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Chapter 9 : At the Hour
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Chapter Nine: At the Hour
November 1st, 1946
My words have lost their glamour on you; that much is obvious. I used to make you laugh, old man.
These days I dream even though I put a stop to all dreaming years ago. Years ago, I had the best Potioneers in the Continent brew me draughts to darken all my dreams so that I may sleep like some sightless subterranean creature each night.
But lately, these things I’m seeing here in this accursed prison--why did I ever build it? O, my icicle-crusted arse! Lunatic ghosts populate this cell with me. There’s my mother over there in the corner (she’s one of these ghosts, you see), towering like a dead tree, splintered by lightning. Greetings, Mother! Are you well and with the saints! Why would she visit? And why would she tolerate the company of that blind crone next to her with ferns sprouting out of her ears. There is someone else flaunting her eyeballs at me--a girl.
She looks like someone we both know. No, I’ll clamp my teeth down on my tongue.
I won’t press my thumb into your wound; I want you to listen. Because I want you to listen.
I’ve had more than enough of these games, these stupid infantile back-and-forths of ours. Were you ever right, Albus? Do stories have more power over us than we realise? All through my life I went looking for signs; even now, when I wake, I wake into incoherence, into skeins of signs, into an endless mesh that can’t be deciphered. These tales spring to life just when my own life is ended--festering in this cell and all--should you be here with me? Shouldn’t you?
The day of our grand farce of a duel, I beheld your face for the first time in decades. What was that I saw? Resignation! I was most offended that you would show me such! You had that look that suggested you were coerced into this, martyring yourself in the name of the greater good. Ha! Remember all the times we duelled during that summer of our first meeting? We won an equal number of times, but the times when I pushed you as fiercely as I could, you always won. Yet all those duels made you uneasy. You prefer truces. But me, ah, I’ve always liked it rough. I would risk falling just to hold that moment before falling for as long as I can. Since the day I met you at the feet of your dead mother, I’ve been sparring with you ceaselessly, whether you’re by my side or not, and I haven’t stopped. Not even now.
After I left Godric’s Hollow, I searched for the Elder Wand. My lead was accurate and I obtained it easily. Was that not enough for me to believe that I was destined for the power I held in my hands? Everything fell into my grasp with such grace! I travelled through the Continent, as we promised each other we would. I flew through the cities--old stones and moth-eaten glamour, hardly magical-- they can keep their feather-headed histories for I tire of them, of their obscurities and bygone allure. What does the world become once you’ve had it? Everywhere I went turned ash-grey; everything I touched was stung with elder wood. Yes, I wreaked my destruction everywhere; you know how I was.
The Elder Wand was everything I asked for and beyond. Except, of course, for the somewhat rankling fact of your betrayal.
I suppose I deserved it.
I left the Continent and went East. I whirled through deserts and great frosty plains and forests of boreal razors, and then south, past caged cities and languid lakes clotted with pleasure boats. I walked along the jawbone of a great wall that tore its route over the mountains. I came at last, to an ancient abandoned city. Trees grew through it. Seeds heaved their way through the stone paving and slowly broke the city’s bones and punctured the ceilings of houses and temples with their branches. Now those old stone temples bear trees on their roofs.
Time is a tree, Albus. It starts as a seed, implanted in us when we are infants, then it outgrows us and sheds us like old bark. I think of you and I, and I think of those ruined shrines--I have an affinity with holy wrecks, as you well know,--being ground down year after year by the excruciating weight of those trees. For every inch those trees grow, the shrines sink a little deeper into the dirt.
These are us, these wrecks. Soon a lush forest will grow on our heads, their roots feeding on our mouldering legacy. We are too far away from that summer of our first meeting, and we are too far from power of any sort.
I write all these letters to you and I ask all these questions. You don’t reply. So my questions become rhetorical. I will write once more to you.
For the second time, I shall yield. Then, peace from me. Then, we fester.
The summer has been nothing short of frightful for Bathilda. Never mind the live, sly creature of the heat, or the hottest summer the country has witnessed in three decades. Really, it all began with the death in the house next door.
On the day of Kendra’s horrible and unexpected demise, Bathilda heard the dull thud of something colossal falling to pieces; later, she dramatically described it as “her life in sudden disintegration”. Bathilda hurried over to the Dumbledores’, coughed and stumbled through the granular haze of brick dust and crumbled plaster, and through the tatters of Kendra’s former protective spells. She discovered Ariana in the ruined sitting room, perched on the points of her unshod heels, wordless and with a bird’s foot of blood edging out of her nostril. Kendra’s head was on her lap, the dark bun of hair unravelled, and her eyes were round and bright as polished black coins.
Then, barely a week after that ghastly day, Bathilda received a letter from her great-nephew, Gellert Grindelwald, imploring her to allow him to spend the summer at her cottage, having been most dishonourably dismissed from the Durmstrang Institute of Magic.
At first, Bathilda had been glad; despite his tarnished reputation (which was hardly his fault, because his mother had not the slightest inkling how to raise a sensible child), Gellert’s presence would be a welcome distraction from the terrible affair of her neighbour’s death. Besides, young Albus would also be back, and surely the boys would find favour in each other’s company, being so similar in age.
And she had been right: the boys got along well, too well, in fact. Gellert is hardly home these days, and even if Albus does drop by, they spend hours shut away in deep discussion, forgoing mealtimes. Albus has also begun to show less and less interest in their agreed collaborative research proposal, which she had so generously offered when he came home from Hogwarts.
Lastly, there is the whole business of Theophilus Thimble, the enigmatic sweet-quilled scholar who writes from an unknown address. He had always been so polite and obliging, querying after her research and admiring her collection.
She is a fool, easily deceived. Thimble changed after the course of several letters, after she had most unwisely lent him several tomes from her collection. Bathilda feels a spike of indignation in her chest each time she thinks of his increasing rudeness, his refusal to return her precious texts to her, and his long, fevered letters, most of them fixated on some child’s tale. His last letter was written on three pages torn from The Mythos of Death by Callisthenes Copperfield, a very prized book which Bathilda had sent him. The brambles of his handwriting were barely legible over the text of the Mythos book, and the entire letter consisted of paragraph after paragraph of rambling about those accursed Hallows.
Bathilda has spent the entire summer writing to a madman.
The thought is immensely upsetting to her, as she rifles through her library, pulling out ancient issues of Magical Annals from her shelves and dusting them.
A crisp tap on the window startles her. On the ledge is a brown owl with a letter ties to its foot. Thimble has written yet again. She ought to end this nonsense now and send the note unread back to its unhinged writer. But instead, she retrieves it.
I found the second Hallow, the Resurrection Stone. I found it. It brings the dead to life! But what a farce. I am dissatisfied, even if I have held it in my hands, even before your great-nephew has. Your charming, brilliant great-nephew that you were so telling me about in all your letters.
This is my last letter to you, and I must apologise, because the books I’ve borrowed from you are too badly damaged to be returned.
Mad! Incoherent! To speak of dear Gellert in such a manner! Well, it is partially her fault for revealing information on such personal matters to strangers. The letter bursts into blue flame at the vehement prod of her wand.
“Be off with you!” she snaps at the owl and it gives her its most affronted screech before zipping out the window.
In the enclosed space of her library, the heat draws sweat out of Bathilda’s skin in stiff beads. Such a frightful creature, this summer has been.
Goats are not silent animals. They bleat; they snort and chortle; their hooves clip against the creaky floorboards. They butt the walls of the shed and mimic the hacking cough of old Farmer Bramley, cursing his way across the fields.
Today the goats are silent, and their silence is incorrect. The shed door is ajar.
Aberforth’s thoughts go still; all the world seems to lie flat on its belly and hold its breath, because Bramley’s goats are silent and they have never been before. Where is their brutish humour, the rasp of their laughter, the high-pitched stutters of greeting the moment they sniff out his approach?
He pushes the shed door wide open. The razor-thin smell of ammonia from animal droppings lances through his nostrils.
It takes Aberforth a minute to understand the scene before him. Focus is a sickly slow thing, crawling along the aisle, past the empty stalls and the stands of implements and strewn hay, toward the goats at the back of the shed. His eyes unscramble the mess before him.
All five of the goats are lumped together in a shaggy heap, like common carcasses. Their mouths are open, as are their hyphenated eyes, drying out in the summer heat. Flies flicker like static on their eyelids and ears.
Aberforth chokes in rage and horror as everything leaps to simmering life in his brain, and tears cut their way out of his eyes. He kneels before the goats and half-seizes, half cradles one head after another. Their necks are broken, as are some of their limbs. One of the animals (Beryl, her name) has had her hooves torn off. Another (Bugle, with a mottled brown and white coat) has purple gashes running down her flanks. Another one’s head is badly disfigured by poisonous orange warts.
Bramley is likely to attribute the blame to Aberforth, but blame will not bring the beloved goats back. These creatures are dead by magical means, by a variety of lethal hexes.
There is only one person in Godric’s Hollow capable of such malevolence. Aberforth has seen evil, like an infinitesimal swarm of locusts moving through Gellert Grindelwald’s clear eyes. Grindelwald will pick his way through families, towns, countries perhaps, staying as he pleases, taking lives apart with his corrupt charms and refashioning them into his own pathway to power.
Somehow Aberforth will find a way to drive that scumbag friend of Albus’s from Godric’s Hollow. If he has to, he will kill Grindelwald.
But first, he tends to the goats. He carries them one by one to the edge of the field where they spend afternoons browsing for meadow flowers and thistles. He conducts a few spells and digs five shallow graves side by side, into which he lowers the dead goats. Earth piles into the graves, until all that is left are five dark mounds.
He stares at these blackened hillocks without a eulogy. Then he runs home, wand in hand. The main street and the bustle of townsfolk leap past, and then the rows of cottages stumbling into each other, windows blooming into doors and back into windows. The fences are adjoined in one endless railing. A sharp pain stitches itself into Aberforth’s side, but he keeps on running.
Grindelwald is lounging on a divan in the Dumbledores’ sitting room when Aberforth reaches home. His legs are propped up on a worn bureau. Albus is nowhere to be seen, though the aroma of bitter herbs and soup wafts from the kitchen.
“What is the matter?” Grindelwald asks, lazily. His features have curdled into a smile. The tone of his voice is gentle, but there is something detestably sly beneath his languid and polite manner.
Insufferable! Aberforth raises his wand and Grindelwald’s expression dissolves in alarm as he tries to leap out of the way. He is a moment too slow, and the Stunning Spell clips him on the shoulder, which is already angled to dodge. The force of Aberforth’s curse tips the divan over and sends Grindelwald spinning across the floor, but the latter regains his footing within a split second.
Aberforth does not hesitate; he sets off a barrage of curses at Grindelwald, shouting every haphazard incantation that crosses his mind--Stunning Spells, Laughing Jinxes, Jelly-Legs Hexes, Blasting Curses, Body-Bind Afflictions, Discombobulations, Disarming Spells.
Grindelwald is untouchable. Shield Charms spring to silvery life around him, and all of Aberforth’s spells are instantly dispersed upon contact.
Grindelwald smiles infuriatingly. “Do you even think, that you, an insignificant and stupid child can hinder your brother and I in any way? You would bring us down and see that our plans never come to fruition? You would tend to the insecurities of your broken little family and deny the world its rightful saviours?”
“You’re a lunatic,” Aberforth snarls. “There are places that can hold you until the end of your delusions. For all the glory that you desire, these are the places best suited for you.”
Grindelwald’s face distorts. A brief grin touches the corner of his lips. The Shield Charms before him flicker and disappear.
Aberforth is gripped by a curse, Unforgivable in the eyes of the Ministry of Magic. The pain is all-consuming and final in its devastation. He drops to the floor, everything else forgotten: Albus, Ariana, his beloved goats, his very existence swells and then contracts violently on itself. The entire world narrows in pain. His flesh is interwoven with knives beneath his skin, and every movement is a laceration of his body. His skin is a wide, flapping sheet torn from the framework of his body, endless, existing only to feel mile after mile of torment. He hurls his forehead against the floor. Every moment of consciousness is an incandescent shard through his eyes. He is nothing, nothing but a pathetic beast curled up on the floor, screaming and pleading for mercy from his hated enemy. There is laughter in the margins of his agony.
And all of a sudden, the pain stops. The stoppage of pain has an impact of its own, and the world slams into him.
Someone is kneeling beside him. Aberforth’s vision focuses first on his brother’s eyes, and his brother’s face, and then he registers his brother’s hand clenching at his shoulders. Though the Cruciatus Curse was lifted only moments ago, Aberforth’s memory can neither describe nor recreate the intensity of the agony experienced.
“It’s alright, Aberforth. It’s over--it’s stopped--I’ve made him stop.” For once, Albus seems to be incoherent. “Hold still; you’ve been hurt.”
Blood dribbles from a gash over his brow.
Across the room, Grindelwald is slumped against the wall, beaming with red-stained teeth. His eyes are malevolent stars. Aberforth clambers to his feet, despite the weakness in his limbs and the pounding in his head.
“Step away, Albus.” He wrenches himself free of his brother’s grip and stumbles.
“A sharp dose of pain can be unexpectedly refreshing, can it not? You would like more, I presume,” Grindelwald sneers. He jumps to his feet, and with a wide grin, begins to murmur a song. “There was a little goatherd, who rather fancied livestock. He sulked all day and night when he couldn’t find his flock.”
“STUPEFY!” Aberforth howls.
But Albus is quicker, and a Shield Charm erupts between Aberforth and Gellert.
Spells shred the air. Furniture is splintered and chunks are gouged out of the walls by stray curses. Albus’s Shield Charms are relentless, bursts of silver between Aberforth and Gellert.
“Oh, I think I hear a cry so fleeting! Through yonder door--can it be bleating?”
“Gellert, I beg you, do not do this!” Albus yells.
The plea strikes deaf ears. “Have we not begged enough of each other? Your brother wants a duel, so he shall get one. But why do you keep standing so irresolutely in between the both of us? Your Charms will not preserve either of us for long and you know it. So, Albus, I ask you once again: make your choice.”
“If any of this madness has anything to do with our earlier conversation,” Albus begins, “then you and I can settle this on our own, far from here. Leave my brother out of this.”
“This has nothing to do with you!” Aberforth shouts. “You’re blind if you can’t see this!”
“Why does the hoofless beast dance? Does it know its goatherd’s tune, perchance?”
One of Gellert’s curses dodges the translucent Shield Charm bubbles and finds its way to Albus, enveloping him in a swathe of shadow. Something circles his throat and tightens, pressing the air out of his lungs. He struggles in the dimness, clawing at the unseen grip around his neck. The edges of his thoughts turn blurry with panic.
An incantation comes to his mind, and wordlessly, Albus concentrates on the unspoken syllables of the counter-curse. A white-gold flash tears through the shadowy coils and his windpipe inflates with the onslaught of air.
“Very good, my friend.” Gellert is no longer smiling. Every inch of his face has frosted over.
Albus is dazed. His movements feel sluggish and tricked, even to himself. The person before him is Gellert. Doesn’t he know everything there is to know about Gellert? But this Gellert before him is veined with violence, with an impenetrable coldness. The curses Albus has been deflecting range from spiteful to downright lethal, with several considered illegal by the Ministry. And the Unforgivable!
He surveys his friend in a new capacity; he sees pitch-black reservoirs and passion bordering on venom in the limpid eyes of his friends.
Aberforth flings a Blasting Curse at Gellert, who disappears with a flurry and a crack. The missed curse pulverises a bookcase and sends tremors across the room. Gellert reappears right behind Albus, who retaliates with a Disarming Spell.
Gellert discharges two spells in quick succession: a Bone Shattering curse toward Aberforth (which Albus manages to annul with a deft Impervius charm), and another odd curse toward Albus (who does not have sufficient time to strike up a counter-curse). Albus falls. His right leg has turned into a stump of wood, with roots tentacling from where his ankle used to be. The roots fasten to the ground and burrow into the floors of the house.
“I see you’ve retained your sense of humour even during a time like this.” Albus is calm, but the bitterness surfaces in his words.
“You can set your roots down now!”
“I don't need your help,” Aberforth hisses at Albus. “And besides, shouldn't you be on his side?”
Gellert raises his wand. Plaster, wood, broken limbs of furniture and other debris leap into the air, conducted into a swirl of movement by his wand. The jagged angles collapse into each other, darkening and turning into a smooth, hulking, four-footed outline.
A lion’s head and mane. The body and cloven hooves of a goat. And at the creature’s rear, instead of a tail, the whip-like form of a serpent, ending in a serpent’s head and forked tongue.
Neither Albus nor Aberforth have laid eyes on a real Chimaera, but they recognise its fearsome proportions and the grotesque quilt of its body.
The creature is imperfect in its animation; with every moment, its shape wavers, and at times a shard of portrait frame juts from its flanks like a brass rib, or the hissing serpent-head flickers into an old lampshade.
Albus removes the hex on his leg. There is no time to think and protect Aberforth. The Chimaera snarls and snaps. Instead of flames, a blinding dust billows from its jaws. Aberforth howls and scratches at his eyes. The beast thrashes its tail and the serpent’s head arcs through the air, dodging a Severing Curse and sinking its fangs into Albus’s arm. Albus feels the bite of porcelain shrapnel and the rusting tooth of the fire-poker, and the warm rush of blood from the wound. The snakehead has no venom.
Determination sinks its barbs into Albus’s brain, clears the confusion and the sense of betrayal in his thoughts, and his duelling instinct takes over. He casts a non-verbal spell, and the flaming shape of a phoenix bursts from his wand. Wings afire, it swoops toward the Chimaera and passes through its hodgepodge body, both creatures merging violently into a blazing spectre, before disintegrating in a rain of cinders.
“Stop,” Albus croaks, “I beg of you, Gellert. Ariana will hear, if she hasn’t already. She isn’t in a stable condition, as you very well know.”
Aberforth is leaning against the wall, breathing hard, and clasping his wand tighter than ever. His eyes dart upward, but no sound comes from Ariana’s room in the attic.
Ash sifts over Gellert’s head in a grey halo.
“So you have made your choice. So you will betray me and yourself. You will turn your back on us and all that we have sworn to accomplish together. When I promised you greatness, I promised the both of us. I will hold us true to this if you keep your part of the bargain.”
“After all I’ve seen you do today,” Albus says. “I do not know who you are.”
Each word slits its way out of his mouth. Every truth is a denial of himself.
“Well, I no longer care how you choose to live your life.” Gellert’s expression is bitter. “But in this duel, you are now against me.”
He turns his wand on Albus.
“Whoever knew that little Ariana Dumbledore could achieve so much?” the Tall Woman says. She shakes her head and leaves drop from her crown, shrivelling once they touch the ground.
“I have not been kind,” Ariana reflects. “I have been lying to old Batty Bagshot next door. I ruined her books. And I lied to that madman Gaunt. Not that he didn’t deserve it, of course. Anyway, that’s hardly any harm done.”
Ariana is seated at the trestle table from Gellert’s story again, opposite the three witches. There is no supper between them, no fire at the hearth, no hearth for a fire.
“I heard Gellert Grindelwald say that he has found the Elder Wand, and that he knows of its location. And I now know that the Stone is with Gaunt. But I wonder about that last one, the Cloak that eluded Death?.”
“Whoever knew,” the Tall Woman corrects, “That little Ariana Dumbledore could achieve so much and yet learn nothing at all?”
“You tend to become repetitive the more you talk.” Ariana manages her most insolent expression. The curl of the Tall Woman’s sneer becomes more pronounced. Ariana can hardly believe that she used to think the Tall Woman had Kendra’s face. There is no resemblance between this spindly giant figure and her deceased mother. The Tall Woman’s skin is flaking. Earwigs crawl from her mouth. Next to her, the Crone has sported a beard of damp lichen. The grey tangles of her hair smell like flooded caves.
In Gellert’s story, the Cloak of Invisibility was water stitched into form. The water-witch had woven it with fingers like knitting needles.
Ariana thinks about Albus and Gellert, respectively coveting the Resurrection Stone and the Elder Wand. How they want to be seen. To have their future deeds magnified rather than diminished by time, to have their names inscribed into the annals of magical history. But how much more power could be accorded to one, if one is not seen, Ariana ponders. If one can see but not be seen, if one can judge but not be made available for judgement, if one can reduce the entire world to nothing but one’s observation. Supposedly Death could not find the third Peverell brother, but the brother could see Death clear as day, and thus keep well out of Death’s way.
“The bloodline of the third brother is hidden, even from us,” sighs the Crone. “Such a pity, I would have loved to pay him a visit. Maybe we shall one day find his descendants. I expect there are plenty of them, scattered across the magical families, and proliferating in utter unremarkability.”
“And that is what happens when you run away and hide,” the Tall Woman says, sharply. “You disappear. You live, but are forgotten.”
“I am not forgotten,” Ariana says.
“You cannot hold us back forever, my sister,” Glass Girl speaks at last, her first words all day. Looking at her, Ariana recalls the smell of river water, algal and sickening, corkscrews of silt, her bones cracking with cold.
“You dragged me under the water that other night.” She turns accusingly toward Glass Girl, who flinches. A ripple of movement passes beneath her transparent features. Perhaps she will break like glass. “You sewed the stones into my dress and held me under.”
“You’re imagining things,” the Tall Woman cuts in.
Downstairs, Aberforth is yelling. Large objects are being hurled across the room. She tries to ignore those boys, always clamouring for attention. Through the floorboards, the tendrils of the strongest magic she has ever encountered rise to envelope her. The magic in her own blood stirs in response. Infinitesimal pulses move under her skin.
“That would be your brothers and the Grindelwald boy fighting in your name, Ariana. And we are here, waiting for them.”
“We’ve grown tired waiting for you, my sister,” Glass Girl whistles. The window panes tremble.
Ariana stares at the Three, but their expressions turn wooden.
“Tell me what is going to happen.” The hairs on her arms are tingling. The room is beginning to bulge and shrink, and the air is turning thick and pillowy in her mouth.
“You used to play with dice, my dear,” says the Crone. She reaches her gnarled hand across the table. In her palm are the lumpy bones of Ariana’s dice. “Let’s see what they say now.”
Ariana takes the three dice and lays them at the edge of the table. She flicks them off and they clatter to the floor. It doesn’t matter where they land, for the lines draw themselves in her head, and they each become a point of reference. The triangle picks itself up from the floorboards to engulf her. Everyone in this house knows the symbol too well.
“What is going to happen to Albus and Aberforth?”
“But you already know,” Glass Girl chimes.
“If you had ever gone to school, my dear, you would have been exceptionally talented in the subject of Divination, though I doubt your mother would have approved,” says the Crone.
The entire house shivers as an errant spell tunnels down into the foundations.
“That Grindelwald boy is tampering with some dangerous magic,” says the Tall Woman. She stands up and spreads her arms in a grotesque crucifix entwined by twisted branches. Her long black robes are interrupted by patches of vegetative growth. “And your brother Aberforth hardly knows what he’s doing. Your other brother Albus is doing his best to protect everyone, and is failing somewhat at this task.”
“Leave them alone. What have you got to do with them? You are my apparitions. You are my curse!”
“There are three of us,” the Tall Woman continues. “And there are three below. One for each of us. This is your madness that has infected them. This is your curse.”
“It is only logical,” the Crone croons with false compassion. “They have been seeking the Hallows. If you remember the stories, you’ll know that whosoever seeks the Hallows seeks power beyond Death, and no matter the variance between any of the tales, one thing remains constant, and it is that Death will not be eluded. All seekers of the Hallows only find Death.”
“Aberforth has done nothing wrong. He doesn’t care a whit about the Hallows.”
“He is to replace you,” says the Tall Woman. “You will not come with us and we are unable to make you. So Aberforth will come in your stead, and we will leave you to your own devices. You may linger as long as you wish in this abject life that you so dearly love.”
“I will stop you.”
“For that,” the Three chorus in their mismatched voices, “You are not strong enough.”
She knows what they will do. She can see the truth of their words, the trajectory of their intent. They will leave her and descend to the bottom of the house where Albus and Aberforth and Gellert are. She knows--she sees flashes of them skulking in the periphery of the duel, waiting for the boys to cast the correct combination of spells, which will turn the air lethal, which will incite their own magic against them until they strike down and are struck down by each other.
Ariana overturns the trestle table as she rises. There is no thud of the table hitting the ground. There is no table or bench. Her room is as it always has been: the bed, scrubbed washbasin, a rocking chair, curtains stuttering in the breeze. Bare walls.
“I’ll come with you.”
The Three stare at her.
“Are you certain?” the Crone wheezes. The Tall Woman purses her lips, taken aback. For a moment, she looks like Kendra again.
“Leave them all alone, and I’ll follow you. You’ve been waiting years for me, did you say? I must be worth all three of them to you. Wasn’t the third brother the one most desired by Death, on account of Death being inconvenienced to wait a full lifetime before he could be claimed? His value exceeded the combined value of his two brothers, so much so that Death accorded him enough respect that they could walk together as friends. Or so Albus’s dreadfully dull story goes.”
“Now you think far too well of yourself,” the Tall Woman says, but there is a glitter of a smile in her eyes.
Ariana reaches under her pillow for a quill and one of Bathilda’s shredded books. She rips a page and begins writing, and then crosses everything out.
Somehow, she must leave a note. How can she disappear without a trace, how can she fall silent without a farewell of any sort? But she won’t write to Albus or Aberforth; their guilt will corrode them for the rest of their lives. She does not sign her name.
Something taps on the window: Pythagoras, Albus’s owl has undone the latch of its cage, flown out the window, circled the house and landed on the attic ledge, as she had taught it to. She opens the shutters. The sun is far too bright, and the pulses of magic begin to build in her. Her blood seems to flare in intervals. Not long now. She ties the note to Pythagoras’s leg and sends it off.
Glass Girl detaches herself from the other two witches and takes Ariana’s hand. There is triumph but no malice in her eyes.
“The duellers are becoming more and more savage,” sighs the Crone.
Glass Girl speaks and her voice does not sound like clogged ponds gathering decay, but like clear channels of running water. “You escaped that first time, my sister, all those years ago, though you summoned us. You fought so very hard to live; you fought for your life’s worth and with your magic, bound us to your blood. But all the years that you have borrowed from us are now due.”
“So any debt I have is now paid in full.”
“Paid in full,” the Three concur.
The Crone takes her other hand. Pain zips up her arms. She looks into her hands and sees two slivers of glass, which she has been squeezing. At her feet are her crushed dice and the carved shell of a hand mirror, which Kendra had given to her on her fifth birthday, the fragments of glass diverting sunlight. She kicks the remains of the mirror under her bed. The Three Witches are nowhere to be seen.
Her bedroom door opens; the attic steps find their way to her, bearing her down through the house. The rooms buckle and lengthen into passageways; walls peel apart into rippling doorways. The house channels her through its space until she finds herself in the sitting room where the three boys are, strung together by their jets of magic and fiery spells into a distorted triangle. The boys are imprecise shapes darting through the smoke. Their language is senseless to her.
Ariana walks through the chaos with her fistfuls of blood, like an unperturbed sacrifice. She smiles benignly at their triangular configuration, with Gellert positioned at the apex, half-laughing, half-snarling. She wanders into the centre of that three-cornered realm.
The fire in her blood is a low thrum of heat. She can feel smoke curling through her veins; she feels as light as smoke, as vapour, as ash.
She remembers the mirror shards ensnaring and scissoring light, turning it into bright spots in her eyes. She is a fragment of death itself, a sacrifice, something hallowed, a blessing laid upon an agreement.
The three of them will live, the boys. She will be forgotten, but that is hardly important. Despite all her efforts, she isn’t important after all. The stories wind on beyond and without her, and she slips away from them, a loose narrative coil spiralling away into the uncatalogued annals of untold stories.
It is a fair exchange, if Albus and Aberforth and maybe even that fool, Grindelwald, live and never be able to harm each other again. Somehow, they won’t be able to kill each other off, no matter how bitter or how passionate the feelings they harbour toward each other, as long as they are bound to this world.
She has reached the centre of their triangle, constructed from their rage and self-righteousness and ignorance. The magic in her blood rises through her and beyond. Still, they do not see her, though she sees them and pauses, momentary fondness blotting the edges of her intent. Then they cast their final spells, and her own taintless magic meets theirs, and the conference of all their collective magic lifts her off her heels and flings her skywards.
She does not remember falling.
Nobody sees Ariana Dumbledore at first.
There are several ways one can become invisible: Concealment Charms, Invisibility Cloaks, elaborate Camouflage Concoctions—potions and spells and magical objects. But one can also be invisible if one is not seen in the first place, or if one remains a fixed perception in the eyes of the beholders.
Albus, Aberforth and Gellert do not see Ariana until their spells collide with something corporeal in that no-man’s land at the centre of the sitting room. Something stronger than the sum of their quarrelsome, impulsive magic catches their spells and ricochets them back at the duellers. Wands are torn from their hands and they are pitched backwards.
Only when the smoke clears and the world drifts back into visibility do they see her: Ariana Dumbledore, the invisible sister, her arms thrown apart like a rejected embrace, her fingers loose, her fingernails unbitten for once. Her eyes are open and skyless, having no regard for any of them.
Aberforth recovers first, a scream wrenched from his throat as he rushes to her, seizes her shoulders and lifts her head in the most inept manner possible. Her cheeks are squashed within his hands and her eyes roll at the tilt of her limp head. Albus, on the other hand, is struck dumb. He kneels beside his brother. The sunlight tearing its way through the windows is far too lucid, and he is all too aware of sitting like a puppet in a diorama of dazzling epiphany. All the veils are lifted from his eyes, all the dreams he had ever dreamt penetrated by the awakened lens of reason, all the glorious madness of summer dissipated. Common sense is a horrifying thing to return to.
“Is she--hurt?” Gellert mumbles, stupidly.
Instead, Albus gets up and leaves the house, into the warmth of a morning edging into noon.
Aberforth has begun sobbing into Ariana’s hair.
Gellert is nauseated. This is the first time he has come so close to Death. He had nearly killed his schoolmate, Averin, all those months ago, and was expelled from Durmstrang as a result, but there was never the sense of crossing a threshold, of his fingertips touching the brink of a void. Now Death looks right back at him, gazing flatly through Ariana’s washed-out irises, calculating, perhaps deciding a future date for when it should come back for him. The girl is dead. Sweat seals his clothes to his flesh and he feels stained, sullied by the whole nightmare of an experience. He is a marked man.
When he goes outside, Albus is standing in the middle of the Dumbledores’ garden. The summer still exists. Heat, and the whirr of flies.
This cannot be the end of everything. He hadn’t meant it to end this way.
“I can fix this. We can fix this.” The words tumble from Gellert’s mouth, strung into one honeyed promise after another.
Albus laughs bleakly, not looking at Gellert. “I doubt that.”
“The Hallows! Have you forgotten? The Resurrection Stone is one of the Hallows. I have been concentrating too hard on locating the Elder Wand; forgive me, I have been selfish. But we will seek the Stone first. The Stone will bring the dead back to life. We can bring her back, Albus. It is never too late! This is the only way.”
“Listen to yourself talk, Gellert. If you had any respect for me or for my sister, you would stop.”
“You have always believed in me. Do you not trust me now? We have always looked after each other. You are my friend--no, more than my friend! Far more.”
Albus is shaking. He pinches his eyelids shut with two crooked fingers. Gellert crosses the space between them and pulls Albus’s hand from his face.
“Why will you not look at me?”
“What have I ever meant to you, Gellert?” His voice is neutral, despite his shaking hands.
Gellert is suffocated by dread. He will lose everything if he speaks incorrectly. Albus is everything. How helpless he is now, when just moments ago he had been overpowered by his own rancour, wanting nothing but to destroy, to maim, to wreak his anger on Albus and Albus’s brother.
“Albus,” he says, “I have never loved anyone as I have loved you. You know it.”
“Then come closer.”
Gellert takes a hesitant step forward.
Albus kisses him hard. Gellert responds, and there is a clash of teeth and the harsh bell of pain ringing through his skull. He lifts his hand to touch Albus’s face or grasp his hair but Albus jerks away, hissing a spell.
Gellert hadn’t expected this, hadn’t known that Albus is capable of such magic and manipulation. But he has spent all summer underestimating his friend and rival and lover.
A torrent of images pull free from the condensed strata of his thoughts, untethered by chronology or relevance: isolated moments moving so quickly that they are forcibly joined to one another into an absurd pastiche of his life: his mother elbow-deep in a barrel of fermented plums morphs into Averin, suspended upside-down. The barges churning down the Danube begin climbing glaciers in Svalbard, under a sky crowned by green flares. Great-aunt Bathilda pours tea in her parlour in the assembly hall of Durmstrang. Little Ariana sputtering water on the crumbling altar of an abandoned church.
Then there are all the moments he had shared with Albus. These moments are clearly delineated from each other. Albus and he at the churchyard during their first meeting, and the peculiar but keen interest Gellert had felt toward this tall stranger slanting over a headstone. He sees their mock duels again, hears their whooping cries and laughter, feels the heat or shade of their lazy days in sunshine or under the beech trees, the scratch of grass beside the millpond, the undulations of each other’s voices, tripping up and down the climaxes of shared stories. The way they gave in to each other’s hands and mouths, grasping and tussling, bodies bruising together. The feathery feeling of hair snagged between teeth. The endless letters spanning the nights and the distance between the houses they lived in.
Gellert gasps when Albus stops abruptly and distances himself.
“So you are telling the truth, partially,” Albus continues in his anaesthetized voice. “But it is too late. Ariana is dead, Gellert. I’ve also seen that you won’t ever understand what this means to me, and so it will always drive a wedge between us. Do with your life as you please, Gellert. I’ll have no part in it.”
And so Gellert Grindelwald, still in shock, leaves, vaulting over the fence to Bathilda’s garden and into Bathilda’s house. The door slams its ugly cadence.
A/N: This is the penultimate chapter of Let Perpetual Light. This is dedicated to everybody at HPFF, because you're all a generous and supportive community, and I'm so happy to know you all.
I would really appreciate feedback on this chapter; please let me know if my action sequences are too clunky, protracted, and any other aspect of the story which you think could use some improvement.
Thank you so much for reading, especially if you have stuck to this tale after all these years.
Also, I can never resist the meta!!! Not even in this fic!!! ❤
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