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Chapter 8: Hot Pursuit
The grounds were empty as Scorpius and Methuselah Jones left the school. Clearly nobody had the motivation or nerve to wander outside, even if it was a bright, sunny Sunday where summer was refusing to die off quite yet.
That suited them fine, however, because they had no desire to be waylaid.
'It's going to be hard to find,' said Scorpius as they went down the steps away from the main courtyard. 'It was dark and we did run away from a bunch of centaurs. I didn't exactly keep track of which direction we went in, or anything.'
'Professor Stubbs said we were found on the same path we took into the Forest.' Jones reached into his blazer to pull out a roll of parchment, which he opened with a flick of the wrist. 'We follow that route. Might see signs. Recognise things. Couldn't have been far.'
Scorpius looked over at the parchment, and then at Jones with surprise. 'Where did you get that?'
Jones looked up from the map he held, nonplussed. 'Professor Lockett's office. Unlocked. Knew there was a map there.'
'This morning. I anticipated it would be needed. Suspected your reluctance wouldn't last.' He shrugged as if this was the most obvious thing in the world and kept walking on as a stunned Scorpius came to a halt. He hadn't thought Methuselah Jones was capable of anticipating anyone's actions. That would have required him to show emotional understanding and, more integrally, care.
He shook his head and trotted to catch up with Jones' long legs. 'Well. That's handy, I guess. We can see if we can remember where we split off. Also, there'll probably be hoof-prints and other signs of the centaurs. There's only so much of the Forest to search.'
'Indeed. But we must be careful. Centaur movement in region was unprecedented. If the Forest is agitated, could be dangerous.'
Scorpius grimaced. 'Hell, just sitting on my arse in school right now I'm in danger of projectile vomiting blood everywhere and passing out. It's not like anywhere's safe.'
'Quite. Resolution must be found. Explanation. Else all is lost. Won't find answers anywhere else.'
'Anywhere but where?'
Scorpius jumped and cursed himself as a new voice interrupted them. He'd been looking around cautiously as they made their way down the open fields towards the outskirts of the Forest, keeping an eye out for someone from school coming to intercept them, or some threat from a Forest where centaurs had been panicking not two nights ago. He'd thought he was being cautious, attentive.
But he'd not been looking up.
'Hugo!' Scorpius clutched at his chest. 'Merlin, you almost gave me a heart attack, you little bugger!'
Jones seemed entirely unfazed by the interruption, and turned, craning his head upwards. 'Weasley. This is none of your affair.'
Hugo Weasley had been hovering on his broom some ten feet above them, and kicked it down to the ground, hopping off and grabbing the handle. He ran a hand through his windswept red hair, and though he looked rather tired, seemed hale and hearty enough. 'Really? Because it looked like you two were headed into the Forest and were talking about answers.'
Jones paused a beat. 'Answers. For Herbology homework.'
Scorpius' jaw dropped. 'Hell's bells, Jones, you are the worst liar. Who the hell gives a damn about Herbologyhomework at a time like this?' There was another pause where Jones looked surprised at the idea that they didn't still care about Herbology homework, and Scorpius sighed, turning back to Hugo. 'Okay. Yeah. You caught us. We're heading to the Forest.'
'Is this about what happened to you in detention?' Hugo wrinkled his nose, the expression not too dissimilar to his sister's. 'Rose didn't tell me a thing about it. Is it to do with what's going on?'
'I don't know,' Scorpius said honestly. 'It could be. But people like the teachers are too busy dealing with everyone who's ill, so we thought we'd take a look. It's not like we're doing anything helpful otherwise.' He didn't think it was sensible to spread the word that their teachers were, in fact, dealing with absolutely nothing right then.
Jones frowned at Hugo. 'We return the inquiry. What were you doing out here?'
Hugo looked affronted at the implication he was up to no good. 'Flying. I was out at the pitch. It's not like I've got anything else to do right now except for bloody panic, is it? I saw you two down here and figured you were up to no good.' He shouldered his broom. 'So, where are we going?'
Scorpius and Jones exchanged looks. 'We?' Scorpius echoed.
'Yeah. If you're going into the Forest to try to find answers or a cure or something, I'm going with you.'
'Hugo, you're fourteen,' said Scorpius.
'So? You're not of age either, Malfoy. It's not like we've got much of a choice of who's going to pitch in and help right now, and it's not like I can do anything back at school. Besides.' Hugo gave a twist of a smile. 'If you don't let me with you, I'll go tell Rose.'
'You little bugger -'
But Jones merely looked him up and down and shrugged. 'Do so. We will be gone before she can react. We do not answer to her,' he said, and turned on his heel, heading off.
Scorpius blinked as his companion departed, then gave Hugo a shrug. 'Face it. She'll be less pissed at us for going into the Forest than she would be for taking you with us.'
He, too, went to turn, but Hugo darted forwards and grabbed him by the sleeve, expression twisting with anger. 'Oh, what the hell, Malfoy? Where the hell do you and Jones get the right to tell me to sit here and do absolutely nothing?'
Jones didn't stop. 'Our knowledge. Our expedition.'
Scorpius hesitated. 'What do you mean, me and Jones?' There had been a particular bite in Hugo's voice.
'You know what's going on back at Hogwarts? Tell me.' Hugo's face was turning into a mask of fury.
'Of course I do - three quarters of the bloody school are ill -'
'My family are ill. Five of my cousins are ill. Rose and Albus are the only ones still on their feet - I was woken up in the middle of the night by Lily, my cousin, my best friend, sounding like she was going to die or something. You two don't have any brothers or sisters, or cousins, not here at Hogwarts. Who have you got to worry about apart from yourselves?'
Albus, thought Scorpius immediately. But Albus was Hugo's cousin - of course he cared about him too. As did Rose, as did Lily, as did lots of people. Scorpius caring about Albus certainly wasn't anything special, he realised.
He wasn't family.
Jones had stopped, more bewildered than struck by any truth in Hugo's words, but Scorpius' shoulders slumped as he looked at the indignant younger boy, and he jerked a thumb over his shoulder. 'All right,' he mumbled at last. 'Come on. But if we don't find anything, you do not tell your sister I let you come with us. She'll finally do good on that promise to dangle me from my ankles from the Astronomy Tower - she's gone all crazy-eyed this morning.'
'You always make her go crazy-eyed, Malfoy,' said Hugo, but he relaxed, letting him go and even giving a small smile. 'Cool. All right. Where are we going, anyway?'
Jones made a small noise of irritation, but didn't otherwise protest. His eyes landed on Hugo's broomstick. 'That. You will bring it with you?'
'You never know when you'll need a broomstick.'
Jones' brow wrinkled. 'Flying under the treeline is difficult. Heavy manoeuvring, low visibility -'
'Jones, you've not sat on a broom since flying lessons in first year, don't pretend you know how to fly.' Scorpius landed a hand on Hugo's shoulder, and the two Quidditch players grinned toothily. 'The kid knows what he's doing.'
Methuselah Jones didn't want to admit it, but he suspected that they were lost.
It just didn't make any sense. They had taken the exact route Professor Lockett had led them along the night before last. He had consulted the map, the same map she had used, and as far as he could tell they had not deviated from the marked path, nor had they encountered any of the landmarks which would suggest they were further into the Forest than they were supposed to be.
And yet, they were not where they were supposed to be.
'I know it's the Forbidden Forest,' said Scorpius, as if he thought himself terribly amusing to make such an obvious jest, 'but I don't remember this place being this... foreboding. Not even at night.'
Methuselah frowned at the map, not looking up. He had taken the lead, not trusting the notoriously unreliable Scorpius Malfoy or Hugo Weasley, a boy two years his junior, with the responsibility of navigating through untamed wilderness. This had just led to Malfoy wandering in the middle and Weasley trailing at the back, perched on his broomstick a metre above the ground and trundling along, the two of them making inane jokes with one another.
It made it harder to think. If only Malfoy could get on with Hugo Weasley as poorly as he got on with his sister. Then again, that would lead to a barrage of sniping and arguing and raised voices and would likely not help his concentration.
'Merely your imagination, Malfoy,' said Methuselah sharply. 'Woodlands do not change.'
'Really? I could swear we've passed that tree about three times now.'
'Identify for me, Malfoy, the different species of trees we are surrounded by.'
'Precisely. Trees all look the same to you. Ergo, your claim we have passed this tree already is irrelevant.'
'We've been out here for two hours, Jones, and we're no closer to where we were.'
'Really?' Methuselah stopped and turned, jaw tightening. 'Perhaps, then, you should have been more helpful. Perhaps you shouldn't have spent the time conducting an in-depth debate - laden with logical fallacies on both sides - as to the superiority of the Chudley Cannons over the Falmouth Falcons.'
Scorpius straightened indignantly. 'We did not.'
'Yeah,' said Hugo. 'It's not a debate, it's fact.'
Methuselah scoffed as Scorpius wilted, and he turned his back. 'The map is useless,' he decided at last. 'All we can do is follow this trail and endeavour to find Nocturne Mushrooms; then we will know we are in the vicinity of the -'
'You mean, like the ones over there?'
Hugo was pointing into the shadow of the trees to their left, and Methuselah stopped short. Peering in that direction he thought he could, perhaps, see the curve of mushrooms in the gloom. He sighed. 'Good eyes, Weasley.' The grudging compliment tasted bitter.
'You should be a Seeker.' Scorpius grinned and clapped the younger boy in the shoulder.
'Malfoy, keep an eye out for centaur hoofprints.'
'Or, I could...' Hugo pointed towards the treetops. 'Fly up a bit. See what I can see in the area.'
Methuselah worked his jaw with irritation, but Hugo swished off upwards anyway, and Scorpius padded to his side, grinning. 'See? I said he'd be useful.'
'No, you didn't,' Methuselah pointed out. 'You let him come only because your guilt outweighed your abject terror of his sister.'
Scorpius stiffened. 'I am not terrified of Rose Weasley.'
'Around her you are tense. Agitated. Quick to find fault. Eager to engage on any given topic or issue. The strategy is aggressive defence. Keep her at bay so she cannot close the gap.' He looked at Scorpius, whose eyes had narrowed, and shrugged. 'Prey tactics.'
'You are certainly not the predator.'
'And what the hell would you know about observing people, Jones?'
Methuselah cocked his head. 'People operate no differently to the rest of the world: along strict rules. These might be rules of biology or rules of society.'
Scorpius gave an exasperated smile. 'You really don't get it.'
'No?' He looked at Scorpius. 'You pretend rules do not apply to you but follow them anyway. It's illogical. You behave erratically and then are thwarted when this earns disapproval. You seek, like everyone, approval. From Professors, from Potter, even from Weasley.'
Scorpius snorted. 'I don't need Weasley's approval - I don't need approval -'
'We all require approval. It reinforces that we are behaving as we ought, and achieving as we ought. Approval from teachers, from friends, from family -'
'You are kind of crazy, aren't you?'
But Scorpius looked genuinely agitated now and stepped away. Shoving his hands into his pockets, he craned his neck to try to make out the shape of Hugo, bobbing in and around the low-hanging branches of the tall trees. 'Hugo! See anything?'
Methuselah stayed silent, chewing on Scorpius' words. It wasn't the first time he'd been called crazy, or some synonymous expression. It wasn't even the first time it had happened when he'd tried to help, tried to offer words of wisdom. Most of the time it backfired in his face, his harsh truths difficult for others to hear, and so he stopped going out of his way to offer them.
After a few minutes, Hugo descended, hopping off his broomstick and slinging it over his shoulder. 'I can't really see hoofprints,' he admitted. 'I can't see much, the trees are thick -'
'I said a broomstick would be of no use in woodland such as -'
'But.' Hugo cut Methuselah off. 'There was something. That way. East, right?' He pointed at the treeline to his left. 'I know this is going to sound crazy, but from higher up, it looked darker there.'
'That is deeper to the woodlands, it's -'
'Jones, will you shut up and let the kid tell us what he saw? It might be nothing but we don't have any better ideas or any better leads and your vaunted map is getting us nowhere.' Scorpius shook his head as Methuselah fell silent, and looked at Hugo. 'Carry on, kid.'
Hugo looked a bit indignant at someone a mere two years his senior calling him "kid", but didn't push it. 'That's about it. There was a weird patch through the trees that looked unnaturally dark. Like something was blotting out the sun there. Even more than the sun's already blotted out in the trees here,' he added as Methuselah opened his mouth.
Methuselah paused and closed his mouth - then after a beat of consideration, opened it again reluctantly. 'Investigating would not be a waste of time.'
Scorpius grinned. 'See? You've got to take some risks sometimes.'
'One would hope the only risk here is that we find nothing,' said Methuselah, but he still fell into step beside Scorpius and Hugo as they headed off in the direction Hugo had gestured. Leaving the path meant poor footing, thick undergrowth, treacherous roots, and before long Hugo had hopped back into his broom, zipping ahead and pointing out bad bits without needing to walk.
So going was difficult, and they remained silent, Methuselah keeping his attention on his map, convinced that doing so could keep them from getting lost, could make sure they could find their way back to the path. If they had only taken so many steps, that was only so much ground they'd covered, which would place them roughly here -
He was focused so much on the map that when Scorpius stopped dead, he walked into the back of him, and the two boys stumbled. Hugo swished down to them as they disentangled themselves, and frowned as he saw Scorpius' expression. 'Scorp?'
'I know where we are,' said Scorpius, and even in the gloomy lighting of the Forest he looked paler than usual. 'I was going to climb that tree.'
Methuselah looked between Scorpius and the tree he pointed out, nonplussed. 'A delightful diversion -'
'But then we saw the light. Over there. I think. And I went to check it out, and then... that's the last thing I remember.' Scorpius jerked his head to the left. Deeper into the woodlands, where there was definitely no sign of light, no little glimmer.
Because if there was a patch of darkness that Hugo had spotted earlier, this was it. Thick and black and impenetrable, as if the sun's rays themselves shied away from that place in utter terror. And though this was wholly illogical, the more Methuselah looked at the darkness, the more the skin on the back of his neck crawled.
'We have located it, then,' he said curtly. 'We can return. Study it further. Look for -'
'But we've not learnt anything,' said Hugo with a scowl. 'We can't come this far and just turn back because something looks a bit creepy.'
'In the Forbidden Forest, Weasley, "creepy" can mean death -'
'The kid's right.' Scorpius shook himself and nodded firmly. 'We came to find out what's going on. We don't shy away at the first sign of something being amiss. Man up, Jones.'
'My masculinity is not in question and even if it were that would still be an irrelevance compared to our lives and the truth -'
'We're going to find the truth,' said Scorpius, but he drew his wand anyway. 'Follow me.'
'Follow you -'
But Scorpius was moving anyway, picking his way through the undergrowth into the thicker gloom of the trees, and Methuselah worked his jaw pointlessly for a few long moments before he followed him. They didn't speak for long seconds, just winding through trees and trying to not trip up, Hugo still hovering behind them on his broom, and when Methuselah did speak his voice sounded unnaturally loud and close.
'You said there was a clearing.'
'There was,' said Scorpius with a frown. 'It's dark, okay -'
'Why is it dark,' said Methuselah slowly, 'if there is a clearing ahead, where logically there should be more sunlight -'
He wasn't interrupted - not this time. Nothing happened, nothing was said, which cut off his words. Just a feeling. Something cold and unpleasant trickling down the back of his neck and then winding around, through his throat to choke him and into his belly. His footsteps felt wooden, and even his thoughts, which usually whirled around his head so happy and swift, seemed sluggish.
Then Scorpius stumbled, and as Methuselah reached out to try to catch him - too late - he realised he wasn't alone in feeling this. He grabbed the other boy by the shoulder to try to drag him up, though his own limbs were uncooperative, and Scorpius was wide-eyed, pale, and sweating.
Is this it? The illness? Have we become afflicted - no, no, there was no warning, no onset of symptoms like there should be -
- but don't know what the illness is, don't know what normal is, oh, God, I can't think -
- and the shadows are moving.
'No.' That was a low, mournful whimper, and it came from Scorpius, sinking to the ground, as the darkness before them shifted and shapes came out. Tall, dark, cloaked figures not walking, but drifting, humanoid only in that they had arms and the shape of a head but otherwise totally, utterly alien to them.
Methuselah reeled back, stumbling, as the three Dementors emerged from the gloom before them. The wand in his hand was shaking, the cold in his gut hadn't moved, and for the first time in his life he had absolutely no idea what he was supposed to do.
Riddikulus - no, no, that's Boggarts, Protego? Pointless, you know this, Jones -
Scorpius gave another whimper, curling up in a ball on the ground, and Methuselah almost fell over as he took another step back, inadvertently leaving his classmate between himself and the Dementors.
Run. Run. Run.
But Malfoy's there, can't just abandon him -
Forget Malfoy. Save self. Pointless to both die. Run. Run. Run.
His wand snapped out, almost of its own accord, and his voice wavered and shook as finally, finally, the right words came into his head, clear and bright. 'Expecto Patronum!'
But otherwise his head was completely empty, and he only knew the spell from books, he'd never been taught it in class and never tried to study it in class and he was the boy who perpetually came third in his year at practical spells, what did he know -?
His wand didn't so much as sputter with silver light.
And just as his legs were about to obey him, just as he was about to turn and bolt and run screaming out of the woodlands, leaving Scorpius Malfoy curled up in a ball on the ground with the three Dementors looming over him, something else moved. The air swished, and then hurtling past him came the red-haired blur of Hugo Weasley and his broom.
He, too, was pale, worn, but had a brightness in his eyes that Scorpius lacked, even as he brought his broom skidding to a halt right in front of the Dementors. Even Scorpius moved at the interruption, writhing weakly, and as Hugo grabbed him by the back of his blazer, he let himself be pulled onto the broom, flopping across it like a sack of potatoes.
Then Hugo whirled the broom around, away from the Dementors, at Methuselah. He grabbed him by the elbow, tugging fiercely, eyes blazing. 'Run.'
This time, Methuselah did as the voice said. Hugo and Scorpius set off on the broomstick, swishing through the trees, slow for being burdened by two of them and Hugo clearly trying to not unseat the unsteady Scorpius. So Methuselah could keep up with them, running in a near-blind panic, scrambling through undergrowth and over logs and past trees and caring for nothing but following the broom in front of him.
He didn't look back.
Somewhere in their panicked flight, the cold sense of unnatural dread faded for an altogether more normal feeling of horror, a horror not enforced by the Dementors as they left them behind in that awful darkness, a horror which did began to fade as Methuselah's limbs and lungs began to burn and sunlight began to twinkle down from the trees.
Then they reached the path, and all three of them collapsed.
Methuselah was on his hands and knees, panting for breath, but he could feel reality rushing back in at the edges, colour, and warmth. No more was it difficult to think - which wasn't entirely reassuring, as that meant he could consider, in intricate and well-studied detail, what they were up against and what it would have done to them.
For once he wished he didn't voraciously read everything he could in the Hogwarts library.
Hugo and Scorpius had collapsed off the broom, slumping to the ground beside him, and Scorpius was beginning to writhe and groan. He sat up gingerly, lifting a hand to his temples, and let off a colourful array of swear words in a voice which began reedy but gained strength as he carried on.
'...the English language is inadequate to my needs,' Scorpius concluded. 'But let me just say, that was a bad fucking idea, Jones.'
Methuselah tried to speak, but found his throat parched and crackling. His voice was raspy when he finally could summon the words. 'Worked,' he said at last. 'We found answers.'
'We found Dementors.' Although Scorpius was pale, although his forehead was still slick with sweat, he looked like he was shaking off the worst of their effects. 'Dementors aren't answers, unless I was doing my OWLs fucking wrong.'
'That place. Darkness. That was where light was. Where ritual was. Now? Dementors.' Methuselah shook his head to clear it. The Forbidden Forest wasn't all that bad, he was forced to conclude - at least, this patch, out where he could see the sky and sun and wasn't being chased by evil, unnatural creatures of horror. 'That means something.'
'Don't know,' he admitted. 'But something. It's changing. We find out why Dementors were there - we find answers.'
'Right. Great.' Scorpius ran a hand through his hair. 'Do you know where we are?'
'Follow the path to get back. That way.' Methuselah pointed, pretty sure he was right. At worst, he had a fifty/fifty chance. Normally he disliked those odds, but it was turning into that sort of a day.
'Fine. Let's go, let's tell the others, and let's hope we didn't just almost get eaten by Dementors for nothing.' Scorpius turned to the bundle of Hugo next to him, and shook his shoulder. 'Hey, Hugo. Nice flying, now let's go home.'
Methuselah got to his feet, his knees distressingly uncooperative. 'Dementors don't eat people.'
'Eat souls, whatever, I... kid?' Scorpius was crouched over Hugo now, and gently rolling him onto his back. Methuselah had assumed he was just getting his breath back after their mad-cap chase, and couldn't really judge him for it. Hugo Weasley had, after all, been the only one of them to keep their composure and strength through that confrontation with the Dementors, and was probably at least responsible for saving Scorpius.
Since Methuselah was now pretty sure he'd have just bolted and left them both if he'd been given another second.
But Hugo didn't resist as Scorpius rolled him over, and his skin was pale, forehead sweaty, and eyes glassy. He managed to sit up, face ashen under his livid red hair, and was sweating. Somehow, it didn't look quite the same as Scorpius had when bothered by the Dementors, and Methuselah's heart sank into his stomach.
'I don't feel so good,' Hugo slurred.
Then promptly became the second person in as many days to vomit blood all over Scorpius Malfoy's shoes.