Chapter 1 : A Quaint Little Town
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Late afternoon was drawing to an end; the sun was sinking forlornly over the spiny mountains. The lone traveler eyed it cautiously and stirred into motion, ceasing his survey of the streets. Darkness had a way of recalling the spectral yarns that his grandmother spun for him in his childhood. The stories changed with the seasons, but all had the same ominous moral: Don’t ever be caught out alone after dark.
He scoffed at his memories even as he quickened his pace in the fading light. Were his childhood days not in the past? Was he not now a man, an intellectual of the highest order? Surely, a year of study on the European continent should have been enough to assure him of his power against the darker forces of the world.
It was not the charm of the town, cloistered deep in the heart of the country, which drew him here, for there was no charm to this place. He was no ordinary sightseer. In fact, had he not visited the Alsace-Lorraine in France to observe the behavior of Red Caps, he would never have heard of the intriguing events that had come to pass here. His only knowledge of the town and the things that surrounded it came from a strange, agrestic man he had met in a local village tavern only three days before.
He entered the tavern, tired from a day in the forest beside the tiny French village. The tavern was bustling with life; all the regulars were in after work, drinking and trying to forget the stress of the day. He pushed his way to the bar, where the tavern keeper greeted him with a nod and a warm butterbeer. It had only been a day since he had come, but already the man knew his drink-of-choice. There wasn’t much to pay attention to in rural towns, and a traveler sparked great interest amongst the locals.
Beside him was a strange man with a wild look of fear in his eye. He glanced around at the hubbub, muttering to himself in a language that was not native to rural France. “My good man,” the traveler said, putting an amicable hand on the man’s arm. “What has driven you to this mad behavior?”
The man looked up at him, cowering as if he expected to be hit. “I have come from far away,” he began in bad French. “From Albania, where I lived with my family. An evil spirit descended upon our village, and now they are all dead.”
The traveler blinked in surprise. “Do you mean to tell me that a dark force is at work in Albania?”
“Yes. We all left before it was too late.”
“All except one family: the local barman and his daughter."
The man’s words were intriguing to the intellectual beside him. There, in that tiny, unknown Albanian village, could be his destiny, his triumph against the worst sort of evil!
“Tell me more about what you’ve seen.”
The man’s story might have horrified any other mortal, but the traveler was no ordinary man. Rather than feeling abominated by the things that he learned, he was intrigued. He pumped as much information out of his new acquaintance as possible, and then Disapparated from France the next morning. Some questioning at the Albanian Ministry led him straight to this forlorn little town.
Whispers of wind whipped through the streets as he walked down the widest in the village—Main Street, he supposed. A solitary window was gleaming with light. All the others were dark and deserted. He could feel the falling darkness of the place crowding around him, consuming him. Of all the evil he had come across in nearly a year of study, this surely was the most sinister. He was by nature an erudite, unaccustomed to the battlefields and quarrels of stronger men. But his blood rushed with the superfluity of youth; his bookish soul yearned to face a real enemy.
A sign flapped over the door of his destination: the tavern that the Albanian man had told him about. The traveler’s understanding of Albanian was rudimentary at best; by his reckoning, the sign read “The Hound’s Tooth.” As he pushed the door open, thunder rumbled overhead ominously, but he ignored the subtle caveat. His fatal quest had only just begun.
The door creaked as it opened, revealing a dimly lit bar behind which a young woman sat. She rose and lifted her wand as he stepped over the threshold, her flummoxed expression giving way to grim determination. “Who are you?” she demanded.
He raised his hands in peaceful surrender. “I am a traveler from Britain. I seek lodging for the night,” he said in stilted Albanian. “I mean you no harm.”
Her fierce expression did not change. “What business have you here? Surely you have not come for leisure” she said in heavily-accented English. Her tone was acerbic, with an unmistakable bite of sarcasm, but at least she could speak his native language. He wasn’t feeling very confident in his foreign-language skills after such a long journey.
“No,” he admitted, stepping forward. “I have not come for leisure.” Her posture tensed as he walked toward her; she almost looked murderous.
“You should not have come here.”
“Come now,” he chuckled mildly, surveying the miscellaneous bottles on the shelves behind her. “Is that any way to treat a paying customer?”
His question seemed to soften her expression. She sighed. “Times are hard. One can never be too sure who is enemy, and who is friend.” With a subtle gesture for him to sit down, she busied herself at the counter, never turning her back to him. “What would you like to drink?”
“Butterbeer, if you please. And a night’s lodging after that.”
She poured the golden liquid into a glass and set it down in front of him with a dull thud. “What brings you to this godforsaken place?”
“I’ve heard rumors.”
She stiffened again, her expression tenser than it had been a few moments ago. “Rumors? Of what?”
“You seem to know better than I.” When his comment elicited no response, he continued. “I met a curious man in the south of France, a man suffering from a terrible shock. When he told me his story, I immediately wanted to know more. So now, I am here, talking to you, and you seem to know enough about it. Tell me what you’ve seen.”
“How can I know that you won’t harm me?”
He held up his hands in a gesture of peace. “The only assurance I can give you is my word as a Briton. I know that I can’t make you believe me.”
She leaned over the counter to peer into his eyes. “You look like an honest man. You act like an honest man. The jury is still out,” she snatched his not-yet-empty mug away from him. “On whether you are or aren’t.”
“I’m so glad to see that I’ve earned your trust,” he countered sarcastically. “And I wasn’t finished with that. Perhaps you will trust me if I tell you what I am about.”
“Perhaps it will only give me reason to trust you even less.”
A mirror behind her showed him the reflection of a collection of butcher knives resting under the counter. If he were wise (which he was), he would do less to provoke her and more to win her trust. Swallowing the retort on the tip of his tongue, he answered her. “Perhaps. But I am no mercenary. In Britain, I was a professor at a school of magic, where I happily spent my time amongst the books. One year ago, I took a sabbatical to focus on an area that I had read about but never experienced: defense against dark forces. I have spent the past eleven months roaming all of Europe, seeking out creatures and training myself to combat their debauchery. When I heard of the terrible force that is at work here, in this village, I was curious. I still am. I want to search for this spirit, to call it out for its evil works, and to banish it forever from this earth. I come to help, not to harm.”
To his great surprise, the comely lass only snorted in response. “You are a fool. The spirit that has settled here would not take kindly to your interference. You have no idea what it is capable of. If you managed to find where it lurks, you would die of fright. You are no match for the power it holds.”
Thunder rumbled again. A flash of lightning streaked the sky outside the window. For the first time since he arrived, the traveler felt slightly crestfallen at her disparaging remarks. “How can you know that it would destroy me? You do not know what I have seen and done. In the space of a year, I have taken on dozens of dark creatures, and I have survived every encounter. Why would I fail in this one?”
She scoffed at him again. “Have you ever seen the death of a loved one? Have you watched your crops wither all in the space of one afternoon? Have you see wells run dry and fill again with blood? No. You have not. But I have. ‘Tis true that I do not know the power you possess, but I know this: The spirit has an aura of the worst, most sinister evil. Grown men have fallen to their knees at its presence, shaking and calling out for their long-dead mothers. Children have choked to death on its poison. And I have watched them all go away; all of my friends evacuated long ago, soon after the trouble began. Only my father and I remain.”
It had started to rain, pounding at the tin roof of the dimly-lit tavern. The sound was forbidding, and for an instant, he regretted that he had come here. “Why did you choose to remain here? And why does your tavern remain open if no one will visit?”
Her dark eyes flashed with pain, redolent of all she had lost. “My father is a stubborn man. When we found my brother…” She shuddered. “He lost his sense of duty to the grief. It consumed him, sucked him into a swirling vortex of guilt, out of which he never came. He refused to leave the place where he lost his son. I stayed with him, afraid to go out in the world alone; afraid that losing both of his children would kill him.” She bowed her head, a single tear escaping from her eye and falling to glisten on the polished wood.
The façade of formidable stubbornness had crumbled; the burden of sorrow and loss that she carried was exposed. Her pain was ineffable, so he said nothing, silently rising from his seat and meeting her behind the counter. She looked up at him, eyes misty but leery of his abrupt boldness.
In that moment, he defenestrated all of his scholarly aloofness. This young woman was in need of a hero, a savior, and he wanted to become that man for her. With a confidence he never knew he had, he gently took her hand. “I know can help you.”
She sniffed in derision, still skeptical of his abilities, but did not pull away from his touch. “How can you know that you will succeed?”
“I don’t. I realize that this thing that haunts your village is a powerful force, one that is inundated in extremely dark magic. But I can’t leave this place without trying to help you get rid of it.”
For a brief moment, she smiled, letting go of his hand and turning away. “You are only a foolish boy. You assume you are invincible, unbreakable. But you are not a god.”
He backed away indignantly. “I—“
“I have seen men like you before,” she interrupted. “Young, strong, smart, all of them fools. They walked into that forest, feeling confident in their talents. They left it with faces of anguish and pain, all of them dead. Is that really what you want for yourself?”
“Please, tell me how you are any different from the men of our village. What do you have that they do not?”
Her biting words rendered him speechless. Usually quick with words, he could not find a rejoinder to the stinging sarcasm. She nodded with satisfaction at his open-mouthed dismay. “It is just as I thought. You are like a weak little boy playing with matches for the first time. You have no idea what could happen to you. Ha!”
Grabbing a golden key from a hook on the wall, she skirted around him. “Come along, foolish child. I’ll give you lodging for a night, but in the morning, I want you out of this town.”
She unlocked the first door that they came to, shoving it open and ushering him inside. As soon as he crossed the threshold, she slammed it unceremoniously. He was startled by the noise but not shocked by her actions. It was condign that she should treat him as a vindictive mother treats her naughty child.
Glancing around in the crepuscule, he chuckled softly to himself. “Lumos.” It was a small room with only a bed and a dresser to furnish it. The air felt vapid, as if it had stood empty for far too long.
As he settled into the bed, he thought he heard the rain stop. Tomorrow, he would smell the petrichor of the moist earth as he went out to the Black Forest to meet his fate. He knew that he could succeed where the others had failed.
He was Quirinus Quirrel, master of his own destiny, and he wasn’t afraid of anything.