I can't believe it, but the Catapults have made it to the finals! So exciting! So this round was all themed for Knockturn Alley, and I (the captain) had to write about a shop called Msaw Ætare. Per the prompt, "there is no purpose linked to this shop, so it is up to you to decide what that might be."
This was a trip and a half to write. Warning, it's darker and definitely creepier than a lot of stuff I've done previously.
(there may or may not be a lighter, fluffier, Christmasy something coming, to provide a little contrast...)
The stonework under the windows of the shop was crumbling, and the gutters were so clogged that icy water mixed with muddy dregs and slime dripped over the edges. This was easily the oldest shop in Knockturn Alley; that much was evident to Merope Gaunt. Her eyes trailed again over the age-blackened wooden sign on the exterior. The lettering, once silver, or perhaps gold, had faded so that it could really only be read in the right angle of light: Msaw Ætare.
Beneath the splintering sign were two smallish shop windows with smeared, dusty glass that was nearly impossible to see through. The only indication that someone might have been in the shop was a smoky oil lamp perched in one of the windows, illuminating a moldering collection of books, cauldrons, and various odds and ends atop a large, moth-eaten piece of green velvet. The filthy window was not so much a display as it was like a dumping ground of magical detritus and debris.
Msaw Ætare. She didn't know what that meant, though it seemed to send a chill down her back—but, she told herself forcefully, that hardly mattered. Merope tugged her ragged shawl over her head a bit more and, holding one hand protectively over her swollen stomach, she climbed the front steps and tried the handle on the door to her very last hope.
The rusty knob creaked and spun—for a moment, Merope thought it was simply turning and would not open at all—then, with a sound as though the hinges had not been moved in centuries, the door gave way and swung inward, disturbing a layer of dust on the threadbare rug that covered the floor.
Merope looked around; the shop was scarcely brighter than the rapidly darkening alley outside. Oil lamps with smoke-stained glass shades, belching thin ribbons of sooty black smoke, were perched precariously in a few spots around the shop, illuminating musty shelves full of books, parchment, trinkets, and—Merope shuddered—something with a long, bald tail that whipped out of sight as she stepped inside. The door creaked shut behind her.
"H-hello?" she stammered, her eyes raking the gloom of the shop for any sign of life. "Hello? Is anyone here?"
The baby kicked suddenly, as though it too could feel Merope's unease in this strange shop. Perhaps she ought to go—there was nothing to be feared if she simply left now without asking for a job. There must be somewhere else—someone who needed help of some kind—she couldn't really have exhausted her options at every shop in all of Knockturn Alley?
"Who are you?"
The voice was so soft, and so startling, that Merope leapt backwards and hit a tarnished set of scales that had been balanced on a pile of books atop a chess table with an acidic-looking stain in the varnish. A small woman with enormous spectacles and milky blue eyes was peering at her. Though her features were creased and wrinkled, indicating great age, her hair was jet black and drawn into coiling braids in a knot. She was petite, barely as high as Merope's chest, and her dark gray and black robes made her seem like a living part of the shadows of the shop. Her silvery eyes were fixed unblinkingly upon Merope.
"Who are you?" she repeated, unperturbed by Merope's obvious surprise.
"I—I-I c-came in because—because I thought you might—" Merope's words were sticking painfully in her throat and she swallowed hard. "I need a place to work, please. I don't ask much, and I swear to you that you will not regret—"
It was barely a whisper, but the woman's whisper landed like a charm, and Merope fell silent. She trembled and laid her hands on her stomach.
"Do you know what this place is? What I do here?" the woman asked. Merope shook her head quickly. "I thought not. This is not Borgin and Burkes, child. There are curiosities and tokens here, yes, but… each one is an offering, exchanged for information."
As she spoke, the woman lifted one hand. With a thrill of horror, Merope saw that she was missing her two middle fingers; the skin was ashy and looked almost rotted. She recoiled automatically, clutching her belly.
"Information?" she whispered.
The woman's pale eyes did not move. "Yes, child," she breathed. "Information of all kinds… good, bad… inevitable, preventable…"
Suddenly, the eyes flickered to Merope's stomach, and she flinched. The woman laughed, harsh and cold, filling the shop with an unnatural echo.
"Would you like to know exactly what it is that you have there?" she asked, and her voice seemed to slice through Merope's very being from all directions, surrounding and binding her where she stood. The hand with the missing fingers pointed at Merope's stomach. "That which lives inside you, at this very moment?"
"Wh—what do you—"
The oil lamps were guttering, and the shop was beginning to darken unnaturally. Merope's heart was in her throat, one hand clutching her middle and the other scrabbling wildly behind her to find the door; she was too terrified to break her eye contact with the witch—being—that was advancing upon her.
"Your bastard," the woman's hand twitched, and her second sleeve fell back; there was no hand there at all, only a bony stump at the wrist. "You know that—that which you are carrying—is not of nature made, Merope Gaunt…"
Merope's scream caught in her throat as the darkness seemed to close around her; she was trapped, gazing into the eyes, as the fingers and cut-off wrist bone loomed closer and closer to her throat as the blackness filled her field of vision.
Merope could see again, and a pain was coursing up and down her spine from her neck. She looked around. She was, once again, on the pile of rags and crumpled Daily Prophets in the Knockturn Alley doorway where she'd slept for the last two weeks. Her heart was still pounding, and she felt automatically at her throat for her father's locket—before she'd remembered that she'd sold that off to the pawn shop at the end of the alley.
Ignoring a twinge of pain deep in her belly, Merope huddled closer to herself. It was a dream, she told herself, a dream like the ones she'd had ever since the first time she had given Tom a potion.
But it had been different… she knew that.
Her gaze flickered across the lane to the unlit shop windows of the ancient, crumbling building that bore the sign she'd read in her dream: Msaw Ætare. The windows were dark and empty—not even a scrap of fabric or loose page left behind. She'd imagined the whole thing, she told herself.
And she squeezed her eyes shut, pretending not to see the missing-fingered hand that twitched a curtain in the window.