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Chapter 1: Newcomers
Disclaimer: I am not the magnificent JK Rowling. She owns everything you already recognize, including the quote you are about to read, which is from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, USA edition, page 297.
To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.
- Albus Dumbledore
Cedric Diggory had been wearing trenches in the sand dunes for fifteen minutes at least, but when reflecting on the scope of things, he’d been waiting much longer than that. He’d been informed many long months ago – the previous April, in fact – that Cliodna’s Clock was to acquire a slew of new residents. Although the informant, Cassandra Trelawney, seemed quite unfazed about the mundane regularity of this sort of news, Cedric could not help but enquire after more details.
“Who?” he had asked at once, barring the woman’s path as she attempted to swerve past him. “Do you know any of them?”
“I’ve never met them, I’m sure.”
He attacked her from a different angle. “When are they coming? Did you see a date when you heard the crows? Anything concrete?”
“You ask a lot of questions.” She side-eyed the corner of Odo’s pub with a peevish demeanor. “I’m late for something.” She made to pass him but he held his arm out again.
“Do I know any of the newcomers?”
Cassandra stared at the sky, squinting. Whether she was squinting because she was annoyed or because she was analyzing her visions, Cedric couldn’t be certain. All he knew was that this was simultaneously the best and worst scrap of news that he’d gotten in a painfully long time. As much as he enjoyed Quidditch matches in the orange grove alongside Gideon and Fabian Prewett, Sirius Black was an infamous cheater and he nearly always bewitched the Quaffle. In Cedric’s own opinion, the man was just jealous that he’d never been a Quidditch Captain in his day. Cedric was a Captain as well as a Seeker, thank you very much, and all he ever asked of his mates was for a nice, clean game without anyone whistling at him just as he was about to dive for the Snitch. He had yet to have his wishes granted.
And besides that, he was lonely.
“Some are students,” she replied slowly. “Some are not.”
Cedric’s heart stuttered. “Students? Hogwarts students?”
She nodded, her movements still incredibly sluggish. She always floated around in a trance whenever she was in the middle of a fit of visions (which generally lasted for about three days, on and off), and it was a right pain trying to get any straight answers out of her. “Did you see any faces? Hear any names?”
She pursed her lips, definitely frowning now. “All I know is that a few of them turn up right after the tulips in Rowena’s garden bloom. And some of them come before that, but their arrival dates are vague.”
Cedric was not satisfied with this answer and continued to hound her. It wasn’t until after Professor Alastor Moody (although the old man barked at Cedric not to call him a professor) showed up, a snowy owl perched on his left shoulder, that Miss Trelawney had another vision. This time, two names were quite clear in her mind. It was these two particular people Cedric was waiting fervently for when he walked past Rowena’s front garden every morning, hands clasped behind his back. The stems took ages to slither up out of the ground, not helped in the least by Mr. Gryffindor’s standing under Rowena’s window all the time, bellowing sonnets up at her.
Cedric, growing desperate, stamped small fences in the ground around the tulips in efforts to keep them from being smashed. He even ventured so far as to knock on Godric’s door one evening and inquire very reasonably if the latter could please keep his humongous feet away from Miss Ravenclaw’s flower bed, as he was impeding something important. Godric had responded by setting his cat on him, which never seemed to like the boy. Perhaps it was because the narrow-eyed cat often watched Cedric pet Benjy Fenwick’s basset hound over the picket fence after his afternoon walks and decided to dislike him on principle.
While hurrying all over Cliodna’s Clock on these expeditions, hunching in the pouring rain and rambling to himself, he frequently glanced up at the village’s namesake – a tall, curved clock in the shape of a blackbird. Whenever someone who was destined to end up here died on earth, the clock tolled one crow for every year of that person’s life. Moments later, they would arrive on the beach with bewildered, unfocused eyes. Sometimes Cedric stood on the jetty that faced the depot, annoyed that he couldn’t swim out to pester the station attendant and demand more precise answers. He’d tried it many times over the past couple of years and no matter how hard he kicked his legs, no matter how long he continued to paddle, the depot always remained the same distance, looming on an island tauntingly far from him.
It was a one-way voyage, and he’d already made his.
Cedric owned that his desire to hurry the process was a little bit wrong. After all, these two people he knew were coming were familiar to him. He’d seen one several times and his old friends used to delight in making fun of him and the way he skipped around with a camera held up to one eye. The other newcomer was a boy he hadn’t been exactly friends with, as Cedric had heard him sniggering about him on more than one occasion, but he supposed bygones were indeed bygones and his Quidditch team was missing a Beater.
On April twenty-seventh, Rowena's tulips had successfully climbed out of the soil, petals curling tightly over their hearts to block out the sun. Cedric paced a bit more than usual, glowering at the flowers and occasionally shouting things at them to try to hurry them along (earning him incredulous stares and some catcalling from people lying in the gutter outside Odo’s, who always seemed to be drunk no matter what the hour), but it was useless. The tulips would bloom whenever they wanted to bloom, and no amount of harassing shadows that tried to take up residence along the brick siding of Rowena’s house, blocking out the rays of day, would make anything happen.
Therefore, on the second day of May, it took three full trips around the block for Cedric to finally see the blossoms peeled all the way out, pink with splashes of yellow. The enormous clock situated in City Center opened up its sharp beak and began to crow. Once, twice, thirty times. Fifty, sixty, a hundred. It continued to crow until everyone clamped their hands over their ears, attempting to smother the ringing sound. People streamed into the streets, exchanging worried looks and shouting to each other over the caws of the clock. What was going on down on earth?
Cedric wasn’t overly concerned about this. He was single-minded, having both dreaded this day and anticipated it. “That’s them! They’re here!” he cried, running down the pavement and skidding to a halt just before he could hit Phineas Nigellus Black. Phineas was busy stumbling around into things as usual, his body half-transparent from where he spent so much of his time paying attention to his portraits back on earth. He was forever bumping into houses and people because he forgot to pay attention to his immediate surroundings.
“Who’s where?” Phineas echoed with idle curiosity, his silvery profile quivering as he rejoined his physical form. Before he could materialize completely in the flesh, however, Cedric had already pushed past him, long legs darting down to the beach.
“Hufflepuffs,” Phineas muttered disgustedly.
Rolls of blue.
That was the first thing Fred Weasley became aware of when he opened his eyes. He opened his mouth, too, inviting in a swell of frigid water. His mind tunneling in every direction, trying to figure out how he’d gotten to this new location, he whirled around in the water and launched himself off of the sandy floor. Bits of broken shell floated around his shoes from the current he’d created. His body shot upward through the clouds of mossy green and cerulean, fingers splaying against cold liquid. Sunlight penetrated the faraway surface, reflecting underwater starbursts around him like prisms.
Last he knew, Fred was dueling Augustus Rookwood in a corridor. His hand could still feel a wand that wasn’t there, the handle cutting into his skin as he gripped it. He was still tense, tendons on edge. He couldn’t make sense of what had happened. Perhaps someone had cast a spell that flooded the corridor, turning the classrooms aquatic? His head finally broke the surface and he inhaled a great gust of oxygen, tossing the sopping fringe out of his eyes. Treading the waves and turning himself in a circle, Fred saw a small building on stilts sticking out of the water. It was the only structure surrounding him that he could see, although part of the vista was broken up with a skinny harbor.
Fred swam over and flung himself onto the dock, the warped boards hot and dry in the white sun. Before he could cough up the water in his lungs, it had already disappeared; before he could shake the beads from his hair, the ginger strands were already dry.
He looked down at himself. Completely dry. So dry that he could never have been wet. So far, this was turning out to be a fairly impressive hallucination. Fred surveyed the plain square building on stilts, wavering slightly in a heat-induced mirage. There was an irresistible pull toward its door, a call of welcome. The door opened of its own volition and Fred could think of absolutely nothing else he wanted to do besides enter.
A swarthy man around Charlie’s age was standing behind a gleaming desk just inside the building, perusing a book laid out before him and scratching his jaw with his quill. Curls of ink were left behind, but he didn’t seem to notice. Although he seemed to not notice Fred, either, Fred got the keen feeling that he was being ignored instead. “Hello?” he offered, shuffling inside. He turned to shut the door but it didn’t budge, no matter how hard he pulled on it. The handle became as hot as coals, burning his fingers, and he jumped away.
“The door doesn’t like being told how to do its job,” the man spoke, not looking up at Fred.
Fred simply gaped at him for a moment before gathering his wits about him. It took three strides to greet the back of the tiny room. “Who are you? What is…” he gestured around the room with one swirling finger, his breath coming up in short, panicked bursts, “this? What is this and where am I?”
“You’re at the depot. I am the station attendant and I’m the one who gets to tell you where to go.” He cleared his throat, two lazy green eyes wandering up the wall. “Over there is Cliodna’s Clock.” He gestured to the wall behind his desk, where Fred could see nothing except for a nondescript painting of a landscape hanging crooked against grayish paneling. “And over there is the Grotta, but there’s no point in discussing it because you won’t be going there.”
Fred hesitated, scanning the brass buttons on the station attendant’s waterproof. The man was wearing a bucket hat as well, even though Fred was positive he hadn’t been wearing it just seconds before. “Where am I going?”
The man rolled his eyes in exasperation, releasing a loud sigh. “Well if you’re not going to the Grotta, then you’re obviously going to Cliodna’s Clock. You can thank your chocolate frogs for that, too, since I’ve been getting boatloads of those people all day. You’ll do well to know that your side is winning.”
Fred gazed at his clothing, remarking to himself that he looked just as he had when he was dueling. He was covered in dirt, sweat, and rubble, as if he’d merely stepped through a tapestry while fighting and emerged in this strange place. And although he hoped that he’d only been struck in the back of the head with something heavy, due to wake up soon from unconsciousness, he remembered the overwhelming impact of stone and wood against his body from an excruciating blast; and there was a silver mist that swam through the air, eating its way across his flesh, sizzling when it made contact with droplets of his own blood. He felt the mist reaching through his ribcage, five fingers finding their way around his heart; it held it still, keeping it from beating.
But it was certainly beating now. Fred could feel his pulse racing.
“Am I dead?”
“Yes.” The man continued to scribble in his book.
Fred absorbed the shocks of that answer for approximately two seconds before saying, “Excuse me?” He placed his hand over the man’s book, insistent. “Did you just say what I think you just said?”
The attendant’s head snapped up, his quill spinning dexterously between his fingers. “Did you just ask what I think you just asked?”
“I asked if I was dead.”
“And I gave you a positive confirmation.” He clucked his tongue. “Really, now. With brains like yours, it’s no wonder you snuffed it.”
Fred backed away slightly. “But I can’t be dead. I was just…” One of his hands reached up to graze the back of his hair. He’d already forgotten where he’d been.
“You were in the Battle of Hogwarts, according to my records,” the attendant prompted helpfully, although he didn’t sound the least bit interested.
A flood of memories washed over Fred and he clicked his fingers, eyes growing huge. “That’s right! That’s exactly right –” He paused for a moment, thoughtful. “That’s what they’re calling it? The Battle of Hogwarts?” The words drifted out one wide-open window, splattering across the sea. “Not very creative.”
“You should consider yourself lucky that the timing of your death fell on such an epic occasion,” the attendant quipped, flipping his book shut and removing it to a shelf along the wall. “They don’t build monuments for people who fell off of brooms, do they?” He examined the face of his watch, the corners of his mouth twitching. He held it to his lips and breathed on it, fogging up the glass. He then wiped it on his waterproof, leaving the imprint of a dirty circle clinging to the slick material. “Or for people who got eaten by a nundu.”
“Is that what happened to you?”
“No matter,” the man chided, waving him off. “Sit down, George. You’re not set to leave directly, you’ve got to wait for another passenger. Should be here shortly.” He consulted his watch, which was already dirty again. “Indeed, he is late. Someone must be having a hard time letting go.”
“Who?” Fred questioned. “And my name isn’t George, it’s Fred.”
“Oh, really?” He pulled his book off the shelf and thumbed through it, thick eyebrows arching. “Says right here that you’re George Weasley.”
Fred snatched up a magazine lying on one of the nearby chairs and lifted it up to cover his face. “Hmph.”
“Hello?” someone yelled from outside. The voice was very close.
“And there’s Mr. Creevey,” the station attendant said brightly. “You boys would do well to hurry. Probably won’t want to be here when Mrs. Lestrange comes in.”
“Mrs. Lestrange?” Fred repeated sharply, but was interrupted by the clomping of shoes. Colin Creevey stuck his head around the door, mousy brown hair in scattered disarray.
“Has anyone seen Dennis? My mum will never forgive me if I’ve lost him.”
"Colin?" Fred asked hoarsely, his face paling. Colin turned to him, meaning to respond, but another voice cut smoothly over his.
“Dennis isn’t the one who’s lost. And you won’t be seeing him for another twenty years,” the man replied matter-of-factly. “Now that you’re both here, just sign this form and you can be on your way.” He pushed a slip of parchment and a quill at the young men. "Hurry, now. I've got more visitors arriving and you won't want to see that lot, I assure you."
“Twenty years?” Colin asked in a whisper, his complexion as white as a sheet. “What does that mean?"
"This is why they should teach mathematics in magical schools," the attendant said. "It means that he's going to be thirty-five when he kicks it. If you prefer to look at the glass like it's half-full, then compare your lifespan with his. Sixteen is a far cry from the years he's going to get, wouldn't you agree? Still not exactly splendid news for your brother, though.”
"I'm dreaming," Colin replied firmly.
"Wouldn't that be preferable?" He snapped his fingers, pointing at the still-blank forms. Fred and Colin both signed their names with equally bewildered expressions, their minds drifting elsewhere in a confused daze.
"What happens to him?" Colin wanted to know. "What's going to happen to me?"
“And remove all the mystery? Give you all the answers? I think not.” The man led them outside into the blinking afternoon that should have been midnight, taking care to step with one foot right in front of the other so that he didn’t topple off of the narrow dock. He pointed to a long mauve canoe bobbing in the glassy water, thumping Fred on the shoulder blade with his other hand. “There you are. That’ll take you to Cliodna’s Clock.”
Fred and Colin looked at each other, neither one quite believing their situation, and wordlessly dropped into the canoe like two heavy stones. The man grinned at them, his hat vanishing again. The canoe pushed away from the dock, backwards, and by the time they were several feet out, the grinning station attendant had disappeared altogether.
Fred glanced around as the boat’s velocity increased, feeling suddenly ill. A far corner of his mind wondered where the Grotta might be, as he couldn’t see anything; before he could dwell properly on this or on the fact that a strange man had just told him he was dead, the canoe slammed into a solid wall. Colin jumped in surprise, making the boat wobble.
But where there surely should have been wall, as both boys could hear the boat plinking off of it every half-second, there was only air and an everlasting expanse of ocean. Cautiously, Colin stretched out his fingers and felt at the air, testing for a barrier. He found glass and curled his hand into a fist, rapping twice on it. It echoed, reverberating throughout an invisible shield. A familiar voice on the other side laughed. Fred thought it sounded disturbingly familiar.
“Oh, I forget that you can’t see the island at first,” the voice said. Colin thought that it sounded like the speaker was shaking his head and smiling. “Your mind can’t process what it looks like for a few minutes. But don’t worry, soon you’ll be able to see me just as plainly as I can see you.” Two hands reached across the void; one grasped Colin, the other grasped Fred. Neither one of them could see the invisible person pulling them along, and they struggled to fight their way through the glass wall. It was leisurely melting, becoming malleable.
The glass was turning to pearly ice and the ice was dripping with condensation, thinning away to form a texture like film. There was a ripping noise as Colin and Fred broke through the film, their eyes adjusting to the brightness of someone’s teeth.
He’s smiling, Fred thought. How can he be smiling?
The teeth were followed by lips and then a nose, and then a pair of eyes. Pigment flushed the sunlit air around the beaming smile, tinting it with skin that wasn’t there before. Arms and hands and legs were painted with beige strokes, familiar yellow and black clothing sealing itself over top, and then the vision was complete. Behind the figure, a setting of cobalt-blue palm trees and a staccato succession of roofs of all shapes and colors was beginning to etch across a canvas of salty sea breeze.
There were winding paths and arches and adobe houses built into cavern walls; there was a towering ivory fountain in the shape of lilies that twisted up into the sky, sprouting vines of frozen water that glistened. It was a quaint little village that shimmered with clouds of spells, deceased witches and wizards going about their day with flicking wands and clinking teacups and trails of laughter that leaked out of one doorway and crept into the next.
It looked like a massive mosaic, all of the pieces falling together with miniscule clicks, fitting into place, as one's pupils dilated wide enough to finally see it happen. Perspective. It required the perspective of standing on the edge in order to see it as a whole. Surrounding it all, and soaking the atmosphere itself, was the ripe flavor of something strong coming. Something expected and desired, sailing on the wind that ruffled Fred’s hair and sent a shower of goosebumps down Colin’s arms. Something that everyone wanted, even Colin and Fred, although neither had any idea what it might be yet.
“You’re just in time for the races,” Cedric said.
*Edited June 2013* After a recent spike in plagiarism of my stories, this is a friendly reminder to any would-be story stealers that I routinely check the Internet for plagiarism. It is very easy to find. It is also very easy to report. If you try to steal my work, I am coming after you with a vengeance to rival Lord Voldemort. Godspeed!