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Chapter 5: That Goes Horribly Awry
"You going to finish that?" Hugo asked Scorpius, eyeing the untouched crumpet on the older boy's gold plate hungrily.
"Yeah," Scorpius said, making a face. "You're not the only one who's been out in the cold for three days."
Hugo pouted to no avail: Scorpius was true to his word, finishing up the crumpet with a flourish of his hand.
Hugo hunched over, trying to look defeated. He didn't know if it had worked or not, but Scorpius reached over and gave him a tremendous nooggie. He struggled to escape, letting out a yowl, then appealing, when this failed, to Neville's sympathies. But the old man just smiled evilly, draining the rest of his coffee and watching on even as Scorpius proceeded to put Hugo in a headlock and wrestle him to the ground.
Neville watched the two boys wrestle amusedly. He found himself feeling glad at the prospect of their quickly-developing friendship. He shouldn't have been surprised in the least, but he was. He knew that Scorpius had been sorted into the Gryffindor house, causing a slight uproar in the Malfoy manor upon receipt of a long letter from the scared little first-year Scorpius had once been--he knew that the boy was generally well-liked among the school's population.
He was friendly and respectful to all of his teachers, which was admittedly more than his father, Draco, could boast. But what, in looking back, Neville realised, was the most surprising of all, but which rendered the current moment to be less so, was that Scorpius had worked hard to earn his reputation. The Wizarding community of Britain was small--the census read only just over a thousand, just under three for the whole of the Kingdom. With such a small demographic, word travelled and worse, it stuck. Pure-blood families were so scarce that they were traced as almost a hobby: bets were struck up often.
I'll give you two Galleons that the Bones family will mix in the next generation.
Five knuts says that the Malfoy brat takes up a Muggle.
Neville hated to think about it. It was bestial, really, even counting blood-type as counting for something. But it was true, it was, that pure-blood families were beginning to mingle with mixed-blood ones. Slytherin had begun accepting half-bloods and Muggle-borns after the end of the Great War, a historical change…denoting to Neville and those of like minds the beginning of a great new era, where harmony was possible.
And the Sorting of a Malfoy into the Gryffindor house was possible.
But he saw the Gryffindor qualities in Scorpius. It took tremendous courage to break away from what was familiar, despite any anger felt towards one's heritage. Anger, Neville thought, at one's namesake is so often internal. It's one thing to be disappointed in your parents, but another thing to actually be someone who makes a change. And Neville knew that Scorpius never did any of what he did to clear the Malfoy name--that would have taken a miracle, he thought--but rather to become a good person himself. He felt a jolt of sorrow for the boy, thinking of his home life.
It couldn't be easy, being "raised" by people so out of touch with all that he respected and desired. He thought of Scorpius with renewed respect, and found himself feeling a little bit of amazement that someone so young could be so determined--not to mention, successful.
He looked on as the boys now, covered in snow, chasing each other around the small campsite, laughing and whooping loudly. After three days of continual hiking, they'd neared the bridge made of bent-over trees that would allow them to cross the river. Neville began to worry about what people back at the castle would think--Flitwick had never taken him seriously, the old sod, and Neville wasn't particularly convinced that he would have remembered anything that he'd told him--he wasn't sure that Flitwick would have been able to alert anyone to the three missing-persons' whereabouts.
He thought, it's quite a damn thing, not having an owl that he could summon with a sharp whistle to take a note back up to the castle. Not that he had any ink--just a thin pen--or parchment for that matter. He sighed loudly, trying not to think about what would happen when they got back. After all, in his school days, he'd skipped the most of his seventh year, hadn't he? Struck up camp in the bully old Room of Requirement--took up possession of the D.A.--made frequent illegal trips into Hogsmeade--and yet, he'd been pardoned after all that and still had been allowed to graduate. He wouldn't allow himself to think of how his circumstances then and now couldn't really be more different.
It will work out, it will, he said to himself, trying to think with a tone of the strongest conviction. It will work out, it will work out, it will work out...
"Professor?" Scorpius asked, trekking back over to the log where Longbottom was seated, making the strangest face. He kept nodding to himself, a slight tilt of the forehead, which was lost in a maze of double-arched burrows.
Upon hearing the inquiry, the Professor's face cleared and he looked up, suddenly surprised.
Scorpius tilted his head as he absorbed the slightly dazed look on Longbottom's face. He figured it was probably the wear of the three days they'd all had without a bathe or a shave--without thinking, he reached up and scratched his slightly-clefted chin, which was stubbly and a little greasy.
"Are you feeling ill?" he asked the professor, being, in his tired state from wrestling with Hugo, unable to think of a more couth way to ask him if he was alright.
"Oh, no, was just thinking of what we're going to do when we get across the river." He stood up, gathering the tent up in his arms and shoving it into his pocket. "We should get going."
"Hey, the river!" Scorpius exclaimed, a feeling of jubilation overcoming him. "We can bathe there."
"It'll be frozen, I expect," Longbottom chirped, looking under his shoulder at Scorpius with a slight concern in his eye.
"Oh," Scorpius said, his shoulders slumping. "Oh, that's right…."
"What if we all cast huge heating spells on the ice till it melted and turned into water again?" Hugo asked, reinforcing the idea behind the word 'huge' by stretching his arms out as far as they would reach.
"You have an impressive wingspan," Scorpius said after a moment, feeling lightheaded and a little blind. The sun had poked out from behind some clouds and the snow around them lit up like fire.
"Let's go, boys," Longbottom said, squinting severely, beginning to walk out of the clearing and into the darkness of the trees. Scorpius and Hugo followed, dragging their feet, punching each other occasionally.
"And, Hugo, even though I shouldn't have to say this, there's really no way to make your spell any bigger, and even if we could heat the water to warm enough to bathe in, we can't warm up the whole river, can we?" Longbottom looked back, raising his eyebrows. If he had had more hair, Scorpius thought, they probably would have been lost in it.
"Maybe not," Hugo said, looking dejected. Scorpius wondered how his face could so easily morph from glee to sadness; it took a matter of seconds and what he was feeling was clearly plastered on his expression. There wasn't much one could do to misinterpret the emotions.
"We'll try, though," Scorpius said, trying to cheer the kid up. He looked over at Professor Longbottom pointedly. After a moment of what looked like hesitation, he nodded reluctantly. Scorpius found himself grinning in gratitude and wondered at the effect that his lack of sleep was having on his conduct.
"There it is!" Hugo shouted suddenly, and Scorpius heard it before he saw it: a tiny, tiny trickling of water. That wasn't right, he thought. The river was supposed to be frozen over--
"Do you hear it?" Professor Longbottom asked, frowning, turning to Scorpius.
"Yes," he answered.
They broke into a run at the same moment, leaving Hugo behind as they swept by him and pounded into yet another clearing--and Scorpius realised, as Hugo crunched over to his side hastily, breathing hard, that they were on the banks of the largest river he'd ever seen. Not that, in his time, he'd seen many rivers--but this was far to the other shore. The trees on the other side were only about as tall as his smallest, outside finger, he noticed, holding a hand up to the scape in front of him.
"Woah," Hugo breathed beside him. Longbottom was silent--Scorpius looked over past Hugo to the professor's face, which looked slightly stunned.
"This isn't real," Longbottom said under his breath. Scorpius saw him shake his head vehemently. "No, no, this is all wrong."
It was a strange sight before them, Scorpius thought. Especially when it was snowing in the rest of the forest.
What lay before them was a landscape Scorpius would have imagined fit in better with a tropical island. The sand lining the river was a bright, tan-yellow, and the water boasted a steady, shocking cerulean, brighter than the sky above, which was laden with fluffy white clouds. It was completely sunny between the trees, and what was more, nothing was frozen. No snow in sight.
Scorpius looked over to Professor Longbottom, staring at his face for a long moment until the professor looked back. His expression was puzzled, disbelieving. The two stared at each other for a moment longer until Hugo broke the silence.
He threw his head back and let out a mighty roar of delight, shedding his coat and robes as he flew down the shore to the water, plunging in clumsily, sending up sprays of bright blue water all around him as his feet flew around his skinny frame.
Scorpius glanced again at Professor Longbottom; then the two shrugged simultaneously and, gripped with a glorious delight and urge to whoop into the air, Scorpius followed Hugo's suit and ran to the water, splashing into its soothing warmth after tracking over-large footprints in the sand.
They were clean--they were happy--they were splashing each other with the warm river water, enjoying the shallows along the bank, their underclothes dripping wet--and their laughs made their way into the clear sky above, where the sun received them, smiling down--
when he noticed it.
It was a large black thing, beastly, monstrous. It stilled his heart, and he stopped mid-motion, unable to look away.
"What?" Scorpius asked him, the lopsided grin still plastered to his face, water dripping from his dangling earring. Hugo pointed, unable to speak, at the large creature that was making its way towards the three from down the bank.
Hugo heard Scorpius's sharp inhalation as they took in the sight before them.
It took a moment, but Professor Longbottom managed to speak. "Boys," he said, his tone tense, "boys, go back to your coats."
Without taking their eyes off of the creepily-moving form before them, the boys hastened to obey, pulling their warm, dry clothes on over their wet bodies. The three stood motionless in a line, unsure of what to do.
Then Hugo heard it. A pugnacious click, click, click. It sounded rather like the noise that Marjie's pencil made when she tapped it on the golden plates at breakfast, but louder, sharper, more menacing. Hugo felt scared. He saw, near the middle of what he took to be the body, four sets of pure black eyes, glittering in the sunlight. He wished he could take a step closer to Scorpius who, like Professor Neville, had his wand grasped firmly in his hand. Hugo didn't know where his wand had gone, but he was too caught up in fear to regain control of his range of motion anyways.
The beast moved at a slow, steady pace towards them, moving in an eerily-smooth way over the soft sand, gliding at a fixed height above the ground, supported by eight skinny, hairy legs. It had pincers--Hugo saw them, two large, beak-like protrusions situated horizontally, so that he could see where they connected in the middle to make the click noise that issued forth. Those pincers were serrated, huge dips and peaks that caused his hackles to raise.
Scorpius realised it first.
And then Hugo.
"Oh, Merlin," Neville whispered, his voice cracking. Hugo looked at the other two--eyes wide, they were helplessly stunned.
Hugo knew they wouldn't be able to outrun the Acromantula--and suddenly his arm sprang into motion, grasping into the inner lining of his coat where it grabbed out his wand, and pointed it directly at the beast.
"No!" Scorpius yelped, grabbing Hugo's wand hand and shoving it down. "No, you know you can't shoot spells at them!"
In a flood Hugo remembered. His fear had paralysed his brain but of course Scorpius was right--Acromantula hide was immune to magic. The spells would bounce back off in his own direction and the instant sign of aggression would doubtless be noticed by the highly intelligent creature--and not taken lightly.
"Oh, oh yeah," he said out loud. Scorpius stared at him for another second, his dark blue eyes boring into Hugo's, his blond hair flopping onto his eyebrows, still dripping wet. The look was hard for Hugo to understand--he had never been adept at reading people's expressions. He took the moment to try to link the situation they were in, the mistake he had almost made, and the hard clarity of Scorpius's eyes all together to come up with an answer. He wasn't sure, but he decided that Scorpius was trying to make sure that Hugo wouldn't try to Stun the spider.
"I won't Stun it," he declared. "I'm putting my wand in my pocket." He did so. Scorpius looked mildly surprised--that was something that Hugo could recognise, it was easy, it was all in the eyebrows and how the mouth went slack and the eyes widened (he supposed that it was the look that most often greeted him in the mirror when he bothered to consult it)--and then nodded, turning back to the creature, which had come to a laborious stop about ten paces from them.
They stood facing each other--the giant Acromantula filled the same amount of space as did the three humans, it was so large. Hugo swallowed convulsively; he especially disliked spiders.
He wasn't expecting what happened next: the thing opened its pincers and spoke.
"Welcome, guests," it said, gesturing with a single, multi-jointed appendage to the whole of the river bank. Its voice was deep and sonorous--it rattled Hugo to the bone. He shivered, even though it was warm here.
None of them said anything. Hugo thought he saw Professor Neville nod his head once.
"Welcome, welcome. You have traveled very far." The thing's great black eyes turned to each of them in turn, resting for a long time on Scorpius. Hugo turned to the older boy and saw that his adam's apple bobbed deeply as he gulped. The blue eyes flickered over to his once, and then back to the Acromantula.
"You have traveled farther, in fact, than any other Human from the school has gone. My brothers and sisters have sensed your coming, and they required one of us to apprehend the visitors…to see if we may provide any assistance, and to guarantee our own safety. We understand that the venom from our mouths is worth many pieces of gold to you Humans."
"We're not here for your venom," Neville said loudly. He struggled to make a peep at all, but it was necessary for their immediate safety that the great spider understood their motives, and something in him shifted to regard safety as the highest priority.
"Ah, ah, I see….I see that you are truthful." The spider shifted on its hairy legs and the three tensed, ready to move. "I do not plan you any harm," it added, taking a step back. Neville felt his hackles raise, but it wouldn't be judicious to display any disbelief. He looked over at Hugo's face, which thankfully was blank and wide-eyed, the occasional wink floating through space between them.
"But I will ask you to explain your motives for such travel. It must have taken you days to reach the river," the spider said, the clicks from its pincers punctuating each word. "You will follow my understanding when I say that this is highly unusual, and my family considers itself to be the guardians of the forest, not only our kind."
"The centaurs are the guardians of the forest," Hugo piped up. Neville grimaced, but the spider did not look offended.
"Indeed, each species can only live with the others in harmony if we each do our share. Their territory is not our territory, nor ours theirs."
"Oh," was all Hugo responded. Neville let out his breath in relief.
"Should we tell it?" Scorpius hissed in Neville's direction, the whisper floating above his head.
"I think we ought to," Neville said quietly, keeping a steady grip on his wand.
He hadn't lead the student revolution of the Great War for nothing, he thought, and he cleared his throat to redirect the spider's attention from Scorpius, whom it had been watching intently, to himself.
"We've come into the forest on a search for a highly-magical fruit that would yield great aid to the magical world of healing," Neville said. "You've perhaps heard of it, and can tell us if we're on the wrong path."
"The Quidropopot," Scorpius announced, seeming to have taken the spider's interest as a sort of personal attack. He looked defensive, his generally soft facial features screwed into a scowl, a determined sort of hardness. Neville saw Draco in this face.
"The Quidropopot," the arachnid declared after a moment of contemplation, "is not a commonly-sought plant. Most humans do not believe in its existence. We spiders have used this fruit for many years to heal our wounds--no other plant is strong enough to heal the tears in a hide that deflects most magic."
"Do you have one?" Hugo piped excitedly.
"My Queen is the only one of us worthy enough to possess such a dangerous plant; she alone is wise enough to refuse its tempting lure."
Neville understood what the beast meant--the ruby was highly powerful and would turn any ruler into a tyrant drunk on its power.
"If you'll excuse me asking," Neville began, curiosity taking the best of him, "How did you hear of the plant?" He was interested to know, as the last known account of it had been inscribed thousands of years ago.
"You think of course on human terms," the beast began, seeming to read Neville's mind. "My ancestors discovered the plant long ago as they began their trek through the Africas. You'll know that we come from further east, but as time progressed, more and more of my kind developed a thirst for exploration. Our venom is able to melt through ice rapidly, so we were able to bore through the thick layers and procure the soft fruits of the plant. However, the first of us were not so lucky, taking up the stone from the middle of the pods without understanding its power. The best of the clan were said to have turned into horrible monsters who plundered villages with newborn power. They became immortally powerful and wreaked havoc until they died. My brothers and sisters do retain some of the power that they imbibed," it said, gesturing to its coat of hair and thick hide.
Neville was taken aback. He had known the ruby to be powerful enough to transform wizards into the Egyptian gods, but to pass down enough power through the years to create a hide immune to magic? That acted as a shield against spells? It was beyond his ability to comprehend, and simply stunned him. He stood blinking at the spider, which had moved gradually towards them during its speech. Its breath was horribly foul, Neville thought, resisting the urge to fan the air before his nose.
The three humans stood regarding the giant creature. It retained an eye particular to Scorpius, who stood his ground, feet planted apart, staring back into the eyes of the creature.
He thought he knew what this was about. His father was well known throughout the magical population, it wasn't really a surprise that the creatures surrounding them would know of him as well. The Death Eaters hadn't been famous for their kindness to magical creatures, either.
"You are a Malfoy, human," the creature said directly to him. Scorpius tried not to cringe.
"I am," he said. He wasn't going to try to deny it, as he often had in his youth. He wasn't going to make excuses, or apologies, no matter how much the idea appealed to him. He stared back at the creature defensively.
"Your father was not kind to creatures of the magical world," the thing spoke in its low growl.
"Yeah, well, I'm not like my father," Scorpius said, beginning to feel a prickle of fear. But he felt that backing down was the wrong action.
The creature was silent for a moment besides the intermittent clicking of its giant pincers.
"That is clear," it said after a pause in which it had stared at him intently. Scorpius let out his breath, and heard the other two on his either side sigh deeply. "You are braver than him, and he would never have put a scrap of metal in his ear."
Scorpius couldn't help but smirk--sure as hell he wouldn't have. But then, he thought, that's not the point--I'm not evil like him, get it? He was about to open his mouth to speak when he was cut off.
"So, if you don't mind," Professor Longbottom spoke up, "we'll just be on our way."
"No, no, I couldn't allow you to wander aimlessly into the forest unneccesarily," the creature said with a particularly loud click. "I will take you to our Queen, and she will tell you directly where to find the fruit."
Scorpius was unsure of the great creature's intentions. He had believed the spider when it had said that it had believed them, but he couldn't help but think that following the spider to its lair was the worst mistake that they could make in this situation. But it also seemed that, looking at the creature whose leg-span looked to be nearly three metres across, they didn't have much of a choice.
It was a tense moment. The three humans exchanged looks that confirmed Scorpius's own feelings--fear, trepidation, and a feeling that overwhelmed the others: obligation.
"We'll follow you, then," Scorpius said, taking charge of the situation. The great creature bowed its head and creaked by them quickly, showing an amazing agility for a creature so large.
"Do you think we'll be alright?" Hugo asked Scorpius, sounding nervous. Scorpius felt like spilling his guts--no, Hugo, I don't know if we'll be alright, heading into the lair of possibly hundreds of giant spiders, no, I don't know if we'll survive this one, I don't know what's going on or what to do or how to get out of this. But instead, he smiled brightly at the boy, looking over at his eyes, which were at his own level.
"I trust we will," he said quietly, looking down immediately at the sand below their feet. His trainers flashed in and out of view, and he couldn't help but think of Rose and the Weasleys at this time--she'd never forgive him if he didn't come back, she just wouldn't. It wasn't like Rose to react well to surprise and he worried that she paced Gryffindor tower even as he walked willingly to his doom, worrying about what he might be up to, and why he hadn't contacted her.
He hoped that Flitwick had given her some idea of what they were up to--he was the only other one there who knew that Professor Longbottom had been going into the Forest to find Hugo--he was the only one who could mitigate the panic that she must have been feeling. Scorpius hated himself for doing this to her. He cursed under his breath as he realised that the last three days had probably been torture for Rose Weasley.
"What's wrong?" Hugo asked, understanding enough of regular conversation to know that when someone cursed to themselves, it meant something was amiss. Scorpius tried to smile at Hugo, but he just couldn't do it as he took in the younger boy's face and thought of how the shape of his eyes was very much like that of his sister's.
"I was just thinking about Rose," he admitted, scratching his neck and shifting his wet, blond hair to rest on top of his head. "She's probably worried sick."
Hugo shrugged. He wanted to make Scorpius feel better, but he wasn't good or practiced at these kinds of things. He just smiled, knowing that that was a good sign and said, even though it was a little bit of a lie, "she's probably okay."
Hugo rather thought that Scorpius's look was disbelieving, but then he said, in a voice that Hugo thought denoted the older boy's desire to convince himself, "Yeah, she's probably alright--she's got Albus to ground her fears, hasn't she?"
"Yeah," Hugo said, thinking of his older cousin with a smile on his face. Albus was the captain of his Quidditch team and old childhood friend. He knew that Rosie and Al were even closer than he and Al were, which was saying something, Hugo thought. Other than maybe his mum and dad, Albus was the closest thing he'd ever had to a best mate. Albus was fun to be around, always joking and acting dumber than he really was to annoy Rose or her best friend Molly Pratt. Hugo liked Molly too, he thought, except for when she was singing. She couldn't hold a tune well, and Hugo always discovered that even hours after she finished chanting along to Celestina Warbeck's latest, his head still hurt.
Amazingly similar to the way that it hurt now. Hugo had often heard his mum complain of stress-induced headaches--she'd had to explain to him that that meant headaches caused by stress--and he thought that that was what he was having now.
As they moved further into the trees, Hugo suddenly had a flashback of himself as a young boy sitting by the Burrow's fire with his father and his uncle Harry, who were telling him the most extraordinary story of the way that they had met Hagrid's pet spider in the forest in their second year. They had only been out there to ask questions, Uncle Harry had said, laughing brightly, so that they could free Hagrid from Azkaban, but the spiders had looked at the two and thought my, what a tasty pie these children would make.
Hugo had wondered then, as he nursed a teacake, how a few spiders could have eaten the two boys up, as they were obviously much bigger and could just stamp them into the ground if the desire so appealed to them. But looking back now, Hugo remembered a bit of the story that had never stuck with him as a child; that they weren't just any spiders, but huge, hairy, eight-eyed creatures with pincers the size of dinner plates. That explained their current situation, didn't it, and what with all the talking business.
"Merlin," Hugo said aloud. "I should have seen this coming."
"You should have what?" Scorpius said, looking dumbstruck. His blue eyes were wide with concern, his nostrils flaring, and his mouth sort of half-open with shock.
"Well it's just that Dad and Uncle Harry told me once that they met a bunch of Acromantulas in the Forest, in their second year," he admitted under his breath, looking forward at the giant monster before them. "I should have at least figured that since we'd gone so far into the Forest, we'd meet them eventually."
Scorpius stared ahead of them for a moment, his eyes still wide and his eyelashes flapping up and down for a moment in a succession of dazed blinks before he answered.
"No, you couldn't have known," he said, a tone of reassurance in his voice. "Just because it happened once to your family doesn't mean that it happens every time someone ventures far enough into the woods."
Hugo nodded, appeased. But his small comfort wouldn't just erase them from the current situation. The bridge up ahead was drawing nearer and nearer, a display that he thought would have been rather stunning if they weren't coming upon it in the wake of a giant spider who more than likely wanted to eat their guts.
It was a sight of several trees all sprouted from the riverbank bent over and twisted together so that they formed a wide, tangled bridge across the span of the river. The bridge itself was wide enough for the Acromantula to fit on it comfortably.
Hugo had a sudden question, then. If the only bridge in miles was here, and the spider was taking them across it now, then how had it come up on them from the opposite direction?
He voiced the concern to Scorpius, whose eyebrows raised considerably at the question. He raised a hand to scratch his stubbly cheek--the fine, golden hairs about half a centimetre long. Hugo was suddenly struck with the same insane jealously that overcame him as he watched some of his dormmates shave in the morning--all he wanted was to be manly, how much longer was he going to have to wait?
a/n: edited as of 28 august 2011