Chapter 8 Lurches
“… ‘kay gotta run let you know what we find out give my luv-duv to Gravener take care of yourself Bubbie and get a shave will ya?”
Rob blinks dazedly at the now-vacated picture of the Highland moor as he tries to parse his sister’s unpunctuated staccato. Hearing a knock on the door to his little room, he returns the Wilsey family album to his folder and steps out into the hallway to find Hettie waiting for him.
“Er…” Hettie’s welcoming smile falters somewhat. “Rob, will you be warm enough dressed in short sleeves? It’s winter up here in your hemisphere, you know.”
“I’ll be fine.” Rob shrugs. “Wilsey metabolism.”
Hettie gives him a very meaningful look that attempts to convey that he’d be welcome to wrap a bit of that Wilsey metabolism around her chilled shoulders.
Unfortunately, seeing as how he seems to have not yet grasped the obvious concept that he is (or, at the very least, ought to act like) her boyfriend, he merely blinks, returns a puzzled half-smile, and starts down the steps.
In his defence, Rob has a bit on his mind.
“Finally heard from Gem,” he calls back. “Confusing as hell, but she and some other girl seem to have figured out that they’re both trapped, er, on the brink of death? And… and they need to contact some boy about something important to the fate of the universe or something, but something is blocking them, so they’re going to try something and, um, something. She was chattering really really fast — fast even for her — so I may have it a bit muddled.” He gives a sheepish grin.
“Crickets!” Hettie does not grin. “She didn’t give you names? Was the girl named, ummm, Ginny? And this boy they’re looking for — is he called ‘Harry’?”
Rob stops and stares blankly. Jet lag has not been kind to him, and all of this rapid, detail oriented communication is starting to give him a headache.
“Is Gemina still in the picture?” Hettie is practically vibrating. “Can I ask her myself?”
“Sorry.” Rob rubs his forehead. “She had to run straight off again. Next time I’ll yell at her to slow down long enough for me to come fetch you.”
“Piff. Well, that’s life I guess.” Hettie tries to force a begrudging smile onto her face, but… she's less than half-way into the artificial one when a real smile breaks through, emerging with sad quirks and regretful crinkles. “Oh, Rob, I don't mean to be so impatient. I’m just deathly curious if this is another one of those Harry-Ginny stories because that would mean we're in for a wild raucous ride! Guess we’ll find out soon enough, right?”
Rob nods eagerly. He actually has no clue what she’s talking about, but is rather relieved to be let off the hook.
Following Hettie out onto the street, he walks in silence as they head onto Corso Resina, then… “Huh.” He has spotted a tourist sign lettered in multiple languages. “So, we’re going to the ruins?”
“I think so, yes.” Hettie nods. “Your materials from Dunbar say nothing about what to look for, or where to look, but seeing as how he reserved our rooms so close to ancient Herculaneum, I figured he must be dropping us a hint.”
“Good thinking. But…” Rob hesitates for a moment. “Do you suppose he might instead have meant for us to catch that bus for the mountain?”
“Oh dear, I didn’t think of that.” Hettie stares at a Vesuvius tour company immediately across the street. “Fiddlesticks. Which do we try first?”
“The ruins, of course.” Rob smiles. “I may be dumb, but I know enough to trust your instincts.”
Hettie’s eyelids flutter in surprise. She half-turns to gaze fondly up at him. Right then and there, she really wishes he would lean in and-
“Oi! Mind the-!!”
Rob catches her mid-stride. She gasps. The glossy black of an Italian taxi whips past her as it leaps out of the alley, acting for all the world like it eats pedestrians for lunch.
Hettie scowls at herself. Henrietta you twit! Watch your step, or you'll get us both killed!
Rob is angry too, but his ire is directed at the speeding cab. Fortunately, Hettie catches his hand before he can grab his wand and do anything regrettable.
Concentrating fully now, Hettie needs only a few minutes to safely navigate the intervening streets, and soon they are wandering, in near solitude, among the excavated alleys of the ancient Roman town. She finds herself captivated by the remarkably preserved architecture and artwork, and in her mind’s eye she pictures the vibrant community that once prospered here.
Prospered for centuries… until it was hit with a deadly cascade of boiling mud, toxic fumes, and flame.
Hettie has always been blessed (or cursed) with vivid imagination and empathy, and tales of tragic devastation never sit well. Drained of her earlier enthusiasm, she slumps against the base of an old column, scans the ruins now with a more jaundiced eye, and resolves to survey the place. Efficiently.
Be thorough; be quick, and let's get out of here.
“Rob?” Brusquely, she extends her hand. “May I see your folder again?”
Without question, Rob retrieves it and hands it to her in expanded form.
Hettie peers into the folder. For the dozenth time, she wonders if somewhere in the mysterious depths she will find some helpful scroll or parchment that actually explains (or even hints at) what they ought to be accomplishing on this daft little ill-defined vacation.
For the dozenth time, she impatiently tries to bat away the clunky, garish old ring that always gets in the way.
Then she stops herself.
She opens her hand. The ring floats gently into it.
She closes her fingers around it, and raises it up to eye-level.
It is a gawdy piece, and the crude centre stone has a jagged hairline crack, but Hettie finds herself gazing into the icy grey depths. For an odd, disorienting moment she feels almost as though she is drifting, falling, lurching!
“Jolting jellies!” Her eyes seize on something tangible — the crisp lines of an odd carven symbol. A triangle. A circle. A single vertic… She lowers the stone an inch to stare past it. She is looking obliquely down the narrow Roman street toward one of the taller ruins — a stately two story edifice with a sharp pointed gable. Leaving Rob’s side, she steps robotically over to get a closer look at it.
A triangle. A circle. A single vertical line…
“Hey Hett? Did you feel something odd just now?” Rob comes up behind her. “For a moment it was almost like- Hey!” He gazes up in the direction she’s staring. “That circular window up there — it looks a lot like like- SHITE!”
Rob shoves Hettie hard to the ground. Whirling about, his wand deflects a jagged bolt of spell-fire, but he’s a split second late. The stunner catches his shoulder, impacting hard. Staggering back, his eyes glaze; wand slips from his grasp… falling…
Yet, heedless of throbbing head and bloodied chin, Hettie is somehow twisting, lunging; fingers close blindly about the falling wand, and-
Rob leaps up. His eyes clear just in time to glimpse the red-grey splatters of what, an instant earlier, had been someone's nasty looking black-cloaked wand arm.
“OI!” Rob dashes around the corner, wand out to apprehend their assailant… but he is met with the telltale swirl of a Portkey discharge.
“Damn.” Rob bends to retrieve the wizard’s discarded (and surprisingly intact) wand, and races back to find Hettie on her knees, listing forward, blood streaming down her face onto the ancient flagstones.
“Oh luv.” Every ounce of adrenaline drains from his voice. “Sorry sorry so so sorry I-I knocked you down I was only trying to protect… Merlin, I never meant to hurt…”
Yet, even as he stammers, he is moving to her, kneeling, gently lifting her chin. Willing some steadiness into his trembling fingers, he raises his wand and, with no further drama, manages to close the cut and vanish the blood.
“Rob…” She is staring into his eyes. “What happened? The attacker? He’s… he’s gone?”
“Well, he…” Rob scans the face before him, flushed cheeks, her quivering petal-like lips, her eyes so deeply concerned, yet so very brave. “He’s gone, we’re safe, ‘cause, you see, uh…” Words catch in his throat.
Rob has been ambushed before. Surviving such close calls is blinding excitement — the sheer thrill of being alive! But now, speaking in soft measured tones over that wild exhilaration, is an oddly sensible voice telling him that the smart, brave, but inherently gentle girl in front of him might not exactly be overjoyed to learn that she just vapourised somebody’s arm… even if it was some murderous, sodding dark wizard’s arm.
Rob takes a breath. “Er, yeah. He’s gone, luv. Managed to Portkey away, but wow — you sure, uh, stopped him!”
“Rob…” Hettie's small hands grasp his shoulders. “Could you repeat that, please?”
“Errmmm?” Confused, Rob tries to scratch his chin, but of course can't, given how Hettie is holding him. “Uh, repeat what? Stopped him? Managed to Portkey?”
“Prat.” Her eyes seem to have acquired a sparkle. A dangerous sparkle. “You called me ‘luv’. Twice.”
“Oh. That.” Rob squirms. “Sorry, Hett. I-I was a bit flustered, anMBDFFBH…”
The world of old stone swirls away, not into the mists of time, but upon the pulses of sweet breath and the touch of warm skin.
It is nearly fifteen minutes before the giggles of invading tourists jolt them back to a flustered sense of reality.
In their own attempts to feign nonchalance, Hettie and Rob fail to notice the old man who glides in behind them, gives them an amused glance through his half-moon spectacles, and discreetly enters the building with the steep gable.
Clasping hands, Ginny and Gemina close their eyes and allow themselves to each be taken back to their last frozen instants of corporeal consciousness.
Once again, Gemina finds herself caught, mid-stride, in the act of dashing toward the elderly man lying helpless on the ground.
A large segment of flaming eaves has sagged precariously. It too is frozen in this moment of peril.
Gemina has not visited the scene since the moment she lived it. It’s not yet easy to even want to see it. There are too many wrenching unknowns…
Does she have time to reach the man? (Doubtful, but that would never stop her from trying.) Who actually is the man, anyway? (Too much smoke; she can barely even see his outline.) Who is the thug behind her? (She's frozen and can't turn around… but if she ever does get a look at him, he’s in a world of trouble!)
Working past those stalemates, Gemina forces herself to examine the rest of the scene objectively, but little comes of it. The sensory assault is too disorienting, and the psychological strain is nearly debilitating. She can practically smell defeat and failure. In the heat of the moment, buoyed by boundless adrenaline, the scene seemed no different from the other countless challenges Gemina had faced before but now, to watch with objective dispassion while she and an innocent bystander are about to die, seems so…
Thus distracted, a cursory (stoic) study yields no hint of spells or wards that might interfere with magical communication, so Gemina gives up. Better to instead help Ginny. Perhaps a fresh pair of eyes will spot things that her alt-equal might miss? And maybe a bit of moral support would be appreciated?
Having made her choice, Gemina turns from the Allesley fire, and immediately finds herself witnessing a frozen moment that, if anything, seems even more confusing.
Ginny has been replaying the last bewildering half minute in the Room of Requirement, which is being rapidly incinerated by the sheer stupidity of that pea-brained dolt, Vincent Crabbe.
The segment begins with Harry trying to summon the Ravenclaw Diadem. The spell is taking unusually long to engage, somewhat to the worry of Ginny and Hermione who are flanking him on both sides, attempting to magically shield him from the flames.
As the diadem finally starts lifting and gliding across the room, something completely unexpected catches Ginny’s (and Gemina’s) eye — an old man lying helplessly on the floor, nearly surrounded by conflagration.
Gemina is hit with the astonishing parallel to her own fiery crisis.
Ginny is bewildered by having no memory of this little wrinkle.
Yet there Ginny is, staring straight at the helpless man; most obviously trying to gauge how to rescue him.
Even now, given an opportunity to revisit this scene in slow motion replay, neither Ginny nor Gemina have any idea who it might be. Vision is blurred by the surging flames, and by the Ginny’s own motion as she seeks a better angle for summoning the man.
Oddly enough, despite having no recollection of facing this quandary, the next split second is perfectly familiar. She has committed to breaking formation; she is moving closer to the flames, wondering whether this might be her last moment on Earth.
She knows she can only undertake such a risk under one condition. She looks to Harry; she seeks him out; calls to him... and feels the joy and affirmation of connection.
I love you, Harry.
The diadem still arcing toward his outstretched hand, Harry turns for the briefest, purest of glances.
I love you, Ginny.
The air swells with the eternal radiance of loyalty, devotion… adoration…
Then Ginny must turn away, to her duty; to destiny.
She now recognises that, in her last sliver of consciousness, she has cast an Accio, seeking to summon the imperiled man. She can feel in her veins that her spell is locking on but everything suddenly… lurches!
The flames freeze. Their glare streaks a half degree across her field of vision. Then everything stops.
All is still.
There are flames before Ginny’s eyes, but they do not dance. Gone is the ghastly, drunken stupour of wanton destruction.
There is no old man to summon.
There is no Harry; no diadem; no Hermione…
I was taken away.
The glare of all of the frozen flames around her makes it exceedingly difficult for Ginny to descry her surroundings, but after a while she realises that the glare is less blinding if she looks directly overhead, where the flames are thinnest.
Staring up, she sees something. A shape. More smooth and regular than the tortured forms of flames. It is a crescent…
Placing that in context, she lowers her gaze a bit to study other vague, spindly shadows that seem to spider themselves across the sky. Those could be…
Piecing things together, Ginny concludes that she has somehow been whisked away from the Room of Requirement. Her living body is in suspended animation, encased by walls of frozen flames, in a wooded area. And, scanning carefully about herself, down now to levels below her feet, she can now glimpse different forms clustered about. Strange faces. Masks? Masks that look somewhat like…
Annisgwyl has spent months trying to reach this place, yet finding herself walking the marble decumanus a full week earlier than expected fills her heart with absolutely no joy.
She is shaken by the bizarre, powerful magic that Antioch used to thrust her across so many leagues in the span of one brief (disconcerting; nearly nauseating) instant. She is perplexed that a man with such anger toward her family should have been so eager to offer (or force) his assistance. But, more than anything, she feels wrenching guilt and loneliness.
She is alone.
This is how, back in the hills of Dumnonia, Annisgwyl expected to face this journey — thousands of unknown leagues with no companionship. Yet now it seems almost inconceivable to have completed the final short distance… without Traianius.
Lord of men, gentle friend… lover… please forgive me.
It is perhaps best this way. Annisgwyl knows that polite Roman society fears the magic of her people, and she is certain she would never be accepted as a proper mate for a distinguished nobleman such as the Legate legionis.
In deference to Traianius’s reputation, Annisgwyl has tried to hide her witchcraft, but she can sense that he knows her secret. She is uncertain why he has continued to abide by her ruse, but she now understands that here, in magical Herculaneum, surrounded by so many powerful sorcerers and sorceresses, there is little chance for her to sustain such an illusion.
Annisgwyl is certain that things will happen here. Quite possibly frightening things. And only time will tell whether Amaethon will permit her magic (and Ffodion’s) to overcome the perils that they may face. Whatever dangers they may see, she is now relieved to not be subjecting Traianius to enemies that he need not share.
Yes, Traianius shall be safe.
This thought warms her, and Annisgwl is finally able to raise her eyes to the evening sky and feel comfort. In her heart, she even finds optimism, for she has indeed come all this way, and surely now she can permit herself to believe that Ffodion is somewhere close.
Perhaps, like Antioch, he will sense her arrival, and will find her?
In truth, she rather hopes he might because, regrettably, she has little instinct for how or where to search for her brother.
Herculaneum is not a large town, however Annisgwyl assumes that Ffodion would be fairly meticulous in hiding his identity. However charming this community may appear to the naked eye, it has a reputation for harboring some of the empire’s darkest wizards, and the third son of Paternas Peuerellius would not find himself welcome among such people.
Concidentally, it is with this problematic thought in mind that Annisgwyl is discreetly eyeing the town from her vantage here on the decumanus. Surveying all that she can see, her gaze darts among the spires and roofs lining the horizon. She has nothing in particular to watch for, however the act of committing the geography and sights to her mind seems prudent, espec-
She jolts! The vista goes blurry for a moment, then she finds that she is staring at something that sends shivers up her neck — a tall villa, some distance down to the east, that bears a sign she knows well. It bears the mark of Letum, rendered clearly as a perfectly round window, split by a vertical slat, and framed within a sharp triangular gable.
This is not a coincidence. Not here.
Quietly, she curses in revulsion.
Oddly enough, Annisgwyl half wishes that Antioch had remained with her just a bit longer. Although her half-brother has been a leader of the dark Order, he is family, and he owes a wizard’s debt. Surely he could have stayed to advise on the wiser ways in this dreadful place? Told her where to steer clear? Pointed her toward her brother?
Her real brother, that is.
Shivering slightly despite the warm, heavy air, she notes the lengthening shadows, and decides that she will not remain within the town tonight. There is something here that both draws and repels her, and she will not tempt it after the sun’s red glimmers have gone.
Yes, tonight she shall dwell like the shepherds. A night beneath the stars, in the company of plain sheep, sounds far preferable than clinging to the edges of her blanket in some hostile corner of this den of sinister sorcery.
Stepping quickly, she turns toward the northeast, leaves the forum behind and seeks out the smaller streets leading away from the centre. A paved alley soon reverts to gravel; stone walls give way to wood, and soon then to scrubby lots of grazing goats.
She stops for the barest moment; her curiosity still piqued by the steep-gabled Order house; her heart still longing for Ffofion… but from this angle she can no longer see the place of dark mystery. Setting her jaw, she turns, and pushes it out of her mind.
Twenty minutes later, the torches of Herculaneum have dwindled to tiny distant flickers. More than a league out from (and hundreds of feet above) the seaside town, Annisgwyl judges that this is a place of suitable quiet and solitude. She finds a small depression that will shelter her should winds blow up in the night, and selects a patch of cushioning weeds on which to spread her blanket. In doing so, she happens to face east just in time to catch the first beams of the rising moon.
It is just beginning to crest the mountain.
Hercules’ Forge? The mountain of fire?
The greyish mound shows nothing but senescent calm now, but Annisgwyl cannot help but wonder what malice it might conceal. The sooner she is able to find Ffodion and persuade him to leave this forsaken country, the better.
Fortunately, despite all of these misgivings, the air upon this hillside is clean and cooler. After an exhausting day, the stars are singing sweetly to her.
Annisgwyl casts a complete sequence of privacy and seclusion charms about her little hollow, and settles into her blanket. In seconds, she is asleep.
Although Harry pays little attention to whether Hermione and Ron can keep pace, they are nonetheless pulled along by whatever passion and conviction has seized him, and manage to keep him in sight as he tears through the dark forest.
Puzzled by the growth of an eerie glow, Hermione points ahead to the foot of a ridge where Harry has stopped to wait.
Seeing (and hearing) his friends, Harry hastily casts Muffliato and Disillusionment charms to shroud their presence. Before joining them in the charmed circle, he checks his watch. It says 1:53 p.m.; less than seven minutes remain in Voldemort’s deadline.
With no idea yet how to proceed, Harry quietly leads his friends onto the ridge. In silence, all three find themselves observing a heinous, yet bizarre, assembly. The clearing, and the swarm of Voldemort's acolytes therein, is illuminated by a thick column of something that looks like flame, except that it is utterly stationary, hovering in mid-air, not consuming any fuel.
It is frozen. A frozen flame.
At the moment, Harry cares little what it is, but focuses rather on what might be inside it. He retreats deep inside his mind… searching, calling, listening.
Sensing Harry’s deep trance, Ron stares in bafflement at the strange fire. “What the hell is that thing?!”
Hermione stretches up to Ron’s ear. “I doubt any of us knows, but I think Ginny may be inside.”
Ron’s eyes bug out painfully, but Hermione hastens to reassure. “She’s not dead! Harry and I are both quite sure of that.”
“But…” Ron chews his lip. “She’s inside a fire? That’s not a good thing, right?”
Hermione takes a deep breath. “One would think not, but… those fellows don’t seem too pleased with it either.”
Hermione is correct. The gathered Death Eaters are fretful, and it is fairly clear that the presence of the flame is doing nothing to calm their nerves. Bickering and quarreling, various of the scurrilous thugs gesture sporadically at the glowing pillar, shaking their fists and rending their hair.
Off to one side is a tall, brooding figure. Neither Ron nor Hermione has ever encountered the villain before, but there is no mistaking Voldemort.
Black cape billowing behind him as he paces over a stretch of flat ground, the dark leader’s mouth is twisted; his dark, reptilian eyes are glowering. Abruptly, he stops and raises his head. “SILENCE!”
All motion and noise around him instantly ceases, leaving a night so suddenly silent that Harry can hear the hissing breath of his dismayed nemesis.
Voldemort’s long bony finger jabs out at a nearby Death Eater. “Rowle! What time is it?”
“Errr…” The stocky wizard pulls back his sleeve. He stares at his wrist, then angles it toward the flame. “Erm, it’s 8:36, my lord.”
“Eight thir-?” Voldemort stares at the man for a long moment. “Idiot!” He lashes the Death Eater with a vicious (if brief) Cruciatus before turning on the rest of the gathering. “Does anyone have a timepiece that WORKS?!”
A deeply uncomfortable silence descends over the crowd.
Finally Bellatrix Lestrange hurries over. “Does it even matter, Master? Little Potty isn’t coming.”
Managing to ignore the ensuing glare, Lestrange gestures toward the flame; her lips twisting in perplexity. “That thing is annoying, Master. Let me destroy it, and then let’s go bait the itty mice up in the castle?”
Bellatrix beams a toothy, ravenous (if slightly wavering) grin toward her icon.
With ill-disguised loathing, Voldemort raises an eyebrow. “Go ahead, Bella. Destroy the flame. Kill the girl.”
Harry grimaces; every muscle tenses, about to tear headlong into the deadly throng… then he stops. Bolt stiff, his arm whips out to restrain Ron who is nearly fit to burst.
Harry, Hermione and Ron (cringing) watch breathlessly as Lestrange levels a massive Reducto at the towering flame.
The curse impacts the glowing pillar like the torrent of a fire hose… then splits, glancing off obliquely to pummel two large pine trees into thunderous dust.
The flame persists. Silent. Still. Unperturbed; untouched.
Ginny is alive. She is intact. Healthy. Ready.
Harry knows that. He feels it more strongly than ever… but nobody — not Lestrange, nor Voldemort, nor Harry himself, nor even Hermione — seems to have any idea what to do with this knowledge.
Indeed for now, there seems to be only one remaining option.
Voldemort’s cold gaze passes blankly over his many followers as he turns away toward the distant shadows. Yet even in the act of withdrawing into his own thoughts, the dark wizard’s face cannot hide the fact that he is thwarted.
He is facing an obstacle that not only remains unexplained, but may in fact be inexplicable. Compounding the uncertainty is the apparent (and quite unexpected) matter of Potter opting to ignore his ultimatum?
Clutching the Elder Wand in tremulous fury, Voldemort's mind races through possible contingencies on plans teetering on the verge of colla-
Voldemort whips around at the Portkey discharge. His eyes widen in dismay to behold… a one-armed Fenrir Greyback — blood-drenched; face-down on the ground.