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Dark Will Linger by Hippothestrowl
Chapter 15 : Dead Reckoning
 
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 0


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For a few seconds Luna Lovegood felt the shadow of fear. She had courageously faced danger before - had even fought Death Eaters - but the fierce-looking brute now before her was unpredictable and Luna buried her face in the dirt hoping she would not be seen. Her wand was tucked into her waistband and she was lying on it; she could not retrieve it in time if the beast attacked. Luna was startled by Rolf's hand on her shoulder. Looking up she was relieved to see that the savage thing had turned away.

Tucking her wand behind her ear, she slid forward on her belly again, the front of her dark checked shirt and jeans almost black with dirt but she was grateful now for the streaks of mud that helped to obscure her pale face and hair. Luna was just within reasonable wand distance when the fierce-looking beast suddenly turned, squealed loudly and charged. Almost instantly the young girl seized her wand and cried, "Stupefy!" but the animal was gone, covered by the greenery. It had not been charging her but veering to the right into the undergrowth.

Luna stood up, dirt falling off her in clouds, and feeling rather foolish. "Oh well, there goes dinner."

"Don't be too sure." said Rolf with a smile. He put one hand on Luna's arm to stop her running impulsively forward as he cautiously approached the bush where the animal had disappeared. He had his wand out in front.

"It's here." said Rolf.

The wild hog was laid out just beyond the bush, immobile, on the ground in its running posture. Its head was sideways showing it massive tusks and its visible eye was glaring up at Luna with some annoyance. She squealed almost as loudly as the pig had done and jumped up and down. "I got him!"

As Rolf cut a stout branch from a tree, Luna asked, "But tracking it was really hard, Rolf. Why didn't we use disillusionment? It would have made it a lot easier."

"We could have but you need stalking practice without resorting to magic if you want to study magical creatures, Luna. Some can see right through a disillusionment charm as well as smell you. Also we couldn't signal to each other if we were invisible."

They lashed their catch to the branch and carried it between them back to the new campsite which had been set up beside a small stream.

While Luna cleaned herself up, Ginny and Ron prepared the pig under Rolf's guidance. Ron went off to see if Hermione had a spit or a griddle in her bag. Rolf showed Ginny how to cut off and preserve a side of pork for another day. It was these day to day activities that kept their minds off what they had been through and their fears for the future.

Camp life had quickly normalized after the previous day's scare with the stampeding animals and they had made good progress through the forest. If their destination had not been so serious, Luna could imagine how enjoyable this outdoor life would be just studying the wildlife and habitat.

"Edible tubers," said Neville, throwing down a large open bag with fat twisted roots spilling out of the top. "They're not as sweet as potatoes but they have plenty of flavour and they'll be fine boiled up. Found a few nice herbs too. That's my contribution, anyway."

Hermione sighed, sat down and started scraping and cleaning them rather badly. She was eager to do her share but practical housework was not her strength. Bingley came over to show her how to do it magically.

There was a sudden shriek and Ron was stumbling backwards, almost falling over himself. "Spider!" he yelled.

"Oh Ron!" called Ginny, "Don't be such a..."

"No - in the bag! In Hermione's bag deep inside! I saw something dark moving in there! It looked at me!"

Hermione looked up puzzled for a few seconds then smiled. She went over to her bag, retrieved a tiny dark object and threw it in the stream. "All gone!" she said to Ron. She took a griddle out of the bag and handed it to him.

"How'd that thing get in the bag? You know I hate them!" protested Ron trying to use annoyance to cover his embarrassment.

"Accident I guess. I must have left it open."

"It's eyes! It had strange eyes!" muttered Ron and shuddered.

"Forget it." said Hermione as she settled down again to preparing the roots. Bingley was helping her but she also kept a watchful eye on the forest. Protective spells were in place but she was still wary. After they had feasted she wanted them to be on the move again as soon as possible.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

As the group of witches and wizards proceeded through the forest they had taken a course to the north of the ravaged stampede corridor with its terrible part-corpses spiked on cracked stumps. Here the forest was more friendly; not so dense as to impede progress but thick enough to give at least a sense of protection, of not being so exposed. They could not have apparated more than twenty paces ahead even if anti-apparation jinxes were not operating and being also without broomsticks they were reduced to hiking, muggle-style. There were indeed many animals not native to these parts but there was a balance and the group trusted in the young Scamander's forest lore to alert them to any natural dangers and to guide them through. Luna in particular, pestered him with questions and listened closely to his every word which Rolf never tired of imparting to her.

Foraging was easy; there was an abundance of fruits, nuts, roots, and other edible plants to supplement their rations. The roast pig lasted them two more days and now they were enjoying wild turkey. It was after this midday meal, as everyone was relaxing in the sun that dappled the forest litter with golds and yellows, that Rolf suggested they might be nearing the western edge of the woodland or at least a very large clearing. He judged there was a subtle variation in the type and spread of the foliage and from a single little seed he found lodged in a flake of bark he was hopeful at least they might eventually emerge into open grassland. Shortly after, Rolf confirmed that they were probably within an hour or so of open countryside. "I can smell it."

Bingley called a halt. She was even more cautious now. As the most adult witch and teacher of the students she felt responsible and somewhat guilty for them being at such risk the day before.

"I'm hoping Worley thinks we were all killed in that stampede - I'd like to keep it that way. I don't want us all to come stumbling out into open countryside. Rolf, why don't you scout ahead? - that's your speciality. Also Harry's really good with the disillusionment charm as an extra precaution." Bingley looked meaningfully at Harry.

"Oh ... yeah." said Harry. In fact, he had rarely ever used it because he had his invisibility cloak but he knew Bingley meant a disillusionment charm cast by the elder wand was likely to give near-perfect invisibility.

"I'd like to go too." said Luna, "I want to learn all I can about stealth if I'm to become a naturalist."

"We're not hunting pig today, Luna." cautioned Rolf.

"I know - that's why I want to keep an eye on you, Rolf." smiled Luna.

There was still an entire afternoon and early evening of daylight remaining but Rolf and Luna set off within the hour. Harry watched them leave on their scouting expedition with mixed feelings. Or rather he watched the forest litter scattering about their footsteps as the invisible couple headed west through the trees. He turned to the others. "I hope they'll be safe." But it was not them that he needed to worry about.

Luna knew the reason why Harry's concealment charm made them completely undetectable to the eye. Rolf assumed it was because Harry was a great wizard. In a way he was right. A wand has no magic of its own but is simply a tool to help bring out its user's magic. The elder wand did that better than any other wand ever made. Rolf told Luna they must hold hands or they would lose track of each other. Luna knew it was a white lie; she could hear the smile in his voice.

"How do you know the way, Rolf?" asked Luna.

Rolf showed Luna how to use his enchanted compass and magi-scalar to plot landmarks and work out distances. "But I also check the sun and the stars and use dead reckoning."

"Necromancy? We have to reckon with the dead to get our bearings?" asked Luna, rather alarmed.

Rolf laughed. "No - it just means estimating which way and how far we've travelled from each previous position. It's risky though because every tiny error adds up as you go along."

When they saw the edge of the forest, Rolf cautioned her to silence and they crept soundlessly forward the last few hundred yards, almost holding their breath. But as they emerged into the open they both released a long gasp of wonder at the beautiful view. Rich green grasslands sloped down before them into the huge bowl of the valley. There were a series of lakes populated by clouds of soft-coloured flamingos and other exotic water birds. Herds of deer, wild cattle, and other animals were grazing many areas of the grasslands. On all sides, the mountains, hazy blue in the distance, gave the valley its shape and outer limits. There were other thick woodland areas too - though not as large as the one they had just passed through. The northern areas of the valley were much more rocky than the south. Slightly west of north they could see what appeared to be a muggle village on the side of a small river that meandered south to west and disappeared from view at the farthest side of the valley. And there, far to the west where the north and south mountain ranges curved around to almost meet; there, just beyond the gap, was the volcano.

Having seen the volcano closer before from the other side they had a good idea of its size and this gave perspective to the whole area. The valley was much bigger than it seemed and there was still quite a long distance to travel - many days on foot. The gap itself, which seemed so narrow at first view, Rolf's magi-scalar estimated to be twenty miles across at least. Rolf began making notes, plotting a route with the most cover but he was very concerned about how they might cross the open areas. Luna also wanted to get near the village to discover if any help or information might be found there.

"That might be the very place we want to avoid." said Rolf.

"I can't see any other signs of habitation and if the Death Eaters are in the village then shouldn't we investigate it?" replied Luna.

"But we're trying to get to the volcano..." protested Rolf.

"Well firstly, we're trying to find out about the curse and if we can stop it. The villagers may be able to tell us something, don't you think?" said Luna. She kept her mind firmly on their real objective.

It was now late afternon. Rolf made a few more measurements and they then prepared to return to the others well before sunset.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Rolf stopped motionless, gripped Luna's hand more tightly, and whispered "Something's not right."

"What's is it? What's wrong?" Luna whispered back, rather fearfully.

"They were almost back at the camp by the stream and there was neither sound nor smell of life at all.

"I think they're all gone." Rolf said softly.

"Everybody? They've left us here? What do we do?"

"We don't rush into anything. We wait and listen for a while."

They crouched down instinctively and waited silently for a full five minutes, listening intently. Having heard nothing at all, they cast a silencing charm upon themselves and proceeded very carefully, wands in hand ahead of them.

When they entered the campsite they saw a couple of canvas stools overturned on the ground and some other scattered objects. Rolf's long bag lay open near a tree, some of its contents spilling out. The ashes of the campfire looked cold. Rolf froze again, listening. He kept hold of Luna's hand more seriously now. He was not very happy that now he could neither see nor hear her so was afraid of them getting separated. But he could hear someone breathing. It was harsh and irregular. He wanted to leave Luna there while he investigated but there was no easy way for him to tell her silently nor was he sure she would comply. He would rather know exactly where she was anyway.

He crept quietly forward, avoiding twigs and branches on the ground and guiding Luna away from them too. As they came around a large oak they saw a figure half-sitting, half-lying on the ground, back against the trunk of the tree. It was Harry. Rolf sensed that Luna called out something silently then she ran forward breaking away from Rolf's anxious hand. Rolf stayed where he was, looking around for a trap or any other danger. Harry was just staring ahead. His head seemed to move when Luna spoke but he did not respond. Rolf sighed as Luna made herself visible and audible and resigned himself to doing the same.

"What is it, Harry? What's happened?" asked Luna.

Harry just shook his head.

"I think he's exhausted or in shock again," said Luna. "I wish Professor Bingley was here. She helped him before."

When Rolf did not answer she looked around. He was staring at a body much further away half covered by a fallen log. With some foreboding he went over for a closer look. "He's not one of ours; must be a Death Eater - but he's not dead."

From where he was he looked further to his left and there were three more bodies. He walked over to check on them. "All alive but unconscious, stunned, injured. But where is everyone else?"

"Luna, stay with Harry. Do what you can." Rolf began to check the ground for tracks. Luna tore her sleeve off and soaked it in the stream. She found a wooden cup in the mud, washed it and filled it with water. She tried to get Harry to sip a little but he did not seem to understand. She wiped his face with her wetted sleeve more to refresh him than anything else. It dripped over the ground and drew Luna's attention to something lying there amongst the forest litter. She picked it up and slipped it into her remaining sleeve.

Rolf stared in disbelief at the pattern of hundreds of footprints at one end of the clearing. "There was a dreadful fight here... dozens of them... but I can't see any other bodies."

Luna looked up but Rolf had vanished. A terrible fear gripped Luna and she wanted desperately to find out if Rolf was alright but should she leave Harry? She was not sure but she fought the impulse to run to see what had happened to Rolf and continued to wipe Harry's face with her wet sleeve. A tense minute passed by. Luna managed to get Harry to drink a little water. She heard a soft sound behind her which made her jump. Luna held her breath and kept quiet still. Harry vanished. She looked down and she was near invisible too. "It's me." It was Rolf's whisper right next to her. Luna sagged and breathed again but wondering what was happening. "Someone's coming. Keep quiet." said Rolf. Luna held her breath again.

Rolf hoped Harry would remain dumb for a while as he peered through the trees in the direction he knew several people were approaching. Very soon he knew they had entered the clearing invisibly and were prowling around talking in whispers.

"They're all gone." It was very faint but it was Bingley's voice.

"Over here!" cried Luna with great relief, cancelling the disillusionment charms on Harry and herself. "Harry needs help."

"Harry!" shrieked Ginny's voice and she became visible while still running towards him. She took over from Luna, trying to cool Harry's face with the dampened sleeve and get him to drink. Her action was more of a compulsion to do something than of any practical use but she hoped it was of some comfort to him.

"Where's Neville?" asked Hermione as the rest of the group sprang into visibility. Bingley was already walking over to Harry.

"Isn't he with you?" asked Rolf. "He's not here; I've looked around. There are four Death Eaters lying over there."

Bingley, who was already crouching over Harry, looked up and said in a very worried voice, "Neville not here you say?"

"I told you we should not have left them!" yelled Ron at Bingley, "Neville's gone, probably dead, and look what's happened to Harry!"

"It was the right thing to do at the time!" retorted Bingley. "Harry didn't want the whole group destroyed or captured and I knew he was right! We could have easily all been dead or captured right now if we had stayed."

"You abandoned Harry and Neville to fight fifty or more Death Eaters?" exploded Rolf.

"Worse than that!" yelled Ron, "He's back! You-know-who's back!"

There was an astonished silence while Bingley continued to quietly check Harry with her wand.

"What did you say?" said Rolf at last. "Tell us what happened."

Hermione spoke up, "It was an hour or so ago. We had started packing up, ready to break camp. We knew you would be back soon so we planned to slowly advance towards you and meet you on the way. Harry and Neville were going to go ahead first but they didn't get very far." Hermione broke off, clearly upset.

"It was Voldemort, clear as day. Him and Worley and hundreds of Death Eaters..." said Ron, then muttered, "well dozens anyway."

Ginny took over the explanation. "They apparated ahead of Harry and Neville. Harry yelled back at us to run - just go. Voldemort must have temporarily suspended the anti-apparation jinxes. Professor Bingley grabbed us all together and apparated us all back down the trail a few miles."

"It was not Voldemort." said Luna, matter-of-factly.

"Yes it was!" Ron yelled angrily at her. "You weren't here so how do you know!"

"Because Harry said he's dead and I believe him." declared Luna, not put off by Ron's attitude. She was standing there, dirt streaked through her hair and clothing with one sleeve missing and knew she probably looked and sounded foolish to everyone else. She was used to people not believing her but she almost sighed to think they did not believe Harry.

Bingley had been applying a healing spell to help Harry recover. She looked up again, "Sorry Luna but Voldemort... he was real - exactly as he always was." She turned back to Harry who was starting to look around.

"What happened here, Harry? Can you remember what happened to Neville?" asked Bingley.

"Give him more time..." began Ginny.

"The longer we wait the worse..." said Ron. He tailed off. He was anxious to go after Neville.

"Harry, can you understand me?" asked Bingley.

"What's wrong with him anyway?" asked Ron, "Why's he keep going funny like this?"

Harry's eyes started to focus a little. Bingley continued with her healing incantation for half a minute then said to Ginny, "I need to tell them..."

"No!" exclaimed Ginny.

"Tell us what?" demanded Hermione.

"Harry has always been potentially a very great wizard. All the difficulties, hardships, and experiences he has gone through have advanced him further. Using magic - in real, severe situations I mean - is rather like physical excercise; the more you go through the fitter you become. In my muggle studies I've read that many sportsmen have to adjust if they grow too fast. Harry has developed much faster than any normal wizard and it's exhausting him magically. He'll be alright in time... He just needs time to adapt." Bingley directed this last sentence at Ginny who looked relieved that Bingley had not mentioned the elder wand. She wondered if in fact, what Bingley had said might actually be true - and made worse by the wand's power draining more magic out of Harry until he got used to it.

"I'll be alright, Ginny." It was Harry. "I'm just a bit weak but I'll be OK."

"Can you tell us what happened?" persisted Bingley.

"There were a lot of Death Eaters but I felt I could shield myself and keep them occupied while you escaped. Neville was trying to fight both Voldemort and Worley. You know how Neville fights. He'd take on a thousand dark lords if he had to." Harry paused. "He hurt Worley and nearly put her down too but Voldemort cursed him. He cursed Neville - I don't know what with. Neville was thrown back badly. He never got up again but I think he was alive because Worley grabbed him and disapparated. They wouldn't take him if he was dead would they?"

Harry continued as everyone listened intently, "Voldemort spoke to me and laughed. I was fighting off dozens of Death Eaters and he just stood there taunting me. But they weren't real! Most of them anyway. The Death Eaters I mean. I soon realized most of them were pretending but not actually casting spells. They were not real. Some sort of illusion spell - they were conjured up by Voldemort I think and disappeared when he disapparated."

"What did he say, Harry?" asked Ginny.

"He... Voldemort said, 'Harry Potter! Did you really think a silly boy like you could so easily get rid of the greatest Dark Lord there has ever been?' I'm sorry, Luna."

Harry turned to Luna and spoke as if he had let her down, "He was as real as real. An illusion cannot cast a curse. It was Voldemort. He's still alive somehow."

Luna crouched down again to Harry. She grasped his shoulders and spoke very firmly, "Look at me, Harry! Look at me and listen. It ... was ... NOT ... Voldemort. You KNOW Voldemort is dead don't you? I mean you KNOW. Think Harry. I don't know what it was you saw but it could not have been Voldemort."

Harry looked bewildered. Bingley spoke, "Luna! Please... You're not helping him."

Harry was shaking his head.

"Harry, even if you cannot believe in yourself anymore - I still do. I still believe in you." said Luna tearfully then, turning to Bingley, she said, "Perhaps polyjuice potion or..."

"It can't be polyjuice can it? You need the original person as well." said Bingley. There was exasperation in her voice. "Please Luna, let it go."

Rolf led Luna away on their own for a while. Hermione went to get the kettle to make a pot of tea. She knew normal activity has a way of counteracting the shock of the unusual. I'd better make it a big pot, she thought to herself grimly. Ron stood around not knowing what to do. Ginny stayed with Harry, holding his hand tightly.

"Ron - can you set up protection spells. We shouldn't stay in this spot too long but we may have to," said Bingley, still crouched at Harry's side and look anxiously at the fading light.

Ron was glad of something to do but went over and asked Hermione to perform the spells instead while he took over making the tea. As he relit the campfire with his wand and the bright yellow flames sprang up they all realized how dark it was getting.

"How did they find us, Professor?" called Hermione as she cast her wards and concealment charms around the camp perimeters.

Bingley said nothing for a while then suddenly her eyes widened and she went over to examine Rolf's long bag. She began to move her wand carefully over it. Finally, she said, "Tracer hex! I should have tested before."

She was about to counter-curse it then changed her mind. "Hermione, can you get all the stuff out of Rolf's bag into yours? I'd like to leave this long bag so Worley doesn't know we're moving."

She helped Hermione transfer everything and then Hermione suggested an impervious charm to make the bag float. They also used a reducio charm to shrink the empty bag to the size of a hat and sent it with its tracer hex adrift down the stream. Bingley wished it was flowing back the way they came but it was heading south west. At least they could keep well north of it when they resumed their journey she thought. It should draw the Death Eaters away from them for a time. Rolf watched with mixed feelings. It seemed petty to remind them how long that bag had been used by his family.

Suddenly Bingley leapt to her feet. "Rolf! you said there were some Death Eaters here? Were they alive? Where are they?"

"Yes, over here." Rolf left Luna and took Bingley over to where he had seen the bodies. They were gone.

"Damn! Why didn't I think sooner!" cursed Bingley. "They've been disapparated while we've been talking. We might have got them to tell us something... Tell us where they are located... Where and how this world curse is set up. They were all definitely still alive then?" She was testing apparation as she spoke but it was blocked again.

Rolf nodded. "Stunned I'd say. A couple looked injured as well but they were definitely all alive."

Bingley looked over at Harry with a new respect. Ginny was trying to get him to drink a cup of tea but he was resting with his eyes closed. Luna went back to them. She showed Ginny what was up her sleeve and passed it over covertly to her.

"He must have dropped it. I didn't want anyone else to find it." whispered Luna. Ginny's attention had been entirely on Harry. Now she looked up at Luna as if only just properly noticing her. Luna's dirty cheeks were still black-streaked where she had been weeping. She looked a sorry sight with her ripped sleeve. Ginny grabbed her and put her arms around her tightly.

"Luna, you're the best of friends" said Ginny very softly. After a while she asked, "Do you really think Voldemort... that he really is dead?"

"Certain. I know he is." whispered Luna.

"How can you be so sure?"

"Because Harry knew for certain he was dead. He knew he was. He told us so in the Great Hall no matter how confused he is now. And no magic can bring anyone back from the dead."

"Then I believe it too," whispered Ginny. "Perhaps it was a confundus charm."

"I'm not asleep." said Harry, opening his eyes. "It was not a confusing spell. I wasn't confused at the time. I was fighting loads of Death Eaters. Anyway, you all saw him. But now I'm not so sure what we saw. It makes no sense. You're right Luna. He was absolutely dead and magic cannot bring anyone back to life. But there is no explanation."

"Yes there is - something we haven't thought of yet," said Luna.

"What then?" asked Harry.

"When I think of it I'll let you know," answered Luna. She turned to listen to Hermione who was having a loud exchange with Professor Bingley.

"I don't think there are many Death Eaters left at all." said Hermione, "We may even outnumber them."

"We cannot relax - there could be hundreds of them." protested Bingley.

"Why did they come back for those few then - those unconscious ones? Why risk it knowing we might be here? And why not attack us again? Why did they use stealth to slip in and take them away?" said Hermione.

Ron spoke up, "Hermione's right. Sounds like they're scared to me. Why make a fake army of Death Eaters if they had a real army? Why did they leave Harry anyway? Why didn't Voldemort finish him off? Why'd he just stand there laughing at Harry?"

"I think they just came to take someone - probably anyone, just one person. It just happened to be Neville. Then they were gone," said Hermione. "And it must be important or why take the risk?"

"Rolf, did you find the edge of the forest? See any Death Eaters?" asked Bingley.

"It's just over an hour away. The valley is big and the only indication of people at all is a muggle village. We could see the volcano but it will take days to cross the valley and I'm worried about how we're going to get across some of the big open grassland areas. We'll be completely exposed. It really is a natural paradise though; there is an abundance of everything. There could be ten thousand Death Eaters in that valley and you'd never see them." said Rolf.

"Maybe the muggles know something. I think we should try to reach the village if possible." said Bingley.

"Yes, Luna said the same. We can reach the village under cover of trees and it's very rocky around there. Travelling across the valley won't be so easy after that though. We may need to use disillusionment charms or we'll be open to attack. They'll know exactly where we are if they see us out in the open but we won't know where they are. They may even have laid traps." said Rolf.

"Disillusionment can get very disorganized with all of us not being able to see each other over several days - nor is it infallible - but we'll worry about that when we get to it," said Bingley. "We may have no choice."

It was a difficult evening and none of them slept well again that night. Ron and Hermione were convinced there was only a remnant of the Death Eaters left but Voldemort was to be feared; others thought there might be many Death Eaters but the appearance of Voldemort had only been a trick. Luna was very concerned for Neville in the hands of ruthless dark wizards and what Worley might want him for. Bingley was having doubts about her own leadership. She was a teacher while the others were Hogwarts students and she was leading them to face an unknown dark enemy of unknown strength. Ginny was hopeful that things could only get better after all they had been through. She was completely wrong.







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