Chapter 1. Chilling Flames
"Harry, we… we have to go." Tears streaming down her face, Hermione tugs Harry's sleeve.
"She's not dead." Harry lets fall the last of the dust that had been the Lost Diadem of Ravenclaw, and turns back toward the blaze still raging through the Room of Requirement. "I have to find her. She's alive."
"Harry please!" Hermione’s fingers clamp around his wrist. "I can't imagine your pain. I mean, who truly could?? But you’ve got to find a way to…"
Her words falter; her eyes shimmer in the light of a ghastly blaze that has just claimed her own best friend and the love of Harry's life. Hermione bites her lip. She trembles in a moment of doubt, then shakes her head. "No, it’s madness to go back. We’d never come out alive.”
Harry's stare has not yet broken from the fire, but Hermione persists more resolutely. “Think of Ginny. You know in your heart what she’d say, Harry. She’d tell you that you can still do this. She gave everything to help get us this far; she'd want us to move on.”
Harry stares blankly.
Hermione pulls him an inch toward the stairwell. “You have the strength to finish this, and you must — for her, for everyone who risked their lives tonight, and for everyone else who might not live to see morning.”
Harry’s jaw tenses as a conflict of mind and soul trembles across his face.
“Honour her courage, and all the great things she’s done.” Hermione’s voice drops to a hoarse whisper. “Promise me and I will promise you… We’ll do this together. We will not let her life be in vain."
It is a Halloween night that the hamlet of Allesley will surely wish to forget, but the last of the Muggleborns have been Portkeyed to safety, and Gemina Wilsey's urgent mission is a success.
Before preparing to disapparate, she makes a rapid final survey of the blaze, and gasps in surprise. There is a man — frail and elderly — slumped on the ground near the buckling doorstep. As she stares, magical flames leap through the air, igniting a shrub dangerously close to his head.
The man’s eyes open; he meets her gaze. Despite the roaring inferno, Gemina can hear his voice, rasping weakly, calling to her.
Bewildered; enraged at herself for not having noticed earlier, she dashes toward him, heedless of the raging combustion, desperately hoping she can reach him.
But Gemina fails to notice the assailant, a dark-cloaked wizard, apparating behind her.
In the din, she never hears the murderous hex... for the only sound to reach her ears is the old man's faint summons.
"Uh... Uh, yes father?" The 17 year old Annisgwyl pushes away shreds of a fretful, waking dream. She leans back from dying embers of her cauldron fire and grasps the hand of the old man resting behind her. "Pardon my daze — I nearly had nearly drifted off and... and, you so rarely use my Roman name." She examines his face in concern. "Are you in pain, father? The salve is nearly ready."
"Annisgwyl Gemina Peuerellius." The old man attempts a fond smile, but cannot disguise the tremors of a spell-damaged heart. Taking a deep breath, he finds a strength greater than most dying men and squeezes her hand. "Dearest daughter, you have always been so kind to me, but I must ask one final favour."
"It is time."
"It is time." The old man nods; his jaw bracing against an agony whose long slow march across his body is nearly complete. "Dear daughter, tonight I shall take my final rest. Thus freed from your burden of concern, you must leave here tomorrow to find Ignotus. Britannia needs him — Britannia of today and Britannia of the future. Please go to your brother; please bring him home."
Hermione releases Harry’s hand. She looks to his face in askance.
Eyes downcast, he shakes his head.
She watches him a moment longer — his slumped shoulders; the weary resignation in eyes that had, so recently, been aflame with the spark of victory. And peace. And Ginny.
Hermione reaches for his hand one more time, but his fingers don’t respond. He nods slightly — more in dismissal than acknowledgment.
Finally he speaks; his words hollow. “You go along. I’ll wait for you here.”
She takes a long breath. Then she turns, and her feet begin to move toward the dimly lit arch. In a moment, despite sheer exhaustion, she finds herself running, hurtling toward the voices.
Emerging into the rubble-strewn Great Hall, she judders to a halt, staring.
Staring at bodies.
Bodies. And mourners hunched over them.
Firelight has a way of illuminating red hair, so it takes a bare second for her to locate the cluster of Weasleys.
They too are hunched. Over a body.
Hermione's breath catches. Hand upon mouth, she approaches… With sinking heart, she stares at the only limb she has a proper vantage of - a bloodied leg. She squints, trying to match this, in her mind's eye, to Weasleys she has known.
In an instant, her great relief (not Ron!) is replaced by a toxic, torpourous regret. "Fred?"
A torn, grief stricken face rises from the huddle to acknowledge her. Percy weakly gestures her in.
A second face emerges - rigid and ashen; eyes wet and worn. It is Ron; he is quietly trembling; he brightens with a flicker of joy to see her face, but it falters, subsumed by dread… for Ron notices that although Hermione is alive, she is also alone.
Expertly reading Ron's expression, Hermione wraps her arms around him. "Harry is okay," she whispers. "He needed, er, a moment to himself."
Ron's head, somewhere in the vicinity of her shoulder, nods. Then it stops, and he pulls back, wide-eyed. "Where's Ginny?"
Hermione opens her mouth. Her lips quiver. She bites them, trying to hide a tremor of anguish.
Too late. Ron's face begins to stretch in horror. "Where's...?!" He can't bring himself to complete the question. He can't bear to accept an answer that he can see plainly etched in Hermione's brow. He teeters forward, falling clumsily onto her chest... and his hand, clutching hers, begins to spasm.
Oh god oh god oh god... Hermione can't recall ever using a deity's name in vain, but never before has she even remotely imagined such devastation. She has never seen Ron cry, let alone shudder weakly in her arms like a feverish infant.
Oh god oh god oh god... Despair floods Hermione's once-reasoned mind. Mere days ago, the world had seemed so bright and hopeful, but now everything has crumbled into utter madness. For Harry is breaking, Ron has broken, and Ginny is gone. Every corner of this miserable hall is filled with people wailing or whimpering and she, Hermione, has almost no strength left for anyone else, let alone herself, and she finds herself pining for a place — someplace imagined; something half-remembered from a vague, time-faded dream.
She seeks a place of utter emptiness. Pure absolving oblivion.
Perhaps a place that has neither joy nor pain? For Hermione cannot imagine joy, and she cannot bear more pain.
She closes her eyes… and finds herself falling away, into the blinding white.
Like a bitter nordic winter, the prickly whiteness has a numbing quality.
For Hettie Gravener, the misty woodland is gone. The princess and her wounded lover have vanished. The coupled cuplae are no more. What remains is utterly featureless.
Within this blank universe, Hettie floats.
"Oh my. Is this really…?" She closes her eyes and takes a deep breath. "Is this the end?"
She pauses for a long moment, wishing that, somehow, the bizarre narratives of some strife-ridden Britain, of some war-torn Roman era, would drift toward some jumble of neuronal knots within which strange dreams generally dissolve to vague discontent and fade away. For that was all imaginary, wasn’t it?
But this odd sensation of sterile suspension seems to persist an awfully long time. If this is all a mere dream, then shouldn’t she, well… wake up? Eventually?
She frowns to herself, and the standard Gravener analysis commences.
The logical, proper end to the quest with the cuplae was to negate everything I knew — to negate my whole reality, in order to preserve another, better world. So, logically, this could be the 'nothing' that is a negation of 'everything'… though I rather fancied 'nothing' as black rather than white.
Hmmm… And I would not have assumed that my endless analytical meanderings would prattle on as if thought itself was more 'nothing' than 'anything'.
Unpleasantly awkward thought, yes?
Now, surely Isaac Asimov would have had something to say about the…
But of course, Hettie has no book shelf from which to draw on the wisdom of history's great minds. All she is left within in this pseudo-nothingness is her own wandering consciousness, with all its clutter of whims; of hopes, fears, regrets…
Ah yes. She has a few of those.
Hettie regrets having wasted so many years not knowing she had magical powers. It also saddens her greatly that she only met Rob Wilsey so recently; that their time was so short… too short to kindle something that might have been…
And then of course, there is the matter of the many farewells she never had time to conduct.
Mother, Daddy, Goodbye! I love you. I will miss you so!
Whatever it is that I've done to myself, I dearly hope that you will always think of me as a-
Hettie jolts! She blinks across the study table at a host of giggling schoolgirls, one of whom is burying her sputtering face into an over-sized chemistry text, while the others toss about in puerile hysterics.
"Undress him just a bit more with those randy little eyes, Henrietta!" A smirkily petite brunette beside her digs an elbow into Hettie's ribs. "Though I admit he is a bit hunky, yeah. A.G.S. bloke, by the looks?"
The voluptuous blonde across from Hettie squints over the book shelf, across toward the airy entrance way. "A bit scruffier than the average Auckland Grammar ponce… But, yeh, he could be a Lion, what with the— Shite! He's coming this way!!"
Oblivious to her circle of deeply blush-stained female companions, Hettie raises a bewildered gaze, tracing slowly up the approaching jeans and faded rugby. She confirms the familiar sweep of auburn hair; the stubbly, angular face and... those eyes. Piercing blue eyes.
Rather confused eyes.
Frowning, the bloke blinks twice, then focuses on Hettie. "Hey, hello there. I was wondering if… well, I'm not sure what I, uh… So, I was told I might find Henrietta Gravener here and, if one of you is, uhhh, her, then (cough) by any chance, do you know me?"
"Uh…?" Ignoring her semi-petrified (boggled and scandalised; near the point of twitching) school-mates, Hettie scans the tall young fellow who does not appear to have a proper St. Cuthbert's visitor's badge.
What on Earth is going on here? She glances at her swotting calendar which is purposefully opened to the date 'December 7, 1997'.
What are you doing here 'now'? This isn't how, or when, we’re supposed to meet.
No indeed, Hettie recalls vividly how they met. She was summoned out of class (Analytical Geometry; how she loved that course!) to Visitor Reception on a rainy day in late February, 1998. Today, by contrast, is definitely sunny, she’s definitely in the library, and all the texts stacked up around them are for autumn 1997 classes.
How very 'interesting'.
Despite some understandable bewilderment, a gleam has lit in Hettie's eye. This may be an unquestionably odd new twist in her evermore twisty life, but when life get odd, Hettie gets… curious.
And when Hettie gets curious, Hettie acts!
"Why yes, of course I know you, Rob Wilsey," she says, giving the poor fellow a smile. Collecting her books, she casually offers her arm for him to take. "Oughtn’t we chat outside, perhaps? Librarians can get a bit shirty around exam time. You'd hardly want to get us all tossed, would you?"
Racing across the grounds beneath his invisibility cloak, Voldemort’s edict is still ringing in Harry’s ears.
Give me Harry Potter, and you will be rewarded. You have one hour.
Before plunging on to the forbidden forest, Harry pauses for a moment. It is a meaningless ritual indulgence, but Harry is going to bid the castle and his friends a final, silent farewell.
Yet before he can form the words, he is distracted by a faint moan. Glancing around, he spots a seventh year Hufflepuff splayed on the ground, severely wounded and unattended.
Cringing at the urgency of his own personal mission and how little time Voldemort’s ultimatum has left him to prepare, Harry nonetheless kneels to help the girl.
Quickly closing the wound with an Episkey spell, he hears her murmur a word of thanks. Squinting upwards in the darkness to where he (being invisible) cannot be seen, she asks, "Wh-who are you?"
"Errr... I'm..." Harry is about to answer when his head abruptly reels in a nauseating swirl of strange, blurred images. For the barest instant the girl on the ground seems to be Ginny, looking to him; some unspoken question on her lips.
Harry’s head quickly clears, but an aura of oddness persists. When he gazes about, he can tell that the setting is… strange.
Around him, Harry still sees night, but it is a different night. There is still a bustle of agitated voices and flickering flames in the background, yet the voices (and the languages they speak) have changed. There is no castle, no mown grounds, and the girl he is kneeling beside is clad not in Hogwarts robes, but in a rough tunic. She is bruised and muddied; she has a raw scrape as if from a skirmish.
The girl has piercingly beautiful eyes. The eyes remind him, in many ways, of Ginny's, although they are framed by a face of bewilderment.
"I am..." Harry finds he has no control over a strong, confident voice that begins issuing from his throat. "I am Marcus Ulpius Traianius, Legatus legionis of the Imperial Legio XX. And you are?"
The girl, Annisgwyl, finally blinks away her trance and focuses on her rescuer. "My name is G-" She coughs.
Struggling to a sitting position, Annisgwyl absently places her hand on the muscular forearm of her benefactor. Puzzled by the question, or by the fact that she seems to have several competing answers for it, her mouth opens and closes. Finally, she commits. "My name is Gemina Peuerellius; free citizen of Roman Britannia."
Harry freezes for a long moment, perplexed by a name that, in his confused state, seems both familiar and foreign.
Traianius, however, is unfazed, and merely smiles. "Ah? And what brings you here, cives Peuerellius? You are far from Britannia, and these woods may be wilder than your custom, as the ill-advised encounter with those Teutons might suggest. Oh and, begging your foregiveness, may I say that your attire seems somewhat… battered?"
Annisgwyl allows the man to help her to her feet. She brushes the worst of the dirt from her tunic and stands as tall as her diminutive stature permits. "I am on an urgent quest, my lord Legatus. I bear an important summons to my brother, whose presence is required in Britannia."
"I see." Traianius regards her seriously. "And whither then shall you seek your brother? Here in the hinters of Belgica?"
"No, I shall seek him in…" Annisgwyl can barely bring herself to speak of a place that her father has so long reviled as the origin of the dreaded Order of Letum. She nonetheless forces a steadiness into her voice. "I shall seek him in Herculaneum, sir."
"Ah?" Traianius betrays no sign that he apprehends the dark magical reputation of what non-magical Romans would regard as a small and ordinary city. "Well, cives Peuerellius, perhaps fortune shines upon you?"
"How so?" Annisgwyl gives him a curious look.
"As it happens, I am leading this Legion on a brief posting to Pompeii, a scant four leagues past Herculaneum along the road that you would follow." Traianius smiles. "Unless you cherish the perils of traveling alone through the wilds of Gaul and the high hills of Raetia, may I offer my services as imperial escort?"