22 April 2016

Significant Digits, Chapter Forty-Nine: Penultimate







Significant Digits, Chapter Forty-Nine: Penultimate



Hermione had a moment to think as she and the Returned climbed through the air away from Hogwarts, zipping over the school grounds towards Hogsmeade.  It was a short distance -- a few minutes’ flight -- but she took the opportunity afforded her to think beyond the immediate tactical situation.  Strategy, not only the demands of the moment, needed to dictate her movements.  And right now, she didn’t have any sort of larger strategy.

How could I?  How do you fight an enemy that breaks all the rules of the game?  Hermione thought to herself.  The Three were attacking -- Well, now it must be the Two, really, she thought, thinking about the unremarkable white stone that was sitting inside of a small, mundane iron box in the Headmistress’ coat pocket.  But Meldh had wrought havoc and almost brought the entire world under his control with one spell… It had taken an ancient artifact and years of planning to create a safeguard against that kind of attack, and even then it might have failed if things had gone a little differently.  At that last moment, if Meldh had the wits or resources to draw up another spell from his ages of lore, there was literally no predicting what he might have been able to do to her or Harry -- even with his throat missing.

The old books were full of fantastical feats and mighty deeds, and attempting to sort out the historical from the apocryphal was more a work of literary criticism than historical research.  “Lord Foul” was said to have commanded dementors and basilisks and terresque, but was that a real spell of command that the Three might deploy, or simply a legend that the writer thought was appropriate for an infamous dark wizard?

Normally Hermione would be able to rule some things out -- a secret spell from the past that allowed its caster to stop someone’s heart without the possibility of dodging or warding, for example.  If such a spell had existed, it would have made the one who invented it into an unstoppable force.  History would look different.

But according to Harry, Meldh had implied that the Three had been in hidden control of events for generations, which meant that they might actually be an unstoppable force.

“They’re using all the powers of the old world,” Harry had said, “everything that’s always worked for villains like them in the days gone by.  But we’re going to use all the powers of our new world to match them, and we’re going to beat them.”

But unless they had some brilliant ideas very soon, she couldn’t see how.

Hermione heard a dull popping sound from far below among the trudging mass of mind-controlled Muggles -- no, people -- and pulled up on her broom.  The Returned matched her, and they rose higher yet.  They were already too high to be under real threat from rifle fire, even if they hadn’t been warded, but there was no point in risking it.  She glanced around her, making sure everyone was with her and uninjured.  Hyori and Esther rode on either side of her.  Charlevoix and Urg followed them, staggered at different altitudes, while Susie, Tonks, Nikitas, and Jessie were spread out in a third, staggered row.  Simon’s absence was conspicuous.

Simon.  My solid rock.  Sweet, solid Simon.  Gone now.  Hermione wished she could have been there -- to save him, to help him, even just to hold his hand.

He’d been the first one she’d saved.

It was still raining when Hermione began pulling open the cell doors.  The walls of Azkaban had been battered, and a great jagged fissure had split one of the three sides to the prison; Granville had carried her through and they had landed within, and for the first time in centuries, the broken halls of Azkaban felt the cleansing cool of the rain.

Most of the cells were empty.  Most of the prisoners were gone, transferred to the new Howard Prison or simply released.  But there were still people here.

One door was stuck.  Hermione forced her fingers around its edge, the stone cracking loudly through the patter of rain, and wrenched the door open.  Another empty cell -- no, there was someone here.

She stepped into the cell, and let gentle orange flame illuminate it.  Granville made a small sound, shifting in position on her shoulder.  It was a sound of remorse or admonition.

The person was lying on their side, staring up at the ceiling.  Rotting alive, with black leprous streaks of infection spreading from great mottled sores, entwined maladies spread across a withered chest.  As warm light touched the person’s face, they slowly closed their eyes and turned towards her.  What did they see when they looked at her -- just a soaked teenager with a phoenix and a scared look on her face?  Who did they think she was?

She reached out a reassuring hand to the person as she approached.

“My name is Hermione Granger.  I’m here to help you.”

And now he was gone.  Brave Simon.

Her attention snapped back to the present as they passed the gates to Hogsmeade, and she saw new enemies.  Not just the endless flood of weapon-wielding Muggles, but two other groups.

A large wedge of witches and wizards in robes was slowly, almost casually, making their way through the mass.  They walked in good order right along the stone-paved path from Hogsmeade, as though they were merely a group of forty students returning from a trip to Honeydukes.  The Muggles parted before them as though directed by an invisible force.  Something to do with the spell controlling the Muggles, or something about the orders they’d been given, or… maybe these are involved in the control or can give directions?

Hermione felt cold run up her back as she recognized -- even from this height -- some of the enemy.  Councilor Limpel Tineagar.  Bellatrix Black, with one eye and one arm (her artificial arm, the Gripmain, presumably still lay in the vaults of the Department of Mysteries).  Some of the strangers wore markings on their robes that Hermione recognized as the sigils of Grindelwald’s death squads, the Hírnökei; she could see the red sword of the Záh Kardja and the red hand of the Veres Kezek.  No Grindelwald in his own person -- a small mercy in this tide of nightmares.

And yet even this was not the end, for behind this infantry of dark wizards was a cavalry of monsters.  

She recognized the basilisks.  The enormous serpents were following a lone witch in a green dress, seeming to mimic her movements.  As she walked, they swayed to match the swing of her hips, and their gaze was clearly fixed on her back to the exclusion of all else.  The basilisks were at least fifty feet long, perhaps more; the portion of their serpentine bodies that they held upright was as tall as a two-storey Muggle home.

Behind the basilisks was another mass of creatures -- terrifying things that could only be terresque.  They had broad shells on their backs, rough as chipped stone, and moved on six stubby legs with shiny red scales.  They were huge -- ten feet high, with round black heads as large as a lion’s, and great mouths that smoked with some sort of vapour.  As they lumbered along, they resembled nothing so much as a mad cross between a tank and a turtle and a parade float.

As both groups came into view and as soon as she grasped what she was seeing, Hermione immediately reacted.  They couldn’t handle this -- not with so few people.  She yanked her broom to one side as sharply as she dared, almost colliding with Hyori before the Returned could match her change of heading.  Should they be trying to transfigure protective goggles or something, in case the basilisks’ stare reached them at this distance?  No, no time, and they needed free wands.  The important thing was to get back out of sight and warn everyone else.  Luna already had one task, but now Hermione had something else for her, too.

The witches and wizards weren’t mounted -- strange, but in keeping with their lack of hurry in a time of war -- and so there was a chance that Hermione and her people might get away before any conflict could begin.  She heard a distant shout from below as they wheeled about, but the enemy wouldn’t manage more than one or two attacks before the Returned were clear.  My God… in addition to a seemingly endless horde of Muggles, we’ll also be fighting the denizens of Howard and Nurmengard?

A bolt of green light streaked past, veering wide.  It was joined by another, placed more accurately and blistering through the air between Esther and Charlevoix.  A thick gust of steam blew into the group almost at the same time, but it was without force at this distance, and the Returned were putting distance between them and the enemy with every moment.

There was no point in engaging, but a thought did occur to Hermione -- obvious, in retrospect.  She slackened her pace just slightly, and brought her wand to her throat.  “Sonorus,” she cast, and then bellowed at the top of her lungs, “Egeustimentis Ba!”

There was an immediate response below, as four or five of the witches and wizards began firing on each other.  A fireball erupted among the group, cast by one of its number.  Hermione grinned, and leaned further into her broom, urging more speed.  They still needed to prepare for the monsters.

An odd hooting sound startled her.  It sounded like a giant owl -- and it seemed far too close, as though it somehow cut through the rushing wind.  Hermione jerked her head to the side and looked for the source, but saw nothing.  She could see Urg looking puzzled, and knew she hadn’t been the only one who heard it.

Then Susie fell out of the sky, tumbling off her broom, slapping at something that was wrapped around her head.  Hermione only caught a glimpse of it as Susie tumbled away -- a naked thing of skin and teeth, vibrating violently.

And then Hermione was diving after her, her broom vertical, arm stretched out and golden gauntlet reaching.  She could hear Susie screaming -- shrieking at the top of her voice, louder than a person should be able to scream, agony tearing out of her.

Shouldn’t do this no time stupid stupid, she thought, in a confused jumble that didn’t shake her from her course in the slightest.

Hermione strained forward, trying to force herself to go faster, to dive more quickly, to reach farther.  Susie tumbled away in a tangle of robes and blood, beating at the thing on her face and chest until it fell away, tossed in the wind.  The ground rose towards Hermione and Susie, surging up to meet them as they fell.

She reached and reached and

Got her.

As her hand clamped down on Susie’s ankle, Hermione kicked herself savagely back, hauling on the front of her broom so fiercely that she felt the wood strain and crack dangerously in her grip.  She pulled up into a swoop, the bottom of the arc dipping within arm’s reach of a crowd of threatening Muggles, dragging them both back up into the sky without letting go of a drop of speed.  The violent motion wrenched Susie badly, and Hermione felt something in the witch’s leg give -- the hip or knee -- but Hermione had her, thank God thank God, she had her.

They rocketed forward, Hermione leaning forward and holding the broom steady with her left hand.  With the other, she pulled Susie up, lifting the witch’s lower body over the front of the broom.

But Susie was dead.

Her face and chest were a mess of bloody meat, ground and torn as though by some monstrous industrial machine.  Her mouth was agape -- a lifeless black wound in the shredded flesh.

Hermione’s eyes burned with the wind and her rage, and she clenched her jaw.  She leaned forward, though, gripping Susie in place.  Stay focused.  Susie could still be saved.

The rest of the Returned joined her moments later, swooping down to fall in line with her.

Hermione heard more hooting.

No no no what is that?!

Esther pulled even with Hermione, and leaned over.  She grabbed one of Susie’s arms, pulling on the witch.  Hermione understood what she wanted, and helped, seizing the back of Susie’s robes and lifting the witch from one broom onto the other, fighting with the other hand to keep their flight steady.

There was another hooting sound, and something collided with Esther, her broom, and Susie.  The two witches were gone, as immediately as if they’d been struck from the sky by lightning.

Hermione wheeled in her seat, and saw… something.  Not a physical thing so much as a flow of sensations.  It was something like the use of wandless magic: the purposeful movement of particular ideas.  But this was somehow visible, and moving, and malevolent.  A collection of sensations, divorced from sanity and sense.

Large eyes.  Black and oily.  Wet.
White skin.  Flaky, run through with spidering cracks.  Ragged in places, as gnawed.
Long, thin limbs.  Sparse flesh.  Lumpy joint.
Mouth.  Smile.
Smile.

And there were more, leaping up around them.  Hooting with mirth.  They were so fast; Hermione was on a broom at top speed and they were leaping at her.

Without word or order or request, Hyori and Charlevoix broke away from Hermione and the rest of the Returned.  Hermione twisted to see once more, and they flew around and back, in a circle back to where Esther and Susie had fallen.  Their curses flew as quickly as they could cast them, but the creatures were too quick and too inchoate.  Even the spells that seemed to hit had no effect.  They leapt at Hyori and Charlevoix, hooting, and the pair vanished, plucked out of the air.

Hermione turned back around, gritting her teeth again, and her hands tightened on her broom.  She fought to stay calm -- fought to stay under control.

Esther and Charlevoix.  The French witch had once been nearly catatonic, breaking into screams every time she was separated from Hermione.  Esther had been very quiet, too, for a time; injured deep within herself by betrayal and her own anger.  But the two had found each other during this past year in some new way -- Hermione hadn’t pried.  They were even leaving Powis -- they’d just recently gotten a cottage in Godric’s Hollow.

Hyori.  An enigma, even to Hermione.  Laconic and deadly serious, imprisoned for murder, but with some hidden depth that Hermione had never understood.  She’d made a game of things in subtle ways, and her sharp eyes had always hinted at thoughts the witch had never revealed.

Susie.  Lascivious and sarcastic, delighting in affecting cockney, alluding to a sexuality she used like armor.  Like all of the Returned, she’d left some piece of herself with the dementors, but she was bravest of them all in trying to reclaim it.

Hermione, Tonks, Urg, Nikitas, and Jessie flew on, back to Hogwarts and back to help.

Not that Hermione could imagine what help would suffice.  What could anyone do in this situation?  What weapons did they have that would work?

And again: what did these damned monsters even want?

This didn’t make any sense!  Why was the enemy entering through Hogsmeade, and not right outside the castle -- or for that matter, why not right inside the castle?  They didn’t know the limits of the spell, but Bellatrix had used it to simply appear within Hogwarts, so why not do that again?

For that matter, why go to war like this at all?  Harry had said that Meldh had only said that “a great and fearsome god” was calling for “blood”... part of some larger plan to eliminate magic from the world.  That last bit accorded with what Tineagar had said back in Tidewater.  That seemed like years ago, now… Tineagar had claimed she was fighting to stop the world from breaking.

They were wasting resources, unless they had some hidden aim.  Their plan had been for Meldh to take Harry’s place, with Harry in some “new shape” as an enslaved advisor.  But preparations for this attack must have started, at the latest, well before Hermione went to the Tower.  The Muggle news, she’d learned, had begun reporting disappearances in the morning.  So why were the Three essentially attacking each other?  It couldn’t be infighting or rivalry, since Meldh had known about it to mention to Harry.  It was part of a plan.  But she couldn’t see what that plan’s goal might be, in light of the Three’s goal of ending all magic.  Were they trying to start a war between Muggles and wizards?  Or just trying to kill off as many wizards as possible?  Or was it just a distraction from a trio of monsters who had no particular regard for the lives of others?  And how would they react to the loss of Meldh?

Oh.

Hermione’s broom wobbled as she suddenly realized something, letting go with one hand to snatch her bubbler out of her robes.  She lay her will upon it, picturing Harry; he answered almost immediately.

“Harry!” she shouted, calling at the top of her voice to be heard over the wind, unwilling to slacken the pace of her speeding broom even a fraction, “Meldh was going to take your place!”

His eyes lit up, and she knew he understood: to the other two members of the Three, the world might not look any different from one in which Meldh had succeeded and was in control of the Tower.  They might not have heard her use the counterspell, if they weren’t near that group of wizards.  They might still think everything was going according to plan.

≡≡≡Ω≡≡≡

It was an uncomfortable moment when Draco realized he wasn’t in charge.  He arrived in the Great Hall with Mad-Eye and Diggory at his side and twenty aurors in tow (and one Gregory Goyle).  Longbottom and Bogdanova were there, and told him that Granger had left operating orders and then had gone flying off to do her usual routine (jumping from really high, getting in over her head, discovering she was actually a bit rubbish at magic, and resorting to punching things like a Muggle).  Her plans were good ones, but they still needed someone in command.  The Lord Malfoy (now the greatest of that name, one of the handful of people in command of the entire world) drew himself up to his full height and readied himself for the burden.

But before he could begin, Mad-Eye had already taken control from a perch on the rooftop over the great doors.

“You there, get back here -- get on that roof, no need to be flying around!” he roared, pointing at one of the groups in the air.  “Use the castle and hold this ground!  Keep them back, but Hogwarts is stone from the ancients -- use it!  And for Merlin’s sake, everyone put up a bloody bubble!”

Chastened, Draco tapped his wand to his head, casting, “Bullesco.”  He felt the uncomfortable feeling as a bubble swelled from one nostril, inflating until it encompassed his head.

They went to work.

It soon became clear that standard dueling tactics were useless.  There were simply too many of the enemy, and those methods had already failed one group of defenders.  It was simple math: even if every auror was able to kill a hundred Muggles, there would still be more.

Instead, they focused on attacks that affected a wide area -- not those rare spells that could do damage on a large scale, for those were deeply draining.  Instead, they used attacks on the terrain, and innovative Transfigurations.

The fliers dispersed from a height something called “sarin” out among the Muggles, far away from the castle.  Within minutes, it began crippling and killing huge swaths of the enemy.  At the same time, other fliers dropped large metal canisters that Mad-Eye transfigured; the blastbombs detonated into fiery explosions as they landed among the Muggle horde.

Closer by, defenders picked off those Muggles who managed to reach the top of the hill and the castle walls, and used the Butterball Charm to make it almost impossible to make the approach.  Some still got close enough to attack with their weapons: they became targets, too.  One fired a ranged blastbomb which leapt from its tubelike gun and blew up against the castle wall, as though it were conjured fire.  It did but minor damage to the school, but it was dangerous nonetheless.  A massed horde of Muggles, despite their limitations, were a fearsome threat.

It’s like the ancient wars, the stories from old, Draco thought, with a tingle of excitement and unease.  Muggles died in droves, and from a perch on a balcony above the great doors, Draco lashed out to protect everything he valued, fighting a war he had never really believed would come.

In only a few minutes, he was starting to feel sick.  But there was nothing for it.  He swallowed hard and leaned over the railing, twirling his wand, “Stupefy!  Stupefy!”  Two more Muggles fell back, stunned, dropping into a frictionless slurry of liquified stone and vanishing from sight.

A movement from above caught his eye, and he glanced up to see Granger coming back, streaking through the air at top speed.  Half of her band of fanatics were gone.  But it looked like she was unhurt, he saw with relief.

She dropped down from the sky and swooped to a stop near Mad-Eye on the roof, out of sight from Draco (on the balcony below) but within earshot.  “Alastor, there’s a force of witches and wizards on the way here.  Bellatrix and that American witch, Tineagar, and at least thirty others, including some of Grindelwald’s old bunch.”

“But not Grindel himself,” gruffed Mad-Eye.  “Makes sense, since they tortured him into insanity twenty years ago.”

Draco didn’t even have time to be shocked by the news, as Granger went on.  “There’s worse… ten basilisks and almost as many rock-monster things -- from the old legends, the terresque.  And… and --”

Her voice ended in a strangled cry before she found her words again.  “And something else.  I don’t know what, some sort of creatures.  They’re so fast and spells didn’t work.

“Harry’s in the library,” replied Mad-Eye.  Then he shouted at someone Draco couldn’t see, calling roughly, “You lot, get down here!”

The Shichinin flew in from Draco’s left, joining the pair on the roof.  Draco turned his attention back to the battle as an explosion concussed the air, claiming another dozen lives, and picked off two more Muggles who’d separated from the pack and nearly reached the castle.

A few minutes later, the monsters arrived.  Draco had never seen anything like them.  Giant serpents -- basilisks, he knew.  Creatures the size of buildings, with six legs.  They tore through Muggles like the people weren’t even there, crushing them underfoot as they stormed at Hogwarts across the castle grounds.

Monsters… what did you even do in a situation like this?

There was nothing to do except handle one situation at a time, and wait for instructions.  Three more Muggles reached the top of the slope, clambering on the partially-submerged bodies of their compatriots, and Draco took them down.  One of them had raised a tube-weapon, but Draco thought he took him down in time.

The next instant, everything went black and pain, jumbled up in a riot of impact.  Draco found himself staring at the side of the castle, lying on the stones in front of the great doors.  

He lay there, ears filled with white noise, and tried to understand what had happened.

Draco rolled over onto his back, and coughed.  It hurt abominably, as though something inside him was torn.  But he couldn’t stop himself, and coughed again, spasmodically.

He stared up at the roof of the castle.  Granger and the Shichinin were in flight again, a tight bunch.  They flew down to him, pausing in the air a dozen yards away.

No time for this, do your asinine plan, whatever it is, Draco thought, scornfully.  Weakly, he lifted a hand, and flapped it in a dismissive gesture.

Granger nodded at him, something unrecognizable on her face.  She turned and waved at one of the Weasley twins, Merlin knew which one, and pointed down at something on the ground, out of Draco’s view.  “Fred!” she shouted, barely audible through Draco’s ringing ears, “You guys take those and get high!  Wait for my signal!”

Draco put a hand to his forehead, and it came back red and wet.  He felt dizzy and nauseous.  Bile rose in his throat, and he leaned over to vomit.  When he was finished, he’d barely straightened before he needed to throw up again.  His legs felt weak, and he swayed in place, staggering to the side as he tried to stay upright.

A strong grip seized his forearm, held it tight, held him in place.  Dazed, he looked to find an armored child holding his arm.  No, not a child.  A goblin, clad all over in shining silver.

“Rest easy, wizard,” said the goblin, its consonants guttural.  “We’ll need you yet.”

Draco couldn’t quite understand what he was seeing.  Something was in his eyes; he swiped at his face with the sleeve of his robe, blinking rapidly as something stung his eyes.  His Bubblehead Charm was broken, he realized.  He needed to get it back.

But for the moment, all he could do was fight to stand as the goblin let him go.  It hefted a spear in its hand, and pointed it down the slope, to where the monsters were raging.

Draco held himself upright, and felt a moment’s hope.

Then he heard the strangest hooting noise.

≡≡≡Ω≡≡≡

A solitary figure in plain grey robes, unseen and unnoticed, watched the fighting.

It paused to flick its fingers through the air, whereupon a tracery of crimson light formed a sharp arrow, directing the figure’s gaze to the castle itself and an unseen target within.

The figure picked its way carefully up the steep slope towards the Hufflepuff greenhouse, which was damaged and open.  Where the way was inconvenient, the ground gently shifted itself, as though the earth itself was trying to be accommodating.  The lone individual stepped delicately over broken panes of glass, and slipped inside the school.  

It made its way to the library.



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