17 April 2016

Significant Digits, Chapter Forty-Eight: Antepenultimate







Significant Digits, Chapter Forty-Eight: Antepenultimate



Receiving Room, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry
Now

This was a defining moment.  Gregor Nimue knew that.  Everyone was leaning on him to break protocol, and he was standing fast.

It was a shining moment, and it was a long time coming.

Considering his experience and skill, he should have been Terminus of the Receiving Room a long time ago.  He had twice the lore and three times the brains of any other Tower Auror, and it was practically a crime that he’d been sidelined for so long.  He’d spent years chafing under the command of inferiors, stuck on chizpurfle duty or some other nonsense -- all because he’d had the bad luck to be on the Azkaban rotation on the night that veela-giant crossbreed dropped out of the sky on a phoenix and knocked the place flat.  An entire detail of good and experienced aurors were dropped down to sentinel duty the very next week, and Gregor had been taking orders from idiots ever since.

And what was even better, the very week he was finally back in a decent posting -- Terminus, a job with some real heft -- was one more in a series of crazy weeks.  The blastbombings in Diagon and Tidewater, the start of the Treaty of Independence, an attack by some worthless students with a hundred doxies, the One-Day War, the attack by Bellatrix Black, and now some sort of takeover attempt at the same time that everywhere else in the world was going to pot.  Too many people had been burnt out or hurt or both, and so good old Gregor’s career was finally finally heading back to the top.

There were protocols for things like this, for powerful wizards who might manage to evade security and put people under their control, and Gregor followed them to the letter.  As soon as McGonagall sent word about a message she’d received, he’d given the signal.  They’d rolled the shield and locked down the Tower, and no power on the planet could make him open it until he was satisfied that the Tower hadn’t been compromised.  That was the rule.  That was his role.  The Terminus was the first and last guard against attack -- from either side of the Tower’s golden doorway.

Injured wizards, witches, and Squibs arrived and were sent to nearby chambers in Hogwarts, stabilized as well as could be done by a skeleton crew of the less-skilled aurors.  Gregor kept his best stationed near him -- and that necessity became even more apparent when entire squads of foreign Hit Wizards and auror teams arrived.  Some of the most famous battle wizards and duelists in the world appeared on the summons of the Headmistress of Hogwarts and the Tower and some American muckitymuck.  The Boston Brahmins didn’t even arrive stunned; they spun into existence fully awake and aware, which meant that they’d used an illegal Tower portkey that didn’t have the security enchantments.  Gregor’d need to report that -- earn another point in his favor.

As the story became clear, he’d let out messages and he’d let in a handful of runners and representatives, but still: no one left.  A strange and powerful wizard had tried to take over and failed… fine, a good story, but would it be any different if a strange and powerful wizard had tried to take over and succeeded?  Lockdown remained in place.

Even when he heard that the Ministry itself was under attack, and that the dregs of the aurors who’d been sitting idle in Hogsmeade or some other Knut-ante place had spotted a crowd of Muggles, Gregor knew better.  He did his job.  Americans, Russians, Koreans, and seemingly a thousand angry British including all the most powerful people he knew were all putting pressure on him, and he did his job.

It was a shining moment, and it was a long time coming.

“Lift the lockdown, Nimue!” shouted Auror Hedley Kwannon, “It’s been nearly thirty minutes!  Don’t you know what’s happening out there?”

“Don’t you know what protocol is, Kwannon?” snapped back Gregor.  He was off to the side of the door, out of its line of sight, but he knew she must be fuming.  One more bit of consolation: knowing one of the Tower’s pets was being treated like everyone else for a change.  He’d already heard that another one of them, that flinty Kraeme woman, had been badly injured.

If he found out that Pirrip had fallen off his broom and broken his neck while mooning after the Diggory brat-in-charge, then Gregor’s day would be complete.

“You don’t have to let them out, but you’re going to let us in,” rumbled the biggest of the three Chinese wizards who’d been pestering Gregor for the last twenty minutes.  He didn’t approach too closely -- not with fifty Tower Aurors on alert, wands ready for conflict (from either direction).

And if this whole thing were a ploy and it was you lot behind it, wouldn’t that just what you’d bloody want? Gregor thought.  Although all things considered, it’s still most likely that Mad-Eye is the one behind the whole thing, somehow.  He smiled a mocking smile right at the Chinese Hit Wizard, although all he said was a courteous, “No, sir.  Sorry.”

Two of the Tower Aurors exchanged an uneasy glance, but didn’t lower their wands.  Gregor noticed, and noted who it was.  Unreliable.

“You have every confirmation code and you have Patronus verification from five of us,” shouted Kwannon.  “That is the protocol!”

“I still have discretion,” called back Gregor, “and I haven’t seen anything th--”

“No.  That’s enough now, Nimue,” said a new voice, with a tone of command that was leather-tough.  Madame Bones.  His former leader in the DMLE, before she leapt up four or five rungs to Supreme Mugwump and Chief Warlock.  “If the Tower has been compromised somehow, then it’s past proof and past solution.  You’ll end the lockdown right now.  Innocent people are dying.”

Gregor considered.  She’s right.  And I’ve made my name.  If this was a Mad-Eye test, then I’ve made my reputation.  And if not… well, this will probably still be good for me.

“Fine,” he said.  And before he’d even said a word more, tense aurors were lowering their wands with a sigh.  The sharper ones were in immediate, rapid motion: heading to the bunched-up crowd sorting itself into a queue to get through the narrow Tower entrance, or going the opposite way to the rest of Hogwarts.

Gregor turned to one of the aurors in charge of scanning.  “We’ll need to sort out who is available for assistance outside…”

But his voice trailed off as he watched a ripple shift through the witches and wizards around the Tower entrance.  They cleared a path.

Hermione Granger strode through the path, out of the Tower.  Her step was brisk and her face was tight.  She had her wand out -- and her other hand looked oddly pinkish, as though it had been sunburnt.

This was a shining moment, Gregor knew.  The same person who’d broken his career would now reward him for keeping to the rules at the moment when it had been the most difficult, and when there’d been every reason to give in.

He stepped forward to meet her.  “Madame Granger, I hope you --”

The Goddess didn’t even slow down.  She walked forward like he wasn’t there, and her shoulder swept Gregor aside like a curtain of iron as he tried to hastily get out of her way.  He staggered backwards, met an obstacle behind one heel, and lost his balance.  He landed on his rear, awkwardly.

No one took much notice -- too many things going on -- except for the few people near him (including the bass-voiced Chinese auror, who had stuck a foot out behind Gregor).

He watched the Goddess sweep through the room and out, and then she was gone, two witches right on her heels and dozens of aurors and others rushing in their wake, following her with grim faces.  Almost before she’d vanished from the room, though, there came someone else -- the only person, perhaps, who could draw even more attention than Hermione Granger.

“Cedric, take anyone not vital who can cast a Patronus,” said Harry Potter, walking briskly up to the Tower entrance.  He was wearing simple garments -- trousers and a vest beneath plain robes. “Communications are now the most important thing you can do.  We can bring reinforcements here quickly with Safety Sticks, but moving them after that is harder, so --”

“So we need to know exactly what threats are where, and now,” finished the Chief Auror and Head of the DMLE, walking alongside and just behind the Tower.

Potter nodded, sharply, and then a look of uncertainty flashed over his face.  His stride broke, and he halted.  He was standing inside the golden oval of the Tower, looking out at the Receiving Room.

Gregor stood up and turned to the side, trying to follow the Tower’s gaze.  He glanced around the room.  Nothing unusual now but a relatively plain stone room with the usual decorations -- the tables of Dark Detectors, the shelves of chizpurfles, the few pieces of other furniture.  It was crowded with combat-ready wizards, and injured people were arriving at a steady rate, but there were no apparent threats.  There didn’t seem to be any reason for the Tower to hesitate… was he nervous about any remaining danger?  That didn’t seem possible, considering how often Potter had been in serious peril.  Just a couple of months ago, he’d nearly been blown up in Diagon, and just today there’d been an attempt to cast some sort of Imperius Curse on him.  He is just a child, after all.  A child who’s taken charge of the world, but a child.  With a stupid haircut, too.

Madame Bones stepped up from somewhere behind Potter.  She said something too soft to hear, and then put a hand on his back and gave him a gentle but firm push forward.  The Tower stepped forward and out of his eponymous facility, and took a deep breath.  He closed his eyes.  He looked pale.

Then the moment passed, and Potter was turning to yet another person walking with him -- a blonde-haired witch -- and telling her to get everything ready, and to remember everything he’d said.

Nimue found himself pushed to the side by several aurors, and then again by a scornful blonde wizard -- was that Draco Malfoy?

“You’re the one who was Terminus and kept us here?  Well done, you fool,” sneered Malfoy.  He didn’t stop, but walked on.

Things weren’t supposed to go this way.  This wasn’t fair.

“Good going --”  “-- you complete bollocks,” said a pair of red-haired Hit Wizards with bizarre cheer as they walked by.

“I followed protocol!” Gregor protested.  “I just did what I was supposed to do!”

“You did the right thing, Nimue,” Bones said, staring at him.  Her voice was cool.  “What an odd time to begin such behavior, just when it most hurt us.”  Then she turned away from him, too, looking at another auror who’d emerged from the Tower behind her.  “Madagascar, you’re in charge here.  Get everyone moving.  Get everyone you can outside, to help Granger.”


≡≡≡Ω≡≡≡


Harry stepped to one side of the Mirror, which sat as impossibly solid as ever, embedded in the masonry of Hogwarts as though it were a piece of interior decoration: a fancy accessory to the castle, rather than the most potent magical device known to still exist.

The Cup of Midnight might have been stronger, once.  They hadn’t been able to find much information about that ancient device, which came to them now only in scant shards, but Hopkirk’s best guess was that the Cup had been the method by which the Interdict was enacted.  Around the same time, the Cup was broken and Merlin lost his life and his time.  Occam’s Razor suggested that all three events were perhaps related, although contradictory legends told many different stories.

There was a time when Harry couldn’t have imagined making a decision like that… a decision on behalf of humanity.  On some level, of course, every little decision tasted of eternity.  But to consciously choose a path for the future of mankind, to make a gamble in the name of human intelligence… well, that had been the fate of a precious few.

And now Harry was going to join them.

The scramble he’d inspired with his order to evacuate the Tower had caused something like a panic, especially when added to the chaos of the attacks and the tension of the lockdown.  Healers and officials and researchers and diplomats and friends first tried to enter the Tower, only to find themselves turned back: Moody stood just inside, where the two main corridors split off, and roared orders.  There were suddenly too few aurors, where only minutes ago there had been far too many, but those remaining worked to clear out the entire facility.  The Records Room was emptied, desperate researchers were permitted a single trip to retrieve anything they needed from the departments, and every last straggler was forced out.

At least one researcher fought back, recklessly, after his request to return and retrieve his personal Pensieve was denied.  He was stunned and removed.  But while there was a great deal of complaining and even some tears, most accepted the warnings without such a drastic reaction.

Probably a lot of them don’t really believe that anything is going to happen to the Tower -- they expect to be able to come back after the alarm dies down.  They don’t know that it’s going to… well, I don’t even know what will happen to it.  Harry stared at the Mirror.  It stood immobile: a fixed point of supernal obdurance.  If it were possible to truly conceptualize the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy, this is what he imagined it would be like: potent beyond reckoning and more solid than existence.  Not that he’d ever had occasion to see a black hole.  His mouth twisted in a wry smile.

Harry looked at the golden circle of the Mirror.

He had to do this.

He had to make himself do this.

Kwannon kept most people from bothering him with their urgent pleas for assistance or exceptions.  She blocked their path physically -- or with wards when necessary -- to keep his corner of the Receiving Room empty, off to the side of the Tower entrance.  He was startled, then, when he felt a hand tug on his sleeve.  He turned to find Auror Pirrip, looking sweaty but grinning broadly.  He glanced over Pip’s shoulder at Kwannon, but she was smiling, too.

“Yes?” Harry asked.

“Mr. Potter!  You’re never going to believe… the goblins, sir!”

Harry felt a sick feeling in his gut.  He knew what this was about, and celebrations were not in order.

Every round for countless rounds, wizards defected instead of cooperating.  What did we expect would happen?

“Let me guess: they attacked, but we won.”  He sighed, and turned away, to stare at the Mirror again.  “It’s been building for weeks, now.  Well, no, it’s been building for years.  And the frustrating thing is that it’s impossible to even blame them, or feel happy about winning.  It doesn’t change anything, and it actually makes things worse in a lot of ways.  I don’t think moral culpability is heritable, but centuries of structural inequality and outright oppression can’t be ignored for --”

“Sir!” interrupted Pip, putting a hand on Harry’s arm again, his urgency overriding his patience and respect.  “They’re fighting with us -- fighting for us!  Everywhere!  They’ve saved the Cypriot Hold and Beauxbatons.  They’ve saved Godric’s Hollow!

That’s… my god, that’s better than we deserve.  That’s better than any of us deserve.

It was amazing.  It was a touch of grace.  It was a shining moment.

Harry felt his eyes fill with tears, and a smile spread helplessly across his face.

“Everything is going to hell, Mr. Potter,” said Pip, smiling back, “but we’re not alone.”

“Sir!” said Kwannon, behind Pip, one arm raised to stop a panic-faced auror.  “They need you!  The Goddess is out there, but…”

Things must be bad and getting worse.  And it was time.  The Receiving Room was almost empty, except for healers.  Almost everyone who could fight was gone, and everyone else was trying to secure themselves away with the students -- down in the dungeons, he supposed.

Moody and a last team of aurors emerged, floating two stunned stragglers along in their wake.  Moody gave Harry a heavy nod, his face sadder than Harry had seen it since Albus Dumbledore had been lost beyond time.

“Yes,” said Harry to Kwannon.  He turned back to the Mirror.  And now he felt ready.  “I can do this.  But then we’re going to the library, not outside.  Let Hermione do her thing -- I’ll do mine.”

He stepped in front of the entrance to the Tower -- the pocket world of his creation.  The world of his volition.  He felt for his wand.

Muffliato,” he cast.

“Noitilov,” he said.  And the surface of the Mirror changed, and just like that, the John Snow Center for Medicine and the Tower School of Doubt was gone.


≡≡≡Ω≡≡≡


What a waste, Hermione thought, grimly.  She pulled her broom up and away from the entrance to the castle.  What a heroic waste.

The defenders could have done any number of things differently, if they’d been willing to rethink their situation or defy convention.  They’d fought like they’d always fought: with incredible bravery but limited creativity.

The castle fell away behind her as she flew upwards, set on the steep hill that edged upon the waters of the Black Lake.  The staircase down the hill was gone, bitten away halfway down by the teeth of rubble that were strewn at the bottom.  The Hogwarts grounds, normally a gentle rise of grass from the main gates from Hogsmeade all the way to the castle, were a torn mass of detritus and the dead, still intermingled with the scrambling mass of people who were pouring in from Hogsmeade in an endless stream.  There were thousands, perhaps tens of thousands.  Perhaps more.  She’d heard that a million people could fit within Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and tried to estimate based on that.  Considering all the chaos and the impassable areas… how many people was she looking at?

She picked a portion of ground and did a quick Fermi estimate, counting the living and dead on that portion and extrapolating to the whole field.

Ninety thousand.

There was a dull thump from far below, and a line of silver smoke arrowed through the air.  Hermione watched as it arced gently downward, and hit the wrought-iron apex atop the Hufflepuff greenhouse.  The missile exploded.  It actually did little damage, except for a multitude of broken glass.  But she could see rifles and numerous simpler weapons among the crowd, too.

Well, and she couldn’t believe she was thinking this and very carefully reminded herself of the moral equivalencies and the slippery slope of the thought but even so she still couldn’t help but think, they are just Muggles, after all.

Hermione dipped her broom sharply, dropping dangerously quickly to the ground.  She pulled up just short of the gathering aurors.  Every moment, more were arriving from outside.  She took a moment to assess who was there and what their known capabilities were.  A formidable force, even against an army like this.  And if they fought smartly, they could win this.

The Returned were there.  Simon was missing.  In turn, Hermione met the eyes of Urg, Charlevoix, Esther, Nikitas, Tonks, Susie, and Hyori.  She didn’t say anything, and neither did they.  There was nothing that needed to be said.

“Brahmins and Rakshasa,” she said, firmly, jabbing her finger at the elite American and Russian auror squads.  “You’re in the air.  I want to know about everything that happens.  Stay high.  You’re not fighting, you’re keeping yourself protected.  If you seen an opportunity, you tell the Jīngluò or the Three Treasures.”  She indicated the Chinese and Korean squads.  “They’re going to be working in teams, protecting each other and attacking.  You’ll be transfiguring things I’ll tell you -- dangerous things.  Things you’re never supposed to transfigure.  But you’re going to do it, because it’s the only way to stay alive… and the only way to save countless other lives.”

Hermione waited a moment, anticipating arguments or demands about her authority.  But there were none -- just confident nods and cool determination.  They knew of the Goddess.  They knew the reputation of the Tower.

She turned to the British forces.  “Shichinin and Omega, you’ve the most experience fighting Muggles.  Defend this ground.  Half of you will be on the battlements… this is a castle, use the cover.  I have more ideas -- things we can do to stop this. Draco Malfoy and  Alastor Moody will join you when they arrive.”

Hermione wheeled her broom around and pointed at the horde below.  “Thousands of people have already died, including dozens of our own.  But what finally worked was a physical barrier.  Use that.  Hold them off, stay on the defensive.  The Muggle news is full of these disappearances -- we don’t know how many we’re facing.  So your job is just to hold back the tide and keep the school safe.  If you have to, retreat inside.  Stay alive.”

She gestured at the Returned, and they began mounting brooms.

Neville Longbottom called out to her as they rose.  “And you… you’re going after the source?”

“Yes,” she said.  “Stay alive.”

And then she was flying, the Returned by her side.



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