Chapter 21 : 21. Somewhere in the Heart
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Wren stared at her reflection in the dormitory bathroom vanity. Everybody had them. Here, here and here. She traced the fading ribbons across her cheeks and down her neck. Ten minutes - she’d timed it - until the dark lines disappeared back under her skin.
She remembered the way Summers had looked last night - much worse than her - but it couldn't be the same thing, because Bunny wasn’t like Albus’ rabbit at all. He helped them, didn’t he?
He’d been so mopey this morning, with his little head hanging low. He’d missed her terribly, Wren could feel it. After she’d given him pellets and water and even a fresh carrot and he hadn’t moved, Wren had lifted him out of his cage to check on him. And then suddenly, he’d come alive, snuggling up to her, burrowing up to her neck and latching on.
He was present, in her thoughts, through her veins, everywhere. He’d soothed her. He’d given her a way to escape her worries and fears like nothing else in the world. This time, Wren pried him off of and put him back into his hutch before he could get into her head.
She squeezed her eyes shut, remembering how a little splatter of blood had landed in his water dish, and how Bunny had eagerly lapped it up. She knew what it looked like, but how was that even possible? There were several species of animals that drank blood for sustenance, but that was different from making a connection with a human, being someone’s friend... wasn’t it?
Wren heard noises of her roommates beginning to wake up and wrapped a scarf around her neck, just in case anyone noticed the marks, which they shouldn’t because everything had faded already.
Bunny protested in a silent whine while Wren finished her morning tea and felt his presence shrink away. She grabbed two handfuls of tea bags from her drawer and stuffed them in her bag. Bunny pressed into her mind, and Wren shoved him away, welcoming the sick, empty feeling inside her.
No more, Bunny, she decided. Not after today.
“The plan,” Rose was saying during lunch, “is to put as much distance between us as possible. Then it will be easier to get over him and move on.”
“There's a Hogsmeade trip planned for Saturday," Wren said, agitated by Rose's daft plan. She was still sulking after her mum's letter that asked her for one more tip home to help, which meant she'd miss the first day in the village with her friends. “What kind of madcap sneaks out to Hogsmeade in the middle of the week?”
“I’m not crazy,” Rose told her with a toss of her hair. “You’re sneaking around too. Getting detentions, even. I’ll be distracting myself and stretching my personal boundaries at the same time. Why can’t you see the brilliance in this?”
Wren checked the Slytherin table and saw Albus favoring his heavily bandaged hand next to Scorpius. He’s okay, she told herself, looking him over for the thirtieth time. He'd looked fine in Charms that morning too, no dark veins or sunken eyes or any other strangeness. That was good, wasn’t it? He hadn’t been enthralled by those things last night.
Rose coughed. “Wren, if you keep looking over there, he’ll know I’m talking about him. I’m supposed to be forgetting about him, remember?”
Ever since Rose had slapped Scorpius, she couldn't stop talking about forgetting him. It almost made Wren feel like her worries about going insane weren't all that bad.
“Rose, about detention last night.”
“Oh, yeah. How was it?”
“There are things living in the walls. They look like baby rabbits, but they’re really flesh-eating monsters.”
Rose cringed. “Really? Ugh! Do you mean like Albus’ rabbit?”
“No. Much smaller,” Wren said.
“Exactly not like Bunny!”
Rose pretended not to look at Scorpius again, stabbing her salad and missing several times. She could have chosen to sit on the other side of the Gryffindor table and avoided eye contact altogether, but Wren guessed that would have been too easy.
“Listen,” she said, “if you see any rabbits in the castle, or anywhere, don’t go near them.”
Rose didn’t answer, and Wren sighed. “I’ll explain later.” She flagged down a house elf and asked for a mug of hot water. This was her third cup. she was determined to have a clear head until Bunny decided to tell her what was going on.
Her plan was working well, except now Wren was quite full of tea. She excused herself and left the Hall, not realizing until she was halfway out that she’d taken the mug with her. Not wanting to go all the way back to the Hall, she stowed it on a window ledge and ducked into the girls’ loo.
When she came out, Wren retrieved her steeping tea from the ledge. Compared to the dull roar of students behind the thick double doors of the Great Hall, the corridor was almost void of sound. Basil Fronsac cleared his throat gruffly from the kitchen entrance, and Wren moved away from him to look out at the still grey weather. The large windows overseeing the courtyard framed the choppy waves moving over the lake outside.
A faint pull drew her to one of the windows overlooking the castle grounds. Wren scanned the sloping lawns for anything out of the ordinary. She’d had too much tea for it to be Bunny. And she was curious.
She’d told Albus last night about Bunny talking to her in her head. It was the first time she’d told anyone. But she hadn’t mentioned anything, or anyone else to him. She could explain Bunny, sort of. Those other things, she didn’t understand and hadn’t really wanted to.
Wren turned away from the window to see Albus jogging up with an apple in his hand. “I saw you leave the Hall. You’re not eating lunch?”
“I got tea,” she said. “How is your hand?”
“Oh, this.” Albus waved his bandaged hand around like a Beater’s bat. “The skin has to grow back slowly. Pomfrey said I can’t wear my bands again until it’s completely healed.”
He blew on the apple and rubbed it against his shirt. “Last night got me thinking.”
“About what?” Wren asked, sipping her tea. Suddenly the window was much less interesting.
“We used to hang out all the time, and now…” he munched on his apple, mid-sentence, “maybe we should plan to spend more time together.”
A group of students suddenly filled the corridor, apparently Potions lesson had gone late, and they rushed into the Hall, late for lunch. Wren was briefly separated from Albus by the moving crowd. Albus looked irritated, but stepped back so he wouldn’t get knocked about. A trio of girls laughed around Wren, chatting about weekend plans. The word “Hogsmeade” floated through the air.
Was that it? Was he going to ask her…
The crumpled note from home jabbed her in the leg as someone bumped into her (by accident). Wren backed into the wall and waited for the crowd to clear out. She couldn’t go anyway. If he didn’t ask, that was alright.
Except it wasn’t, because Wren suddenly wanted him to. Her heart beat against her ribs double time, and she felt like she was catching Rose’s hysteria. Breathe, she told herself.
Albus shot the retreating crowd a dirty look and came over to Wren’s side of the hall. He had an apple core between his fingers, and glanced around for a place to put it.
She smiled at him. They’d hugged last night. Twice. “We were going to hang out more.”
“Right.” Albus cleared his throat. “You still need help with Charms?”
Wren tried not to let her smile falter. Logical. Friends. “I guess I do. There’s a practicals test on Friday.”
Albus brightened. “I'll see you in detention too. You got assigned to Vector, yeah?”
Wren sagged against the stone. “No. Professor Ackerly needs his walls scrubbed. The second years charred up his classroom with excessive Incendio practice.”
“Then how about tomorrow? An hour before classes at the bridge.”
Wren smiled weakly. He was rather enthusiastic for Charms practice. She warmed to the fact that he wanted to meet up with her at all. "Sure.”
“Gotta grab my things and finish lunch.” Albus waved and went back to the Great Hall.
An unmistakable itch built up behind her eyes. Out of habit, Wren reached out to the little rabbit, and instead of soft, fluffy comfort, her mind filled with a familiar, yet disturbing image of Dillon. His vacant stare bore straight through her. Dark and wrong, like the monster rabbit babies. His toothy grin warped into a grimace. His eyes slanted - the whole face twisted until it dissolved into a swirl of unrecognizable shapes.
Wren blinked hard and gulped down the last of her lukewarm tea. The bitter dregs settled in her mouth, but quickly cleared her head. She looked down at her empty mug.
She wasn't even asleep this time, so how did Dillon get inside her thoughts?
That afternoon, Summers had ditched the magazines and was up in front of the class. Wren didn't miss the tip of McGonagall’s pointy hat that drifted past the doorway several times during his lecture. Today's lesson consisted of repetitive content from a chapter they’d covered last week, but he was really into it this time, as if everything he said was new to them. And of course at the end, he assigned a lengthy group essay for their out of class assignment.
After dinner, Wren hurried to the library as fast as the moving staircases would take her. Out of nowhere, the Head Boy came rushing around a corner, holding a huge stack of parchment. She rushed over and steadied the teetering stack in his arms.
“Thanks, Wren,” he said, out of breath. “Hogsmeade schedules are completely wrecked. The whole castle is going to be mad as dogs when they find out we've got to move the trip to Sunday. All the time tables were correct yesterday, I swear.” He leaned against the wall and pushed the parchment into a manageable pile. “We used this new parchment that was donated anonymously to the Prefect staff to schedule everyone and… oh bugger! The git’s going to pay for this!”
Ford stalked off with his stack of ruined schedules. When Wren got to the library, Nate had a seat waiting for her. She headed over to him, but got pulled up short by Charles and another boy from History class.
“Working on your History essay too?” Wren asked, trying to move around him.
The other boy, Elias Cootes, flanked her, blocking the way. They circled slowly around her, land sharks in a sea of books. Charles wrinkled his nose. It reminded Wren strangely of Bunny. Behind them, she saw Nate start to stand up.
“Didn’t see you at the Book Club,” commented Cootes.
“Yeah, where were you?” voiced Charles in the same strange tone.
Cootes cocked his head at a weird angle. “We need you, Wren. We need you with us. At the Book Club, yeah?”
“Maybe next time,” she said. That seemed to be enough explanation for them, and they shifted their unfocused gazes to the librarian, who was lining up chairs along one wall.
Wren hurried over and sat down next to Nate. “What’s going on with those guys?” she whispered.
“Bizarre, isn’t it?” Nate observed.
Charles stumbled as if in a trance back to the librarian who said a few things into his ear and patted him on the shoulder. He handed her an empty glass and stumbled again.
Wren frowned as Madame Pince led him to the back, towards the...
No, it was fine. Her dad said he’d take care of things. Albus’ rabbit was probably long gone by now. Wren tried to forget about it and get back to work, but a buzzing suddenly startled her in her head, clamoring against the effects of the calming tea. If a rabbit could ring alarm bells and shout out a warning, it would feel exactly like that.
"Don't go!" Wren insisted to Nate.
"The book club?" Nate chuckled. "Not interested. I’m not that bored."
Wren laughed nervously, tugging up the edge of her scarf. "I know, but just in case you were considering it. Let's get to work."
Half an hour later, Nate set down his quill. “Did you hear about the schedule change for Hogsmeade?”
“Yes,” Wren said. “Rose is probably rearranging her weekend plans as we speak.”
"What about you? Any plans for Sunday?"
Wren looked curiously at Nate, who smiled and leaned closer. "I saw Albus leave the hall to go after you at lunch. I thought he might have..."
"It wasn't what you thought," Wren said quickly.
“I’m thinking about visiting my uncle for a bit.”
“Yeah, that’s the one. He’s the only reason my family let me come here. They thought if there was someone nearby to keep an eye on me, it would be safer.”
“Safer than what?”
“This school doesn’t have the best history of security. There have been accidents. Deaths. Even wars.” Nate blew on the last sentence of their essay and then picked it up and waved it around for good measure to get the ink to dry. “Look, if you’re sure you don’t have a date…”
“I think I’d know if I did,” Wren quipped.
“I can ask my uncle if he’d take a look at your photographs.”
“Really? That would be great!”
“I’ll have to owl him first. He keeps an unusual schedule, and he’s not too keen on surprise guests.”
“No, that’s… thank you. What do you think he’d rather see?” Wren was getting excited over the prospect of someone professional looking over her work. “Quidditch or stills? I don’t have a lot of portrait-style shots.”
“I guess just bring a sample of everything. Do you have a portfolio or something?”
“No, but I can put one together by Sunday.” Wren realized her schedule was going to be tight. Two more nights of detention. That left Thursday and Friday afternoons to put something together before she went to the Inn on Saturday, if she didn’t have a lot of homework.
Nate nudged her arm. “Look over there,” he said as Charles staggered from the back of the library.
“Notice the veins on his neck and the dark circles under his eyes?” Nate lowered his voice. “Does that look familiar?”
Besides what she saw in the mirror before her naps? That would mean that... Wren swallowed the lump in her throat. Say something reasonable! “You mean the librarian’s turning everyone into vampires? That’s insane!”
"Not vampires. Thralls. Like your costume.”
"How'd you know what I was wearing?
"People talk. I heard it was great."
Wren made a face. "Sure, if you think wearing a walking lace-covered disaster is great."
Nate shrugged. “Look at the facts. We’ve been studying this all month.” He pointed at the students lining up along the wall, waiting for their turn at whatever Madame Pince was doing in the back.
Bunny sent an icy chill up her spine. “It’s still back there,” she whispered.
“You know what it is?” Nate asked.
Wren nodded. She’d been ignoring the signs, hoping… but that didn’t change the facts. It was all right there in her History book. That monster that Albus had brought to school was somehow enthralling the students, and probably Madame Pince as well.
Nate reached out to tug at her scarf. Wren shied away before he could pull it off.
“Wren, what’s going on?”
Burns was tapping on the iPad screen and nothing was happening. He cursed and closed the notebook. "No signal. We're out in the middle of nowhere. I lost it."
"So we do it the old way." Smeed inhaled deeply. The soggy air was filled with split birch and squelched moss. He could smell the unmistakable essence, now that he knew what to search for, but tracking it over long distances was beyond his abilities.
The dog ahead of them started baying. Smeed picked up his pace and they followed the sound instead.
"Thought you were going back to London," Burns said as they sprinted through the lowlands in the dark.
Smeed leapt over a fallen stump, landing lithely on the other side. "Don't' need to be there until Saturday. No use wasting time when I could be tracking for a few more days. Good thing too. Your technology failed you."
"Your cover at the Inn..."
"I sent word that I'd be back for the weekends. I gave the Innkeeper a story about family issues. My cover is secure."
Up ahead, something glowed, pulsing at the foot of a loch-side birch. Smeed came to a halt a few hundred yards away from the pulsing light. Burns appeared immediately at his side. "Will-o-wisp?"
"Too early in the season."
The last village they visited was celebrating an early harvest. They'd found someone who talked about a boy standing in the tree line at midnight. "They all laughed at me, said I was blootered, but I’m telling you, the lad grew fangs, changed a nut into an apple and ate it," the villager had said after five pints of mead. "Then he disappeared." After the bloke passed out, Smeed hadn't been so sure about the integrity of his testimony. They were already full up on questionable evidence as it was.
They caught up to the dog, who was snuffling around the roots of the tree. Smeed patted the dog's head. It gave a pleasurable grunt, pleased that its master was pleased. The dog sat back on its haunches and stared at the ground a few feet away from the tree.
It was a rabbit. Eyes bulging. Gasping - laying on its side. There was a gash in its leg where the root had snagged it. Smeed hunched over and gingerly untangled the limb. The animal shivered under his touch.
His nostrils filled with the strange scent. He brushed a finger across the stained fur and tasted the blood. Sweet... tangy... he spit it out before it dissolved on his tongue.
Smeed opened the creature’s mouth and found tiny fangs, the size of the marks on the woman from the village a few miles back.
"Those aren't natural," Burns said, peering over his shoulder. "See where the gums are a dull purple color, sort of like a bruised..."
"Got it," Smeed cut him off. "There are puncture marks on its neck. It was made, not grown." The animal attempted to bare its fangs, but it was too weak, and its head lolled to the side. "It's been left behind."
The animal glowed, pulsed once, but then the light faded and the animal went still. Smeed laid it down on the ground. There was nothing to do for it now. A few paces away, he picked up a half-eaten apple core, only about a day old. It disintegrated into walnut shells in his hand. He looked up. Walnut tree. Magic.
Enthralled rabbits, to the point of almost becoming vampire creatures themselves. A vampire with magical powers. How can this be? This was a direct breach of the Treaty. Things had suddenly turned very serious. Their subject was moving faster than they were, northwards, stopping for a bit, and then moving farther north still. The hound sniffed the air, and loped off into the night.
"The weather is starting up again. The rain will come soon." Burns peered out across the hills, where the clouds were steadily rolling in.
Smeed adjusted his collar and appraised his associate. The white spikes on his head had softened in the damp night air. "Not making fun of my coat, now."
"Call off your dog. I saw a cabin a few miles south of here. We should go back and take advantage of their hospitality."
"In a moment. We need to send a message."
Burns slapped his coat pocket, bumping the iPad case. "No signal, remember?"
“Not all of us have forgotten the old ways.” Smeed settled on a boulder and penned a letter on a scrap of paper he dug out of his coat.
He eyed Burns disdainfully. This message couldn't go through normal channels. It was too urgent. He spotted something shadowy in the trees. In one swipe, he leapt up and snatched it out of the branches. He deftly tied the note to the bat and pricked his finger with a long fang. He let the bat lick it, and the thing took off, like a ... bat.
Smeed shrugged off his unimaginative musings. Burns would have come up with a more ominous description that paralleled the situation they were in… a dark, shadowy messenger of doom… or some other literary nonsense.
It fluttered high above them, screeching and weaving through the air currents that were swiftly bringing the rain from the north. Smeed only hoped that his estimations were correct, that they still had a few days before the person they were tracking reached the little wizard’s town on the edge of the Black Lake. Whoever it was, it could not be let into that castle.
Dillon stood before the castle gates, clutching his precious basket of friends, trying to shelter them from the whipping Highland winds. He 'd braved the wilderness to get to this place, roughed up, cold and hungry. So very hungry. He looked down at the basket as the gnawing ache rolled through him again.
Just a nip, he considered, but what he really wanted to do was get inside. The excitement overwhelmed his basic needs, and he was almost hopping from one foot to the other with nerves. He was finally here!
"Hello?" he called out through the iron bars. He'd imagined so many times how he'd walk up the long, hilly path to the castle entrance. He was so close, finally here after all this time, but the gates were closed to him. Beyond the steep hill, the castle towered out of his reach into the distance. Shadows passed between the flickering lights in the windows, here, there... and over there. There were people, wizards inside. Like him. Even in the highest towers he had watched them, moving about all day and learning magicks.
It was well past dinner time now. Why hadn't they come out to greet him?
"I'm here! Haven't you been expecting me?" he called again, but no one answered, not even the wind.
He put the basket down and waved and shouted until his throat hurt, but still no one came. Even the winged boar statues on top of the gate pillars were silent.
He shook his fist at them. "I'll show you that I belong here!"
The boy pulled out his mother's wand and pointed it at the sky. Squishing his face in concentration, he felt the power within him build, and then surge. He opened his eyes just in time to see a sputter of sparks fly out of the narrow tip.
He grinned. "See? I have the magicks too! Let me in!"
An owl sailed down from one of the towers, clutching a scroll in its claw. Maybe it's for me, he thought fiercely. They saw me!
Dillon craned his neck to watch it pass. Then, as if it were teasing him, it swooped down low to catch one of the mountain breezes and then sailed up and over the castle towers to the south.
No fair! He'd been waiting for his letter forever. He was so close that he could touch the gates. There were great magicks at work around this place, but he had come prepared, thanks to his friends inside.
Dillon thought hard about the old woman, but she was asleep. The man too. He could almost hear the snores. There were boys too, but they were weak and couldn't come to him, even if they'd wanted to.
Some friends, he thought bitterly. That grey rabbit had been difficult to begin with, and now he knew why. But he thought he'd had a real friend in the girl... he'd felt it. Now she wasn't talking to him and she'd taken one of his special friends away in the process.
He'd tried for hours since sundown to get her to come down and let him in. The hunger knotted his stomach and twisted inside him. It was getting too strong to ignore for much longer.
A clacking sound alerted him to movement up ahead. A group of people in heavy cloaks were climbing out of a grate in the ground, just a few yards away from him. Dillon watched, interested, and caught sight of the insignia on one of the cloaks.
He watched as they whispered to themselves, and then fell over each other into the sloping bushes towards the small town. Dillon waited until he could no longer hear snapping twigs and whispered curses, and then scooted over to the grate. He lifted. He hefted and strained. He looked at his thin arms and got mad at how little he was.
It would be easy to follow the students into the town, take them now and make them his friends straight away, but Mummy had told him never to do that to people. But that was alright, because Dillon had another idea. He lifted the lid off the basket and brought out one of his special friends, its beady eyes neither afraid nor angry.
"Good little rabbit," he said. He could smell the warm pulse inside. Hunger surged through him.
He lowered the rabbit down into the wet grass. If he wanted to get into that castle, he'd have to wait a little longer. He’d waited for so long that a small delay wasn’t going to be a big deal. Several more rabbits hopped out of the basket, sniffing nervously, ears laid back against the strong winds. Their eyes glowed in the moonlight. They'd given him everything and they'd brought him here. Now, they were going to get him inside.
"Go," he ushered as they squeezed through the bars of the gate. He watched as they hopped silently through the tall grasses along the path until he couldn't see them anymore. "Go and make me some new friends."
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