Chapter 1 : Prologue: Fire
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It was just after midnight when the three hooded men materialized on the small plateau overlooking the village. By day the vantage point provided an unobstructed view of the rolling valley below, dotted with thatched-roof farmhouses and makeshift fences loosely connected by a dirt road that wound its way into the center of town. The people who lived there worked long days, rising with the sun to force the land to provide enough to survive on, just as their families had done the generation before, and the generation before that.
Now the men looked down on total blackness. It was the kind of dark found only in those few regions of the world still without electricity. Even the light provided by the night sky was slowly being blanketed out by gathering clouds.
The men had scouted the area many times before, returning to this spot over and over again, committing to memory every detail of the terrain before them. Each had gone over his observations with military precision until he could imagine each step he would take across the darkened valley.
Their target lay at the center of town, approximately five kilometers due north of their present position. They didn’t dare Apparate in any closer. The darkness would provide adequate cover along the road, but once in town, the chances of being sighted increased. Strangers did not pass through this way unnoticed, particularly those who appeared suddenly out of thin air.
They walked single-file along the uneven dirt path, which rose and fell with the curves of the land. They were careful to avoid the deep ruts carved by the wheels of passing cars with rusty wagons hitched to their undersides. The wind picked up as they moved, whipping at the ends of their cloaks and rustling the tall grasses that grew along either side of road.
Just as they were nearing the half-way point, something leapt out of the darkness and onto the path. The three men stopped short, raising their arms and pointing their wands in unison.
“Lumos,” whispered the tall man in front.
A dull blue glow emanated from his wand, illuminating the ground in front of them. Two shimmering eyes came suddenly into focus.
“Pisica!” the second man grumbled, lowering his wand.
A large grey cat stood frozen in the center of the road, staring up at the men. The second man kicked a rock at it and the creature skirted off into the darkness.
With a flick of his wrist, the tall extinguished his wand and the three men continued their journey in silence.
Two cobblestone pillars that once held up a great iron gate marked the entrance into town. The houses here were smaller and closer together. Several darkened storefronts lined the road. As they passed, the men detected the first signs of life. In the distance, barely audible over the wind, they could hear the distant hum of music. As they drew nearer, the sounds of men shouting and laughing reached their ears.
Following the last bend in the road, the men found their path now bathed in a warm yellow glow - the source of the light a single-story structure built up on thick stone bricks. Six-paned windows looked in on a single room crowded with wooden tables and benches. The tables were littered with tall glasses of deep amber ale. In the far corner sat the source of the music: two men with violins, and a third man with a set of pipes half-visible beneath his thick beard.
The twisted metal sign above the door read Cel Leul Beat. The Drunken Lion. The only tavern to within a hundred kilometers. If a town this size could have a nightlife, it would be found here. The doors opened every day at four -- save Sunday, when all self-respecting townsfolk were at the Orthodox Church confessing their sins -- and didn’t close again until the last person stumbled back out sometime just before dawn.
Most of the patrons were men, their skin tan and wrinkled from the sun, their hair graying at the temples beneath their hats. There were a few women as well, looking just as weather-beaten as their husbands, and just as determined to enjoy the fun. In any other place, the crowd would have made for an odd sight, a throwback to a bygone era. But this tavern, this village, was theirs. They were as much a part of the land as the hills and the trees.
The three men stepped off the path, the wind concealing the sound of the dry grass crunching beneath their boots as they circled the rear of the building. There were two windows in back. One looked into a small kitchen, the counters stacked with unopened bottles and dirty rags, the sinks full of discarded glasses. The other window was partially obstructed by a pile of broken stools. Between the wooden legs, the men could see back into the main barroom.
Safely concealed in shadow, the first man pressed his face to the glass.
“Li vezi?” the third man whispered. “Do you see them?”
For a moment, the first man said nothing, concentrating as his eyes raked the room, examining each of the unsuspecting faces in turn.
“La coltul,” he said and pointed toward a spot near an empty fireplace at the far end of the room.
In the middle of a long table, four young men, their backs to the stone hearth, were talking animatedly to two women seated across from them. Right away, the group seemed to stand apart from the rest. Though their skin was also tanned, it was somehow lighter than the others, their arms and noses dotted with freckles. Their clothes, though modest and worn, were distinctly western. Even their hair was conspicuous. Bright red patches were clearly visible from beneath one man’s cap, while the woman on the right made no attempt to conceal her long mane of pale yellow curls.
While it was clear they were not native to the area, they were obviously not strangers to it. As the three men looked on, the party chatted amiably with those at their table, applauding and raising their glasses with the rest as the band ended one song and started another.
The first man turned from the window and led the others deeper into the shadows of a low-hanging tree.
“Only six tonight?” said the third man, tapping his wand against his leg in apparent agitation. “We were promised four a piece, at least. What did they need all three of us for then?”
“There’s at least two hundred in town,” said the second man. “Isn’t that enough for you? Besides, it made getting here easier than expected, didn’t it? Not even a lookout."
“Muggles?" replied the third man. "I could kill that many in my sleep. Where’s the fun in that?”
“Shut up, both of you!” hissed the tall man. “We’ll get the rest soon enough. For now, do as you’re told.” The third man ground his teeth beneath his hood but said nothing. “We go on the mark," the tall man continued. "Then straight back to your post. Understood?” The others nodded. “Then go.”
The two men departed, heading off in opposite directions, while the tall man stayed behind, falling completely still except for the shallow rise and fall of his chest. After several long moments, as if singled by some undetectable cue, he one again extracted his wand, extending his arm far above his head.
With a great boom and a flash of blinding light, three flame-red orbs shot into the night sky.
The music and chatter from the tavern immediately fell away, blanketing the town in a mystified silence. Even the howl of the gathering wind fell suddenly still. One by one, confused faces still thick with sleep began to appear in the darkened windows of the surrounding houses. The patrons of the tavern hurried to the open door, huddling close, eyes gazing upward. Together they watched as the village was bathed in an eerier orange glow, which stretched out toward the surrounding farmland. For several seconds, they stared in amazement as the orbs climbed higher and higher in the sky, their light dimming as they sped toward the horizon.
Then the orbs began to fall.
It was sublte at first, the pulsing lights seeming to stretch and grow. But soon they were gaining speed, spinning faster and faster as the hurtled toward the ground.
The three hooded men were long gone before the heat of the flames reached the earth.
The impact was like an earthquake. The ground shook as if a monster beneath it had suddenly roared to life. Light and heat engulfed the terrain, spreading with unnatural speed. The orbs were quickly swallowed up by the fire that multiplied around them. In seconds, everything was burning.
Deafening screams filled the air. Cries of confusion and pain poured out from every direction. The villagers began to flood the streets, desperate to get away from one wall of flames, only to be trapped by another. The roar grew louder and louder, mixing with the sound of splintering wood and shattering glass. Even the sky seemed to succumb to the fire, the heat and light of the blaze bouncing back to earth off the low-hanging clouds.
In the center of it all stood the tavern, its roof now alight with dancing flames. Great chunks of burned wood fell away from the sides as the fire punctured holes in the walls and windows. The structure began to sway as the roof started caving in. The patrons were fighting to get out before the whole thing came down on top of them. They tripped over one another, unable to see or breathe in the think smoke and ash.
A young man stumbled out of the tavern. In a rush of panic from those still trapped inside, he was pushed from behind. He plunged headfirst down the front steps, landing on his hands and knees, but not before his head smashed into one of the corner stones. His hat fell off and landed beside him, the hair beneath revealed to be as thick and red as the blood now pooling at his temple.
He dragged himself up, stumbling forward and away from the heat whipping at his back, his eyes and lungs burning in protest.
“Kate!” he tried to scream, but the cry died on his lips. His throat was too raw and the noise around him too great.
He plunged his hand deep into his pocket, extracting two thin pieces of wood. Though he couldn’t see it in the darkness, he knew right away what had happened. His once beautiful wand had been snapped in half, rendered useless by the fall.
All around him, people were running blind, crashing into one another in their desperation to escape. He struggled to stay on his feet, afraid of being trampled to death should he lose his footing. He shoved the broken pieces of his wand back into his pocket and with hands stretched out in front of him, he pushed onward in what he only hoped was a northerly direction. With each passing second, he was growing dizzier and more disoriented, but whether from the smoke or the fall, he couldn’t be sure.
At las , he bumped into something solid -- the trunk of a thick tree. Leaning against it, he wiped at the blood now dripping down his cheek.
The smoke was rising quicker now, lifted up and carried skyward by the wind, but the sight that replaced the darkness was no less terrifying. The young man watched in horror as people dragged one another through the flames, screaming as the fire licked at their faces, tripping over shapeless forms that had fallen helplessly to the ground. Animals ran untended through the streets and towards the surrounding woods. Everything was blanketed in a pulsing red haze, the fire growling and hissing as it continued to feed. It looked as if hell itself at been released upon the village.
Then he saw them -- two familiar faces moving in his direction. A man, tall and thin, leaning heavily on the shoulder of a much smaller woman, whose arm was wrapped tightly around the man's waist as she struggled to lead him onward.
“Kate! Oliver!” the man cried out, but the pair didn’t look up.
He started towards them, continuing to call their names without response. He was within ten feet of them when something reached out and grabbed him.
The old woman’s hands were like claws, her long nails digging into his wrist as she squeezed it between boney fingers. Her face was heavily lined, her grey hair half hidden under a dark scarf knotted below her chin. Dark, beady eyes stared out at him from beneath drooping lids.
“Ati facut aceasta!” she yelled. “Esti de vina!”
What little Romanian he had garnered over the years had abandoned him in his panic. He had never been very good at communicating with the villagers. That was Anica’s job. Still, though her words were unfamiliar, the accusation held within was unmistakable.
“I’m sorry,” he said, trying to twist out from under her grasp. “I don’t understand you. Please, I need to help my friends.”
With strength belying her size, she tightened her hold on his arm.
“Drac!” she screamed at him. “Drac! Drac! Drac!”
“Please,” he said again, shocked at the venom and anguish in her voice. “I don’t understand…I don’t know what you want.”
She lifted her free hand high above her head, and for a moment he thought the old woman meant to strike him. But instead, she pointed to the sky. High above them, fading in and out of focus between the towers of billowing smoke, the man could see hundreds of pulsing green dots. He watched in horror as the lights grew closer together, forming a shape in the sky. The shape of a skull...with a snake slithering through its open mouth.
“Devil,” she whispered in English. Then she released her grip on him and ran off into the dark.
The man spun around. It was Kate, still struggling to keep Oliver on his feet.
Her face was covered in soot and sweat, her long, dark hair clinging to her cheeks and neck. Her shirt was torn and hanging lopsided off one shoulder, but she looked otherwise unharmed. Oliver had not faired as well. A deep red stain was spreading out across the front of shirt. His face was a sickly grey, his eyes unfocused.
“Is he okay?" Charlie asked her, wrapping Oliver’s other arm around his shoulder and relieving Kate of some of the extra weight. "Where are the others?”
“The roof,” Kate said. “Came down right where we were standing. He pushed me out of the way."
“What about Belby? And Smith?” Charlie asked.Though they were only inches apart, Charlie found himself nearly shouting in order to be heard over all the commotion.
Kate shook her head. “Miles went after Anica. I haven’t seen Smith. The Dark Mark, did you—”
“Yeah, I saw."
“You’re hurt!” Kate cried, just now catching sight of the blood drying at his temple.
“What?” Charlie said, before remembering the cut on his face. “I’m fine. What about you?”
She waved the question away. “We’ve got to do something, Charlie. This was because of us. It has to be.”
The both looked up at the night sky, the outline of the Dark Mark already starting to fade. It was a brazen attack. And on a muggle village - the exact village frequented by a group of wizards, and all of them so far from home. This was no coincidence.
“I know,” Charlie said. “But my wand—it’s snapped.”
“Here,” Kate said, shifting the rest of Oliver’s weight onto Charlie’s shoulder. “Take him back to camp. You can tell the others what’s going on and bring them back.”
“What about you?”
"I’ll look for the others. We’ll meet up with the rest of you.”
“No! We should stay together. They could still be out there...whoever they are.”
But Kate was already shaking her head. “Someone’s got to stay behind and he needs help now. She glanced over at Oliver, who seemed to be growing paler by the second. “I’m no good at healing and I’m not strong enough to Apparate us both back. And you just said you’ve haven’t got your wand.”
“Here,” she said, removing Oliver’s wand from inside his coat pocket and handing it to Charlie. “It won’t be perfect, but it should work well enough for now.”
“Just go!” she screamed at him. And without waiting for a reply, she turned and headed back towards the center of town, her armed draped across her mouth to block out the heavy smoke.
Beside him, Oliver let out a low groan.
“Alright, we’ll do it her way,” Charlie said. “Hold on, Oliver. This might hurt a bit.”
Gripping the thin man tighter around the waist, Charlie lifted the unfamiliar wand, turned on the spot, and the two vanished into the night.
Author’s Note: My apologies for what I’m sure are many gross misrepresentations of the language and culture of Romania. I have never visited the country (though I spent a lot of time looking at pictures and it seems beautiful), and my only knowledge of the language is what I can deduce from a free online translator. I *hope* the below translations are correct in vocabulary if not in grammar. I am also fully aware that much of the country is very modern, but I’ve inferred from some readings that there are still some remote villages that might fit the one described above. If not, I apologize for that too.
Thanks for reading.
Pisica – cat
La coltul – in the corner
Ati facut aceasta/Esti de vina – you did it/it’s your fault
Drac - devil
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