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Chapter 5 : Like Wildfire
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‘Will you stop whining?’ hissed Albus, as irritable as he ever got. ‘You got yourself into this situation, now you’re just going to have to man up and accept it. I have no sympathy for you.’
They had been gone for half an hour now, making their way across the fields, down past the groundskeeper’s hut, and into the outskirts of the woodlands. The skies had been clear, even if the sun had set by then, to keep visibility good - and then they’d made it into the Forbidden Forest, and the lanterns Lockett had passed around became necessary.
‘It’s not going to be dangerous,’ said Rose, a few paces ahead of them, and Scorpius managed to not jump. He’d not realised she was near enough to hear them. ‘You have to go really quite deep to find the nastier creatures these days, and I’m sure Professor Lockett knows what she’s doing.’
Scorpius glowered past Rose to where Professor Lockett, Methuselah Jones and Selena Rourke wandered at the front of the little procession. ‘Getting us killed?’
‘The Forbidden Forest isn’t as dangerous any more as people like to make out,’ said Rose, now not bothering to be quiet, and Scorpius deeply suspected she was just happy to be able to hold court on something she knew about. ‘Not a single centaur or dark creature has been sighted within three miles of Hogwarts grounds in twenty years.’
‘Incorrect,’ piped up Jones, ‘and highly so, considering Professor Firenze, a centaur, was the Divination Professor for ten years.’
Rose wrinkled her nose. ‘You know what I mean, Jones.’
‘It’s not what you said,’ he replied calmly, cool gaze lifted to the sights of the Forbidden Forest looming all around them with his usual air of disinterest. ‘For the Magical Beings Conference in 2002 the centaur delegation passed through Hogwarts.’
Scorpius could tell, from the look on Rose’s face, that she hadn’t known that - and disliked this fact immensely. But she waved a dismissive hand. ‘Of course I was referring to dangerous centaurs, like a marauding herd, not a group passing through.’
‘It’s not what you said,’ Jones repeated.
Selena, walking beside him, gave him a sidelong look. ‘You remembered all that?’
He looked confused by the question. ‘I read it.’
‘But you remembered it. The route the centaurs took. And what year.’ She sounded about as bewildered herself.
‘It was an important conference. The centaurs passing through was historical. And I read it.’
‘Huh.’ Selena fiddled with her hair tie, luxurious blonde hair kept tightly out of the way in an unusual display of practicality. ‘I struggle to remember my class schedule.’
‘You struggle to remember what day it is,’ said Rose bitterly, clearly put-out at having been corrected.
Selena looked over her shoulder with a toss of the head. ‘I’m not the one who was just wrong, Weasley.’
Scorpius knew he couldn’t join in the pile-on against Rose without Albus getting more upset with him, which was the last thing he wanted right then (well, perhaps second-to-last - dying in the Forest was still a concern). But at least he could sit back and enjoy the show as Selena decided to do ten rounds with Rose, with Jones as backup.
Or he could, at least, until Professor Lockett lifted her lantern. ‘Oh, hush, the lot of you. I thought you were meant to be nearly of age?’
‘You teach children, Professor; surely it’s okay for us to act like kids?’ offered Scorpius helpfully.
She harrumphed. ‘I was supposed to be in the Three Broomsticks by now on a Friday night,’ she muttered, and he doubted he was meant to hear that.
‘You put us in detention.’
‘And you blew up a cupboard. And yet I’m suffering for it.’ She came to a halt, moving her lantern to and fro to make shadows dance unpleasantly between the thick, closely-knit trees. ‘Yes, this is a good spot.’
‘Do you even know where we are?’ asked Scorpius as they all stopped, squinting unhappily at their surroundings. ‘Professor.’ It was probably best to try to be polite.
‘Still within Weasley’s correctly-cited three-mile safety buffer,’ Lockett said, and patted a pocket of her coat. ‘I have a map, Malfoy. I do, in fact, know what I’m doing.’
‘I do not, in fact, know how the hell you can navigate in here.’
She pointed upwards. ‘Stars. It’s not so difficult. And it’s a good, bright, clear night, so it should be ideal for getting those Nocturne Mushrooms. Spread out, but don’t go off on your own, and have a look around for some. Gather them up and get them in the bags, and when the bags are full, make sure you seal them.’
Jones looked offended. ‘We know about the gathering and care of Nocturne Mushrooms, Professor.’
‘I don’t,’ said Selena, and moved next to him, sliding her arm into his. ‘So I’ll stick with you.’
Jones looked nonplussed by this development and Scorpius rolled his eyes. Lockett seemed to reach the same conclusion as him, frowning at the pair, and jerked her head. ‘Then best I stick with the two of you, if you’re not sure how to handle the mushrooms, Rourke.’ She jerked her lantern at the others. ‘You three, stick together. Do not get out of sight of our lanterns. If something goes wrong, shoot up red sparks.’
‘But if we can’t see the lanterns,’ Scorpius pointed out, ‘then how will we see the red sparks?’
‘They’ll be higher, and if you don’t believe me, you’ll just have to not wander off and not get into trouble, then, won’t you, Malfoy. I know this is a difficult concept...’
Scorpius had always thought Professor Lockett to be rather decent, though he’d heard she was crabby when irritated and now was discovering this first-hand. So he stayed silent as she, Jones, and Selena headed off the little path they’d been travelling by, searching through the undergrowth for the tell-tale glint of purple from the Nocturne Mushrooms.
He turned to Albus, who was still looking as sulky as he had since Potions, and Rose, who looked about as thrilled with this development as he was, and sighed. ‘Isn’t this going to be a joy.’
Albus pulled the bag from his belt. ‘Let’s just get on with it.’
‘Easy for you to say,’ Scorpius grumbled. ‘If we don’t get it done tonight, you’re not back out tomorrow.’
‘She won’t take us out for two nights in a row,’ said Rose. ‘She won’t want to go out to the Forest for two nights in a row. She’s done this to make a point - nobody’s going to misbehave in her Potions classes if this is the detention they get.’
‘It could be worse,’ said Albus, leading the way, lantern lifted up high. Thick, tall roots of trees were the best places to look for the mushrooms, but they were, of course, dark - that was the whole appeal - and so they were going to have to check every little nook and cranny in the hope of finding a few of the precious mushrooms sprouted. They were such a pain to find and had such a short shelf life that Scorpius suspected Professor Lockett had put these on the list intentionally.
‘How?’ Rose said, being terse with Albus when Scorpius didn’t dare to.
‘They could have written to our parents.’
‘That wouldn’t have been as bad,’ said Rose, peering around the trees and watching her footing. By now they were so far off the path that the darkness, and the tree trunks, were like a cocoon of darkness, the beads of light in the distance that were Lockett, Jones, and Selena flickering in and out of sight as they moved between the trees - but still near enough to not be concerning. ‘It’s not like our parents didn’t get put in detention all the time when they were at school. Even Mum had her share.’
‘Yes,’ said Albus delicately, opting for being tall and standing with a lantern held high so Scorpius and Rose had better peripheral lighting while they checked the crevices and gathered the odd mushroom they found. ‘But they got them usually in the course of saving the world.’
‘I’m happier this way round,’ Scorpius muttered to himself.
But the thick trees made for an echoing effect, and the air around them was so dead that his voice carried, and Rose gave a superior little smirk. ‘Oh, really? So next time you misbehave and get away with it, Malfoy, I should just write to your father?’
In the blink of an eye he’d rounded on her, eyes flashing, and in surprise she actually took a step back. ‘Don’t push me, Weasley.’
‘Rose.’ Albus had actually moved to put a hand on Scorpius’ shoulder, tensing, but there was a note of pleading in his voice. ‘Please.’
Rose looked between them, surprised and confused, but she lifted her hands. ‘It was just a joke,’ she muttered.
Scorpius knew it was the closest thing he was going to get to an apology from her, but it was the second time that day she’d incensed him and so he just turned away, shrugging off Albus’ shoulder roughly, head bowing to look for the mushrooms. He could hear Rose shuffling away, too, his outburst having killed all conversation, and for several long seconds there was nothing but the sound of their footsteps and their breathing.
Then he heard the creak of Albus’ lantern and, when he spoke, he sounded faintly worried. ‘Where are the others?’
Scorpius straightened, looking for the path. ‘They were...’ His heart sank. ‘Over there. You know, in that bit of ominous darkness.’
‘I lost track of them while we were -’ Rose frowned. ‘But we didn’t move... did they...?’
Then they heard the hoofbeats. Just a couple, at first, then more and more, coming together like the deep, dull, thudding of rain. Coming towards them.
Albus’ broad face had folded into a worried frown. ‘Centaurs. Lots of them. Coming fast.’
Despite it all, Scorpius still couldn’t stop himself from looking accusingly at Rose. ‘How’s that three-mile safe zone working out for you, Weasley?’
Rose had moved to Albus’ side, face pale in the lantern light. ‘Centaurs don’t come this close to Hogwarts - I wonder what they want -’
‘I don’t want to find out,’ said Albus, voice stern. ‘Close the hatches - now.’ His own lantern was immediately dimmed and, falteringly, Scorpius and Rose’s followed shortly afterwards, pitching them all into ominous darkness.
For a moment Scorpius looked around blindly - then he felt Albus’ strong hand on his elbow, yanking him along. He heard Rose give a weak yelp of surprise, too, and then they were running, back in the direction - Scorpius thought, at least - of the path, away from the hoofbeats.
Albus’s eyes must have adapted to the darkness quicker, because he didn’t stumble on any of the roots that Scorpius felt tug at his ankles, just kept powering along, all but dragging his best friend and cousin behind him. Trees loomed around them, branches whipped at arms and faces and whistled overhead, the ground was uneven and the undergrowth thick underfoot, but they hurtled along anyway at as fast a pace as they could all manage. There was the sound of a thud and shattering glass, and Rose swore as he guessed her lantern had been dropped and broken, and they still didn’t stop - and neither did the hoofbeats.
Those got louder and louder, and Scorpius risked a glance over his shoulder when he thought he saw a particularly broad gap in the trees before them. Shapes moved in the gloom behind them, tall, broad figures emerging from the darkness, the hulking form of the merge of man and beast that were the centaurs.
But if they’d been directly in their path before, he didn’t think they were now, and at the next huge tree with high, fat roots, Albus yanked them to a halt. ‘Stay down!’ he hissed, pushing them into the hiding place. ‘And don’t move!’
Scorpius all but dived into cover, chivalry dying as he got there before Rose - but then all three of them were huddled in shelter, Albus still with his hands on their shoulders, the only one who dared risk keeping one eye out from their hiding place to make sure they knew if the danger passed, if they’d been noticed, what was going on...
And Scorpius just kept his head down. Stayed low, as flat as he could, and only a lingering sense of dying, dying pride had him opening his eyes when he realised they were screwed shut tight. But he didn’t want to look at Albus’ stern face when it was impossible to know what he was seeing, didn’t dare take a peek himself, and so his eyes fell on Rose.
She was even paler in the gloom of the Forest, where only the few streaks of starlight breaking through the tree cover could show him her face. Absent were any of her frowns of disapproval, her arched eyebrows of disapproval, or, really, any other sign of what he usually saw on her expression: disapproval, often of him.
Just brown eyes wide with fear, lips thin through tension and panic he could tell she was biting back.
He’d have liked to have thought it was through some lingering recollection of hitherto-abandoned chivalry that he did what he did next - but truth be told, it was for his own reassurance just as much, his own need to find something, anything to tether himself to which wasn’t the knot of dread seizing in his gut.
He grabbed her hand and their eyes locked. And though the fear didn’t drain from her expression, they both had something to focus on which wasn’t possible imminent death at the hands, or hooves, of a herd of marauding centaurs. And as he clutched at her hand for dear life, she squeezed back just as tightly.
Even when the hoofbeats - and for a time, when they were loudest, the indecipherable calls of the herd shouting to one another, sounds Scorpius couldn’t identify as being anything but “agitated” - began to quieten and die down, even when they finally faded away, none of them moved. They stayed huddled in their shelter for long moments, ragged, panicked breathing the only thing breaking the silence.
‘They’re gone,’ whispered Albus at last, though his low voice was like a gunshot in the gloom.
Rose yanked her hand from Scorpius’ as if stung, and finally their locked gazes broke as they both looked up. ‘You’re sure?’
Albus rose slowly, big shoulders tense. He wasn’t much more than a silhouette in the darkness, but Scorpius thought he saw him relax as he looked around, if only a little. ‘There’s no sign of them.’
‘They sounded panicked.’ Rose got to her feet, dusting herself down, movements rather jerky and stiff. ‘I thought I heard them yelling at one another to run.’
‘I couldn’t make anything out.’ Scorpius stayed right where he was, if only because his knees didn’t feel like they were going to let him move any time soon. ‘It was just shouting.’
‘In their own language. You don’t hear it very often.’
‘You studied -’
‘We need to get back to Hogwarts,’ said Albus, cutting off Scorpius’ incredulity. ‘Something’s spooked them, and that’s not good, and we’re not safe out here.’
‘A great plan,’ Scorpius agreed, getting to his feet creakily. ‘I just have two questions. One, what about the others? And two, where the hell are we?’
The three of them finally emerged from the shadow of the great tree that had been their shelter and stood in the gloom of the bent boughs and low-hanging branches and leaves that the Forbidden Forest brought in to wrap around and above them. Scorpius finally realised that Albus had abandoned his lantern when he’d grabbed them both, and Rose’s was broken, so he lifted his own, doused lamp. ‘Shall I...?’
Albus nodded. ‘I think we’re safe.’
‘We’re going to need to see,’ Rose pointed out.
‘Yeah,’ Scorpius muttered as he pulled out his wand. ‘See the herd of rampaging centaurs come to trample us to death.’
But he felt better as the lantern sparked into life at his command, and opened up all the flaps to let its illumination spread to their immediate surroundings. The good news was that the trees looked familiar. The bad news was that the Forbidden Forest all looked the same to Scorpius, and there was no path in sight, so this wasn’t especially helpful.
‘Professor Lockett had the map,’ Rose said forlornly.
‘Then we’ll have to navigate back ourselves,’ said Albus, with all of his usual fierce determination. He straightened. And stopped. ‘I have no idea where we’re going.’
‘We went south out of Hogwarts,’ said Rose, and looked up to squint at the trees. ‘If we could get a good look at the sky... maybe one of us could try to climb a tree and see if they could spot the north star, something to roughly navigate by...?’
Scorpius looked between them. ‘That’ll be me, then,’ he said tartly, knowing bulky Albus wasn’t going to have an easy time climbing, and knowing he’d never hear the end of it if he sent Rose up a tree while he sat calmly on solid ground. ‘But bugger looking for the north star, if we’re only couple of miles away from Hogwarts I should think that if I get a good view I’ll be able to see the school.’
Rose looked a bit abashed, but tilted her nose up haughtily. ‘Fine. If you think you can get high enough.’
Clearly the status quo had wasted no time in reasserting itself between the two of them.
‘I don’t see you volunteering to climb,’ muttered Scorpius, eyeing up the nearest tree and beginning to shrug out of his coat so there wasn’t too much for branches to catch on.
‘Perhaps I should; are you even sure you can find the north star if you can’t see the school?’
‘I did get a decent grade in Astronomy, thank you so much,’ he sneered. ‘I can find Ursa bloody Minor. Are you sure Polaris’ less-than-one-degree inaccuracy for due north is going to be something we can compensate for?’
She scoffed, and mercifully Albus interrupted them, sounding surprised. ‘Or we could just head for the others, over there.’
Scorpius blinked, and they all turned to where Albus was looking to, indeed, see a bead of light in the distance. He sighed. ‘Thank Merlin for that.’
‘Merlin’s got nothing to do with it; Al got us away from those centaurs,’ said Rose, and grabbed Albus himself by the sleeve. Scorpius just got a rough shove at the shoulder to move forward, but he couldn’t say he cared - he was too overcome with relief at the notion that they could find the others and get out of the miserable woodland. Whatever had upset the centaurs could wait.
But this relief would prove short-lived, for as they advanced, the bead of light grew bigger and bigger - and it became obvious that this wasn’t just a speck from a lantern. This was something large, and soon enough they could see the flickering to suggest firelight - and a lot of it.
‘Is something on -’
‘That’s a campfire,’ Scorpius interrupted Rose, and it was his turn to grab both her and Albus and yank them back a few steps, into the shadow of the nearest tall tree.
‘What? What’re you -’
‘Are you both nuts?’ Scorpius hissed at their expressions of joint bewilderment. ‘Centaurs run amok for the first time in I don’t care how long, the other three are Merlin knows where, and someone’s out camping in the Forbidden Forest? We do not just go up and say hello!’
Albus frowned. ‘What if that is the others?’
‘What, right after the stampede of centaurs which they had to have heard from here, they decided to light up a big old fire? Lockett’s not that dumb. And something spooked the centaurs.’
Rose looked in the direction of the dull glow of firelight. ‘It’s not spooked these people.’
‘Did it occur to you, Weasley, that they might be what spooked them?’
Silence fell on them, until Albus drew a deep breath. ‘So what do we do? They might have a perfectly good reason to be out here.’
‘Nobody goes into the Forbidden Forest for a perfectly good reason,’ growled Scorpius, and peered around the tree. ‘But something’s going on. You two stay here; I’m going to take a look.’
Rose turned on him. ‘You’re what?’
‘Somebody’s got to find out what’s going on.’
‘But why you?’
‘Because I can run faster than you if it goes wrong,’ said Scorpius, jerking a finger in her direction, ‘and he is not big enough to sneak up on anyone with better eyesight than Professor Flitwick.’ This last was at Albus, who finally looked shamefaced for having cracked a height a sasquatch would be proud of.
Albus shifted his weight. ‘Are you -’
‘Something’s going on out here,’ Scorpius cut him off. ‘We have no idea what spooked the centaurs, no idea where Lockett and the others are, and are we really just going to turn around and head back to Hogwarts ignoring this?’
Albus subsided, looking deeply unhappy, and Rose made a face. ‘Be careful.’
But her voice had dropped and she sounded legitimately, quietly worried, and it was all a little bit too real for Scorpius to happily deal with while his heart was thudding in his chest loud enough for him to hear it.
He smirked. ‘Don’t worry, Weasley. I’ll come back. Every time.’
He was relieved to see her expression give that twitch of disapproval he knew so well, and the familiarity of her dry tone of voice was infinitely welcoming when she responded. ‘I knew my luck was rotten.’
Albus gave him a clap on the shoulder and, thus reassured, Scorpius ducked around the side of the tree and away from them. It wasn’t as if he had particularly more experience of sneaking around other than trying to avoid prefects when stealthing his way along the corridors at nights, but he stood by what he’d said: something was rotten and somebody needed to get to the bottom of it.
It was just logic, rather than nerves, that had him as the one prowling around in the darkness to investigate.
Certainly he’d been right. There was a campfire ahead, a big one, and it was so visible because they were approaching the outskirts of a small clearing in the woodland. Scorpius hunkered down to crawl along the undergrowth, feeling thick and uncomfortable roots underfoot, but it was still enough to keep him as just one more featureless shape in a sea of gloomy featureless shapes.
Then, through the light, in the clearing, he thought he saw movement - people, perhaps, one, two - no, more. People, and the soft sound of voices wafting over in his direction, not talking, far, far too rhythmic for talking.
Chanting. Incanting. Casting.
He froze, putting his shoulder to a tree trunk and hiding in its shadow, wondering if he dared press on. He stood by what he’d said before: nobody had good reason to be in the Forbidden Forest. But was he going to find out anything from looking closer, or was it best to leave, get back to Albus and Rose, head back to Hogwarts, let someone actually halfway responsible deal with it?
While he was still fussing over his options, a smell hit him - and it was enough to almost make him gag. The stench of rotting crept into his nostrils, putrid decomposition crawling down his throat as if the air was permeated with death and decay thick enough to be felt if he reached out his hand. He doubled over, a hand clamping over his mouth to try to fight the stench, to try to fight the roiling in his stomach, and felt his throat open up for a dry heave.
And just as he thought he’d got it over control, just as he thought his body was going to follow his commands instead of be brought low by this all-permeating foulness, he lifted his head to see the light of the campfire growing brighter.
Only it wasn’t flickering orange, now - it was silvery, if silver could be tinged with shadow, and billowing outwards like fire never would, faster than fire ever would, an expanding orb of light rocketing out from the centre of the clearing, over and past the figures and their chanting and through the odour that surrounded him, and right at him.
And the last thing Scorpius remembered from that night was the blinding light and the putrescent stench.
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