“Good evening ladies an gentlemen, and welcome to the long awaited fourth installment of I Am the Walrus. Once again we have a thrilling evening of exotic escapades in store for you, truly the stuff of which dreams are made.
“But before we carry on with the performance the author insists on reminding us that I Am the Walrus lyrics were written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
“And now, finally, without further adieu, the fourth chapter.”
Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Snorkack
Flowers were everywhere. They frolicked, and chased one another around in the dim light, giggling. Some of them were dancing to a distantly familiar tune, which echoed off of the high stone walls. Rolf stood there among them wanting to go forward, but his feet were mired down in purple syrup, and he could only proceed one labored step at a time. He was searching for... something. A something whose presence he could feel only just behind him, but every time he turned around there was only another flower shoving a finger sandwich into his mouth, despite all his protests.
Sitting in an English garden waiting for the sun,
Glass shattered, or at least that's what it sounded like. But where had the noise come from? Around him there were only flowers, blurry, fading flowers.
“Oh bother,” Luna sighed.
Suddenly he was lying on a thin mattress in the middle of the garden. Through bleary eyes he watched a red tiled ceiling materialize overhead. Slowly the haunting scene evaporated, and there was Luna, siphoning spilled tea up off the floor.
“Mrrrnn-hrrmmn,” he rubbed his eyes, struggling to remember exactly where they were.
“Oh good! You're awake. We're off to a late start. We ought to hurry up.”
Rolf sat up and stretched. “Hmmwha-? What time is it?”
With yet another groan, Rolf swung his legs over the side of the bed, and rose. An achy daze spun up into his head, immediately knocking him back down. He lingered there a moment, propping himself up with his arms at odd angles. Bit by bit, the previous night's events fell back into place in his memory. 'What was that stuff we were drinking?' He desperately wished he could recall its name, so that he could make a point never to touch it again.
“That was the last of the gurdyroot infusion, I'm afraid,” Luna lamented as she repaired her broken teacup.
'Thank God.' Ordinarily he just suffered through that rancid piss in silence, but in his present condition he was sure it would have made him wretch. “Pity. I'll just have to perk myself up with a shower then.”
“Kanwal has already gone down to the bathroom. I imagine he'll be done soon though.”
He grudgingly gave standing another try, this time more slowly. His head continued to throb, but at least the spinning was beginning to subside. In any case, he decided to make the best of it. After all, they were heading out into the forest today. With that heartening thought in mind, he looked out the arched window. Instead of the lush green landscape he had been expecting, he saw only a continuous sheet of water cascading down the glass. The pattering roar outside registered in his ears for the first time.
If the sun don't come you get a tan from standing in the English rain
Showering did in fact do him some good, and by the time the three of them headed down to breakfast his head felt considerably clearer. They quickly found a small cafe, where Kanwal ordered them all some rice porridge. The glossy yellowish mush was considerably more bland than anything else they had eaten in the last three days. Rolf found this to be a pleasant change. However, after a few bites, an odd gurgling erupted in his belly. He sat very still for a moment, willing himself to not feel queasy. After listlessly pushing his spoon around in the bowl for awhile, he attempted another bite. More angry gurgles protested inside him, so he finally just set the spoon down in surrender.
Kanwal looked at him apologetically. “I am sorry, Rolf. Do you not like your kanji?”
“No. It's quite nice actually. I—er—I just don't think my body is ready for food yet.”
Whether or not Kanwal understood what Rolf meant, he nodded politely.
The rain had started to let up by the time they finally set out for the forest. Rolf had expected the air to be cool after the storm, but it was just as hot as ever, and twice as sticky. As he stepped in to the fresh smelling wood, a sense of ease washed over him, as though he had just slipped into a hot bath. There was no point in any of them drying themselves off, for once they did, a warm breeze would shake the canopy overhead, soaking them all anew.
Water trickled all around them down the great Banyan trees, whose roots hung down from their branches in long sinewy clusters. The little streams continued down the hillside, collecting in deep puddles along the craggy old path. At least Rolf had remembered to bring his wellies.
Mud was thick on the path, and it made for a slippery descent. They often found themselves clinging to vines, or each other, in order to remain vertical. More than once this resulted in a frantic slide down twenty feet or more, ending with the three of them careening into the brush. By the time they reached the bottom they were so scratched up and muddy, they looked as though they had just had a nasty disagreement with a Dugbog. Fortunately a couple of canopy showers aided them in cleaning up, and they were off again in no time.
The trail fed onto a narrow pass that snaked along the valley floor. In some places the trees were so thick overhead that Rolf felt as though they were walking through a forest tunnel. The forest was oddly still, save for the occasional croaking frog, and the rising buzz of insects. It seemed as though most of the wildlife was still hunkered down away from the rain. Slowly they splashed their way along, eyes round with keen anticipation.
Rolf's stomach bubbled and jumped again, as it had at breakfast. He mentally blamed it on their slippery trip down the slope, then quickly distracted himself by getting a closer look at some fuzzy purple mushrooms that reminded him a bit of Horklumps.
Half an hour passed by before the forest returned to life. One by one, creatures began to emerge from their damp hideaways around the remote path. Every now and then they heard a little rustling in the brush, or saw a long blue tail swoosh up a tree. Before long, signs of movement were springing up everywhere. Parakeet chirps and kingfisher calls rang out through the air.
Eventually the sun managed to scorch the last of the clouds away, and it finally seemed safe to dry themselves off. Though dry clothes made Rolf more comfortable, the unsettled quivering in his belly persisted, the episodes coming with greater frequency. He continued to shrug it off however, determined to enjoy this rare opportunity. They moved along slowly, as Rolf and Luna paused to observe every creature they spotted. Rolf began taking notes, and Luna pulled out her camera, as they whispered back and forth excitedly.
Kanwal was clearly not as enthusiastic about wildlife as they were, but he patiently helped them to identify as many of the common animals as he could. Some of the magical creatures they encountered they had worked with in captivity back home, others they couldn't identify at all. The preparations for this trip had been so rushed that they had not had nearly as much time to read up on Indian wildlife as they normally would have liked. Plus, at the time, they hadn't any idea how likely they were to encounter wildlife at all. So they had each taken their own sections of a book on Indian creatures to learn as much as they could from it, but even their combined knowledge was still woefully lacking.
Eventually Kanwal seemed to tire of helping them, and strolled along ahead of them in silence. Rolf wondered if he ought to apologize to him, but when he finally opened his mouth Luna jabbed an elbow into his ribs.
“Look at that.”
A few paces off the path stood a tall stone carving of an Erumpent with many horns. Though its details were difficult to make out under thick patches of lichens, it seemed to be wearing a necklace, and its legs were sort of melded together at its base. It was the first man made object they had encountered since they left the village, making it seem grossly out of place.
He turned his furrowed brow back to Luna. “What do you make of that? I've never heard of any Erumpent herds outside of Africa.”
“Neither have I. Nor have I heard of them having that many horns, for that matter.” She considered the curious statue a moment longer. “Perhaps this was one of their ancestors.”
This exchange seemed to arouse Kanwal's curiosity, and he backtracked to see what they were looking at.
Rolf absently stroked his chin. “Do you know what it is, Kanwal?”
“Well, I have no knowledge of any such creature, but, if I am remembering correctly, it means we are on the right path. We should pass several more of these markers on our way to the research outpost.”
Kanwal lagged behind them as they went on. Rolf noticed that he had a contemplative look about him, but didn't pay it much thought. He had other matters to worry about. A bloated leaden cramp had begun to swell deep within his belly, as though his colon were trying to consume the rest of his insides. He attempted to casually drift behind Luna, while keeping his distance from Kanwal, as he was having increasing difficulty concealing his digestive predicament. As the cramping worsened he couldn't help but have flashbacks of last night's decadent foreign meal, and wondered if it disagreed with him. Out in the middle of nowhere this was a disturbing thought.
“Kanwal, how much farther is it?”
Kanwal looked at him apologetically. “I am not sure exactly, perhaps ten kilometers or so. We should arrive before dark, which is advantageous if we wish to avoid any encounters with tigers.”
“I'm sure a stunner or two would take care of a tiger easily enough,” Rolf reassured himself as he quickly scanned the area for any signs of orange.
“That may be true, I do not know. The trouble is that tigers are silent hunters. If one were to stalk you, you would not see it until it was upon you. And they go for the throat first.”
At this, Rolf closed back in on Luna, nonchalantly checking that his wand was safely in his cargo pocket. He laid his other hand over his churning stomach, willing his system to quiet down. “Well, I'm sure Stubby is worth all this.”
Over the next hour Rolf nearly filled an entire journal with notes on the staggering variety of creatures in the forest. Although, with his abdomen simultaneously cramping, bubbling, burning, and swelling, he was finding it increasingly difficult to concentrate.
“There's that chirruping sound again.” Luna quickly surveyed the surrounding trees.
They had been trying to figure out what had been making that noise for several minutes. “I think it-” he drew a sharp breath as a cramp momentarily seized up, “Came from the left.”
She grabbed hold of his elbow, stopping him. “Rolf. Do you need to—”
He straightened himself up, and caught her eye firmly. “Also, I'm not so sure it's coming from the trees.”
Luna looked at him askance. “Well, I think you may be right about that much at least.”
It was quickly becoming clear to him that he was not going to make it to the outpost. 'We brought a bezoar, Flesh-Eating Slug Repellent, Shrinking Solution. Why oh why, did we not think to bring any digestive potions?' He desperately tried to think of a ruse that would distract Kanwal and Luna long enough that he could steal away alone for awhile, but came up with nothing. The urgent burn that boiled away near his bottom was telling him he needed to think fast.
As they passed the third stone marker, and stepped out into a wide clearing, Luna thrust out a halting arm.
“Oooh,” she whispered.
Even Kanwal's breath caught as he looked in the same direction she was.
It took Rolf several seconds to spot what they were looking at. His heart stopped. Along the banks of a stream that cut through the clearing grew lush patches of Dreaming Lotus, and there among them stood five or six short, chubby creatures.
They looked a bit like overgrown garden gnomes, only with much longer arms. Their flower petal like skin shone in brilliant whites and soft pinks. He felt like he could actually see how soft it was. Their eyes were so small that he could not even make them out. Only the broad noses that stretched clear across their faces stood out on their round heads. Even from this distance Rolf could see the membrane expanding and contracting, opening and closing their round nostrils.
“What are they?” Kanwal asked.
“Rolf, aren't those the things you were telling me about? The creatures that eat only smells?”
“Blossom Gnomes? Yes, I think so,” he answered weakly.
“Wasn't there a Hindi word for them?”
“That would be Baura Sukti,” Kanwal replied looking puzzled. “I am sorry, they eat smells?”
Luna couldn't seem to pull her eager eyes away from the creatures as she explained, “Yes. They live on scents alone and eat nothing else. Apparently they've been known to carry around roots, apples or flowers to sniff as they travel.”
Rolf nodded tensely, “That's right, and a foul odor could injure or even kill them.”
They all watched as the Baura Sukti cautiously moved through the Lotuses, careful not to touch any of the petals which would trigger the release of soporific spores. They were so beautiful and gentle. He wished he could linger there watching them, but the churning pressure inside him had other ideas. Clenching against it with all his might, his knees began to buckle. In a panic, he did the first thing that came to mind.
Flapping his long arms up and down wildly, Rolf sprang forward into the clearing. Bellowing and whooping, he sent the little creatures running pell-mell into the thick of the forest. Rolf skidded to a halt, turned, and sprinted as hard as he could in the opposite direction, into the brush on the other side. Tripping and jumping, he raced through the thicket, batting branches out of his face as he went. He ran until his body would wait no longer. As he whipped down his trousers he hoped to high heaven that those Blossom Gnomes were far away.
The next few minutes, spent with his back pressed helplessly up against a tree, would prove to be some of the most unpleasant of Rolf's entire life. When it was over he remained there for some time, white and shaking, rough tree bark still digging into his back. He felt weak, but he was spurned on by the thought of the Baura Sukti, and vanished the rank mess as quickly as he could. By the time he finished cleaning himself up, he had broken out in a cold sweat. Shivering head to toe he stumbled back into the thicket.
He was still trembling as he clambered out into the clearing. Luna immediately conjured a chair, and pushed him down into it without a word. She handed him some water. He drank deeply, until the canteen was nearly empty. He pulled out his wand to refill it, and then emptied it by half again. Several gulps of air later he felt much steadier.
Handing back Luna's canteen he made to stand up, “Thanks. I feel much—hey!”
Placing her hands squarely on his shoulders she held him in the chair. “Just rest.”
Her grip was firm, but her grey eyes were soft and pleading. He could not say no to her, so with a sigh he heaved his shoulders back into the chair, which gave a sharp wobble as he did so. She handed him a vial of Hydrating Draught, and then conjured seats for herself and Kanwal.
Luna bent down over her rucksack. “Do you mind if we have a bit of lunch, Rolf?”
Rolf shook his head.
She handed a packet of beef jerky over to Kanwal then sat up placidly. “So, what sort of research did your son do at the outpost, Kanwal?”
“Dear me, I do not know. He tried to explain it to me once, but I confess I was at a loss to follow what he was talking about. Something about magical theory, and incantations in Pali, an old language I have always wanted to learn more about. That is all I know.”
Luna nodded. “I suppose you wouldn't have any idea what Stubby's interest in the research facility would be then.”
Kanwal shifted in his chair, and faintly shook his head. “That reminds me, Rolf, there is something I have been meaning to ask ever since we left Jhansi.”
“What is it?”
Kanwal gazed seriously at him. “Why is he called Stubby?”
“Oh!” he laughed. “Allegedly it has to do with him having a short wand.”
“Hm. I see.” Kanwal quietly went back to his lunch, staring hard at the ground.
Rolf's system began to feel eerily calm. His discomfort had eased but he still felt oddly unsettled, as though he had just lived through an earthquake. He watched as Luna absently chewed her food while gazing around at the sunlit clearing. No potion in the world could ever match the medicine he found in her happy sighs.
Having eaten their fill, Luna carefully tucked away the remaining jerky in her rucksack. As she stood to vanish her chair, Kanwal began rubbing the back of his neck. His eyes flitted back and forth between her and the ground. After several short breaths he opened his mouth to speak, but was interrupted by the sudden snapping of twigs.
Three heads turned at once, seeming to agree that the noise had come from the section of woods they had just come out of.
“Is it an animal?” Kanwal asked.
Rolf narrowed his eyes, listening intently. “I'm not sure it is.”
They all stood there transfixed, staring into the mouth of the clearing. Snaps and rustles continued, telling them that whatever it was was coming closer.
Finally two Indian men stepped blinking into the clearing. They took only a couple of steps forward, then stopped. Tipping their heads together, they began whispering to each other anxiously. From this distance he couldn't be sure, but it looked like the two men kept trying to steal glances at the three of them as they talked. The taller of the two, who was wearing only a turban and a lungi, nodded to the shorter, and they began slowly making their way up to their chairs.
Luna took a step forward to meet them. As Rolf followed suit he discretely slipped a hand into his pocket. There wasn't anything menacing about them per se, but Rolf left his hand poised over his wand just the same. The men stopped several feet away from them, and stared silently as if suddenly caught off guard.
Finally the shorter man spoke from beneath the tangled roots of his long beard, “Excuse me, is this the way to the magical research camp?”
Luna nodded. “That's where we're going. Are you looking for-”
“Now, Luna,” Kanwal cut in, “Let us not pry into their affairs.”
The bearded man smiled, “It's quite all right. We've been asked to participate in a study.”
Rolf tilted his head. “Didn't they give you directions to the site, or offer you a guide?”
“We've lost our map.”
“Well, you are certainly welcome to come with us,” Kanwal offered. “What are your names please?”
The taller man looked questioningly down at his companion, who calmly replied, “My name is Raj, and this is Samir.”
Kanwal introduced himself, Rolf and then Luna. He explained to them that they were still several kilometers away from the site. As Luna and Kanwal moved to gather their things Rolf remained rooted to the spot. Something was decidedly queer about this situation, and he was in no way sure that it was wise to invite these two into their group so easily. Luna calmly handed him his rucksack, and slipped her hand into his. He wondered if he was overreacting. Flicking his wand in acquiescence, the chairs vanished.
As they stepped onto the path on the other side of the clearing they found another of the strange stone markers. Rolf did a double take as they passed it. 'Why aren't those two just following the markers? Surely the research facility would have told them to look out for them.'
The path narrowed slightly as it began to snake back up into the hills. Rolf slowed down a little, pulling Luna back behind the other three. He was caught in a furious mental debate. Part of him wanted to create enough distance to be able to talk things over with Luna. The other part thought it might be better to keep a close eye on their traveling companions.
Kanwal had situated himself between Raj and Samir, attempting to engage them in friendly conversation. “So Raj, your accent suggests that you are from the northeast. Am I correct?”
“Hm? Oh, yeah.”
“Yeah, that's right.” Raj pulled out a pack of cigarettes from a pocket in his kurta and lit it. “Fancy a fag?”
“No thank you, sir. What city? If you do not mind my asking.”
“Er-It's a very small town.”
“I see. And what about you, Samir?”
Samir merely raised his eyebrows at him, grinning broadly.
Raj answered for him. “He doesn't speak English.”
Kanwal presumably repeated the question in a language that Rolf thought was beginning to sound familiar. Samir continued to grin blankly. Kanwal snapped his head back to Raj, confused. “He does not speak Hindi either?”
Raj shook his head, pulling a long drag off of his fag. “I don't know what language he speaks.”
Kanwal simply shrugged and nodded.
Luna furrowed her brow. “But you two were just talking to each other back there in the clearing.”
At this, Raj coughed so hard he doubled over, hacking out great plumes of smoke.
Rolf couldn't help but smirk. ''Atta girl Luna.'
It took him a moment to catch his breath before he could speak. “I-er-hem,” he paused to wipe the tears from his eyes, “Excuse me. Sometimes I forget, and try to talk to him. Mostly we communicate with gestures.”
'He forgot? Is this guy for real?' Rolf hurried forward to close the gap. “Kanwal, you're the linguistic expert here. Maybe you can help him communicate.”
Kanwal stroked his chin. “It would likely be a fruitless effort. There are over four hundred languages spoken in India. Even my knowledge is limited.”
Rolf dropped back by Luna, once again feeling that maintaining some distance was wise. He ruffled his hair as though massaging his scalp might help him think. He didn't like this. Why had these men not used magical transportation to get to the research camp? What were the odds that they would all coincidentally show up on this remote forest path at the same time? Not to mention the fact that this supposed language barrier seemed totally off.
Which brought his rampaging suspicions back around to Kanwal. Why had he been so quick to accept those two without a second thought? He had been wondering if he was only imagining the strangeness in his actions, but that last bit had sealed it. Granted, he had only known Kanwal for a few days, but he was sure Kanwal should have jumped at the chance to flex his lingual prowess. Something was amiss. In fact, this whole trip was becoming more dubious by the day. He felt restless and agitated, and had half a mind to Apparate Luna back to New Delhi that instant.
Rolf jumped at the rarely heard venom in Luna's voice.
“You forgot to dispose of your rubbish,” she continued. The flattened remnants of Raj's cigarette hovered off the ground several inches in front of his face. “Here, I'll take care of it for you.”
She probably could have Vanished the cigarette butt with the power of her glare alone, but opted instead to use her wand. Rolf grinned in spite of himself. Raj, through his careless disrespect for the wilderness, had unknowingly written himself out of Luna's good books. Rolf would have no difficulty convincing her that they needed to steer well clear of those two once they reached their destination. He heaved a sigh at that last thought, unable to deny that he really had no intention of turning back now, now matter how strongly he felt that trouble was afoot. After all, they had already come this far, and he really wasn't ready to give up on Stubby. There was nothing else to do for the time being but carry on, and keep a close eye on Raj and Samir.
The remainder of the journey was quiet, save for their labored breathing as the path lead them up several steep inclines. Eventually the light began to fade, and Rolf couldn't help but wonder if they shouldn't have gotten there already. His eagerness was not helped by the fact that his stomach was feeling much better, and as a result he was ravenously hungry. Just as visions of chicken legs began to dance in his mind, a large stone wall came into view at the top of the next rise. The path stopped midway up the slope, at the foot of a massive flight of stone steps.
“Rolf, Luna, if you would please.” A befuddled look washed over Kanwal as he held out his arms to them.
In retrospect, dragging him through a Muggle Repelling Charm through a sea of overly ripe fruit had been a doddle compared to pulling him up that hill. More than once his teetering weight threatened to send them all tumbling backwards. His flailing legs caught the backs of their knees, pitching them forward into the granite slabs. Two bloodied palms, one broken nose, and a plethora of scrapes and bruises later, Kanwal finally regained his composure.
Once again, he sheepishly offered many apologies as Luna set to work with nearly every first aid spell she knew. In the end, with the exception of the knees in Rolf's trousers, which were blown out beyond magical repair, they were no worse for the wear.
The staircase left them standing in front of a twenty foot high stone wall. Looking down the expanse of green stone to the right and to the left, Rolf saw no sign of a door, gate, or entrance of any kind.
“Hey Raj, did they tell you how to get in?” Rolf turned away from the wall, but stopped short. “Raj?” He quickly scanned the surrounding trees, but in the dim light could only make out leafy shadows. “Where could they possibly have gotten off to?”
Luna shrugged. “They must have gone in already.”
Rolf huffed. “Well, a fine thank you that is.”
Kanwal held up a hand to calm him. “Not to worry, my friend. If memory serves...” He walked directly up to the wall and gingerly pressed his hand into it. “Ah yes, here we are,” he said as his forearm disappeared into the ancient bricks.
Luna flashed him a delighted look. “Oh, do you remember I told you about how we used to get on the platform for the school train, Rolf? This is just like it. Come on.”
Beyond the wall they started along a narrow cobblestone path toward the research facility. The extensive front garden was so overgrown that it was difficult to tell whether it was actually a garden, or merely a continuation of the forest. The smooth dome of the research facility shone eerily green through the trees, its minarets towering high above them. Two bright trees flanked the end of the garden path, bursting with huge white blossoms that opened and closed like twinkling stars.
Again they found no sign of an entry point anywhere on the structure. Only a small circular patch of wood stood out on the continuous slab of rock. It looked as though it could have served as a door, but only for a moderately sized owl.
Kanwal bit his lip. “Dear me, I had forgotten about this. When I came here to visit, there was something my son had to do to get us inside. Something with his wand.”
Rolf stepped closer to inspect the wooden circle. “Well, do you remember what it was? Or maybe what it looked like?”
Kanwal shook his head apologetically.
With a sigh, Rolf raised his wand and touched it to the weathered wood. Nothing happened. He tried a few incantations to no avail. “Well, great. What do we do now?”
“Hmm.” Luna came forward, and, standing up on her toes, raised a fist to knock loudly on the wooden circle.
For a moment it seemed as though this too was a fruitless effort, but just as Rolf was about to suggest that they walk around the building, the wall began to quiver. Slowly the stone gave way to the expanding wooden circle, until the wood touched the ground, and the newly grown door opened a crack.
“Yaham kauna hai?” A wide eyed young woman peeked out through the crack.
“Namaste,” Kanwal leaned in to answer her.
As they exchanged several sentences, Rolf studied Kanwal's face carefully in an attempt to get the gist of what he was saying to her. Whatever it was, she finally opened the door wide, and gestured for them to come in. She spoke again to Kanwal as they crossed the threshold.
“Krpaya ham,” he replied with a nod.
She led them down a narrow corridor, stopping outside of a cramped water closet. She waited there while the three of them took turns stepping inside to freshen up. When they had finished, she promptly led them all back to the entrance hall. Smiling slightly, she held up her index finger, and then swept out of the room.
Rolf quickly turned to Kanwal. “What's going on?”
“Well, I think they will at least let us stay for dinner.”
Rolf wanted to press him further but the young witch returned with an austere looking older woman. He couldn't help but notice that her sari looked like it had been splattered with dragon dung as she surveyed them through narrowed eyes.
Finally she spoke to the younger woman, who once again left the room. Then she turned back to Kanwal and company. “You are fortunate that our day's work ran longer than we expected. We are dining late this evening. Come.”
She showed them into a large chamber off the entrance hall where several men and women had already gathered around a low table. Rolf quickly took a seat next to Luna on one of the plump bolsters that surrounded the dining table, eager not to draw attention to himself. He had a peculiar feeling that they were not overly welcome here.
He quietly tucked in as soon as the meal was served, and did his best to keep his eyes on his plate. Despite his efforts to remain unnoticed, he could feel suspicious glances burning on his cheeks as he listened to the low chatter in the room. When he had had quite enough of feeling like a werewolf at a birthday party he boldly lifted his gaze to look around the table, at which point the others were all looking determinedly in other directions.
They must have figured out that he couldn't understand them, for they all continued their conversations. That is, all but three of them were talking. The two gentlemen at his left sat silently, barely touching their meal. The solemn woman who had shown them into the dining hall sat directly across form Rolf. She too was silent, and made no attempt to hide her harsh stare from him.
Luna seemed to take this as an invitation. “So, what sort of things do you do here?”
The woman pursed her lips, “Research.”
“What do you research?”
“Magic.” She said this with an emphasis that exuded finality.
Luna took a drink of water, then had another go. “We heard a rumor that Stubby Boardman was sighted near here. Have you seen him?”
“Are you quite sure? I mean, it's possible you saw him but didn't know who he was.”
“Girl, you three are the only outsiders to come here in well over a year, so I am, in fact, quite sure that I have not seem him.”
Something about her phrasing triggered Rolf's memory. “Where are Raj and Samir?”
The woman turned her disdainful glare on Rolf. “Who?”
“The two men we hiked out here with,” he explained. “They came to participate in a study.”
“I have no idea what you are talking about.”
Rolf barely had time to be puzzled over this when a high-pitched shriek rang out from the front garden. It sounded at once like a wild howl and a human cry. Whatever it was, it prompted everyone in the room to rush out into the entrance hall. Rolf, Luna and Kanwal pushed their way in among the frantic group as they gathered around the door.
“Jarita!” the voice wailed again, piercing and desperate. “Jarita, pleeease. Come out here! Jarrrita!”
A general panic seemed to sweep over the crowd as they all began talking at once. Rolf leaned in to Kanwal. “What's going on?”
Kanwal shook his head. “I do not know. They keep saying 'It's back. It's back.'” He stuck out his chin, straining to make out words among the rabble. “I keep hearing the word 'crocotta'.”
Luna laid a hand on Rolf's elbow. “Rolf, isn't that the name of a creature? I think I remember reading about them.”
“Oh, I think you're right. But what was it?” He held her gaze for a moment, hoping her sharp mind would recall the answer. “Wasn't it a bird?”
“I don't remember. Maybe. Or was it a serpent of some kind?”
The English speaking woman huffed dramatically. “A crocotta is a savage beast that mimics human speech in order to lure people outside where it can tear them apart.”
Luna threw her hands up in recollection. “Oh yes, of course. That's right.”
With another great huff the woman turned back toward the door, muttering something about ignorant foreigners. The shrieking had stopped, but they could now hear the grotesque sounds of hacking and retching.
Luna tugged on the woman's sari. “What is it doing now?”
She rolled her eyes hard. “It makes sounds like vomiting to try and draw out our dogs.”
Luna gasped as a low bark sounded somewhere in the yard. She exchanged a hard glance with Rolf as she drew her wand. Without a word they broke through the crowd toward the door. They could hear paws pounding on the ground away from the building.
“No! What are you doing? It will come in!”
In a flash they yanked open the door and raced outside before anyone could grab them. For a moment there was nothing but stillness in the garden. Rolf squinted, willing his eyes to penetrate through the dark. “Oi! Ugly!” He scanned the black forest urgently as he listened to the thundering paws change direction to come at them. The beast seemed to materialize out of nowhere and leaped at Rolf.
“Talitrio.” The crocotta flipped over in midair giving Rolf just enough time to run. Luna sprinted out in the opposite direction.
Having righted itself, the monster shook its shaggy head and began pacing, snarling in turn at Luna and Rolf. The glow from the building illuminated its fearsome silhouette. Standing at least four feet tall it resembled an enormous hyena, with thick haunches and sturdy lion's legs. Rows of pointed teeth flashed in the moonlight as it contemplated who to kill first.
Rolf sent a quick stunner at it, but in the same instant it lunged at Luna. Instinct took over. “Protego!” The Shield Charm erupted from his white poplar wand, wide and powerful. The crocotta smashed into it with a crunch. Unfortunately the spell Luna had cast at it also bounced off of it, throwing her to the ground. Gingerly she clambered to her feet, favoring her right ankle.
The crocotta seemed wholly unfazed by the collision and ran full pelt back at Rolf. Still he held firm with his Shield Charm.
“Rolf!” Luna stood at the edge of the protective wall, glaring daggers at it.
The crocotta was closing in fast. With less than a second to spare he finally dropped his shield and fired off a stunner. The red jet did little more than knock the creature back a few yards. Luna hobbled forward as quickly as she could, as the beast reared back on it's haunches.
“Petrificus Totalus,” she spat the words out so quickly that they almost ran together. The spell had enough power to make the beast collapse, but it flailed about on the ground, muscles twitching as it struggled to get its paws under it.
Rolf stepped forward, careful to stay clear of its jerking claws. “Together?” Luna nodded.
“Stupefy!” With a low hiss the crocotta finally gave in to unconsciousness. Rolf hastened to bind its legs with the thickest rope he could produce. Luna caged it in a hovering purple bubble.
They both started as the crowd from the research building poured outside. They were suddenly inundated with pats on the back and rowdy handshakes. Even the severe old woman's demeanor softened, however slightly. She healed Luna's ankle, and thanked them stiffly for taking care of the beast. Apparently it had already killed two of their dogs, and nearly took out one member of the research team.
Gradually the crowd dissipated, and the woman ushered them into the now empty dining hall. There she left them without another word.
Angry creases formed on Luna's forehead and she rounded on Rolf. “Will you ever trust that I can handle myself in a fight? You don't need to protect me like a china doll.”
With his heart still pounding in his ears from the battle he could hear it skip at her words. “Luna, I'm so sorry. I-I know I was was wrong. I just can't help myself. The thought of you getting...” The thought was too terrible to even articulate.
“When we get home I'm taking you to meet my old Care of Magical Creatures teacher. Maybe then you'll understand,” she snapped.
A stony silence prevailed until Kanwal entered the room, followed by the young witch who had first let them in. “Are you two all right?”
Rolf found it difficult to look him in the eye. “Yes, we're fine.”
Kanwal inclined his head in concern. “They have offered us a room for the night.”
Smacking the table, Rolf jumped up. “No. I don't like this place. And now that I'm talking about it I'm not so sure about you, Kanwal.”
“Rolf,” Luna reproached him.
Kanwal looked stricken. Rolf regretted the words the moment they had left his lips, but still he could not stop himself. Stress and suspicion had been swelling inside him all day, and Luna's anger had pierced him like an arrow. It was all bursting forth uncontrollably. “You've obviously been lying to us from day one, and now you've lead us though a tiger infested forest to a camp full of hostile people where we nearly get killed. And let's not forget Raj and Samir, who were, apparently, also lying to us. It almost seemed like you were waiting for those two weird-o's to show up, then poof, you invite them to join us without a second thought. Now they've disappeared to God knows where, probably hiding at the bottom of the hill, waiting to turn us into hat racks no doubt. I've had it. We're leaving.”
Hanging his head, Kanwal spoke to the young woman. “They can provide you with transportation. Where would you like to go?”
“Where is the woman who speaks English?”
Again Kanwal conferred with the young woman. “Jarita has gone to take the crocotta to the wildlife research building on the next hill. She will not return until tomorrow.”
Rolf bit his lip.
“Rolf, don't do this. If you want to go, that's fine, but Kanwal should come with us. I still don't think he means to hurt us. Plus, I think we need him.”
Frustrated, Rolf rubbed his face. Kanwal's glistening eyes pleaded with him.
She grabbed his chin, forcing him to look at her. “Trust me.”
“Fine,” he relented. “But we're calling the shots.”
The woman led them around the building to a small paddock in the back. There stood a lone Garuda, much like the one they had seen back in New Delhi, harnessed to a small ratha. Rolf jumped back a little as words clicked out from its beak.
“He asked where you wish to go,” Kanwal translated.
Rolf cast around in his mind, trying to come up with a destination. In his rampage, he hadn't actually given this part much thought. Cursing himself for knowing so little about Indian geography he blurted out the first thing that came to mind. “Kolkata.”
Stifling a groan, Kanwal joined them in the ratha. Unleashing its great wings the Garuda took off like a shot. Rolf could feel the air pressing in on him from all sides as they rocketed through the sky at a terrific speed. It was almost like apparition. Minutes later they landed, surprisingly gently, in a tree enclosed green space like the depot in New Delhi.
Rolf knees felt weak as they stumbled out onto the deserted late-night street. All his adrenaline had drained away, leaving him with a delirious sort of exhaustion. He had plodded along for nearly twenty feet in a zombie-like state before he realized that Kanwal had stopped to be sick. His sense of human compassion wrestled with his agitation for a moment before he finally gave in and went back to wait for him. Unwilling to let go of his anger just yet, he crossed his arms over his chest and tapped his foot.
Luna glared at him, as she patiently offered Kanwal her canteen to rinse his mouth with.
“I am sorry,” he choked out, “I told you before I hate flying with Garuda.”
Three rounds of vomiting later they finally made to set off again, then something rustled in the trees behind them. Feet shuffled onto the pavement, then stopped. The three of them froze. Muggle street or not Rolf drew his wand as he turned and looked over his shoulder. “Is this a dream?”
“Ah, endings can be painful, can't they. I, for one, am dying to know what Rolf saw behind him. Alas, I must wait like the rest of you until the author gets her butt in gear and releases Chapter 5. In the meantime she would like you to know the following things:
“The Hindi phrase Yaham kauna hai translates into English as Who is here, and the phrase Krpaya ham translates as Yes please.
“Well, as always we sincerely hope you've enjoyed the show tonight and will return in due time for the next installment. Until then, thank you and good-night.”
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