The Angels of Prague
Excessive Curiosity Can Be a Vice
It would be untrue to say that Minerva McGonagall had not enjoyed her Grand Tour so far. She just hadn't enjoyed it the same way her former classmates had. Conventional sight-seeing, nightclubs, sleeping late and the constant search for young men to flirt with were not, strictly speaking, her style.
Not that Minerva had any objection to young men, or indeed flirting. But she had discovered that things were different in Europe. It seemed that here on the Continent, young wizards preferred girls who were shorter than them, curvy and who fluttered their eyelashes and giggled a lot. Minerva, tall, slender, handsome rather than pretty, with a disconcertingly direct gaze and a dry sense of humour that verged on the acerbic, found her opportunities limited. Odd, she had had no trouble at home when it came to locating male companionship. Perhaps British wizards were more grown-up?
Her mother, of course, had insisted she go with a group of girls. Genevieve Bartleys' mother had mentioned that Genevieve was getting a party together, and both had immediately decided that this would be ideal for Minerva. They had assumed, in the way of parents, that since the girls had been House- and class-mates, they must be friends. Well, to be fair, they got on well enough, but they weren't close – most of Minervas' best friends at school had been boys.
That said, Genevieve had taken Minerva aside just before they left and said: "I'm awfully glad you agreed to come, Min. Some of the girls Mother has landed me with can be terribly silly, and I need at least one more person I can rely on to be sensible!"
So, sensible and silly alike, they had wended their way across Europe, beginning (of course) with Paris and intending to finish in Moscow. They had arrived in Prague the night before last.
By 1955, most of Western Europe was well into recovery from The War. That was how muggles said it – The War – you could hear the italics and capitals. But Eastern Europe, behind what muggles were calling the Iron Curtain, still lived under the manufactured austerity of a harsh Communist regime. At least the muggle part of it did. For wizards it was business as usual, by and large. On entering the country, the girls had been provided by the Czech Ministry of Magic with the necessary papers to show to muggle officials and a selection of suitable muggle clothing. They had also been told, off the record, that the Czech Ministry took a rather relaxed attitude to the use of certain charms and spells if used to evade or escape from over-zealous State police.
However, most of the party had elected to spend their time in wizard Prague, with its comfortable hotels and lively night-life. Only Minerva had undertaken any extensive exploration of the city. She found herself enchanted and fascinated by the city's mix of Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance architecture. She had visited the Castle, explored the Jewish Quarter, been to the scenes of both Defenestrations and examined St Vitus' Cathedral.
Today, however, her peregrinations had taken her into an area she had never seen before. It was one of those odd little enclaves you find in European cities; a place that hadn't changed much since the Middle Ages. Narrow, crooked streets lined with little houses whose upper storeys projected out beyond the ground floor, nearly meeting the ones opposite. Shops that were only marked out from the houses by the ancient, painted signs that hung outside them.
Eventually, she emerged into a little square that was abuzz with activity. Stalls had been crammed into every available space, and crowds of people milled among them, haggling and bargaining with the stall holders in a very un-Socialistic way. Enchanted, Minerva plunged into the crowd, looking at everything, listening to everything, taking it all in.
Eventually, she arrived at a stall near one end of the square, where a hugely fat, bearded man who reminded her of Father Christmas, served her a cup of strong tea from a gigantic samovar that looked capable of powering a steam locomotive.
"You're not from here, are you?" He asked.
Minerva, glad she'd spent so long on the Translation charm before leaving home, shook her head. "How did you know?"
The man laughed. "I've never seen you here before, but you're not like the other new ones. The first few times they find their way here, they're always looking over their shoulders, expecting the authorities at any moment.
"But you, you look around, but only because you're curious. You come from somewhere where people aren't afraid of the authorities."
"I'm from Scotland." Minerva informed him.
He nodded. "British, then. My brother ended up in England during The War, he's still there, lucky devil. Place called the Yorkshire Dales, do you know it?"
Minerva smiled. "I've a friend from there, spent a summer with his family. Rugged, magnificent country and tough, rawboned folk who don't say much but treat a guest like family."
The man seemed somehow comforted by this. As Minerva finished her tea, he leaned forward.
"A word to the wise, Miss." He said quietly. "You look like a young woman who has sense and doesn't scare easily. There are places round here were folk have disappeared. Nothing to do with the police, just gone. Take my advice and don't wander too far away from where there are people. Where there's people, you're safe."
Minerva thanked him for the tea and the advice. Some teenagers would have resented the latter, she knew, but it was eminently sensible. Besides, she reflected, he's a muggle. He has no idea of what I can do if necessary.
Nevertheless, she tried to take his advice as she continued her exploration. The trouble with old cities, though, is that they collect the past. Not history, which is written (and occasionally rewritten) by whoever happens to be in charge at the time, but the past. The things that actually happened, but where never recorded; either because they didn't matter enough, or because nobody wanted to admit they were real.
If Minerva McGonagall had a besetting vice, it was curiosity. It was the only thing that had ever got her into trouble at home or school. But it had paid dividends. It had led her to the Room of Requirement at Hogwarts, for instance, and to the secret tunnels and passages that led from the Castle to various locations in and around Hogsmeade. There were a dozen houses in Edinburgh where she'd discovered something queer in the cellar, as well.
This area distilled the past. The narrow, winding streets alternately hid and revealed more bustling markets, or little squares where people sat and chatted and old men played chess or cards. But gradually, the numbers of people dwindled. Mindful of the advice she had been given, Minerva cast around for a way back, but her wanderings had been too random. Instead, she found herself within earshot of the traffic of modern Prague – she must be nearer the newer part of the city, then.
Heading toward the sound, she turned into one last square and saw before her a large church. Minerva stopped short and stared. This was not the first church she had seen in this section, but the others had been small parish churches. This one was much larger, and had at one time been richer. Now, though, it had an air of abandonment, of disuse that puzzled and intrigued her.
Muggles here were religious, she knew, despite the official atheist stance of the Communist government. It struck her as odd that they should ignore or avoid so large and beautiful a church. She approached the building, driven on by her inquisitiveness. As she did so, she heard an odd mechanical sound, a kind of whirring and groaning, which she put down to some piece of muggle equipment in the next street.
The great door of the church hung invitingly ajar, and before she realised it, Minerva had stepped inside. Despite dust, cobwebs and a general air of desuetude, the interior was magnificent. The high, vaulted nave was supported by pillars into which were carved niches holding small statues of various figures, and was lined with exquisitely-worked dark wooden pews. The large stained glass windows were dusty and dirty, but still impressive in their artistry.
Wizard ideas on religion were, on the whole, both vague and eclectic. Minerva knew, from Muggle Studies classes, that most of the major world religions were anti-magic, to a greater or lesser degree. But she also knew that many Half-blood and Muggle-born wizards still followed the traditional practices of their families – one of the girls in her dormitory had kept a Bible by her bed, for instance. Again, many wizards swore by the old Roman gods, more out of habit than belief, but some did believe. She had heard Ravenclaws engaging in philosophical debates about Light and Darkness, Law and Chaos, and so on. She had also heard Slytherins murmur about darker things and whisper names like Great Cthulhu and Nyarlathotep. Out of curiosity, of course, she had visited Muggle places of worship near her home, but this place was vastly different from the resolutely plain, almost grim, kirks and chapels of that fiercely Calvinist locality. It was not a subject on which she had thought deeply, but she was impressed by the commitment and passion shown by those who had worked on this place.
So, why was it abandoned? What had happened here? Had it been the authorities, the place would have been boarded up or demolished, not simply left. A mystery, and mysteries both fascinated and irritated Minerva McGonagall!
She had proceeded slowly up the aisle, and now stood in a open area. Before was the altar, and to either side, smaller chapels. Again, the door of one of these was ajar, so she slipped in.
The room was empty of furniture. On the opposite wall was a superb marble frieze depicting a woman holding a child. The other walls were covered with carved slabs of different stones, with writing the dim light prevented her from reading. The only other object in the room stood in one corner. A life-size statue of a human figure in a long robe. The figure was winged and held its hands in front of its face, as if weeping. It seemed oddly out of place, carved from a grey granite at variance with the other stone around it.
Minerva took another glance around the chapel. Then she sensed something and her gaze swung to the statue. It had moved! It now stood in the centre of the chapel, and though it still covered its face, the position of the hands had changed.
This was clearly magic of the highest order. Was that why the muggles had left this place? Had wizards taken it over? If so, why?
Not for any good purpose, Minerva guessed, pulling her wand out of her coat. She glanced around again, then back to find the statue within a foot of her. Its face was no longer covered, and though the eyes were blank, in the manner of statues, its expression was a fierce grin that exposed sharp, dagger-like teeth.
Minerva took a firmer grip on her wand. Whatever this was, it clearly meant her harm. Well, it would find that Minerva McGonagall was a force to be reckoned with!
Then a hoarse voice spoke from behind her, in English.
"Don't turn round!" It warned her. "Listen to me carefully. Back away toward the door, follow my voice. Keep your eyes on that angel. Don't look away. Don't even blink!"