AND THE VAULT OF DESTINIES
By G. Norman Lippert
Based upon the Characters and Worlds of J. K. Rowling
The story thus far...
1. Hogwarts Farewells
2. The Gwyndemere
3. Eighty-eight Knots
4. The Dream Story
5. New Amsterdam
6. Under the Warping Willow
7. Alma Aleron
8. The Vault of Destinies
9. The Archive Attack
10. James and the Skrim
11. Jardin d'Éden
12. Game Magic
13. The Octosphere and the Arbiter
14. The Magnussen Riddles
15. The Star of Convergence
16. Christmas in Philadelphia
17. The Ballad of the Rider
18. The Dimensional Key
19. Unhelpful Revelations
20. Albus' Story
21. Unlikely Alliances
22. Albus' Story
23. The Beginning of the End
24. Through the Curtains
25. Those Who Stayed Behind
The story thus far…
Greetings again, dear reader! So we've come to the third book in the James Potter series, and things are about to change pretty dramatically. Are you prepared? I'd advise you to keep your wits and wands at the ready as we embark on this journey.
If you are a long-time reader, then you know the story thus far. You were there when the Alma Alerons first arrived at Hogwarts in their peculiar flying cars. You know how the new Hogwarts headmaster came to be, and what his story is. You know all about the Gremlins—including Ted Lupin's dark secret, and Petra Morganstern's tragic past. You witnessed the raising of the Wocket, the return of the Gatekeeper, and the Hogwarts all-school debate. In short, you are prepared (as much as you can be) for what is to come.
If you are new to the James Potter world, then welcome! I know that new readers are discovering these stories every day, and if you happen to be among them, let me extend my personal hope that you will enjoy these tales as much as I have. If you have not yet read "J.P. and the Hall of Elders' Crossing" or its sequel, then may I be so bold as to encourage you to explore them before continuing on here? As Harry Potter fans, you can imagine how confused a reader might be if they jumped straight to "Prisoner of Azkaban". Similarly, if you plunge ahead into "Vault of Destinies" without the foundation of the first two James Potter stories, you will likely find yourself almost immediately confused.
In another vein, many of you know that between "Curse of the Gatekeeper" and this tale, I wrote a much shorter book called "The Girl on the Dock". This book, sometimes called (though not by me) "James Potter Two-and-a-half ", is an entirely original side story featuring James' friend Petra Morganstern. Suffice it to say, much of what happened in that story heavily influences the plot of "Vault of Destinies", but fear not, dear reader: I have written the following story in such a way that "Girl on the Dock" is not required reading. I mention it only because if there is do so fairly quickly (specifically, before reading chapter four, "the Dream Story"). For more information on "The Girl on the Dock", take a look at www.girlonthedock.com.
As always, my great thanks to all of you, all over the world, who have enjoyed these stories and sent me your comments and encouragement. Without you, this book surely would not have happened.
And now, onward and upward! We have a long way to travel, and there are sure to be a lot of challenges along the way, but we're up for it, aren't we? At any rate, there's no turning back now. Constant vigilance, dear reader, for we're off to strange new lands. Here, there may well be monsters.
As Albus says, keep one hand on your wand and the other on your wallet.
Magic, thought Senator Charles "Chuck" Filmore. I can't believe this is what I have to stoop to.
He leaned out of the open glass doorway of the building and smiled winningly at the cameras positioned on the other side of Chambers Street. The normally crowded thoroughfare was cordoned off on either end, blocked with orange barricades and New York City police officers, all of whom looked bored and sullen in their dark caps and side arms. Behind the barricades, raucous crowds had gathered, waving and grinning at the cameras. That was one thing Filmore both loved and hated about this town: no matter what time of day it was, there was always a block party ready to erupt at the slightest provocation, complete with tee shirt vendors, sign wavers, and wide-eyed tourists, looking like aquarium goldfish who'd suddenly found themselves in the Great Barrier Reef. Filmore waved left and right, showing all of his freshly whitened teeth in a huge practiced grin. Flashbulbs popped and flickered and the crowd cheered. They weren't really cheering for him, of course, and he knew it. They were cheering because his was the face currently up on the portable JumboTron television screen. It wouldn't have mattered if the face had belonged to a Bloomingdale's mannequin. That was another thing about New York crowds: they were fairly indiscriminate about the things they applauded, so long as there was a good chance they'd be seen on television doing it.
The face on the JumboTron changed. Now it belonged to the great smarmy magician, Michael Byrne. He was dressed in an open-throated black shirt, his glossy hair hanging lank around his face, framing his handsome smile. Byrne didn't grin, of course, as Filmore had. He looked impishly sly, his eyes flicking back and forth, as if he wasn't even aware of the camera that had to be (Filmore knew from experience) less than two feet from his face. Byrne was a born showman, and he was extremely persuasive, even when he wasn't saying a word. That was part of what had made him so successful as a stage magician. The crowd wanted to believe in his tricks. In fact, if it hadn't been for Byrne's infectious charms, insincere as they obviously were, Filmore might not have even agreed to be part of such a stunt.
"Let's talk brass tacks for a minute," Byrne had said on the day that they had first met in Filmore's office. "You're one of the rising stars of the political world, at least in New York. Everybody knows it, right? Not many other politicians have the kind of name recognition you do. Former Jets quarterback, career Marine, happily married to a prominent Broadway actress. You're poised to launch your way right to the top of the Washington mud wrestling match. You just need one little boost, a little rocket fuel to shoot you up into the media mainstream."
Filmore had disliked the man almost from the beginning, but at that point, Byrne had been talking a language he understood all too well even if he didn't approve of it. Filmore wished he could build a name for himself purely on his political record and his grasp of the needs of his constituency—for despite what many people thought, he was a smart man. He did well on the interview programs and Sunday morning talk shows, partly because of his own brand of squarejawed charm, but also because he, unlike many other senators that he could mention (but didn't), really did understand the issues that were being discussed. Despite this, however, Byrne was right. American voters didn't always vote for the best candidates. In fact, as Filmore well knew, most of them tended to cast their votes based on looks and one-liners as much as they did on qualifications and voting records. There was no point in complaining about it even if Filmore did find it occasionally depressing. The only practical choice was to acknowledge the reality of the current political world and use it to his advantage as best he could.
"You and the Chrysler Building," Byrne had said, smiling and spreading his hands. "Two New York City monoliths, together at the same time. If it works—and it will—people from coast to coast will know your name. Mine too, of course, but that's neither here nor there."
"You're proposing to vanish the Chrysler Building," Filmore had replied, leaning back in his chair and looking out over the cloudy city beyond his office window. "With me in it."
Byrne had shrugged. "What better way to cement both of our careers at the same time, right, Senator? We both know that these days, show business and politics are really just two sides of the same coin. Besides, it'll be fun."
Filmore tilted a sideways glance at Byrne. "How will you do it?"
Byrne sighed languidly. "It's magic," he answered. "Which means it's either surprisingly simple or mind-bogglingly complex. Neither answer is ever very satisfying to the viewer. So what do you say, Senator?"
Filmore had agreed, of course, albeit somewhat reluctantly. If it had required anything more than an evening's stopover in the lobby of the famed steel skyscraper, he probably wouldn't have. Looking around from his vantage point by the lobby doors, he began to get a sense that this trick was, in fact, going to be of the 'mind-bogglingly complex' variety. There were massive mirrors on swiveling stands, for instance, positioned just outside the view of the barricaded crowds. A monstrous scaffolding, nearly thirty stories tall, had been erected in front of the building. It was equipped with a skyscraper-sized curtain that could be lowered and raised on Byrne's command, giving his crews time to manage whatever complicated machinations were going to be required for the illusion. Looking at the official observation platform, half a block away, Filmore had some idea of how the trick was probably going to be accomplished. He didn't understand all of it, but he understood enough to know that the entire trick depended on countless tiny details, from sightlines and camera editing to crowd psychology and even the angle of the setting sun. In his own way, Byrne was very intelligent, although, as the man had suggested, seeing some of the complicated behind-the-scenes rigging of such a trick definitely tended to reduce one's appreciation for it.
Now that he was officially off-camera, Filmore turned and crossed the deserted lobby, entering a side door next to the security desk. There, he found a small room dominated by two soda machines, a long leather sofa and a plasma television. On the screen, a remote feed of the external cameras showed what the rest of the world was going to see. Filmore's bodyguard, John Deckham, a former fellow football player with a perfectly bald head, was seated on the sofa, watching the proceedings on the huge plasma screen with mild interest.
"Looked good," Deckham commented, nodding toward the television. "They did a close up on you waving. Very 'man of the people'."
Filmore sighed as he sat down on the opposite end of the sofa. "Feels like schtick. I hate schtick."
"Schtick makes the world go 'round," Deckham shrugged, lifting a bag of pistachios and pouring out a handful.
Filmore settled in to watch the event. On the screen, Michael Byrne raised his arms as the camera zoomed dramatically toward him, framing him against the sunset as it reflected from the city's mirrored windows.
"And now," Byrne announced, his voice amplified over the crowd, echoing grandly, "you've seen me escape from Alcatraz prison. You've witnessed my triumph over the Egyptian Sepulcher of Doom. You've watched as I've vanished a live elephant, and then an airliner, and finally a moving freight train. Now, for the first time ever, I will perform the greatest feat of illusion ever attempted. Not only will I vanish one of the greatest landmarks of the city of New York, the legendary Chrysler Building, from its very foundation: I will do so while it is occupied by your senator, a landmark himself, the honorable and respected Charles Hyde Filmore!"
On the screen, the crowd cheered again. Filmore could hear the echo of their cheers emanating from the lobby beyond. Byrne smiled triumphantly into the camera, extending his arms, palms up, exulting amidst the dying sunlight. As the crowd began to quiet again, banks of spotlights ratcheted into place, illuminating the front of the building like an enormous jewel. Byrne raised his arms, still palms up, and then dropped them. On cue, hundreds of yards of red fabric unfurled from the scaffolding that fronted the building. It poured down like water, shimmering grandly in the spotlights, and finally hit the street with an audible fwump. From the perspective of the television cameras, as well as the viewers on the observation platform, the curtain completely obscured the building. Standing silhouetted against the waving red fabric, Byrne lowered his head. He appeared to be in deep concentration. The crowd waited breathlessly.
At the end of the sofa, Deckham rooted in his bag of pistachios. "So, how's he doing this anyway?" he asked. "Did he tell you?"
"No," Filmore replied. "Trade secret and all that. All I know is we're supposed to wait in here for a minute or so while he convinces everyone the place has disappeared. When it's all over, the building reappears and I come back out the front door, waving like a goombah. Thank you and goodnight."
"Are we really the only people in the whole building?"
Filmore nodded, smiling ruefully. "That Byrne's a genius, really. He arranged to have the Department of Health evacuate the building, claiming that he could only promise the safety of one person—yours truly—when the building 'crossed over into the unknowable dimensions'."
"He didn't," Deckham laughed, crunching pistachios.
Filmore nodded again. On the television screen, Byrne was still standing with his head down, his arms hanging at his sides as if somebody had switched him off. A drumroll began. Slowly, Byrne began to raise his arms again, and as he did, he turned away from the wall of shimmering red fabric. The drumroll increased, building to an almost unbearable crescendo. Now Byrne had his back fully to the curtain, arms raised and head lowered, his hair obscuring his face, and still he paused.
Suddenly, the building around Filmore shuddered violently. Dust sifted from the ceiling and the power flickered, sputtered, and died. Filmore sat up, alarmed.
"What was—" he began, but stopped as a whirring noise deep in the bowels of the building cycled to life. The lights flickered on again and the television screen blinked into motion.
Deckham looked wary. "Was that supposed to happen?"
"I… guess so," Filmore answered slowly, nodding toward the television. "Look."
Apparently, the scene outside had not changed. Byrne still stood with his arms held out, his head lowered. Finally, theatrically, he dropped his arms and raised his head, flinging his hair back. Jets of white sparks burst into the air and the red curtain dropped, swirling and billowing as it fell. Beyond it was only empty space, punctuated by the crisscrossing beams of a dozen spotlights. The great shining building certainly appeared to be gone. The crowd exploded into frenzied applause and a live band struck up a tumultuous fanfare.
"Not bad," Deckham commented, relaxing a bit. "Looks pretty real."
"Meh," Filmore replied, squinting up at the screen. "It's too dark. You should be able to see the buildings behind it. The spotlights are distracting everyone."
"I guess you're just too cynical for magic, Chuck. Better just stick to politics, eh?" The big man climbed to his feet, balling the pistachio bag between his huge hands. "I'm gonna hit the men's room before we go."
"Sure," Filmore muttered, still watching the screen. Deckham brushed a few pistachio shells from his pants and disappeared through the bathroom door in a corner of the small room.
Outside, Byrne had commanded the curtain to be raised once more. Slowly, it cinched upwards, once again concealing the mysteriously dark view and the sweeping spotlights. The television screen panned over the observers on the main platform, showing their rapt wonder, eyes wide and mouths agape. Filmore imagined that they'd been forced to practice that expression during rehearsals. Maybe Deckham was right; maybe he was just too cynical for magic. Ah well, he thought, worse things have been said about people.
Across the room, the lobby door pushed slowly open as a breeze forced its way through. Filmore frowned at it. The breeze smelled vaguely unusual, although he couldn't quite place it. It was a fresh smell, wild and earthy.
"And now," the televised voice of Michael Byrne announced grandly, "witness the completion of tonight's feat. Ladies and gentlemen, let me reintroduce to you, your Chrysler Building, and your senator, Charles Hyde Filmore!" He raised his hands once more, facing the curtain this time. Another drumroll sounded, even louder this time.
"Hurry it up, Deckham," Filmore said, climbing to his feet. "The fat lady's about to sing."
Another vibration shook the building, making the lights flicker once more. Somewhere far off and high above, something crashed. Filmore glanced around nervously.
On the screen, Byrne allowed his fingers to tremble on the ends of his outstretched arms. The drumroll redoubled, drawing out the tension like a knife. Finally, with a grand flourish, Byrne threw himself forward onto his knees, bringing his arms down as if he himself were stripping the enormous curtain away from the scene. The curtain dropped, untethered this time, and drifted sideways in the breeze. It crumpled to the street messily, throwing up a cloud of dust and grit.
Behind it was nothing.
Filmore blinked at the screen, his eyes widening. Something had gone wrong. Not only was the Chrysler Building still missing, so was the mysterious blackness that had filled the space. Distant buildings could be seen beyond the rising dust, their windows glowing yellow in the dimness of the falling night. Byrne hadn't moved. He remained in the foreground of the television scene, kneeling, his head raised to the unexpected sight. Eerie silence filled the street all around.
"It's gone!" a far-off voice yelled suddenly. The camera view changed, cutting to a closer shot of Chambers Street. Acres of limp red curtain could be seen in the spotlights, covering the street like a blanket. The camera turned. Where the Chrysler Building should have stood was a great, broken hole. Pipes and electrical wiring jutted from the hole's sides, spurting water and sparks. "It's gone!" the voice cried out again, closer this time. "It's completely gone, and so is the senator!"
The crowd responded like a beast. A low roar rippled over it, confusion and disbelief mingled with panic, and the roar quickly turned into a cacophony. The view spun, focused on the observation platform. It zoomed in, centering on the figure of Michael Byrne. He was still kneeling, his face slack, completely perplexed and disbelieving. To Filmore, he looked virtually catatonic.
"Deckham! Something's wrong! Get out here!"
There was no answer. Filmore crossed to the bathroom door and flung it open. It was a very small room, with only one toilet and a sink. It was perfectly empty. A pair of shoes sat on the floor in front of the toilet, black leather, still tied. Filmore boggled down at them, speechless.
Another gust of wildly scented air pushed through the room, bringing the sound of the roaring crowd with it. Filmore turned, peering back at the doorway into the lobby. It swung shut slowly on its pneumatic arm. The television still flickered and warbled, but Filmore didn't notice it anymore. Slowly, cautiously, he crossed the floor.
The lobby was much brighter than it had been, illuminated by a strangely brilliant fog that pressed against the glass doors. Filmore stepped around the security desk and heard a wet smacking sound. He looked down and saw that he had stepped into a puddle. It rippled around his shoes, coursing merrily over the marble floor toward the banks of elevators. The entire floor was covered with water. It reflected the brilliance of the doors, throwing snakes of refracted light up onto the high ceilings. Filmore felt as if he was in a dream. Slowly, he made his way toward the front doors. Maybe, he thought, this was all just part of the trick. Maybe Byrne was simply a much better showman than Filmore had given him credit for. The view beyond the glass doors was seamlessly white, moving faintly, almost like mist. Filmore jumped suddenly as a gust of wind battered the doors, pushing them inwards with enough pressure to force more of that exotically scented air through. The breeze rippled over Filmore, threading through his hair and flapping his tie. The air was damp and warm.
Filmore reached out and touched the door. He steeled himself, squared his jaw, and pushed.
The door opened easily, admitting a burst of warm, misty breeze and a heavy roar. He had thought that the noise was the roar of the New York City crowd, but now he knew that that had been a mistake. No collection of human voices could make a noise like that. It was deafening and seamless, huge as the sky. Filmore stepped out into that sound, straining to see through the blinding whiteness.
The wind picked up again, suddenly and wetly, and it pushed the mist away, breaking it apart enough for Filmore to finally see the source of the noise. He craned his head back, higher and higher, his eyes bulging at the bizarre and inexplicable enormity of what he was witnessing.
Surrounding the building, encompassing it on three sides, was a wall of thundering water, so high and so broad that it seemed to dwarf the shining steel tower. It was a waterfall of such proportions that it defied belief. Filmore found himself stunned by it, nearly unable to move, even as it drenched him with its pounding, battering mists. Somehow, impossibly, the Chrysler Building had been transported, vanished away, to some entirely fantastic location. Filmore shook himself, breaking his paralysis, and spun around, looking back at the building behind him. It stood entirely intact, leaning very slightly, on a shelf of rock in the middle of a heaving tropical river. Its windows dripped with water, reflecting the mountain around it and its bounding, lush jungles.
"Greetings, Senator," a voice called, shocking Filmore so much that he spun on his heels and nearly fell over. "Sorry about your bodyguard, but the deal was for only one person. He may be somewhere, but let me assure you, he is not here."
"Wha…!" Filmore stammered faintly. He opened and closed his mouth several times, boggling at the figure as it approached through the mist, walking jauntily. It appeared to be a man, dressed all in black. A cloak flapped about his shoulders and his face was covered in a bizarre, metallic mask. As the figure approached, Filmore saw several more similarly dressed shapes unsheathe from the pounding mist, keeping their distance but watching him carefully.
"Do pardon the omission, Senator," the dark figure called out, stopping suddenly. His voice bore the cultured clip of a British accent. He seemed to be smiling. "I understand there are traditions to be seen to. This is, after all, a magic trick." The man curled a hand to his masked mouth, cleared his throat, and then threw out both arms in a grand gesture that seemed to encompass the Chrysler Building, the thundering waterfall, and even Charles Filmore himself.
"Ta-daa!" he cried out, clear as crystal in the roaring noise. And then he laughed, and laughed, and laughed.
A great distance away and some weeks later, a short order cook struck a bell with his slab of a hand and clunked a steaming plate onto the counter.
"Number three, hold the O, extra mayo, get it while it's hot," he called without looking.
A waitress in a dingy rayon dress blew hair out of her face in annoyance. "Keep your hair on, I'll get it in a second." She turned back to an overweight couple crammed into the window booth. They leaned over the little dog-eared menus, studying them as if they were final exams. The man looked up at the waitress, his eyes swimming in a huge pair of black-rimmed glasses.
"Does the tuna come open-faced or in one of those fancy tomato bowls?"
"Fancy—" the waitress blinked. She scoffed good-naturedly. "You don't know where you are, do you?"
"We're in Bridgend, aren't we?" the overweight woman said suddenly, glancing up at the waitress and then looking worriedly at her husband. "Aren't we? I told you we should've taken the expressway. We're lost now, aren't we?"
"No, I mean—" the waitress began, but the man interrupted her, producing a large folded map from his breast pocket.
"Bridgend," he said emphatically, unfolding the map and stabbing at it with a pudgy finger. "Right 'ere, see? You saw the sign when we left the last roundabout."
"I've seen a lot of signs today, Herbert," the woman huffed, sitting up primly in the red booth.
"Look," the waitress said, lowering her order pad, "if you two need a few more minutes—"
The bell at the counter dinged again, louder this time. The waitress glanced back, her temper flaring, but another waitress passed behind her and touched her shoulder.
"I'll get it, Trish," the younger (and decidedly prettier) waitress said. "Table three, right?"
Trish exhaled and scowled at the pickup window. "Thanks, Judy. I swear to you, one of these days…"
"I know, I know," Judy smiled, crossing the narrow floor and waving a hand to show she'd heard it a hundred times before.
Judy ripped an order slip from her pad and jabbed it into one of the clips on the cook's carousel. With a deft movement, she scooped up the plate and carried it to a table in the corner by the door.
"Here you go, love," she said, sliding the plate onto the table in front of a middle-aged man with thinning black hair. "Enjoy."
"Thank you very much," the man replied, smiling and unrolling his napkin so that his silver clattered onto the tabletop. "Why, if I thought I could get waited on by the likes of you every day, I might never even leave."
"You sweet-talker you," Judy replied, cocking her hip. "You're not from around here, then?"
The man shook his head with derision. "Not likely. I'm from up the coast, Cardiff. Just passing through."
"Is that so?" Judy said, smiling enigmatically. "I have family up that way, though I hardly ever get to visit. I wonder if you know any of them?"
The man's smile turned condescending. "Cardiff 's a big place, dearie. Unless your daddy's the mayor, seems unlikely I might know 'em, but go ahead."
Judy leaned toward the man and cupped one hand to her mouth, as if she was about to share a secret with him. "Potter," she said, "James Potter. He'd be young… not a boy, but not a man yet either."
The man narrowed his eyes in a parody of deep thought, as if he really wanted to say yes, just to keep the pretty waitress talking to him, but couldn't quite bring himself to do it. He blew out a breath and shook his head. "Sorry, can't say I know 'im. Frankly, I don't run across too many boys anymore, now that my own are mostly grown. My youngest just went off to the milit'ry, you know…"
The waitress nodded, straightening. "You let me know if you need a refill on that, all right?" She smiled again, a somewhat more plastic smile than the one she'd shown him a few moments before, and then turned away.
Trish, the older waitress, was standing by the cash register counting out her end-of-day tips. Without looking up, she said, "What is it with you and this Potter kid? You've been asking about him since your first day here, what, three weeks ago? I, for one, don't believe he's any relation of yours. What is it? He lay into your kid brother or something? His folks owe you money?"
Judy laughed. "Nothing like that. He's just… a friend of a friend. Someone I've lost touch with and want to find again. It's nothing. It's sort of a hobby, really."
Trish chuckled drily. She slammed the register drawer shut and stuck a thin roll of bills into her apron. "Some hobby. I've seen your little apartment, remember? If you want a hobby, maybe you should take up decorating. That place is as bare as Old Mother Hubbard's cupboard. Not even a bed. Creepy, if you ask me."
Judy wasn't listening to Trish. Her eyes were locked on the front window, expressionless and unblinking, transfixed.
"What is it, Judy?" Trish asked, looking up. "You look like someone just walked over your…"
Judy held up a hand, palm out, instructing the older woman to be still. Trish went still. Judy stared through the front window, between the faces of the overweight couple who were still arguing over the map, beyond the narrow footpath and the lamppost, across the street, toward a small man as he ambled slowly down an alley, tapping a twisted cane as he went. Judy's eyes narrowed slightly, quizzically.
Behind her, loudly, the short order cook banged the bell again. A plate clanked onto the counter. Neither Trish nor Judy moved.
"Number six," the cook called, peering at the two women through the little pickup window, his cheeks red and sweaty. "Bangers and mash, no pickle—" he went on, bellowing, but his voice cut off abruptly as Judy raised her hand again, gesturing vaguely toward him. He stared at her, unmoving, as if frozen in place.
Judy moved out from behind the counter, walking with a swift, determined gait that was completely unlike her previous movements.
"I think we're ready to order now," the overweight woman said, smiling hopefully up at her. She froze in place as Judy passed her. The bell jingled over the door as it swept open entirely on its own, so swiftly that it sucked a gust of air through the diner, whipping menus from tables and flapping order slips on the cook's carousel. No one inside seemed to notice. The middle-aged man with thinning black hair sat with his fork half-raised to his mouth, still as a statue.
Judy strode into the misty sunlight and began to cross the street. A horn blared and brakes squealed as a lorry bore down on her, swerving into a deep puddle, but the sound cut off sharply as Judy raised her hand. Fingers of ice erupted from the puddle and embraced the lorry so firmly that it slammed to a halt. It emitted a screech of crimping metal and the driver's head struck the windshield, shattering it into a bright starburst. Judy still had not taken her eyes from the small man with the cane. He turned back at the noise of the mysteriously halted lorry, his eyes gimlet and wary. He saw Judy approaching. His expression didn't change, but when he turned back, he did so with much improved posture. He began to run down the alley, gripping his cane at his side. Judy smiled happily and leapt onto the curb, following the man into the alley.
He ducked into a narrow cross street, not looking back, but Judy was amazingly fast. She was still smiling, and it was a beautiful smile, one filled with delight and a sort of dawning wonder.
"Lemme be!" the man called out, still running. He darted up a short stairway toward a decrepit apartment door and began to fumble a key into the lock. "Lemme be, I didn't do anything wrong!"
Judy reached the bottom of the steps just as the man socked the key home. He jerked the door open and lurched inside, still clutching his cane to his side.
"Please wait," Judy said, raising her hand, but the man didn't look back. Neither did he stop in his tracks as everyone else had. He slammed the door and Judy heard the bolt clack into place. Her smile narrowed, sharpened at the edges, becoming a hard grin. She raised her hand once more, curled her forefinger under her thumb, and pointed it at the door. It looked as if she meant to flick a speck of dust out of the air. She flicked.
The heavy wooden door exploded inwards with a reverberating, hollow crash. It shattered into a dozen pieces, all of which blew partly up the narrow staircase beyond. The small man was halfway up the steps, hunched and gripping the banister, afraid to move.
"I didn't do anything wrong," he cried in a high, tremulous voice, still not looking back. "What've I done? What do you want? Why can't you just leave me be?"
Judy moved forward and began to slowly climb the stairs. The chunks of door clattered aside as she neared them. "Who do you think I am?" she asked, her voice sounding both pleased and amused.
"Well, it's plain, innit?" the man said, trembling. He finally peered back at her from over his right shoulder, still clutching his cane. "You're from the Ministry. You found out about me cane. It's not a proper wand, not really. I ordered it special through the post, but that's not illegal now, is it? I mean, it barely works at all. It doesn't violate my parole. You don't need to send me back."
"You…," Judy said, still climbing the stairs slowly, smiling in wonder. "You… are a wizard. A magical person. Aren't you?"
The man boggled at her over his shoulder, half turning back to her. "What d'you mean, then? What you wanna go and tease me for? You trying to rub it in, now that I have to go and live like the blasted Muggles? All it was was a little robbery. I did my time in Azkaban, fair and square. If I keep me nose clean another eight months, I'll even get me wand back. Why you wanna go scarin' me half to death and then teasin' me about being a wiz—"
The man stopped as he saw the truth in the woman's face. She wasn't teasing him. She had nearly reached him now. The two of them stood in the shadows of the stairwell. She was two steps lower than him and yet her eyes were level with his. The man's watery gaze widened as he realized this was because she was floating several inches in the air, still smiling at him in the darkness.
"I see it now," she said, shaking her head in wonderment. "An entirely magical society, living in secret. How very interestingly preposterous. My, how times have changed. And yet it makes sense now. It is no wonder… but what good fortune that I happened to see you, my friend, and to recognize the strange nature of that cane of yours. What, pray tell, is your name?"
The man was still trembling, so much that his teeth chattered when he answered. "Buh-b-b-Blagwell," he stammered. "Harvey. Blagwell."
"What an unfortunate name," the woman frowned. "Tell me, Mr. Blagwell, I wonder if you might be able to help me. I am looking for someone. I've asked so very many people and none of them have been of any assistance to me, although I now understand why. I do so hope you might prove different."
Blagwell nodded jerkily, his eyes bulging.
The woman leaned toward him, floating higher in the air so that she covered him with her shadow. "Have you ever heard of someone named… James Potter?"
Blagwell stared up at her, his lips trembling. He made a sort of coughing noise, and then blurted a ragged chuckle. "P-Potter?" he said, shaking his head as if she was mocking him. "You… you're kidding, right?"
Judy's smile grew. It stretched beyond its normal bounds of prettiness, becoming first a grin, and then a humorless, lunatic rictus. "Tell me more," she breathed.
"Wha-what do you want to know?" Blagwell exclaimed, leaning backwards, wilting under the force of her gaze. "Everybody knows them. Th-th-they're bloody famous, aren't they?"
"She is there," the woman answered in a strangely singsong voice, her face now lost in the shadows. "I sensed it in the memory of her thoughts. It wasn't much, but it was all I needed. She went there, seeking refuge after her trial of the lake. I could not follow her, for her trail was lost, but two words remained, imprinted in the ether where the tree once stood, two words that I knew would take me to her: James Potter. Tell me where I may find him. Tell me, and everyone may be happy again. Perhaps even you, my unfortunate friend."
"Who are you?" Blagwell moaned, terrified.
Her voice came out of the darkness, both maddening and entrancing. She was still smiling. "Call me Judith," she said, "call me the Lady of the Lake."
Five minutes later, the woman strode out of the broken doorway again, smiling to herself, content. She had finally learned what she needed to know. It had taken her nearly two months, two long months of wandering and searching, renting empty flats just to keep those around her from becoming suspicious. Now, of course, it all made perfect sense. This was a strange, absurd time, a time when the magical world hid away in secret, unknown to the dull, unmagicked ones. Now she understood why she had been called into this time, remade in such a form, and by whom. She understood what it was she was meant to do. It was going to be a difficult task, but she would enjoy it. She would enjoy it immensely.
She crossed the footpath and found a large puddle of water near the curb. It was covered in a thin rainbow sheen of oil. She saw herself reflected in the murky water, saw her own smile. It was indeed a pretty smile, one that inspired people, made them want to help her. No wonder the great sorcerer had once fallen for it. Judith remembered it vaguely although it wasn't her memory, not really. It was attached to this form, to the human shape she had assumed, like a note pinned to the collar of a dress. She was not the Judith that the sorcerer had once known and loved, and yet she occupied a version of that Judith's shape, looking out of that woman's eyes, smiling her pretty smile. The great sorcerer had indeed fallen for this smile, and had very nearly lost everything in pursuit of it.
The truth was he still might.
Judith knelt on one knee, still looking down at the puddle. She finally had what she needed. Such a common thing, really, and yet so very hard to find, at least in this benighted age. She held her hand over the puddle, formed into a fist. A dagger jutted from it, its handle encrusted with jewels, its blade dark and wet. She allowed something red to drip from the tarnished knifepoint. It pattered onto the surface of the puddle, forming ripples and making the oily sheen begin to swirl, to form cloudy shapes. Such elemental magic, she thought, and yet so rare. She understood it instinctively, of course. After all, it was how she had come to be.
"Show me," she said to the puddle. "Show me where they are. The boy James; his brother Albus, the snake; his sister Lily, the flower; his father Harry, the legend; his mother Ginny, the torch. Show me where they are that I may seek them, and find her."
Harvey Blagwell's blood fanned across the puddle and the oily sheen deepened, intensified, formed a picture. The Lady of the Lake leaned close, anxious and pleased, watching the image solidify. There were forests, a lake, and then a castle, huge and sprawling, spiked with turrets and towers, glittering with windows. The image blurred, zoomed, focused, showing her what she needed to know.
Everything was clear now. Judith knew her task and where she must go. Soon, this world would be awakened, terribly and irreversibly, and chaos would follow. Judith loved chaos. She breathed it like air. She hungered for it, even now. She straightened, smoothing the faded rayon of her waitress dress, and began to walk. She would change soon, dressing herself in a manner that better suited her status. In the meantime, she was pleased. Her mission was begun. She would find the girl, and then she would simply watch.
The girl was her fate—her sister and her daughter, her nemesis and her ally. They were intertwined, inextricably and permanently. Whether she wanted to or not, the girl would help Judith. The girl would take her exactly where she needed to go.
Judith wiped the dagger, her birthright, absently on her dress as she walked. She began to hum.
1. HOGWARTS FAREWELLS
Not so very far away, the sun shone on a broad hilltop, warming the early autumn air and
inspiring a vibrant chorus of cicadas in the marsh and birdsong in the nearby forest.
Butterflies and bumblebees meandered and flitted, stitching invisible patterns among the flowers. The shadow of an enormous castle stretched over the face of the hilltop, its shape blurring as the wind made ripples across the overgrown lawn. A boy ran across the castle's shadow, leaving a rambling wake in the tall grass.
"What are you waiting for?" the boy, Albus Potter, called, glancing behind him.
"You're out of bounds," his brother James yelled from some distance away, cupping his hands to his mouth. "The field ended back by that big boulder, you nimrod. You can't even see the ball under all that grass."
"That's part of the challenge!" Albus called back, grinning. "Are we playing wizard football or what?"
"It's all right," a girl's voice called from some distance away. James glanced aside and saw his raven-haired cousin, Lucy, crouched in front of a stand of young trees, shuffling slowly sideways. "The goal's moved away from him. I'm trying to keep up with it, but it's a bit of a challenge. Oh, there it goes again!" Sure enough, the saplings that formed the goal behind her seemed to sidle away across the grass, walking on their roots like very tall, woodsy squid. Lucy scuttled to keep up with them while simultaneously keeping an eye on Albus.
"I'm open, Al!" Ralph Deedle called, catching up to his friend and fellow Slytherin. He waved his hands helpfully. Albus nodded, turned, and booted at something in the grass. A threadbare football appeared momentarily as it arced through the air. Ralph squared himself to trap the ball, but it never reached him. Instead, it jigged mysteriously into the sunlight and spun away at an angle.
"Hey!" Albus and Ralph both called in unison, looking in the direction the ball was hurtling. It dropped to the ground near the feet of a red-haired girl, who ran up to it, brandishing her wand.
"Are we playing wizard football or what?" she hollered, kicking the ball toward the opposite side of the hilltop.
"Rose!" James called, running to catch up to his cousin. "Look out behind you! It's Ted!"
Rose ducked as a cloud of blue moths suddenly blew over her, conjured from the end of Ted Lupin's wand. He hooted as he ran past, aiming his foot for the ball, but she was very quick with her own wand. With a flick of her wrist and a flash, she transfigured a dead leaf into a banana peel. An instant later, Ted Lupin's foot landed on it and it squirted away beneath him, hurling him to the ground.
"Good fundamentals, Rosie!" Ron Weasley bellowed from what was, for the moment, the sidelines. "Bring it on home now! James is in the clear! Their Keeper's still fending off that Tickling Hex! Aim low!"
Rose bared her teeth grimly and kicked the ball toward James, who trapped it easily and began to maneuver it toward the outcropping of rocks that was currently serving as his team's goal. Standing before the goal, George Weasley, who was notoriously ticklish, struggled to pay attention as a large white feather darted around him, occasionally pecking at him and making him convulse with angry laughter.
James was about to shoot for goal when a voice cried out next to his ear. "Yargh! Leggo the ball! Get 'im!" Shadows fell over him and hands grabbed at his hair and cloak. James tried to bat them off without looking, but it was no use. His younger cousins, the twins Harold and Jules, circled around him on toy brooms, grabbing at him and chomping their teeth like airborne piranhas. James glanced up at them in exasperation, tripped over his own feet, and went down into the grass like a sack of bricks. Harold and Jules glanced at each other for a moment and then dove into the grass to continue their attack. The football rolled to a stop nearby as George ran forward to kick it.
"Barricado!" James cried, stabbing out with his wand as Harold grabbed double fists of his hair.
A tiny brick wall suddenly erupted out of the ground next to the football, a split second before George Weasley's foot came into contact with it. The ball sprang off George's foot, immediately struck the tiny wall, and shot up into the air, arcing high over George's head. He craned his neck to watch. With a dull thud, the ball bounced between the rocks behind him.
"Goal!" James shouted, throwing both of his hands into the air.
"Cheat!" Harold and Jules called out, falling on James again and driving him to the ground.
Rose ran past James and George, reaching to scoop up the football. "The first rule of wizard football is that there are no rules," she reminded everyone, raising her voice. "James scored that one with a Barricade Charm, and I had the assist with a transfigured banana peel. That's five more points for Team Hippogriff."
"Five points!" Albus cried angrily, trotting to a stop nearby. "How do you figure that math?"
"One point for the goal," Rose sniffed, bouncing the ball on her right palm, "two points each for magical finesse."
"Those were one-point spells," Albus argued. "I could have done those in my sleep!"
"Then maybe someone should throw a Nap-a-bye Charm on you," James said, finally shooing his cousins away. "Maybe you'll play better in your dreams, eh?"
"At least I don't need any stupid baby brick walls to make my goals for me," Albus groused, producing his wand. "I have this crazy idea that goals are made with my feet!"
"Too bad they're so busy getting stuck in your mouth," James countered, obviously pleased with his turn of phrase. "But I can help you with that!"
Albus saw James' intention a moment before it happened. He scrambled to raise his own wand and both boys called the incantation at the exact same moment. Two bolts of magic crossed over the sunny hilltop and both Albus and James spun into the air, pulled by their ankles.
"What is going on here?" a female voice cried shrilly, wavering on the edge of outright fury. All eyes spun guiltily. Ginny Potter, James and Albus' mother, was striding purposely across the hilltop, approaching the gathering, her eyes blazing. Young Lily Potter followed in her wake, hiding a delighted grin behind her hands.
"I've been looking all over for the lot of you!" Ginny exclaimed. "And here I find you out in the grass making messes of yourselves in your dress robes! Ronald Weasley!" she cried, suddenly spotting her brother, who shrank away. She balled her fists. "I should have known!"
"What!" Ron cried, raising his hands. "They were bored! I was bored! I was… overseeing them, making sure they didn't get into trouble! Besides, George is out here too, if you haven't noticed!"
Ginny exhaled wearily and shook her head. "You're both as bad as the children. All of you, back to the castle this instant. Everyone's waiting. If we don't hurry we'll be late for the ceremony."
A meter above the grass, James hung upside down across from his brother. Albus met his gaze and sighed, his black hair hanging lank from his head. "I'll do you if you do me," he said. "On three."
James nodded. "One…"
"Liberacorpus," Ted said, flicking his wand. Both boys dropped out of the air and tumbled messily to the hillside. "You're welcome," Ted grinned, pocketing his wand. "Come on. You don't want to keep your mum waiting."
The gathering trotted to catch up to Ginny as she stalked back toward the castle gates, where a small throng had gathered, dressed, as was she, in colourful robes, hats, capes, and cloaks.
"How do I look?" James asked Rose as they crossed the lawn.
She eyed him critically. "Good," she said mournfully. "Your rolling in the dirt is no match for your mother's Laveolus Charms. Not so much as a grass stain."
James cursed under his breath. "I don't see why we need to wear these stupid dress robes anyway. Nobody even knows if a giant's wedding is a formal affair, do they? Hagrid says we're the first humans to see such a thing in forever. He doesn't even know how we're supposed to dress for it."
"Better safe than sorry," Ralph commented, adjusting his high, starched collar. "Especially with blokes big enough to swat you like a flobberworm."
James shook his head. "Grawp and Prechka are our friends. Er, more or less. They wouldn't hurt any of us."
"I'm not worried about them," Ralph said, his eyes widening. "I'm talking about all their family. And that King of theirs! Relations with the giant tribes are ticklish even at the best of times! You told me they even laid into Hagrid once!"
Rose shrugged. "That was a long time ago. Buck up, Ralph. I bet it's considered poor taste to kill the friends of the bride and groom."
"At least during the wedding," Lucy added reasonably.
As they neared the waiting witches and wizards by the courtyard gates, James saw that his dad, Harry Potter, was standing near Merlinus Ambrosius, the current Headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The casual observer might have assumed that the two men were merely waiting, passing the time with idle banter, but James knew his dad better than that. The eldest Potter and the Headmaster had been spending a lot of time in discussion since yesterday evening, their voices low, their eyes roaming, watching. There was a secret sense of weighty matters and carefully unspoken fears in the air between the men, even when they were smiling. James knew what some of it was about although he didn't understand any of it very much. He only knew that whatever it was, it was the reason that everything in his life had suddenly, messily, been turned on its head, like the world's most indiscriminate Levicorpus jinx. He sighed angrily and looked up at the castle, soaking in the sight of it. Sunlight glimmered from the windows and glared off the blue slate of the highest turrets. Lucy fell in step next to him.
"It really is a shame, you know," she said, as if reading his thoughts.
"Don't remind me," he muttered darkly. "Tomorrow's the first day of school. We already missed the Sorting yesterday. Someone else has probably already claimed my bed in Gryffindor Tower."
"Well," Lucy replied carefully, "I hear that your bed still has the words 'whiny Potter git' burned onto the headboard, even though they don't glow anymore. So maybe that's not such a bad thing, is it?"
James nodded, not amused. "It's easy for you. You won't know what you're missing."
Lucy shrugged. "Is that better, somehow?"
"Forget it," James said, sighing. "We'll be back soon enough. Probably after Christmas holiday, like my dad says."
Lucy didn't reply this time. James glanced at her. She was two years younger than him, but in some ways she seemed older, much more mature, strangely enigmatic. Her black eyes were inscrutable.
"Lucy," a voice announced, interrupting James just as he opened his mouth to speak. He glanced aside and saw his Uncle Percy, Lucy's father, approaching, resplendent in his navy blue dress robes and mortarboard cap. "Come along now. We can't afford to be late. The usher is waiting for us. Where were you anyway? Never mind, never mind."
He put a hand around her shoulder and led her away. She glanced back at James, her expression mildly sardonic, as if to say this is my life, aren't you jealous? Percy rejoined his wife, Audrey, who glanced down at Lucy, registered her presence for one second, and then returned her attention to the woman standing next to her, who was dressed in a red robe and a fairly ridiculous floral hat with a live white owl nested in it. Molly, Lucy's younger sister, stood next to their mother looking bored and vaguely haughty.
James liked Molly and both of Lucy's parents although he knew them rather less than he did his Aunt Hermione and Uncle Ron. Percy traveled an awful lot, due to his job at the Ministry, and he often took his wife and daughters with him when he went. James had always thought that such a life might be rather exciting—traveling to faraway lands, meeting exotic witches and wizards, staying in grand hotels and embassies—but he'd never thought it would actually happen to him. Lucy was used to it even if she didn't seem to particularly enjoy it herself; after all, she'd been accompanying her family on such trips ever since she'd been a baby, since they'd brought her home from the orphanage in Osaka, before Molly had ever been born. She'd had time to get so familiar with the routine of travel that it was virtually drudgery. James knew his cousin well enough to know that she had been looking quite forward to the consistency and pleasant predictability of her first year at Hogwarts.
Thinking that, he felt a little bad about telling her that the coming trip would be easier for her. At least he'd had two years at Hogwarts already, two years of classes and studies, dorm life and meals in the Great Hall, even if all of it had been overlaid with some fairly spectacular events. Just when Lucy had been expecting to get her first taste of such things, it had gotten neatly snatched away from her. Considering Lucy's personality, it was easy to forget that she was, if anything, probably even more upset about it than he was.
"Welcome back, James, Albus," his father said, smiling and tousling the boys' heads. James ducked away, frowning, and ran his hand through his hair, matting it down.
"Well then," a woman's voice trilled, barely concealing her impatience. James looked toward the front of the small group and saw Professor Minerva McGonagall, her eyes ticking over them severely. "Now that we are all nominally present, shall we proceed?"
"Lead the way, Professor," Merlin said in his low, rumbling voice, bowing his head and gesturing toward the forest. "We'd hate to keep our giantish friends waiting any longer, especially on such a momentous occasion.
McGonagall nodded curtly, turned, and began to cross the lawn, striding toward the arms of the Forbidden Forest beyond. The troupe followed.
A short time later, deep in the shadow of the huge, gnarled trees, Ralph spoke up.
"I think we're nearly there," he said, his voice tight and his eyes widening. James looked up. The path curved up around a steep incline toward a rocky crest, and standing atop that crest, framed between the trees, stood a monstrous, lumpy shape. The giant was easily twenty-five feet tall, with arms that looked like a herd of swine stuffed into a tube sock and legs so thick and hairy that they appeared to take up two thirds of the rest of the body. The head looked like a small, hairy potato perched atop the creature's stubby neck. It was dressed in yards of burlap, enormous leather sandals, and a cloak made of at least a dozen bearskins. It regarded them gravely as they approached.
"Bloody hell," Ralph said in a high, wavering voice. "I knew I should have just sent a gift."
Several hours later, as the sun descended beyond the trees, casting the world into copper twilight, the troop of witches and wizards shambled back out of the Forbidden Forest, looking decidedly less crisp than they had when they'd entered. James and Ralph walked with Hagrid, who had gotten rather louder and substantially more rambling as the evening had progressed. The halfgiant's footsteps meandered back and forth across the path, one huge hand each on James and Ralph's heads.
"S'for the best, o' course," Hagrid was saying mushily. "S'for… s'for… s'for the best, it is. Jus' like the Headmistress says. Where is the Headmistress? I want t' thank 'er for bein' there, for showin' 'er support for li'l Grawpy an'… an'… li'l Grawpy an' his byootiful bride."
"She's not the Headmistress anymore," Ralph said, his voice strained as Hagrid leaned uncertainly, pressing down on the boys' heads. "Not since year before last. But she's behind us. Don't worry."
"Where does th' time go?" Hagrid went on, weaving onto the grass and aiming, with some difficulty, for his hut. "Why, it only seems like yesh… yesh… yesterday that it was li'l Harry and Ron and Hermione comin' to my hut, stumblin' their way in and outta trouble, makin' mischief, helpin' me take care o' little baby Norbert. Now they're all grown, jus' like Norbert. Tha's Norberta, now, yeh unnerstand, the dragon yeh're Uncle Charlie came to check on. Awful nice of 'im to do that since he's the one what's been keepin' tabs on 'er all these years, 'specially now that she's goin' on with the two newlyweds. Yeh saw 'er jus' back there, sittin' by Grawpy's side jus' like a dog, jus' like my ol' boarhound, Fang. Did I ever tell yeh about Fang? He was a good dog. Not that I don' love Trife, mind yeh. Fang's pawprints was jus' some awful big pawprints to fill, y' know."
Under Hagrid's ponderous weight, James felt like he was being driven into the ground like a tent peg. He pried Hagrid's large meaty hand off his head and held it, pulling the half-giant toward the door of his cabin. "Norberta made a nice wedding present, Hagrid. I bet they'll all be very happy together, up in the mountains."
"Do yeh think so?" Hagrid boomed suddenly, taking his hand from Ralph's head to wipe a tear from his bloodshot eyes. "I hope so. I do. The Headmistress knows best, she does. I think I need to sit down now for a… for jus' a minnit."
Hagrid turned as if he meant to enjoy the beauty of the sunset, wobbled on his feet for one long moment, and then fell backwards onto his garden, smashing a few unusually coloured pumpkins. Immediately, he began to snore loudly.
"He'll be fine," Ralph said uncertainly. "Right?"
James shrugged, heading toward Hagrid's hut and pulling the door open. "Yeah, it's a nice night. Probably do him some good. I've never seen anyone drink so much mead though."
"I did!" Ralph countered, ambling toward the doorway. "Merlin put that stuff away like it was water! Didn't seem to affect him at all, either, not like the rest. Maybe it's some sort of special power or something."
"Maybe it's just part of being eleven hundred years old," James called from the darkness of the hut, grunting to himself. "Maybe he can, sort of, spread it all out over a lifetime, so it doesn't affect him as much at any given moment. You think?"
Ralph heaved a sigh. "I try not to, at least when it comes to Merlin. He makes my head hurt. The food was good tonight though. The chicken and kabobs and everything. I've never had whelk before, especially cooked like that."
"You mean spit-roasted by a dragon?" James replied, dragging a huge quilt through the door of the hut. "Kind of gives it a weird aftertaste, don't you think? I thought it tasted a little like the potions closet smells on a humid day."
Ralph shrugged, helping tug the quilt over Hagrid's huge snoring bulk. "There. Sleep well, Hagrid. See you next year."
"Ugh, stop saying things like that," James said, rolling his eyes.
James shook his head. "I just don't want to be reminded. Come on, there's McGonagall. If she beats us back to the gates, she's likely to give us detention for being late even if we aren't going to be here to serve it."
The boys ran across the field at an angle, meeting the former Headmistress at the courtyard entrance. They surprised her as they came bounding up.
"Boys!" she exclaimed, blinking owlishly at them, her eyes strangely bright. "You should be inside now that the ceremony is over. It's late."
"We know, Professor… er," James said, looking up at the tall woman. "Er, are you… er?"
"I'll have you know I have allergies," McGonagall sniffed, dabbing at her eyes and striding quickly through the gates. "The babelthrush is particularly fetid this time of year, that's all. Now come."
Inside, Harry, Ginny, and the rest were milling near the doorway of the Great Hall as the candles lit themselves for the evening. Students moved through the huge open doors in knots, drifting toward the stairs and their common rooms. Lucy, Rose, and Albus met James and Ralph as they entered.
"Dad's arranged for us to have extra beds in the dormitories," Albus said, munching a biscuit he'd found in the Great Hall. "You and Lucy with the Gryffindors, me and Ralph downstairs with our own mates."
James asked, "What about Charlie and Jules and Harold and everybody else?"
"They're just going home tonight. No point in their hanging around here until tomorrow morning, is there? It's not like they're going anywhere."
"Ugh! Stop reminding me," Rose said, throwing up her hands. "I'm so jealous I can hardly stand it. You lot going off on some big holiday and me having to stay here and do Arithmancy and Charms and Debellows' stupid version of D.A.D.A. all year."
"But you like Arithmancy," Ralph said, frowning.
She sighed angrily. "Just because I'm good at it doesn't mean I like it."
"I'd trade places with you in a heartbeat," Albus griped. "It isn't like I want to go on this stupid trip."
"You think that makes it any better?" Rose fumed. "The injustice of it all is breathtaking."
From across the hall, Hermione's voice called to her daughter. "You and your brother should probably get upstairs, Rose. Tomorrow's first day of school. Aren't you excited?"
Rose glowered darkly at her mother, and then shared the look with James, Ralph and Albus.
Lucy patted her older cousin on the arm. "I'll take lots of pictures for you, Rose. And we'll write. Won't we?" She looked meaningfully at the boys, who muttered their assent and shuffled their feet on the dusty floor.
Rose nodded skeptically.
"All of you had better get up to bed, then," Harry Potter said, nodding toward his sons. "Lily will be staying with your mother and me in the Room of Requirement. We don't want to have to come and wake you lot up when it's time to leave."
Albus frowned. "When are we leaving?"
"I suggest we meet here by the main doors at five thirty," Harry answered, looking at the rest of the adults, who nodded agreement.
James grumbled, "This just gets worse and worse."
"It really was a beautiful wedding," Ginny sighed, ignoring James. "In its own special way. Don't you think?"
"Minerva," Harry smiled, peering closely at the older woman. "Are you…?"
"I have allergies!" McGonagall answered stridently, waving a hankie. "They make my eyes water!"
Harry nodded and put an arm around the woman's narrow shoulders, leading her toward the faculty corridors. Ginny, Ron, and Hermione followed, talking amongst themselves.
Shortly, Albus and Ralph said goodnight and drifted down the stairs toward the Slytherin cellars. James and Lucy joined Rose on the stairs, tromping their way up to the Gryffindor common room.
"Humdrugula," Rose called curtly as she approached the portrait of the Fat Lady. The frame swung away from the wall and the sound of raucous voices, laughter, and a crackling fire filled the hall from beyond.
"I wasn't even told the password," James mourned to Lucy as they approached the portrait hole.
"Passwords are for students only," the Fat Lady sang happily from the other side of the open frame. James rolled his eyes in annoyance.
"James!" a voice called out. "I got your bed! Isn't it cool?"
James looked and saw Cameron Creevey grinning at him from over the back of the hearth sofa, flanked by two boggling first-years. "It's got your name on it and everything. My mates are dead jealous, of course. I've been telling the new students about last year. Remember when we went off to Hogsmeade in the tunnel beneath the Whomping Willow? Remember the wolf when we came back?"
"I remember you getting knocked out cold in the dirt," James answered unhappily. Rose poked him in the stomach with her elbow, but Cameron seemed unperturbed.
"See?" he said, turning back to the two first-years. "I told you! It was excellent."
James shook his head and joined Rose at a corner table where Ted Lupin was sitting with his former school crew. Lucy followed James, looking around with open curiosity, her face calm and watchful.
"Hey, James, Gremlin salute," Damien Damascus announced, raising his fists to either side of his head, the pinky fingers extended to form wiggling ears. Rose, Sabrina Hildegard, and Ted joined in, sticking out their tongues dutifully. James performed the salute as well, but halfheartedly.
"Things are looking a little slim for the Gremlins this year," Sabrina said, lowering her hands to the table before her, where she was folding an auger out of a page of the Daily Prophet. "What with Noah and Petra joining Ted in the fabled outside world and James running off to hobnob with his cronies in the States."
"Yeah," Damien said, raising his eyebrows derisively. "What's up with that anyway?"
James opened his mouth to reply, but Ted spoke first. "It's right here, isn't it? Front page, top of the fold." He pulled the paper out from under Sabrina's elbow and held it up for all to see. James had already seen the headline, which read, 'H. POTTER, AURORS TO JOIN INTERNATIONAL INVESTIGATIVE TASK FORCE'. Below the headline was a moving photograph of James' dad and Titus Hardcastle, standing before a podium at the Ministry while flashbulbs erupted from the crowd in front of them. The smaller headlines next to the photo read, 'MUGGLE LEADERS STILL MISSING: W.U.L.F. CLAIMS CREDIT FOR KIDNAPPINGS DESPITE MINISTRY DENIALS. FAMED NYC SKYSCRAPER DISCOVERED IN VENEZUELA, BLAMED ON "ALIENS"'.
"The whole thing's gone all international now that there's been bigwig kidnappings both here and in the States," Ted sighed, dropping the newspaper. "I don't envy your dad one bit, James. It was one thing teasing the American press into believing it was little green men that nicked their building. Getting a bunch of foreign agencies to work together is like getting horklumps to play chess."
Damien frowned askance at Ted. "How would you know about such things, Lupin?"
"I do this thing called 'reading'," Ted said, tapping the side of his nose. "I learned it from Petra. You should try it sometime!"
"It's 'Morgan' now, remember?" Sabrina corrected without looking up. "She calls herself Morgan ever since that whole debacle at her grandparents' place."
"Talking of which," Ted said, sitting up in his chair, "she and the new Headmaster are having themselves a serious little chat right about now, up in his office. I heard Uncle Harry discussing it with the old man himself, and she admitted it when I got back to the castle. Seems there's some question of whether she's going to be allowed to come along on this little jaunt of yours, Potter."
"What's that mean?" James asked, watching Ted dig something out of his robes. "She's of age now. They can't stop her if she wants to go on a trip."
"Can't they now?" Damien mused, leaning back and steepling his fingers. "I mean, there's detention, and then there's detention, if you know what I mean. There's some tricky legal questions, after all, what with both of her grandparents ending up dead. The Muggle police don't know much of anything, thanks to Merlin, but that hardly means everything's all sunshine and rainbows. The stuff we saw at that farm, well, let's just say it makes Professor Longbottom's Snapping Thornroot look like daffodil salad. Our Petra is one complicated little witch, if you ask me."
"That doesn't mean she's guilty of anything horrible," James said, sitting up. "She and her sister are lucky to be shut of the lot of them. Sounds to me like they were pretty rotten to both of them."
"They've been staying with you and your parents since the day they got out of there, right?" Rose asked, raising her eyebrows. "Did they tell you what happened that day?"
James sat back again, looking out over the common room. "Well, not really. She said that her grandfather had denied his wizard powers for the sake of his Muggle wife, some awful woman named Phyllis, who was just beastly. And she said that Phyllis tried to send Petra's sister Izabella off to some work farm place for people who are soft in the head. Petra told me that they did what they had to do to get out of there together."
"I guess that's close enough to the truth," Damien nodded. "Although it isn't all of it. That's for sure."
"What do you know about it?" James asked, meeting Damien's eyes.
"Not a whole lot more than you do, but I'm just saying—there was magic going on there the likes of which I've never seen. Merlin made us swear secrecy about it, which is fine by me. You probably wouldn't believe it anyway. All I know is that if Petra was doing it, then that wasn't the Petra I thought I knew."
"'Morgan'," Sabrina corrected again, holding up her neatly folded auger. "What do you say, Lupin? You ready to go six circles with the reigning champion?"
"Not now, not now," Ted answered distractedly, producing a rather surprising amount of miscellany from his pockets and dumping it all onto the table. "There's Gremlinery afoot. Where are they, then…"
James, Lucy, and Rose leaned over the table as Ted rooted quickly through the pile of odds and ends. A dog-eared origami frog leapt out of the detritus, limping crookedly. Every Flavor Beans and loose Knuts rolled every which way. "Aha!" Ted announced triumphantly, sitting back and producing a velvet bag tied with a silver cord. "Gather 'round, comrades. This could be interesting."
Sabrina put down the auger and frowned studiously as Ted undid the bag. "Extendable Ears?" she said, peering at its contents. "How are those going to work? You said Morgan and the Headmaster were meeting in his office. That's all the way across the castle."
"Ah, ah, ah," Ted corrected, smiling mischievously. "These are the new Extendable Ears Mark II, with a Remote Sensing Hex built right in. Just mark the object you want to serve as the receiver—in this case, an innocent peppermint that I slipped into the Headmaster's pocket on the way back to the castle, and voilà—" Here, Ted Metamorphed his face into a caricature of George Weasley, proceeding with George's infectious enthusiasm, "Instant illicit audio illumination for all your eavesdropping endeavors." He changed his face back to himself and pulled a handful of pinkish shapes out of the bag. "Strictly experimental at this point, but working at the Three 'W's does have its perks."
James took one of the pink shapes as Ted handed it to him. It was made out of foam rubber and shaped like a large ear. "What do I do with it?"
"Well," Damien said, examining his critically, "I don't guess that you eat it." Experimentally, he stuck the foam ear up to his own ear and listened. His eyes widened. "It's working!" he whispered raspily. "I can hear them!"
As one, the Gremlins and Lucy clapped the ears to the sides of their heads. James discovered that the shape was fashioned to fit neatly over his own ear so that it could be worn hands-free. He jammed it on and then leaned back, frowning slightly at the distant, echoing voices he was hearing.
"Is it them?" Sabrina asked, squinting quizzically. "They're hard to make out."
Ted nodded distractedly. "It's them, they're just far away. Shut it and listen."
James strained his ears to hear over the noise of the common room. Dimly, he perceived the rumbling baritone of the Headmaster, and then the tremulous tenor of Petra's response. Slowly, faintly, the voices became clear.
"Unfortunate as it was, I am less concerned about the way in which you chose to exercise your powers," the Headmaster was saying, "than I am about your more recent dreams. I have come to believe that such things often have implications we do not immediately comprehend."
"It's just a dream," Petra answered, her voice tiny and distant. "It's a lot like some others that I've had, only the other way around. I used to dream of decisions I thought I wanted to change. Now, I'm dreaming of disasters I barely avoided. I'm a little glad of them, really. They remind me."
Merlin's voice came again, calm and measured. "What do they remind you of?"
"Of the power of choices. And the fact that the simplest actions can have enormous consequences."
Merlin's voice lowered meaningfully. "And you know now how very true this is for you, in particular, don't you, Ms. Morganstern? Or would you prefer me to call you by your other name?"
There was a long pause. James had begun to wonder if the Extendable Ear had stopped working when the Headmaster's voice became audible again.
"Grundlewort ganache popovers," he said slowly, as if tasting the words. James looked up, his brow furrowed. Lucy met his gaze, frowned, and shook her head slightly. The voice of Merlinus went on, low and quiet, so that James had to strain his ears to hear. He leaned over the table, hunching his shoulders in concentration.
"Use only powdered grundlewort, dried and well-sifted, to avoid an overly pungent aroma. Mix with two parts huiverte extract and a pinch of tea blossom petal. Add rum three drops at a time until damp enough to knead…"
James looked aside and saw Ted staring furiously at the table in front of him, the oversized foam ear jutting from the side of his head. He noticed James' look and shrugged.
"Sounds like a recipe," Damien whispered. "Why's he teaching Petra how to make popovers?"
"Because," Merlin's voice boomed, so loud that James exclaimed in surprise and clambered at his Extendable Ear, "popover preparation is a valuable life skill that all witches and wizards should aim to perfect."
James succeeded in clawing the foam shape off his ear, turned, and recoiled at the sight of the Headmaster standing right next to him, a very large cookbook open in his hands. Merlin was smiling, but it was not the sort of smile one felt instinctively comfortable sitting beneath.
"After all," the Headmaster said, eyeing the foam ears scattered around the table, "one never knows when the need might arise for an unexpected treat. Which reminds me…" He retrieved something from the depths of his robes and held it out over the table. "I believe this belongs to you, Mr. Lupin. I'll just, er, add it to the pile." He dropped the charmed peppermint onto the mess of Ted's pocket contents.
"And a good evening to you, Headmaster," Damien said, recovering and smiling hugely. "Did you enjoy the wedding, sir?"
"Save your efforts, Mr. Damascus," Merlin replied, snapping the cookbook shut in his hand. "I have every suspicion that you will require them later in the term. Good evening, students, Mr. Lupin."
He turned to go, passing Petra as she entered through the portrait hole. Merlin nodded at her meaningfully, and she returned the gesture, somewhat reluctantly.
"So was any of what we just heard for real?" Ted asked as Petra joined them, squeezing in between James and Lucy on the bench side of the table.
"Depends on when you started listening," she said, avoiding his gaze. "He started fogging you right about the time we were heading back to the common room. Merlin likes to walk while he talks, you know."
Ted nodded somberly. James knew that Ted had been part of the group that had rescued Petra from her grandparents' farm, and he knew that Damien was right in saying that there was a lot more to that story than the rest of them knew. Merlin had spoken to everyone involved with the escape from Petra's grandparents, but all of those involved had been very secretive about it since. Something unspoken seemed to go between Ted and Petra as he reached across the table to collect the Extendable Ears.
Rose perked up. "So, are they going to let you go along on the trip to the States, Petra?"
"'Morgan'," Sabrina corrected again, glancing around.
"It's all right," Petra said, laughing a little. "I'm still Petra to all of you. Morgan is more of a… personal identity."
Damien nodded. "Sort of like that guy in that band, Shrieker and the Shacks, who changed his name from Uriah Hollingsworth to just Dûm. Sort of an attitude thing, right?"
"Shut it, Damien," Rose commented, giving him a shove. "So are you going to the States or what, Petra?"
"I'm going," Petra nodded. "Izzy's coming with me. And I think we're going to stay there for awhile."
"You mean longer than Christmas break?" James asked. "Because that's when we're coming back, hopefully."
"I don't think even we will be back by Christmas, James," Lucy said apologetically. "I have some idea of how these things happen, sadly enough."
"And who is this refreshingly pragmatic creature?" Damien said brightly, leaning toward Lucy.
James deflated, but only a little, considering his proximity to Petra. "My cousin, Lucy," he answered. "She was supposed to be starting here this year, although she thinks she'd have been a Ravenclaw, or even a Slytherin."
"I could see that," Damien nodded. "She has that look, 'round about the eyes. Pleased to meet you, Cousin Lucy."
"Likewise," Lucy replied, nodding with practiced diplomacy.
"So tell us how this all came about, then," Ted said, leaning back in his seat and crossing his arms. "I mean, Hogwarts is a boarding school. You don't need to go with your parents to the States even if they're going to be there all year. Right?"
James sighed and leaned on his elbows. "It was Mum's idea," he began. "She didn't want to be so far away from Albus and me for so long. She was right upset when the owl came with Dad's instructions, straight from the Minister himself. I mean, things have been pretty humdrum in the Auror Department for quite a while now. It's like Professor Longbottom said to my dad once: peace is a pretty boring thing for an Auror, you know? I think the family just got used to it all. Now that things seem to be, sort of, heating up out in the world…" James spread his hands over the table, palms up.
"Whole city blocks being Disapparated away and chucked into waterfalls does tend to put people on edge," Damien nodded wisely.
"My mum's acting the same as yours, James," Rose said. "I hear her and Dad talking. They say it's a scary time because too many people have forgotten what things were like back when YouKnow-Who was still alive. They get tolerant of all sorts of iffy ideas, start questioning the way the whole wizarding world works."
"Like Tabitha Corsica and her bloody Progressive Element," Ted scoffed. "And don't think they've gone away either. Not by a long shot. They're like bugs that have retreated into the walls. They'll come back, and when they do, there'll be a lot more of them."
Sabrina picked up the paper again and peered at the headlines. "Is that who this Wulf bloke is involved with, you think?"
"Wulf isn't a bloke, Sabrina," Ted said, pointing at the headline. "It's an organization."
"The Wizard's United Liberation Front," Lucy said carefully. "I've seen some of their posters up around London, talking about equality at any cost and such things. Supposedly they're international, thousands in numbers, but my father says not. He says they are probably just a few kooks in a cellar somewhere."
"Why would they go and pretend to kidnap some Muggle politicians if it wasn't true?" Rose asked, shaking her head and looking around the table. "I mean, even if it was true, why would they do it?"
"I don't know," James answered, scowling. "And I don't care. All I know is, it's getting everybody all up in a snit, and now my dad has to go work on some big international task force, and Mum's worried that something will happen to him, or us, or everybody. Dad says he could wrap the whole thing up by Christmas, but Lucy's probably right. Nobody knows how long it'll last. As long as it does, Mum wants us all to be together, or at least on the same continent."
"But Deedle's going with you, right?" Ted said, looking at James. "His dad's already been over there once, visiting Stonewall and Franklyn and everybody at Alma Aleron, checking out their security and Muggle repellent techniques, that sort of thing. Is that why he's going along this time?"
"I guess," James answered, slumping again. "I don't know."
"Well," Lucy said, climbing off her end of the bench, "if any of us are going, we'd better get upstairs to bed. Show me the way, Rose?"
Rose got up to join her cousin, and the rest of the Gremlins stirred, stretching and squeaking as chairs were pushed away from the table.
"What about you, Petra?" Damien asked, turning his attention to the girl across from him. "What's over there for you?"
James watched Petra, who smiled slightly at Damien and shrugged. "I don't know," she answered, and then sighed disconsolately, looking around the common room. "What's over here for me?"
James awoke the next morning to a scratching at the window next to his bed. He sat up, buried deep in the fog of sleep, and wondered for several moments where in the world he was. Dark shapes hulked around him, thick with the silence of night. A single candle burned nearby, but James couldn't see it over the four-poster bed next to him. Something tapped the window, startling him, and he spun blearily, straining his eyes in the dark. Nobby, James' barn owl, stood on the other side of the glass, hopping up and down impatiently.
"What do you want?" James whispered crossly as he opened the window. Nobby hopped in and extended his foot, showing James the small note attached to his leg by a twine knot. James pulled the knot loose and unrolled the strip of parchment.
Awake yet? I thought not. Meet us by the rotunda doors in ten minutes. We'll have breakfast on the ship.
James balled up the note and dropped it onto the bed. Clumsily, he got up and began to change out of his pyjamas.
"Looking forward to your little holiday, Potter?" a voice drawled quietly. James startled, hopping on one leg as he pulled on his jeans, and fell over onto his mattress. Nobby jumped back onto the windowsill and flapped his wings, bristling.
"Bloody hell, Malfoy," James breathed, shaking his head. "Don't you ever sleep?"
"I'm just a tiny bit jealous," Scorpius Malfoy mused from where he sat, leaning against his headboard with the single candle lit on his bedside table. He lowered the book he'd been reading and peered over his glasses. "And yet you don't seem to be looking forward to this in the least. I find it hard to believe you'll miss not making the Quidditch team again that much."
James had grown used to Scorpius' backhanded conversational style. He sighed, hoisted his jeans the rest of the way up and reached for his trainers. "Maybe. I don't know."
"I have a sneaking suspicion, Potter," Scorpius said, apparently returning his attention to the book on his lap. "Would you like me to share it with you?"
James knotted his shoe vigorously. "Is there any way I can get you not to?"
"I think you aren't as grumpy about going on this trip as you're letting on," Scorpius said quietly. "And for obvious reasons."
James nodded curtly. "That Malfoy intuition of yours kicking in? Maybe you'll tell me my lucky lotto numbers too."
"Petra Morganstern is accompanying you and your family, isn't she?" Scorpius said, finally closing his book. "She and her Muggle sister?"
"Yeah," James answered, stuffing his pyjamas into the duffle bag and zipping it up. "So?"
"Come now, Potter, it's no secret how you feel about her. When she sat down next to you last night in the common room your face turned so red we could have roasted chestnuts on it."
"Shut up," James rasped, mortified. "You're crazy!"
"I'm just stating the obvious," Scorpius said, shrugging. "It's not a bad thing. She's a very fetching girl, if you ask me. I just think you ought to be careful."
"Yeah, I know," James muttered, somewhat mollified. "Rose already warned me. I shouldn't say anything stupid to ruin the friendship. I know. I'm not a complete idiot."
"That's not what I'm thinking of," Scorpius said, meeting James' eyes. "Personally, I don't give a newt for your friendship with Petra Morganstern. There are more important things at work in the world, if you haven't noticed."
"I've noticed," James said, frowning at the blonde boy. "But what am I supposed to do about it?"
"Maybe nothing," Scorpius answered, narrowing his eyes. "You're… you. But you've managed to be involved in some other fairly spectacular world events over the last two years, sometimes for the better, and sometimes not. Fate seems to enjoy placing you Potters right onto the bull's-eyes of history. I'm just saying, it might be a good idea to try not to be too… distracted if that should happen again."
James shook his head wearily and hefted his bag. "This isn't my adventure this time," he said, crossing the circular room. "This time, it's all Dad's."
"So you keep saying," Scorpius replied, raising his eyebrows sardonically.
"See you later, Scorpius," James said, stopping at the top of the stairs. "I hope."
"Bon voyage, Potter," the boy said, dismissing James and opening his book again. "Remember what I said."
James frowned quizzically at the boy, but that seemed to be all Scorpius had to say. Shrugging, James turned and trotted down the stairs.
"Your cousin Lucy's already left," a far-off, wispy voice commented from the hearth sofa. James saw the ghost of Cedric Diggory seated there. "I was supposed to come up and wake you if Nobby wasn't able to do it."
"Thorough bunch, aren't they?" James said, but he couldn't help smiling. Scorpius was right. Now that it was finally happening, he was becoming rather excited about it.
"Have fun, James," Cedric nodded, meeting James' smile. "I always wanted to see the States, back when I was alive. Tell us all about it when you come back."
"I will, Ced. See you!"
The portrait swung open easily, and when James closed it behind him, he heard the soft whistle of the Fat Lady's snore. He looked back at her from the dark corridor. There would be no common room passwords for him this year, he thought, testing the fact to see if it still panged him as much as it had the previous night. There would be no D.A.D.A. classes with Professor Debellows and his horrid Gauntlet, no dinners in the Great Hall under the floating candles and the enchanted ceiling. None of Peeves' nasty pranks or Professor McGonagall's steely glares. No weekend teas with Hagrid in his hut.
It was sad, of course, but not as sad as he'd thought it would be. Because there would be new things to experience instead, at least for this year. He didn't know what they'd be, but unsurprisingly, that was a rather large part of the excitement. Maybe not all of it would be fun, but it would at least be noteworthy, and when he returned, everyone would be dying to hear all about it. Especially Rose, and Cedric, and even Scorpius. He puffed out his chest a little, taking in the darkened, sleepy corridor, the portrait of the Fat Lady, and all of Hogwarts beyond. He almost said goodbye to the school, and then thought that'd be a little silly. Instead, he turned and fairly ran down the stairs, taking two at a time.
He was very nearly to the rotunda entrance, could even hear the dim babble of his fellow travelers' voices echoing from up ahead, when a figure moved in the dim shadows, jingling faintly. To James' surprise, he recognized Professor Sybil Trelawney.
"Ah, James," she said tremulously. "Off on your grand adventure to the colonies, I see. I am glad of the opportunity to say fare-thee-well and bonne chance. May your voyage avoid the ravages of the many fates that always lurk the depths, preying upon the unwary."
"Thanks, Professor," James replied. "Uh, I guess. What are you doing awake at this hour?"
Trelawney drew a great, dramatic sigh. "Oh, I need very little sleep these days. Age takes its toll. But don't let me detain you. Your fellow sojourners await…"
She patted James lightly on the shoulder as he passed her, her wrist bangles jingling merrily. Suddenly, James stopped in his tracks, nearly dropping his bag. He peered aside and saw the professor's hand clamped onto his shoulder, gripping it so tightly that her purple fingernails virtually disappeared into his sweatshirt. He glanced up at Trelawney, but she wasn't looking at him. She stared straight ahead, her eyes wide and unfocused, as if she had suddenly been turned into a statue.
"Professor?" James asked, furrowing his brow worriedly. "Are you all right?" In the distance, James could still hear the voices of his family and friends, echoing in the high vaults of the rotunda.
"I see a world on fire," Trelawney said conversationally. She didn't seem to be talking to James or even to herself. Her words hung in the air almost like they had lives of their own, like solid things just outside the limits of human vision. James shivered, and yet her hand held him like a vice, as immobile as stone.
"Worlds upon worlds, stretching away into forever," she said, her voice becoming dreamy, singsong. "All linked back to one place, the crux, the fulcrum, the axle upon which every reality turns. It is wobbling, leaning, falling… it is shattered, and with it go all things and all times."
"Er, Professor…?" James breathed, trying to pry Trelawney's hand from his shoulder. Truthfully, he barely felt the pain of her grip. Her words were like poison smoke. He was afraid to breathe, for fear that her voice would get into him and infect him, and grow into something unspeakable.
"There is only one," she mused, her voice changing, deepening. "One who stands on the nexus of destinies, one whose hand can preserve the balance or knock it into oblivion. The power is not in his hands, but in the hand of whom he shepherds. There is only one outcome. The fates have aligned. Night will fall, and from it, there will be no dawn, no dawn, save the dawn of forever fire, the demon light of worlds burning, consuming, the light in which there is no life. Goodnight. Goodnight. Goodnight." She repeated the word rhythmically, eerily, like a scratched record.
James shivered violently. Finally, the professor's hand came loose from his shoulder, wrenched free as she fell forward, toppling full length like a tree. James scrambled to catch her, and she fell partially upon him. She was so light, so festooned with bangles, jewelry, and coloured shawls, that it was like being fallen on by a thrift store mannequin.
"Professor?" James gasped, struggling to roll her over. She was as stiff and cold as a plank of wood. He shook her. "Professor Trelawney?" She stared up at the dark ceiling, her eyes boggling blindly behind her spectacles, which had been knocked askew on her face. James was terrified. He filled his lungs to call for help, but at that moment, the professor convulsed before him. She inhaled desperately, filling her narrow chest and flailing her arms, struggling to sit up. James grasped one of her cold hands and tugged her shoulder with his other hand, pulling her upright.
"Goodness me," Trelawney wheezed, her voice an octave higher than normal. "What has become of me, fainting dead away right here on the corridor floor. My apologies, Mr. Potter, I do hope I didn't alarm you…"
James helped the professor to her feet, and peered at her face suspiciously, his heart still pounding in his chest. She seemed not to remember what had happened or any of her strange words, but James felt almost certain that she knew something had happened. She glanced at him, fanning herself, and then looked away.
"I'll be just fine, James, my boy," she said faintly. "Please, go on, go on…" She seemed either unwilling or unable to look directly at him.
"Professor," James said slowly, "are you sure you're… I mean, what did all of that mean?"
"I don't know what you're talking about, young man," she admonished, as if he had suggested something slightly dirty. "Off with you now. Your family awaits."
"I could walk you to your rooms, Professor," James offered, stepping forward and reaching for Trelawney's elbow.
"No!" she nearly shrieked, snatching her elbow away from him. She struggled to moderate her tone. "No. Of course not. Just go. Please."
James peered up at her face, his eyes wide, worried. "It was about someone who's going on this trip, wasn't it?"
Trelawney sighed hugely, shakily turning to lean against the wall and fanning herself with the end of a mauve scarf. "There are those who laugh at me," she said, as if to herself. "They don't believe in the cosmic harmonics. They doubt that I am one of its rare vessels." She tittered a little madly, apparently forgetting that James was even there. He began to back away, half afraid to leave the professor alone, but knowing his fellow travelers were waiting for him. Trelawney didn't look up at him, but continued to mutter nervously to herself, her face lost in the shadows of the corridor. Finally, shaking his head, James turned and began to run, following the distant voices from the rotunda.
"It was you, James," Trelawney's voice said blankly, stopping him in his tracks. "It will surprise no one that I have had very few true revelations in my life. Rarely do I remember them, nor is this time any exception, but for one thing: I saw you. You are the one. You are the instrument, but not the tool. You will shepherd the one who will bring down the darkness. Even now… even now…" Her voice had gone flat, resigned and dead.
James turned slowly to look back over his shoulder. Trelawney stood right where he'd left her, leaning against the wall, indistinct in the shadows.
"You're confused. My dad was the Chosen One. Not me. It was his job to save the world."
She shook her head slowly, and then laughed again. It was a thin hopeless sound. "Your father was indeed the chosen one. His task is finished. Now, the universe demands payment, and that payment will come by your hand. It is done. You cannot escape your destiny, any more than your father could his."
"I don't believe that," James heard himself say. "Nothing is unchangeable. Whatever this payment is, I'll fight it."
"I know you will," she said slowly, so sadly that it nearly broke James' heart. "I know you will. But you will fail, dear boy. You will fail…" She exhaled on the last word, turning it into a long diminishing note, fading into the darkness. James shivered violently.
"James?" a voice called. It was his dad, Harry Potter. "Is that you? We need to move along, son."
James glanced along the corridor and saw shadows approaching, growing longer in the torchlight.
"I'm coming, Dad," he called. "I just… I ran into somebody. We were saying goodbye… She's still—"
He turned around again, pointing, but Trelawney was gone. In the predawn darkness of the corridor, there was no sign of her whatsoever.
2. THE GWYNDEMERE
James couldn't remember the last time he had been awake at such an early hour. The sun was barely a rose-grey suggestion on the horizon, leaving the rest of the sky scattered with faint stars and high clouds, frosted with moonlight. Mist rose from the school grounds and the grass was so wet that James could feel it through his trainers.
"Good morning, James," Izzy, Petra's sister, announced cheerfully, moving alongside him as the travelers made their way into the pearly dawn gloom. "It's exciting, isn't it?"
"It is, actually," James agreed, smiling at the younger girl as she skipped next to him, her blonde curls bouncing around her face. Izzy was a year older than James' sister, Lily, but it was a little hard to remember that. Where Lucy tended to strike people as older than she really was, Izabella Morganstern had a simple innocence that made her seem rather younger. Petra had explained to James and his family that Izzy had been born with some sort of learning disability, one that had earned her the disdain of her own mother and very nearly doomed her to a life of dull servitude at the woman's cold hand. James didn't think that Izzy seemed slow, exactly. On the contrary, it was almost as if her brain was simply blissfully unencumbered by the sorts of nagging worries that left most people grumpy and irritable. James envied her a little bit.
"Petra didn't want to get up when I tried to wake her," Izzy said in a stage whisper, nodding toward her sister, who was walking some distance away, near Percy and Audrey. "She says she's not a morning person."
James nodded. "I'm not either, usually. But this is different, isn't it?"
"It's not like getting up for a day of work on the farm or anything dull like that," Izzy agreed, grabbing James' hand and skipping merrily. "We're off on a grand adventure! We're going for a ride on a ship, just like Treus. Aren't we?"
"Raise ye forth thy wands and wits," Albus commented from somewhere behind James. "Right 'Treus'?"
"So how are we getting there, then?" Ralph piped up. James turned to see the bigger boy walking alongside Albus, his hands stuffed into the pockets of his hooded sweatshirt. "Portkey? I've always wanted to travel by Portkey. Is it that stump over there?"
"You see who's leading this little expedition, don't you Ralph?" James replied, nodding toward the front of the group.
Ralph squinted. "Yeah. It's Merlin," he said, and then slumped as realization struck him. "Oh."
Albus peered ahead at the Headmaster. "What's that mean, then?"
"It means we're walking," James answered, grinning. "Merlin likes to commune with the secret whatsits of nature whenever he gets the chance, don't you know."
Ralph sighed. "Why's he even coming anyway?"
"Simple," a new voice answered. James glanced up to see Ralph's father, Denniston Dolohov, walking nearby, his cheeks flushed in the pearly light that sifted down through the trees of the Forbidden Forest. "Back in his time, nobody knew anything about the 'New World', although lots of wizards and witches suspected its existence. He's coming along for a few days before heading back to Hogwarts. I expect he wants to take a look around and see what life is like on the other side of the pond. It'd be like one of us traveling to the distant future and being offered a chance to visit cities on the moon."
"Now that would be cool," Albus sighed. "Much better than being carted off to stupid old America."
"I'd be careful with talk like that," Lucy said. James glanced aside and saw her walking on the other side of Izzy, her duffle bag slung over one shoulder. "I understand that Americans can be fiercely proud of their country. Not unlike some of us, of course."
"Well, it's easy for us, isn't it?" Albus exclaimed. "I mean, we've got ourselves loads of history and traditions, going back thousands of years! They've got, what? About fifteen minutes and a tea party?"
"Speaking of tea," Ralph said, rubbing his stomach, "I could use a bite."
As if on cue, James' mother drifted back from the front of the group. "Biscuits, anyone?" she said, carrying an open tin.
James shouldered his bag and grabbed with both hands. "Thanks, Mum."
"Ah! Shortbread," Izzy exclaimed happily. "We hardly ever got shortbread at home!"
"Merlinus says a little nourishment is needed for the journey," Ginny commented, nodding. "After all, we've got a lot to do and a long way to go."
"And we're walking the entire way?" Albus asked around a mouthful of biscuit. "Seriously?"
Ginny nodded. "Merlin sent all of our trunks ahead yesterday afternoon. They'll be waiting for us at the port. A little exercise will do you some good."
"Maybe it'll help you grow a bum," Lucy suggested helpfully.
"Hah hah," Albus chimed sarcastically. "So how long is this going to take anyway?"
"Yeah," Ralph huffed, peering up at the trees as they passed overhead. "What if any of us, you know, faints from hunger or something along the way?"
"We're here," a voice called from the front. To James' surprise, he recognized it as belonging to Neville Longbottom. "Everybody stay close now."
Albus boggled. "We're here?"
"Is that Professor Longbottom?" Ralph frowned, puzzled. "I mean, fun's fun, but shouldn't somebody be staying back home to run Hogwarts?"
James, who'd been on one of Merlin's magical walking trips in the past, grinned. Still clutching a biscuit in one hand, he ran ahead, joining the adults near the front of the group.
"Hi Uncle Percy, Aunt Audrey, Molly," he called as he passed. "Hi Petra. Good morning." He darted past her and slowed down as he found his dad, Merlin, and Neville Longbottom walking at the head of the troop. Sure enough, as James looked around, he could see that the trees here looked different. They were no longer the enormous old growth of the Forbidden Forest. These were young trees, choked with weeds and moss, leaning in the shifting wind. The air smelled briny and damp.
"Good morning, James," Neville said, smiling down at him. "Excited?"
"I am!" James agreed, meeting Neville's smile. "Why are you coming along? If you don't mind me asking."
"Professor Longbottom has come at my request, Mr. Potter," Merlin answered, striding easily down a winding, rocky path. "Besides, even Herbology teachers deserve the occasional holiday. Even if it is a working holiday."
"The Alma Alerons have asked me to give a lecture," Neville admitted sheepishly. "I was recommended to their Flora Department by Ben Franklyn himself. It seemed an opportunity not to miss."
"Wands away, everyone," Harry commented mildly. James looked up as the trees thinned and fell behind them. He could see now that they were on the outskirts of a small crowded fishing village. The morning sky was low and dull, packed with clouds over the rooftops. Smoke drifted listlessly from dozens of chimneys and the streets were wet, their cobbles shining dully. The group tramped their way single file down the curving, stony path until it met the street. An old man with a grizzled white beard was seated on a stool nearby, stooped beneath the awning of a fish shop. He pushed the brim of his cap up with a horny thumb as the group filed past.
"Good morning," Harry Potter said cheerfully.
"Lovely day for a stroll, isn't it then?" Ginny added, bringing up the rear.
"Nice town you've got here," Albus cried, turning around and walking backwards, smiling at the man. "Smells a bit funny, but we won't hold it against you!"
Ginny grabbed him by the arm, spinning him around.
The narrow street descended in a series of sharp switchbacks, passing crowded houses and shops, and eventually emptying out at the seashore. Wharves, docks, and piers festooned the coastline, making a haphazard silhouette against the steely sky. Some of the slips were occupied with rusting fishing boats, others with immaculate touring yachts, still others with enormous, looming cargo ships. Green waves smacked at the hulls, lifting and dropping them monotonously. Merlin whistled as he walked, leading the group along a warped boardwalk, passing ship after ship. Workers in heavy coats and dark woolen caps barely looked up as the group passed by, ogling and wide-eyed.
"What kind of ship will we be going in?" Izzy asked, her voice full of wonder. "Will it be one of the big ones?"
"Probably not one of the big ones," Petra answered with a smile in her voice.
"Is it a cruise ship?" Ralph mused hopefully. "They have buffets on cruise ships."
The crew walked on and on. The sun finally began to burn away the dense clouds and became a hard white ball on the horizon, casting its reflection onto the ocean in a long blinding stripe.
"Here we are," Merlin finally announced. They had reached the end of the boardwalk. It was virtually deserted, overshadowed by a rocky promontory decked with a very antiquated lighthouse. James was surprised to see his grandfather's old Ford Anglia parked near the end of the boardwalk, its engine idling smoothly.
Albus frowned quizzically. "What's Granddad's car doing here?"
Ginny replied distractedly. "Go help your father unload now. Hurry, all of you."
"Unload what?" Ralph asked as she herded them forward.
Merlin produced his staff, which always seemed to be with him, hidden somewhere just out of sight despite its rather impressive size. He tapped it on the boardwalk and the Anglia's boot popped open.
"Ah," Ralph said, answering his own question. "Manual labor."
"Cool!" Albus crowed, running forward. "It's got all of our trunks in it. Did you send it ahead all by itself? Can it drive on its own?"
"It was your grandfather who taught it that particular skill," Merlin replied, smiling. "The more I learn about him, the more impressed I become. Put the trunks right here on the boardwalk, if you please. I will alert the portmaster of our arrival."
"But where's the ship?" James asked, glancing around the deserted pier below.
Merlin either didn't hear him or chose not to answer. He strolled ponderously up the crooked, curving staircase that led to the door of the lighthouse.
"Hop to it, men," Harry cried heartily, reaching into the boot and heaving out one of the trunks. As with many wizard spaces, the boot was rather larger inside than would have seemed possible from without. Eventually, James, Albus, and Ralph stood next to a precariously stacked tower of trunks, cases, crates, and bags.
"Good thing I had that biscuit," Ralph breathed, wiping his brow. "Merlin was right. Traveling is hard work."
James glanced up at the lighthouse, looking to see what the Headmaster was up to. As he watched, the small door in the side of the lighthouse opened. Merlin strode out, his head lowered as he traversed the narrow, leaning stairway.
"Hold tight, everyone," he announced. "Prepare to board."
Behind him, a loud, low note suddenly sounded, emanating from the lighthouse's high lantern. It was a singularly lonely sound, echoing long and deep over the water. James recognized it as the sound of a foghorn. When the sound finally died away, chasing its echoes over the distant waves, a beam of light appeared from the decrepit lighthouse. Ginny gasped at the brilliance of it as it speared out into the gloomy morning, seeming to extend all the way to the horizon. Slowly, the beam began to turn.
James stumbled. He grabbed out and clutched a handful of Ralph's sweatshirt, only then noticing that Ralph was staggering as well. The two of them clambered backwards against the Anglia.
"What's happening?" Albus called.
"Stand fast, landlubbers," Uncle Percy laughed, holding onto his wife Audrey and daughter Molly. "You just haven't gotten your sea legs yet."
"Watch," Lucy announced, pointing toward the lighthouse's beam.
James watched. Strangely, it seemed as if the beam was, against all probability, standing perfectly still. It was the world itself that was revolving, pulled around in a long smooth axis by the anchor of the spotlight's beam.
"There," Harry announced. "Our ship appears to be coming in."
James followed his father's gaze and saw a long sleek boat appearing from around the rocky promontory. Like the beam of light, the ship appeared to be standing perfectly still as the ocean revolved beneath it, sending its waves up beneath the bow and turning them into briny foam. The ship was long and sleek, with a polished wooden hull stained deep brown, festooned with glittering brass portholes and fittings, tall, complicated masts and a single black smokestack jutting up from the center. Painted white letters along the prow proclaimed the name of the ship: Gwyndemere.
Ponderously, the pier angled toward the ship until it pointed directly at it. Figures moved about on the deck of the ship, shouting to each other and manning the rigging. James grinned as one of the deckhands heaved a length of rope over the side, Disapparated from the deck, and then Reapparated on the pier seconds later to retrieve the rope as it thumped onto the planks. He looped it industriously around an iron bollard, anchoring the Gwyndemere to shore. That accomplished, the beam of light ceased turning and switched off. James stumbled again as the world seemed to shudder into place.
"Everyone aboard," Percy called, striding down onto the pier, clutching his hat to his head as the wind picked up. "We've got a schedule to keep."
Merlin nodded approvingly, and then leaned toward the Anglia's driver's side window. He seemed to tell the car something, patted it lightly, and then stood back as it began to roll. It performed a neat three-point turn on the end of the boardwalk, and then puttered serenely away, its windows reflecting the low sky.
"I hope I packed enough socks," Ralph commented, watching the Anglia amble away. "I'd hate to run out of socks."
"I bet they have socks in America," Albus replied, smacking the bigger boy on the shoulder. "Let's risk it, eh?"
James smiled and followed his family down onto the pier, enjoying the sound of the waves and the misty breeze. Gulls circled overhead and alighted on the waves around the ship, where they bobbed like corks. More deckhands Apparated onto the pier, moving economically toward the stack of baggage, which they began to lug toward the ship.
A gangway appeared, steep and narrow, connecting the ship to the end of the pier. James couldn't be sure if the gangway had grown out of the pier or extended down from the ship. Either option seemed just as likely. He ran ahead, chased closely by Lucy, Izzy, and Petra, who was laughing with delight.
Once aboard, James looked around with unabashed wonder. From the deck, the Gwyndemere seemed simultaneously huge and cozy. Its bow and stern decks were separated by two recessed walkways, one on either side of the ship, accessed by stairs at the front and back. The walkways enclosed a high, long deckhouse, which dominated the center of the ship, fronted with the pilothouse. James could see men in white jackets and caps inside, moving busily about. An enormous ship's wheel turned gently back and forth as waves rocked the ship.
"This is so cool," Ralph said, approaching James. "I've never been on a ship before. Do you think a magical ship is any different than a regular ship?"
"You're asking the wrong mate, Ralph," Albus commented. "We're just as new to this as you are. Ask Uncle Percy if you want a real answer. Or Cousin Lucy, for that matter."
"I've only ever traveled by ship once before, believe it or not," Lucy said, pulling her hair back into a ponytail. "And that was a lot smaller than this one, on the way to Greece."
"Have you seen the dining galley yet?" Petra called from the stairs to the lower level. "Breakfast is all laid out, and it's perfectly lovely! Come and join us!"
"They have currant buns!" Izzy added importantly, cupping her hands to her mouth.
James, Albus, Ralph, and Lucy ran to the stairs and ducked into a doorway at the bottom, which opened onto a long low room with windows on either side, letting in the watery morning light. Two long tables dominated the room, bordered on both sides by wooden swivel chairs. Silverware, crystal glasses, china plates and steaming silver tureens and platters were spread over the tables.
"This is more like it!" Ralph exclaimed, pulling off his sweatshirt in the warmer quarters. He strode along the nearer table and took a seat next to his father, who was already stirring a cup of tea.
"Enjoy it while you can, friends," Denniston Dolohov proclaimed. "This is what it's like to travel on the Ministry's Sickle." Beyond him, the rest of the adults were seating themselves as well, sighing happily and removing their traveling cloaks and hats.
"The chairs are bolted to the floor," Albus said, swiveling his experimentally.
"In case of storms," Lucy nodded, speaking around a mouthful of muffin. "Can't have everything slamming all over the place if the sea gets tetchy."
Ralph looked up, his brow furrowed. "Is that likely to happen, do you think?"
Lucy shrugged. "It's the Atlantic ocean. Tetchy is sort of a habit."
"Especially this time of year," Albus agreed, reaching for a platter of toast.
James nodded gravely. "We may have to steam right through a hurricane or two. And icebergs."
"And sea monsters," Izzy added wisely, meeting Lily's eyes and stifling a grin. "Giant squid with tentacles like trolley cars!"
"Ah," Ralph said, rolling his eyes. "Sarcasm, then. I see how it is."
"Don't worry, Ralph," Petra soothed. "We've got Merlin with us. If any sea monsters attack, he'll just talk them into joining us for the trip."
"Or vanquish them and cook them for dinner," Lily said, grinning.
A little while later, James had finished his breakfast and discovered he was too excited to sit still any longer. The adults made their way below-decks to explore their cabins while most of the children scrambled back up to the foredeck to enjoy the brightening sun and the misty stamp of the bow on the waves.
"What's making us move, I wonder?" Izzy asked, squinting up at the masts.
James looked as well, noticing that all of the sails were furled tightly, lashed to the masts in neat bundles.
"Good question," Albus agreed, frowning. "I guess we're being powered somehow. Look at the smokestack."
Sure enough, a steady stream of black smoke was issuing from the smokestack's high, black funnel. James shrugged, turning back to the ocean view.
"Coal, you think?" Ralph mused. "I wouldn't have expected that."
"Maybe it's a magical fire," Lily replied reasonably. "One that doesn't need any fuel or anything."
Lucy nodded. "Like goblin's spark. That'd make sense."
Wind capered over the ship, pushing in from the ocean and whipping James' hair around his head. He grinned into it, and then turned and leaned on the railing, looking toward the shore as it crept alongside the ship. The Gwyndemere was passing the other docks and piers still, and James watched the dozens of ships where they clustered along the bank, dizzying in their sizes and variety. Workers thronged amongst them, moving on the piers and gangways, silent in the distance. Finally, the Gwyndemere began to angle away from the shore, and the wharves and enormous cargo ships began to grow faint in the morning's haze.
A whistle sounded high above. James glanced up and saw a man in what looked like a wooden bucket, attached to the main mast. The whistle protruded from between his lips and he held a long collapsible telescope to one eye. As James watched, the man lowered the telescope and spat out the whistle, which dangled around his neck on a length of string.
"Now exiting the Muggle mainland," he bellowed. "Entering international magical waters."
A deckhand, whistling cheerfully, passed close behind the five travelers where they gathered near the railing. James turned to watch as the man bent, grabbed the handle of a large deck hatch, and heaved it open.
"All right, Dodongo, you heard the man," the deckhand called down into the darkness below-decks. "Put it out then. Don't make me come down there."
James and the rest drifted toward the deckhand and peered down into the shadows. The interior of the hold was huge, taking up most of the ship's bow. Portholes illuminated an enormous, hairy shape where it lounged in the hold, taking up most of the space. James blinked in shock. The creature was like a gorilla, but grown to monumental, titanic proportions. Its great leathery face peered up at the open hatch, sucking its lips thoughtfully. Its feet clutched the pedals of a complicated, brass mechanism, turning it easily. The mechanism, in turn, operated a driveshaft that extended through the rear of the hold, apparently driving the ship's propeller. To James increasing surprise, the gigantic ape seemed to be smoking an equally gigantic cigar, puffing black smoke up into a funnel-shaped tube.
"Picked him up years ago," the deckhand explained, planting his hands on his hips and shaking his head. "Found him wandering some lost island in the South Pacific. Someone had the crazy idea that he'd make a great attraction on the mainland, make us all millionaires. Problem was, once we got him on board, he never wanted to leave. You know the old joke about where a thirty thousand-pound gorilla sits, right? Wherever he bloody well pleases."
James, Ralph, Izzy, Albus, and Lucy looked from the deckhand to the enormous gorilla again. Dodongo pedaled happily, making gentle ook noises to himself and puffing his monstrous cigar.
"Hi!" the deckhand called again, cupping his hands to his mouth. "I told you to put that thing out, didn't I? It's the last one we've got on board until Bordeaux. What else you going to use to fake smokestack smoke, eh? Banana peels?"
"I guess," Lucy said in a small voice, "there is a bit of a difference between a Muggle ship and a magical ship."
The first leg of the ocean journey progressed swiftly. James explored the ship with his fellow travelers, finding the galley kitchens, the aft storage hold, a dozen small but meticulously dapper staterooms, and even the captain's quarters, which the crew of teenaged witches and wizards (and Izzy) barged into quite by accident while chasing each other through the narrow corridors. The captain's rooms were in the rear of the ship, above the hold, with a curving bank of windows that overlooked the ship's boiling wake. It would have been a very interesting place to explore, what with its framed maps, brass lanterns, and bookshelves cluttered with curious nautical tools and artifacts, except for the fact that the captain himself was there, looking up from his desk with a mixture of annoyance and weary patience. James had apologized as quickly and formally as he knew how, backing out of the room and herding the others behind him.
Most of the day, however, was spent up on the decks, lounging in the hazy sunlight and watching the crewmen manage the ship's complicated rigging. James was only slightly surprised to learn that the deckhands sang songs while they worked, raising their voices in unison so that the sound carried over all the decks, clear and cheerful in the gusting winds.
"So," Albus said, leaning against the high stern railing, "I wonder if this is the poop deck?"
Izzy tittered, but Petra rolled her eyes. "That joke wasn't funny the first time, Albus. It doesn't get any better with age."
"I'm not joking," Albus said, raising his eyebrows with guileless innocence. "I'm just asking a question. Every ship has a poop deck. It's a known fact. I'm just trying to make this an educational experience."
"Yes," Lucy nodded. "Because that's so very like you."
"I like the songs," Ralph said, looking up at the masts as a pair of crewman climbed and capered, singing in harmony. James couldn't help noticing that the sails were still furled, lashed neatly to the strange, articulated masts.
Albus smirked. "Mum says the songs are nice, so long as you don't listen to the actual words."
"Which only makes you pay even closer attention," James agreed. "I especially like the one about the old dead pirates fighting over a doubloon, chopping off bits of each other until there's nothing left but a bunch of skeletal hands hopping around, gripping cutlasses."
"A lot of them do seem to have a similar theme," Petra agreed. "A lot of dead pirates, barrels of rum, cursed lost treasures, that sort of thing."
"I heard Merlin and Dad talking about it at lunch," Albus said, lowering his voice conspiratorially. "Merlin says ever since the International Magical Police have cracked down on wizard piracy, a lot of the pirates have had to turn to more honest work. Most of them take jobs on ships like this. I bet these blokes are all former privateers themselves! You think?"
Ralph squinted up at the men in the masts. "I'd have expected more peglegs and parrots," he shrugged.
Albus rolled his eyes.
As the afternoon wore on, Petra and Izzy went below-decks to have tea and unpack. Albus wandered off in search of deckhands to grill about their nefarious former lives, and James, Ralph, and Lucy meandered their way to the bow, where they found James' dad, Professor Longbottom, and Merlinus Ambrosius watching the seas and talking.
"Did you see the big gorilla?" James asked as the adults greeted them.
Harry nodded. "The captain took us down to meet him. He's very intelligent. Likes popcorn. Apparently he's the primary mode of propulsion on the landward ends of the journey."
"The captain says it keeps him from getting fat and lazy," Neville added, smiling.
"You met the captain too?" Lucy asked, peering up at the men.
"He's an old wizard's navy man," Neville answered. "And a distant relative of mine. Knew my parents, way back when I was a baby. I haven't seen him in decades, but still, it's nice to connect with the old family network."
Ralph glanced from Merlin to Harry Potter, and then asked, "What are you all looking for?"
"I smell land," Merlin replied mildly. "I think we have nearly reached today's destination."
James blinked. "Already? We're there?"
"Boy," Ralph commented, peering out over the waves, "magic sure makes the world an itty bitty place."
"He doesn't mean we've already made it to America, silly," Lucy said, laughing. "We're stopping at a port along the way."
"What for?" James asked.
"To pick up more travelers," Harry replied, taking off his glasses and wiping sea mist from them with his shirt tail. "And drop off cargo, get supplies, and get rigged for the transatlantic leg of the journey."
"You mean," Ralph said, clarifying, "we've sailed all day, and we haven't yet gotten to the transatlantic part?"
"The ocean is a monstrously large place," Merlin said, smiling, his beard streaming in the wind. "It provides us an excuse not to do anything for a day or two. Enjoy it, Mr. Deedle. Soon enough, the pace of life will catch us all up again."
James looked at Ralph expectantly. "Did you hear the Headmaster?" he prodded gently.
Ralph glanced at him and then rolled his eyes. "Yes, yes. 'Monstrously' large. Look, I'm not a big baby. You can stop trying to give me nightmares."
"I would have said the ocean was 'beastly huge'," Lucy said, "but 'monstrously' is even better. Reminds me of those old woodcut maps covered in sea serpents and krakens and the like."
"Is that land over there?" Neville asked suddenly, leaning on the railing and squinting.
Merlin nodded. "It may well be. You can smell it, can't you? The trees, the sand…"
"Not all of us are quite as sensitive to such things as you are, Headmaster," Harry replied, shaking his head.
James leaned against the railing and peered into the distance. The sky had grown clear and cloudless as the day progressed. Now, as the sun lowered, the clarity of the air made the horizon seem like something he could very nearly reach out and touch. The ship's prow bounced rhythmically on the waves, sending up bursts of fine spray. Beyond it, sitting on the watery rim of the world like a bug on a windowsill, was a tiny black shape.
"What is it?" Lucy asked, shading her eyes. "Is it another boat?"
No one answered. Gradually, the shape grew as the Gwyndemere approached it, slowing almost imperceptibly. To James, it began to look like the top of a giant's head, fringed with wild hair, peeking over the horizon. He watched, transfixed, as the shape finally resolved into the unmistakable outline of a tiny island, hardly bigger than the back garden of the Potter family home in Marble Arch. A narrow white beach ringed the island, embracing a growth of brush and wild grasses. In the center, half a dozen scrubby trees swayed ponderously. As the Gwyndemere slowed, coming within shouting distance of the tiny island, James was shocked to hear a voice cry out from the shadow of the trees.
"A ship!" the voice shouted. "Oh, thank heavens, a ship! At long last!"
A man stumbled out onto the beach and jumped up and down, waving a length of driftwood in his hand. The man was very thin and wildly bedraggled, his hair and beard grown to nearly comical proportions and his clothing bleached white.
"Hooray!" he shouted. "My messages in all those old bottles were not in vain! The seagulls laughed at me, they did! Told me it was foolish to hope, but I kept the faith! I knew someday my long, long sojourn would come to an—oh, it's you," he said, his voice dropping on the last three words.
"Ahoy, Roberts!" a sailor in the Gwyndemere's crow's nest called. "All's clear along the span o' the compass. Captain Ash Farragut requests landing."
"Permission granted," the erstwhile castaway called back grumpily, turning and walking back toward the trees. His voice carried easily over the lapping waves as he muttered, "Tells me all's clear along the span o' the compass. Like I ain't been sittin' here all day, keepin' a lookout. S'my job, after all, isn't it?" James watched with fascination as the bedraggled man stopped beneath one of the trees and tapped it with his driftwood walking stick. "Portmaster Roberts reporting the arrival of the Gwyndemere, Captain Farragut in command, with partial complement of travelers, goods, and cargo. Forty minutes late too, unless the sun's a liar."
"Ah, we've reached port," a voice behind James said cheerfully. He glanced back to see his Uncle Percy dressed in a fancy traveling cloak and matching derby. "Aquapolis for the night, ladies and gentlemen. Last landfall 'til journey's end. I'll go tell the others."
James glanced from his uncle to Ralph and Lucy. "Some 'port' this is. I'm not even sure we'll all fit down there."
"Yeah," Ralph agreed. "If it's all the same to everyone else, I think I'll just stay here on the ship for the night."
"Quite clever of the portmaster to play the part of a shipwreck survivor, though," Lucy commented appreciatively. "Just in case any Muggle ships come in sight of the place."
James looked back at the man on the shore, his brow furrowed. "How sure are you that he's just playing the part?"
"Whoa," Ralph said suddenly, grabbing onto the railing with one hand. "What's that?"
"What's what?" James asked, and then gasped as he felt it too. The ship was shuddering very faintly, as if a thousand fists were pounding on the hull. A sound accompanied the sensation, a sort of low rumble, deep and huge.
"It's all right," Neville said, albeit rather nervously. "Somehow, I think this is supposed to happen."
"It's not just happening on the ship," Lucy cried, pointing. "Look at the island!"
James looked. The leaves of the trees were shaking faintly. A large yellowish fruit fell from one of the trees and rolled to a stop on the white sand. Strangely, there seemed to be far more of the sand than there should have been. It was as if the beach was expanding around the island, growing, pushing back the waves. The man on the shore seemed to be completely unperturbed by the phenomenon. He ambled over to a large dark boulder, reached behind it and retrieved a clipboard, which he consulted critically.
"Behold," Merlin proclaimed, raising his chin against the increasing wind. "The wonders of the lost city. Behold Aquapolis, grandest of the seven cities of the continent of Atlantis."
Slowly, the island rose, pushed upwards by a great, dark shelf of stone. The foundation widened as it elevated, as if the island were merely the topmost peak of a huge undersea mountain. Water thundered down the faces of broad cliffs, coursing out of dozens of deep crags and caverns. James watched, dumbstruck, as the landmass grew, extending great rocky arms out to embrace the Gwyndemere, creating a bay around it. Regular shapes became visible as they pushed upwards through the waves: peaked roofs, domes, and spires first, and then monumental stone columns, arches, and colonnades. Soaring bridges and stairways crisscrossed the mountain, connecting the structures and enclosing walled courtyards, ancient statuary, and bright, colourful gardens of coral. Sunlight shimmered over the city as it revealed itself, reflecting as if from innumerable, enormous jewels. With a thrill of wonder, James realized that the shining shapes were not jewels, in fact, but glass windows and doors, fitted into exquisitely crafted coppery frameworks. The windows glittered like rainbows as the seawater coursed down them, glinting from every opening and doorway, from between every pillar and column, completely enclosing the city in rippling, briny brilliance.
"I've heard of this place," Harry Potter said, placing a hand on his son's shoulder, "but I never imagined it would be like this."
"Are the other six cities of Atlantis like this too?" Ralph asked in an awed voice.
Merlin sighed somberly. "Alas, the Aquapolis is the lone survivor of the great Republic. The others have long since settled to their watery graves, having exhausted their magic as their populations dwindled, drawn to the fixed lands. Such is the course of history. All great things, even the most wondrous, must meet their ends."
"Did you see it?" Albus cried suddenly, grabbing James' shoulder and shaking him enthusiastically. "Did you see it come up out of the water?"
"It was pretty hard to miss, Al," James laughed, turning. "Where were you?"
"The first mate took me up to the pilothouse to watch!" Albus exclaimed, beside himself with excitement. "Me and Petra and Izzy. Mum and Lil too! It was bloody awesome!"
"Don't say that word," Ginny said mildly, following Albus across the deck with the others at her side. "But it was, really. I had no idea."
"Well," Harry announced grandly, turning to face the travelers, "all ashore who's going ashore!"
James grinned and turned to look back at the great island again. Its countless windows sparkled gently as the sun lowered, painting the city bronze and gold. A crew of men in neat red tunics was piloting a ferry toward the Gwyndemere, apparently prepared to transport everyone aboard to their home for the night.
"It's gorgeous, isn't it?" Ginny said, sighing. "Almost makes the whole trip worthwhile."
James smiled up at his mother. For the moment, not knowing yet what was still to come, he agreed with her completely.
James lay in his bed and stared up at the low ceiling, unable to sleep. The Aquapolis' lodgings were clean, ornate, and well-maintained, but very, very old. The entire city, spectacular as it was, smelled vaguely damp, which was, of course, perfectly understandable. Uncle Percy, who apparently suffered from mold allergies, had had a rather difficult time of it, especially as evening had set and the city had once again sank into its watery habitat. Eventually, Aunt Audrey had asked one of their Atlantean hosts, a pretty, plump young woman with thick black hair and olive skin, if Percy might be offered a particular brand of medicinal tea. The woman, whose name was Mila, had taken one look at Percy's red nose and eyes, and returned minutes later with an empty cup and a small steaming pot. Upon drinking the pot's contents, Percy no longer sneezed or sniffled, but had nevertheless remained in a rather irritable mood throughout the evening.
Merlin, as was usually the case, was treated with great fanfare upon his arrival in the city, even as he disembarked from the ferry with James and Ralph at his side. Men in long white robes and curiously carved staffs met them on the steps of the city's reception hall, which was hewn directly out of the stone of the mountain. While the city's leaders and Merlin exchanged formal greetings, Lucy and Albus had caught up to James and Ralph, and all four of them had stood looking about with undisguised wonder. Water still ran over the intricately patterned marble floor and dripped from the high vaulted ceilings, and James understood that the reception hall, grand as it was, was filled with seawater most of the time. A great stone column dominated the entryway to the space, topped with a monumental statue of a bearded wizard in flowing toga-like robes, a staff in his left hand and his right hand raised, pressed to the base of one of the ceiling's vaulted supports, as if he was holding it up.
"Soterios," Lucy had said, reading the inscription that wrapped around the base of the statue's column. "The Hero of Atlantis. He was the one that unified the wizarding populous of Atlantis and created the network of magic that kept the cities intact, even as their foundations eroded away. I read about him in the wizard library at home. 'Poios Idryma sozo para magica dia magikos'."
"What's it mean?" Albus had asked, walking around the column to read the inscription.
Izzy, Lily, and Petra had gotten off the ferry by then and joined the others near the base of the statue. Petra had peered at the ancient carved words. "It means, 'who saved the foundations of magic, by magic'."
"So," Ralph had said slowly, "this whole place is held together by, what…?"
Petra had shrugged. "The collective magical will of the witches and wizards who live here."
"Makes sense, really," Lucy had commented. "After all, the Greeks did invent the concept of democracy, which is really just the idea of the city being supported by the people who live in it. Granted, this takes it to a rather new level."
Ralph had shaken his head and looked around at the massive, dark ceilings. "I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm a little iffy about the idea of willpower as structural bedrock."
"That's because you're thinking of your willpower," Lucy had sniffed.
"It's held up for centuries, Ralph," Albus had said, shrugging. "What could happen?"
Ralph had glanced back at Albus, then at Merlin, who was still chatting with the Aquapolis elders some distance away. "I don't know," he'd replied. "Why don't you ask the other six cities of Atlantis?"
Later, as the sun had set on the horizon amidst a flaming cauldron of colourful clouds, an Atlantean elder named Atropos had taken the travelers on a tour of the city, leading them along broad, sweeping staircases and bridges, through enormous colonnades, past ornate oceanic gardens, statues and arches. Many of the city's myriad, enormous windows had been cranked open, letting in the cool, ocean breeze.
"The city has remained virtually unchanged since its descent into the depths," Atropos had explained. "When the waters began to rise, our ancestors had enough forewarning to design and construct a system of watertight crystal valves, which you see all around us. They are virtually unbreakable, and are reinforced by a unique alchemy that makes them less brittle." To illustrate, Atropos had approached one of the tall copper-framed windows that fitted between a set of herculean columns. He leaned on the crystal with one hand, and then gently applied his weight. Instead of breaking, the crystal bent slowly around his hand, almost like a very large, very thick soap bubble. Finally, Atropos' hand had pushed entirely through. He'd wiggled his fingers in the dying sunlight on the other side of the crystal, smiling thinly back at his attendees. Merlin had nodded slowly, impressed.
"Remarkable," Denniston Dolohov had enthused. "Tell me, is this proprietary magic? Or would the Atlanteans be willing to share it? I can think of dozens of security applications for such a thing."
"Doesn't he ever go off duty?" Aunt Audrey had muttered to her husband, who shushed her.
"That's why he's here, dearest," he'd replied quietly. "His new post at the Ministry places him in charge of a whole new department of anti-Muggle defensive magic and technomancy. These are uncertain times, as you well know. And growing more uncertain every day."
At that point, Percy had shared a meaningful glance with Neville Longbottom and James' dad. Harry had shrugged slightly, raising his eyebrows and nodding toward Atropos, as if to say not now.
After a lavish dinner of strange, deep-sea fish and crustaceans, some of which were as large as hippogriffs and more bizarre than James was prepared to taste, the Aquapolis had sunk again. James, Ralph, and Lucy had watched from the broad crystal portals of a Parthenon-like structure built atop one of the island's curving peninsulas. The sun had finally dipped beneath the rim of the horizon, leaving only a faint pinkish glow at the edge of the star-strewn sky. For a while, the Gwyndemere had been visible in the bay far below, rocking gently on its own reflection. Presently, the marble floor had begun to rumble beneath the observers' feet and the bay had begun to rise, pushing up and out, slowly overtaking the Aquapolis' lower reaches. Silently, water had poured into the reception hall, far below and halfway around the bowl of the great city. James had glimpsed the statue of Soterios, tiny with distance, as the ocean rushed around it, swallowing it up. As the island sank away, the Gwyndemere had risen higher and higher, until it was nearly eye-level with James, Ralph, and Lucy where they watched, breathlessly. The pink light of the dying sun had painted the ship on one side while the faint blue glow of the new moon lit the other. And then, so suddenly that it had made all three students jump back in alarm, water had rushed up over the crystal window before them, swallowing it with a dull, thunderous roar. After that, there was only the dim, featureless blue of the depths, punctuated, faintly, by pinpricks of light that glowed from the submerged city.
It had been wondrous, in a grave, solemn sort of way.
Now, as night enveloped the city and everyone, including James' parents and sister in the next room, had gone to bed, James lay awake, alert and restless. Lantern light seeped beneath the door from the corridor beyond. James' eyes had grown used to it so that he could easily see the ancient, cracked fresco painted onto the ceiling. In it, a man in a short tunic and a sort of leafy crown was wrestling a giant octopus, clutching four of its tentacles beneath his muscled arm and stunning it with the staff in his other hand. To James, it didn't look like a fair fight. He found himself rooting for the octopus.
It had been a very strange summer. The surprise arrival of Petra and Izzy had, of course, caused quite a stir. It had happened mere weeks after the last day of school, and James had only just begun to get comfortable with the fact that Petra had graduated and would not be showing up in the Gryffindor common room next term. It was a shame, he told himself, because he had finally admitted to himself that he did, in fact, feel something stronger for Petra than mere friendship. Apparently, everyone else had seen it before he had, including his own mum, who had made some fairly embarrassing comments about it in the wake of the school play. Despite the fact that the event had ended in a disastrous uproar, James had spent more than a few wistful moments remembering the fact that the play, The Triumvirate, had required he and Petra to play the parts of doomed lovers. He was still young enough to think that that pairing had been ripe with cosmic significance, and had secretly (so secretly that he himself had barely even known it) hoped that Petra would recognize it as well.
She had not, of course.
At first, James had believed that this was because Petra was still in love with her former beau, Ted Lupin. Later, however, he'd realized that Petra had been under the influence of a secret, awful curse. Due to a series of very wicked schemes, set in motion by none other than the long dead Dark Lord himself, Petra Morganstern was the living carrier of that villain's last, ghostly shred of soul. It had been imparted to her while she was still in her mother's womb, transmitted via a special, nearly unheard-of bit of cruel, dark magic: a special kind of Horcrux, in the shape of an ugly silver dagger.
James' dad had done some research on it, with the help of Aunt Hermione, and had discovered that such a thing was called a 'transcendent Horcrux'. They'd only found one reference to it, in a book so dark and treacherous that James' dad and Uncle Ron had had to bolt it to the table with silver stakes to keep it from snapping their hands off. According to their awed, whispered conversations (which James and Albus had surreptitiously listened in on), a transcendent Horcrux was purely theoretical; no one, at the time of the book's writing, had ever succeeded in actually creating one. Unlike other Horcruxes, a transcendent Horcrux could never be used to restore the bit of soul it contained to its original host. If such a thing were attempted, it would act as a kind of poison, killing every other bit of the soul it had been sheared from, regardless of how many normal Horcruxes were in use. The shred of preserved soul in a transcendent Horcrux had to be passed on to another host, accepted willingly, there to spread its influence and live on, leech-like.
Petra's mother had been tricked into transmuting the curse of Voldemort's soul into her unborn baby, but that didn't make James hate her any less. As far as he was concerned, the woman had to have been either stupid, gullible, or blind. Miraculously, however, Petra herself loved her long dead mother, loved her and missed her enough to have nearly doomed all of mankind in the hopes of somehow bringing her back to life. In the end, fortunately, Petra herself had been stronger and smarter than her mother had been, and she had made the right choice—the hard choice. She had rejected the deal offered to her by the otherworldly beast called the Gatekeeper, even though it had meant the loss of the one thing she'd most wanted in all the world: the return of her dead parents.
Not very surprisingly, the realization of all of these things had not in the least diminished James' fascination with the young witch. If anything, it had increased it. James himself had confronted the Gatekeeper, and knew the awful stresses Petra had to have endured in rejecting its tantalizing offer. Furthermore, there was just something about Petra, something about the reality of her internal struggles and her painful, personal losses, that made James want to be brave for her.
In his most secret heart, she awoke a deep, pervasive sense of manly nobility. He wanted to defend her, to slay her dragons, to be her knightly savior. Of course, he told no one about these feelings. He was sheepish about admitting them even to himself. In the light of day, his infatuation with her seemed silly, childish, quaintly preposterous. She was of age, for one thing, graduated and free, a young woman moving out into a grownup's world, while he was still a month shy of fourteen. Still, the feelings clung to him, as did his affection for her. Without even trying, she had smitten him. Fortunately, as the summer had progressed, absence and distance had helped James begin to forget the girl who had occupied so much of his attention during the previous school year. Such, he thought (rather wisely for his age), was the nature of young love.
And then, to his mingled dismay and delight, Petra and Izzy had arrived at the Potter family home, escorted by Ted Lupin, Damien Damascus, and Sabrina Hildegard. There had been much curiosity about what had brought them there, but very few questions, at least at first. It was apparent that something awful had happened, something that had resulted in the deaths of both Petra's grandfather and his horrible wife, Phyllis, Izzy's mother. Ted, Damien, and Sabrina had kept quiet about whatever they had seen at Morganstern Farm, apparently believing it was Petra's tale to tell (and later because Merlin had apparently sworn them to secrecy). Ted had, however, taken James' dad and mum aside and asked if it would be all right if Petra and Izzy stayed at the Potter home until things settled down. This had been agreed to quickly and with very little fuss, so that by that very evening, James had found himself going to bed only one wall removed from the girl who, completely and inexplicably, commanded his every affection.
He'd lain awake that night and listened to the soft footsteps and murmured voices in the next room, wondering what it all meant, if anything; wondering if there was something he could do, some way to salvage the bravery he'd felt only days before, when he'd told himself that if Petra had been coming back to Hogwarts the next term, he would have told her exactly how he felt about her, and done whatever was necessary to inspire the same in her.
He lay awake now as he had then, staring up at the fresco of the Atlantean warrior wrestling the unfortunate octopus, and wondered much the same things. Petra had accompanied the Potters on their trip across the ocean, apparently intending to seek employment at the school James would be attending during their stay. Considering her intellect and her uncanny magical skills, James thought it very likely that she would get any job she applied for. In short, Petra's life seemed, even now, to be mysteriously intertwined with his own. It was like the play, The Triumvirate, all over again, like their fleeting, staged kiss at the end, the one that should have ended so wonderfully, and had instead ended with chaos and near tragedy. The mingled hope and fear filled James with a queer, intense range of emotions.
And on the heels of that, James was reminded of the odd, creepy words that Professor Trelawney had uttered to him early that very morning. The professor was, of course, a few octocards shy of a full deck. Hardly anyone believed her proclamations and visions. And yet, what James had heard and witnessed in the corridor with her that morning had been dramatically different than anything he'd ever seen in her class. It had seemed all too real, all too certain. But what had any of it meant? James didn't know, but maybe Lucy would. She was smart about such things, remarkably pragmatic and clearheaded. He made a mental note to ask her about it during their voyage.
As James stared up at the fresco over his head, a soft noise caught his attention, coming from the corridor outside his room. A shadow obscured the ceiling fresco for a moment and James glanced down toward the bar of light beneath the heavy door of his room. The unmistakable silhouette of a pair of walking feet passed by. James frowned curiously.
"Hey Al," he whispered. "You awake?"
"Mrmmm," Albus declared from the other side of the narrow room, rolling over.
James considered waking his brother, even got out of his own bed and reached to shake him, but then he thought better of it. Holding his breath, he approached the door, thumbed the latch, and pulled it open as quietly as he could.
There didn't seem to be anyone in the corridor. Lantern light flickered silently, reflecting on the tiled marble floors and white walls. Leaving the door slightly open, James padded along the corridor in the direction that the shadowy figure seemed to have gone. He reached the end of the corridor and entered a larger hallway lined with statuary and doorways on one side and tall crystal windows, interspersed with pillars, on the other.
Beyond the windows, the city seemed very dark in its watery bed. Only a few lights could be seen glimmering in the blue distance. Under a glass-enclosed bridge, a whale maneuvered deftly, its bulk black in the dimness, its tail waving ponderously. James saw his own reflection in the crystal; saw his tee shirt, pyjama bottoms, and bare feet. His hair, as usual, was stuck up in a wild strew. He frowned at himself, even though he liked what he saw. He was getting taller, was, in fact, nearly as tall as his mum now. "You could pass for a seventh-year," she had told him recently, before they'd known they would be spending the year away from Hogwarts, in an entirely different country. "You've gone and turned into a man," she'd said, smiling indulgently and a little mistily, "and I barely noticed it happening. Albus and Lily too, but especially you. You're growing up. You're becoming your own man."
James sighed, wishing his mother had been right. He didn't feel like his own man, at least not yet. But he was getting there. The past two years had made their mark, as had his recent ordeal with the Gatekeeper, which had, very fortunately, ended with its eternal banishment. James didn't yet feel like a man, but he could sense the essential framework of his manhood taking shape inside him, defining who he was going to be, giving him hope and a fleeting, giddy strength. Maybe Scorpius had been right. Maybe there would be another adventure in the offing this year. If there was, and if James was going to be a part of it, he thought that he might just be ready for it. This time, he wouldn't stumble into it filled with uncertainty and self-doubt. This time, he thought, grinning to himself, he'd face it head on.
"So very like your grandfather," a voice said quietly, smiling. James startled and whipped around, looking for the source of the voice. A tall figure stood next to him, staring out the crystalline window, its robes so seamlessly black that they cast no reflection on the mirror-like surface.
"Sorry," James said quickly, his eyes wide. "I didn't hear you, er… how long have you been there?"
"You are growing bold," the figure said, and James realized it was a woman. Her voice was pleasant, friendly. "Bold and confident, James Sirius Potter, nor does this come as a surprise to anyone who might be paying the slightest bit of attention. It is, in fact, exactly as it should be."
James peered at the woman, trying to see her face under the thick hood that covered her head. "Thanks, I guess. How do you know me?" he asked.
She noticed his look and laughed lightly. "I am a fellow traveler, James. Didn't you see me aboard the Gwyndemere?"
James thought for a moment. "No, actually. Sorry. And I expect I'd have remembered you, to be honest. Were you wearing… er… that?"
"People tend not to notice me, believe it or not," the woman sighed. "Unless they want to, or unless I make them. But I apologize. We were talking about you, weren't we?"
"I guess so," James replied, taking a step back. He felt a little strange standing in the empty corridor with the woman, especially since she seemed to be fully dressed and he was in his bedclothes, his hair teased into corkscrews. He reached up and matted it down as unobtrusively as he could. "But like I said, how do you know about me? Who are you?"
"Oh, everyone knows you," the woman said, her voice smiling. "Everyone in the wizarding world, at least. Son of the great Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived, the Chosen One, et cetera, et cetera. Why, you've spent so very much time wondering how you should and shouldn't be like your father that you've completely failed to see all the ways—the far more important ways—that you are like your namesake, your grandfather, James Potter the First."
James glanced from the darkly clothed woman next to him to his own reflection in the crystal glass. Strange as it seemed, the woman was right. It had never occurred to him to wonder about his grandfather on his dad's side, to wonder if he himself bore any of that man's personality traits or physical attributes. Everyone said that Albus was the one who most looked like the young Harry Potter. Maybe James had, therefore, inherited the looks and personality of his long lost grandfather. It wouldn't be all that surprising, really. Truthfully, it was quite a nice thought. He shrugged at his reflected self, musing.
"Did you know my grandfather?" he asked the robed woman. "James the First?" As soon as he'd asked it, he felt foolish for doing so. The woman couldn't possibly be that old.
"Not as such," the woman answered, a laugh in her voice. "I am rather a student of history, that's all. You Potters are quite famous, as I have already mentioned, and your family name has a long and rich ancestry, dating back more than a thousand years. You may be interested to know that your experience with Merlinus Ambrosius is not the first time the Potter name has been historically linked to the great sorcerer. He saved the life of a distant relative of yours, in fact, albeit indirectly."
"Really?" James asked, glancing back at the woman again. Her face was still hidden, lost in shadow. "When? How?"
"A story for another time, I think," the woman demurred. "For now, I think I will be on my way. I was simply entranced by the view here. A city buried underwater is truly a spectacular sight. You might say that it appeals to me, in a rather deep, elemental way."
"Yeah," James said, sighing. "Me too, I suppose. But I should probably get back to my own room. I couldn't sleep. I was just too excited."
"Indeed," the woman nodded, her voice teasing. "That sort of thing seems to be rather common this night. Your friend is also up and wandering. But of course, you must already know that. You are probably planning to meet her." She exhaled slowly, wistfully. "Ah, young love…"
"Who?" James asked, frowning, but of course he knew the answer already. "Petra?"
"I'm sure I don't know her name," the woman answered tactfully, but her hooded head turned, gesturing toward the deserted hall behind James. She nodded, as if prodding him in the right direction. James finally had a glimpse of the woman's face. She was pretty, and younger than he had expected. A curl of reddish hair lay on her forehead like a comma.
"Sure," James nodded. "I should probably go and… er… check on her. If she's part of my group, like you said."
The woman nodded again, her red lips smiling knowingly. James' face flushed, partly because what she was implying—that he was sneaking off to meet a girlfriend for some unchaperoned snogging—was so untrue, and partly because he so terribly wished it was.
"Good night, James," the woman said, turning away. "Sleep well."
"Good night, er," he replied, but he didn't know the woman's name. She swept on, leaving a deep shadow behind her and no reflection on the crystal windows. James frowned at her as she departed. Then, remembering what she had said, he turned and ran along the hall in the other direction.
Closed doors and crystal panels lined the hall for some distance, and then the hall widened, enclosing a large space with a dizzyingly high, dark ceiling. An ornate brass framework of crystal windows embraced one side of the space, forming shining buttresses and terraces, filled with ferns. The floor was checkered marble, each square as large as James' parents' bed. The space appeared to be a sort of common room, full of chairs, sofas, tables, and desks. A massive silver chandelier hung over the room, dominating it, but its hundreds of candles were dark. The only light in the room came from a long low fireplace and a cluster of candles that stood near it on a brass brazier. James began to cross the floor slowly, threading between the low chairs and desks, instinctively feeling that he should be very quiet. Before he was halfway to the fireplace, however, he spied a figure lying serenely on a sort of half sofa. She sat up at his approach, apparently unsurprised, and James saw that it was Izzy.
"Hi James," she said quietly. "What're you up to?"
"I couldn't sleep," he replied, matching her tone of voice. "I saw someone's shadow go by and came out to see who else was up."
Izzy nodded. "It was probably me and Morgan. That's Petra, you know. I call her Morgan sometimes still because I was there when she changed her name. I changed mine too, but I couldn't make it stick. Hers fits her, though, even though she says that everybody else can still call her by her old name."
James nodded a little uncertainly. "I see… er," he said. "Anyway, why are you both up, then?"
"Just like you," Izzy replied. "We couldn't sleep either. Petra especially, I think. She has dreams. They make her feel a little crazy," she said, whispering the last part.
James sat down on the end of the chaise as Izzy curled her feet under her. He peered over toward the fireplace. "What do you mean they make her feel crazy?"
Izzy nodded her head back and forth and shrugged. "I don't understand any of it. I don't think they're regular dreams. She says she feels them even when she's awake. She says they make her forget what really happened, the last day we were back home, on Papa Warren's farm."
James wanted to ask what had happened that day, but thought he probably shouldn't. Instead, he asked, "Do you think she's all right?"
"No," Izzy answered, sighing and peering back over her shoulder, toward the fireplace. "But it'll be all right in the end. She says we just need to get away from everything. That's why we're going all the way across the ocean. I think she's hoping that the dreams won't be able to find her there."
James followed Izzy's gaze and finally saw Petra, seated at a low desk near the fire, her back to them. "What do you think, Izzy?" he asked, not taking his eyes from Petra's silhouette where she sat bent over the desk. "Do you think it'll work?"
Izzy shook her head, making her blonde curls swing. "No, it won't work. Don't tell Morgan—Petra—that I said that, though, all right? I don't think her dreams are going to go away. I think they're going to get worse. Until it's all over, at least."
"How do you know, Iz? When will it be over?"
The girl shrugged again. "Headmaster Merlin says that she has to find out where the dreams are really coming from. He told her to chase them. That's what she's doing now. She's chasing them. It works best right when it happens, right when they wake her up."
James studied Petra, saw that she was engaged in some intense activity, bent over the desk so severely that she appeared to be wrestling with it. "What's she doing?" he asked very quietly. "I mean, how does she chase a dream?"
"She's writing it," Izzy said simply. "Like a story. She's good at that. She used to tell me stories all the time, when it was nights out. She'd make them all up in her head, and a lot of them were better than the stories she read to me in the books. Me and Beatrice and all the rest of my dolls all listened. It was our most favorite thing."
James could see it now that Izzy had told him what Petra was doing. Her elbow moved slightly, and a quill wavered in the air over her shoulder, silhouetted in the darkness.
"Does she read the dream to you, Iz?"
"Oh no," the girl answered quickly, obviously disinterested. "I don't want to hear them. They're nasty. I don't want to ever think about any of that ever again. It scares me too much. And it makes me sad. I miss my mother, sometimes, and I cry, and Petra doesn't know what to do. I never want to hear those stories."
James looked back at Izzy, frowning thoughtfully. "Then why do you come along when she chases the dream? Are you standing guard?"
Izzy nodded. "Yes, that's what Petra says, but I think there's another reason, maybe. I think she asks me to come because she needs me here to prove that the dreams aren't true." She sighed again, in a quick, businesslike manner, and looked at James. "She needs me here to prove that I'm still alive."
James' eyes widened. What in the world did that mean? He opened his mouth to ask, but a shadow moved nearby. He glanced up and saw Petra approaching, shaking her right hand as if to loosen the kinks from her fingers.
"Hi James," she said, smiling tiredly. "I see you haven't given up skulking around at night, Invisibility Cloak or not."
"Yeah," James said, his face reddening. "I couldn't sleep. Are you, you know, all right and everything?"
"I'm fine," Petra lied, glancing away. James saw that she had her knapsack in her left hand, partly unzipped. A sheaf of loose parchment lay inside. "Izzy probably told you what I was doing. I just have some things to work out, that's all."
"Izzy said it's a bad dream," James said, standing. "Is that really all it is?"
Petra looked back at him. In the darkness, James couldn't read her expression. He went on quickly, "I mean, you don't have to tell me or anything. It's just, you know, I was there. I remember what happened that night in the Chamber of Secrets and everything, and I had my own run-in with the Gatekeeper. I know what you're going through, sort of. If you, I don't know, wanted to, er, talk about it. Or whatever."
Suddenly, helplessly, Petra laughed. She shook her head wonderingly and pushed her hair out of her face. "James, you are very sweet. I'm glad you're here, and not just for the reasons you said. Me and Izzy both, we owe you and your family a lot. I don't know what we'd have done without the lot of you. But you, especially. You make me feel better. Do you know that? You make me laugh. Lately, that's a very rare thing. Walk with us, won't you?"
James could feel the heat beating off his face as the blood rushed to his cheeks. He was glad it was very dark in the room. "Sure," he said, pushing himself to his full height. "I was just checking on you. Some lady in black robes told me where you'd gone. You probably saw her already."
"I didn't," Petra answered, sighing. "Did you, Iz?"
"I only saw that man sleeping by the statue near our rooms. I think he's a lantern lighter, fell straight to sleep while out doing his job. He snored really loud, and it echoed. Remember that?" She giggled.
"I remember," Petra said, smiling.
"So," James began, feeling a little bold, "how did it go?"
Petra walked slowly along the hall, watching the murky view beyond the crystal. "How did what go?"
"The, er, dream chasing. Izzy mentioned it. She said you were writing it down. Like a story."
Petra nodded. "Headmaster Merlin told me I should try it. I didn't want to, but… it helps. A little." She touched Izzy's head lightly, resting her hand on the girl's blonde hair. "It isn't a very nice story though. It's rather horrid."
"I… I could read it, if you wanted," James said, studying the floor furiously as he walked. "If you thought it might help."
Petra was silent, and James was suddenly worried that he had offended her. He glanced aside at her, but she was looking thoughtful, her eyes half-lidded. "Perhaps," she finally said, "you may be right, James. Maybe that would weaken it. Like Izzy probably told you, it's… more than just a dream. It's like a certainty. Like a memory of something that didn't really happen, or happened very differently. I can't shake it off. It haunts me."
James nodded and willed himself not to say anymore. Silently, the three walked on, finally coming to the lantern-lit corridor where James had begun. He saw the door to his room, still standing slightly open.
"We can find our way from here," Petra whispered.
"We're just around the corner and down the stairs," Izzy added, pointing. "Past the man sleeping with the lantern wand in his hand. You want to come and hear his snore? It's funny. It sounds like this," Suddenly, loudly, Izzy snorted, making a comical imitation of a snore.
"Shh! Iz!" Petra rasped, stifling a laugh and covering her sister's mouth with her hand. "People are sleeping!"
"I know!" the girl whispered, pushing Petra's hand away. "And that's what they sound like!"
Petra shook her head at James, still trying not to laugh. James grinned at her.
"Good night, James," she said quietly. "Thanks for checking on us. Thanks for walking us back. Maybe I will let you read the dream. If you really want to. I think you'd probably understand it better than anyone else, for all the reasons you mentioned back in the hall. If you think you are up to it, that is."
James nodded soberly. "Definitely. If you think it will help. Besides, I'm… I'm curious."
Petra studied his face for a long moment, biting the corner of her lip. Finally, she hefted her knapsack, reaching inside, and produced a thin sheaf of parchments. Wordlessly, she handed them over to him.
"It's not a nice story," she said again. "And it won't make a lot of sense. I can tell you the rest, if you want. Later. I need to tell someone, I think. It's just too big a secret for… well, for Izzy and me. Do you agree, Iz?"
The blonde girl screwed up her face thoughtfully. She shrugged.
"It's all right, either way," James said, taking the parchments. There were about four pages, covered with Petra's neat, small handwriting. Suddenly, he felt strange about the offer. "Are you sure? You don't have to, if you don't want to."
"I do want to," Petra said, sighing again. "But you can't tell anyone, all right? Not any of it. I swear, if you do…"
James shook his head vigorously. "I won't! I promise! Pinky promise, even!"
Petra blinked at him, and then laughed again. "All right, I believe you. Thanks, James. See you in the morning. We still have a long way to go, don't we?"
James nodded. "Good night, Petra. Night, Iz."
The girls turned and continued down the hall, Petra's hand on her sister's shoulder. James looked down at the small stack of parchment in his hands, barely believing what had happened. He felt both giddy and dreadfully nervous about it. He wanted to read Petra's dream story, wanted to read it that very moment, standing in the dim light of the Atlantean corridor, and yet he was strangely afraid to do so. What if it was as awful as Petra said it was? Nothing, he felt quite sure, could change the way he felt about her (whether he liked it or not) and yet…
Finally, he turned and pushed the door of his room open, letting himself into the darkness inside. He passed the shape of his sleeping brother and crept toward the table next to his bed, where his duffle bag lay, unzipped. He rooted in the bag for a moment until he found his wand. Glancing around, he laid Petra's story on the bed and pointed his wand at it.
"Velierus," he said, as quietly as he could. A tiny burst of blue light illuminated the bed, and the parchments folded together, doubling over repeatedly until all that remained was a thick packet, no bigger than an auger. It was totally seamless, as if it was encased in a perfect sphere of parchment. Kneeling, James hid both his wand and the secret package in the bottom of his bag. A moment later, he threw himself onto the bed and pulled the covers up to his chin.
He would read Petra's dream story soon. Until then, he relished the idea that she had chosen him, and him alone, to share it with. He had suggested it, of course, but the fact remained that she had accepted his offer. She trusted him. She was glad of his presence. And what else had she said? He made her laugh. James' cousin Lucy had said the same thing to him once, last year, after Granddad's funeral, but it seemed so much more meaningful, so much more portentous, when Petra said it. He sighed, remembering the sound of her voice, the pleasing music of her laughter, sad and weary as it may have been.
It doesn't mean anything, he told himself, but they were only words, and his heart didn't believe them. Secretly, his heart rejoiced. Eventually, smiling faintly, he slept.
3. EIGHTY-EIGHT KNOTS
The next morning, as James and his family and friends made their way to breakfast, they were greeted by a spectacular sight. The view beyond the submerged city's crystal enclosures was a green-gold vista, filled with shimmering beams of dawn sunlight, gently streaming rafts of bubbles, and schools of silvery fish, all of which played over and around the glittering Atlantean cityscape.
James, Albus, and Lucy gazed with rapt curiosity as several strange shapes moved slowly through the water, angling back and forth between the distant ocean surface. The shapes were rather like long mirrored bubbles, some as large as a city bus, and all rippling in the faint Atlantic currents. Far below these, along the city's sloping, rocky foothills, James spied the unique patterns of sprawling oceanic gardens. Streaming leaves of kelp and neat rows of sea cucumbers grew alongside fields of far stranger and more colourful fruits and vegetables. Giant octopuses moved slowly through the gardens, and Lucy was the first to notice that they were being ridden upon by Atlantean farmers, their chests bare and their heads encased in glittering copper and crystal helmets.
As the students watched, the octopuses used their long agile arms to harvest some of the fields, and to tend to others, weeding or pruning them. One of the octopuses suddenly spread all of its arms and then contracted them together, shooting forward like a lithe torpedo. It rose up into the city swiftly, propelled by its powerful tentacles, and Albus gasped and pointed, laughing out loud; one of the Atlantean farmers was being towed behind the octopus, tethered to it by a long length of cord and standing on a sort of rounded board, which he used like a fin to steer and bob through the currents. As the pair rose into the city, chased by their shadow, James couldn't help thinking that both the octopus and the rider seemed to be having a grand time of it. Swiftly, the octopus banked and spun, following the contours of the streets and streaming under bridges and walkways, until it roared directly in front of the window, a long dark shape against the brilliant beams of watery sunlight. The Atlantean farmer passed by a split second later, his legs flexing as he carved the currents with his bullet-like board.
"I wonder where he's going?" Albus asked, trying to peer up past the angle of the window.
"Probably bringing us our breakfast," his mum replied, gently pushing him onward. "If we don't hurry, we won't have time to eat it. We cast off in less than an hour."
A short while later, after a light breakfast of kippers and toast, the troop made their way toward a section of the city that Merlin referred to as the Aquapolis Major Moonpool. James didn't know what to expect, but was delighted and curious to find, upon their arrival, a massive amphitheater-like room which surrounded a huge dark pool of ocean water. Busy Atlantean witches and wizards milled on the circular terraces and steep staircases that surrounded the pool, which bobbed with all manner of boats.
"Looks like King's Cross on a Monday morning," James heard Denniston Dolohov comment, laughing.
"I don't expect that's too far from the truth, either," Neville Longbottom replied.
As the travelers made their way down toward the pool, James watched Atlantean conductors directing bits of the crowd this way and that, threading them along floating gangplanks and onto the decks of long narrow boats. The boats were wooden, decorated fore and aft with large carved curlicues. Men dressed in bright red tunics and high, fin-shaped caps stood on the sterns of the boats, next to the rudder lever, reading newspapers or consulting schedules as the ornately crafted benches filled before them.
A chime rang out in the bowl of the room, overriding the babble of voices. It was followed by an echoing female voice. "All commuters destined for Conch Corners and the Octodome, your skiff is departing now. Please stand clear of the descending bubble, in three, two…"
James glanced up as a gust of air pounded through the space from above, rippling through the commuters' robes and Merlin's long beard. The round, crystal skylight in the center of the ceiling bulged downwards at the force of the gust. The window elongated, trembled, and popped free, forming a monstrous, rainbow-streaked bubble. The bubble dropped precipitously onto one of the long boats, enveloping it, and then sank away into the depths, taking the boat with it. Amazingly, none of the gathered throng seemed alarmed or even to have noticed what had happened.
"I did some reading on this last night," Lucy said faintly, looking at the domed ceiling. "In the Atlantean Library. It's sort of a wonder of the world, you know, second only to the great library at Alexandria."
"Fascinating," Albus said. "You know how interested we all are in libraries, but maybe you can get to the bit about the giant doom bubbles swallowing up ships."
"Well, I'm making some guesses here," Lucy replied, following as the troop threaded onto a narrow gangplank, "but the entire continent of Atlantis has volcanic origins. Unfortunately, the volcanoes that created the continent are what ended up destroying it, breaking it up and stripping away all of its foundations. The Atlanteans harnessed the power of the volcanoes, though, and used their vents to power their industry. I would guess that that's what's behind all of this."
"What do you mean?" Ralph asked, stepping, somewhat reluctantly, onto the deck of one of the narrow boats, which was about the size of the Knight Bus. The boat captain stood in his red tunic and funny hat, scowling at a series of copper gauges installed on a post near the rudder lever.
"I suspect that those big gusts of air are volcanic exhaust," Lucy frowned thoughtfully. "And this pool is probably part of the subterranean vent system."
"No fears, everyone," Percy said cheerfully, leading Molly and Audrey to one of the benches near the front of the boat. "But do strap in and hold tight. I've heard this can be quite a ride."
"The famed Aquapolis Transit Authority," Harry said, seating himself between Ginny and Lily. "The scheduling and dispatching model for the entire wizarding world. Percy's right. Strap in and hold onto your bags, everyone."
Albus glanced at James with an expression of mingled excitement and trepidation.
"So what's it do?" Ralph asked. "I haven't had the greatest luck with wizarding transportation systems."
"There's no way to explain it properly before we leave, Ralph," Petra answered, buckling the copper clasps of her safety belt and helping Izzy with hers. "One word of advice before we go though."
Ralph looked at her a bit helplessly. "What's that?"
"Swallow your gum."
Another chime rang through the crowded space. James looked around at the bobbing boats, the floating gangplanks, the throngs of busy Atlantean commuters on the terraces above, and grinned with nervous anticipation. Once again, the female voice rang out.
"All commuters destined for the surface and launch points beyond, your skiff is departing now. Please stand clear of the descending bubble, in three, two…"
As one, the travelers looked up. High above, the bubble ceiling bulged downwards, pushed by a blast of warm, vaguely sulfur-scented air. The bubble expanded, broke away, and dropped onto them. James couldn't help ducking and covering his head. A sudden burst of pressure popped his ears and he felt the boat drop away beneath him as the bubble distorted the surface of the water, turning it concave. And then, with a dull, gurgling roar, the bubble dropped into darkness, taking the boat, and all those aboard, down with it.
Green darkness surrounded the boat. James drew a breath to comment on it, but a sudden explosion of velocity forced the air right back out of his lungs. Inertia pushed him back into his seat like a giant, soft hand. The ship's captain clung to the rudder lever as the bubble carried the craft forward, sucked into a tube of rough, dark rock. The noise of the journey was a dull thunder, pushing on James' ears like cotton batting. He turned to look at Albus and then Ralph, both of whom were staring with wide eyes, Albus in delight, Ralph with green-faced terror. In front of them, Petra had her arm around Izzy, who was looking around with undisguised wonder. To James' complete amazement, the rest of the travelers (his family and Merlin excluded) were completely ignoring the dark view that rushed around them. Most of the Atlanteans had their noses buried in books and small scrolls or were busily tapping notes onto tablets with glimmering, enchanted chisels. One of them, a man with a long grey beard and red leather sandals on his feet, was sprawled on a corner bench, dozing.
In the darkness far ahead of the boat, a glimmer of purple light appeared. It grew with shocking speed, and James craned in his seat to watch it flash past. The purple glow formed very angular words, which shone brightly in the darkness: 'PHEBES-DUOPHENES'. A glowing arrow pointed downwards, toward an enormous copper-framed valve, which snapped open as the ship passed it. In the darkness behind, another bubble ship shot into the open valve, which winked shut again with a barely audible clang.
While turned around in his seat, James saw that the job of the captain was not so much to steer the ship as it was to angle it up the sides of the bubble as it shot around curves, thereby conserving the monumental centrifugal forces and keeping the passengers more or less in their seats. In the darkness it was hard to tell, but James had a sense that much of the time, the boat was sideways, or even upside-down, carried full circle around the circumference of the bubble as it rocketed through the curving vent tunnels. More copper-valved exits flashed past, listing off districts of the city.
There was one harrowing moment when another larger bubble ship appeared in the tunnel before them, moving much more slowly, and James was certain that their smaller boat was going to ram into it. The captain twitched the rudder lever deftly, however, and James felt their boat revolve swiftly up, changing their inertia just enough to push the bubble over the larger boat. For one bizarre moment, James and his companions found themselves upside-down, looking up on the larger boat as it passed beneath them. The captain of the larger boat tipped a quick salute to the captain in the smaller boat as it roared fleetingly overhead.
Finally, a much larger valve appeared in the dark distance, enclosing what appeared to be the end of the tunnel. The glowing purple letters over it read: 'SURFACE AND ALL POINTS NORTH'.
"Be prepared for sudden stops," the captain bellowed in a clipped monotone. James gripped his seat and gritted his teeth.
The bubble ship shot through the valve and into blinding golden light. Instantly, the ship lost almost all of its momentum and dragged to a near halt. James felt the safety belt pinch his middle as inertia threw him forward. A second later, the force broke and he flopped backwards against the bench, his hair flying. He looked around dazedly.
Petra ran a hand through her hair and smiled down at Izzy, who clapped her hands in delight.
"That was excellent!" Albus cried.
Lucy smoothed her blouse and looked aside. "How are you doing, Ralph?"
Ralph blinked. "You know," he mused, "I think I was too startled to realize I should be sick."
James craned to look behind him again. The bubble ship was still underwater, moving up and away from the submerged city. Even now, the sprawling Aquapolis was growing faint in the shimmering distance. James understood now what the mysterious shapes were that he had seen earlier that morning, the mirrored bubbles that had moved ponderously back and forth between the city and the ocean's surface. He and his fellow travelers were inside one of them now.
"I think I could live here," he murmured, turning back around in his seat.
"Ugh, not me," his cousin Molly replied from a few benches away, seated between Aunt Audrey and Uncle Percy. "Too cold and dark."
"That's what makes it so cool," Albus argued. "It reminds me of the Slytherin dungeons under the lake."
James felt a small pang at that, remembering once again that they had all left Hogwarts behind them for the year, but he pushed the feeling away. The experience of the bubble ship was too cool to ruin with depressing thoughts about what he might be missing back home. Besides, he reminded himself, Rose, Louis, Hugo, and all the rest were probably just now settling into one of Professor Binns' long incomprehensible lectures or a dull study period in the library, under the strict supervision of Professor Knossus Shert. If they knew what James and his fellow travelers had just experienced, they would likely be sick with envy—even Scorpius, although he would probably hide it well. This made James grin.
He looked up as the bubble ship rose into daylight. The surface rippled overhead like a living mosaic, its facets casting the sunlight into wild, golden prisms. Finally, the ship heaved onto the waves, where it splashed down gently and bobbed, still glimmering in its long mysterious bubble. The Gwyndemere stood some distance away, rocking on the waves, sunlight sparkling from its brass fixtures.
"Hup, hup, everyone," Percy called, collecting his overnight bag and standing up. "Let us be off." With his bag dangling from his hand, he extended one arm to Molly and the other to Lucy. She sidled out of her seat and approached her father, threading her arm into the crook of his elbow.
"See you on board," she called back. A moment later, there was a loud, flat crack in the enclosed air of the bubble, and the three had disappeared.
Ralph looked confused. "Why couldn't we just Disapparate from the city, if that's how we're getting on board the boat?"
"Apparating through water is extremely tricky business, Mr. Deedle," Merlin answered, beckoning him over. "Especially onto a moving ship. Besides, we would have missed that wonderful tube ride, wouldn't we have?"
"Come on!" James grinned, unbuckling his safety belt and scrambling up off the bench. "Last one on the Gwyndemere is a hinkypunk's uncle!"
"It isn't a race," Ginny chided, standing and extending a hand to Lily.
"Speak for yourself," Harry replied, stepping forward to meet his sons. "I'm not going to spend this voyage as a hinkypunk's uncle."
Both Albus and James grabbed one of their dad's hands. A moment later, the bubble ship vanished around them and was replaced by the deck of the Gwyndemere, which glowed in the morning sunlight. Cool wind coursed over the ship, singing in James' ears, and he immediately broke away from his father, laughing and running toward the bow.
"My feet were first to touch the deck," Albus called from behind. "I jumped right before we Disapparated so I'd land here first. You lose!"
James ignored his brother as he neared the pointed prow of the ship, slowing to a stop, his eyes widening.
"Mum just got here with Lil," Albus announced, catching up. "She says we're supposed to take our bags down to the cabins and what in Merlin's magic mousehole is that?"
"Haven't the faintest," James replied, approaching the strange shape. "It wasn't here before, was it?"
Ralph, Izzy, and Lucy joined the boys as they moved around the object. It had apparently been installed on the deck since last night's arrival and it was, essentially, a very ornate brass chair, elevated atop a series of five wrought iron steps. The chair was fitted onto a swiveling base and had a complicated brass armature attached to its front. James studied it but couldn't begin to imagine what the armature was for.
"You're the smart one, Lucy," he said, scratching his head. "What do you think this thing is for?"
"Rose is the smart one," Lucy admonished, mildly annoyed. "I just read a lot."
Ralph frowned crookedly. "What's the difference, exactly?
Izzy widened her eyes solemnly. "Petra says smart is in the brain of the perceiver."
"Whatever that means," Ralph muttered.
"Yeah," Albus insisted, reaching to touch the ornately crafted stairs, "but you're good at seeing how stuff fits together, Lu. It's a knack."
"Looks to me," Lucy sighed, walking around to the front of the strange fixture, "like something is missing. See that brass flange there on the end of the pivoting arm thing? Something is meant to fit into it."
"See?" Albus crowed, running around to the front to join Lucy. "That's exactly what I'm talking about!"
James heard the low voices of adults nearby. He turned and saw Merlin, Denniston Dolohov, and the Gwyndemere's captain, Ash Farragut, approaching slowly.
"We haven't any time to spare, unfortunately, captain," Merlin was saying. "I am quite happy to leave matters in the hands of your very capable crew."
Farragut nodded cynically. "All too capable, if you take my meaning."
"Piracy isn't what it used to be," Merlin said, smiling. "In my day, one couldn't ply the waves without expecting to be boarded by any number of competing piratical hoards. They were like swarms of bees on the high seas. Considering the preventative measures enacted by the Magical Maritime Regulatory Commission, I suspect we will manage just fine, whatever befalls us."
"Their ships have been spotted on the horizon this very morning," Farragut clarified, tilting his head in the sunlight.
"Then they will expect us to remain at port," Harry Potter nodded, approaching with a grim smile on his face. "Surprise is almost always an advantage. Wouldn't you agree, Mr. Dolohov?"
"Oh, I happily submit to your expertise in such matters," Denniston replied dismissively. "But I agree that we do indeed have a schedule to keep. Let us be off."
Farragut nodded approvingly. "Then let it be so. Gentlemen." He strode away, angling toward the deckhouse.
James drifted toward Petra and Audrey, who stood near the mid-ship stairs. The pair seemed to be studying a small knot of people who had suddenly appeared on the ship. "Who are they?" James asked, nodding toward a group.
"Fellow sojourners," Audrey replied, keeping her voice even. "Americans, I should think."
James peered at the newcomers. There was a group of them moving up the stairs, pushing past the others, meandering toward the bow and chattering like a flock of birds. Most of them were dressed in black, only slightly older than James, but the central figure seemed to be a woman with jet hair, a pale, angular face, and an expression of indulgent boredom. She wore a long black dress with a tightly laced bodice, a lot of silver jewelry, and heavy purple eye make-up, so that she looked, to James, rather like she had recently escaped from her own funeral.
"Pardon yourselves, students," she sang morosely to her entourage as they streamed past James, Petra, and Audrey. "We are representing another culture. We do not wish to appear rude."
The students babbled on, not sparing the others a glance, and James had the distinct impression that the woman had spoken more for his, Petra, and Audrey's benefits than that of her own charges.
Audrey spoke up, easily raising her voice over the chattering teenagers. "I take it by your accent and words that you are from the States, Miss?" she said, smiling pleasantly. "We are on our way there ourselves for a rather lengthy stay. Don't raise our expectations overmuch, lest we be disappointed that the rest of the country is not as pleasant as you and your delightful associates."
The woman slowed and faced Audrey, her expression unchanging. "Persephone Remora," she announced languidly, stretching out a limp hand toward Audrey, who shook it perfunctorily. "And please pardon me for saying so, but I was not referring to the United States. That country is only our current residence, not our home. We can hardly be expected to represent it any more than you might be expected to represent this ship. No offense meant. The fact is: I and my friends are returning from a summer's exploration of our ancestral homeland. Perhaps you have heard of it," she paused and narrowed her eyes slightly. "It is called Transylvania."
"Indeed I have," Audrey smiled. "Why just this spring my husband and I had quince soup with the Archduke of Brasov and his wife. Have you met them? Lovely couple. She makes her own tzuika, which is quite good."
Remora seemed faintly disdainful. "You'll excuse me for saying so, but we don't recognize the current Transylvanian ruling class. Our heritage is beholden to a much older historical aristocracy. I'm sure you haven't heard of it. It's rather a… secret society." She sniffed and looked meaningfully out over the waves.
"Ah," Audrey answered nonchalantly. "Well, I'm sure your secrets are best left uncovered. Far be it for us to pry."
Remora continued to stare out at the waves dramatically. After a moment, she seemed to realize that the pose wasn't having the effect that she had apparently hoped for. She coughed lightly and turned back. "I'm terribly sorry," she said faintly. "The sunlight does take its toll on… such as ourselves."
"I have some Amberwycke's sunblock here in my bag," Petra replied, glancing at Audrey. "I'd be happy to share it around. It's coconut-scented."
"No," Remora oozed, her shoulders slumping slightly. "Thank you ever so much. I should catch up with my friends. If you'll excuse me." She turned, began to walk away, and then looked back over her shoulder, making her eyes twinkle meaningfully. "It's been… deliciously delightful to meet you," she said in a low, breathy voice.
"Likewise," Audrey said, smiling cheerfully. "We'll see you this afternoon for tea, won't we?"
"Are you sure you don't want some sunblock?" Petra said, proferring the bottle. "You're looking a little peaked around the eyes."
Remora huffed and turned away, stalking toward the small throng that milled in front of the deckhouse.
"What was that all about?" James asked, frowning after the departing woman.
Audrey sighed. "Vampires," she said lightly. "So haughty and melodramatic. Ah well, whatever makes them happy."
James blinked, looking back at the black-clothed knot of people. Remora had rejoined them, and they moved around her like a school of pale, sneering fish. James frowned. "I didn't think there were any vampires in America.'
Petra shook her head, smiling crookedly. In a low stage whisper, she answered, "There aren't."
"Let's not be too hasty," Audrey said, clucking her tongue. "The United States is, after all the great melting pot. I do suspect, however, that if there are vampires residing in America… they are not them."
A man passed by in front of them, and James glanced up. He recognized the man as the ship's first mate, a burly, cheerful bloke named Barstow. He was wearing a floppy grey hat and whistling happily to himself, heading toward the bow. Over his shoulder was slung a very long, thin pole, fitted with reinforcing brass sleeves. James narrowed his eyes thoughtfully, and then ran to follow.
"Hey Barstow," Albus called, grinning, as the man approached. "When do we shove off, eh?"
Barstow answered jovially, "Depends on how well the fish are biting this morning, don't it?"
"If you say so," Albus shrugged.
Izzy plopped onto the sunny deck and crossed her legs. "What do fish have to do with anything?"
"Oh, everything, love," Barstow said gravely, adjusting his hat. "You just watch and see. You might say they're the key to the whole affair."
"I don't like fish all that much," Ralph admitted. "I think I had enough back down in the Aquapolis. I was hoping for something a little more… terrestrial."
Barstow smiled and climbed the wrought iron stairs to the brass chair. It turned slightly as he sat down on it. "This fishy ain't for eating, my friend. You just wait and see."
Everyone watched as Barstow settled himself into the seat, resting his feet on a pair of fitted pedals and turning the chair so that it faced backwards, overlooking the rest of the ship. Apparently satisfied, he lifted the strange pole straight up into the air. It wavered high over the deck, flashing darts of sunlight from its brass fittings. Carefully, Barstow began to swing the pole in a small arc, as if he were using it to draw a circle in the briny sky. The circle widened as Barstow swung faster, creating larger and larger arcs.
"Look," Izzy cried, pointing. "It's a fishing pole! Just like Papa Warren used to use on the lake!"
James squinted in the sunlight, trying to follow the movement of the pole's tip. Sure enough, a length of magical string spooled out behind it, pulling a very large ephemeral hook. Suddenly, Barstow heaved the pole back over his shoulder, stretching back so much that the hook swooped far behind him, past the prow of the Gwyndemere and out over the waves. Finally, in one swift, smooth motion, Barstow cast the pole forward, snapping the large ghostly hook through the air. It flashed past the masts, over the deckhouse and smokestack, and out over the stern, where it finally dipped into the waves. Barstow reached forward and fitted the handle of the fishing pole into the clasp that Lucy had mentioned earlier. It locked into place, making the pole an extension of the articulated brass arm. That done, Barstow relaxed, but only a little.
"What," Ralph asked, his eyes wide, "do you catch with a hook like that?"
"There's no bait on it!" Albus suddenly said, looking accusingly up at Barstow. "How do you plan to catch anything with no bait?"
"Oh, it's baited, friends," Barstow laughed, "but not with food. The hook's made of a little magical concoction I've been working on over the last decade or so. It's not an easy thing, conjuring sea serpent pheromone, believe you me."
Ralph paled a little and peered out at the choppy waves. "Sea serpent?" he repeated carefully.
"Pheromone?" James added, standing on tiptoes to see over the stern of the boat. "What's that?"
Lucy seemed to be stifling a grin. "It's sort of like a love potion. For fish."
"For a sea serpent," Ralph clarified. "I'm just trying to be sure I heard him right. That's what he said, isn't it?"
A loud twang suddenly pierced the air. Barstow heaved backwards on the pole and its articulated arm, and James saw the magical thread trembling tautly over the boat.
"There she is!" Barstow cried happily. "Landed a big one! That's Henrietta, I'll wager! She's the best of the fleet! Hold fast, everyone!"
James, Albus, Izzy, and Lucy scrambled to the ship's railing, craning down the length of the boat for a glimpse of the mysterious Henrietta. In the brass chair, Barstow grunted and cursed to himself, wrestling with the pole, which bent precipitously. "Come on over, sweetheart," he muttered through gritted teeth. "Right this way, that's it. You know the routine…"
James finally saw the point where the magical fishing line entered the water. A shape heaved beneath, pushing the waves into a sudden, boiling hill. A line of serrated fins broke the surface and sawed through it, angling toward the Gwyndemere.
"That can't be good," Ralph said in a high voice.
James swallowed, but Barstow seemed grimly pleased.
"That's my great big girl," he teased. "Come to papa, then. Just a little further, that's the way…"
A monstrous, serpentine shape became visible as it shot beneath the boat, dragging the magical fishing line with it. Barstow whooped happily and swung around as the chair swiveled beneath him, pulled by the massive shape beneath the waves.
"She's through the harness," he cried, bracing himself against the chair's foot pedals. "Hang on tight, everyone!"
"I really wish people would stop saying that," Ralph moaned, gripping the railing with both hands.
As if on cue, a horrible shudder shook the boat, jerking it forward in the water. James stumbled but remained upright, clinging staunchly to one of the ship's bollards. Lucy fell backwards against him and James caught her. Her black hair streamed into his face, tickling his cheeks.
"Sorry James," she called, glancing back at him over her shoulder and grinning sheepishly. "I thought I was ready for it."
James laughed. "I don't think anybody was ready for that."
"We're off!" Albus cried, running toward the prow and peering forward. "Excellent! She's pulling us! And look how fast we're going!"
"She can maintain forty knots," Barstow called down proudly, operating the screws that locked the brass armature in place. "With bursts of ninety if required. She's the fastest of all her sisters, if you ask me."
"Is she really a sea serpent?" Izzy asked, raising her hand to her forehead and studying the waves that roared under the ship's prow. "I can't see anything but a sort of froth up there by her head. That's her head, right?"
"It's her cranial fin," Barstow nodded. "And that there's Henrietta, the great Atlantean razorback. Biggest and longest of the sea beasts. Good thing she's on our side, eh? Back in the old days, creatures like her were real ship-eaters. Now, there's only a few left in the whole world. Worth more than her own weight in Galleons, she is."
"How do you steer her?" Albus asked, glancing back at the pole. "And how's that little bit of wood hold her?"
Barstow laughed. "That's just the lead," he explained, calling over the rushing wind. "We use it like reins on a horse, turning her this way and that. The real muscle is underneath the boat. She's attached to us by an iron harness and a length of anchor chain. That's what I was teasing her through, and that's the only tricky part. From here on out, it's smooth sailing."
In a concerned voice, Izzy asked, "Doesn't Henrietta ever get tired?"
"She ain't like us, love," Barstow replied, squinting toward the horizon. "She could take us the whole way and back with barely a breath. But we'll stop and feed her once or twice along the way, give her the breathers she deserves. After all, she's the queen of the voyage, isn't she?" He smiled lovingly at the great beast as it carved the waves.
"What about the big gorilla?" Ralph asked. "Doesn't he get bored?"
"See for yourself!" Barstow called down, hooking a thumb over his shoulder.
James, Lucy, and Ralph turned to look back. The bow's huge cargo doors were thrown open in the sunlight. Peering up out of them, resting his chin on his crossed arms, was the great ape. His black fur rippled in the wind and he blinked slowly, apparently enjoying the sense of speed and the rushing air.
"He'll be like that the whole rest of the trip," Barstow commented without looking back. "Nothing we can do about it. The great brute's happy to let somebody else do the work from here on out. He's like a dog in a carriage window, isn't he?"
Gwyndemere was only half an hour into her long journey when a whistle pierced the air high overhead. James, who was still on the prow with Ralph and Lucy, glanced up. The mate in the crow's nest had his spyglass to his eye again, extended to such an extent that it almost seemed to defy gravity. "Ship spotted at two o' the clock!" he bellowed, pointing.
"Ah, this doesn't bode well," Barstow announced.
Lucy squinted up at Barstow. To James and Ralph, she said, "I can't help but notice that he's smiling when he says that."
"It's just that weird seafaring sense of humor," Ralph replied. "Like jolly songs about all your dead mates and zombie pirates and the like. They seem to have a sort of skewed perspective on life, don't they?"
High above, his voice thin in the whipping winds, the mate in the crow's nest called again. "Ship is a triple-mast clipper, bearing the sigil of the Three-Eyed Isis."
Barstow whistled appreciatively between his teeth. "The Three-Eyed Isis. That's bad, that is. Best to get below-decks, my young friends. This could get fierce."
"What's a Three-Eyed Isis?" James asked, leaning on the railing and shielding his eyes from the sun. Sure enough, a dark shape bobbed on the horizon, apparently tracking the Gwyndemere.
"That's the ship of the pirate Hannibal Farson, Terror of the Seven Seas. Looks like we're in for a wee tussle."
"Hannibal Farson isn't the Terror of the Seven Seas," the crow's nest mate called down, still scanning the horizon with his spyglass. "You're thinking of Captain Dirk Dread. That's Farson the Fearsome, Fright of the Atlantic."
Barstow nodded. "Ah, right you are, Brinks! No argument there. Hard to keep 'em all straight, isn't it?"
"If yeh're talking real terrors," a third voice called out, carrying on the wind, "then it's Rebekah Redboots yeh're thinkin' of. As beastly as she is lovely. Just as quick to kill yeh as to look at yeh, but you'd die happy, havin' gazed upon 'er deadly beauty."
Barstow and Brinks murmured their wistful agreement.
"Is that a ship over there?" Petra asked, approaching James and peering at the horizon.
"Pirates, apparently," James nodded. "Only it sounds like it's going to be a bit of a reunion, really."
Lucy looked from the distant ship to Barstow where he sat on his high brass chair. She called up, "What are they after anyway?"
"Oh, lots of stuff, love," Barstow answered enthusiastically. "Passenger jewels and money, the captain's safe, valuable cargo that they can resell on the wizarding black market…"
"And don't forget the women," Brinks added loudly. "They'll be after the women, for sure."
"But don't you worry, my pretties," Barstow said soothingly. "They'll treat you with the greatest of respect and decorum. It's the pirate way, you know, all dashing and debonair. Oftentimes, the women caught by pirates don't even want to be rescued, when it comes right down to it. Why, I knew of whole ships full of available ladies what set sail just in the hopes of being caught up by a band of the watery rogues." He sighed deeply.
"Unless it be Rebekah Redboots," the third mate's voice speculated. "Then they'd be after the men-folk, likely."
"Aye…," Brinks and Barstow agreed soberly. After a long thoughtful moment, Barstow went on. "Most likely, though, they're after Henrietta. Like I said, she's worth her weight in Galleons. Sea serpents are terrible hard to come by anymore, and every pirate captain out there is dead jealous to get one. Makes 'em unbeatable, even by the coppers from the Magical Maritimers'."
At that moment, Albus ran up, his hair whipping wildly in the wind. "Hey everybody, Uncle Percy says we need to all get below-decks, captain's orders! There might be a 'skirmish', he says!"
"Cool," James grinned, matching his brother's obvious excitement. "Are you really going to go down and miss all the fun?"
"Normally no," Albus admitted, "but Mum knows how we are. She's asked Captain Farragut if we can watch everything from the big windows in his quarters. Best view on the whole ship, he says, and there'll be biscuits and tea!"
"Your mum really knows how to handle a bribe," Petra said appreciatively. "Better hurry on down. And get Izzy, if you would. She's in our cabin, drawing pictures."
James glanced at Petra, and then turned to the others. "Go on," he said. "I'll catch up in a minute."
"Mum will leather you with a hex if you stay up here," Albus said, tilting his head knowledgeably. "But feel free. More biscuits for me. Come on, Lu. Where's Ralph?"
"He headed below-decks the moment you mentioned a skirmish," Lucy answered, nodding toward the stairs. She turned back to James. "You want me to wait with you?"
"No, go ahead, Lu. I just want to watch a minute. I'll be right there."
Lucy gazed at him for a long moment, her expression unreadable. "All right. See you in the captain's quarters. You too, Petra?"
"Sure," the older girl answered. "And thanks for gathering Izzy. Tell her to bring her crayons and parchments if she wants. Once she gets drawing, it can be hard to get her to stop."
Lucy nodded and turned to follow Albus.
"She's closing in on us," Brinks called, watching the horizon with his spyglass. "Matching our speed and angling to meet us dead on."
"That I can see, mate," Barstow answered amiably, gripping the pole before him. "But she won't match us for long! Let's open things up a bit."
James felt the subtle lift of the boat beneath him as Henrietta picked up speed. Waves clapped beneath the prow and exploded into sparkling mist, which flashed past the boat with dizzying speed. The Three-Eyed Isis began to fall past, but only very slowly. The pirate's ship was near enough now that James could see men moving around on the decks. The image on the mainsail was visible: a fanged skull with three gaping eyes. As James watched, the eyes narrowed and the skull chomped, as if it meant to swallow the Gwyndemere up.
"Did you read the dream story yet?" Petra asked, not taking her eyes from the rushing pirate ship.
"No, not yet," James admitted. "I haven't had much of a chance. Tonight, I think."
She nodded slowly. "I appreciate it. Talk to me after you do. All right?"
James glanced aside at her. "Sure. Why wouldn't I?"
She shrugged. "You might not want to."
James shook his head. "I'll want to. I promise."
"She's angling for a broadside strike," Brinks called down. "She's not as fast as us, so she's aiming to cut us off before we outrun 'er."
"Hard a-port," Barstow answered, turning the directional pole aside. Henrietta responded immediately, turning to the left, pulling the Gwyndemere away from the advancing pirate ship.
A low whistle and a burst of black sparks exploded over the left side of the ship, making Barstow jump and turn hard right again. James wouldn't have thought black sparks were even possible until he saw them swirling over the deck and fading into the rushing wind.
"Another ship!" Brinks cried from the crow's nest. "Ten o' the clock, approaching fast! Looks like the Scarlet Mist!"
"The Scarlet Mist?" Barstow repeated incredulously. "That means the two are working together, and that can only mean one thing!"
James ran to the other side of the prow and peered into the distance, immediately spying the second ship. Its red sails and black hull roared through the water, cutting the waves like a sword. "What's it mean?" he yelled over the wind.
"It means they're engaging in the old Vice and Quarry maneuver," Barstow answered. "Very risky, that is." Raising his voice, he called up to Brinks. "Keep an eye afore us, mate! Where there's two, there's three!"
"Already a-spied it," Brinks hollered, leaning forward in the crow's nest, his spyglass clapped to his eye. "It's the Poseidon's Peril, I'd wager."
Barstow whistled between his teeth again and shook his head. "Not good, my friends. Not good at all. I wonder what could possibly get all three of those salty dogs to work together? Surely not a single sea serpent. They'd just kill each other fightin' over her."
Another burst of black sparks rocked the Gwyndemere from the left. James felt the shudder of the blast beneath his feet. He was becoming rather alarmed. Petra, on the other hand, seemed strangely calm. James crossed the deck again and stood next to her. Even now, he was pleased that, despite their age difference, he was as tall as she was. Her long hair flew in the wind. A series of orange flashes appeared along the flank of the Three-Eyed Isis. A split second later, the Gwyndemere shook under a barrage of magical blasts.
"They're trying to slow us down," Barstow cried. "Time to show them what this girl can do!"
He jerked the steering pole and hunkered in his seat. Henrietta lunged forward, and James saw the serpentine humps of her back appear in the water ahead of the ship, rising out of the waves as she plowed ahead. The ship almost seemed to be skipping over the waves now. Wind coursed over the deck, singing in the rigging and thumping against the furled bulks of the sails. James leaned into the wind and peered straight ahead. The Poseidon's Peril was a long low boat, sitting broadside ahead of them, forming a barricade. The Three-Eyed Isis and the Scarlet Mist were angling closer, forcing the Gwyndemere into an inevitable collision course.
"Why aren't we slowing?" James asked breathlessly. "We're going to ram them!" He glanced back at Petra, who seemed to be watching with mild interest. James furrowed his brow at her worriedly, but she didn't appear to notice.
"My girl still has a few surprises up her sleeve!" Barstow called out, wrestling the steering pole, driving Henrietta still faster. Raising his voice to a deep bellow, he cried, "Man the sails, mates! Be ready on my mark!"
Both James and Petra stumbled and grabbed the railing as another, larger magical blast exploded directly beneath them. A metallic twang pierced the air and the Gwyndemere suddenly bore down into the waves, losing momentum.
Barstow cursed colourfully and loudly, obviously alarmed. James looked up at him, wideeyed. The steering pole jutted straight out over the bow, trembling wildly, pointing directly at Henrietta as she plowed the waves. The magical fishline glowed and throbbed, vibrating in the air like a guitar string. A deep wooden groan emanated from the deck near the brass chair's base, and James was frightened to see that it was being slowly pried up, its huge bolts bending under some enormous pressure.
"Dodongo!" Barstow cried, struggling with the steering pole. "Use that great hairy reach of yours and grab on! Hold tight!"
Behind him, the giant ape stirred. He leaned forward in the hold, raising his head over the level of the deck, and stretched his huge right arm up out of the cargo hold's wide opening. Delicately, Dodongo gripped the rear of Barstow's chair with his huge grey fingers, holding it in place.
"What's your name, boy?" Barstow called down through gritted teeth.
"Climb up here, James, and make it quick, if you please!"
James ran around the brass chair and scrambled up the stairs, ducking under Dodongo's huge leathery palm. Barstow moved aside, nodding for James to assume the brass seat.
"They've gone and shot out Henrietta's harness chain," he announced seriously. "Broke it clean in two! She's pulling us by the lead alone, which means we barely have any control and we're dragging low in the water. We can't escape unless I get down there and Reparo the harness chain straight away. I need you to take the reins and hold on as tightly as you can. It's absolutely essential that you not let go, no matter what, understand?"
James gulped, remembering a somewhat similar experience at the beginning of the summer. Only then, it had been Merlin and the brake lever of the Hogwarts Express. He leaned forward and gripped the trembling pole with both hands. "Got it!" he said, his heart pounding.
"That's a lad," Barstow nodded, speaking very quickly. "Just keep her aimed straight at the Poseidon, and don't slow down no matter what. Now pay attention: the steering pole is more than just a pole. It's a wand too. I need you to watch this gauge here. When the needle reads eightyeight knots, I need you to snap the wand upright and call this incantation: Pesceopteryx! Simple as that, right? That's a lad!"
Barstow leapt down the wrought iron stairway to the deck.
"Wait!" James cried, his voice cracking. "Say it again! How'm I going to remember that?"
"I'll help you," Petra called up, cupping her hands to her mouth. "Just watch the gauge!"
James looked down at the small brass instrument, his eyes bulging. The tiny silver needle trembled between the numbers fifty and sixty.
More magical blasts peppered the ship from both directions. The pirate ships on either side were coordinating their attacks, driving the Gwyndemere straight toward the Poseidon's Peril. Black sparks swirled, darkening the air. James glanced ahead. From his position on the brass chair, he could see the blockading ship very clearly. It looked alarmingly close, growing nearer even as he watched. Pirates lined the deck, shouting and waving wands and cutlasses. Henrietta churned the water, her serpentine humps plainly visible, her serrated back sawing the waves in half.
Barstow was leaning over the bow railing, so far and so precariously that James felt sure the man must tumble over into the ocean and be driven under the weight of the advancing ship. His voice carried on the wind as he shot Reparo charms into the water, aiming for Henrietta's broken harness chain.
"How fast now?" Petra called up to James.
"Sixty-five!" he answered. "No faster! The lead is just pulling the bow too far down into the water, dragging us! We're never going to make it!"
"Reparo!" Barstow hollered, kicking his heels in the air as he leaned over the railing. "Reparo, you great useless hunk of rusty iron! Damn and drat!"
James gripped the pole so hard that his knuckles were white in the sunlight. He craned backwards and saw crewmen clinging from odd angles on the masts, watching breathlessly, their eyes wide and waiting. The Scarlet Mist and the Three-Eyed Isis tracked the Gwyndemere on both sides, frighteningly close, hemming them in. James could hear the shouts and whoops of the pirates from their rocking decks.
"REPARO!" Barstow shouted, his voice straining.
"It's no use!" James called out, watching as the Poseidon's Peril filled his vision. The pirates on the deck had begun to scatter as the Gwyndemere bore down on them. Henrietta dove under the waves, preparing to swim under the other ship's long hull.
Below, Petra drew a deep breath. To James, she seemed eerily calm. She closed her eyes.
Deep beneath the deck, a dull clatter and a metallic clang sounded. The Gwyndemere lurched violently and rose onto the waves, buoyed up suddenly and virtually leaping out of the water. The steering pole loosened in James' grip, no longer bearing the full weight of Henrietta as she pulled the ship.
"Aha!" Barstow cried in disbelief. "The chain's repaired! Go! Go!"
James boggled, still looking up at the Poseidon's Peril. The Gwyndemere was rushing toward it, doomed to ram it in mere seconds.
"James!" Petra called. "How fast?"
James tore his eyes from the looming ship. "Eighty-five… just a little more…!"
"On my mark, mates!" Barstow bellowed, raising both hands.
"Pesceopteryx!" Petra shouted, cupping her hands to her mouth again.
James repeated the incantation as loudly and accurately as he could, jerking the steering pole upright. Simultaneously, Barstow hollered an order to his mates in the ship's rigging. The response was immediate and shocking. Henrietta lunged forward, so quickly and powerfully that her entire body angled up out of the water, trailed by a sparkling wreath of seawater. Two leathery shapes unfurled from her back and snapped open like parachutes, spraying fine mist. Henrietta, it seemed, had wings. She pumped them in one enormous, muscular stroke and shot up into the air, her long body streaming lithely over the deck of the Poseidon's Peril, covering it with her shadow. Pirates scattered, and some even leapt from the deck, dropping their cutlasses as they plummeted into the heaving ocean below.
On the Gwyndemere, every sail unfurled at once, suddenly and powerfully, creating a deep reverberating thump of captured wind. The complicated riggings unfolded and flexed, acting almost like wings, and the great ship heaved out of the ocean, following in Henrietta's path. James held his breath, but the rest of the crew hollered and whooped, their voices rising in the sudden, rushing silence.
The Gwyndemere soared over the Poseidon's Peril, so low that her wet hull crushed the other ship's deckhouse, smashing it to matchsticks. She plowed over the Poseidon's main mast, breaking it like a twig and forcing the unfortunate pirate ship to roll over in the water.
James clung to the steering pole, his hair streaming behind him and his eyes wide with a mixture of wonder and terror. Henrietta moved through the air ahead of the ship like a massive, scaly banner, her body flexing and sparkling greenly, her great membranous wings swooping easily, drawing streamers of water across the sky. Finally, gently, she angled downwards, furled her great wings, and dove to meet her long shadow on the waves. She made very little splash as she plunged into the depths. Behind her, however, the Gwyndemere landed like a whale, pounding the surface and sending up an explosion of dense white water, drenching James. A moment later, the crashing waters fell away and the ship cruised on sedately, her sails flapping in the ocean breeze.
"A job well done, James!" Barstow bellowed happily. "I told you we'd be in for a wee tussle, didn't I? Why, I'm tempted to recruit you to a life on the high seas, I am! Not everyone can air-pilot an Atlantean razorback their first time out! I was sure we were going to end up riding the Poseidon home piggyback!"
James flushed, his heart still thundering with adrenaline. "Well, I don't think they got away quite as undamaged as we seem to have," he called sheepishly.
Barstow angled toward the wrought iron stairs, patting Dodongo cheerfully on his enormous head. "Ah, they'll be fine," he replied, climbing up and trading seats with James. "It isn't the first time the Poseidon's been turned turtle in the water. They'll have themselves a grand adventure of it, bashing their way through the hull into the sunlight, then repairing everything and turning her back over. Gives 'em something constructive to do for the rest of the day."
James felt himself grinning helplessly as he climbed down. Feeling slightly drunk on adrenaline, he angled over toward Dodongo and plopped down onto the edge of the cargo hold doors, resting his arm on the great ape's nose. He replayed the last few minutes in his head, not quite believing everything that had happened. Curiously, the thing that amazed him most was how Barstow had managed to repair the harness chain at the last possible moment. It had looked perfectly hopeless and James understood why: it would have been virtually impossible to see the broken harness chain under the waves, where it was being dragged by Henrietta. Furthermore, doing magic through water, as Merlin had implied earlier, was extremely tricky. So how had Barstow managed it?
James' eyes widened as he remembered something. Moments before the chain had magically reattached to the ship, Petra had been standing on the prow, her eyes closed, as if in deep concentration. The last time James had seen anything like that had been…
"On the train," he muttered to himself. "On the Hogwarts Express with Merlin, when he'd made the tree grow beneath it, holding it up. But how could Petra…?"
He frowned to himself. Next to him, Dodongo stirred, pursing his lips and nodding James' arm off his nose.
James got up and looked around the deck, curious to ask Petra about what he had seen, but she was nowhere in sight. James found that he wasn't particularly surprised.
4. THE DREAM STORY
The crew of the Gwyndemere left the sails up now that the journey was fully underway. The wind filled them and helped propel the ship swiftly across the face of the ocean. For her own part, Henrietta drove through the water like a gigantic corkscrew, never slowing, her scales sparkling wherever her serpentine humps broke the surface, her serrated back slicing the waves neatly in two.
The day turned long, hot, and hazy bright. James, Ralph, Albus, and Lucy remained on the decks until tea, and then spent the rest of the afternoon in the galley dining room, playing Winkles and Augers or drawing at the long tables with Izzy. James was surprised at how good an artist Izzy was and how amazingly prolific her drawings were. Petra had provided sheets of cheap parchment for the girl as well as a collection of crayons and quills with magically coloured inks that never ran out.
It wasn't just that Izzy's strokes were so confident and swift as she created her pictures; the pictures themselves were hauntingly engaging, somehow simplistic and complex at the same time. Entire landscapes would be summed up in three or four quick lines, whereas a tree on a hilltop would require fifteen minutes of careful, dense detail, overlaid with half a dozen unusual colours, creating something that almost seemed to hover on the parchment, or push past it, into some sort of invisible papery dimension. James tried studiously to mimic Izzy's style with no success.
Lucy sat across from them, her cheek resting on her forearm as she watched the blonde girl draw. "What's that one, Izzy?"
"It's the gazebo," Izzy answered without looking up. "The one in Papa Warren's lake."
"You mean on the lake?" Lily asked, peering across the table from her own artwork, which was much less expressive and decidedly happier, with a huge yellow sun smiling down on a simple rendition of the Burrow.
Izzy shrugged. "Either way. I only saw it once. But I remember it. I'm drawing it for Petra."
James leaned closer. There were two small figures standing in the gazebo, both girls, one taller than the other. Izzy had done a remarkably good job at representing both herself and Petra standing under the gazebo's low roof. James couldn't tell, however, if the gazebo was overlooking the lake, floating on it like a boat, or even submerged under its surface. Izzy wasn't a witch, of course, so her drawings didn't move, nonetheless there was something about the background of the gazebo picture that seemed to shift and pulse, just outside the range of vision. The drawing was strange and surreal, and James found he couldn't look at it for very long.
At the opposite end of the galley, Persephone Remora sat playing a complicated octocard game with one of her younger charges, a boy with lank black hair and pasty skin.
"Vampirates, I've no doubt," she said loftily, carefully covering one of the cards with her hand. When she lifted it, the card had turned over, revealing a picture of a capering, grinning skeleton. "I suspect they normally only hunt the ocean's face by moonlight, but it may well be that they smelled the presence of their kin. Perchance they meant for us to join them."
"Begging your pardon, Miss," one of the kitchen mates commented as he gathered the tea cups and spoons, "but there ain't no such thing as vampirates."
"I'm quite sure that that is what they would have you believe, sir," Remora sniffed delicately. "A secret and mysterious sect are they, known only to those who are doomed to be their prey."
The mate shrugged. "As you say, Miss. Person'ly, I always did find that a deadly reputation worked much better on the open sea than mysterious secrecy. Saves you having to prove yourself over and over to every new ship you chase after. Frankly, even if they do exist, life amongst your secret vampirates sounds like nothing but work, work, work, if you ask me."
"Excuse me," Remora said tiredly, rolling her eyes, "but I don't believe I did."
The young man sitting across from Remora sighed. "Mortals," he said under his breath, pretending that no one else could hear him. James saw the boy glance sideways, but James acted as if he hadn't noticed.
Eventually, after a dinner of lobster bisque, fresh sea cucumber, and Atlantean colossal clam pudding, James stood on the deck again and watched the sun dip into the distant watery horizon, turning huge and red as it went.
"Red sky at night, sailor's delight," Barstow said, crossing his forearms on the deck railing next to James. "But that sky doesn't look like anybody's delight to me. Too hot and still, like a beast lying in wait. What do you think, James?"
James shrugged, unsure how to respond.
"I smell a storm in the air," Barstow went on, nodding. "A big one, methinks. Not tonight, but in the morning maybe. Could be we'll pass beyond it in the dark. Or it could be that we'll need to be prepared for a bit of a blow tomorrow. I understand you played Treus in a school rendition of The Triumvirate. Is that right?"
James glanced at Barstow, who was grinning at him crookedly. James nodded sheepishly. "You've been talking to Albus. It was just a Muggle Studies production, so we didn't do any of the magical bits, or at least not with real magic. The storm was just a big fan and a painted backdrop."
Barstow nodded gravely. "But I bet it gave you some idea of how such things happen on the high seas. Don't you worry. This won't be any magical storm like what nearly overtook the fabled Treus and his crew. There's no Donovan in a jealous rage, whipping up any tempests for us to sail into. Still, even your average, run-o'-the-mill Atlantic squall can put a scare into an unwary traveler's soul. You'll be prepared to keep everyone calm since you've had a taste of it before, even if it was just a big fan and a painted backdrop. Am I right?"
James nodded and frowned seriously, gazing out over the waves.
On the horizon, the sun seemed to bleed and ripple, bloated deep red. And then, so swiftly that James thought he could see it happening, it slipped beneath the rim of the world. Darkness fell over the ship like a curtain, with no stars this time, and only a low moon, thin as a sickle, on the opposite horizon. Lanterns were lit on the masts, but their light didn't reach the water. The ship seemed to ply an invisible, cavernous lake, impossibly deep and full of mystery. Barstow went to take his shift on the brass chair at the ship's prow, and James bid him goodnight. Not liking being alone on the deck between that featureless black sky and bottomless, invisible ocean, James quickly descended into the comforting closeness and warm lantern-glow below-decks.
Quietly, he made his way to the tiny stateroom that he was sharing with his brother and Ralph. For now, the room was empty. Two sets of narrow bunks framed a single porthole with a sink below it. The porthole window was seamlessly black, like an onyx eye. James twitched the small curtain closed, then hunkered and pulled his duffle bag out from beneath the lower bunk on his right. A moment later, he clambered up to the top bunk, his wand lit and Petra's parchment parcel in his hand. He sat cross-legged in the center of the rough, woolen blanket, set the seamless packet onto the pillow, and tapped it with his glowing wand.
"Revelierus," he said carefully. Like an origami flower, the parchment blossomed, unfolding and spreading, until it had returned to its original form. A small sheaf of loose parchment, covered in Petra's neat, dense handwriting, lay on the pillow. James could read the title, written in larger, flowing script along the top: The Girl on the Dock. It was underlined darkly, the lines embedded in the parchment, as if they had been made with a lot of force. James realized he was holding his breath. Slowly, he let it out, picked up the first page of Petra's dream story, and began to read.
The Girl on the Dock
It is the middle of the night. The moon is huge and high, reflecting off the surface of the lake. I lead Izzy by the hand, out of the woods and toward the shimmering lake. Suddenly she stops.
"I don't want to go there," she says.
"Why not?" I say. "It's only the lake".
"I just don't want to go, that's all," she replies, shaking her head.
She is afraid, yet I do not think she has seen the dagger I carry concealed in my other hand.
"It'll be alright, Iz," I say. "I'll hold your hand the whole time."
Izzy looks at the lake and then up at me with large, serious eyes and nods once. We continue toward the dock, but she stops again at the top step.
"I don't want to go any further, Petra."
"But I want to show you something," I say. I am surprised at her reluctance. I tighten my grip on her small hand and coax her down the stairs to the wooden planks of the dock.
"I don't want to see the gazebo," she says. "It's creepy. Please, Petra." I realize she has remembered the incident with the dead spiders; the day I saw my mother's face in the lake, the day I understood I could still bring her back, if only the sacrifice was great enough. The dead spiders were only enough to show me her reflection. To speak to her, I must offer something much more. I told Izzy that I was looking down in the water because I could see the old sunken gazebo in its watery grave, but she suspects more. She is unusually sharp in my presence. Her own mother would barely recognize her.
"It's not the gazebo that I want to show you," I tell her.
"What then?" she asks.
"My mother." I answer, and raise the dagger in one hand, Izzy's open palm in the other. She screams and begins to struggle, pulling away and trying to pry her hand out of mine.
"Stop fighting me, Iz," I plead. "It'll only hurt for a moment. Just a little blood…that's all. I need to talk to my mother! She'll tell me what to do, Iz. She'll tell us both."
Izzy is terrified and my words do not calm her. Some part of me knows I should stop, and yet I do not. I must finish the task. I grip her wrist and lower the dagger point.
Izzy screams again and pushes me. I lose my balance as I grab the wooden piling, dropping the dagger into the lake and releasing Izzy's hand. To my horror, she falls into the water with a loud splash and I suddenly remember that Izzy cannot swim.
"Izzy!" I cry out frantically, dropping to my knees on the dock. I hear her thrashing at the black water but I cannot see her. "Swim to me!" I shout and prepare to jump in after her.
"No!" I hear a voice in my thoughts say firmly. "no… wait…"
Izzy is flailing in the water and yet I remain there, watching.
"This was your intent all along…. The girl must die. Only then will you have peace."
I am frozen in place. I watch Izzy begin to sink beneath the dark water. I shake my head.
"I didn't mean for this to happen," I say. "It can't end this way."
"No one will know," the voice says soothingly. "Her body will eventually be found. A tragic accident… You will mourn her properly. You, with your own mother at your side."
I glance around the lake and look intently back toward the woods behind me.
"No one is coming," I say, amazed and surprised.
"No," the voice deep in my thoughts agrees, "the boy James does not come this time. The misguided force of good has no voice here. 'Good' is a myth. There is only power. Nothing else matters."
James stopped reading. His eyes were wide, shining in the wandlight, and his heart was pounding so hard that the parchment shook in his hands.
Merlin predicted this, he thought, nearly saying the words aloud. Back at the end of last term, when he, James, and James' dad had met in the Headmaster's office to discuss the aftermath of Petra's encounter with the Gatekeeper, Merlin had warned them that Petra's battle might not truly be over.
"Don't think that, despite her actions," he had said gravely, "she will not lie awake on cold, lonely nights, pining hopelessly for her dead parents, and wondering, wondering, if on that fateful night in the Chamber of Secrets she made the wrong choice."
Now, if any of what James was reading in Petra's dream story was true, he knew that she had indeed wondered those very things. According to the story, she was still haunted by the events of that night, and had subsequently seen her mother's face in the surface of the Morganstern Farm's lake, after she, Petra, had dropped some inexplicable load of dead spiders into it. The spiders functioned as a tiny sacrifice, giving Petra one more fleeting glimpse of what she had lost in the Chamber of Secrets.
Somehow, incredibly, Petra appeared to possess the power to recreate the Gatekeeper's awful bargain, only this time without any outside interference. Still, if the dream story was accurate, even then she had not consciously meant to sacrifice Izzy in order to retrieve her mother from the dead. She had meant only to offer the lake some of Izzy's blood, in order to simply talk to the vision of her mother, and hear her guidance. But then, apparently, things had gone very wrong, and the horrid voice of Voldemort had taken advantage of it, pushing Petra to commit the act she was meant to have committed in the Chamber of Secrets: the murder of another human being.
James was stunned, not so much by the power of the story, but by the nagging question: how much of it was true? He recalled the short bit of Petra and Merlin's conversation that he and the gremlins had listened in on with Ted's Extendable Ears. In it, Petra had referred to the dream, commenting that it was a reminder that one decision can have monumental repercussions. So where, in the dream story, did it stop reflecting what had actually happened on that night? How much of it was real, and how much was plain and simple nightmare? Obviously, Izzy had survived that night, either because she had never really fallen into the lake or because Petra had somehow managed to rescue her. But how? James furrowed his brow and bent over the pages again, reading on.
I look out over the water again. I can no longer see Izzy, but a figure is rising from the center of the lake. I can see, even in silhouette, that it is the shape I have so longed to see. My mother stands on the surface of the lake. She begins to walk to me, her arms outstretched, and yet I am torn. I cannot let Izzy die! I shake my head and peer down into the water, trying to find her with my thoughts. My wand is broken. I no longer remember how to do the magic without it but I must try. I raise my arms out over the water, close my eyes and concentrate.
"What are you doing?" the voice inside me asks.
"You are right," I answer, as firmly as I can. "No one is coming. I am being the voice of good. I am choosing it myself…." I force the figure of my mother from my mind. I focus on finding Izzy.
"Don't be a fool!" The voice is becoming angry now. "Once before you thought you had changed the course of destiny, yet here you are now. You have only postponed the inevitable."
I cannot sense Izzy in the depths of the lake but something is hidden in the darkness. It has been a long time since I have moved anything without my wand but I discover that the power is still there; buried but not forgotten. I direct all my energy to the object below.
Something in the water begins to move—something large. As a result, the figure of my mother slowly begins to sink again.
"You are not the only one with powers at your disposal…." The voice seethes at me. "I am you and you are me. You cannot choose the light while I choose the dark!"
My left hand is suddenly icy cold. Frosty tendrils extend from it out onto the lake toward the sinking figure of my mother, forming a narrow sheet of white ice. She rises again to the surface and walks toward me on the icy bridge. My power is divided and weakened. I cannot maintain my hold on the large object in the water.
"Give in!" the voice commands. "Good is a myth! All that matters is power. Embrace your destiny or die fighting. You are not good. There is no such thing."
I look at the face of my mother. All I have to do is reach out and take her hand.
And suddenly I realize that I don't care.
"Good is only a myth if good people stop believing in it," I say out loud. "I may not be good but neither am I evil. Whichever direction I go is up to no one but me!" I feel warmth come over me. My hand is no longer cold. I close my eyes, concentrate and the object of my attention begins to rise once more toward the surface of the lake. I see the water mount up in a boil, slowly at first and then with a great surge. With a roar of falling water, the old gazebo lifts from the lake, resuming its original position at the end of the dock. It is waterlogged and draped with seaweed, but completely recognizable. And lying in the center of its rotten floor is Izzy.
I rush to her, kneel beside her, and push the wet hair back from her face. Her eyes are closed and she is not breathing.
"Izzy," I whisper close to her ear. "I did it! I made the right choice, Iz."
She does not move. I look at her pale face and touch her forehead.
"Please don't be dead, Izzy," I beg her. "Please…" I close my eyes and cast my mind into Izzy's small body. I feel warmth inside her soul but she doesn't respond. She has lost hope and is dwindling away. I cannot give up… I will not give up… I feel tears on my face and I try again.
"Come back, Izzy," I plead silently, speaking directly to that diminishing spark of her life. "Please come back."
There is no response. Izzy's eyes do not so much as flutter. I begin to panic. "Don't go Iz, I need you. You're all I have left. It shouldn't end this way. It can't end this way. Good will win out in the end. It has to…" I hold my sister in my arms and rock back and forth, searching for that spark. "No… No Iz… Don't be gone. Don't leave me alone…"
I open my eyes and look down at my sister's face…
Here, Petra's story stopped for a space of several lines. James looked at the blank space, but it wasn't entirely blank. Petra had begun to continue the story three more times, and then scribbled out the results, violently and completely, obliterating the shapes of her neat handwriting. The quill had leaked, leaving ragged black blots on the parchment. Finally, much more roughly, Petra's story continued.
Izzy lays in the darkness of the gazebo, cold and still, unmoving. The guttering spark of her life is gone. Izzy is dead. As dead as the gazebo. As dead as her dolls back in the bedroom of the farmhouse. Izzy is dead, and I am the one who has killed her.
"No," I insist. It can't end this way! I made the right choice! I fought the darkest desires of my soul, and overcame them, all by myself, with no outside intervention. I chose good. Good owes me!
"No…," I say again, raising my voice, "this isn't how it's supposed to turn out. You're supposed to be alive! This isn't how the story ends!" My voice is rising, both in pitch and volume. I stare down at the pathetic figure below me, refusing to believe what I see. Izzy's body lays in the center of the gazebo floor, soaked and limp, filthy on the rotten planks.
"No!" I scream now, scooping the small body into my arms. "NO!"
"Yes!" the voice in the backroom of my mind commands coldly. "You cannot fight your destiny. You tried to in the chamber of the pool, and you tried to tonight, and yet… fate prevails! You and I are one! Give in to your powers. Embrace the paths you have opened. It is too late to turn back now. All that is left is power, but that is not a bad thing. In time, you will come to accept what happened here tonight. In time, you will be glad of it, for it makes you who you are, who you were meant to be from the very beginning. Fight it no more. You are tired of fighting, aren't you? Now, at the end, you see that fighting was always futile. Fighting your destiny only destroys you, and all that you love. Embrace it now. Embrace it, and perhaps destiny will repay you. After all, the path of power has many, many benefits…"
I listen to the voice. I am helpless not to. For the first time, I listen, and I do not argue with it. The voice is right. There is no fighting my destiny. What had been meant to happen in the Chamber of Secrets had not been prevented, only postponed. I gained nothing by choosing good, succeeded only in raising the price that I must inevitably pay. Now, Izzy is dead, and good is annihilated. The voice is right. All that is left is the path of power.
I stand slowly, lifting the light body of my murdered sister. I will bury her, in the woods, beneath the cairn that represents her. And then I will leave. I don't know where I will go or what I will do, but I have a strong feeling that those decisions will mysteriously take care of themselves. Suddenly, it is almost as if I am merely a passenger in my own mind. My body seems to move of its own accord, carrying me back along the dock, my sister's cold body dripping lake water in my arms. I am glad to give in. It is too hard to fight, too hard to think. Destiny has claimed me, and I am happy now to relinquish control to it. What is left now to fight for anyway?
In the darkness overlooking the lake, the great old tree stands in Grandfather Warren's field, its leaves whispering like a thousand voices.
Sometimes, I can still hear those voices. Even when I am awake.
James dropped the last page onto the small sheaf of parchments. He was shaking and his forehead was beaded with sweat in the dark confines of the upper bunk. His mind raced as he considered the remarkable, inexplicable implications of the story.
If any of it was true at all, then how had Petra performed the magic? In the story, she admitted that she had broken her own wand, for reasons James couldn't begin to guess. So how had she performed a feat as amazing as levitating a long-sunken gazebo out of a lake? Obviously, that part simply couldn't have actually happened. But then, James remembered the events of that very morning, remembered how Petra had simply closed her eyes, as if in deep thought, and then, a moment later, how Henrietta's harness chain had magically reattached to the ship, allowing them to escape the pirates' trap.
James tried to remember if Petra had had her wand in her hand at the time and realized he couldn't. Frankly, he couldn't remember seeing Petra's wand even once since her arrival at the Potter home, months earlier. But that was simply crazy, wasn't it? No witch or wizard could do magic without their wand, at least not anything specific or meaningful. There had to be a reasonable explanation for it, and James had a strong feeling that it all revolved around the question of which parts of Petra's dream story were true and which parts were just that: a dream.
I think she asks me to come because she needs me here to prove that the dreams aren't true, Izzy had said the night before, while Petra had still been writing. She needs me here to prove that I'm still alive.
In James' memory, Izzy's words mingled with those of Professor Trelawney, the horrible prophecy she had made on the morning that he had left Hogwarts: The fates have aligned… night will fall, and from it, there will be no dawn, no dawn, save the dawn of forever fire…
Strangely, powerfully, James felt a deep sense of fear and doom. It hovered over him like a shroud, almost like the pall of a Dementor. He shook himself, and then, almost desperately, tapped the parchments again with his wand, closing them once again into the seamless, featureless packet, hiding Petra's words, shutting off the voice of Professor Trelawney in his memory.
He jammed the packet of parchment under his pillow and leapt down to the floor, hungry for light, for the sane babble of the voices of his friends and family. He very nearly slammed the door to his stateroom as he entered the narrow corridor, heading for the galley. Ralph and Lucy would be there, as would Albus and Lily, his parents, Neville Longbottom, and the rest. What James wanted most was to tell someone what he had read, but of course he couldn't. He had promised Petra that he would keep her secret.
Perhaps she would be in the galley, though, as well. Maybe he could tell her, and ask her about what was in the dream story, find out how much of it was real, and how much (hopefully most of it!) was just a dream. Suddenly, he wanted that more than anything.
But Petra wasn't in the galley. A cursory look around the decks and the narrow corridors revealed no sign of either her or Izzy. Apparently they were in bed already.
Later, however, James would wonder otherwise.
The next morning dawned hazy and bright, still as a tomb. The ocean was nearly flat, with barely a breath of breeze to disturb it, so that the wake of the Gwyndemere lay like a highway behind her, spreading into the shimmering distance. Henrietta plowed on, her great scaly head occasionally breaking the surface and flinging fans of water all around.
"The doldrums," Barstow explained to James, Ralph, and Lucy after breakfast. The four stood on the bow, watching another mate operate the steering pole on its brass chair. "Technically, it's where a bunch of huge Atlantic currents all meet and cancel each other out, making a sort of dead space in the middle of the ocean. But it's more'n that if you ask an old sailor like me. It's a cursed place. If Davey Jones really does have a locker, it's right below our feet, fathoms down, in the still darkness of the deepest deeps."
"Cheerful stuff, that," Ralph commented, shaking his head.
"It is pretty queer, when you think about it," Lucy said, leaning on the railing and looking down toward the shadow of the ship on the rushing, leaden water. "It's almost like we're floating on a cloud, high up over some alien, hidden landscape. Who knows what wild creatures live down there, not even knowing there is a surface, much less magical ships that can scoot along the top of it, sitting on the mysterious boundary between the air above and the secret world below. Puts things into perspective, in a way, don't you think?"
Merlin had approached along with Harry, Neville Longbottom, and Percy Weasley. The Headmaster smiled faintly at Lucy but didn't say anything.
"So," James asked, looking between the three men, "where were you lot yesterday morning when we were getting squeezed between three pirate ships like a walnut in a giant nutcracker?"
"We were below-decks, as per instructions," Merlin said mildly, still smiling that strange, small smile. "You must understand: we are at sea. Here, the word of the captain is law. As adults, we are in the habit of abiding by the law."
James shook his head. "Fat lot of help you'd have been if we hadn't gotten Henrietta's harness fixed at the last second. We'd have been caught by pirates, and then who knows what would have happened?"
"Worse fates have befallen people on the high seas, James," Neville replied, patting the boy on the shoulder. "I suspect everything would have turned out all right, no matter what. After all, we're hardly carrying a shipment of Galleons for the World Wizarding Bank in New Amsterdam, are we?" He blinked and turned aside to Harry. "Are we?"
Percy shook his head. "I assure you, James, and the rest of you, everything was entirely under control at all times."
James leaned against the railing next to Lucy. "Sure didn't seem like it when we were flying over that last pirate ship, smashing its masts like tenpins," he muttered. "But whatever you say."
"So what do you think those pirates were after us for?" Lucy asked quietly as the adults meandered away, talking in low voices.
"Well, it wasn't to ask us all to come over for crumpets and tea, that's for sure," James said darkly. "Barstow himself seemed pretty surprised by it. Seemed to say that it was pretty unusual for so many pirates to work together at once. I bet you a Galleon that my dad, Merlin, Professor Longbottom, and the rest of the grownups know a lot more about this than they're letting on."
"Well, that's their job, I guess," Ralph sighed. "And they're welcome to it." In a different voice, he added, "I hear we'll be landing in America by teatime tomorrow! I can hardly wait, can't you?"
Lucy nodded. "I'm ready to get land under my feet again even if it isn't home."
"You'll love the States," Ralph said confidently. "It's totally cool there. Way different, especially in the cities. You can get food from all over the world on nearly every corner. And there's Bigfeet, and old Native American magic, and loads of amazing wizarding places. There's even a crystal mountain that you can't even see until you just about bump into it. Even the Muggles told stories about that one, up until the American Magical Administration made it unplottable, a hundred years ago or so."
"Bah," Albus said grumpily, stumping up and plopping down onto a bench built into the railing. "None of it will be as cool as Diagon Alley or Hogsmeade. Who needs a stupid old crystal mountain? Or Bigfeet for that matter?"
"I think they prefer the term 'Sasquatches'," Lucy said carefully. "Or Bigfoots, even though it sounds a little odd, grammatically."
"Stupid apes can't even talk," Albus groused. "They can start telling me what to call them when they can say it in plain English."
"That's rather speciesist," Lucy commented, but without much conviction. "What's got you in such a foul mood?"
Albus rolled his eyes. "Mum just yelled at me for making a racket in the hallway. Me and Lily and Molly. We were just playing Winkles and Augers. I don't see what the big deal is."
"You were playing Winkles and Augers with Lily and Molly?" Ralph said, frowning. "But they aren't even in school yet. Do they even have wands?"
James smiled ruefully. "Albus' attitude toward the rules is pretty loose. He got both girls some cheap toy wands from Gorleone's Novelties last time we were in Diagon Alley and he taught them some basic levitation, just so he has somebody to play Winkles with that he can actually beat."
"I beat you last time we played," Albus countered, raising his eyebrows challengingly. "Don't pretend I didn't."
"That's because you kept on playing after Mum called us for lunch and I went downstairs!" James cried, tossing his hands into the air.
"S'not against the rules, is it?" Albus replied evenly. "I mean, I could have just claimed you'd forfeited. I gave you the benefit of the doubt." To Ralph, he grinned and added, "I won, two hundred and seventy-eight to five."
"You can't play Winkles properly in a hallway as narrow as the corridors below-decks anyway," Lucy said, leaning back on the railing. "But besides that, why would your mum care? It's not like anyone's asleep or anything."
Albus shrugged, bored with the topic by now. "Apparently Petra doesn't feel well. She's got seasickness or something. She and Izzy are in their cabin resting. We were at least two doors down from them anyway."
"Petra's sick?" James clarified, glancing at his brother. "Really?"
Ralph said, "You seem surprised. Lots of people get sick on boats. I'm surprised I'm not sick."
"You still have one more day," Lucy commented reasonably. Ralph nodded.
"I'm a little surprised, yeah," James said, furrowing his brow. "Petra just doesn't seem like the seasick type."
"So maybe it isn't seasickness then," Albus exclaimed, annoyed. "Maybe she has rickets. Or scurvy. Who cares? She'll be fine by tomorrow night, won't she?"
Ralph nodded thoughtfully. "Barstow says sailors used to be called 'limeys' because eating limes and oranges and stuff was a great way to keep from catching rickets out on the high seas, for some reason. Has Petra been eating any limes?"
"She doesn't have rickets, you prat," Lucy said, shaking her head.
"I bet there's some limes in the galley," Albus said, brightening. "We could take her some. You want to?"
"Just leave her alone, like Mum said, why don't you?" James said, raising his voice a little. "Lucy's right. Whatever she has, limes aren't going to fix it. Just leave her be."
"Oh, that's right," Albus said, rolling his eyes again. "Treus has to look out for his dear Astra. How could I forget? By the way, has she professed her 'deep and abiding love' for you yet? No? Ah well."
James sighed and shook his head. He was used to his brother's ribbing by now. He looked toward the mid-ship stairs, wondering if he should go down and check on Petra. Reluctantly, he decided not to. His mum was probably right. If Petra didn't feel well, it would probably be best if they just left her alone. Petra would ask for help if she needed it.
Later that afternoon, however, as the sky lowered and turned ashy grey, James was surprised to see Petra and Izzy walking the decks. He saw the two of them from across the ship, he on the bow, and them on the high, angled floor of the stern, strolling slowly, hand in hand. He angled toward the mid-ship stairs, trying to move as casually as he could, hoping they wouldn't come up the other side of the ship while he was aiming to meet them on the stern. He didn't want it to appear that he was following them although that was exactly what he was doing.
By the time he got to the stern, however, neither of the girls was in sight. He looked around carefully, and then turned back to peer over the length of the ship. Apparently, Petra and Izzy had gone back below-decks again. He frowned and shook his head. Far ahead of the ship, the sky was turning a deep, bruised colour, darkening and condensing. It was a storm, just as Barstow had predicted, and the ship seemed to be heading right for it. As James thought this, a high wind twitched over the ship, threading through his hair and singing a high, momentary whine in the ship's rigging. James shuddered.
After a moment's consideration, he headed back down the stern and toward the stairs. There was no point in being on deck for a storm if he didn't have to be.
Even if it would probably be rather exciting.
"Make sure all of your things are well-secured," Barstow said, stopping momentarily in the doorway. "Including yourselves. Find something solid to hold onto, and do so. Also, keep a bucket handy. Believe it or not, you're much more prone to seasickness below-decks, where you can't see the waves. There'll be enough of a mess to clean up topside afterwards without having to worry about any messes down here, if you take my meaning."
James sat next to Molly and Lucy on a small bench in the captain's quarters, near the bank of curving stern windows. "Well, at least we can watch it from here," he said somberly. "If we want to."
Ralph shook his head. "I've never seen the sky look that colour. That can't be natural."
"So much for calm seas," Lucy agreed, leaning into the purplish-grey window light. "Those look less like waves and more like the Scottish Highlands."
James peered out the window next to her and saw that it was true. Unbroken by any shoreline, the waves swelled to nearly geological heights. At one moment, the view beyond the window seemed to look down from a high peak, overlooking a valley of sloshing, white-capped foothills. At the next moment, the ship would fall into the shadow of that very valley, buried in a trough of steely water and surrounded by marching oceanic mountains. James' stomach rolled with the motion of the waves and he looked away again, back to the comforting confines of the captain's quarters. Lanterns swung from the ceiling and tools rolled back and forth on the desk, striking the low railings that surrounded its surface.
"James," his mum said from across the room. Lily sat on her lap, leaning comfortably back against her mother's shoulder. Ginny glanced sharply at her son. "Did you close my trunk and batten it down when you were done getting the sweaters out?"
James sighed wearily. "I don't know, Mum. Yeah, sure, I guess so."
"'Guess so' isn't good enough, James," Ginny said sternly. She was nervous, James knew, and nervousness made her strident. "I have a whole collection of shampoo and perfume and hand cream vials in there, not to mention your father's travel potions bag. If that gets knocked over, it'll cause no end of mess, and if those potions of your father's break…"
"It'll be fine, Mum, quit worrying," James replied.
"Go on, James," his father said from where he stood next to Merlinus by the captain's desk. "Run along before the waves get any worse. And bring me back that apple on the bedside table, if you would."
"Ugh," Audrey commented, clinging to Percy where they sat at a dark corner table. "How can you eat at a time like this?"
"I'm hungry," Harry shrugged as James passed him. "And James…"
James stopped in the doorway, holding onto the frame to keep his balance on the swaying floor. "Yeah, Dad?"
"Leave my Invisibiliy Cloak in the trunk when you close it, eh?" Harry said, nodding and smiling a little crookedly.
James shook his head wearily but Albus crowed laughter from across the room.
The narrow corridor seemed to lean from side to side as James maneuvered through it. The stairs at the end of the passage were lit with swaying light from the window in the door above. James stumbled into his parents' stateroom and saw that he had, in fact, left the trunk open and unsecured on the low table at the end of the bed. He clunked the lid closed and pulled the leather straps over it, looping them through a pair of brass hooks attached to the table, which was itself bolted to the floor. He glanced around and saw the apple his dad had asked for. It rolled back and forth in a bowl on the bedside table. Grabbing it, James turned and lurched back toward the stateroom door. He felt like he was walking uphill. A moment later, he stumbled through the door and caught himself against the corridor wall as the hill inverted, rolling beneath him. He looked at the apple in his hand and groaned, seeing that he had bruised it quite severely against the paneled wall.
A gust of air whistled through the corridor, bringing sea mist and the roar of the waves with it. James glanced to the side, up the corridor stairs, and saw that the door above had been pushed open, showing low, heaving storm clouds. A figure was silhouetted against the light, and James saw, with some surprise, that it was Petra. As he watched, she stepped out, letting the door blow shut behind her with a slam. Quickly, and without thinking, he followed her.
Wind pulled the door open the moment he thumbed the latch, nearly wrenching it from his hand. Sailors' voices called thinly beneath the roar of the waves, the whoosh of the wind, and the creaking groans of the ship. Mist blew over the deck-like sand, scouring it and making James squint as he looked around, scanning the narrow mid-ship walkway for Petra. He finally saw her, moving serenely up onto the stern, her dress whipping about her legs and a cloak flapping from her shoulders.
James stepped around the door and the wind changed, sucking it shut behind him so hard that he thought the glass window embedded in it might break. It didn't, fortunately. James hunched his shoulders and moved as quickly as he could along the walkway toward the stern stairway, following Petra.
Amazingly, he found her leaning on the high, stern railing, her forearms crossed in front of her, as if she was deep in thought. He approached her, calling out her name.
She looked at him over her shoulder, and smiled wanly. Her dark hair whipped and flailed about her face. "Hi James," she called back, raising her voice against the wind. She turned back to the ocean beyond.
"What are you doing up here, Petra?" James asked, moving alongside her and gripping the railing for support. "You should be below, with the rest of us."
"Did you read it?" Petra responded, ignoring James' question.
James nodded. "Yeah! I read it, already. I did it last night, but I couldn't find you when I was done. I wanted to talk to you about it, but…"
"I'm glad you read it," she said, still studying the monstrous waves beyond the railing. "It's important that someone else know the truth."
James looked aside at her. He knew he should get her below-decks, but he couldn't stop himself from asking the one question that he was most curious about, now that she had brought it up.
"What is the truth, Petra?" he asked, leaning forward. Something glimmered faintly on Petra's cloak and James saw that it was an opal brooch. She had only recently begun to wear it, and James could only guess that it had some special meaning for her. "What part of your dream story really happened? What part of it is true?"
Petra looked at him, her eyebrows raised slightly. "Why, all of it, James. All of it is true."
James shook his head, frowning into the misty wind. "That doesn't even begin to make any sense! I mean, in the story, Izzy dies! She's downstairs right now, alive as can be. We should be there too. Come on!"
Petra didn't move. "Oh, Izzy died all right. I killed her. Just because it didn't happen in this life, doesn't mean it didn't happen. You see, I'm sick, James."
James glanced back toward the heaving, rolling ship. Waves towered around it, casting it into their massive shadows. Men clung to the riggings, securing the sails. Far ahead, barely visible in the rushing mist, Barstow sat hunkered in the brass chair, wrestling with the steering pole, turning Henrietta into the waves. "I know," James said. "Mum told us you were seasick. Being up here won't help."
"I'm not seasick, James," Petra replied mildly. "It has nothing to do with the sea. Or maybe it has everything to do with the sea. It's just so… dead out here. Dead in the middle of everything, so very far away from home; from life and people and the noise of living. Here, there's no distractions from the dream. Here, the dream is just as real as reality. There's nothing I can do to shut it off."
James was becoming frightened, both by the storm and by Petra's strange words. "Let's go down below-decks, Petra," he said, touching the girl's elbow. "We can talk about it more down there. You can tell me what really happened on the night you took Izzy out to the lake. All right?"
Petra looked at him again, her eyes bright, searching. She sighed deeply. "Izzy lived. That's what happened. That's what I remember, at least. And it has to be true, doesn't it? Like you said, Izzy is here with us, alive and well. She lived. My mother fell back into the water when I brought Izzy back up out of the lake, carried in the sunken gazebo. I betrayed the resurrection of my mother to save my sister, and I'm glad I did. It was the right thing to do and I'll never struggle with that horrible, awful bargain again. But I did sacrifice somebody to the lake. Hardly anyone knows it. Damien, and Sabrina, and Ted. They saw what happened. What they don't know, though, is that we did it together, Izzy and me. We sacrificed Phyllis, Izzy's own mother, to the lake. We sent the Wishing Tree after her, made it carry her into the water, Izzy and I together, because Phyllis didn't deserve to live, not after what she had done to Izzy. Not after… Grandfather Warren…"
James frowned at Petra and shook his head. "I don't understand!" he called. The storm caught his words and bowled them away into the waves. "That can't be true, either! Izzy isn't even a witch! She's a Muggle, Petra! She can't do magic."
Petra shook her head slowly, distractedly. "She isn't a Muggle. She's a Muddle. She's caught right in the middle. Just like me."
James took Petra by the arm now, tugging her toward the stairs. "Tell me down below-decks, okay? You're going to be fine. Everything's going to be fine. Just come on with me, all right?"
Petra was still shaking her head. "Everything isn't going to be fine," she said, her voice rising in pitch, wavering. James was dismayed to realize the she was afraid, nearly to the point of tears. "Everything isn't going to be fine at all. Don't you see? I didn't change the bargain. I just changed the conditions. I didn't sacrifice Lily, or Izzy. I sacrificed Phyllis, with Izzy's help. Because of that, I didn't get my mother back. But I got something. I sense it. Something… someone… came up out of the lake. I thought I could escape her, but I can't. The dream is coming from her, like slow poison. I caused her to be, and now… and now…"
"Petra!" James said, shaking her and making her look at him. "We have to get below now! The storm! We can talk about this later, all right? I don't understand what you are saying, but it doesn't matter right now. You have to come down and be with Izzy! She needs you!"
That seemed to get Petra's attention. She blinked at him, as if coming out of a mild trance. She nodded. "You're right, James. Of course. I'm sorry. Let's go."
James nodded with relief. Taking Petra's hand, he turned and began to lead her back toward the mid-ship stairs.
A crack of thunder cleaved the sky overhead and a bolt of blinding lightning struck the aft mast, splitting it in two. Lashing burst loose with a series of high twangs and the mast began to topple, groaning and swinging sideways. James watched with horror, ducking and pulling Petra with him, but there was nothing he could do. The mast spun unpredictably, still trapped in the rigging, and fell to the deck with a shuddering crash. One of the mast's arms swept over James' head, brushing his hair. A split second later, Petra's hand was wrenched from his.
"Petra!" he shouted, scrambling backwards, his eyes wild. The angle of the mast arm had scooped Petra clean off the deck. James' heart leapt into his throat and he threw himself toward the stern railing, his feet slipping on the wet deck. The mast had crushed part of the railing as it fell on it. Now, half of the broken mast jutted out over the waves, caught in a web of torn sail and rigging. Petra clung to the outside of the railing, tangled in the mast's rigging. Slowly, the weight of the mast pulled her away from the railing and she began to lose her grip.
James leapt forward and grabbed Petra's arm just as she slipped loose. She clutched his wrist as she fell away, yanking him forward so that he nearly went over the edge himself. He struggled to hold onto the railing with one hand while Petra dangled from the other.
"Petra!" he cried down to her. "I can't hold on much longer! Climb up!"
"I'm caught!" she called back, and James saw it. The rigging was still tangled around her ankle, binding her to the broken mast. Behind James, horribly, a huge splintering crackle sounded. The mast dipped precipitously as it broke further away from the ship. Ropes twanged as they snapped, and the tip of the mast speared the waves, bowing under their weight.
"Use your wand!" James hollered down, his voice thin in the pounding wind. "Break the ropes with your wand!"
Petra hung from one wet hand, slipping slowly as the mast dragged her toward the mountainous waves. "I don't have a wand," she said, almost to herself. She looked down, examining the stormy ocean below, and then, suddenly, she gasped. "My brooch!" she cried out. She patted at her cape frantically with her free hand, searching. "My father's brooch! Where did it go? Oh no!"
"Petra!" James yelled, raising his voice as loudly as he could. "You have to use your powers! The ones you used in the dream story! Break the ropes with your mind! Do it now! Quickly!"
Petra didn't seem to hear him. The ship rolled horribly as the waves towered over it, crashing now over the decks. The sky loomed and swayed overhead. It had begun to rain.
"Let me go, James," Petra said, raising her eyes to him. They were calm and dark in the stormlight.
"What!?" James called back, redoubling his grip on her wrist. She was slipping away, and James realized that she was loosening her grasp on him.
She shook her head faintly. Her pale face looked earnestly up at him. "Let me go. This is how it is supposed to end. This will fix everything, balance it all back out again. This will send the dreams back into the water, where they belong. Let me go join my father's brooch. It's the only way. Let me go."
"I can't do that!" James cried, struggling desperately to maintain his grip on Petra's wrist. "I have to save you! I can't just let you go! I can't!"
"You can," Petra said. It was a request. "James, if you care about me, you can. You can let go."
"No!" James screamed, but it was going to happen whether he wanted it to or not. The rigging tangled around Petra's ankle was pulling her down, towed by the broken mast as it sank into the waves. An ominous creak sounded behind James as the mast began to tear away, taking part of the deck with it. There was no fighting the force of the storm. It wanted Petra, and it meant to have her.
Petra's fingers began to uncurl from James' wrist.
"NO!" James cried again, leaning forward, fighting to hold her, panic ripping through him. "Petra! No!"
She let go, and his fingers slipped, collapsed onto nothing as she dropped away, still looking up at him, her face calm in the raging darkness.
"UGH!" James cried out involuntarily as something deep inside him tugged, horribly and suddenly, nearly yanking him over the railing once more. His eyes clamped shut at the pain of it, even as he braced himself against the railing. Something was pulling him from the inside, as if a cord ran straight through him and ended in his gut, anchored there by some powerful, unshakable force. It hurt. "Ugh!" he cried out again, and finally opened his eyes.
Petra was still dangling below him, but much further down now, so that waves roared up over her legs and hips. She stared up at him, her face shocked, wide-eyed. Between her hand and his, a glowing silver cord trembled, thin as thread but apparently very strong. So strong, James sensed, that it was very nearly unbreakable. It was magic, but not like any magic James had ever known, or even heard of. It was Magic, deep and powerful, coming from outside of him, like a current of electricity so huge and potent that it could kill him if he wasn't careful. The silvery thread came from the center of his palm, trembling and humming. He wrapped his fingers around it tightly.
Petra raised her voice, crying up to him against the noise of the storm. "What are you doing?"
"I don't know!" James hollered back. "But I don't think I can stop it! You have to climb up! I'll pull you!"
"I can't!" Petra answered. "My ankle's still caught! It'll pull us both under!"
As she spoke, the mast crackled and splintered further. With a low creak and groan, it began to pull away from the ship, finally letting loose.
"Use your Magic!" James yelled. "Like you did the other morning! When you fixed the harness chain! I know it was you, just like in the dream story! Do it Petra! Now!"
Far below, Petra nodded. She closed her eyes as the waves rose and fell around her. Thunder and lightning blasted overhead, but the silver cord held strong, connecting Petra and James, glowing like a filament of starlight. Barely audible beneath the roar of the storm, a twang of breaking rope sounded and Petra grew suddenly lighter, buoying up out of the rolling waves. With a sustained shudder and a monstrous noise, the mast fell away from the ship. It crashed into the waves beneath Petra, sending up a deluge of grey water. Petra swung as she began to climb the glimmering thread, and James pulled her up, surprised at his own strength. It was as if power flowed into his arms from the thread itself, and still it tugged at his center, as if the thread's end wrapped around his very soul. For all he knew, it did.
Moments later, James helped Petra clamber over the broken railing. She collapsed against him, sodden and exhausted, and he stumbled backwards, barely able to hold himself up.
"What in the name of Neptune's ruddy trident is going on back here?" a voice bellowed. Footsteps sounded on the deck and hands grabbed at James and Petra, helping them up. James didn't recognize the sailors, but he recognized the look of annoyed alarm on their faces. The sailors hadn't seen what had happened at the rear of the ship. They only knew that lightning had struck their aft mast, breaking it off into the sea, and now, on top of everything, here were a couple of teenaged passengers mucking about on the deck during an Atlantic storm.
"Get below-decks!" one of the sailors cried out, pointing. "What, are you both totally daft? Go on!"
James nodded, and then turned to look at Petra. He still had her hand, although the strange silver cord seemed to have faded away. Or perhaps it had simply gone invisible. "Are you all right?" he asked her.
She didn't answer. Instead, she turned and looked back, toward the rolling, stormy waves beyond the stern railing.
"Goodbye father," she said in a faint voice. She shuddered and her eyes were wide, wet with exhausted tears. "Goodbye. I'm sorry."
5. NEW AMSTERDAM
"So what happened out there anyway?" Albus asked quietly.
James lay in his bunk, staring up at the ceiling. The ship still creaked ominously as it rocked, but the brunt of the storm had finally passed. The thump of footsteps could be heard from the decks above as the crew attempted to repair what was left of the stern mast.
"James?" It was Ralph this time, from the bunk across the narrow room. "You asleep over there?"
"So what gives? What really happened?"
James sighed. "Apparently you lot saw it all from the stern windows in the captain's quarters. You tell me."
"Hah," Albus laughed derisively. "We hardly got to see anything before Merlin got involved. We heard the mast fall over and saw bits of it go over the side, and then we saw Petra's feet hanging down, swinging back and forth with the ropes all tangled up in them. Mum let out a scream, and that's when Merlin came up and put the lights out."
"I don't get it," James said, rolling over and looking at Ralph in the opposite bunk. "Why did he pull the curtains?"
Ralph screwed up his face thoughtfully. "That's not what he did. He came forward and stood in front of the window, spreading out his arms, and he said something in that weird language of his. Old Celtic, I guess. Rose would probably know what it meant. Next thing we know, the windows had all gone completely dark, like they'd been covered in black paint. I guess he didn't want us to see it if Petra was going to fall. I mean, Izzy was there, after all. Petra's her sister."
"Thanks for the explanation," James said, sighing.
"So tell us!" Albus insisted. "What happened?"
James shook his head on his pillow. "She fell. That's all. Lightning struck the mast at the back of the ship, right next to us. It fell over and knocked Petra over the side. She hung onto the railing until I got over there and grabbed her."
Albus shifted on his bunk, squeaking the thin mattress. "What was she doing up on deck in the first place? Didn't she know there was a bloody hurricane going?"
"I don't know," James said. He meant to go on, to try to explain, but the words wouldn't come. Instead, he let the silence spin out, telling its own story.
"I'll tell you one thing," Albus commented, "she's been a little odd ever since she showed up at our place, earlier this summer. Whatever happened back at her grandparents' farm, I think it knocked a few owls loose in her owlery, if you know what I mean."
"Shut up, Al," James said. He felt his face heating, but he tried not to let it show in his voice. "You don't know anything about it. So just shut up."
Ralph rolled over and rested his chin on his forearm, peering across the darkened room. "Well, that's kind of the point, isn't it? Hardly anybody knows what happened there. I mean, there's Damien, Sabrina, and Ted, but they sure aren't talking. Merlin's orders. Whatever happened, it had to have been pretty ugly. Both of Petra's grandparents ended up dead."
"Phyllis wasn't Petra's grandmother," James announced darkly. "She was just the woman Petra's grandfather married, and she was perfectly horrid. Whatever happened to her, she got what she deserved."
The bed beneath James squeaked again as Albus moved around on it. A moment later, his head appeared next to James' bunk, peering up at him. "You know something, don't you? Tell!"
"I don't know anything. Shut up and go to sleep, you berk."
Albus stared at him critically.
Across the room, Ralph said, "I don't know what this Phyllis woman was supposed to have done, but she was Izzy's mum, at least. I mean, maybe there was a good reason, maybe there wasn't, but it's a pretty strong thing to say that death was what she deserved."
"Well, Petra isn't in Azkaban, is she?" James replied angrily. "Obviously whatever happened, nobody's blaming her for it."
"Or nobody can prove that she did it," Albus added, still studying James' face.
James threw off the covers and shoved Albus aside. He leapt nimbly to the floor and pulled the door open, letting in the light from the corridor.
"Hey," Ralph called, "where are you going?"
"Out," James replied, not turning back. "That's all. Don't follow me."
He pulled the door closed and stalked along the narrow corridor, fuming and confused. When he reached the stairs to the main deck, he turned toward them and climbed to the door, which was propped open, letting in the night air.
The deck was wet beneath James' bare feet. He peered back toward the stern and saw deckhands moving about by lantern-light, using their wands to repair what remained of the stern mast. Sighing, James turned toward the bow stairs and climbed up, glad that this end of the ship, at least, seemed dark and relatively deserted.
The mate seated in the brass steering chair sang jauntily to himself, clutching a pipe between his teeth. Between stanzas, the mate puffed, and the orange glow of the pipe's flame was the only light to be seen. James kept behind the mate and moved toward the railing, which he leaned on. The ocean was nearly invisible in the darkness, but for the phantom-like shapes of the whitecaps. Waves thumped against the hull as Henrietta plowed relentlessly onward.
James' thoughts were a blur. The events of the night played over and over in his head, stranger and more mysterious with each remembrance. Petra's words had been frightening enough, but they had paled in comparison to the nightmare of the falling mast and the horrors that had followed. He recalled the sad certainty of her voice as she'd told him to let her go, to let her fall into the ocean, following after the enigmatic lost brooch, as if that was something he could ever, in a million years, allow to happen. The worst part of all, however, had been that moment—that one, crystalline instant of perfect understanding—when he knew that Petra, the girl he loved, was going to die.
And then, to no one's greater shock than his own, he, James, had conjured the mysterious silver thread, the one that had connected him to her, saving her from the reaching waves. Yesterday evening, Barstow had said that the storm that was coming was not like the one in The Triumvirate. This won't be any magical storm, he had said, like what nearly overtook the fabled Treus and his crew. Now, however, James couldn't help wondering.
Footsteps sounded on the wet deck, nearby. James didn't look up. He hoped that whoever it was would simply pass him by. Instead, he heard the figure approach him, felt the warmth of the person as they leaned against the railing next to him, nearly invisible in the stormy darkness.
"Are you doing all right?" a voice asked quietly. It was his dad.
James sighed deeply. "Yeah. I guess."
Together, they watched the marching shapes of the whitecaps, moving like ghosts alongside the ship. After a minute, his dad spoke again. "Do you want to tell me what happened?"
James thought about it. Finally, he said, "Petra's sick, Dad. But not sick like Mum thinks. She's not well. In her thoughts. I think she… I think she came up on the deck tonight… because she wanted something to happen to her."
Harry Potter nodded slowly. His glasses glinted softly as the moon finally peeked through the tattering clouds. "I've spoken to Merlinus about it," he said. "The Headmaster has been… watching her."
"What's the matter with her?" James asked, looking aside at his father. "Does Merlin know? Is she going to be all right?"
Harry turned his head toward James and smiled slightly. "I'll tell you the truth, son. I don't know. But she's been through an awful lot. It will take time for her to work through it all. Be patient. Be her friend."
James sighed again, turning away. "I don't even know how to do that much. Every time I talk to her, I get… I don't know…" He shrugged and shook his head.
Harry's smile widened a little and he bumped James with his shoulder. "I know how you feel, son. Don't worry. The words will come when they need to. Just like they did tonight."
"What do you mean?" James asked, glancing back at his father.
Harry shrugged. "I heard you. We all did. We heard you calling down to Petra as she hung behind the ship, trapped. I heard you telling her what she had to do. You convinced her. You saved her life, James."
"But how, Dad?" James asked, almost pleading. "How did she do it? How did she break the ropes with just her mind? It was her yesterday morning too! She's the one that fixed the harness chain beneath the boat. She didn't use her wand! She doesn't…" James stopped himself, realizing he was close to breaking his promise to Petra. He'd vowed not to tell anyone her secret. "She doesn't… use a wand. Anymore. I mean, not that I've seen."
"So I have noticed," Harry replied evenly. "Merlin knows. He's told me a bit, but not very much. He is a man who keeps his own counsel."
"Can you tell me anything?"
Harry shook his head. "Not because you don't deserve to know, James, but because it wouldn't make any sense. Later, perhaps. When things are clearer."
"That's why Merlin's on this trip, then, isn't it?" James said, peering up into his father's face. "The real reason he came is to keep an eye on Petra. Isn't it?"
Harry met his son's gaze. He shook his head very faintly. "You have the mind of an Auror, James," he said seriously. "Use it well. Use it to keep yourself out of trouble. I know how hard it is to hear this, but hear it anyway: for now, there is nothing more you can do for Petra than be her friend. Whatever happens, that will be the thing she needs most."
"What's going to happen?" James asked, not breaking his father's gaze. "What do you know?"
"I know that you have difficulty understanding that the weight of the world isn't yours to bear," Harry said, with fond weariness. He smiled crookedly. "But you come by it honestly, so I can't blame you for it."
For a long moment, the two were silent again. James turned and looked back out at the ocean, listened to the monotonous thrash of the waves beneath the prow. After another minute, he spoke again.
"What happened back there, Dad?"
Harry seemed to know what his son was asking about. He thought about it for a moment, and then took off his glasses. "Did I ever tell you what happened on the day my mother and father were killed?" he asked mildly.
James glanced at him seriously. "Yeah," he said slowly. "I mean, everybody knows about that. There've been books. Movies even."
Harry nodded shortly. "Yes, but that's not what really happened. It's all just guesses, really. I mean, everyone that was there that night is dead now. Except for myself, of course. And I don't remember any of it, fortunately. There's only one person who really did know the truth of that night. You know who that is?"
James frowned as he thought about it. An idea occurred to him. "Dumbledore? Your old Headmaster?"
"Got it in one," Harry said, smiling. It was a thin smile, rather sad. "Albus Dumbledore. He told me about it, although I didn't fully understand it at the time. Maybe no one but Dumbledore himself truly could. It was old magic, after all. Old and deep. Such things aren't taught in books and classes. They come only through wisdom. Dumbledore may not have been perfect… but he was wise."
James blinked, unsure where this was going. "So what did he tell you?" he asked. "What really happened that night?"
Harry narrowed his eyes as he looked out at the waves. "My mother made a trade," he said slowly. "It sounds simple, really, and yet I think it's anything but that. I think the simple explanation is the only way we can really understand it. She made a trade. She gave her life in order to save me. When she did that, she created a kind of magic that Voldemort, in all his cruel power, could never grasp. She created a sort of contract, something that bound him, and hobbled him, something that connected him and me forever, until one of us was dead. The secret of it, the mystery of it, is in the substance of that bond, the force that made the contract unbreakable. Dumbledore told me when I was just a boy, younger than you, but it was too simple for me then. I thought he was just being sentimental. Now, I know different. Now, I know that the force he spoke of truly is the most powerful, the most inviolate and unbreakable thing in the entire universe. Tell me that you know what I am talking about."
James did know what his father was talking about. "Love," he answered. "Your mother's magical contract was bound in love. Somehow. Right?"
Harry nodded again, very slowly this time. "People think love is something all light and fluffy, something dreamy. They write it in flowery pink letters, print it on cards, play wispy songs about it on flutes and harps. But that's not what love really is, or, at least, that's not all love is. Love is like chains of unbreakable steel. Love is like iron weights, heavier than the world. Love can crush just as surely as it can lift up. Everything else wilts before it. That's what Voldemort failed to grasp, and what killed him in the end: my mother's love, the trade she made, giving herself… for me."
James had never heard his father talk about such things before. The story of his parents' death was so common, so familiar to everyone in the wizarding world, that it had become almost sterile. Now, James realized, more than he ever had before, that this was something that had actually happened. His dad, the great Harry Potter, had once been a baby, defenseless and helpless, and he had required the protection of his own mother, a woman who had given the last thing, the most powerful thing, she'd known how to give: her own life, as an act of perfect love.
Next to James, his father stirred. "Like I said, it is old magic. So basic, so simple, that there is no word for it. It just is. The trade, the saving of one life by the sacrifice of another. It makes a bond, one that is unbreakable, one that forms a contract forever, just like the one that existed between me and Voldemort, the one that eventually killed him. Do you understand, James?"
James nodded. "Yeah. I mean… I guess so. But what's this have to do with—"
"James," Harry interrupted him, "tonight, something like that happened here, on this very ship. But different. I didn't know for sure, not when it happened. I couldn't see it because Merlin clouded the windows. But I sensed it. Some part of me… some buried, essential part of me… remembered the feeling of it. James, can you tell me… when Petra fell… did you see something? Something unusual?"
James felt cold to his toes. He looked at his father, his eyes wide, stunned. He didn't need to respond. Harry saw it in his son's eyes.
"Something happened between you and Petra. But it wasn't a trade. I don't know how, but you saved her, just like my mother saved me… but you did it without having to die yourself. You were willing to, though. Weren't you?"
James still stared up at his father, unseeing now as he thought back to the events of the night. He nodded.
Harry nodded as well. "I know. You were willing to die in her stead. And somehow that triggered the magic, caused that bond to happen, even though… you didn't have to die."
When James spoke, it was in a near whisper. "But… how is that possible? Your mum was a grown witch, and by all accounts, she was excellent. How could I perform a spell as serious and powerful as what she did?"
Harry shook his head. "It isn't that kind of magic, James. That's why Voldemort failed in the face of it. It isn't magic you learn. It isn't like transfiguration or flying a broom. For those who know love, it's just there, deep down, like an underground river, hidden and powerful. Very few witches and wizards ever have the need, or the depth of character, to call on it. You did, James. Just like my mother. You did."
"But… why did I live, then? If it's a trade…?"
Harry laid a hand on his son's shoulder. "I don't know. It's almost as if you tapped into some completely different form of magic, something beyond what we know or understand. All I know is that it happened, and… I'm proud of you, James. I can't tell you how proud I am, not just because of what you did, but because of how calm and sure you were when you did it." He sighed deeply, and then went on in a lower voice. "Neither can I tell you how relieved I was to see you and Petra come down those stairs together, wet and shaken as you were. Because for one horrid moment, I thought you were no more. I don't ever want to feel that way again. I don't think I could bear it."
James nodded. He understood very well what his father was talking about.
There didn't seem to be anything further to say. Harry put his arm around his son's shoulders and together they began to make their way to the stairs, heading back below-decks.
"Dad," James said as they moved through the darkness, "why did Merlin cover the windows? Why didn't he just use his powers to save Petra?"
Harry was silent for a long moment. James had begun to think his father wasn't going to answer at all, when he finally drew a deep breath.
"Merlinus is a mysterious and powerful wizard, James," he said carefully. "He comes from a dramatically different time. I don't understand why he does a lot of what he does. But he is very like my old Headmaster, Dumbledore, in one important way: he is wise. Wisdom does not come easily or cheaply, and it is to be respected wherever it can be found. I don't always understand Merlinus. But I respect him. He has his reasons, but they are his alone."
James was insistent. He stopped at the top of the deck stairs and turned to face his father. "Guess, Dad. Come on. You're smart. Take a guess."
Harry shook his head slowly, not in negation, but in deep thought. He looked out over the waves. "Merlin either knew that you were going to rescue Petra… or that Petra was going to be saved somehow, one way or another…," he said slowly, and then paused. Finally, he shrugged, still not meeting James' gaze. "Or, for whatever reason—and despite the fact that I hate to consider it— perhaps Merlin was willing… to allow Petra to die."
James felt a chill again. It coursed down his back, prickling his hair.
Harry saw the look on his son's face but didn't try to deny his words, nor did he add anything else to his statement. Finally, after a long thoughtful moment, the two of them descended into the warmth and light of the corridor. They said goodnight at James' door, and he climbed quietly into his bunk.
In the rocking darkness, James lifted his right hand and looked at it. The glowing silver thread was no longer visible, but he had a strong feeling that it was still there, just as real and strong as it had been earlier that night, when it had been the only thing between Petra and the rushing waves. James had been willing to die for Petra. He hadn't known it at the time, had not consciously thought about it, but there was no doubt about it. He had been willing to trade his life for hers.
Merlin, on the other hand, might well have been willing to allow Petra to die. Incredible as it seemed, he might not have raised a single magical finger to save her. James shook his head slowly on his pillow, letting his hand thump to the bed next to him. He trusted Merlin. His experiences last year had cemented his belief in the old man's wisdom and good intent, just as James' dad had said, but what could possibly explain the fact that Merlin might have chosen not to save Petra? Suddenly, James' heart dropped and his eyes widened. What if Merlin himself had conjured the storm? Nature was his medium, after all, and the source of his powers. What if the storm really had been of magical origin, and Petra's death had been its intent?
It was completely ridiculous, of course. Merlin could be trusted. James knew that now, fully and deeply. Merlin was a good guy.
But what about Petra, James asked himself, unable to silence the voice of his deepest, most honest heart. After all, Petra believes that she has killed. If she did, maybe Phyllis deserved it, but then again, maybe she didn't. Maybe Albus is right. Maybe the only reason Petra isn't in Azkaban is because nobody can prove what she did. Maybe Merlin was willing to let Petra die tonight because… Petra isn't good. Maybe she's bad. Worse, maybe she's bad… and powerful.
James stopped his thoughts before they could go any further. Petra wasn't bad. She might be confused, and she was certainly sick in some way, but deep down she was good. He knew it. If Merlin thought otherwise—and James couldn't really know if he did, despite how things might have appeared earlier that night—then he was simply wrong.
Thinking that, James finally drifted into a fitful, restless sleep.
The next day, after breakfast, Barstow reined Henrietta in, halting the Gwyndemere on the rocking waves. With Dodongo's help, the crew heaved swordfish carcasses overboard, and James, Ralph, and Lucy watched as Henrietta caught them in her jaws, crunching them up whole.
"Was it like the glowing rope you saw last year?" Ralph asked quietly. "In the cave, when we went to get Merlin's cache?"
James shook his head. "No. That started out as a sunbeam, and then turned into a plain old rope, made out of some kind of gold stuff. This was like… like a thread spun out of moonlight."
Ralph frowned. "What do you think, Lu?"
"I think Uncle Harry was right about what he told James. It's old magic. Not everybody can tap into it. And when they do, it's not like something you can control. It'd be like trying to bottle a lightning bolt."
"What about Petra, though?" James said, glancing between the two of them. "She does magic without a wand! Is that… normal?"
"It isn't normal, of course," Lucy replied. "But it isn't completely unheard of. Lots of people practice wandless magic, as a sort of hobby. It's just very hard to manage. The wand focuses magic, like a magnifying glass can focus a sunbeam and turn it into a torch. Maybe Petra's just especially talented."
Ralph looked around to make sure no one was nearby, and then said in a low voice, "I'm more worried about the bit where she told you someone or something was following her around. I mean, is she just being paranoid? Or is there really somebody after her? And maybe the rest of us too?"
"If it really was someone evil," Lucy mused, "then Merlin would have felt it. He's dead powerful that way. Still, there was that scary moment when the pirate ships nearly captured us all. Maybe that's what she was thinking of."
Both Ralph and Lucy looked at James, but he merely shrugged and shook his head.
Shortly, Barstow ordered the hatches closed again in preparation for the last leg of the ocean journey. "That's my girl, Henrietta," he called down affectionately. "Just a wee bit further, then Dodongo will put in his little bit and give you a well-deserved break."
Henrietta frolicked in the water, swimming in massive circles and figures of eight, her humps slicing through the waves. She thrashed her tail and flung seawater from her great, scaly head. Finally, Barstow climbed into the brass chair, whistling.
"Want to man the reins one more time, James?" he called down, grinning. "Last chance before landfall!"
James shook his head, but couldn't help smiling. "No thanks."
"Suit yourself," Barstow said, shrugging. He called a short incantation and the magical fishing line pulsed once. Henrietta lunged forward and the boat lurched behind her, rising onto the waves.
As the journey neared its end, James found that the thrill of it had finally worn off. He was eager to reach land again and found himself lurking around the bow as the day progressed, watching the horizon for any sign of their destination. Ralph accompanied him sometimes, as did Albus and Lucy. After lunch, Petra joined him, leading Izzy at her side. The three sat cross-legged on the deck, leaning against the railing, talking idly about what the United States might be like. Interestingly, Petra seemed to be feeling rather better, to the point where she almost seemed like her old self. She laughed as they spoke, and James was glad to hear it. He wanted to ask her about the magic, about how she did it without her wand, but he didn't. Later, he would, but not now. The timing just wasn't right.
Finally, as the sun began its descent back toward the horizon, James heard a babble of voices and looked up. Persephone Remora and her gaggle of fellow travelers were climbing onto the bow, squinting in the sunlight, their faces pale as gravestones.
"Yes, my friends, I believe you are correct," Remora announced, lifting her face to the breeze. "I can smell it as well. The dark purple scent of lifeblood is thick on the wind. We are very nearly home."
James sighed and rolled his eyes. He stood and threaded through the black-clothed figures, heading below-decks. He sensed the teenagers looking at him as he passed, their faces sly and sarcastic.
Later, James, along with his fellow travelers, climbed a circular stairway to the top of the deckhouse, eager to catch their first glimpse of the United States. James elbowed in between Albus and Lucy at the railing, watching as an irregular dark shape grew on the horizon. Below, the bow looked very small and narrow. James could clearly see Henrietta carving the waves up ahead, her long lithe body rippling just under the rushing surface.
"Are you excited?" Lucy asked, leaning eagerly over the railing, her dark eyes sparkling. "I sure am. I can't wait to get there."
"Why are you so hopped up about it, Lu?" Albus asked. "You've traveled all over the world."
"Sure," Lucy answered, shrugging, "but that was the world. This is the United States. For better or worse, there's no other place quite like it."
Albus scoffed darkly. "The same thing can be said about James' clothes hamper."
"Look," Molly cried suddenly, pointing. "Over there, just to the left of the bow. See? Buildings! That's the skyline! We're nearly there!"
James looked. He wasn't sure he was seeing the same thing Molly was seeing, but it was exciting nonetheless. The great landmass grew and spread, slowly expanding to fill the entire western horizon. As the fog of distance dissipated, James began to recognize the shapes of a great city. Buildings towered up toward the sky, clumped together like stacks of gigantic toy blocks. Finally, as they got close enough for James to make out the faces of individual skyscrapers and to recognize the shapes of other ships clustered around the sprawling ports, Barstow halted the Gwyndemere. Deftly, he used his own wand to release Henrietta from her harness chain. A few quick commands and words of praise sent the great sea serpent curling down under the boat, where she would apparently hide for the landward side of the journey. Much more slowly, then, the Gwyndemere began to creep forward, propelled by Dodongo's dutiful pedaling below-decks. James turned and saw the smokestack behind him issuing a stream of black smoke: the giant ape's last huge cigar, of course. He grinned, and then turned back to the approaching land.
"The Statue of Liberty," Harry announced from behind James. James saw it, standing tall and straight before the massive city, faint in the misty distance. The statue seemed to regard them mildly, her torch raised high overhead, glinting gold as the sun shone on it. Behind James, his father sighed and said, rather more quietly. "The United States. What would Severus Snape say, I wonder."
"He'd say to keep one hand on your wand and the other on your wallet," Albus said, grinning crookedly.
"We're nearly to port," Percy announced briskly, clapping his hands together. "I suggest we all head below and make ourselves ready. The journey isn't over yet! We've still a way to go before nightfall, and our escorts will be meeting us at customs."
James turned aside, peering around Ralph toward his cousin Lucy. "Is your dad always this chipper when he's traveling?"
Lucy nodded somberly. "He thrives on it. The good part is that we can always leave him to manage all the business of it and just enjoy the sights ourselves. Should be interesting."
"Famous last words," Albus said, narrowing his eyes.
Slowly, James and his family and friends began to thread back down the spiral stairway. By the time they had lugged their trunks back onto the main deck, they were very nearly at port. The shadows of the skyscrapers fell over the Gwyndemere as she angled into a narrow inlet, surrounded by massive cargo ships and rusty tugboats. Gulls soared and lofted on the air currents, calling derisively over the waves. The air was thick with the mingled smells of dead fish, seaweed, and, unfortunately, garbage. James turned to watch as a huge barge of rubbish lumbered past them, piled high and surrounded by its own cloud of screeching gulls.
"I hope this isn't a sign of things to come," Ralph said, staring up at the stinking piles of trash.
"Buck up, Ralph," Petra said, coming up behind them and smiling. "A city that can afford to throw that much rubbish away must be a city worth seeing, right?"
Ralph shook his head uncertainly. "If you say so."
"I do," Petra said, and something in her voice made James turn around. To his eyes, Petra certainly didn't appear sick anymore, and the sight made his heart rejoice. She drew in a great, contented breath and let it out slowly, looking up at the towering, glittering buildings. "New York," she said on the exhale, narrowing her eyes slightly. "You know what they call it, don't you?"
James shook his head, smiling at her with bemusement.
"They call it The City that Never Sleeps," she answered herself, nodding with approval. "I like that. I like it very much."
James couldn't stop looking at her. To him, she was very nearly radiant. Beyond her, the buildings loomed and glimmered, casting their shadows over her, sparkling in the setting sun.
Somewhere nearby, a tugboat sounded its horn. James barely heard it.
The next half hour went past in a blur of bustling crowds, echoing announcements, long queues, and flashing signs. James drifted through it all in a sort of dazed wonder, glad that his dad and Uncle Percy seemed to be managing the various questions, connections, and directions. The American wizarding customs agent didn't even look up as James moved in front of the high counter, following Lucy and Izzy.
"Name," the man said, holding out his hand, palm up. James had been watching, so he knew what to do. He dropped his wand into the man's hand.
"James Sirius Potter," he called through the noise of the crowd.
"Reason for visiting the United States?" the agent asked in a bored monotone.
"I'm here with my dad, Harry Potter," James answered. He was satisfied to see the agent blink and look up at him over his glasses. It was a brief look, but James knew what it meant. Even here, Harry Potter was a well-known figure.
"Are you transporting any fruit, vegetables, potions, beasts, insects, cursed objects, or forbidden artifacts into the United States?"
"No," James said, and then added, "er, I have an owl. Nobby. Does he count?"
"Service animals are permitted, so long as they can pass a routine health inspection," the agent said, holding James' wand under a large magnifying glass. Smoky shapes on the glass resolved into letters, and James craned to read them. He was interested to see that the letters spelled out the last several spells he had performed—mostly levitations, but also the hiding spells he had used on Petra's letter—as well as the construction and core details of his wand. The agent quickly jotted James' name on a much-used chalkboard and the letters appeared a moment later on the magnifying glass, beneath the information about his wand. The agent turned and handed the wand back to James over the counter.
"Are you a registered or undocumented werewolf, Animagus, Metamorphmagus, vampire, shape-shifter, or beast-whisperer?" he said, rattling off the words as if he had asked the same question a million times before, which he probably had.
James tried to replay the question in his head. "Er, I don't think so," he answered.
"Welcome to the United States," the agent said, unsmiling. "And good luck, Mr. Potter."
"Er, thanks." James replied. As he moved forward in line, making room for Ralph to hand over his own unusually large wand, James turned and saw his father at an adjacent queue, behind Merlin and in front of his mum. They were all talking, their heads close together.
Finally, the signs and queues opened up into a broad lobby with high vaulted ceilings and moving advertisements framed on the walls. Witches and wizards crowded the space, some flying overhead on brooms, zooming in and out through a bank of very tall doorways set into the far wall. As James peered around at the milling crowd, he was not exactly surprised to see a wide variety of ethnicities, clothing styles, and even animals, all milling through the gigantic space like ants.
On the other side of the space, near the doors, a Bigfoot wearing a backpack and a pair of dark sunglasses lumbered along, towering over those around him. Nearby, a dark-skinned wizard in a red fez stooped over an open carpet bag. He produced a length of white rope, which he deftly tossed into the air, where it caught and hung on nothing. Without pausing, the man closed his carpet bag, scooped it onto his shoulder, and, to James' complete amazement, began to climb the rope. As he reached the top, he vanished into thin air, taking his carpet bag with him. A moment later, the rope zipped upwards, disappearing as well.
"Wicked…," Ralph said appreciatively, standing next to James, his eyes wide.
James nodded and felt excitement bubbling up in him. Together, they followed Percy and Neville Longbottom toward a bank of grand marble stairs and the doors beyond.
"Hey," Ralph said suddenly, pushing himself up on his toes to peer over the crowd, "isn't that Chancellor Franklyn over there? On the landing over to the right?"
James peered around Neville's shoulder and grinned. "It is! And look who's with him!"
"James!" a voice cried out over the noise of the throng. "Ralph! Hey, over here!"
James and Ralph pushed through the crowd, laughing with delight. James leapt up the stairs, taking them two at a time to the nearest landing, where a small group of people stood watching. "Zane!" he called. "I didn't know you were coming!"
"Are you kidding?" Zane said, matching James' grin. "I was planning to stow away in the baggage compartment if Chancellor Franklyn wasn't going to let me come. How are you doing, you guys? Good to see you!"
James reached to shake Zane's hand, but Zane grabbed James around the shoulder and pulled him into a rough half-embrace.
"Oof," James said, laughing. "I forget how touchy-feely you lot are. We're good. Glad to finally be here."
"Hey Zane!" Ralph smiled, huffing up the last of the stairs to the landing. "Nice country you got here."
"You just wait," Zane said, approaching Ralph and throwing an arm around the bigger boy's shoulders. "I'm going to show you all around. You'll love it. But first, intros…" He turned aside, gesturing toward the people standing nearby. "That's Chancellor Franklyn, of course, who you already know."
Franklyn nodded at James and Ralph. "Boys," he said, smiling. "It's good to see you both again, and rather grown-up, I daresay. I trust you've been practicing up on your defensive techniques. It looks like I may be overseeing your education again this year, if I am not mistaken."
James nodded, but Zane went on, interrupting him before he could reply. "Next to him, that's Professor Georgia Burke. She teaches Mug-Occ and Magizoology. You might have her this year if you're lucky. She lets us pet the tufted rattlebacks, even though it's technically a violation of the health code. The rest of these mugs are just T.A.s and admin, here to take a few pictures of the big city. Like me," Zane finished, grinning. "Which reminds me, here, what's your name?"
Lucy blinked at Zane as she reached the landing. "I'm Lucy Weasley," she replied. "Who are you?"
"Pleased to meet you, Lucy. I'm Zane. You know these two? Troublemakers, aren't they? Here, would you mind taking a picture of the three of us?"
James stifled a grin as Zane shoved a large camera into Lucy's hands.
"Just push the red button on the top right," he said, backing away and throwing an arm each around James and Ralph. "But you have to hold it down for a second so the flash will work."
"I know how to operate a camera," Lucy commented, rolling her eyes. She raised the camera and peered through the viewfinder.
"Say 'cheese'!" Zane announced, showing all his teeth to the camera.
The camera flashed as Ralph and James both said 'cheese'.
"Speaking of which," Albus said, climbing the stairs next to his parents, "here's our cheesy American friend."
"Good to see you, Zane" Harry said, patting Zane roughly on the shoulder. "Still tearing it up on the Quidditch pitch?"
"I wish," Zane replied, shaking his head. "These guys don't have any respect for the game over here. Here, it's all Quodpot and Clutch. We have a team, but it's nothing like when I played with the Ravenclaws." He sighed, and then brightened. "Hi Petra! I didn't know you were coming."
Petra beamed at Zane, walking with Izzy at her side. "I don't think anybody knew for sure until we were underway," she answered, shrugging.
"Harry," Benjamin Franklyn said warmly, reaching to shake hands. "So good to see you again. I only wish it were under better circumstances. And this must be the lovely Ginevra?"
"Pleased to meet you, Chancellor," James' mum said, smiling.
"Do call me Benjamin," Franklyn said, showing her his most charming smile.
"Chancellor," Percy said, sidling between them and reaching for Franklyn's hand. "A pleasure, as always. You've met my wife, Audrey, of course. And this is Denniston Dolohov, Neville Longbottom, and finally, last but not least…"
"Merlinus Ambrosius," Franklyn interjected, looking up at the tall wizard. "Yes, of course. We barely had the chance to speak when last we met. Things were rather hectic, of course. I look forward to a more relaxed interview this time, although I am certain it won't be as long as I might hope."
"Chancellor," Merlin nodded in greeting. "I assure you, this will likely be the first of many visits. I wish to know much about this country of yours. But we will make the best use of what time we have."
Greetings and introductions continued all around, but James grew bored with them and stopped paying attention. Finally, Neville spoke up.
"Begging everyone's pardon, but I, for one, am anxious to reach our final destination. Might we continue our conversation as we move on?"
"Certainly, Mr. Longbottom," Franklyn agreed. "We are only awaiting one more person. Well, in a manner of speaking."
Harry looked around at everyone in his troop. "I believe we are all present and accounted for, Chancellor. Are you quite sure?"
"Indeed I am," Franklyn nodded. "Pardon the confusion. She is one of our own, in fact. Just now returning, by happenstance, from a summer trip abroad with some of her students."
"Here she comes now," Zane said, sighing in annoyance. "Don't tell me you guys had to travel with her."
James turned, frowning quizzically, just in time to see Persephone Remora climbing the steps to the landing, her long black cloak flowing dramatically around her, creating a wake through the moving crowd.
"Ah," she sighed. "Returned so soon. It seems as if we barely just left. Greetings, Chancellor, Georgia. Forgive me if we seem less than enthused to see you. It is always rather a strain to come back from our land of origin. Pray, don't take it personally."
"Welcome home, Professor Remora," Franklyn announced. "No offense taken whatsoever. We, too, know what it is like to be away from our homeland. As do our European friends here. I take it most of you have already met?"
"Professor Remora?" James said incredulously, turning back to Zane and Ralph.
"Yeah," Zane said under his breath. "Forbidden Practices and Cursology. Don't get me started. She's a real treat."
"Huh," Ralph said, peering aside at the woman and her pasty-faced students. "I wouldn't have guessed that."
James shook his head. "He's being sarcastic, Ralph. It's an American thing. Remember?"
"Oh yeah," Ralph said, nodding. "That makes more sense, then."
"Friends," Franklyn announced, gesturing toward the bank of doors behind him, "let us be off!"
Slowly, the group made its way up the last flight of stairs, moving into the sunset light of the doors. James craned to see around Neville Longbottom, eager for his first glimpse of the city beyond.
"I was speechless when I first saw this place," Zane enthused happily. "I mean, as a wizard, of course. I'd been to New York loads of times before, when I was growing up, but I never knew it had a magical twin. Still, I think I always sort of expected it, you know?"
"What do you mean 'a magical twin'?" Ralph asked, glancing aside as they neared the doors.
Zane blinked aside at him. "You don't know already?"
"My dad visited Alma Aleron last summer," Ralph replied, "but he came via Portkey. I don't think he made it to New York at all."
"Oh man," Zane said, shaking his head and grinning. "Hold onto your wands, then, guys. This is gonna blow your minds."
The view finally opened before them as James, Zane, and Ralph stepped out into the lowering sunlight. Before them, a paved thoroughfare led through an ornate arched gate. Wroughtiron letters crafted into the arch spelled out the words 'e magicus pluribus unum'. Beyond the gate, looming high into the sunset, James was not surprised to see the shapes of glittering skyscrapers and steel towers. What did surprise him, however, so much so that he stopped in his tracks, his mouth dropping open, was the swarm of flying vehicles, broomed witches and wizards, and glowing magical signs and moving billboards that overlaid the buildings, reaching high up into their narrow, urban canyons.
For the first time, James noticed that nearly every skyscraper was topped with another building, smaller and older, as if a much more antiquated city had been pushed upwards by the newer buildings, like birds' nests in trees. Witches and wizards circled these buildings, perching on elaborate wooden scaffoldings that extended from, and even connected, most of the skyscrapers. In the center of it all, dominating the entire skyline, was a building so bright and transparent that it appeared to be constructed entirely of glass. As James watched, he could see people moving about inside it, riding in shimmering elevators or working over tiny semi-transparent desks.
"Welcome, friends," Franklyn said, looking up and smiling proudly. "Welcome… to New Amsterdam."
6. UNDER THE WARPING WILLOW
As it turned out, the group was traveling the rest of the way to Alma Aleron via train. Franklyn led everyone underground through a Muggle subway entrance. Near the turnstiles, James saw Muggle New Yorkers mingling freely and apparently obliviously with witches and wizards in all manner of robes and costumes. A very tall black wizard wearing white robes walked regally with a Bengal tiger at his side, led by a length of gold chain. A small child in a stroller blinked at the tiger and pointed.
"Mom! Tiger!" the boy cried out, grinning with delight.
The mother, a harried-looking woman in a business suit, was talking on her cell phone. The boy called again, and she finally glanced down at him, patting him on the head. "That's nice, honey," she said. "Mommy loves your imagination. Tigers in the subway. You should draw that when we get home."
James craned to watch as Franklyn led the troop though a special turnstile set into a tiled wall. "She doesn't even see the tiger," he said to Ralph, pointing. "It's right there in front of her! It almost stepped on her foot!"
"The kid sees it, though," Ralph commented.
"See what I mean?" Zane said, stepping through the turnstile. "The spell only really starts working when you're about three years old. That's why, when I was a kid, I always sort of knew there was something magical about this town, even though I didn't really remember the details."
James opened his mouth to ask another question, but at that moment he caught his first glimpse of the train that they were about to board. It rested between two elevated platforms in its own special terminal. The engine compartment was long and sleek, made from shining steel and glass, so streamlined that it appeared to be moving even as it stood still. Stylized letters along the side announced it as the Lincoln Zephyr. Double doors along the train's cars shuttled open and James felt the throng of travelers surge toward them. In the lead, Franklyn and Merlin stepped into the brightly lit interior of the engine's seating compartment.
"Sure beats taking a cab," Zane announced. "The Zephyr line is the fastest way around the city. Even faster than a broom, especially at rush hour."
James glanced aside as he approached the open doors. Petra, Izzy, and Lucy were entering a passenger car further down the train, following James' mum and dad and his Aunt Audrey, who was herding Molly and Lily ahead of her. Finally, the noise of the terminal fell away as James passed through the car's doors, finding himself in a richly upholstered and furnished interior. The walls and fixtures gleamed with brushed aluminum and there didn't seem to be a single hard angle in sight.
"Cool," Ralph said, finding a seat in the center of the lead car. "Looks like the entire train grew out of some kind of crazy dream."
"It's called Art Deco," Zane pointed out. "These were designed by some wizard artist named Mucha a long time ago. I learned about him in Magi-American History. Even the Muggles knew about him, although they didn't know he was a wizard, of course."
The train filled quickly and James peered forward, toward the engineer's post under the train's sloping nose. A very thin goblin with a very large bald head stood before the broad windows, which looked out into darkness. A set of gleaming levers were embedded into the train's control panel. The goblin engineer gripped them and then leaned toward a brass tube that extended from above.
"Lincoln Zephyr, five-twenty, now departing the terminal," he announced, and his voice echoed along the length of the train. "Proud to be on time for the eight thousand, three hundred and twenty-first departure in a row. Thank you for patronizing the New Amsterdam Mass Transit Railway System."
There was a loud click as the public address system shut off. The goblin engineer leaned forward and pressed both levers up at the same time. Immediately, the train began to glide forward, so smoothly that James could barely tell that they were moving at all except for the sight of the terminal outside the windows, which began to recede past, accelerating swiftly.
"So how is all of this done?" James finally asked, turning back to Zane and Ralph. "I mean, a whole magical city built right into a Muggle city. How's it work?"
Zane shook his head and raised his hands, palms out. "Don't ask me. I tried to get Stonewall to explain it to me one time and I finally had to ask him to stop because my brain was about to explode. Ask Chancellor Franklyn if you want an answer you can wrap your head around."
"What's that, boys?" Franklyn asked from across the aisle. "A question?"
James' face reddened, but Zane prodded him, gesturing at the old rotund wizard across from them.
"We were just wondering, sir," James said, raising his voice over the increasing drone of the train's engines, "how is it that New York and New Amsterdam can exist in the same place, at the same time?"
Franklyn nodded appreciatively. "I'd be disappointed if you didn't ask, Mr. Potter. The wizarding metropolis of New Amsterdam is, as you can imagine, quite old. It began as a mere alley, not unlike your Diagon Alley, hundreds of years ago, back when the Muggle city of New York was, itself, barely a port village on the Hudson River. As both cities grew, it became apparent that the various Disillusionment and Fidelius Charms put in place by the magical community within the city were simply too haphazard to manage such a large-scale secret. Eventually, the New Amsterdam Department of Magical Administration requested assistance from a foreign ally in the guise of a very unique and gifted witch. Agreeing, this foreign ally sent her, and she has resided with us ever since. This witch, you see, is content to perform one single spell, a very specialized bit of magic that requires nearly all of her prodigious attention—that of casting the most powerful and complete Disillusionment Charm in the entire world."
Ralph let out a low whistle, impressed. "Wow. So she's been here for a long time? How old is she, then?"
"Old," Franklyn laughed, "although not quite as old as I."
"So why does she need to stay here?" James asked. "Why couldn't she just cast the spell and go back home, to wherever she came from?"
Franklyn took off his square spectacles and wiped them on his lapel. "It is complicated, I admit. Some spells need only be cast once, of course, and their effect is satisfied… others…"
"Others require constant support," Merlin added from the seat next to Franklyn. "They dissipate over time. Some have lives of hundreds or thousands of years. Others, however, evaporate nearly instantly. I suspect that such might be the case with a spell as powerful and pervasive as the one which hides this wizard city from the Muggle city that lies beneath it."
"Indeed, and well put," Franklyn agreed. "Thus, our friendly witch remains with us, performing her solitary duty, even as she sleeps."
"Sounds like a rum job if you ask me," Ralph said, shaking his head. "I sure wouldn't want to do it."
"Where does she live?" James interjected, leaning forward. "Have you ever met her?"
"I have spoken to her many times," Franklyn said carefully. "Although, alas, I myself have never heard her voice. Few have. Frankly, I am not sure she speaks English, and my foreign languages are rather woefully rusty these days."
Suddenly, the train shot out of darkness and into the light of the lowering sun. James turned in his seat and squinted out the window.
"Wow," he said, pressing his hands to the glass. "How fast are we going anyway?"
Zane leaned over James' shoulder and shook his head. "Who knows? Fast. I don't think the Zephyr even has a speedometer. No point, really."
Outside, the great blocks and towers of the buildings rolled past the windows with shocking speed. Rivers of yellow taxis and silver buses clogged the Muggle streets while the air above was crowded with streams of witches and wizards on brooms as well as flying trolleys and buses and even the occasional sphinx and hippogriff. The wizarding metropolis of New Amsterdam seemed to occupy many of the second floors of Muggle New York City, with grand entryways that opened atop Muggle theater marquis and awnings. Magical signs and billboards flickered past, announcing all manner of wizard products, businesses, and entertainments, not all of it quite fit for young eyes.
"So does most of New Amsterdam sit up on top of the buildings of New York?" Ralph asked a little breathlessly.
"Yeah, most of it," Zane said. "But there are wizard stores, offices, and secret entrances all over the place. Almost every building in New York has a wizard space in it on the thirteenth floor. Muggle elevators just skip right over it because they're superstitious about the number thirteen. Convenient, eh?"
"What about that skyscraper over there?" James asked, pointing. "The huge one that looks like it's made out of glass. Don't tell me that's a Muggle building!"
"That," Zane said proudly, "is the center of the American wizarding world. It's the headquarters of the Department of Magical Administration, the Worldwide Wizard's Alliance, and the International Magical Bank. People just call it the Crystal Mountain."
"Oh!" Ralph said, smacking his forehead. "I've heard of that! That's excellent! But how do Muggles not see that?"
Zane shrugged. "Same way they don't see the rest. To them, it's just a three-story parking garage that's always full. It's the sort of thing they expect to see on nearly every corner anyway."
James glanced back at him, unsure if his American friend was joking or not. Zane shrugged and smiled.
A loud click sounded throughout the train as the public address system turned on again. "Attention passengers," the goblin engineer said in a businesslike voice. "Please secure all loose objects and find a handhold. Remember, the M.T.R.S. is not responsible for lost or damaged goods during Muggle railway interactions. Thank you."
"What's that mean?" James said, peering forward. The Zephyr was currently rocketing along an elevated section of track that curved around a bank of industrial buildings. "What are 'Muggle railway interactions'?"
"Oh, this is the best part," Zane said, climbing to his feet. "Come on with me. Grab onto the ceiling handles here along the middle aisle."
"What?" Ralph said suspiciously, but standing nonetheless. "Why?"
"The Zephyr uses most of the same tracks as the Muggle subway," Zane explained, adjusting his stance on the ribbed metal floor. "So, occasionally, the Zephyr and the Muggle trains have… er… interactions."
"What sort of interactions?" James asked, frowning and peering ahead as the tracks flickered past, dim in the shadows of the buildings.
Zane thought about it for a moment. "Have you ever seen a square-dance?" he asked, glancing back at James and Ralph.
"Er," Ralph said, perplexed, "no. How does a square dance?"
Zane shook his head and grinned. "It's called a do-si-do. Never mind, Ralphinator. Just hang onto the handle. Keep your other hand in the air when we go over. It's fun!"
"When we go—" James began, but the words choked in his throat as he saw another train come barreling around the track in front of them. He could tell by the blunt nose and spray-painted graffiti of the approaching engine that it was a Muggle subway train. Its headlight shone on the Zephyr's windows. It zoomed toward them, occupying the exact same track.
"Geronimo!" Zane called out, shooting his free hand into the air.
James gasped, certain that they were all about to die, when the engineer of the Zephyr suddenly jerked the steering levers, forcing the left one all the way up, yanking the right one down. Instantly, the world turned sickeningly outside the windows of the Zephyr. Daylight and shadow switched places as the train spun into the air, following a new set of ghostly, curving tracks. James was immediately disoriented, but remembered not to let go of the ceiling handle. A moment later, there was a massive shudder as the engine landed again, pulling the rest of the passenger cars behind it.
"You really should've warned your friends, Mr. Walker," Franklyn said with some reproach. "And it is unsafe to stand up during an interaction unless there is no other option."
"But it's more fun that way," Zane proclaimed, unfazed.
"What just happened to us?" Ralph said, plopping back into his seat. "And why is it so dark outside all of a sudden?"
"You probably don't want to know the answer to that question, Ralph," Zane said sincerely. "Trust me."
James moved to the window and peered out. Sure enough, the sunset sky seemed to be gone, replaced by a blur of blocky, shadowy shapes. Dots of lights flashed by, along with complicated metal struts and girders. He leaned forward and peered down. A moment later, his knees weakened as he saw nothing but empty space below the train. Dim blue space fell away to distant clouds, lit with the waning sun.
"We're upside-down," Zane announced soberly, clapping James on the shoulder. "We're on the underside of the track now, letting the Muggles go by on top. Seems only fair, since they built the tracks in the first place."
"That's…," James said faintly. He glanced ahead, past the Zephyr's front windows, saw that they were, indeed, rocketing along on the underside of the elevated railway. Ghostly tracks glimmered ahead of the Zephyr, cast magically by the train itself. "That… is completely excellent!"
"Ralph," Zane said, glancing up at the train's ceiling. "You forgot to secure your stuff, dude."
Ralph peered at Zane, his face pale. "What do you mean? How can you tell?"
"Because," Zane replied, smiling and plopping into the seat next to his friend, "your cauldron cakes are stuck to the ceiling now. Sorry. The magical gravity only works on living things."
James turned and looked up at the sticky buns plastered to the ceiling. He laughed.
Outside, a flash of bright purple light exploded with blinding force, rocking the train so hard that James collapsed onto Ralph. The train jerked violently, slewing back and forth under the elevated tracks and the interior lights flickered wildly. In the rear of the car, a window shattered, spraying glass and letting in a howl of rushing wind. Commuters screamed and covered their heads, jostling away from the blast.
"What's happening?" James yelled, trying to scramble up. "Is this part of the ride?"
Zane shook his head, his eyes wide. "No! That was magic! Somebody attacked us!"
Another bolt of purple light slammed against the side of the train, rocking it over onto its right wheels. A curtain of sparks flew past the windows as the roof screeched against the elevated track's steel supports.
"Hold on!" the engineer shouted. James turned to look and saw him jerk the steering levers again. The train lurched to the right, slamming back down onto the ghostly tracks and spinning up into the dying sunlight. The Muggle subway train was past now, fortunately, allowing the Zephyr to thump back down onto the main tracks with a rocking crash. It continued to hurtle forward, careening between buildings and over bridges.
"Who is attacking us?" Merlin asked Benjamin Franklyn, climbing to his feet in the swaying train.
"I—I don't know!" Franklyn stammered, struggling to stay upright in his seat. "I can't see anything!"
James looked up as the big man moved behind the row of seats, pushing through the frightened passengers toward the side of the train that had been battered. James followed Merlin's gimlet gaze. There were three figures flying alongside the train, black against the blurring cityscape. Another purple flash shot from one of the figures, shattering more windows and forcing the train to vibrate on its tracks.
"Mr. Engineer," Merlin commanded loudly, producing his staff. "Now would be a good time for us to take evasive action."
The goblin engineer glanced back at Merlin over his shoulder, his eyes bulging. "What d'ya expect me to do? We're on a train, if ya haven't noticed!"
"A magical train," Merlin corrected quickly. "One that can apparently make its own tracks. I'd suggest that you do so, sir. I'll do what I can with our pursuers."
"There're more on this side!" Franklyn cried out, pointing. He fumbled for his own wand as two more blasts erupted, one on each side. The train leapt off the tracks and then crashed down again, screeching horribly. Passengers scrambled over one another, crying out in fear.
"Here goes nothin'!" the engineer called, gripping the steering controls. A moment later, the train leapt off the tracks again, following its own set of ghostly rails. The rails curved sideways and down, leading the train completely off the railway bed.
Merlin used his staff to fire at the dark shapes outside as they angled to follow the train. His bolt struck one of the figures, which jerked and spun away, falling from its broom. The other two figures arced closer, shadowing the train as it hurled through the air.
"I can't hold her up like this!" the engineer yelled, struggling with the levers. "She's too heavy to go unsupported!"
"Then put her down!" Merlin commanded, still firing.
A blast of purple light engulfed the right side of the train, forcing it into a barrel roll just as it began to descend. James gripped his seat as hard as he could while the world rolled over ahead of them. The train righted itself just as it struck the pavement of the busy street below, squeezing between lines of dense traffic.
"We're going to crash!" Ralph yelled. "At the intersection!"
James looked ahead and saw what Ralph meant. A line of buses and cabs was lumbering slowly through the intersection, crossing directly in front of the train.
"Wands!" James shouted, producing his own and pointing it wildly toward the front of the train. "Zane and I will take the cabs! Ralph, you get the bus!"
Ralph's eyes widened, but he didn't argue. The three boys stabbed their wands forward and called the incantation—"Wingardium Leviosa!"—at exactly the same moment. James felt adrenaline surge up his arm, powering the magic, and the first of the cabs lofted immediately into the air, turning sideways. He dropped it a moment later, letting it fall halfway onto a blue police car as he aimed at another cab. Together, he and Zane succeeded in levitating the cabs out of the way. Ralph grunted and his arm trembled as the bus finally shoved forward, its rear end rising and sliding sideways. A moment later, the Zephyr rammed through the space, barely missing the disheveled traffic. The three boys fell back into their seats amidst the screams of their fellow passengers.
More bolts of magic fired between the train and the flying figures, and James sensed that his dad and the others were waging their own battle from further back in the train.
"We can't keep this up!" the engineer shouted, gripping the controls and veering the train through the Muggle traffic. "It's not what we're made for! And we're breaking nearly every code of railway conduct in the book!"
James scrambled in his seat, prepared to use his own wand to fight the flying dark figures, when a hand fell onto his shoulder, gently, but with surprising strength.
"Have a seat, James," a female voice said. "Don't you worry."
James craned to look. Behind him, standing calmly amidst the terrified passengers, was the unusual woman he had first met in the halls of Atlantis, the one who had told him he was so like his grandfather, James the First. She smiled down at him.
"Merlinus is doing his best," she said, almost whispering, "but this isn't really his element, you know."
She winked at him, and then stepped lightly over to the window on the opposite side of the train. She raised her hand, wandless, and pointed at one of the dark figures that flew alongside the train. There was a faint, bluish flash and the figure seemed to freeze in the air, so suddenly and completely that its cloak ceased flapping. It dropped to the street like a stone, crashing against the windscreen of a taxi. The other figures fell quickly thereafter, dropping the moment the woman pointed at them, her face mild, almost amused.
"Did you see that?" Zane demanded, gripping James' arm. "Is she with you?"
"I've never seen her before in my life!" Ralph called back. "But I'm glad she's on our side!"
James looked aside at Merlin, but the big wizard hadn't noticed. He was busy aiming for the last pursuer on his side of the train. His face was shiny with sweat, pinched in exertion. Whoever the woman was, she certainly appeared to be correct: the city definitely wasn't Merlin's element.
The last cloaked figure swooped upwards over the train and disappeared from view. A moment later, it appeared again, directly in front of the train as it hurtled forward.
"Go home, Harry Potter!" the figure yelled back, its face hidden behind a metallic mask, its voice magically amplified so that it resonated throughout the entire train. "Consider this a warning! Take your people and go home! Go home while the W.U.L.F. is willing to let you go!"
Merlin raised his staff to strike once more, but the figure spun on its broom and zoomed away, merging with the throng of broom-borne travelers high over the city's streets.
"Hold onto your hats, ladies and gentlemen!" the goblin engineer cried suddenly. "We've got the eastbound overpass dead ahead and we're going for it, ready or not!"
James leaned back into his seat as the engineer hauled backwards on both of his steering levers. The train leapt up from the street, following its ghostly rails once more into the air. It turned as it flew, angling toward another set of elevated tracks as they loomed ahead. The train seemed to falter, pulled down by its own weight and its failing inertia. James was quite certain that they were going to ram directly into the side of the overpass, even saw the shadow of the train fall onto the support girders. At the last possible moment, however, the train seemed to loft upwards. The engine jigged and snaked through the air, dragging its passenger cars behind it, and finally crashed down onto the tracks.
"Is everyone all right?" Franklyn called faintly, struggling to get up from the floor of the aisle, where he had apparently fallen.
"We're fine, more or less," Zane answered, looking from James to Ralph.
James nodded, and then remembered the woman in the black robe. He glanced around the darkened train as it continued on, rather more slowly, but smoothly once again. She was nowhere to be seen among the frightened passengers. Movement in the very back of the car caught James' eyes, however: a flicker of black fabric and a slowly closing door. It had to be the mysterious woman, but could she really be using the bathroom at a time like this? James moved into the aisle, watching the door as it swung shut.
"Take your seat, Mr. Potter," Merlin said faintly. James looked up and saw the Headmaster clinging grimly to the seats in front of him, still standing, but just barely. His face was solemn, sheened with sweat.
"Are you all right, sir?" James asked, peering closely at the huge man.
"As fine as anyone else, under the circumstances," Merlin replied. "Do sit back down, James."
"In a minute," James said, backing away toward the rear of the car. "I, uh, have to use the loo."
Merlin nodded, not really listening.
When James got to the bathroom door, he found it unlocked, still cracked open. Wind whistled and roared through the broken windows, rocking the door on its hinges. Inside was only darkness.
"Ma'am?" James called, leaning toward the door. "Everything okay in there?"
There was no answer but for a low, steady hiss. Steeling himself, James reached for the bathroom door. He pulled it slowly open.
There was no one inside the tiny room, but the sink was running. James peered closer. For some reason, both the hot and cold handles had been cranked all the way on. He stared at them and the empty room. Where had the woman gone? And who was she anyway?
Darkened and damaged, the Zephyr rolled onward through the city.
It had become readily apparent that the Zephyr wasn't going to continue the rest of the journey in its current state.
After a few minutes of discussion, Professor Franklyn and Headmaster Merlin had repaired some of the broken windows but were unable to fix most of them since the broken glass that had comprised them had been scattered along a rather surprising length of Lexington Avenue. The engineer himself was adamant that regardless of the operating condition of the Zephyr's engine, any 'non-standard Muggle interaction event' required the stoppage of the train at the nearest terminal or safe place and the alerting of the appropriate authorities. In this case, unfortunately, the 'appropriate authorities' included the New Amsterdam Wizarding Police and representatives from a mysterious agency known as the Magical Integration Bureau.
Shortly, the train had screeched to a halt on a side track next to an abandoned factory. The Hudson River sparkled nearby in the rising moonlight and traffic could be heard thrumming somewhere nearby, but for now, the Zephyr rested inconspicuously hidden among banks of brick walls and blind windows. Twin smokestacks jutted up into the indigo sky with nothing but pigeons at their tops. At their base, incongruously, perched a brightly lit wizarding establishment with a candy red pagoda roof and two golden dragon statues flanking the round door. The sign that jutted up from the roof proclaimed the establishment to be 'Chang's Magic Luck Hunan Palace'. A fleet of Chinese wizards in white coats and red pillbox caps came and went from the establishment, carrying large grease-stained paper sacks in special baskets attached to the tips of their brooms.
James watched from where he sat on the end of the Zephyr in the shadow of the factory and its perching wizard restaurant. Ralph sat next to James on his right while Lucy sat on his left, watching the Chinese delivery wizards with a mixture of curiosity and disdain.
"It's not true Chinese food, you know," she commented. "Not if you've had the real thing."
"So you keep saying," James said, rolling his eyes.
"An egg roll is an egg roll," Ralph proclaimed, rubbing his stomach. "I wonder when our order will get here. I'm starved."
"Shh!" James hissed, leaning. "I'm trying to listen in on this."
Zane stood some distance away on the side of the railway bed next to Professor Franklyn and the rest of the adults.
"I'm sorry, Professor," one of the wizarding policemen, a thin man named Trumble, was saying, consulting his little notepad. "You mentioned that these men came out of nowhere. They weren't provoked in any way?"
"I assure you," Franklyn answered, puffing out his chest, "we are not in the habit of provoking warfare whilst aboard moving trains. We have women and students aboard the train, as you know, not to mention any number of anonymous fellow travelers. These men attacked us in a coordinated fashion, and with no provocation whatsoever."
"That's not entirely true," Harry Potter said.
"What do you mean?" the larger and older policeman, Dunst, said, his face suspicious.
"The leader announced his affiliation with the W.U.L.F." Harry answered. "I expect it was Edgar Tarrantus himself, by the mask he was wearing. He certainly seemed to feel provoked. He threatened me and my people by name, telling us if we didn't leave the United States there would be trouble."
"I'd say there's been trouble already," Neville said, narrowing his eyes. "They weren't out to give warnings tonight. They meant to derail the train, at the very least. Warnings were what they resorted to only when we fought back and showed them a little what-for."
"Ah, that," Trumble said apologetically, sticking his pencil behind his ear. "It was the fighting back that was the problem tonight, when you get right down to it."
"Surely you didn't expect us to stand by and do nothing?" Denniston Dolohov said, raising his voice. James knew that, in fact, Dolohov himself had not fired a single magical shot, being a Squib, but James was impressed with the man's spirit nonetheless. "They were trying to kill us all!"
"That's hardly conclusive," Dunst replied, obviously unconvinced. "Probably just a bunch of local punks out looking for trouble. It was your overreaction that's caused this mess."
"Overreaction!" Franklyn sputtered. "I'll have your badge number! The impertinence!"
James noticed that throughout the conversation, Merlin stood some distance away, his face lowered in shadow, his arms folded.
The goblin engineer perked up then, apparently deciding that now was the time to distance himself from what had happened. "I didn't want to do it, officers," he said. "They told me to. It was all that big guy's idea."
"You didn't have to do it, you know," Zane said, cocking his head at the goblin. "As I recall it, we all did what we had to do to avoid being turned into highway hash, you included. Merlin made a request and you agreed to it."
"Well," the engineer said, scratching at his bald head, "he's Merlin, ain't he? Fellow like that is a hard one to say no to. Even if I didn't know at the time that's who he was."
Another voice spoke and James saw that it belonged to one of the two men from the Magical Integration Bureau. "According to a cursory survey of the scene of the incident, at least seventy-nine non-magical persons witnessed this train being piloted along Lexington Avenue," the man said in a rough, gravelly voice, consulting a clipboard. He had rugged features beneath a pair of dark sunglasses and a very staid black suit and tie. "At least thirty of those non-magical persons witnessed said train flying, either off the 21 Street southbound overpass or back up onto its northbound counterpart, some three blocks away. Initial damage estimates are in the hundreds of thousands, including a New York City police cruiser which somehow managed to end up beneath a Liberty Taxi." The man lowered his clipboard and glanced around at those present. "I can't be one hundred percent certain," he said in a different tone of voice, "but I think this might be the biggest violation of magical integration laws in at least a decade. Wouldn't you agree, Espinosa?" The last question he directed to his counterpart, a younger man with black hair and a pencil goatee.
"I think you're probably right, Price," the thinner man agreed. "At least a decade."
"I'm sure our people are already on the scene, setting things to rights," Franklyn soothed. "We have response teams for just such events, as you know. By morning, no one will remember anything other than that they had a somewhat exciting time during their previous evening's commute. The real question is who these men were and if we need to take their threats seriously."
"I take every threat seriously," Harry announced gravely. Next to him, Neville nodded.
"Does that mean you will be going back home?" Franklyn asked suddenly, peering up at the two men.
"Not at all," Harry replied immediately. "But it does mean we must be exceedingly cautious. I, for one, do not believe that those who attacked us were merely street toughs. They claimed to be members of the W.U.L.F., and were quite possibly attended by that organization's global leader. As one of my former teachers used to say, this will require constant vigilance. Fortunately, we are prepared for just such a thing."
A flicker of shadow appeared overhead followed by the flap of wings. James looked up from where he sat and saw a pigeon circle downwards, landing easily on Trumble's outstretched arm. Dunst quickly removed a rolled note from a tube on the pigeon's leg.
"I like owls better," Lucy commented next to James. "Pigeons are filthy birds."
James shrugged. He didn't have an opinion on that particular subject.
"All right," Dunst announced, reading the note and apparently disliking its contents. "Everything checks out with headquarters downtown. Mr. Potter here, along with his entourage, are indeed here at the request of the D.M.A. My apologies, gentlemen, Professor. Another train has been dispatched to take you and your people the rest of the way to your destination. The remaining passengers will complete their journey via the Zephyr, assuming you believe it rail-worthy, Mr. Engineer." He handed the note back to Trumble, who peered down at it.
"Well, I should hope that settles it, then," Franklyn announced huffily.
"I wouldn't be too hasty," the gruff man in the black suit said. "There will be paperwork, I'm afraid. I hate paperwork. It makes me cranky. Mr. Potter, I'd expect a call from the Magical Integration Bureau, if I was you. In fact, I suspect we will take a very close interest in you during the extent of your visit. I hope you'll be willing to cooperate with us."
Harry studied the rough-faced man for a moment, narrowing his eyes. Then, charmingly, he smiled. "It'll be our pleasure, sir. But do let me inquire: what is the basis of your interest in me and my people?"
"You're English, aren't you?" the gruff man, Price, asked, smiling tightly. "You might be interested to know that the tape the F.B.I. received explaining the terms of the release of our kidnapped senator, Charles Filmore, was recorded by someone with a British accent. One can only assume that you are here, officially, to investigate Senator Filmore's ongoing abduction, not to mention the matter of our relocated skyscraper. The newspeople and the general public may buy the story about little green men from the Andromeda galaxy, but we in the Magical Integration Bureau, well… we tend to be a suspicious bunch."
Harry nodded. "As would I, let me assure you. I welcome your assistance and collaboration. For now, though, might I ask, just out of curiosity, what the purported terms of Senator Filmore's release are?"
"That's confidential, of course," Price answered apologetically. "Fortunately, the F.B.I. believes the tape is a prank. I myself know very little about it except that the prevailing view around the Bureau is that we do not negotiate with terrorists—alien, British, or otherwise."
Harry seemed to accept this. "I look forward to hearing from your office, then, Mr. Price. Now if you will excuse us, it is getting rather late and we still have some distance to go if I am not mistaken."
Price bowed slightly and spread his arms. "Mi casa es su casa," he replied. "Enjoy your travels. And welcome to America."
"Hey chief," Trumble said, frowning at the little note in his hands, "it says here we're supposed to escort Mr. Potter and his group for the rest of the trip. You didn't read the whole thing."
"Is that so?" Dunst said with deliberate emphasis. "Well, silly me."
In the distance, the huff and screech of an approaching train grew. Shortly, a headlight appeared around the bend of the tracks, slowing as it approached.
James sighed and looked up. High overhead, one of the Chinese delivery wizards took off from the wooden platform that surrounded the brightly lit restaurant. He circled economically around the extinct smokestacks, dipped down into the shadow of the factory, and swooped toward the Zephyr. A moment later, he hovered in front of James, Ralph, and Lucy, consulting a handwritten bill.
"You order three Happy Emperor Family Combo?" he said, glancing up at the three of them. "You owe me sixty-six seventy-five."
"Here you go," Harry said, handing the man a small handful of gold coins. Zane took the paper bag from the basket on the end of the delivery wizard's broom and peered into it.
"Cool!" he said. "Magic fortune cookies!"
"Where's my egg roll?" Ralph asked, leaning forward and sniffing at the open bag. Lights flickered within it and James was mildly amused to see lit sparklers inside the bag, stuck into the tops of a variety of white cartons and boxes.
"What this kinda money?" the delivery wizard said, peering suspiciously at the Galleons in his hand. "This not real money. You trick me?"
"It's real," Franklyn said wearily. "European Galleons are still legal tender in this country, even though you see fewer and fewer of them these days."
The Chinese wizard regarded Franklyn doubtfully. A moment later, he pocketed the Galleons. "Fine fine. But no change. Don't know exchange rate."
"Call it a tip," Harry smiled, accepting a paper bag of crab rangoon from Zane.
The Chinese wizard nodded, doffed his red pillbox cap, turned, and swooped away. In the darkness beyond the Zephyr, the wizarding policemen, Dunst and Trumble, stepped off the tracks, approaching their black and yellow police brooms. Further away, the agents from the Magical Integration Bureau climbed down the embankment toward a nondescript black car. Ralph's father took the delivery sack from Zane and climbed into the train to distribute it around. Harry and the rest of the adults stepped aside into the weeds that bordered the outside of the tracks as the second train chugged to a stop next to the Zephyr.
Ralph munched his egg roll thoughtfully. "If I'm not mistaken," he said, watching the men in the dark suits as they started their car, "those two are Muggles."
"You nailed it, Ralphinator," Zane said, sighing. "The Bureau is part of the Muggle F.B.I., only super top-secret. The president doesn't even find out about them unless he absolutely has to. They're a little creepy and intense, but it's all part of the deal."
"What deal is that?" James asked.
Zane leaned against the end of the Zephyr and waved one of the sparklers from the delivery sack. "The government here was a lot more involved with the wizarding world, way back in the day. The Muggle leaders who knew about the magical community were suspicious of them, even though a lot of the witches and wizards were their friends and helpers. Franklyn can explain it better if you want him to, but basically, they built protections into the original laws that governed the coexistence of the magical and Muggle worlds. Those guys in the suits… they're one of those protections."
Lucy frowned at the black car as it drove serenely away, its lights off in the darkness. "Do they have… what's it called… jurisdiction over us?"
Zane shrugged slowly and shook his head, as if he wasn't really sure.
"All I know," Ralph commented, climbing to his feet, "is that we were lucky to have that witch in our compartment. The one that pegged all those guys on the brooms. Talk about your wandless magic."
Zane screwed up his face thoughtfully. "Was she part of your group?"
"I met her once before," James admitted. "In the hallway back at the Aquapolis. She's… curious."
Lucy raised an eyebrow. "What do you mean 'curious'?"
James shrugged. "She knew things about me, that's all. She said it was because we Potters are famous."
"I suspect there's more to it than that," Lucy said, still looking closely at James. "Otherwise, you wouldn't call her curious."
Ralph raised his eyebrows. "Well, there was the bit where she performed some dead serious magic without any wand in her hand," he proclaimed. "I mean, first Petra, and now some unknown lady. I'm starting to feel like I'm missing out on a trend."
"Probably you just couldn't see her wand," Lucy said dismissively. "It was dark in there, and there was a lot going on."
"I saw her raise her left hand and point," Zane replied. "There was no wand there, I promise you."
"Yes," Lucy nodded, her face merely inquiring, "but did you see her right hand?"
Zane thought about it, but before he could answer, James spoke up again. "What about when we were about to crash into the overpass? I was sure the train wasn't going to make the jump, but then up we went, like we suddenly sprouted wings. Maybe it was that witch again! Maybe she levitated the train!"
Lucy shook her head. "You can't levitate yourself, James, or anything you happen to be riding in. It'd be like trying to pick yourself up by your own feet. It's one of the laws of magical dynamics."
"Well, somebody gave us a boost back there," Ralph said. "I felt it happen."
Lucy opened her mouth to respond, and then stopped. Her eyes narrowed thoughtfully.
"Wait a minute," Zane said, pointing at Lucy and looking at James. "She's this year's Rose, right? She's the smart one!"
"What, Lucy?" James asked, bumping her.
Lucy shook herself. "Well, like I said, it's impossible, but still…"
Ralph threw up his hands in exasperation. "So tell already!"
"I think it might have been Petra," Lucy said, looking at the three boys.
James felt a shiver coil at the base of his spine. "Why do you say that, Lu?"
Lucy's face was tense as she thought about it. "I was in the same car as Petra. Back in the middle of it all, even when those dark flyers were blasting the engine with their wands, Petra stayed unusually calm. Uncle Harry and Professor Longbottom were firing back at them and there was no end of confusion, what with everyone screaming and the train crashing along the street, but Petra just sat there, holding Izzy's hand. The two of them were just looking out the window, watching everything happen. And then, when the train leapt up, aiming for the tracks, I saw it…"
"Let me guess," James said quietly. "Petra closed her eyes. Like she was concentrating on something."
Lucy looked at James. "No," she replied meaningfully. "They both did. Izzy and Petra both. And that's when it happened. That's when we lifted up onto the tracks. That's when we didn't crash."
There was a long awkward moment of silence as everyone considered this. Finally, James heard the approach of footsteps from the railway bed in front of them.
"James, and the rest of you," Neville called up from the side of the tracks. "The other train is finally ready for us. Go and alert Professor Remora and the others in our group, will you? Tell them we're boarding a different train for the remainder of the trip. With any luck, this journey may still end tonight."
James nodded. Along with Lucy and Ralph, he climbed to his feet and threaded back through the rear doorway, into the dark train.
The second train wasn't as nice as the Zephyr, but it was quiet and moved with similar speed. James found himself in a sparsely populated passenger compartment with most of the rest of his traveling companions. The rocking of the train, and the darkness outside the windows once the city was behind them, lulled him into a mild doze. Finally, an hour or so later, James was awakened by the screech of brakes as the train began to slow. He looked around blearily as his fellow passengers began to stir and collect their things.
"Finally here," Ralph muttered, cupping his hands to the window as a railway station lumbered slowly past. "Philadelphia, Pennsylvania."
"At least the journey's done," Albus commented grumpily.
Near the head of the passenger compartment, James saw Professor Remora sleeping awkwardly, leaning across two seats with her mouth hanging open. One of her students nudged her experimentally.
"I thought vampires loved the night," Lucy mused idly.
"Who, you mean Remora?" Zane said, glancing at Lucy. "Yeah, that's a real puzzler, ain't it?"
Ralph yawned and asked Zane, "How far is the school from here?"
"Just a few blocks away. It's almost right downtown, but you have to know where to look."
Franklyn shouldered his leather attaché and patted his pockets, apparently looking for his glasses. "I'll arrange for our trunks and bags to be delivered to our various quarters via porter. Tonight, you shall all stay in the Alma Aleron guest house. Tomorrow, I will show you all to your residences for the duration of your stay."
Harry stood up, carrying Lily as she slept, her head on his shoulder. Ginny followed, and the group began to shuffle toward the car's doors. It was an unusually quiet group as they filed out onto the deserted platform. A cool mist hung in the air around the huge terminal nearby. In the distance, a clock tower began to toll the hour. James counted the chimes and discovered that it was ten o'clock. Slowly, led by Chancellor Franklyn and Professor Georgia Burke, the group made its way off the platform and into the huge brightly lit terminal. Tall windows framed the space on either side, showing inky black sky.
"This is the 30 Street Station," Zane announced, too tired to be particularly enthusiastic. "They were going to rename it Benjamin Franklin Station a decade or so ago, but there was some political mish-mash and it never happened. Do yourself a favor and never bring it up with the Chancellor."
As the group made its way through the bank of doors at the far end of the marble floor, they were met by a sweeping view of the city where it huddled on the other side of a broad river. Without stopping, Franklyn led the travelers across the street and onto a wide bridge. Cars and a few buses moved back and forth on the bridge as the travelers made their way along a footpath on the right side.
"It isn't far," Franklyn proclaimed over the noise of the traffic. "No Disapparating this close to the station, unfortunately. Not that we could anyway, with so many underage witches and wizards with us."
Ginny pulled her hair into a ponytail as she walked next to her husband. "I don't mind stretching my legs a bit, actually."
"Not the most beautiful city I've ever seen," Albus remarked. "But the river is a delightful shade of orange."
"That's just the streetlamps," Lucy sighed.
"Enjoy the view while you can," Zane instructed. "Once we get on campus, it might be months before you ever see it again."
Albus frowned. "Is it a school or a prison?"
"Yes," Zane quipped. "But the point is, there's no reason you ever really need to leave. The Aleron's got everything you need, and quite a few things you don't. I've been there a whole year already and I still haven't seen the whole campus."
Shortly, the group left the traffic bridge behind and descended into a warren of densely populated city blocks. Small businesses and gas stations eventually gave way to crowded residential areas. The houses and apartments pressed together like patrons at a bar, shouldering for room in front of the narrow streets. Cars and trucks lined the pavement, glimmering softly in the glow of the streetlights. Trees ranged along the streets as well, huge and old, their roots pushing the footpath into unruly hills and valleys. Finally, the group crossed a narrow intersection and approached a stone wall, just high enough that no one could see over it. Bits of broken glass were embedded into the mortar along the top.
"Here we are, then," Zane said, nodding approvingly.
Albus was unimpressed. "This is it, is it? I see what you mean about the size of it. You could get lost bending down to tie your shoe."
James looked back and forth along the cracked footpath. The stone wall was no longer than a Hogwarts corridor, with leaning brick pedestals at either end. Embedded in the center of each of the brick pedestals, worn almost to illegibility, was a stone block with a stylized symbol engraved onto it. The symbol appeared to be a shield with two letter 'A's on it, perched upon by an eagle with spread wings. A wrought-iron gate stood in the middle of the wall, facing the street, but the gate was so choked with vines and weeds that the view beyond was completely hidden. Franklyn approached the gate and pulled some of the vines aside, peering in.
"It is I, Flintlock," he said quietly. "Chancellor Franklyn. Our visitors have arrived."
James, Albus, and Lucy crowded through the travelers, eager for a glimpse beyond the overgrown gate.
"It's just a yard," Albus complained. "Where's this big giant campus you were talking about?"
"It's not there yet," Franklyn answered.
"The Timelock!" Ralph said suddenly, remembering. "My dad told me about it last year! Excellent!"
"In time, Mr. Deedle," Franklyn smiled. "So to speak."
James pushed the vines aside and craned to look over Albus' shoulder. Sure enough, the space inside the wall was simply an old yard, choked with weeds and bits of trash. Only two objects seemed to occupy the space. One was a rather fat and overgrown willow tree. The other was a very large jagged boulder.
"He's asleep, Chancellor," Professor Burke sighed, turning away. "Shall I toss a rock at him?"
"You know how irritable he gets when we do such things," Franklyn replied impatiently. "Nobody likes having their own genetic material chucked at them. Let me try once more." Raising his voice a bit, Franklyn cried out again, "Flintlock! It is I, your Chancellor! Do wake up! Our guests are waiting!"
From the yard came a grating snort followed by a low grinding noise. James glanced around, looking for the source of the sound, and was surprised to see the boulder moving slightly. Apparently, it wasn't one boulder, but many smaller rocks piled together, for they began to move independently, not falling apart, exactly, but shifting position, forming a shape that looked strangely, teasingly alive.
"Cool!" Albus cried out suddenly, forgetting the quiet street around him. "It's a rock troll! I've always wanted to see a rock troll!"
The stony shape stood up and began to lumber toward the gate, moving ponderously but heavily, its footsteps shaking the ground faintly.
"Meet Flintlock," Franklyn said, gesturing with one hand. "Our security chief. He's been a part of Alma Aleron ever since… well since before my time. Isn't that right, Flintlock?"
The troll fished a large key from the depths of his rocky crevices and socked it into an iron padlock. In a deep grating voice, the troll said, "I came over with the Mayflower, sir. I remember it like it was yesterday."
Professor Burke smiled wearily. "Of course, in rock troll years, it probably was yesterday."
As the gates swung open, squeaking noisily, Albus peered up at the stony creature. "But you must weigh a thousand tons!" he exclaimed. "How would any boat carry you?"
"It didn't carry me," Flintlock replied slowly. He leaned forward, and in what passed as a whisper, he added, "I followed it."
The others passed by Albus as he stared up at the troll, wide-eyed, considering.
"To the Tree," Zane pointed. "This is the best part. Come on!"
Franklyn stopped, allowing everyone else to pass by in front of him. "Yes, yes, as Mr. Walker says, everyone under the Tree. I am sure we are all quite ready for this journey to be over."
James, Ralph, and Lucy joined Petra, Izzy, and the rest in the moonshade of the Tree's drooping branches. James no longer felt tired. Instead, he was filled with a certain giddy excitement, fuelled partly by the misty night air, and partly by the mystery of whatever was about to happen.
"He followed the Mayflower here!" Albus rasped, stabbing a thumb over his shoulder at Flintlock. "He just walked right along the bottom of the ocean, watching the ship way up on the surface! Isn't that the coolest thing you've ever heard in your life?"
"Isn't he coming with us?" Ralph asked, peering aside as the troll stumped back toward the gate, padlock in hand.
"No!" Albus answered, grinning. "He stays here all the time! ALL… the TIME! He says that sometimes Muggle teenagers climb over the walls, glass shards or not, looking for places to get into mischief. He bops 'em to sleep and tosses them in a nearby alley with an empty bottle or two, makes them think they just fell over drunk!"
"Let's see," Franklyn said, crowding under the Tree. "I daresay, what with our visitors, Professor Remora, and her returning students, we are exceeding the legal occupancy limit of the Warping Willow."
"Please, Chancellor," Remora sighed. "Even for creatures such as myself, it has been a very long night. Let us get it over with."
Franklyn nodded and produced a complicated brass instrument from the depths of his robes. James recognized it from his previous experience with the Chancellor. It consisted of various-sized lenses held in hinged loops. He twisted two of the lenses into alignment, raised the instrument, and peered through it at the moon.
"Ah yes," he said, and then muttered to himself, apparently doing calculations in his head. Finally, he nodded and pocketed the brass instrument. A moment later, he raised his wand and touched it gently to the gnarled trunk of the Tree. In a singsong voice, he said, "Warping Willow, take us hither, days and years or all or none. Wend your way, we travel thither, home to Alma Aleron."
Next to James, Ralph shifted nervously. "I know about Whomping Willows," he whispered, "but what's a Warping Willow do?"
Zane whispered back, "Have you ever seen a square-dance?"
"No!" Ralph rasped. "We've been through this already."
Zane bobbed his head back and forth. "Think about what the Zephyr did with up and down," he said quietly. "And now think of the Zephyr as the Warping Willow, and up and down as now and then."
"It's technomancy again, right?" Ralph moaned as the Tree began to move around them, shifting mysteriously, stirring wind in its long branches. "I hate technomancy."
A cool breeze whistled around the Tree's twisted trunk, threading through James' hair and making the branches sway and hiss. A dull crackle emanated from the depths of the Willow, sounding like pine knots in a fireplace.
In front of James, Izzy gasped. "Look!" she cried, pointing. "The sun's coming up!"
Zane peered at the pinkish glow as it expanded on the horizon. "I may be mistaken," he said, "but I think that's the sun going down. Er, in reverse."
The pink glow spread and brightened, turning orange, and then, sure enough, the sun peeked over the stone wall of the overgrown yard. The yellow orb climbed into the sky with eerie speed, casting hard shadows inside the yard, and then swiftly shortening them. Warm air blew through the Tree and James squinted, finding himself in a sudden hot noontime. The sun began to move faster, sliding back down the sky on the other side of the Warping Willow, which sighed and shushed all around, its branches swaying like curtains.
"What's happening?" Lily asked with a note of fear in her voice.
Ginny pulled the girl up into her arms. "It's all right, Lil," she soothed. "We're still traveling, I think. Only now, we're traveling in time."
Night spread across the sky again, filled with glimmering stars. Now, the moon waltzed overhead, its bony crescent chasing the clouds. Moments later, the sun followed once again, moving so fast that it seemed to be rolling across the sky like a marble. The wind in the Tree increased, shushing the whip-like branches, and James felt movement beneath his feet. He glanced down and saw the Warping Willow's roots twisting through the earth, spreading and shifting like tentacles.
The sky dimmed to night and lightened again to noon, beginning to cycle with dizzying speed. The sun and moon chased each other across the sky, and then blurred into streaks, and then vanished into seamless, silvery arcs of spinning time. The arcs curved across the sky, and seasons began to drift past the outside of the Tree. The grass grew brown, and then grey and listless. Suddenly, snow covered it, sparkling white and piling high, forming drifts against the interior walls of the yard. The snow vanished away again, and now autumn leaves carpeted the ground. Almost immediately, the leaves evaporated, leaving the grass green and lush, peppered with white butterflies. James turned on the spot, transfixed, watching the yard all around as it cycled past seasons and into years, faster and faster, blending into a flickering tableaux of decades, even centuries. And through it all, Flintlock hunkered unmoving, looking like nothing more than a craggy boulder, through flashing eons of sunshine and snow.
Finally, the cycle began to slow, until the seasons became distinct again, and then the streaks of the sun and moon, and finally the alternating lights and darks of days. The Tree sighed and whispered, settling, until the sun lowered for the last time and the sky grew dark, flooded with stars. The moon was a high, full orb now, frosty in the darkness. It slowed, climbing, climbing, and finally crawled to a stop. The Warping Willow relaxed and went still.
In the sudden silence, Neville Longbottom exhaled a pent breath. "So…," he asked slowly, "when are we?"
Chancellor Franklyn glanced at him, and then at the watch that hung from a chain around his prodigious waist. "It's eleven twenty-one," he answered. "September fourth. Er, seventeen fifty. Give or take a few seconds. It's hard to be especially accurate about such things."
"Oh my," Petra said from behind James. He turned to glance back at her, saw the expression of rapt wonder on her face, and then turned around again, following her gaze.
Beyond the curtains of the Warping Willow's branches, the yard had grown. The gate was still visible nearby, but the wall it was set in was much wider; so wide, in fact, that James couldn't see either end. In every other direction, moonlight sifted down onto manicured lawns, sprawling colonial brick buildings, statuary, fountains, and flagstone footpaths. Flickering lampposts dotted the campus, their lights dim and entrancing under the full moon.
"Well," Percy said, and even he sounded awestruck, "it looks like we've finally made it to Alma Aleron."
7. ALMA ALERON
James had wanted to explore the grounds that very night, but his parents, along with the rest of the adults, had insisted on getting everyone to their rooms and into bed.
The guest quarters were housed in a large brick mansion that overlooked the grounds, relatively near the Warping Willow. Shortly, James had found himself in a surprisingly sumptuous bedroom with a gigantic marble fireplace, nearly as tall as he was, and three four-poster beds so high that they had little wooden stepstools next to them. Albus claimed the one nearest the window and James took the one in the middle. Within minutes, despite the excitement of the night, and the thrill of finally arriving, James had dropped into a deep dreamless sleep.
He seemed to wake almost immediately and blinked at the bright sunshine that beamed through the window, swimming with dust motes. Bird song twittered nearby and as James sat up in his high bed, he could see people moving on the flagstone walkways of the campus below the window. He grinned and saw that Albus was already awake.
"I smell bacon," Albus said, nodding. "The kitchens are in the basement. Come on, let's see if we can nick a little nosh!"
"Way ahead of you," Ralph announced from the other side of the room, shrugging into a very oversized white robe. "Come on, there are two more. One for each of us. Man, this is living."
"I can't imagine that this is what life will be like in the dorms," James replied, grabbing one of the robes, "but when in Rome…"
Together, the three boys tramped down the stairs and down a high, richly paneled hall. Display cases on one side showed a variety of trophies and awards as well as a collection of strange leather sporting balls, most dull and worn with age. On the other side of the hall, framed portraits and photographs peered down. James recognized some of the faces in the images—Abraham Lincoln and George Washington among them—but most were completely unknown to him. Very few of the images moved and James assumed that most of the paintings were, in fact, non-magical.
The boys passed a large sitting room and a coat closet and stopped as they neared a busy dining room, filled with bright morning light from two tall windows. Most of the adults were already gathered around the table, babbling, passing plates, and pouring steaming cups of coffee and tea. Happily, James, Ralph, and Albus ran into the room and found seats around the long table.
"Robes and pyjamas?" Lucy said, blinking aside at James as he climbed into the chair next to her.
"Al smelled bacon," James shrugged. "Be glad he's dressed at all."
Percy spooned sugar into his tea as he spoke, apparently in the middle of a conversation with Chancellor Franklyn, who sat across from him. "So, in order to maintain security and remain hidden in Muggle Philadelphia, Alma Aleron exists in a time bubble in the year seventeen fifty."
"Actually," Franklyn replied, leaning back in his chair and dabbing at his chin with a napkin, "we are now back in the twenty-first century, as of this morning. Twenty forty, I believe. We try to use round numbers, but even so, it can be monstrously difficult to keep track of."
Georgia Burke spoke up next. "The time bubble roams daily, spanning approximately four hundred and fifty years. The historical target of any given day is determined by a complex algorithm based on the actual date, the phase of the moon, and… er… the mood of a certain Kneazle-cat."
"Yes," Franklyn nodded. "Patches, the administration pet. The wizard who designed the algorithm is a believer that there needed to be a single random variable to prevent outsiders from cracking the timecode. He figured that only those that truly deserve to be on campus would know Patches the cat, and her moods. Ingenious, really, but somewhat obtuse, since cats, even of the Kneazle variety, really only have one mood."
"Sullen," Burke agreed. "With various shades of petulant, haughty, aloof, and bored. Still, as a security concept, it is fairly solid."
"Oh, we know all about Kneazle-cats," Izzy commented from across the table. "Remember Crookshanks? Rose's family's cat?" she asked, looking aside at Petra, and then turning to address everyone else at the table, her voice sober. "But Crookshanks isn't sullen at all. He's a sweetheart."
"To you, perhaps," Harry muttered.
"So what if someone hops over the school wall from the inside?" Albus asked around a mouthful of toast. "Would they be able to go explore the future or the past? What if they got lost? Or went and screwed up history somehow?"
Franklyn laughed lightly, as if this were a question he'd had to answer many, many times. "Fortunately for history, the time bubble stops at the boundary of the campus: the stone wall we all observed last night. The moment you climbed over, you'd leave the Timelock and find yourself in the normal flow of time, only locked out of the campus, and with Flintlock to convince to let you back in."
"Ah," Albus said, disappointed.
"At any rate, we have a full day ahead of us," Ginny announced placing her napkin next to her plate. "Lily, we need to get you and Izzy settled in at your new school, elsewhere in the city, and we need to get ourselves squared away with our own flat."
Franklyn cleared his throat. "Harry, I've arranged for an indefinite Floo visa for you and your charges, effective as of this morning. It will allow you free access to the Crystal Mountain and any domestic magical destinations you may require for the duration of your stay."
"That will do nicely," Harry agreed. "But what about communication with my associates abroad? I understand that you have an entire department dedicated to international experimental communications. As you know, Titus Hardcastle, my second-in-command, will be joining me periodically during the investigation. It will be necessary for me to communicate with him regularly and international post is notoriously slow."
At the end of the table, Merlin spoke. "I have foreseen just such a requirement, Mr. Potter. Speak to me in my quarters when you have the opportunity."
Franklyn blinked at Merlin, and then turned to Harry. "And of course, the Department of Experimental Magical Communications will assist you in any way that you might require. I will equip you with a pass that will grant you immediate access to the campus through the main gate. Flintlock knows you now, and will escort you through the Timelock. As you can imagine, however, you cannot Apparate onto the campus from outside of the time bubble, nor can it be accessed via Floo. Alas, our security measures, foolproof as they are, do present their own unique limitations."
"I don't plan on leaving campus at all during my stay," Neville Longbottom announced, smiling. "I've a meeting with the Head of the Flora Department, Professor Sanuye, later this morning, in preparation for my presentation tomorrow night. Frankly, I admit, I'm a wee bit nervous about it."
"You shall do splendidly," Audrey announced confidently. "There is no greater expert on the subject of herbology than you, Professor Longbottom."
"Well," Neville replied, blushing, "that may be stretching it a bit far…"
"As for you four," Ginny said, indicating James, Albus, Ralph, and Lucy, "you are scheduled to meet Zane next to the Octosphere at ten o'clock. He'll show you around the campus and get you prepared for your first day of school. If you plan to wear something other than your pyjamas and those ridiculous robes, I suggest you finish up quickly and change."
"Ugh!" Albus proclaimed suddenly, lifting his cup and staring at it disdainfully. "You call this tea? I'd heard that Americans couldn't brew a decent cup, but really! This tastes like warmed over prune juice!"
"Albus Severus!" Ginny scolded.
Franklyn peered at the cup in Albus' hand. Gently, he reached for it. "Ah, yes. Ahem. It tastes like warmed over prune juice because that's precisely what it is, young man," he said, taking the cup and sniffing it. "You seem to have picked up my drink by accident."
Albus' face reddened as James and his parents laughed. Audrey covered her own mouth to stifle a smile while Percy rolled his eyes. Merlin moved to get up, indicating the end of the meal.
"Oh. Well," Albus said stiffly. "Never mind then."
By daylight, the scale of Alma Aleron campus seemed even larger. Neatly cropped lawns and flower gardens were crisscrossed with paths running in all directions. Some of the footpaths were meandering and narrow, laid with pea gravel, others were wide flagstone thoroughfares, cutting straight swathes between the various buildings.
As James, Albus, Ralph, and Lucy made their way to the center of campus, they encountered innumerable students of nearly every age, most dressed in various versions of the school uniform, which consisted, generally, of a dress shirt, tie, pants, and blazer for the boys, or a blouse, skirt, and tie for the girls. V-necked sweaters were occasionally worn in place of the blazer, especially by the girls, and some students forewent the blazer altogether or carried it slung over their shoulders.
The confusing bit was in the fact that there didn't seem to be an established school colour. As James glanced around, soaking in the sights, he counted at least half a dozen different colour combinations. He did notice, however, that students in similar colours tended to cluster together in knots, either walking swiftly to their classes or hovering near the benches and low walls that dotted the campus, laughing and lounging, occasionally tossing around strange leather sporting balls.
The buildings that comprised the campus were mostly brick, covered in ivy, with dormers and towers jutting from their high roofs. The entrances were wide and grand, with stone staircases leading to banks of heavy wooden doors, many propped open to admit the fresh autumn air. Most of the main buildings seemed to range along a very long narrow common space, dotted with huge ancient trees, pools, bridges, gardens, and statuary. On the closest end of the commons, near the guest house and the Warping Willow, was something like an old ruin, mostly comprised of stone blocks stacked haphazardly around a grass-filled foundation. The only recognizable portion of the ruin was the main entrance and steps, which seemed ready to collapse at the slightest provocation. A very worn and broken statue of a severely dressed wizard holding a wand at his side stood in front of the entryway, looking as if it had once stood atop a grand pedestal which had, through time and entropy, become buried. The name engraved along the top of the ruin's doorway was barely legible: Roberts.
Across from the ruin, sitting at the far end of the commons like a patriarch at the head of a gigantic table, was a very imposing red brick building with buttresses and stone columns, ranks of tall windows, and a dizzyingly tall clock tower which stood over its impressive central entryway. The school's full name and date of origin were engraved over the columns in huge block letters: 'ALMA ALERON UNIVERSITY of MAGICAL HUMANITIES and SPELLCRAFT – 1688'. James had an inkling that he'd seen the building before, and then he remembered: it had been in the background of his first glimpse of A.A.U., seen through the magical rear wall of the Trans-Dimensional Garage during his first year at Hogwarts. He'd seen that very clock tower, albeit from a different angle, and heard it tolling the hour. He felt a little surreal now, looking up the building from its own lawns, knowing that he'd be attending school under it, probably for the entire year.
Finally, the four students made their way into the center of the campus commons and stopped beneath one of the massive elm trees that cast their shadows over the grounds, their turning leaves catching the sunlight like kaleidoscopes. Nearby, a grand, terraced pool splashed with fountains, surrounding a strange black marble ball that seemed to float in the very middle.
"Here he comes," Ralph said, mopping his brow with his sleeve. "How can it be so hot here this late in the year?"
Lucy shrugged. "This is mild by their standards. Be glad we didn't arrive in the middle of August. My father says you can boil a cauldron on the footpath during a typical American summer."
"Ugh," Albus grunted, shaking his head.
"I'm disappointed not to be able to try it, really," Lucy said, bending down and laying her palm on the stone at her feet. "This is barely hot enough to soften a jellywort."
"Has it ever occurred to you," Albus said, peering sideways at his cousin, "that your dad might be full of jellywort?"
Lucy regarded Albus calmly. "Yes," she said. "Actually it has."
"Morning everybody," Zane said happily, crossing the pool's terraces to meet them. "Sorry I'm a little late. There was an incident last night in my house involving a pledge, an Engorgio spell, and a key lime pie. I've never seen such a mess, and it was up to me to make sure it got cleaned up afterwards. The pledges barely swam through half of it. If you ask me, there isn't a Zombie in the bunch."
Lucy frowned. "A key lime pie?"
Ralph glanced at her. "You heard him say the word 'zombie', and the thing that struck you was the pie?"
"He obviously doesn't mean real zombies," Lucy sniffed. "Zombies are forbidden. At least in this country."
Zane raised his voice and pumped his fist in the air. "Zombie pride! Zombie grit! Undead fight and never quit!" He stopped, lowered his fist, and grinned. "Sorry, force of habit. Go Zombies, eh?"
"Whatever you say," James smiled, shaking his head.
"Come on, I'll give you the lowdown while we walk," Zane said, beckoning. "There's a lot to go over and not much time. I have class in half an hour. You can sit in if you want."
"Oh yeah," Albus commented brightly. "That'd be buckets of fun."
Lucy smacked her cousin lightly on the back of the head as they stood up. "Give it a rest already, Albus."
"All right," Zane said, turning around and walking backwards, his arms held wide. "This is Alma Aleron's main mall. Most of the classroom buildings are along here, on either side. Back by the Warping Willow, that pile of bricks and stone is the home of one of the original founders. Looks tempting to climb on, but not a good idea. Magic's the only thing holding what's left of it together these days."
"What happened to it?" James asked, looking back over his shoulder at the faded ruin. "Looks like it's a thousand years old."
Zane shrugged. "Sorry, that's not part of the tour. Mainly, 'cause I don't know. I'm sure somebody told me at one time, but I did myself a favor and forgot it as soon as I could. Leaves more room up here for Clutchcudgel and pledge dares," he said, tapping the side of his head with one finger. "Anyway, most of the dormitory houses are on the other side of the classroom buildings. There are six of them, which brings me to the most important part of your life here at the Aleron: which society you end up in."
"Just like the houses at Hogwarts," Lucy nodded, brightening.
"Yes!" Zane said, pointing at her. "And no. Things here are totally different, beginning with the Sorting. Mainly because there isn't one. Here, you have to rush for the society you want to get into. If you don't, or if you blow it during rush, you'll get assigned to a dorm house by the administration, and you don't want that to happen."
James followed Zane over a narrow footbridge, sidling past a knot of students going in the opposite direction. "Why not? You get into a house either way, right?"
"Yeah, but you don't have any say about what house they put you in. It's based entirely on whatever space is available. And houses don't treat leftovers very well. Even Zombie House. I should know."
"Were you a… er… leftover?" Ralph asked.
"Heh," Zane said, glancing back. "No. Let's just say Zombie House's leftovers are still cleaning key lime pie off the basement walls. It's an ugly hierarchy, but an effective one."
"Sounds a bit barbaric," Lucy said mildly.
Zane nodded. "Anyway, there's six societies here, all originally named for Greek mythology, which the founding fathers were all just mad about. Nobody really calls them by their Greek names anymore, though, so don't worry about trying to remember it all. The societies have been in existence since the beginning of the school and they were designed to accommodate pretty much any magical personality type."
He stopped and turned around again, gesturing between two nearby buildings. "See that old mansion back there, behind Rhines Hall? That's Hermes Mansion, otherwise known as the home of the Zombies, where I live. My dorm is in the top right window, next to the tower. Zombies are perseverant and mischievous, adaptable to almost any situation. Just like me, eh?"
Albus nodded. "Hermes House Zombies are also known for having questionable judgment and requiring a lot of supervision."
Lucy, James, and Ralph glanced aside at Albus, eyebrows raised.
"What?" Albus said, spreading his hands. "Lucy's not the only one who can read, you know! It was in a booklet I found in our room last night."
Zane rolled his eyes. "Well, you're right, technically. If you ask anybody else, they'll tell you that Zombie House is the home of punks, rebels, and troublemakers. But they only say that 'cause they're jealous. Our colours are bile yellow and black."
"What about the other societies?" Lucy asked.
"All right," Zane said, raising his hand and beginning to count them off on his fingers. "Besides the Hermes House Zombies, there's Erebus, better known as Vampire House, headed up by Professor Remora, who you already met. They're all dramatic and morose, and they take themselves super seriously. You can tell them by their black and blood red uniforms, and by the fact that most of them are as pale as the moon and like to let their hair flop all over their eyes so they have to pull it out of the way just to see who's making fun of them. And it's usually a Zombie," he added proudly.
"Then there's the Aphrodite House Pixies. They're all cheerleader types, hung up on looking good and who has the most expensive broom and who's still wearing last season's designer cape. They're not bad, if you can get past the ego, and nobody can out-charm them when it comes to school politics and debates. They even have some real-life Veelas in Pixie House. Their colours are pink and yellow since those are the colours that are most commonly in fashion."
Zane started walking again, leading the group toward the main administration building at the end of the commons. "Next is Ares House, commonly known as the Werewolves. They're the military types, and the jocks of the campus. Their house is the one up on Victory Hill, behind the admin building. They've won that spot for twelve years in a row since nobody can beat them in the Clutch tournament. Werewolves are arrogant and tough, and they don't have much respect for anyone who isn't like them, so you'll want to steer clear of them unless you are one. Their colours are slate grey and burgundy, like military uniforms. There's their president over there, Professor Jackson."
James blinked and turned to look. Professor Theodore Jackson strode through the sunlight on the other side of the campus, wearing a slate grey coat and a dark burgundy ascot, his steely brow low. He apparently hadn't noticed James or the rest of his group, and James was glad.
"Then there's Hephaestus House, home of the Igors. They're just about the exact opposite of the Werewolves. Igors are technomancy and alchemy freaks, and they're dead geniuses at clockwork. Most of them spend so much time in their house laboratory that they hardly ever know what's going on around the rest of the campus. They talk a big game about taking over the world and creating doomsday devices, but they're really pretty harmless when you get to know 'em. You can tell them by their acid green uniforms."
Zane stopped at the base of the steps to the administration building, which was the enormous brick edifice with the clock tower. He turned and pointed across the campus, back the way they'd come. "And finally, there's the Bigfoots, Apollo House. They have that mansion way back there on the other side of the ruin, about as far from Victory Hill as possible. Bigfoots are nice guys, but there's nothing really interesting about them. They're a friendly, hardworking, upstanding bunch of fairly competent witches and wizards, which explains why everybody forgets about them about two seconds after they meet them."
"They sound like a very decent group," Lucy said, peering at the distant house.
"That's exactly my point!" Zane exclaimed. "They field a respectable Clutch team, but their spell game is totally weak, which explains why they never win. Their House President is a decent guy, can't remember his name. Professor Birch, or Bark, or something like that. Teaches Ethics of Magic at the college level. Way boring."
"Hold on," Albus said, raising a hand. "So this is supposed to be the best wizarding school in the whole Unites States, and you're telling me the best your people could come up with for house names was a bunch of half-rate monsters?"
"I suspect the Vampires, at least, would object to the term 'half-rate'," Lucy interjected.
Zane rolled his eyes. "Yeah, yeah, join the club. Remember, I'm still a Ravenclaw to the core. When I got here last year, I told them how lame it all was compared to life at Hogwarts. Surprisingly, none of that went over very well. The point is, these nicknames were voted on by students, a hundred years or so ago, and they obviously weren't the most imaginative bunch. If you think monster names are bad, though, you should have seen the original society names from back when they started the school! The founding fathers may have been geniuses in a lot of ways, but deciding mascots wasn't one of them."
"How's that?" Lucy asked.
"Well," Zane said, lowering his voice, "those were the same guys that eventually decided the symbols for our political parties should be an elephant and a donkey. Benjamin Franklyn himself voted against making our national symbol an eagle. You know what he wanted it to be? A turkey!" Albus shook his head, grinning. "You're joking."
Zane straightened. "I wish I was, dude. He's still a little rankled about it, and it's been centuries! But anyway, like 'em or not, that's all the house societies. They'll grow on you once you get settled into your own. Rush week is still going on, so you still have a chance to pledge for a good house. I vote Zombie for the lot of you, but we'll have to ask Patches."
"Patches?" Albus blinked. "The administration cat?"
"He's a Kneazle," Zane corrected. "And he has a sixth sense about such things. You can apply for whatever house you want, but it's tradition for new students to consult Patches first. It's fun. In fact, there he is now."
James looked in the direction Zane indicated. In the far corner of the stone stairway, lying in the shadow of a statue of a huge eagle, was a perfectly ordinary looking calico cat. Its eyes were closed but the tip of its tail flicked restlessly, as if the cat was only pretending to be asleep.
"Come on," Zane grinned. "Let's ask him."
"This is some kind of prank you all play on new students," Albus said, lagging behind. "I can appreciate that. I won't be falling for it though."
"Suit yourself," Zane replied, unperturbed. He hunkered down in front of the cat and scratched it between the ears. "Hey Patches, how's everybody's little kitty-boy doing?" he said, as if he was talking to a baby. "Yeah, that's it. You like getting scratched between the ears, don'cha? You feeling like helping out some of my friends today? Sharing a little of that crazy feline intuition?"
Slowly, Patches slit his green eyes and peered up at James. His tail flicked.
"This is James," Zane went on, glancing back. "I know he's a day or two late, but he's come a long way, so he has a good excuse. You want to give him a little push in the right direction, societywise?"
The cat continued to regard James thoughtfully. James could hear him purring as Zane petted him. Finally, the cat stood up, stretched and yawned luxuriously, and padded away into the sunlight.
"Thus spake Zaruthustra," Albus quipped, rolling his eyes.
"Shh," Zane said, raising one hand.
Patches paced toward the administration building's open doors, tail held high, and then stopped with his left front paw raised. He turned to look back, as if making sure that the students were watching.
"Look where his foot is," Lucy whispered, nudging James with her elbow.
James looked closer. Engraved into the stone blocks of the steps was a line of six symbols. The one closest to James was a bat, its wings half-furled. The cat was standing over one of the symbols in the middle, its right paw resting right in the middle of it.
"That can't be right, Patches," Zane said, frowning.
"What is it?" James said, squinting. "I left my glasses in my duffle bag. I can't see the symbol."
Zane sighed. "It's a glass beaker with electric bolts coming out of it, the symbol of Igor House. Patches, James is no Igor. Technomancy isn't his thing. He's an expert with defensive magic. He's a Zombie all the way. Go on, go over to the cross-eyed skull."
To James' surprise, the cat almost seemed to shake its head. It stayed on the Igor symbol, its left foot raised, its right planted right in the center of the engraved beaker.
"I'm pretty sure I'm not an Igor," James commented.
"Yeah, well, stupid old cat," Zane agreed, peering sidelong at Patches. "Good thing it isn't like the Sorting Hat back at good ol' Hoggies. You can pledge at whatever house you want, regardless of what he says."
"Do me now!" Albus proclaimed, stepping forward. "Let James go to the spods. What about me, Patches, ol' buddy?"
The cat regarded Albus coolly, and then put down his left paw. Slowly, he meandered along the symbols and stopped at one near the end. The shape was obvious enough that even James could make it out. It was a werewolf.
Albus nodded, grinning. "Excellent. Wolves it is."
"What about Ralph, then?" Zane asked, pushing the bigger boy forward.
Patches studied Ralph for a long time, his green eyes narrowed. Finally, he sat down, licked his flank a few times, got up again, and walked in a large circle. When he was done, his right foot rested on the beaker again.
"Somebody's putting catnip in your Tender Vittles, puss," Zane said, shaking his head. "Ralph's even less of an Igor than James here. He didn't even take Technomancy when he had the chance."
"It's true," Ralph said to the cat. "I can't even spell 'technomancy'."
Patches lifted his nose and yawned again, as if bored.
Lucy walked over to Patches and hunkered down on one knee. "Hi Patches," she said, tilting her head. "I'm Lucy Weasley. Where do you think I belong?"
Patches strolled forward and rubbed against Lucy's leg, purring loudly. He walked around her and then angled toward the opposite end of the line of symbols. His shadow fell over the bat as he walked around it consideringly. Finally, he stopped and touched the center of the bat with his right paw.
Zane bobbed his head back and forth. "Could be right on that one," he said. "You do seem to have a little of that 'creature of the night' mystique going for you, Lucy."
"But I really dislike that Remora woman," Lucy said, reaching forward to pet Patches again. "She's so vain and ridiculous."
Zane raised his eyebrows and poked a finger into the air. "'All types come in all houses. That's a direct quote from my House President, the dapper Jersey Devil himself."
"What's it supposed to mean?" Ralph asked, confused.
"It means that no house is all good or all bad," Zane answered, hefting his backpack. "There's obnoxious twits in every society, not just the Vampires. There's even a few duds among us Zombies. On the other hand, there's decent types in every house too, although they're a little fewer and far between in some. Don't worry about it, Lucy. If you do pledge Vampire House, you'll find a few like-minded people there despite Remora's best efforts."
"So where do we stay until we get into a society?" Ralph asked.
"There's a common dorm behind the guest house," Zane said, nodding back the way they had come. "Your stuff 's probably been sent there already. You'll want to get out of there as soon as you can. They haven't updated the common dorm in, like, three hundred years. If I was you, I'd get inside right now and sign up for one of the societies. The initiation process will start pretty much immediately. While you're in there, you can get your class assignments sorted out and sign up for any clubs or sports you want to get involved with." He stepped aside and gestured toward the Administration Hall's main doors. "Unless, that is, you want to come along with me to Precognitive Engineering."
"No thanks," James sighed. "I think we better get all of this out of the way as soon as we can."
"And I don't know about the rest of you," Albus added, "but I'll put off starting classes as long as I can."
"I'd like to come along with you, actually," Lucy said, moving to stand next to Zane. "Unlike these two, I am anxious to see what classes look like here. I'll settle the official arrangements after lunch."
"This way, then," Zane said, offering Lucy his elbow. "Precog isn't as hard as it used to be, apparently, now that Madame Delacroix is in a padded room in the medical complex, but it's still a challenge. Stick close and I'll show you the ropes."
James shook his head as the two headed away into the throng of students.
"So," Ralph said, moving hesitantly toward the Administration Hall doors, "are you going to sign up for Igor House?"
James scoffed. "No way. I'm going for Zombie House. With apologies to Patches over there."
"That's what I was thinking too," Ralph nodded. "Although I can't help wondering what that cat knows that we don't."
"You're both daft," Albus said seriously. "That cat's got some kind of mental link with the cosmos or something. It can see right into your soul, just like the Sorting Hat back home. Did you see how quick it was to figure out I belonged in Werewolf House? That's the house of sporting greats, strength and order. If the cat says you two are a couple of Igor spods, then you shouldn't argue with it. Patches knows his stuff."
James pushed his brother out of the way as he turned toward the Administration Hall doors. "A minute ago, you thought the cat was just a freshman prank."
"Ugh," Ralph said, following. "I thought I was through with all of this. I was just starting to get comfortable with Slytherin. Now we have to start all over again."
Albus frowned. "I love Slytherin, but I have a feeling that me and the Wolves are going to get along just fine."
"At least Quidditch isn't as big a deal over here as it is back home," Ralph commented, stepping into the echoing shadows of the Hall's lobby.
James frowned. "Why is that a good thing?"
"Well," Ralph grinned, clapping his friend on the shoulder, "it improves your chances of making the team, doesn't it?"
Albus hooted laughter, and the sound of it echoed throughout the grand, dark lobby.
Twenty minutes later, the three boys emerged into the sunlight again, studying their class assignments.
"Do either of you have Clockwork Mechanics?" Albus asked. "I can't even imagine what that is."
"Hardly any of these make any sense," Ralph agreed. "Look here: Muggle Occupation Studies. What's that about?"
"Hey!" a voice called nearby, startling the three. James looked around and saw a pair of older students standing next to the doors of the Administration Hall. One, a girl, wore a dark slate skirt, matching button-down sweater and a burgundy tie. Black hair framed her dark, severe face. The other, a boy older than James, had bright green hair cut into a stripe that ran from his brow to the base of his neck. He wore a screamingly yellow tie and black pants. The crest on his blazer identified him as a member of Zombie House.
"Are you talking to us?" Ralph asked querulously.
"Do you see any other new students who've gotten it into their heads to pledge the Hermes House Zombies?"
"And the Ares Werewolves," the girl added, smiling crookedly. "Which one of you is Albus Potter?"
Albus jumped to attention and did his best salute. James knew it was an attempt to be funny, and knew as well that it would fail miserably.
"On the ground, pledge," the girl barked, pointing to the portico floor. "Salutes are for those who serve. You'll make up for that mockery by giving me thirty."
Albus was halfway onto his face on the hot stone. He stopped and glanced up at the taller girl. "Er, thirty what? Galleons? Kisses? Sorry, I'm not from around here. Is this some sort of bribe?"
The girl grinned again. She hunkered down in front of Albus so that her face was only a foot from his. "Thirty pushups, Cornelius," she said sweetly. "And just to make sure you remember, you'll do them one-handed."
"Cornelius?" Ralph muttered.
"Pushups," Albus moaned. "That's, like, exercise, right?"
The girl nodded and produced her wand from the sleeve of her white blouse. "Here. I'll get you started."
She flicked her wrist and Albus levitated smartly into the air. A moment later, he plopped back down onto his hands and the tips of his toes.
"That's one," the girl said, still smiling. "Now count them out."
Albus grunted as he began to count, touching his nose to the stone and pushing himself up.
"As for you two," the boy said, moving close to Ralph and James and looking them up and down, "I wouldn't have picked you out of a meat locker lineup, but you come with a decent recommendation from one of my house members. Zane Walker says you were members of the Gremlins. Is that so?"
James blinked. "How do you know about them?"
The boy cuffed James lightly over the ear and grinned. "I just explained it. Zane told me. So were you members or not?"
"Yeah," James said, rubbing the side of his head. The cuff hadn't really hurt, but he felt he should do something more than just absorb it.
"I suppose I was a member," Ralph said, thinking hard. "I mean, unofficially, I guess. There was never any swearing in, if you know what I mean…"
"We take initiation seriously in Zombie House," the boy said. "My name's Warrington. You'll call me… let's see… you'll call me 'Mr. Warrington, his grand exalted poobahness'. Until I tell you otherwise. Understood?"
"Yeah," James said wearily, nodding.
"Yeah, what?" Warrington prodded, leaning closer.
"Yeah, Mr. Warrington, your grand exalted, er… poobahness?"
"Close enough," the boy said, straightening again. "So you're James Potter and this ton o' bricks here is Ralph Deedle, both of you from jolly old England. All right, then. Here's what I want you both to do right now. I want you to run along to Hermes Mansion and introduce yourselves to the rest of the Zombies. But you can't go inside, you understand. You're only pledges, and pledges have to be invited in. So, you'll have to stand outside and yell. Tell everybody in the house your name, who recommended you, and why we should make you official members. And wear these."
Warrington held out two hats. James was not exactly surprised to see that they were yellow and black beanies, with gently spinning propellers on the tops. Some things, of course, were just tradition no matter what country you were in. Slowly, he and Ralph took them.
"Put 'em on now," Warrington grinned. "Show some house pride, why don't you? When I get back to the house, in an hour, I want to see you outside, hard at work. And when I get inside, I want the rest of the Zombies to be able to tell me everything about you that I need to know, with no exceptions. Got it?"
"Yes," James sighed, jamming the beanie onto his head.
"Yes, what?" Warrington prodded again.
"Yes, Mr. Warrington," both boys said in sloppy unison, "your grand exalted poobahness."
"Nah, I don't want to be called that anymore," Warrington said, cupping his chin. "Now, you will refer to me as 'Captain Warrington, the Superduke of the Realm of Coolness'. Remember that. I don't want to have to remind you. Now run!"
He shooed James and Ralph, who turned and trotted haphazardly down the steps of the Administration Hall, leaving Albus grunting out pushups on the portico.
"I didn't realize," Ralph panted as they began to cross the campus, "that running… would be part of the deal."
8. THE VAULT OF DESTINIES
It was amazing, James reflected the next day, how similar life at Hogwarts and life at Alma Aleron could be while being so simultaneously completely different.
He and Ralph had spent most of the previous afternoon in the basement of Hermes Mansion wearing their ridiculous propeller beanies and being grilled by senior members of the Zombies about why they should be allowed to join, all the while crawling around on the basement's ratty carpets and poking into the dusty rafters in search of spiders, which they were instructed to collect and save in a large jar. James had half worried that part of their initiation would include eating the spiders that they were in the process of collecting and had purposely avoiding capturing several of the larger ones. By ten o'clock, Zane had been there as well, munching a huge bowl of popcorn with his feet kicked up on an old footstool covered in yellow shag carpeting. Warrington, who by then had chosen to be referred to as 'High Sultan Warrington, Master of the Fighting Freemdugs of the Second-Floor Sectional Couch', had inspected Ralph's and James' jar of spiders with a critical eye. Dozens of the arachnids scrambled over each other in the bottom of the jar, their tiny legs making a slightly maddening scritching sound on the glass.
"Not bad, pledges," Warrington had proclaimed reluctantly. "You got sixteen more than Zane here did on his first night."
"No fair!" Zane had exclaimed, sitting upright in the old recliner by the stairs. "There's two of them!"
"Yeah," Warrington had grinned, unscrewing the lid of the jar. "But you cheated, Walker. You transfigured half of your spiders out of ants, centipedes, and even a few stale potato chips. Most of them didn't even have the right number of legs."
Zane had slumped backwards in the chair again. "That's what you all loved about me, if I recall. Creative cheating is a Zombie core value. You told me so yourself."
"Indeed I did," Warrington had nodded, upending the jar over the stained carpet. The spiders had poured out and scrambled away in all directions, scuttling under the furniture and into dark corners.
"What'd you do that for?" Ralph had exclaimed, his eyes bulging. James had noticed that the propeller on Ralph's head spun faster when he was agitated. It had very nearly lifted him off the floor when he'd discovered the black widow's nest in the shadow of the stairs.
"Sorry, pledges," Warrington had replied soberly. "It's purely catch-and-release in Zombie House. Otherwise, what will the next batch of pledges have to chase after? Why, some of those spiders are like family by now."
"I remember the big orange and purple one from my first night here," Zane had said wistfully. "I found it on my pillow wearing a pair of fake plastic fangs."
The room had erupted into gales of appreciative laughter and Warrington had grinned indulgently at Zane.
Shortly, James and Ralph had been dismissed, accompanied by the well wishes and encouragement of Zane, who'd told them that he thought the evening had gone splendidly well.
"You two are shoo-ins," he'd said as he walked them to the path in front of Hermes Mansion. "Really. Warrington likes you, otherwise he'd have made you personally return every spider to its nest. As long as you accomplish tomorrow's pledge dare, you'll be in like lint."
James had asked Zane what the dare would be, but Zane had shaken his head. "If I knew, I'd tell you, but I don't. Since you only got here during the last few days of pledge week, it'll probably be a big one. But you can pull it off. Don't sweat it."
James tried not to think about it as he and Ralph made their way across the dark campus.
The common dorm was a stone block construction that loomed like a giant mausoleum in the shadow of the guest house, with no lanterns to light it and nearly every window dark. In the tiny entryway, James and Ralph found their trunks and Nobby's battered cage, inside of which the great owl eyed James balefully.
"Sorry, Nobby," James soothed, kneeling in front of the cage and opening the door. "I nearly forgot all about you. Go on outside and get some dinner, but don't go far. I'll find out tomorrow where they keep owls around here."
The owl hopped out of the cage and ruffled his feathers. With a disgruntled hoot, he spread his wings and took off through the open front door.
"There's a note from your mum," Ralph said, taking an envelope from the top of his trunk. "It's addressed to all of us. You, me, Lucy, and Albus."
James plopped onto his trunk and pulled the beanie from his head. "Go ahead and read it," he said, flapping a hand vaguely.
Ralph drew the note from the unsealed envelope and unfolded it. "'Dear children,'" he began, and then looked at James. "'Children'?"
"Just go on," James prodded, shaking his head wearily.
"'I hope you've settled in OK with your classes and house assignments. We all miss you already, although we'll be sure to see you tomorrow night at Professor Longbottom's assembly. Your new school uniforms are in your trunks. Be good and we'll see you tomorrow. Love,' blah, blah, blah, she put everybody's names here, even Headmaster Merlin."
"That's my mum," James smiled crookedly.
"There's something written on the back," Ralph said, turning the note over. "It's from Lucy. She says… she's spending the night at Vampire House with her new mates, and then she writes 'I'll probably see you three at class in the morning if you don't sleep in or skip it or forget you're on American time now'. Blimey, she can be a nag, can't she?"
James shrugged. "That's how the women in my family show love, I think."
"You think Albus is already here somewhere," Ralph asked, grunting as he lugged his trunk toward a rickety dumbwaiter built into the wall next to the staircase. A very tarnished brass statue of a monkey in a bellhop uniform stood on a shelf next to the dumbwaiter door.
"I don't know," James sighed, standing and hefting his own trunk. "Maybe he got lucky like Lucy and is spending the night at his new house."
Ralph socked his trunk into the large dumbwaiter compartment and James used his wand to levitate his own on top of Ralph's. The brass monkey sprang jerkily to life, squeaking as if it desperately needed to be oiled. It clambered into the dumbwaiter, sidling next to the stacked trunks, and pulled the door shut. A moment later, a ratcheting noise marked the compartment's ascent into the floors above.
"How does it know where to go?" James asked, peering at the closed door. Ralph shrugged and the two of them struck off in search of the bathrooms.
The common dormitory turned out to be just as dank, moldy, and woefully outdated as Zane had implied. When Ralph turned on the faucets, a mixture of rusty orange water, dirt, and the occasional worm spilled out, and continued for several minutes while the boys let it run. Finally, they satisfied themselves by heading back outside and splashing off in a nearby fountain. In the center of the fountain, a monstrous birdbath seemed to regard them coolly from the eyes of a half dozen stone gargoyles.
"Foreigners," one of the gargoyles muttered, rolling its eyes.
Ralph and James chucked pinecones at the statues for a few minutes, but soon realized that nothing is quite as imperturbable as a stone gargoyle. Eventually, exhausted, the boys stumped back inside and, after a short search, found their trunks kicked out onto the hallway carpet of the top floor. There, they found an empty dormitory room and dropped immediately to sleep on the ancient, bowed beds.
The next day, James and Ralph's first class was Wizard Home Economics, which was held in the cellars of the Administration Hall, in what, for all intents and purposes, appeared to be a converted dungeon. Low vaulted ceilings were supported by squat pillars, and James had the unsettling sense that he could feel the weight of the massive building above, pressing down on the space. All in all, he found the classroom nearly indistinguishable from some of the more cobwebbed classrooms at Hogwarts.
The Wiz Home Ec teacher was a fat, wizened old witch with rosy cheeks, frizzy white hair that seemed to have a very rich life of its own, and sparkling black eyes that darted over the classroom mischievously, as if she wasn't exactly sure if she wanted to teach the children or cook them in an enormous pie. Her name, as it turned out, was Professor Betsy Bartholemew Ryvenwicke Newton, however she instructed her students to refer to her merely as Mother Newt. Smiling in a grandmotherly fashion, she began to stack cauldrons, pots, and pans on her expansive desk, launching into an introductory explanation of the class. Zane, who sat between James and Ralph at a table in the rear of the room, leaned aside to James.
"She may look like last decade's cinnamon bun," he whispered behind his hand, "but don't mess with old Ma Newt. She's as tough as a Bigfoot's heel callus and twice as stinky if you get her riled up."
Ralph slumped in his seat and fiddled with his quill. "Isn't Home Ec a girlie class?" he whispered gloomily, but Zane interrupted him, shushing urgently and holding a finger to his lips.
"What's that?" Mother Newt asked suddenly, interrupting herself at the front of the classroom. She raised her chin and peered over the heads of the students. Her black gaze found Zane and she offered him a rather charming smile. "A question, Mr. Walker?"
"No, no," Zane replied, grinning a little manically. "It's nothing."
"Someone back there implied that Wizarding Home Economics is… I'm sorry," she said, frowning slightly. "My poor hearing isn't what it used to be. What did your friend call it?"
"Er…," Ralph muttered, his face turning dark red. "Er, er… I was just asking. I'm new here."
Mother Newt nodded comfortingly, closing her eyes. "Yes, yes. Mr. Deedle, from our wizarding neighbors across the sea. I've heard much about you and your friends. What was it you were wondering, young man? Don't be shy with your old Mother Newt."
Emboldened, Ralph sat up a little. "Well," he said, glancing around. The eyes of the rest of the class had all turned to him, most wide and serious. One or two students shook their heads very faintly, warningly. Ralph gulped and went on. "I, er… I always thought… pardon me for saying… that home economics was a girl's study."
"Oh no," Mother Newt answered soothingly, smiling again. "A common misconception, dear boy, I assure you. No, you see, the truth is…," here, the professor stepped away from her desk, backing into the shadows of the high cupboards that lined the dungeon's front wall, "the truth is that Home Economics is not at all a girl's study… it is, in fact, a woman's study."
In the shadows, Newt raised her hands swiftly, and the sleeves of her robes fell back, revealing surprisingly lean, strong arms. "Home economics is more than a mere class. It is the lifetime pursuit of only the most rare and powerful woman. A fierce, cunning woman, a witch whose wiles are without depth, whose motives are infinitely unplottable, and whose boundless potential is kept in check only by her own willing discipline…"
Lightning crackled from Newt's upraised wand and her fingertips, licking along the faces of the cabinets. Her voice lowered, but grew louder, echoing. "The sort of witch whose minions exist only at her tolerance, only to serve her unknowable whims, moved either by fear of her or love for her, forever beguiled and bewitched, whether they know it… or not!"
Thunder boomed suddenly in the enclosed space of the dungeon and a cold gust of wind swirled around the room, clapping the cupboard doors and snuffing out candles in the wall sconces. At their desks, students held onto their parchments and quills as the wind rushed over them, streaming through the girls' hair and flapping the boys' ties. A skeleton on a metal stand in the corner rattled and swayed. Its jaw clacked as if it was laughing. A moment later, as quickly as it had begun, the wind ceased. The lighting in the room returned to normal. With a series of small pops, the extinguished candles relit themselves.
"Does that answer your question, my dear?" Newt said sweetly, smiling in front of her desk once again, as if she had not moved an inch.
"Y-yes ma'am," Ralph said quickly, sitting bolt upright in his seat. "Clear as crystal."
"Good," Mother Newt replied warmly, her eyes twinkling. "Now where were we? Oh yes, the basic essentials of any magical kitchen, beginning with ladles. Do pay attention, students. There may be a quiz."
Forty minutes later, as the class shuffled out into the low hallway, each bearing a miniature poisonberry muffin that Mother Newt had helped them prepare in the classroom's goblinfire oven, Zane explained, "Ma Newt is the President of Pixie House. Theirs is the big gingerbready mansion, Aphrodite Heights, up on the hill behind the theater. She's a good example of why you don't want to underestimate a Pixie even if they do look like a bunch of frosted lemon cookies."
"I've met a few Pixies," Lucy said falling in line next to the three boys. "I don't think most of them are like Mother Newt. She's got issues."
Zane laughed. "Oh, you've got no idea. Trust me."
James eyed the miniature muffin in his hand. "Are these safe to eat? I mean… poisonberry?"
"It's just a name," Zane shrugged, adjusting his backpack. "Like plaguepoppies or deathshrooms. They're delicious. On the other hand, if anyone tries to get you to eat a blisscake… watch out."
"Have any of you seen Albus?" Lucy asked, climbing the stone steps to the Administration Hall's long foyer.
Zane nodded. "I saw him this morning in the cafeteria, following around a gang of senior Werewolves. They had him carrying all their trays, balancing them like it was some kind of circus trick. I was pretty impressed, to tell you the truth. He was levitating the last one with his wand between his teeth."
"He'll get in," Lucy said confidently. "Albus is tenacious when he wants to be."
"Tenacious is one way to put it," James commented, shaking his head.
At the Administration Hall stairs, Lucy bid the boys goodbye and headed off to the Tower of Art for her Wizlit class. As the three boys made their way across campus to the Applied Magical Sciences Building, a figure trotted up to them over a nearby lawn. James glanced aside and saw that it was Warrington.
"Hey Walker," he called. "Pledges. Hold up a minute."
James and Ralph stopped and began to mumble, "Yes, oh High Sultan Warrington, Leader of the—"
"Can it," Warrington interrupted. "Listen up. Your pledge dare is all set, and tonight's the night. You'll find everything you need in a trash can behind the common dorm. Look for the one with the big yellow 'Z' hexed onto its side. Walker, you get them started, all right? You'll know what to do. But don't help them!"
"Aye aye, captain," Zane said, smacking the back of his hand to his forehead.
"But tonight's Professor Longbottom's assembly," James said, turning to Zane as Warrington trotted away again. "We can't miss that!"
"That's this evening," Zane said, shaking his head. "When a Zombie says 'tonight', what he really means is, oh, sometime in the wee hours of the next morning. Get the picture?"
"Ah," James replied, frowning a little.
Ralph looked worried. "So what's the dare, then?"
"We'll know when we peek into the garbage can behind the common dorm," Zane answered simply. "No time now, though. We've got Mageography next, and Professor Wimrinkle is known to dock grades for tardiness. He's wound so tight he squeaks when he walks. Come on."
Mageography was held in a huge round room in the base of the Applied Magical Sciences Building's dome. The floor was terraced like an amphitheater, lined with tables and chairs. Enormous maps surrounded the upper reaches of the room, floating in bulky gilded frames. James was not surprised to see that the map images, most of which were ancient, hand-drawn in faded browns, reds, and greens, moved very slightly. They were enchanted, of course, showing the movements of the rivers and oceans, and even the ant-like crawl of tiny boats and magical vehicles.
"I hear that if you use a special magnifying glass," Zane whispered, heading toward a seat in the middle terrace, "that you can see tiny people moving in the cities and stuff. You could probably even find yourself if you looked hard enough."
"That must be what my dad meant," Ralph replied thoughtfully. "He told me that one of the purposes of school was to find yourself."
James groaned and Zane rolled his eyes. Ralph looked affronted.
As the three settled into their seats and produced their parchments and quills, James saw Albus saunter into an entrance on the other side of the room. He spotted James, Ralph, and Zane and waved, grinning. Behind him, a tall boy in a slate grey uniform gave him a little shove. Albus lurched forward amiably and moved to a seat in the front row followed by three severe-looking Werewolf House students. One of them was the dark girl that had met them outside of the Administration Hall the previous day.
"Looks like Al's doing all right," Zane muttered.
James peered down at his brother. "How can you tell?"
Zane shrugged simply. "No bruises that I can see. Always a good sign with Werewolf House."
Professor Wimrinkle entered the room from a door near his desk. He was very old, stooped, and wore very thick black spectacles which magnified his eyes so much that he looked rather perpetually surprised. He placed his leather portfolio neatly onto the desk and, without preamble, announced in a loud voice, "Number four nib quills, please, and a single sheet of forty weight parchment. Today: the Nile Delta and surrounding lowlands."
The professor adjusted his glasses studiously as one of the maps drifted down from the upper reaches of the room, moving into place behind his desk.
"For new students, I will only say this once: I do not allow Quick-Quotes Quills or recording charms in this class. You will pay attention, and you will kindly take your own notes and draw your own maps. As the rest of you know, there is no point in my telling you that talking out of turn is forbidden in my class. If you intend to receive a passing grade, you will be so busy keeping up with me that there will be no time for you to open your mouths. Questions will be submitted to my secretary, where they will be answered during scheduled office hours. And now…"
Wimrinkle lifted his wand, which telescoped into a long pointer. He clacked its tip to a point on the map without looking. "The Nile river is generally considered to be the longest river in the world," he said in a loud monotone, "and the home to some of the magical world's most exotic and interesting creatures and fishes, none of which we shall be discussing. The river's flow rate is approximately thirty-seven thousand square feet per second, resulting in a geographical delta shift of fifteen degrees average every year, which in turn results in a hydromagical plottability meter of two point-oh-seven gigapokuses every eight years. As you might imagine, this leads to a terrain hexology rating of, can anyone tell me? Anyone?"
No one in the room seemed eager to attempt an answer and the professor didn't seem at all surprised. He answered his own question and plowed onward, his voice echoing in the high dome overhead. James scribbled notes furiously, trying to keep up.
Sighing, he realized for the first time just how sorely he was going to miss Rose and her prodigious note taking during this school year.
The rest of the day went by in a blur. James, Ralph, and Zane had lunch in the school's cafeteria, which was located in the topmost basement level of Administration Hall. Its mint green brick walls, tiny windows set at ceiling height, long lines of students carrying metal trays, and overpowering smell of milk and goulash made James feel as if he had been transported to the mess hall in Azkaban. The noise of the chattering students was like a flock of magpies, ringing in the room's low confines.
"So the original builders of Administration Hall were dwarves," Zane said, raising his voice over the noisome throng. "Excellent guys to have around for any construction project but with interesting views about use of space. I learned about them in Magi-American History. According to the dwarves, the Muggle building model is a weed, with most of the structure above the ground and very little root. The wizard building model is a turtle: low and secret, with a wide foundation. Dwarves, though, their building model is an iceberg."
"Ninety percent below the surface?" Ralph clarified around a mouthful of goulash.
Zane nodded. "There's more sub-basements, cellars, and dungeons in this place than anyone can count. I've heard stories about students going exploring into the lower stairwells and finding whole tribes of giant rats, entrances to huge underground rivers, even forbidden rooms with doors the size of dinosaurs and magical glowing locks that no one can open."
James was impressed. "Have you seen any of those things?"
"No," Zane sighed sorrowfully. "Everything below the upper dungeons is prohibited and guarded by some ancient old witch none of us has ever seen. They call her Crone Laosa. Apparently she's the stuff nightmares are made of. Fairy tale evil, if you know what I mean."
Ralph looked sideways at Zane. "Like, she'll catch you and turn you into a frog until some princess kisses you?"
Zane narrowed his eyes thoughtfully. "Like, she'll catch you and turn you into a cockroach until some lunch lady squashes you with her heel."
"I see," Ralph nodded wisely. "So, stay out of the lower levels."
As James moved through the rest of the day in his plain black blazer and tie, he couldn't help feeling noticeably colourless amidst all the other students' uniforms. He hoped that tonight's pledge dare would turn out all right so that by the next day, he could begin wearing Zombie yellow and finally fit in.
When his afternoon free period came, James found himself pleasantly distracted from his stroll to the library by the sight of his dad walking along in the sunlight, accompanied by Merlin and Denniston Dolohov. James shouldered his backpack and ran to catch up to the group as they paced along the mall, led by Chancellor Franklyn.
"Of course, with the campus moving about in time as it does," Franklyn was saying, "Alma Aleron functionally occupies a temporal fluxstream that would otherwise be used for storing our chronological history…
James fell in step next to his father, who glanced down at him, blinked in surprise, and then smiled. Without a word, he rested his hand on his son's shoulder as they walked together.
"In summary," Franklyn went on, not noticing James' arrival, "with our history displaced by our curious use of time, we have been pressed to store our chronological timeline in another, more conventional space. The result is here before us, in the guise of the Official Alma Aleron Hall of Historical Archives."
Franklyn stopped and beamed up at the imposing stone block building that loomed before them. It was shaped like a squat cylinder, with pillars running all around its circumference and a set of enormous, iron-framed doors set into the deep portico.
"Ah, I see young Mr. Potter has joined us," Franklyn said, noticing James and smiling indulgently. "You'll come inside with us, of course, although you might find it a wee bit chilly. The Archive requires strict temperature control in order to preserve its more delicate artifacts. Shall we?" He gestured up the broad stairway, and followed as the group climbed into the building's shadow.
"How is school treating you so far, James?" Merlin asked as they ascended the stairs.
"Good, mostly," James replied.
"I have something to give you before my departure tomorrow evening," Merlin announced somewhat abruptly, keeping his voice low. "I suspect it will ease your adjustment to your new environs. Come and find me tomorrow before sunset."
James peered up at the big wizard curiously and nodded.
Franklyn approached a smaller door set into the base of one of the enormous iron-barred doors and waved his wand at it. There was a click and the door swung slowly open of its own accord.
"Of course, the main research area is always open to all students and faculty," Franklyn announced, leading the others through the dark doorway. "One must only wave their wand before the door to identify themselves. Once inside, the entire history of the school, and, alas, the United States itself, can be illuminated and studied in great detail. If, that is, one is able to produce the proper artifact. The Archive can be rather daunting to the uninitiated."
After a short dark hallway, James found himself led into a round room with blank stone walls. The vaulted ceiling was studded with dozens of tiny windows, fogged with age, reducing the light of the room to a dull, milky glow, virtually shadowless. Franklyn's voice echoed as he moved into the light, toward the room's only dominant feature.
"This is the brain of the Archive," he said, touching the stone pedestal that stood in the center of the room. "The Disrecorder. With its help, we may revisit any of the events represented by the Archive's prodigious collection of artifacts. Quite simple, really, and elegantly effective."
"The Disrecorder," Denniston Dolohov said, as if tasting the word. "Something that unravels a recording of some kind? Might I inquire how it works?"
"You very well might," Franklyn answered with a smile. "Many have. Interestingly enough, no one truly knows. The Disrecorder is one of the Archive's two fantastical ancient relics that have come to us through the mists of the ages, with origins wholly unknown. Theodore Jackson, who most of you have already met, has studied the phenomenon at length and has developed his own theories, although I admit that my understanding of them is imperfect at best. To be honest, I was hoping that you might be able to provide some insight into the mystery, Headmaster Ambrosius."
James glanced at Franklyn, and then at Merlin, who stood off to the side, his arms folded over his chest. It made sense that Merlin might, in fact, know something about the ancient object when one remembered that Merlin himself was, technically, over a millennium old.
"I remember talk of such things in the time from which I have come," Merlin admitted. "Deruwid Magic, it was called, and I regret to say that it was practiced only by the most secret and bent of magical societies. Ugly and vile in their dark hearts, bloodthirsty to the core, and yet powerful. The Deruwid practitioners posited that everything—from sound waves, to exhaled breaths, to magical afterglow—made tiny infinitesimal marks on the surface of the earth, a sort of code, waiting to be deciphered. In my early days, I visited these dark ones, and observed them. At that time, they sought the means to observe and read these marks—these recordings, as they viewed them," Merlin said, nodding toward Harry. "For they believed that if all of history could be read and distilled, then all futures could be perfectly predicted. These were wizards who desired power above all else, and they firmly believed in one thing: that he who controls the future controls all of the earth and those within it. I have learned, in fact, that this is an idea that has its adherents still today."
James realized that Merlin was staring rather pointedly at Franklyn. Franklyn noticed it as well.
"Indeed," he said a little weakly. "As with all wicked ideas, they crop up in every age, only by different names. Fortunately, the idea you speak of has fallen from favour and been disproven in this age just as effectively as it was in the age of your Deruwids."
"Out of favour it may be," Merlin said slowly. "But disproven?"
"I think I've heard of this," Harry commented, frowning slightly. "It's known as the Wizarding Grand Unification Theory, yes? Popular a century or so ago, if I am not mistaken."
"Yes, yes," Franklyn agreed with a wave of his hand. "Along with phrenology, vivisection, and the Fountain of Pleasing Breath. And all equally debunked in the modern era. But I thank you for your, er, enlightenment, Headmaster."
"How, might I ask," Denniston Dolohov said, putting on his spectacles, "was this theory debunked?"
"Ah," Franklyn answered more comfortably. "It's quite obvious, really. The Disrecorder, if indeed it is a relic from the age of the Deruwids, fails quite soundly when presented with any average object. Observe."
With that, Franklyn dug in one of his vest pockets and produced two coins, which he held up for those watching.
"This coin here," he announced, regarding the first small golden shape in his fingers, "is a standard American Drummel, or half-note. Worth a little less than five Knuts by your measure. I will now place it into the bowl of the Disrecorder. Perhaps we will learn in whose pockets it rode before it found its way into mine, yes?"
With a clink, Franklyn dropped the coin into the concave top of the stone pedestal. James watched with interest. There was silence for several seconds as everyone waited.
"Hmm," Franklyn frowned. "Nothing. And this is to be expected. You see, the Disrecorder only deciphers the imprints of an artifact that has been especially charmed to receive the input of its surroundings. Which bring us, as it were, to Exhibit B."
Franklyn pocketed the half-note and held up another, decidedly larger coin. It glittered faintly silver despite a layer of dark tarnish.
"This coin, worth a standard note, or Jack, you may be interested to know, was carried in the pocket of Sir Percival Pepperpock, one of the original founders of this school, upon the date of its groundbreaking. The coin was especially charmed on that day, thus preserving the details of the event for us in perpetuity. Observe."
Franklyn dropped the coin onto the bowl of the Disrecorder.
"Do you have the shovel?" a voice asked loudly in James' ear. He spun around and found himself staring up into the face of a large, very fat man wearing a vest and a short cloak with a high collar. He was smiling and red-faced, his forehead beaded with sweat. A man next to him handed him a small spade. James glanced around, wide-eyed. The walls and ceiling of the Archive chamber were still visible, but only faintly. Harry, Denniston Dolohov, Merlin, and Franklyn appeared to be standing in a grassy field, glowing with sunshine and dotted with butterflies. Other figures stood in a haphazard line, beaming and squinting in the sunlight. Some of the figures, James was interested to see, were dwarves. With their knobby heads, sausage-like bodies, and vaguely porcine faces, James thought that each one looked a bit like a cross between a goblin and a pot-bellied pig. Wind blew, and James smelled the fresh scent of wild, wooded spring.
A gritty, scooping sound came from behind James and he turned again, stepping aside as the fat wizard, Sir Pepperpock himself, tossed the first shovelful of earth aside, nearly onto James' shoes.
"Here, we shall erect our school," Pepperpock proclaimed happily. "And here we shall teach the dual duties of magical mastery and human respect, thus to ensure that said mastery is never used for selfish aims, but always for the good of all. Here, we shall grow our school, and from it we shall grow generations of witches and wizards who will be the shining lights of the magical world. We shall call them our children, and we shall call our school… Alma Aleron, the Mother Eagle!"
The line of observing witches and wizards applauded heartily. The dwarves applauded too, but with slightly less fervor.
"They cannot see us, of course," Franklyn called over the sound of the applause, "but it is rather hard to remember so with a recording as well-maintained as this. The artifact has held up remarkably well, being in the guise of a coin. Not all artifacts are quite as sturdy, unfortunately, but we do what we can to maintain them as well as possible."
James turned back to the Chancellor in time to see him scoop the coin from the bowl of the Disrecorder. The grassy hilltop and the happy centuries-old witches and wizards vanished instantly.
"So," Franklyn said proudly, pocketing the coin, "simple as can be. Any event can be recorded for future witness and study merely by converting any object at hand into a magical receiver. The object then becomes one of our many artifacts and goes into the Archive's collection."
"Just like Ted's new Extendable Ears," James said, thinking of the peppermint that Ted had enchanted to act as a receiver for the Ears. "Er, sort of."
"An apt analogy, I would say," Merlin nodded, smiling crookedly.
"Marvelous!" Dolohov proclaimed happily. "And where is this collection of artifacts?"
"Why right here, of course," Franklyn answered, turning and walking across the empty room. "The chamber of the Disrecorder is only the top level of the Archive. The bulk of the space is used for the artifact library. Just through this door in the back."
Franklyn produced a tiny golden key, which he socked into a keyhole in a nondescript door. Rather than turning the key, he touched it with his wand. The key glowed brightly for a moment, and then turned on its own. The door cracked open and a breath of cool air escaped, sighing mysteriously. Franklyn gripped the handle and heaved the door open.
James followed his father into the space beyond and shivered. It was, indeed, quite cold. The temperature, however, was forgotten immediately as James got his first glimpse of the space. It was monstrous, far larger than the exterior of the Archive could account for. Tall wooden shelves ranged around the space along curved walls that met in the dim distance, some three hundred feet across a vast, deep chasm. Thousands of artifacts rested on the shelves, in the form of books, jars, dishes, shoes, spectacles, wands, globes, stuffed animals, tools, hats, and innumerable other objects. Larger shelves held chairs, beds, even a very old car that James recognized as a Ford Model T. Every object bore a tiny white tag, apparently cataloging the contents of the event recorded within it.
Slowly, the group walked toward a low brass railing that ran around the huge opening in the floor. As James neared it, he saw that a stairway led down into the space, curving along the inside of the chasm. The stairs appeared to lead to another, lower floor, equally filled with shelves of artifacts. When James finally reached the railing and peered down, he saw that there were more floors below that, descending into the bowels of the earth in a dizzying spiral. On the opposite side of the chasm, an ornate, brass-framed elevator hung, its shaft descending deep into the floors below.
"There must be millions of artifacts here," Harry breathed. "It's overwhelming."
Franklyn nodded. "Quite so. We have a staff of students whose sole job is maintaining the catalog, updating and cleaning the artifacts as needed. Our Archival custodian, Mr. Hadley Henredon, lives here year round, guarding the artifacts and overseeing their preservation."
"What, Chancellor, is that object at the very bottom?" Merlin asked, leaning slightly over the railing with his eyes narrowed.
"Ah, that," Franklyn nodded. He peered over the railing himself, and James followed suit. In the darkness at the base of the chasm, a large object flashed and glimmered with purple light. It appeared to be spinning, but in a complicated, unpredictable fashion, as if it was made out of a dozen golden leaves and prisms, all revolving independently around some blindingly bright core.
"If the Disrecorder can be called the brain of the Archive," Franklyn said soberly, "then that down there… is its heart and soul."
Dolohov adjusted his spectacles and blinked down at the distant gold and purple blur. "Is it another artifact?"
"Not exactly," Franklyn answered. "It is, in fact, a very ancient form of distinctly American magic. None of us knows how it works or even why it works. We only know what it does and that it is dreadfully, devastatingly important."
"American magic," Harry said, glancing aside at the Chancellor. "It can't be all that old then, can it?"
"You misunderstand me," Franklyn said gravely. "America is indeed an old, old land. Much older than the government that now occupies it. It was here before the first settlers arrived at Plymouth Rock. It was here when this land's original inhabitants roamed the prairies and woodlands, living in teepees and hunting the buffalo that roamed in herds many miles long. America is a strange and ancient place although it was not always known by that name. We call it the great melting pot, but its attractions have been evident since long before our arrival here.
"Many other peoples and cultures visited this land in the ages of its existence, many of them magical, many of them long forgotten in the eons since. That object down there, the one encased in our best magical protections and guardian charms… was left by one of those visiting magical peoples. Our best guesses tell us that it was the ancient Persians or Babylonians, who were among the first magical communities to ply the oceans. Perhaps they left it here, on the prairies of this wide open land, quite by accident. Then again, perhaps they abandoned it deliberately, either because they didn't need it anymore or, more likely, because they feared it, feared the dangers of this thing that their vast magical arts had wrought. We discovered it, and preserve it, but we did not create it. And we most certainly do not control it."
"Every magical society has its mysterious treasures," Harry commented. "I've been inside the Department of Mysteries at the Ministry of Magic, so I've seen many of our own. This object of yours I think I may have heard of, although I understand that its existence is kept secret from the general public. Is this so?"
"For their good, as well as its own," Franklyn nodded.
"So what is it?" Merlin asked once more. James looked up at him, and saw the purple flash of the object even this far up playing on the Headmaster's stern features.
"It is the ultimate record of all things," Franklyn said simply. "It is our history, and by that, I do not mean the history of Alma Aleron or the city of Philadelphia or even the entire United States. It is a record of all things that have ever been in this universe, from the very dawn of time. It is History, recorded in its entirety exactly as it happens, with magic so ancient and delicate that none dare to touch it. Only a very few of us have ever seen it with our naked eyes, and that only happens once a century, when we check it just to make sure it is still working."
Dolohov cleared his throat. In a small voice, he asked, "What does it look like?"
Franklyn peered down at the flickering glow and smiled slightly. He shook his head slowly as he said, "Friends, I don't think you'd believe me if I told you. It is so simple, so basic, that you would find it silly. And yet I think it is anything but."
"So what happens," Harry asked seriously, "if it stops working?"
"Why, none of us knows for sure, my dear Mr. Potter," Franklyn replied, looking slightly startled. "But I have the strongest suspicion that life—that is, everything we know and ever will know, the totality of existence—is inextricably connected to the object stored in the bowels of this very Archive. I think that if it stopped working… so would everything else."
Merlin frowned doubtfully. "I have known my share of very powerful magical objects," he said in a low voice. "And they all make their marks on the fabric of existence. I have never heard tell of a single magical object that bears the fabric of existence within itself. Are you quite sure of your theories about this object, Chancellor?"
"Alas," Franklyn answered, chuckling wearily. "No. We know very little, in fact. Theories are as myriad as they are improvable. We only know what the object does. We do not know why, or how, or, in fact, what would happen if it were to stop."
"In that case," Merlin said, smiling at the Chancellor, "your prudence is the most obvious and respectable choice. I am glad to know that such mysterious magic is in the hands of those so very aware of its potential gravity. What do you call it?"
Franklyn sighed and looked back down, through the depths of the artifact laden floors, to the flashing purple and gold glow far below.
With a relatively anticlimactic sniff, he answered, "We call it the Vault of Destinies."
After dinner that evening, James, Zane, and Ralph ran back to the common dorm, cutting across the lawns and weaving through the shadows of the huge elms and chestnuts. Inside, they stripped off their blazers and stowed them in the top floor room that still housed the boys' trunks. When they finally made their way back downstairs and out the rear door of the common dorm, the lowering sun had painted the sky a fierce tangerine, fading to navy blue at its zenith.
"There," Zane nodded, pointing.
The boys angled toward a line of battered metal trash cans ranged along the back wall. A drift of elm leaves lay like snow around the trash cans, carpeting their lids, but the yellow 'Z' on the can in the middle was immediately visible. James drew a breath, held it, and then lifted the lid from the marked can.
"What is it?" Ralph frowned, peering in.
"Oh man," Zane grinned. "Oh buddy. You got the granddaddy of all pledge dares. Either Warrington thinks you two are bonafide Zombies or he hates your guts."
James reached into the can and retrieved a handful of cloth. It was thick, comprised of black and yellow fabrics all sewn together in a neat pattern. There seemed to be acres of it.
"It's a flag," Ralph said, grabbing a handful and helping James pull it out of the can.
"It's the Hermes House flag," Zane said reverently. "See? It's got the Zombie crest on it, the yellow and black shield bearing the skull with crossed out eyes. Do you know what this means?"
James looked from the enormous flag in his hands to Ralph to Zane. He shook his head, not particularly liking where this was going.
"It's an old dare, but one of the most revered. The legendary flag switch. I hear that it hasn't been done by any house in years. That means the school administration's probably going to be on the lookout for it. There may be boundary charms, guard hexes, even lookouts. Oh man, it's going to be such a blast! I can't believe I'm not allowed to come along!"
James wanted to throttle the blonde boy, but his hands were too full of flag. "What is it, you big dope? Tell us, already!"
Zane grinned and helped grab the rest of the flag out of the trash can. He wadded the mass of fabric, stuffed it into Ralph and James' arms, and then led them around the building. When they stood in front, overlooking the fountain with the gargoyle birdbath, he put an arm around James' shoulder. With his free hand he pointed across campus. "See that? Up there over the trees, on top of Administration Hall?"
"What?" Ralph asked, squinting in the twilight. "The clock tower?"
"Higher," Zane prodded, grinning even wider.
James pushed up on tiptoes to see over the trees. "Er, the belfry?"
"Higher," Zane encouraged.
James looked higher. His eyes widened and he began to shake his head slowly. "No. No way."
"The flag?" Ralph said, turning to look at Zane. "Way up on the top? That's got to be two hundred feet up! You can't be serious!"
"Two hundred and thirty-three at the point. Don't worry," Zane soothed, but his eager grin had quite the opposite effect. "There's a fire escape on the back of the Hall that takes you all the way to the bell tower. From there, there's a spiral staircase up to the belfry and a ladder up to the belfry roof. Piece of cake! Except for the bats, of course, but they're no match for a committed Zombie."
"You want us to switch this flag," James said, hefting the mound of thick fabric in his arms, "with that flag way up there?"
"Well, switching the flags is only the first half of the challenge. That flag up there is the university's original stars and stripes, 'Old Betsy'. You can't just hide her under your bed in the common dorm or anything, unless you want a posse from Werewolf House to hunt you down and clobber you ten ways from Sunday. You have to run Old Betsy up the Zombie House flagpole. Later tomorrow afternoon, we'll turn Old Betsy back in at the Administration Hall and get an honorary punishment. You'll probably just get a day's suspension."
"Wait," Ralph said, frowning. "If we succeed in this dare, we get in trouble with the school?"
"You can't think of it that way," Zane said, clapping Ralph on the shoulder. "It's a pledge dare. A day's suspension is like a badge of honor. Think of it as a paid vacation."
James sighed. "All right then. We'll do it. But after this, it's all over, right? We'll be Zombies, officially?"
"You pull this off," Zane said heartily, "and we may make you both House Presidents for a day."
James nodded grimly. A minute later, the three carried the Zombie flag up to the dorm room and hid it in the closet. Chasing each other, they crossed the campus again, heading for the theater and Professor Longbottom's assembly.
9. THE ARCHIVE ATTACK
"James!" his mum cried when she met him in front of the campus theater. "Oh, you look so handsome in your uniform. Just look at you!"
"Mum!" James hissed, pushing her hand away as she attempted to mat down his hair. "Quit it! You're embarrassing me in front of the Zombies!"
"Oh yes, your new house. That reminds me, have you seen Albus?" she asked, peering around the crowd that milled near the theater entrance.
"Just look for the blokes with the dark grey uniforms and the burgundy ties," James answered. "Albus will probably be carrying them on his shoulders."
"So how is the sorting tradition coming along, then?" Denniston Dolohov asked, smiling and nodding proudly at his son.
"Ask us again tomorrow morning," Ralph sighed.
Zane beamed. "They're doing great, everybody. Not as well as I did, of course, but that's a pretty high bar to reach. Tomorrow, they'll be Zombies all official-like. You wait and see."
James saw the curious look in his mother's eye and changed the subject as quickly as he could. "Where's Dad and Headmaster Merlin anyway?"
"They're both up front with Neville," Ginny sighed as they pushed through the theater doors, entering the main lobby. "He's a bit nervous, after all. They're giving him a spot of moral support."
"Hi Petra!" Zane called, waving. James turned around and saw her entering behind them, smiling warmly. The three boys drifted toward her.
"Where's Izzy?" Ralph asked, peering around.
"She's staying with Molly and Lily tonight. I hear that the assembly might run rather long, so Audrey's watching both of them at the flat downtown. How are you both settling in?"
"Fine," James answered. "It's way different here, but not so different that it doesn't make its own weird sense."
"They have six houses," Ralph said, shaking his head. "Crazy, if you ask me. What about you, Petra?"
"I spent most of the day applying for jobs here on campus," Petra sighed wearily. "I don't need much money, after all. Even teacher's assistants get free room and board, and can even take graduate level classes for no charge. Izzy can stay here with me and go to the little faculty grade school on campus. I might go for my T.O.A.D. certification and become a professor myself. If I can get in somewhere, that is."
"Who wouldn't hire you?" James asked as the four made their way into the seating area. "You're a genius no matter how you look at it! Why, they'd be a bunch of sodding blockheads not to see that." He stopped himself and reddened, suddenly fearing that he might be making his point a little too enthusiastically.
"Thanks James," Petra replied. "Here's hoping. I'll probably know by the end of the week. The truth is I'm feeling pretty confident. The Headmaster put in a good word for me with some of the department heads."
"He did?" James asked, wide-eyed.
"You seem surprised," Petra said, looking at him a bit quizzically.
"Well," James said, looking away, "no. Er, of course not. I mean, Merlin, he's got a lot of pull, doesn't he?"
Petra shrugged. "He's Merlinus Ambrosius."
The four made their way into a row near the front, squeezing past a gaggle of Pixie House girls in pink sweaters, who peered narrowly up at James and Ralph's plain black ties.
"Pledges," one of the girls muttered. "They should have their own seating section in the back."
"Oh wait," another of the girls said, raising a hand to her lips in mock surprise, "they do!"
"We know the professor," James said loudly. "The one who's giving the speech? That bloke? Yeah, we came with him."
"I wouldn't have guessed," the first girl responded. "Your accent didn't give you away at all."
Ralph peered sideways at the girls as he sat down. "We don't have accents," he muttered. "They do. Daft Americans."
"Shh," Petra shushed, smiling. "We don't want to make an international scene."
"There's Lucy," James said, turning around in his seat. "And Albus. They're sitting with Mum and Uncle Percy and Mr. Dolohov, a few rows back."
"So how's that whole Dolohov thing working out for you anyway, Ralph?" Zane asked, nudging the larger boy. "I see you've stuck with the Deedle. Is that causing you any grief?"
Ralph shrugged. "I like the Deedle. I mean, I know it's not quite as dashing-sounding as Dolohov, but I just can't do it. I mean, you know the history of that family. I have a hard enough time living it down without taking the name."
"Yeah," Zane nodded. "I heard about what happened with you and Ted last year. I'm guessing he got most of that out of his system though."
"At least if he didn't," James added thoughtfully, "there's a whole ocean between him and Ralph now. And I hear werewolves don't much like the water."
"He's not a true werewolf," Ralph said, shaking his head. "He's a Metamorphmagus with certain wolfish tendencies, but still, yeah, I'm not too upset about having an ocean between us."
Zane sighed and settled back into his seat. "I bet trying to live with two names is tough, either way. I don't envy you, Ralphinator. Hey, that makes three names you've got!"
"You're the only person that calls me that one," Ralph said, rolling his eyes.
Next to James, Petra remained silent. Ralph, James remembered, was not the only person living with two names. Petra had changed her own name in the wake of the ordeal at her grandfather's farm, deciding to call herself, simply, Morgan. She hadn't insisted that everyone change how they refer to her, but James had a sneaky feeling that in her heart, she couldn't shake her new name any more than Ralph could shake the name Dolohov. James didn't know what it all meant, but it worried him a little.
It was almost like Petra had two different personalities. One was the Petra that he had known for the past couple of years, the happy girl and bright student. The other, however, Morgan, did eerily powerful magic without the aid of a wand and very well might have killed someone. James couldn't help wondering if, just perhaps, those two sides of Petra's personality were at war with each other. More importantly, which side, if any, was most influenced by that last haunting shred of Voldemort's lost soul? And how might it influence Petra's internal struggle?
James' worried thoughts were interrupted at that point as a figure emerged onto the brightly lit stage before them. The house lights went dim all around and the crowd fell gradually silent.
"Ladies and gentleman, students, faculty, and visiting friends from the magical community," the man said, smiling. He was tall and lean, with shiny black hair framing his ruddy face. "Welcome. My name is Professor John Sanuye, and I am the Head of the Flora Department here at Alma Aleron. I am pleased to say that we have procured one of the world's foremost experts on magical botany, a man whose fame precedes him, even among those who have not read his very interesting treatise on the thousand and one uses of common marsh ferns and mosses. Please welcome for tonight's discussion Mr. Neville Longbottom."
Sanuye applauded and beamed as Neville stood from his seat in the front row. Before climbing the stairs to the podium, he turned and smiled sheepishly back at the crowd. It was not a large theater, but James was quite surprised to see that it was very full, with students crammed into the back on folding chairs, and even standing in the entryway. They applauded, but there were very few smiles in the room.
Neville climbed the stairs and produced a small stack of notes from the pocket of his robes. He cleared his throat and peered out over the podium, smiling nervously. James felt a pang of discomfort for the professor. Neville was clearly terrified of speaking before such a large audience.
"Ahem," he said, clearing his throat again. "Thank you all for coming. I am, er, quite honored and, frankly, surprised by the turnout. In the country from which I come, herbology is not a subject that commands such, er, enthusiastic adherents."
A murmur of laughter rippled over the room, taking Neville by surprise. He blinked and smiled before going on. "I've, er, come tonight prepared to speak on some of the newer avenues of magical botanical research, which are, er, advancing our understanding of such studies as potionmaking, medicine, wand-creation, and even wizarding philosophy and ethics."
Neville grew more confident as he spoke and James found himself growing quickly bored. As much as he liked Professor Longbottom, he always found his classes exceedingly, almost painfully dull. Tonight's speech was no different except for the fact that James didn't need to pay attention for the sake of a grade. His thoughts began to wander, as did his eye. The rest of the audience watched Neville with varying degrees of alert interest, polite boredom, and, in a few cases, frowning concentration. In the front row, James was surprised to see his dad leaning aside and whispering to a man that James didn't know. The man smiled as Harry whispered to him, and then laughed silently, his eyes twinkling. Strangely enough, the two seemed to be very familiar with each other, as if they were long lost friends. James made a mental note to ask his father about the man later.
Eventually, Neville produced a series of photographs, which he temporarily enlarged with Engorgio spells. The photographs were magical of course, but since they were mostly of plants, they didn't move. The only interesting one was of a strange tree with long tentacle-like branches tipped with snapping jaws, rather like large Venus Flytraps. The tree, which Neville called a Moroccan Fanged Viperthwip, writhed and snapped its many jaws in the photo, commanding a gasp from some of the observers in the front rows. Near the end of the speech, Neville produced a small plant of his own, withdrawing it from his robes like a long green snake. The root-ball was tiny, about the size of a walnut, clutching a neat spoonful of earth. Neville set the plant onto the end of the podium, where it slowly righted itself and reached toward the lights overhead.
"This, ladies and gentlemen, is my crowning achievement," Neville said proudly. "The mythical and elusive Bamboozle tree. According to legend, it is able to adopt the appearance and even the alchemical characteristics of virtually any plant to which it is exposed, disguising itself in avoidance of being weeded out. Allow me to illustrate."
Neville used his wand to levitate one of his many photos, and then gave it a flick, enlarging it.
"Devil's Snare," he said, nodding toward the photo. There was a slight rustling on the podium as the Bamboozle shifted. Its roots spread out and grew thick and brown while its few leaves multiplied and turned into snaking vines. Within moments, the Bamboozle had transfigured itself into the unmistakable shape of a small Devil's Snare, much like the one in the enlarged photograph. The crowd murmured with interest.
"Spynuswort," Neville said proudly, flicking his wand again and producing another photograph, this one showing a tall, thin plant with reddish patterned leaves. The Bamboozle changed again. Its vines curled into balls and then budded leaves, perfectly replicating those shown in the photo.
"Larcenous Ligulous," Neville smiled, changing the photo once more. Now, the Bamboozle flattened and spread out, covering the top of the podium with writhing green creepers. The crowd muttered and stirred all around.
"And lest we forget," Neville said, removing a ring from his finger and holding it up to the light, "the most remarkable characteristic of the Bamboozle: its ability to emulate any chosen plant's characteristic tendencies and magical make-up. This, more than anything, is what makes it so potentially invaluable to the wizarding world."
The Bamboozle sensed the glitter of Neville's upheld ring. Slowly, it lifted a trio of creepers, which rose toward the ring, as if sniffing at it. They curled around it hungrily and pried it from Neville's hand, just as a Larcenous Ligulous plant would. The audience laughed and applauded lightly.
"If I were to snip a root sample from the Bamboozle in its current state and submit it to any herbological laboratory, it would take much testing to prove that it was not, in fact, a true Larcenous Ligulous. If we are able to successfully breed and propagate the Bamboozle, it may significantly improve the availability of some of the wizarding world's rarest and most essential botanical resources, and even allow us to recreate many that have ceased to exist entirely."
The crowd responded again, led by the very enthusiastic applause of Professor Sanuye in the front row. Harry clapped as well and whistled loudly. The man next to him joined in, cupping his hands to his mouth. "Go Neville!" he called, nodding encouragement.
"And that pretty much concludes my presentation," Neville said, smiling with obvious relief. He flicked his wand once more, shrinking the photos back to their normal size and catching them as they dropped out of the air. On the podium, the Bamboozle tree began to slowly revert to its original state. "Professor Sanuye has suggested that we open the floor to any comments or questions from the audience, which I am happy to do. So, does anyone have anything they'd like to ask about?"
James looked around, surprised to see a raft of hands suddenly shoot up all around. Neville seemed surprised as well. He blinked and took a half step back from the podium. With a shrug and a smile, he pointed to a hand in the front row. "You then. Speak up for us all to hear."
"Greetings, Professor," one of the Pixie students said, standing up and smiling. "Thank you for coming to speak to us. My question has less to do with herbology than it does with history, if you'll indulge me."
Neville blinked again. James glanced at the Pixie student. She was older, quite possibly one of the college students. She met Neville's gaze openly, still smiling, and James couldn't help thinking that it was an uncomfortably familiar expression. It was, in fact, the same sort of expression Tabitha Corsica had so often worn when she was about to say something infuriatingly confrontational.
"History isn't really my area of expertise," Neville said slowly, but the girl spoke up before he could continue.
"I recognize that herbology is your passion, which means you obviously have a great love for all growing things. I wonder if that love extends to the animal kingdom as well? I understand that you are in the habit of beheading snakes. Would you care to elaborate?"
There was a sort of collective low whistle from the crowd, and then a ripple of derisive laughter. James glanced around with sudden anger and dismay, and then looked back up at the podium. Neville's face had gone red, but his mouth had tightened into a hard line.
"Next question," he stated flatly, raising his gaze over the crowd. Hands shot into the air again.
"Yes, Professor," another student asked from the back. James turned around and saw that it was a member of Igor House, wearing the characteristic acid green tie. His face was round and waxy in the lamplight near the doors. "I'm sorry, my question isn't really flora-related either. Did you know, when you rallied your classmates against the revolutionaries of your time, that you were siding with the existing totalitarian regime or were you just duped by the propaganda of the day into thinking that you were on the side of right?"
Neville opened his mouth in shock as the crowd babbled noisily, nodding in agreement and shouting for him to answer. James looked around again, meeting Zane and Ralph's eyes. It was like the first Hogwarts all-school debate again, only worse, because the entire crowd seemed to be on the same side. Now James understood why the lecture had been so well-attended. Neville, after all, was nearly as famous as Harry Potter, and not just for his textbooks on herbology.
"I was afraid something like this would happen," Zane said, leaning toward James. "Like I told you, the Progressive Element types are all over the place here. There are even some in the faculty."
Ralph looked around uneasily. "Won't the professors put a stop to it?"
"That's not really the way things work around here," Zane replied. "Neville's expected to answer the questions, no matter what. I wouldn't be surprised if this wasn't part of why he was asked to speak."
"If that's true, it's beastly," Petra said with low conviction.
At the podium, Neville stood stoically, his brow lowered. He no longer seemed nervous. He seemed, if anything, quietly angry. He collected the Bamboozle again and deposited it carefully into a pocket of his robes.
"Are there any questions related to the subject that I was invited here to speak upon?" he asked loudly, overruling the babbling audience.
"Answer the question!" a voice behind James hollered. Others joined in, turning the phrase into a chant.
Neville glanced down toward the front row. James leaned forward and saw his dad nod slightly up at Neville. To James' amazement, Harry Potter seemed to be smiling with something like weary resignation. On Harry's left, Merlin's expression was calm and inscrutable, his arms folded almost lazily across his chest. Professor Sanuye shrugged up at Neville and shook his head regretfully. He didn't appear to like what was happening, but neither did he seem prepared to put a stop to it.
"You lot seem to be suffering under some rather unfortunate misapprehensions about history," Neville finally said, holding his wand to his throat and amplifying his voice. The raucous crowd quieted, but not completely. Neville went on, lowering his wand again. "Now, if you insist upon asking questions unrelated to my subject of expertise, I shall apparently have to answer them, lest I leave you with the impression that I am unable to do so. But you will ask your questions with respect, and not use the opportunity to merely quote popular propaganda for the amusement of your fellows. Is anyone willing to abide by these stipulations?"
Less hands went up now. Neville frowned and nodded at a student near James, who stood up.
"Professor," the young man said, and James saw that he was a college-level student and a member of Vampire House, "as a scholar, surely you'd agree that your work with flora is intended for the benefit of all mankind. Is that true?"
Neville narrowed his eyes slightly. "I live in the hope that such is the case, young man."
"Then why, sir, do you and others like you insist on hoarding your discoveries for the magical community, refusing even to consider sharing them with the Muggle world?"
The crowd erupted again, shouting scornfully, many climbing to their feet.
"Questions… are… permitted!" a voice bellowed from the front row, and James was relieved to see that it was Professor Sanuye, his eyes dark and severe. The crowd quieted again almost instantly and the professor went on in a measured voice. "But disrespect is not. You have heard the terms of our esteemed guest and they are quite reasonable. It is the policy of this school to welcome discourse, but not discord. Allow Professor Longbottom to answer your questions or do not ask them. Understood?"
The crowd muttered to itself, obviously agitated, but subdued for the moment. On the stage, Neville cleared his throat again.
"A good question, my friend," he said slowly, raising his eyebrows. "One that any thinking witch and wizard should ask themselves. The answer, however, is equally important. Granted, we in the magical community could offer many advancements and medicines to the Muggle world. The fact of the matter is that we do so even now. Your own Chancellor has had a hand in the groundbreaking Inter-Magical Knowledge Exchange Act, which allows inertly magical lifesaving discoveries to be shared with the Muggle world secretly, but effectively. There are charities and coalitions who have been granted special privilege to act secretly in the Muggle world, performing acts of magical intervention in deserving situations. I suspect that you are aware of these things, however, so I can only assume that what you truly mean by your question is this: why do we not simply throw the doors of the magical world wide open to the Muggle community, revealing ourselves fully and completely? Is this so?"
The young man shuffled his feet slightly and glanced around at the rest of the audience. "Um. Yes, I think that is exactly right. The prejudiced policies of magical governments against the Muggle world should be overthrown. Total disclosure is the only option that will result in real freedom for all of humanity…"
"Yes, yes," Neville nodded. "I've seen the posters as well. Let us assume that we do exactly as you propose. The magical world comes out of hiding and reveals itself completely to the Muggle world. What do you expect will happen?"
"Well," the young man mumbled, looking around again, apparently wishing someone else would come to his aid. The rest of the audience merely watched with bright-eyed interest. "Well, then there would be equality. We could help the Muggles. We could share everything we know with them, and help them in lots of ways. I mean, we're witches and wizards. We've got magic on our side."
"Ahh!" Neville said, leaning forward on the podium. "We could help them indeed. But what if they didn't wish to be helped? What if certain members of the magical community desired to get involved in Muggle affairs, such as business, medicine, even government, and the Muggles didn't wish them to?"
"Then we'd help them to understand that we just want to help them!" the student replied, rallying. "They wouldn't know what was best for them, after all."
Neville nodded. "So we'd help them against their will?"
"If we had to," the young man answered, raising his chin.
"Indeed," Neville concurred. "Many would do exactly that. Certain witches and wizards would inculcate themselves into the Muggle ruling class, all under the guise of helping them. Some of us—not you, of course, my friend, but some—would be happy to resort to force. They'd use whatever magic helped them in the cause, even the Imperius Curse. Others, however, would be less… scrupulous. Believe it or not, my friends, there are witches and wizards among us who might actually wish to rule the Muggles merely for the sake of power. Such people are kept in check now by the existence of the international laws of secrecy. But what will you do with these witches and wizards if those laws are abolished? Will you protect the Muggles from them? How? What will keep wicked witches and wizards from using whatever means they wish to achieve power over the Muggles?"
The young man seemed to know that he was losing the moral high ground. He shuffled his feet some more and refused to look directly at Neville. "That's just scaremongering. That's what you people always do."
"Scaring people with fictitious threats is scaremongering," Neville said kindly. "Warning people about threats that are quite real—threats that history teaches us are very nearly a certainty given the right conditions—is an act of kindness and compassion. The history of Muggle-magical interaction is rife with conflict. Both sides are equally guilty, admittedly, but the reality remains the same. We stay in hiding, quite simply, because the good that could come from our incorporation into the Muggle world is decidedly less than the evil that would inevitably result. In a perfect world, my friend, your theories would be quite honorable. Alas, this is not a perfect world."
"Excuses and lies!" the student cried out suddenly, and the crowd stirred around him, murmuring agreement. "You hate the Muggles, so you wish to keep them ignorant of us, and all we could do for them. There aren't any supreme evil witches and wizards bent on taking over the world. That's a lie that you people have made up just to keep the rest of the magical world in line. The Muggles would welcome us, and you know it. And even if they didn't…" The young man faltered suddenly, realizing what he was about to say.
Neville didn't blink, but stared at the man solemnly, gripping the podium before him. "Even if they didn't…," he said, finishing the student's thought, "we'd have magic on our side. Right?"
The young man sat down suddenly and the crowd babbled again, growing noisy and tense. Professor Sanuye climbed to the stage and moved alongside Neville. "That will conclude tonight's lecture," he called sternly. "Students, please make your way back to your dormitories, thank you. It is rather late, and at least some of you have class with me in the morning. I will frown upon any absences due to your staying out too late the night before. Good evening, and thank you for coming." At that point, Sanuye turned to Neville, reaching to shake his hand. The two talked, their heads close together.
"What a complete load of yax fodder," a girl behind James muttered angrily. "But what do you expect?"
"Come on," Zane sighed, shaking his head. "The sooner we get out of here, the better. Let's go grab a soda at the Kite and Key."
James followed Zane and Ralph out of the crowded theater, glancing back toward the stage. His father stood in front, flanked by Merlin and Denniston Dolohov, who was laughing animatedly. None of them seemed the slightest bit perturbed by the events of the night and James could guess why. Most of them had been dealing with the allegations of the Progressive Element for years, both subtly, through articles in the Daily Prophet, and overtly, such as the demonstration that had occurred at Hogwarts during James' first year. They had all developed rather thick skins about such things. James had not developed such a thick skin, and he felt decidedly angry and unsettled.
As the three reached the theater doors and stepped out into the night air, James glanced around to see if Petra was planning to join them for a soda at the campus tavern. She was nowhere in sight amidst the dissipating throng, however. James lingered for a moment, looking for her without any success, and then turned and ran to catch up with his friends.
James' dreams were interrupted some hours later by a loud rapping at his dormitory room door. He startled and very nearly fell out of the narrow bed. Outside the door, a faint squeaking sound came, like the screech of old hinges.
"That brass monkey gives me the royal creeps," Ralph muttered, covering his head with his pillow. "Is that its voice?"
"I think its clockworks are too old to make a voice anymore," James yawned. "It just squeaks its jaw. That must be our four a.m. wake-up call."
Ralph swung his feet out of bed. "I never thought I'd say this, but I miss my old digital alarm clock."
Five minutes later, the boys sneaked out of the front door of the common dorm, closing it quietly behind them. The night was cool and still all around, wet with dew. The fountains had stopped running for the night, and even the birdbath gargoyles seemed to be asleep. Ralph wore his duffle bag slung over his shoulder, packed with the Zombie House flag.
"Do they have campus guards, you think?" he whispered as they began to steal through the darkness.
"Better safe than sorry," James answered. "Stick close to the trees. The moonlight is too bright for us to cross the main lawns."
Ralph huffed as they ran. "This was a lot easier when we had the Invisibility Cloak."
"Hopefully this is the only time this year we'll need it. It'll be fine. Just keep up."
By the time they reached the deep shadows of Administration Hall, James' trainers were soggy with dew and both boys were panting. They leaned against the cool bricks and caught their breath before slipping between the bushes and sneaking around to the rear of the building.
"All right," James whispered, hunkering in the shadow of a tall shrubbery. "This should be a snap. I'll climb up and switch the flags. You stay down here and keep an eye on me with your wand. If I fall, you and your wand will know what to do, right?"
"Levitate you," Ralph nodded. "You want me just to see if I can levitate you right up there?"
James shook his head. "Too obvious. If I climb, I'll stay in the shadows, so there's less chance of getting caught. That moon's like a searchlight tonight. Just be ready."
"Get it over with," Ralph said sincerely, slipping the duffle bag from his shoulder and offering it to James. "My stomach's in knots already. Maybe we should have just gone for Igor House after all."
James shook his head. "No turning back now, Ralph. Don't worry, this'll all be over in a few minutes."
Ralph nodded, unconvinced but committed. James shouldered the bag and then turned toward the building. A series of narrow iron stairs and balconies clung to the rear of Administration Hall, stretching all the way up to the roof. James clambered up the first level as quietly as he could. Before long, the campus fell away beneath him, stretching out so wide that he could see the stone wall that surrounded it. Beyond the wall, the city of Philadelphia sparkled with lights, and James had time to wonder what year they were currently occupying. After only a few minutes, he reached the top level of the fire escape. He peered up at the bell tower that loomed before him. It seemed much larger this close up, each of the four bells approximately the size of a giant's head, but far less lumpy. All around the inside of the bell tower, pigeons roosted by the dozens, dozing amid messy nests. James turned around and leaned over the railing. Far below, Ralph peered up at him, his face a round white dot in the darkness. James gave a halfhearted wave, and then turned and clambered up onto the angle of the roof, reaching for the wooden railing of the bell tower.
The inside of the tower stank of pigeon guano and age. A narrow wooden walkway ran around the perimeter of the tower, overlooking the dizzyingly deep throat of the tower. James held his breath and looked around. On the other side of the bell tower was a rickety circular stairway, leading up into the rafters. James made his way toward it, trying to ignore the squeak and groan of the planks beneath his feet. As he began to climb the narrow staircase, circling its central post, a wave of vertigo overtook him. The duffle bag felt very heavy and awkward on his back as he gripped the railing. He squeezed his eyes shut until the sensation passed, and then continued onward carefully.
An unlocked trapdoor opened easily at the top of the stairs and James clambered cautiously up onto the narrow floor of the belfry. He lay there for a moment, catching his breath and hugging the floor, afraid to look up, and a subtle noise pricked his ear. Slowly, he pushed himself upright and raised his head. The raftered ceiling of the belfry was black with bats. They shuffled and squeaked faintly, watching James.
His eyes went wide and he uttered a strangled little squeak of his own, getting his feet beneath him as he hunkered on the floor. He peered around and saw the ladder on the belfry's right side. It was made of ancient painted wood, attached to the outside of the belfry beyond the low railing. Scuffling, James moved toward it. Beyond the railing, the wind switched suddenly, hooting in a nearby drainpipe. James shuddered. Finally, he leaned on the railing and reached over it, gripping the ladder. As carefully and quietly as he could, he pulled himself over the railing and clung to the ladder, which creaked ominously. Probably, it was magically fortified, as were nearly all old magical structures. Still, the ledge of roof some twenty feet below seemed horribly narrow and the drop beyond that perfectly harrowing. James tried not to look. He gritted his teeth and began to climb.
Fortunately, there was one more trapdoor above the ladder, leading to a very narrow walkway around the conical roof of the belfry. James heaved himself up onto it and leaned against the angle of the narrow roof, breathing hard. With his foot, he kicked the trapdoor shut, not wishing to fall through it by accident. Above him, the huge old American flag, Old Betsy, flapped in the breeze. Finally, James worked his way partly around the cone of the roof, knelt in its shadow on the wooden walkway, and unslung the duffle bag from his shoulder. He began to draw out the Zombie flag, careful not to let the wind catch it and carry it away.
Suddenly, shockingly, James heard a scuffle of footsteps. They were very close by, but indistinct, lost in the rush of the wind. James froze, his eyes going wide.
Zane had said that the school administration was on the lookout for students engaged in the flag switch escapade. Had they seen him? Were they climbing up to catch him in the act? There was absolutely no place for him to hide. James peered around, but he could no longer see the trapdoor around the shape of the roof. He hunkered back against the old shingles, trying to blend in with the shadows as well as he could.
The scuffling came again, stealthy and quiet. Someone was sneaking up on him, apparently, trying to catch him by surprise. With a sigh, James decided that there was nothing for it but to turn himself in. He dropped the Zombie flag into a heap on top of the duffle bag, stood up, and found himself staring into the pale, surprised face of his own brother.
"James!" Albus rasped, and James realized that his brother had his wand in his hand. "What are you doing here?"
James looked his brother up and down and made a very quick deduction in his head. He sighed. "Same as you, apparently. Where's the Werewolf flag?"
"Back behind me," Albus said, stifling a laugh. "Is that…?" he asked, pointing his wand at the wad of fabric next to James' feet. James nodded.
"You're switching the flags," James said. "Same as me. Did you know?"
"Not likely!" Albus replied in a harsh whisper. "Altaire said that no one else was going to do it this year because the heat was too high with the administration. So now what do we do?"
James didn't hear his brother's last question. Another scuffling sound came from behind him and a shadow rose into view. James saw a wand raised in a dark hand, pointing at Albus from behind.
"Al!" James cried, scrambling to produce his own wand. "Behind you!"
Albus turned, but not before the figure struck.
"Petrificus Totalus!" a female voice barked, and a bolt of magic seared from the upraised wand. It passed over Albus' shoulder and struck James squarely in the chest. He went immediately stiff, frozen in place, and began to totter backwards.
The figure flicked her wand again and the Zombie flag at James' feet rose up like a cloth snake. It coiled around James' waist and knotted, leaving a long length behind it.
"Grab that, pledge," the female voice said briskly.
Albus scrambled and snatched at the length of flag that trailed from James' waist. A second later, the cloth went taut, catching James as he fell backwards against the old railing, breaking it.
"Ugh," Albus grunted, shifting his stance and wrapping the length of flag around his fists. "You're heavy. You know that, James? You need to lay off the Cockroach Clusters a bit."
"This is your brother?" the figure asked, and James now saw that it was the dark girl from Werewolf House, the one that had made Albus do pushups the day before.
"Sir, yes sir!" Albus answered immediately.
The girl smiled tightly at James. "Lesson number twelve from the Werewolf handbook, pledge. Let me hear it."
"'He who strikes first strikes best'!" Albus announced, still struggling to hold onto the length of flag. James leaned back on his heels, frozen like a statue, but dreadfully aware of the precariousness of his position. Below him was only dark space, full of wind and the shush of the chestnut trees on the Hall lawn.
"That's lesson number six," the girl said. "But still appropriate, so I'll let you off this time. Number twelve is 'all's fair in love and war…'"
"'And there's nothing other than love and war!'" Albus finished confidently.
"Good work, pledge," the girl nodded. "Hold on while I raise the Werewolf flag."
James' heart pounded as he watched the girl produce the flag from a camouflaged backpack. The flag was folded into a neat triangle shape, which she unfurled with a tap of her wand. A moment later, she used her wand to operate the pulleys of the flagpole, which jutted from the roof's cone. With practiced economy, she switched the flags, folded Old Betsy reverently, and secured it in her backpack.
"Operation Capture the Flag is complete, pledge," she said, straightening. "Which only leaves us to manage our prisoner of war. We have to assume he isn't alone, but Raphael has probably already secured any hostiles on the ground. Can't leave this one up here to replace the flags again once we decamp, which leaves us only one option. Lesson number three from the Werewolf handbook, pledge."
"'Neutralize any potential threat!'" Albus quoted immediately. Behind him, the girl knotted the long end of the Zombie flag around a length of copper drainpipe. She smiled grimly.
"You do the honors, pledge," she said. "Prove your Werewolf worthiness."
Albus glanced over his shoulder at her, and then turned back to James, his face vaguely apologetic, but only vaguely. He smiled crookedly. "Sorry, James," he said. "Lesson one in the Werewolf handbook: 'A Werewolf 's gotta do what a Werewolf 's gotta do.'"
James tried to shake his head, but the spell still had him perfectly frozen. Albus let go of the flag and James immediately dropped backwards, tipping over the edge of the rooftop walkway. He fell for one sickening second, and then jerked to a halt, caught by the flag that was knotted around his waist. An explosion of noise suddenly surrounded him as the shock of his fall startled the bats in the tower belfry. They squeaked and boiled into the air, their wings thrashing all around him. A moment later, the noise of the bats' departure died away and James swung gamely, turning dizzyingly on the end of his unusual tether. One of the bats perched on his head, squeaking amiably.
Nearby, he heard the diminishing tramp of footsteps on the ladder as well as the infuriating sound of smug, stifled laughter.
"You two," Warrington said after a long fuming pause, "seem to have some basic misunderstanding of how the whole flag switch dare is supposed to go down."
James slumped in the rickety chair in the attic office of Hermes House. Next to him, Ralph sighed and stared hard at the stained yellow carpet. Warrington leaned on the wobbly old desk, all four of whose legs seemed to have folded wads of paper under them.
The Zombie House office was tiny and crammed with bookshelves despite its noticeable lack of books. The shelves were, instead, heavy with unusual odds and ends, brick-a-brack, piles of unopened post, tools, amusingly shaped papier-mâché art projects, and the occasional skull, most wearing sunglasses and plastic noses. The wooden door was covered with a nearly life-sized poster photo of Theodore Hirshall Jackson caught in a stern pose, wagging a long finger at the viewer, his dark brow lowered. Construction paper letters were tacked above the poster's head, spelling out the words 'I WANT YOU to GIVE ME A HUG AND A COOKIE'.
Warrington stood up straight and paced along a narrow path worn through the room's detritus, passing between the desk and the single round window. "The point, you see," he went on in a strained voice, stabbing his right finger at his left palm, "is to not make Zombie House look like a bunch of bumbling nincompoops. Anything beyond that is, frankly, gravy. Gravy!"
Warrington punched an inflatable doll made to resemble a rather ghastly clown. It bobbed on its weighted base and swung back, squeaking.
"They were Werewolves," Ralph moaned weakly. "I barely saw them before they dropped on me like a piano. They were wearing camouflage! They had bits of bushes stuck to their hats! I thought I was being attacked by some kind of weird American dryad monsters!"
"They were Werewolves!" Warrington hissed, rounding on the boys, his eyes wild. He struggled to compose himself and swiped a hand over his face, sighing vehemently. "Look. You're new here, so I'll give you a helpful little lesson on the intricate societal politics that define life here in the hallowed halls of the Aleron. We hate the Werewolves. Here endeth the lesson. Got it?"
"But they had actual members helping out the pledge, who just happened to be my brother," James rallied. "They attacked us before we had a chance to react!"
"That's how Werewolves work!" Warrington cried, exasperated. "They're Werewolves, for Zark's sake! To them, everything's a battlefield! Their one weakness is when people yank the battlefield out from under them! That's the Zombie way!"
Ralph raised both hands, palms up. "But what could we have done?"
"Gummy shoes!" Warrington rasped, deadpan. "Stick them to the ground like flies on flypaper! Or the Jelly-Legs Jinx, or Tickling Hexes, or even spontaneous explosive intestinal gas. You can't just face down a Werewolf, you have to embarrass them. Their insufferable pride is their ultimate weakness. Any Zombie knows that!"
"Sorry," James said miserably, "we're new to all of this. They got to us before we had a chance to respond. We'll do better next time. Give us one more chance!"
Warrington boggled at James. He spluttered, "They left you hanging by the Zombie flag from the belfry landing! The entire school saw you up there before Franklyn was able to get you down! You made us a laughingstock! Zombies do the laughing, pledge! Not the other way around!"
"Now whose pride is at stake?" Ralph mumbled.
"And you," Warrington said, turning to Ralph, his eyes blazing. "I'm surprised you can talk at all, after being hung up on the Hermes House flagpole for the last three hours! If you could die of wedgies, we'd be arranging your funeral right about now!"
Behind Ralph and James came the sound of stifled laughter. James turned around. Against the rear wall, in an old clawfoot chair with threadbare upholstery, sat the President of Zombie House, a small dapper man with what appeared to be, for all intents and purposes, goat's legs. He was dressed in a tailored jacket with tails, an immaculately tied yellow ascot, and a natty grey vest. Two stubby purplish horns adorned his temples. His name, James now knew, was Professor Felix Stanford Cloverhoof, and he was apparently a faun, also known, for some reason, as the Jersey Devil.
"I'm sorry," Cloverhoof said, recovering himself and assuming a serious expression. "Do continue, Mr. Warrington. You are on quite a roll."
"I'm done," Warrington said, moving back around the desk and plopping into his chair, which squeaked in protest. "With both of them."
"I'm afraid that Mr. Warrington is quite right, my friends," Cloverhoof said breezily, climbing to his hooved feet. He straightened his vest and picked a fleck of dust from his lapel. "Zombie House does have its standards, ill-defined and amorphous as they are. I quite suspect that you will be rather happier elsewhere."
"But…," James exclaimed, stammering. "But, but…!"
"I had a rather lengthy discussion about the affair with the Chancellor this morning after he… er… extracted the both of you from your various predicaments. I agree with his assessment entirely. There is really only one house for students with your particular… ahem… aptitudes."
"Oh no," Ralph moaned. "Not Igor House."
Cloverhoof blinked at Ralph and smiled a little crookedly. "Igor House?" he said inquiringly. "No, not quite. Come along boys. The morning is well begun and surely you have classes to attend to. Tonight, you will begin life in your new society. Surely you will fit in very nicely."
"Which house?" James asked unhappily, standing up and moving toward the door as the faun professor swung it open.
"Why, I'd have thought it was obvious," Cloverhoof replied brightly. "Frankly, I'm surprised you didn't rush there in the first place. The Chancellor has determined that you should be assigned to Bigfoot House. I'm quite certain that you will find it very… er… reassuring."
James and Ralph slumped where they stood.
From the desk behind them, Warrington grinned wickedly. "See you on the Clutch course, boys!" he announced, and chuckled humorlessly.
"I don't see what the big deal is about Bigfoot House," Lucy said, rolling her eyes. The sun was setting over the campus, painting long purple shadows over the lawns and footpaths as the students made their way back from dinner in the cafeteria.
"That's because you got into the house you rushed for," Ralph grumped. "You've got the blood red tie to prove it."
"Looks excellent too," Zane added.
Lucy smiled demurely. "Thank you. But the point is, you were probably never meant to be in Zombie House anyway, and if you'd ended up there, you probably would've been totally miserable."
"Hush your mouth!" Zane exclaimed, covering his ears with his hands. "That's the Zombies you're talking about!"
"And a fine bunch they are, I'm sure," Lucy soothed. "Just not for James and Ralph. Obviously it fits you like a suit of armor. Albeit, yellow armor, with a clown's wig on the top."
"Now you're talking," Zane nodded, mollified.
"But Bigfoot House," James moaned. "They're the nobody dorm."
"In that case, it fits you two perfectly," Albus said, coming up from behind.
James glanced back at his brother darkly. "When did you get here, you big turncoat?"
"At least my turncoat comes with a burgundy tie," Albus replied, brushing off his blazer and peering critically down at himself. "Pretty dashing, isn't it?"
Ralph narrowed his eyes. "You ever hear the phrase 'blood is thicker than water'?"
"I haven't gotten that far in Potions yet," Albus answered breezily.
In a careful voice, Lucy said, "That was a rather awful thing to do, Albus, leaving your brother up there like that."
"Oh, he was fine," Albus waved a hand. "It was either him or me. Before I was a Werewolf, I was a Slytherin, remember, and we Slytherins take every break we can get. It's the Gryffindors that are all self-sacrificing and noble. If you look at it that way, I was just helping James to be true to his heritage."
James flung out an arm and backhanded his brother on the shoulder, shoving him backwards. "I'll show you a thing or two about nobility, you sodding git!"
"Ah, ah, ah…," Albus warned, wagging a finger at his brother. "Werewolves look out for each other. Now that I wear the grey and burgundy, anything you do to me is likely to be repaid by the Brotherhood of the Wolf. I'm just giving you fair warning. I don't want to see you get hurt, big brother."
"'Brotherhood of the Wolf'," Zane scoffed. "There isn't a real werewolf in the bunch. If any of your brotherhood was confronted by a real wolf, they'd scurry like mice."
Albus rounded on Zane. "But Zombie House is full of the walking undead, right? At least in terms of brainpower, from what I hear."
"Them's fightin' words!" Zane proclaimed stridently.
"Will you both shut it," Lucy interrupted, getting between the two of them and placing a hand on each one's chest, pushing them apart. "This is a silly thing to argue about. Everyone knows that both the Werewolves and Zombies cower before the dark mystery of Vampire House."
Zane spluttered while Albus pushed Lucy's hand away. She smiled haughtily, raised her chin, and walked on.
"She sure picked that up fast," Ralph said, impressed.
"Come on," Zane urged irritably, yanking Ralph's elbow. "The Bigfoots' mansion is over here. Let's get you inside and introduced to your new pals. I've never even seen the inside of the dorm since I've never been friends with any Bigfeets."
James sighed as they walked toward the staid brick structure. Apollo Mansion, home of Bigfoot House, was by far the least interesting of the houses. It stood square and straight in the orange sunset, looking like a sentinel guarding something nobody really wanted. There was virtually no landscaping around the mansion except for a few squat shrubberies that ranged around the foundation in a businesslike manner. A short stone stairway led to the front door, which was adorned with a large pewter knocker in the shape of a foot with splayed toes.
"So, are there any actual Bigfoots in Bigfoot House?" Ralph asked as they climbed the steps.
"Maybe," Zane shrugged. "That would put them on a level higher than either the Werewolves or the Vampires. They haven't had any real werewolves or vampires in their houses for centuries."
James asked, "What about the Pixies, Igors, and Zombies?"
"I don't know about the Pixies or Igors," Zane said, reaching for the huge knocker, "but the old President of Zombie House was this crotchety professor named Straidthwait, and he taught class for nearly a week before anyone knew he'd died of brain failure or something. Apparently, he'd spent too much time in deepest Africa during a summer vacation and drank a few too many native potions. Once he found out he was dead, he insisted on being buried in the campus cemetery, ambulatory or not." Zane grinned at James and Ralph and clacked the door knocker three times, shaking the big wooden door.
"You're making that up," Ralph insisted. "They didn't bury him alive!"
Zane shook his head. "He wasn't alive. He was dead as a doorknob. Said so himself. I hear he performed his own eulogy and told everyone that he was looking forward to being buried. Said it was going to be like the ultimate retirement. It's engraved on his tomb, in fact. I'll show you sometime."
"No thanks," Ralph replied as the door opened. A small boy with pasty skin and huge glasses looked up at Zane.
"I know you," he said meekly. "You gave me donkey's ears last year."
"Did I?" Zane blinked, thinking. "Could be. I gave a lot of people donkey's ears last year. It was all the rage. Hurt, did it?"
The boy stared up at Zane. "No. But it made me want to eat lots of carrots. And it made it easier to hear the lectures in Mageography. I didn't mind, really."
"Good man," Zane said heartily, clapping the boy on the shoulder. The boy tottered.
"I'm James," James said, stepping forward. "And this here's Ralph. We're… er… Bigfoots."
"You sure are," the boy said, looking up and down at Ralph.
"I remember you," Zane said, squinting. "Pastington, right?"
"Paddington," the boy corrected. "Wentworth Paddington."
"Can we come in?" Ralph asked hopefully. "Only, we'd like to get settled into our new rooms. If we have to sleep in the common dorm with that crazy clockwork monkey for one more night…"
"Oh, sure," the boy said blandly, stepping backwards. "Everything's pretty much wherever you find it. The dormitories are all up on the third floor. Game room's in the basement. Everything in between is what it is."
James stepped into the foyer of the house. It was neat and high with a small unlit chandelier dangling overhead. A dusty banner drooped from the chandelier, faded with age. Dark blue letters on an orange background spelled the words 'BIGFOOT PRUDE'.
"Oh, that," Wentworth said, following James' gaze. "That was made by Kowalski's mom when he was a freshman. English isn't exactly her first language, but Kowalski was so proud of it that we couldn't bring ourselves to take it down."
Zane nodded up at the banner. "Makes perfect sense to me, Went. So where's the party at anyway?"
Wentworth blinked behind his huge glasses. "Party?"
"Where's the rest of your Bigfoot pals?" Zane clarified. "And your president? James and Ralph here should probably meet them all, shouldn't they?"
"Oh," Wentworth said uncertainly. "Sure. I guess so. Come on." He turned and padded away, heading toward a huge stairway that dominated the main hall. After a sidelong glance at Ralph and Zane, James followed.
As the four descended into the mansion's basement, they heard a babble of voices and the clack and clatter of billiard balls. Turning a landing at the base of the stairs, James found himself in a low, cluttered room, filled with mismatched sofas and chairs, end tables, and a small galaxy of lamps with battered shades. Students lounged in groups throughout the space or drifted around a collection of very antique game tables in the dimmer recesses of the basement room. A huge white refrigerator sat like a deflated blimp in the corner, flanked by a stuffed deer's head on one side and a moose head on the other. The moose head wore a tasseled nightcap and seemed to be sleeping. None of the occupants of the room looked up as James, Ralph, and Zane entered.
"He's over there," Wentworth pointed. "In the middle, with his feet on the disarmadillo."
James followed Wentworth's gesture and saw the President of Bigfoot House lounging on a low orange sofa, his feet propped on a small animal that appeared to be half aardvark and half tank. James recognized the man as the one who had sat next to his father at Professor Longbottom's assembly. With a start, he realized that his father was sitting next to the man even now, laughing happily and holding a bottle of some American beer. Harry saw his son from across the room, grinned and waved him over.
"I heard you'd been assigned to Bigfoot House," he called as James, Ralph, and Zane threaded through the various chairs and tables. "You couldn't have found a better home. Er, no matter what path got you here," he added, smiling crookedly.
"Hey, Mr. Potter," Zane grinned, plopping onto a nearby chair.
James settled onto a low, bowed sofa and sighed. "So you heard, eh?"
"I suspect most of magical Philadelphia knows by now," Harry replied. "You're a Potter, after all. Your picture will probably be on the front page of the Daily Prophet by tomorrow morning, along with a pithy caption written by Rita Skeeter herself."
James slumped on the sofa. "Bloody hell. You really think so?"
"Who cares? You won't be there to see it, at least."
Zane stroked his chin. "Knowing Rose, she'll cut it out and send it to you, though." He glanced at Ralph, who nodded.
"However you got here," the man on the sofa next to Harry smiled, "Bigfoot House is proud to have you." The man was relatively young and quite thin with a neat dark haircut and mild features. James could tell by his lack of American accent that he was not originally from the United States.
"Yeah, well, we're glad to finally have a home, I guess," Ralph commented. "Even being a leftover is better than being stuck in the common dorm."
"Oh, we don't have leftovers in Bigfoot House," the House President said, straightening and producing his wand from a back pocket. "All Bigfoots are essential members of the clan. One for all and all for one. Go orange and blue!" With that, the man pointed his wand at James. There was a flash and James startled. He glanced down at himself and saw that his black tie had been transformed to a bright autumn orange, and his blazer was now dark blue. Another flash lit the room and Ralph's uniform was transformed as well.
"Not so handsome as Zombie yellow," Zane said critically, "but better than plain black at any rate. You were starting to look like those stiffs from the Magical Integration Bureau."
"Everyone listen up," the president of the house announced loudly, taking his feet off the disarmadillo and sitting up straight. "This is James Potter and Ralph Deedle, the newest members of Bigfoot House. Let's show them a nice welcome, eh?"
Halfhearted cheers and applause filled the room, lingering rather pathetically as the president beamed at James and Ralph. The disarmadillo wandered slowly away, sniffing at the skirts of the sofas and munching the occasional piece of stale popcorn. When the noise of the cheers finally petered out, James flopped back into the depths of the sofa again.
"So how do you two know each other anyway?" he asked, looking back and forth between his dad and the Bigfoot President.
"Oh, your father and I go way back," the president smiled. "I helped make him the man he is today, in fact. Gave him his first shot, back when he was just a little squitter who barely knew how to hold a wand."
"I think it was Professor McGonagall who actually got me on the team," Harry corrected, shaking his head and smiling. "You just taught me what I needed to know to not get killed on the pitch."
"And a good job I did, too!"
"Anyway," Harry laughed, "as it turns out, James, yours and Ralph's new house is headed up by one of the best professors on campus. He came to the States years ago and, for reasons I can't even begin to guess, decided not to leave. James, Ralph, this is my old friend and fellow Gryffindor, your new president, Oliver Wood."
"Wood!" Zane proclaimed, smacking his forehead. "That's your name, not Birch. I was close, though, wasn't I?" He grinned aside at James and Ralph.
"Hey," Wentworth said, tapping James on the shoulder. "There's this big owl on the stairs out front, hooting like crazy and trying to get in the front door. I'm guessing he's yours. You want me to show him to the tower? Or will he be, um… staying with you?"