They only had the Weasley tent left but nobody felt much like sleeping that evening and they were sitting outside around a real campfire now with plenty of protective shields in place to obscure both the flames and themselves from outsiders. Harry and Ginny sat apart from the others. After the battle hate adrenalin had worn off, Harry was having to deal with his normal feelings. He could explain his actions to himself but he was unsure if he could excuse them. Harry had come through betrayal, torture and the apparent death of his friends. He wondered if he could have handled it any better.
"What's happened to me Ginny? Dumbledore managed to use the wand without running amok."
"Nothing's happened to you Harry. You're still the same..."
"No buts! Listen, you're questioning yourself - that's the difference between you and ... I don't know - Voldemort, Worley, all the Death Eaters. Don't you see? They are all out and out evil. They never question what they do. You'll never be like them. How you feel right now proves it. I'm glad you feel bad about this. I'm glad! I'd be very scared if you didn't. If you were happy about it - then I'd be really worried!"
Hearing the raised voices, the others looked across at Harry and Ginny but it was clear the couple wanted to be on their own; they needed some space.
Harry sighed. He could see the sense in what Ginny was saying but it did not comfort him.
"What troubles me is I don't care about them even now - the ones I killed. I only care about me... about me turning into a... killer. I'm only... I don't know, Ginny. I'm all mixed up."
"You'd never used the wand in battle before. How could you possibly know it would be that powerful?" said Ginny.
"But I should have known!" He said loudly - then lowered his voice, "I knew it was the most powerful wand in the world. It was obvious it would be lethal."
"But you'd never had the chance to try it - to get the feel of it. That's not the same at all. Professor Dumbledore had been using it for years."
"I told him... At least I told his portrait..."
"They're not the same! The portrait is just a magical impression of the sort of things he'd say. It's just a portrait... It's not like a real person or a real promise. Anyway, you never promised. You just said what you were going to do and Dumble... the portrait agreed."
"I know. What I mean is, what I meant - what I really, really meant to do was hide the wand away - never, ever use it. I must have felt even then it was too dangerous..."
"But Professor Dumbledore used it safely! And you just used it and saved us all! I think we'd probably all be dead or worse by now if it was not for that wand!"
"That's the conflict though, isn't it Ginny? Destroy it or try to use it for good and get corrupted by it."
"You're not corrupt!" Ginny looked across at the others staring at her and switched to a whisper, "you're not corrupt, Harry. Believe me, I'd be the first to know. If you were corrupt we wouldn't be having this... discussion. We'd be... I'd be worrying about you and you'd be wondering what all the fuss was about."
There was silence for a while.
"Why'd you bring it Ginny?"
"What! You think now I shouldn't have..."
"No, No! I'm glad you brought it. I just was wondering... What made you bring it?"
"I don't know. Instinct I suppose. I knew you wouldn't bring it and I knew you were likely to be in danger. You usually are."
"What we going to do with it Ginny?"
"Deal with it! - That's what we're going to do. It's not evil. It's just a powerful tool. We don't destroy it. We don't hide it away where we can't get it. We put it back in Gringott's after this and we forget about it - unless we feel something seriously needs it."
"Yeah - but what about now?"
"Well I'd say we seriously need it right now don't you?"
"Then I'm going to practice. Smash a few rocks. It's not the same as... people but maybe I'll get more of a feel for its strength. I don't know."
Harry got up and wandered back through the boulder field up the slope of the pass. Ginny rejoined the others and they all sat quietly talking. Presently there were various coloured lights flashing up the pass. Sounds of small explosions and stone cracking asunder. There were smokes of different colours rising, lit from below by the dazzling illuminations. The commotion seem to recede further and further into the distance even though it seemed to be more and more powerful.
"What's he up to Gin?" asked Ron.
"Just letting off some steam." replied Ginny.
"He ought to stay with us and not put himself at risk of an attack by going off alone." said Rolf.
Right now I think it's the attackers who would be at risk. thought Ginny but she remained silent.
After half an hour, Luna spoke up. "Mind if I speak to him, Ginny?"
"Be my guest. But be very careful."
Luna smiled. "I will!"
She cast her patronus. The hare bounded away up the pass, leading the way for Luna to follow. When it found Harry it did not communicate anything other than its gentle presence. It sat down quietly. There was a calming affect which made Harry turn. When he saw the hare he paused and lowered his wand. Then he recognized whose it was so he waited. Soon Luna came along.
"I just thought it would be a nice night for a walk. Hope you don't mind."
"Want to come along? Keep me company? If you're not too busy that is."
"Sure. Where to?"
"I'm just going to see a few friends. They're always there for me. They never change. None of my friends change." Luna looked meaningfully at Harry and smiled.
As they walked back together, Luna asked Harry if he had ever tried Hogwarts' double chocolate choker pudding and how special it was if you had it with custard and syrup. She asked him if he thought life was like a pudding and Harry laughed and said no and Luna said that was why she liked pudding so much because it took your mind off things.
When they got back to the others there was a discussion under way about sending for help. Nobody really wanted to leave the others and seeing Luna's patronus reminded them that was the best way to get a message back to Kingsley Shacklebolt. Professor Bingley cast her owl and they watched as it took to the air and began debating how long a patronus might take to cross the continents.
Bingley spoke, "What concerns me more is how long Kingsley will take to get a team of aurors out here. They cannot make a direct portkey like we had. They will need to find someone at the ministry or an auror who has been as near as possible then make their way from there. In addition, they will need the agreement of the Chinese Ministry of Magic. It is actually a formidable journey to arrange. Might be anywhere between half a day and half a week. And I still have not been able to give him any evidence of what is out here other than Death Eaters."
"I think we should just sit tight for a few days," said Ron.
"I don't think we can wait," said Luna.
"Why not?" asked Ron, "The volcano's not going anywhere. Unless you think it's going to..."
"Professor Worley took a lot of care to capture all of us so there would be nobody to reveal this place to the authorities. She also hoped to use us to test something. Now that plan has failed I think she may feel forced to move quickly - without testing. I think Draco is in great danger."
Good! thought Ron, but he kept quiet.
At first light the next morning they forsook breakfast so they could make an early start and continued their descent down the pass. The air grew warmer as they proceeded and within a few hours it was so pleasant that they bagged up their heavy cloaks and enjoyed the sunshine. The pass had widened until the sides receded into the distance. The rocky terrain levelled out and the stony ground surprisingly quickly was replaced by a healthy-looking soil in which grass grew in abundance and more vegetation was able to root. The group of wizards, still rather sleepy from their previous late night, could see trees ahead. They found these to be only the edge of thicker woodland and as this grew more dense and gave more cover, Bingley called a halt not far from a small lake that stretched away to the south west. Ron and Hermione went over to investigate and found some crabs and freshwater mussels on a muddy beach amongst the yellow reeds that thickly hid most of the water's edges.
Bingley looked across at Rolf. "Let's take a break and have something to eat while we decide which direction to take. We might lose ourselves among all these trees."
Rolf smiled. "Don't worry. I'm in my element now." He held up his strange brass disk and another straight-edged instrument. "Remember, I'm the son of a cartographer. I know fairly precisely where we are and I have an exact bearing on the volcano." He pointed slightly south of west but all one could see were trees.
Rolf felt a little happier with himself now that he was able to contribute. He had spent much of his life in forests such as these. He might not be much use fighting Death Eaters but he could find his way around and not get lost.
In the background, Hermione was laughing with Ron as he waved his wand over the waters. He was rewarded by several fat trout that leapt out at their feet and flapped around. He hid his surprise and knocked them on the head with a stone while Hermione scooped mussels into a billycan from her bag and covered them with water from the lake. Ron picked up his fish by the gills and proudly held up his catch as they walked back to the campfire that Bingley was creating.
"However, I am detecting some strange magical effects I cannot explain." added Rolf.
Bingley turned from the kettle she had placed over the fire and nodded. "I sensed that too. I'll see what I can find out shortly."
"I can tell you something I've already found out," said Neville, as he examined a nearby tree. "This is primarily an oak forest. I also see plenty of poplar and birch. There are even fruit trees - I think I see plum over there." He pointed far ahead in the direction they had been travelling.
"Very interesting, Nev. Five points to Gryffindor. We can have a school field trip after all." said Ron as he deftly filletted and threw his fish into a frypan and jostled it for position next to the kettle and Hermione's billy. He had learnt a lot of magic from being brought up in a Weasley kitchen.
"No, you don't understand. Notice anything odd about these trees?" said Neville.
"Don't tell me they're... diseased? dying?" Harry was concerned. He had been wondering for a long time what form the world curse might take.
"Just the opposite." said Neville.
Rolf suddenly exclaimed, "Why of course! They still have their leaves! I must be half asleep. They should have lost all their leaves this time of year."
"Exactly. And don't you think it's odd - how pleasantly warm it is for November?" asked Neville.
"We're not in Scotland anymore, Neville." said Ginny as she watched her brother using a delicate spell to roll over the slices of fish exactly as their mother did it.
Rolf answered. "No - but this area of China has similarities of climate. Remember the big larch near the stream where we left the portkey? It was completely bare. There could be snow here in a month or two."
They all looked around, suddenly aware of the richness of life around them. There were small animals scurrying about, birdsong in the trees, insects buzzing, a fish rising to a fly. Across the lake they could see wild cattle drinking and a pig was rummaging for roots and fallen fruit.
"Give me a place to stand, and I shall move the world." mused Luna aloud.
"Archimedes? You know about Archimedes?" asked Hermione.
"Of course, he was a very great wizard and wise enough to keep it a secret." replied Luna.
"There's no proof of that." said Ron flatly.
"His whole life is proof." retorted Luna, as if that settled it.
"What's this about, Luna?" asked Harry, cutting Ron off before he could respond.
"If you were going to curse the whole world, where would you want to be?" asked Luna.
"Dunno. On the Moon I guess. Somewhere safe," suggested Harry.
"Harry, you'd soon get tired of all that green cheese." replied Luna solemnly.
"Well, I mean - on Mars or some other planet - no, a really nice planet, safe and warm." said Harry after he thought for a bit.
"That's if you were a muggle. What about a powerful wizard?" persisted Luna.
"Well, then I'd make myself a perfect little world - just big enough for me and my friends. Beautiful sunshiny weather all the time, lots of stuff to eat, no schoolwork, no problems..."
"Sounds like paradise," said Luna simply, as she gazed around.
Luna took took a deep breath and absorbed the wonderful aroma that was filling the air. "How's that fish coming along, Ron?"
The group contemplated Luna's words as they sat around enjoying the tasty fish and mussels together with thick, fresh-cloned bread, well-spread with melting butter running over their fingers. Bingley was looking thoughtful as she ate. She finished eating first and while still holding a steaming cup of strong tea in her left hand, stood up and began casting around to find out what enchantments were in place.
"This is great, Ron," said Harry, "How come you're so useless at potions?"
Ron picked up a fish bone and threw it at Harry. "Not so useless as some."
"Spent a lot of time in the kitchen, didn't you Ron." said Ginny through a mouthful of trout sandwich, "although mum doesn't usually just drop the bones on the floor."
"Seems to be interconnected shield charms of some kind, lots of them. Funny thing is, I think we're inside them. Why aren't they all round the outside of the valley to keep people out?" said Bingley.
"I don't think it's people they want to keep out," said Luna, "The deception - the false rock - does that."
"What then? What else would the shields keep out?" asked Hermione.
"The whole cursed world." said Luna very sadly. "Have you never heard of Noah?"
"Oh ... My ... God," said Hermione, very, very slowly, "This whole valley is an... ark?"
Hermione leapt to her feet, "Ron, I've got to get to my mum and dad!" She grabbed her bag and stormed off along the shore, striding back the way they had come without thinking.
"You can't help them, Hermione. I'm sorry." called Luna sadly, "not out there." Hermione ignored her for a while and kept marching hard. After she had gone about two hundred steps she came to her senses and slackened her pace to a very slow walk. She picked up some stones and started throwing them angrily into the lake. Embarrassed by her show of emotions she wandered further away to think by herself for a while.
What an idiot I am! Why! Why! Why! Of course I can't help them. But I just want to be with them. Yes, like die with them you mean? No. It might not happen for a long time. But it might happen tomorrow. Why are we here? Why aren't there a thousand aurors here doing this? It's not our problem! Yes it is and you know why. There are not that many aurors and there was no evidence. There is still no evidence. So maybe Luna's wrong. Maybe it's all a mistake! You know it's not. But I want to see my mum and dad so badly. Well you can't! Your place is with Ron now. Grow up, Hermione!
Ron let Hermione be. He turned to ask Luna what she had meant. Eventually everyone was standing and talking at one another as the implications of what Luna had said sank in. Noisy disputes started to develop. Professor Bingley called for order and even threatened them with a silencing charm. She turned to Luna, "You said 'not out there.' What have you in mind? What can we do in here?"
Luna stared around at everyone, "I do not know. That's what we have to find out." She paused, looking at all the shocked faces before continuing.
"I'm sorry, truly I am. Perhaps I should not have said what I did. I just thought that everybody already understood." She hesitated again then she spelt it out, "The world really is cursed." She said it very simply but it now had a completely new meaning for them all. Before it had just been a theory; a proposal - so surreal and unthinkable that deep down nobody really believed it or they thought it was something for a future generation to worry about. Now there was a deeper acceptance of the reality of it and it was a shock. But a more immediate danger was upon them; something that was coming right at them through the forest. The only indication was a growing sound that most of them never noticed; but one of them did.
Rolf's years of training and experience driven by the traumatic witnessing of his father's death now took over automatically. He knew that sound. Little did he know, however, that no amount of training could have fully prepared him for the enormity of what was about to happen. "STAMPEDE!" he yelled,"Luna - my bag! Leave all else! Everyone to the Professor! Group! Professor! Group - Those three strongest trees only!" Rolf pointed west to three stout oaks that stood very close together and towards which he was already running.
Rolf was the first to reach the three oaks but he ran past them and began a lengthy incantation. Luna had grabbed his bag and moved rapidly with everyone to Bingley who quickly guided everyone to the three big trees. Hardly anyone understood what was happening but they had the good sense to keep quiet and ask later. A deep, heavy, continuous sound they all could now feel through the ground suggested danger to anyone's thinking. To the west, where Rolf stood, a tearing, splintering sound could be heard and Harry thought he saw trees bending, shifting around the young man. Bingley shouted at them to all group closely and hold tight to each other so they formed a tight, circular knot of people locked together by their arms and a holding charm. Ron was shouting something and angrily trying to pull away but he was held fast.
"Ascendio Universitas!" invoked Bingley. Harry felt his stomach lurch as if he were falling but it was the ground that seemed to drop away from him and he realized they were all rising together up into the lower, sturdiest branches of the three oaks. He could see Rolf better now. Harry was vaguely aware of being pushed and pulled to the central trunk of the tree and of someone binding him there but Harry could not take his eyes off Rolf. A wind had sprung up and Rolf's cloak was flying behind him. Before him, the trees began to move. A dozen trees were bending, ripping themselves out of the ground and moving towards Rolf who was treading backwards, orchestrating them, controlling them, guiding them to follow him. In just these few seconds, the deep, heavy sound had grown rapidly to a thunderous roar. Beyond Rolf and his lurching trees the forest had grown dark - a great black swirling gale of splinters, branches, dust, and dirt, hurtling towards Rolf - towards them all.
Rolf was almost backed up to the three oaks now. The trees he was controlling dug themselves back into the ground; their long roots clawing deep into the earth. They seemed to lean into each other, their strong branches hugging and twining with each other to give themselves strength and support to form a barrier, two, three trees deep.
Then there was a huge crash as the tornado hit. Rolf was already flying up ahead of it into the protection of the oaks. His face was white and frightened. Harry leaned out to grab Rolf but he was beyond his reach. Other hands and arms pulled him to safety though just as the black debris cloud hit the three great oaks. The trees groaned and creaked as the first impact stripped their leaves and twigs but their mighty roots were long mated with mother earth and held fast.
Now there were shapes hurtling and thundering by below them on the ground - big shapes and small, a dark and mindless river of creatures. There were many kinds of beast, real and false, magical and non-magical - but distorted, twisted, demonic. Even to Harry they did not seem to properly belong here. Huge-shouldered buffalo, spiked rhinocerous, elephant with coarse, rasp-like skin, all mixed with savage graphorns, erumpents, griffins, tebos, tiny eyes rolling white in their own terror. None of them could stop even if they wanted to; it was run or be crushed. They were not driven by the storm of debris - they were creating it; compressing and driving it before and with them.
Half-blinded by the wind and the flying dust, Harry created a shield for himself just so that he could see - just to keep the painful dust out of his eyes. He could not see Ginny or Hermione. He hoped and prayed they were on the other side of his tree. Then he remembered - Hermione had marched off only a few minutes ago and was surely lost in the path of this torrent of death. She could not possibly reach the rocks and boulders in the pass before she was overrun.
Harry could make out Bingley creating charm after charm - shield charms for the three oaks. Rolf was doing likewise for the barrier ahead of the three. But it was not going to be enough. Animals were hitting the barricade with such force their bodies were piling up temporarily - only to be swept around the sides later. But the weight was too much and despite Rolf's efforts the barricade was splintering, bending, and twisting. One of its trees finally gave way and flew past the sides of the oaks like a missile, carried along in the dark maelstrom. The weakened barricade fell apart rapidly after that and the last few of its trees were flung together into the torrent.
As the full weight of the stampede hit the exposed leading oak, all three trees shuddered and groaned more desperately. Although Harry could now see everyone was applying shield charms to the oaks, it was clear that they would not hold. Almost reluctantly, Harry pulled out the elder wand, gripping it tightly in the shrieking gale. He knew the spells but had never used them before. As he prepared there was a big impact from some colossus that cracked its bony head on the leading oak and the old tree fractured away from its roots. Harry looked at the wand. Right. So be it. Let's see what you can do! As the main branches of the second oak started to fold back and to crack away, Harry screamed his defiance to the howling wind, "Protego Maxima! Fianto Duri! Repello Inimigotum!"
The leading creatures exploded ahead of the two remaining oaks. A terrible rift now divided the immense surge as animals were hurled either side, some both, as ripped, torn limbs and flesh flew by the oaks. The breach grew, spreading wider and deeper. The stampeding beasts were a wall of living tissue being severed, shredded apart, disintegrated, and destroyed. There was no dazzling light, no special sound, no magical effect visible at all. There was just a growing space empty of creatures, empty of debris, empty of darkness, that cut back through the evil cataract and defeated it. The dark magic itself, that which had conjured and driven the mindless rampage, was broken at last.
As the running animals thinned out, began to slow, and the commotion reduced, Harry became aware he was coughing and gasping - most everyone was, from the choking dust. He could see the bloody, scratched, and bruised faces of his friends. Luna's eyes seemed to be just a dark red mess. Bingley was trying to help her.
Harry could not remember getting out of the tree. He remembered stumbling about, falling over and passing out a few times trying to find Ginny. He remembered crouching by Luna and seeing Bingley cleansing her eyes with a potion from Hermione's bag and Rolf was there too fussing over Luna. Why don't they tell me where Ginny is? Why did Bingley have Hermione's bag? Hermione was dead wasn't she? Yet Hermione's corpse, dripping wet, looked up and asked Harry something that had no meaning. What's that doing here? Doesn't she know she's dead? Is everybody crazy but me?
This side of the forest was virtually destroyed in a long corridor of dead creatures and torn stumps that was so wide he could not properly see the sides through the diminishing dust haze. Neville and Ginny were keeping watch for any kind of follow-up attack that might take advantage while they were weak and regrouping. They both said something to him but he could not understand so just nodded. Even she won't tell me where Ginny is. Harry sank down again to a crouch. Everything was muddled up. He felt badly confused and useless, completely burnt out. He wanted someone to come and help him but everyone was ignoring him, talking nonsense. Then Ron was gripping his shoulder, guiding him to sit leaning against the last of the three oaks still fully standing. Ron poured some water over Harry's face and down his throat. He was talking to him but Harry could not understand. He knew what each word meant but he could not join them together to make sense. Ron was turning to someone, saying something about shock. Harry fainted again.
When Harry awoke, all was peaceful. He felt weak but comfortable. He did not know where he was for a while but for some reason he did not care. It was just nice to lie there. There was something in his hand. He thought about it for a while and as he became properly awake he realized it was Ginny's hand. She had fallen asleep by his side. They were on a blanket on the floor. Harry looked about. They were in the Weasley tent. He could see Neville asleep on the floor nearby and Ron too. Someone was in one of the camp beds. He thought it was probably Luna.
Harry gently detached Ginny's hand and dragged himself to his feet. He felt a bit weak and shaky but stepped cautiously over Neville to go to Luna. She looked quite peaceful in sleep. Her eyes were closed but did not look too bad. They were not bandaged so Harry took that as a good sign. He went out of the tent. The sun was just setting, flaming on the horizon of stunted trees. What had happened to the day? Most of them had had little sleep the night before and been exhausted by the stampede - both mentally and physically. Bingley and Hermione and Rolf were there sitting together keeping watch. Hermione got up and came over when she saw Harry.
"How do you feel, Harry?"
"Not too bad, all things considered. You?"
"What happened to you anyway?"
"Jumped in the lake."
Harry just nodded like someone jumped in a lake to escape a cursed, demonic stampede every day of the week. "How's Luna? I looked at her. She seems OK but..."
Bingley spoke, "She'll be fine. Splinters and sharp dirt in the eyes. Really painful and imagine being completely blind all through that noise. But the damage was not too difficult to heal. I think her shield failed early. Doesn't she ever complain, that girl?"
"I don't think she does," said Harry thoughtfully. "It was Worley wasn't it? Created the stampede I mean."
"Yes. I've put up protective spells and detectors all around. I was careless earlier. We would have had more warning. We had such good cover I relaxed."
Rolf said, "A few minutes warning would not have been enough anyway. Never seen anything like it. Not like that. I'm usually prepared for the occasional graphorn but... They didn't belong here... conjured from elsewhere, multiplied."
"You did good, Rolf. We would not have lasted more than a few seconds without you. It's just complete devastation." said Harry. He looked around in the last of the red glow of the sunset. How quickly man turns heaven into hell, he thought to himself bitterly.