13 June 2015

Significant Digits, Chapter Eleven: Any Advantage



Significant Digits, Chapter Eleven: Any Advantage


Make no mistake: this is a war, and you must choose sides.  It might not be an easy choice.  It is very possible that you agree with some of the things that the Tower has forced on Britain, or that you disagree with much of what we tell you in these pages.  But you must make your imperfect choice, for the sake of our heirs and the world.  These are the times when you must find your courage and hold to it, even when the enemy is vast and powerful.

What makes you shudder, when you think of the Tower?  Perhaps you wish to live a natural life, and for your family to live a natural life, without being reshaped by Dark rituals into a creature of the Tower.  Perhaps you believe in an order to the world, where wizards and witches work as caretakers and stewards over the lesser races, rather than rubbing shoulders with half-beasts and ignorant Muggles.  Perhaps you treasure the long traditions of wizardkind, such as Quidditch -- yes, even the great game is in peril!  What do you fear from this tyrant?

This is a war, and you must choose sides.  And it is the greatest war, even beyond those fought against Grindelwald or Voldemort, since every fallen soldier only rises to serve as the enemy’s slave.  The winner will take all, and the stakes are so high that every old grudge or loyalty must be swept aside.  Do you resent that we no longer fight for blood purity?  I tell you here that it ranks as nothing in the larger picture; it is as important as a chesspawn on a true battlefield.  Do you wish that we could go back to ignoring the Muggles, and pretending that they have not found their own clever power?  I tell you here that the most important thing in this war is to win, and to defeat the tyranny of evil I would take any advantage.

Excerpt from “Allies Must Gather,” by Draco Malfoy
Unbreakable Honour
Vol 4 (1999), Issue 9

≡≡≡Ω≡≡≡

The redcap is not Nature’s most perfect killing machine.  It is not the second most perfect killing machine, either, nor the third.  In terms of perfect killing machines, the redcap is somewhere down the list below not only the quintaped and every variety of dragon, but also such relatively workaday beasts as the shrake.

The redcap, which has a dim but malicious intelligence, resembles nothing so much as a grotesque human of between two and three feet in height.  They are drawn to wizard blood and love to feed upon it, but are capable of surviving on a diet of slugs and sparrows.  They invariably use crude clubs made from bone or wood, and dress themselves in woven grass.  Redcaps are named for their hair, which they instinctively smear with blood and slick back into a high peak.

A young or sickly Muggle might have trouble with a redcap.  An adult Muggle would find little danger from as many as two.  Witches and wizards consider them nothing more than a mildly-dangerous nuisance, even when they attack in gangs of five or six.

It would take on the order of twenty redcaps, compelled to work together, to seriously threaten an adult magic-user.

But as for a horde of three hundred redcaps… why, anyone should feel threatened.

≡≡≡Ω≡≡≡

Hermione followed Tonks as the metamorphmagus led them to the alley at a brisk pace.  Like the rest of the Returned, Tonks’ right hand was encased in a gold-shining gauntlet of power, but she was the only one who accompanied it with a grin, visible even from the rear.  Hermione, Charlevoix, Esther, Simon, Susie, Hyori, and Urg followed.  The group of eight Returned were all wary, taut, and suspicious as they walked through the narrow Tidewater streets.

Perhaps there was no need to worry, at least out here, Hermione thought.  More than one smiling face watched them pass by with approval, and they even received a ragged but enthusiastic huzzah from a trio of old men who stood under a gaslight.  Hermione thought it was probably half her own presence, and half the presence of Esther.

The town-within-a-city of Tidewater was clean and colonial, with whitewashed walls and shining cobblestones.  A sizable part of Boston’s waterfront had been twisted into a knot centuries ago to produce this enfolded magical community, drawing upon the power of America’s eastern ley line to power the fold, in much the same way that Hogwarts drew from Scotland’s northern ley.  Tidewater was nowhere near as impressive as Hogwarts, of course, and virtually all of those energies were wasted in the sloppy spell-work that had built the place.  But even this sort of wasteful work is beyond us, even with all the research done at the Tower, Hermione thought.  Chargers and slice-boxes are clever enough, but can we really rebuild this sort of knowledge base?

It wasn’t a question of the raw power.  It was a question of using it in the right way.  The creators of Hogwarts had whipped their magics in and out of reality like a needle, pulling and folding a Scottish lakeside with the elegance of a master tailor.  But if you couldn’t ply your puissance behind a needlepoint, you were reduced to hammering one fold on top of the other, nailing them in place with crude might.

“No wizard, no matter how powerful, casts such a Charm by strength alone. You must do it by being efficient.”

Her thoughts were wandering.  Hermione snapped her attention back to the task at hand, chagrined at her own lack of focus.  They were a visibly armed troop of British witches and wizards, marching through little-known territory to investigate a mysterious door decorated with the banner of one of their greatest enemies.  It didn’t matter how friendly everyone seemed… Diagon Alley had been friendly right up until someone had smeared her with acid and dropped a bomb at her feet.  She flexed her left hand in its gauntlet at the thought; the device felt snug and secure, but left her with such freedom of movement that it might have been made of silk rather than goblin gold.  It was only a precaution -- backup, if things went south -- but it felt good to have it.

“This is it,” Tonks announced loudly, with virtually no discretion.  The Returned were standing before the Armin Arms, which was indeed (as she had said) a “dingy little pub.”  That was, if anything, a kind way to describe the establishment.  The whitewash was grey, and the pub’s sign -- a pair of masks, happy and sad -- appeared to be actually rotting.  In the Muggle world, it would look run-down.  In the magical world, it was like a neon sign proclaiming the Armin Arms to be EXTREMELY SUSPICIOUS AND POSSIBLY QUITE DANGEROUS.

Two children in rather nice robes peeked from around the corner down the street, and whispered to each other.  Hermione whipped a glance at them, face angry, and they vanished.  This was no place for children.

“Let’s go in,” she said.  They sorted themselves into a practiced pattern: Simon in front to take the door, everyone else in pairs after him (Esther and Tonks first), with Urg bringing up the rear.  They scanned for traps, both magical and mundane, and then they were in through the door, swiftly and smoothly.

The inside of the Armin Arms wasn’t much better than the outside.  A surprised-looking bartender stood behind a long bar made entirely of unpolished brass, curse-scarred with blackened welts of bubbled metal in several places.  A long mirror went the length of the wall behind him.  There were only two customers: surly and saturated men slumping at a battered table.  The only clean things were the big rattan rug that stretched out wide in the middle of the room and the Slytherin tapestry that hung on one wall.  The place smelled unpleasant: metallic like copper, but thick with the sickly-sweet smell of rot.

“Hello, gentlemen,” Hermione said, smiling.  “Sorry about the drama… a bit silly, isn’t it?  Just here to look around, if you don’t mind?”  None of the three said anything in response, quiescent from surprise or alcohol -- except for one of the drunks, who slid forward onto his face, flinging out one arm across the table and loudly passing gas.  There was a slight tremble underfoot, as though someone had stomped on the boards.  Strange.

“Charming,” Susie said, lowering her wand from the ready position.  “Quick, someone hold me back.  I must restrain my lust.”

Charlevoix stepped forward a pace, sniffing.  “Faites attention… This is the stink of blood.”

“Rug,” Hyori said, gesturing.  Catching her hint, Hermione nodded in confirmation.  She glanced over at the witch with a quick smile of praise, and used her eyes to indicate the gaseous drunk.  Hyori pointed her wand at him.  Taking the hint, Esther and Simon covered the other two.  Urg covered the door with two golden-gauntleted palms, moving to the side.

Within the instant, both “drunks” and the bartender were in motion.  The first two tried to seize the heavy oak table in front of them and heave it up.  Good idea, and faster than going for a wand, but too slow.  Simon stunned his target before the man had done more than grab the table, and while Hyori’s first hex missed, her man couldn’t lift the table quickly enough on his own, and her second stunner swatted him flat.

The bartender ducked down, and Esther’s attack hit a bottle of firewhiskey instead, inflicting glowing red cracks in a spiderweb across the surface of the glass.  The bartender reached over the brass bar with his wand, and blindly shouted a curse that Hermione didn’t recognize: “Aplaniodin!”  Two dozen discrete rays of yellow light flared out from his wand like a starburst, solid beams of brightness that looked dense enough to touch.  Half of them stabbed straight out throughout the room, stopping when they struck the walls, floor, and ceiling all around, while the other half were reflected in the mirror behind the bar, angling back at Hermione and her Returned.

One of the beams of light struck Simon, and another struck Charlevoix.  They were smashed aside by the blow.  Esther flung herself to the ground to avoid a beam, while Hyori inclined her head just enough so that another roared past her cheek and left her untouched.  Hermione was already moving, stepping lightly from the floor to a chair to a table, barely even noticing her own deft steps.  Before the curse had died away, she had launched herself into a curling arc over one of the beams, singing out a hex as she leapt the room.  The bartender crumpled, wracked with a red glow.

Simon hauled himself to his feet within a few seconds, blood streaming from his nose and mouth.  He’d been struck solidly in the side, but he must have hit the ground unluckily; it looked like his nose was badly broken.  He was silent.  Tonks went to check on Charlevoix, while Susie moved to Simon with her wand already in position for a scan.  Urg kept the door covered.

“Esther, the rug.”

Esther approached the broad rattan stretch in the center of the room.  What wandless magic had been cast on or under it… Spongify?  Wandless magic was difficult -- it required holding certain thoughts in the correct way and thinking them into new “positions” -- so it couldn’t be anything too terrible.  Their opponents hadn’t been that impressive.  But what was that light spell?  It instantly controlled the room and hit like an iron Bludger.  I’ve never seen or heard about a curse that powerful and that fast.  She’d have to consult the Hogwarts library and a few people (Amelia, Alastor, Harry) but she was fairly sure that she would have remembered it.  Odd.

“Hssss…”

A soft susurrus like a snake, and the rug shifted, flexing slightly from some pressure below.  Hermione frowned.  A serpent?  Not very imaginative, even if the Malfoy snake fetish bordered on the embarrassing.

No.  A low voice whispered a word, and the sound was wet.  “Maschaechgo.”

Susie had pulled Simon aside, and she paused just to cast an Episkey on his nose before turning back to the rug.  Urg faced the space as well, both palms up.  Hyori and Esther had their wands up.  Tonks had overturned a table for cover, and was still examining Charlevoix to see if she should be keyed out to the Tower, or if she could recover.

Everyone was appropriately alarmed.

“Maschaechgo… maschaechgo.”  The voice smacked wetly again, and repeated the word.  After a moment, another joined it, saying the same thing.  Hermione didn’t recognize the language.

Slowly, Esther backed away.  The rattan rug flexed up a second time, and then slid off to the side, whispering its way along the floor, gradually revealing the black square of a pit.  A single small hand, the size of a child’s, reached from within and delicately grabbed the pit’s edge.  Then the redcap pulled himself up, and Hermione could see his head.

It was like a horrible mockery of an old man, as though someone had seized the face of the creature and yanked the flesh in different and random directions.  Twisted and corded flesh muddled together into something like a face.  The teeth in the open mouth, which leered vacantly, were so white and so sharp.  The hair was dark crimson, clotted back into a high peak with old blood.  In the other hand was a bone club, wrapped with a twine handle.

Nasty creatures, but not too dangerous.

Another hand appeared on the pit edge.  Then another, and another.  Small malformed heads levered themselves up into view.  “Maschaechgo,” one of them said, lips shining with spittle.

“Maschaechgo… maschaechgo… maschaechgo… maschaechgo… maschaechgo… maschaechgo… maschaechgo…”

Dozens.

“No killing,” Hermione said, and raised her wand again.  They were horrid, but sentient.

“Save one life,” Simon and Susie and Esther and Urg and Hyori said, in unison, and raised their own wands.  They all drew closer, and set themselves between the pit and where Tonks was tending to Charlevoix with healing spells.

Save one life, and it is as though you have saved the whole world.

Stupefy!” she shouted, and the battle was joined.

≡≡≡Ω≡≡≡

It is a well-established fact that, since the Peace of Westphalia, dueling tactics have dominated magical combat.  The days of massed armies of Muggles led by a handful of wizards and witches passed into memory, and by the dawn of the nineteenth century there were few alive who remembered that style of fighting.

You might object at such a characterization, pointing out the armies of goblins, centaurs, and other creatures that wizards still matched themselves against.  But goblins lost their wands a thousand years ago, and in their rebellions they made guerilla war with cleverness and subtlety, never in standing fights.  As for the centaurs and other creatures… well, let us be frank.  It was never “war” when wizards and witches fought them.  It was punishment… or extermination.

There have been surprisingly few exceptions to this general trend, particularly as dueling tactics have become highly refined and specialized.  International magical warfare, crudely fought with massed wizards and witches, was nearly eliminated by the Peace and its fallout (the International Confederation, the Statute of Secrecy, etc).  Even those Dark Lords and Ladies who defy convention and try to build slave-armies with crowd-control magics find no one willing to take the challenge.  A team of Hit Wizards, sent on behalf of the Confederation by a member state, simply visits them alone, late one night.  Even Grindelwald’s forces defaulted to dueling behavior, and he himself was only duelled into submission.

Lord Voldemort was one of those few who defied the trend, gathering crowds of Death-Eaters and leading them in attacks on other groups, controlling the battlefield and managing his soldiers from the rear.  And though this was not well-known, he didn’t do this because it was efficient… he did it because he thought it was more interesting.

But once he’d introduced the idea again, and reinforced it in his guise of David Monroe with student armies at Hogwarts, it was only a matter of time before others realized the advantage to be gained.  All of the world’s strongest witches and wizards had been carefully taught to duel, above all else.  Dueling spells and tactics are precisely targeted and built around overcoming individual defenses.

You cannot duel an army.

≡≡≡Ω≡≡≡

“Aqua Erecto!” Esther called.  She held her wand with both hands to direct the thick stream of water that blasted from its tip, and swept it through a line of redcaps.  They went tumbling like ninepins, some back into the pit, but there were more to take their place.  It seemed like an ocean of the vile little creatures, climbing from the pit and on each other’s backs and shrieking, “Maschaechgo!  Maschaechgo!”

Ventus!  Ventus!”  shouted Simon, his face still bloody, while Hyori snapped hexes at small groups of redcaps, firing off Immobulus as quickly as she was able.  It was too slow… a dozen redcaps swarmed over the table she’d placed in front of her, bone clubs raised high and twisted faces alight with bloodlust.

“Rotgod!” declared Urg, leaping in beside her from an adjacent chair, one golden gauntlet raised.  There was a pulse of power that throbbed through everyone’s bones as the gauntlet unleashed a charger’s contents at the sound of the goblin word, and a wave of sticky grey foam was ejected from the device’s palm, sweeping over the swarming redcaps.  It rapidly swelled, seething up into stiffening bubbles almost as large as the heads of the redcaps, imprisoning all of the swarm and a dozen more behind them.

The concept behind the foam was an old one by the standards of Muggle science, developed by Sandia Laboratories in America in the eighties; the patents had been easy enough for Hermione to retrieve in London.  It was flame-retardant, it expanded to thirty times its own size once deployed, and it stood almost no chance of killing an enemy.  If their faces were exposed, they would be fine, and a Bubblehead Charm could assist anyone in danger.

Cheered by the result, Hermione blasted redcaps away from herself and called to Urg, “Over the pit!  Trap them inside!”  She could fell them with a single spell or a single punch, but it wasn’t fast enough; she’d already taken a dozen blows to the skull from bone clubs.  The redcaps just kept coming, climbing over the bodies of the fallen and leaping to the attack.  Why were there so many?  She knew they’d just been sealed in the pit, but how had they gotten them in there in the first place?  This was madness.  She didn’t want to have to kill the beasts, but she couldn’t let them kill the three stunned wizards or any of her Returned.

Urg scrambled around the mass of foam-encased redcaps, keeping well away from the sticky, swelling bubbles.  But before he could get in position for another attack, one of the beasts leapt onto the foam from the pit’s edge, landing on the exposed chest of a kinsman, and then tackled Urg.  He was small enough that he was sent sprawling, and he took a heavy hit from the creature’s club in the moments after the scramble landed.  He lay motionless.  Hermione stunned the redcap, and Tonks was already running to go rescue the goblin, but there seemed to be no end to the little monsters.  More and more redcaps climbed out of the pit by the second, howling the word that seemed to be their battle cry.

“Maschaechgo!  Maschaechgo!”

Six twisted little men threw themselves at Esther, and her surging column of water missed one.  He brought his club down on her shin, howling with wet lips, and she staggered before she could bring her foot back to kick the creature away.  The interruption in her attack let three more within reach, and only Hyori was able to save her, blasting the redcaps off of the American witch with wind.  But with every moment the two were not actively fighting back the tide of horrid creatures, the monsters surged further forward.  Hermione threw curses without a pause for breath.

They would lose this battle.  Attrition would win.

“Everyone!”  she shouted.  “Foam the pit, now!

In unison, as if they were marionettes, every Returned still standing cast Ventus to clear their front, and then raised their left palms, shouting their chosen activation words.  Hyori failed to clear away all of her new attackers -- three redcaps pounced at her legs, shrieking -- but still managed to unleash her gauntlet, dropping to her knees as bone clubs smashed into her shins.

수갑!” said Hyori, gasping.

“Stinkbubble!”  said Susie.

“Muggle-goo!” said Tonks.

“Flandermoss!” said Simon.

“AquaCem!” said Hermione.

The foam erupted from five gauntlets as they each spent the contents of the extended space within a charger.  The grey substance fizzed as it washed forward in a thick wave, and almost every redcap was swept back as the foam poured across and into the pit.  It expanded as it went, forcing fat and sticky bubbles down into the hole.  Hermione heard an unhappy wail of “Maschaechgo!”, barely audible over the sound of the foam popping and spitting.

Ventus!” cast Hyori and Tonks at the same time, blowing the three redcaps clubbing Hyori’s stomach into the mass of foam.  They tumbled away into the swelling grey mound which had sealed over the pit, sticking to its surface and flailing their limbs angrily.  Despite their twisted faces and the rotting blood clotted in their hair, they looked like nothing so much as flies trapped on fly-paper.

Immobulus!” said Hermione, securing the last redcaps remaining.  She reached behind and pulled a bone club from out of her hair, where it had been tangled, and irritably threw it into the mound of hissing foam.  “Okay, Nymphadora, you might have found something interesting here, after all.”

Tonks glanced up from where she was working with Hyori, and said with a grin, “I’m not one to say ‘I told you so.’  Too humble.”  She turned back to Hyori.  “Brackium Emendo.  Cataplasma.

“Charlevoix?  Urg?”  Hermione asked.  She walked over to the goblin, who was on his back, reclining on his elbows.  Urg just grunted in response.

Ça va,” Charlevoix said from near the door, where she was getting to her feet.  “My ribs are nearly mended.  Thank you, Tonks.”  She went to check on the trapped redcaps, scanning to ensure that none were badly injured or dying.

Simon and Susie stayed on the alert while the injured were treated, stunning the occasional mewling redcap from time to time.  Fractures and cuts and lumps were not much of an impediment to the magical, so it didn’t take more than ten or fifteen minutes.  For a witch or wizard, “serious injury” was more along the lines of “all my bones exploded and my hair’s been turned into snakes.”  Hyori, Urg, and Charlevoix were ready for combat -- if a bit weary -- in no time.

The bartender and the two “drunks,” on the other hand, were still stunned.  Hermione searched the pockets of their stained clothing with distaste, and then sent them on to the Tower.  Ker-chak.  Ker-chak.  Ker-chak.  They’d had nothing beyond a few odds and ends, their wands, and a scrap of parchment with three crabbed words on it: “Pest numbers book.“  Hermione pocketed it.

All right.  Whatever is happening here, it’s clearly something big and secret and probably evil.  There is absolutely no reason not to call in reinforcements at this point.  Not from Britain… this is the time to bring in the Westphalians.  If this is anyone but them, then we’re showing good faith.  And if this place is their doing, then we’ll be able to snare more of them once they try to spring this exceedingly obvious trap.

“Simon, Susie, Urg, and Charlevoix -- go to the Council and bring them here.  Hurry.”  If they are intercepted or betrayed and captured, at least one will make it out to bring word.  Strength in numbers will also discourage any attacks of opportunity, and four will suffice to hold our ground or (at the worst) cover an escape if we are discovered.  Hyori, Tonks, and Esther remained with Hermione.

Tonks went over to the Slytherin tapestry on the wall, and held it aside for the other three.  “And here it is,” she said, gesturing within a room with a low ceiling that was completely empty.

“What?”  Hyori said, looking around.  She was still limping slightly, and she looked cross.

“Aparecium,” cast Esther, flicking her wand back and forth.  A white paneled door with a golden doorknob in the shape of a snake’s head and three stone pedestals shimmered into view as the concealment was dispelled.  Each pedestal had parchment and quill sitting on it.

“Told you so,” Tonks said.

≡≡≡Ω≡≡≡

On the first stone pedestal: “Change my beginning, and subtract my end and all color, and chase me away for good.”

On the second stone pedestal:  “Grindelwald’s fall less Urg’s fall less price of Tower’s rise.”

On the third stone pedestal:  “What have I got in my pocket?”

≡≡≡Ω≡≡≡

NOTE:  I am aware of the flaws in this sort of security.  Please think before pointing them out to me.  Levels and levels.

NOTE:  The foam used is based on the foams described in U.S. Patent 4,202,279 by Peter Rand.

NOTE:  This will never be revealed in the story, and it’s probably impossible to independently deduce, so I’ll just tell you: “Maschaechgo” is the phonetic spelling for the word for “red” in one of the Native American Algonquin languages, Mahican.  These redcaps were captured in the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts, nowhere near Boston, and they still speak the old language they crudely appropriated from the first humans they knew.


1 comment:

  1. It saddens me a little that there is not a long discussion below this chapter. You are a good writter. I guess you are just too deep into the rabbit whole.

    ReplyDelete