03 July 2015

Significant Digits, Chapter Twelve: Opposition



Significant Digits, Chapter Twelve: Opposition


To understand the object of an obscure plot, observe its consequences and ask who might have intended them.

- Lord Voldemort

≡≡≡Ω≡≡≡

Research continues at quite a satisfactory pace.  You were correct, sir, to tell me that I would find no challenge.  The techniques of Muggle science are not so complicated, and mostly rely on only a few simple procedures: make observations, guess what’s happening, and then try to prove yourself wrong.  It has been much more unpleasant to deal with the Unspeakables, the Muggles, and particularly the Lovegood girl.  She has risen quite above her station, and it will be very nice to put her back in her place someday, before she gets hurt by her own arrogance.

I wish that our results had more practical application.  The Umbridge Snare is a useful plant for spell research in the future, I admit to that.  A laboratory set within a solarium where the vines are growing in abundance would be an excellent place for inquiries into the most delicate charms, where no interference could be tolerated from local warding.  But time spent on that research was time we could have spent on more important things, like weapons.  Once everyone and everything are sorted out, and there is no more nastiness, then we’ll have time for foolish little plants.

Still, in the hopes that it may prove of use, I have left detailed notes and a mokeskin pouch with a live sample of the Umbridge Snare in the usual location, as well as one of the magic detectors we have developed.  I look forward to the day when we will be able to settle all unpleasantries for good.  I am nearly out of one-time pads; please provide more.  All my best to your lovely mother and Mr. Shacklebolt.

- Dolores Umbridge, from a letter to Draco Malfoy

≡≡≡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≡≡≡

Hermione looked at the three pedestals and their riddles.  She thought, They’re not even being subtle about this.  This doesn’t make any sense.

I notice I am confused.

She turned to the three witches standing beside her.  “This is an obvious trap, right?  They hung a Slytherin tapestry in front of their secret entrance and wrote three entrance riddles that any Muggleborn Ravenclaw would be able to answer given enough time, even if they didn’t have bubblers capable of calling aurors in the Hogwarts library.”  Or capable of contacting Harry, if it’s an emergency and they make the appropriate arrangements.  “The Malfoys are not stupid or obvious.  And this isn’t some sort of double-bluff where we’re meant to think it’s so obvious that it can’t be real, since there’re only a few people who might think of that.”

Hermione spoke to Tonks, directly.  “We’ve called in the cavalry.  We’re not going in until they get here, first of all, even if we solve these riddles.  In the meantime, take Hyori and go back outside… look for anything unusual.  No, wait.  Look for anything unusual, and if you don’t find anything, take a really close look at all the usual things.”

She paused, on the verge of contradicting herself because maybe that was what they wanted her to do, and there would be an ambush in here or out there or

“Wait a second.”

Stop.  You can afford to take the time to think about this for a minute.  Any trap that relies on us being right here is one that could have been laid anywhere, including the tavern’s main room, and there would be no way to predict when exactly we would be here.  We’re probably not in immediate danger.  Stop and think, don’t just react.

This setup has been clever and erudite, but controlled.  They already have some way to control the redcaps, and the little monsters weren’t that dangerous -- blunt trauma against a gang of witches and a wizard, plus me?  Well, and Urg, but still… if you want to make a deadly trap, then you fill that hole with acid-spitting spiders or vermicious knids or whatever.  Or just a bomb, for that matter, these days...

Hermione felt like events were out-of-control… like there were hidden forces just beyond the edge of her understanding.  It was like playing a game she didn’t understand… there was some sort of pattern taking place according to unknown rules, but she couldn’t make a move when she was unable to perceive the goals.

So why the goons, the redcaps, and now the riddles?

Oh.

“ ‘The first letter of the name has been uttered...’ “ she said, distantly.

“I think I know what -“ Tonks began.

Hermione cut her off, snapping back to the situation.  “No, don’t.  Sorry.  And forget what I said a moment ago.  Sorry, but it’s important.  We’re leaving.”  If the trigger to the next level of this trap is auditory, we don’t need to be chatting about the riddles right here.  We should have already been out of here.

Tonks didn’t look offended, but instead grinned hugely.  “Ahhh… you figured something out, didn’t you?”  Esther scowled at her, and put a finger to her lips.

Hyori stepped out of the Actually Quite Clever Trap Room cautiously, wand high.  The pub was just like they left it, and they stood to one side of the wreckage after a cautious scan of the room.

As they walked out, warily and quickly, Tonks’ hair shortened and turned pale blonde.  “Do tell me,” she said, with a deeper voice than usual, “how you have seen through my plottings and plannings, you bloodmud girl.”

Hermione didn’t answer, but did smile.  As they stepped out of the Armin Arms, she glanced around quickly.  No one in sight.

“Tonks, do you remember how either of the men at the table inside looked?”  Damn, why did we send them to the Tower?  Should we call and get them to show us?

“Pretty near,” Tonks said.  “I have a good memory for faces.  So what’s up?”  Her own was already broadening and coarsening, pores on her nose widening and eyes developing heavy bags.

“One, two, three, four,” Hermione counted.  “What comes next?”

“Five,” Hyori answered.

“No.  But if you wanted to get someone to say something, that would be the way to do it.  Especially if what really came next was ‘Pequod turnip’ or something else impossible to just guess,” Hermione said.  She indicated the Armis Arms with one gauntlet-golden finger.  “This is a trap.”

“Not a good enough one,” Esther said, scowling.

“No, the very best,” Hermione said, shaking her head. “If you’re not looking for it, you’ll never find it.  If you find it, you’ll either be stunned and memory-charmed, or beaten unconscious and memory-charmed…”

“And if you make it through both,” Tonks said, “Then there’s a very obvious next step with schoolchild riddles.  And writing on the parchment turns you into a newt or something.”

“Yes, precisely, the next step is way too obvious!  A ‘textbook secret entrance.’   It would get most people, especially people ready to complete an expected pattern: defeat the boss and solve the riddle, and then, voila!”  She swept her arm around.  “Only I bet this voila is a stunner or memory-charm.  It’s like a story I once read, about a detective who thinks he’s found a pattern.”

“I think you’re right,” Esther said.

“But I think that this goes another level deeper.  When I imagine myself trying to design this whole trap, I think about how anyone with serious sense isn’t going to take the bait.  They’re going to do the smarter thing.  What we did.  What I did, without thinking.  Thugs, redcaps, riddles... and one final trap.”

“Call for backup,” said Esther, nodding.  “But why assume it goes any deeper?  Maybe you’re just smarter than everyone else.”

“The redcaps were clever and showed considerable thought… it seems unlikely our opponent is at that level.  And anyway, we don’t lose anything by waiting for the backup and taking one small precaution,” Hermione replied, shrugging.  “But here is my prediction: the Council -- or whoever answers the request of our four when they get there -- is going to send just a few people.”

“For this?  When we were just attacked?”  Tonks said, patting his round belly with one hand idly, while scratching his unshaven chin with the other.  He pulled off his gauntlet, feeding it into his pouch.

“They’ll have a plausible story,” Hermione said confidently.  “And if I’m wrong…” She shrugged.  “We lose nothing and I just look a little silly.  I can live with that.”

Hyori and Esther were already nodding in agreement with her judgment.  Tonks shrugged.

I have been stupid, Hermione thought.  I didn’t understand the game or the moves or anything about what’s going on.  But there is one question I can ask: who am I playing against?

“Then there’s just one thing to do first,” Hermione said.

≡≡≡Ω≡≡≡

Simon, Susie, Urg, and Charlevoix did not return with anyone.  They didn’t return at all.

Instead, thirty minutes after the four had been dispatched to the Alþing, there was a trio of popping sounds in the street.  It was scant yards from where Hermione stood with Hyori and Esther.

A bloody and battered Limpel Tineagar and two American aurors had appeared.  The robes on Tineagar’s spidery limbs were not simply worn: they were bloody rags.  Her breasts were exposed through the shredded front, and long cuts arced across her chest and neck.  There was a red stump where her left ear had once been.  Her wand was in her hand, and her teeth were bared.

The two aurors with Tineagar were in worse shape.  Hermione didn’t recognize them.  The one on the left was slightly taller, with a hook nose and long hair in a braid.  His clothing had been burned, and the fabric along his left side was black and stiff with intermingled ash and the scorched gore of his own damaged flesh.  He stood unconcerned and cool, wand at alert as well, and his eyes already flickering around them.  His companion was average in height, with thick hands.  His face was bruised and bloody, and he looked to have been beaten -- his eyes were purpling and swelling enough that it looked as though he could barely see.  But even he was ready for a fight, with the hardened look of a man who’d fought dangerous creatures and frenzied Euphorics.

These Americans were made of stern stuff.

“Councilor!”  Hermione called, running towards them and lowering her shield.  Her long strides outpaced Esther and Hyori easily, and she was at Tineagar’s side in a moment.  “Jesus!  What happened?!”

Tineagar ignored Hermione’s instinctive Muggle curse of surprise, and used one hand to gather up the remains of her robes in front of her into a bunch, to cover herself.  The other hand kept her wand up, as the Westphalian swept it over the street, looking for a threat.  “Ms. Granger, are you all right?  Were you attacked?”  Her voice was urgent and hoarse.

What happened?  I wanted to flush out my opponent… did someone attack the Alþing?!  An attack on such a scale wouldn’t just bring a further investigation… it might bring a war.  And had the others been caught up in it?  Were the other Returned all right?

Hermione touched her wand to the witch’s shoulder.  “There was an ambush here, yes.  Vulnera Sanentur.  Reparo.  Did you see my people?  Simon, Susie, Urg, and Charl -”

“We must get inside,” Tineagar said, cutting her off.  “It’s not safe out here.  Oh Merlin… we’ve been attacked.   It was Malfoy.  They had Blastbombs…”

Hermione felt her stomach turn, but she turned to glance at Hyori and Esther, indicating with a nod of her head that they should help the two aurors.  She herself gave support to Tineagar, putting an arm around the witch’s waist.  Tineagar looked a little better now that Hermione had healed her a bit and repaired her garments, but this was disaster.  Should they portkey out?  No, not without finding out what happened to the others.

All six of them rushed inside the Armin Arms, one of the aurors bringing up the rear, his wand out and ready for trouble.

“Wait,” Hermione said, as they re-entered the pub.  This place had been trapped -- was still probably trapped -- and it was a terrible place to take shelter.  A low mound of grey bubbled foam still sat like a giant mushroom in the center of the room, studded with stunned redcaps, and one of the wizards who’d ambushed them lay slumped along the wall.  They needed to at least Apparate to a safehouse, if not clear over to London.  She hadn’t been thinking clearly -- there was not the slightest reason to stay here.  She’d bubble for reinforcements and
Stupefy.”

≡≡≡Ω≡≡≡

Colors returned first, swirling in smears.  There was a rubble of sounds, meaningless burbles that she knew must be words.  It was an unknowable time before the colors became shapes, and the sounds became words.

“...say who it was.  If it was a Brit, we’ll need to take action, soon.  But we’re all set up here, already… we shouldn’t move them outside of the wards unless we absolutely must.  Only our trusted people even know about this place, and I don’t think anyone knows they’re here.”

Stunned.  They stunned me.

It couldn’t have been long ago… she didn’t stun easily and it wore off quickly.  Something about the regeneration… enchanted cells were replaced with new ones at a significant rate, maybe -- it was hard to keep her down.  Although she still couldn’t move a muscle.  They’d done something else while she was out.

It was Tineagar speaking.

Well, I wanted to flush out my opponent.  And I said that this would happen… a “plausible story.”  Why didn’t I stop and think?  I made a prediction… why didn’t I stick to it?  I predicted exactly this very thing, and I still fell for the trick.  Just because they roughed themselves up a little bit, I acted according to a script.  Stupid, stupid.  Is Tineagar with Malfoy?  Is she acting alone?  Is this a move by the Council?

Hermione strained herself to move, willing her toes to wiggle.  Nothing happened.  She put a convulsive mental effort into it.  Move move move MOVE.  Not a twitch.  She couldn’t even figure out what they’d done to her.  There were a half-dozen spells that rendered the victim immobile.

“Bring them here.  Do it directly,”  Tineagar said.

A male voice answered her.  One of the aurors?  “Yes, ma’am.  It’ll take me a few minutes to bring all four of them, though.  We can’t Apparate out, but --”

“No, no,” Tineagar said.  “I’ll hook up the Floo here, and you can bring them directly.  I know the agenspræc to Greater Boston, and I can link it up downstairs in no time.  We won’t leave a trace.”

A trace…

Far too late, Hermione realized: I could have checked for fingerprints on that jar of Floo powder.  I am stupid.

Tineagar went on.  “Go and wait in my office.  You and Horvath keep anyone from going in, and send the four Brits through, once I signal you through the Floo.  Stun the Goddess again before you go.  Better safe than sorry.”

Stupefy.”

≡≡≡Ω≡≡≡

Colors… shapes...

Hermione was awake again.  She blinked, then did it again.  She could move.  She was lying on her side, on the floor.  Somewhere.

Her left arm, right leg, and her sides tingled.  She recognized the sensation of new-healed wounds.  They’d found her implants and taken them out.  It made sense they might find the Ultimate Ulna and the portkeys, but how had they found the batballs?  She and Harry had tested them, and she’d thought that only the Tower’s magic detector was sensitive enough to find them.

Hermione glanced around.  They were in a brick-walled room with a low ceiling.  There was a long and narrow table with a dozen stools around it.  Her belongings were resting on the table.  Pouches, two wands, portkeys, batballs, gauntlet, and other miscellaneae.  Hyori and Esther were along one wall, still stunned, lying on top of each other unceremoniously.  Next to them was the figure of one of the drunks who’d ambushed them, sitting up and leaning against the wall, but still apparently unconscious.  Limpel Tineagar and one of the aurors -- the one with the hook nose and braid -- were standing next to a fireplace.  Tineagar was bent down slightly, and had her wand resting on the stone of the fireplace.  She was muttering to herself.  The auror was watching Hermione.  He smirked when he saw her looking.

This was some sort of meeting room or local headquarters.  There was stacked parchment, boxes of potion components, and other odds and ends.  The local meeting place for the Malfoy faction?  She didn’t see anything to hint at a larger purpose.

She shifted a bit.  She was no longer paralyzed, but she was bound tightly in place.  Looking down, she saw tight black cords wrapped around the length of her body.  Her arms were pinned against her so firmly that she couldn’t do more than wiggle her fingers.  Her legs were cocooned with the black cording.  Incarcerous ropes, conjured on her multiple times.

“Cou --”  Hermione’s voice warbled.  She swallowed and tried again.  “Councilor Tineagar, have you lost your mind?”

“Ms. Granger, you’re awake.”  Tineagar didn’t turn around, but continued casting, wand on the fireplace.  “I have some questions for you.  Just one moment, and I’ll be right with you.”

“Councilor,” Hermione said.  She was anxious over her Returned -- please be okay, please be okay -- and angry over the betrayal and utterly confounded about this situation, and she let all of that emotion into her voice.  “Turn around.”

Tineagar lifted her wand and straighted, turning to face her captive.  Her face was sour, mouth tight.

“You’re in command of yourself,” Hermione said, eyeing her.  “This is you.”  It wasn’t a question.

“Yes, Ms. Granger,” Tineagar said, sighing.  “This is me.  And believe me when I say that I am sorry about this.  This was not…”  She paused.  She had always looked pale, but now she looked even whiter than usual.  “There was no alternative.  And things could be much worse.  You and your people are all safe.  You will be memory-charmed, and no worse the wear.  We’ll add a few things, of course… to help you serve the right cause.”

Tineagar shook her head, wonderingly.  “I thought that they were being paranoid when they said that anyone could get past our traps here… the goons, the redcaps, and the riddles.  But I see that they were right, and that’s why we’ve got a captive Goddess.  But you won’t be harmed.”

Hermione didn’t say anything.  She just glowered at Tineagar.

The American went on.  “We would already have done those alterations and let you go, in fact, except that two of my men are missing.”  She gestured with her wand at the unconscious drunk leaning against the wall.  “I need to know where you have them.”

Hermione shifted herself so that she rolled onto her back, and then sat up.  Her bonds tightened at the motion, and she felt them strain and bite into her.  She ignored the discomfort, which was trivial.  The auror was already covering her with his wand, and Tineagar lifted her own slightly.

Do I tell her that she’s already lost?  I need to make sure they don’t do anything desperate… what would serve my purpose better: confidence or fear?  Hm.  Tineagar has been very contrary, which might come from arrogance or insecurity.  Reportedly a high achiever, but that doesn’t provide evidence either way.  Hard to say which would succeed.  I should start with intimidating her, though.  It’s easy to go from intimidation to cowering, but a lot harder to go the other way.

Hermione could probably kip up from this position, but it would be difficult.  Better not to risk her dignity yet.  “I don’t see any reason to tell you that.”

Tineagar rubbed her eyes with her free hand.  “I’m not going to pretend that I’m willing to torture you or yours.  Even if I would do that sort of thing, I’ve seen your mettle… I don’t think you’d break.  And I know for a mortal fact that none of your insane little group would make a peep.”

Scruples.  In someone willing to murder an innocent like Tarleton?  Unless she didn’t order that, or she’s not the boss, or it was a mistake.  She’s proudly taking an ethical stance, here… let’s see if I can goad her into self-righteousness.

“You didn’t… seem like you were that kind of person,” Hermione said, cautiously.  Be dumb, let her correct you and supply information.  This has to be hard on her… push it.  Tineagar’s not a plotter, not subtle… she’s a born lieutenant.  A Gryffindor, not a Ravenclaw or Slytherin.  “Not that we’ve known each other long, but when we were discussing Tarleton’s murder -- but wait, you were behind that… you were the one who killed him… you’re a murderer...”

As Hermione pushed it a bit further with each phrase, probing for a response, she saw Tineagar’s face twist in disgust at Hermione’s fake process of “realization.”

“That was the Malfoys, not us!”  Tineagar said, her lip curling.  The auror standing next to her walked across the room, separating himself from Tineagar.  An abundance of caution… he wanted a clear shot and a crossfire on Hermione, just in case.  He did not seem won over by Hermione’s aura of innocence, even though she was bound and helpless and it should be accentuated.  Maybe they’d discussed it while she was out.

So this was a Council stronghold, after all.  That had implications.  If Hermione escaped -- no longer a safe assumption, now -- she’d have to live in fear for her Returned, or else pit them against one of the most powerful magical organizations in the world.  The Council of Westphalia was in effective control of more than one government.  Or it could be war, if magical Britain acted to protect one of its most beloved popular figures.  A magical world war.

Her dread of the possibilities must have shown on her face.  Under the circumstances, it was probably easy to misinterpret.

“Yes, your friend, Draco Malfoy… he murdered that boy,” Tineagar said.  “He murdered his own agent.  He must have known we’d discovered that the boy was an infiltrator.  And that blood is on your hands, too.”

“His own agent,” Hermione repeated, slowly.  “Tarleton was passing out information.  That’s why the Floo powder was in that room, even though there was a Flounder.”  She wriggled in place, trying to work some blood down to her bound extremities.  The ropes were digging deeply into her.

Tineagar’s eyes widened.  “That is --... Merlin’s beard, yes.”  Her eyes narrowed, and she stared suspiciously at Hermione.  “You are clever.”

“Not so clever.  Tarleton and Kemp… hah.  I get it, now.  Stupid of me -- a British Muggleborn with a good education should have figured it out immediately.  Stupid of them, for playing those risky games,”  Hermione said.  She didn’t clarify for Tineagar when the American witch looked puzzled.  “Well, then.  We’re at an impasse.  How about a trade?”

“I very much doubt you have anything to offer me, actually,” Tineagar returned.  “I want you to tell me where you have my men because it’s the right thing to do.  I have no choice but to wipe your memory of this whole debacle… my hands are tied.  With or without them, you’ll forget all of this.  And wherever you’ve put my men, you’ve surely tied them up or caged them or something.  If you don’t tell me where they are, they’ll be trapped wherever you have them, until they die.”

Do I tell her that they’re already at the Tower?  That there’s no hope of keeping this affair a secret?  What will her reaction be… will she act desperately?  No.  She’s been through enough that she’ll keep a cool head.  But neither is she soft enough to surrender, once she finds that out.

No, she’ll wipe our memories.  That will be the best course of action... it gives her deniability.  No one will really want a war, so things will settle out with distrust.  The Council’s plan -- whatever it is -- will continue.

It was a pity she couldn’t signal to her future self that she’d been memory-charmed.  They’d probably put back all of her belongings, and her wounds would heal… she’d never even know that all this happened.

Well, then.  That leaves me no other alternatives but to act.

She glanced at the auror, who was standing across the room from her.  The table was between them.  All of her belongings were lying on it, including the gauntlet.  It was facing away from her, and she wished she could burst free of her bonds and leap to it, sliding her hand right in and sweeping away Tineagar and the auror.  But even she couldn’t break this many Incarcerous bonds.

So how could she do this?  Two enemies, and she was unarmed.  She gave herself another long second to think.

Oh.

“They’re in a secure location.  My headquarters at Powis, in Britain.  There’s a portkey in my garments, here.  You missed it.  It looks like a piece of Drooble’s Gum.”

When Hermione said “garment,” the Returned code word for “prepare for violence,” she saw the “unconscious drunk” lying next to Hyori and Esther move his hand incrementally, sliding it behind his back.  She knew there was a wand hidden there.  Tonks was ready.

“Get it.  Be careful,” Tineagar ordered the auror.  He didn’t look like he needed to be warned.  “If you try anything, remember your friends.  No one wants them getting hurt in a scuffle.”

“I don’t want anyone getting hurt, ever,” Hermione said, as the auror rounded the table and approached her, “But sometimes it’s necessary.”

“The ends justify the means?”  Tineagar said, scornful.

“I recently fought off your swarm of bloodthirsty redcaps, and now you’re getting ready to violate the memories of eight people, Councilor.  I’m not sure you’ve taken the time to think through on your ethics, here.”  Hermione said, and she couldn’t stop a laugh from escaping her lips.  The auror in front of her kept his wand on her, carefully, as he approached.  “Please be aware that this is probably your last chance to sort this out, before you go too far.”

“My last chance to surrender, Ms. Granger?” Tineagar said, drily.  “This is not a play.”

“As I’ve occasionally had to remind a friend of mine, sometimes life imitates art,” Hermione replied.  “Kavo!”

The blast of wind from the gauntlet on the table behind the auror was immense, like a hurricane had been unleashed from a bottle.  As the charger spent its contents, pressurized air was released all at once.  In defiance of physics, the gauntlet didn’t move in an equal and opposite way… but the auror certainly did.  Caught full in the back, he was flung like a rag doll over Hermione’s head and into the wall, smashing into it like an insect.  His wand was blown away, to the far end of the room away from Tineagar.  The auror actually hung upright for a moment, pinned to the brick wall by the concentrated gale that was blasting forth from the gauntlet.  By the time the wind died away, Hermione had struggled to her feet with a graceful jackknife, and was hopping towards the fallen wand.

Tineagar raised her wand to attack Hermione in the same moment that Tonks raised his.  The American must have seen the movement out of the corner of her eye, because she threw herself forward spastically, landing on her side.  Tonks tried to track her dive, but his stunner missed Tineagar’s back by what looked like centimeters.

Drysdory!” Tineagar cast as she landed on the floor, pointing her wand at Tonks and swirling the tip.  With a crackling sound, her wand seemed to be subsumed in a wooden pole that sprouted out from within it, covering it with dark wood in a fraction of an instant.  The wood erupted forward, the end of the pole sharpening to a point as it did.  The spear stabbed out at Tonks’ stomach like a bolt of lightning.  The British witch (wizard? Tonks was still disguised)  was still seated, but he was able to jerk himself to the side, and the spear struck the wall.  The tip exploded in splinters with the force of the attack.

Another spell of which she’d never heard, Hermione thought with surprise as she reached the auror’s fallen wand.  She threw herself onto it on her side, grasping for the end.  Her hands were bound to her side, but her fingers were free.  Where are these spells coming from?

Tonks raised his wand again to attack the American, but Tineagar brought her eight-foot spear-wand down on the metamorphmagus’ wand arm with as much ease as if it was still eight inches of willow -- it must have no weight to her -- and deflected the attack before it could even come.  Then the spear retracted as if it was shrinking, and erupted forth a second time like another flash of lightning.  Tonks couldn’t avoid it this time, and the splintered end buried itself in his stomach.

No no no, Hermione thought, as she struggled the auror’s wand into place and pointed it at herself.  “Finite Incantatem!” she cast.  But only the outermost layer of ropes vanished as Hermione’s magic overcame it.  She could have howled in frustration.

Tineagar moved her hand, again with remarkably little effort, and lifted her spear-wand over her head with a flicking gesture.  Tonks was scraped up the bricks and then launched free, sailing into the opposite wall with a thud, unconscious.  Blood trickled from his stomach, starting to pool on the floor.

Desperate, Hermione pointed the auror’s wand at herself again.  She closed her eyes and turned her face away.  There was probably a better solution than this but she couldn’t think of it and she had to save Tonks.

Confringo!”

The explosive fire bit into her like some heat-toothed demon, and Hermione staggered from the pain that shocked through her.  But the Incarcerous ropes had been mostly blasted or burned away, and when she wrenched her arms and legs away from her body with desperate strength, the remaining bonds snapped.  She was free.

Tineagar’s spear-wand seemed to have no limits on its range, however.  At the moment that Hermione freed herself, she could see the wood retract and burst forth again as Tineagar brought it to bear on the Goddess.  It smashed into Hermione’s hand with incredible force.  The appropriated wand wasn’t knocked free from Hermione’s inhuman grip, but the blunt and bloody splintered pole broke it against her palm in two places.  It probably also broke a few bones, although the pain of the Blasting Curse drowned out anything else.

On the next attack, as the spear receded and erupted at her again, Hermione was ready.  “Hok!” she grunted, as she turned to the side and brought her bunched fingers down into the spear, as it shot past her.  Her blow carried through the wood, snapping it as cleanly as if her hand was a cleaver.

Tineagar gestured dexterously with the hand in which she held the wand-spear, sweeping it to the side like a long club at Hermione’s head.  It moved with such speed that the pole whistled.  But this was not an equal fight, and Hermione caught the pole in one palm.  It was a toy to her.  She yanked on it with trollish strength, hoping to catch Tineagar off-guard.

The American didn’t even move, as the spell just fed four more feet of dark wood out of her hand.  Frustrated, Hermione whirled in place and brought her foot up with another grunt, snapping the wood once more.  This was physical combat now and Hermione still wasn’t winning… where the hell had this woman learned to fight?!

“I wish we could work together, Ms. Granger,” Tineagar called, as the wood drew back to her hand once more.  She held it ready, a short length of pole ready to expand and strike.

“We could have, Councilor,” Hermione said, hefting her own -- non-magical -- pole upright in her hands to the great banner position, ready to block an attack.  She glanced at Tonks.  He had regained consciousness, and was holding his hands over his stomach.  Out of the fight, but he didn’t look like he was in danger.

“I can’t let the world end because of the Tower, nor can I let the villains win,” the American said.  Her thin face looked pained.  “I didn’t want to… Reg and I have been through so much.  I didn’t want it to be like this.  I didn’t want to be against him, not after standing at his side so many times over the years.  I didn’t want to be against magic.  But there’s no choice.  I won’t accept evil, and I won’t accept destruction.”

...what?

“But if you’re… wait, if you’re not working for Malfoy or Hig or Harry...  Councilor, what is going on?!”  Hermione said, desperately.

“You’re just a pawn in this game, Goddess,” Tineagar said, and now she sounded as though her heart was breaking.  “And in the end, there are really only two sides.  The Council and the Tower and the Ten Thousand and every other Thing, even Malfoy’s nasty little Honourable… you’re all just doing evil, no matter what you say you want.  The Three are the world’s only hope.  You’re a pawn, and you’re on the wrong side.”

But if she’s not here for the Council… if Hig doesn’t know…

“Pawns are powerful when in force,” said Councilor Reg Hig, as he dismissed his Disillusionment.  He was standing at the door with a dozen -- no, two dozen aurors visible in a crowd behind him.  His voice was strained, but firm.  “And really, you’re doing Ms. Granger a disservice if you call her anything but a queen.”

There was a tingle over Hermione’s skin, as someone applied a Anti-Disapparition Jinx.

Tineagar’s face contorted with emotion.  “Reg, you have to --”

“Take her into custody,” Hig said to the aurors behind him.  “Take everyone into custody, and we’ll sort out the truth of this mess afterward.”

“Damn you.  Damn you, Granger,“ Tineagar snarled.  “I have never seen anyone struggle so hard to help break the world.  You snooped until you broke apart everything I’d built here, stumbling around like a blind mule.

She twitched her fingers, and the wood encasing her wand disintegrated into sawdust, drifting down from where the pole had once jutted.  Hermione felt the snapped-off length in her own hands vanish, as well.  “And damn you too, Reg, if you can’t see the truth.  If you can’t trust me.  If you’re joining these heralds of the end.”

“You can’t --” Hig began, but Tineagar stabbed her wand at the ceiling without another word.

Alogofoti!” cast the witch.  There was an orange flash as though from a fiery dawn, and a horse of flames burst through the wall.  It left no marks and brought no heat, crossing the room with soundless hoofbeats as swift as the flicker of a candle, and swept Tineagar out of sight in the span of a breath.  She was gone.

Hermione rushed to Tonks’ side, stopping only to snatch up her wand from beneath the table where it had fallen.  The metamorphmagus had passed out again.  “You need to get someone on Bill Kemp, immediately.  And four of my people are --”

“It’s all right, Ms. Granger,” Hig said.  He had staggered over to the table and was leaning on it.  Aurors bustled in behind him, checking on Hyori, Esther, and the fallen auror.  “We have the other two traitors in shackles already -- the auror and young Tarleton’s friend, Bill Kemp -- and your Returned are unharmed.”  He rubbed his unshaven face with his hands, sighing heavily.  His hair was mussed; unkempt black licks.  “I’m sorry it took us so long to get here… we might have taken her, if we’d gotten in sooner.  There’s no excuse, since you gave me an hour’s warning, but… well, the entrance was trapped.”

For a while there, when she’d thought that the Council was behind this place, Hermione thought that it had been monumentally stupid to have time-turned back and sent a warning to Hig.  But she’d thought that calling for back-up in the first place was the obvious thing to do, which meant she was probably acting predictably.  So she’d had to assume that she was expected to call for help from the nearest authority, and that her request would be intercepted.  It cost nothing to be cautious, after all.

She’d time-turned back and gone herself to ask Hig for back-up, under cover of the Cloak of Invisibility.  For a while, it looked like that had been a serious mistake… if it had been the Council at work, all she would have done would be to give them more warning about how to trap her.

In retrospect, she should have had everyone go back even further and done some serious preparation.  But hindsight was 20/20, and that sort of paranoia had costs.  Sorry, Alastor.

“Ah, yes, the riddles,” Hermione said, glancing up at the Westphalian as she walked over to the table and got her pouch.  She sent Tonks to the Tower, just to be safe.  Ker-chak.  “A tempting trap for a Ravenclaw, believe me.  I wonder if they were written with Harry in mind, or me?  ‘Nogtail,’ ‘one eighty-five,’ and ‘a ring,’ right?  Did it knock you out?”

“Yes, all of us at a stroke,” Hig said.  He didn’t seem embarrassed, only drained.  “Who was… what is going on, Hermione?”

“I don’t know.  I had thought… I didn’t know what to think,” Hermione said.  She approached the table, and sat down at one of the chairs.  “We’ll have to see if there’s anything here to give us more of a clue.  Councilor Tineagar said that Malfoy was behind the bombing, which makes sense.  Tarleton was his agent, according to her.  I think I understand what was going on, there.”  A quote from Lenin seemed appropriate, although the exact one escaped her at the moment.  “But this room -- this place -- it didn’t have anything to do with Malfoy.  Tineagar didn’t have anything to do with him.”

Hig made a low sound of agreement in his throat.  “He is persuasive, and he makes good points.  I receive Unbreakable Honour, and it’s made me think long and hard from time to time.  But Malfoy argues from every perspective.  It’s like standing in a hailstorm with a drink: sometimes you get ice cubes, but a lot of the time it just hits you wrong.  And Limpel and I…”  He paused for a second.  “We spent a long time fighting for the rights of Muggles and other Beings.  Fighting for their right to exist, for a long time.  It took thirty years before we had the votes in the Council.  Even if we weren’t talking about Malfoys -- and Lucius Malfoy once cursed me -- I don’t think Limpel would be persuaded.”  He paused again, for a longer time, and sank down in another chair, across from Hermione.  His face looked drawn, as if he’d aged ten years in the last ten minutes.  “She was never easy to persuade.”

“The Three,” Hermione mused.  “She said the ‘Three’ were the world’s only hope.”

Hig shook his head.  “Which three?  There’s no triumvirate in the Council.  There’s a trio of representatives from the Sawad to the Confederation with whom Limpel and I have tangled, on occasion, but I hardly think she’s suddenly been won over to their theocratic goals.  Or are these three objects?  There are many artifacts of legend that came in threes… the Cauldrons of the Sallowin Sisters, the Forged Halos, the Deathly Hallows... “  He grimaced.  “Who or what are we talking about?”

“I don’t know,” said Hermione.  “For years, Harry and I have been wrangling with Draco and Narcissa over politics in Britain.  And now we’ve been working hard to resolve our differences and misunderstandings with your Council and other Things.”  Hig didn’t comment on her euphemistic summary of the global political struggle in which they had all been locked.  “I thought we knew the players… I thought coming here, today, was about flushing out some minor intrigue.  I thought there was one hand behind the bombing and the British spy following us and this place.”

“Limpel told you that we knew Tarleton was a spy,” Hig said.  Hermione nodded.  Hig went on:  “We’d known for a while.  He was part of an… information network within the Council.  We like to keep track of what’s happening in the world, as best we can.  Tarleton worked with sorting through information about the Muggle world, and I noticed last year that we didn’t seem to know as much as we should.  Key facts about important people, particular documents… the picture was incomplete.  I ran some tests, and we knew the information was coming in… but we didn’t have it.  It stopped at Tarleton.  And he wasn’t the only one.”

“Bill Kemp, too,” Hermione said.  “Both of them hired two years ago.  And they weren’t just destroying information… someone else was getting it.  They were handing it out through the Floo.”

“Yes…” Hig said, slowly.  He didn’t ask how she knew these things, but there was a break in the despair on his face for a moment.  He was impressed, she thought.

Good.  Yes... I shouldn’t let this moment go to waste.  We’ve brought this man from a certain enemy to an uneasy ally.  The ground has shifted under his feet… I need to give him a firm hand on which to rely.

“We have Kemp in custody, and one of the aurors -- the one who went back to the Alþing to get my people?”  she asked.  She drummed bright fingernails on the surface of the table in front of her, thoughtfully.  “We” have them in custody… not “you.”  We’re working together.

“Yes,” Hig said.  The corner of his mouth twisted in the slightest of smiles, despite the circumstances.  He knew what she was doing, she could see.  He thought it was cute.  Good.

“Then we have one of Malfoy’s spies.  And we have four of the agents of the, um, ‘Three,’ including the ones from the pub here.  And we have this room and all of its clues.  Those are clear paths to start figuring these things out, which is maybe the only good news out of all of this.  Tineagar and the people here had spells I’ve never seen before… she teleported out of here without Apparating!”

Hig rose to his feet.  “Yes.  But Ms. Granger, you should know now: this doesn’t mean that the Americas will enter into your Treaty.  You might have won my trust, and my confidence in my own people might be… shaken.  We might agree on many things, like Muggle rights and the status of Beings.  But that doesn’t mean that we can go so far as to allow Britain to place magical devices throughout the Americas, or to enact unknown rituals on Americans to change their bodies.”

“Councilor Hig,” Hermione said, standing up as well, “One of the great advantages of honesty is that you don’t need to be afraid of closer scrutiny.  We can work together to fight our common problems and advance our common interests.  And maybe, in time, you’ll see that the entire program is on the level.  And if it isn’t… well, a wise woman once said, ‘that which can be destroyed by the truth should be.’  If you find evil, I’ll be standing right by you to stamp it out."

He put out his hand, and they shook.

≡≡≡Ω≡≡≡

NOTE:  Below are explanations for the riddle answers.  If you didn’t get them, or got a slightly different answer, don’t feel bad.  Any answer at all simply caused a stunning effect, so there was no “right answer.”  The only way to win was not to play.

“Change my beginning, and subtract my end and all color, and chase me away for good.”

Nogtail, minus its “end” is nog.  Change the first letter to dog, and make sure it’s white by taking away all color, and it can chase away nogtails.  Only a pure white dog can do that, allegedly.  It was an obscure bit of HP trivia, so I reminded you of it in Chapter 2.

“Grindelwald’s fall less Urg’s fall less price of Tower’s rise.”

Grindelwald fell in 1945 (as we were reminded last chapter), and Urg fell in 1722 (as we were reminded three chapters ago), and 37 Death Eaters plus Voldemort died in 1992 to lay the foundation for the Tower’s rise.  Harry didn’t kill all of them, but that’s not common knowledge.

“What have I got in my pocket?”

This is a direct reference to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.  Bilbo cheats during the riddle contest with Gollum.  The answer is “a ring” -- the One Ring, which he’s found and taken.  I did not remind you of The Hobbit, but you’re a Muggle, so you have no excuse.










Between the acting of a dreadful thing
And the first motion, all the interm is
Like a phantasma, or hideous dream:
The genius and the mortal instruments
Are then in council; and the state of men,
Like to a little kingdom, suffers then
The nature of an insurrection.
-
William Shakespeare

2 comments:

  1. The trap-puzzle reminds me somewhat of the Liar's Puzzle in The Invisible Fortress (a trap-filled dungeon in an Exalted RPG adventure).

    When entering the room, there are two doors, each with a porcelain mask, and a mask on the wall between them. The mask in the middle presents the classic liar's puzzle (one always tells the truth, one always lies, etc). Selecting the wrong door electrocutes everyone in the room (average of 6.4 damage in a game where most characters have 7 health). But the mask that _presents_ the puzzle is lying: no matter what question you ask of either mask, they will direct you to the incorrect door.

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  2. Fitst of all, Hermione really did blunder here quite significantly. As soon as Tineagar appeared, I immediately thought that Hermione is not paranoid enough (you're welcome, Alastor).
    Second, why she says that she can't warn her future self about obliviation? She can do this just like Harry did, biting her lip. Or is it that even this kind of insignificant injury is immediately erased by her troll properties?

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