obsidian-fox and Xylix
Started: May 13, 2007
Last Update: Apr 11, 2008
Disclaimer: Many characters used in this story were not originally conceived by the author. Ranma ½, Harry Potter, and various other works of literature and art are used. This work is not for commercial use. I appeal to Copyright Fair Use in keeping this work legal; as such, I consider it fair use for you (whoever you are) to use any original characters or settings in derived works, should you choose to write one.
Eldritch Asylum may be archived.
Last Chapter: Injured and weary, Ranma sleeps through much of the trip from London to Hogsmeade on the Hogwarts Express. An encounter with a Dementor, however, initiates events that reveal more of the mysteries surrounding the dagger and Ranma... and leave both Ranma and our audience entirely confused. The dementors on the train followed by a trip down a treacherous, storm-swept trail and across a black, roiling lake only to receive a sniping speech from Snape leaves most of the first-year children cold, wet, and numb. It is, most decidedly, not a warm welcome to Hogwarts.
Author Notes: It seems that last chapter's train section was exceptionally thick and slippery. Some of that was intentional: mysterious bits oughtn't be explained outright if they're to maintain any mystery. But, perhaps, it was a bit much. Do not worry that you did not comprehend the section 'tween the Dementor's arrival and the crushing of the amulet; there are bits of history buried in there for those who seek it, but Ranma didn't comprehend it either. You can trust that you understand (plot-wise) as much or more than Ranma does.
We'll be answering direct questions from the reviews in the dedicated story forum... or at least those for which the answers do not constitute spoilers.
Chapter 8: Sortings
Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind.
-- Dr. Suess
"You are not to attempt to change events. You are not to allow anyone to see you in two places at once. You are not to let anyone know of this, including your friends. Do you understand, Miss Granger? You are to use this only so that you may attend conflicting classes."
Hermione nods resolutely at each admonition. "I understand, Professor McGonagall."
Professor McGonagall - a stern woman in emerald green robes - studies Hermione through square spectacles. Then, reluctantly, she yields a golden necklace bearing a tiny hourglass. Hermione quickly slips it around her neck and tucks it into her robes.
"I don't know what Albus was thinking when he decided to solve a student's class conflicts with his time turner," McGonagall says. Disapproval is obvious in her tone. "But I trust you won't abuse this privilege. Now, if I remember correctly, I sent an invitation this year to another Miss Granger. I presume she is your sister?"
"Then it would be best if you see her sorting. So, just this once, I'll permit you to use the time turner. You'll have to wait at least a minute after I pull you out before you enter. I believe you found a nice alcove behind the knight in the main hall."
Hermione draws the hourglass from her robes, pauses in consideration, then drops it back to her chest. "Actually, there was something else I wanted to talk about," she says, somewhat nervously. She glances up to the professor's tight-lipped expression. "I was wondering if... you know..."
"There is no need to be shy, Miss Granger."
"Well, I was wondering if I could start studying for OWLs," Hermione's words fly in a rush.
"You are not to use that device for extra studying time!" The professor's reply is immediate and severe and delivered with a chopping gesture. Then the woman adjusts her glasses and continues, "And while I find your academic focus commendable, you are only a third year, and I think you'll discover your schedule full enough as it is. I suggest we wait on this conversation until next year."
"But, but, but-" Hermione panics, jitters, clutches at her chest. "But Ranma already took her muggle OWL-equivalents! I can't let her beat me here, too!"
"You worry over nothing. I've been teaching here for thirty-seven years and I've never seen a student take her OWLs early."
"But yoou caaan!" Hermione wails, wide-eyed and tugging at her hair. "I looked it up!"
McGonagall's stern visage softens. "Very well. If you find you have enough time, we'll discuss this again over winter break. But don't forget that, even though exams were canceled, you still lost two months last year. Don't think it will be easy. Either way, I can direct you to some study materials over the summer."
The moment she stops talking, Hermione eagerly cuts in. "I have all that homework I missed. It's in my trunk." She gazes up at the professor, brown eyes filled with hope. "I need to do this."
The austere professor sighs. "If you truly want this, I can't stop you. But you shouldn't sacrifice your childhood or push away your friends just to get a few months ahead. I suggest you wait until winter break. You'll know better by then whether you can handle the burden."
Hermione's gaze drops to her feet then drifts down the hall towards the infirmary. "I understand, Professor," she says after a moment, subdued. "You don't think I can do it."
McGonagall observes the bushy-haired third-year girl, her lips pressed in a thin line. After some hesitation, she places a hand on the child's shoulder. "Hermione, you're a brilliant student, and I have no doubt that, should you choose to, you could complete all of your OWLs next year. However, there's far more to life than scholastic success, and I would be quite distraught if that was all you took from Hogwarts." She relinquishes contact with the young witch. "But it seems you're intent on this. We'll discuss this again over winter break, and I promise you that your proposal will receive serious consideration. Now, if there's nothing else, I would like to attend the meal."
"Well, there is one more thing," Hermione begins, already looking guilty.
"What now, Miss Granger?"
"It's about my sister."
"Whatever you plan to share is almost certainly best discussed with her head of house."
"I can't talk to Professor Snape!" Hermione bemoans.
"You should leave sorting to the Sorting Hat," McGonagall replies. "And, if your sister is a Slytherin, then I'm certain that Severus will listen if what you have to say has any merit. Now, I really must attend the feast. Anything else can wait until later."
The professor immediately turns away and starts clopping down the hall.
The dimly lit chamber is silent in the moments following Snape's abrupt departure, but the small crowd of sodden children shivers, shuffles, and shifts with growing restlessness. The girl carried in by Hagrid cradles her injured ankle and gazes at the closed door with a blank expression of sullen resignation, her tears long since dried up. To the side, a trio of eleven-year-old boys commiserate, and share war stories, exposing skinned knees and elbows from a doubtlessly nasty spill in the dark forest.
Ranma spots a few girls fretting over each other's hair, Romilda Vane among them, brushing it out, braiding it, and making a valiant attempt to clean the mud off one another's faces with a rationed pair of embroidered handkerchiefs. Deciding that the dark professor's final advice is worth following, Ranma also takes a moment to smarten up. She wipes her face with the sleeve of her robes then wrings the water from her hair. A quick glance shows the young goth gazing at a small hand-mirror and attempting with a small white cloth to wipe away the worst of her running mascara and eye-shadow.
Sniff, sniff. "I'm not sure I want to go to Hogwarts!" a small voice cries oddly familiar words at Ranma's elbow.
The redhead turns towards the speaker - a slouching, sniffling boy with shock-white, bowl-cut hair who stands, despite his poor posture, head and shoulders taller than herself. The boy's eyes are rubbed red, raw, and puffy, and his hands - scratched and torn by a fall on the steep path to the lake - succeed only at shifting mud around his face. His heavy, wet robes seem to drag him body and spirit to the ground, and water pools around his feet and rolls towards her own. Ranma isn't convinced that all of it is lake and rain. Feeling a sudden flash of intense irritation, she steps away and glares at him.
"What is your name?" she demands.
"C-Conrad," the boy whimpers.
"Well, stop your crying, Conrad," Ranma coldly pronounces. "You sound pathetic. I'd say you were whining like a spoiled little girl, but most of the girls here are handling themselves better than you. You're a boy. Grow a pair."
The tall boy stares down at her, tears straining to burst from his eyes. But the boy scrunches up his face, and reduces a pitiful cry to a whimper. Then, still sniffling, he shambles off to take a seat against the wall.
"That's kinda harsh, innit?" Jacey asks, snapping her mirror shut and dropping it into a small purse tucked inside her robes.
"So is life," Ranma answers. "If he's gonna cry, it should be about somethin' real, not just a little mud 'n water."
"There was that... thing on the train," Jacey says. Her eyes grow distant and she shudders.
"Yeah, there was that I suppose...," Ranma's voice trails off for a moment. "But that's old news now, if he wanted to cry 'bout that, he should've done it on the train."
The goth pauses, taking a moment to eye the short redhead with something akin to disbelief, then averts her gaze. "What about that evil teacher?" she suggests.
"I don't see anyone else cryin'."
"Well, aren't you little miss sympathy?"
Ranma gives the girl a sidelong glance. "Hey, it worked. He ain't cryin' now. 'Sides, you wanna go over there and comfort him?"
"Hell no. He's a boy. He should tough it out."
"That's exactly what I said. Seeing a boy actin' weak or cryin' really grates on me. It's just so... unmanly."
Further conversation is stifled as a wave of silence sweeps across the room, heralding the opening of the door. Ranma glances up, expecting to see cold eyes, dark robes, and greasy hair, but Professor Snape is not there. She stands on her tiptoes to peek over the shoulders of her peers, following the curious stares of her fellow students to spot a small, balding man with white hair standing at the entrance, dwarfed even by the first-years surrounding him.
"Well, this won't do at all," the tiny man squeaks after surveying the crowd. He rolls up his sleeves and draws a wand from his robes. "Let's see if I can't put some smiles on those faces."
With a quick wave of his wand, the water soaking their clothes and hair splashes to the ground, and with another it vanishes entirely. For the first time since stepping off the Hogwarts Express, Ranma feels entirely dry; even her socks no longer squish between her toes. A weird tickling sensation follows and she startles as great clumps of dirt leap off the children surrounding her then skitter across the floor like a swarm of cockroaches. Lingering chill vanishes as her skin and bones suffuse with warmth, and even Ranma finds herself grinning.
The little man pockets his wand, grins widely, then announces, "I hope to see plenty of Ravenclaws this year."
A shadow darkens the doorway, looming over the dwarf. Every eye turns upward.
"Professor Flitwick," Snape begins. His voice, nary a whisper, reaches even the furthest corners of the room. "I suppose I must offer appreciation for your stewardship during my absence." His eyes rake the students. "Now, form a line and follow me."
Professor Snape sweeps across the flagstone floor, bursts through massive double doors, and vanishes into an enormous hall beyond. Behind him, a ragged line of children scurries to keep up.
Ranma follows at a sedate pace, trailed only by Jacey and Flitwick. She lazily catches a closing door with her foot, thrusts it back open, then steps into the Great Hall.
There are only four long tables for the students, each seating no more than four score - tiny compared to the cafeteria at Headwings. A handful of teachers sit at fifth table on a dais, possessing perfect vantage to observe the entire hall. A legion of candles float overhead, glittering gold and orange off bronze and silver tableware. Above them, the hall opens to sky, and rain pours into the room, vanishing just before it reaches the candles.
Ranma and Jacey join the others below the staff table and watch as Snape sets a frayed and dirt-encrusted hat on a stool.
For a few seconds there is silence as everyone stares at the lumpy piece of leather. Then it twitches, and a great rent opens in the brim. The hat unleashes three rasping coughs, spewing great clouds of dust. Then, it begins to sing.
From common thread I'm poorly knit
From chanted spells I gained my wit
Made to discern Where you will learn
For every house I will select
The students that are most correct
Have no concern
And wait your turn
To Gryffindor will go the brave
To Slytherin the princely knave
A sword of light
A hand of night
To Hufflepuff the just and fair
To Ravenclaw the minds so rare
A loyal heart
A scholar's art
So for all this time I've wasted
And for patience left astray
For all you kids, let's sort without delay!
The sorting hat bows to all four tables, and the hall bursts into applause.
Snape stands by, idly thrumming a thick roll of parchment with his long, spindly fingers, waiting... waiting... Suddenly, he crushes the scroll, his eyes grow hard, and he quells the applauding students with a harsh, menacing glare.
The hall is silent.
Slowly, the professor unrolls the parchment, its every crinkle sounding crisp. He gazes at it for several seconds then focuses on the first-year students. "Brian Abbot."
Snape's expression twists with annoyance, and his dark eyes scan the crowd before stopping on a trembling boy with chestnut hair hiding in the back. The child wilts under the professor's gaze.
"Sit!" Snape commands, thrusting a finger at the sorting hat.
"Y-yes, sir!" The boy scrambles forward.
The professor deftly plucks the sorting hat from the stool before the panicking boy sits upon it, then drops it over the boy's head. Crumpled leather falls over Abbot's ears and nose. It isn't there for even a second before the great rent in the hat's brim opens wide and shouts, "HUFFLEPUFF!"
Cheers explode from the Hufflepuff table, and Snape immediately turns a glower in their direction. The applause falters, growing far more subdued.
A little prodding sends the boy hurrying to his new house, then the professor reads another name. "Anoka Antonovka."
A tall girl strides forward, clutching her own pointy hat against her stomach, and takes her place on the stool. A shout follows moments later, "GRYFFINDOR!"
Ranma's eyes follow the girl to the Gryffindor table and begin seeking out her sister. She pays the sorting only half a mind, ignoring the calls for Damian Baddock, Blair Blane, and Horace Braeburn. Finally, Ranma sees Hermione waving from among a group of redheads. Ranma waves back unabashedly.
"I hope that thing doesn't have lice," the young goth mutters.
Ranma watches as Jacey pushes her way through the crowd. The girl looks almost normal with her satin corsette hidden beneath her school robes and her thick mascara cleaned away by Flitwick's magic, but her dyed indigo locks and dark jewelry still exhibit her eccentricity. Snape doesn't even raise an eyebrow, just dropping the hat on her head like any other student. There is a noticeable pause before it announces, "SLYTHERIN!"
After Jacey heads to the Slytherin table, Ranma continues to wait with mild but growing anticipation.
"Kin Fujita." - "GRYFFINDOR!"
"Vivienne Geere." - "HUFFLEPUFF!"
Ranma is seated before Snape finishes speaking her name. Immediately, her head is swallowed by dark leather and the smell of mildew. Sitting in darkness with a filthy hat upon her head, Ranma finds herself hoping that Jacey is wrong about the lice.
"I do not have lice," an indignant voice whispers into her ear. "Now, let me look inside this head of yours. Interesting, very interesting, I've never had the pleasure of sorting a vampire slayer before."
The hat can read her mind. Ranma stiffens, and her heart beats faster - the nightclub, the train, bloody hands, dark magic, and years spent in an insane asylum. She can't let it know. Oh crap! Is it too late? Will it tell the professors? She might be expelled! No! It can't be too late. Innocent thoughts. That's it - innocent thoughts! Rainbows, butterflies, pink little ponies prancing in a field - images materialize as Ranma recalls the personality-lobotomizing films that Kathryn made her watch.
"Personality-lobotomizing? You have interesting thoughts for a child of eleven years."
Innocent thoughts! Innocent thoughts! She won't lose to a shoddy piece of leather! Ranma concentrates harder: The Little Mermaid, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast - she launches images and choral ensembles like torpedoes at the hat.
The sorting hat chuckles. "It's not working, Miss Granger, though the mere attempt speaks volumes of your character." It then takes a more somber tone. "However, there is no need for your anxiety; I've been placed on the heads of many infamous witches and wizards, and I've yet to share any of their secrets. You are not the first child to have killed, murdered even, before coming here, and I'm certain you won't be the last. Though, I must admit I cannot think of anyone who at age eleven was quite so... accomplished, as you."
Murder. Ranma's saccharine defense dissolves as she loses the will to continue dredging up cute memories. Murder. The word evokes feelings of shame and guilt. Her mind, for a moment, flashes back surreal to the bloody nightclub, a frozen image of death and destruction, a warm, kind woman dying in her arms... and eyes, accusing eyes. Forcefully, Ranma suppresses the memory. She sits, morose, waiting to be sorted.
"Oh! You are going to be a delightful challenge. Guilt, fear, disgust, satisfaction, acceptance, and determination, such determination... what an incredible mosaic of emotion to find in a child your age! I see you've taken some advanced classes, too. A sophisticated mind like yours would be treasured by Ravenclaw. But it seems your drive to perform comes not from curiosity. Ravenclaw is not for you, I fear, no matter how intelligent you may be."
Good, Ranma thinks viciously. She didn't want to be stuck in the house of swots, anyway. But, despite herself she slumps, her mind drifting back to the happy memories of Headwings and taking classes five years advanced. The faces of older students swim in her mind, their eyes filled with respect, admiration, wonderment, and a touch of envy. Maybe Ravenclaw wouldn't have been so bad...
The hat drones on. "... would be happy in Hufflepuff, but I don't believe Hufflepuff would be happy with you. It seems you don't much concern yourself with fairness. And that leaves me with a very difficult decision. Bold and brave, enterprising and resourceful - which shapes you more, I wonder? You hide from glory, and even you know not your heritage. Perhaps I need to pry a little deeper."
Ranma shifts uncomfortably on the hard, wooden stool. Though she is unable to see much more than a spot of mold on dirty leather, she can feel every eye in the hall staring at her. She can hear them whispering, muttering amongst themselves, impatient. Ranma hopes the hat finishes soon.
"What is this? Why does your every memory lead me here?" the hat asks in irritation after a long silence. "Ash, smoke, fire, a burning forest - I see these before me, yet I cannot approach. Or is it that I dare not?" The hat tenses, then trembles upon Ranma's head. "I quiver. Is this... fear? I am of Gryffindor. Fear shall not stop me. Never before have I failed to sort a student, and I will not fail this night!"
A moment of intense vertigo has Ranma reeling in her seat, then she finds herself under a half-moon, over a dark lake, and diving through smoke and soot towards a brilliant sea of flame. "If you hate my cooking so much, why eat it!" - the scream is loud amongst the echoes and whispers that roar like the cackling fire, and for a second Ranma glimpses the snarling face of a dark-haired, doe-eyed girl. Then the vision of the forest is whirls away. A bulky, giant of a man with fiery eyes and brilliant red hair kneels before her. "Dhuma Sarhang, what trophies do you bring me?" Swiftly, the man tosses to her feet a chain of heads in varying states of decomposition. In a booming voice, he proclaims, "The heads of the state are now yours, Andhera, and soon all of Seichi will bow only to you."
Ranma's eyes gleam and arms of shadow lift before her a blue-skinned head, eyes forever closed in peaceful repose. "So the great warrior Rama, King of Ayodhya, seventh avatar of Vishnu, 'Emperor of the World', dies in his sleep." She unleashes a storm of laughter then reaches out and takes his crown into her hands. "Rest easy, great king. Your people now belong to me, and I take good care of what is mine." Ranma raises the crown above her brow and halts - something invisible, smelling of mildew and ratty leather, rests already upon her head. "What is this? Who dares? You have trespassed beyond your ken, fool! Now DIE!"
The vision shatters, and Ranma is thrust into a world of yells, screams, and clamoring students. She is seated on the hard, wooden stool, and the sorting hat is slumped upon her head, silent, still, devoid of life. Where once light filtered past her cheeks and nose, now shines only darkness. With one hand, Ranma lifts the brim of the hat, and she stares in amazement at the sight before her: the hall is cast in grays, purples, and blues; students, chairs, and tables stand in sharp relief like silhouettes, their edges clear but details absent; and the candles and braziers float above the Hogwarts great hall, devouring all light with unnatural, black, flickering flames.
"It's Sirius Black! He's going to kill us all!" a voice cries from the fray.
Chairs screech across the ground and further pandemonium erupts within the student population.
"SILENCE!" from the teacher's dais, a deep, mighty bellow fills the hall and brings stillness to the panic. As Ranma turns to face the speaker, brilliant light explodes, washing away the strange negative vision and causing momentary blindness. After Ranma's eyes adjust, she sees an imposing old man with brilliant blue eyes, a crooked nose, graying hair, and flamboyant, violet and aquamarine robes; he stands in a shell of light that presses and struggles against the surrounding darkness.
The man's imposing demeanor transforms into something more amiable. "I can assure you that the Hogwarts staff and myself are more than formidable opponents for anyone or anything that might attack this school. In addition, we are under protection of wards, walls, and, over my protestation, the guards of Azkaban - a matter I intend to cover in greater depth after the sorting. So, for now, I ask that you remain calm while I deal with this fascinating, but inappropriately timed, work of magic."
The old man draws from his robes what appears to be a silver cigarette lighter, and he begins to click it. With each click, tiny balls of black flame hurtle across the hall before being swallowed by the tiny device. Slowly, the shell of light around the old man grows wider, until the last the last adumbral candle is snuffed. Then, with a wave of his wand, the candles and braziers spark anew and shed the light of warm, orange flames.
"Now I believe we have a sorting to finish," the old man says, making a small nod towards the sorting hat before returning to his seat.
"Ahem!" The hat stirs upon Ranma's brow. "Please return me to your head, child."
Ranma releases the hat, and the moldy leather squirms until it settles nicely upon the bridge of her nose.
"I'm impressed," the hat says after a moment. "If I'd half a mind, I'd be dead right now. Fortunately, I am a hat, and my magic is bound to the school itself. However, my sojourn into your soul has left me with only greater confusion: I glimpsed within you a remarkably crass boy, a queen of unsurpassed ruthlessness, and a thousand living memories, whispering in the darkness. Did I see past lives? multiple personalities? another realm entirely?" The hat sighs. "I found no connection, nothing to associate these images with your missing past, with what you know of the events two years ago, with... you. Your mind is a shell, like the cover of a book, but I fear I must judge you by only that - that, and the fact that you're hiding everything else. So, with some uncertainty, I judge you:
As the hat is plucked from her head, Ranma hears a single pair of hands clapping enthusiastically. Her new house joins in a moment later with a subdued, half-hearted applause that dies as quickly as it starts. Ranma hops off the stool, flashes her sister a cheeky grin, then saunters into an open seat across Jacey at the end of the Slytherin table.
"Don't touch me, Granger," a dark-haired ogre of a girl growls from Ranma's right, shifting away just enough that their robes are no longer in contact. Her lips curl in disgust across her large, squarish jaw, and she glowers down at Ranma a moment longer, then adds, "A mudblood like you should sit at the foot of the table, where you belong."
"Shut it, Bulstrode. Just because you're treated like a dog doesn't mean anyone else should be."
The ogre immediately turns her scowl upon the speaker - a much prettier girl with big brown eyes and brown hair styled with cute little curls. Bulstrode emits a threatening growl but is answered with an unwavering gaze and the soft sound of a wand tapping against the edge of the table. With a grunt, the larger girl looks away.
With the ogre banished, the brown-haired girl offers Ranma an unnervingly bright smile. "Hello. I'm Miriam Baddock, second-year, ninety-seven-point-seven percent pure, and pleased to make your acquaintance."
Miriam leans over the table, extending an open hand. Ranma stares at the girl for a few seconds before tentatively clasping it in her own. After a brief but firm shake, Miriam returns to her seat.
"So you're Ranma Granger, right? Are you related to that Gryffindor girl? Not that it matters; with a mudblood name like 'Granger', you'll need to watch yourself." Miriam's friendly smile doesn't falter, and the word 'mudblood' leaves her lips without inflection. She glances at Jacey, adding, "And 'Estelle' isn't much better, even if you're a half-blood. In Slytherin, what matters is power, and the only traits of relevance are blood, money, magic, and friends. I can't help you with the first three, but if you accept my guidance, I can guarantee that you'll be treated with respect."
"You may offer suggestions anytime you like," Ranma answers, slowly. "But I can't promise I'll be listening."
Bulstrode snickers, then, when Miriam's brown eyes narrow upon her, the larger girl makes a show of clapping as a boy named Richard Lyons becomes the newest Slytherin.
Miriam faces the front, puts her hands together a few times for the new boy, then manages a smile and directs her gaze at Jacey.
The indigo-haired girl shields herself with her hands. "Hey, I'm goth. I don't take advice even when it's merited."
Miriam's brown eyes slice from Jacey to Ranma. "I don't believe the two of you quite understand the situation you are in," the second-year girl states with a tone of warning. "Allow me to illustrate. See that fourth-year girl?" She points up the table. "The one trapped between Pucey and Montague? Her name is Nicole Keats, and she is one of two other mudbloods in house Slytherin. Last year, those boys made her carry their stuff, clean pointless messes, and ... other things. She is their slave. And don't think the girls treat her any better. Look at them; they think it's funny." Miriam returns her attention to Ranma. "Without protection, that will be you in three years."
"Why are you here?" Ranma asks suddenly, for the first time showing significant interest. "To offer guidance? protection? No, I'm guessing that you're sitting with Ogre and trolling for friends because you don't have any. Whom is it you seek protection from?"
"Hey, we rejects should stick together," Jacey interjects, glancing in turn at Ranma and Miriam.
Miriam smolders, for a moment tensing, her wand clenched in a white-knuckled fist. Then, with visible effort, she smiles. "Just remember, girls, I'll still be here when you change your mind."
"Hai, hai," Ranma vocalizes. She watches a pudgy boy waddle to the Ravenclaw table. Then her eyes snap to the teacher's dais after Professor Snape snarls the next name on his list:
From the dwindling crowd of black-robed children steps a stately girl with prim robes and auburn hair. She pauses for a few seconds in front of the stool, staring down at the hat. Her right hand twitches toward a pocket. Then, with a swift and rigid motion, she places the hat upon her head. "SLYTHERIN!"
With a subtle shudder, Oleander carefully returns the hat to the seat. While Snape calls out for a Lois Oliver, Ranma scans her table for the missing Larkspur girl. Instead, Ranma spots the twin pigtails among the Hufflepuffs - the girl is gazing back at Ranma, but her eyes quickly drop to the floor.
"You and I are even now, Granger," a precise, silvery voice whispers suddenly into Ranma's ear. "Let us keep it that way."
Ranma glances up to see Camassia, who slides into a seat that opens up for her among the older girls.
"How do you know Oleander?" Miriam demands. Her gaze alternates between Camassia and Ranma, then the brown-eyed girl frowns and asks, "And why is Malfoy staring at you?"
"Yeah, I've been wondering about that," Jacey chimes in. "For some reason I keep thinking he's gonna walk over here and try to sell you Tower Bridge. Weird, huh?"
Ranma easily spots the grey, calculating eyes that burrow into her from the head of the Slytherin table - they belong to the youngest boy up there, whose familiar, sharp-featured face she remembers from the train. "Ah, so he's Malfoy," Ranma says. She looks back to Miriam and Jacey. "He just hates my sister. That's all."
"How can you say that?" Miriam gasps. "You know he's dangerous, don't you? Look! He's sitting next to Antares Spurge! That means he's a member of the Synod!"
"House rules, Baddock!" Bulstrode hisses. Then, with an ugly grin, she adds, "unless you want me to get you into trouble."
Miriam flashes a glare at Bulstrode before addressing Ranma. "If Malfoy is after you, you're going to regret not having my help."
Miriam stares for a moment longer, as though trying to drill her words into Ranma's head by force of will alone. Then, suddenly, Miriam's gaze shifts as a new girl - hazel eyes, freckles, and a face still round with baby-fat - takes a seat at Ranma's left. The brown-eyed second-year smiles sweetly, extends a hand, and recites her introduction: "Hello, I'm Miriam Baddock, second-year, ninety-seven-point-seven percent pure, and pleased to make your acquaintance. I'm afraid I didn't catch your name."
"Fiona Ross," the freckled girl half-whispers, nervously accepting Miriam's hand.
Ranma promptly tunes them out, opting instead to stare glazed-eyed as the remaining students are sorted. Finally, Snape rattles off the last names:
"Romilda Vane." - "GRYFFINDOR!"
"Brandy Waters." - "RAVENCLAW!"
Snape banishes hat and stool to the wall with a flick of his wand, vanishes the student list, then takes a seat at the teacher's dais, whereupon he immediately begins to glare daggers at Professor Lupin.
At the center of the teacher's dais, the same ancient professor who earlier stood against the darkness when Ranma was being sorted rises to his feet. "Welcome!" he declares. "Welcome to another year at Hogwarts!"
Jacey snorts. "Riighht. Monsters on the train, trudge through sludge and rain, oh, and the whole spooky darkness thing during sorting was really funny, too. Some welcome we've had."
Ranma grins and leans across the table. "This is nothing," she says. "Last year my sister was petrified by a basilisk."
"Thanks, Ranma. You're really helping me over here."
"Quiet!" Miriam hisses. "Dumbledore is giving his speech."
The ancient professor clears his throat and continues his speech. "As I mentioned during our earlier fright, the Ministry has posted dementors of Azkaban to shield the school from the criminal, Sirius Black. I fear, however, that these creatures may pose a danger in their own right. Dementors are ruthless, malevolent, and know nothing of kindness, concern, or mercy. While I have forbidden them to enter school grounds, there is little I can do to protect you if you antagonize them. Nobody is to leave this school without permission, and I look to the prefects and our new Head Boy and Head Girl to ensure that no student runs afoul of these creatures.
"On a happier note, I am glad to see the largest group of first-years in the last two decades - no doubt the result of the eager celebrations marking Voldemort's fall."
Ranma notices many students, and even several teachers, cringing.
"Additionally," Dumbledore continues, "I have two new teachers to introduce: Professors Remus Lupin, who has kindly offered to replace Lockhart as our new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, and Rubeus Hagrid, who will be replacing Professor Kettleburn as our Care for Magical Creatures teacher. While I know many of you will miss Professor Kettleburn, I'm sure you can understand why he retired with the express desire to enjoy more time with his remaining limbs."
Dumbledore stands silent until the applause for the new professors begins to die. Then he announces, "Well, it's been a long sorting followed by a long speech, and I'm sure you're all ready to dig in. So let the feast begin!"
Ornate platters and pitchers are furnished abruptly with food and drink.
Ranma, voracious after a long day, and appetite no longer suppressed, pushes her own plate to the side and grabs the platter in front of her.
Ranma wears a grin as she waddles across cold, damp stone, following a trail of Slytherins through the labyrinthine passages under the school. The feast was excellent, cooked and melded to a perfection beyond even her own skill, and she had finally satisfied that deep pit of hunger that had been growing in her all day. Then, for good measure, she had guzzled great goblets of pumpkin juice, devoured half a roast beast, and polished it all off with pudding and pumpkin tart.
"Yanno, I was just walking along here and wondering," Jacey muses, "How do you fit it all in there? Seriously? a whole turkey?"
Ranma emits a loud burp, pats her protruding belly, then answers, "Quantum singularity."
The young goth gazes at Ranma's belly for a moment. "Riighht. You keep telling yourself that when you gain twenty pounds... if you haven't already."
The line ahead of the girls slows to a halt as a deep, low, rumbling sound suddenly reverberates through the halls - a continuous, distant groan that's difficult to place. As the echoes die, older students start shoving their way past the girls, doubling back through the dim avenues behind them.
"It's this way now," Meryl Edgecomb - a young woman with wavy-blond hair who had earlier introduced herself as Slytherin prefect and Head Girl - announces as she strides past. "And keep up, because I'm not coming back for any stragglers."
"Okay... was I wasting my time trying to remember the turns we took?" Jacey asks as she hurries to keep up with the older girl, "Because, suddenly, I'm under the distinct impression that this labyrinth changes."
"Of course it changes," a first-year boy scoffs, loudly. "What would be the point of a maze that doesn't change?"
Jacey sniffs. "Wonderful."
"Don't worry," the blond woman states, her voice all business. "You'll get a feel for it after a while."
For the next several minutes, they are led through winding corridors and past forking passages. Then, they arrive at a gathering of older students idling in the middle of a long hall. Meryl steps through the crowd without hesitation, allowing them to shift aside and give her a path. She stops, facing the rough, damp stone wall, then utters, "Permanent Prominence."
With a grating sound of stone against stone, a hidden door sinks into the wall and slides open.
The students begin to flood through the door, and Meryl calls out, "First-years, gather at the front!"
Ranma and Jacey follow the flow of students and receive their first view of the Slytherin common room. The chamber is long and low, with massive, square pillars and numerous dark, silent alcoves carved into the walls. Green, glowing lamps hang upon chains from above, casting the room in haunting shadow. At the far end of the hall crackles an enormous fire. The orange glow silhouettes a gathering of six students and shines off a statue of silver snake whose seven heads each entwine a dark-handled broom.
Meryl surveys the gathered first-years, then, with a sharp nod, she retreats to the fire and becomes a seventh silhouette.
"Young Slytherins, approach," a deep, male voice commands from before the fire.
At first in scattered groups, then as one, the first-years move forward. As they proceed, squat, ugly creatures appear, pair by pair ahead of them, each carrying a torch that burns with brilliant, green flame. The group comes to a halt as a handsome young man, standing at the center of the seven students, raises a hand. The features of the seven students are now visible, though awash with the strange, contrasting pallor of green light and orange flame. Ranma's eyes meet briefly with those of Draco Malfoy, who stares at her from the far left.
"Like it or not, you are now part of the Ancient and Noble House Slytherin, and you will be honored and proud to be so for the next seven years," the young man at the center begins. His loud, confident voice breaks the silence and fills the hall. "Here, you will learn how to succeed in the real world. Lessons, in House Slytherin, do not stop at the classroom door, and you will find that this house has policies to ensure that each of you achieve your... individual potential." There is a brief pause as the young man's sharp brown eyes pick various older students from among those gathered against the walls.
"But first, let us discuss the benefits of being in House Slytherin." The young man makes a wide, sweeping gesture that somehow draws attention to both the creatures carrying the torches and the dark alcoves cut into the walls. "As some of you may have noticed, Slytherin hosts a number of private house-elves to cater to your needs. However, the advantages of this house only begin there. Additionally you will find that House Slytherin has a number of special chambers, including: a potions lab, a private library, a dueling chamber, and many others. You will learn more about these rooms and the rules pertaining to their use, later. For now, it is enough to know that they exist.
"If you prove yourself a proper Slytherin, these benefits will extend far beyond the walls of this school. Slytherins take care of Slytherins. When seeking invitations, job interviews, or even when merely desiring a degree of discretion, you will find yourself at an advantage. Of course, the converse is also true." The man's eyes darken, and his voice deepens ominously. "If you shame this house with your behavior, you'll find yourself with very few prospects."
For a moment, the young man's unwavering gaze holds their own. Then, with precise words, he resumes his speech.
"Now, pay attention, for I'm about to tell you of our most important and ancient of traditions, and I don't care to repeat myself.
"There is a group in this house, created by Salazar himself, called the Synod. The Synod is a circle of seven Slytherins that decide house policy independently of the house head. This esteemed circle has a great deal of freedom in deciding punishments and rewards amongst members of the house, but make no mistake: the Synod is not your friend; it exists solely to ensure the success of House Slytherin. You will abide by its policies.
"Among these policies is a very basic rule: House business stays within the house. You are not to discuss the Synod or internal politics with others. Similarly, any disputes you have with other Slytherins stop at the door. It does not matter if you hate each other's guts... or blood. Outside these halls, Slytherins present a united front.
"Next, the success of a Slytherin is the success of the house. Equally, the failure of a Slytherin is the failure of the house. We will not tolerate the undermining of another Slytherin's efforts, nor will we tolerate your own inadequacies. You will rise above them, or you will learn to circumvent them.
"As a Slytherin, you will be required to behave like a proper wizard. If necessary, you will receive lessons in proper etiquette, mannerisms, and dress. In that way, no matter your background, you will not shame the Slytherin house in front of the school. Speaking of which, Liam Douglas, Brandon Hays, Ranma Granger, and Vincent Crabbe will be meeting my sister promptly at seven-fifteen tomorrow morning.
"Before any of you foolishly challenge the Synod, know that it is supported by both ancient tradition and our house head, and, while not officially recognized by the current headmaster, Albus Dumbledore has never countermanded its authority. Further, attempting to bypass the Synod carries dire consequences. If there are in-house issues that need intervention, bring them to us, and we will decide if they are worthy of Professor Snape's attention or that of the headmaster himself. However, part of being a Slytherin is learning to take care of your own disputes. We have neither the time nor inclination to deal with petty problems, and we shall not take kindly to being interrupted for useless drivel.
"The Synod members still with us include Meryl Edgecomb, Derrik Fulke, Clayton Warrington, Evelyn Glass, and myself, Antares Spurge. I'd also like to introduce our two newest inductees: my dear sister, Shaula Spurge, and our very own Slytherin seeker, Draco Malfoy. As is tradition, they were selected by our graduating members. Should you wish to eventually join us, you'd do well to start currying favor immediately.
"And on that note, I take my leave. The rest of your tour will be handled by Draco Malfoy."
Antares and the others quickly depart, and the cadre of house-elves vanishes.
Draco Malfoy stares at Ranma a moment longer. Then he steps forward, his eyes sweeping across the first-years, a gleeful expression growing on his face. "Dorms are the alcoves nearest the fire - boys on the right, girls on the left. First years are all the way in the back. Each dorm has a private lavatory. If any of you need to go before we continue the tour, do so now."
Ranma watches as Jacey and several other first-years scatter. Staying behind are a couple boys, Camassia Oleander, and a furious girl with black hair and jade-green eyes. Ranma answers the girl's venomous glare with a smirk, mentally assigning her the name: Jonquil Rosier.
"While we're waiting, why don't I show you some of the donations given to Slytherin House by some of our more prestigious alumni," Draco says, gathering the small group's attention. He lays a hand upon the silver statute of the seven-headed snake, and its coils shift and slide as though alive at his touch. "This is where the quidditch brooms are kept. The statue is silver, plated in platinum, and depicts the legendary and extinct hydra. My father says they'll still be using this a hundred years from now. Statue, and brooms, is one of many historic donations by the Malfoy family. You, of course, are not allowed to touch the brooms - they're for quidditch members only. But I invite you to admire the statue any time you wish."
Draco fingers a black-handled broom for a few seconds before approaching the massive fireplace. "This exquisitely carved gold mantle is one of the oldest and most famous of additions to House Slytherin. It has been here more than three hundred years and houses a fire that shall never die. The images engraven tell the story of Salazar Slytherin, from his apprenticeship to the founding of Hogwarts and the Synod, and his eventual betrayal orchestrated by Godric Gryffindor. This mantle was donated by Procyon Black, and is said to have cost a million galleons. ... and I see that everyone is here, now."
"For those of you who were gone, we were just talking about Slytherin's betrayal by Gryffindor. I'll make it simple for you: Gryffindors are your enemies, and anyone befriending the enemy will be in trouble with me," Draco says, denoting himself with a thumb. "Now, follow me. Let's get this tour finished."
Draco leads the group to a nearby alcove and into a dimly lit room filled with shelves, books, and a few tables. "Illumine!" he calls, and instantly the room is suffused with a warm glow, bright enough to read by. "This is our private library. It doesn't compare to the depth or breadth of the Hogwarts library, but you'll find a few unique books here and many that you can only find in the restricted section." The blond, third-year boy gives them all a massive smirk. "This is one of my favorite rooms, and I'll tell you why. See that chest, there in the back? It holds thousands of homework assignments from generations of high-scoring Slytherins. Some of you might even become contributors. Remember - it's 'reference material only'."
At Draco's signal, the group exists the library. The boy dismisses the next alcove with a gesture and an utterance, "That's some sort of music room." They stop at a room of bare stone, with one long, raised platform in the center. "This is the dueling chamber. It once was used to settle disputes. See that red stain there?" the boy points at a faded discoloration on the wall, "I'm told it's one of the original Synod members. Apparently, he didn't vote with the rest of them. But today, this chamber is mostly used for sport. Not that you could have a real duel anyway. Thanks to laws written by soft-hearted blood-traitors, winning or losing could land you in Azkaban." Draco begins to exit, then stops to say over his shoulder, "Oh, and you can't use this chamber without supervision, and that means a prefect or a Synod member."
"I'll get you in here and there'll be another bloodstain on the wall, mudblood," Jonquil hisses at Ranma.
Ranma merely raises a brow, then she follows Draco to the next alcove.
"This is the Potions room. I can't actually take you in there; Snape has forbidden entry to all students short of NEWT-level. And we won't enter the next alcove, either... or, at least, you won't. It's the Synod wing, and, unless called, you have no business there. So, next is the atrarium."
They walk across the hall, past the Synod's alcove, and into the 'atrarium'. Soft earth and grass compact underfoot, a small waterfall trickles into a fine stream, and a light breeze brushes against Ranma's cheeks, carrying the fresh scent of nature. Unlike the previous rooms, Draco does nothing to illuminate this one, but dozens of plants glowing a weak, greenish-blue, show them the path.
"The atrarium was built over seven-hundred years ago as a Synod project, and took twelve years to complete," Draco says, after bringing the group to a stop. "The room is one-hundred feet in diameter, and the ceiling is twenty-five feet high at the center. You can't see it now, but in daylight you can look through the ceiling and into the lake above us. It is maintained by sophisticated enchantments and continuous efforts by our house elves. Other than that, this room speaks for itself. In late winter, you'll be grateful it exists."
"I gotta say," Jacey says, nodding appreciatively, gazing at an ornamental tree that stretches toward the ceiling. "Slytherin sure is posh."
"Yeah," Ranma agrees. "I'm pretty sure my sister didn't mention anything like this in Gryffindor."
"That's because Slytherin is better than the other houses," Draco snaps. "And don't forget, Granger, that you're a Slytherin now. Your house loyalties lie with us."
They trek back to the common hall and into the final alcove. Therein are several tables surrounded by shelves full of chess sets, dozens of decks of cards, a pair of crystal balls, something that appears to be an old-fashioned gramophone with a large horn, and many various gizmos for which Ranma has no name.
"This is the game room," Draco says with a note of finality. "We prefer to keep the common room somber, so if you'd like to play exploding snap, do it here." He pauses briefly then waves them towards the door. "And that's the end of your tour. Go to your rooms. Except Granger - we have something to discuss."
Jonquil snickers as she takes her leave.
Draco waits impatiently until all the other first-years are gone, then takes off, calling back the command, "With me, Granger."
Ranma shrugs, then lazily follows an agitated Draco out of the game room and back to the Synod wing - an extended hallway with several doors. Draco continues to the very last door, then opens it. "Inside, Granger."
Ranma gazes at him for a moment, then walks in. The chamber is the size of a master suite, with a king-sized bed on one side and a large, oaken desk on the other. An archway leads to a private lavatory with a tub large enough to swim in. As she watches, a squat, ugly little house-elf toddles out of the lavatory and into the main room.
The creature's enormous eyes widen, and it freezes upon seeing her. Then it looks past her to Draco. "Sorry, sorry," it squeaks. "Master has guests!" With a quick bow, it vanishes.
Draco closes the door behind her, and then there is a soft click. He turns to her and hisses, "Give it to me!"
Ranma stares at him for a while, glances back at the bed, then raises a brow. "Sorry, Draco, but I won't put out on a first date."
Malfoy's pale face turns beet red. He growls, "Don't play games with me, Granger. Give me the dagger."
Ranma grins. "If you wanted 'the dagger', shouldn't you have grabbed a boy?"
"You think that's funny, Granger? Do you think your sister can protect you here? One word from me and you'll be spending the next two months scrubbing toilets... and that's supposing I don't decide to inform Professor Snape that you are using dark artifacts. That's an expulsion for sure, if not a sentence to Azkaban. Being on probation won't help your case at all."
Ranma's smile vanishes, and her eyes darken. "I have no idea what you are talking about."
"Of course you do," Draco snaps. "I saw you on the train. I saw what happened to the dementor. And I know you saw me. Don't even try to deny it. You're up to your neck in dark magic, and a first-year like you is doomed to drown. So give me the dagger, and we can decide how to work together from there."
"You can't prove anything," Ranma retorts. "And even if there was something to prove, I'd have to be stupid to hand you the evidence."
Draco tears his wand from his robes and grates, "I'm not asking."
Ranma snorts. "I don't care."
"Imperi-uff!" Draco's shout ends in an undignified wheeze as he slammed violently into the nearest wall.
Ranma holds the boy's wand-wrist in one hand and a fistful of robes in the other, and the boy's toes dangle a foot above the ground.
"It seems to me, Draco, that you didn't think very hard before you dragged me in here. Imagine, for a moment, that you did see me on the train." Ranma's left hand pulses with strange sensation. "Suppose you did watch as I tore the dementor apart. Picture yourself, cowering in the the corner while I reach out, with the hand presses now against your chest, and consume that parasite's soul." Ranma can taste the boy under her hand - the sweet flavor of uncorrupted human magic - and she offers the boy a wide, predatory smile. "We both know I'm the most dangerous person in this room. But, little boy, let me tell you a secret: I'm the most dangerous being in this castle."
... tremble. tremble before our queen ...
Ranma's breath catches with a start. She gazes at the boy in her hands for a moment longer, then throws him across the room where he crashes upon the bed. With a final glance at Draco Malfoy, Ranma shoves open the door to the Synod hall - heedless of the loud cracking of splintering wood - and leaves.
Draco coughs and wheezes on his bed and waits until the ceiling ceases to spin. Eventually, he stands up and straightens his robes. "Kridder!" he calls.
With a pop, the large-eyed house-elf appears before him. "What wills you, master?"
"Fix that door," Draco demands. He pauses. "Then, I have another task for you. The girl here earlier is named Ranma Granger. I want you to watch her and tell me everything she does... and don't be seen."
Ranma gazes at the narrow scar sliced recently through her hand, arm stretched towards the distant lights of Hogwarts. An icy mist escapes her lips, and fat raindrops trickle through the branches and needles above her, dribble upon her pointy hat, roll onto her shoulders, and sink into her robes. The magicked material from Madam Malkin's works full time, barely managing to keep her clean, dry, and warm.
After a minute, her arm flops into her lap where are cradled the shattered remnants of her cold-iron amulet.
What is happening to her? Twice today, first on the train and then in the room with Draco Malfoy, she'd...- She'd behaved strangely. The emotions, the arrogance, the certainty were her own, and her actions had felt natural, even reasonable. But that's impossible. It is not natural to 'taste' the souls of nosy little boys. She had no reason to crush the amulet that had protected her for as long as she can remember. But her deeds do have one, simple explanation: she's going insane. Again.
The thought of her madness sends sick tendrils creeping into her gut. Will she be sent back to that room of white nothingness? Will she be cast from friends and family, and locked up until her memories rot away? Ranma shudders and she clutches at the broken pieces of wrought metal but receives none of the comfort the talisman once offered. Instead, the iron twists and crumbles in her grip.
There is also a tiny, lurking fear that everything she knows is but a dream, that she never left the white room, that she will awaken one day to find her sister, her friends, and all her memories are delusion, a phantasm, an imagined reality induced by her desperate need for companionship.
Worse is the lingering doubt that maybe, just maybe, she's not insane; maybe she's just waking up. Her memories extend only two years, and the majority of her past and experience is locked away... blocked away. While once upon a time she looked forward to recovering her memories, that desire has slowly changed to apathy, then, all at once, ash. She dreads that one day her true self will awaken and shed friends, family, and 'Ranma Granger' like an old skin. The hat had called her a 'shell', the cover of a book... and, now, she had a name for the story within: Andhera.
Andhera - ancient queen? dark goddess? 'Holy Mother'? The memories that assaulted her under the ministrations of the hat are fuzzy, fading like the nightmare upon the rooftop and washed away in the confusing aftermath of her sorting. Still, she recalls the dead face of the great, blue-skinned king called 'Rama', if only for such silly a reason as the name 'Rama' rhymes with the one she has claimed for two years as her own. She'll need to look it up later; a 'great king' ought to show up in at least a few history texts.
Suddenly, she seizes upon another possibility: Not madness. Possession! As an explanation, it is as simple as insanity. But with possession, there is hope. Possession can be fought, fixed, controlled, exorcised... Ranma stares down at her destroyed amulet, her eyes glowing with maniacal intensity. That must be it! Possession explains everything. Ollivander had said her magic is inhuman... but she isn't the monster. The monster is inside her. And, perhaps, if she can get a clear account of who 'Rama' is and how he died, she'll learn the nature of this 'Andhera' and how to be rid of her.
Ranma sighs and relaxes against the tree, tension melting from her body. Her gaze turns for a moment to the shattered amulet, then she tosses it to the muddy ground below. The twisted and torn pieces plop lightly against the surface of a dark pool of water then sink to its depths - a hole she dug earlier, in which already float blood-encrusted sheets and bandages, pinned in the mud by a single, sharpened table-leg - the one she hadn't managed to stick into Alucard.
But Ranma's eyes are focused again upon the distant Hogwarts. The warm lights beckon in the cold night, and dredge up memories of Kathryn's delighted babbling and the mesmerized eyes of a silent Audrey as Ranma relayed the stories of this magical place under Hermione's disapproving glare. Hermione... her older sister had offered that very same glare over breakfast this morning, mixed with more than a little concern, and Ranma can't help but think of the careless words spoken in a moment of weakness on the bathroom floor: Is it wrong to murder vampires?
Guilt washes over Ranma. Murder - that is something she did: not some memory of a past self, or a possessing spirit named Andhera, but the actions of Ranma Granger. She remembers, with crystal clarity, the weight in her heart and in her hand as she chose the fate of the burly boy, and the utter simplicity of that act that stole his life. It was an execution - and when she murdered the boy, she felt nothing; she still feels nothing, at least not about the boy's death. The intense pain in her heart... Ranma doesn't know which is worse: the haunting eyes of those who died due to her carelessness, the gentle smile of the sandy-haired woman who took a bullet while trying to help her, or the absolute knowledge that at any moment she could choose to end another life in revenge, hate, anger, mere irritation - for any reason... or even for no reason at all.
Because doesn't that make her a monster, too?
A fierce wind howls through the forest, her robes flutter wildly, and the tree in which she sits sags deeply to the left. Water showers from the undulating branches, viciously penetrating her neckline and overwhelming the magic of Madam Malkin. As the icy flood soaks through cloth and skin, Ranma shivers, but she is unsure that cold is the cause.
Her brooding defeated by the nasty weather, Ranma reaches into her robes and pulls out the dagger. The weapon is silent, lifeless - patterns of red do not flow across its sable surface, and the golden hilt does not quiver at her touch. Beyond its black iron blade and ceremonial design, it appears exactly as it had for two years: a normal, unremarkable cutting tool with an unfortunately dull edge.
Ranma gazes down at the muddy hole beneath her.
The dagger, like the bloody bandages from last night's raid and the wooden stakes sharpened in fearful preparation, is damning evidence against her. She has no doubt that it is magical, and dark. That arrogant brat of a Synod member, Malfoy, had succinctly summarized the legalities of merely possessing such an artifact, and Ranma finds herself doubting she'll ever see the 'mercy' of a wizarding court.
Yet, Ranma cannot bring herself to drop the dagger in the pool below. The weapon, for all its creepiness, carries with it distant memories: the ghost-like man who stepped from the shadows, and nostalgic fancies of her deceased father. There are the near forgotten words spoken to her as she gripped the golden pommel for the first time: Not all things can be hurt by fists or guns. And she feels that the dagger is somehow relevant to the whole mess with Andhera. No, the dagger is too important, too valuable to be buried as garbage.
Ranma rests arm and dagger in her lap, and turns her head towards the sky. Heavy drops fall upon her face, splashing cool against the skin and chasing away her weariness. She breaths deep the fresh and freezing air, drinking the scent of rain and pine. Rare lightning darts across the skies above, with nary a rumble audible over the creaking trees and rushing wind. And for a moment the sky glows with a bluish tinge, revealing heavy textured clouds that stretch across the horizon in a crumpled sheet, wrinkles lit and rumples darker than night.
In the fading light she can make out movement beneath the clouds.
The night's icy chill seems to penetrate ever deeper. Ranma trembles and her left hand clenches the golden pommel of the dagger. Without thinking, she rises, leans against the frigid gale and sways with the flailing branch; her eyes strain to pierce the darkness. Something faint - dark, yet visible - circles above.
Another flash, and she catches sight of wispy cloaks, inky pitch, and long putrid hands. Aware, she now distinguishes the unearthly chill permeating the forest, and her stomach turns at the pungent stench of spiritual sewage, faint and fleeting with the wind. 'Dementor', guard of Azkaban - so was named the creature she saw upon the train. Now dozens of them glide through the air, searching ceaselessly for the man called Sirius Black.
But those dementors, flying far above the treetops, are much too distant - they cannot affect her with their presence.
Ranma's eyes dart toward the source of the high-pitched cry just in time to hear a sharp 'pop!' from across the tiny glade. She scrutinizes the caliginous cavities among the sea of needles and traces the ebon silhouettes of giant trunks and thick roots. And, as she searches, the air grows colder... the smell of rot, stronger.
One, two..., four hooded figures flow from the darkness, their massive forms floating gracefully between trees and beneath the branches as they enter the glade. Behind, they leave tracks - not of footprints and mud, but a path of frost and necrosis. Their collective gaze rises to meet Ranma's, exposing rotting visages, vaguely human, eyeless, and covered with puss and boils. A mouth gapes wide, a chasm of darkness lined with mold instead of teeth.
Then it inhales.
The frigid wind turns glacial and an overwhelming stench roils in Ranma's gut. A force pulls at her - not physical, but undeniable. For a second, freshly buried emotions swell within her - lies, fear, murder, guilt, guilt, guilt, Kathryn's broken body lying among shards of glass.
Then Ranma's left hand lashes out, a flash of gold streaks, and the dagger smashes through the dementor's heart then embeds deeply among the roots of the evergreen behind it. An atramentous line stretches from where the dementor still stands to the point of impact. The creature stares down at the slowly widening pit in its chest - it's cloak and body unraveling into aphotic threads that spiral into the dagger's blade. The creature doesn't scream even as its head is the last part to go.
Ba-bump! A rippling pulse beats across the glade and surges through the proud evergreen which wilts and wastes; needles fall like rain. It's branches twist, shrink, and writhe, then finally still. Against its surface, water begins to freeze, stretching into long, thin icicles. And a fine, white mist emanates from the tree, spreading across the glade, causing nearby sprigs and ivy to blacken and die.
Ranma glares down at the three remaining dementors, two of whom gaze at the tree, floating about it in silence. The third stares back, unaffected by her gaze, gliding closer until Ranma can see in detail the gangrenous pustules hanging from its bloated lips. Ranma wrinkles her nose, but she resists the urge to recoil from its fetid fragrance or flinch when she sees something pale and flexible crawl from its nose and burrow into its cheek.
Then she feels a weight, a pommel, again in her hand.
The creature's gaze drops to the dagger. For a moment, it is still, then it slides to the side and drifts past her. At some silent signal, the others follow, passing beneath her tree and over her muddy hole before vanishing into the forest.
Ranma stands in the tree for a minute longer, waiting until the air is fresh. Then she glances once more at Hogwarts, thinking of a warm bed and steaming shower. Taking not a moment longer, she drops to the forest floor and grabs the great spade that leans against a stacked pair of boulders.
"Right now that disgusting mudblood is probably being crucio'd by the whole Synod." Jonquil declares gleefully. "Nothing less than what she deserves. How dare she be in house Slytherin? It's bad enough her kind are even allowed in Hogwarts."
Across the room, Jacey snickers in answer, then flips to the next page of Dark Buster Winston: Choose Your Own Magical Adventure. The goth girl's back rests against a mahogany head board, and her legs are stretched out over smooth, green sheets. Hogwarts robes lie crumbled on the floor, and her knee high platform boots are paired off against the stone wall. But, despite the late hour, she still wears her velvet skirt and satin corset.
"You think that's funny do you!" Jonquil snaps, bouncing to her feet. From halfway across the room the girl thrusts her wand in Jacey's direction. "They'll be after you too, mudblood."
"Halfblood, apparently," Jacey replies. She takes a moment to watch with bemusement at a depiction of a distraught 'dark' wizard being turned inside out, internal organs falling upon the floor. Then, upon seeing the aurors arrive, she directs Winston to flee. "According to Miriam anyway," she adds.
Jonquil scowls, her green eyes narrowing, then she drops into her bed. "Nobody cares what little Miss 'two-point-three' thinks. Right, Camassia?"
Behind Jonquil, the auburn haired girl's arms reach out from beneath her covers and pull her pillow more tightly about her ears. Jonquil favors her friend with a long, dark, and completely unnoticed glare. Then, when it becomes obvious that Camassia has no intention of replying, she turns her eyes upon the only other person in her audience.
Fiona Ross, stuck in the bed dividing Camassia and Jonquil from Jacey and the empty bed reserved for Ranma, murmurs something indecipherable then shrinks under her blankets until her head disappears entirely.
"Hmph!" Jonquil snoots. For a few minutes there is silence, while Jonquil sits, legs folded upon her bed, her nose raised disdainfully in the air. Then she bounces out of her bed and starts pacing.
"You know what? I bet that filthy girl is already dead. Tomorrow we'll find her head on a pike, mounted on the Hogwarts walls."
"Good," Jacey states, reading as Winston jumps into a river and transfigures himself into a fish in a desperate attempt to escape the Aurors. "Then you can shut up and we can all go to sleep."
"That's it!" Jonquil screeches. "I'll tolerate your insolence no longer, you mudblood... halfblood, whatever you are!" The green-eyed girl stamps angrily and levels her wand. When the indigo-haired girl flips to the next page, Jonquil growls in frustration and stomps forward until her wand is blocking Jacey's view.
"Now, you're going to get what's coming to you." Jonquil snaps. "I'll... ... ... I'll turn you into a newt!"
Jacey merely reaches up and plucks the wand from Jonquil's hand, then promptly drops it between the pages of Dark Buster Winston and closes the book. She raises a brow. "Oh, really? Turn me into a newt, you say? Well... go ahead."
"Y-you-you... You can't do that! Give that back! Right now!" Jonquil lurches forward, grabbing for the book.
Jacey simply rolls off the other side of her bed. When she rises, she's grasping the wand as if to break it. "Hey, hey. Careful there - you wouldn't want something awful happening to Mr. Pointy. Hostages situations require careful negotiations."
Jonquil's jaw tightens, and her face shifts toward an ugly shade of purple. Then the girl whirls. "Camassia! Camassia!" she shrieks, rushing to her friend's bed and tearing the pillow off her head. "That girl took my wand! Turn her into a newt!"
"Jonquil Laurestine Rosier," Camassia pronounces the name with care. "Be silent. You've been acting the fool. You are fortunate that your parents will not hear of this."
Camassia sits up in her bed, fallen blankets displaying her long nightgown of translucent silvery-white. "Miss Estelle, is it? I must inform you that taking another wizard's wand is considered a serious offense. I suggest you return it at once, and none shall hear of it." Her grey eyes flash sharply to her friend. "Now, if that is all, I demand the return of my pillow and that there be no further disruptions or I will take measures to ensure no more occur."
At that moment the door swings open and a wet, muddy redhead steps inside. Her gaze sweeps the room, stopping upon Jonquil, Camassia, and Jacey. "Please tell me there's a shower and a lavatory in here," she solicits.
"Right that way," Jacey replies, thumbing a door. "Next to your bed."
Ranma nods and begins trudging towards the door.
"Wait!" Jonquil demands. "Aren't you going to tell us what the Synod did to you? Oh, and look! They took away your luggage. I wonder how a destitute mudblood like yourself is going to make it through Hogwarts without anything but her one robe."
Ranma pauses, but doesn't look back. Then, with a grunt, she reaches deep into her pocket, wrenches out a massive trunk, and sets it firmly at the foot of her bed. And with two, final strides she is in the bathroom, the door slams shut behind her, and the bolt slides into place with a resolute click.
"Well, now that this debacle is done and over with, I say we get some sleep!" Jacey declares. Then she glances at the wand in her book. "Oh, and I guess I'll let you have it back this time," she adds before lazily tossing the wand onto Jonquil's bed, whereupon it bounces, clatters across the ground, and slides deep under Camassia's.