Moonlight glazed the rooftops and the main avenue of Cliodna’s Clock, the colors dripping together like melted wax to form soft shades of lavender, plum, and topaz. The road itself was crushed pearls, iridescent as starlight, and even the charcoal trees and towering black bishop that Salazar Slytherin lived in was awash with checkered spots of blue. The night was not quite soundless; for even in the acute hours of the morning when the birds didn’t stir, there was still the occasional resident murmuring in his sleep or the muted footfalls of Godric Gryffindor’s cat slinking its way across a narrow strip of picket fence.
At this very moment, the loudest sound in the village was the whistling of a teapot in Ann Marie McKinnon’s dimly-lit kitchen. She liked to rise early so that she could have an hour or so of peace before her husband Edmund tromped down the stairs with premature complaints that the newspaper was going to be late. No matter how many times Ann Marie or their daughter Marlene tried to tell him that Cassandra Trelawney couldn’t control what time of day she received intelligence of life on earth, he was insistent that the Daily Departed sometimes rationed important information to use for slow news days.
And truthfully, he was right. Two weeks previously, Miss Trelawney had a vision of what the new Owlery at Hogwarts would look like after it was rebuilt (six levels!), but it was being kept very hush-hush. Sketch artists had already drawn it up and the finished product was sitting on a desk in the printing room, but Benedict Cuffe, the Senior Editor, was reserving that report for a more stagnant day.
It was long rumored that blackbirds could sense whenever the enormous statue of their obsidian likeness, the blackbird clock situated in City Center, was about to toll. As it so happened, one of the blackbirds that had been busy building a home in a tree that served as the clock’s neighbor took flight, gliding twice around the top of its tree before landing on a windowsill. Yesterday, the windowsill would have been one of the monuments in the Memory Garden; but the Memory Garden was gone, probably into the forest, and was switched with someone’s house. Ann Marie replaced a steaming mug of tea back on the table, fitting perfectly over a circular imprint of where she always placed it, month after month, year after year. Out of the corner of one eye, she noticed a bird hopping along just six feet away, separated by a pane of glass.
She wasn’t sure how she knew. Maybe it was because blackbirds in Cliodna’s Clock didn’t often trot along windowsills while people looked on at them, turning their beady eyes at you. Ann Marie blinked against the flickering yellowish light, one hand drifting to the center of the table where a lamp was left unlit. She was just about to remedy that when a shriek ripped the air.
Not a shriek – a crow. The bird on the sill ruffled its feathers in agitation and flew away. Ann Marie just barely managed to grapple a grip on herself in time to count the crows. There were fifteen of them. She flew to her unlocked front door and pushed it open, relieved that the muggy summer heat and mosquitoes had given way to the coolness of early morning. She had a good view of the depot from this position and stood on tiptoe as if that might help her see all the better.
From the letterbox post where she stood, she thought she could make out a faint twinkling in the direction of the dock and depot. She knew that this was probably a trick of her imagination, as the depot had no windows; it was probably just moonlight shining on the black water. She retreated back into the safe arms of her house, sighing to herself in regret that someone so young had arrived so early. Whoever it was, she would discover their identity soon enough without resorting to sticking her neck out down the street.
Meanwhile, two footprints were slowly filling with bits of baby-pink scallop shells, soon to be soothed away with sea foam. Water poured greedily into the prints that wandered at a brisk pace up the beach, taking the long way around an abandoned field. It can be assumed that whoever left the footprints was now watching the town from over top of a wild-growing hedge of Black Bryony. There was quiet rustling as a hand dug around in the heart-shaped leaves and pulled out a shining scarlet berry. The person moved out into the open, popping the poisonous berry into his or her mouth.
The footprints left stamps of white sand wherever they went, circling in curlicues without direction. Whoever owned them was not wearing shoes. They ran a few fingers over the jets of frozen water streaming from a fountain of ivory lilies, perhaps marveling at the possibility of ice despite the warm climate.
Several muffled paces later, the newcomer paused at the opening of a lane splitting between two shops, and, as if they knew quite well which direction they were going, decided to turn left. All of the surrounding shops, of course, were sleeping now. The occasional mouse scratched against doorways, carving niches into the grains as they called to fellow mice that there was food nearby. Aside from these hungry mice, a swallow roosting in the eaves of Miss Vance’s cottage, and the candlelight bathing shrubbery outside Anne Marie’s window with a buttery glow, there were no witnesses to take part in the arrival of someone fresh from the other side.
The newcomer took stock of their surroundings, drinking in the houses that seemed to shift their faces to stare right back and the satin banner that sprawled the length of three windows across the Town Hall in City Center. One could distinguish two large letter C’s stitched in gold on these banners, along with more letters too small to see properly in the darkness. Along both sides of the road, two identical orchards with holly trees manipulated with wire to form animal shapes rose out of the mossy soil. The figure tilted a head back to see a row of them pruned to look like one long dragon. A pair of owls perched in upper boughs served as the eyes, their amber glares reflective and cautious.
The person waltzed over to the dragon and sank beneath it, coiling into a shadow, seen by no one except for a silhouette strewn with white petals hiding under another tree. The newcomer took the plush grass in their hands, its green hues evaporated by the moon and repainted with violet and silver and inexplicably red, like oil in water. A balmy breeze whispered through the branches, rattling with voices of things that could not be seen, and the person disappeared up into a network of bony limbs and holly.
Colin Creevey didn’t move an inch as he watched it all, the white flower petals seeming to land in midair as they coated the shoulders of his night-black robes. His eyes searched for purchase in the nearby dragon’s branches, body motionless, from his hiding place in the black mouth of a jaguar tree.
Good, Fred Weasley thought to himself after hearing, in a very roundabout way on a sunny afternoon, that Cliodna’s Clock had added to its ever-growing list of inhabitants. There’s someone new. Maybe Diggory will stop jumping out of bushes at me for a few hours if he’s got someone else to harass. He wasn’t likely to be accosted by Cedric Diggory any time soon, anyway, given his location on the pebbly outskirts of Cliodna’s Clock, but one could never be too sure about overzealous Hufflepuffs. Cedric was much too stealthy for his own good, and was bound and determined to corner Fred and force him to take part in activities like frosting-tasting at the bakery or Quidditch matches where most of the players had long-forgotten the actual rules of the sport.
Fred had spent the past two weeks sizing up the town, getting to know its more deserted areas and avoiding human contact during daylight hours. He was intensely curious about the Grotta, and was presently walking up and down a stretch of land that rolled into shallow water, a small divide between the two civilizations.
He could see that it was enclosed in concrete walls and began to think to himself that it would be relatively easy to crack them open with a few spells – before remembering what Sirius Black had said to him the first time he caught the young man strolling on his waterfront property: They don’t have wands over there. They don’t have magic anymore, either, but they sometimes steal weapons from the guards. They report that sort of thing in our news. From what I hear, they fight each other like a bunch of Muggles. For most of them, that’s pretty ironic.
Fred was curious about a lot of things. It was the best way to engage his mind, he concluded, and so he set about finding out as much as possible about this new place he lived in, without having to outright ask anyone questions. It was a challenge. Fred was always game for a sticky challenge.
So far this morning, Fred had managed to stuff a nice load of viper eggs in Mr. Crouch’s teapot (which required a bit of lock-picking) and nick a few items from the crotchety wizard’s pantry before old Barty woke up. Unhelpful dingbat, Fred justified to himself after finding a splendid treasure trove of pumpkin pasties hidden in a kitchen drawer. Letting Bagman run around the Ministry like an idiot, ripping off people at the World Cup… He decided to take all of the laces out of Crouch’s shoes for good measure, and tossed them high into the branches of a tree after he left.
Tossing one look down the road to his right and then again toward his left, Fred made up his mind that he was going to have to emerge in the public eye if he wanted to find out more about this Devil’s Duel he kept hearing pop up in other people’s conversations. In times like these, he sorely wished he could have brought a pair of Extendable Ears with him into the afterlife, but supposed that he would have to make do with regular ears and a few discreet questions. In his hand, he clutched a brilliant blue flier he’d found in someone’s letterbox.
“Excuse me,” he said to a woman passing by. She had long, straggly blonde hair and misty gray eyes, and when she floated around in an oval pattern to face him, he wondered if he had ever met her anywhere before. “Do you know where I can find this?” He pointed at a line in bold print near the bottom of the flier:
Register no later than the 31st of May. Our office is open day and night.
The woman bent in half to peer closely at the paper, which Fred found somewhat odd, and tucked a lock of hair behind one ear. He noticed that she was wearing a necklace made from woven seaweed, a pinecone hanging from it as a pendant. It wafted the aroma of Christmas at the Burrow up at him, momentarily crystallizing his thoughts.
“The office?” she inquired pleasantly. “That'll be the Town Hall.” She pointed over his head and he turned to see an impressive red-clay building carved right out of the side of a cliff, its foundation suspended in the air over the road. Between the gap dividing the building’s foundation and the soil twelve or so inches below, was a black chasm teeming with gnarled roots.
The structure’s underbelly sprouted thick tubers right out of the clay mortar, tangling with tree roots curling out of the ground beneath it. No one had bothered to build a set of stairs to reach the opening of the building (which had no door to cover it and protect it from the elements), so presumably one would have to physically slum it over the tangle of roots and tubers to gain entrance. Up high, over an ivy-choked balcony, a huge banner took up a healthy portion of the top floor. The words Cliodna’s Clock shone magnificently in gold against an indigo background, the letter C’s exceptionally large.
“That’s what they use for a Town Hall?” His eyebrows shot up into his fringe. “It looks like it was built by cavemen.”
“Well it was, wasn’t it?” the woman responded, already sashaying away. “Good luck, Mr. Weasley.” She stooped down to pluck a dandelion that was growing out of the cracks in the pavement and jammed it in her hair next to a sprig of honeysuckle.
Fred examined the flier in his hand again, half-expecting it to say something else this time, before walking slowly down the street toward the whipping banner. The closer he got to it, the easier it was to see the frays around the edges of the banner, and the holes that betrayed its extraordinary age. The chasm between the Town Hall and the ground was bigger than it looked from far away; he estimated that at least five feet of space separated him from the gaping entryway.
Brick-colored dust and clay chips lay all around his feet, slathering the vines that crept out of the dirt, climbing vigorously up to the door. With the way that the Town Hall had been crudely whittled out of a cliff and how it was attached to the ground with living roots, Fred thought that the whole building resembled a bizarre, impossible crossbreed of rock and plant.
After navigating his way up the roots (his shoes slipping through gaps every few seconds), Fred made it into the building at last. Instead of levels broken up into individual rooms, it was one enormous open room with no ceiling. Sunlight filtered down through layers of illuminated dust, polishing the various stained glass windows with flecks of orange. On one of the windowsills, the glass darkened by the banner that hung directly on the other side of it, a memorable white owl sat staring down at Fred. It cocked its head knowingly, acknowledging him as someone she knew from another life.
The Town Hall turned out to be one lone man and a circular desk. The desk was also carved out of the cliff, and the middle of it had been hollowed out to admit someone with a very bad comb-over and a burnished nametag that read ADMINISTRATOR to stand inside. A man wearing six wristwatches on his arms stood opposite the Administrator, talking to him in a low voice that echoed off the walls in a melodic hum. A young woman who looked to be around Fred’s age stood a little ways off to the side, arms crossed over her chest as she waited for her turn.
Fred couldn’t help but notice how pretty she was. After several minutes of chewing the inside of his cheek and pretending to be fascinated with chunks of terracotta missing from the structure, absently questioning its stability to himself, he meandered over to the woman. She was wearing a leaf-green wrap dress that matched her eyes exactly, her deep red hair falling over one shoulder in a braid. “So. Ceilings are overrated anyway, eh?”
She gave him a careful smile. “It never rains in here. No need for one.”
She turned away, not quite cool in demeanor but certainly not warm. It struck Fred that she probably wasn’t in the habit of making friends with new people she intended to duel. For lack of something better to do, he swung his arms a bit and whistled up at the white owl. The bird didn’t budge.
“It probably won’t come to you,” the woman said lightly. “Owls tend to get lazy after they’ve been here for a while because Cliodna’s Clock doesn’t really have a use for them.”
“How do people send their letters, then?”
“It’s actually quite amazing, really,” she said slowly, eyes lighting up in spite of herself. “As soon as you finish writing a letter, it disappears in your hands and reappears in the recipient’s letterbox. Instantaneous delivery.”
Fred smiled ruefully at the owl, sad to see such a familiar creature in a place where she no longer served a real purpose. “That’s too bad.”
“Do you know that bird?”
“Sure I do. That’s Hedwig. She belonged to Harry Potter but the Death Eaters killed her.”
“Really?” Her eyes widened, losing focus as she craned her neck to take a better look at Hedwig. “That’s Harry’s owl?”
Fred shook his head, clucking his tongue. “Not you, too.”
Her brow wrinkled in confusion. “Not me, what?”
“The Harry Potter craze. He’s all anyone talks about. I can’t open a window around here without hearing about him, and back home it was just as bad.” He reflected on Ginny in the weeks before the Battle, pacing Auntie Muriel’s walkway from the house to a rusted wire fence because she was so tightly-wound with tension, worry, and impatience that she had to constantly keep moving. “Worse, even.” Upon seeing the strange glint in her eyes, he sighed. “Don’t worry, I understand the appeal. Savior of the wizarding world and all that.”
The red-haired woman pressed her lips together in an amused smile.
“Next!” the man behind the desk barked.
“See you in the races,” she said in a good-natured tone, and sauntered forth. Her conversation with the sour-faced man with a comb-over was much, much shorter than that of the man preceding her, and she was in and out in less than a minute. She bestowed Fred with a friendly wink as she turned away from the desk and passed him, her worn shoes making no sound as they traipsed across the floor. Fred’s mouth went somewhat slack, eyes glazing over as he watched her leap down the mountain of roots, her back soon blending in with the other villagers milling about.
“Very fit,” he murmured. “Very fit, indeed.”
“Next!” the desk man barked, perforating Fred’s hazy thoughts. He jumped, startled.
The Administrator had the face of a raisin. It was wrinkled and puckered and Fred thought that he must have spent way too much time in the sun while he was alive. “I’m here to sign up for the Devil’s Duel,” he greeted.
The man’s nose twitched. “’Course you are.” He turned over Fred’s left palm, ignoring Fred’s sudden cry of surprise, and jabbed it with an instrument that was too sharp to be a pen but too slender to be a knife.
"Are you insane? What are you playing at?"
“You’ve got to register, or didn’t you know? You must be new.”
Fred followed the man’s movements with his eyes as he collected the thin rivulet of Fred’s blood in an opaque vial and slid it somewhere out of sight below the desk. “Yes, I’m new. Fresh blood, I suppose you could say.” The Administrator ignored Fred’s attempt at a pun and Fred added, “What exactly are you doing with that, mate? Pardon my manners, but where I come from, whenever people want you to bleed all over the place, they generally look a bit happier after they’re done with it.”
The man paused to glower at him for a moment. “It goes into the pool with all the others.”
“All the other what?”
“All the other entries. Your blood binds you to the Duel so that you can't back out of it.” He lifted an ancient, cracked Pensieve out of what must have been a shelf somewhere under the desk. He tapped the lip of it with his silver stabbing instrument, its point still glistening with a drop of crimson. “Our very own Goblet of Fire of sorts, at your service.” He mimed pouring something into the bowl of the Pensieve. “Everyone’s blood goes in here at the start of the Devil’s Duel, and it controls your fate.”
“It boils,” The Administrator explained, apparently relishing the bewilderment in Fred’s eyes. “All of the people who sign up for the Duel get their blood taken. This year, so many people have signed up that you won’t all automatically go into the pot. You’ve got to be narrowed down to ten by a committee, because there can only be ten contestants in the Duel. The ten people who will be chosen by the committee will have their blood combined in this Pensieve, and whoever wins the races is an outcome of how everyone’s blood reacts together in this Pensieve as well as the contestants’ reactions to each other while in the Duel.”
“You’re saying that my blood will help decide whether I win or lose? That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard. What if I was a vampire and had no blood at all? You lot are prejudiced.”
The man leaned forward, eyes narrowed meaningfully. “I mean that whatever you are made out of – your soul, your memories, your intentions and motivations and capabilities – that helps decide whether you win or lose.” He tapped the bowl again. “It’s all in your blood, and the Pensieve knows.” Fred swallowed thickly, and the man’s expression reverted back to its usual scrunched-up state. “Ahh, but no matter. Don’t let this influence you, it's just a prediction method. Just do whatever you can in the Duel to make sure that whoever should win, does win.”
Fred blinked, not totally sure he understood what the Administrator meant.
“Now I’ll be needing to document your wand,” the man plowed on. “It’s very important that we know which wand is yours.”
Fred produced the wand as he was instructed, his mind still occupied with the red-haired girl and Hedwig and the bone-dry Pensieve that would soon swirl with blood like memories, predicting what the outcome of the races might be. Most of all, the Administrator’s voice reverberated off the walls of Fred’s brain. Just do whatever you can in the Duel to make sure that whoever should win, does win.
That’s me, Fred thought. I am going to win.
Thank you for reading, and as always, reviews are very much appreciated. :)