by Argenteus Draco

It was the bells she heard first. They were ringing from a great distance away, and at first she thought the noise might be the new planes which passed so briefly overheard you could only hear them for a second. But these were clear tones, and they rang eight times in succession before fading away on the wind once more. Eight times; and the digital readout on the inside of her sunglasses told her it had just become eight-o-clock in the morning. In the old stories, people used bells to announce the time every hour, but no one had heard that kind of ringing in generations. Technology and the population that demanded it grew at an alarming pace. There was no room for bells as the cities expanded.

They couldn't be real. But something about the clear, pure tones floating on the wind made her turn off her usual route, toward the enchanting, unknown sound. There was nothing to follow except the augmented reality in her glasses which told her the sound waves had hit her from 35 degrees south-by-southwest, and a deep desire to know what really lay beyond the city walls. No one ventured outside the city limits much. It was all the same anyway, or so her parents had said. Just another city, another microcosm, pressed up against theirs. There was New London to the west, and Greater Stirling to the north and east. But now she thought about it, no one ever talked about what city lay along their southern border. Even now, as she tried to think about it, it was hard to grasp onto the thought.

So she simply began her walk south, all thoughts of school and the assignments she needed to turn in for the semester driven from her mind, though the project had taken the better part of her time over the last several months. The students in her year were tasked with researching a particular piece of ancient technology, and present their findings to the rest of the student body. But she knew she had a better project than anyone else that year. Her grandfather had handed down a family heirloom to her for this project. An old black box with a cylindrical lens, and a compartment in the back for what he called 'film'. But it was more than just the camera. An antiques collector had sold them an unexposed, pristine role of the strange brown material and the chemicals needed to develop it were easily accessible in her chemistry lab. She'd taken all the pictures on the roll but one, which she was saving for her presentation. No one would believe it worked otherwise.

She thought about turning back. But even as she turned away, she felt something calling to her; something waiting to be rediscovered. Perhaps I'll meet people who didn't know that we lived to the north, she thought to herself. Perhaps they won't understand; they'll speak another language entirely.

But when she reached the walls, and pushed open the seldom used gate to leave the self-sufficient city, she was surprised. There were no people. No walls. No buildings. Instead, what lay before her was a seemingly endless expanse of green.

"I don't understand how they don't see it."

Severus laughed a bit as he lead Lily Evans into the Leaky Cauldron. "It's got charms and stuff around it. Hogwarts is like this too. The whole castle and the grounds and even most of the forest, so muggles can't get anywhere near the place."

"Don't the charms ever wear off?"

Severus thought for a moment. The idea had never occurred to him before. "I don't know, Lily," he finally admitted. "It's old magic. I don't know if they can break down."

It wasn't endless; not really. Eventually the trees gave way to an overgrown village, and beyond that to expansive grounds and a real, natural lake that glistened in the morning sun. But to someone who had only ever seen dwarf trees grown in hothouses, it seemed like it might go on forever.

She pushed forward through the dense forest. These were older trees, so big around you could build a room inside them and tall enough to block out most of the sun. The lenses of her glasses reacted to the lack of light and lost their tint, but even in the transition she had no trouble finding her way. The bells were ringing again. She counted nine tones this time, and each one seemed to urge her to come closer. And then there was a new sound, a kind of whistling as the wind blew through the forest. She shivered; it was colder outside the city walls, more exposed, and she hadn't expected the wind to be so fierce. But she warmed up as she moved, and it only gave her more incentive to keep walking into the deeper parts of the forest.

Twice she thought she saw something moving through the trees ahead of her. It ran lightly, too lightly to make much noise on the pine needle strewn floor, and she eventually dismissed it as her imagination running wild. And why not, in this place that was so unlike anything she had ever known. Perhaps she was dreaming, she thought idly. Perhaps I am having the most wonderful dream in the world. And nothing can hurt me in a dream. I have nothing to be afraid of.

Without the fear of monsters that had kept generations past from exploring the ancient forest, she pushed on again. Eventually, the trees thinned out. What had once been a well maintained tree line was scattered with saplings vying for the best positions in the sun. And at the very edge was a patch of huge, wild pumpkins growing unchecked except for what animals could break open the massive gourds. She was so entranced by the sight of the pumpkins and the foundations of what looked to have once been a cottage, she nearly missed the sight of the castle beyond. But as her eyes finally traveled in that direction, and she felt her jaw slowly falling open, the only thought she could muster was how anyone could have missed this place for so long.

"It's time, Albus. There's nothing more we can do here."

"I refuse to accept that."

The old man stared over the grounds, watching the sun dip steadily below the horizon and bathe the grounds in a warm, orange glow. His favorite thing about this office was that it faced west, and he often wondered which previous headmaster had decided on this office and graced all his successors which such an excellent view. But every former headmaster was sleeping in his portrait frame except one, the man with half-moon glasses for whom he'd been named. That Albus watched him sadly as he returned to his desk and resumed signing each new student's acceptance letter.

"There simply aren't enough students anymore. How many of those accepted chose to come last year?"

"Too few," Albus agreed.

The figure across from him twitched her hand at him in a very catlike manner. "A mere seven. We were lucky to add one new student to each house."

He reached determinately for the next letter in the pile, and she grabbed for his hand as it fell against the stack of parchment. She could not actually grab him, of course, but as the cold mist that made a ghost sailed through him, she got his attention none the less. She fixed him with a stern but understanding gaze, and held it a moment before speaking. "The people are frightened, Albus. The muggles are getting too close. Hogsmead is becoming a ghost town except for all the ghosts." She signed sadly. "I know it's hard to accept, but the charms can't hold indefinitely. The founders could never have expected the school to last this long."

"If it was even the founders who laid these spells." They had had this discussion many times before. He knew what she would say next.

"There are other schools. More remote."

"Those other schools aren't Hogwarts. I won't abandon this place."

"It's not this place you mustn't abandon. It's your students, Albus. But don't worry." She glanced up at the portrait of Albus Dumbledore, who winked at her. "We won't abandon it either."

Albus took one last look out the huge window. Then he picked up the pile of letters and tossed them into the fireplace.

It took her another hour to reach the castle, and the bells tolled again as she pushed open the huge oak doors. They swung forward with surprisingly little resistance, and she stared with awe at the sight inside.

The walls were hung with once-brilliant tapestries in scarlet, yellow, azure and emerald. Another pair of doors stood to one side, and a grand marble stairwell lead upstairs on the other. And at the top of those stairs, a strangely bright, silver tabby cat sat and swished its tail. For a moment, cat and girl simply stared at each other, and then the tabby trotted gracefully down the staircase to wind its way around her ankles. She bent down to pet it, and although the cat arched it's back in an appreciative gesture, her hand sailed right through the strange grey feline.

She stepped away, suddenly unsure. This was a story she knew. Even in the golden age of technology, everyone knew ghost stories. But a ghost… cat? And why did it fix her with such an expectant stare, almost human-like in it's intensity? Perhaps she wants me to follow her. Well, why not? I've never heard of an un-friendly ghost cat. I've never heard of any kind of ghost cat.

She bent forward to pet it again, but this time the cat leapt away, and she ran up the stairs, following it. The cat was unusually fast; everything about this place was unusual to her. Even the augmented reality feeds she usually received through her glasses were malfunctioning, and she took them off and pocketed them just so she didn't have to look at the flickering display. It was strange, seeing her world again without any kind of filter, and she laughed a little at the novelty. Someone giggled behind her — or at least she thought she heard another young girl giggle. When she looked over her shoulder, the only people she could see were those in the old paintings on the wall.

This place is like a museum, she thought. A big, old, wonderful museum. But better than the history museum. Here I get to run.

The tabby lead her through a maze of corridors, and stairways. The bells were almost deafening; they must be right above me, she thought, as she finally caught up with the tabby in an empty tower. It sat in the window ledge, still watching her with a strangely human expression. Or perhaps that was just a trick of the light as the full morning sun streamed into the empty space. With a flick of it's tail that cat was down again. She knelt and reached out her hand, and the tabby affectionately bumped it's head against her outstretched palm—

She blinked. The world was blurry without her glasses. Wondering idly how she could be so silly to have left her them in her pocket, she settled them back on the bridge of her nose and made her way to her desk. The camera bumped against her hip as she settled down, and she was suddenly full of nerves for her presentation.

"It's beautiful, isn't it?"

"It's grand and impressive," the man beside him said dryly. "That's what you always liked, isn't it?"

"You know me too well, Salazar."

The man beside him snorted and returned to his work.

"I don't know why you're still bothering with that," Gryffindor remarked. "I already told you, I've laid all the protective spells this place will ever need."

"No simple charm is going to last forever, Godric."

"Ah, but that's the true beauty of it. This is no simple charm. The magic here runs deep. I've worked it into the very stones of the castle. But do you want to know the real genius behind it?"

Slytherin did not respond. He did not, of course, expect that to stop the other man.

"All it takes is one muggle to step inside the castle, and the protection charms are instantly renewed. No muggle can see this place, and thanks to Rowena, we were able to tie in a memory charm. They'll be guided back to the edge of the forest and as soon as they step over that threshold, with no memory of how they got there."

"And who, pray tell, is going to guide them back?"

Gryffindor shrugged. "Oh, I suppose we'll find out when the time comes."

She didn't remember taking the last picture on the roll of film. In fact she thought that she remembered wanting to save it. But she must have accidentally exposed it in her excitement. It didn't matter. The presentation had still been exceptional. Now the important part was getting the pictures developed.

As she took the last sheets of laminated paper out of their chemical bath and hung them to dry, she paused to watch the images take shape on them. Like ghosts, she watched views of the city appear on the paper, skyscrapers coming into focus where only murky shadows had been before. And on the last sheet, the shadows took the form of trees taller than any building in the city (though the camera's limited view had captured only the trunks), and between them a shape that might have been an enormous castle off in the distance.

If such things as castles even existed anymore.