Chapter 17. Dementors, Deluminator (a split second on August 16, 1995)
Hermione struggled to keep up — in part because princess LanossŽa was so very physically fit; but also because Hermione was not accustomed to relying on such subtle visual cues (the bending of a twig; a momentary depression in the peat) to track a friend under a disillusionment charm.
Uncharacteristically, Hermione was also lagging because she simply couldn't keep her mind from wandering.
But who could blame her? What a lot to take in! To touch a silver brooch and be swept back in time more than nineteen hundred years, to a world in which two of her best friends were attempting to thwart an evil plot to alter the past, present and future?! No wonder Ginny and Harry had been hitting the books so feverishly these past couple of weeks.
Hermione fancied herself as being exceptionally knowledgeable in ancient history, but memorising dates and facts had hardly prepared her for the daunting challenge of sudden complete immersion into an ancient world! Imagine having to constantly guess how to interpret long lost slang and customs; always adjusting behaviour and fumbling about for appropriate responses; ever on ones toes trying to avoid getting killed in the stupidest, most preventable ways! What a horrific adventu-
“Psssttt! This way!”
Jolted from her musings by the princess's voice, Hermione glanced frantically around, to the left (nothing), forward (nothing), right (noth… oh — slightly swaying branch).
“Sorry.” Hermione turned to correct her course.
“Do not apologise.” The princess's whispering voice was a remarkably mature blend of patience and concern. “Heanua, also, was ever at a loss in such tracking games. But today it is no game; I very much need for you to remain close if we are to keep Mother aloft and reach the refuge.”
The princess's voice paused for a moment. “Perhaps we may instead use signals? If I make a squirrel's scold every twenty paces, could you listen for it and follow? And do not forget that the stream we seek is down in the broadleaf glade to the west — you can see it now, little more than two hundred paces ahead where the shade lessens.”
Hermione nodded, then remembered how useless a nod was under disillusionment. She clearly her throat slightly. “I understand. Thank you.”
As they resumed their trek, Hermione quietly sighed to herself, wrestling with nagging feelings of inadequacy. She was so accustomed to superiority in most everything she tried, she found it discouraging to be instructed by anyone so close to her own age. She would have loved to believe that she was more sophisticated than LanossŽa, and more experienced than Ginny, but somehow both of those two red-headed facets of the same sparkling coin seemed to project uncommon poise and responsibility that humbled Hermione.
In the case of LanossŽa, such maturity was fairly natural — girls in the distant past were expected to mature, marry and raise families at much younger ages. With Ginny, however, the sudden transformation from plucky young teen to courageous, confident young woman had been remarkable. Almost extraordinary.
Hermione had to frequently remind herself that, at the moment, Ginny and LanossŽa weren't exactly the same person, but that didn't really matter. Every time Hermione found herself falling tacitly into line to obey LanossŽa's no-nonsense instructions, it was obvious that she was looking at Ginny's mirror image. Whenever the princess took charge of navigating tense, tenuous situations, Hermione knew that Ginny could prove every bit as smart, brash, self-assured, persuasive… powerful…
Which led Hermione to an obvious question — how long would it be before Ginny started taking charge of their own modern day adventures with that same confident aplomb? And could she, Hermione, cope with that?
Upon careful reflection, Hermione was coming to the conclusion that, barring major hypocrisy, she would have to accept it. After all, Hermione was as responsible as anyone for putting Ginny on this incredible path! Indeed, in her recollection, this amazing transformation had begun with a very very different Ginny, only ten days ago.
Wow… only ten days?!
On her fingers, Hermione counted quickly back to that stressful day of Harry's arrival at Grimmauld Place. When the hugs and updates (and quarrels and snarling eruptions!) had finally died down; when the young people were ordered to bed, Hermione recalled entering the room she shared with Ginny. She had been surprised to find the younger girl already there, seated on the bed, arms clasped anxiously about her folded knees. Ginny (this very very different Ginny) was upset about something. So upset that she was actually shivering in the stuffy August heat.
Hermione had approached her quietly, already guessing the source of Ginny's angst…
“Harry will be okay, Ginny.”
Hermione had knelt down in front of her friend, gently grasping the girl's tremulous shoulders, assembling her most reassuring sisterly voice. “He'll be all right. Harry may seem fragile at times, and today's outbursts speak to how terribly frayed he is right now, but anyone who pegs him to fail will always be wrong, and most people who guess his strengths will eventually realise that he's actually even stronger.”
“But Dementors, 'Mione?! Dementors in Little Whinging!” Ginny had dabbed her eyes on the hem of her Harpies nightshirt. “And those idiots citing him for underage magic! And Riddle! And Cedric Diggory, and…”
“Ssssshh…” Hermione kneaded Ginny's taut shoulder. “It will be okay. We've finally got Harry back here where we're all together and safe. He'll come around soon enough. But…”
Hermione's voice had trailed off for a long moment… then she'd squeezed Ginny's shoulders a bit to catch the younger girl's eye. “Listen, I realise that I just told you that he's strong, and I really do believe that, but I also know that his entire life has always been about being strong all by himself. Can you imagine what that must be like?”
Wide-eyed, Ginny had shaken her head.
“Wouldn't you say, Ginny, that Harry deserves to have strong friends? People who stand with him just as he stands up for everyone else? People looking out for him; always ready to help him back to his feet if he stumbles; offering a shoulder whenever the load gets too heavy?”
Admittedly, Hermione would later wonder what had inspired her to push responsibilities like that onto someone like Ginny (especially considering how, after the Chamber of Secrets, the Weasleys had regarded their youngest child as somewhat delicate), but, well, once the train of thought had started rolling, it was hard to stop.
So, Hermione had squeezed her friend's shoulder a bit harder, pulling her close, looking deeply into her eyes, laying it on the line. “Harry needs more good strong friends, Ginny. Do you think you can be strong for him?”
Ginny had bitten down on her lip, on the brink of saying something, but not quite able to form the words.
And that is when Hermione had finally guessed something fundamental about the younger girl. Right then and there, Hermione knew, deep down, that if Ginny Weasley was really given the chance to be Harry's friend, she would indeed be strong. Stronger than anyone would ever guess! Hermione would have wagered her best quills and stationery that Ginny would be tough and dedicated enough to follow Harry into a dragon's mouth, scrub its tongue and extract and couple of incisors…
Except for the fact that Ginny was still afraid of one thing. Rejection.
If only Ginny could somehow be convinced that Harry would not only tolerate friendship, but actually appreciate it?
Like a master chef delighting in a great new recipe, Hermione opted to give the pot one final stir.
“Just think how well you would fit in, Ginny! Harry's somehow managed to abide having a bossy know-it-all and a petulant crank as friends, but imagine how relieved he'd be to get a little spice and sunshine into the mix?”
And Ginny had stared for a moment… nodded… and grinned.
A little gleam had taken up residence in Ginny's eye that evening. And with each passing day since, Hermione would swear, that the little gleam had only gotten stronger and str-
Dashed from her reverie, Hermione heard a snapping branch; a soft thud… and suddenly felt as if a thousand pounds had slumped down onto her levitation spell.
The sunny glade in Norfolk had swirled away into streaks of black, green and grey. Finding herself in mid-stride, moving hastily through some place with dim undergrowth and cool pervasive mist, Ginny didn't even see the old tree root until it had wrapped itself around her foot. Her ankle wrenched, toppling her forward, headlong onto… oof… a mercifully soft (if dank and spongy) forest floor amidst ferns and wet leaves.
“H-hey, are... you... okay?”
Ginny blinked disconcertedly, and glanced around to identify the source of the voice — female, close by, but apparently disembodied. Before she had found any visual clues, Ginny heard a grunt, followed by, “The queen. I can't... hold her, errgh, alone!”
Ginny's eyes fixed themselves in a direction slightly back from her current location. She realized then that, not only could she still not see her companion, but she couldn't even see her own body either.
Ginny closed her eyes to let the other senses take over. The first thing she detected was the feel of a wand clasped firmly in her hand. Trusting her 'inner princess' to respond accordingly, Ginny heard another voice — this time her own — cast two clear Brythonic incantations.
Ginny felt the strain lighten on her magical core as she gently phased out any local levitation spells, and heard the sound of something descending slowly onto the ground.
A slight shivery sensation ran across Ginny as her own disillusionment charms and those around her were canceled. Finally, she saw two women flicker into existence nearby — Heanua standing, and the queen sprawled beside the path with the staff of Scavo still clutched in her stunned grasp.
Ginny took quick stock of her surroundings. After a moment she recognized the venue — they had just emerged into a tall stand of birch and chestnut trees at the top of the battlefield ridge, just west of the pine grove. Nodding to herself, she turned to face Heanua.
The young blond-haired woman was continuing to scrutinise her, showing a mixture of concern and puzzlement. “Are you… all right?”
Ginny blinked in momentary surprise to hear actual words. Her mind was still befogged from the rapid transition into action after such a long stretch in the void. Thinking it over, however, she recalled Harry describing how Heanua had spoken to him the morning after the Camulodunum battle, so obviously some communication was now possible.
Ginny's mind nagged her that they had recently learned some other important detail about Heanua's involvement in the story — she seemed to be connected now in some meaningful way — but Ginny couldn't quite pin it down.
In the mean time, Ginny understood that an answer was expected of her. She nodded. “Er, yes, I'm fine. Sorry, I was merely a bit, er, dizzy for a moment.”
From the corner of her eye, Ginny could tell that the elder princess was still appraising her. There was something odd about the woman's mannerisms that intrigued Ginny, but now wasn't the time for such distractions. Rather, they needed to resume their task which, Ginny realized, must involve porting the queen to the refuge.
Ginny gestured westward. “We'd best get moving again. It appears that we've just a short walk left before we meet the small stream. Let's find that and get ourselves…”
“Ginny? Is it really you this time?”
Ginny turned to stare unabashedly, then laughed. The face, hair and eyes all clearly belonged to LanossŽa's older sister, but the little frown, the quirk of one eyebrow and the breathless lowering of the bottom lip were all so quintessentially… “Hermione Granger!”
“How sporting of you to join our little picnic, 'Mione!” Ginny grinned. “Shame about the ruddy weather, but we'll make do. I know a pretty little glade up yonder where Harry is supposed to meet us at his earliest convenience.”
Hermione raised an eyebrow and nodded toward the hollow they had just climbed out of. “Uh, okay Ginny… but there were people dying back there. Shouldn't we be taking this a bit more seriously?”
“Ugh… As you wish.” Ginny's grin subsided. She felt a brief urge to complain to Hermione about the harrowing interminable emptiness of the void she'd just escaped, and convey the thrill of running into a friend again, but she didn't have a chance to say any of that, because Hermione was already speaking again.
“You were able to find your way here without the brooch, it seems?” Hermione's look was both relieved and concerned. “I was trying to return it to you, but I'm fairly certain that I failed. I'd just managed to talk Dumbledore into parting with it, but he put it straight into my hand and the next thing I knew I was clinging to a careening chariot, with arrows, spears and soldiers flying about!”
Ginny scowled briefly at the mention of Dumbledore, but ignored the bile that threatened to rise in her throat. “Sorry you got pulled into this mess, 'Mione — it's atrocious!” Ginny paused to tap her chin for a moment, then continued. “As far as me finding my way here without the brooch, well… I'd be hard pressed to explain exactly what happened, but I wonder if maybe your presence here guided me? I have a vague feeling that Harry and I are starting to find some other way to mimic the brooch's effect, but I don't know exactly how, or if it's reliable enough yet to actually…”
Ginny trailed off for a moment; a distant look in her eyes. “I don't rightly know, 'Mione. It's magic — that's all I know.” She shrugged and smiled.
Hermione pursed her lips. “Well, whatever happened, I'm sure it would be far better to achieve some control independent of the cupla charm. The magic in that brooch is raw and powerful — it hit me nearly instantly; probably even knocked me out.”
“How strange.” Ginny frowned. “I've felt the brooch pull quite hard before, but it usually gives me a chance to at least find my bed.” She shrugged and shifted her focus back to their burden. “Hmm. Speaking of knocked out — you haven't been able to revive Boadicea?”
“No. She still has a pulse and is breathing, but both LanossŽa and I tried our own variants of Rennervate without any luck. It seems the queen was hit with something quite debilitating.”
Ginny winced slightly. “Okay. We'd best get her to the rendezvous point, and think over our options.” She raised her wand without thinking and cast the princess's levitation spell. “Codi! ”
The unconscious queen jostled slightly in her resting place, then rose smoothly up into the air.
“What??” Hermione gaped. “Ginny, how did you do that?!”
“Do what? You mean simple hovering?” Ginny shrugged and began steering the queen downhill toward the stream.
“Simple?! Ginny, I tried it earlier and the queen felt like she was made of lead, and chained down with cement pilings.”
Still feeling some latent buoyancy from escaping the void, Ginny nearly volleyed an irreverent comment about Boadicea's legendary stubbornness, but instead concentrated on Hermione's observation.
“Hmmm, you're right — I really ought not to be able to lift her this easily on my own.” Ginny gazed thoughtfully at the floating woman. “You know 'Mione, I think LanossŽa and I are both using our magic at the same time.”
“Really? One body; two people; two spells; one wand?? Wow! The professors at Hogwarts would flip their saucers!” Hermione pulled out Heanua's wand and examined it thoughtfully. “How do you do it?”
Ginny frowned. “I honestly have no idea. It's the first time it's happened, and I didn't even plan to.” She scratched her head for a moment, then shook it. “But sorry, there's no time to get analytical right now. We've less than ten minutes hike to the refuge — come on!”
They trudged through the wet morning in silence for a while until they emerged out of the stream bed at the place where it trickled from the base of the rocky outcrop. Twice on the way, Hermione had offered to help Ginny levitate the queen but, without suffering any strain, Ginny politely declined.
As she made her way toward the rock wall, however, Ginny encountered her first real problem — the levitating queen rose up to the lee side of the stones… but would go no further forward. After a moment's perplexity, Ginny slapped her forehead. “Of course! The wards!”
Hermione glanced from the queen to Ginny. “Beg your pardon?”
“The wards,” Ginny repeated. “The princess and Publican set protective enchantments all around this place the night they arrived. The spells likely permit Harry and me to pass, but block everyone else. That bars the queen, and probably you as well.”
“Oh.” A look of concern crossed Hermione's face. “Any thoughts on what to do?”
“Errmmm…” Ginny deliberated for a moment. “I doubt it would be as simple as maintaining physical contact, or else anyone could compromise the protections by forcing me to lead them…” She paused, hoping that LanossŽa might filter some insight back to her… but nothing was forthcoming. Ginny wrinkled her nose. “Rubbish — I think it's one of the Publican's charms.”
“Ah.” Hermione frowned. “So you won't be able to get me or the queen around it.”
Ginny shook her head. “Not immediately; I could probably bring a bunch of wards down at random, but then we've compromised our own protections.”
Tapping Heanua's wand absently against her palm, Hermione gazed around, then straightened up. “So we find Harry, then? He ought to know how to get us in?”
Ginny nodded. “Good plan — he'll know what the Publican did. He ought to be coming this way from due east. We'll just circle around the edge of the protective boundaries toward the southeast and wait for him there.”
In fact, they didn't even need to wait. In barely more than a minute, as they worked their way systematically around the perimeter, a slight noise arose — that of a wood-savvy person running their way. The rapid footsteps halted and, as quick breaths sounded nearby, Harry canceled the Publican's disillusionment charm and appeared in front of them, grinning. “Ginny!”
“Harry!” Ginny ran forward to throw her arms around him. They locked each other in a crushing embrace for a moment, then decoupled.
“Ah.” Harry glanced at the others. “You have company. We need to get everyone behind the wards before anyone springs a trap on us.”
Ginny nodded fervently. “Yes, we've been waiting on you for that — the Publican's blocked out anyone who's not me or you, yeah?”
Harry winced apologetically. “Blimey — that never occurred to me! We need to…” He paused to think quickly. “Ah, I see. In order to escort people into the refuge, you and I must both be in contact with them.”
By way of experiment, he and Ginny both grasped hands with the levitating queen and found that it was now possible to steer her the remaining ten feet to clear the Publican's ward.
Returning back across the enchanted line to the person he assumed was Heanua, Harry reached to her. “Please accept my hand, your highness, and we will…”
“Er, thank you...” Hermione cocked an eyebrow. “But you can knock it off with the 'your highness' nonsense, Harry.”
Harry gaped… then chuckled heartily. “Hermione — I didn't recognize you as a blonde! I should have known you'd find some way to crash the party in time for the grand finale!”
Hermione's sputtering attempt at indignation went unnoticed as Harry and Ginny swung quickly into action. With Ginny's help, the three hastened across the protective barrier and moved onwards to the flat ground where Harry and Ginny had spent the last night before the battle. The pair quickly cast several different ward strengthening spells that Hermione had never heard before, then sank down onto the Publican's blanket which, courtesy of a water repelling charm, had remained dry and comfortable amidst the constant drizzle.
Joining them on the blanket, Hermione gazed at the sodden, mud-streaked characters who, after accounting for their strange attire and somewhat incongruous ages, were unquestionably her two close friends. Hermione felt simultaneously relieved and anxious. “Okay, this is your show, right? What are we waiting for? What do we need to do?”
Harry and Ginny glanced at each other, then Harry shrugged. “I guess we're just waiting for Malfoy. To be honest, this is his show, not ours. Any idea where he is, Gin'?”
Ginny shrugged. “No sign since we fled the battlefield, right 'Mione? It's possible we threw him off going over the ridge under disillusionment charms, but I doubt it.”
“Right.” Harry cupped his chin in thought. “Don't forget that he altered the queen's staff — I wouldn't be surprised if it has a tracking charm on it.”
“Yes, I suppose so. And who knows what else he did to it.” Ginny gave the ornate stick a wary glance, the pursed her lips. “But at least you took care of Antioch?”
“Yes, it was surprisingly easy.” Harry sat back pensively. “Strange but fortuitous — the Publican and I were able to cast concurrent spells, as if we were two wizards occupying the same body. That trick really seemed to catch Tio off guard.”
Ginny stared. “You can pull off the dual-casting too? Just minutes ago, I discovered that the princess and I have the ability.”
Harry returned her surprised look, then nodded slowly as a small grin flickered. “Well, let's brainstorm later on how that's possible, and why we're both just now stumbling on the little trick. But right now it's more important to start thinking about ways to exploit the ability.”
Ginny was just opening her mouth to respond, when the queen — lying on a different blanket a short distance away — suddenly jolted.
“Oh dear!” Hermione pointed at the tall, red-haired woman. “It looks like…”
Boadicea burst to her feet, wild-eyed, clutching the staff… trembling…
Ginny was nearly as fast. The princess's instincts propelled her up off the ground toward the woman; her eyes latched onto the queen, scouring the tall woman for any clue about what she was likely to do. The princess's calm, measured voice issued. “Mother? Are you all right?”
Boadicea gave her a glance, briefly eyed Harry and Hermione (who were also now on their feet), then turned away, staring wildly toward the west… toward nothing that the others could see.
“Mother, you were stunned on the battle field. We rescued you, and you're safe here, within this warded refuge.” Ginny began to reach for the woman's left arm; her fingers were within scant inches of touching the queen's trembling hand, when Boadicea flinched violently. Both arms shot up; the copper grip on the queen's staff pulsed angrily.
“Canslo'r! “ The queen's voice rang out through the woods, and a wave of orange luminescence surged from her staff, rushing outwards spherically from where she stood.
Harry looked around in alarm. “Bloody hell! She wiped out all of the wards!”
Hermione moved quickly between Harry and Ginny. The teens exchanged nervous glances, then gazed warily about, looking alternately from the queen's erratic behavior to the surrounding wilderness into which the woman was staring agitatedly. Wands out, they instinctively gravitated inwards toward each other, assembling into an impromptu back-to-back triangle defence.
“Mother, please do not attempt anything drastic.” Taming her nerves, Ginny honed her voice, carefully tailored to emulate LanossŽa. “We are all here to protect you and each other from assault by the Legate. Please give us a few minutes and the Publican and I will restore the protective enchantments about this place, which are intended to…”
“There!” Boadicea pointed to an open space in a nearby glade.
Everyone stared in confused consternation.
Framed by the dim branches and leaves; emerging with slow solemnity from the mist, was a strange ominous figure — hooded; cloaked in a long flowing cloak of grey; trailing tendrils of cold vapour as he rode inexorably closer upon a gruesome mount that Harry and Ginny both recognized instantly.
It was the single-haired Thestral.
Ginny blanched. “Oh shite,” she muttered, before summoning the princess's more authouritative voice. “Mother… did you ever return the Coritani wand?”
There was no response. The queen turned silently to face the grey rider.
“Mother...” Ginny's princess voice quivered slightly in growing anxiety. “Did you return the Druid's wand?”
“Silence!” The rider raised his right hand, bearing a gnarled old staff that somehow seemed to glow within the gloom. He halted a short distance from Boadicea and seemed to loom menacingly over her. “I have come for what is mine. Return the wand, as per your solemn vow!”
The queen's gaze lifted toward the hooded man; her backbone was rigid; her face defiant. Her voice, although strangely toneless, seemed deep and unrepentant. “Your wand failed me, Druid! It cast not a single spell at my bidding. I shall honour no broken bargain made with a Coritani scoundrel. Return to your grimy cave, foul little man!”
“Mother, give him the wand!” Ginny began stepping forward toward the queen, intent on interceding. Then, at a sharp glance from the rider, her feet seemed to slow and stop; her legs suddenly too weary to move.
With a flourish, the rider cast off his hood. He was as wrinkled as ever; his blue eyes remained so very disconcertingly occluded, but the face of the Coritani Druid possessed a hard, imperious cast.
Hermione gasped as a name suddenly sprang from her subconscious. “Duff??”
“'Duaff? '” The Druid regarded Hermione for a moment, then shook his head disapprovingly. “Is that what you called me, my lady princess?”
Amused malice flickered across the man's ancient face. “So which meaning do you intend with that name? Are you calling me darkness? Or Filth? Slander, perhaps? Tendering the name Duaff is no flattery, young woman. No Coritani would ever embrace that name unless he was deeply ashamed of every aspect of his being!”
“No, no!” Hermione cringed. “That was the name that… !”
“Silence!” A flick of the Druid's staff broke Hermione's protest, and he turned his attention back to Boadicea. “A disrespectful daughter of a dishonourable queen — is that not true, o' Lady Iceni? You disrespect our bargain, just as no Iceni ever confers due honour upon the poor Coritani. Are we so unworthy of your most basic consideration?”
Either flummoxed or defiant, the queen said nothing.
The old man leaned forward imposingly; his ghastly eyes bearing down upon the uncowed woman. For a long moment the two held their intransigent poses in silence… then a smile slowly spread across the Druid's face. “Already this morning, your actions have destroyed your own filthy tribe. And now it seems you shall willfully befoul the line of that fool knave Scavo. Forever!”
“No!” Ginny and Harry's voices sounded together in unison, as both willed themselves past any dissuasive enchantment the Druid may have erected. They advanced toward the queen.
“Mother, you will return the wand to the Druid.” Ginny extended her hand toward Boadicea. “No matter what he says, the Iceni and their leaders are both respectful and honourable. We shall render unto the Coritani that which is…”
There was a blinding flash of silvery light. A spell of unknown intent burst from the Druid's staff, and leaped toward the queen.
The queen's staff erupted in instantaneous response; an angry green flare pushed fiercely against the Druid's spell.
Aghast, Ginny stared at the queen's staff — it's silver grip transformed into the shape of a writhing, fanged serpent that throbbed with lurid, putrescent black magic. She raised her wand, attempting to channel the princess's magic to thrust a barrier between the queen's and Druid's spells. “Rwystr! “
In the split set while the magic built in Ginny's arm, she happened to glance at her hand… and she and Harry both gasped simultaneously!
Ginny had the wrong wand!
Somehow, the Coritani wand had found its way out of the queen's keeping, and into Ginny's hand. She gaped. “How the hell… ?!”
Harry was already lunging for her. “Drop it, Gin'!!”
Ginny shook her hand as if it was aflame… the wand flipped upwards through the air toward the bisection of the queen's and Druid's conflicting powers.
But the wand was somehow already casting a spell!
Instead of creating a harmless boundary to buffer between the competing hexes, the Coritani wand cast a spell that seemed to drink in the magical impulses of both the Druid's and the queen's staves, pulling the power into the wand itself. The two staves, striving to sustain their magical integrity, began to tremble and buckle within their masters' hands.
A freakish, morbidly spellbinding vortex of diaphanous force whirled outwards from the hellacious triangle.
Harry leveled his wand; his tense, misted features reflecting the ghastly grey and green luminescence. He concentrated on bolstering the Publican's powerful shield spell. “Praemonio! ”
Scrabbling within her tunic, Ginny found the princess's proper wand. Her voice ragged with urgency, she and the princess somehow managed to recast the originally intended incantation. “Rwystr! ”
Ginny's barrier merged with the Publican's shield, but even as a single, unified force, the spells were unable to pierce the cyclonic magical disturbance raging round the Coritani wand.
Gaping at the swirling power storm, Harry instinctively reached out his left hand, caught Hermione's wrist, and forcibly hauled her closer into the protective shelter beneath their joint shields.
Off balance, all three teens stumbled into each other and fell to their knees, gazing up in horror as the fiery maelstrom began to rupture. A web of bright, glaring fissures began to streak along the shafts of the two staves.
The grotesque silver snake head contorted — its fangs gnashing at the foul air. Jaws flung wide like an asp in mid-strike, the serpent's shriek rent the air… and the staff of Scavo — the mightiest icon of the proud Iceni — shattered into thousands of flaming, razor sharp fragments… that tore…
Splinters drove like white-hot nails into the Coritani wand, which was pulsing furiously — almost like a heart drawing and expelling blood; swelling in agitation, or anticipation… of power.
The slivers of raw, white-hot magic ripped through bush and tree… through the queen and the Druid.
Shards pierced the Thestral — immortal for thousands of years… but no longer. The beast reared its monstrous but gentle head in anguish; it shuddered violently… howled into the mist… and collapsed.
Their shield blistered, buckled, but held as Harry, Ginny and Hermione cowered, gaping in horror as everything before their eyes twisted and shattered…
Harry staggered as the Great Hall at Hogwarts came into focus. He caught his balance, righted himself, and… found himself listening to a soft, solemn, yet confident voice.
The voice was his own voice, saying, "So it all comes down to this, doesn't it?"
Harry's empty left hand was reaching forward, gesturing rhetorically toward the stick clutched within the grey, pasty fingers of his ghoulish adversary. This time, Harry could sense smug confidence in Voldemort — no fear or hesitation. The words that Harry knew must now be spoken seemed utterly hollow.
“Does the wand in your hand know its last master was disarmed? Because if it does... I am the true master of…”
Ginny stepped from the crowd; her face pale and shaken from the Thestral's tragic demise.
Harry withdrew his attention from the dreary prospect of once again falling at Voldemort's hand. He focused instead on the person who could so often turn his gloom into hope; to whom he could look for joy and sunshine; his partner in triumph; his shield from despair…
Yet even seeing Ginny was not enough to boost his morale right now, especially with the heavy sense of foreboding that had settled over the horrible ending in the refuge.
“Harry…” Approaching him in a slow, stunned shuffle, Ginny was chewing her lip; her eyes rigourously avoiding the row of spectators off in the distance behind Harry's shoulder. Her breath shuddered and she stared at the pitted floor. “What happened back there? Malfoy didn't even show. He rooked us.”
“Uh huh. I'm baffled too, Gin'.” Harry's arms fell limply to his sides. “Foiled by a stupid quarrel between an impetuous queen and a bitter Druid with untold ancient grievances? If someone had asked me to dream up all of the most dopey, surreal outcomes imaginable, there's no way I'd have come even close.”
The two teens drew themselves together, half stumbling into each other in melancholic lethargy. Harry wrapped his arms around Ginny clumsily; she slumped onto his chest.
To Ginny, Harry's arms felt cold; drained of passion.
To Harry, Ginny seemed thin, almost like a cloth doll; lacking the vibrant enthusiasm he so loved.
Yet they held each other; neither asking any more of the one than the other was able to provide; both looking deep within their own weary souls to somehow find comfort to give to each other.
And sometimes, such comfort can emerge awkwardly, and from rather odd corners.
“Uh…” Harry opened his eyes and gazed distractedly toward the confused masses standing frozen in the Entrance Hall. His voice betrayed hesitation — the reticence of someone who doubted that his audience was really interested in discussion right now. Yet after a moment's deliberation, he decided to complete his thought, even though it seemed strange and disconnected. “So, any idea where Malfoy is? Do you suppose he's standing somewhere by the far wall as usual, leering in amusement?”
Ginny half-nodded, half-shrugged. “Maybe… I don't know… Can't say that I've tried looking.”
“Do you mean 'studiously avoided looking', perhaps?” Harry pulled back a few inches — just enough to crane his neck around, obliquely behind him, to the spot where Malfoy usually lurked in this battle scene. Harry nodded silently to himself, then settled back into his embrace with Ginny.
Ginny stiffened, as trying to decide whether she should be puzzled, annoyed, or a bit of both. Finally, her fist clenched a bit then she punched him (not too hard) in the back of the shoulder. “Harry, why are you letting that smarmy git have any satisfaction?”
Harry pulled back again, placed his hand instinctively on her cheek, sensing the tension in her jaw.
Ginny tried to elude his eyes… for a moment… then gave up. She glanced up, preparing to give him an exasperated scowl, but failed because Harry's eyes were... twinkling?
Harry was gazing down at her, studying her. “I was right, Gin'. Malfoy really is back there. His face is frozen solid, but he's smirking up a storm — probably gloating in the belief that he just delivered victory into the grubby paws of his precious master.”
Harry leaned his head back, gazing thoughtfully toward the smoky ceiling. “Well, it means that he really did set us up — he somehow manipulated either the queen or the Druid into being irascible berks.”
“Well, bully for him! Should we go over and congratulate him?!”
An inexplicable smile spread across Harry's face. “You're angry, Gin'.”
“Of course I'm angry!” She glared; a pulse of heat rushing to her face. “We're on the bloody brink of hell, Harry! If you want to make fun…”
“No no no! Anger is good Ginny! If you can still be defiant…” He lifted his hands to her shoulders, gripping them as if they were a precious treasure, never to be relinquished. “If you're getting piqued, then I know there's still hope. We may be on the brink of hell, but as long as we have this sort of spark left, we're not defeated.”
“Not defeated??” Ginny pulled away from Harry and glared at him. “Not defeated?! We just killed a Thestral with the very wand that it gave its second-last hair to create! Don't you remember what the Druid said about how hard it is to kill a Thestral, and what happens if you succeed? As far as I can tell, we probably cursed ourselves and everything we ever touch from now til eternity.” She took a deep incredulous breath. “So, you're somehow concluding that we're not defeated?!!” .
Roaring in frustration, Ginny grabbed a piece of rubble and whipped it at a random frozen Death Eater. Her throw caught the thug full-bore in the chest, sending him toppling rigidly and helplessly onto the stone floor. She turned back to Harry, seething. “If we're not defeated, then how in the buggering blue Billywigs are we going to win?!”
Harry glanced at the collapsed ruffian. “Eh, well, if you feel like repeating that move a couple hundred more times, I wager we'll at least win this particular battle…”
“Be serious Harry! We're not going to solve anything by knocking off flunky corpse chewers. There are only two bastards that matter — Malfoy, and this greasy slug!” Ginny jabbed her quivering finger inches from Voldemort's malformed nostrils. “If we don't stop Malfoy from screwing with the past, then Riddle kills you. If Riddle kills you, we lose everything. Period! And however sorely tempted I am to grab that broken table leg and start beating their repugnant faces in, it wouldn't make any bloody difference, because we're in the future, and the future is too late!”
“That's very true.” Harry nodded, a serious but determined cast sliding across his features. “But maybe there are still paths open to us if only we can find them. Look around you, Gin' — we're frozen in time; the clock's not ticking; we can still think things over. Maybe if we look at everything carefully and logically, or perhaps creatively… maybe there's still some way to work our way through this.”
Ginny nodded slowly.
“Let me tell you with what I'm thinking.” Harry's eyes went distant for a moment as he summoned his thoughts. “I've been pondering what Duff told you at the Archives — about the time bubbles and stuff.”
Ginny nodded again. “Yes, and about breaking the past?”
“Exactly.” Harry frowned. “Duff said that someone from the future would go back and break the past.”
“Shite.” Ginny bit her lip tensely. “You don't suppose Malfoy succeeded, do you?”
“No, I don't think so.” Harry shook his head.
Ginny exhaled in relief, but froze at the strange look on Harry's face.
He turned to her. “No Gin', I don't think Malfoy broke the past. I think… with that Thestral debacle and all... I think we did.”
The colour drained from Ginny's face. Very slowly, she mouthed a phrase that bears no repeating.
“But here's the thing…” Harry reached for both of her hands. “Time might be broken, but you and I aren't.”
She regarded him quizzically.
Harry nodded to himself. “You and I aren't broken, Gin'. We're not defeated. We're angry and defiant; we're talking and thinking. I'm holding your hands and feeling how very very wonderful you are. A big part of my mind is fretting over how on Earth we're ever going to make it out of this mess, but…” He pulled her closer and dropped his voice to a whisper. “Any time I'm with you, holding your hands like this, there's still a part of me that can't help dreaming about September 1st, boarding the Hogwarts Express with you; sitting with you and finally meeting your friends; all of us chatting as we watch the English countryside slip away on our way to Merlin knows what new adventures.”
Harry closed his eyes and continued. “I want to go flying with you above the Quidditch pitch, Ginny. I want to walk with you, hand-in-hand by the lake. Somewhere out of sight of the castle, I imagine we'd… stop walking for a while and, uhh, you know?”
A tiny sound escaped Ginny's throat. She swallowed a couple of times to regain mastery of her quivering vocal cords. She blinked a few times (purely preemptively, of course) and stared deeply into Harry's eyes.
“You win, Harry.” Ginny's mouth slowly turned upwards into a little smile; she squeezed his hands. “We're not broken, yeah? We're not defeated.”
Harry needed a few preemptive blinks of his own… then he grinned and nodded. “You bet, we're not! Now all we need to do is go back and fix our mess before Malfoy turns the screw.”
“Right.” Ginny nodded appraisingly. “So basically, we have to stop a couple of cranky ancients from brawling?”
“I think so, but how?” Harry ran a hand though his hair. “Shield spells?”
Ginny shook her head. “Already failed failed once with those — the combined magic coming off those two staves is too powerful.”
“True…” Harry kicked at a fragment of scorched chair. “But the real wild card was the Coritani wand. That's what tore everything to shreds, right?”
“Do you think…” Harry chewed his lip uncertainly. “Do you suppose you could conquer that wand, Gin'? Bring it under control?”
Ginny gaped; a look of revulsion on her face. “Me?!”
Harry's shoulders equivocated. “Yeah, well you have a bit of a, well, track record of impressive magic with that thing…”
“Track record… Blimey, Harry, I have a track record for being used by that creepy wand, not vice versa!”
“Maybe so…” Harry studied her thoughtfully for a long moment. “But why is it that I really believe you could tame that thing?”
Ginny rolled her eyes. “Mostly because you're delusional, Harry. Either that or you're blinded by love.”
Harry had just opened his mouth to reply when he caught Ginny's sharp eyebrow and thought the better of it.
Ginny, meanwhile had begun to pace. “Okay, maybe I'll try the wand… but only if we have no other choice. Let's come up with at least one more option.”
“Absolutely!” Harry nodded. “I suppose we can try disarming the queen before she starts acting stupidly.”
“Oi, Harry — you're just full of delightful options!” Ginny grimaced. “When this is all over; when all this nonsense is sorted, you damned well better be serious about that walk by the lake. And the flying!”
“I promise.” Harry smiled affectionately, and reached for her hand. “But yes, now that we finally understand the crux of the time meddling, I'm convinced we can fix it. It shouldn't be too terribly difficult to stop a foolish squabble, right? But there's still one problem.”
Ginny smirked. “Only one?”
“Er, well hopefully.” Harry shrugged. “The problem I see is that even if we fix this disaster, what's to stop Malfoy from engineering another one?”
Ginny shot a sidelong glance across the Hall. “You think maybe I should drop a brick on his head?”
Harry chuckled. “Well, I was thinking it would be more effective if we could somehow stop him from messing around with time.”
“Ah.” Ginny nodded seriously. “And that would be accomplished… how?”
Harry shook his head. “I don't know. Maybe we'll get lucky and figure it out before this gets any more tense. I do wish we had just ten more minutes with Duff to brainstorm, though.”
“Duff? Even after that creepy business with the Druid?”
Harry exhaled hard, blowing hair from his eyes. “Yes, I think so. Duff told you he didn't really know the Druid, right?”
“I suppose.” Ginny sighed. “But let's concentrate on fixing the mess with the Thestral first, then we'll see what we can do shut down Ferret-face.”
He and Ginny looked at each other silently. A momentary searing look passed between them; their pulses surged; their cheeks coloured… then Ginny looked away regretfully, and cleared her throat. “Uh, so how far back are we going to try to go?”
“How far back?” Harry blinked to reset his thoughts, and ran several quick scenarios through his head. “Do you suppose we should try for the point when I meet up with you and Hermione outside of the refuge?”
Ginny nodded. “Sounds about right to me. Are you ready?”
Harry squeezed Ginny's hands again and smiled. “Ready.”
They both closed their eyes, took deep breaths and braced themselves for a transition that they vaguely assumed would happen.
After an uneventful minute, Ginny opened her eyes to thin slits and looked around. She sighed. “Chuffing lovely.”
Harry gazed about the shambolic Great Hall. “Umm, that didn't work.”
“No it didn't.”
Harry scrunched his nose. “Don't suppose you have the brooch?”
Ginny shook her head. “I think 'Mione has it.”
“Ah.” Harry nodded. “What was it you said? Chuffing lovely?”
“Okay. This still doesn't necessarily mean we're stuck here forever…” Harry gazed out the window, back toward the arrested dawn for a moment, seeking inspiration but failing to find it. He looked back down at Ginny. “So, uh, any good ideas?”
Ginny shook her head.
“Any middling or desperate ones?”
Ginny shrugged. “I suppose I could try calling for help.”
Harry regarded quizzically. “Er, well if you think there'd be someone out there who might hear you…?”
Ginny shrugged again. She pulled a bit closer to Harry, and quietly closed her eyes.
Puzzled, Harry was about to ask Ginny if she was okay, when it occurred to him that, whatever she was doing, he should probably not interrupt.
Her head swimming nauseatingly, Hettie Gravener blinked.
She blinked again.
Ginny? Harry? Who…??
Hettie had called for them, but those names didn't quite make sense to her — a part of her thought that the names must be somehow important, but the more logical workings of her mind told her that they probably belonged in a dream.
A brooch-induced dream.
The brooch? In the darkness, Hettie realized that she was holding it in her right hand. It felt small, cold and spent — as though its incredible magic had come and gone; dying in the ignominy of her failure to avert… whatever strange disaster it was that her dream had just failed to avert.
The part of Hettie that had just called plaintively out to the mysterious people named 'Harry' and 'Ginny' was ready to curl up and die. But once again, the more rational voice in her head decided that it was time to try to salvage anything that might still be worth saving from this debacle.
In Hettie's left hand was the envelope Rob had given her. It felt warmer and more tangible than the brooch. It also reminded her of a name that would probably be more sensible to try calling.
“Rob? Hello…? Are you still here?”
Well, it was not quite silence. When Hettie held her breath for a moment, she could make out the distant sound of dripping water. And her nose smelled the musty odour of the deep underground. It was like what she had experienced in Duff's hidden flat, but far stronger; as if nobody had lived in the flat for a while.
A very long while.
Hettie released a long, shuddering sigh — in part to release a jangled, knotted tension, and in part because the sound was at least some proof that there was something around here that was alive. Herself.
Recognizing that she was lying on a cold stone floor, curled in a fetal position, she struggled to sit up. She dared not stand, however. After all, she didn't really know where she was, and what might be lurking in the darkness to trip over or bang her head into, or… or worse.
Even under the most benign conditions, Hettie was not fond of darkness. It was only the recent mental conditioning she'd acquired on this strange adventure that had prevented the cloying, oppressive, utterly foreign shadow from driving her shrieking around the bend.
But Hettie knew that telling herself that she had not yet gone insane was not really the best way to foster what little composure she had left. No, perhaps a better strategy would be to find something positive and hopeful to occupy her mind.
Unfortunately, her most readily accessible thoughts tended to revolve around failure.
From Duff's strange pronouncements (which Hettie did still believe, despite the fact that a Duff-like person had figured so horribly in her brooch-induced nightmare), Hettie understood that if she somehow emerged intact from the strange time-garbled dystopia, it would be terrible news. It would mean that this exciting, tantalising, dreadful world of magic and mayhem (that she apparently sort of belonged to) had been turned, inexorably, to hell.
That was hardly a comforting thought but, sitting here in a foul-smelling, pitch-black hole, it was starting to seem awfully plausible. The perennial 'first-in-year' student within her was not quite ready to admit complete failure, though. Not without reasoning things through a bit.
“Okay…” Hettie spoke aloud; not really caring if she sounded crazy. “Rob, you're not here? Duff? Neill? Anybody?”
Drip. Drip. Drip drop.
“I was warned that if I failed, you might all likely fail to exist, correct?”
Drop. Drip drip.
“So if nobody is here, and all is dark, then it's rather likely that I permitted some abominable temporal disaster to happen, and it's now wreaking despair on whatever faint, final hopes any good person may still have cherished?”
“Is anyone going to correct me, or are you all really, truly gone?”
“Rob is dead…?!”
A clenching, panicked sob coursed through Hettie's chest and neck. Icy, prickly adrenaline surged from her spine as she was finally, undeniably confronted with a terrifying sense of loss and finality. She had followed Rob for months, over thousands of miles and through so many giant leaps of paradigm that she had no idea, now, what she could possibly ever do without him!
All she had left in the world was a single envelope whose contents, in this god-awful putrescent black pit, she couldn't even bloody read!!
Her fingers trembling, she dropped the dull, useless brooch. It clattered away in the darkness as she clutched the envelope in both hands. Uncharacteristically careless; heedless of the risk of spilling valuable contents in a place where she might never find them again; uncertain what she could possibly accomplish by opening the envelope, Hettie's index finger located a small gap in the seal, and jerked urgently across.
She lifted the flap… and gasped!
A small source of soft golden incandescence slipped from the opened envelope and floated up to hover some distance above her head, shedding a low, reassuring light around her.
In the relief afforded by the wonderfully welcoming glow, she released a long-pent breath. Casting a quick eye on her surroundings, Hettie saw that she was in a modest-sized stone chamber with a single open door leading off into blackness too thick for her small light to penetrate. It was, as far as she could tell, quite likely the same room where she had first touched the brooch. Except that the solitary table had disappeared. Or perhaps it no longer existed.
She stirred for a moment, debating whether to do some exploring, but then she had the cheerless thought that her little light might extinguish at any moment. With that in mind, Hettie decided that her top priority lay in finding out what else was in the envelope
Breathlessly, she lifted the flap again, nearly daring to hope that somewhere in the tiny parcel she would find some other means of salvation. Practically tingling, she peered inside. Open-mouthed and wide-eyed, she stared.
Hettie pulled the envelope closer to her face, then edged it away, rotating it slightly as she did. No matter how she shifted the perspective, she could still not fathom how a fairly standard, somewhat worn and crinkled C6 envelope could possibly have that much storage capacity!
There were scads of things in there — enough stuff to fill a large rucksack! Hettie began cataloging the contents in her mind. She saw a folder with what looked like maps and travel vouchers; a sizable billfold stuffed with £20 and £50 notes (her heart felt a sharp twinge, contrasting this selfless generosity with Rob's own perennially austere finances); several water bottles; tins that she guessed to be emergency rations; several practical (warm, if unfashionable) articles of clothing, a fair bit of reading material ranging from paperback novels to a few reference books, and what appeared to be the picture album he had recently shown her (a second gripping pang in seeing that). Floating up, near the top of the envelope, was a strange looking cigarette lighter, and what appeared to be a letter. With a sideways glance toward the odd lighter, she bypassed it and reached for the note.
Retrieving it from the envelope, the note expanded instantly from barely larger than a postage stamp to a normal letter size. It was a twice-folded piece of the unusual heavy-matte stationary that Rob had always seemed to favour. On the out-facing side was clearly printed, in Rob's legible if chopped penmanship, a simple salutation.
“Dear Hettie, please read this first.”
A few tremors returned to Hettie as she prepared to open the letter. To steady herself a bit, she was forced to lay the envelope in her lap and hold the parchment with two hands. With a deep breath, she slowly unfolded it.
Hettie wasn't certain exactly what she would find in the note, but ultimately the plain-spoken, basic information came as little surprise.
I apologise that we never told you the exact location of this, our last remaining Order sanctuary. However, if you are reading my letter, I must assume assume there is no remaining risk to clarifying that you are currently in a secret magical annex within the long-disused York Road tube station in Islington.
As long as you remain in the annex, you will almost certainly be safe, but the conditions will likely be rather squalid without Duff's care taking. To exit the sanctuary, try clicking the deluminator three times in rapid succession. This will summon a guiding light which you can follow to the emergency stairs and up to street level. From there, please refer to Map No. 1 for walking directions to Farringdon Station, at which you may catch a train to Tilbury.
I apologise in advance for all of the walking you'll have to do, but nobody I know has ever sorted out how to navigate the Muggle bus system, and my biggest single consideration in plotting routes was to find a way to get you out of town without traversing Kings Cross Station. It is watched at all times and by insidious means — please avoid it at all costs. Do not take so much as a single step west of your current location.
If you find yourself in difficulty, you may click the deluminator four times to return to the sanctuary.
If at any point you are feeling overwhelmed or bewildered, please consult the photo album. I cannot guarantee how much help it will be, but we can always hope.
Good luck, Hettie. Best wishes, thank you and farewell!
A faithful friend forever,
A couple of times during the course of reading the very basic (but so typically Rob-like) instructions, Hettie was reduced to misty-eyed sniffles, but she soldiered on. After reading it through a second and third time, she found herself leaning against the rough hewn wall, thanking the dear young man for his thoughtfulness, but wondering what good would ever come of it? What on Earth would her future ever hold, if she should indeed escape from this bizarre misadventure alive?
Hettie sat there for a while, trying to summon the strength of will to move. In addition to basic fear and uncertainty, she was flummoxed by the word 'deluminator', which seemed to refer to some device crucial to her finding her way out of the darkness.
Eventually she decided that the word might simply be an obscure Magical word for the cigarette lighter that kept floating up to within easy grasp every time she peered into the envelope. Finally, Hettie reached inside to safely stow the note, and pulled out the strange object.
Examining it more closely, she intuitively guessed that the silvery knob at the top should simply flip up and off to expose the gas nozzle. That much was simple.
Hettie knew that some lighters would automatically flare up immediately after being opened in this manner, but this one did not. She listened carefully for the sound of butane escaping, but there was no indication of that either. Looking closely in the dim light, she couldn't make out any sign of a flint nub or a rasp-wheel, but she did notice a metal button on the side that seemed ideally shaped for her thumb.
With a shrug, she clicked it… and jerked back as a small glowing ball sprang from the deluminator nozzle and rose up a few feet into the air, joining the first hovering light in making the room slightly brighter.
“Ha!” Hettie smiled for moment, accepting her unexpected (if modest) triumph. Then she frowned. “Okay, so I must simply click thrice in rapid succession… ?”
She did so. This time, a very similar glowing orb emerged, but instead of hovering overhead as the first two had, this light drifted off to illuminate the top of the door frame.
She stared at it.
The light blinked slightly, as if waiting for her.
Hettie rose to her feet and walked curiously toward its beckoning signal. As soon as she was within several feet, the light ducked through the doorway and out into the main chamber of the sanctuary. Smiling softly at this magical game of 'follow the leader', she pursued it into the next room.
From there, the light moved toward a blank wall, formed of crude ceramic bricks. The light stopped, and awaited her there.
Frowning, Hettie approached, trying to find any sign of a doorway, but the wall seemed solid. She was just gazing up to the light inquiringly, when it suddenly popped part-way into the wall.
The light dimmed substantially… but Hettie was still able to make it out, illuminating the brick slightly, almost as if it was somehow located inside the masonry. Uncomprehending, she stared for a long moment, then raised a finger toward the light.
Expecting to encounter the hard, coarse material, Hettie was astonished as her finger poked straight into the brick, encountering nothing more than a slight chill.
The light moved further back, so that she could only make out the barest dim flicker. Not willing to let the guiding light escape, Hettie thrust her whole hand, then arm and shoulder through the wall without the slightest resistance. Taking a deep breath, she closer her eyes… and stepped forward… forward again.
A shiver raced through her whole body; Hettie's eyes flashed open… and she found herself outside the sanctuary, standing in a filthy, abandoned corridor.
Hettie blocked out many things over the next five minutes — the smell of mold and damp plaster; the squidgy feel of the murky floor; the strange shapes of loose or broken things hanging from ragged ceilings and walls; the half-imagined skitters and squeaks of small creatures scurrying in the darkest corners. Hettie focused only on the small, flickery light as it led her along a corridor, through a doorway whose metal door had swung drunkenly off its hinges, then up up up through a musty, debris-strewn stairwell.
Finally, Hettie began to discern a glimmer of ambient light. Before she knew it, her path had leveled off and she found herself walking through a creaky door into blinding, glaring natural light.
Gradually loosening the hand clasped over her eyes, Hettie took a minute to adjust to what she gradually realized was, in fact, the rather dim setting of grey early-evening light scattering in through thoroughly grimy old windows. She was in the ancient ticketing foyer of a tube stop that had served its last commuter in 1932.
Hettie glanced around the long-deserted room, wondering if her guide, having successfully brought her to the surface, was still present. In fact, she quickly found it again, hovering close to her forehead, just barely visible against the ambient light.
As if sensing her attention, the guide-light drifted toward one of the doors. Hettie followed and heard a rusty bolt rasp open, enabling her to step into a vaguely inclement London evening. The final flight of her guide summoned her to the corner of the high, metal-rail fence.
The light flickered solicitously to her. Having now grown accustomed to protocol, Hettie understood that she should be able to step through straight through the seemingly sturdy fence. Indeed, she exited smoothly, magically, through the tall barricade and into a quiet residential car park.
Shivering against a dank breeze that seemed to have swept away every speck of the earlier spring cheer that had previously marked her stay in London, Hettie turned discreetly away from the banks of windows to the east, and pulled from the envelope a blue anorak and a parchment labeled 'Map No. 1'.
In less than a minute, she was making her way through the quiet lanes tucked off to the east of York Way, then turned east onto the relative bustle of Copenhagen Street.
Hettie clung appreciatively to the notion of having a well-defined task at hand to pull her thoughts away from devastation, and she was almost certain that it was healthier for her to be back out in a world of light (in a relative sense) and humanity. Unfortunately, the coping strategies didn't appear to be working. For some reason, the fresh air and exercise seemed to be having the opposite effect — her mood eroding further as the murky grey of the evening began to set in more deeply.
Everything seemed to weigh upon her. People around her seemed to be fumbling about with no spirit — nobody made eye-contact; passers-by didn't speak; heads drooped in the mist or hid beneath umbrellas. Irritable autos on the street obscured any human connection behind glaring headlamps that slashed through the gloom.
And Hettie was cold. Although inured to constant dampness and chill from her recent passage over the North Atlantic, this particularly dreary drizzle seemed to steal relentlessly down her spine.
Forcing the zipper of her anorak as high as it would go, Hettie lifted her eyes from the lifeless chaos of the street and gazed into the billowing grey vapours above, longing against hope for some sign that the weather might break...
Wracked by an intense shudder, she dropped her eyes quickly back down to the wet sidewalk. She took a few rapid breaths, trying to keep her chest from constricting while her mind raced.
Did I just see that?
Ghastly, creeping, ghoul shapes? Drifting down with the clouds?
For a moment, Hettie had steeled herself to peer upwards again, to dispel such baseless fears, but with every inch that she raised her eyes, a growing weight of dread settled upon her. Dread, guilt, despair...
“Oh god, Rob! I-I'm so weak…” She sniffled and mopped her misted face with the back of her hand. “So pathetic. Why did you ever believe in me??”
Hettie was staggering now, almost drunkenly. She somehow made it off Copenhagen Street and onto the green space at Barnard Park. Barely conscious of her path, she glimpsed a bench and slumped down on it; sinking her face into her hands.
Several sobs coursed through her; some sort of gaping, yawning desolation was encroaching on her… then, in a still-illuminated corner of her memories, she recalled that simple sentence…
… If at any point you are feeling overwhelmed or bewildered, please turn to the photo album...
Hettie lifted her head. With trembling fingers, she tugged the envelope out of an inside pocket and raised the flap. The album was right there, hovering before her eyes, ready to be plucked.
Without conscious thought, Hettie removed it and placed two fingers against the firm page tabs, opening at random.
Hettie found herself face to face with the Quibbler photo of the vibrant, confident Gemina Wilsey.
Rob's sister had shed her usual sporting smile, having replaced it with a look of sober urgency. “Gravener! About time you checked in! We need…”
The girl paused; her gaze flickered rapidly upwards past Hettie's face and shoulder. Gemina squinted for a second, then hissed in revulsion. “Bugger! Dementors!!”
“Aaack!” Alarmed far more by the dire tone of voice than by the unfamiliar word, Hettie recoiled — just in time to be lashed with a harsh, sudden gust of wind.
The squall nearly tore the envelope from her hands. Half-panicked, she scrabbled for the packet, fumbled, then pinned it to her chest. Her breath coming in ragged puffs, Hettie glanced frantically back to the album, and…
“Sweet Merlin's Mum! What are you waiting for, girl?!” The red-haired girl seared Hettie with a look of scathing exigency. “Get your scrawny arse out of there!!”
“Split! Scarper! Use Rob's deluminator!” Banging on her picture frame, Gemina gestured emphatically toward the envelope in Hettie's hand. “Deluminator! Green thingy! Click four times! Now!!”
Utterly flustered, Hettie nodded wildly, fumbling ineffectually for the envelope flap.
Gemina twitched and hopped in place, making keening noises, practically trying to claw her way out of the photo to help.
Finally taming her tremulous fingers, Hettie pushed the flap aside, and the deluminator leaped eagerly into her hand. Somehow, despite a sweaty grip and barely controlled shaking, Hettie managed the requisite four clicks.
The dingy grey sky twisted and tore. Hettie's stomach seemed to lurch up into her armpit, and one ankle felt like it was lodged behind her ear. She was barely a breath away from vomiting when, with the mercy of a ripped plaster, she thudded hard onto the gritty stone floor far below York Road Station.
The photo album smacked face-down beside her.
Amidst her own discombobulation, Hettie heard the voice of Gemina's photo, a bit muffled against the floor, unleash a string of coarse, colourful epithets… then suddenly burst into laughter.
“Are you, uhhh, okay??” Hettie began reaching toward the album, but stopped, enchanted by the cathartic release of listening to such a merry sound — Gemina's voice — the unquenchable spark of a girl for whom confronting death had never diminished her love of life.
“Hey Gravener?” The laughter stopped. “Do you believe in second chances?”
Hettie stared down at the cover of the old album, feeling as though something fundamental inside herself had changed. The wheels of her mind cranked for a moment then, suddenly, she knew.
All feelings of despair and defeat had vanished!
Hettie nodded fervently. “Yes! Yes, I do!”
“Good girl!” Gemina's voice practically glowed. “Now, would you mind very much picking me up, please?”
As requested, Hettie reached her hand under the book. As she took hold of Gemina's page, Hettie's fingers brushed something smooth and metallic. She had barely even glimpsed the sheen of an ancient silvery wing, when the world about her began to swirl.