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Chapter 36 : Blaze of Glory
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The snow melted overnight, as January died and the hope went that Phlegethon would die with it. The clouds were gone, the skies clear and bright, and it could have been considered warm. For the Scottish Highlands in winter.
'It doesn't matter if you don't cleanse your circles at midday exactly,' said Lockett as they all stood gathered in the Great Hall, the last muster before moving out. 'It will be ideal for them to be cleansed by midday. But if they're not, then it's not game over. It will be more potent at the sun's zenith but we're maximising our chances with this. Not gambling it all on one second.'
'Oh, good,' said Scorpius. 'So we get to dodge Dementors and, if we're really unlucky, lingering mercenaries to rejig a horribly powerful evil ritual, but at least punctuality is optional!'
'Speaking of rejigging horribly powerful evil rituals,' said Rose, and looked to Methuselah, 'aren't we worried interfering with it might have some side-effects if this goes wrong?'
'Yes,' said Methuselah. 'Could instead cause massively amplified projection of unharnessed necromantic energy, as opposed to the energy currently channelled in the form of Phlegethon. Could open up a rift into the realm of the dead and perhaps drag Hogwarts into it. Could simply result in massive explosion of conflicting powers with a radius of some ten miles.'
Rose looked startled. 'And you didn't mention this before? Don't you dare say, "you never asked," either.' So Methuselah opened and closed his mouth and said nothing.
Even Selena winced. 'Are we sure this is a good idea?'
'No,' said Lockett. 'Does anyone want to back out?' There was no answer, and she nodded. 'Then that's it. We all know what we're doing. We all have a part to play. We've all come this far and got through it. This is just one more day. You'll all do fine.' Her lips thinned. 'Let's save the day.'
'Wow, Professor,' said Selena. 'That was almost inspirational.'
'I have my moments,' she said. 'And that's all youíre getting. Don't stand around expecting another. You've got one hour.'
'All right, you heard her,' said Albus, clapping his hands together. 'We've got a long walk ahead of us and hard work when we get there.'
'That was less inspirational,' said Selena as the five students trailed out of the Great Hall.
They didn't talk much as they strode out of the grounds. There was little to say. So they just looked to the clear blue skies that the tall castle spires would pierce if they could, to the school they all loved that had nevertheless been their prison for the past five months. And silently they hoped that when they returned, they would be free.
It was the first time all five of them had been down into the Forbidden Forest together since the detention, the detention which felt like it had happened a lifetime ago in a different world but had nevertheless started all of this. Where that trip had happened on a warm, dark night, now they walked on a chilly, bright day, footsteps crunching on hard ground. But the Forest was no longer the daunting monstrosity it had once been.
They could follow the path, at least, the same one as before. It wound through the tall trees, very few of them stripped bare by winter, sunlight sneaking through boughs and thistles here and there to cast checkered beams down upon them. And then, slowly, they felt the chills on the backs of their necks as they approached the ritual site. Albus didn't need to tell them to draw their wands before they broke off the path. Checking a map to know where to go was barely necessary with the tense silence in the air that was, as they pressed on, joined with that tangy taste on the tongue, that smell of rotting in the nostrils.
Death lay ahead, wreathed in shadows. The sun could pierce the thick trees of the Forbidden Forest, but it would not touch this place.
Scorpius felt something moving before he heard it. Not physically, but it as as if ice delicately sliced through his brain, and his back tensed before he knew what it was.
'You remain a disappointment to me and your lineage, carrying on in such childish and ridiculous ways...'
He'd felt like this before, heard this before, when he'd come running down here with Hugo and Methuselah, and the sudden feeling of dread had been bad enough, but the sense of utter helplessness, of his every dark memory of failure and inadequacy, had been overwhelming enough to make him fall.
This time, he didn't fall.
Methuselah touched Albus' arm. 'Dementor,' he said needlessly.
Albus nodded. 'I see it,' he murmured, and lifted his wand towards the patch of shadow in the trees that wasn't shadow at all. He glanced back at his friends briefly, and when he spoke his voice was bright and clear. 'Expecto Patronum.'
The barrel-chested horse burst from his wand, bright white and shining enough to send more shadows rocketing away than just those of the Dementor. When it came to the Dementor itself, it lowered its head and charged. Scorpius didn't see exactly what happened - light met dark, and then dark was shattering and dissipating and the light was spreading, and suddenly his bones didn't feel so cold any more.
Albus wore the very small smile he wore when he was exceptionally pleased as the silver horse swung around, tall and proud. 'I think we'll be okay from here,' he said in a low, confident voice. It was Albus' gift that whenever he said something, people believed him. So they proceeded onward, into the shadowy mass at the heart of the problems that had plagued them for months, the horse's light guiding the way and chasing back the darkness.
'You think it'll stay this easy?' whispered Selena.
'No,' said Methuselah. 'This place is their home. We are interlopers. This is why you wait until last possible moment to cleanse your circles. If they sense us interfering with a ritual which keeps this place tethered to death, they will try to stop us.'
She looked at him. 'Aren't they going to be angry with you, on your own, fiddling with the outer circle?' She was worried, Scorpius knew, about Methuselah's capacity to cast a proper patronus. He had continued to be the worst of them, better than he had once been, but the only one whose patronus hadn't taken full form.
Even if Scorpius' had only taken full form for a single heartbeat. He tried to not think about that.
Methuselah shook his head. 'Only interfering with physical symbols. Irrelevant to the ritual without magical alterations and, thus, irrelevant to Dementors.'
'They might still come for us,' mused Albus. 'Everyone be careful.'
'All the more so,' agreed Methuselah. 'As we're here.'
They stopped. Now they couldn't even see light behind or above them. It was like standing in the Forbidden Forest in the blackest of nights, no stars or moon, just their wands and the patronus for illumination. Monstrous shadows crept around the tall trees, but if Scorpius squinted ahead he could see the thick trunks stop. They were almost at the clearing after all.
Methuselah jerked his wand down and when he pointed it out, Scorpius could see the ritual markings. They were carved into the hard, solid ground, the earth gouged at as if with a giant claw. With just his eyes they were difficult to make out, running through undergrowth and lost in the gloom, but if he concentrated he could sense the magic pouring from the markings, and that was as clear as if they were blazing with light.
'Then this is where we split,' said Albus. 'Scorpius, you're on this east one. Rose, you take the south. Selena, we go to the north one and then I'm onward to the west. Jones -'
'Will take the clockwise route around outer circle and alter the markings. Yes,' Methuselah said calmly.
Scorpius' lips thinned. He knew he and Selena had the north and eastern sub-circles because their patronuses were the weakest and those two were closest to the school, furthest from danger. The south and the west were deeper into the forest, where it was more likely the Dementors had spread to, and so there was no guarantee what waited for Rose and Albus there.
'Like the Professor said, we all know what we're doing.' Albus' face shone with earnestness and the light of his patronus. 'We'll be through this in no time. And we can do it. I know we can.' Again, it was hard to not believe Albus. Harder still when he clapped Scorpius on the shoulder and gave him a broad, toothy grin that Scorpius had to return.
They exchanged wishes of good luck all round and then Albus, Selena, and Methuselah were heading north, Methuselah lagging behind to see to the markings along the way. He would stop at all of them before coming back around to Scorpius, and though they could infuse their circles all they liked, it wouldn't do anything before the outer ring was completed.
Rose, however, was headed south, and so she lingered a moment. Her face was pale, dark eyes wide, and she looked at him with unabashed fear. 'You'll be all right?'
He gave her his best broad, lopsided grin. 'You know me,' he said.
'I know.' She couldn't help but return the smile. 'Which is why I'm not worried. You'll come back.'
Scorpius nodded. 'Every time.'
She stepped forward and grabbed a fistful of his padded Quidditch vest. 'So will I,' she said, and kissed him.
That'll probably be enough fuel to fight off a thousand Dementors. But it was over too soon, she let go too soon, and then he was left with just cold air where she had been. She left without another word, looking back only once and then hurrying into the dark. The last he saw of her was her red hair shining by the light of her wand, then the tip of her wand as just a speck of illumination in the distance, then nothing.
Leaving him alone in the dark.
He didn't know how long he waited there. If he'd been considering it properly he would have reckoned he had no more than twenty minutes till noon after their hike. It wouldn't take the others more than five, ten minutes to get to their respective circles, Albus with the furthest to go and mostly on his own, but he was the most physically fit of them and the one most capable of contending with Dementors. He would be, Scorpius trusted, fine.
He didn't let himself worry about the others. There the thoughts could take root and fester, because it was Methuselah who was taking the risk to go inch by inch over the markings on the ground, hoping the Dementors didn't care, and not armed with a particularly strong patronus. And Rose was on her own in the south while he waited here, too pathetic to take the risk she was shouldering, even if she was only days out of a near-fatal wound.
If they suffered, it would be his fault. Because he was too weak to step up in their place, and so they had to carry him, look after him as well as themselves. He just held them back, held them down. Wasted their time and wasted their attention. His father was right.
Scorpius wrinkled his nose. Now, something's definitely wrong if I just thought that. He looked around, gaze sweeping from tree-trunk to tree-trunk, checking every shadow, checking the wide, open expanse of impassive blackness that was the clearing ahead. There was nothing.
To give himself something to do with his hands, he pulled his pocketwatch out. Five minutes to go, just five minutes until noon. Where the hell was Methuselah?
A shout from the south, or so he thought - it sounded like it at first and then the still air yanked it away. A spell? A scream?
He couldn't leave this spot. Couldn't go running off into the darkness, not on some half-heard sound that could have easily been a figment of his imagination. He had to hold his ground, do his part, trust all of the others.
But images rose to his mind of her lying in the snow and bleeding, of her surrounded by Dementors and unable to ward them off, and his gut coiled icy tight as he reasoned to himself that even if she was in trouble, it wasn't as if he'd be able to save her.
Scorpius gripped his wand iron-tight. 'Son of a bitch,' he breathed to himself.
And then the shadow to his immediate left moved.
He screamed, whirling around as the inky blackness shifted and grew, and then it was there in front of him, the huge, impassive, black-cloaked form of a Dementor. One hand reached out, wreathed in the shadowy robe, but he could see fingertips emerging and realised he had less than no desire to see what was under the shroud-like cloth that hung about such a creature.
He backed off. 'Expecto -'
And then went head over heels as he tripped over a tree root. He hit the ground hard and his head spun. Trying to sit up was impossible; up was black and down was black and moving was just moving through more darkness. So he just lay there for a long moment, sprawled and dazed, gasping for breath.
The Dementor drew closer.
He was going to die. Or be Kissed, but being Kissed and left out in the middle of these shrouded woodlands would likely prove a slower, but no less certain death. And then he'd be gone, just as gone as Tim was, and it would be just as much his own fault for being strong enough...
Tim. Tim, flailing on his bed in pain; Tim, being fed Lockett's miracle-cure which wasn't quite enough despite going above and beyond. And Lockett had worked hard, so hard, so why hadn't it worked? Another component had been needed. Him, his faith.
It hadn't been enough. And then Tim had died and risen again only to fall again under Scorpius' own wand, an Inferius. Scorpius slammed his eyes shut against the memory, but all he saw was the flames burned inside his mind at the sight of Tim's fate.
He felt very cold.
Was this it, to be Kissed by a Dementor? It was like being locked in a block of ice, unable to move, unable to feel anything but the chill that bit as if it stripped skin, unable to think of anything but his impending fate. Would he still come back as an Inferius if he died after being Kissed? And would it happen more quickly if he died out here, so close to the source of Phlegethon? Would it happen so quickly he would rise up, stop the others, bring all their efforts down, hurt or kill Selena, Methuselah, Albus, Rose...
Al. Rose. His fingers coiled around his wand, and the words burst from his lips like he was choking them. 'Expecto Patronum!'
There was no one memory he latched onto. No one incident, no one image, just the feel of them, the thought of laughing with Albus, playing Quidditch with him; the thought of haranguing Rose, kissing her. He opened his eyes.
The Dementor that had been bent over him, bent so hellishly close with its face to his, was bowled over backwards by the silver fox that sprung out from his wand. Scorpius just had an impression of something under the hood, skin that was shimmery as if it should be slimy and yet so chillingly bone-dry and still.
He did not let himself reflect long on this, rolling onto his feet. 'I remember you bastards from last time,' he snarled at the Dementor. 'You made me feel like I was four again, listening to my parents scream at one another. You made me feel like I was watching my mother walk out on me again. You made me feel like I had my father bringing every failure down on my head. And it's partly your fault that my head's a worse place this time around. But I'm stronger now.' He flicked his wand between patronus and Dementor, and the fox lunged.
It crashed into the Dementor's chest and drove it back into the shadows from which it had emerged. Just as before it was like the creature burst, or possibly just fled into the darkness - one moment there, solid form, and the next simply a part of the monstrous gloom that surrounded him in a broad ring.
The fox landed, then bounded around and looked to Scorpius, wagging its tail. He grinned at it. 'Good boy. I would say together we're unstoppable but you're technically part of my brain. So, go my brain.'
Scorpius whipped around, heart thudding in his chest at another monstrously tall, thin shape plunging out of the shadows to the south - and he wanted to cheer with relief as he saw Methuselah Jones emerging into the small ring of light his wand could project, looking dishevelled, out of breath, but here, alive.
Methuselah ignored him and looked at the markings on the ground. 'Not cleansed yet -'
'There was a Dementor and I was also waiting for you rather than painting a huge beacon on myself!' said Scorpius hotly, though seeing as the Dementor had come anyway his discretion had only done so much good.
Methuselah looked around. 'No more Dementors. Am here now. Sigils all changed, thirty seconds to noon. It is time.'
'Right.' Scorpius yanked one of the gemstones Lockett had given him out of his pocket. Infused with the energy of the Resurrection Stone, it should, if he did it right, transfer that particular kind of magical power into a spell of his, and in this case, it had to be the patronus. This was old magic, she said, not of the eerie and mysterious and powerful kind, but the less-sophisticated, from the days when wands were less adept at focusing a wizard's will, and so reagents were often invaluable for better defining the magic.
He wrapped his hand around the gem, concentrated, and felt it crumble to dust in his grip. A peculiar feeling ran through him, something he'd never felt before. The sensation of power was a mixture of invigorating and yet horribly wrong, like a Firewhisky that burned the throat on the way down and left only that searing in the belly when it was gone. But he let it flow through him, pass through him, and his patronus shimmered.
The silver fox hopped from paw to paw, a mixture of energised and agitated, and Scorpius swished his wand between it and the markings on the ground. 'Go on,' he urged needlessly, and the magical construct bounded forward, leaping into the air - and when it landed, it disappeared.
But its light, its energy, did not. Silver flowed from where the patronus had been into the markings on the ground which lit up like someone had poured liquid metal into their funnels. Before, Scorpius had mostly taken Methuselah's word for it on the intricacies of the ritual; now he could see it, see every curve, spiral, filling this smaller circle at this corner of the ritual before flowing outward, along the path Methuselah had gone down and the direction he'd arrived from.
'It's working,' Methuselah said, face lit up with both enthusiasm and the shining silver of the ritual markings, which were now enough to banish the shadows even further back. 'The whole thing, connecting together. Flowing together. Redistributed, reworked.'
'How long should it take?' said Scorpius, and yanked his pocketwatch out, flicking it open just in time to see the second hand move fatefully. 'It's noon!'
Methuselah's brow furrowed. 'It flows inward,' he said, pointing to where the silver was trickling along the markings that led to the centre - but slowly, far too slowly. 'And yet, blocked. Stopped.'
Then the ground shook, and Scorpius staggered as the illuminated markings shimmered, the light waxing and waning. 'Why? What's going on?'
And Methuselah Jones' face went very flat. 'Must be protections did not anticipate at the central circle. Preventing outside interference. Additional layer did not foresee, Downing did not mention. Perhaps he didn't know.' From there left there was a sound like shattering glass, and silver sparks shot up from one of the sigils on the ground that Methuselah had adjusted on his way over. ĎItís fighting back - itíll overcharge. Overload, if not stopped!í
And kill us all. Scorpius turned to Methuselah, gut going cold. 'So how do we fix it?'
He had a horrible feeling he already knew the answer, and his stomach fair dropped out when Methuselah looked at him and said, 'Manually.'
His breath caught. 'You said anyone inside when the cascade goes off is going to die.'
'Said "almost certainly". But was lying. Will certainly die.'
The shadows were moving. It was as if the corruption in the area could sense something was trying to force it out, and as its central bastion, the core of the rift between the world of the living and the world of the dead held strong, it could fight back. Scorpius wasn't sure if Dementors were coming forth or being literally spawned, they were coming so slowly. One moment a tree was just tall and shadowy - the next, the shadows were moving, wriggling, long, monstrous shapes pulling themselves out of the gloom and into reality.
And Scorpius stood there, dumbstruck as the shadows grew and the ritual markings sputtered.
Useless. Hopeless. Inadequate. Standing by when friends die, suffer, work. The trickster. The joker. The waste of space.
He drew a sharp breath, pulled another gemstone out of his pocket, and looked at the frozen Methuselah. 'Tell Al he's been the best mate I could have ever hoped for. Tell Lockett thanks for everything. Tell Rose I'm sorry, but I won't be coming back this time.' Then he turned and strode towards the dark centre of the clearing, where the light of their work could not pierce the shadows, and lifted his wand.
Useless no more.
He didn't turn. But he did feel something wrapping around his ankles - then drawing tight, and he stumbled and fell on his face, just as something else snaked around his wrists and yanked them together, his wand falling just out of reach. Scorpius looked down in shock to see magical bindings securing themselves at his feet and hands, leaving him strung up on the ground, unable to move, grab his wand, go forwards. 'Jones, what the hell are you -'
Methuselah Jones stood over him, pale face even paler by the silver light and his impending fate. 'Nonsensical for you to go,' he said, voice flat, empty. 'Only temporary bindings. Should release you in one minute so will not be helpless in Dementor territory. But central circle will require marking, altering, as well as cleansing.' Then he leaned down and tugged the gemstone from out of Scorpius' hand.
He tried to cling on but couldn't, and gaped up at Methuselah. 'Jones, what're you doing - you can't even cast a patronus properly!'
'Can today,' said Methuselah, gaze going briefly to the north. Then he looked back down at Scorpius, a silver figure wreathed in the shadows that grew and contorted around them. 'Thank my parents. And tell Selena I will be thinking of her.' His expression creased at last. 'You have been a good friend, Scorpius.'
Scorpius writhed, tugging aimlessly at the bindings on his wrists. 'Jones - Jones! Don't be a bloody fool!'
But Methuselah Jones just gave a slow, sad smile. 'Not foolishness. Simply sensible,' he said. 'After all. Iím the best at this.'
Then he turned and entered the shadows.
'Jones!' Scorpius' throat was raw, but it seemed the more he struggled against the bindings, the tighter they pulled. He saw Methuselah lift his wand, invoke a patronus - and a huge silver eagle came bursting forward, its wings spread outward before him as a shield. It was like he was striding through tar, his movements slow and difficult, but with the blazing patronus before him he still bore onward, deeper, further into the centre of the corrupted ritual.
And then the shadows consumed him.
Scorpiusí bindings came free at last. He snatched up his wand, springing to his feet, and broke into a run towards the centre, moving in the wake of the silver eagle that had by now disappeared from sight. 'Methuselah!'
There was a spark in front of him, just the one little flash of silver. Then another, and another, and Scorpius had the briefest vision of a figure, far in the centre, arms outstretched, silhouetted against the huge, silvery wings of a patronus - before the light burst outward, erupting and growing and now billowing away from the centre, out from the heart of the ritual, onward and straight at him -
And as the wave hit Scorpius and knocked him flying backwards, everything went white.
Rose woke to see the pale blue sky and the bright rays of the sun piercing their way through the forest canopy. She was lying on a bundle of undergrowth that was surprisingly comfortable, and though everything was eerily still, eerily silent around her, there was something warm, reassuring, peaceful about the scene.
And then she remembered. Remembered imbuing her part of the ritual as Methuselah carried on his way to finish his work. Remembered seeing her watch strike noon and nothing happening.
Remembered seeing the figure wreathed in silver marching from the west into the middle, the impossible centre, and before she could do anything, the explosion of light had come. Now she was here, in the same spot which was now free of darkness, free of Dementors. They had almost, almost failed, but they had not.
Because Scorpius had gone in.
She sat bolt upright, clutching her wand. A quick glance at her watch told her she'd only been out all of ten minutes, and she staggered to her feet, looking to the centre. The clearing was wide and open and devoid of darkness, but it dipped downward now, and from here she couldn't see anything.
The ritual had warped this clearing. Perhaps through the explosion, perhaps over time, and she found herself stumbling on rent, uneven earth, over small dips and small rises on the incline to the bottom, the ground beneath her churned-up dirt with no greenery, no tree-roots. Over to her right, far away, she could see another speck racing its way down the hill, and felt a small burst of relief to see that Albus was also on the move.
But she didn't stop, not until the ground fell away before her for the final descent into the centre, and her heart lunged into her throat as she saw a figure standing just metres away from the very heart of the ritual, tall and frozen in place but there, alive -
She flew across the distance at Scorpius, hitting him hard enough to stagger as she pulled him to her tight, wrapping her arms around his shoulders. 'Oh, God, I saw you go in there, I thought you were dead, you stupid, stupid -'
For a moment Scorpius didn't say anything, just stood there stiff and unresponsive in her arms, and when he spoke his voice was like sandpaper. 'I didn't go in there.'
In surprise she pulled back - and that was when she saw the figure on the ground. Lying exactly at the middle they looked peaceful, almost like they were resting, but there was no mistaking that utter stillness in the body of Methuselah Jones.
The sound of shock that tore itself out of Rose's throat was piercing, and she looked up to see Albus arrive, also freezing at the top of the final rise, staring down at the scene before him in utter horror. He did not say anything, and neither did Scorpius.
But then there was movement from the north as Selena emerged over the rise. And stopped.
Rose had assumed Scorpius had plunged into the centre because it was exactly the sort of hot-headed, stupidly heroic thing he would do against all sense and reason. She realised, in that heartbeat, that Methuselah Jones had acted entirely with sense and reason when he had made this final sacrifice.
'Methuselah?' Selena's voice was a hoarse whisper that carried across the still ground, and though it was a question addressed to the fallen figure, there was no doubt she knew exactly what had happened, what was going on.
None of them spoke, and Rose couldn't find the strength to do anything but snatch Scorpius' hand. He clenched back hard enough to hurt.
Then Selena was running, tumbling down the final steps, stumbling at the last so she fell to her knees by the side of the body, hands clutching at the front of his jacket. His glasses had fallen off somewhere in the chaos and their absence only made him look more peaceful, removing the hard lines at the corners of his face.
'Methuselah - no, no, you can't, you idiot, you can't have done that, you shouldn't have done that -' And she screamed his name as the tears came, voice hoarse and loud enough to echo across the clearing.
Scorpius clenched Rose's hand even tighter, like she was the only thing keeping him upright, and she didn't move even though the pain in her fingers was exquisite by now. Selena's scream had been enough to jerk Albus into movement and, tears streaming down his face, he ran to her side, kneeling to wrap his arm around her shoulder. Selena didn't even seem to notice, and it was by now as if Methuselah's name was the only coherent word she could say as her voice descended into a grief-stricken tumble of sounds of pain and shock and horror.
And, frozen to the spot, all Rose could do was lift her blurry gaze to the skies that were no longer dark and hidden from sight but bright and blue and cleansed, because they had won.
This is the worst thing I've ever written.
And I'm sorry.
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