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Chapter 18: Illusions
The muscles in my left arm remained stanchly tensed, clenching and unclenching in frequent spasms. I could still feel the snake’s persistent slither and sting, and absently wanted to rub it with my right hand in the faint hope that it would dull the ache. I was afraid of accidentally touching it in any way, and summoning the man with bleeding eyes to my side.
“Stay with us,” Bellatrix had ordered me, pupils dilated and desperate. She had gestured around the grand manor, bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet as if fixed to a spring. “We have everything for you right here, Cissy.”
I cast one disdainful look at the assembly of men and women arranged stiffly against the wall, looking everywhere but at the tall man in the chair. “You have nothing for me here.”
“You belong here.” Her grasp was firm and cold and slightly shaking, like a disease had taken hold of her.
Our eyes met, and our expressions were so reversed in emotion that it only increased my feeling of apprehension; I wanted to leave the house immediately. I wanted to have never been there at all. “Speak for yourself, Bellatrix.”
I had walked swiftly down the tunnel-like corridor, chills swimming up my spine from an increasing fear that someone would follow me, try to stop me. I was met with no opposition, however, and slipped out unnoticed. Even if the man had kept his word about saving Lucius, I saw no reason why I would ever have to cross paths with him again. The more I dwelled on the matter, the more likely it seemed that my sister had gotten involved in a cult of sorts, and that this strange man was simply delusional. How could he be more powerful than Circe? Our bond meant nothing.
The snake on my left arm twisted through the eye of a tattooed skull, and I could feel it hiss with displeasure.
I staggered around in the quiet hours of the dark morning, guided not by a moon that didn’t appear or by stars that refused to shine through the snowy fog, but by the desire to stumble upon a village with signs of magic lingering over its buildings. I crossed paths with the occasional cottage standing strong against the harsh weather; their yellow lighted windows provided a small sense of comfort as I looked on at them, wrapping my arms around myself. The light poured through gaps in the curtains, making snow-covered sills glimmer like crushed diamonds. Fires burned merrily in their grates, the smoke curling through the air with mingling scents of wood and spices. I wondered briefly if it was Christmas yet.
The cold, black, snow-swirling haze soon turned to thick sleet that seeped through my clothing and shoes, matting my hair against my neck with ice crystals. My lips were numb, probably as blue as Wolfsbane, and my ribs were pinched, lungs tight from breathing in the painfully frigid air. I was directionless as I walked, warmed only by the burning snake on my arm.
By sunrise, rain had begun to drip down from the low-hanging sky. I should have asked Bellatrix to accompany me back to Malfoy Manor with side-along Apparition; it was too late to go back now. If I’d had the choice to do it all over again, I most likely still would not have asked her. Presently, I wanted to put as much distance between my sister and myself as possible. I didn’t want this new person who inhabited my sister’s body to speak to Lucius, or get anywhere near him. I didn’t want him to be spoiled by association, even if he was realistically still asleep at his piano.
Doorturn was not impossibly far from Little Hangleton, but the former was a far cry from Wauning. Perhaps if I found myself wandering through sunburned hills again, I would happen along Totty or Urchin or another elf and somehow convince them to Apparate with me. Sleet mixed occasionally with the rain, stripping diagonally across the sky and lashing against my face like a double-edged blade until I was too numb to feel it smarting anymore. I focused determinedly on the hot, savory breakfast awaiting me at Malfoy Manor.
The landscape proved unforgiving, lending me few trees to shelter under. I was already thoroughly soaked, and beginning to think that going back to Gaspard and the elves wouldn’t be such a bad fate after all if it meant I would have food and somewhere to sleep. I trudged through slushy pockets of snow, supplying my famine with visions of soup and roasted chicken.
The morning sun rose silently over wintry moors, staining the soft green with lavenders and yellows and glinting like frost-covered bruises. It reminded me of the snapshots of seasons that Andromeda used to paint on her square bits of canvas. She would keep the winter scenes for herself – her very favorite – and present Bellatrix with volcanoes and hot springs, the oil colors as vibrant as real fire. She gave me a portrait of a centaur once, and I had sold it three days later for eleven Sickles.
“I did what I had to do,” I had insisted as she stared in angry disbelief at me. “Stop looking at me like that. You do what you have to do for your family. That’s life. You enjoy having a roof over your head, don’t you?”
“There are limits, Cissa. Sometimes I think you don’t understand anything about family.” Andromeda had seized my candle and stomped down the stairs with it, leaving me sitting in the darkness of my bedroom with my notebook of figures and the day’s profits still lying open on my desk. She never painted anything for me again after that. It was just as well. I had sold one of the paintings she made for my father, too – it reaped a whole Galleon that paid for six consecutive meals.
Struggling against the heavy rain and lashing wind that colored the sun with clouds, I would have given anything to have that centaur painting back. I wondered where my sister was now, with the husband under their arch of white petals. His face was blurry in my mind, turned away from me as he gazed at his new bride.
My limbs were weak and useless, and by the time I collapsed against the side of an old stone well in the middle of a field, I doubted whether or not I could ever summon the strength to get back up again. I hung freely over the well’s edge, staring through closed eyes at a pool of dirty water far below. Rain beat persistently against the back of my head, draining my energy as it sapped my senses of the ability to feel. I attributed the numbness in my fingers to why I did not previously notice a stick rolling under my left palm.
The stick blazed to life as my skin absorbed the touch of it, and my eyes flew open at once. I caught it in my rattling hands, bringing it close to my face. A cool gust of air escaped my lips and I stared at the object for an immeasurable length of time, spellbound. It was inches shorter than mine, and much thinner, but at that moment it was the loveliest thing I had ever seen and I cared not who it belonged to.
Perhaps it was due to the paranoia of once again having a wand in my possession, but I felt a telltale tingle that brushed from shoulder blade to shoulder blade – a warning that there were eyes on me. My neck cracked as I spun around, piercing the landscape with wild, roving eyes. The poplars and firs that dotted the banks of a winding stream were sagging under the weight of crystallized snow, the drizzling rain coating everything with a deadly layer of ice. All was silent save for the occasional branches groaning as they splintered, their icicles ringing like bells as they shattered over sheets of icy snow.
“Hello?” I called, eyebrows furrowing uncertainly.
No one responded. The trees were still, not a creature in sight to stir them, and I thought again of the blackbirds diving through the sky toward Exider. “Is anyone there?”
My fingers shook, and I realized that it was the wand that was trembling, not my hands. I turned back to the wand, puzzling over the way it jerked like something alive, like a bit of someone’s soul was concealed inside it. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I realized what it must be as the stick of wood began to glow. But the moment for making decisions was fleeting, and my hands were stiff, and the wand rolled only to the ends of my fingertips before it flashed a blinding electric blue and disappeared, taking me with it.
I spun and spun, eyes clenched shut as my empty stomach squeezed into a knot. It felt like I was being flung through space and time over treetops, and through my eyelashes I thought I saw flashes of color as though I was gliding over ponds and mountains. Within seconds that stretched into a lifetime, my head knocked sharply against something solid. My arms and legs were splayed on the ground, the substance of it cold and hard. Very slowly, I opened one eye first and then the other.
The back of my head stung, with bright circles etching before my dizzy eyes like the aftermath of a spinning phoenix. I rolled onto my side, one arm resting against the flagstone floor. The surface was dry, very unlike the damp air. I was in a very small, circular room with glass walls; the ceiling was a dark chestnut with crisscrossing rafters, and I could hear rain rippling across the metal roof like the feet of dancing hinkypunks.
The rain upon the field had been quiet, steady; here, it had blossomed into a powerful storm. There was no sun – only wind and endless torrents of rain – and as I rose on unsteady legs to stand upright, I saw the iron bars of a balcony beyond the glass walls. A strip of blinding bluish light roamed along the balcony’s bars for a short moment before disappearing. Ten seconds later, it was back again. I watched the light appear and disappear, seemingly on rotation.
I slid open a glass door and stepped out onto the balcony, my nose stinging with salty spray. A flood of water gushed toward the base of a tall tower that sprouted upward – a tower in the middle of nowhere, with me at the very top of it – and I gripped the chilly railing, peering at the source of light above.
Settled on the roof of the circular room I found myself appearing in, a giant ball of Gubraithian fire licked with tongues of flame at a dimly blackened shell of glass surrounding it. There was no dome over the lamp, only the vivid white-blue light rising into a storm like a beacon.
Exactly like a beacon.
I was in a lighthouse. I gazed from the Gubraithian fire to the lighthouse’s exterior shooting down into the dark water. Cerulean light rotated around the spot where I leaned over the railing, revealing striations like the ridges of a seashell in the paint. The paint itself was rough and pavement-like, and a deep, serpent-green color.
A sailboat flicked through the black waves, its bell clanging eerily. A fisherman held up a small lamp, bobbing along as if in search of something that had fallen into the sea. My hair whipped all around my face, entangled from wind and salt, and I still gripped the Portkey wand. The tip of it glowed feebly. “Lumos,” I murmured.
The light flickered and died.
“No,” I whispered hoarsely, tapping the wand on the railing. “Impervius.” Water continued to splash against the railing, unfazed by the spell, and I tried again. “Incendio.” A jet of lightning lit up the sky, ripping the sea apart with loud thunder. The sailboat had disappeared through a thick mist. “Hey!” I called as loud as I could. My voice was drowned out by the roaring storm, with no hope of a response.
“Incendio,” I begged. The wand produced no spurt of fire – made no sign at all that it was anything more than a common twig. I attempted to Apparate and twirled so violently that I almost fell over. I was still standing there in the rain, gaping with incredulity at a harmless wooden stick. I had not Apparated, I had not moved, and I had not created magic with the wand.
It made no sense.
With one hand still on the railing, I circled the balcony. There was nothing but raging black ocean on all sides, as far as the eye could see. “Damn it,” I muttered, beginning to panic. I flew back into the lighthouse. The circular room was mostly empty – a few dusty candles sat atop a three-legged table next to a can of tinned tomatoes with spider webs trailing from its peeling label to the ceiling. I raced to a hatch in the floor and pried it open, sending more dust billowing into the air. Choking and waving it away, I descended a spiraling set of stairs.
There were no windows on the endless walls. I climbed down, down, down, heart beating fast and my palms clammy with sweat. This could not be happening. For someone to place a Portkey on that crumbling stone well, as if they knew a person would kneel next to it, as if they had predicted that I would pick it up… The shape, the size – it was too misleading. Of course I would pick up a wand. And now…now where was I?
An ancient door opened up to the sea. The lighthouse was propped against rocks as black and glossy as obsidian. Their edges looked sharp, feral. I slid my hand out over the lighthouse’s surface, lifting one foot onto a rock. Biting my lip, I extended another foot onto the rock. Foamy seawater lurched over my head, drenching me with frozen liquid. Tall, willowy reeds floated over white-capped waves. I picked one up, examining it.
It felt familiar.
I sank onto the rocks, wrapping my arms around my knees and clutching the broken reeds in my fists. The endless waters continued to bellow and moan as they moved with itself and against itself – one massive, belligerent organism. The beacon of light high in the tower above me sliced through the waves – bluish-white and shining, calling for someone who wasn’t there to come and save me.
The echoes of a crying wolf reverberated in the distance, washing away in the tide before they ever reached my ears.
From where Lucius stood in Malfoy Manor’s doorway, he could plainly see that within a span of four or five hours, the grassy bowl had once again filled with water. He had witnessed the levels rising hungrily before his eyes, swelling in size not just from the downpour, but from all moisture in the ground.
The earth around the manor cracked apart, white-hot and bone-dry. Veins of underground water and the roots for every kind of vegetation were sucked for sustenance, feeding the parasitic lake. The lake drew its water mercilessly, grinding like machinery as it churned. Rain seared the shores, melting surrounding ground to widen itself, the raindrops pinging along to make it look like thousands upon thousands of rocks were skipping over the surface. It was impossible.
And yet, it was happening.
Lucius leaned against the doorway, mesmerized. A pack of wolves bristled at the sight of him, acknowledging his presence with their bright eyes but making no move in his direction. They dipped down from the forest, switching their tails as the pads of their large feet trotted quickly. An auburn wolf led them with precise steps, glancing back every now and again to ensure that his fellows followed after him. They left no footprints in the snow.
The pale man squinted through the storm, stepping forward with one arm pressed over his forehead to scatter the raindrops. A wave of liberation engulfed him as he moved across the castle’s threshold. The air was clearer beyond the castle – healthier, despite the obscuring shower of water.
A small light appeared like a star in the distance. It flickered, dying, only to come back again within moments. It was situated far, far away – over the very center of the lake, it seemed. He blinked, thinking it perhaps an illusion.
The ball of light cut through miles of smoke-gray clouds, washing Lucius’s chest with weak radiance for a fraction of a second before the clouds moved back together, congealing protectively. Lucius walked to the edge of the lake, rapt, and gazed over its boiling waves. The wolves quivered as the starlight waned, and a small black one on the fringe of the group took pause. The clouds hissed like snakes as they entwined around each other, darkening with rain saturation until they were as black as steam from a train. The auburn wolf threw its head back and released a dangerous growl, staring at the smaller one who had drawn its paw back in hesitation.
Lucius gazed at the place where the eye of the light had been, feeling a peculiar sense of curiosity tugging at his arms. He watched the small pack of wolves slink through the mud and snow down to the edges of the arctic water. One by one, they slipped into the iron-gray lake, paddling fathomlessly through a fog that rolled over the lapping waves. Fifteen minutes later, a limp black creature washed up on the shore of the lake, unmoving.
Tendrils of water gushed through its fur, softly stroking it. The animal’s hip bones heaved, its concave stomach muscles struggling for breath, and a wave reached through the air and took the wolf in its embrace, pulling it under the lake for consumption.