Chapter Fourteen: Cacophony in C Sharp
Hogwarts has always been a notoriously difficult structure to get around in. Rooms sometimes shuffle about when nobody is looking too closely, corridors appear and disappear based off of the phases of the moon, the day of the week, the hour of the day, and, in one notable case, the lowest factor of Ravenclaw's current house points. There were walls pretending to be doorways and doorways pretending to be walls. Pathways from commonly used room to room were handed down, year to year, within houses. Secret passages, trick doors, and the patterns of moving staircases were valuable commodities that could save days of time over the course of a student's seven-year career. Two rooms close enough to share a common wall could require several solid kilometers of winding hallways to reach each other, while two other rooms on the far sides of the castle could be only a few minutes apart if they shared a direct passageway. To make matters worse, there had been a rash of disappearing corridors over the past few days.
The result was that the time it took to walk from classroom A to classroom B had very little to do with their actual geography, and more to do with one's knowledge of the school's hidden ways and the sheer mental strength it took to commit them all to memory.
McGonagall walked through the school as if she was born there. She walked straight through solid-seeming walls, ignored inviting-looking hallways, said cryptic phrases at random-seeming statues and suits of armour, and, once, had to turn around and walk backwards down some stairs for no obvious reason.
It had taken Milo half an hour to walk from the staircase that led up to Gryffindor Tower to the Headmistress's office.
McGonagall led them back in under a minute.
"—and that's how I defeated the Death Eaters and damaged the tower," Milo explained. "And before you ask, don't worry. The trap will only trigger once; it won't go off on the other students."
"Make no mistake, Mister Amastacia-Liadon, we are not yet finished with this subject," McGonagall said archly. "You are not to go leaving booby-traps in this castle, is that clear? No matter how safe you think they are. The possibility of accident is far too great."
Milo sighed. "Yes, Professor."
"But for now, I believe, I shall simply say: well done. I can't think of many grown witches or wizards who would have been able to not only escape from that situation, but send the Death Eaters packing. However, would it not have been more expedient to simply capture them? Every Death Eater in Azkaban is a Death Eater we don't have to worry about."
"Well..." Milo frowned. Why hadn't he captured them? It would have been easy. They were injured; he could have held them down with Evard's Black Tentacles, or simply the threat of further Explosive Runes, until help arrived. He hadn't even considered the idea. Had he simply failed an Intelligence check?
"Still, I can hardly blame you for panicking, all things considered. No matter; they'll be found." It was a statement that left no room for compromise, uncertainty, or alternatives. Milo reminded himself of which House it was that McGonagall was the Head.
Mordy sent a wave of alarm through their empathic link.
"Boss! We got incoming!" he said, poking his furry little nose out of the pouch that was his home. He sniffed at the air a few times with his goggle-enhanced nose (yes, the goggles improved his sense of smell, because magic). "Whatever it is, it smells dreadful. Oh, and it's huge."
Milo shook his hands out of his sleeves.
"Professor," he said. "We're not alone."
McGonagall narrowed her eyes and drew her wand. "Explain," she said briskly.
"It's a bit hard," Milo said. How do you go about explaining that you have a psychic connection with a sapient rat that could smell danger? Oh, right. "I have a psychic connection with a sapient rat that can smell danger," Milo said. "And danger is coming."
Something tickled Milo's ears; a soft, gentle sort of caress, like a whisper without words. Had it not been for his familiar, he doubted he would have heard it at all. Having the rat within arms' reach created a connection of some kind that, using both of their eyes and ears, amplified his senses. He wasn't quite certain how it was supposed to work, as the descriptive fluff for the ability was scant. Something Harry said once came to mind...
"Tongues," Milo muttered.
"soo... hungry..." came a voice like dry autumn leaves brushed against oiled silk. "must... feeed..."
"Unless you mean 'must feed me,' I wouldn't try it," Milo shouted back at the seemingly-empty hallway. McGonagall shot him a sharp, perplexed look. "Or you'll soon find that an eighth-level Wizard is no easy meat. Back off." If he could just draw it out somewhere visible...
"You're a Parselmouth?" McGonagall asked.
"No," Milo said. "I can just use magic to talk to anything in its own tongue."
"It's own tongue? That means..."
"...the master? no... this voice lacks the Power... imposter... pretender..."
"Milo! Close your eyes and keep them that way if you value your life!" McGonagall commanded. With a flick of her wand, torches fell from the walls and flared up, creating a ring of fire surrounding them. With another movement, thousands of tiny, horizontal filaments of stone stretching from wall to wall raised up an inch off the ground from the stone floor and hung there, suspended tightly from the walls. Milo peered closer, and found that rather than stone, the threads more closely resembled lute strings of varying key, though he couldn't imagine what for. A third wand movement pulled dozens of razor-sharp, mirror-bright daggers from the wall that remained floating in front of her, trembling with power as if straining to be released. "Close your eyes!" She said again.
"Obscuro," she said sharply, and Milo found himself with a soft blindfold wrapped around his face. He struggled and pulled at it as best he could, but it seemed firmly stuck to his face.
"What the Hells is this?" Milo sputtered. Was this another surprise Polyjuice attack? He didn't have a trap prepared, this time. Not here, anyway. Maybe he could—
Milo's thought was cut off by the most horrible, screeching cacophony that he had ever heard. It made the audio havoc of a half-orc War Chanter playing Dirge of Discord on a rusty Gehennan Morghuth-Iron fiddle with a bandsaw for a bow sound like a master elven court Bard Inspiring Heroism with a celestial harp accompanied by a chorus of Astral Devas.
"Got you now," he heard McGonagall say over the din, followed by a series of tiny thunderclaps and a roar of pain. Milo clutched his hands over his ears. He was having a serious reversal of opinion about the relative pros and cons of Familiar-amplified hearing, though it did allow him to catch McGonagall mutter something about "infinite points from Slytherin if I make it out of this."
Is she winning? Should I help? What's happening? Milo was going crazy with curiosity, tinged with panic. Clearly, this was Slytherin's monster—but what was it? Judging by the fact McGonagall blinded me, it's probably safe to say it Petrifies by a Gaze attack, Milo thought. So, I can't look at it with my own eyes. I can't use Chain of Eyes, because the only nearby options are Mordy and McGonagall, and both would be Petrified if they looked at the monster. I can't cast Arcane Eye because it takes ten minutes...
It occurred to Milo that he had made a very large, very irritating oversight. Uncanny Forethought, the feat that allowed him to cast any spell he knew in six seconds, allowed him to cast any spell he knew in six seconds—regardless of the original spell's casting time. He could have saved literally days in Scrying over the last month had he paid closer attention to the wording.
"Arcane Eye." An invisible magical sensor winked into existence at Milo's shoulder, feeding him whatever it saw, and what it saw was carnage.
A roaring inferno billowed smoke into the hallway, obscuring vision and casting everything in a hellish red glow. McGonagall stood in front of Milo with her eyes firmly shut, a cloud of daggers hovering in front of her. Through the fires, Milo could just barely make out some kind of moving shape. As the beast moved, it made a horrible screeching noise akin to demon claws on a chalkboard. It took Milo a moment to realize what was happening—the creature's every movement was playing a wretched dirge on McGonagall's lute strings. At every noise, McGonagall made a sharp movement of her wand, firing a handful of daggers at the source, each marked by a sharp snap as they flew through the air. More flew from the walls, ceilings, and floors near her, creating a steady stream of supersonic blades.
It didn't take long for the monster to cotton on to what was going on. The noise stopped, and Milo's imagination filled in the blanks: the monster (which, in Milo's mind, was a spidery, tentacled abomination like you'd find in the Far Realm, if you were mad enough to go there) was holding itself perfectly still to conceal its location, waiting for its moment.
McGonagall very clearly had no intention of giving it one. Whenever it so much as breathed or twitched, the strings wailed in protest, and there was a satisfying burst of thunderclaps as she attacked the source of the noise.
Curious for a better look, Milo commanded the sensor forwards. It flew unharmed between the daggers and through the flames, ignoring the heat and smoke altogether. It breached the flames, and Milo looked up—
Milo thought for a moment that the monster had eaten the sensor, or perhaps used some sort of darkness spell, and tried commanding it to retreat. It was then that he realized the spell was simply gone. Was it somehow antimagic? Or...
...was the gaze of Slytherin's monster deadly enough to kill a spell?
"Boccob," Milo breathed. Something tickled the back of his mind, something about the cry of the Mandrake...
Milo dismissed the train of thought from his mind. He'd come back to it later, after the encounter. Near him, McGonagall was breathing hard and heavily. The rain of daggers had gone from a rapid staccato to uneven, carefully picked shots. In a sudden flash of insight, Milo realized what was happening. The monster was toying with her, wearing her out. Slytherin's monster was preparing to strike. Milo had to act, fast.
It was time to unleash some asskicking most Arcane.
But to do that, he had to determine what it was—and he was starting to get a pretty good idea. They'd ruled out the idea before because this creature's form of Petrification simply paralyzed people instead of turning them to stone, but the evidence was becoming increasingly conclusive in spite of that. The Parseltongue, the association with Slytherin, the heraldry of the house. Everything pointed to one thing: snakes. Maybe its gaze wasn't turning people to stone, but Milo had long since learned not to rely heavily on preconceptions carried over from his universe.
"I know your name, monster," Milo whispered to himself, drawing a mirror from his Belt. He'd been carrying it around for years, intended to ward off vampires. It was also handy for looking around corners without risking a headshot. But here, Milo thought it would have an even more potent effect. "Arcane Eye," he muttered to himself. Another sensor appeared at Milo's side, this one carefully positioned to avoid looking directly at the fires and the beast that lurked behind. There was only one snake that could kill with a glance, the Queen of Serpents herself. Of course the rumours of her death had been greatly exaggerated. They generally were, in Milo's experience. "Mage Hand." The small steel mirror floated away from his gloved hands, using the sensor to guide it.
The steel mirror crossed the line of fire, blackened by smoke and heat around the edges slightly.
Despite everything, Milo felt himself grinning. It wasn't every day that you got to kill a being of myth and legend with nought but a Cantrip and a pair of Divinations. He held the mirror in the air for a moment, pivoting it around to cover every angle.
"Eat reflective payback, Medusa!" Milo snarled. He dismissed the Mage Hand to follow it up with overwhelming fire and explosions. It was the only way to be sure. The mirror fell to the ground, but Milo didn't realize his error until it had already touched the ground.
The mirror triggered the lute strings. Milo heard McGonagall intake her breath in a hiss, and refocused her attention on an area several yards to the left of where the Medusa lurked, firing off another burst of daggers. It would only take a moment for her to realize the error, but if the monster was quick enough, a moment was all it would need. Still, Milo reminded himself, that left the flames to protect them.
...unless, of course, Slytherin's monster proved willing to get a little singed.
"No!" Milo cried.
Something leapt from beyond the flames. Something scaly and dark. Something almost, but not entirely, unlike a Medusa. Before he could either avert his gaze or get a clear look, he lost connection with his second Arcane Eye. He heard McGonagall let out a sudden, sharp cry of pain, then fall silent. The blindfold around his eyes loosened, no longer glued to his face with magic. Milo pressed his back even further up against the wall, trying to make himself as small as possible, while he listened for the monster. However, even with his familiar-enhanced ears, now that the monster was outside of the string-covered area, he couldn't hear so much as a whisper of scale against scale.
Not that, when it really came down to it, it mattered.
The beautiful thing about magic—well, one of the beautiful things about magic, after the versatility, power, style, and mystique—was how indiscriminate it was. He didn't need to aim.
"Glitterdust!" For once, being blindfolded was something of an advantage, as Milo was not subjected to the blinding light of his own spell. "Evard's Black Tentacles!"
It took Milo a moment to realize that he wasn't yet dead. Had he managed to disable the monster with the tentacles, or was it simply waiting for him to take a peek?
"Detect Thoughts." Milo had no intention of attempting to listen to the creature's dark designs, but at the very least the spell would tell him if it, or any other mind capable of thought, was still nearby.
Aside from Mordy, the spell found no matches. Milo breathed a sigh of relief, sagging to the floor. He was going to live to see level nine. He was going to—
She'd been—should have been—in the spell's area.
Milo tore the blindfold from his face, dismissing the tentacles as he did so.
The Headmistress lay on the floor, mirror clutched in one outstretched arm, the other soaked in blood. She was deathly still.
"Boccob, Fharlanghn and Pelor," Milo cursed, running up to her.
Milo didn't have any actual skill ranks invested in Heal, but with assistance from Mordy and the Healer's Kit he kept on hand, he could get by at some simple tasks. He'd made a point over the last year to do some research on basic human anatomy of the residents of these parts, whose physiology seemed to operate under bizarre and overly complicated and seemingly contradictory rules far inferior to his own streamlined and logical Hit Points system. After all, how did it make sense that two injuries that dealt the same amount of damage would have result in different severities of injury just because one was Bludgeoning and one was Piercing? This universe's blatantly unbalanced favour of edged weaponry was part of what convinced him to pull the Mirror Move trick to become proficient with his sword.
The point was that, thanks to his diligent research, keen perception and instincts, finely honed mind, assistance from a supernaturally intelligent rat as a nurse, and finely crafted first aid kit, Milo was able to hazard a guess that the oozing, swollen, inflamed bite on the Headmistress's blood-soaked wand arm was Very Probably Bad News.
"Can you walk?" he asked her, to no response. He frowned, and checked her pulse. He didn't get one, but wasn't certain if that was because there wasn't one to find, or if he'd failed a check. To see if she was breathing, he reached for the mirror to hold it over her mouth. It wouldn't budge, she was holding on to it so tightly. Words like 'death grip' came to mind, but with effort he dismissed them. Panicking would do neither of them any good at this point.
He gave the injury another look. It didn't seem to be bleeding, which was odd. From what he'd seen of the locals—images of Hannah, bleeding helplessly in the snow flooded his imagination—they tended to bleed like crazy from injuries of this magnitude. To Milo's kind, blood was largely cosmetic. It was a sign that said, depending on one's perspective, 'I'm injured, heal me!' or 'I'm injured, finish me off!' It served to enhance drama and tension. Blood in this world, near as Milo could tell, served a more direct purpose in keeping bodies functioning. Blood loss wasn't a sign of a problem so much as it was the problem.
And McGonagall wasn't losing any. And she wasn't breathing. And she wasn't moving.
Milo could practically hear the copper piece drop. Slytherin's monster—Milo didn't know what it was, but he was now pretty sure that it wasn't a Medusa—had bitten her on the wand arm. Judging by the whole snake-motif-thing and the nature of the wound, it was likely highly venomous. Milo didn't know if that meant it would have killed her in hours or minutes or seconds, but McGonagall had clearly deemed it life-threatening.
So she'd grabbed the mirror, and looked into the reflected image of the monster, Petrifying herself. Petrified people didn't eat, didn't breathe, didn't age, and, Milo was willing to bet, wouldn't succumb to poison or disease.
"Clever," Milo whispered in admiration. I guess you don't get to be the Deputy Headmistress in a world-renowned school of witchcraft and wizardry by collecting bottle caps, he thought to himself. "Levitate." McGonagall floated a few feet off the ground, completely unmoving.
Milo walked behind her to the Hospital Wing, gently pushing her as he went. I spend altogether too much time Levitating people to the Hospital Wing, he reflected. Then he frowned. Reflected.
Why had McGonagall bothered with the mirror? All things considered, it would have been far easier in the time she had available for her to simply look up and meet the gaze of the monster.
He was beginning to get the feeling that they'd been operating under a fundamental misunderstanding of the creature's capabilities.
Hermione had been diligently researching the creature for weeks, without success. Nothing Milo had read in his Scholar's Touch-fuelled-speed-run through the library seemed to match, either. This creature, whatever it was, was powerful enough to kill a spell with a look, was venomous enough that McGonagall, likely the most skilled transfigurer alive, was forced to deliberately send herself into stasis rather than, say, transfiguring the venom inside of her into water.
Perhaps they'd been searching using the wrong criteria. The most prominent feature of Slytherin's monster was that anyone who saw it was Petrified, and both he and Hermione had been searching first for a list of magical creatures with that ability, then trying to determine which of them the monster was.
But what if Slytherin's monster couldn't Petrify with a gaze? If that was all it took, McGonagall wouldn't have bothered with the mirror.
As Milo hurried down the hallway pushing the injured McGonagall, he became increasingly certain that he was right. The Petrification was a distraction. What else do I have to work with? Milo's mind raced. It speaks Parseltongue, so it's either a snake, or it, like me, has certain Polyglot talents. It's venomous, fitting with the whole snake thing, so that's a start. Unfortunately, there were thousands of completely nonmagical venomous snakes Milo could think of, much less magical ones. Venom was kind of what snakes were famous for. Milo glanced at McGonagall's wounded arm. Venom.
Milo threw open the doors to the hospital wing.
"What is the meaning of—" Pomfrey demanded, then froze when she saw McGonagall. "Oh, Minerva," she sighed. "Just, er, float her over to this bed, will you?"
"It bit her," Milo said rapidly. "So don't wake her up before you can figure out what to do about that. Gotta run, bye!"
"Wait, boy!" Pomfrey shouted, but Milo had already broken into a dead sprint to the library.
He might not know what the monster was (yet), but that didn't mean he couldn't find out where it lurked. And Slytherin's monster had given him a way to do just that—but he needed to make some preparations first. He'd learned (the hard way) that, sometimes, rushing in blind and unprepared was the exact opposite of what one did when one desired to survive to be able to cast ninth-level spells.
He was just rounding the last corner when a hill giant threw a boulder at his chest. Milo lost balance and fell painfully to the ground with a curse. A huge, tawny owl Milo had never seen before stood on his chest, a roll of parchment tied to one leg.
"Just what I needed," he muttered. "More complications." Milo untied the roll, looking at it carefully. It was on thick, white, expensive parchment and sealed with green wax bearing an unfamiliar sigil with a familiar name:
DEPARTMENT OF MAGICAL LAW ENFORCEMENT
Underneath, written by hand in similar-coloured emerald ink: