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Chapter 9 : Below the Brine
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It was with a bright-eyed face that Hugo ran pell-mell towards the lake, his arms forming large windmills behind him. Scorpius smiled, but his extreme relief was split neatly by the knowledge of the danger within the plants beneath the surface of the lake. The centaur’s opposition to the misuse of it wasn’t something that weighed lightly upon him, either. He inched closer to Professor Longbottom as the group moved slowly, behind Hugo, to the sand of the shores of the ice lake.
His need to share the words that Pythia had departed with Longbottom grew in Scorpius, but something made him stop. Keep the words to himself. Looking at the joy apparent in the professor’s expression was enough to tell him that any news of the sort would ruin a moment that they’d all risked their lives for. So Scorpius swallowed his worry with a large smile, and followed Hugo and the centaurs onto the ice.
It wasn’t hard to forget what Pythia had said as he watched Hugo running wildly across the glinting lake, pointing out spot after spot under its surface--where the Quidropopots must have been visible. It was more difficult to imagine that a boy who could become so tangibly, utterly excited at the mere sight of the fruits could be after them for reasons--reasons that Scorpius thought didn’t bear thinking about.
But there was, of course, the small, tiny part of him that told him he should be wondering. It was funny, how that part of you, no matter how small, was always stronger than the pervasive happiness or ignorance and would be heard despite its small bearing. It demanded an audience unlike the bliss, but Scorpius shook his head. Why was it that he was always trying to convince himself? Was it because after all this time, he still didn’t know Hugo well enough to be certain that he was all that he appeared to be? Was so much change in such a short amount of time really just too much to be real?
His head shook again, of its own accord. He pocketed the worry, forcing himself to grin and launch himself onto the icy surface, a yelp of mirth bursting through his throat. His shoes’ inadequate traction caused him to skid, at a loss for control, into Hugo, who promptly upended and landed with a thump on the ice.
Looking down, his face pressed against the mirror of the cold, Scorpius saw that a bright orange ball, perhaps the size of a Quaffle, was floating in the lake, maybe ten feet below the surface. He turned his cheek slightly to the right to see that Hugo’s nose was pressed against the lake, his arms spread on either side of him, hugging the surface. Scorpius knew he had eyes only for the fruit below them.
“Need this?” he asked, reaching into his inner pocket and pulling out the Acromantula fang. It was an onyx black, glinting, almost a foot long. Hugo grinned and took it from Scorpius gingerly, holding it out in front of him. He pressed it into the ice slowly above where the Quidropopot glimmered mildly.
After a few moments, Hugo’s eyes flickered over to Scorpius. Nothing had happened.
“How do you work it?” the younger boy voiced with moderate concern.
“Maybe squeeze it?” Scorpius suggested, shrugging. He felt silly. “I didn’t think that far ahead.”
“...But without the fang there would have been absolutely no chance. I think with it there’s a little more.” Hugo smiled, and Scorpius knew that was his way of attempting to placate any feelings of silliness.
“Probably,” he conceded, nodding, offering Hugo a bright smile and a small push. “Go on.”
He watched Hugo squeeze the fang carefully, making sure to keep his hands and fingers away from the serrated edge. The fang let up a little clear liquid, which hit the smooth ice with a sizzle and immediately carved a small divot in the surface. The boys looked at each other excitedly.
Neville stood a small distance away, watching as the Acromantula’s venom worked its way down into the ice and carved a small tunnel around the Quidropopot. He wasn’t sure that he could believe that it actually existed. He knew they’d traveled all this way to--see it--but he still hadn’t really believed it was real, not really. Not even when the Acromantulas had tried to eat them to keep it safe.
“Longbottom,” Xury said, stepping forward. Neville noticed his crossbow was out and in his hands.
“We have been followed by wood nymphs,” Xury said quietly, stepping even closer and slinging his crossbow over his back.
“Wood nymphs,” Neville repeated, feeling numb.
“Friends of the Acromantula.” Xury raised his eyebrows. “I do not fear we are in immediate danger.” He cleared his throat. “But whatever the plans--they must manifest quickly.”
Neville nodded. He had already talked himself out of attempting to use the fruit’s flesh in aid of the Healing community. There wasn’t a good way out of it--someone, somewhere, could find the fruit and use it for its most obvious power. However much healing it should bring would only be laid to pieces if the fruit fell into the hands of someone who misunderstood its power or wished to harness its strength to their own ends.
He had decided what he thought should be done. The brief, glimmering, hopeful thought of sharing the idea with Scorpius and Hugo to see what they thought of it pushed its way to the forefront of his mind, but he shook it away with a warm determination. He was sure that in this matter he understood so much better than either of the younger boys--Merlin bless them--would be able to imagine. He had lived through war. His friends had been slaughtered. He had stared evil and corruption and flaw in the eye. Neither of the boys had ever done this.
It wasn’t their decision to make. It was Neville’s.
He paused for a moment, drawing out a small scrap of paper upon which there were several coordinates inked. He drew out a tattered map from the inside pocket of his coat, consulted it for a moment--drawing a couple of intersecting lines--and extrapolated the area of the lake, marking a few coordinates down on the parchment before putting everything back in his pockets and folding his arms.
He joined the centaurs as they stood facing the edge of the woods, the sun beating off of their smooth hides, waiting patiently for whatever might come.
“I will talk to Hugo now,” Pythia said suddenly, her voice soft. Neville felt the edge lying just beneath the surface of her words, appealing to some kind of understanding that Neville himself could not supply. Delphi and Kristophos nodded as she quietly clicked across the surface of the ice towards where Hugo and Scorpius stood, contemplating the best method to use to extract the Quidropopot from the ice.
Hugo looked up at the sound of hoofbeats to see Pythia walking towards him. He felt Scorpius stiffen beside him and looked towards him for a moment. There was a flicker of something around Scorpius’s jawbone, but he didn’t think much of it when Scorpius smiled lightly across to him. He turned back to Pythia, hoping maybe she would have a suggestion for them.
“Hello, Hugo Weasley,” she said when she stopped almost two feet away from them. Her body pointed like theirs--towards the problematically deep pit, at the bottom of which the bright orange flesh of the Quidropopot flickered.
“Hullo, Pythia!” Hugo warbled happily. “We’re just trying to think of a way to get down to the Quidropopot. Do you have any ideas?”
He turned, grinning, to Scorpius, expecting to see that the older boy was pleased that he had thought to ask Pythia the question. But he was extremely surprised to find that Scorpius’s face was a picture of alarm, a muscle straining in his cheek and his nostrils flared, dark blue eyes wide on his face. Hugo shrunk back slightly. His heart was pounding, but when he looked around to see what the trouble was, Scorpius was only staring at Pythia. Hugo frowned, scratching his head. He was about to open his mouth to ask what was wrong, but then stopped himself. Pythia was standing right there...if Scorpius had a problem with her, it might not be very nice for either of them to bring the subject up.
So he turned back to Pythia, putting a large smile on his face. He was a bit surprised to see that her eyes were squinted severely at him. He froze, allowing her to scrutinize him from the distance.
What's going on?
He’d no sooner been able to think the question when suddenly, Pythia’s face cleared and she redirected her body towards the pit in the ice before them. Hugo cleared his throat and tugged at his collar. That had been close.
He didn’t exactly know why, but he had the feeling about him that he’d narrowly avoided something. Maybe because Pythia’s expression had rather reminded him of the look that Rose routinely wore the moment before she was about to attempt to beat him within an inch of his life.
“It seems the solution lies in magic,” Pythia said after a moment. She turned, her hooves making round ‘clop’ noises on the ice. She reached out a hand and for a split second Hugo recoiled--but as soon as she cupped the shoulder of his coat in her angular palm, Hugo knew there had been no reason to worry. She imparted a rare smile to him before nodding slightly and clipping off to join her brother and their friends, completing the shape of a semi circle pointed towards the bordering woods.
Hugo shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts. He turned back to Scorpius, who looked almost ready to topple onto the ice. Hugo fought for a moment with his cluelessness. If he was looking so worried earlier, and nothing happened, why does he look like he’d love to faint? C’mon, Hugo, why would you fall over onto the ice after looking horrified? Maybe the thing is invisible and it’s making me want to faint...or--no! I know. He’s relieved.
Pleased with himself, Hugo grinned and strode to Scorpius, giving him a small clap clap! across his left cheek. The dangling earring--it looked like a scrap of metal--in Scorpius’s ear rocked back and forth as Scorpius slowly looked Hugo in the eye. There was both what looked like resentment and amusement about his features; Hugo shrugged, about to apologise, but his thoughts were interrupted by something spewing from his mouth.
“I’VE GOT IT!” he shouted. It took a moment of his brain reeling from attempting to connect all of his thoughts to recapture just what it was, exactly, that he had got, but then he remembered. “I know how to get to the Quidropopot!”
“How?” Scorpius asked. There was a tinge of something in his voice. Hugo spotted it almost instantly as doubt. He wasn’t exactly a stranger to doubt.
“You can ‘locomotor’ me down.” He knew as soon as he said it that Scorpius would be surprised; but instead, it was Hugo who was surprised. By Scorpius’s lack of surprise. It was like Scorpius had expected a good answer from him. But that didn’t make sense, because only just before Hugo had heard--
“Yes, that will work. Let me get my wand,” Scorpius said, interrupting Hugo’s torrent of thoughts. Hugo watched as Scorpius rummaged through his inner pocket, a bubble of excitement rising rapidly in his chest. Scorpius pulled the thin flute of wood out from his coat and held it out in front of him, and Hugo for a brief moment was not quite sure that he liked the look in Scorpius’s eyes, or the way he was brandishing his wand.
Hugo felt his eyes squint up because of his suspicion. It was a very experimental look about Scorpius’s person, mild fascination at all the possibilities glinting around on his face. Hugo realized that that is probably how he would have been looking if he were about to locomotor anyone, so he stopped squinting and flung his arms out beside him.
“I am ready to be hypnotised, Healer,” he said, and Scorpius did not even look at him funny this time but lifted his wand and pretended to adjust glasses on the bridge of his nose.
“Yes, psychotic patient, let us begin.” Scorpius nodded, brandishing his wand with a quick flick and Hugo felt himself lift off the ground only to go speeding back towards it at an alarming rate. A yelp had escaped him before he realized it and when he froze in midair with his face inches from the clear ice, he turned to see that all of the centaurs, still arched in a semi-circle facing the forest, were looking back over their shoulders and watching him. Hugo grinned innocently, and began crawling on his hands (which really stung on the cold ice; he wished he’d thought of mittens before all of this) towards the hole.
“I thought you were going to, you know, say the spell out loud or something,” Hugo said with a pathetic stab at mock casualness. He heard Scorpius cackle behind him. It sounded a little evil.
“Okay, I think I’m near--” the sudden face-first descent stopped the words from escaping Hugo’s mouth. By the time Scorpius had managed to stop him again (he was willing to forgive him because probably, Hugo thought, Scorpius had never used this spell on a human being. I wonder if I made Scorpius do an illegal thing), Hugo’s face was only a few feet above the bright orange flesh of the fruit.
It was strange, he thought, dangling vertically with his arms pinned to his sides to avoid the icy sharp divots in the hole’s sides, spinning around a little, that he was finally staring right into the briny face of the fruit he’d been imagining for several days now.
Hugo didn’t think he’d ever imagined anything for as long as that without forgetting for at least an hour or two what it was he was actually thinking about--besides when he had convinced his Dad to finally, finally buy him a vintage model of the Cleansweep 7, and there was a gap of ages between when Dad said he could have it and he actually got around to finding one cheap enough. He also didn’t know why it appeared to him to have the appearance of briny. And he also was not sure what the word briny meant.
He thought suddenly, well, this is it, then. This is the end. But it wasn’t so horrible as his head made it sound. Rose had been roping him into too many eighty-year-old horror movie jamborees.
“Okay,” he shouted over his shoulder, and then winced because there was a tremendous echo in this hole and he hadn’t prepared his eardrums for the shock. It is okay, little drums of the ear variety, he thought consolingly. You are all right.
“Okay, Scorpius, I’m stuck in the air, you’re going to have to lower me a --”
Before he could say little bit Scorpius had jumped to his task--he obviously hadn’t been taking his designated nap time very seriously or he would have been better at thinking right now--and plummeted Hugo’s face right into the skin of the fruit, which was strangely scratchy.
Hugo mumbled a garbled “thank you” into the bright orange that occupied most of the vision in his left eye and placed his hands gingerly in the ice surrounding the bit of branch the Quidropopot was attached to. He knew now what briny meant, he suddenly remembered. Rose had once had her nose stuck into a book of poetry at one of the gatherings at the Burrow for Christmas.
“The world below the brine,
Forests at the bottom of the sea, branches and leaves...”
It had been by someone whose name for whatever reason reminded him of the Wimbourine Wasps--he couldn’t remember. He’d asked what ‘brine’ had meant and Rose had answered in a rather automatic voice “salt water.” She had then specified that in the poem it meant the sea.
The Quidropopots had looked briny to him because their skin was covered in a thick down of peach fuzz, which gave the effect of having pulled it out of the sea and set it to dry, only the water evaporated and left a thick salty crust. It was in strange patches like Hugo imagined, really, now that he took the time to think about it, how water would dry and leave salt in patches. It almost looked like a tiny globe, but with orange water, pink continents--and far too many of them, of course. Hugo knew that there were only one hundred of them.
As his hands turned numb and tingly Hugo tested his weight to the air and found that he could rely completely on Scorpius’s locomotor to hold his body up while he used both hands to try to figure out how to remove the Quidropopot from the gnarled, greying branch of the tree. It was a rather large branch and only a part of it had been exposed to the air as the Acromantula fang had melted the crater in the vividly clear ice, but Hugo could see the rest of it anyways. It was like water near tropical islands--they had studied tropical islands in Hugo’s fourth-year Geography unit of Muggle Studies, and the photos of the drivers underwater looked exactly as clear as the tree looked to Hugo now through the ice.
He thought to himself suddenly as he placed both hands around the fruit to give it a hearty tug--this fruit would make a very swell Quaffle. It was about the same size and exactly, as far as Hugo’s numb hands could judge, the same weight. It came loose with a small, suctiony sounding pop! and Hugo huddled it to his chest proudly, a warm feeling rising between his lungs. He hugged it very tightly, but not tight enough to pop it. He thought Professor Neville would be disappointed if all he got to see of the mythical fruit was what was splattered all over Hugo’s coat, not that he would be particularly surprised to find it there.
“You can pull me up now, okay!” Hugo shouted as well as he could with his chin nestled in a small divot near the fruit’s stem, which was strange and yellow and on the underside of the fruit. It had been standing like a giant lolly pop on the tree, only with a very short and summarily ineffectual stick of a stem. No one would like a patchily-fuzzy lolly anyways.
It took Scorpius a moment to respond to Hugo’s call, and to Hugo’s surprise, because he had been bracing himself, particularly around the shoulders for the ascent based on past evidence collected, he moved very slowly and somewhat smoothly back up the crater and towards the light. Hugo only qualified the trip up with the word “somewhat” smoothly because there had been one point near the top where Scorpius seemed not to have lifted his wand high enough and Hugo’s forehead had smacked right into the edge of the crater. He was left to dangle there for a moment, too, his eyes just barely skimming (upside down, of course) the surface of the lake.
“Sorry!” Scorpius said suddenly, and Hugo was just as quickly lying on his stomach on the ice, landing with a windy oof! Hugo saw that Scorpius looked rather distracted and scrambled to his feet to see what could possibly be more interesting at the edge of the forest than what Hugo had clutched in his hands right here.
They were possibly the most beautiful creatures Hugo had ever seen.
Well, besides his vintage Cleansweep 7 and probably the watercolor painting Rose had made him of the giant squid devouring Slughorn were just as beautiful, but they had not been alive and could not blink their long eyelashes quite as quickly as the wood nymphs could.
Scorpius stood stock still, frozen numb with cold and shock. The crossbows all made sense now, as well as the centaurs’ warlike stance around the humans. The relatively helpless humans.
He watched in anxiety as Xury stepped forward and greeted the foremost nymph, and the two seemed to exchange diplomatic jargon. He was surprised to see Pythia turn and clip towards where he and Hugo stood dumbly. Scorpius melted into action and placed himself firmly in front of Hugo with a hardness in his eyes that he hoped Pythia would take to mean business. But her face was a surprisingly and wrenchingly soft expression of a simultaneous fear and affection, and she quickly sidestepped Scorpius and accosted Hugo’s side, pressing a small and ornate silver box into his hand.
“Take this,” she whispered with an agency in her voice that caused Hugo to respond immediately. He took the box and clasped it firmly in his hand, which he kept up at his chest. Scorpius saw that it reflected light brilliantly and a small spot of reflection glimmered lightly on the lake’s surface. He looked up, trying not to appear extraordinarily guilty, at the congregation of nymphs at the edge of the Forest. He saw one of them following the reflection with her large, slanting eyes. He stepped casually into the light’s path, dispelling the reflection.
The nymph’s eyes flickered to study Scorpius’s face. He blushed and looked down at his feet. He hoped she would take the blush for the effects of her apparent beauty and not for the guilt burning away beneath his skin. They were stealing something and it was theirs but they could not find that out. He eyed the long staffs that the nymphs carried surreptitiously, trying to figure out why they looked so familiar to him when he had never seen anything like them in his life.
Pythia glanced over her shoulder for a quick moment and then whispered something into Hugo’s ear quickly, walking very fluidly back to join her brother and their kin as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. Scorpius tried again not to look suspicious and inched closer to Hugo.
He couldn’t help himself--he stuck out a hand and touched the surface of the elusive, mythical plant’s fruit. It was large, like a pumpkin, or a Quaffle, and smooth in all the areas that weren’t covered in bright white down, like concentrated patches of peach fuzz. It was a bright orange on the smooth skin and appeared pink in the patches of fuzz, except for when the bright sunlight hit the surface of the hairs. Then they looked more like Scorpius’s platinum head than something that belonged on a plant.
Hugo smiled proudly.
“What’s the box for?” Scorpius whispered as quietly as he could, his lips almost touching Hugo’s earlobe as he attempted to hide his mouth from the prying eyes of the nymphs.
“For the Quidropopot,” Hugo muttered. Scorpius’s mind reeled. He tried not to frown too obviously, but that was awfully confusing. The box was as small as a snuff box, probably smaller, although just as ornate and he noticed for the first time that it had tiny feet. He didn’t understand, and whispered so to Hugo, who nodded slightly.
They cut the communication as the dialogue between Xury and the head nymph paused for a moment, and then the nymph moved on to Longbottom, who seemed to be thinking on his feet and pulling a story out of his arse. Scorpius sent a little prayer to the muses or whoever the hell was looking out for them. He knew Longbottom was a brilliant professor and everything, but he wasn’t sure how active things were for him on the creative front.
Hugo seized the moment of reinstated conversation to spew in a slight hiss to Scorpius all that Pythia had told him about the box.
“It shrinks things,” he whispered, clasping it more firmly in his hands, “and takes away their magic. She said the Misuse of Muggle Artifacts Office sometimes uses them to hide evidence from the police and get biting things to stop biting.”
Scorpius nodded like that made sense to him and took it at face value. So it shrunk things and took away their magic. That seemed simple enough. He wondered if it was permanent, because they were going to have to put the fruit into it before Longbottom had the chance to see. That might be rather sad for the old boy, not seeing the mythical fruit in all its hairy glory.
“You’d better put it in, then--” Scorpius began to say, but he noticed then that the head nymph was staring right at the Quidropopot in Hugo’s hands.
The centaurs stiffened at the sudden silence--Scorpius saw Delphi’s hand twitch in the direction of his crossbow--as he and Hugo stood, helplessly, their plan dashed to naught. He didn’t know what Longbottom and Xury had told the nymph, but apparently none of their story had included the small fact that they had actually retrieved a specimen from the lake for evil deeds.
The nymph’s honey-coloured eyes flashed dangerously and her nostrils flared. She pulled herself up to full height, which would not have been as intimidating if she were human and her full height only came to about six feet--but magical creatures are, for whatever reason, sometimes very large, and change shape for apparently no reason at all. The nymph’s human-like appearance disappeared and what was left before the group was a silhouette of fluttering leaves and tree blossoms. It was the shape of a woman, but obviously not a woman because women were not made of air and leaves. The nymphs all shifted their shapes, their subterfuge rotted, and they were all at least eight feet tall, perhaps nine.
There was a silence. It was brief, but shattering. Pythia called quickly and sharply, her voice low, “The box, Hugo!” and Hugo leapt into action, peeling the silver box from his sweaty palm and wrenching open the minuscule clasp. Out of the corner of his eye Scorpius saw a flurry of activity take place before him, including the centaurs pulling forth their crossbows, and Professor Longbottom hurrying towards them. He looked alarmed.
There was a moment of pause as Hugo looked helplessly at Scorpius when faced with the prospect of shoving something so large into such a small space, but Scorpius’s limbs quickly and suddenly unlocked and he found himself reaching across the brief space and he shoved down, hard, on the fruit, which wavered for a moment in the air like a program on an old Muggle television and then popped! into the small box, rolling around slightly as Hugo moved to snap the lid closed and pocket it quickly.
Something made Scorpius look up and around at the nymphs, who had not re-assumed human form but whose faces were still discernible. From the look on the head nymph’s face, she had seen the act of treachery, the shrinking and pocketing of the Quidropopot, and was terribly offended by the act. Scorpius heard Pythia attempting to explain, in desperate shouts, the effects of the box to stymie the coming attack--Scorpius felt it before he understood it--
It all moved in slow motion. Scorpius saw the head nymph reach down and pull out something that glinted in the sunlight, too bright for winter, and cock her elbow before he saw it, glinting evilly, spinning towards him in the air. It was alright, he thought, she thought it was him who was stealing it, him who had to be stopped. It was alright, then, he thought, and watched helplessly and with a strange fascination as the dagger headed right for his chest, broke the woolen chestplate of his coat, and dug itself deep into his flesh.
the two lines from the poem "217: The World Below the Brine" are by Walt Whitman and are from Leaves of Grass, his very famous publication. The title of this chapter is also obviously derived from this poem and the lines i listed. (if you can tell me why Hugo thought the name of the poet reminded him of the Wimbourine Wasps i will love you forever.)
a/n: edited 16 october 2011
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