Chapter 1 : The birth, life, and death of stone
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Much later, they will say that the fortress of Nurmengard has existed all along, before humans came to speckle the foot of the mountains with their villages, before the cities rose by the sea, before the inception of mortal memory.
Other times they will say that it was built by human hands, by the prisoners, tearing at the innards of the mountain until the building loomed over them and they died in its shadow. The dead were then eaten by the rising walls, mortared with flesh and blood. They say that one can find teeth in the cornices, rags beneath the flagstones, whole bones in the pillars of the arcades curving around the inner ward.
But the fortress of Nurmengard knows better.
In the beginning there is One, and from the One comes the Word, and the Word draws Nurmengard out of the earthís womb and into life.
It emerges, shrouded in a placenta of flint and lodestones and broken shale. Nurmengard grows out of the craggy bones of the mountain, and the mountain is its plinth. Its walls sprout layer after layer, until they become a ring of ramparts encircling a gaping space on a windswept plateau, and despite the battering blizzards, Nurmengard does not falter, for such is the skill of the hand that births it, that compels and crafts the frozen earth into shape.
Like all other organic creatures of the world, Nurmengard is cellular. Hundreds of cells, segmented by membranes of stone, all waiting to be filled to function.
In the centre of the circular courtyard is Nurmengardís heart and brain: a triangular tower that rises beyond the level of the surrounding walls, and the topmost space of the tower is a single, vast room with glittering windows for walls. This is the Eye of Nurmengard, with which it can look in at its own careful foundations, relish in its sense of self.
Standing before its precious gates is the One, and it is him whom Nurmengard beholds with an alien first-time joy. He cuts a lonely figure against the stark peaks and slopes blackened by the burn of the winds. There is a joy in the way he utters the Words of Beginning. No smile upon his face but still, he brims with a heady, trembling rush of exhilaration and his hair is long, unkempt, as the wind tries to pull them out by their roots, to let loose the sun that surely must be hidden in his scalp. Or so Nurmengard, besotted at the sight of this peculiar figure, believes.
Human, Nurmengard will come to know the word soon. He is the Master, the One who creates. In the Masterís hand is a slender rod of wood. Nurmengard strains to decipher the scent: elder and something else, something not identifiable, not yet. The mountains have stumpy limbs of elder down in their sleeping valleys, as they have yew and oak and ramrod-straight pine, scenting the lowland breezes.
The Master does not speak to his new creation; he hardly seems aware of Nurmengardís presence, in fact. He is awed by his own handiwork, a testament to the power of the stick he holds in his hands, a Wand, as Nurmengard learns.
My Master, you are welcome, Nurmengard whispers.
It throws open its heavy gates to let him pass, his footsteps hallow the ground. The Master steps into one of the many empty cells, and a strange fizz streaks through Nurmengardís veins deep in the rock. He rests his palm flat on the wall, he turns and leans against the wall, he slides down the wall, he lies prone on the floor, measuring the cell dimensions with the lengths of his own limbs, testing its magic with the beating of his own human heart.
It is as I have seen it, the Master murmurs to himself. Nurmengard has been perfectly conceptualised, symmetrical.
The Master leaves the cell, crosses the vast courtyard to the triangular tower that is Nurmengardís heart and unblinking eye. In this tower, the Master is meant to gaze at any direction he chooses, and any part within Nurmengard will be revealed, peeled naked before the Masterís eye, before the inward gaze of Nurmengard. The Master enters the topmost room of the tower, which he christens almost immediately as the Observation Room. Such a generic name for an unclosing Eye, pupilled with glass, for the invisible brain that shudders as its Creator stirs within its vaults, the unseen synapses flashing and striking like matches.
These are the days Nurmengard will always love best, when it is mostly empty except for its Master, wandering through the vacant rooms, scraping sigils and runes above its doorways and gates, fortifying the walls and stairways and passages with his incantations and his spells, the signature of his magic entombed deep within the whole structure of Nurmengardís existence. These are the days of its infancy.
Nurmengard is sated. The mountains are nourished by flesh, bone, human. Blood to slake the thirst of stone, to strengthen the magic in Nurmengardís lithic arteries. Its cells are filled with hundreds of smaller, impoverished souls, the new inhabitants of Nurmengard.
Noontime, with the sun blazing directly above the Observation Tower, some of the inmates are marched from their rooms into the courtyard. The Masterís guards force the inmates to look up toward the Observation Room stretching high and pinnacling into the sun, and in response, the Eye of Nurmengard turns its gaze down toward the condemned men. They are executed by wand, spells through their chests. A word, a burst of bright colour, and they wilt to the ground, leaving no shadows.
Sometimes, the Master turns up for these executions, striding into the open space, one hand always on his beloved wand. Sometimes, whole rows of men fold forwards with a single flick of his wand.
One of the men spits on the Masterís face. Nurmengard shakes with indignation, but the Master merely wipes the fleck of spit off his cheek absently, looking almost apologetic.
I suppose I do deserve that. He shrugs. Crucio.
The man buckles over and bites into the paved ground.
Nurmengard accepts the fallen. It shifts its walls and floors so gently that it upsets none of its inhabitants. Cracks rip across the ground; where there is bloodshed, the fissures turn red and at the end of the day, Nurmengard realigns its joints, seals itself again. Its floors are clean and dry.
The bodies are flung into a deep pit beneath Nurmengardís feet, extending into the fathomless hollows of the mountain. Time to time, the Master will descend through the subterranean levels of Nurmengard and stand at the lip of the chasm, staring down. He dislikes any place beyond the reach of sunlight. But still he goes there to stand, swaying back and forth, the soles of his feet hanging over the brink of the hole. Sometimes, he lights up the pit of the dead with the burning chimaeras and the dragons and the fearsome morphs of Fiendfyre. Flesh and organ and blood are pulverised, bones evaporating into cinders. The ashes funnel upwards out of the pit, only to be absorbed by the stone buttresses. Nurmengard lets nothing escape.
It is wise, the Master sometimes announces to all of the inmates, staring down the window of the Observation Tower, to not attempt escape. Nurmengard watches you, always.
If only the Master knew!
And yet, the inmates attempt escape all the time Ė some of them are powerful enough that their magic ripples through Nurmengardís foundations, some of them are strong enough to overcome the lacework of enchantments fitted into its walls. But Nurmengard stoppers every crack, it flexes its gates and solders its hinges into bedrock, it chokes off every manís magic, forces them back into their veins, back they flow until they are trapped in hearts that palpate and contract uselessly.
Across the lowlands, war is rampant. The Master is gone from the mountains for long periods to command his battles and map out his territories. There are swathes of land smothered with the dead, there are boundaries of countries and districts curling and unravelling like lengths of rope. Whole towns are fed as fuel to fires, men of magical and non-magical blood wield wands and arms of fire, fighting different battles and yet in the chaos, merge and stumble and slay each other. Nurmengard listens to these tidings with vague interest. It does not concern itself with the wars of men, only awaits its Masterís homecoming, his footsteps climbing the steep paths.
When he does return, almost all of his time is spent within the confines of the Observation Tower, though he no longer glances out at the scores of prisoners that Nurmengard has proudly guarded for him. He has grown careless, but no matter! For is that not the purpose of Nurmengardís many unblinking triangular eyes, staring over every doorway, on the wall of every cell?
The Master has a map sprawling across one wall, there are sharp pins perforating through the parchment and into Nurmengardís skin. He stares at this map for hours, tracing fingers across lines he will draw over the lowland earth. His face is harsh, stony even, but it is clear that the lines sculpted into his features are the result of sustained periods of laughter. Now he sits alone in his room, twirling the Wand about, the scent of elder and bitter polish staining his fingers.
In all the years that have passed, never once has he addressed Nurmengard directly, never has he answered the adorations whispered beneath his boots as he sweeps across the courtyard. But no matter. The resonance of his footsteps are sacred to Nurmengard, and at night, it folds around him as he is slumped over his desk, filters away the ugliness of his dreams and cradles him in sleep.
There comes a day, however, when Nurmengard intercepts a scrap of news Ė a torn corner of a newspaper, blown in over the sea. Soaked, tasting of brine and rifle smoke, the letters smearing into one another, Nurmengard catches it and reads. Fear. In the news, there is a name that the Master sometimes murmurs to himself, a Name that Nurmengard does not understand.
This Name is coming, so says this tiny rag of news.
It passes on the information to the Master; the parchment tatter spirals across the inner ward and in through the windows of the Observation Room, to land at the Masterís fingertips, tapping on his desk. He picks it up, eyes widening, and all of a sudden jumps up, his chair toppling backwards, and laughs. The laughter opens up deep lines in the Masterís face, and the sound is glorious.
He arrives at Nurmengardís gates Ė another man, taller than the Master, his footsteps are measured, betraying no fear. Nurmengard fastens its gates securely, stretches its walls as high as possible.
Albus Dumbledore. Nurmengard scorns the sound of the Name, detests it! It will not allow this stranger entry.
But it is the Master who descends joyfully from his tower, dashes across the courtyard, an unsettling glimmer in his eyes as he peels back all of the enchantments, undoes Nurmengardís guardedness with a careless flick of his Wand. He pushes the gates open himself, and Nurmengard cannot resist its Masterís hand.
Dumbledore, the Master laughs, the sound spilling into stone. To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?
I think you know what and why, as well as I do, Gellert.
Dumbledore surveys Nurmengard with mild distaste. His gaze rises to the huge inscription above its gates: For the greater good. Nurmengard quakes with rage, struggles to pull itself free from where it is fixed to the pedestal of the mountain. It loosens the stone in the circular shoulders of its walls, it will drop heavy slabs on this Dumbledore and grind him down to the hard mountain earth.
But the Master does not seem afraid. Then I must dash those hopes of yours, Dumbledore. You know what I have.
The Elder Wand, I presume.
The man, Dumbledore, wavers.
The Master notices. You are an easy man to read, Dumbledore. Your silence is a childís book to me. A childís book of fairy tales, perhaps, one of those that you are so familiar with.
The Masterís hand twitches and the Wand slides down his sleeve, into his palm.
Ah, my guesses have been correct so far, then, says Dumbledore, and the Master laughs, sweeping his hand through the air.
Something that youíve always been particularly proud of, the accuracy of these conjectures of yours! Youíre an arrogant man, you think too highly of yourself! But the Masterís laughter is thin, ringing sharply in the silence.
Nurmengard strains its ears to catch their conversation, to understand the peculiar acquaintance between the two, and the reckless sparkle in the Masterís words. What can it be between them that Nurmengard cannot see?
How careless is my Master! Does he not realise what will happen?
For there is no other reason why this Dumbledore man has arrived. He means to defeat the Master, to break open the gates and release the few, pitiful prisoners left behind. The Master will be taken away to the lowlands, be given up to the enemy armies, never to return to Nurmengard.
The duel is a violent one, the spells rip across the courtyard, digging out chunks from the walls and ground. Nurmengard shudders, everything moves too quickly. The Master, who despite his light-hearted manner and his strange joy with the present moment, something which has hardly changed since he was a young man, seems strangely sluggish compared to the Dumbledore man. There is no smile or cordiality in Dumbledoreís expression, his spells are cold and there is a grim glint in his eye. And though Nurmengard shifts and buckles its flagstones in a bid to make the Dumbledore man stumble, he is far too agile, gliding and darting and casting wordless curses.
A momentís hesitation on the part of the Master is enough for Dumbledore. A burst of a spell and the Master is flung against the Observation Tower.
This duel is over, Gellert, says Dumbledore, calmly. His long fingers pick the Masterís wand off the shattered courtyard. Quite frankly, though, I must confess that Iím surprised your heart wasnít in this battle at all.
What would you of all people know, Dumbledore? the Master sneers, crumpled at the tower base. I yield.
Nurmengard concentrates every ounce of its will and leans its vast weight on Dumbledore, who staggers, surprised, pinned to the ground by an unseen weight. He recovers quickly though, and with a twist of his newly obtained Wand, Nurmengardís strength is stripped away. All of a sudden it is nothing but a stupid monument, paralysed, forced to witness from afar a scene unfolding within its very heart.
It is powerless before the Wand in the hand of the Masterís enemy. But is he really an enemy? The Master certainly shows no hatred toward this intruder.
You have indeed created some impressive enchantments with the wand, Dumbledore muses. This is a rather interesting fortress that youíve built for yourself.
The Master stares blankly back.
But I think we can use your handiwork here to our advantage.
The Master looks up to the top of the Observation Tower, an upright spine ascending steeply into the sky. He scoffs, he spits blood and broken teeth. Unable to resist the cheap irony, then?
You will not receive a trial at all, if I were to deliver you to the assortment of magical authorities assembled down below. For years now, they have been baying for your blood, Gellert, and not without good cause.
The Dumbledore man heals the Master with an incantation but keeps both wands trained at him as he struggles to his feet. They enter the tower, the Master walking in front at wand point, they climb the steps to the topmost room, and it is there that the windows are broken and walled over until there is almost no light in the room, nothing but a sun-strip through a thin fracture of a window. The doors are sealed with new kinds of magic, alien spells knitted into Nurmengardís stonework. The Master is now Nurmengardís prisoner.
Yes, Nurmengard whispers, my master, you are safe now.
The Master does not hear. Both his palms slam against the heavy door and he shouts into it, and Nurmengard lets his voice ring through. Albus! You remember! All that time Ė all those years, you remember! And today, I gave It to you. I gave you this battle, think of it as a gift, arenít you happy, eh? Sticking me right at the top of my own tower so nobody will ever find out about Ė all those years ago, Albus! You wonít forget, I know you. You canít!
On the other side of the door, the Dumbledore man looks weary. He lifts his palm and rests it flat against the door, exactly where the Masterís hand is on the other side of the wall. Nurmengard constricts its passages, tries to expel Dumbledore.
I am truly sorry, Gellert, he says, for the choices that have become you.
The remaining doors fall into place, the repaired gates seal and lock themselves and the empty, broken courtyard shivers with the sound of their closure.
Albus! The Master hollers across the immense space, and Nurmengard sees the Dumbledore man, now outside the gates, freeze in his tracks. A moment passes, two, three. Then he continues on his way, not answering, reaching the brink of a precipice, before Disapparating.
At last, Nurmengard is alone with its Master once more.
The years go by and Nurmengard holds the Master in its steadfast grip. Nobody comes near the fortress, nobody visits the mountains. Only house elves can get through the enchantments, the Dumbledore man has seen to it. The house elves bring the Master food, bowing each time they Apparate in and out, never lingering or speaking a word.
Sometimes, the Master writes. Albus Dumbledore, Albus Dumbledore, Albus Dumbledore. The name is scratched many times on parchment. He tears pieces of the map from the wall and writes on them and sends them by owl. The winds blow the owls back and the letters fall from their claws and Nurmengard gathers all the shreds of writing and keeps them. The Master will not write to Dumbledore.
A great silence falls over Nurmengard and the Master. Strange plants twist their way through the wreckage of the inner ward, sprouting green globes of bitter fruit along their boughs. A stinging sap bleeds out of their leaves when pierced or torn. Nurmengard tends these plants with interest. It will coax these plants to wind their wooden spiralled stems around the Observation Tower until they graze the ledge of the window Ė maybe the Master can eat its fruit.
Days pass when the Master does not move, almost becomes part of the stone of Nurmengard. One day he will become stone and dust, part of Nurmengard and fused to the mountain. Always, the mountains collect the scraps.
Look at my Master now, Nurmengard sometimes speaks to itself in its weighted, silent language.
And just to respond to its own orders, it turns every eye on every wall inward to look in upon its Master sitting at the top of the tower, robes withered to rags, body sucked in on itself, bones finding their way to the underside of his skin. His body is starkly buttoned and studded and ribbed. Day by day, Nurmengard takes a little bit more of him into itself. The map is gone, and all the furniture including the great desk have been broken into pieces by the Masterís furious hands and strewn around the cell. The walls wrap around him.
But Nurmengardís solitude is disrupted again, one evening. The enchantments are undone, Dumbledoreís enchantments, the spells shredded in the air, the walls breached.
Not Dumbledore this time Ė but someone far worse. Not a someone, Nurmengard corrects. It is barely human, this thing that comes. There is no name to it, Ė the Master, if he knows what this latest intruder is called, does not utter any name, does not dream it in his restive sleep.
This man is pale and bald as bone. Behind his scarlet-stained eyes are empty spaces. The man waves at the broken paths before him and they mend. Nurmengardís gaping wounds are closed, the flagstones sutured into place, the corkscrews of plants brushed aside like curtains, their stems crushed and decapitated from the earth as the ground seals itself again.
Much better, the white-faced intruder hisses.
He flies. He drifts toward the top of the Tower, like a bird on a warm draught, to the gash of the window.
I have heard of you, says the Master, the new Dark Lord. My replacement, or so they say.
I have replaced nothing. There was nothing to begin with.
The sound of ancient laughter stutters from the Masterís throat, spittle-strings in his mouth. Dark Lord to Dark Lord, if youíll pardon such a dramatic term, have you come to seek advice? Apprenticeship, maybe?
Fear ripples through Nurmengard. If only it could hold that rash tongue of its Masterís. If only it could seal him in sensible silence, if only it could fill his throat with gravel and bury that beloved, reckless voice.
Ah, of course. The Elder Wand. Unbeatable, did they say?
Only when wielded by a wizard worthy of it.
The Master can barely contain his toothless cackling now. You will find no such person in this room, then. A pause. I never had it.
The intruderís face contorts. His hand drifts from his robes, wand in grasp, which he points at the Master.
Immortality, Voldemort? The Master, demands. Death certainly becomes you.
The Master does not want to be saved.
A spell is screamed, the room is scorched with green, and the Master is a knot of near-fleshless limbs and rags, pulseless. Nurmengardís shock is colossal Ė the outer ramparts split, the arcades rupture, the gates drop off their hinges.
Dead, dead, dead. The stench of the war-stricken lowlands, of the scarlet-eyed intruder who now vanishes through the same window and is swallowed by the skies, the scent of the Masterís hands, the core of his Wand now lost to the Dumbledore man.
Clear as a windowpane Nurmengard remembers the first sight of its master all those years ago when it was rising out of dirt, feet and foundations and torso and ribs and shoulders of granite. And the Master, Gellert Grindelwald they called him, glowing gold in the dirt-coloured skies of winter, untroubled by wind and rock, wand held above his head in glee.
With monumental effort, Nurmengard tugs down the corners of its own roof in the tower and where the Master lies, the wall above him quivers and doubles over as if to scoop him up, and then it breaks over him and he is entombed by shattered rock.
My Master is safe. Now my Master is safe. Over and over it whispers to its ruined self.
Here lies the Master, home at last and forever, and down into the mountains he will descend, sifting into dust. Slowly, slowly, storey by storey, Nurmengard dismantles itself. The last to fall is the Eye, blinking for the first time and closing to the sunlight, becoming as blind as the black earth.
A/N: Huge thank you to the lovely Isobel / The Misfit for looking through parts of this one-shot for me, and for listening to my ideas for this story and for being so supportive. ❤
The panopticon is a type of prison design with a circular structure, the concept of which is to allow a single person (watchman) to observe all the inmates of the prison without them being able to tell whether they are being watched or not. I played around with that idea a bit in this fic. The panopticon design was created in the 18th century by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, founder of modern utilitarianism, or the philosophy of the greater good (the greatest happiness principle). I could not resist!
I've been wanting to write a sentient!building fic since last year o.O So this is either very weird, or just monumentally stupid, excuse the pun. Do let me know what you think. Also, this one-shot may or may not be related to my WIP, The Deathly Children; I haven't decided yet.
Thank you so much for reading!
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