"Are you sure you should just rush into this?" Grant said, huffing as he ran beside me.
"Absolutely," I said. "There's two of us. Sypha can't duel her way out of a magic bag. We can take Jacinto if we work together. And maybe we'll get back while they're still gone."
We thumped down a flight of stairs, crossed the courtyard where others students milled about, huddling close together for warmth and for feelings of safety. My and Grant's sprint destroyed the false sense of serenity that hovered over the school since the weeks that had gone by between now and the last petrification. I thought I heard Filch gabbing at us from a window. We stomped down one final flight of stairs and out the door, we hesitated before the bridge. I knew it was buttressed by tons of spellwork. I knew it would take literal explosives to bring it down. But the thing just looked plain rickety.
Up ahead, a couple of Ravenclaws stared at us as they neared the castle.
"You going for a jog?" the boy said.
I nodded. "A sprint, really."
"Carry on then," said the girl. I couldn't remember her name, just that she was a fourth year and that she really wanted to be a prefect. God only knew why.
Grant gave me one of those looks of his as they slowly walked past and vanished into the castle, and then we both started running again. As we reached the other side, we slid to a halt because the pathway was known to hide ice beneath snow that blew down from the trees. We avoided it, stomping up the narrow path to the stone circle. Both of us were winded when we reached the middle of the rocks, but I scooped up the pin from the center before I stopped to breathe.
Copi's blank face gazed up at me from the blue background, unmoving. Frozen.
"Fake," I whispered. I felt ill.
"So, I was right." Jacinto Neithercut's voice cut across the cold like my mother's kitchen knives through asparagus. I looked to where the voice had come from. He stood just beyond the circle, in the arch before the stairs that lead down to the gamekeeper's hut. Sypha stepped out beside him, clutching something tightly against her chest. I couldn't see through her hands but I knew it was the real Copi pin.
Grant looked at me horrified, then at Jacinto. "What did you do?"
"I set a trap for you," Jacinto said. "Or really more of a test, to see if I was right about your pin being a spy."
"Let her go!" I shouted. I pointed my wand at him.
Jacinto extended his hand to Sypha, who, I noticed, hadn't taken her eyes off me. Her red-eyed stare hurt more than knowing I'd been duped. Her gaze projected a message as clear as you'd see on any movie screen: traitor, liar, sneak. Sypha simply put the pin in Jacinto's hand. The American boy tossed it across the distance between us and it clattered to a stop at my feet.
"You're not going to destroy her," I said.
"Of course not." Jacinto shook his head. "The fact that you've even made an animate sketch in your first year is amazing. That's incredible for a first year, and a Muggleborn. Did you do the duplication yourself too?"
The shock in my eyes gave him a false impression.
"That's really impressive," he said, and seemed to mean it. His tone wasn't condescending in the least. But I was livid, to the point that I didn't even feel like correcting him. That didn't matter nearly as much as whatever he was trying to do in secret.
"I know you're brewing that potion," I said. "I know what you're up to."
He smiled. "No, I kinda doubt it, since you seem to think I'm the bad guy here."
"You are the bad guy!" I snarled, rushing towards him. He and Sypha both immediately trained their wands on me and I stopped dead in my tracks. "All those Muggleborns are statues thanks to you."
The expression on Jacinto's face paled, and the bizarrest laugh escaped his throat, like a cockatrice under the tickle torture of a Rictusempra.
"You think I'm the Heir of Slytherin?" he said, loud enough that I worried other students—or, God forbid, teachers—would hear the commotion. "That's—oh my god. All this time I thought you were just playing campus cop because of all the rules I've been breaking."
"Do I look like a prefect wannabe? What are you doing, then?" my fist tightened around my wand.
"If you must know, I'm trying to brew Veratiserum," Jacinto said tersely.
I studied his face, looking for any hint of a lie. "Which is?"
"Completely illegal!" Grant said. "What are you thinking, Neithercut? You could get expelled."
Sypha looked at me. "Veratiserum. It makes you tell the truth. I can't imagine why Jace would be making some. It's a controlled substance and one hell of a hard potion even for graduates."
"The hard part is patience," said Jacinto. "Which I have in spades."
"You're lying," I said. "What do you need it—"
"Malfoy," the boy said casually. "He's a coward, soI don't think he'd kill anyone himself. But you heard him. On Halloween. He knows more than he's letting on. Now, I don't know that much about Voldemort or whatever—" At the mention of the Dark Lord's name, Sypha inhaled sharply—"But maybe if I can get him to talk to me, I can figure out how to stop the petrifications before the school shuts down and I have to go back to—"
His voice sounded as though it were more strained, less calm, at the end before he trailed off. After a moment, he finished: "Back to America."
"Well that's just brilliant," Sypha said. "If you screw up and get the potion wrong then you could kill Malfoy, or make his brain swell, or have him babbling stupid nursery rhymes for the rest of his life."
"And if I don't, more students will be turned to stone, maybe killed. There will be no school, Sypha."
"Does it mean that much to you?" I said. "What's so bad about America?"
Jacinto grimaced. "The people I have to put up with."
"Your parents," I ventured. "Does anyone at this school have a good relationship with their parents?"
Jacinto and Grant looked at each other, at me, at Sypha. Sypha's hand shot up.
"You don't count, Sypha." Her eyebrow raised, her face betraying both hurt and confusion. "We already established your parents are morons."
Sypha's arm tensed, and she winced as if I had poked her with a sharp pencil.
"Bitch," she spat.
"It's the truth!" Behind my angry bluster, the thought occurred to me that my parents were morons too, in her eyes, and in Grant's. But the fears of my parents seemed so much bigger and more legitimate. Here I was, learning and practicing witchcraft—a power the Bible said came straight from hell. And maybe it was that feeling of being damned, that ever-present perception that I was engulfed by sin while at Hogwarts, that drove me on. And maybe it was also projecting. "Your parents are worthless idiots!"
"They are NOT!" Sypha thundered. "Nesselsukt!"
Her wand flashed and immediately my arms and legs and chest started burning and itching, and I felt my skin tighten like a dozen mosquito bites just appeared out of nowhere.
I stepped back as though distance would make the hex stop, my foot catching a patch of ice and sending me toppling head first onto one of those ancient stones. The rock was harder than my skull, and after a sharp pain that made my eyes think a camera flash was going off in them, I was out.
I came around in the infirmary, dizzy head throbbing and hungry stomach churning. I could see it was dark out, the stars twinkling in the rare clear winter sky. The voice of Madam Pomfrey floated across the room, tense whispers in which I could make out the words Mandrakes and Petrified. I sat up, slightly, and for the first time noticed the itching and burning along my right leg, which spread up my side and draped over my shoulder. It was less intense than before, but—
"Michelle? You awake?" It was Grant.
"Yeah. I'm here. Damn, my head hurts. What happened?"
"Sypha hit you with a nasty Suit-of-Hives hex, then you fell and got a concussion. Pomfrey made some ointment for the rash. I think it worked."
I resisted the urge to scratch the skin around my knee joint. "Not entirely," I said tersely. "Where's Copi? And do you have any aspirin?"
"I got your sketchbook from the library. Right here." He held it up so I could see. "I gave the pin to Josie Cohen for safe keeping. And I have no idea what aspirin is."
"Never mind." I sat up all the way now. "How long was I out? Where are Jacinto and Sypha?"
"Sypha split. Thought she'd killed you. Jacinto ran after her. Haven't seen them since. And you've been out for nearly five hours."
"What did you tell Pomfrey?" I said, suddenly having pangs of guilt. "Did you say Sypha's name—"
"You bet your arse I did," said Grant. "That fall could have killed you. You're lucky it didn't."
"But the fall was an accident. I know she shouldn't have hexed me, but I was provoking her. God, I'm such an idiot. It's like I'm turning into a real Slytherin or something."
Grant's shoulders drooped. "Well, her parents are Blood Purists. They really are morons. Look at what their stupid ideas—" He trailed off, but I could see his red-tinted eyes staring at his unnaturally pale hands. The Nasty.
Did to me, I silently finished for him.
"That doesn't make it okay," I said. "I didn't say it to clue her parents in. I said it to hurt her."
"And that's a bad thing?"
"Damn right it is!" I struggled to keep from shouting. "Holding a grudge like this—"
"A grudge?" Grant's eyes narrowed and his fingers interlocked. He seemed to look past me for several seconds, pressing his thumbs together and thinking. He was like me in some ways, and yet he had to deal with things that I couldn't even comprehend. My parents had disowned me after finding out I was a witch—but Grant's parents had never loved him. I was the picture of good folk: middle class, white, blond hair and green eyes. Grant, though from a well-off family, was a foreigner with a strange accent, bearing constantly this mark on him, the white skin and red eyes. The 'logical' conclusion of blood purity.
"You know what?" I said. "It's late. I'm probably not making any sense. Get back to the dorm. I'll be okay."
Grant shook his head. "Awright, I guess. That was kind of abrupt."
"I need to think," I said.
"Sure you do." Grant dropped my sketchbook and the copy of Young Defenders down on the bed. "Night, Michelle."
Lacking anything else to do in the night, I read.
In chapter five, Tawny Devers and Alonso Peck befriend two more—a tiny Gryffindor boy named Alvin, and a raven-haired Slytherin named Cassandra. Though Alonso is the only Muggleborn among them, the four quickly become friends. Then, Cassandra sneaks off, using a fireplace in the Hogwarts Kitchen to Floo out to her home. We see her father—he stands revealed as the leader of the Crimson Flood. His name is Ludwig Veratte. Cassandra's hair blows in the wind in one panel, the ink like a tempestuous sea. Ludwig tells her that they, the true heirs of the great Salazar Slytherin, will flood the world with the blood of Muggles and Mudbloods. Cassandra smiles. "Yes, father."
The final panel on the page pulls back and shows us that Cassandra lives in that evil flying mansion above London.
The following page opens on a lecture by a Hogwarts professor—a huge teal man with a model of a Hydrogen atom drawn on his head; he floats around the classroom wearing only black briefs. The students address him as Professor Adams; he's said to be a Djinn, a mystical spirit of Arabic origin.
The caption reads: Monday, Adams' Ancient Artifact Studies course.
"Today we're going to talk about the Great Artifacts of the House Founders," he said. "Every witch and wizard is raised knowing of some—Gryffindor's Sword, Hufflepuff's Cup, Slytherin's Locket, and Ravenclaw's Diadem. Today, all are lost save the sword. But there are four more yet, and those four are hidden—Gryffindor's Shield of Courage, Ravenclaw's Rapier of Wit, Slytherin's Staff of Remorse, and Hufflepuff's Gauntlet of Greatness."
The lights in the hospital wing dimmed, and Pomfrey called for all the patients—the non-petrified ones—to get some rest. I dog-eared the book, closed it, and soon fell fast asleep.
I woke up when the Sunday morning sun blazed through the windows. It was the first clear day, I think, that entire February. As Pomfrey and her nurses brought breakfast, there was a bit of a commotion at the door, at which point it opened and in crowded more than a dozen students. The tallest of them all was Cedric Diggory. I was relieved when he walked through the sunbeams that poured in and did not burst into flames. Not a vampire. Safe to fancy.
"Top of the mornin' to you!" Cedric called. "Michelle, I'd like you to meet our group, the Hogwarts Congregation."
Cedric took the time to introduce me to the other students. Over half were Muggleborn, with completely mundane names like Geoff and Matthew and Viviana. Not a Draco or a Nymphadora in sight.
"What's all this, anyway?" I said. "I thought you lot met in the Great Hall."
"Normally, we do," said Cedric. "But we heard you'd taken ill, so we decided to drop by and have the service here. Professor Dumbledore just said not to make too much noise."
"I'd like to second that," I said. "My head's pounding. Concussions are the best, trufax."
"I'm sure." Cedric grinned. "Regardless, I thought we'd open today with a prayer originally said by Minister for Magic Ottaline Gambol after the invasion of Poland in 1939."
Gracious God of Life and Magic, who has designated love the most powerful magic of all.
We live in dark times. Even as the specter of war looms in the West, a shadow that darkens the Muggle and Wizarding Worlds alike, a threat all too real for us, seemingly safe here in the British Isles, looms nearly as large. Be it Adolf Hitler or Gellert Grendelwald, let us know that evil men—all evil men—have only their time in the sun. Let it be known that whatever technologies of war be used—be they carbines or wands, bombs or spells—that You are in control. Protect us from the terror of combat, and inspire courage in us even as You have inspired it in the gallant masses who fight for the freedom of every man, woman, witch, and wizard.
Keep us safe, and let us take heart.
"Amen," repeated the others.
"Amen," I said.
"I'm going to be short today," said a tall girl who stepped forward. I recognized her has a seventh year Gryffindor. I believe she had said her name was Kate; she wore black jeans and a black shirt with what appeared to be a fishnet undershirt. Her ears were all pierced up and down, her hair spiked. I'd seen her plenty of times, but her presence here was like seeing her all over again. She wasn't who I thought she was—in as much as I had any thoughts about her.
She picked up a Bible.
"This lesson may sound trite, or be hard, dealing with what we're facing now. Hell, there's three petrified kids over there, all Muggleborns, crying out for justice. And I hope to God justice will come. But we have our own duties in the mean time. Look at Mark 11:25…"
I barely heard much of Kate's lesson. It was about forgiveness—the topic that had been bubbling in my mind all night. But more than anything, I felt… uplifted. As though I were a deflated balloon suddenly filled again. Coming to Hogwarts had cut me off from this, from sharing my faith, for two semesters.
And all of it was unnecessary. All I had to do was not assume things. At the end of her lesson, Kate blew a bubble from her chewing gum and then turned it over to the rest of us.
"Any questions, or anything you'd like to share?"
My hand shot up before I knew what I wanted to say.
"Michelle?" said Cedric.
"I hate Syhpa Aulin," I blurted. The rest of them blinked. "I mean, I don't guess I hate her. It's just, I've been taking it out on her. What I really hate is all this blood purity rubbish. And she was there, and convenient and—"
"Younger than you," Kate said.
That stung. It was me, I was the bully now.
"Michelle," Kate said. "It makes perfect sense to be angry. There's a bunch of Slytherins I'd love to clobber, or hex. And I can't even imagine some of the stuff you must have heard, being a Muggleborn in Slytherin. Your anger is not a sin."
"There's a but coming," I whispered.
"There is. You're still kids. Sypha has a lot of the same troubles I had when I was her age. I just accepted whatever my parents told me. So when they told me I was evil for practicing magic and wearing make-up to Sunday school I—" She paused, thoughtfully. "Well, to be honest, I told them to blank off because I liked being evil."
She looked at the others, feigning more embarrassment than she felt. "I'm probably the worst example. Ignore me. Take Geoff over there, yada yada, same thing. I see how you might have internalized all that. It's like, the idea that magic is wicked is in your blood as much as magic itself is, and Blood Purity is just as much a part of many students' upbringings. You can't take that out on them, though. There are plenty of pillocks who've made their choices and sided with the racists, but you eleven year olds still have a chance to be better."
"That reminds me," Cedric said. "I dug this out of our old storage closet."
Cedric handed me a three-ring binder, arithmancy notes scribbled on the front below a spellotaped-on title: Witches of Faith. Down in the bottom right, a little flower was drawn in magic marker, above which sat the name Lily. I opened up the binder—the object seemed to confuse the pureblooded students around me—and saw the front page, an aged loose-leaf notebook with faded writing; beneath it, a typed A4 page relayed the same information.
"Witches of Faith" by Lily Evans
Reporting on the distortions and misconceptions about magic. A guide for all muggleborn students of faith, struggling with their powers and what it means for their walk with God.
Compiled 3rd August 1975
"Thanks," I told Cedric. "Who's Lily Evans?"
"Student here, long time ago," Cedric said. "Muggleborn like you. I never thought to ask where she is now, but given the date on that book, it wouldn't surprise me a bit if she died in the war."
I nodded, the skin on my back crawling. The murder of Muggleborns was a thing then. The petrifications now also targeted those of Muggle parentage. Maybe, I thought, there was no person—no incarnate Dark Lord connecting them, but there was the prejudice. And if I was in danger at Hogwarts, then might Mum and Dad also be, even as far away as London?
Then it hit me—not as an articulate realization, but a visceral feeling. If I were to survive, if I were to keep my parents safe from whatever may come, then I'd have to put my fears about witchcraft to rest completely. I thought a prayer towards Lily Evans, wherever she was, and turned the page in the binder.
The first few pages spoke a lot about language—ancient Hebrew, and all the difficulties and ambiguities of translating. Some words' meanings were lost to history. The English Bibles we used often substituted translators best guesses, or used a word that was technically accurate but had a different set of connotations.
Lily Evans wrote of the passage "You shall not suffer a Witch to live" that the term witch was m'khaseph. "One who uses spoken spells to harm others.' This word does not connote just any practitioner of magic. Indeed, the concept of witches and wizards as we know them today did not even exist in the times these scriptures were compiled and written. The spellcasters this passage condemns were dark sorcerers who used their powers to strike down or afflict others."
And then, in the list in Deuteronomy 18, Lily introduces a Pastor Clarke, a member of a Presbyterian congregation in Cokeworth. Citing the words as Clarke's, Lily wrote:
The list of forbidden occult practices in this famous practice is full of words with very specific meanings to the Hebrew people, and the specifity is lost when translated. Yid'oni, means making contact with dark spirits who don't serve God. Sho'el 'ov is sometimes translated Necromancy and essentially means trying summon the dead for divination. Qosem q'samim is another form of divination, trying to tell the future through the casting of lots. M'onen is next, and it means predicting the future through omens in nature—much more like the American 'groundhog' day than anything Lily has related to me of the Hogwarts curriculum. M'nachesh, the next word, means enchanting or charming, with the word seemingly a derivate of the word for snake. Snakes, as we all know, were a symbol of evil and deception to the ancient Hebrews—not to mention full of poison. Chover chavar is next, which is apparently casting spells through the tying of magical knots. When I explained this to Lily, her response was to arch an eyebrow in incredulity. She's never heard of any magic of the sort in her years at the school. M'khaseph means evil spellscasters, as Lily has already covered. The final forbidden practice is doresh 'el hametim, another method of 'asking of the dead.' The ancients likely understood how this differed from Sho'el 'ov, but that knowledge is lost to any scholarly source I could dig up—pardon the pun.
I lay back on my bed, not realizing how tightly I'd been clutching the binder, nor that stinging tears had formed in my eyes at some point during the reading.
They were words, I thought. Just words, which had both meanings in the literal sense and connotations. The idea that the word translated witch could mean something other than witch—something other than what I was now, through and through—had not occurred to me. Or, if it had, it was just as quickly dismissed and subsumed into the self-loathing I'd buried myself in since coming to Hogwarts. Amanda's rationalization, her appeal to Jesus' simplification of the law and the prophets to two simple commandments—weren't enough. Though I remembered the words daily, they had felt at the best like a placebo. Realizing that even the law didn't say what my church and parents claimed it did was a cure.
No, more than a cure. It was like a resurrection.
"You seem happy," said Grant. Hours after Cedric and the others left, he creeped in and sat on a stool by my bed. "You getting out of the hospital wing today?"
"Probably." I took a deep breath. "Cedric and the others stopped by this morning. We had a church thing here, and they gave me this."
I handed Grant the binder. "It's really helped me put a lot of things in perspective."
"Oh?" Grant took the red notebook and skimmed through it, frowned skeptically, and set it down on the foot of my bed. "Like what?"
"Parents, mostly," I said. "Like, my parents taught me certain things about what the Bible says and what my religion teaches. But how much of that is just the same stuff their parents handed down to them? A lot of rubbish gets mixed in, especially when there's a bunch of different languages involved."
Grant shrugged. "I guess."
"But that also means I can never fully understand how you feel about stuff. How angry you must be at people like Sypha's parents. The Aulins did to her something even worse than what my parents did to me. They made me hate myself, but they convinced Sypha that it was okay to hate others."
"And that doesn't make you angry?" said Grant. "You have more to lose than I do. Whatever else I am, at least I'm a pureblood."
"I am angry," I said. "But if I wanted to, I could put my wand down, go back home, and live the rest of my life as a Muggle. I have a way out. You don't. I was about to tell you off yesterday for being so resentful to Sypha. A grudge, I said."
"It's not a grudge," said Grant. "If blood purists ever get back into power, I'll probably be locked away in some hospital for the rest of my life, some made-up rot about a skin condition from contact with Muggles. Anything so they don't have to look at me and be reminded that keeping the blood pure means their kids and their kids' kids eventually end up a bunch of deformed freaks."
I could see the pain in Grant's face, perhaps for the first time, clearly.
"Yeah," I said. "I keep thinking, turn the other cheek. But this isn't that kind of thing. You turn the other cheek when someone slaps you in the face, not when they point a wand at you and try to levitate you into a fire."
Grant stayed silent for a moment, looking at the floor of the hospital wing—through it, really, as if down to the dungeons.
"I talked to Jacinto last night after the others were asleep," he said. "I read off a bit from Arianna Davis' potions text about the side effects of a failed Veritaserum. Jacinto got pale, Michelle. I finally shook him up. He has no idea if he's getting it right. He may have his mother's university books and a lot of patience, but he doesn't have experience. I'm afraid he's going to kill Draco."
"So what should we do about it? Even if he's not the Heir of Slytherin, he's bloody good. Fifth years have trouble with some of the spells he can do."
"Some fifth years have trouble with Expeliarmus, but you seem to have that down."
"Not the point," I said. "The point is: however Jacinto got like he is, he's dangerous."
"And I don't want to see him expelled," said Grant. "Maybe he's not a friend, but I don't think he's like Malfoy or Harper."
I nodded, clutching the edges and pushing myself back on the bed so that I could reach the nightstand. The sheets irritated the remains of the hive-hex, and I winced. "But if we want to stop him, we'll need more than two wands."
I snatched-up the copy of The Young Defenders from the nightstand and held it up in front of Grant.
"We need a team."