Benjy Fenwick tied the laces of his shoes manually, rather than with magic, just for another excuse to stall his morning. He knew Scrimgeour would be too busy today to be counting the minutes until his shift’s end, and Benjy certainly wasn’t in a hurry for twelve hours of wand-wielding and glancing over his shoulder every other second.
Some wondered why they did it – Benjy and Rufus and the other volunteers. Why not just leave inhabitants of the Grotta to their own devices? It would be easier to forget about them in their locked-up world, and to continue life in Cliodna’s Clock with no regard for the emaciated spirits of their enemies. Maybe Rufus volunteered to be a guard because he was a man of justice, doing his part to protect the more tame prisoners from severe, bloodthirsty witches and wizards. Maybe Edgar did it to serve a purpose, to remind himself that as far as death was concerned, his life was pretty good.
Benjy did it because he saw the dormant side of himself in many of them.
It could have been him. If he’d been born into a family where blood meant everything, surrounded by Death Eaters and odium, it could have been him. If he’d been raised in Slytherin House, submerged in a society where to achieve meant to step on everyone in order to get what you wanted, it could have been him. It was a stroke of fortune, in Benjy’s opinion, that he hadn’t been conceived with the blood of psychopaths and murderers, and that he’d been born in a tolerant, loving family who taught him that everyone mattered. Everyone, even the psychopaths and murderers. Given the right mix of circumstances, Benjy might have been a Death Eater, too; or Mr. Ollivander, or James Potter, or Edgar’s wife Viola. It was all down to the luck of the draw.
He pitied the ones who had been bred with a dangerous cocktail of Dark blood and a sinister upbringing. This was why, every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, he changed positions with another volunteer and tried to keep at least one person from tearing someone else to shreds. If he could spare one person, then maybe the attacker would reconsider why they did what they did. Maybe they wouldn’t try it again.
“June first,” Caradoc Dearborn said to him in passing as Benjy crossed the road. “I’m not sorry I don’t work today – they’re going to be hellions over there.”
Benjy only grunted in response. He knew Caradoc was right. People from the Grotta loved June first. It was the day chosen contenders in the Devil’s Duel were announced. And tomorrow…well tomorrow would be much worse. Tomorrow the Grotta residents would all get to come to Cliodna’s Clock and watch the first round of the races. Tomorrow every member of the guard would be required. Grotta citizens wouldn’t be able to cast magic even if they did manage to get their hands on someone else’s wand, but they tended to cause more mayhem with their words than they did with weapons. Some of them would be traveling in chains and gags.
A man with heavy bags under his eyes and popped blood vessels scattered across his nose like freckles stepped out from beneath the shelter of tree branches, watery gaze filling up with torment. “You will tell her I said hello, won’t you?”
Benjy nodded. “I always do.”
Orion Black nodded vaguely, hands pressed together, and turned around to hobble away. Benjy noticed that the atmosphere was boiling today, not just with humidity but with anticipation. It made him feel edgy, uncomfortable. Edgar Bones was right; today was going to be a trial.
He waved hello to a girl sitting on the roof of the hospice house, arms curled around her knobby knees. She waved tentatively back and then ducked down to hide her face, pushing the bridge of her glasses further up her nose. Directly underneath her, Alice Longbottom was busy chattering away to one of the matrons. Her husband, Frank Longbottom, nodded in agreement. Nodding was just about all they were able to do, physically. They could talk as much as they liked, but they wouldn’t regain full control of their physical movements until their bodies rejoined them. For now, their arms and legs were still trapped to earth.
An elderly man with skin as pale as clouds was sitting cross-legged on the house’s fenced-in lawn, his long fingers wrapped around a matron’s wrist. Benjy recognized him as one of the Inferi. A young boy sat next to them, his misty figure blurring every time the wind blew, distorting. That was Roger, one of the youngest victims ever during the height of Voldemort’s terror to be Kissed by a dementor.
The hospice itself was called Meadowes Manor; Dorcas founded it and had been an excellent companion, both to her staff and to her charges, until her death in 1996. Benjy still couldn’t think of her without feeling his throat constrict in anguish. His animosity toward Lily Potter had not lessened in the passing years, though he tried to conceal it as best he could. He knew his bitterness was mostly without foundation. After all, Dorcas had known what she was going up against. She’d been in the Devil’s Duel multiple times, though Benjy could never quite fathom her reasoning for entering. If Lily hadn’t won, then Lily would have lost, and would that really be any better?
For Benjy, maybe. And probably for everyone who lived in Meadowes Manor. But not for James, or Marlene, or Harry – who would never meet his mother in Cliodna’s Clock if she didn’t stop risking her soul to see him on earth. The Duel had become more than just about the prize to Lily. It had unraveled her, warped her. Benjy doubted Lily herself knew all the rationale behind why she felt obligated to sign up every single year.
He made his way to the shore without incident, halfway listening to Regulus and Sirius Black bicker good-naturedly with each other through a window into their cottage’s kitchen. Neither of them must have signed up this year, Benjy supposed, or they would have already flocked to City Center with the other candidates. The rest of the village would come later in the afternoon, hovering only long enough to hear the news.
Benjy reached the encircling shadows long before the towering concrete walls that threw them, and rummaged underneath the cloak of chainmail to his ordinary robes to retrieve his wand. Pointing it at a lustrous serpent-green spiral attached to the wall, resembling the shell of a snail, he said, “Alohomora.”
The spiral began to rumble, protruding slowly away from the wall while a slender crack formed in a rectangular shape all around it. When the spiral was pushed out the entire way, disappearing under Benjy’s hand, there was a finishing click and he looked up to survey a crudely-cut door. Benjy clutched the spiral doorknob and turned it, and then stepped inside the crypt.
He tried to prepare himself for the onslaught of frigid winter air, but never succeeded. There was no wind in the Grotta; the cold crept out of the concrete walls and the black sand that camouflaged every square inch of the place. It was a suffocating cold, completely void of moisture, that found its way inside your throat and lungs and veins.
As usual, most of the prisoners (as indeed, there was no better title for them) were squatting in the sand in thick huddles. They wore bright white robes so that guards could more easily discern them from the sand and sky, as both were perpetual shades of night. There was no sun in the Grotta. There was no moon or stars or breeze to stir the glacial air. And though Benjy knew that the sun shone all around them, illuminating the iron walls so that everyone in the Clock could easily see it, from the inside perspective there was only darkness. It was a cruel illusion, plunging all within it into a timeless vacuum as thick and dark as silence. The only points of light were five pinpricks floating around the walls like stars. Attached to them were wands, followed by members of the guard.
Some of the prisoners liked to follow the guards, attracted to Lumos as moths are to a flame. Some prisoners steered well clear of them, crouching under the barren trees and hoping they might catch a guard dozing off to sleep. For this purpose, many of them crafted weapons of opportunity – sharpened tree branches if you were lucky. More often than not, these weapons were made from the bodies of other prisoners – bones or strips of sinew that had been stretched out to harden and dry, used most effectively as cords to strangle others with.
The guards tried to dispose of the dead bodies before others could have the chance to rip them open, but this was not so easy when their world was darkness and there was six versus hundreds. The Grotta was smaller than Cliodna’s Clock but still too large to see properly across in all directions. It was frozen. It was frightening. There were whispers at every turn and bodies hiding in the tops of skeletal tree branches, waiting to drop onto an unsuspecting victim. The endless canvas of black sand muffled footsteps, too, making it hard for guards to hear approaching predators.
Despite the way that the air seemed to suck your vitality right out of you, some of the prisoners remained unnervingly upbeat. They usually gravitated to a tree near the center of the Grotta that they referred to as ‘Headquarters’. It grew out of the mammoth skull of a giant, whose broken teeth were firmly clamped around the weakest, most dangerous inmate of all. Protecting him.
The Death Eaters each had their own designated branch to sit on, and from the ground view, they looked like roosting white ghosts. All of them were perfectly positioned, completely visible, except for the branch opposite Bellatrix Lestrange. On that one, Benjy knew, even though he couldn’t see him, Barty Crouch, Jr. was perched. He was almost wholly transparent because he’d been Kissed. This made him less of a physical threat for the time being, but more of a mental threat. It was hard to see Barty when he was following you, because he really was a ghost.
“How’s it goin’, Fenwick?” Yardley Platt cackled, tossing a rock up and down in his hand. This would have seemed an innocent enough gesture if there were any rocks to be found in the Grotta, but there weren’t.
“Give that here,” Benjy replied sternly, extending a hand.
Yardley grinned widely, exposing a row of slimy yellow teeth whittled down to nubs. “If you insist.”
Benjy grimaced in disgust before the object even touched his skin, knowing it couldn’t be anything nice. And, unsurprisingly, the rock turned out to be someone’s eyeball. Sand and blood had been tightly compacted around it to provide a hard crust. Still, Benjy had seen rocks made from much worse materials.
A spotlight shone over the wavy black sand, illuminating yards of ash-like dust before it came to a halt over Benjy’s silver-plated heart. The dust was mingled particles of sand and snow, perpetually hanging in the air without ever falling, which contributed to the environment’s smoky opacity. “Fenwick.” It was Moira Abbott. “Come to relieve me?”
“No, sorry.” Benjy lit his own wand, finding it relatively safe to draw attention to himself now that he’d been joined by another armed guard. “I’m relieving Scrimgeour. Where is he?”
“Here,” a rough voice answered.
Rufus was standing directly below Headquarters, staring up at the Death Eaters arranged like dead birds, a frosty glint in his eyes. Rufus never retracted his wand when he was on duty. He never came close to nodding off to sleep. He hardly even blinked. Benjy observed the way Rufus was regarding the seemingly-empty tree limb and narrowed his eyes. “Having trouble with old Barty?”
Rufus didn’t take his eyes off the tree. “Oh, yes.”
“Yeah?” Benjy joined him, crossing his arms over his chest. Up above, he could just barely make out the steamy outline of Barty’s form. He was grinning from ear to ear. Close to him, Bellatrix let out a thin, jagged laugh.
Rufus could never converse casually with the other guards when he briefed them on the behaviors of various inmates during shift changes. His updates were cold as stone, flavored with a brutality he released with stares instead of his wand. “I’ve caught Crouch on the wall twice today.”
“On the wall?” Benjy blanched, quickly sweeping the iron force field with his gaze. “At what point?”
Barty’s grin visibly widened.
“On the other side,” Rufus said. There was a chill in his tone that indicated someone else had been assigned to watch Barty at the time of his capture. Barty wasn’t the only one who could launch himself up onto the wall – those without bodies were more buoyant, less restricted to gravity’s rules. Anyone who had been Kissed and hadn’t been reunited with their physical selves could easily jump up onto the wall – that is, if the wall hadn’t been smothered with enchantments.
The prisoners did not have magical abilities anymore, but the guards certainly did, and they used anything that couldn’t be used against them. They had to be very careful about the type of magic they practiced here. If they cast Incendio, the crazier prisoners would run right into the fire and then throw themselves at other inmates so that they would all have to burn together. If the guards conjured snakes or weapons, the prisoners sometimes banded together to overthrow them and seize whatever had been conjured. This was not the Clock, this was the Grotta; and here, even the guards were not immune to death.
Benjy walked over to the barrier and threw Yardley’s self-made rock at it. Before hitting the surface, it bounced off of something invisible and back into Benjy’s palm. Just like the armor he wore when he was on duty, infused with magical defenses to deflect attacking hands, feet, and spit, the wall could not be touched. A jet of anxiety shot down his spine. This begged to serve the question: “How did he get over there?”
“No idea,” Rufus replied darkly. Bellatrix laughed again, an infuriating sound. She wasn’t as strong as she once was, not with the way the cold temperature was flaying her skin into scales and draining her of life – an everlasting Kiss – but she was still eerily better off than others who had arrived with her at the beginning of the month. Benjy separated the night sky from a coil of coarse black hair framing her face and thought to himself that she could have been beautiful if she’d wanted. Her heavily lidded eyes cast around behind Benjy in obvious disdain, and he swiveled to see the shivering silhouette of a witch.
Walburga Black was not one-tenth of the woman she was when she arrived. Gone was her confidence, her smugness, her unaffected contempt for everyone and everything. She had wasted away to little more than a hologram, and it wouldn’t be long until that little bit that was left of her blew away, too. “He says hello,” Benjy relayed. “He sends his love.”
Bellatrix spat; her saliva evaporated in the desiccated air before it reached the ground. She did not approve of the way her aunt conversed with someone from the Clock. Her friends mimicked her, and for a few moments all that could be heard throughout the wasteland was the sound of their sneers and spit. Rufus aimed his wandlight directly over Bellatrix’s chapped forehead, igniting her black eyes with silvery-blue fire.
Walburga had lost enough of her mind to not care about the people in the tree. “Tell him I said hello,” she said in a hoarse whisper, unconsciously reaching out to touch Benjy’s arm. A shower of gold sparks kindled beneath her touch and she pulled her hand away, but she did not scream. Her nerves had long lost the ability to feel heat, and consequently she didn’t realize that she’d just been burned.
“I’ll tell him,” Benjy vowed. Rufus Scrimgeour applied him with a quizzical look, but he ignored it. If this was all the husband and wife had, this shallow exchange of greetings that depended on Benjy’s generosity, then he would willingly be the surrogate for their one-thousand hellos. After all, if anyone could have told Dorcas ‘good morning’ for him, he would have given quite a lot for their service. Back and forth, every single day, this was how Walburga and Orion communicated. Rufus didn’t understand, but he didn’t have to. He viewed the Grotta citizens much differently than Benjy did.
Morfin Gaunt’s bloodcurdling screams rang out from somewhere in the darkness and Rufus tensed, his wandlight still trained on Lestrange’s haughty, peeling face while his eyes pierced through shadows off to the right.
“I’ll go attend to it,” Benjy offered. “You can go home now, anyway.”
Rufus hesitated, eyeing Bellatrix with a harsh degree of distrust. It wasn’t much of a secret that he considered the other volunteers incompetent in comparison to his own abilities; if permitted, he would probably want to live full-time in the Grotta, paranoia fueling his insomnia and the insomnia fueling more abhorrence and fear. Bellatrix smiled insolently back at him. She felt herself far above the guards’ reach, having been murdered in the name of the Dark Lord. It was an honor for her, dying for her master, and she told herself that he’d made her immortal.
Even if he’d really done just the opposite.
“If he was so powerful, then why is he here?” Rufus challenged softly. "He can't even walk. You worship an invalid." Bellatrix’s lips curled away from her teeth, eyes wild with malevolence. Her white-clad fellows hissed at Scrimgeour.
“Rufus,” Benjy said again, and this time there was a sharpness to his tone. “Go home.”
Scrimgeour’s teeth slid against each other, clink, clink, clink. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” he warned the tree branch across from Bellatrix’s. Everyone in the tree shuddered with laughter now, because Barty was no longer sitting on his branch. He’d jumped down and was now closely tailing Benjy. Rufus quickly sent a Patronus after his colleague to hopefully ward off Barty. The lion thudded away with its vibrant paws against an onyx sea, pulsing past body after body. Hundreds of hollow, filmy eyes blinked in pain, unused to such vivid luminosity.
Caratacus Burke fixed Rufus with a hateful stare as the latter reluctantly made his way toward the door. Moira Abbott watched his back, wand aimed threateningly at Caratacus lest he try to make any sudden movements. Rufus held one arm over his eyes to shield himself from the blinding sunlight that would soon strike him full in the face, wand still clenched tightly in his other hand.
He kept his eyes squeezed shut after closing the door behind him, listening to it lock back in place. The shouts of Morfin Gaunt still stung his ears, echoing upward as it vibrated against layer after layer of enchantments. The sun was brighter than hell, easily shining through his lids, but Rufus reveled in the heat soaking into his skin. This was the moment all the guards always looked forward to when they came home to Cliodna’s Clock – feeling the blood rush through their numb fingers and toes again. The humidity assaulted his senses as well, so overwhelming in contrast with the dehydrated Grotta that he could almost drink the water right out of the air.
Water splashed around his ankles, the sand here far different from that of the arctic desert he’d just left. This was the sort of sand that you could sink into, that you could feel living creatures moving around in. Life was in front of him in wind and grass, and there was death behind him in an iron cage, even if death still encompassed everything.
Squinting, Rufus dazedly made his way down the flooded beach to Cliodna’s Clock. In spite of himself, he felt much better now that he was gone. In that place, wandering around in a world for lost souls, he could sometimes feel himself losing bits and pieces of his mind, his memory, his humanity. If more people volunteered for the job of guarding, Rufus and the others wouldn’t have to expose themselves to such long, starless hours; but, of course, who would readily agree to such a task? Most of them hated inhabitants of the Grotta. They didn’t know what it looked like and who was still alive in there, and they didn’t care to learn. Quite a few of them were in Cliodna’s Clock because of people in the Grotta, and wished them nothing but agony.
The town was bursting at the seams.
Rufus’s footsteps quickened, melting into a throng of others walking briskly along. On his right was Nymphadora Lupin and on his left was a young man who worked in the bakery, his sleeves rolled up to his elbows, arms caked with flour. Between the two of them, and in the middle of everyone else, Rufus was lost adrift.
Tonks saw the flash of grayish-white before anyone else, and reached wildly up with both hands to grasp it. Just before her fingers brushed the inky newsprint, her own name already glaring back at her on the front page, someone else snatched it away.
Tonks swerved, teeth accidentally clamping over her tongue in irritation, to see Lily Potter’s green eyes memorizing the lines on the paper. Her complexion had gone very sallow. Several paces behind her, footsteps were fast approaching. Lily knew them without having to turn around, and met James Potter with wide, snapping eyes. He’d never seen her looking more horror-struck. “How could you?” she demanded angrily.
James reeled back, taking approximately one second to become just as upset. “How could you expect me not to? If he’s in, I’m in.”
Tonks got a hold of another issue at last, since clones of the Daily Departed were now raining profusely from the sky, being orchestrated by Benedict Cuffe’s baton-like wand. All around her, the middle pages of the Daily Departed had been carelessly discarded in favor of the front page.
Ten names were separated into two groups, five people per team. Each group would duel only members of their own team until the very last round, when just one person on each side remained. The groups this year were named to reflect their paradoxical reality: Victus Mortuus. Living Dead.