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Chapter 4: Double-Edged
Cedric had taken it upon himself to make Colin’s and Fred’s transitions into Cliodna’s Clock as smooth and speedy as possible. And while in life the charismatic Cedric had been patient and selfless, he’d lost a bit of that while waiting for so long at the window seat in the boardinghouse where he lived. He’d watched the seasons change from that position on the lumpy pink upholstery, eyes glazing over with the passing of people and time, neither of which had any effect on him.
He didn't stick out as one of the youngest residents anymore. James and Lily were both very young, to be sure, but they had each other and could spend weeks wrapped up in their own games, free from the world around them. Here were two boys around his own age – boys that he knew – and it was difficult to hide exactly how excited he was to finally have real friends again.
Perhaps his new self-assigned post as the person meant to show Fred and Colin the ropes would be more successful if he could manage to keep tabs on either of them.
He understood it, of course – the need to detach from everyone and wander around, making sense of the circumstances. He’d done it himself after his own untimely death. He could recall his first few days being spent in a blur, sitting in trees and walking through alleys at night in order to avoid lingering gazes. People tried to lay hands on his shoulders, offering him kind condolences and sage advice, but he would have none of it. He politely excused himself and set off faster than before, making sure to find a hiding place where he would not be disturbed from his miserable thoughts again. Over and over, he recounted the graveyard with a ghoulish green cast to the atmosphere, the cold sensation of something horrible and imminent cropping up all over his skin like dew.
There were a dozen things he could have done differently. He could have shot off sparks from his wand in the maze when he realized that Krum had been Imperiused, and put a temporary stop to the tournament. After all, a small voice in his ear had whispered while he was running between fog and vines that it wasn’t quite fair to continue with the competition when one of the other champions had been struck with an Unforgivable Curse. Still, he had kept going. It was what his father wanted and what his friends wanted and what he wanted more than anything in the world. The desire to win was so paramount that, looking back, if he’d been able to return to the maze and redo things, he might have a hard time not racing for the trophy.
That trophy glittered on the edges of his mind, beckoning him through a sheen of mist and jumping spiders, promising a lifetime of glory and recognition beyond any other prize that could be offered to students his age. It flitted through his daydreams in a constant reminder of what reaching out with both hands, not leaving one of them tethered to a stable surface, could do to him. Temptation. Victory. Fame. The Goblet of Fire had chosen him, and expected him to do well. It granted him an opportunity that would be irresponsible to take lightly.
He could have touched the Portkey and returned home after he realized what it was, rather than snooping around the tombstones like a curious customer browsing a shop. This way, both he and Harry could have turned out all right. Harry would not have had to suck Cedric through a starless vacuum so that his body could be gawked at by his family, teachers, and friends. Hundreds of eyes on him right after the tournament’s completion – exactly what he’d dreamed of – but it was warped into a horrific nightmare no one could escape from.
He could have let Harry take the Cup for himself.
But all of that was neither here nor there, Cedric tried to convince himself as he passed yet another advertisement for the Devil’s Duel signups. He’d first arrived in Cliodna’s Clock right during the middle of the races, just in time to watch a hag lose to a witch by the name of Dorcas Meadowes. The year after that, he was riding on the confidence of a new friendship with James Potter and together, they both decided to sign up. They were supposed to support each other, help each other, and Cedric viewed it not as a competition but a way of having fun with a friend. Everything was smashed to pieces, however, when Sirius Black showed up right in the middle of the races on the eighteenth of June. After that, James didn’t bother much with Cedric and eagerly found a way to get himself eliminated from the Devil’s Duel.
Cedric made it out in the third round and decided not to sign up the following year. After all, he knew all too well what it was like to be neck-and-neck with someone and fall in second place. If the same thing happened again, it would be more than his body that he would lose.
His hands clenched as he glided around a street corner, nearly knocking Bertha Jorkins sideways into a bakery, his eyes sweeping the landscape for Colin and Fred. In a stroke of pure luck, he passed Colin, who was sitting on a bench. He seemed to blend in with an obsidian house shaped into a chess bishop – Salazar Slytherin’s place – because of the black robes he wore. He hadn’t been wearing robes when he washed up on the beach, and Cedric wondered where he’d gotten them. His heart resounded with hollow pangs when he realized that they looked exactly like Hogwarts uniforms.
Cedric paused for a moment, looking down at the young man, before sitting. Colin made no gesture of acknowledgement, keeping his eyes glued to a wand that lay spread across his knees.
“Oh, I see you’ve gotten a wand!” Cedric said jovially, leaning over to smile at him. “Gregorovitch has to compete with the Ollivanders here, but his business doesn’t fare too badly. He set up a shop after he came here in September, and that’s where I got this from.” He reached inside his pocket and pulled out his own wand, admiring it. Colin still paid him no notice, but Cedric went on as though he were speaking to an enraptured audience. “My old one was made by Antioch Peverell himself, but it never wanted to do cleaning spells for me. My new Gregorovitch one is much better.”
Colin didn’t answer.
“Say, have you seen Fred Weasley anywhere about? He was in my year…I’d like to ask about a few of my friends and see how they’re doing.” He fell silent for a few seconds, wondering for the thousandth time what he would have been up to on a day like today if he’d been able to leave Hogwarts after seventh year just like the rest of his classmates, and what he might have gone on to do. Ministry work, maybe? The Ministry might’ve been a bit boring for him… He often considered going into something more unconventional that no one would expect, like opening his own restaurant or designing a new line of brooms. He smiled dryly to himself at the thought of what it might be like to turn twenty years old, the idea that he could still do things like opening a restaurant or designing brooms never once occurring to him.
“Do you think it would be worse to die when you’re too young to know what you’re missing, or when you’re just old enough to have your own family and a career and everything?” Colin asked suddenly.
Cedric looked up, having almost forgotten he was there, and studied him. The boy continued to look away, screwing up his face to observe an Herbology greenhouse across the street, diagonal to where they sat. Its bottle-green glass was cracked and dusty, the various veins resembling a map.
“I…I couldn’t say. I don’t really think there is a good time to die, you know?”
Colin made no response, deciding either not to listen to him or that he was dissatisfied with Cedric’s answer. A crease developed in Cedric’s forehead and he absently scratched his neck, swallowing.
“So, have you seen Fred, then?”
“Of course there is a good time to die,” a much louder and much deeper voice boomed. Colin and Cedric both jumped, swerving around to gaze up the shining black house to an open window. Salazar Slytherin stood staring down at them with his hands folded primly one on top of the other on his window ledge, two patterned lace curtains whipping behind his head like doilies. He arched an indolent black eyebrow at them, his haughty features rather less intimidating in broad daylight. “There is honor in death, is there not?”
“Don’t listen to him,” replied a fourth voice. It was a woman moving so quickly down the street that she didn’t appear to be walking, but floating. Her midnight hair was waist-length, twisted away from her pale face in rows and pinned with a rainbow of miniscule jewels. “He does this all the time. He’s just trying to get under your skin.”
Something soft passed over Salazar’s expression when he viewed her sauntering by, and then his lips quickly curved into a smirk. “You would take this one amusement from me, my dear Rowena?”
She smiled ever so slightly, patronizing but indulgent, and Salazar couldn’t help but lower his chin into one hand, elbow propped on the ledge. With the way that her hair and jewelry sparkled in the sun as she surveyed him from below, it was all he could do to remember his bitterness. Standing there like she was, gazing evenly up at him as though she talked to him all the time and might even be brave enough to talk to him when it was just the two of them conversing without anyone else around to act as buffers – it was easy to imagine that he didn’t hate her.
“Come now, Salazar. Leave the poor boy alone. He’s had a very rough go of it…so very young.”
Her pity, which Salazar considered a weakness, was enough to strengthen his resolve against slipping through her fingers again. “Shouldn’t you be out prancing around with Gryffindor, listening to him sing about his latest biography?”
The abrupt dismay in the way her mouth turned down at the corners, one heel inching away from her other as she made to turn, froze Salazar’s tongue. Cedric and Colin stared from one person to the other, not speaking. “My apologies, Miss Ravenclaw. I was merely brooding about the impossibility of avoiding death. It is all I have, you see. I tell people truths. The races are nigh and I believe it more imperative than ever that people continue to finish each other off in this barbaric fashion. If no one signs up for the tournament, then what will happen? The committee would start choosing residents at random. Our free will…my immortality…lost forever.”
“Tournament?” Colin repeated. “So that’s what the races are? Like the Triwizard Tournament?”
“The Triwizard Tournament and the Devil’s Duel are similar, it is true. Legend says that they originated in nearly identical forms in practice, but each has evolved over the years, splitting off in different directions. In our races here, there’s loads more champions and the stakes are a hell of a lot higher.”
“Have you ever signed up for this? For the races, I mean?” Colin wanted to know. Salazar's eyebrows lifted higher, looking severely on the verge of laughter.
“Are you off your onion, boy? I’ve already died once. Don’t really fancy doing it again, especially since I know I won’t be going anywhere afterward. You’ve heard that, haven’t you?” He leaned forward, strands of black hair falling against his jaw like deep shadows. “The runner-up dies. Rowena desires for me to be honest with you, and so I shall. It’s not at all worth the chance of a few hours amongst strangers, if you ask me.”
Colin’s mouth fell open. “Dies? But – but we’re already dead.”
“I did it a few dozen times,” Rowena chipped in, ignoring Colin’s remark. “Lost its luster after a while. What’s the use of going back to earth if you don’t know anyone there? Everything looks different – the trees, the grass, the sky. Most of it’s gone now, replaced with buildings. It’s too foreign for someone like me, who still remembers the world as it once was.”
Salazar’s eyelids lowered, but whether he was disdainful or thoughtful, Cedric and Colin couldn’t tell. He was an exceptionally tricky man to read when he wanted to be. “And would you consider it a good thing or a bad thing that you haven’t changed at all yourself, Miss Ravenclaw?”
She regarded him steadily. “I wish you could speak to me without analyzing your words beforehand thoroughly enough to fill them with double-edged meanings.”
“I wish you could speak to me without feeling sorry for me.”
“Oh, Salazar. I stopped feeling sorry for you centuries ago.” She hesitated, hands rubbing together. “No more talk of the races. I’ve seen you do more harm than good and too many young ones have passed on before their time because of words you’ve spoken to them.” She gestured to Colin. “He’s a sweet boy. You won’t make an allowance?”
His dark eyes glittered. “For you, I would make several.”
She blushed deeply and he drew up to his full height, satisfied with himself. At last, he said, “One of these days, old friend, the Devil’s Duel will come down to the two of us.”
She stared at him, unwavering. A large part of her wondered if he was right. It felt inevitable, somehow, that they would have their wands crossed against each other like swords someday. The two of them had been crossed throughout history so many times that it was impossible to tell exactly who was at fault, in the end.
“I hope you get to watch me bleed. It was such a shame that you had to miss it last time.”
He turned around and disappeared into the depths of his home, the rancid breath of his words still lingering. Rowena looked furious. She brought her fist to her lips, turning away from the two boys. Neither glanced away from her fast enough, and it was all Colin could do to change the subject.
“So what happens to the people who’ve lost? Do many people sign up for it?”
“Oh, a fair few do,” Cedric responded, as Rowena was still glowering at where Salazar’s face had been only a minute before. There was something not quite right about the scene, perhaps a rippling of a hand or someone’s chameleon profile stirring against the backdrop of lace patterned curtains. Rowena thought it would be very much like him to give himself a Disillusionment Charm so that he could monitor her reaction without being monitored himself. A voyeur of his aftermath.
“But not everyone who signs up gets through. There can only be ten people in the races. I know that a couple of past winners – Caradoc Dearborn and Viola Bones, for example – only entered once and never went for it again. Wasn’t worth the stress, they said. But there are others, of course, who try all the time. Lily Potter has signed up for every single Devil’s Duel in the past sixteen years.”
“That’s a lot of risk.”
“That’s a lot of desperation.”
“Did she ever win?”
“Oh, yes. She doesn’t look it, but Lily Potter is one of the most cutthroat competitors you’ll ever find. She’ll do anything she can to win, and that’s why she’s come out on top thirteen times. And she knows her limits, too. If she gets into the competition and is sizing up her opponents and thinks her chances aren’t too good, she’ll drop out early, making herself an easy target in the first four duels. She’s only had to do that three times.”
“What do you mean, ‘first four duels’?” Colin frowned. “I thought it was just one duel.”
Cedric wiped the sweat from his forehead, temporarily distracted by how progressively hot it was getting. “You’ll see for yourself when it comes around, but the Devil’s Duel is five separate duels, spread out over the month of June.”
“The second, the ninth, the sixteenth, the twenty-third, and the thirtieth,” Rowena recited from memory. “Those are always the days.”
“Anyone can sign up,” Cedric went on, “but the races usually only appeal to newcomers. They’re still in denial – no offense to you, mate – and are still attached to their old lives. People who’ve been here longer don’t usually sign up unless they’re really bored. There are years, from what I’ve heard, that barely anyone initially signs up, and so a bunch of volunteers jump in before it can go to a draft.”
“And there are other years when so many people sign up that a committee has to narrow them down to ten,” Rowena said. Colin’s head jerked back and forth, following both of them and trying to absorb the information.
“Right,” Cedric chimed. “If more than ten people want in, then a committee chooses ten contestants from the pool and those contestants are then split into two groups of five. For the first four duels, people only duel those within their own group. With every duel, one person is eliminated from each group. In round five, only one person from each team is left, and those remaining contestants duel each other for the prize. Whoever loses gets their soul taken from them.”
“What happens to their soul?”
“Some say it gets blotted out forever. Some say their souls are given to someone else in reincarnation. No one really knows, but it’s pretty clear that the losers themselves no longer exist. Anywhere.”
“Did you personally know any of the losers?” Colin inquired.
Cedric nodded. “It’s interesting, though – in 1995, Lily Potter let Dorcas Meadowes win by allowing herself to be defeated in the third round, leaving Dorcas with only Geoffrey Everard in her group for the fourth duel. Everyone knows that Everard won’t curse a witch. So when Everard lost against her in the fourth round and Dorcas went on to the last round to duel this old hag named Glenda, she won it easily. The very next year, Lily turned around and defeated Dorcas, so now Dorcas is dead.”
“One of Lily’s dearest friends, too,” Rowena lamented.
“Things change when you’re dead,” Cedric said in a low tone, his expression serious. “Priorities are different. Lily loved Dorcas and Dorcas loved Lily, and for eleven months out of the year they were the best of friends. But in June, all bets are off. People think only about their loved ones, their family and friends back home. And Lily…she had more to lose than Dorcas. She wanted it more. She had to see her son.”
“Harry,” Colin mentioned quietly.
“Right. This is The Boy Who Lived and his mother we’re talking about here; she’s going to do everything she can to see him and make sure he’s safe. When Dorcas got in the way of that, no matter how much Lily loved her, that witch didn’t stand a chance.”
“But there’s something that doesn’t make sense to me,” Colin replied slowly, gripping both ends of his wand in his hands and examining it. “The person to come out on top, in the fifth round – that person gets the twenty-four-hour prize, right?”
Rowena, despite feeling uneasy about the topic, pivoted her body toward him. Her skirts followed in a swishing rustle, the gauzy red fabric somewhat transparent in this lighting; the sun enabled underlying gold skirts to shine through. Something about the material of her gown reminded Cedric of water, like fluid in stitches. He wondered if it was goblin-made. “That is correct.”
“Then why don’t people try to run off? Escape while they’re on earth?”
“Oh, there are plenty of rules you’ve got to follow,” Cedric cut in. “Like, you can’t talk to anyone. You can’t let yourself be seen. You can’t interfere with the lives of the living. If you break the rules, you don’t get to come back to Cliodna’s Clock; you have to go to the Grotta. No one from Cliodna’s Clock lasts long when they get cast off over there. If the insanity or the other residents don’t kill you, then the diseases will.”
“Winners try running off all the time,” Rowena informed them knowingly. “It’s only natural, really, to get to earth and then begin to fancy yourself safe and invincible. But it’s not possible to escape. If you’re not back to your Portkey in exactly twenty-four hours, then the station attendant from the depot goes in there after you. Trust me, if the attendant has to go in after you to find you – and she definitely will find you – it is never a pleasant experience.” She bit her lip, folding her hands together. “I’ve tried it a few times.”
Colin absently uttered something that sounded like ‘she?’ but wasn’t heard by the others.
Salazar Slytherin watched the three of them from his stance at the window, pleased that Rowena glanced up at him so often. She walked away just as he decided to reverse his Disillusionment Charm, wishing to see her blush again; but it was too late. She was gone and Salazar was left with only the two young men far below his window, conversing in low murmurs. The thirst for adventure and glory traveled from one pair of eyes to the other, as though by reflection, and Salazar smiled wryly to himself. So long as he had his window and the fair Rowena to watch from afar, it did not matter to him who was killed in the races. It only mattered that the races continued to exist, so that those less intelligent could willingly sacrifice themselves while Salazar was permitted to live for as long as he wanted.
Which, of course, was forever.