Monday, May 31, 1999
Vin glanced around the Aerie boys' dorm, which looked very different now than it had the entire school year. Somehow – he wasn't sure how – the space had been made smaller, and only the beds of the students who would be spending the majority of their summer at Horsefeathers Academy could now be seen. That included all seven beds that belonged to Chris and his "team," of which Vin was a proud member. He knew it was magic that had done the work, but he had no idea how, although the strange accordion-like folds he saw in the walls now probably had a lot to do with it. Sometimes being able to see magic wasn't very useful, since seeing it didn't tell him how it worked, or how he could do something similar if he wanted to, but Chris had told him it would be useful, and he believed the older boy.
Vin was just glad that their beds were exactly in the same place as they had been during the school year – in a small, circular alcove, and arranged in a circle. Buck called it "the fort," and Vin liked that idea. It was their own, very special space, one that most of the other boys respected, giving the seven boys their privacy. It made Vin feel like they were already a team, and they could do anything, if they put their minds to it.
Since the end of term dance on Friday, May 28th, the students had been cleaning out and packing up their trunks in order to head home for the summer break. They had all pitched in to clean the Aerie from top to bottom as well, and each students had finished off whatever chores they had left to do on the Academy campus, saying their good-byes to other students and teachers as they went.
After breakfast that morning, almost all of the students had departed. Some left via portkeys, some climbed on board the bus-train buses, and others left with parents – in or on a variety of flying contrivances that had Vin trying to stare in at least twenty directions at once. Vin had watched it all with rising excitement. He and Chris and Buck would be leaving for Durango today, too. The other four members of their team had planned to stay at the Academy, but Chris had talked them into coming home with him, Buck, and Vin. JD had been eager to agree, since he didn't want to spend time away from his "big brother" Buck, and Josiah and Nathan and Ezra had quickly followed suit.
They would all return to the Academy after Nathan, Buck, Chris, and Vin finished their spirit quests, along with several other students who had made their first full transitions in Transfiguration Club this year. Vin was the only first year going on a quest, all the other students being in their third or fourth year. That was a little scary for the shy boy. He wasn't used to drawing attention to himself – it rarely had a good outcome, in his experience – but evidently a first year student being able to transfigure himself was unusual, so the other students had taken notice.
"Hey, Vin, c'mon!" Buck called, waving him over to join the others.
Vin hurried over to join the six boys.
Ms. Nettie held out an old broom, and the boys all reached for it at the same time. Vin loved the weird feeling of being sucked off his feet, rushing faster than fast, and then coming to a sudden stop in Aunt Kathy and Uncle Daniel's living room in their Durango home.
"Hello, boys," Kathy greeted them with a smile. "Are you ready for lunch?"
"Yeah!" they all chorused.
Three picnic tables had been set up in the backyard, and each was filled with plates that held a burger and French fries. Glasses with milkshakes stood next to the plates, and the hungry boys quickly slid onto the benches in front of their favorite flavors – Buck and JD in front of strawberry shakes, Josiah and Nathan in front of vanilla ones, Chris and Vin in front of chocolate shakes, and Ezra in front of the only coffee-flavored shake. In moments they were eating, the two adults watching with expressions of amused affection.
When they finished with their lunches the seven boys headed off for a game of Hoops in the large backyard, celebrating the official start of the summer vacation.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Monday, June 14, 1999
Vin and the other boys had spent past two weeks in Durango, having loads of fun at Aunt Kathy's and Uncle Daniel's house. They had played Hoops every day, and had also been hiking, swimming, and flying on their brooms (with adult supervision). Aunt Kathy had spent a lot of her time in the kitchen, Uncle Daniel helping her a lot, too, since seven growing boys consumed a lot of food. The meals had been wonderful, though, just as good as at the Academy as far as Vin was concerned, and he figured he was right since Ezra had looked pretty impressed, and his on-campus chore assignment was helping out in the Academy kitchens.
It was one of the happiest times Vin could ever remember. He didn't even mind the reading he and the others had to do in the evenings – so they'd be ready at the start of the next school year. He was just so glad to be with his "big brother," and the other boys on Chris' team, that he would have been happy if they'd had actual homework they had to turn in.
JD had fun making up homework for all of them to do, and most of them answered the boy's questions, except Buck, who said he refused to do real homework on his summer break – until Aunt Kathy had told him that he should do the work, to ensure he passed Potions; Chris agreed.
On the 6th of June they had celebrated JD's birthday with a small surprise party. JD had loved all his presents – one each from each of the boys, and one from Kathy and Daniel – and had even eaten a whole birthday cake in the shape of a mug of Butterbeer all by himself. Nathan had worried it might make him sick, but Aunt Kathy had whispered to him that it was just like the sweets at Horsefeathers – not really there – and that had made Nathan much happier.
This morning, Chris, Buck, Nathan, and Vin had returned to Horsefeathers via a portkey to prepare for their spirit quests. Vin was feeling a little nervous about it, and he hoped he would be able to go with his friends, or at least with the other students from his Gild. Josiah had gone on his quest all alone, but Josiah actually liked spending time alone. Vin didn't care much for being alone, especially not now that he'd found friends, not to mention a big brother.
As soon as they had their stuff unpacked in the dorm, all of the students who would be undertaking their spirit quests met at two brick buildings that had been erected between the infirmary and the barns. They looked like upside down bowls, and Vin wasn't sure how all of them were going to fit inside, since they looked a little small to him, but if the dorms could be made to look smaller, then maybe these structures could be made to look bigger on the inside than they were on the outside.
They were sweat lodges, they discovered, and the boys were directed to one and the girls to the other. Inside, there was a fire pit dug into the ground, filled with rocks that glowed a soft orange-red, but nothing else. Luckily, it did look bigger on the inside than the outside.
The boys' clothes disappeared as soon as they stepped inside, replaced with soft cotton shorts. They each sat down on the ground, forming a circle around the fire pit. Then, following the instructions of the professors who joined them, they cleansed their bodies and their minds in preparation for their quests. Sweet smelling herbs were sprinkled over the hot rocks, filling the space with a wispy white smoke that made Vin's skin tingle and tickled his nose, but he didn't sneeze.
After the sweat, they went outside and jumped into a new pond that took up most of the grassy field that was usually there, splashing in the shallow water while the teachers used magic to erect tables that were quickly filled with food from the Academy kitchen. The students were encouraged to eat as much as they wanted.
At the end of the meal, the professors walked among the tables, handing out crystals that were wrapped at one end with a thin strip of leather that also formed a loop so they could wear the crystal around their necks. Once each of them had been given a crystal they were sent back to their dorms.
Vin fingered his crystal as he walked back to the Aerie with Chris, Buck, and Nathan. It was a purple color with some grey-white swirls trapped inside the purple.
"It's an amethyst," Chris told him.
"It's really cool."
That brought a slight smile to the older boy's lips. "Yeah, I guess it is." His own crystal was green, close to the color of Ezra's eyes, which was a little disconcerting when Chris thought about it for too long. He didn't want to think Ezra was watching him while he was on his spirit quest! Buck's crystal was yellow, and Nathan's a deep red. Chris remembered that Josiah's had been blue – he still wore it on most days – and he wondered what Ezra and JD would get when they did their quests, probably next summer.
"Hey, you want to play some Wizard's Chess when we get back to the Aerie?" Buck asked Chris.
"Sure," the blond replied. He and Buck had been playing since were four or five years old.
"I'll play a game with you, Vin," Nathan offered.
"Thanks," Vin replied. He liked playing with Nathan. The older boy took time to teach him about the game while they played, which had helped him become a better player.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Tuesday, June 15th
Vin was surprised when he finally woke the following morning, at least two hours later than he'd expected. The usual alarm must not have gone off. Chris was just getting out of bed as well, although Nathan, Garth Nichols, and Garth's older brother Frank were almost dressed already. Buck, however, was still soundly asleep, belly down and snoring, in the middle of his bed.
Chris tossed his shoe at his best friend, the sneaker bouncing off the sleeping boy's head and landing on his pillow.
"What?" Buck yelped, bolting up and frantically looking around.
Chris grinned at him. "Time to get up, Bucklin."
Buck glowered at his best friend, then grabbed the sneaker and threw it back at Chris, who caught it with one hand.
Buck climbed out from under his covers, then slid out of bed, quickly getting dressed.
As soon as they were all dressed, they headed out to walk to the mess hall. It too seemed smaller now, and the professors who had hosted the sweat lodge and the following meal were all present. Breakfast was a little bigger than usual, and the boys each enjoyed the extra treats like blueberry muffins, banana-nut bread, waffles, and warm cinnamon rolls.
When Vin had first arrived at Horsefeathers he'd been a little small and underweight for his size, so the doctor had made sure that he ate extra food across the day. Now he was at the correct weight and had grown taller – almost as tall as Ezra.
When they were done eating they were allowed to spend the day doing whatever they wanted. Chris, Buck, Nathan, and Vin ended up playing Knights and Wizards until lunchtime, which was another bigger than usual meal. Vin left the table feeling a little stuffed, but he'd really enjoyed that third piece of hot apple pie with vanilla ice cream and cinnamon sauce drizzle.
They took their brooms out to the western Hoops field and spent the next couple of hours practicing moves and generally just having fun, pretending they were world-famous Hoops players in a championship game.
After a larger than normal dinner, they all went back to their dorms. Professor Ko-Jay was waiting for them, and they followed him into the community room and sat down on the thick carpet in front of the fireplace, which snapped and crackled although not much heat escaped into the already warm room.
Ko-Jay glanced around at all the students, then said, "Tonight I need your attention. A spirit quest is a very important, very serious undertaking. You will all be going out into the desert, where you will stay for up to one week – seven days. The boys from Hawks Gild will go out in pairs, and you three girls will go together as a group."
The professor stood and walked over to one of the book shelves that lined one wall of the large room, then came back with three small statues, each of a wolf. He set them on the coffee table in front of the sofa where he sat.
"There is a special relationship between the animal form you are able to take when you transfigure into your animagus, the form of your patronus, and the form of your spirit guide," he told them.
"As some of you already know, your patronus is a manifestation of all of your most positive feelings. It is a semi-tangible, positive energy-force that is related to and connected to your spirit guardian. That guardian watches over you when you transfigure into your animal form. It is not unusual for your animagus, your patronus, and your spirit guardian to all be of the same essence, or form, as mine is – the wolf. However, some of you will might have three completely different forms. No one knows for certain until you meet your spirit guide, and are able to produce a patronus charm and see what form your patronus takes.
"Meeting your spirit guardian is very important for anyone who is an animagus, or an animagi. That guardian will help guide you when you are in your animal form, so you will never lose your true humanity. That guardian will also lend its strength to your patronus, even if the patronus is a different form from the guardian. For example, Professor Wells can transfigure into a badger, and her spirit guide is also Badger, but her patronus is a mustang.
"Therefore your quest is a sacred act, and one of the most important you will ever undertake. The crystals you were given will help your spirit guardian find you. Do not take it off, for any reason, until you return to Horsefeathers. Do you all understand?"
Nine heads nodded.
"Good. Now, it's time for all you to go take a shower and get to bed."
"Professor Ko-Jay?" Mary Travis said, raising her hand.
"Yes, Mary?" he replied.
"What's an 'animagi'?"
Ko-Jay smiled. "An animagi is someone who can take more than one animal form."
"Wow," Garth Nichols said, smiling excitedly, "that's cool. How do we know if we're an animagi?"
"Another animagi can often sense who might become an animagi," Ko-Jay told him. "If we thought you were an animagi, we would have told you."
"Is there an animagi at Horsefeathers?" Rain asked.
"Yes, Rain, there is. Tiny is an animagi," the older man told her.
"Cool," Rebee Ortiz said. "He's a really nice professor."
The others nodded their agreement.
"Now, children, it is time for you to get ready for bed," he told them, and they climbed to their feet and headed off. He watched them go, wondering what surprises might result from their quests. He saw Vin pause at the door, looking back at him with a smile on his face. Ko-Jay winked at the boy. The other students didn't need to know Vin was also an animagi, not just yet, especially since he probably wouldn't be able to take a second form for a couple more years. Vin was something of a shy child, and the old professor had known he wouldn't want to draw any more attention to himself than he already had, undertaking his quest as a first year student, but such precocity wasn't uncommon for an animagi.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Wednesday, June 16th
The morning alarm sounded earlier than usual, and the boys responded, getting up, making their beds, and dressing. Yawning, they walked to the mess hall and ate, each of them lost in his own thoughts about the upcoming spirit quest.
When they were done, Tiny led them out to the barns, where they each grabbed their brooms from a portable broom stall that was waiting for them. With their brooms in hand, they followed the big man to one of the corrals.
Vin smiled when he saw Miriam and Durango standing with several other thestrals inside the fence. Gild elders were also waiting for the students from their Gilds to arrive. Professor Ko-Jay led those from Hawks Gild to the east end of the corral where the thestrals stood, waiting.
"How many of you can see them?" Ko-Jay asked as he handed each student a backpack that was stuffed full of supplies.
"See what?" Mary asked, confused.
Chris, Buck, Nathan, and Vin all raised their hands.
Ko-Jay nodded. "This corral holds a small herd of thestrals," he said. "But only those who have seen death, and know it for what it is, can see a thestral."
"You can really see them?" Rain asked Nathan and he nodded sadly. She could see them, too, having seen her father killed in a duel with a dark wizard.
Ko-Jay took out his wand and said, "Sequuntur ducem," and a moment later he flicked his wand a second time adding, "Equites summa."
When he was done, he looked at the eight Hawks Gild students and said, "One of the thestrals will guide you to the location where you will undertake your quest. Once you arrive, your brooms will become horses and carry you to the exact spot where you are to camp. It is best to approach these sacred locations in connection with mother earth, who sustains us all, which is why your brooms will transfigure when you get close to the site. When it is time for you to return, you will ride your horse back down to the desert and they will become brooms again to carry you back to the Academy. The thestral who takes you out will guide you back. They will find a place to wait near your camp, and if there is any danger, they will warn you and help protect you."
"How can we follow the thestral if we can't see them?" Garth asked, sounding a little worried.
Ko-Jay smiled at the boy. "Your brooms have been enchanted. They will follow the thestral out to the desert and back. You do not need to worry about getting lost."
"Oh, okay," Garth replied, but he was still looking a little anxious.
Garth's older brother reached out and rested his hand on the younger boy's shoulder, giving him a reassuring smile, saying, "It'll be fine, G."
"All right," Tiny said loudly as he walked over to join them, "Hawks Gild will leave first. Garth, Frank, you're first."
The two boys pulled on their backpacks, then climbed onto their brooms and kicked off, rising into the air. Vin saw one of the thestrals leap into the air and head off, the two boys' brooms immediately following behind the animal.
"Buck, Nathan, you're next," Tiny said.
Backpacks on their backs, they mounted their brooms and took off as another of the thestrals took flight.
"Vin, Chris," Tiny said.
Vin shrugged his backpack into place, then swung his leg over his broom handle and waited. A moment later Miriam and Durango sprang into the air. With a big smile, Vin took off after them, Chris right beside him.
Vin heard Tiny call the girls' names, but he wasn't paying any attention any more; his attention was focused on the two thestrals as they rose high into the air, Vin more than a little surprised at how fast Miriam and Durango could fly. It was beautiful to watch, and Vin soaked in the experience, taking it all in as they made their way out into the desert. Before too long several mesas rose out of the distance.
"How far will we go?" Vin asked.
Chris shrugged. "I don't know."
The boys grinned at one another, excitement lighting their eyes as they flew on farther into the wilderness. They passed over high mesas with pines growing on them, continuing on to where the trees gave way to shrubs and short grasses.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Finally, Miriam and Durango guided Chris and Vin to the bottom of a double mesa far out in the desert. The land was covered in sage and creosote bushes, and only a few short trees grew on the lower mesa, although Vin wasn't sure that they weren't really tall bushes instead of actual trees. The two thestrals slowly circled, dropping closer and closer to the ground, the boys following right along behind them on their brooms.
Then, when they were almost close enough to the ground to touch it with their dangling toes, the brooms suddenly turned into horses. Vin laughed with delight, leaning over to give Peso's neck a hug. "Hi, Peso. You're a cool horse."
The black horse jerked his head up and down gently and gave a soft whicker in reply.
"Wow, this is so cool!" Vin said, his voice echoing in the landscape, as he petted the animal's neck.
"I'd rather fly the whole way," Chris replied, "but horses are pretty cool, too." His broom had also turned into a black horse, a little smaller than Peso, but equally as handsome.
Looking around, Vin saw that Miriam and Durango were gone. It made his belly quiver a little, but he had Chris, and the horses, so he knew wasn't really alone. And Professor Ko-Jay had said the thestrals would stay close by in case there was trouble.
They rode on for almost an hour, the horses carrying them to their final destination. They had climbed from the desert floor to the top of the first mesa. The second mesa towered above them, and Vin saw several caves in the rock face, Durango peering out at him from one of them.
Vin slipped from Peso's back and ran over to the young thestral. "Hey, Durango," he greeted, stroking the creature's neck. "I thought you and your mama went back to Horse Feathers when I didn't see ya."
Durango, butted his head against Vin's chest, then withdrew into the cave to nap with his mother. Vin stepped inside, making sure both animals were safe and comfortable, then went back out to where Chris was setting up their campsite. The two horses had wandered off a ways and were grazing on grass and small bushes.
"We can use this cave to sleep in," Chris told him, still holding his wand. "I checked; there's nothing living inside it."
"Okay," Vin agreed, shrugging his backpack off and following Chris inside.
Checking inside his pack Vin found a soft blanket and a rolled up pad that he guessed he was supposed to sleep on. There was also a canteen full of water, some matches, a tarp, a roll of toilet paper, and a wooden bowl and a metal spoon.
Following Chris' example, he laid his pad out alongside the blond's, then put his blanket on top of that. Flipping his backpack over, he stuffed the tarp back inside and set it at the end of the pad to use as a pillow. He stuck the matches in his pants pocket, and put his bowl on the ground next to his bed, and set the spoon inside it. Slipping the canteen over his shoulder like he'd seen Aunt Kathy do with her purse, he followed Chris back outside.
The sun was slipping rapidly toward the western horizon and the sky was filling up with shades of orange, red, and yellow. The two boys sat down on rocks to watch the sun set.
Just as the sun slipped below the horizon, Chris yelped, "Hey, look!"
Vin followed the boy's pointing finger and looked down at his crystal, only to find that it was glowing. Glancing at Chris' stone showed that his was doing the very same thing. A moment later, there was a soft cracking sound and a puff of dust rose into the air. The boys scrambled back away from a growing crack in the ground, which began to glow, and, as they watched, something began to emerge from out of the ground.
"Whoa," Vin breathed.
"Yeah," Chris whispered back.
A life-sized crystal skull had emerged from the ground, sitting on a pillar of rock. As they watched, the glow faded, except in the skull's eye sockets, which remained bright red, like the skull was watching them.
"Ya'ateh," the skull said.
"Yah-ah-tay," both boys carefully repeated, knowing it was a greeting, like 'hello.'
"You are here on your spirit quest," the skull stated.
"Yes, we are," Chris replied.
"One of you is very young to be on a spirit quest."
Vin felt his cheeks begin to burn with embarrassment. "I'm a first year, but Professor Ko-Jay said I needed to come. Him and Mr. Tiny say I'm an animagi."
"Professor Ko-Jay is a wise man," the skull responded. "Very well, listen closely, children… You will spend the next few days with limited food, water, and sleep. Each night water will flow from the rock where I rest. You will use that water to fill your canteens. You will drink all of that water each day. Do you understand?"
"Yes, we're supposed to drink all the water in our canteens each day," Chris said, repeating back the instruction.
"Very good. Now, fetch your canteens and fill them."
The two boys did as instructed.
"Each night, at sunset," the skull said, "I will rise and give you water. I will also fill your bowls and you will eat all that I give you. That is all the food you will receive while on your quest. You will sleep six hours each night. I will tell you when to go to bed, and when to get up. You will not speak unless you must. Each day you will separate and find a place to sit and wait for your spirit guide to find you. You should concentrate on your quest, and not allow your mind wander freely along any path it chooses. If you wish, you may walk the trails you find here while you wait. Do you understand all that I have told you?"
"Yes, sir," the two boys replied.
"Then it is time for you to go fetch your bowls."
The pair stood and headed inside the cave where they found their bowls full of tasty stew. They carried the bowls outside and sat near the skull as they quickly ate.
"Now, it is time to sleep," the skull told them.
Chris and Vin stood and took their bowls back inside the cave. Chris drew is wand and said, "Lumos," lighting the space so they could set their bowls down and crawl onto their beds. They each pulled their blankets up around them and settled down, exchanging looks that were a little frightened and a little excited.
Chris gave Vin a reassuring smile, then flicked his wand and the light went out. Vin listened as Chris settled himself. Feeling the pad he was lying on grow thicker and softer, Vin closed his eyes, drifting quickly into sleep.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Thursday, June 17th
The following morning Chris and Vin each took their full canteens and headed off in opposite directions to find a place to sit. Chris found a flat, chair-like rock in the shade. He took a seat and leaned back, looking out across the desert and letting his mind go still, waiting. It was a skill he had learned in his Defense Against the Dark Arts classes, but in his second and third years, so he wondered how Vin would manage it.
In the back of his mind, Chris wondered if Sarah had undertaken her quest at this same mesa, but he knew that wasn't likely. The desert was a big place. She could have done her quest at any of the mesas he could see, or even one he couldn't see. Still, he kind of hoped that it had been here, and that she might be watching over them now…
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin wandered for a while, finally choosing to sit on the edge of the lower mesa. He let his feet dangled off the side, a little surprised that he wasn't afraid of the height. But, sitting there, he felt a similar buzz of excitement as when he was riding on his broom, or on Lightwing's back. A slight breeze ruffled his hair, keeping him cool until the sun was directly overhead. When it finally got too hot to stay there, he stood and found a small cave, slipping into the cool darkness to sit again.
He leaned back against the wall of the cave, looking out at the desert and watching a single hawk riding the heat thermals above the desert. It was exciting to think that, one day, he would be able to do that very same thing. He felt the now-familiar tingle, but stopped the transfiguration before it could overtake him, just like Miss Nettie had taught him to.
His mind wandered, then quieted as he continued to sit, waiting. He might have dropped off to sleep, but he wasn't sure. When the sun dropped close to the horizon, he left the cave and headed back to their main camp, his crystal pointing him in the right direction.
When he arrived at the camp he saw that Chris was already back. The older boy had brought their bowls out and was sitting near the dormant crystal skull, waiting.
Vin smiled and waved as he stepped into the camp. Chris returned the wave, looking relieved that the younger boy was back.
Taking a seat on the ground next to the blond, Vin opened his mouth to ask a question, but before he could, the skull's eye sockets began to glow red.
"This is the end of the first day. You have done well, young ones. Now, finish your water and replenish your canteens."
Both boys took their canteens and drained what little water was left in them. As soon as they had, water began to flow from the rock pillar. Chris held his canteen up to catch the thin stream, holding it in place until it was full again. Vin copied his big brother's actions, filling his own canteen.
The water stopped and the delicious aroma of stew wafted up from their now full bowls. Both boys grabbed their bowls and began to eat hungrily.
When he was finished, Vin set his bowl down and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. His face was warm as he whispered, "Can I ask a question, Mr. Skull."
"Ask, young one," the skull replied.
"Uh, where d' we, uh, go to, uh…"
Chris figured out the question Vin was trying to ask. "He wants to know where we go to the bathroom."
Vin shot him a grateful look.
Laughter rolled out of the skull. "You peed in the bushes, didn't you?"
"Uh… yeah," Vin admitted, his cheeks burning.
"When you need to do more, dig a hole and do what you must, then cover it and do not use that place again."
"Oh, okay…" Vin said. "Thank you."
"You are welcome, young one. Now, off to bed with you both."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Sunday, June 20th
For the next three days the same pattern continued. Each morning the boys rose and took their full canteens, heading off in opposite directions. They each found a place to sit, or walk, shifting as they needed to in order to escape the worst of the mid-day sun. Both boys were getting a little worried that they hadn't met their guides, and they only had two days and two nights left before they had to go back to the Academy.
This morning Chris had picked a spot next to a small trickle of water that emerged from the rocks, dripping down the stone face before disappearing into the ground. There was grass and even a few wild flowers growing in the dirt where the water disappeared, and the scent the flowers gave off reminded Chris of Sarah.
Chris was staring at the flowers when he heard a low growl behind him.
Swallowing hard, Chris glanced over his shoulder to see a large mountain lion, but the animal was almost translucent, and Chris could see the mesas in the distance through the creature's body.
The cougar growled again, but there was no danger in the sound, just the opposite, in fact. It was a playful sound. The guide reached Chris and head-butted the boy's chest, a deep purr rumbling up from the animal's chest as it did so.
"H-Hello," Chris stuttered.
"Hello, Chris Larabee," the cougar said.
"You know who I am?" the blond asked, hazel eyes rounding with surprise.
"Of course. I have guided your family for generations – Matthew Adam, your great-grandfather, who was the fifth in his line to take the form of cougar. Daniel Christopher, your grandfather. He was a gifted wizard; even won the Americas Wizarding Cup his last year at Horsefeathers. Matthew Christopher and Daniel Adam, your father and uncle – the twins who made me chew my own tail many a time, I can tell you. Sarah, your sister, so smart and beautiful, and now you, Christopher Daniel Larabee. And, if your brother Adam Matthew had lived, I would have guided him as well."
"You were my sister's guide? My dad's?"
"I was, just as I said."
"I didn't know spirit guides were attached to families like that."
"It is a common thing," the big cat replied.
"My dad and my uncle were…"
"Troublemakers," the cougar supplied. "But talented wizards, yes, indeed, very talented."
Chris grinned. It was fun to think about father and uncle being troublemakers at Horsefeathers. He and Buck had something of a reputation as well, but he wasn't sure it was the same as his father and uncle.
"Close enough," the cougar replied.
"Wow," Chris whispered, "you can hear my thoughts?"
The big cat dumped Chris' shoulder, then rubbed past him, turned around and lay down next to the boy.
"Of course I can," it said. "How else will I communicate with you when you are in your animal form?"
Chris thought about that for a moment. "That makes sense. And you'll be with me my whole life?" Chris asked.
"I will be," replied the cougar.
"What should I call you?"
"You will call me Bezo, and I will teach you many things, little cub. The first thing I will teach you is this… your natural inclination is to be secretive, but you must learn to trust those you have collected to your cause. You must share your thoughts and feeling with these other boys, so they will know they can trust you. And once they trust you, they will follow you wherever you lead. Is the lesson learned?"
"We shall see," Bezo replied.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
When Vin arrived back at the camp he saw that he was the first to return this time. Following the example Chris had set, he went in and brought out their bowls, setting them next to the dormant crystal skull, then sat down and waited.
It was just after sunset when Chris finally returned, and Vin could tell by the look of triumph on the older boy's face the Chris had met his spirit guide.
The blond walked over and sat down, clearly fighting hard to keep from telling Vin all about it.
The skull's eyes sprang to full brightness and it said, "This is the end of the fourth day. Finish your water and replenish your canteens."
The two boys drained their canteens, then refilled them.
"One of you has met his guide, is that so?"
"Yes," Chris said excitedly, grinning at Vin.
"You may tell your companion of the meeting," the skull said.
Words gushed from Chris' mouth as he hurried to tell Vin as much as possible as quickly as possible, his bowl of stew only cooling slightly before he was done.
"Now eat, young ones," the skull commanded, and Chris launched into his meal while Vin ate more slowly, worrying over his own lack of progress.
Do not fret, little one, the skull said inside Vin's mind. Guides come in their own good time.
What if it never comes? Vin asked worriedly.
Then it never comes, the skull replied.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Monday, June 21st
Another day passed, Chris spending some of it with Bezo, who guided him into his first deep transfiguration. Together the pair climbed all over the lower mesa, and even hunted rabbits together, although Chris was unable to actually catch one.
Vin spent the day alone. He sat in the shade of a large bush, letting his mind go blank, something he had gotten rather good at. The first couple of days his thoughts had kept bubbling up, over and over, and no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't make them stop. But over the last three days it had gotten easier to let them go until they had all faded away and he sat in the silence, content.
Today, Vin felt the last of his thoughts fade away as he watched a pair of hawks riding the thermals. It was almost as if he were flying right there beside them, looking down on the desert with no language in his mind. He half-closed his eyes and felt the lift of air under his wings…
Not too soon, Vin. All in good time, came a voice inside Vin's head.
His eyes popped open and he looked around, but there was nothing and no one there. With a small sigh of defeat, Vin slumped back against the rocks and started his vigil once more.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
That evening Chris could tell from the look on Vin's face that he hadn't met his spirit guide, and they only had one more day left before they headed back to Horsefeathers on Wednesday morning.
He offered the younger boy a reassuring smile, but Vin only looked away.
The skull offered no encouragement, either, just providing them with water and food, then sending them off to sleep.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Tuesday, June 22nd
Vin decided the next morning that he just wasn't going to meet his spirit guide this summer. Josiah had told him about a boy in Salmon Gild. He hadn't met his guide the year Josiah had taken his quest, but he had gone out again the following year and had met his guide on that second trip.
Maybe that was what would happen to him, too. Maybe he wasn't supposed to be here this year. Maybe he would meet his guide next year.
But Chris wouldn't be with him next year.
Maybe Ezra would go, or even JD, who seemed to be able to do everything faster than most of the other students, and he could go with one of them. That wouldn't be too bad. He liked Ezra and JD, though he wasn't sure JD could go with somebody and not talk to them.
But it would be so cool if he could meet his guide this year. He didn't want to disappoint Chris. And what would happen if he didn't find a guide next year, either? Would he be unable to transfigure?
And so his thoughts chased through his mind, around and around and around until he was caught in a knot of worry.
"You worry far too much, little one."
Vin jumped, sucking in a sharp breath as he scrambled to his feet. Swinging around, he gasped again and jumped back. His feet lost their purchase on the gravelly ground and Vin lost his balance, falling and landing hard on his butt.
The large war horse snorted in amusement and tossed his head. He was black, so black everywhere that he looked almost blue under the hot sun. Vin blinked, catching sight of large wings, and the pair of curved horns that shimmered in and out of his vision. The overall vision was nothing short of awe-inspiring.
"So, you are Vin Tanner."
Vin nodded and swallowed hard. "I'm Vin." He took a deep breath and said, "You're Forza, aren't you." It wasn't a question. He'd read stories about the war horse, seen pictures…
"I— I'm pleased t' meet ya," he said, remembering the lessons in proper manners that Miss Nettie had been teaching them.
The war horse snorted in amusement once again. "As I am glad to meet you, little one."
"I didn't think y' were comin'," Vin said.
"The lesson is in the waiting," Forza told him, but Vin wasn't sure exactly what that meant.
"I don't like waitin' much, but it's gettin' easier now."
"Then you have learned your lesson."
"Can I ask y' a question, Mr. Forza?"
"Forza is all you need call me, little one. Ask your question."
"Are you… alive?"
"I am, but in a way that you cannot yet understand. I will live as long as my warriors remember me. You have met one of my warriors."
"Lightwing. He's my friend," Vin said.
"Yes, he is, and so am I. I will be your guide, little one."
"But why? I'm— I'm just a kid. You're… important."
Forza tossed his head and laughed, the sound like thunder rolling through the clear blue sky. "Oh, little one, you are more than 'just a kid' as you say. You and your friends have an important role to play in the future now being made."
"We do?" Vin asked, honestly surprised that he might have something important to do.
"Yes, you will. There is a great danger spreading once more through the magical world, a danger that will, one day, come to the Academy, and all of the students will have to choose which side they will stand with. You and Chris, and the others on your… team, will stand with me, with Right, and we will prevail, but the fight will be long, and some will die before we reach our final victory."
Vin felt his tummy tighten and he ran to the large war horse and threw his arms around the animal's muscular front leg. "Please don't let Chris die!" he cried. "He's m' brother!"
"None of us knows who will live and who will die once the battle is joined, little one. Each of you must learn all you can. You must practice, and learn, and hold on to the goodness in your hearts."
"We will, I promise," Vin said, stepping back and looking up at the war horse with conviction in his eyes.
"Yes, I believe you will. I am counting on it."
Forza lowered his head until his forehead was pressed lightly against Vin's, his breath blowing soft and warm on the boy's chest. Vin reached up, his fingers tangling in Forza's long, black mane. "I'll be a good wizard, I promise."
Forza chuckled. "Yes, little one, you will be indeed. I have dreamed it, and my dreams know where the universe takes us. Now, come, climb onto my back and let us fly."
"Really?" Vin asked, so surprised he didn't know what to do.
Forza bent his front leg and dropped closer to the ground. "On my back, little one."
Vin scrambled up, being careful not to disturb the war horse's wing feathers. With a single leap, Forza was high in the sky and, moments later, they were flying above the hawks, who cried out their joy when they saw the war horse.
"They know who you are?"
"Of course," Forza replied. "All the winged ones are my clan, as are the horses, the pegasi, the unicorns and bicorns, the griffins and hippogriffins, and the centaurs, pegasaurs, and unisaurs. Many whose wings touch the sky, or hooves touch the earth, follow me."
Vin laughed, his arms flung out at his sides like wings. He closed his eyes, feeling some part of himself blending with the war horse. He could feel muscles moving, huge black wings beating… he felt the wind streaming through a long mane and tail… felt lungs filling with sweet air…
Below him, Vin could see Chris and his guide through Forza's eyes, and he laughed as Chris—in his cougar form – crouched and leaped, trying for a jackrabbit, who was too smart to be caught by the young cougar. It was the absolute best moment of Vin's entire life. He was flying, bonded to the magical war horse, knowing in his heart that he and Chris and the others were meant to be together, and that, together, they would do important things to make their world a better place. There was nothing more important. He missed his mother, and his grandfather, but he knew now that he would still make something of himself, and he would do it with Chris and the other boys.
He could almost see himself in the future, a grown wizard, but it was obstructed by shadows, and he couldn't get a clear view.
"The future is always filled with shadows of possibilities, little one, but understand that the past and the future both reach to the present to create what will be."
"I don't think I understand," Vin said.
"You do not need to, little one, not yet."
Forza dipped his head and pulled his wings in, sending them speeding toward the flat surface of the second mesa, touching down on the top of a rocky outcropping.
Vin wasn't sure how he had gotten off the war horse's back, but he was standing on the ground, watching as the horse reared and then jumped into the sky once more. In the air, Forza's twin horns flashed silvery-gold in the sunlight and Vin could see Forza in all his glory. He was frightening and exciting.
"Remember, little one, you must be the best wizard you can be – all of you must."
"I'll remember," Vin promised.
Then Vin blinked and he was back on the second mesa and Forza was gone, but a black feather, clinging to his shirt, told him that it wasn't all a dream, or wishful thinking. Pinching the feather between his thumb and index finger he turned and ran back to the camp, but Chris wasn't there.
Vin began to search for the older boy, finally finding him walking back toward camp on the opposite side of the mesa.
"Chris!" Vin called, running up to the boy and holding out the feather. "I saw 'im!"
The blond frowned. "Your spirit guide is a crow?"
Vin stopped, too surprised to say anything for a moment, but then he began to laugh. "No! He's a war horse with big black wings 'n' two long horns 'n'—"
"Whoa, slow down," Chris said, hold up his hands to fend off the onslaught of words.
"It's Forza," Vin said, "Forza's my spirit guide!"
Chris stopped, his eyes widening. "Holy cow. For real?"
Vin nodded and told the older boy what the war horse had said. "So we have to be the best wizards ever," the boy concluded and saw Chris shiver. "Are y' cold, Chris?"
"No," Chris said, shaking his head. He'd heard stories about Forza ever since he was a baby. He was the war king of the pegasi and the unicorns, the king of all those with wings or horse-like characteristics. He had fought the Death Eaters when Lord Voldemort had risen to power. And if Forza said they needed to be the best wizards they could be, then they would be the best, even if he had to tie Buck to a chair and force him to memorize every potion in their potions textbook.
"Come on," the blond said, handing the feather back to Vin and leading the way back to their camp. They made it just as the sun began to set.
The crystal skull was already waiting for them. "You have both succeeded in finding your guide. You have done well. Rest tonight, children, tomorrow the horses will guide you to the base of the mesa and the thestrals will take you back to the Academy. Well done. Now, fill your canteens and eat your supper."
Chris and Vin did as they were told.
"Now, children, sleep well." The skull went dark and slowly sank back into the ground from where it had emerged that first night.
The boys exchanged looks, then went into the cave and climbed into their beds, quickly falling asleep.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Wednesday, June 23rd
The boys awoke as soon as the sun rose far enough to illuminate the mouth of the cave where they slept. They packed their backpacks and went out to find the horses were already waiting for them. Using a large rock to help increase their height, the two boys took turns climbing onto their horse's back. When they were both mounted, the horses started back down off the mesa, following the same trail they had used coming up.
Vin enjoyed watching the charm Buck had given him for Christmas dangling on Peso's bridle, as the black horse resembled the charm rather closely.
When they reached the bottom of the mesa, the boys found Miriam and Durango waiting for them. Miriam pawed the ground a little impatiently and tossed her head. A soft pop sounded in the desert. The horses were gone, the boys back on their brooms.
The thestrals leaped into the air and the brooms followed them as the creatures turned and headed back toward Horsefeathers. Chris and Vin passed the time talking about their guides, and what they had experienced on their quest.
They were getting close enough to see the edges of the Academy when Vin spotted smoke rising into the air in the distance. "Hey, Chris, y' see that?" he asked, pointing.
"Yeah, I do," the blond replied, frowning. The desert was dry, and a fire would move fast through the scattered grasses.
"Miriam!" Vin called, and the thestral looked back over her shoulder. "We need t' go see if there's a fire!" he called, pointing toward the smoke.
Miriam looked to where Vin was pointing, then shifted her course toward the rising veil of smoke.
It took them several minutes to reach the source of the smoke, and by the time they did, there was a great deal more of it rising into the blue sky.
"Chris, there!" Vin yelled, pointing down at someone standing in the desert near some of the flames.
They all dropped lower. The person turned and, seeing them, raised his arm. Vin thought it might be to wave at them, but then Durango squealed in pain and Miriam let out an angry bellow. It was obvious the colt had been hurt somehow, and was struggling to stay in the air near his mother. A moment later, something whooshed past Vin and Chris as well.
"He's a wizard!" the blond yelled, veering away from the stranger. "He's aiming curses at us!"
Miriam turned away as well, trying to help Durango, who followed gamely, but he was clearly struggling to stay in the air.
"Miriam!" Chris yelled as she was hit by a curse and bucked in the sky, shrieking. "Miriam! Take Durango and go back to Horsefeathers!"
"If she does our brooms'll follow her!" Vin argued.
Chris pulled his wand from his pocket and pointed it at his broom saying, "Non sequuntur ducem," then curved away from the thestrals. He came back around and pointed his wand at Vin's broom, repeating the spell.
"Go home, Miriam!" Vin yelled to her. "Tiny can help Durango!"
The thestral wasn't sure about leaving the boys behind, but a whimper from her foal was enough to set her off in the direction of Horsefeathers.
Chris and Vin rose higher into the sky, keeping an eye on the person on the ground, who was now running in the direction of Horsefeathers, new fire blooming in the dry grass as he did.
"Chris, he's settin' more fires!" Vin yelled.
"Come on!" Chris replied, grabbing his broom with both hands and leaning forward. Together, the two boys raced toward the desert floor. When they reached one of the new small fires Chris pointed his wand at it and said, "Ignis strangulare," which snuffed out the small blaze, but the same spell had no impact on the larger fires.
"The fires are burning toward Horsefeathers!" the blond called.
"We have t' stop him!" Vin said. "He'll burn down the Academy!"
"We can't," Chris said. "He can curse us if we get too close, just like he did Durango."
"We c'n slow 'im down!" Vin asked, then he jerked his broom and raced off in the direction of the stranger, leaning low over his broom handle.
"Vin, wait!" Chris called, going after the younger boy. "What're you going to do?" he demanded when he caught up with Vin.
"If we get in front 'a 'im we can keep him from gettin' closer to the Academy."
Chris thought for a moment, then nodded. "Okay, let's do it."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The boys maneuvered around the fire, which was growing in size by leaps and bounds as the flames raced through the dry grasses and brush. They lost sight of the man setting them for a time, but then spotted him sitting on a broom as well.
Chris waited until he had a direct line of slight to the man's broom, then raised his wand and snarled, "Scopae frangere."
The man's broom shattered into a million pieces and the rider fell to the ground, rolling over and over before coming to a stop. When he stood up again the boys could see that the man was really just a teenager, older than Josiah, maybe even old enough to have graduated from the Academy, although Chris didn't recognize him as a student.
"Bollocks!" the young man exclaimed when he saw the remains of his broom scattered everywhere. He looked around the desert and spotted Chris and Vin hiding near a rocky outcrop, both boys still sitting on their brooms. "You prats!" He lifted his wand and said something neither Chris nor Vin could make out, but they dove behind the rock to avoid the curse, or hex, that had been shot at them.
"He's back, you know! He's back!" the teen bellowed at them. "Things are going to change now. The Dark Arts will return! The Death Eaters will return! Horsefeathers will burn! Mark my words!"
"He sounds like Benley," Vin said quietly.
"Yeah, I noticed that," Chris replied. "We better get out of here. He's gonna know a lot more curses than me."
"We can't let 'im burn down Horsefeathers," Vin responded.
"I know, but I don't think we can stop him, either."
"What're we gonna do, Chris?" Vin asked.
"I'm not sure," was the older boy's honest reply. "If I can get the drop on him maybe I can get his wand away…"
"Y' need a distraction?"
"No, Vin, wait. We have to think this though," he said, grabbing the boy's arm before he could slip out from behind the safety of the rocks.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
At Horsefeathers Academy
Netti Wells was sitting in her apartment in the Aerie dormitory, reading an old book of spells that her great-grandmother had put together in her youth. Mathilda Esther McCelland, a graduate of the Salem Witches Academy – an all-girls school near the all-boys Boston Wizards School – had gone to the oldest American wizards and witches of her day, asking them to share their favorite spells, hexes, charms, and curses. It had been her senior thesis project, and the elders had been more than happy to oblige, so the book was very thick, and very interesting. There were some entries that Nettie hadn't seen in years and years, and she wondered if she shouldn't suggest the text be reprinted and used in this coming year's classes.
As she continued reading, the small alarm sitting on her end table began to roar. One or more of her students were using magic off Academy grounds, without permission or supervision.
"Oh, dear," she breathed, frowning as she picked up the small device. It was made of silver, gold, and brass and looked something like a small pocket watch, but instead of a number face, the alarm had the face of a lion.
"Tell me, Abasi," she instructed.
The lion face roared once again and said, "Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner are using magic – bad, bad boys!"
Nettie frowned and set the alarm back in its notch, then stood and headed out to see what was happening. The boys should be on their way back to the Academy from their spirit quest…
When she reached the barns she found Tiny and Ko-Jay working over two thestrals, both of which appeared to be injured.
"Tiny, what's going on?" she demanded.
"Ah, Miss Nettie, Miriam and Durango just got back. Someone's used curses on them. Look at this baby! His wing's damn near broken clean off!"
"They're the thestrals who took Chris and Vin out, aren't they?" Nettie asked, but she already knew the answer.
"They did," Ko-Jay replied. "If you're here, the boys must be using magic."
Nettie nodded. "They must have a good reason, too. They're responsible boys."
"Let's hope so," Tiny added, using his wand to do more healing on Durango's injured wing.
"We'll need to use the map," Nettie decided. She looked down at the two thestrals. "I'll go tell the Headmaster, you two make sure these two are all right."
"Will do," Tiny promised.
Ko-Jay looked torn, but he knew the thestrals needed his expertise, and Nettie was more than able to help the boys.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Nettie headed straight back to the Aerie, pulling out a call to Raphael and Chanu to join her immediately. While she waited for them to arrive, she went to a small chest and, using a spell, unsealed it and opened it. Inside was a magical map that she removed and spread out on her dining room table. Touching her wand to the paper she said, "Aperio Chris and Vin."
The blank paper quickly rendered itself as a map, the two boys identified as small cartoonish characters that resembled the two students. They were out in the desert, about a mile and a half from the western edge of the Academy grounds.
There was a knock at her door and she called, "Come in!"
Raphael and Chanu came in, both men looking worried.
"Nettie, it looks like there might be a wildfire out to the west," Raphael said as he reached the table.
"Oh, dear," she said. "Chris and Vin are out there as well. They've been using magic."
"What?" Chanu squawked. "They know better than that."
"I'll wager it has something to do with the fire," Raphael said.
"We'll find out soon enough," Chanu said, already heading for her door.
"Hurry," Nettie said.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chris and Vin had kept the young man focused on them, but the fires he had already set were still growing, and moving ever closer to the edge of the Academy.
"I'm going to burn Horsefeathers down!" the young man yelled. "It doesn't deserve to exist. None of the vile schools here in the former colonies deserve to exist. Only the true schools of Europe deserve to persist. Pure bloods will one day command the wizarding world!"
"No!" Vin cried, watching the fire spread. Horsefeathers was the only home he had, and didn't want to lose it.
"You don't have a broom!" Chris challenged the teen. "You can't do anything else!"
"Accio broom!" the teen cried.
Chris and Vin both felt their brooms jerk in the direction of the teen.
"Accio broom!" he yelled again.
"No!" Vin said, gripping Peso with both hands, and forcing the handle toward the ground. Peso bucked in response, possessed by the teen's spell.
Chris' broom was doing the same thing. "Finite Incantatum!" the blond managed to yell back and the brooms returned to the control of the two boys.
"Homenum Revelio!" the teen screamed and the rocks Chris and Vin were hiding behind crumbled into dust. "Ah-ha!" he cried when he saw the pair. He raised his wand, pointing it at Chris as he yelled, "Immobulus!"
Vin, afraid the curse might hurt his brother, swept in front of Chris, the curse striking him as he did. He felt his entire body go rigid and he fell to the ground, unable to move.
"Expelliarmus!" Chris yelled, his wand pointed at the teen.
The boy's wand flew from his hand just was two men streaked past Chris.
"Stupefy!" Raphael commanded and the teen fell over, unconscious.
The Defense of the Dark Arts teacher continued on to the teen while Chanu stopped to check on Chris and Vin. Using a counter-curse he was able to free Vin from his paralysis.
"Thanks," Vin said, getting up and dusting himself off. He glanced over to where Raphael was checking the teen. "Is he… dead?"
"No," Chris said, "Professor Raphael just knocked him out."
Chanu looked around at the growing wildfire and shook his head. "Come on, we need to get away from here."
"But the fire—" Vin started to argue.
"Professor Wells is working on that," Chanu assured the boys as he handed Vin his broom.
Climbing onto Peso, Vin followed Chris and Chanu as they rose into the air, catching up to Raphael, who was waiting for them, the body of the teen floating in the air beside him.
"Let's go!" Raphael said, and they all turned and raced toward Horsefeathers.
As they crossed onto the Academy grounds, Vin saw that several of the professors were there, waiting for them. As one they raised their wands and said a spell.
Vin looked back over his shoulder and gasped as the fire was suddenly snuffed out. "Wow," he breathed. "Magic is the coolest thing ever!"
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Before the two boys were allowed to go shower and clean up, they were taken to the Headmaster's office. Headmaster Travis listened intently as they told him what had happened on their trip back to Horsefeathers, the older man frowning over the things the teenager had said.
When they were finished, Travis leaned back in his chair and nodded thoughtfully. "It sounds like you boys did everything you could to try and protect Horsefeathers Academy."
"Yes, sir," Chris said.
"I will make sure an exemption is sent to the Department of Magic so this won't go on your permanent records," Headmaster Travis told them.
"Thank you, sir," Chris said, relieved. A conviction for under-aged use of magic off Academy grounds could keep him from ever being able to apply for magical law enforcement.
"No, Chris, thank you, and Vin. Your instincts were good, and your actions justified given the situation. Just remember, this was an exceptional situation. If you use magic off Academy grounds, without adult supervision, it will go on your records, and is a serious offense."
"Yes, sir," the boys replied in unison again.
"Headmaster," Vin said, his brow deeply furrowed with confusion.
"What was that guy talking about? Who's back? Why would the Dark Arts come back? And what's a Death Eater?"
Travis held up his hand to stop the avalanche of questions. "Vin, as you already know, there are wizards who choose to follow a dark path, they embrace the dark arts because it makes them feel powerful. The Dark Arts are always with us, they don't come and go. They live in each of our hearts when we allow hate or greed or envy to overcome us."
Vin nodded. His mother and father had ended up dead because of the Dark Arts.
"Wizards and witches who embrace the Dark Arts, and follow the ideology of those like Lord Voldemort, or the James family, well, they are often called Death Eaters," Travis explained.
"They eat death? How?" Vin asked, still confused.
Travis smiled somewhat sadly. "No, not literally, but they believe that they can find a way to cheat death and live forever, but there is no way to do that, Vin, not and hold on to what makes you a human being," he said. "You will learn more about this as you take classes here at the Academy."
Travis glanced over at Nettie, who was sitting slightly behind the two boys. He knew that she, like him, wished the students didn't have to learn such things, but people like Voldemort and James would always arise within their community. He was just sorry that those who embraced the dark path were starting to stir once again, now that Harry Potter had started at Hogwarts. But, like Dumbledore, he knew Voldemort wasn't dead. The man had just been biding his time to return. And James had never disappeared even after Voldemort had been defeated by a mere babe. No, James had stayed right there among them, perpetuating his particular brand of hatred and misery within the magical community in the United States. And James' nephew, Lucas James, would begin school in the fall, most likely at Horsefeathers, and Travis knew that it would only bring trouble to their door. The troubled look on Nettie's face told him that she felt the same.
"Now, why don't you two go get cleaned up, and then go to supper," Travis said.
"Yes, sir," both boys chorused.
They stood and headed out to do as instructed. Travis leaned back in his chair and sighed heavily. "And so it begins again."
"I'm afraid so," Nettie replied sadly.
"We always knew it would."
"Yes, but I kept hoping we were wrong," the older woman said.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
July 4, 1999
The students who had gone on their spirit quests stayed on campus for another week, all of them speaking to their Gild Elders about what had happened to them, those professors helping them to understand what it all meant. They also entered the identities of the students' guides into a large ornate book – the American Catalog of Animagus and Animagi Identities. The pages were filled with the names of wizards and witches in one column, their animal forms in a second, their guides in a third, and their patronuses forms in a fourth.
When Vin told Ko-Jay and Nettie about what Forza had told him, the two professors didn't look very happy. Nettie agreed that Vin and the other boys, under Chris' leadership, would most likely have a part to play in whatever was coming their way, especially if they pursued careers in magical law enforcement. However, she chose not to tell Vin that. He was already determined that the seven of them should become the best wizards ever, and he needed no additional encouragement. She wanted to them to have as normal a childhood as was possible, given the rumblings in the magical world, and their own backgrounds. The peace would all end soon enough, of that she was also certain.
At the end of the debriefing week, Chris, Vin, Buck, and Nathan all headed back to join the other three boys in Durango so they could celebrate the 4th of July.
Kathy and Daniel took them to a magical fireworks display in the Village. Some of the explosions looked like animals, others like people's faces. The boys were amazed by the remarkable explosions of colors, shapes, and movement – like the finale, where thirteen dragons of various colors chased each other through the night sky.
After the fireworks display, the entire group went out for a late supper, enjoying a family style barbecue meal that was delicious as far as Vin was concerned.
The following afternoon, the seven boys headed back to Horsefeathers. Just like over the holidays, they had chores to do, and reading that needed to be done. So time was set aside each day for them to do that. JD continued to create homework assignments for them, and Chris had to admit, it made him think. Buck complained, loudly, but he did the assignments as well, having heard from Vin that Forza wanted them all to become the best wizards possible. Buck was in awe of the war horse, and wished Forza was his guide.
The boys even had weekly lessons with the teachers, although Vin was very glad that Professor Conklin had decided to travel this summer, so they had a substitute instructor for potions – Professor Li Ping, Li Pong's uncle, who was a whole lot nicer than Professor Conklin ever was.
In addition to their chores and studies, Josiah had Vin spending a portion of each day exploring all over the Academy grounds, looking for the bits of magic Vin could see. Then they consulted the book Josiah had gotten Vin for Christmas. There were all kinds of magical signs and symbols in the book, and Vin found lots of them scattered around Horsefeathers, both on and inside the buildings and outside on the grounds themselves, but many things he saw were not in the book, which intrigued Josiah greatly.
The boys decided that it might take Vin the rest of his six years at the Academy to mark down all the things he could see, there was so much of it around the place. Josiah even bought him a nice leather journal where he could draw what he saw, and note down where he'd seen it, so Josiah could research the symbols and see if he could find out what they were. It was their special secret, and Ezra even created a special hiding place for the journal in the headboard of Vin's bed in the Fort.
Vin enjoyed the secret, and the support of the other boys – his friends – especially his "big brother."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
August 27, 1999
On the last Friday of August, the seven boys returned to Durango for a final week of real vacation. It was just like it had been back in June, which seemed like forever ago to Vin. But they were able to play, go hiking and swimming, and flying on their brooms. They even took a trip to Wizard's Peak to spend a day at the amusement park – another one of Vin's favorite places.
Aunt Kathy even made JD stop creating homework for them that week, wanting them all to have a chance to escape studying for a short time. And all of them, except JD, were more than happy to agree.
"Homework is fun!" the youngest boy argued.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
September 4, 1999
Saturday morning Vin awoke full of anticipation. Today they were going to Four Corners to pick up their supplies for the new school year. They would be going back to start the new term on Tuesday, September seventh. He couldn't believe he would be starting his second year at Horsefeathers in just a few short days. It was the most amazing place in the whole wide world. He was a little disappointed that he wouldn't be taking the bus-train this year – he'd be using a portkey, along with the rest of the boys – but that was okay; he was going "home" soon.
JD was completely focused on the books they would be needing this year. Buck and Chris were interested in what the new brooms would look like. Ezra wanted new dress robes, red velvet ones, and Josiah had his heart set on a crystal ball. Nathan on a portable apothecary, but Vin didn't know what that was. Vin didn't care what he got, he just wanted to get back to the Aerie, and his chores at the barns, and his classes – except Potions, unless Professor Li was teaching it.
As the boys sat around the kitchen table, their breakfast eaten, Aunt Kathy handed out the lists of required textbooks and supplies.
Vin pulled his glasses from his pocket and put them on, then looked at the list. They were using the same books again this year for his Defense Against the Dark Arts, Transfiguration, and Herbology classes, but he would need to get The Standard Book of Spells, Charms & Curses, Level II for class, as well as Magical Drafts and Potions, Level II for Potions. He was taking Magical Animals, Level II, and that class also required a new text – Understanding and Working with Fantastic Beasts.
He only saw one new class – Magical Cultural Studies – on his list, taking the place of Broom Handling for Beginners. He frowned. He'd really wanted to take Intermediate Broom Handling, but then he saw the note at the bottom of the page. It was from Professor Chanu.
Vin, your broom skills are already at a level above Intermediate Broom Handling, and Headmaster Travis suggested that you take Magical Cultural Studies instead. I agree. Don't forget to come out for Hoops tryouts! Prof. Chanu
Vin smiled. He was planning to do just that. He looked back at the list of books to see that Magical Cultural Studies required two books – An Introduction to the Magical World of Wizards and Witches, and Living Successfully in the Wizarding World.
JD leaned over and looked at Vin's list. "Hey, how come you're taking Magical Cultural Studies? I'm taking Mundane Cultural Studies."
"Because Vin grew up in the Mundane world, JD," Josiah said matter-of-factly. "He already understands it, like you understand the Magical world."
"Oh," JD replied. "I get it."
"Don't get mad, Vin," Buck told him, "but sometimes the other kids'll call that the Dunce Class."
"That's not nice!" JD replied indignantly, glaring at Buck.
"I know," the older boy said. "I didn't say I did, but some do. I just wanted Vin to know."
Vin shrugged. "Been called lots worse," he said. "I don't care, as long as I'm doing good in all my other classes."
"You will," Josiah told him, resting his hand on the younger boy's shoulder.
"What else do we need to get, besides books?" JD asked.
"Look at the list," Buck told him.
JD did. "Level two herbs and ingredients chest… That must be for potions?"
"Yep," Nathan replied.
JD looked back at the list and frowned. "That's all?"
"Unless you've outgrown your robes," Ezra informed him.
"And I can take care of that," Kathy told them. "So are we ready to go?"
"Portkey?" Vin asked hopefully.
She smiled and shook her heat. "Hearth Network," she told him. "It's a lot faster for where we're going."
The boys lined up, each of them given the money they would need for their books and supplies – as well as a little extra – and were then sent on their way in a flash of emerald green flames.
At the Horsefeathers Academy Emporium in the Village they were all able to pick up their new books, chests for potions, and other items they needed – like Josiah's crystal ball and Nathan's portable apothecary. Ezra was also measured for his new dress robes, which would be delivered to Horsefeathers when they were done.
Chris and Buck headed straight to the row of brooms that took up one wall of the store. Vin trailed after them, his new books tucked under both his arms.
"Whoa, look at that," Buck breathed. "A Nimbus 2000."
"It's… beautiful," Chris said, reaching out to run his finger along the handle.
"Yeah," Buck agreed, his expression dreamy.
The boys continued to admire the new broom until several other students crowded them out, all of them trying to get a close-up look at the newest racing broom.
Vin wandered over and paid for his books and chest, then wandered the aisles of the store, marveling at the supplies. He spotted a book titled Preparing for Your Preliminary Magical Aptitude Exams. Vin glanced over at Chris and Buck, who were in deep conversation with two other Hawk Gild students, probably about the new broom.
Vin grabbed the book and went up to pay for it. Josiah spotted him in line and walked over. "Did you forget something?"
The younger boy's cheeks turned pink. "Uh, no…"
Josiah looked down at the book and smiled. "You don't need to get that, Vin. You can have mine."
Josiah nodded. "It helped a little, I think."
"Thanks," Vin replied, ducking out of line to return the book to where he'd found it.
Once they all had their school supplies paid for, they slipped all the books, chests, and other stuff into a bag of holding, then headed out to the candy store.
The boys each purchased a Butterbeer, and three candies of their choice. Vin chewed on his soft peppermint stick, which was in the shape of a unicorn's horn, absently listening to the others talking about the Nimbus 2000. There were several older students sitting at a table next to theirs, speaking softly, but loudly enough for Vin to hear some of what they said.
He heard "Voldemort at Hogwarts," "Harry Potter defeated… again," and "Death Eaters coming," which immediately captured his attention. He leaned in their direction, concentrating on what the students were saying.
He heard "James," and "true bloods," and "changes at Horsefeathers." Vin frowned, unable to make sense of the garbled conversation.
One of the older students glanced at Vin, and he leaned over and pulled a box with a chocolate toad out of his back pocket so we could eat that next. The student's attention returned to his friends, apparently confident that Vin was no threat, or that he wasn't really trying to listen in.
But Vin was trying to hear what they said. Unfortunately, all he heard were more disjointed phrases: "force the impure out," and "Dark Lord will help James," and "Travis… in the way."
Vin was frustrated. He had no way to get any closer to the older students, and he just couldn't hear them. The same boy glanced at Vin who started licking chocolate off his fingers. He'd been holding his toad tightly to make sure it didn't hop away before he could eat it.
The boy turned back to his friends and said something quietly. They all looked at Vin, then then stood and walked away.
Dang it! Vin thought, but he didn't get a chance to tell the others. Chris gave him a light punch on the arm as he said, "C'mon, let's go see if the storyteller is in," he said.
"Who?" Vin asked.
"The Storyteller," Ezra repeated.
"She tells the best stories ever," Buck explained.
"Okay," Vin agreed, glancing in the direction the older students had taken, but they were nowhere to be seen.
The boys found the Storyteller's shop and were able to get in and sit down on her floor, along with several other students. When she came out, Vin jumped slightly, but he listened intently as she began her story – one about how Forza had rallied the winged-ones and the Equine-kind to help defeat the Dark Wizards. Vin was an excited listener.
When the story was finished, the children who were there all stood and left, making room of the ones who were milling around outside the Storyteller's shop.
"Where to now?" Buck asked.
"Lunch!" JD cried.
"Hole in the Wall?" Buck suggested.
"Yeah," Chris agreed. They had great burgers.
The others agreed. They headed to the shop, one Vin hadn't visited before. Inside he glanced around, hoping the older students might be there, but they weren't.
The boys ordered their burgers and shakes, then found a table that was big enough for all of them. They ate their meal, then wandered around the Village for a while before Aunt Kathy and Uncle Daniel joined them. They played in the large park for a while, then went back to the house in Durango.
"We did a little redecorating in the basement," Daniel told the boys. "I hope you like the new look."
Curious to see what their space looked like now, the boys clambered down the stairs to find the basement had been converted into what looked like a tree house.
"Cool!" Buck said.
"Yeah," JD replied.
The boys spread out, picking out the beds they wanted. Chris and Vin took a pair of bunk beds that looked like nests in the tree branches.
Vin smiled. He was happy, really happy, and no matter what the next school year brought, he was going to do his best and make Forza proud. And he knew he could, too, because he had a big brother and five amazing friends.
He wouldn't let Forza down. He and the others would be ready to help in any way they could, but Vin couldn't shake the feeling that something bad was going to happen…
The End, for now!
Feedback to: firstname.lastname@example.org
 This is the last story in the Year One arc which includes, in order, Secrets Ghost, Thanksgiving in Durango, Christmas Break, and Spring Break. This AU is open to anyone who would like to come play in it. Please e-mail email@example.com for an AU fact-sheet so some of the basics can be kept consistent.