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Chapter 25: Fear is a Four Letter Word
Victoire removed the frayed leather leash, a spare from a hook beside the back door of the immersion house. She limited herself to taking only items a dog absolutely required or ones she could find outside the suite Phineas and Micah no longer shared. Her anger at Phineas hadn't lessened, but in truth, she dreaded the thought of confirming for him that Diogy would be staying with Edgar's family in their Bimas forest cottage.
Owen, sidestepping her, dropped a bag of dog food next to the door. "You have to tell Teddy."
The leash creaked in protest as she wrapped the length of it in a tight circle around her palm. "No, you."
They'd loitered on the back step of the darkened wand shop for an hour after closing. All the while, the metal box sat unopened between their feet. No amount of prying or prodding with any spell could break the seal to the one thing Micah left hidden within the make-shift shelter she'd inhabited before Bimas.
Worse, Owen never talked to the fairies. They'd vanished along with the boat. Victoire's revelation about the wands remained the only new information they had, and neither could decide whether the wands -ghost or familiar- were a piece or their own puzzle.
LeFay's island seemed the most logical place to start for answers, and maybe the boat and the fairies were there. Owen had thankfully endured enough recent mystery to accept the impossibility of what she explained, but Teddy wouldn't hear the theory with the same perspective. She'd be asking him to join them on faith.
No planning. A big request for a man like Teddy. His life was now so normal that anything not involving Victoire could have been scripted. His old taste for adventure, even the well planned variety, escaped him somewhere in his years abroad.
"He doesn't want to hear anything from me."
Owen slid the leash from Victoire's hand, not commenting on the red impressions her nervous winding left across her knuckles. "Teddy would listen to anything you say," he stated instead.
She wasn't so sure. She didn't understand the man Teddy had become; still almost grieved for the man she thought he'd be. She wouldn't deny she needed him -they needed him- and for once, she believed Teddy needed her. But he had Iska, who was everywhere at once with her invasive helpfulness.
"Use the guilt he's been wallowing in to cut through any doubt."
Absently flexing her hand, she stretched her time for a response. Guilt wasn't enough to offset the doubt. What they had to explain couldn't be found in any resource, not specifically outlined anyway. She'd made a leap interpreting events. One she believed in, but Teddy would want proof, something they'd only get if he helped them find it.
She wasn't reaching out to Teddy to borrow his strength. Not this time. And she couldn't have him think so. "It needs to come from you, not the irrational bint trying to keep hold of what she never had."
She stared down the objection in Owen's expression with what she hoped was confident determination and nothing near defensive stubbornness. "I'll go to dad with the chest. Won't take him long to open it, but if there's anything, he'll need to give it to the Ministry quick before anyone thinks we tampered with it."
"Dibbs. I found the chest."
"I've the curse-breaker for a parent."
They stared at each other for an unprecedented few breaths, neither normally patient enough for a stand-off. Both jerked back when the door opened. Victoire instinctively stepped in front of the dog food bag, but Phineas, too startled by their proximity, failed to register what she lamely tried to hide.
He recovered quickly and found his voice, a tense-sounding clipped version of his usual measured speech. "I suppose you've heard."
"Michael Morrone's father found him alive and living off the family vault on a Caribbean island," Phineas said. "He knew she was going to school for him. They'd planned it."
Owen gave a low whistle, scratching his eyebrow with a finger.
Vindication surged through Victoire. "See," she accused, facing each in turn with expectation. "That makes sense," she went on. "And what does BIMAS care, most of us are only here to fund fellowships. I was only admitted to be experimented on!"
Phineas winced. "You came to me. You agreed to everything we did."
Victoire would have taken a step back, had her heels not been pressed tight against the dog food bag. "What?"
"Forget it, you scarcely bothered to show up." Phineas scrubbed his face with a hand before fixing her with a deflated scowl. "You think he was her only chance to go to school? She didn't have to go about it by fraud. BIMAS very much cares. They're asking for reparations, and it's only right to. Don't make the institution the villain to romanticize the situation."
Rattled and repeating himself, Phineas continued. The words escaped him, unprepared, all precision gone. "She didn't have to -no- not this way. She's intelligent! Intelligent enough to have found another way."
The earnest, troubled expression in his eyes robbed Victoire of a ready reply. She frowned down at the floor, the fight gone from her.
Micah was smart. She tripped over basic spells, but managed to grasp topics from abstract reading assignments like a walking encyclopedia of the obscure. She debated Phineas on the least little fact she'd recalled to the point Victoire could only sit back and listen to their banter. Micah read people too, or she always had Victoire. And the comments Micah offered her were never intellectual, but always real and usually close to the mark.
Victoire pulled her head up and challenged Phineas in one last attempt for common ground. "Micah told me once, the biggest regrets were over things done for the wrong reasons. She had the right reasons for doing this."
He met her glance, about to say something, but Victoire pressed on- "Who are we to say she didn't deserve the education someone else threw away?"
Phineas blinked, but then slowly shook his head. "She chose this," he said as much to himself as to Victoire before he lifted to his full height and frowned down at her. "Consequences are what choices are all about."
"I'm not wrong about her."
"You wouldn't admit it if you were." His voice was hollow, the fight also gone from him. He walked away with a parting, "Even to yourself."
Owen let out another low whistle as soon as Phineas exited the room. His gaze swung to Victoire. "I reckon we forget the box; doesn't feel like it's connected now."
Victoire moved to speak but he cut over her. "Focus on the people at greatest risk. You. Teddy. Let's find who or what's doing the hunting here before someone actually gets torched."
The final word hung between them for a beat before she nodded. "They've already lost familiars, if the smoking trees mean what I think."
He pulled her to him with a strong grip that didn't relent when she'd curved into his side, holding on herself.
"We'll convince Teddy together," Owen whispered above her ear. "You have everything yet?"
"One more thing," she answered and dashed to her room for the books she'd borrowed from Grant. They lay forgotten, spread across the desktop where she'd tossed them in her rush. Scooping them together, she stashed the lot in the woven bag she used to pack for the boat.
The boat. She sighed through the tightness in her chest, hoping it and the fairies were safe at the island.
Two books remained protruded at odd angles from the top of the bag, defying her attempts to push them in. She snaked a hand to the bottom and pulled out the object stuck underneath them: Wordsworth's goblet.
Perfect, maybe she'd present the griffin's relic to Teddy as an icebreaker, explain why he had more claim to the re-purposed toenail than she. That should get them off on the right talon.
Merlin, she was losing her sanity.
And her grip. The griffin goblet slipped from her hand and under the bed with the speed of a downhill roll.
She reached beneath and patted near the headboard, touching a pair of cylindrical objects. One wedged between the headboard and the wall while the other, the goblet, pressed against it. She pulled both into the light.
Wrinkling her nose at the dusty bottle of gillywater, she held a vague recollection of snatching one from Teddy in her fever. Four days of horrendous sickness, and she'd not given that time a second thought. Not when remembering Teddy's care directly opposed the grudge she'd harbored for breaking her heart.
Karma was truly kicking her arse now.
She propped the bottle on the desk and grabbed the talon goblet up, swinging it into the bag and the bag on her shoulder in one motion.
Owen waited for her by the front door, tossing the rolled-up leash from one hand to the other out of Diogy's reach. "Dog first," he said, then went on to comment with a point at the wand case. "The house is filling up."
"Classes start tomorrow," Victoire explained. Her next day was scheduled to start with another Trimble meeting, a prospect she dreaded. If Phineas had been awarded one of the coveted fellowships for advanced students, her fate would be at the mercy of Trimble's professional agenda. An uncomfortable lump welled in Victoire's stomach. She certainly hadn't given Phineas any reason to stay with her.
The tap of Owen's finger on the glass-fronted case brought her attention back to him. His expression decisive, he said, "Teddy'll have to come back tonight. We hit him then."
"That'll be late." Iska wouldn't let go before she had to. "But best," Victoire concluded.
A conversation at the immersion house raised less suspicion than cornering Teddy elsewhere. Vicoire now feared suspicion like it was present in the flesh, tracking them from out of direct vision -but only just- and poised to pounce at their slightest slip. Bringing Teddy into this mess couldn't become that mistake.
Victoire could no longer anticipate Teddy's reactions. That ability slipped away when she'd lost the connection they shared; a price they paid for crossing the line in their friendship. She trusted Teddy not to betray her confidence, but she held no control over what he did with his own information.
Would he protect himself?
Owen lobbed the leash her way, breaking her from her thoughts once again. She managed not to drop the leash in her awkward catch and the rush of the dog out the door, but she almost missed her wands returning to her at the threshold. She hadn't held them both for weeks and frowned at one then the other, side-by-side in her hand.
"Which should I take?"
No immediate response from Owen. She glanced his way only to have her attention drawn back by a dark spot in her peripheral vision. A muck-colored beetle lit on the end of her Ollivander wand. Victoire flicked her hand, but the bug perched on, spindly legs gripping the edge. Claw-shaped jaws jutted out from a hard bulbous plate that formed the insect's head. Scowling, Victoire gave the wand another shake, but the beetle remained, grazing hairy feelers over the wand's surface.
The beetle then skittered from that wand tip to the other. Victoire recoiled, repulsed by the insect's crusty wings and the jittery movements against the smooth wood. Then the insect knocked its skull against the top of the wand, making a sharp tapping noise.
The door punctuated the sound with its own click behind Owen. He stepped up and, looking over Victoire's shoulder, reached around to flick the bug off.
"Take both," he answered.
Victoire blinked but didn't second-guess. She tucked the wands in her coat and pulled the fabric tight around her. Passing the lamp post, she flinched when she heard again-
This beetle wasn't the same insect. Its call was answered from the house where the first one landed. Victoire made her own sound, one that was almost a squeak. "Bloody bugs make my skin crawl."
As if in agreement, the dog growled before lifting his hind leg to mark the post.
Owen nudged her forward. "Don't get superstitious on top of suspicious."
"What do you mean?" She scanned his expression, but as soon as he realized she hadn't understood, he shook his head.
"Forget the bugs," he said, snapping his fingers for the dog to finish watering the post.
Their approach to the forest made the advice worth taking. The dirt trail was far creepier than soaring through the treetops. She'd certainly be more nimble as a bird, the feathers better insulation from the damp, gritty sensation of leaves and sticks and spiderwebs brushing past.
"Those puny things are nothing compared to back home," Owen continued. "We've real bugs there."
"Really, outback boy. Really?" Victoire scoffed, half stumbling over an exposed tree root. "You grew up in hotels."
"You're looking at the best damn billywig hunter in my year."
Victoire was actually looking at the ground, regretting her choice of canvas trainers, now wet and stained dark from the spongy ground. When she did glance up, Owen swept a branch out of her way to reveal a devilish grin on his face.
"For potions, I'm sure." She teased, but honestly, the image of Owen hovering and giddy over a billywig sting was hard to picture.
He winked as she ducked under the branch he held. Talking was good; talking eased the tension. She'd keep talking.
"D'you have a net for that?"
"Nah, a net's sloppy," Owen replied. "Made for those who chase random movement. You'll get lucky sometimes, but mostly you'll get sticks and leaves." He pulled another branch down only to release it with a thrashing rustle back above them. Talk wasn't as good for Owen as movement.
"So, what's the secret?"
"You listen," he answered very matter-of-fact. Then he smirked. "Billywigs are like women. They prefer to run about in groups, but like to stand out. When three or more of them are together, one's going to flutter their wings with this flirty little humming noise. You hear that, you know your going to get something."
"You know a lot about billywigs, then?"
Owen shrugged. "I liked the sting; I learned the bugs."
Victoire couldn't hold back her laugh, wouldn't have wanted to, and the force of it moving through her liberated the tightness within.
From her monthly full-moon flights to check on Wren, Victoire estimated the clearing with the little girl's treehouse to be close. A sharp bend in the stream opened the wall of trees on one side and all but pointed to the location of the miniature hideout across the grassy meadow. The treehouse wouldn't be visible, but the base tree's size and the distinct curve of the lowest branch would give it away to anyone who'd been nearly made a pet within the child-scale walls.
The path began to follow the bank of the stream, but a dead tree barricaded the footpath and Victoire's vision. They'd have to get over the deadfall for Victoire to verify their location. Diogy hesitated three sniffs before bounding down the bank and sloshing through the water.
"This stream forms a lily pond in a low area of a clearing. That's what we're looking for," Victoire said. "Edgar's cottage is a five minute walk from the, erm, the treehouse."
"As complicated as the last story?" Owen asked. He boosted her on top of the fallen trunk and she grabbed his hand to pull him up after her.
She hesitated, balancing on the fallen trunk beside him, before she answered. "Nothing as complicated as all that," she said, and slid down the other side into a tangle of leaves and limbs.
If the tree trunk hadn't rested at chest level, she'd have missed the sound in the rustle of the leaves or the dog's barking ahead of them. She shivered when realization dawned on her-
Owen said superstition.
Insects were no more reliable than tea leaves in predicting events, that's what her head told her, but Victoire's heart raced when she looked over the stump where the tree once stood and to the trunks of trees all along the path. She couldn't recall ever seeing so many big bugs in one place and had only read about the tell-tale clicking the deathwatch beetles now made.
She hurdled free of the tree limbs and grasped Owen's hand when he disentangled himself, pulling them both to the light of the clearing.
"Does you prowess extend to all bugs?" she panted when she broke out of the trees.
They weren't as far as Victoire expected. The pond reflected the sun dropping below the tree-line a quarter way around the clearing. The ticking intensified in the wake of Owen and Victoire's retreat, growing constant, drowning out the other sounds of the forest.
"Don't go getting the willies," Owen said, but he matched his strides to her quick pace across the open grassy area and slid his wand into a solid three finger grip.
"Diogy!" Owen's shout was answered by wild barking.
The black dog broke through the brush in two long leaps before the forest exploded with movement. A dark shadow emerged from the trees hemming the clearing. Insects from every direction took flight, peeling off their perches in fluid, fast moving streams and reforming in a coordinated mass.
Diogy whirled around, leaping and snapping at the emerging swarm. His efforts were ignored as they flew directly over, out of reach and towards Victoire and Owen.
A raven, looking for an easy meal, dove from above into the main stream of the swarm. The insects converged on the bird in a roiling ball of motion. The teeming mass swerved and jerked, their collective motion forming a living funnel and dropping a matted bundle of feathers that could only be the dead bird to the forest floor.
Victoire drew her wand.
"Bloody-" Owen grasped Victoire's wand hand before he gasped out an extinguishing spell against the flames that bounced back from her shield and singed them both.
"No more independent thinking!" He dropped his grasp with that command and blew the lingering smoke from her.
His examination was cut short when the world grew dark and the air filled with the muffled whine of insects in motion and the constant thudding and scratching of the swarm overtaking them in a solid wall of movement.
"Reinforce the shield just inside the one you cast?" Owen shouted in her ear.
Her initial shield only left room for them to stand and extend the smallest arm motion for casting. No room to Apparate. The world closed in further with the additional shield.
Owen lit his wand, and Victoire wished he hadn't. The Protego Charms took the shape of a cocoon. Or, if something buried you in one, a coffin. Victoire couldn't stop blinking, her vision blurred against the motion mere inches from her face.
The tumultuous noise rose to a frenzied pitch with waves of the bugs crashing into the barrier, each impact testing its strength.
The swarm wasn't moving on. She counted on it flying past, not attacking. Her spell trapped them with no solid options for defense once the shield gave out.
Victoire summoned help the instant she saw the first beetle bore through the outer barrier. The insistent tingle from the mark on her ankle couldn't offset the dread of more beetles pouring in through the crack in the weakened shield and beginning to press against the second.
Owen seized her hand in a tight grip. "Water first," he called in her ear, "then fire if the barrier collapses."
She twisted to bury her face briefly in his neck, just long enough to say she was sorry against his skin. He couldn't have heard, but she hoped he understood.
Her flesh crawled with the touch of beetles on her feet. She stomped and spat water on them, stomping again to squish them.
More wriggled in from above, below, right and left.
Owen's light disappeared at the casting of the first defensive water-blast, leaving only strobing bluish flickers from their spells. Victoire's understanding of events came in stop-action flashes.
Cracks in the barrier splintered out, too numerous to spray with precision. Victoire and Owen drenched the inside of their failing shield with jets of water, laying insects on their backs, but more bugs simply used those sodden bodies to climb over or launch themselves upward.
Sharp pinpricks assaulted Victoire's wand hand. She gripped with all her might, squishing beetles who'd crawled between her palm and the hilt of her wand, but more pried their way between. Victoire's wand ripped from her hand as she slipped from Owen's reach.
A wriggling wall of darkness cut Owen out, isolating Victoire. From him. From everything.
For a panicked moment her ears filled with the crackle of what she feared was Fiendfyre. The deafening sound wasn't flames, she realized with a twist of nausea, but the impact of hard little beetle bodies swirling around her in a cyclone, their shells hitting each other, the ground, and her.
The insects pressed tighter together, overpowering Victoire's senses through shear numbers. She sneezed and coughed against the invasion, pulling her clothes over her head to keep bugs from assaulting her eyes, her ears. To keep from drawing in the wriggling insects on the inhale of a breath.
A million wings and legs batted her clothing and prickled every pore of exposed skin. Her hair tingled with the movement of creatures tangled within the strands.
Transform! Her body vibrated with the need for a defense, but she fiercely resisted the adrenalin, the pressure. If she couldn't outmaneuver the swarm, she'd repeat the raven's mistake.
You're a witch, she told herself, save yourself, or at least put up a fight until someone else can.
Victoire reached for her remaining wand, an effort that allowed several beetles to wriggle into her coat.
"Incendio!" she screamed and spun, pushing herself within the sheath of insects covering her.
The bugs didn't burn, but they scattered.
A vice-grip clenched her arm and dragged Victoire off her feet. She fought instinctively against the grasp forcing her up and backwards, but the hold didn't relent.
A cold burst of water to her chest knocked her flush against her captor.
Uncle Ron's voice cut through the noise ringing in her ears. "Hang on. We're going for the pond."
Victoire relented, allowing herself to be twisted and tossed over her uncle's shoulder like she'd been as a child who'd begged for the thrill of a ride.
A dog's wild yelp rang through the din. Victoire tried to turn her head in the direction of the shrill whimper, but couldn't. She tried to call out, but the smack of the water's surface and a rush of cold pushed the breath out of her.
Her lungs burned.
The uninvited passengers that had attached themselves to her floated up while her body remained below the surface, secured by strong hands. Breath returned with the emergence of a protective bubble around her head.
Time stalled underwater, a stark and disorienting contrast to the assault on her senses she'd just endured. She remained, cut off from everything until she was lifted to the surface, the grip exchanged, and her father's arms pulled her in.
Water dripped from her eyelashes as her eyes adjusted slowly to the bright light of flames where piles of beetles burned. Patches of scorched earth pocked the clearing. Uncle Harry had Owen off to one side, bandaging his arm and questioning him.
Her father sat her down and cradled Victoire's hand in his when Grant knelt down beside them. Grant's expression was grim, guarded almost, but his concern matched her father's.
Offering her palm up, her father asked, "Are the wounds cursed?"
Victoire nearly gagged over her pitted flesh, from her fingers to midway up her arm. Her father lifted her chin away from the sight. Grant took her arm, smoothing a thick gelatinous potion over her bites.
"No, the bugs were enchanted but-"
"What?" Victoire tried to move her head.
Her father stopped her, cradling her face and bringing her back to him, eye-to-eye.
"This attack -these attacks- they're not random," he said. His words were delivered with a frown made deeper by his scared features. Those lines in his flesh played tricks, often contradicting his true temperament. Today Victoire blamed her own guilt for making them appear disappointed as well, because the true disappointment would only come after he found out how much she'd kept from him.
Victoire nodded, sliding away from her fathers touch, his concern. "I- I have some things to tell you," she whispered to both men.
Grant didn't speak. When Victoire dared meet his gaze, his eyes reflected one question: why hadn't she before?
Victoire flung open the door to her room and allowed it to slam behind her with a vicious bang while she tore through her cupboard, throwing things.
Suitcase. Shirts. Pants. Jumpers.
How was she going to explain? Did she stop with the wands and the fairies or mention the lapses, the transformations taking over her?
To the drawers. Knickers. Socks.
In and around the suitcase a disorganized pile of ill-thought-out choices collected before she shoved and shut the mess in, yanking the handle. The clasp snapped open in protest spilling the bag's contents over the floor.
Victoire let out an anguished cry and kicked the case for its defiance. She only succeeded in stubbing her toe, increasing her frustration, and spreading her things further. She dropped to the floor herself as a bitter sob tore through chest.
She'd failed. Failed the fairies, her family, the boat, and inevitably her classes, because there'd be no keeping up now. Not when she concentrated on a problem only to have an uglier one twist up behind her and take out a forest.
Nothing she'd done in this last year mattered - her life was out of control again. And everyone was going to know. She'd have to tell them everything.
The effort of regaining her breath and holding back the growing need to cry stole the energy she needed to pick herself up. She slid her knees into her chest, burying her head, barely hearing the sound.
Distinct, but almost subtle, after the roar of the swarm. Her head slowly lifted. A dark waxy dot scurried back and forth across the windowsill where Gidget's water sat.
One hand moved first, smooth and as fast as Victoire dared, up to the desk. The gillywater bottle sat in reach, her fingers closing around the sticky dust coating the glass surface. She sprang, but the movement sent the beetle skittering to the ground before she could strike.
She whirled, scanning the floor and kicking her things back into the suitcase. Nothing. She clasped the case and slid it to the door with a dull thud. Walking backwards, her gaze darted into corners.
Until she saw a shadow of movement in the woodgrain of the desk.
The bottle hit the bug and ricocheted off to the desk leg. The glass cracked hitting the wood. The neck of the bottle splintered off, sending the top piece flying to the left as the rest smashed onto the floor. Pulpy liquid leaked over the broken glass and spread out in a dark viscous pool.
Breath she'd been holding whooshed out of Victoire.
The bug remained a flat dot on the rug without another move or sound. She waited for a response, a reinforcement for the beetle or for her. Nothing stirred but the smell, tweaking her nose and twisting her stomach.
Her family waited downstairs; she could abandon the mess, but…
Victoire snatched up the shards to put them in the bin, slicing her un-bandaged hand on one and opening an angry gash across her remaining good palm. The thick fluid clinging to the shard seeped into the cut, not simply stinging as it hit the ragged opening but searing with a pain that stole her breath and brought her down to the floor.
Instinct pushed her hands out to stop her fall, but the reaction lacked the strength to steady her weight; or halt the slow sink over the mess of glass and congealing liquid. Her head dropped on the rug. Her mind filled with one terrorizing thought…
She no longer had control.
Only, a transformation wasn’t overtaking her. Pain was. A pain that consumed her, that limited her ability to act. Every nerve, every part of her, ignited at once. Heat burned through her veins.
Blood pulsed through her body at a blistering pace.
It felt wrong. It felt like the blood was flowing backwards.
Pressure flooded her head, drowning her in pain and pulling everything, including her last thought, away.