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Chapter 39 : On Our Dull Side of Death
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Rose didn’t haul on the reins to bring the carriage to a thundering halt of skidding ice and whipping winds until the ground stopped quaking underneath. The elks were still huffing, icy flanks rising and falling with lurching breaths that were too cold to mist even in this air, and a glance over her shoulder showed nothing but sheer white. Rock and ice had been hurled into the air by the collapse of the mountainside, the implosion of the halls of Ultima Thule. With the arctic winds of Baffin Island, it was like someone had thrown a jagged sheet over the view behind her.
There was nothing left. Even once the ice settled, she couldn’t claw her way through a collapsed ruin single-handed. Not with Scorpius tossed somewhat unceremoniously inside the cabin, with only the one healing spell yet applied to quell the bleeding. They’d been thoughtless before, not checking if they were being followed; now she couldn’t take the risk that Castagnary and his Thornweavers were the only ones out there. They might have been an advance party. She couldn’t stay.
‘Shit,’ Rose declared, hopping off the driver’s bench onto the crunching, frosted ground. ‘Shit, shit, shit -’
‘That’s a fair assessment.’ For a heartbeat she thought it was Scorpius, and spun with the intent of yelling at him to get back to resting. It wasn’t, of course, because the voice came from the frozen wastes, and then the shimmering form of Cassian Malfoy drifted from the ice and fog into view.
She stabbed a finger at him. ‘Where the hell were you in all that?’
Cassian paused, and opened his ethereal hands. ‘Ghost. What was I supposed to do, jump up from behind them and say, “Boo”?’
‘Ghosts have certain powers over their environments -’
‘I could have made creepy sounds and rattles down a corridor and ominous whispers on the wind. I’m sorry.’ He sounded like he meant it. ‘I disappeared because I didn’t fancy being stuck in a binding circle by Raskoph’s adherents and forced to answer their questions.’
She stalked across the gap. ‘So there is more you know.’
‘Everything useful I know just collapsed with Ultima Thule. And I’m afraid it is collapsed. Half that mountain came down. Even the outermost passages are under tonnes of rock. I would expect it to take months of excavation to safely clear an entrance. Maybe years, depending on the damage to the magical defences.’
‘We don’t have months. Over months or years, Raskoph is going to kill a lot of people.’
‘He is.’ Cassian met her gaze. ‘But you didn’t come here to stop Raskoph.’
Her jaw tightened. ‘I came here for Scorpius. Because you reached out to him, you made him believe that maybe there was something of use out here.’
‘I thought there might be -’
‘And all we got was a history lesson on the origins of a plague we know how to cure, and false hope!’ Her voice sounded closer, like the dense ice and fog was a wall for it to bounce off.
Cassian’s ghost looked away. ‘I hadn’t anticipated hope, false or otherwise. But I didn’t stop Raskoph eighty years ago. I thought I could help stop him now. And I thought I could lend help to my family, now they were finally taking up the fight.’
She gave a bitter laugh. ‘Of course. This was for you. For you to mollify your sense of failure, for you to try to make something of the Malfoy family’s fine heritage of being utter arseholes -’
‘Perhaps my desire for rest is selfish.’ His head snapped up. ‘But why are you here, Miss Weasley? You could have left the doors to Ultima Thule closed, as he said. I may not have brought you here for the most heroic of reasons, but you are not here for the most heroic.’
‘I’ve done my heroism,’ Rose snapped. ‘All it did was get the people I cared about hurt and killed. Raskoph can be beaten by someone else.’
‘Raskoph is going to be beaten by the person in front of him,’ said Cassian in a low voice. ‘Maybe someone who steps up. Maybe just someone who’s there. Telling yourself “it won’t be me,” is how he prospers, is how people fail to oppose him. They think they can’t, or they think it’s not their place.’
She scoffed. ‘Are you saying I need to adopt this mantle of duty of finishing your work -’
‘I’m saying I didn’t set out to defy great evil, either!’ The wind whipped as he shouted, like the frost hardened under his anger. ‘But I was there. I was there, and I could. If everyone who could turn away from risk and evil did so, that evil would never be stopped. It wasn’t by some clever sacrifice or inherent heroism that I died to stop him. I did what I had to do. Nothing more, nothing less. And that’s all anyone can do to stop him.’
‘Great,’ Rose sneered. ‘Don’t suppose you could give me more practical advice? Gaping weaknesses?’
Cassian worked his incorporeal jaw for a moment. ‘He’s inventive. He favours up close and personal magics; I suppose it’s a form of dominating his enemy. But while he’s very skilled and I imagine is only more formidable after eighty years, he is just a wizard.’
‘Oh, good. That makes him less terrifying than past dark lords. Unless he’s got seven lives or, I don’t know, can fly.’
Cassian shrugged, frustration fading for haplessness. ‘I haven’t tested how many lives he has. I do know he can’t fly. Threw him off a building once in Copenhagen; he broke both his legs.’
‘Then I guess it’s easy.’
‘I’m sorry. I truly am. I wanted to help, I wanted to give you answers. Answers about Raskoph, maybe answers to save the boy…’
She looked over her shoulder back at the carriage. Scorpius was inside, resting, aching, and he couldn’t know yet that she’d failed, that she’d dangled hope in front of him only for it to be taken away again -
‘There has to be another way,’ she croaked. ‘We’ve come too far, done too much.’
‘Sometimes,’ said Cassian, and she could have sworn he was fading in the mist, ‘we can’t win. We just have to choose how we lose. Maybe we get our happy life, but we let evil win, in the world by letting it prosper, or in ourselves by breaking all our own rules. Or we sacrifice the personal for the bigger picture.’
Rose squinted at him, the swirling shape of a man long dead. ‘Do you regret it?’
He gave a gentle snort and shifted his weight, stance so much like Scorpius’ at his most self-defeating. ‘I’m a ghost bound to ancient ruins in the frozen roof of the world. I won’t find peace until Raskoph’s stopped and I know all he and I fought for and discovered is beyond his grasp. I left the woman I love and the family I never reconciled with behind, and let the world remember me as an irreverent fop who never cared for anything but his own fun. Was it the right thing to do? Yes. Do I regret it?’ The wind picked up, and the wispy, silvery form of Cassian Malfoy’s ghost was overtaken by the mist and ice for a moment.
She stepped forward, extended a hand as if she could grab hold of him. ‘Cassian -’
She didn’t see him again. The wind kept swirling, whistling and whipping around her. But she heard the voice on the breeze, the whisper of pain and regret before the spirit was lost to her forever.
‘Is there anything,’ Selena mused, ‘that cannot be fixed with a good Wall of Crazy?’
‘I have yet to find it.’ Matt bit off a length of spell-o-tape and was relieved to find his prosthetic fingers cooperating as he stuck a new map up. ‘Even if this is as confusing as it is illuminating.’
‘It’s illuminating? I thought all it was saying is, “there’s been a lot of shipwrecks around Cornwall.”’
‘There have.’ He stepped back from the huge map, resplendent with twinkling markers, showing the western and southern stretches of sea around Cornwall. ‘I was expecting more in the Welsh vicinity. But I suppose the Irish Sea isn’t the most dangerous bit of water in the world.’
‘To be fair, neither’s the English Channel. I wouldn’t think the Atlantic were that dangerous, this close to the shore. But does this have anything to do with a lost Welsh city?’
Matt tapped his chin. ‘Perhaps it’s wrong to assume it’s Welsh, just because we’ve been reading about it in Welsh literature, just because we’ve read of it with a Welsh name.’
‘You think it might have other names?’
He crossed the office to his desk, rifled through papers until he pulled out another of his books on Celtic myths. This was one of the first he’d consulted, giving him only information in broad strokes before he’d gone deeper. ‘We looked to the Welsh mythology because of the Chalice, and it’s very likely there’s a link between the Chalice and Cantref Gwaelod. But all “Cantref” means is, well, it’s a land division. Ancient wizards of almighty power probably didn’t identify themselves as just a region of wider Wales.’
‘Are you saying we’ve been chasing the wrong bloody thing?’
‘I’m saying,’ said Matt, flicking the pages open, ‘that there’s more than one thing to chase.’ He thudded his metal finger on the page. ‘Ys. Lyonesse. Cornish and Breton myths of sunken cities. The Muggle story of how Ys fell - a debauched son getting drunk and opening up the gates - is very similar to the tale of Cantref Gwaelod. Lyonesse is…’ His head snapped up, meeting her green-eyed gaze but finding her bewildered, not invigorated. ‘By some myths and legends it’s the site of King Arthur’s final battle against Mordred.’
‘You mean, where King Arthur might have been mortally wounded is also a lost city where a magical chalice similar to the Holy Grail might have been made?’ She smiled, and that was better than getting an answer, the sight of her encouraging him with it - but then she frowned. ‘This doesn’t answer where it is.’
‘No,’ Matt conceded. ‘But it does mean we should keep our options open on where we look.’ He turned back to the map, gesturing at the markers. ‘There is no reason to assume what we want is off a Welsh shore, or even a Cornish shore. It’s likely close to the south-western coast, but…’
‘What were you hoping to find off this?’
He shrugged. ‘Ancient magics of an ancient city would likely drive Muggles away, or otherwise stop them from finding the place. I’m looking for gaps in their shipping routes, I’m looking for places notorious for shipwrecks - like there.’ He pointed at the map. ‘That reef, it’s about a hundred miles west of Cornwall. Its location is no good for Cantref Gwaelod, but for Ys? What did Lowsley’s notes say…’
She plucked the paper off the desk first. ‘Two hundred recorded shipwrecks of Muggles. Very little ever recovered. No studies done into the depth of the reef or anything like that; it’s like the Muggles keep sinking but don’t care to figure out why. And the Ministry of Magic has no records of enchantments around the area -’
‘Though if those enchantments predate at least the Ministry, there might just not have been anything filed. Even if it’s innocuous.’
Selena looked up at the map. ‘Two hundred shipwrecks over, what, three centuries? That’s not innocuous.’
‘You’re right. But I don’t think reading things is the answer.’
She was by his side in a flash, pressing a hand to his forehead. ‘…are you ill?’
He grinned. ‘You know what I mean. Someone’s going to have to go and properly investigate. Someone used to the sorts of defensive wards and barriers of these ancient sites.’
‘Matt…’ His grin died as she looked him up and down. ‘I wouldn’t rush into the field if I were you, right now.’
‘I feel -’
‘Would Gringotts let you on active duty as a Curse Breaker right now?’
Matt’s lips thinned. ‘Probably not.’
‘You have Curse Breakers on your staff -’
‘Lowsley and Nejem are good researchers but they’re not practical! They were our pencil pushers, not field agents. They’d probably faint if I told them they were going to have to check out the sunken city of an ancient wizarding civilisation that may or may not have been a death cult.’
Selena folded her arms across her chest. ‘There has to be someone better. I’m not saying me. I’m just saying that every single time we’ve gone looking through these sorts of old places, something has tried to kill us.’
Then there was a knock at the door to Matt’s office, and in stepped the tall but weary form of Reynald de Sablé, his travel robes dusty and worn, his hair rather mussed. ‘Master Doyle.’
Matt turned triumphantly to the old knight. ‘Sir Reynald! How was Norway?’
‘It was, I fear, entirely unproductive -’
‘No matter, no matter.’ Matt beamed at Selena, then turned back to de Sablé. ‘Welcome back to Britain. I have a new task for you.’ She rolled her eyes next to him, and he shrugged. ‘What? He can bring Nejem and Lowsley to consult.’
Selena sighed as de Sablé looked bewildered. ‘I’m sure,’ she muttered, ‘that prodigious cowards like Nejem and Lowsley will love that.’
I’m the best at this…
Throbbing pain in his hip, the right leg, the one he’d crash-landed on in Monte Carlo, the one he’d been stabbed in under Badenheim Castle. Then a wrenching, then a scream -
His scream? Holga’s?
I’ll come back every time.
If it was his scream, when was he screaming? Now? Either of those injuries? When he fell?
You can’t promise that.
Don’t care. It’s a promise.
The darkness swirled before him, a kaleidoscope of oblivion he knew so well. The ocean of feeling and consciousness, where he could float away forever beyond all thought, all idea, just simply be as a part of everything else. Like tendrils, the memory of it reached out to him, beckoning, and the blood rushing in his ears thudded with a mixture of temptation and fear.
But Rose had told him about the Styx and their plans and then he’d kissed her as hope exploded all around him, and he couldn’t go back, wouldn’t go back.
It was with a gasp that he regained consciousness, all over again brought choking back to life in the gloom of the candlelit carriage. And with it came the memory of shattering ice and falling rock and all chance of survival closing behind him in the fall of Ultima Thule.
Then Rose was over him. She was a mess of damp from melted ice and dirt from chunks of rock, but firelight soaked into the tangles of her hair, the worry-lines of her face, and softened them with gold. ‘Don’t move, you took a bad blow -’
His hand curled in her jumper, clutching her as if she’d be torn away from him even sooner. ‘Tell me it’s not over.’ His voice came out like it had been squeezed through a vice. ‘Tell me there’s a way -’
‘I don’t know; Scorpius, it’s too soon to know anything -’
‘Tell me we can get to the Styx…’ But the way her face creased told him everything. His grip weakened. ‘I wasn’t supposed to hope.’
Her hand came up to clasp his, bury it in the folds of wool of her knitted jumper, like a tether to the world. He remembered the feel of these jumpers, Molly’s knitted gifts. It felt like Christmases with Albus, clapping him on the shoulder while he was swaddled in the thing; it felt like early, stolen kisses with Rose. It felt like the acceptance of that last Christmas, when Molly made one for him.
He didn’t want to let it go.
‘It’s not over,’ said Rose with the fire in her eyes. ‘I don’t care what it takes, I am not giving up.’
‘Okay,’ said Scorpius with a weak nod, letting his head loll back onto the pillow, ‘okay. I believe you.’ And he did, though he didn’t let go, like she could drag him through this to the end. ‘Are you okay? What happened?’ He felt her tense under him, and even though his head was spinning and leg throbbing, he could slowly realise it was not going to be as simple as her determination.
Rose let out a long breath. ‘I blew up those runes. It collapsed the complex from the inside, brought down half the mountain. It looks like it’ll take months, maybe longer, for an excavation team to get through there. So we’re heading back to Helluby. The IMC should have sent relief teams in by now, and if they haven’t we can look for survivors, supplies, and keep going south.’
‘Yeah,’ he told the ceiling that spun with darkness and candlelight and the fire in her hair. ‘Yeah. Then what’s our next move?’
‘We go home…’
‘I mean, you’re not giving up, you’re going to find a way; what way?’
She let him go and pulled back. His hand grasped air and the fire of her hair fell from his sight, and Scorpius closed his eyes and reminded himself this wasn’t just a bad dream. Being awake had been so much worse for so damned long. In the silence, he found his voice. ‘There are other ways - like - why didn’t we just use the Glanis Springs water…?’ He knew nothing about it except it had been used on Lethe patients, and he knew Rose would have thought of it if it were an option, but he’d tasted hope and now he had to try.
Her voice came as if from a long way away, though he was sure she’d just sat next to the bed, out of his dizzy vision. ‘We need a magic ideally as powerful as that of the Chalice. But best of all would be magic like the Chalice, magic of life and death. The Glanis Springs is just of life. There is only one idea I’ve had…’
Even just turning his head was enough to make everything tumble, like the carriage was drunk. ‘Yes?’ Of course she can do it; salvation at the eleventh hour from Rose, brilliant, dauntless Rose…
Then she met his gaze and said, ‘It would take corrupting magic like the Springs with death.’
It was, perhaps, the only thought that could sober him enough to still the spinning and make him feel the biting cold beyond the carriage walls. ‘We can’t do that -’
‘Nobody else dies for me,’ he rasped. ‘That’s the one rule, you can’t - nobody else dies for me.’
Neither said anything for a while, the carriage rattling along, and soon enough the world was gently spinning again and the cold of the outside, of the inevitable, fading away. But it didn’t go completely, and the one rule stretched out between them, nagging at him, until he looked at her and remembered. She was hunched on a stool by the bunk, head in her hands, smaller than he’d seen her in a long time. Colder.
Again he had to search deep in himself to find his voice. ‘Castagnary. The other three…’
She brushed back a wild lock of damp hair. ‘They didn’t make it out of there. They’re dead, Scorpius, and I killed them.’
‘You didn’t have a choice,’ he rasped. ‘They’d have claimed the Styx otherwise, and then far more than four people would be dead…’ Even five, if this was my final chance.
‘I know. I know I did what I had to do. I also know that Castagnary didn’t deserve to die. I also know I never even saw the faces of the other three, let alone heard their names, let alone knew their crimes. But they needed stopping, and I didn’t know how to stop them, to save us, without killing them. So there it is. The right thing to do was to kill four people who didn’t necessarily deserve it.’
‘They put you in that situation. You don’t need to punish yourself.’
She looked up, dark eyes glinting through a veil of red firelight. ‘One way or another,’ she said, meeting his gaze, ‘I have to live with it. All of it. And that’s the hard part, isn’t it?’
It was a cool early evening after a scorching afternoon when Eva Saida’s life had changed forever. The streets of Algiers had been sun-soaked for so long that heat throbbed from the stones themselves, the air sizzling with the passing burn of summer. But early evening had meant more tourists out on the street, and that had meant all the more opportunities to pick a pocket.
She’d selected her target because he walked with no care for his safety. He didn’t keep a hand to his belongings, he didn’t gauge the crowd before he moved through it, and while he walked like he knew where he was going, he hurried at such a rate she knew she could be long gone before he even noticed her.
Or so she’d thought, and had been proven very wrong when she tried slipping a hand in a pocket, only to get her wrist seized by Prometheus Thane. He had been, she remembered, more astonished than angry. Adorned in spells as he was, he had expected to be overlooked and irrelevant to the Muggles on a foreign street, but only final magical protections had alerted him to an enterprising young girl trying to steal his coin pouch. It had proven, she learnt later, that she was a witch, unaffected by his anti-Muggle spells, and thus worthy of his attention.
Everything had changed from that moment, but the one lesson Eva had taken away from the experience was that she was at her best when being quiet, and at her best when being overlooked. These were talents Thane had used for years, setting a girl under his tutelage to tasks to sneak in and out of places, perhaps being ignored in a crowd, perhaps being ignored in the shadows. It had changed again only when she was fourteen, only when she’d killed someone for Thane. That had been the unspoken change of circumstances, where she was no longer a discreet agent but a literal weapon in his arsenal.
Today she was both, only the cause was not Thane’s. The cause was very certainly her own.
She’d told Pretorius and Lockett that she sought Albus’ body to bring back to his family. It had not been a lie; they deserved that much closure. But it was not as important as the thudding mantra that hummed through her bones with every step as she slid through the darkened corridors of the Department of Magic, a ghost and a shadow.
Kill Erik Geiger.
Vengeance was far, far sweeter. And vengeance did not require a return journey.
The Thornweaver guarding the final stairwell hadn’t noticed her lining up a blast in the darkness, a Stun to punch through his protections and drop him in one go. It would have been easier with a Killing Curse, but she was too aware that if she took an extra moment, gave it a little more thought, she could drop him without lethal force. It felt lazy, crude to not.
But the blast and his impact brought another of his compatriots coming to investigate, by which point she was up the stairs, around a corner near the body, and ready to slip behind the newcomer. He, too, didn’t see her coming before he was another crumpled heap on the paving stones.
That left six. Six, including Geiger, not including whatever Inferi were left.
There had been no sign of prisoners taken when the Council had claimed the site. They were likely dead or Portkeyed elsewhere, which she supposed made some sense if the building itself was not deemed secure. Pretorius and the Crime Bureau’s hold-out had ruined Erik Geiger’s perfect victory, and she would have felt a surge of satisfaction had she cared.
She didn’t. How brilliant Geiger’s victory wasn’t meant nothing to her. It was going to end, one way or another
Two more Thornweavers fell to her wand as she advanced down the corridors to the far lobby, and a trio of Inferi after them, through spell and by blade. She still held back on killing the Thornweavers, clumsy as they were for letting her get the drop on them. They had to suspect by now that their prisoners in the lower levels had escaped the building; it was the only way to explain how complacent their patrols were, how indifferent they had been at her shifting shadows. After all, if everyone was likely escaped, who was going to charge into the heart of the Thornweavers’ control single-handedly?
Nobody who wants to live to see the end.
But that meant only four more Thornweavers, and when she peered around the edge of the corridor into the Department’s main lobby, she could see only two. Two, and neither of them were Erik Geiger.
She’d been through the main lobby when they’d arrived, an astonishing domed room of shimmering marbles and silvers, so close to the surface that the sun could break through the glass in the ceiling. It cast criss-cross patterns across the pale, paved floor, reminding her of games played on those sun-soaked streets where she’d grown up. Don’t stand on the shadows, she remembered, and wasn’t sure why.
The two weren’t looking her way, though, so she could hunker down to balance her centre, level her wand at the one on the left, and open up with a Blasting Curse that sent the Thornweaver flying across the lobby and into one of the marble columns. He hit stone, slid to the floor, and didn’t move.
But she did, as the last Thornweaver whirled around, wand brandished and already bringing defences and hurling his own blasts. They were quick-fire, not that harmful, but she only needed to be staggered for a moment to be beaten and there were still two more out there somewhere, unaccounted for.
Magic rippled across the lobby, energy crackling against energy. She kept moving as she cast, because every spell she avoided by speed was one she didn’t have to focus a Shield for, was one she could counter-attack all the swifter. She threw a gout of fire to drive them back, dodged a slicing curse that would have taken her arm, hurled a Stun up high, forcing them to lift their wand to protect their face -
And, their vision blocked, she whipped her wand down to blast the paving slabs at the Thornweaver’s feet. Masonry shattered and exploded upward, hurling her enemy off his feet, and as he hit his back on the ground, hard, she threw out an extra Stun to subdue him for good.
Chunks of paving slabs rattled as they fell to the floor, dust and smoke wafting through the broad lobby, and Eva shifted her stance to a defensive guard. Shields rippled around her, ready and waiting for something else to strike; the lobby was a network of corridors shooting off to different corners of the Department, and with Geiger and the last Thornweaver and who-knew-how many Inferi out there, she couldn’t stand out in the open and be complacent.
Then the voice came, that familiar voice, rolling across the lobby. ‘I’d put your wand down, Saida. Or this will end badly.’
He was somewhere to her left, around one of those corners. ‘You’re right, Geiger. So come on out and let me end it.’
‘I really, really suggest you don’t hurl a blast at me the moment I show my face. You will, I promise you, regret it.’
She only didn’t cast at the figure emerging into the lobby through the smoke and dust because she knew it would be a waste. Erik Geiger would have all the protections up she did, enough to absorb an opening blast. Much better to assess him, take time to work out where the last Thornweaver was, than kick off a fight where she didn’t have the full measure of the field. Of course, if she took too long, then that last Thornweaver would be in the perfect position to -
And any tactical analysis dissipated when Erik Geiger emerged from the smoke with an arm wrapped around Albus Potter’s throat and his wand rammed under his chin. ‘See? I told you that you’d regret it.’
Eva’s chest seized up. ‘Al -’
He looked bruised but unharmed, though in no position to push back against Geiger, one of the few Thornweavers who could rival him in size. ‘Eva, you need to go -’
She snapped her eyes away from him and back to Geiger. ‘This is a trick.’
‘That would be a good trick, wouldn’t it? But, no. I lied. He’s far, far more valuable to me alive than dead. Of course, that doesn’t mean I can’t take chunks out of him here to make you surrender. That doesn’t mean I won’t kill him if you force my hand. I like my life more than yours.’
Of course Geiger wouldn’t kill such a valuable prisoner just to teach me a lesson. Anger burnt in Eva, not at Geiger but at herself for being played like this. He had seen her weakness and he had manipulated her once, and now he was trying to do it again. So if she didn’t want to play into his hands, she had to anticipate his expectations and then flaunt them.
Negotiate. That’s what you did before, that’s what he’ll expect you to do. Negotiate, or rant and rave, or generally be so distracted by Al being in danger that you don’t assess the rest of the situation. Her gaze flickered back to Albus. There was no sign of his wand. There was no sign of his Invisibility Cloak.
Magic sparked at the tip of her wand, not for a blast at Geiger, but to reinforce the hanging protective spells, layer them up like she’d seen Elijah Downing do years ago. Wards and warnings, shields upon shields so that no one, single spell could bring her down, not even if she didn’t see it coming, not even if it was cast by a Thornweaver in the Invisibility Cloak. Which meant the next trick was figuring out how to respond to this threat without letting Geiger or the last Thornweaver know she’d anticipated them.
Stay silent. Stay still. Listen -
She did hear the footstep. Because she was focusing, because it was close, and because it was right behind her.
Immediately before a knife plunged into her back.