They walked as a group to the Quodpot stadium to return the stolen padding. Fortunately it was still dark. No one saw them magic open the door and hang everything back in its place. They knew they would have some explaining to do, however, as soon as Liza Dunwoody saw what Old Tabbs's claws and fangs did to her equipment!
When the sun rose at 7:40, all four of them were sitting together in the Dining Hall at the far end of the Proudfeather table, exhausted. No one approached them, but they couldn't help hear the whispers of students who had noticed on the tally boards in the entrance hall that Proudfeather house had lost seventy points overnight and Fairgarland had lost twenty. It didn't take a wizarding genius to figure out the hag-ridden students sitting by themselves at the end of the Proudfeather table were the reason.
At last Jennifer Brown dared to approach Jessica.
"Jess, are you okay?"
"I'm fine," she said, lacking conviction. "But Kate…." She told her friend about Kate and Old Tabbs and how they were waiting on news from Nurse Choake.
"Do you suppose that explains the goblins?"
"What about the goblins?" Jessica said.
"They left this morning. I got up early and realized you hadn't come to bed, so I was out looking for you. That's when I saw one of them hauling their bags out of the Guest House. He didn't look happy."
"Really?" This was the first good news Jessica had heard in a while.
"I wonder what that means?"
"It means they're off to Louisiana." Mr. Corntassel suddenly appeared behind them. "The Lycaon Institute, to be precise."
"What?" Will cried.
"They've taken Ms. Perdue there. Mr. Malleus just told me. She has the answers they're looking for, and they are determined to get them out of her. Perhaps goblin magic will prove more effective than our own in restoring her human mind and body. At any rate," he smiled, "you'll be glad to know that they have at last conceded that the creature they captured is, in fact, Leonora Perdue. The murder charges against Kate's dad have been officially dropped."
The four students cheered. "They're releasing him this morning. He and Mrs. Burroughs are coming straight here to check on Kate."
"That's fantastic news!" Dana gushed.
"Now, it's almost eight o'clock," Mr. Corntassel continued, "I don't want you to be late for cl—"
But it was too late. Will, Dana, Felicia, and Jessica had already leaped up from the table and were halfway out the door. As soon as they hit Osserly Hall's front lawn, they broke into a run toward the infirmary.
They burst into the reception area. Mrs. Choake turned on them at once. "Stifle that racket!" she hissed. "Don't you know I've got a sick kid in here? I swear, you'd think I was working in a zoo instead of a school!"
"Sorry, Nurse Choake," Dana said. "We've come to see Kate. Is she all right?"
"She'll be fine," Nurse Choake said as she pushed the foursome out into the hallway. "I expect she'll be jumpy for a few days. Don't make any sudden movements or loud noises around her until the fear is completely out of her system. But you did the right thing by giving her chocolate right away. And Mr. Corntassel's catnip tea will steady her nerves, too."
They all sighed with relief.
Soon the entire school was abuzz with the news about the goblins leaving and the mystery of Old Tabbs and Kate and her friends' adventures on Warlocks Ridge.
Neither Jessica nor Dana nor Felicia nor Will felt the slightest urge to go to class until they could visit Kate. Grudgingly, Nurse Choake allowed them all to go in one at a time for five minutes ("…and not a second more!").
Later that morning Mr. and Mrs. Burroughs appeared at the infirmary. They hugged all Kate's friends and sat with them in the student commons and listened to every detail of last night's ordeal.
"Now," Mr. Burroughs said when the story had come to its thrilling conclusion, "if only I could get those blasted goblins off my back!"
"What do you mean!" Will said. "They let you go, didn't they?"
"They dropped the murder charge, Will," Mr. Burroughs said with a sigh, "but they haven't given up on the cup. They're hoping to question Leonora further at the Lycaon Institute to find evidence I was her accomplice all along—that I've still got the cup hidden somewhere!"
"But she'll tell them the truth, won't she?" Dana jumped in. "If they can transform her again, even for a minute or two?"
Mr. Burroughs pondered this possibility. "I don't know if they'd believe her. They may decide she's so far gone mentally that she doesn't know what she's saying."
Jessica felt a tear trickling down her cheek.
Why isn't the Cure-all working? she wondered. It hasn't done anything. Nurse Choake is taking care of Kate's injuries. Mr. Corntassel's catnip tea solved the "murder." Did Madame Glapion make a bad batch after all?
She couldn't think about these things too long, however. A little before ten o'clock Mr. Corntassel came by to insist that all of them attend the rest of their classes. By then, it seemed the entire school had heard about their previous night's excursion. And though they were dumbstruck at the dangers their classmates had overcome, they were also disheartened at how many house points it had cost them.
They couldn't worry about this long, however. In the excitement, Jessica had forgotten that this was Halloween night. The Dining Hall was decorated with floating jack-o-lanterns, and strings of orange lights were draped over the hunting trophies on the walls. All of Malkin Academy's ghosts were welcomed as guests of honor. They floated among the students and faculty, making small talk with the living and sharing old stories with the dead.
Beginning the next morning, Jessica, Aisha, Jennifer, and Susan kicked their preparation for the upcoming Transfiguration competition into high gear. They reviewed their notes on all the tricky spells they had been learning and even came up with a song to help them remember Gamp's Law of Elemental Transfiguration.
For her part, Ms. Goates spent her free time that week searching the campus for interesting things to transfigure: plants from the greenhouses, small animals from the woods and grounds, silverware from the kitchens, and assorted trinkets from who knows where. By the end of the week she had amassed an impressive trunk full of inanimate subjects and a small zoo of living specimens, which she shut up in a large reception room off the Dining Hall, where she magicked the doors so only she could open them.
As soon as supper was over the following Monday Ms. Goates magicked away the long student tables in the Dining Hall and replaced them with rows of stiff-backed chairs for well-wishers, both faculty and fellow students. She then vanished the faculty table and chairs. In their place, she conjured a bank of chairs for the competitors. At the center of the raised platform, where months before the Brazier of Sorting had stood, she placed a small wooden table.
By 6:30 forty-two first-year students had climbed into their seats in front. Nearly all the faculty was there. So were fifty or sixty older students, mainly those with first-year brothers, sisters, or cousins. Kate, Will, Dana, and Felicia had come to cheer Jessica on.
One by one, Vice Principal Goates called a student to the center table and demanded he or she perform the transfiguration she specified. She started with fairly easy tasks. In the first round, Jessica had to change the color of a rat Ms. Goates provided from gray to yellow. In the second round, she had to turn strawberries into strawberry-flavored soda, although in her excitement she nearly forgot to add the fizz.
At every step, students were eliminated when they failed to perform the assigned task adequately. By the third round there were only about a dozen students left, more or less evenly distributed among the four Malkin Academy houses. As expected, Marcus Poole advanced in every round. Every time he did, his eyes shot daggers as Jessica, Richard Kam, and practically everybody else.
Jessica only began to notice the increase in difficulty during the fifth round. By then, Ms. Goates had begun springing harder spells on them: Switching Spells, animate-to-inanimate transfigurations, and so forth. Her assignment in the fifth round was to un-transfigure a crow that had previously been transfigured into a crowbar.
The sixth round began with only six students still in the running: George Weathersky from Fairgarland, James Berry from Quickfang, Jessica and Susan from Proudfeather, and Alejandra González and Marcus Poole from Strongfoot.
"You still think you can win, Robinson?" Marcus whispered while watching George Weathersky mess up a Switching Spell he himself had performed flawlessly weeks before.
"Maybe," she answered.
"But you're not sure, are you? You probably wouldn't want to bet on it."
Jessica concentrated on Ms. Goates as she explained what James Berry had to do to advance to the next round.
"I'd let you off easy," Marcus continued. "Say, if I win, you have to transfigure your uniform yellow for a week."
"Why not until Thanksgiving break?" Jessica said before she realized the words were coming from her mouth.
James Berry's Switching Spell in round six sputtered. Instead of switching places between a blue ball in one container and a yellow ball in another, he ended up producing a single green ball that was twice as big as it should have been.
"And I suppose you'd expect me to wear black in the highly unlikely event that you win?"
"Not at all," Jessica grinned as the idea came to her. "I expect you to wear a skirt!"
"What's the matter? Afraid of getting beaten by 'something that starts with an M'?"
Somewhat reluctantly, Marcus extended his hand and they shook on it.
Susan Jacobs barely advanced to round seven. Ms. Goates gave her a garter snake to turn into a stick. But the stick ended up having a scaly texture that Ms. Goates was about to deem unnecessarily snakelike. Fortunately, Mr. Corntassel asked to examine the stick and declared that it was, in fact, not too far off from the pattern one might see on a hedge maple. Even so, Susan was eliminated in round seven when her attempt to turn a hedgehog into a pincushion completely fizzled.
It was round eight, and there were only three contestants left: Jessica, Marcus, and Alejandra. Alejandra messed up her task when her Engorgement Charm failed to increase the diameter of the pumpkin on the table.
"There are now only two contestants left," Ms. Goates announced. "From here on, if one contestant fails to perform his or her assigned task, the other must succeed at the same task in order to win the tournament. If both fail, we shall play additional rounds until there is a winner."
It was Marcus's turn.
Ms. Goates placed a crystal vase on the table in front of him.
"Mr. Poole," she said. "Your task is to perform a blind un-transfiguration." The first-years gasped, and so did some of the second-years. Un-transfiguration was hard enough when you knew what the object was supposed to be, but at least then a competent witch or wizard could concentrate properly on the object's true form.
Ms. Goates continued. "Early last week I transfigured something—perhaps living, perhaps inanimate—into the form you see before you. Without knowing its true nature, you must reverse my spell and return the object or creature to its original state. You have three minutes. Begin."
Marcus stared intently at the vase. If anyone didn't know better, they would swear he was trying to read its mind. He stared at the ceiling for at least thirty seconds, counting off things on his fingers and muttering to himself. Jessica knew he was going over the proper procedure for a blind un-transfiguration to make sure he hadn't forgotten anything. She was doing the same thing!
At last, Marcus waved his wand over the vase and pronounced the proper incantation.
Nothing happened. He tried again. The vase sat on the table, unchanged.
A whoop went up from the Proudfeather students, which Ms. Goates quickly cut off with a gesture.
"Miss Robinson, it is now your turn." Jessica went to stand in front of the vase. "You have three minutes. Begin."
Like Marcus, Jessica simply stared at the vase for several seconds. She glanced at the crowd. Kate, Will, Felicia, and Dana shot her smiles and thumbs-up. She took a deep breath. She waved her wand and uttered the incantation.
She took another deep breath. Concentrate! she ordered herself. She tried again.
The vase vibrated ever so slightly. Jessica stared even harder.
It began to glow with a pale, blue aura.
She felt waves of magical energy stronger than she had ever felt before, rippling from her chest, down her arm, through her wand, and onto the vase.
It began to shrink, to darken. Its glassy luster faded to that of black marble. It curled up upon itself and took on the shape of a bird. It was no longer a vase but a three-inch tall marble falcon.
This time there was no silencing the cheer that erupted from the Proudfeather spectators.
"Well done, Miss Robinson, you've discovered the paperweight I borrowed from Ms. Ruiz…"
"Wait!" Jessica called.
Something was wrong. The magic refused to be finished. Jessica tried to break off the spell, but found that she couldn't. If anything, the intensity of her spell was increasing. Try as she might, she could not pull away her wand.
The falcon paperweight continued to vibrate, and as it did, it grew! Its luster changed again, from stony to metallic. Its color lightened and brightened from black to brown to amber to gold.
At the same time, the falcon changed its shape. Its wings spread out over its body and it assumed a crouching stance. The falcon's head transformed into the head of a lion. Finally, a gold drinking vessel sprouted from the winged lion's back.
At last, the spell was broken. Jessica whipped her wand away so fast she nearly wrenched her arm out of its socket.
It took her a few more seconds to realize that no one was cheering any more. Everyone stared at her, dumbfounded.
The Cup of Kings sat silently on the transfiguration table.
Ms. Ruiz, the Charms teacher, uttered a curse in Spanish. No one knew whether to look at her, at Jessica, or at the golden cup that lay between them.
Principal Towne bounded to the platform far more energetically than one would have thought possible for a man his age. He circled the table, not daring to touch the cup. He waved his wand.
A stream of water gushed from the tip as from a faucet. In a matter of seconds, the cup was filled. He peered over into it.
"I wonder what Zardgrog is up to," he mused. The water stirred and took on a golden glow. Principal Towne, Vice Principal Goates, and Jessica all bent over to see. What they saw was a familiar bat-eared face, scowling up at a wizard in drab brown robes. He was arguing with the wizard about the details of Ms. Perdue's treatment.
"Well, I'll be splinched," Principal Towne said—then blushed at his own language!
"M-Mr. Sparks left that paperweight in his office when he retired," Ms. Ruiz said. "I-I didn't know…"
"Of course you didn't," said Mr. Malleus. "I've seen that thing in the Charms teacher's office for…Merlin!"
"For fifteen years," Ms. Goates finished the thought. "It used to belong to Mr. Sparks. All of us teachers have seen it hundreds of times. I'll bet…"
"I'll bet it was left over from his onetime assistant," Mr. Corntassel said.
"…who needed a safe place to hide it…" said Mr. Malleus.
"…and never had the opportunity to retrieve it," said Principal Towne.
"But, this is amazing!" Ms. Goates said. "It was there for fifteen years, transfigured to look like a simple paperweight. What are the odds that I would have chosen to use it for this tournament? Or that Miss Robinson's spell would reach deep enough to reveal its true nature?"
Awareness suddenly dawned on Jessica. She glanced at Madame Glapion and could tell she was thinking the same thing.
"A Cure-all seems to find a way if it's strong enough," Jessica said.
"It sure does, chère." Madame Glapion smiled.
"Athanasius," Mr. Corntassel said, "if I might be so bold, I think you should send an owl to the goblins immediately to tell them that we've recovered their cup for them—and that we can conclusively prove that Henry Burroughs has been innocent all along."
"Indeed," Principal Towne said. "If you'll excuse me, I believe I'll do just that."
With the tension broken, all Jessica's friends gathered around her. She only then realized that she was the winner! She smiled from ear to ear as everyone gave her hugs and pats on the back.
When at last they left her alone, Jessica walked over to Marcus Poole. He was still sitting in his chair on the stage, his head in his hands.
Jessica cleared her throat.
"Here to gloat?" he spat.
"No," Jessica said. "I'm here to say I don't care about your stupid bet. You don't have to wear a skirt. You don't have to do anything."
"You won," he said, dejected. "I keep my promises."
"Marcus, I know we're never going to be friends. But I'm tired of being your enemy. To be honest, so is everybody else."
Marcus looked up at her.
"I can't change who my parents are. Neither can you. But I'm not my parents, and I don't want you to judge me because of what you think of them.
"I'm not exactly sure I won this contest fair and square. So wear a skirt, or don't wear a skirt. It doesn't matter to me. But do you think we can at least try to be civil to each other? I will if you will."
She held out her hand.
"I guess," he whispered, and Jessica could tell he was holding back tears.
They shook hands.
The following morning Principal Towne announced that Jessica Robinson would be awarded fifty house points for solving the mystery of the Cup of Kings. Combined with the twenty points she earned for winning the Transfiguration tournament, this erased the seventy points Proudfeather house had lost on Warlocks Ridge.
As November progressed and the weather grew gradually colder, there was warmth in her soul that burned brighter every day. Other students, even fourth- and fifth-years, called her by name and said Hello to her in the hallways. Jeremy Loew wrote a nice story about the Transfiguration tournament for the Caterwaul that praised both Marcus and Jessica for their skills. She even noticed Marcus flying around campus one Saturday afternoon with two of his roommates, Thomas Ogden and Mark Trittenheim.
That same afternoon, Kate took Claudius Poole aside and told him she would always be grateful for the way he took up for her dad, but that she wasn't interested in being anything more than friends with him. He seemed to take the news fairly well, only sulking for about two weeks.
The day before Thanksgiving, Mr. Burroughs arrived at Malkin Academy to take Kate home for the holiday. Jessica followed along, and the three of them boarded a Greywand bus in Malkinville headed to Edmundville and Cauldron Bottom.
"See you Sunday!" Kate called as Jessica bounded from the bus later that night in front of her house.
"I'll be waiting!" Jessica answered.
She shifted her suitcase from her right hand to her left and sprinted up to the porch, where her mom and dad were already waiting.
Author's Note: This concludes my first attempt at a full-length story. My daughter has requested a sequel, and I've got a couple of ideas in mind. If you'd like to read more about the goings-on at Malkin Academy, let me know. :-)