The Sugar Quill
Author: Night Zephyr (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Points of No Return  Chapter: Chapter Twenty-two: As Clear as - Blood?
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Points 22

~ Chapter 22 ~
As Clear as-- Blood?



Ron woke to the eerie sound of soft laughter near his ear. It wasn’t light-hearted, happy, musical laughter, but deep, dark, bizarre laughter--and it was female.

He wrenched his head and shoulders around to see the source of the sound, a silhouette framed by the firelight of the hearth behind her. The weight of a long body dropped on top of him. Now pinned to the sofa by her, he could see her face illuminated from the side. As he had feared, it was Valeria. She was darkly beautiful in the firelight, but her expression reeked of evil, ruining the effect.

“You believed in me,” she said with a voice he’d never heard before. She moved her face closer to his, staring into his eyes.

The brilliance of green from her eyes felt as if it was burning its way into his brain. As she came nearer, Ron pushed his head back as far as he could into the sofa, until he felt he would smother from it--and her-- surrounding him so closely.

Valeria’s face was inches from his. Her lips were parted, her focus was unmistakable. As she started to angle her head to ease her lips onto his, something even more appalling took place. Her skin began to melt away in blobs down her neck, turning her face into a grotesque, scaly, mask. But she remained intent on her goal.

Ron closed his eyes to avoid the burning pain from the green gleam in her eyes, furiously swinging his head from side to side to keep her from settling on his mouth. He knew he’d have to open his eyes to try and escape, and when he did open them, Valeria was gone. In her place, ready and waiting, he could see the huge, gaping mouth of a full-blown dementor, ready to seal Ron’s mouth and his fate with its Kiss.

“We’re coming,” said the same voice that had come from Valeria, breathing the nauseating stench of its foul breath into his face.

Ron struggled to pull his arms together in front of him and pushed with every ounce of strength he owned, sending the dementor flying into the hearth, where its robe smothered the flames and extinguished the light.

Snapping to a sitting position, his chest and his head pounding, Ron gasped and wheezed for air as if he’d been underwater far too long. Trying to fight his way through the Neverland between sleep and wakefulness, it dawned on him.

“Oh,” he said aloud in relief. It was a nightmare--just a bloody, stupid, nasty nightmare. Ron wiped the sleeve of his shirt across his brow after feeling a trickle of cold sweat make its way down his temple. Closing his eyes, he listened to the sounds of sleep from the others in the room. Though he could not hear Hermione from this distance, the slow, regular breathing of Harry and his brothers lulled him into a feeling of security.

But suddenly, it felt wrong. He snapped his eyes open, only to wonder if they were really open at all. It was pitch black. Poking one finger in his eye to confirm it, he found his eyes were open; it was just too dark to see anything, including the hand that was inches from his face. He remembered the new moon would send him no light from outside even if he pulled back one of the window cloths.

What the hell...? he wondered. What happened to the fire? Hermione’s fires never go out completely.

His mind struggled to sort it all out. That’s right, you threw the dementor into the fire and his robe smothered the flames...No, no, no--that’s wrong. That was the nightmare. Now you’re awake. What is going on?

Ron reached behind him and felt around the sofa cushion for his wand--if only he could do “Lumos!” so that he could see, maybe everything would make more sense. He could have sworn he heard an almost inaudible whoosh, and sensed someone or something passing him in the dark.

If I wake everyone thinking this is real and it’s my own nightmare, I’ll feel really thick. He continued to search for the wand with his hands, sticking his fingers into the cracks between the cushions. Where did that stupid wand go? I left it right here. But everything must be all right. I can still hear Fred and George and Harry breathing. Valeria’s over there under the Leg-Locker Curse, so she can’t move anyway, and I can hear her breathing---

He listened in the darkness. That’s weird--no, I can’t! She must be facing the wall. I wish I could see for sure. Where the bloody hell is my wand?

The tapping sound of something being dropped on the floor was unmistakable this time, and following that, Ron felt the same whoosh of air and movement as before. Abandoning the idea of letting everyone sleep, he knew that Harry was the closest to him.

“Harry--” Ron said in a quiet voice. “Did you hear that?”

No response.

“Harry!” he said louder. “Do you have your wand? The fire’s gone out, and I can’t find mine.”

Thinking he heard a muffled reply, Ron sat in silence for a moment, waiting for Harry to repeat it. Nothing came.

Throwing off the cloak he’d been using as a blanket, Ron decided to get up and try to make his way the few feet to the small couch where Harry slept. Maybe he could find Harry’s wand, or get him to wake up-- one or the other.

Ron felt his way along to the end of the sofa he’d been sleeping on, cursing after jamming his toe on the bottom corner, and then kicking his shoe out from under his stockinged foot.

“Harry!” he said again as he moved along, reaching out for the edge of Harry’s couch. Somehow it seemed farther than he’d thought.

Swinging his arm around in the darkness, it connected--but not with the couch--and not with Harry.

Something was crouched over the smaller sofa, where his best friend slept. Ron pulled his arm back in shock at the unexpected contact. Yet, realizing that Harry could be in danger, he took a deep breath and reached out once more. He grabbed in the blackness over and over again where he thought the object had been.

All at once, Ron had a handful of something long and silky. He yanked it back, away from Harry, and felt something heavier that was attached to the silky stuff follow behind. Two blinding green dots swung his way. The shock of the despair and hopelessness drilled into his mind so intensely from out of the darkness that it made him stagger back.

“Valeria!” Ron said in dismay, trying to throw off the shadowy feelings the dementors instilled in him. “But you can’t walk--the Leg-Locker Curse--”

Obviously not an issue now, Weasley. She’s standing right in front of you.

Valeria said nothing. Just as Ron was making an attempt to pull her to the far side of the room, a stunning blow came from out of the blackness and hit him squarely on the ear, knocking him off-balance and down on one knee. Valeria pulled free.

“Harry!” Ron yelled, trying to shake off being dazed by the blow. “Harry--are you all right? You there?”

“Hmmm?” Harry replied, sounding sleepy and confused.

Sounds of movement and people waking were coming from all around him now. Ron was thankful to hear Harry and the others waking, but their noises now covered what he could hear of Valeria, and there would be no seeing her without more light--that was certain.

“Your wand, Harry! Get your wand! We need light!” Ron instructed. “Valeria’s up!”

“What? But the Leg--” Harry started sleepily.

“I know! Find your wand, Harry! We need light now!”

“I’ll do it!” said a voice in the darkness. Rustling came from the direction of Fred’s bed. “Where in blazes did it go? It was right here.” The rustling continued.

A sudden thought came to Ron; Hermione never lost track of her wand. “Hermione!” he yelled toward the direction of the loft. “Hermione!!”

“What’s going on? I can’t see a thing!!” Hermione’s voice answered from above him after a moment. “What happened to the fire?”

“Never mind that. We need light--fast!!” Ron wanted to tell her all of what was going on, but his head was aching.

“Just a minute,” Hermione answered. Ron could hear slow creaking in the blackness as she moved back in the loft, then came forward again. “Whoa,” Hermione said shakily. “I didn’t think the edge of the loft was that close. I can’t find my wand. It’s too dark.”

“Mine’s missing, too,” Ron answered. “I think they all--”

“What are those green lights? I feel de--men...” Harry said groggily from a low point in the blackness.

“George, Fred, find Valeria!! Her eyes are really green--bright green. But don’t look at her--the dementors will make you sick. She’s trying to get to Harry-- but he’s got to be right here--I’ll find him,” Ron said, trying to pull himself out of the mental fog he was in, and deal with the dark well enough to find his best friend.

Rather than stand and take a chance on falling, Ron dropped to crawl on his hands and knees in what he thought was Harry’s direction.

“Ron--did you find him?” Hermione asked from above.

“No--not yet.”

“I’m coming down,” Hermione said determinedly.

Ron stopped crawling a moment to answer her. “Are you barking mad, Hermione? Coming down that ladder in this dark? Stay there--we’ll find him.”

The confusion only worsened as Fred and George began to move about the room, banging into furniture and knocking things to the floor. Stepping on Ron twice, they spent some time crashing into each other as well, thinking they had trapped Valeria. The clamor covered any hope of finding Valeria by listening for her--until they heard the whispering.

“Don’t tell-- be my eyes. Potter’s evil----be my eyes. Be my eyes, be my eyes...” the whispering was moving around the room so fast, it was difficult to believe that it could be human. If that was Valeria, how could she move around that quickly in this darkness? Either that, or the sound was bouncing off of the walls somehow...

Ron’s crawling search paid off when he placed his hand on something warm and lumpy on the floor--Harry’s arm. He followed the arm with his own hands up to his friend’s face, then leaned down and tried to determine if Harry was breathing. As Ron leaned in, his shoulder grazed something that swept quickly away.

“Geroff, you stupid dementors!! Expecto...” Harry mumbled. He was apparently too groggy to realize that he didn’t have a wand in his hand, and he seemed to think Ron was a dementor attacking him. But other than that, to Ron’s relief, Harry seemed all right.

“I’ve got--” Ron began to tell the others.

AAARRGGHHHHH!!” they all heard in the blackness, as the scream seemed to rebound off the walls and circle all around them. “I will!! I will!!” Valeria’s voice shouted at the top of her lungs. “Good thoughts, Abuelita, kittens, morning on the ship...” she listed from somewhere near her corner in her regular voice. “I will--tell-- them!!”

The scream that was heard after that chilled Ron to his very bones, and he was certain it must have done the same to the rest of them. It was deathly silent for at least a full minute, then footsteps were heard pounding across the floor. The door latch jiggled, then with a whoosh of freezing air, the door creaked open swiftly as if it had been thrown. It slammed against the wall of the little cottage, jarring the ground itself with its force.

The deafening silence returned.

“Did she leave?” Hermione asked, panicked. “Has she got Harry?”

“No, Harry’s right here-- a little out of it, but he’s here,” Ron answered. “She ran out--I guess we’re better off until the dementors leave her. She can’t stay here with Harry--we’ve just got to hope they don’t make her do something awful to herself.”

“Unless...”Hermione said in a worried tone. “Unless she’s left the door open to let something else in.”

“No one’s found their wand yet?” Fred asked from out of the darkness.

“They’re all gone. Do you think Valeria took them?” George questioned.

“I certainly didn’t hear her come up to get mine,” Hermione said.

“How did she get out of the Leg-Locker Curse? Are you sure you did it right, Ron?” Fred asked.

Ron didn’t answer immediately, then sounded quite irritable when he did. “Yes. I know I did.”

“How could dementors help her get out of--” Fred started to ask.

“I don’t know, all right? But they said they were--” Oh , by the gods! Ron thought, stopping mid-sentence. They said they were coming--in the nightmare. Could that be true? Should I tell the rest of them?

“Dementors don’t talk, Ron,” Harry murmured, coming to his senses a bit more now.

Just then, from above their heads, the boys heard a soft crackling sound. A very faint glow started to light the room and they all looked up to find its source.

Hermione was standing at the edge of the loft, holding one hand out flat in front of her with the bandaged hand open at its side. Above the outstretched hand was a tiny sphere of shimmering light, wavering in intensity, but steady in its existence. Her face was lit with both pride and the faint glow of the light.

Even in the seriousness of the moment, all of the Weasley boys’ jaws dropped in awe.

“Tell me you’ve found your wand, Hermione,” Fred said, as the others seemed to be speechless. “Because if you didn’t--you’re as scary as Ron says you are.”

“Damn, you’re good! Ron said, realizing there was simply no wand involved.

Harry, recovering a bit from his dementor stupor, pushed himself up and joined the group in staring.

“I haven’t practiced much, but I understand the theory. Remember when Lupin did it on the train? I’m going to try and get down the ladder with it now,” Hermione said.

“Wait a minute--let me get over there just in case,” Ron said, standing quickly, then bending over momentarily when he felt his head start to spin. He tried to stand upright again, walked haltingly to the door to close it, then waited at the bottom of the loft ladder.

Once Hermione descended safely to the floor, the search for the wands began anew. Hermione’s light wasn’t nearly as bright as a wand’s would have been, but they all considered it ten times as spectacular. Still, the search throughout the cottage turned up nothing.

“Valeria must have the wands. What do we do now? We have no idea where they could be,” Fred said.

“If she did take them, they’re likely at the bottom of the cliff by now,” George responded, sounding discouraged.

Then they heard the door latch jiggle.

The entire group realized just how vulnerable they felt without their magic. Even with Hermione’s light, the room was still too dark for them to see exactly what might be coming through the door, and respond to it very quickly.

“Just grab something heavy and get ready to swing,” Ron said, reaching for one of the wooden chairs and holding it aloft.

Fred and George followed suit with various pieces of furniture-- even Harry groggily grabbed a large chunk of firewood. They all faced the door, and waited.

The door latch jiggled again, until the lock came loose. The door swung ajar a few inches, then flew open as if it was soundly kicked. Though they tried hard to focus on what was rushing through the opening, it was still nearly impossible to see.

The boys stood back, trying to let Hermione’s light shine on the doorway from behind them. Valeria came storming into the room with something hanging from her hand. They readied themselves to strike.

“Wait!” Ron said. “Don’t do anything to her yet. See what she’s holding. Just-- be ready in case.”

The entire group squinted through the half-light at Valeria’s hand.

“A bucket?” Harry said, finally able to see the object, but sounding confused.

Valeria seemed completely preoccupied with what she was doing, ignoring even Harry when he spoke. Once she had passed through the doorway, Ron and Fred, the two closest to the entrance, moved up to the doorframe. They still held their makeshift weapons above their heads until they were sure that nothing was following her through the door. But nothing did.

Closing and latching the door again, they turned in curiosity to Valeria, who seemed to have no interest in harming any of them just then. Mumbling and whispering to herself, she set the bucket down and began to shove furniture away from the largest wall.

As the tall girl stepped farther into the light, Hermione gasped.

Ron tried to see what caused her alarm, but when Valeria turned a bit, it was obvious.

Valeria’s clothes and hands were covered with something dark and oozy. Little trails dripped down her body from the blackish patches that slopped down her front. Her hands were completely immersed in the dark, dribbly muck, and as she wiped at her face and hair, they became smeared with the slippery goo as well.

“Ron, what is that all over her?” Hermione asked carefully, seemingly afraid of what the answer might be.

“I--don’t know. I just hope it’s not what it looks like,” Ron replied. Until this point, the four boys had still held their furniture and firewood weapons aloft, prepared to strike. But since Valeria seemed completely unaware of their existence, they felt at ease enough to drop the weapons down a little.

“Where would she get that much blood?” Harry asked, staring at the bucket.

Ron felt his stomach turn over at the thought, but knew he had to take a chance. “Valeria?” Ron said. But there was no response to his voice.

“I--will--tell--them,” Valeria continued to whisper, moving her head from side to side stiffly, as if it hurt, or as if she were resisting something. “Can’t --stop--me now.”

Yanking her bed from the corner where it had been, Valeria pushed it against the largest wall, then grabbed the bucket and climbed on top of the bed. Walking back and forth across it, she started to scoop out handfuls of the glop in the bucket, rubbing it on the wall in some sort of pattern. Although they could not tell what she was doing in the dim light, they stood in nauseated silence and watched as she worked at her huge, morbid painting on the wall.

“Whatever else she’s doing--whether that’s blood or what-- we’ve got to find those wands,” Harry said.

“Valeria, can you hear me?” Ron tried again. “The wands we had--the sticks that do magic--did you have them?”

“Be my eyes...be my eyes!--he said--he told me--” she waved her arm at the door, “...aaggghhh!!” Valeria slumped over, holding her head with one arm and screaming, as if making the motion had caused her great pain. She had nearly dropped the bucket she was working from, but after a few minutes she forced her head up again, her face strained. The work on the wall creation continued.

“Does that mean they’re outside?” George asked.

“It’s all we’ve got,” Ron whispered. “Hermione, walk over by the door--I’ll come with you. We need to open it, and shine your light out there--see if we can find those wands.” He hoped she’d be willing to cooperate with him since she’d still been angry when she went to bed, but she seemed able to put aside their differences at the moment.

“What if there’s something else out there--that came with her?” Hermione asked.

Ron swallowed. He immediately thought of that foreboding sense of evil he’d felt in Valeria’s mind. What if that evil thing was just outside their door?

“I don’t know. There could be something. But our wands are out there, too. Without them, we’re pretty much at the mercy of anything out there anyway.” Ron motioned to Harry. He briefly thought about the little row he’d had with Harry, too, but compared to the mess they were in now, that situation had been laughable.

“Do you think she meant far outside?” Hermione asked.

“I have no idea. But we know they’re not in here, and we’ve got to try.”

Harry had moved next to Ron with his log weapon at the ready. “We’re going for the wands, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Probably our only chance,” Harry said. “I’m going with you.”

“I’m not letting you go out there as dementor bait,” Ron said.

You’re not letting me go out there? Well, I don’t plan on being dementor bait sitting helpless in here, either,” Harry insisted.

“Yeah, I reckon you’re right.” Ron smiled a little at Harry. “Hermione, I don’t suppose you can pass that light on to me, can you?”

“I’m lucky to keep it going myself. It’s okay, I’ll go--with you,” she said bravely, but the slight waver in her voice gave away her uncertainty. “But I won’t be much help looking --this takes a bit of concentration.”

“So, if you can’t watch where you’re going, can you hold onto one of us with one hand, and hold the light in the other?” Ron asked. He heard the soft, crackling sound that Hermione’s light made as she moved up closer to him.

“Yes, I think so.” Hermione tried to get a good hold on the back of Ron’s shirt, but that didn’t seem too secure with her bandaged hand, so she hooked two fingers through the back beltloop on his jeans.

“Harry, what’s Valeria doing? Can you tell?” Ron questioned.

“The same thing. It seems like it doesn’t even matter if it’s dark--she’s still working at the wall,” Harry responded.

“Reckon that’s a good thing for now.” Ron looked to see that Fred and George were still focused on Valeria, ready to act if she made a move to do anything else.

“Fred--George-- be ready to swing those chairs if we come running back in here with something behind us,” Ron said.

“Oh, now I feel better, Ron,” Hermione said sarcastically.

Ron took a deep breath and let it out. “Let’s go, then.” He slowly unlatched and pulled open the door, just wide enough to lean through the doorframe. He looked outside to see what he could, and what he could see was--nothing.

“It’s darker than a well-bottom at midnight out there. Oh, I don’t like this too bloody much.” He had swapped his chair weapon for a log like Harry’s piece of firewood, as if it would do much harm to anything. But maybe a good swift smack in the head would help, he thought, if it has a head. Ron shivered at his own thought, and he decided not to let his two friends in on it.

The three of them crept outside, Hermione’s light casting enormous shadows of Ron and Harry in front and behind them. They searched the immediate area around the cottage for ten minutes or so, finding not even one clue. But they were relieved that they hadn’t found anything--else--in their search, either.

“This is hopeless. They could be anywhere,” Hermione said, sounding tired from maintaining her light for so long.

Ron kept visually scouring the ground for signs. “Look--footprints!”

“Those could be from any one of us,” Harry pointed out.

“Well, it’s none of the three of ours--and they’re too small to be from the twins,” Ron reasoned. “Look--there are wet patches of--something--next to them. They have to be Valeria’s.”

Harry and Hermione finally agreed. The prints seemed to be leading to the creek, but they also ran perilously close to the edge of the cliffs.

“Ron, watch it by the cliffs--it’s too dark,” Harry warned.

The sudden screech of an owl in the distance sent chills through them all.

“If only that was a messenger owl...” Hermione said wistfully.

The ominous feeling that shivered its way through him reminded Ron of his nightmare. “I think we have to go over there, Harry. I have a feeling we can’t afford to wait until daylight to find those wands.”

A sudden movement from out of the sky startled them all. In an instant, they looked up to see the light underside of a powerful set of wings coming at them. But more dangerous, by far, were the talons they saw coming ahead of the wings, seemingly aimed toward their faces.

Hermione’s light wavered as she was taken by surprise, but once the light came back to its full force, the three friends could see that it was the owl, which had now passed and was winging its way out over the cliffs. They could tell it wasn’t a messenger owl, as Hermione had hoped, but they were relieved it was nothing more dangerous than a night bird, either.

“We must have startled something out of hiding and the owl was hunting it,” Harry said. “That owl’s going to be rather upset that we kept it from its dinner. Hedwig would be chewing my ear right now.”

A scurrying movement near the ground now absorbed their attention, and they heard something run under a shrub in a patch of bushes nearby.

Ron was leaning down, peering at the footprints that led near the bush. “Hermione, bring that light a bit closer. Look, there’s a whole group of the footprints right here, as if she stopped and walked around here a bit.” He squatted down to lift up the edge of the branches as they skirted the ground.

Something small shot from the back of the bush down the path toward the cliff.

Hermione held up the light so they could see what it was, but it was hard for them to believe it even once they actually saw it. Running at full speed across the dirt path toward the cliff’s edge was a rat. And in its mouth--was a wand.

“Hey!!” Ron said, ready to sprint after the rat. But he realized just in time that if he built up any speed, he’d never be able to stop before falling over the cliff.

As all three of them jogged together behind the rat, they could follow him closely enough to see that the rat took the wand to the cliff’s edge, and dropped it from its mouth over the precipice.

Even Hermione didn’t take much offense at the string of profane words that spilled from Ron’s mouth then.

“Miserable little piece of--I’m gonna catch that thing and throw it over, too!” Ron promised. He moved up on the rat, hemming it in by scrambling from side to side and holding out his arms. The rat had to choose between facing the wrath of Ron, and jumping from the cliff’s edge behind him.

Trapped, the tiny animal stared up at the tall boy, its sides heaving.

Hermione moved closer to Ron and he moved closer to his prey. As the light made everything clearer, Ron found he was again having trouble believing what he was seeing.

“Harry--Hermione--look at this rat!” Ron said, squinting at the animal in the dim light. “He looks just like---”

Again, a whoosh of wings came at them from the sky. The owl had returned, obviously intending for the rat to be his victim instead of Ron’s. Ron jumped back just as the owl swooped nearly to the ground, barely missing both him and the rat.

The rat had taken advantage of the owl’s diversion to make a run for it. It seemed as if the rodent thought it might elude not only the owl, but the furious red-haired human in front of it as well. It made one mighty leap toward the tufts of grass at the side of the path, but not before Ron made another astonishing discovery. Seeing the rat in mid-jump, Ron would have sworn he saw a glint of silver near its front foot.

“Did you see that? Did you see that?!” Ron asked in disbelief.

“Yeah, he got away,” Harry answered. “Stupid animal. Why would a rat bother with a wand?”

“No! No! Not that! Did you see the silver on its paw--when it jumped?” Ron asked.

Harry and Hermione looked at one another, then looked back at Ron and shook their heads.

“It had a silver foot--and the rat looked just like--like Scabbers!” Ron spluttered out.

Harry and Hermione glanced at one another quickly this time. They didn’t look as if they believed him, and had other thoughts on their minds.

“Come on, Ron,” Harry said. “We’re all tired. Let’s see if there’s any hope for this wand.” Harry and Hermione started to move carefully toward the edge of the cliff.

“No--it was! I really think it was! What other rat would throw a wand over a cliff?!” Ron insisted.

“Lots of rodents are hoarders, Ron,” Hermione explained. “They carry things all over with them. I’m sure it didn’t know it was throwing a wand off of a cliff.”

It had been such a strange night, and he was so tired, that Ron began to doubt what he’d really seen himself. “I was sure it was, though,” he said, less insistently.

“Ron--we’ve got wands to find, remember? And we’ve got to get back to the cottage. We’ve left your brothers there with Valeria--no telling what she’s up to by now,” Harry said.

Ron sighed. “Okay--you’re right. But I still could have sworn...”

“Yes--you already have. Several times,” Hermione mentioned. “I don’t know how much longer I can keep this light going, either. It’s rather tiring to do it.”

The three friends walked cautiously toward the edge of the cliff, peering over the edge carefully. Luckily, the wand had caught on a small dead branch protruding from a narrow ledge in the rock wall.

“I can get it,” Ron said. “Looks like it’s Fred’s.” Ron lay down on his stomach and reached over the edge of the cliff, inching himself up closer when even his long arms couldn’t reach. As he pushed more of his body over the edge, Harry and Hermione knelt down to hold onto one of Ron’s legs each, just in case.

“Got it!” Ron said, grabbing it and holding the wand behind him until Harry took hold of it.

Harry stood once Ron was away from the edge, quickly held up the wand and said, “Lumos!” Nothing happened.

Ron stood up as well, and dusted himself off. “Oh--here.” He reached for the wand and waved it a little.

“Even though Fred’s not here now,
It’ll be okay--don’t have a cow.
If you know the words, things won’t get worse:
One day Fred will own the universe!!”

The wand made a little pop from the end, then Ron held it up and said, “Lumos!”

The wand lit immediately. “Dumb little Security Charm they put on their wands so people couldn’t steal their Wizard Wheezes ideas. Heh--they don’t even know I know.”

Harry shook his head at the twins, even though they weren’t there. “Okay, Hermione, you can put yours out now if you want to take a rest.”

“I almost don’t want to,” Hermione said. “But I’m tired--I suppose I should. It was the first time I ever managed it.”

“You did it when we needed it most, and it was pretty damned awesome,” Ron said, smiling at her.

In spite of their differences earlier, Hermione gave him a cautious little smile and pushed her hands together, effectively cutting off the shimmering light. The absence of the crackling sound made it even quieter.

“Where do you suppose the rest of the wands are?” Hermione asked.

“I have a feeling...” Harry and Ron said together.

“The bush?” Ron asked.

“Let’s go,” Harry said in confirmation.

Using the brighter light from Fred’s wand, they could move a bit faster. The three friends backtracked to the bush that they’d scared the rat from.

“Hope the little bugger didn’t come back and move the rest of them, if they were ever here,” Harry said.

Ron passed Fred’s wand to Hermione to hold, then he and Harry knelt down in front of the bush where they’d stopped before. Ron lifted the bottom branches again while Hermione aimed the light so they could see.

“One, two, three--all four of them--right here,” Harry said in relief. He passed Ron’s and Hermione’s wands to them, holding onto George’s for later. “We’d better get back--it’s been a while. Even your brothers don’t deserve to deal with Valeria on their own for long.”

“Yeah--let’s go,” Ron agreed. He and Harry took off at a brisk pace, but it took them a few steps to realize that Hermione was having trouble keeping up. They stopped and waited the few seconds it took her to catch up.

“I told you I was tired,” she said.

“Come on, Hermione,” Ron said, looping his arm through hers to help her walk faster, as did Harry on the other side. “Can’t be waiting around for you all night.”

Too weary to think of a snappy response, Hermione just rolled her eyes weakly and let her friends lead her back to the cottage.

Even though the three of them knew not to expect any light coming from the cottage, the sight of it in complete darkness chilled them to the core. No lights, no sounds--the eeriness caught at the insides of their throats. They could only hope all had gone well inside.

The crunching of the gravel underfoot made it certain that they would not be able to make a sneak approach. The door was closed, and as Ron pushed on it, he found that it was also latched.

A strange bird call came from inside the cottage.

Harry and Hermione looked at Ron, whose expression showed relief upon hearing the noise.

“It’s okay,” Ron said. “That’s our signal--means the coast is clear and Mum’s not around. They probably weren’t completely sure it was us, so they tried that.” Ron returned the identical bird call.

“Who is it?” Ron asked the door.

“Who do you think it is, the Fat Lady?” a voice responded.

“Okay, then, Fred or George , we’ve found the wands. Where’s Valeria?” Ron asked.

“Still here somewhere, unless she Disapparated. Can’t see her, of course, but nobody went through any of the doors or windows. Oh, and it’s me,” said the voice.

“Yeah--that helps,” Ron said sarcastically. The twins knew full well that their voices were identical, too. “Come on--let us in!”

They heard the door unlatch from the inside. Harry, Hermione, and Ron piled through the door, then closed it quickly behind them.

It had been George who let them in, and he squinted in the light of the wand. Trying to get his eyes adjusted, he peered around the room.

“There she is,” he said, pointing to Valeria. “She screamed bloody murder for five or ten minutes straight--sounded like something was killing her. I’m surprised you didn’t hear. Quiet as a baby now, though, it seems.”

Though she was barely visible in the light of the one wand, it was easy to tell that Valeria’s body was rolled into a fetal position on the bed, her arms wrapped tightly around her head. She appeared to be either sleeping or unconscious.

They could not make out exactly what she’d drawn on the wall yet; still they could see that everything around her was covered in the dark liquid she’d used to create it. None of them felt the urge to venture nearer.

Ron and Harry started to quickly tell the twins about the recovery of the wands, now that Fred had joined them.

Hermione shivered. “I’ll make a fire--it’s freezing in here.” Having to cross the room with her wand now alight, Hermione glanced at the wall as she passed. Doing a double take, she stopped dead in the middle of the room and held up her wand to be sure of what she was seeing. Her jaw dropped.

“Oh, my--,” she choked out, sounding as if she were being strangled and staring at the wall.

Harry had been standing closest to her and heard her words. “Hermione, are you all right?”

Hermione just stared, pointing straight ahead, unable to say anything else.

Moving to join Hermione in the middle of the room, Ron and Harry lit their wands to illuminate the wall even further. But as Fred and George joined them, the entire group could do nothing but gape at the picture drawn there--there were no words to describe how they felt.

Though the medium Valeria had used for her artwork was dripping down the wall, and the picture was crudely drawn for lack of a brush or tool, there was no mistaking what the image was. On the wall, in the perfect proportions they’d seen before in the sky, was something that at once chilled and sickened them, making them feel mentally and emotionally overpowered immediately. For there behind Valeria’s unconscious, motionless body, shone the Dark Mark.

“It wasn’t just dementors, then,” Ron finally said after what seemed like an hour of silence. “That’s what it was--that’s who I felt in her mind. She’s been trying to tell us--you tried to tell me too, Harry. Bloody hell, Harry--what I felt in her mind-- is that how much evil you’ve been up against all this time?” It suddenly occurred to Ron what could make fifteen-year-old Harry look like he was fifty on some days.

Harry just stared solemnly at his best friend. The answer was in his eyes.

Hermione was shaking a bit as she spoke, and Ron sensed it wasn’t just from the cold. “What are we going to do? Do you think he’s here? Is Vol--You-Know-Who--- the one who’s forcing her to try and take Harry away?”

“What do you think, Hermione?” Ron answered quietly. “But I know there are dementors involved, too. I think--” he swallowed before going on, “I think they’re working together. They were together in Valeria’s mind--I just didn’t recognize--You-Know-Who like that. But I’m afraid we have another really big problem.”

“Might as well go ahead and tell us,” Fred said dully. “How much worse can it get?”

“Do you remember what Valeria was whispering in the dark earlier? She kept saying, ‘Be my eyes’ in that strange voice. I’m thinking that if Valeria can see Harry and knows he’s here--right here--”

Hermione gasped and held her hand to her mouth.

Harry seemed to be the only one with the courage to say it out loud. “Then Voldemort knows I’m here, too. He was the reason the Portkey wouldn’t work. He’s found some way to keep us--well, me--here.”

“Don’t worry, Harry. We’ll think of something--he’s not going to have you while we’re still around,” Hermione said bravely, though Ron suspected she sounded braver than she felt.

No one had anything else to add to that, even the twins.

Several more minutes of silence passed. No one paid attention to Valeria as she lay without moving on the bed. No one had even thought to check and see if she was breathing.

“What time do you have, Fred--in Muggle time?” Ron questioned.

Fred pushed up his shirtsleeve and angled his wrist several ways to see his watch in the light. “Ten after four. Why?”

“Because things never look as bad in the daylight, and they don’t look very good right now. Still an hour and a half until sunrise,” Ron said, privately wondering if they’d see the dawn at all.
























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