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Chapter 36 : The Barren Cold
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Pain and fear and eternal night meant Rose wasn’t sure how long it took before Scorpius left the sleigh’s front bench and joined her in the cabin proper. She’d patched up her leg as best she could, which included drinking one of the draughts she’d packed which would help it heal quicker. But its dull throb and her exhaustion had sent her into an uneasy sleep, curled up under blankets and furs on the cabin’s bed.
It meant she stirred quickly when the top hatch swung open, and in slipped Scorpius with a freezing breeze. She slid across the bed with her back to the wall, still a bundle under the furs, and watched as he brought the sconces to life, the cabin’s little fire, and started to shed his layers. Shimmering frost had settled in his hair, on his cheeks, giving him an ethereal look that faded as warmth slid into the colours of the room.
‘I’ve got the elks pointed in the right direction, if I’m reading Cassian’s notes properly,’ he said, voice rough. ‘The sleigh’s packed up with a week’s supplies; we shouldn’t need that much. If I’m right, we’ll be there within a day.’
‘What is “there”? What do you expect to find?’ It wasn’t the most pressing question, but it was the one she could stomach asking.
‘I don’t know. Ultima Thule, I guess.’ He glanced at her only out of the corner of his eye as he pulled up a stool in front of the cabin’s fireplace. ‘What’s that?’
She’d pulled out the satchel of runes from her backpack to take a better look, and then given up, succumbed to exhaustion. Now she flipped it open and frowned at the stones inside. Each of them was only the size of her fist, with an etching that looked to her like a Norse rune.
‘I’m no expert on these, but they’ve got the same runes and I saw what the debris of the freighter looked like. Thornweavers used some of these to blast the ship, breach the hull. I suppose running it aground wasn’t enough. They had to make sure the Inferi on board could get out.’
Scorpius watched the satchel for a moment, then his gaze fell on her. ‘How’s your leg?’
‘It’ll be fine.’ Now he’d turned the lights on, she could properly tell the cabin was bigger on the inside. It was still a glorified bedroom, with two doors at the back for a tiny bathroom and tiny kitchenette, but she supposed it was designed for fancy tours of the icy plains of Baffin Island. Not for a mad-cap dash across frozen wastes after ancient secrets. Scorpius, as always, did his amazing acts of derring-do in style.
‘You’re lucky the Phlegethon immunity extends to Lethe.’
‘I’ve counted on that luck for a while.’ Rose winced. ‘I got bitten because I tried to save someone who then converted on me. I don’t know if I’d have risked it if I didn’t know I was immune.’ It was a shameful admission.
‘You shouldn’t -’
‘Shouldn’t what?’ She sat up, drawing her bad leg in closer. ‘Risk myself for other people? Isn’t that the point of what we’re doing here? Or do only you get to sacrifice?’
He rocked back on the stool. ‘I was going to say you shouldn’t question yourself.’
She should have felt guilty, she thought, for leaping to the wrong confusion. Then she remembered the sound of Jorgen’s scream. Her voice came out low, hoarse. ‘What did you do, Scorpius?’
A muscle worked in the corner of his jaw, and he looked to the fire. ‘He admitted he’d sent a message to the Council. He admitted he’d been paid by them to warn of any outsiders coming through town. He even admitted he was going to delay us in Helluby so we couldn’t slip out before any reprisals came - don’t kid yourself, Rose, he knew what he was signing us up for.’
‘But probably not the town.’
‘I don’t know.’ Scorpius gestured around them. ‘The sleigh was packed up and ready, but he had no intention of giving it to us. I think he knew he might need a getaway.’
‘So that’s why you killed him?’
She saw his shoulders set. ‘I didn’t -’
‘You took his leg out so the Inferi would go for him, not us. It’s cowardly to say you didn’t kill him.’
‘We weren’t going to make it. They were gaining ground, you had an injured leg. It was him or us, so I picked the one who hadn’t sold out to the Council of Thorns.’
‘You honestly couldn’t see another way? No more tricks?’ She slid to the edge of the bed, bringing her furs with her. ‘That’s what you do, Scorpius, you find the third way.’
He didn’t meet her gaze, kept staring at the fire as it continued to blossom to life, seeping warmth into the timbers and blankets of the cabin and yet not an iota of that heat reaching her. ‘Maybe that’s what I once did.’ Scorpius said at length. ‘But I’ve been telling you, haven’t I. I’m different.’
‘I’m sorry for calling you in, Miss Rourke,’ Lowsley fussed as he led her through the bustling offices. ‘But, um, he came in last night, and he’s not emerged since, and he’s not opening the door. I mean, he’s in there, we don’t need to force ourselves in to check up on him but -’
‘But he might be being a little bit crazy,’ said Nejem with all usual lack of delicacy as they passed his desk. ‘Please fix our boss.’
Selena squared her shoulders as she followed Lowsley to Matt’s office. She’d known they needed to talk. She’d considered giving him a few days to cool, and a few days for more news to come from South Africa or Baffin Island so they weren’t worrying about them when they feared for their friends. But it seemed circumstances, or upset researchers, were forcing her hand. ‘I’m not talking through a door,’ she decided at last.
‘You can open it up,’ Lowsley assured her. ‘Just he’ll kick anyone else out.’
‘Fine. Get me a coffee.’ If anything was going to lure Matt out of his cave, it was coffee. She waited until Lowsley had given her a steaming mug before she went to the door and rapped sharply. ‘Matt? It’s Selena. I’m coming in.’
There was no answer, so she stepped inside to a bomb-site. Or that was what Matt’s office now resembled; the lights were dim, the notes on the wall had been ripped down, and the desk and floor were a scattered mess of files and papers. Matt himself was sat on his chair, glaring at the bare wall, and didn’t react as she shut the door behind her.
‘When I called myself the cheerleader for smart men trying to save the world,’ she snapped, and he did jolt at her voice, even if he didn’t look up yet, ‘I was kidding.’
Matt dragged his gaze across the floor, through the dim lighting and up to her, and only now did she see what a state he was in, hair wild, face pale, like he’d been dragged through a frozen hedge. ‘I didn’t - why’re you here?’
‘Because you’re scaring the hell out of your staffers by hiding in here like a cave troll. And they probably heard you trash everything. Why’re you trashing everything?’
He looked away at once. ‘It seemed like the thing to do.’
Selena drew a sharp, tense breath. ‘Matt, I am trying to be sympathetic here, I am trying to be supportive, but you have to let me, and I don’t -’ Then her throat tightened before she could stop it, and when she continued it was with an inadvertent dose of hysteria. ‘I don’t know how to chase you!’
That made him start, and he stood. ‘Chase me? I don’t -’
‘You say you want to be with me, then we go to dinner together and you bail right after? And you’re awkward and distant in Winchester, and you’re awkward and distant after we almost die, and then you trash everything - we’re meant to be a team and I can’t keep doing this!’ For a meeting which was meant to be about saving him, they were rapidly sharing burdens.
‘Maybe you shouldn’t,’ Matt grated. ‘Maybe you’re -’
‘I swear I will hex the shit out of you if you fall into that self-pitying bullshit, Matt, I don’t…’ Her eyes dragged over him, and only then did she see he wasn’t wearing his prosthetic, his right arm ending in a sleeve and a stump. ‘Wheres your hand?’
‘It’s…’ His voice trailed off, but she followed his eyes to a dent in the wall, and to the metal hand on the floor beneath.
‘Are you practicing punching at range?’ Guarded now, she padded over and reached for the prosthetic, cold and heavy and metal.
‘Something like that.’ She could hear him swallow in the tense silence. ‘I - I came back here when we got out of the DMLE, except I knocked over my fucking coffee with the clumsy fucking…’
And then you wrecked the place? Or that was what she wanted to say, laden with biting sarcasm, but his voice quavered so badly she realised she had to look deeper. When she glanced over, she saw how he stared at the prosthetic in her hands, saw how much he’d shrunk as she picked it up, and final pieces slotted into place.
‘You’re not okay with this,’ Selena whispered, and felt like an idiot. Of course he wasn’t okay with losing a hand.
‘I don’t -’ Matt closed his eyes. ‘I used to be able to put my money where my mouth was, come up with a plan or a lead and then chase it, act on it, but then - we went to Winchester and maybe a month ago I’d have still been taken by surprise like that. But then I’d have shaken the Stun off, I’d have - I’d have got back up, and I wouldn’t have to - you wouldn’t have to -’
‘You did, and that was badass, and you’re brilliant and I adore that but -’ He took a stumbling step forwards, expression crumpling. ‘You almost got hurt again, or taken again, and I couldn’t stop it, I couldn’t do anything, and I know that should be about you, but I…’ Matt drew a raking breath, like he was scrabbling for strength from the air itself. ‘I lost my hand to save you, and that is a price I’d pay a hundred times over, but then that meant I almost lost you again…’
And that would rather suck. Lose your hand to save the girl, then lose her later because without a hand you can’t save her. She knew he wasn’t thinking about it only in those terms, but Selena recognised a bad deal when she saw one. All she could find as reassurance, though, was a throaty, ‘I don’t think less of you for it.’
‘No,’ he sighed. ‘You think less of me for being so fixated on getting this research done I become a bit of an arse. But I - I can’t fight like I used to, I can’t even pull a day’s work like I used to without getting exhausted, so the least I can do is try to fix this, read everything, see this job through…’
‘Who’re you trying to prove yourself to, Matt?’ Brow furrowing, she padded towards him.
‘I need to do it for me. To still be - to still be something!’ He went to toss both hands in the air, but of course he could only gesture with one, and his expression contorted into something ugly when he saw his stump. ‘To try to be complete, not this this fucking cripple -’
‘And I wanted to kiss you the other night, kiss you properly, but then I was reaching for you with that ugly - that thing!’ He pointed at the prosthetic in her hands like it might have been a dead rat. ‘And I don’t want to be less-than for the world, less-than for myself, less-than for you!’
‘So you wrecked your office?’ she asked, and hated that she sounded a little sardonic, because it was always safer to be off-beat, disconnected, but it didn’t help either of them much.
His shoulders slumped, anger fading for self-loathing. ‘I was angry,’ he croaked. ‘And then I felt like a fucking idiot so I didn’t come out and no, I didn’t have a plan for what came next after sitting in the dark on my own like a tit…’
Selena looked down at the hand, and realised she held his every hatred and fear in a very literal sense. I suppose we’ll always be chasing.
‘I figured out,’ she said in a low, awkward voice, ‘why you and I work well together, when we work well together. We’re honest. Do you know why that started?’ He shook his head. ‘Because when we met, we didn’t care what the other thought. I was hung up on Methuselah, you were hung up on Rose, and so we didn’t care if we were pathetic or arsey at each other. We revealed ourselves, warts and all, and that was why we formed a connection. The stupid thing,’ she continued, and had to fight back a bitter laugh, ‘is that when we formed a connection by not caring, we suddenly cared. So we stopped being so honest. Because we were then afraid we’d think badly of each other. Isn’t that ridiculous? Being close is what destroyed what made us close.’
He winced. ‘Destroyed?’
Selena looked down. ‘It would be wrong for me to say I don’t care about this,’ she said, turning the prosthetic over in her hands. ‘You were injured for me. Of course I care. But I don’t - how the hell could I think less of you for it, Matt?’
‘You don’t owe me your feelings, you know that’s not how it works -’
‘No, it’s not,’ she said, padding over. ‘And I’m not here because I owe you, I’m here because - maybe you are physically “less,” and that’s horrible and I’m sorry and I don’t know what to do or say. Except that I didn’t fall for you because of your right hand, or your loopy handwriting, or even for swishing that bloody sword around; everything I wanted from you is still there, still you…’
He froze as she drew close, didn’t resist as she reached for his right arm and lifted it to slip the prosthetic back into place. She kept her touch delicate, gentle as she buckled it up, and once the connection was made, once she saw him flex the prosthetic’s fingers, she didn’t let go.
‘You are not less-than for having this,’ Selena murmured, running her fingers over the engravings which gave the living steel power, the markings of magic and the contours of the hand, and she could feel him twitch underneath. By now it was bonded enough to him that it picked up on the subtleties of his thought, reacted much more like flesh and blood, and even through this arcane construct of metal, she could feel how nervous he was. ‘This is still you.’
She lifted the prosthetic as she bowed her head, kissed the metal knuckles and found it already warmer than she’d expected, already more of a genuine part of him than she’d thought. The twitch under her lips might as well have been flesh for all its sensitivity, and she couldn’t fight the curl of a smile.
‘You were amazing yesterday,’ Matt croaked. ‘I wouldn’t have thought of that trick with the book.’ She looked up to see him swallow hard, and tightened her grip on his hand. ‘I was furious at myself when it was over, but I also wanted to kiss you silly and that kind of made it worse. Because wanting you when I’m a physical wreck makes me feel like more of a failure, and I’m not trying to indulge in self-pitying here but I need you to - to understand -’ He stopped, expression contorting, knowing his explanations did sound a lot like pity.
Selena kept the smile. ‘I understand,’ she assured him, because she did, even if her heart thudded in her chest at the thought he might pull away again, even if she wondered how she’d reach for him again.
‘No,’ Matt said, but his voice held more strength, more sincerity. ‘You don’t, because I can’t really explain how badly I want you - oh, hell with it -’
Thus did a practical demonstration prove far more adept at expressing a concept. And while she had to cling to his prosthetic hand so he didn’t pull it away, it was the only urging he required. Apprehension faded, self-loathing faded, and then she was tumbled in his arms, kissed with need, kissed with fire, kissed as if to defy all the frustrations and barricades they’d found and made for themselves.
If there was one thing Selena knew, in all the rushing chaos she was only too-happy to let sweep them both away, it was that this was an embrace she did not need to chase.
A slash of the wand. Jorgen’s scream. Bolting across the ice, leaving the big man behind to claw at the ground, a helpless sacrifice. Corpses colder and whiter than the frozen wastes bearing down on him, drawn by the victim, his weakness, his blood -
Blood on the snow…
- Albus pinning Downing to the ground. The smug smiles of Methuselah and Selena -
- I’m the best at this -
Blood on the snow…
- Rose, a crumbled bundle of red against white, felled by the slashing charm aimed for him -
Blood on the snow…
His eyes snapped open as his insides blazed against the frost in his mind. Air burned in his lungs, useless with every breath, and so he gasped more, tearing his throat, clawing at the blankets that now smothered, not sheltered him.
Spinks, falling. Holga, writhing under his blades, Jorgen, screaming as he was sacrificed, condemned -
‘Scorpius, you’re alright - look at me, Scorp, focus on me…’ She soared before his swimming vision, a discordant medley of judgement and salvation, and her touch, too, burned because it couldn’t last. Shouldn’t last; he shouldn’t let it last, or he’d condemn himself. His body only betrayed him more by clutching at her, lips trying to form her name, blazing breath denying him words.
But she slid closer across the bunk and he knew he should recoil from the fleeting presence -
- but he was fleeting, too, mortal, so very mortal -
‘Focus on me, and breathe, slowly. Draw it in… and hold it a beat, just a beat, okay? Then out. With me, okay?’
Breathing. That was one thing he could do and not feel guilty - or, not let the guilt get the better of him. He let his gaze meet hers, let himself inhale in time with her, every breath matched, within moments every heartbeat matching as the thudding within him slowed.
He didn’t know how long they sat there, her arms around him like a shroud, his body a crumpled bundle against the demons from his sleep, but Rose stayed silent, let him be the one to act first, speak first. When he did, his voice didn’t sound like his own. ‘I didn’t want to be this,’ he croaked.
She leaned in, kissed the side of his head like she’d done a thousand times before, like they were bundled on that ship they’d crossed the Atlantic in, on that train they’d crossed Europe in, nesting against the world. ‘If there’s one thing I’ve learnt, we can change what we are.’
‘I didn’t think. I saw a way to save you and I took it. Because I’m doomed, so what the hell does it matter if I do fucked up things so long as everyone else is alright, so long as you’re…’
Her arm tightened around him, fingers curling in his hair as she held him close. ‘It matters.’
Truth thudded into him like a body blow, and he buckled. ‘If it matters, then I’m a murderer -’
‘Blood had to be on someone’s hands, so why not mine, the hands that’ll be gone soon - why make someone else have to live with it when I won’t -’
‘You don’t need to take a burden like that -’
‘Someone has to…’ But the words made his tongue feel thicker, clumsier, because while they were true they were not the whole truth. They were the nobler truth, filthy though they were. ‘…and it meant I had to care less…’
‘And caring,’ Rose whispered, voice rising with realisation, ‘is close to hope, is close to fear.’
‘Let the man who’ll die become the monster,’ Scorpius rumbled, ‘because the monster doesn’t fear death, because the monster doesn’t care.’
Her hold on him tightened. ‘You know you care. More than any of us, you cared during Phlegethon -’
‘I was a kid -’
‘Scorpius, that was barely a year ago for you. You are not a monster, you cannot be a monster, because I look at you now - yes, even after yesterday - and I see too much of you still there. Still here.’ His gaze dragged up to meet hers, dark and ardent, and her hand slid to his collar, stopping him from drawing away. ‘You’re still here. You’re still alive.’
He could hear the plea in her urging, and it would have been so easy to let go. To let his hands slide up her arms, to cup her face and hold and behold her like a flickering flame that was his one light in the dark. To lean in, their breath entwined, their warmth entwined -
But the monster wasn’t gone, and grumbled a warning to look to the ice.
Scorpius tensed, and he felt her hope break in his hands. ‘We’ve stopped.’
Rose’s gaze dropped, but then she slid from him and all was as it had been these past weeks. ‘That was why I came to wake you before - anyway. We’ve arrived.’
He blinked, owlish as reality rushed in at the edges. ‘You’re sure?’
Sympathy and apprehension fled her gaze for that arch superiority. ‘Yes, I’m sure. I’ve read Cassian’s notes, too. And - well, come see for yourself.’
He threw his layers, coats and gloves and hat, back on in a hurry and followed her out of the hatch to emerge atop the sleigh’s cabin.
If possible, they had entered deeper darkness. Cassian’s map and notes had indicated a valley, a deep trench within the ice and cliffs, and even starlight struggled to claw its way to these depths. The Ice Elks hoofed at the ground; they had not tired at a day’s heavy march, they had barely balked at Inferi, but now they seemed unsettled, apprehensive.
Rose jerked a thumb over her shoulder. ‘We went through some magical wards about a mile back. They read a lot like anti-Muggle charms but… more powerful, entrenched in the ground. And I think they affected me; the Elk tried to go off-course until I corrected them.’ He saw her grimace in the gloom. ‘It’s possible that anyone not really focusing on their destination would get diverted. Muggle or wizard.’
‘So you can only find this place if you know to look for it,’ Scorpius breathed, eyes sweeping over the walls of the trench. ‘The question is, where is it?’
‘The good news is that we’re definitely in a magic area. The bad news is that everywhere is magic; I can’t get a more narrow focus.’
‘Well.’ He hopped off the front bench and landed on the ground with a crunch of snow. ‘We weren’t going to find the end of the world in just a day.’
‘Technically we’re following a lifetime of work of Cassian Malfoy.’
‘Yeah.’ Scorpius peered at the jagged rocks and surging ice, and wondered if they wanted to go deeper through the valley, or if the walls of the chasm held some answer for them. ‘Unfortunately, he’s dead. He’s not much use.’
‘Excuse me,’ came a familiar voice on the wind, ‘I resemble that remark.’
He recognised the translucent figure who emerged from the darkness, because he’d seen Cassian Malfoy’s painting. But he recognised the voice from far longer ago, from a place beyond true voices or true words or even true people, from a climb out of an ocean of feeling into a harsh bright light of being -
The ghost of Cassian Malfoy stood unbent by the frozen wind, unperturbed by the icy chill, dressed like any wizarding dandy of the last hundred years. Every inch of him refined in garb and stance, not even his shimmering hair was distressed by their environment. He slid from what looked like a crack in the rock wall and was then before them, hands clasped in front of him, gleaming silvery eyes bright. ‘I was wondering if you were coming.’
‘Oh no,’ Rose groaned. ‘I don’t need two Malfoy black sheep to be sardonic at me.’
‘In my defence,’ Scorpius said to the ghost, ‘you’re not an easy man to find.’
‘You’ve come back from the dead, dear boy, I didn’t think meagre things like difficulty would thwart you.’ He looked them up and down. ‘You found my diary?’
‘The diary wasn’t hard to find. Bachelet had it. Your powder, on the other hand… you hid that from her?’
He looked pained. ‘I didn’t want to draw her back into this. The war was over, and she still had a whole country that needed rebuilding. France was - but that was another lifetime ago.’
Scorpius swallowed. ‘Several. But you found Ultima Thule?’
‘What is Ultima Thule?’ Rose pressed. ‘All we’ve seen are references in your diary and your old operation records talking about ancient wizarding settlements and ruins, places Raskoph wanted - what’s all this about?’
Cassian looked at her. They didn’t, Scorpius thought now he was face-to-face with what remained of the man at last, look that much alike after all. They both had that Malfoy nose and, he thought, those Malfoy eyes, but there was a more willowy, aristocratic, pointy look to Cassian. Scorpius had inherited enough of his mother’s looks to round off the sheer sharpness of his father’s line, something for which he’d always been grateful. But there was no denying the long-suffering whimsy to both their voices.
‘You’re asking,’ Cassian sighed, ‘for me to summarise whole slews of wizarding history. I might be dead but I don’t have forever, and you certainly don’t -’
‘You died for this, and Raskoph is still around, still a danger and he still cares about this,’ Rose said. ‘The least you can do is offer the cliff-notes.’
Cassian glanced at Scorpius. ‘Demanding, isn’t she?’ he said, then saved Scorpius having to find some diplomatic answer by continuing. ‘Humanity has been around for far longer than Muggle recorded history. Even than our recorded history. But why would witches and wizards all live nomadic lives in tents and shacks and caves for centuries when they had magic? Of course, some lived alongside the Muggles, because in plenty of cultures, there was no distinction. But magic is power. So long as some men have had power and others haven’t, there’s been division.’
‘Magical civilisations from six thousand, seven thousand years ago,’ Rose said.
Cassian nodded. ‘Cloistered, secluded. In a time when magic was wilder, more powerful, so they could build their homes, solid and far from the Muggles, and still the world was theirs to cross in the blink of an eye. But they weren’t a complete secret, because they didn’t care to be. And so there are stories, for wizards as well as for Muggles, and you’ll have heard of them. Atlantis, Cantref Gwaelod, Shambhala, what the Spanish called El Dorado - I’m not saying all of those are true places, but wizards and Muggles didn’t just invent these mysterious cities of ancient power and magic out of thin air.’
‘What happened to them?’
‘I’m not sure. They never much left their own records. And when they fell, they fell so thoroughly, and so long ago, it’s hard to know anything for certain.’ Cassian shrugged. ‘I think Muggles rose to greater splendour and the world became smaller and more and more witches and wizards lived amongst them. Maybe there was fighting, the wizards who lived with the Muggles finally bringing them down in the very first war of magical supremacy. Maybe time just turned them to dust.’
‘But you started to look into them. During the war.’
‘The Thule Society started to look into them. Tibet, Norway, Russia. We just scrambled under the principle of, “if the Thule Society want it, don’t let them have it.” And most of them were grave robbers, finding what little magic knick-knacks they could in some old ruins and running off cackling with it. Except Raskoph.’
‘What made him different?’
‘He knew there was more to it than petty looting. He was involved since the early days, since the Ahnenerbe went to Tibet, and I don’t know what he found there, but it made him convinced there was real power to be found, magic the likes of which doesn’t exist any more, can’t exist any more. All I was, at first, was the poor sap sent to fight him, stop him. And I did, more often than he got away, but as he learnt more, so did I. Of all these places, of all this ancient magic. Some of my superiors thought I was crazy, but if it meant thwarting the Thule Society, I was given free rein.’
‘And then after the war they stopped caring.’ Rose frowned.
Cassian shrugged. ‘One lone lunatic former Thule Society wizard convinced he could find the sister-cities of Atlantis wasn’t considered a priority. But I knew he’d been putting pieces together, place to place, so he could find his ultimate prize: Ultima Thule.’
‘What makes this place so different? If he found things at Amsvartnir, under Svetloyar, why was finding Ultima Thule so much worse?’ Scorpius said.
‘You don’t get many people living up here, do you.’ Cassian’s lips curled. ‘And you got even fewer six thousand years ago. Making it the best place to hide everything you don’t want those non-magical “lesser” beings to find. Every great artifact which needs containing, every spell you want hidden until it’s needed, every monstrosity you can’t un-make. Ultima Thule wasn’t a city or a land or somewhere people lived. But it was appropriate for modern magical supremacists to imagine it as a perfect world, a perfect society, because it is the repository of the weapons of the first magical supremacists. Myths speak of Ultima Thule as the end of the world. That wasn’t about geography.’
‘The Stygian Plagues,’ Rose groaned. ‘He really did find references to them in other cities and ruins, but he wanted Ultima Thule to get the real thing.’
‘And that’s why it’s taken the slow-acting Phlegethon, the limited Eridanos; that’s why Lethe relies on a different power-source,’ Scorpius said with blossoming horror. ‘It’s taken flawed experiments and even after eighty years, it’s imperfect.’ He looked up at Cassian. ‘But how? If he knew about this place, if he found Ultima Thule, how come he’s never broken in?’
‘Not for want of trying. But let me stop explaining, and start showing.’ Cassian’s ghost stepped back, and for a heartbeat Scorpius thought he’d disappeared into the darkness. But then he could see the shimmering light leading them further down the frozen valley with its icy, craggy walls, and without thinking he followed.
‘We both pieced together the location of Ultima Thule, especially after Amsvartnir. The records from the old settlement there were pretty good, but even better, Viking wizards from the ninth century or so had also gone looking for Ultima Thule. They made it as far as Helluby, but knowing which island to start on was incredibly valuable,’ came Cassian’s voice through the chilly darkness, and then he veered left towards the ice wall, leading them to a narrow path that wound upwards against the cliff-face Scorpius knew he’d have never seen on his own. ‘I knew he’d come here, so I tried to beat him to it. Worst of all, he’d picked up something long ago that I hadn’t: a keystone to get past the protections. He found it in the Thirties in an old dig-site in Egypt, and hung onto it until he knew what it was. And I did beat him here, but not by much, and not with enough time to do anything to the millennia-old wards and caverns.’
Cassian was talking and wandering as if he were on a casual walk on a summer’s day, while Scorpius and Rose found themselves inching along the narrow, frozen path as it wound higher and higher against the cliff wall, clinging to rock to not slip and meet a long, undignified death.
‘So we fought. No more backup, because we were both crackpots with our allies broken by victory and by defeat. And I was reminded, not for the first time, that he was a better fighter than me, and I didn’t have any reinforcements or clever tricks to save me. And I thought, if I don’t win, this man might just try to end the world. Of course, I was wrong.’ Cassian gave a short, bitter laugh. ‘I didn’t need to win. I just needed to stop him.’
Scorpius felt his chest tighten, and he didn’t know if it was from the fresh inhale of an icy wind that tried to steal his breath as they climbed. ‘What did you do?’
‘I got the keystone off him. And I destroyed it,’ said Cassian in a matter-of-fact manner, rising through the whipping, frosted breeze. ‘Of course, destroying a magical artifact thousands of years old, even if it was mostly just a lump of rock? That takes standing still long enough for a man like Raskoph to get a Killing Curse off. But it worked.’
‘You let him kill you,’ said Rose, voice hushed, ‘to stop him?’
‘Not really,’ Cassian said breezily. ‘He was going to kill me anyway. I just made sure he did it on my terms.’
‘Then how come,’ said Scorpius, setting his feet harder into the frozen ground as the incline got steeper, ‘how come you’re still here? Ghosts have deaths they never made peace with -’
‘Or unfinished business. So long as Raskoph lives, I have unfinished business. So I’ve waited here, for eighty years, in case he was going to have another crack at it.’ Then all of a sudden they weren’t pressed against the rock but stepping out onto a shelf against the cliff, a wide and frozen plateau where the wind whipped less harshly, where the ground was more solid and less icy underfoot.
Set into the cliff wall itself was a huge pair of stone doors, carved and solid and frozen over. And at the foot of them lay a crumpled bundle of ice and snow and bone.
Cassian Malfoy’s ghost crunched towards his body. ‘See?’
A/N: The temptation to list ‘R’lyeh’ amongst the lost cities Cassian mentioned was almost overwhelming, but I resisted. There is no Lovecraft here.