merlin, and of Cousin Lucy's letter about the Gatekeeper. In the light of those things, Rose's tale of the legendary curse of Merlin sounded uncomfortably familar. James couldn't remember it exactly, but the skeleton had said something about a gate, and about things coming through, all because of Merlin's return. The Borleys had come through, at the very least. Merlin acknowledged that. But he claimed to have captured all of them except for the last one, the one that had followed James from that night at the Grotto Keep. Merlin said he'd trapped them all in his mysterious Darkbag. But the skeleton had warned of something else, something worse. Like the legends, it had also called Merlin the Ambassador, but Farrigan had identified the thing Merlin was supposedly representing: the Guardian, the Sentinel of Worlds, the Gatekeeper. Lucy's letter had corroborated those legends, and now Rose's studies were confirming them as well. James shuddered as he followed Rose and Ralph into the castle.

        They threaded their way through the weekend-empty corridors, passing darkened classrooms and halls. Finally, they reached the gargoyle which guarded the entrance to the spiral steps.

        "You remember the password, Rose?" Ralph asked. "I couldn't even pronounce it, and you know how they are about writing things like that down."

        Rose screwed up her face, thinking. Finally, she carefully pronounced, "In ois oisou."

        The gargoyle moved with the sound of millstones grinding. It stepped aside, revealing the doorway.

        "What's it mean?" James asked as he hopped onto the rising staircase.

        Rose shook her head. "It's more of that ancient Welsh, I'd guess. Who knows what it means?"

        They arrived in the hall outside the Headmaster's office and James reached to bang the door knocker.

        "Wait," Rose said, grabbing James' arm. "Remember this morning? He told us to wait outside. He said he had another appointment before us."

        James remembered. He carefully lowered the knocker and the three settled onto a long bench situated across from the Headmaster's door.

        On the wall next to the door, amongst an arrangement of old paintings and portraits, was a face James recognized.

        "Look," James nudged Ralph, pointing. "I remember him. Old Stonewall used him in Technomancy last year to teach us about magical portraits."

        The portrait of Cornelius Yarrow, former Hogwarts bursar, peered at James over his spectacles. "I remember you too, young man. You had a rather unseemly number of questions regarding the subject. I hope you were satisfied."

        "I was," James answered. "I especially liked the part about how only the original artist can destroy a magical portrait. It was really wicked when Stonewall melted his painting of that horrid clown."

        "Your Professor Jackson did leave out one small detail," Yarrow sniffed, chafing at the memory. "There is one other person who can destroy a portrait, although it has never been known to happen."

        "Seems like a pretty important detail to leave out," James frowned doubtfully. "Frankly, with all due respect, I'd trust him rather more on the subject than—"

        Two things happened simultaneously, interrupting James. The door to the Headmaster's office unlatched and swung open and a stab of pain shot through James' forehead. He clapped a hand to his head and squeezed his eyes shut, hissing in surprise.

        "James?" Rose asked, concerned.

        Almost as quickly as it had come, the pain vanished. James kept his hand to his forehead but risked opening his eyes. The first thing he saw was the view through the Headmaster's open doorway. Merlin was standing behind his desk, his face grave and his eyes piercing. He was staring very hard at James through the doorway, but the look on his face did not seem worried or alarmed. If anything, he looked intently watchful, perhaps even wary.

        "Are you all right, James?" another voice asked. James lowered his hand and looked around. Petra Morganstern was standing in the hall, having just exited the Headmaster's office. She looked flushed, and her eyes were red, as if she'd been crying.

        "I'm fine," James answered. "I… I should be wearing my glasses." He glanced at Rose and Ralph, warning them not to say anything.

        "Oh," Petra said, looking away. "Well, I'll see you later. I've got… things to do."

        James watched her walk away, wondering once again why Petra seemed so melancholy all of a sudden. And what in the world had Merlin said to her to upset her even more? James stood, looking back into the Headmaster's office again. Merlin was no longer staring at him with that hard, watchful look. He was turned to the side, studying a complicated brass device in his hands.

        "Come in, my friends," Merlin called without looking.

        As the three students entered the office, James couldn't help looking around in awe. Save for the old headmasters' portraits and the desk, the room was virtually unrecognizable as the same space McGonagall had occupied last term. A massive stuffed crocodile hung from the ceiling, looking like an exhibit in a museum. Bookshelves crowded the floor, crammed with enormous volumes in thick, leather covers. Alongside these were arcane tools and fixtures, none smaller than a cabinet, and all mind-bogglingly complex. Attached to the wall behind Merlin's desk was a glass case housing a thick black sack, hung on silver hooks. James recognized it as the mysterious Darkbag. The centerpiece of the room, however, was a very large, long mirror with a rectangular golden frame. The silvered glass of the mirror only half-reflected the room. Beyond the reflection, a swirling, leaden mist rolled and shifted. It was both beautiful and vaguely sickening. The mirror rested on a long brass easel in the center of the room, facing the Headmaster's desk.

        "As promised," the Headmaster said, "the contents of my cache. Not all of it, of course, but enough to make my job rather easier."

        There was only one chair facing the Headmaster's desk. James, Ralph, and Rose gathered around it, though none chose to sit on it. They continued to look around the room in awe.

        "You've noticed my Mirror, Mr. Potter," Merlin said conversationally, still not looking up from the strange device he was holding. "Very curious, yes? I see that you wish to ask me about it. Please feel free."

        "What does it do?" James replied bluntly.

        "The real question, Mr. Potter, is what doesn't it do?" Merlin said, finally setting the strange brass device on his desk and looking up. "It is the legendary Amsera Certh, the quintessential Magic Mirror of time immemorial. With the help of its Focusing Book, it can show you the past and the future. It can show you places you have been and replay ancient memories. It can even tell you, if you so wish, who is the fairest in the land. I fail to see the practical purpose of such information, but the Mirror's designer was a bit of an eccentric."

        Merlin stood and moved slowly around his desk, approaching the Mirror. "Only two such mirrors were ever made. The sister of this one belonged to an associate of mine who, like all of my associates, is long since dead. That mirror, alas, is also lost to the mists of time."

        Rose stared at the swirling, silvery mist in the Mirror. "Why were there only two ever made?"

        Merlin reached the Mirror and pulled a braided cord. A thick black curtain dropped over the face of the Mirror. "Such pieces are very difficult to create, Miss Weasley. More importantly, the world can only contain so many very powerful magical devices. They weigh heavily on the balance of the cosmos. Too many at any given time can cause… wrinkles. Before my return, I lived at the tail of a much darker time when such wrinkles were commonplace. Fortunately, the age we now occupy is much better adjusted. Still, a few relics of the age of extraordinary magical devices remain." Merlin looked about with some pride. "Most of them are here in this very room."

        Ralph swallowed and said, "Is it all, you know, safe?"

        "Of course not, Mr. Deedle," Merlin replied easily, returning to his desk. "Any more than a wand is safe. But it is contained, and that is the important thing."

        "Did you show Petra something in that mirror?" James asked suddenly, looking at the Headmaster's face.

        Merlin didn't flinch. "I would say that is none of your concern, Mr. Potter, but I have lived in this age long enough to know that that would only heighten your curiosity. Yes, I did."

        "Is that why she was so upset when she left? What'd you show her?"

        "I showed her what she came asking to see," Merlin replied evenly, seating himself. "Nothing more and nothing less. If you wish to know further, you may consult Miss Morganstern directly, although she might find such an interrogation less than welcome. Now, what can I do for the three of you?" As he spoke, he reached across his desk and carefully closed a large book near the edge; the Mirror's 'Focusing Book', James assumed.

        Rose maneuvered herself slightly in front of James. "We, uh, just came to ask about starting a club, Headmaster."

        "What manner of club?" Merlin asked briskly.

        "Well, a, er, practice… club," Rose stammered. "I mean, a club for practicing. Spells. Defensive techniques and things like that."

        Ralph interrupted. "It's not that we don't like Professor Debellows or anything, either. He's really great. We just want to… practice."

        "I understand that the good professor doesn't prefer to be called a professor," Merlin said, allowing a tiny smile.

        "Er, that's true," Ralph agreed, his face reddening. "Kendrick, then."

        "What sort of spells do you intend to practice? And who do you expect to be involved?"

        "Anyone who wants to be involved," James answered. "And we'll just be practicing basic defensive techniques. Stuff we learned in our classes last year. We'll only be practicing on dummies and targets, never each other. Any teachers who want to supervise can come, of course. Although I expect that it'd be a little… er, boring."

        James stopped, feeling that that last bit might have been too much. He was counting on the fact that no teacher would wish to volunteer for any extra time in class just to watch a bunch of students fling Expelliarmus spells at wooden dummies, but Merlin was quick enough to see through such a ruse. Knowing him, he might just assign a rotation of teacher chaperones, and Debellows would probably be first on the list.

        Merlin opened his mouth to respond when, suddenly, the brass device on his desk shifted. Everyone in the room looked down at it. It was something like a hollow globe made of interconnected brass hoops, marking the globe's latitudes and longitudes. Inside, a complicated network of gears and ratchets operated a silver pointer. The pointer had begun to spin, making the globe roll slightly on the desk. After a moment, the pointer ceased spinning, ratcheted upwards a few notches, and went silent. Merlin stared at it.

        "What is—" Ralph began, but Merlin interrupted him.

        "You may proceed with your club, my young friends. Please send me a notification of when and where you plan to meet as well as a list of students who choose to be involved. After all, what kind of Headmaster would I be if I didn't keep abreast of such things?" Merlin had produced an official parchment with the Hogwarts crest emblazoned on the top. He scribbled a few notes on it and signed his name at the bottom with a flourish. "This should suffice in terms of official sanction. I wish you the best of success."

        Ralph glanced at James, wide-eyed and smiling in relief.

        "But Headmaster—" Rose began.

        "If you will excuse me," Merlin said, rising, "it happens that I have some unexpected business to attend to. I'd hate to detain you, as I expect that you have preparations to make. Please do see yourselves to the staircase, and close the door on your way out, thank you."

        "Thank you, sir," Ralph said, herding James and Rose toward the door. "You won't regret it!"

        "Ralph!" Rose hissed.

        The three nearly stumbled over each other as they crowded through the doorway.

        "'You won't regret it'?" Rose whispered at Ralph, rounding on him in the hallway. "What kind of thing is that to say? You want him to be suspicious?"

        Ralph grimaced. "I was nervous! So sue me! Come on, let's just get out of here before he changes his mind."

        James was just pulling the door shut when he stopped suddenly, his eyes going wide. "The permission parchment!" he exclaimed, looking from Ralph to Rose. "Did either of you pick it up?"

        "I didn't get it," Ralph said. "I thought Rose got it. She was closest."

        "You shoved us out of there before I could get to it, you giant prat!"

        "I'll get it," James said, turning back. The door hadn't yet latched shut. He pushed it slightly open, peering in.

        "Headmaster?" he called. "We forgot the parchment you signed for us. Can I just…"

        James frowned and pushed the door further open. The Headmaster's desk was vacant. The room appeared to be completely empty and was almost unnaturally still. Perhaps Merlin had gone somewhere by Floo Network. The brass device on his desk must have been an alarm or a reminder, telling him of a meeting he had to rush off to. James walked across the office and grabbed the parchment from the Headmaster's desk. As he turned back toward the door, a strange feeling came over him. With a sudden chill, he remembered the dart of pain that had shot through his forehead when he'd been waiting in the hall, right before he'd seen Merlin staring at him through the door. His heart quickening, James looked around and saw why the office seemed so unnaturally still. Across the rear wall of the office, from floor to ceiling, were the dozens of portraits of the former headmasters. Among them, of course, were the portraits of Severus Snape and Albus Dumbledore, although as usual, Dumbledore's portrait was empty. Every portrait was perfectly still and silent.

        Ralph and Rose had edged into the room, following James. Rose was staring at the portraits, her eyes wide and nervous.

        "Now that's just eerie," she said in a low voice.

        "This is the only place on earth where a wall full of unmoving paintings is a bad omen," Ralph said. "But I am in total agreement with you, Rose. What's going on here? Where's Merlin?"

        James crossed the room and stood in front of the portrait of Severus Snape. He had spoken to this portrait several times last term, and had been insulted by it on more than one occasion. Gingerly, he reached out and touched the portrait's face. He could feel the texture of the dried paint, feel the stroke that formed the man's hook nose. The face didn't so much as blink.

        Rose gasped. "Look," she said, her voice barely above a whisper.

        James turned. The black curtain had once again been lifted from the Amsera Certh, but the surface of the Magic Mirror no longer showed merely swirling, leaden smoke. It showed a scene. The view was hazy and murky, as if seen through a very dirty, very imperfect window. James and Ralph joined Rose by the Mirror and peered past their reflections, trying to make sense of the cloudy scene.

        The view looked through a stand of gnarled trees into a thick forest. It was very foggy, and the trees were dense enough to block most of the stormy daylight. There was a small clearing beyond the nearer trees, and in the center of the clearing was a sort of monument, caked with moss and vines. It was tall, thin, and leaning. As the scene moved in and out of murkiness, James could see that the monument was a statue of a man. The stone figure was rather handsome, dressed in a very old-fashioned suit. On the base of the statue were lines of engraving, but James couldn't make them out.

        Rose suddenly covered her mouth, stifling a gasp. "I know what that place is!" she whispered. "But why would the Mirror be showing this?"

        James had a terrible feeling he also knew the place. He'd heard about it but never seen it. Very few people ever had. On the base of the statue, just below the unreadable words, three large letters were engraved: T. M. R.

        "T. M. R.," Ralph said wonderingly, then gasped. "Tom Marvolo Riddle! Is it really Voldemort's grave? Who'd bury a monster like him?"

        "Nobody knows," Rose said quickly, still studying the ghostly scene. "There was an anonymous donation for the burial costs and the monument, specifying that he was to be buried as Tom Riddle and not Voldemort. No wizarding cemeteries would accept the remains, though. They finally buried him in a secret location in an unplottable forest. Hardly anyone even knows where it is."

        In the Mirror, a figure moved. The three students gasped in unison. The figure hadn't walked into the scene, nor had it appeared. It was as if it had been there all along, but no one had noticed it. Only when it moved slightly was its presence made known. It wore a long, black, hooded robe which obscured its face, but there was something very unsettling about the fabric of the robe. It looked more like a robe-shaped hole in space, filled with swirling, churning dark smoke. The ragged bottom of the robe did not quite reach ground, and yet no feet came out of it. James shuddered at the sight of the awful figure, thinking of the tabloid clipping Lucy had sent him. It had referred to the 'creature of smoke and ash'. Could this be that entity? Could this be the Gatekeeper? The figure raised an arm, revealing one thin, white hand. The hand seemed to beckon. A moment later, the statue of the youthful Voldemort shuddered. The proud expression went out of its face and the arms dangled like a puppet with its strings cut. And then, distantly, a voice spoke. It came out of the Mirror very faintly, barely heard over the sound of the wind and the creaking trees.

        "Are you he whose echo has called to me?" the voice of the hooded entity asked. "He whose motives, more than anyone else's in this sphere, once aligned with mine? Reveal yourself."

        The statue spoke, and its voice was very high and misty, nearly lost. "I am Tom Marvolo Riddle, also known as Lord Voldemort, dead of this world these many years, reclaimed to dust, passed on to the realm of torment."

        "And yet," the robed entity said, "your imprint is strong enough to draw me. Your mortal remains are of no use to me; therefore, it must be your intention to tell me who bested you, that I may seek him for my purposes."

        "He who bested me is no friend to you," the statue stated blandly, its voice nearly lost in the rising wind of that far-off place. "He was a boy then, but even then, he was stronger than could be deceived by your kind. He shall not assist you. But there are others…"

        The vision in the glass was growing fainter. James reached out to touch the Mirror, to lean on it, but Rose stopped him.

        "Even now, they await you," the dead voice of Tom Riddle said. "It is as you say: I am merely an echo, a memory, a fading ripple of a life gone. But they can bring you to another… one in whose heart beats my own essence. They are prepared for you… they await you here, this very night…"

        At that, another figure pushed through the branches, moving out of the shadows of the trees. James couldn't make out the figure's face, but he could tell it was a man. Like the first figure, he was dressed in a hooded robe, but because of the man's position, James could see his face. He was pale and wary, but his eyes were resolute. The trees had begun to pitch and groan as the wind increased. The sounds of the place began to drown out the distant voices. James could barely make out the words of the pale man.

        "We are prepared for you, o Master of the Void," he said, holding out his hand. "We have been awaiting you, as has been the whole world. Your time is near."

        Suddenly, a third figure moved out of the woods, opposite the pale man. This figure was also dressed in black but was taller than the pale man. He didn't clamber out of the woods, as had the pale man, but moved with a sort of malevolent grace, stepping out into the clearing to face the shrouded form of the Gatekeeper. James was dismayed. Something about the proud, effortless gait of the taller figure made him think of Merlin. The pale man did not seem surprised to see the third figure, although his wariness increased. He smiled thinly. The tall man and the Gatekeeper exchanged words, but a crack of thunder drowned them out. The wind grew to a steady howl, bearing the promise of a storm. Fat drops of rain began to fall, and the image started to blur. Suddenly, the pale man glanced around and then pointed, up and out, and James gasped. He'd pointed directly at James, as if seeing him through the Mirror glass. The man's pale face stared right into his eyes. The taller man turned as well, but if it was Merlin, James couldn't tell because of the shadow of his hood. Worst of all, the face of the statue had also turned. The stone representation of Tom Marvolo Riddle looked out of the Mirror at James, grinning an empty, carved grin, showing all its teeth.

        James stumbled backwards, away from the Mirror, and bumped into the desk. He barely heard Ralph and Rose calling him, grabbing him, trying to pull him toward the door.

        "Come on!" Rose called frantically. "We have to get out of here! They saw us! And it looks like they're coming! They're coming!"

        James' eyes widened. Suddenly he turned, looking down at the desk behind him. The Focusing Book was open. There was only one notation on the page, written in Merlin's own hand: 'GRAVE OF THE SOUGHT HOST'. Without thinking, James used both hands to slam the book shut. Instantly, thunder boomed right outside the office window. Lightning flickered and a gust of cold wind roared into the room, lifting the curtains.

        "Potter!" a voice rang out stridently. James spun on his heels. The portraits were all alive again. Most of them were looking around and blinking. Parchments swirled into the air as wind shifted wildly through the room, whickering through the curtains. The portrait of Snape glared at James, its eyes wide and very black. "What do you think you're doing? This is old magic! Magic like you have never imagined! You must leave this place. Now! Quickly!"

        Ralph grabbed James and pulled, dragging him toward the door, which swung wide open of its own accord.

        "Come on!" Rose called, running through the doorway and looking back. The door began to close again, cutting her off. James lunged, following Ralph. Snape's face was tense, dreadful, as James ran past, slipping through the doorway a moment before the heavy door slammed shut with a reverberating crash.

        James and Ralph barreled into Rose, and all three collapsed onto the bench in the hall, hearts pounding and breathless. As one, they scrambled back up and ran toward the spiral staircase, clambered down to the corridor below. They kept running until they reached a wide balcony where they finally pounded to a clumsy halt, breathing hard and staring wild-eyed at each other.

        "I hope," Ralph wheezed, bending over with his hands on his knees, "that one of us… at least remembered… the parchment this time."

        After a night of squalls and thunderstorms, Sunday morning dawned like a blooming flower, kindling rose-colored sparkles in the drenched grass and trees. After breakfast, James, Ralph, and Rose picked their way across the wet lawns to Hagrid's hut, where they banged on the door. When the half-giant didn't answer, the three students followed the stone path around to the back. There, they found Hagrid and his bullmastiff, Trife, moving about in the curling vines and broad leaves of the pumpkin patch. Hagrid was humming cheerfully, wet up to his knees as he rolled and weeded his pumpkins.

        "Good mornin', yeh lot! Fancy seein' the three of yeh out an' about this early on a weekend!"

        "Good morning, Hagrid," Rose said, sweeping beads of water off the top of one of the huge pumpkins. Satisfied it was mostly dry, she sat on it. "We came out to talk to you about something."

        "Blimey," Hagrid replied, "with yeh here, young Rose, it really is just like old times. Come now, let's go on inside. I was just tellin' Trife here that we ought to brew a mornin' tea, I was. We can talk all we want by the stove."

        They made their way inside and Hagrid hung an enormous copper teapot on a hook over the fire. James, Rose, and Ralph clambered onto the oversized chairs around the table.

        "Hagrid," Ralph began, glancing at Rose, "we saw something when we were up in the Headmaster's office yesterday. Rose thinks maybe we should tell someone about it because it could mean trouble."

        James kicked the table leg idly and glared out the window. "Not everybody agrees with Rose, mind you."

        "How can you say what we saw wasn't cause for alarm, James?" Rose demanded. "Even Ralph agrees that—"

        "I'm not saying that it isn't cause for alarm," James interrupted, glaring back at Rose. "I just don't think it means the Headmaster is in on it like you keep wanting to believe."

        "I don't want to believe it, but there's such a thing as evidence. There's seeing a man in the Mirror who looks and moves suspiciously like the Headmaster. You said so yourself! And he was consorting with… with known enemies and outright scary people. And at least one of them I don't think was even human! Not to mention the statue of You-Know-Who!"

        "Whoa, now, wait just a minute, yeh three," Hagrid said, scowling and settling himself into his old easy chair. "I don't know what yeh saw, but let's not be dragging that old beastie out in the open. Yeh just tell me what happened, why don'yeh."

        Rose began to explain what had happened the day before, beginning with their interview with the Headmaster. As the story progressed, James and Ralph joined in, adding their own insights and corrections, so that by the time they were explaining how the portraits came back to life and the painting of Snape warned them to flee, all three of them were talking at once. Finally, they finished the account and fell silent, turning to view Hagrid's response.

        The half-giant sat in his huge old chair by the fire, a distant, tense look on his face. He was looking in the direction of the three students but not directly at any of them. James had been confident that Hagrid would simply dismiss the tale as wild exaggeration. He'd tell them that what they'd seen in the Mirror had just been small-time shenanigans, engaged by men who refused to accept the fact that they'd long since lost the war. James knew from his father that while Hagrid may not always love the leaders of Hogwarts, he was loyal to the core. He'd defend Merlin, and assure them that there was absolutely nothing to worry about. That was partly why James had suggested they come out to the hut to talk to the big man. Now, as Hagrid sat in silence with that strange, tense look on his face, James wondered if it had been such a good idea after all.

        Suddenly, the teapot began to shriek, causing everyone in the room to jump. Hagrid shook himself, and then reached to pull it from the hook. He carried it to the table and clanked it onto a trivet.

        "Er," James said, prodding, "what do you think, Hagrid?"

        Hagrid glanced at him, wiping his hands on a huge towel. "Well, it's a bit difficult, innit? Who's to say? Could've been anythin', I s'pose. The Headmaster, he's got some terrible powerful devices an' all. Ol' Professor Snape's portrait was pro'lly right tellin' yeh to stay well away."

        "But Rose is saying she thinks it was Merlin that showed up by Voldemort's grave," James clarified, gesturing at his cousin. "Tell her she's daft if she thinks that! I mean, he's the Headmaster, Hagrid!"

        China clattered as Hagrid gathered saucers and cups, returning to the table with his arms full. "Right yeh are, James. He is the Headmaster, an' all I can say's if he did show up in that Mirror, talkin' to whoever it was yeh saw, then he musta had plenty good reason to."

        "But it couldn't have been him!" James insisted, looking to Ralph for support. "I mean, the thing in the swirling robe was obviously ten kinds of evil, and that bloke that showed up first had to have been an old Death Eater. I mean, it was Voldemort's ruddy grave site!"

        "I'd appreciate it if yeh didn't say that name at my table, James," Hagrid said gently, setting a cup and saucer in front of him. His hands trembled slightly. "I know the battle's long over, but old habits die hard, yeh unnerstand."

        Rose stirred in her seat. "Hagrid, do you think it could've been Merlin we saw?"

        Hagrid poured steaming water into the cups before he answered. Finally, he settled himself onto one of the chairs, producing a strained creak. He looked hard at Rose, and then stirred his tea with surprising delicacy.

        "They say that the Headmaster's a good man with a garden," Hagrid said, as if changing the subject. "I don't do a whole lot of readin' myself o' course, but everyone knows that Merlin the Great was a keen one for nature and plants and such. I been hearin' stories about how he spoke to the birds an' the trees since I was a wee lad. So when he came on as Headmaster early this summer, I thought I'd go up an' make my acquaintance. I invited him to come down to the hut so I could show 'im my own little garden. Next day, sure enough, he takes me up on the offer. He traipses all over the garden, not sayin' the slightest thing. He just walks up and down, in and out, tapping that big staff o' his on my pumpkins and squashes and cabbages. Finally, he looks up, out toward the Forest. I looks too, 'cause there's something rising up out of the trees."

        Hagrid still had the teaspoon in his huge hand. Gently, he set it next to his saucer. He looked at James, Ralph, and Rose one by one. "It was a Djinn. Like a raven, but bigger; black as night with glowing red eyes I could see from where I stood. I'd never actually seen one before, but I knew of 'em. Dark and mysterious creatures, they are; portents, according to legend. Very reclusive. I'd always been told they only come out at night, and if yeh see one on your path, it's a sure sign to turn right back 'round and run home, for the Djinn is s'posed to be a warning of horrible danger for those yeh love. Well, when I saw that black creature rise up out of the trees, I was about to call out to the Headmaster. But I knew he'd already seen it, an' he didn't seem any too worried about it. So I just watched. That black bird flew right over, wheeling once above the garden an' coming to land right on top of one of my pumpkins, right there next to the Headmaster. An' Merlin, he just watches it the whole time. The strangest thing was the way the two of 'em looked at each other. They didn't make any sounds, but it seemed to me plain as day that they was talking to each other somehow. After 'bout a minute, that Djinn looks over at me in that funny way that birds do, with their heads turned aside so one eye is pointing right at yeh. That bright red eye stared me right down, an' it was all I could do not to heave a rock at it like I was a scared kid."

        Hagrid looked imploringly at the three students at his table. "I loves magical creatures," he declared. "Dragons to Skrewts. Yeh lot know that s'well as anyone! I teach Care of Magical Creatures, fer goodness sakes. But that's the way that 'orrible bird made me feel. That glowing red eye just looked at me, an' all I wanted was to put it out, make it so that it'd never look at anyone else ever again. It sent chills down me. Still does."

        Hagrid stopped and finally took a sip of his tea. He cleared his throat and went on. "Finally, the thing took to flight again, flapping its great, greasy black wings. It flew back to the Forest and disappeared. The Headmaster watched it go, an' then he walked back over to me, still tapping his staff on the ground. He gets next to me an' turns back to the pumpkin patch, looking out over at the west corner. 'You've been having a dead spell in that corner,' he says to me. Well, it's true an' no denyin'. That west corner hasn't raised more'n thorns and thistle for five, six years. 'So I have,' I says to 'im. He looks me in the eye an' says, 'There's a fox who died with all her young, buried in her den under that corner of your garden, Mr. Hagrid. The dead spell arises from their bones, crying for a morning that'll never come. Dig them up, rebury them in the Forest, and sprinkle the earth with Sorrowshot powder. Professor Heretofore can provide some, with my compliments. That will end your trouble.'"

        Rose's mouth was turned down in a grimace of dismay. "Did you do it, Hagrid?"

        Hagrid glanced up at her, raising his eyebrows. "Well, o' course I did! Found them bones and no mistake! Did just as the Headmaster said, right down to the Sorrowshot powder. An' you can see plain as day that it did the trick. That corner has my biggest Fiendscorn squash in it. A fine green Tigerstripe variety. You've seen it, o' course. But the point is…"

        Hagrid stopped again and fiddled nervously with his teacup and saucer. He took another quick sip, as if to silence himself.

        "What, Hagrid?" Ralph asked, exasperated. "What's the point?"

        Hagrid looked at him, as if struggling with whether to speak. Finally, he leaned slightly over the table and said in a low voice, "The point is it seems pretty plain to me that the Djinn told the Headmaster about that dead fox an' 'er young! The point is, not only are all the old stories true about Merlin the Great talkin' to the trees and the birds, he even talks to the mystical creature-birds of the night! If that great black bird had shown its red eyes in my presence any other time, I'd have turned on my heel an' run! But Merlin, he watches the thing fly over almost as if he called it, almost as if he knows it by its ruddy first name!"

        James listened with his mouth pressed into a thin line. Finally, he straightened in his chair and said as plainly as he dared, "That doesn't mean he's evil."

        Hagrid blinked at him. "Well, o' course not! Who said he was evil?"

        James was perplexed. "But you just said—"

        "Now hold on, James, an' the rest of yeh. I want to be clear," Hagrid said seriously. "All I'm saying is that the Headmaster comes from a much different time, a time that would probably scare the hair off most of us. He lived in that time and worked in it. It's what he knows. Things that we would call evil an' bad in this day and age, well… let's just say things weren't so black and white in the time he comes from. That isn't to say that the Headmaster himself is bad. I've got every reason to trust him, and trust him I do! He's just a wee bit… well, wild. If you take my meaning. That's all."

        "But Hagrid," Rose exclaimed, "in the Mirror! We saw him with that… that awful thing in the swirling black cloak!"

        "If that was the Headmaster," Hagrid replied stubbornly, "then he had a very good reason to be there. Yeh said yourself, Rose, that none of yeh could hear what the man said. Maybe he was confronting them. Maybe he was… well, I dunno, but the point is yeh dunno neither."

        "That's what I've been saying all along," James said petulantly, glaring across the table at Rose.

        "Fact is," Hagrid went on, "none of yeh know the slightest bit about what yeh was seeing from start to end. Yeh said Merlin told yeh that the Mirror showed the past and the future as well as far-off places, didn'ya? Maybe what yeh were seeing wasn't even from the here'n now. Did yeh think o' that?"

        "Actually," Ralph said thoughtfully, "no, we hadn't."

        "But the gravesite!" Rose insisted. "That wasn't from a long time ago! Volde—er, He Who Must Not Be Named hasn't been dead all that long! But his grave was all covered with moss and vines, so it couldn't have been from the past…"

        "Let it go, Rose," Ralph shrugged. "You might be right, but what would we do about it anyway? All we can do is hope Merlin's as good as his word, like Hagrid says. If he is, we don't have anything to worry about. If he's not… well, what are we going to do against a bloke that can make the earth open up and swallow whole armies?"

        Rose fumed but didn't respond.

        A short while later, the trio finished their teas and bid Hagrid goodbye. As they left, James peered over into the west corner of the garden. Sure enough, a very large orange- and purple-striped squash rested there on its bed of leaves, still glistening with last night's rain.

        "I don't care what anyone says," Rose said gravely as they skirted the Whomping Willow, "I don't trust him. He's not what he says he is."

        "As much as I don't agree with Rose," Ralph answered, "this whole thing does make our new Defence Club seem all the more important."

        "How so?" James asked.

        "Well, it's obvious, isn't it? If what we saw in the Mirror was true and was from the present day, then it means some really bad stuff might be coming. We might actually have an enemy to fight. I, for one, want to be ready for that."

        "Ralph," Rose said in a different voice, "if I didn't find you generally thick as a brick, I'd be impressed by that."

        Ralph blushed a little. "Thanks, I guess."

        As they rounded a stand of bushes on the far side of the Whomping Willow, they ran into Noah, Damien, and Gennifer Tellus, the Ravenclaw Gremlin. The three were crouched just out of range of the branches, studying the gnarled tree trunk. The branches of the Willow shifted and twitched, sensing their presence but not quite able to reach them.

        "Hey," Ralph called as they approached the hunkered Gremlins, "we got permission to start the new Defence Club—"

        "Shh!" Noah hissed, raising a hand. "Hold on a minute."

        James, Rose, and Ralph crept up behind the three Gremlins, who were rasping at each other tensely.

        "A little lower," Damien hissed. "It's the big one that looks like an Adam's apple on a really skinny bloke."

        Noah shook his head. "We tried that one time before last! I keep telling you it's on the other side, facing away from the castle. I remember from last year, with Ted."

        Gennifer held a long stick. Biting her tongue in concentration, she held it out, reaching toward the tree trunk with the stick's tip. The tree leaned slightly and, almost lazily, whiplashed a branch at the stick. Gennifer exclaimed painfully as the stick was wrenched from her hand. It spun off into the thickets and the Willow relaxed again, almost smugly.

        "I told you to hold it lower!" Noah exclaimed, stepping away from the tree and straightening.

        "Look, you want to give it a go?" Gennifer replied, looking back over her shoulder. "Be my guest. But you'll need to go find yourself yet another stick."

        "I can't help if you have longer arms than me," Noah proclaimed. "It's not my fault you've got the reach of a weregorilla."

        "I've got another stick," Damien said patiently. "Here, give it another go, Gen. We'll hit it eventually."

        James watched as Gennifer reached carefully toward the tree trunk again. The Willow swung its branches, feeling for the stick but not quite reaching it this time. James asked Noah, "What's this all about?"

        "Secret passage, possibly," Noah answered, wiping moisture and grass clippings from his hands. "We've been coming out and testing it every year since I first came. It was Ted's idea. Hit the right knot on the trunk and the tree goes tame enough to get inside."

        Rose's eyes brightened. "It leads to a secret passageway? But I thought all the old secret passages had been sealed off?"

        "Well, there's sealed off and there's sealed off," Noah replied. "Thing is, Hogwarts being as magical as it is, the passages have ways of opening back up on their own after a while. Either that or new ones get discovered nearby. Petra discovered the Lokimagus passage just down the hall from the statue of the OneEyed Witch, and that statue was supposed to lead to a secret passage back in your parents' day."

        "I remember Mum talking about that one," Rose agreed. "She said it went down to Hogsmeade. I was hoping that one still worked. I wanted to see Hogsmeade myself this year even though first-years aren't allowed to go on Hogsmeade weekends."

        "Ahh, Hogsmeade," Noah sighed. "Making miscreants out of model students for as long as I can remember. Ted works down there now, at Weasleys'. We plan on getting him to buy us Butterbeers at the Triple Sticks when we go. All of us except Petra, of course."

        "What's going on with Petra?" James asked suddenly.

        Noah glanced at James. "Oh, nothing major. She just doesn't want to go because she and Ted used to be a bit of an item. Apparently, it all came to an end when Ted started seeing Victoire. They kept it secret most of the summer, but now the whole world knows about it. Somebody blabbed about it back at King's Cross."

        "I didn't blab!" James exclaimed before he could stop himself. "Ted told me to tell! He wanted to get the word out but didn't want to make a big thing of it!"

        "That was you?" Gennifer said, peering back at James over her shoulder.

        James rolled his eyes. "So that's what Petra's all upset about?"

        "She hasn't said so," Noah said, sighing. "Who can tell? She and Ted were never all that serious, if you ask me. I admit I expected her to end it first, though. Ted's just a bit too wild for a girl like Petra. She needs a different kind of man."

        "A man whose initials are N. M., you think?" Damien called, grinning.

        James felt his face heat. It bothered him that he might have inadvertently caused Petra's melancholy by revealing Ted and Victoire's relationship, even if Ted had asked him to do it. For some reason, it also bothered him that Noah might be interested in taking Ted's place. Nonchalantly, James asked Noah, "What kind of man does a girl like Petra want?"

        Noah shrugged. "Well, Petra's smart. Smarter than most people know. She's going places. She needs a bloke who can hunker down and take life seriously with her. Ted, he's great and we all love him, but he's not the take-life-seriously type."

        Rose interjected, "I heard Petra might get the part of Astra in the play. She'd be great for the role with her long dark hair and blue eyes."

        Noah nodded. "If she can get her head around it. It's down to her and Josephina Bartlett, and Josephina really wants that part."

        "It's just the thing Petra needs to get her mind off of Ted Lupin," Rose said emphatically. "She's prettier than Josephina any day of the week. I'll help her prepare for the role if I can. She has one more audition, doesn't she?"

        "Later this week," Noah agreed. "I hope she gets it. I'm still hoping to land the part of Donovan."

        "And Donovan and Astra get to dance," Damien sang mistily.

        "That's nothing," Noah replied. "Astra and Treus kiss at the end of the play, and the script calls it 'the kiss of true and everlasting love'."

        "They won't really kiss," Rose said, shaking her head. "In plays, they just press their cheeks together with their heads turned. The audience just thinks they're kissing."

        "Close enough for me," Noah muttered. "How we doing with that secret knot, Tellus?"

        "Don't hassle the maestro while she's working…," Damien said, still hunkered down next to Gennifer. The Willow was growing restless. Its trunk creaked ominously as it leaned, trying to lower its branches to walloping distance. Gennifer's stick weaved nervously near the leaning trunk.

        Ralph was looking apprehensively at the big, swaying tree. "So you've already been down in the secret passage beneath the Whomping Willow? Where does it go?"

        "As of last year, nowhere," Noah admitted. "It was all blocked off by a cave-in after a little way. That's why it never occurred to us to mark the secret knot. Still, it always seems like it'd have been a good idea when we come back the next year."

        "We can't mark the knot," Gennifer said through gritted teeth. "Otherwise, everyone would be able to use it. We have to just… remember it… there!"

        Gennifer jabbed the stick at the trunk, hitting a large knot near one of the tree's twisted roots. The tree suddenly straightened and went still.

        "Come on!" Noah cried, bolting toward the tree. "We don't have long!"

        James threw a look at Rose, then Ralph. Simultaneously, all three turned and ran toward the tree, following the three Gremlins. Gennifer was the first to reach the trunk. She ducked and threw herself forward, disappearing into a deep crack between two enormous roots. Damien and Noah followed. James hoped there was room inside for six since he was the last in. As Ralph scrambled into the narrow space, James glanced up. He'd never been this close to the Whomping Willow before and it looked huge and deadly as it loomed over him. As he watched, its branches began to move again. The trunk groaned ominously as it reanimated, angry and looking for something to whomp. James ducked and threw himself into the crack between the roots just as a branch swung past him, buffeting him with its passage.

        "Wow," Gennifer said, clambering up, "six people with one knot push! I'd say that's a new record. Everybody all right?"

        "I'll be fine when James gets off my back," Rose complained, grunting.

        "Sorry, Rose. I didn't have time to look where I was landing."

        Noah lit his wand and held it up. The space was low, ceilinged with the massive roots of the Whomping Willow. A stone-walled passage led down into darkness. The Gremlins began to descend it, followed closely by James, Rose, and Ralph. After about thirty paces, the group came to a halt. In the lead, Noah held his wand higher, whistling through his teeth.

        "Eureka," Damien said excitedly.

        "What?" Rose exclaimed, standing on her toes to see over James' shoulder. "I can't see! What is it?"

        "Hogwarts finds a way," Gennifer replied. "It looks like there was a flood down here last spring. Washed a bunch of the dirt and gravel away. Look, there's room to squeeze through if you don't mind getting dirty."

        "Excellent!" Noah proclaimed, his voice echoing from further ahead. There was a distant splash. "The passage beyond is completely intact! There's a little water to slosh through, and some seriously busy spiders, but the wandlight scares them away. I'd guess this goes straight on through from here."

        "Are we going now?" Ralph asked. "I didn't really come prepared for any, er, journeys."

        "Don't get anxious, Ralphinator," Noah answered, scrambling back around the former cave-in. "We'll go the rest of the way later. It's just good to know the passageway's back open again."

        "And we're the first to find it," Gennifer added.

        "So don't you lot tell anyone," Damien finished, stabbing a finger in the air and looking severely at James, Rose, and Ralph. "Especially you, Mr. Slytherin."

        "Easy, Damascus," Noah said. "Ralph's loyal to the Gremlin cause. Come on, let's get back out of here."

        "So where does the passage go to?" Rose asked as they retraced their steps.

        "Our best guess is that it goes to Hogsmeade," Gennifer answered. "So you might get your wish about sneaking in a visit this year."

        "The passage goes to Hogsmeade?" Ralph replied, a bit irked about Damien's lack of confidence. "Where does it come up? Couldn't somebody just trace it back to Hogwarts?"

        "Worried that your dad missed another weak spot in the school's 'security perimeter'?" Damien asked, smiling crookedly. "Don't worry. Old Daddy Dolohov's defensive perimeter is safe. Nobody will be coming back from the other side. Except us, hopefully."

        "The passage doesn't go to Hogsmeade directly, Ralph," Noah said.

        They reached the bunker beneath the Whomping Willow. Carefully, Gennifer reached out and found the secret knot. The tree went still and she scrambled out.

        "So where does it go to, then?" James asked as the group climbed quickly out of the secret opening.

        "Our best guess is it goes to a delightful place called the 'Shrieking Shack'," Damien said, stopping outside the perimeter of the tree. "Nobody ever goes there."

        "I can see why," Ralph nodded. "Does it, you know, shriek?"

        "No, it's just a name, Ralph," Gennifer said, clapping the big boy on the shoulder. "It hasn't shrieked in decades. Although apparently it used to make quite a fuss, didn't it? Supposedly, the whole place shook."

        Ralph looked back at James and Rose. "Are they making fun of me?"

        "Yeah, Ralph," James nodded. "But it's all out of love. Don't sweat it."

        Ralph accepted that and the three began to follow the Gremlins back across the wet grass. As they reached the castle, he asked, "So the Shrieking Shack didn't really used to shriek?"

        James shook his head. "I didn't say that, Ralph… I just said they were making a little fun of you. It's best if you don't ask any more about it."

        Rose concurred. "Really, Ralph. Trust us."

        Ralph opened his mouth, considered it, and then closed it again. He sighed and the three students climbed the steps into the castle, following the smells of lunch.

8. THE AUDITION

The next day's Defence Against the Dark Arts class was slightly more bearable than previous classes, if only because they had a guest teacher's assistant. The assistant was possibly even more of a celebrity than Debellows himself, since he was not only the new leader of the Harriers special forces squadron, but was also a former Bulgarian World Cup Quidditch player. Viktor Krum strode purposely into the gym as Debellows introduced him, and the assembly of students applauded roundly. James knew Krum very vaguely, having met him once or twice years earlier. Viktor Krum had, of course, competed in the Triwizard Tournament alongside James' dad, Aunt Fleur and Cedric. During that time, he'd also had a short, romantic relationship with Aunt Hermione as well, to the extent that on the few occasions that Viktor had been in the same room with the Weasley family, Aunt Hermione had tended to look in the other direction quite a lot and Uncle Ron had puffed his chest out and adopted an attitude of noisy surliness.

        Viktor spoke to the class in his irrepressible accent, telling them how he'd trained alongside Kendrick Debellows in his early years in the Harriers, and assuring everyone that he wouldn't be where he was today if not for the man's leadership and example. James was almost immediately bored. He liked Viktor quite a lot, but he disliked Debellows enough that the sight of the man absorbing his protégé's praise made James a bit ill. The upshot was that there were no troops through the Gauntlet that day, although Debellows challenged Krum to a 'manly contest' to see which one of them could make it through first. Viktor had turned down the challenge, and James liked to believe it was because the younger man simply hadn't wanted to shame his mentor.

        As the class wore on, James saw that Ralph, who was only slightly more artistic than James, was doodling an idea for the new Defence Club sign-up sheet.

        As they filed out of the gym and made their way to History of Magic, James said to Ralph, "You know, we really shouldn't be putting those up until we know we have a teacher."

        "That's your job," Ralph shrugged. "I have to do my part. Besides, you'll talk Cedric into it. You're good at that."

        "Yeah, well, I haven't talked him into it yet."

        "You'd best get on it, then," Rose said, meeting them at an intersection. "The first meeting is tomorrow night."

        James nearly dropped his book. "Tomorrow? Since when?"

        "Since I started spreading the word around the Great Hall at breakfast," Rose replied simply. "I only meant to tell Henrietta Littleby and Fiona Fourcompass, but you know how Fiona is. The whole Ravenclaw table was talking about it by the time I left. There's a lot of excitement about it. Nobody likes the way Debellows is running D.A.D.A. even though it was sort of sweet to see Viktor in the halls this morning."

        "But we don't even know where we're meeting!" James exclaimed. "I thought we talked about starting things up at the end of next week?"

        "That was before we talked to the Headmaster and saw what we saw in his Mirror. Ralph's right. Things seem a bit more urgent now. Besides," Rose sniffed, stopping at the door to History of Magic, "we agreed I was in charge of scheduling."

        "Yeah, I suppose, but… the entire Ravenclaw Table?"

        Rose nodded. "And Louis is spreading the word with the Hufflepuffs."

        "Louis!" James cried, raising his voice again. "You got Louis involved?"

        "He overheard me, so I thought I'd put him to work. What's the matter? I thought you said that anyone who wanted could be involved?"

        "Yeah, well…," James said, lowering his voice, "anybody we wanted to know about it."

        "I don't think it works that way," Ralph replied. "Besides, word's all over the school by now."

        James exhaled in frustration, but it was too late to do anything about it. He'd have to go and find Cedric tonight if he could. Thinking that, he turned and shouldered his way into the crowded classroom where Professor Binns was already burbling away, his back to the students as he made ghostly notes on the illegible chalkboard.

        James finally had the opportunity he was waiting for that night after dinner. Ralph said goodnight at the stairs and Rose was in the library doing some homework. Once Ralph had descended into the cellars, James turned away from the stairway and walked along the main hall toward the portico. He felt rather strongly that he had to do this by himself. As he turned into the corridor that bore the trophy case, he slowed, looking around. There was no one about and the halls were quite silent as most of the students retired to their common rooms for the evening.

        James walked lightly along the display cases, passing the photos of ancient House Quidditch teams and displays of old game balls, plaques, and trophies. He paused for a moment in front of a Quidditch tournament trophy engraved with a list of names. It was rather old and tarnished, but the name near the bottom was still perfectly legible. 'James Potter – Chaser', it read in flowing script. Here was the name of the grandfather James had never known. He felt suddenly very sad because it reminded him that he had no grandfathers at all anymore. The plaque was rather dusty, probably forgotten by most everyone that moved daily through these halls. James had a strong urge to reach into the case and touch the plaque, as if to make sure it was real. It was like an anchor that connected him to a person and a time he'd never known. James glanced around the corridor, assuring himself no one was looking, and then stepped toward the case. The glass door squeaked slightly as he opened it. He reached in and ran a finger across the name engraved near the bottom, drawing a faint line in the dust. He could barely feel the etching of the letters.

        Suddenly, for no apparent reason, James thought of the words his father had said to him on the night of Granddad's funeral: Granddad is really the third father I've lost… I'm back to where I started. This name on the trophy was where everything started. This trophy is from those last few years before everything changed, James thought, before Grandma and Granddad were killed by Voldemort; before Dad's godfather, Sirius, was lost in the Hall of Mysteries; before old Dumbledore was struck down on one of the roofs of this very castle; this was back before any of that had happened, when everybody was happy and nobody had had to die yet. If only… if only…

        "I remember seeing your dad standing there in front of that very plaque," a voice said quietly.

        James wasn't surprised. He didn't turn around as he said, "I came down here to look for you. I had a feeling this is where you came when you didn't know where else to go."

        "This is the first place I remember being after I died," the ghostly voice of Cedric Diggory said. "There was a long, long time of nothing, although it sometimes felt only like minutes. Finally, here I was, looking down at my own picture by the Triwizard Cup. I spent a lot of time doing that. It was… comforting, in a way. I can't see myself in mirrors, you know. It's just one of the peculiarities of being a ghost."

        James closed the trophy case and turned to Cedric. "You saw my dad standing here, looking at Granddad's name on the plaque?"

        Cedric smiled at the memory. "It wasn't just him. It was all three of them. Ron, Hermione, and Harry. It was their first year. I didn't know them then, but I knew who your father was. Everybody did."

        James looked back at the plaque again. It helped to know that his dad had also looked at that name and felt some of the same things he was feeling. He sighed.

        "The past is a steel trap," Cedric said. "Trust me on that one, James."

        James glanced up, as if in surprise.

        "What?" Cedric said. "It wasn't that profound, was it?"

        James shook his head. "No. I mean, yeah, I guess, but that's not what I was thinking. I just had the strongest, weirdest feeling that this has happened before. And all of a sudden, I thought of Ralph's story."

        Cedric looked puzzled. James went on, waving a hand. "It's this story that we learned about in Wizlit. Professor Revalvier says that all great magical stories were meant to be told by word of mouth because written words cage them and make them tame. Magical stories are meant to stay alive. They change with each retelling because they pick up the spirit of the teller. I don't know why; I just thought of the last line from the story Ralph told us in class. It's the only line I can ever get exactly right when I try to write it down."

        "What is it?" Cedric asked.

        James was thoughtful. "'Then I am the King of the Cats,'" he said, as if tasting the words.

        Cedric's ghost was silent. After a moment, he asked, "So what does it mean?"

        "That's just it," James said, shaking his head. "It doesn't seem to mean anything unless I'm not thinking about it. Then, all of a sudden, it'll pop into my head, just like it did now, and it'll seem really important. I just can't put my finger on it. It's like seeing something out of the corner of your eye, something that vanishes as soon as you look right at it."

        "Well, I guess if it really is important, it'll come to you when you need it," Cedric said, shrugging. "You said you came down here looking for me?"

        "Oh," James replied, shaking himself. "Yeah. Er…" He sighed, and then looked the ghost right in his semi-transparent eye. "We need your help, Ced. I don't know how else to put it. We're putting together this club, Ralph and Rose and me. Actually, it was Noah, Sabrina, and Damien's idea, but we're the ones that went to Merlin and got permission and everything. Honestly, we're not even the first people to do it. My dad had a club like this way back in his day, although it was after you, you know, er… anyway, we need to learn how to do defensive spells and techniques and our new teacher this year refuses to teach us anything except how to pull a hamstring. We've got permission to officially start the club, and by now, it seems like the whole school already knows about it. Our first meeting's tomorrow, but we don't even have a teacher. That's why I came to find you. When we first talked about it, you were the first person that Ralph, Rose, and I thought of to teach us defensive magic."

        "You can't be serious," Cedric said, smiling a little crookedly. "I'm a ghost, if you haven't noticed. Not only do I not have a working wand anymore, technically, I don't even have fingers. I couldn't Stun a dust-bunny. I have a hard enough time magicking the lanterns out when I do my 'Specter of Silence' routine. And you think I can teach defensive magical technique?"

        "Well, yeah!" James said, warming to the subject. "I mean, you were a great wizard, even while you were still in school! Everybody says so! Even Viktor Krum talks about how you outwitted the dragon and took on the merpeople. You were a natural! Besides, you have actual battle experience, having been all through the Triwizard Tournament. And you learned under Dumbledore, who everybody says was the golden age of Hogwarts. Come on, Cedric! It's perfect!"

        "I don't think so, James," Cedric said, his smile fading. "It's great that you thought to ask me and all, but…"

        "Look, Cedric, this isn't just for us," James said, stepping a bit closer to the ghost. "You said you didn't think there was a place for you here anymore. All your old friends and classmates have moved on. But there are a whole bunch of us who really do need you, here and now. My dad says you were totally excellent with your spellwork and technique, and everybody knows you were a natural leader. I know you still remember it all because ghosts don't experience time the same way the living do. Come on, what do you say?"

        Cedric's ghost was flitting backwards, his face downcast as he shook his head. "I can't, James. Part of me would really like to do it, but I can't. You wouldn't understand."

        "Look, Ced, just try it for a week or two. It'll be great! Everyone will love you and I just know you'll be able to teach us loads of stuff. Besides…"

        James faltered, not sure if he should go on. Cedric stopped and looked back at him. James took a deep breath and continued.

        "Remember the end of last year, that night when we talked in the Gryffindor common room? You told me there was a sense of Voldemort still in the halls here, even though he was dead. Well, Rose and Ralph and me, we saw something. And… I've been sensing things. Something's up, and it has something to do with the old Death Eaters, and Voldemort's grave, and some really scary creature in a cloak that looks like it's made out of swirling smoke and ash. Rose even thinks that the Headmaster is involved, although I don't agree. What I'm trying to say is that there could be a battle coming. Debellows isn't teaching us anything worth using in a real magical fight. We just want to be prepared. We want to be ready. You're from the time when Voldemort was still alive. You know how best to fight these people. You're perfect, and we need you."

         Cedric looked at James for a long, tense moment. He seemed to be struggling with himself. Finally, he lowered his brow and looked away. "You're right about one thing, James. I did have experience with battle. I was killed in my first one. I lasted a total of ten seconds."

        James was flabbergasted. "Ced, you can't mean that. That night in the graveyard… that wasn't a battle. I've heard Dad talk about it. He was there, remember? Pettigrew shot you with no warning. You can't seriously think…"

        "Really, James," Cedric said, looking up. The ghost's eyes were very grave. "Don't ask me again. I have my reasons. I can't, all right?"

        James met the ghost's gaze. After a moment, he sighed deeply. "All right, Cedric. Forget it. Sorry to bother you. See you around."

        James turned and began to plod away. He got halfway down the corridor when Cedric's voice said, "Does it hurt?"

        James stopped in his tracks and narrowed his eyes. He glanced back over his shoulder. "Does what hurt?"

        Cedric hadn't moved. He hovered near the trophy case, looking solemnly as James. "The mark on your forehead."

        James' heart skipped a beat. Without thinking, he touched the place where he'd felt the itch and the strange dart of pain outside the Headmaster's office. "You can see it?" he whispered harshly.

        Cedric nodded slowly.

        "What—" James began, but his voice failed him. He cleared his throat. "What does it look like?"

        Cedric's expression didn't change. He knew James knew. "It looks like a lightning bolt, James. Just like your father's. Except it's green. It glows a little."

        James' eyes were wide and his heart pounded. The spot on his forehead felt warm. It tingled a little now that he thought about it. He looked helplessly up at Cedric again.

        "Don't worry," Cedric said, sensing James' question. "I don't think anyone else can see it. Apart from the other ghosts, maybe. It's only been there for a week or so. At first, it was very faint, but now… That's why I asked if it hurt."

        James' thoughts were whirling. What could it mean? Why was it happening? "It does hurt sometimes," James admitted. "But just a little. Mostly, it just itches. Except for one time, right outside the Headmaster's office. Merlin looked at me and it… it stung. But just for a second."

        Cedric nodded once, solemnly. "Pay attention to it, James. It must be there for a reason. But be careful. It might not be trustworthy."

        James nodded, barely hearing. He glanced around quickly, just to make sure no one had approached and heard the conversation. The corridor was still empty. When he looked up again, Cedric's ghost had vanished.

        "Cedric?" James whispered. There was no response. James couldn't be sure whether the ghost had truly left, or just gone invisible. "Cedric, if you're still there, and you change your mind… well, you know where to find me, right?"

        The corridor was utterly still and silent. James touched his forehead again, wonderingly and worryingly. Finally, he sighed, turned, and began to trudge back toward the staircases and the Gryffindor common room.

        As soon as James reached the common room, he told Rose about his meeting with Cedric. She was surprisingly understanding about the ghost's refusal to teach the class, remembering the conversation they'd had in the corridor a week earlier.

        "He'll probably come around," she said, nodding. "We'll just need to find somebody else in the meantime. It's fine, really. None of the students we talked to today knew anything about Cedric anyway."

        "But who can we get to teach in the meantime?" James fretted. "People will be coming tomorrow with some expectations, Rose! We can't just tell them to open their Defence textbooks and start trying out whatever spells they feel like! It'd be a complete mess!"

        Rose looked thoughtful. "We could ask Viktor, maybe. He's going to be here until the end of next week. He certainly knows his stuff."

        "He's too tight with Debellows," James said. "He'd tell him first off and we'd never hear the end of it."

        Rose had been scanning the room idly. Suddenly, her eyes widened. She glanced back at James, a crooked smile curling her lip. "There is one person already among us who seems to know a good bit of defensive magic."

        "The older years don't want to do it," James sighed. "We've already been through it with them, Rose."

        "Actually," Rose said, looking askance again, "the person I was thinking of is a year younger than you."

        James followed the direction of his cousin's gaze. Scorpius Malfoy sat at a table across the room, idly flipping pages in a textbook. He glanced up, noticing James' gaze, and sneered slightly.

        "Not in a thousand years, Rose," James said flatly, turning back and crossing his arms. "Not in a million years."

        "I'm just saying," Rose said innocently, "you said he was using Stunning Spells on the train against Albus. And the other second-years have been talking about what he did to your headboard, which is, you have to admit, pretty impressive. He knows levitation already, and—"

        "No, Rose!" James hissed, interrupting. "I'll take a term of Debellows and the Gauntlet before I'll ask him to teach me anything!"

        "Are you willing to speak for the rest of the club's members too?"

        "He's not a teacher! He's a stuck-up prat! He probably wouldn't even do it if we asked him! People like him aren't exactly the sharing type."

        Rose smoothed her robes primly. "Well, you can't know unless you try. Really, James. Do we want a teacher or not?"

        James shook his head. "We want a teacher, not a smug little twit who's learned a few tricks. If you want him to teach, you ask him."

        "I might just do that," Rose replied breezily. She collected her bag and walked away. James watched her, but she merely climbed the stairs to the girls' dormitories. If she meant to ask Scorpius to teach the new Defence Club, she apparently wasn't planning on doing it tonight. After a while, James climbed the stairs on the opposite side of the room.

        As he got ready for bed, he thought carefully about the conversation he'd had with Cedric's ghost. He should've known that Cedric would refuse to lead the club, and yet it really had seemed like part of Cedric wanted to do it. And what could it possibly mean that Cedric was seeing a glowing green lightning bolt scar on James' head? As James finished brushing his teeth in the tiny washroom, he leaned in, examining himself in the mirror. As far as he could see, his forehead was completely unmarked. And yet, even now, he could feel that tiny, telltale tingling. Often, James had seen people pointing at his father, recognizing him by the famous scar, and James had thought it would be cool to have such a mark. Back then, James hadn't understood the price his dad had paid for that scar. Even now, he couldn't completely understand it, but he understood it enough, especially now that he'd lost grandfather Weasley. He knew enough not to want such a thing for himself anymore. For a while last year, James had struggled with expectations of following in the footsteps of his famous father. Now, James knew those footsteps were far too big for him. More importantly, James had his own path to travel, and it was unique to him. It wasn't just a replay of what his father had done. He'd learned that lesson, hadn't he? So why was he experiencing this phantom lightning bolt scar? What was it trying to tell him? And could he trust it?

        There was no point in worrying about it. And yet it was hard to let it go. Eventually, as he climbed into his bed, James distracted himself by trying to think of someone else who might possibly serve as teacher for the new Defence Club. He couldn't think of anyone, and he certainly wasn't going to ask Scorpius, but it did take his mind off the mysterious tingling on his forehead. Finally, eventually, James drifted to sleep.

        There were voices, echoing indistinctly, or perhaps it was only one voice, but the echoes made it sound like more. James couldn't understand any of the actual words, but the sound of the voice was both soothing and maddening, like scratching a poison ivy rash. It was dark, but there were flashes of something, like glints of light on the edges of blades scything the air. Beneath the voice was the clank and rumble of ancient machinery and a tinkling of water, all echoing disorientingly. Footsteps rattled on stone and the voice grew closer. James could hear words, but they were disconnected and strange. Light bloomed, flickering as if through water. It was green, and there were faces in it. A man and a woman, beckoning, smiling sadly, hopefully…

        "James, you're dreaming, you big div. Wake up!"

        A bag of laundry whumped James' head and he jerked upright, blinking.

        "S'bout time," Graham muttered sleepily. "I been trying to get you awake for a solid minute. You always talk in your sleep?"

        James looked blearily at Graham. "How would I know," he muttered grumpily, "if I do it when I'm asleep?" The dream circled his head like a swarm of gnats, but he couldn't remember much of it. Dawn light seeped into the room as Graham slid out of bed.

        "Well, we might as well get up anyway," Graham said. "I can smell bacon all the way up here. Let's go get a plateful before Hugo gets down there and wolfs it all."

        The day brightened to a wonderfully warm autumn afternoon. The morning's classes droned by and James hardly noticed, distracted in turns by thoughts of the previous night's strange dream, fretting about who could lead that afternoon's first Defence Club meeting, and Cedric's worrying words about the phantom scar on his head. At some point, James connected the dream with the scar, remembering that his father's scar had once been a sort of gateway into the thoughts of Voldemort. But Voldemort was long since dead. His father's scar hadn't hurt him in two decades. Whatever the phantom sign on James' forehead meant, it couldn't be a link to any resurgent Dark Lord, for his dad would surely have felt it first.

        Unless, James thought with a start, it was connecting him to the Bloodline, the secret successor of Voldemort that the tree sprite had told him about last year. James shuddered as he knelt on the grass at Hagrid's Care of Magical Creatures class. How could he possibly be connecting to the Bloodline? His father, Harry Potter, was the one with the scar, not James. Why him?

        Your father's battle is over, the tree sprite had said, yours begins.

        "James," Hagrid said, glancing at him over the other students, "something wrong with yer Eel den?"

        James looked down at the muddy, slimy mess in front of his knees. He plunged a hand into it, feeling for the Mucous Eel he'd just planted. "No, no, it's great, Hagrid. Slimy as can be. Really, it's great."

        "This is completely repulsive," Ralph said, mucking his hand in his own excavation. It slopped and slurped disgustingly. Suddenly, he lunged and pulled, yanking the tail of his Mucous Eel out of the muck.

        "Very good!" Hagrid called heartily. "Ralph's got 'is turned upright. As soon as the Eel's face-down in its den, it goes limp. Jus' rub its belly nice an' slow. That'll make it hibernate. Then we can harvest the Eel's slime. Very useful stuff, Mucous Eel slime."

        Graham grimaced and flung ropes of slime from his fingers. "So is this thing a plant or an animal, Hagrid?"

        "Well, what class are yeh in, Mr. Warton?" Hagrid asked in reply.

        "Care of Magical Creatures," Graham answered in a monotone.

        "Then since this isn't Professor Longbottom's Herbology class," Hagrid said, grinning, "I s'pose yeh can assume the Slime Eel is a magical creature with some unusual planty tendencies, can't yeh?"

        "Professor Hagrid!" Morgan Patonia suddenly called, struggling to keep her voice even. "I think I pulled my Eel too hard!"

        Everyone looked. Morgan had leapt to her feet and was holding her Mucous Eel at arm's length, cringing away from the flailing, meter-long creature. Fans of greenish slime flew from the Eel, splattering Morgan's robes and the ground beneath it.

        "Don' let 'er go!" Hagrid cried, throwing up his hands. "Lower 'er back to 'er den, but don' let go! She'll wriggle down to the lake an' we'll never see 'er again, an' those Eels are right dear! Just lower 'er carefully head-first into the den, that's the way, Miss Patonia."

        Ralph watched Morgan dip the wriggling Eel back to the mess of slimy dirt. Her face was a mask of utter disgust. The Eel's arrow-shaped head touched the mud, and the body lunged forward, trying to burrow into the den.

        "There yeh go, then," Hagrid sighed, relaxing. "No harm done. A good lesson for us all, in fact. Keep the head in the den. Better safe than sorry, eh, Miss Patonia?"

        Morgan smiled gamely, looking as if she was, in fact, plenty sorry. Slime glistened in ropey slashes across her robe.

        "Before I found out I was a wizard," Ralph said wistfully, staring at Morgan's robes, "I was planning to attend the Byron Bruggman School for Boys. I bet they don't do anything with Mucous Eels there."

        "Just think what you'd be missing," Graham said, smiling ruefully. He flicked a fingerful of slime at Ralph.

        Later that day, James was making his way through the crowded halls, glancing surreptitiously around, as if worried he was being followed. The afternoon free period had been co-opted by Professor Curry's drama auditions, and James was on his way to the Muggle Studies classroom. At a cross-corridor, James met Rose and Ralph, who were talking animatedly.

        "What are you two doing?" James asked, stopping and glancing at each one in turn.

        "Well, I was coming to watch Petra audition for the role of Astra," Rose replied, "if that's all right with you, cousin."

        "And I'm just going along because the alternative is to go start my Charms homework," Ralph replied. "Rose says she'll help me with it if I wait until tonight. It's a no-brainer. What about you?"

        "Me?" James said, his voice squeaking guiltily. "Nothing. Really. I just… Same reason. Come on, let's go then."

        As they entered the Muggle Studies classroom, James' face was beet red. He walked quickly to the front of the classroom, hoping Ralph and Rose wouldn't follow him. He angled into the second row, and was annoyed to see that both of them were filing in after him.

        "What's with you, James?" Rose asked, sitting down and frowning at him curiously.

        "Did you find a place for the Defence Club to meet?" James replied, changing the subject.

        "Yeeaahh," Rose said slowly, still studying James' face. "The gymnasium isn't being used in the evenings, so I've gotten us permission to meet there. It's all taken care of."

        "The gym?" Ralph moaned. "I hate that place. That's where Debellows has his class. Is that all you could find?"

        "It's the perfect meeting place," Rose replied stiffly. "There're no tables or chairs to get in the way and there are already plenty of targets for spell practice. And eventually, if we begin conducting practice duels, the padded floors will be very helpful."

        "Are you sure duels are a good idea?" Ralph asked. "I mean, James did tell the Headmaster we wouldn't be practicing on each other."

        "Duels are essential to proper defensive technique, Ralph," Rose said, rolling her eyes. "You can't get any good shooting spells at non-moving targets. Besides, I'd rather the Headmaster not know the extent of our training. He might try to shut us down."

        James scowled. "Rose, that's ridiculous. Merlin would probably be happy that we're learning real magical battle techniques."

        "Oh? Then why'd he hire Debellows in the first place?" Rose asked, raising her eyebrows.

        "Merlin's not in charge of those kind of decisions," James replied, but uncertainly.

        "My mum and your dad both work at the Ministry, James. We both know that the Headmaster has final verdict about faculty. Besides, Merlin isn't the kind of man to let other people make decisions for him. Debellows is here because Merlin wants him here."

        Ralph said, "That doesn't mean he's trying to keep us from learning anything useful."

        "No," Rose agreed easily. "But if he was, Debellows is a great way to make sure we didn't. And after what we saw in the Mirror, I'd rather not take any chances."

        James opened his mouth to argue with Rose, but at that moment, Professor Curry stood and cleared her throat.

        "Thank you all so much for coming," she trilled. "These auditions aren't mandatory class-times, so I take it as a sign of healthy interest in our production that so many of you have come to observe. Of course, this is not exactly how auditions are conducted in the Muggle theatre, but in the interests of education, we've chosen a rather more public casting format. Today, we'll be completing auditions for the role of Astra, Treus, King Julian, and the Marsh Hag. Final decisions will be made by myself and the elected representatives from the major theatre departments. Let's show some appreciation for the head of the props department, Mr. Jason Smith, the director of the costume shop, Miss Gennifer Tellus, the head of the stage crew, Mr. Hugo Paulson, and finally, my official production assistant and associate director, Miss Tabitha Corsica."

        The four representatives were seated at a long table arranged in a front corner, positioned at an angle so that it faced both the classroom and the area designated as the audition stage. The four students accepted the round of halfhearted applause, nodding and smiling. Hugo stood and threw his arms wide, as if accepting an award. He bowed deeply and Gennifer Tellus yanked him back into his seat, rolling her eyes. At the end of the table, Tabitha smiled inscrutably. Briefly, she made eye contact with James and winked. James frowned at her.

        "First up," Professor Curry said, consulting a sheaf of parchment in her hand, "we will be viewing the final two candidates for the role of Astra. Miss Josephina Bartlett, seventh-year, Ravenclaw, will read first. Please, as always, silence from the gallery is appreciated. That means no applause, thank you. Miss Bartlett, whenever you are ready."

        Josephina Bartlett virtually pranced to the front of the room, her robes bouncing around her and her long blonde hair catching the sunlight from the windows.

        "Thank you, all of you, and particularly the parts committee," Josephina said, smiling winningly. "Whomever you choose, this has been a wonderful opportunity for me and all of the other candidates."

        "Just read, Josephina," Gennifer said, arching an eyebrow.

        Josephina cranked her grin a notch higher, glaring at Gennifer, then suddenly dropped her arms and head as if she'd been switched off. She took a deep breath, apparently staring at the floor between her feet. Then, slowly, she raised her head. Her eyes were glistening. She stared out over the assembled students, a look of beatific anguish etched onto her face.

        "Behold!" she exclaimed, raising her arm so fast that her sleeve flopped. She pointed straight ahead. Sitting at the committee table, Hugo actually looked to see what Josephina was pointing at. Gennifer nudged him in the ribs with her elbow. Josephina drew a huge, shuddering breath. "Be that the waning sun to light my love's returning sail, or are my eyes deceived by heart's desire? If't be that now he lies at th' ocean's deepest grave, then ne'er permit my soul to wake, nor fervid dreams to pass: t'is better laid in slumber's crypt than t'walk in living death, the world, my hell, without dear Treus! Hark, my heart, from plight to break, it must! O Treus, is't thee? State thy coming now, or let me join thy bed and sleep in dreary death! But daren't restrain my soul to waiting anguish! Treus, make thy answer known, or bid my soul depart— depart!—to flee to everlasting sleep—to death!"

        Josephina fell silent, and a single tear traced a path down her cheek. Her lip quivered minutely. Then, suddenly, her face cleared. She wiped the tear away with her sleeve and smiled at the gallery. There was a collective exhale. Even James had been holding his breath. Rose glanced over at him, annoyed. James shrugged and Rose rolled her eyes.

        "Nicely done, Miss Bartlett," Curry said from her seat at the table. "Perhaps a bit, er, melodramatic but certainly quite evocative. Any comments from the table?"

        Hugo's face was screwed up with concentration. "What's 'fervid' mean?"

        Gennifer sighed, and then turned to Josephina. "You've obviously practiced, Jo, and it shows. Nice preparation."

        "Tell me," Tabitha said, lowering her eyes to the tabletop and furrowing her brow, "were you attempting to present Astra as sad and forlorn, or are we to believe that she has just experienced a complete frontal lobotomy?"

        Josephina's smile went brittle. "Take it however you want, Tabitha. I don't think anyone else shares your, ah, professional interpretation."

        "I'm not sure that matters exactly," Tabitha said sweetly, meeting Josephina's eyes.

        "If you wanted the part," Josephina said, dropping her smile, "then you should've auditioned for it. Otherwise, let those few who know how to act do their job."

        "Point noted, Miss Bartlett," Curry said quickly. "Please feel free to return to your seat. Now, also reading for the part of Astra, we have Petra Morganstern, seventh-year, Gryffindor. Miss Morganstern, are you prepared for your reading?"

        Petra rose from her seat at the back of the room. James turned to watch her approach the stage area. She had the script with her, and as she turned to face the gallery, she consulted it. Her lips moved as she read the first lines.

        "I tried to practice with her," Rose whispered to James, "but she said she wanted to do it fresh, with no rehearsing. I swear, she's hardly even read the whole script yet."

        Petra lowered the script again and coughed into her fist. Finally, she looked out over the crowd of students, her face almost blank but for a very slight furrowing of her brow. There was almost ten seconds of silence, and James was worried that Petra had already forgotten her lines. Finally, almost in a whisper, Petra said the first word of the reading: "Hark."

        The entire room seemed to lean forward as Petra recited the lines, quietly, thoughtfully, as if to herself. Her voice rose only to normal speaking volume as she reached the end.

        "O Treus, is't thee?" she said, and her voice was full of doubt, as if she knew Astra's hope was as frail as tissue. "State thy coming now, or let me join thy bed and sleep in dreary death…" She paused, and her voice dropped again, to just above a whisper. "Treus, make thy answer known, or bid my soul depart… to flee to everlasting sleep… to death."

        Petra stopped, her face still wearing the same expression she'd begun with. She seemed to be looking through the back wall at something very far-off, like a mirage. Then, without a glance at the committee table, she tucked the script under her arm and walked back down the center aisle. James watched her until she returned to her seat.

        "Very nice, Miss Morganstern," Professor Curry said. "A bit soft for the stage, but we can work on the histrionics when the time comes."

        "She missed the second 'depart'," Josephina muttered from her seat.

        There didn't seem to be any comments from the table. Curry stood, producing her sheaf of parchments again and adjusting her spectacles. "Next, we have final readings for the part of Treus. We've narrowed the candidates to some of the younger years since Treus is meant to be the younger of Astra's two suitors."

        James' face burned. He'd never told Ralph or Rose that he'd signed up for the part of Treus. His first reading had gone fairly well, although it had only been Professor Curry and a few first-years at that initial audition. He didn't even know who else was in line for the part. He glanced over at Rose and Ralph.

        "I need to tell you something," he whispered urgently.

        "Shh!" Rose hissed.

        "Only two candidates remain for the role of Treus," Curry was saying. "One is from Slytherin and the other is from Gryffindor, but ironically, both are from the same family. First up, in order of first name since they both have the same last name," Curry smiled indulgently and took off her spectacles, "first-year, Slytherin, Albus Potter."

        Simultaneously, James, Ralph, and Rose's mouths dropped open. Rose and Ralph turned toward James, but James spun in his seat, looking for his brother. Albus jumped to his feet and jogged to the front of the room, throwing a smile and a shrug in James' direction. James couldn't believe it. Albus, in a play? Of course, it wasn't any more surprising than James himself trying out for a play, but still. So this had been the meaning of Tabitha's sly wink from the committee table. She'd probably put Albus up to it, just to cause a rift between the two brothers. And Albus was letting her succeed in the attempt. James fumed angrily in his seat.

        "You little twonk!" Rose rasped, elbowing James. "Why didn't you tell us?"

        "I tried!" James replied, still watching his brother hop onto the stage area. "Er, ten seconds ago."

        Albus had apparently memorized his reading. He cleared his throat, and then glanced aside at the committee table. "Am I supposed to say anything?" he asked brightly. "This is only my second time trying out for a play. Am I supposed to thank the academy or something first?"

        "That comes rather later, Mr. Potter," Curry said, smiling indulgently. "Just read the lines, please. At your leisure."

        Albus nodded. To James' eye, his brother didn't look the slightest bit nervous. He bobbed on the balls of his feet a little, and then flung out his hands, as if encompassing the room. "Foul Donovan!" he cried, his face darkening. "Thou trait'rous malcontent! Had been there room amongst my thoughts for more than Eros' spell and vanity, I might have seen thy wicked plot afoot. My sinister and foolish pride did make me bade thy oily tongue, and dreams of fame to take this quest of doom; and now I lie so far removed an obstacle to vile and vicious victory. O Astra, wife of mine at heart, reverse my sails and send a wind to turn us north; we still may beat that villain's storm! To arms, we'll take, O men, to bear the force of righteous truth: the spear to pierce his lying heart! But spy, his clouds hath blocked the sun, and time hath turned to foe! Wizards and men, forth draw ye wands and wits to fight the violent seas this night, that by the morn we'll hold our win, or lie in beds of ocean sand: our beaten glory's shrine!"

        Albus finished his rousing speech with a triumphant cry, shaking an invisible wand at the sky. There was a scattering of laughter and a few whoops of hearty encouragement. This speech was, after all, a classic rallying cry in the wizarding world. A few brave observers had even recited the last line alongside Albus, grinning and shaking their own invisible wands.

        "Thank you, Mr. Potter," Curry called loudly, stifling the outbursts. "Very spirited but not exactly as grave as one might expect. The soldiers are not embarking on a Quidditch match; they are facing the likelihood of their own doom. One might expect their leader to be a bit less glib. Still though, very enthusiastically performed. Please return to your seat."

        Curry didn't need to consult her parchments. As Albus retreated to his seat, grinning and accepting high-fives from some of his friends, Curry looked directly at James. "And now, also reading for the role of Treus, the elder Potter, James. Second-year, Gryffindor. Whenever you are ready, Mr. Potter, the stage is all yours."

        James felt stuck to his seat. He forced himself to stand, and then sidled past Rose and Ralph. By the time he got to the stage, his mind was a complete blank. He'd memorized the audition lines, but now, distracted by Albus' surprise performance, he couldn't even think of the first word. He glanced over at the committee table and grinned sheepishly. Professor Curry nodded encouragement. Tabitha was smiling smugly, obviously enjoying James' discomfort. A spark of anger flared in James as he looked at that grin, and with that anger, he remembered the first two words of his lines.

        "Foul Donovan," James said, turning to look out at the gallery. His eyes met Albus', and his anger increased. It smoldered in his words as he delivered them through partially gritted teeth. "Thou trait'rous malcontent! Had been there room amongst my thoughts for more than Eros' spell and vanity, I might have seen thy wicked plot afoot…" As the words came, James allowed his own resentment to fuel them. His voice rose, and he even allowed himself to look askance at Tabitha. He was grimly pleased to see she was no longer smiling. "Wizards and men, forth draw ye wands and wits," James said, as if relishing the idea of a fight. "To fight the violent seas this night, that by the morn we'll hold our win, or lie in beds of ocean sand: our beaten glory's shrine!"

        Rose erupted into applause. Ralph and a few others joined her, but they were quickly quelled by a warning look from Professor Curry.

        "Very impassioned, I must say, Mr. Potter," Curry said appreciatively. "I'm not sure where you found your motivation, but I daresay it was quite effective. Ahem. You may take your seat. Next up, we have Miss Ashley Doone, second-year, Gryffindor, reading for the part of the Marsh Hag. Miss Doone, you have the stage."

        Ashley approached the stage in character, hunched over and lurching. She reached the stage, paused, and then spun around, shrieking hoarsely and hooking her fingers into claws. James, seating himself rather triumphantly in the front row, had to suppress a grin.

        "That was spectacular," Rose whispered into his ear. "I wouldn't have thought you had it in you!"

        "You were the one who told me I should try out for the part," James whispered back.

        "Yeah, well, I was just being polite," Rose admitted. "But I'm glad I did. That was really amazing. I had goosebumps."

        Twenty minutes later, the assembly filed out of the Muggle Studies classroom. James followed Rose and Ralph into the corridor and stopped, his eyes wide.

        "Don't act so surprised," Rose said, clapping him on the shoulder. "You were brilliant. You deserve the part."

        "But I'm not an actor," James said, looking at her a bit wildly.

        "It's a bit late to worry about that little detail," Ralph grinned.

        Albus shouldered through the crowd and approached his brother. "Yeah, well, I didn't really want to be up on stage anyway," he said, spreading his arms. "Have fun making lovey eyes at Josephina."

        "Don't remind me," Rose said emphatically. "I can't believe they chose her over Petra."

        "I thought she did pretty well," Ralph commented, looking up at the ceiling.

        "You think she looked pretty well, that's all," Rose replied, shaking her head. "I can see right through you, Ralph Deedle."

        "That's not true," Ralph said defensively. "Well, I mean, it is true, but that's not why I think she deserves the part."

        Tabitha stepped out of the classroom and spied Albus. She smiled and walked over toward the group. "Congratulations, James. Inspiring performance. It's good to see you and Albus aren't too competitive about such things."

        "Get stuffed, Corsica," James said, turning away. "Don't try to act happy that we aren't at each other's throats."

        Tabitha looked mournfully at James, but Albus' face darkened. "What the bloody hell is wrong with you, James? You act like Tabitha has it in for us. I'll bet you don't even know that she voted for you to get the part! And I agreed with her! So why don't you just back off a little, eh?"

        James wheeled on his brother, but another voice called out before he could respond.

        "Tabitha didn't vote for me, but I still got the part," Josephina said. She smiled at Tabitha from where she stood, surrounded by a gaggle of exulting Ravenclaw girls. "Score one for 'full frontal lobotomy', score zero for Tabitha's 'professional interpretation'."

        The girls giggled as Josephina batted her eyes, and then turned to walk away. Tabitha seemed as unruffled as always, but she'd also forgotten about James. She swept into the throng without looking back, apparently following Josephina and her entourage. Albus threw a rankled look at James and stalked away as well.

        "I'm going to go find Petra," Rose said, shaking her head in disgust. "She's sure to be disappointed about losing the part. I'll see the two of you in the gym after dinner. Don't forget."

        "We won't," Ralph replied, annoyed.

        "For the last half an hour, I'd completely forgotten about that dratted club meeting," James mourned, turning to follow the rest of the departing students toward dinner in the Great Hall.

        "Don't worry about it," Ralph said happily. "What's a little Defence Club meeting to the great Treus, Conqueror of the Caspian Sea?"

9. THE LADY OF THE LAKE

James sat with Graham and Hugo at dinner, letting most of the conversation drift over him as he concentrated on how best to manage the Defence Club meeting. Rose had eaten quickly and gone ahead to make sure the gym was ready for them, and Ralph was busy collecting the names of everyone who'd expressed interest in being involved. The list had grown rather long, and James' trepidation about the class had grown with it. Even though he was sharing responsibility for the class with Ralph and Rose, he couldn't help feeling that the club members would look to him as the symbolic leader of the troop. Finally, having barely eaten, James left the table. It wouldn't hurt for him to get to the gym a little early as well, and it would probably be comforting to be around Rose anyway. She seemed positively casual about the entire affair. James suspected that her Weasley heritage rather enjoyed the giddy uncertainty and potential for disaster.

        As he left the Great Hall, James felt a nagging, anonymous worry. It was as if he was forgetting something important, but he couldn't identify what it might be. Even as he moved through the halls and corridors, there was a sense of anxious anticipation in the air. Students moved in groups, obviously engrossed in spirited conversation, awaiting the evening's events. James sighed nervously and turned the corner toward the gym.

        "There you are," Rose said, as if she'd expected James hours ago. "The gym is almost ready. There are already people waiting outside in the hall. We just need to roll up the floor pads and wheel in one of the chalkboards."

        "Why do we need a chalkboard?" James asked.

        Rose gave him an impatient glance. "So we can write down the spells and hexes we practice. It'll be a lot easier for people to concentrate if they don't have to memorize the incantations on the spot. There's a chalkboard on casters over in the Charms classroom, next hall over. Go and wheel it in here and we'll be ready to get started."

        Annoyed at being ordered around but glad of the distraction, James turned around and left the gym. Sure enough, students were gathering in the hall outside. They leaned against the wall and sat on the floor in loose groups, all of them looking up as James came out.

        "We'll, er, start in just a few minutes," James said, trying to put some authority into his voice. Nearby, Cameron Creevey grinned and waved. A gaggle of first-years stood with him, their eyes wide and excited. James blinked at the gathering students. There was a good number of them, although not as many as he'd expected. He should have been relieved, but he wasn't. That nagging worry crept over him again. What was he forgetting?

        James worked his way around to the next corridor, which was darker and completely deserted. He got to the Charms classroom and found it unlocked. The chalkboard stood on a wooden frame in the corner. Tiny metal wheels were attached to the bottom. James grabbed the end of the frame and began to pull, but the wheels were rusty. They squealed and dragged on the floor.

        From the doorway, a voice asked, "Do you require some assistance, Mr. Potter?"

        James spun as if he'd been caught doing something illegal. Merlin stood in the doorway, almost completely blocking it. His form was very shadowy in the dim room.

        "I'm—" James began, surprised that he felt so nervous. After all, they had permission to hold the club meeting, didn't they? And yet he felt a strong reluctance to tell the Headmaster what he was doing. "I'm just trying to move the chalkboard. We, er, wanted to borrow it. To make some notes."

        Merlin nodded inscrutably. "How are preparations for your defensive techniques club coming along, James?"

        James' heart quickened. "Uh… good. Fine. We've been pretty busy, you know. But… good."

        "Would you like some assistance with that?" Merlin asked in his low, rumbling voice. "I'd be happy to help you relocate it to wherever you wish. If anyone wondered what you were up to, I could vouch for your 'borrowing' it."

        "No, thanks," James said quickly, letting go of the chalkboard. "Actually, we probably don't really need it. It was just an idea, but it's not worth the trouble. Really."

        Merlin didn't move for a long moment. Finally, he seemed to relax and smile. "As you wish, James."

        The big man turned to leave, and James felt a huge, strange sense of relief as Merlin's gaze left him. The club would just have to do without the chalkboard, James determined. He crossed the darkened classroom and was nearly to the door when Merlin turned back, his eyes glittering in the dark corridor.

        "Honestly, I didn't expect you to be inside tonight, James," the big wizard said curiously.

        James didn't quite know how to respond. "Er… no? Where did you expect me to be?"

        "Tonight is rather an important night for many students. I understand that even those who do not intend to participate rather enjoy watching the proceedings. They like to get a sense of how the season might progress."

        A sudden sinking sensation filled James. His cheeks went cold. "Oh no…," he said, widening his eyes. "It's tonight! That's why there were fewer people than I expected in the hall! It's already started!"

        "Is it possible that you forgot?" Merlin said, a strange smile creeping over his face. "I assumed you were quite the fan of Quidditch. If you hurry, I expect you may still see the end of the try-outs."

        James barely heard him. He turned on his heels and bolted along the corridor, cursing his forgetfulness. If he'd not been so obsessed with worrying about the stupid Defence Club, he'd have known that the first meeting conflicted with Quidditch try-outs. Neither Rose nor Ralph was trying out for the teams, so they wouldn't even have considered the conflict. James had been practicing all summer for the opportunity to be on the Gryffindor House team. He desperately wanted to make up for his devastating performance at last year's try-outs. Also, Albus was out there even now, trying out for the Slytherin team on Tabitha Corsica's cursed broomstick. James felt an obsessive impulse to be there when that happened, but he truthfully didn't know if it was because he wanted to protect Albus or sabotage him.

        James pounded up the steps, calling out the password to the common room. The Fat Lady scolded him for broadcasting the password to the entire hall, but James barely heard her, shimmying through the portrait hole the moment the painting began to swing open. James grabbed his broom from beneath his bed, took the stairs two at a time down to the common room, and felt another stab of panic as he crossed the empty room. Everyone was already down at the pitch, cheering, watching the try-outs, supporting the team. James was supposed to be there!

        The Fat Lady was still scolding James as he pushed through the portrait hole and flung himself down the stairs. How could he have forgotten? If he thought it was possible, he'd almost believe that Tabitha Corsica had somehow arranged for him to be absent, simply so he couldn't interfere with Albus' try-out. At the same time, a distant part of him worried that he was missing the first Defence Club meeting. Rose would probably realize where he'd gone as soon as she noticed his absence, but still, it would be a disappointment and a setback. Had Merlin appeared at that exact moment just to sabotage the first Defence Club meeting? After all, the Headmaster certainly had uncanny ways of knowing what was happening around the school. Merlin would know how important Quidditch was to James. Was it possible that he had bewitched James to forget the try-outs, just so he could strategically remind him at the last minute, thus keeping him from the club meeting?

        Frustrated and annoyed, James burst out of the castle's main entrance and darted across the courtyard. As he turned toward the Quidditch pitch, he heard the maddening sound of cheers and whistles. It was nearly dark, but James could make out the shapes of the Quidditch players circling over the pitch, their cloaks snapping gaily in the wind. It was too late, but James couldn't bring himself to turn back. He cursed his luck again. How could he have forgotten Quidditch try-outs? He wouldn't have believed it was possible. What would he tell his mum and dad? How would he live it down with his housemates? Certainly, Scorpius Malfoy would make the most of it. I see, Potter, he'd say, you forgot the try-outs, did you? Strange. And we were all so looking forward to being amazed and impressed by your performance. Perhaps you'll remember next year.

        The crowd was departing even as James arrived at the pitch. He found himself wading upstream through the throng, not really knowing what he was looking for but refusing to give up. He considered getting onto his broom and simply flying out over the pitch, but he was reluctant to draw too much attention to himself. He finally shouldered onto the grass of the pitch and spied the Gryffindor Quidditch Captain, Devindar Das, collecting the house brooms.

        "Dev!" James called, panting. "Tell me it isn't too late!"

        Devindar stopped and looked back. "Where were you, James? It's all over. I was looking forward to seeing what you could do this year."

        "I completely forgot… somehow…," James admitted desperately. "Let me go anyway! I'm ready!"

        Devindar shook his head. "I can't, James. All the positions are filled already. Honestly, we had a pretty strong lineup going in. We'll need you more next year, once Hugo and Tara graduate."

        James was speechless. He stood on the spot, breathing hard from his sprint out to the pitch. He glared helplessly around at the departing students and players. Louis Weasley was approaching from the Hufflepuff grandstand.

        "What happened to you, James?" Louis called. "Albus was looking for you after the Slytherin tryouts."

        James ran a hand through his hair in frustration. "I don't even want to talk about it. How did Albus do?"

        "Oh, he was totally brilliant," Louis replied enthusiastically. "Victoire says he was the best first-year try-out she's ever seen. I bet he was the best since your dad, even! He's going to be Slytherin's Seeker. It's perfect, in a way, don't you think? I mean, your dad was Seeker for Gryffindor his first—"

        "Yeah, yeah, I get it Louis," James interrupted sourly. "Is he gone already?"

        "Yeah, the whole team headed back together. Albus said to tell you to come down with Ralph if you can. He's pretty excited about it. He was going to write your mum and dad first thing. They'll be totally proud, I bet."

        "Yeah," James muttered, dragging his broom and heading back off the pitch. "That's great. See you around, Louis."

        "I'm really sorry, James," Rose said as they climbed the stairs to the common room. "It never even occurred to me to check. And Ralph's really not much of a Quidditch fan, so he wouldn't have even noticed. I figured it out right away and assumed you'd rushed out to the pitch. So, no luck then?"

        "It was a complete bust," James grumbled. "I missed the whole thing. On top of it all, Slytherin's tryouts were tonight, too, and it sounds like Al flew rings around everybody. He's going to be Slytherin's Seeker."

        "Oh," Rose replied brightly. "Well, that's really cool, isn't it? He'll look very dashing in his green cloak and pads. I bet your mum and dad will be very pleased."

        "I really wish people would stop saying that," James said darkly.

"I don't blame you for being angry that you missed the try-outs, James, but being jealous of Albus—"

        "I'm not jealous, Rose!" James exclaimed. "The whole thing is a trick! It has to be! The Slytherins are just setting him up!"

        "And why would they do that?" Rose asked simply. "If they were as black-hearted as you say, wouldn't they be trying to bury him rather than prop him up?"

        "They don't work that way anymore. They're all sneaky and two-faced now. Tabitha's Fang and Talons club is just this year's version of the Progressive Element. They were the ones who set up the debate where she said that my dad was a liar and a fraud. They actually believe that Voldemort was a great fellow and that people like our parents have lied about him all these years."

        "Nobody really believes that silliness," Rose replied. "It's just popular to rock the boat. Either way, Albus can handle himself. He's not a dummy."

        James glowered. "He doesn't know Tabitha like I do."

        "Well," Rose said, deliberately changing the subject, "Defence Club went well. We had twenty-six people, which is really good considering Quidditch try-outs were tonight. Mostly, we just talked about club goals and established the rules. I'll fill you in on that later. Then we ran through some fundamental Disarming Spells, just so everybody was starting on the same page."

        "Who led the class? You?" James asked as they approached the portrait of the Fat Lady. "I can't imagine Ralph let you talk him into showing anyone how to perform Expelliarmus spells. He doesn't much trust his own wand with that kind of thing even though he's better than he used to be."

        "No," Rose answered slowly. "Ralph didn't do it. And neither did I. It went very well though."

        Rose said the password and the portrait swung open. The Fat Lady glared at James, remembering his conduct earlier in the evening. The sound of raucous laughter and music poured through the portrait hole.

        "Then who did you get?" James asked, suddenly suspicious. He followed Rose into the crowded room. Scorpius Malfoy lounged on the couch near the fireplace. He glanced up and smiled crookedly as James and Rose entered.

        "Good of you to show up, Potter," he drawled. "I understand you found a way to overlook two appointments at the same time, tonight. Not that we missed you, exactly."

        "Hush, Scorpius," Rose said, sitting down on the other end of the couch. "We really should discuss plans for the next club meeting. I'd appreciate it if you two could find a way to be civil to each other."

        "You really did ask him to teach the class?" James said, pointing at Malfoy. "You've got to be kidding!"

        Malfoy produced his glasses from a pocket and put them on. "This really isn't your night, is it, Potter? Cheer up. You should consider yourself lucky that I'm not interested in being on the Quidditch team; otherwise, I wouldn't have been available."

        "Look, both of you," Rose interjected before James could reply, "we have more important matters to discuss than how much you two annoy each other. If you haven't noticed, this Defence Club serves a more important purpose than just giving us something to do one night a week."

        "How much did you tell him?" James demanded. "If you haven't noticed, his family is all Death Eaters! You might want to think twice about trusting him."

        "Technically, my father was never actually inducted. I thought you knew that," Scorpius said, meeting James' eye. "But if you mean did she tell me about her suspicions about the Headmaster, no, she didn't. I was already well aware of them. As hard as this may be for you to believe, I'm on the same side as you, Potter."

        "Hah!" James spat. "That's where you're wrong! I don't agree with either of you about Merlin. Even if there is some evil plot in the works, I'd suspect your family was involved before I'd go pointing fingers at Merlin. He saved this school last year!"

        "We've discussed all of this, James," Rose said, motioning for James to keep his voice down. "Scorpius doesn't approve of some of the things his family has done in the past. That's part of the reason he's here in Gryffindor. And you know what we saw in the Mirror. There's no question that we have to be careful around the Headmaster. As of right now, the evidence is that he's in league with—"

        "The evidence is that you've been suspicious of him from the beginning," James exclaimed. "But you're wrong. You're both wrong, and I'm going to prove it."

        Scorpius narrowed his eyes at James. "Well, I do hope you pull that off. I suspect a lot of us would take some comfort in that proof. Until then, however…," Scorpius pointed his wand lazily at the chair next to the couch, "perhaps it would be a good idea to do as Rose says. We have a Defence Club to prepare. And she seems very stubborn about you and Ralph Deedle being a part of it. Still, if sitting in the same room with a Malfoy is too much for you, it's fine by me if you go elsewhere. There's a bed upstairs with your name on it."

        James ground his teeth. Nothing had gone right this entire evening. And now he couldn't see any choice but to sit down and plan what Scorpius Malfoy was going to teach them at the next Defence Club meeting. It was singularly humiliating. He almost couldn't bring himself to do it. He still had his broom with him, reminding him of his second failure to make the Quidditch team. All he wanted to do was go back upstairs, stuff it back under his bed, and try to forget the whole mess. But Rose was looking at him pleadingly, obviously hoping that James would be able to overcome his innate dislike of the pale boy long enough to give the Defence Club a chance to work.

        Sighing resignedly, James propped his broom by the fireplace and threw himself onto the chair. "Fine," he said. "What do we need to do next?"

        Rose clapped her hands excitedly. "Thank you, James! I knew I could trust you. Scorpius really is a pretty good teacher, but it's hard for some of the Gryffindors to listen to him. There's still a lot of long-term prejudice against a Malfoy in Gryffindor, and having him teach the class just makes matters worse. Still, if you're there, it should really help give Scorpius the credibility he needs…"

        "Hey, you guys expecting somebody?" Graham said as he entered the room. "Only, I found this bloke hanging around outside the portrait hole. He says you invited him, Rose."

        Ralph grinned sheepishly as Rose jumped up. "Sorry, Ralph. I hadn't gotten around to telling James about Scorpius, and then… Well, anyway, we're all here, so let's get started!"

        Scorpius looked annoyed as Ralph crammed onto the couch between him and Rose. The big boy kicked his shoes off and propped his feet on the overstuffed footstool. "Good club tonight. Scorpius here may be a skinny bloke, but he knows a few tricks. Some of you Gryffindors may have a bit of an attitude problem about him, but I need all the help I can get," Ralph said breezily. "Oh, and James?"

James glanced up at Ralph, arching an eyebrow.

        Ralph smiled sheepishly. "Albus says to tell you you'll be better as Treus than he'll be as Slytherin Seeker. He was hoping he'd see you tonight. Even Tabitha asked if you were going to come down."

        James didn't know what to say. After a moment, Scorpius broke the tension. "This is all very touching," he said dryly, "but I recognize Slytherin smooth-talking when I hear it. I'm a bit of an expert on the subject, as James has already pointed out. Can we discuss Defence Club now?"

        The four of them talked for the next hour. James grew grudgingly confident that Scorpius may indeed be able to teach them some decent defensive spells. It turned out that he had, in fact, been tutored from an early age by his grandfather, Lucius Malfoy, who was currently in seclusion and not speaking to the family. Scorpius admitted that he hadn't seen his grandfather for a few years, ever since he and Scorpius' dad had had a rather serious row.

        The fire had burned down to glowing coals and the four students were beginning to pack up for the night when Deirdre Finnigan, one of Cameron Creevey's first-year friends, barreled into the common room, panting and red-faced. She glanced wildly around the room, and then pressed through the crowd, heading directly for a rear corner.

        "What's with her?" Scorpius muttered.

        Rose said, "She's heading for Petra's table."

        The entire room hushed as the significance of Deirdre's announcement became known. "It's true!" she was saying. "I saw them leading her to the hospital wing! She could barely stand up!"

        Petra simply looked at Deirdre, her mouth slightly open.

        "Who?" Hugo called from across the room. "What happened?"

        "Josephina Bartlett!" Deirdre cried breathlessly, turning to face the room. "She ate a cursed peppermint and it struck her with a terrible fear of heights! They found her hugging the floor of the balcony outside the Ravenclaw common room. She couldn't even stand up! Her friends said the peppermint had come in a box of chocolates from a secret admirer, but it was obviously from some enemy instead. Madam Curio says she'll be a little better by morning, but the effects won't completely wear off for months!"

        "A fear-of-heights peppermint?" Graham said, screwing up his face. "Does Weasleys' make those?"

        "I don't think so," Sabrina said. "That sounds like a custom curse."

        Damien narrowed his eyes. "One guess who Josephina's 'secret admirer' is. I heard all about how she and Corsica went at it during the audition."

        "You're all missing the point," Deirdre said, nearly bouncing. "Josephina's been cursed with a fear of heights! She'll hardly be able to climb a curb for months!"

        Sabrina's eyes widened. "She can't climb onto the stage in the amphitheater! If she can't get onto the stage…"

        "She can't play the part of Astra," Damien finished, grinning. "As much as I hate to see anyone benefit from another's misfortune, let me be the first to congratulate our good friend Petra… the new and improved Astra de Beaugois!"

        Petra looked around, an expression of surprise and disbelief on her face. "Well, I wouldn't have wanted to get the role this way," she said. "But I suppose I wouldn't turn it down either."

        Sabrina whooped happily. A cheer arose from the gathered students and James saw Petra smile for the first time in weeks. Suddenly, he remembered that he was playing the part of Treus, Astra's younger love interest. His face reddened considerably as he looked across the room at Petra. He noticed Rose was smiling knowingly at him.

        "What?" he said, patting his cheeks. "I'm hot. I'm sitting right next to the fireplace."

        "Mm-hmm," Rose grinned, nodding. "Oh, this is going to be so much fun, cousin. I expect you'd better start practicing up. Petra's going to have pretty high expectations for 'the kiss of true and everlasting love'."

        Over the next week, autumn finally descended in full, putting a brisk chill into the air and painting the trees with vibrant oranges, reds, and yellows. Hagrid took his Care of Magical Creatures class into their winter classroom: a huge, ancient barn with stone walls and thick, cobwebbed rafters. There, he'd assembled an impressive array of fantastic creatures, all arranged in order of size. Along the entrance wall was a range of cages and pens, out of which emanated the sounds of amiable snufflings, grunts, squeals, and barks. On the other side of the dirt floor was a line of stables, each one larger than the last. The nearest one sheltered a hippogriff whose name, according to the sign painted on the gate, was Flintflank. The creature snapped its beak at the nearby cages, apparently hungry for their contents. The larger stables had thick doors, preventing any peek at their occupants. The last two doors were plated with iron and barred with huge crossbeams. They were easily twenty feet tall. Occasionally, an unsettlingly resonant growl or burst of roar would shake the barn.

        James shrugged out of his cloak as he walked through the great front door, surprised at the warmth of the space despite the day's crisp chill.

        "How's he heat a place like this?" Ralph asked, craning his head up at the high, wooden ceiling. "It's right balmy in here."

        The students filed into the barn, peering curiously into the cages or tentatively approaching the hippogriff's stable. The great beast stamped its foreleg and tossed its beaked head.

        "Stay well back now," Hagrid called. "We'll meet old Flintflank a bit later in the year. Until then, it's best if he sees yeh from across the room instead of right in front of 'im. Let's start the season off by gettin' t'know some of the smaller beasts here in the cages an' such."

        Hagrid led the class over to the smaller cages lining the wall. He fiddled with one of the locks as he spoke. "We've been right lucky over the years to come across so many examples of the magical world's most unusual creatures. A former student o' mine has become something of an expert on beast tracking, and she brings me any creatures she finds that've been injured or fallen sick. I do my best to nurse 'em back to health, but a few of 'em never gets to the point of being able to survive in the wild again. I give 'em the best home I can, o' course. The end result is that we've become rather well-known around the magical world for our menagerie," Hagrid turned, cradling a small lump of breathing brown fur in his arm. "Why, experts come from the world over to meet and study our little family. Isn't that right, Punkin?"

        Ralph leaned toward James and whispered, "I talked to Rose this morning. She thinks she's found out something important about Merlin."

        James whispered back, "Whatever it is, I don't want to hear it. She's always digging up new dirt from some old legend or crusty history book. We know most of that stuff's not true."

        "I don't know it's not true," Ralph murmured, "I just know he doesn't quite seem like that anymore. Either way, she says you'll want to hear it. It explains a little bit of where all the stories came from about how he didn't love the Muggle world. She says it 'puts it all in context', whatever that means."

        James pressed his lips together doubtfully. He'd told Rose and Scorpius that he intended to prove Merlin wasn't involved in the conspiracy they'd witnessed in the Mirror, but he hadn't yet done it. In fact, the idea of doing so frightened him quite a lot. It wasn't that he didn't have a plan. He did, and it was quite simple. It would require some bravery and the help of Cedric's ghost, and it could get him into quite a lot of trouble if he was caught, but none of those things were what worried him. He felt a strange, pressing reluctance to go ahead with it, mostly because he was secretly afraid of what he might discover. If he was right, then Merlin wasn't involved, and James could prove it to Rose and everyone else. But what if he was wrong? Despite his words to the contrary, James was worried about it. What if he went through with his plan and found that the Headmaster was, in fact, in league with the former Death Eaters and that horrible, smoky entity? Worse, what if the entity was the thing the cave skeleton, Farrigan, had talked about: the Gatekeeper, which Merlin was supposedly responsible for bringing into the world? The Headmaster had been acting rather secretive and suspicious. He'd forbidden James from telling anyone what the skeleton of Farrigan had said, and that was worrisome in itself. If what the skeleton had said wasn't true, why would Merlin care if James told anyone?

        James shook his head. Surely, Merlin had his reasons. Merlin had to be good. He'd come back to help when the school had been threatened by the Muggle reporter, hadn't he? And all because James had asked him.

        And that, James realized with a sinking coldness, was why he couldn't face the idea that Merlin might not be who he claimed he was. Because James was responsible, twice over, for bringing the great wizard here: first, by being manipulated by Madame Delacroix into facilitating Merlin's return to the present day, and second, by sending a message of help to Merlin via the tree sprites, with whom Merlin was able to commune. It had even been James' advice that led his father and uncle to campaign for Merlin to become the new school Headmaster. If Merlin was involved in something evil, then it was on James' head. He would be ultimately responsible for whatever happened. Recognizing that, James knew that he had to find out what Merlin's intentions really were, no matter what. And if, by some horrible chance, Merlin was in league with evil, then it was up to James to foil him, no matter what it took.

        "Now then," Hagrid was saying, beaming out over the students, "who wants to come up an' give me a hand feeding li'l Punkin the Tripthroat?"

        Trenton Bloch raised his hand and Hagrid beckoned him forward. "Here yeh go, Mr. Bloch. Just dangle this wee bit of Lempweed in the air, but not too close. Hold it up an' let me bring Punkin toward yeh."

        Trenton seemed annoyed at the caution Hagrid was taking with the little ball of panting fur. It looked rather like a kitten, but with no apparent head, tail, or limbs. "What's it going to do, Hagrid?" Trenton asked, holding up the rubbery bit of plant. "Purr me to death?"

        Trenton's last word turned into a little shriek of surprise as something huge and furry lunged up from the ball in Hagrid's arms. It reared a slobbering, toothless mouth and clamped down on Trenton's entire hand. With a loud slurping sound, it sucked the bit of Lempweed out of Trenton's hand and retreated, disappearing into the tiny, panting ball of fur in Hagrid's arms. Trenton yanked his hand back, shaking it and shuddering visibly.

        "Nicely done, Mr. Bloch," Hagrid cried, laughing. "Punkin likes yeh! Or else she thinks you're a frog with a bit more Lempweed on yer backside. Normally, Tripthroats live in the marsh where they suck the weed off the little amphibious creatures an' then spit 'em back out. None too pleasant for the frogs, but totally harmless."

        Trenton stared at his hand, which was coated with a viscous green goo. He looked helplessly at Hagrid.

        "Yeh might want to go wash that off, Mr. Bloch. Frogskin is immune to the Tripthroat's digestive juices, but yeh might get a bit itchy if yeh leave it there. There's a pump and basin over by the big stables. That's a lad."

        Hagrid placed Punkin back in her cage and locked it. He was just explaining the lifespan of the Tripthroat when a very large roar rumbled the building's foundation. James looked toward the sound of the roar, his eyes wide and his heart suddenly pounding. Trenton was quickly backing away from the huge, ironframed door, his hands still dripping water from the basin.

        "Oh, she caught yer scent, Mr. Bloch! Silly me, I forgot, she loves a good Tripthroat snack. Stand aside now, that's right. She's about to blow!"

        Suddenly, an enormous noise filled the barn. To James, it sounded something like a freight train mixed with a cyclone. The barn heated appreciably and the center of the iron door began to glow a dull red.

        "My apologies, Mr. Bloch," Hagrid said. "Ol' Norberta doesn't get many Tripthroats these days, but she can smell when they're nearby. I should've warned yeh."

        "So that's how he keeps the barn heated," Ralph said nervously, his eyes wide. "He keeps a dragon! A real, live dragon!"

        "That's not just any dragon," James said, grinning, "that's like an old family friend. Uncle Charlie's been keeping tabs on her for years. She wounded a wing a few years back and now she can't fly. Not being able to fly is a death sentence in the dragon world. They eat their own, you know."

        "She's really just a great softie," Hagrid said affectionately. "I've known 'er since she was a hatchling. Still, it doesn't do to stand too near her doors when she's in a flaming mood. We'll take her out this winter, give her a little exercise. She likes a good romp in the snow, does the old dear."

        "Excellent!" Ashley Doone said from behind James. "Maybe Trenton will volunteer to feed her as well! Slytherins and dragons are supposed to have quite the rapport."

        "No chance," Trenton said as he rejoined the students, his face flushed and angry. "I wonder if my parents know that this great oaf is keeping a dragon on school grounds. He's been a maniac for years, but this is completely daft."

        "Shut up, Trenton," James said amiably. "Norberta's safe. Safer than you with a Tripthroat at least."

        "We'll see about that," Trenton muttered darkly.

        James spent most of Muggle Studies in the rather uncomfortable process of being measured for his Treus costume. Gennifer Tellus, in charge of the costume shop, performed the duties herself, a quill behind her ear and a couple of pins clenched between her lips.

        "Stand still," she said around the pins. "You're not letting me get a good inseam measurement. You want your pantaloons to be saggy?"

        "It tickles!" James replied, and then asked suspiciously, "What are pantaloons?"

        "Don't ask me to explain them. It's best if you don't think about it. Just know that you're getting off easy compared to what Petra has to wear."

        James wanted to ask but decided not to. He hadn't spoken to Petra since Josephina's peppermint incident. He was a little giddy and excited about the idea of playing Treus to Petra's Astra, but he was trying very hard not to let on.

        Gennifer pulled her measuring tape around James' waist. "Have you read the whole script yet?" she asked.

        "No," James admitted. "I know the story a little though. Boy falls for girl. Older bloke falls for the same girl. Older bloke sends boy off on a suicide mission to get rid of him. Boy comes back and they duel. Everybody lives happily ever after. The end."

        Gennifer glanced at James sardonically. "I think you'd better read the script," she said around her pins.

        "I will," James said, annoyed. "I have to know my lines, don't I?"

        "Yes, but you should also know that they don't 'live happily ever after'. The Triumvirate is a tragedy, you dolt."

        James looked at himself in the nearby mirror. "So what's that mean?"

        "Well," Gennifer mumbled, "generally, it means everybody ends up dead."

        As James left Muggle Studies, Rose caught up to him.

        "Did Ralph tell you what I found out last night?" she asked in a low voice.

        "He said you found out why some people thought Merlin would hate Muggles," James replied, "but he didn't give me any details."

        "You'll be interested in this," Rose said earnestly. "Did you ever hear of the Lady of the Lake?"

        James thought for a moment. It sounded vaguely familiar, but he couldn't place it. He shrugged and shook his head.

        "Well, according to all the legends, she was supposed to have been Merlin's downfall. Most of the stories portray her as a nymph or a dryad or a sprite, but they're mostly really fanciful and probably just exaggerations of the truth. Professor Revalvier talked about it last Wizlit, remember? She said that if the legends had been true, Merlin obviously wouldn't be here as Headmaster."

        "Yeah," James said, recalling the class. "She said that the stories make the Lady of the Lake out to be a sort of magical creature pretending to be all innocent and stuff. She gets Merlin to fall for her, and then, when he teaches her everything he knows, she traps him with his own magic. Obviously, it's just stories. Probably, it was all just a way to explain Merlin's disappearance. We know the truth though, like Revalvier said."

        "We know a bit more of the truth now," Rose said enigmatically. "The Lady of the Lake wasn't made-up, but she wasn't what the legends make her out to be. She was a Muggle, and she was almost Merlin's wife."

        "What?" James said, stopping in the hall. "Where'd you get that?"

        "The Book of Austramaddux's Histories," Rose said, raising her eyebrows. "Same book where Zane found the account of Merlin's Disapparition last year. Morgan Patonia let me borrow it from the Ravenclaw library. Austramaddux knew Merlin better than almost anyone, although it seems to me that Merlin didn't like him very much."

        "Merlin sure didn't waste any time on him when he Reapparated," James said, nodding. "It was Austramaddux's ghost who was supposed to watch for the time to be right for Merlin's return. He was bound to the job forever. I got the impression that Merlin thought Austramaddux had hurried his return just to finish his duties. It didn't go very well for him after that."

        "What'd Merlin do?" Rose asked eagerly. "How do you punish a ghost?"

        James shook his head. "Beats me, but Austramaddux was terrified of whatever it was. He screamed like a banshee, but Merlin just sort of… popped him."

        "Very creepy," Rose said, thinking.

        "Yeah, whatever. It's old news now. What's the story with the Lady of the Lake?"

        "Well, according to Austramaddux, she was a Muggle peasant named Judith. She lived on a tiny farm with a little spring lake on it. That's where her name came from. The farm had been managed by Judith and her mother until her mother died. The lord of the fiefdom was a guy named Hadyn. He planned to banish Judith from the farm because she couldn't manage it on her own, but Merlin protected her. He sent away the brutes who'd come to throw her out. Apparently, he gave them donkey ears and told them if they came back he'd finish the job."

        "See?" James said. "That doesn't sound like the actions of a wizard who hates Muggles. He was helping her, wasn't he?"

        "Yes, but only because he loved her. The book says that Judith was really beautiful, and Merlin was completely smitten by her. Austramaddux actually said that Merlin was 'under her spell'. Pretty strong words for a wizard to use when describing a Muggle woman."

        "So what happened?" James asked. "We know they didn't end up together for some reason. Maybe she double-crossed him. That could be where the legends get the story about her trapping him somehow."

        Rose shook her head, her eyes sparkling. "No! Austramaddux thinks she loved him too! It was enough to get Merlin to cease his dealings with the Muggle kingdoms. He stopped hiring himself out as a magical mercenary and abandoned his throne as the Mediator between the Muggle and magical realms. Loads of people were mad about it, and lots of others were eager to step into Merlin's place. Meanwhile, Merlin safeguarded the farm that Judith lived on. He made really thick briars and thorns grow up all around the perimeter, keeping out Hadyn's brutes. Merlin even paid for the property, ten times what the farm was worth. And then, just to be safe, he started teaching Judith some magic."

        "You can't just teach a Muggle magic, Rose," James interrupted. "You're either born with it or not."

        Rose shook her head. "Merlin's magic is different, isn't it? He gets it as much from nature as he does from his wizarding heritage. He couldn't teach her how to find the magic inside her because there wasn't any there. Judith had no witch in her blood. But he could teach her how to use the magic in nature. A little, at least. She just needed to know enough to be able to protect herself, so Merlin taught her how to alter her appearance. That way, she could go to the markets unnoticed. She had to, because Hadyn had put a price on her capture. Things seemed to be working just fine for them, and it looked like Merlin was going to marry her. But then… well, it gets really awful."

        "What?" James insisted, enthralled by the story.

        "Well, they caught her, of course," Rose said breathlessly. "She got careless. The magical disguise was perfect. Nobody knew who she was at the markets in the fiefdom. But someone saw her use a little of Merlin's magic. She fixed a broken wheel on a boy's cart, just by holding the pieces together and saying an incantation Merlin had taught her. The wood knitted back together, fixing the wheel, but someone saw it happen. They told the fiefdom brutes, who were always hanging around the market. They captured Judith and took her to Hadyn in his castle."

        "I bet Merlin wanted to kill them all," James said meaningfully. "I mean, she was just trying to help. What'd he do?"

        "He didn't know where she was at first, but he tracked her down. He's apparently very good at that, being able to talk to the birds and creatures and trees. Hadyn knew Merlin would show up. He told the guards to let Merlin through, right into the lord's hall. Merlin didn't even waste time on the guards, though. He just put them all to sleep and stalked right up to Hadyn, demanding the release of Judith. Hadyn was all oily and slick. He told Merlin he had every intention of giving her back, but only if Merlin agreed to return the farm, remove the thorn hedge, and as a tribute of respect, double the fiefdom's lands."

        James furrowed his brow. "Double the lands?"

        "Everything was about land back then. The bigger a lord's fiefdom, the wealthier he was. Hadyn's plan was to use Merlin to steal land from neighboring fiefs. He also made Merlin promise to leave the fief forever and bestow his protection over the castle, which included protection from Merlin himself! Hadyn was really crafty and evil. He knew that as soon as Merlin had Judith back, he'd probably destroy the castle and everyone in it. But with Merlin's spell of protection, not only could the castle never be overtaken, Merlin himself couldn't touch a single brick or harm a single hair of anyone inside it."

        "He didn't do it, did he?" James asked.

        Rose nodded. "He did. He was that madly in love with Judith. He left and went out into the neighboring fiefdoms. There is no record of how he did it, but when he came back, he presented Hadyn with the deeds of enough new land to double his fief. I shudder to think how Merlin got all that land, but it had to have been scary. Lords didn't let go of land without a fight."

        James frowned thoughtfully. "So did Hadyn release Judith?"

        "Well, that's where the story breaks down," Rose said uncomfortably. "Austramaddux writes as if his readers already know the rest of the story. I'd guess that whatever happened, it was legend in that part of the world for a long time. Unfortunately, the legend got lost in all the myths and exaggerations in the centuries since. Either way, it looks like it ended badly. I mean, like Professor Revalvier said, Merlin's here with us now, but not the Lady of the Lake. The important thing is, this could explain why people always believed Merlin might have a grudge against the Muggle world. He was trapped by that Muggle lord, Hadyn, humiliated by him, and wasn't even able to have his revenge. To a wizard like Merlin, that's got to be enough to brew up a case of serious hate."

        "Yeah, you couldn't blame him for being really angry," James agreed, "but that doesn't mean he'd hate the whole Muggle world. Just because there was one evil Muggle prat, that's hardly reason to go to war against the lot of them."

        "Well, that's what some people believed," Rose said, shrugging. "But Merlin himself never actually said so. Officially speaking, he never said anything again. He was never again seen in public, and it's right after that that Austramaddux talks about Merlinus 'leaving the society of men until the time was ripe for him'. It's no wonder people have been suspicious all these centuries."

        "And still are today," James said pointedly.

        "That doesn't mean I agree with everything people have said about him," Rose replied quietly. "But it certainly makes one understand how Merlin might have developed a bit of a serious grudge. Love makes people do mad things."

        James sighed. "I've got a plan, Rose," he admitted in a low voice. "I wasn't sure I was going to go through with it, but I am now. I need to clear Merlin's name if I can. I'm going to find out the truth about whether he is involved with those people we saw, and that horrible, er, thing in the smoky cloak."

        Rose narrowed her eyes at James. "You know something about that thing, don't you?" she asked. "You're hiding something. Does it have to do with that weird pain you get in your forehead sometimes?"

        "What?" James said, startled. "No! I… er, I don't feel that anymore."

        "Right," Rose nodded. "You smacked your forehead and yelled in pain that day outside the Headmaster's office because you suddenly remembered the extra credit answer on your Arithmancy test."

        James deflated. "Look, yeah, I still feel it sometimes. I don't know where it's coming from. But it doesn't have anything to do with Merlin, all right?"