Chapter Nineteen: The Grim and the Grave
"Divinations," Milo said, looking at his timetable. He reached onto his shoulder and patted his rat on the head. "Do you see that, Mordy? We have Divinations next. I am going to be so good at this."
Even without his spellbook, Milo still had access to dozens, maybe hundreds, of Wizard Divination spells through his Spontaneous Divinations ability.
All the schedule said was 'top of the North Tower' by way of instructions. He tagged along with Neville and Hannah, who had a good sense of direction in Hogwarts' re-arranging hallways, up to the mysterious North Tower. Though they'd been confident at the outset, they quickly ran into problems.
"I wish they'd given us a map," Neville said, huffing and puffing for breath after their third wrong turn, "or actual directions." They were standing at a T-intersection, totally stumped.
"It's like they want us to be late," Hannah agreed. "This place is impossible to find. I'm starting to doubt the 'North Tower' is actually even on the north end of the castle…"
Milo shrugged. "It's a test," he said, his mind racing. "Divinations is the art of discovering information with magic. This is something your magic and mine actually have in common, based on what I've read. If we can't find the classroom, we're clearly not ready to learn from the top Diviner in the land."
"Oh?" Hannah asked. "How do we know he or she is so good?"
"Dumbledore only hires the best. What Professor McGonagall is to Transfiguration and Gilderoy Poptart was to Defence, this…" he glanced at the timetable, "'Professor Trelawney' will be to Divinations. Trust me. By June, when we'll be using our newfound mastery of Divinations to navigate the halls of Hogwarts with expertise, we'll be struck by the contrast between how hard we find this now and how easy it will be then. In fact, I'd bet copper to gold that the tower moves from week-to-week for that exact reason."
"We'll see," Hannah said skeptically. "I'm not sure you're right more often than a magic eight-ball when it comes to this stuff."
"I should get my hands on one of those, then," Milo said, imagining a powerful crystal ball. "It'd make my job easier. So what do you guys think: right or left?" He was beginning to wish he'd used a ball of string to mark their path. He wasn't one hundred-percent-sure that they hadn't been here before.
"If it helps," Mordy said, sniffing at the air, "From the right, I can smell… chamomile, mint, traces of bergamot, maybe some sandalwood. From the left…" he sniffed again. "…Mr. Filch."
Milo repeated this new information to Hannah and Neville.
"Right it is," Hannah said.
They were the first to arrive at the entrance to the classroom: a trapdoor on the ceiling with no obvious ladder or other means of entrance. A plaque read 'Sybill Trelawney, Divinations teacher.'
"Well, that's clearly it," Hannah mused. "But how do we get in?"
"Child's play," Milo said, reaching into his Belt of Many Things. He gripped his hand on a polished wooden stock and pulled, withdrawing a very complicated device. It resembled a light crossbow, but with a spool of fifty feet of rope attached to it, and a spiked grappling hook in place of a bolt. As an experienced adventurer, scaling walls to reach trapdoors was right up his alley. It could only be better if the trapdoor led to a fifteen-foot square room with an orc guarding a chest.
There were a host of magical ways he could get up to that door, from a simple Levitation spell to creating a steep bridge with Dark Way, but for nostalgia's sake, Milo decided to go with an old classic instead.
Neville had a sense for these sorts of things by this point, and took a few surreptitious steps to his right.
Hannah, on the contrary, lit up like a Will-o-Wisp. "A grapnel gun," she breathed as Milo turned the crank. It was only the work of a moment, despite his frail arms and the massive force stored inside the wood of the weapon. Historically, depending on level of training, strength, and the design of the crossbow, a professional crossbowman could achieve at most one to two shots per minute with such a device. But even the weakest, most novice Commoner child of Milo's world could maintain a rate of sustained fire approximately ten times that, requiring only a Move Action to reload.
Milo pressed the stock to his cheek and took aim at the trapdoor.
"Can I try?" Hannah asked eagerly. It would be simple enough to turn my spare robe into a cape and cowl… she mused. All I'd need then are batarangs.
Milo shrugged and passed the grapple-firing crossbow to her. Neville ducked as the business-end of the weapon swung past his face. "Just point and click," he said. "Couldn't be simpler."
Hannah gingerly took the weapon and aimed.
"Shatter," Milo muttered. The trapdoor exploded into splinters as Hannah fired, and the grappling hook flew through the opening. There was a clink-clink-clink as the hook dragged along the stone floor before anchoring itself on the lip. A particularly viciously-splintery chunk of wood crashed into the ground where Neville had stood but a moment before.
"I'll go up first," Milo said. "If things go wrong, I can heal."
The rope was close enough to the wall that he could sort of 'walk' up the wall using his arms as support, which wasn't exactly fun but got the job done.
When he finally pulled himself through the wreckage of the trapdoor (getting splinters stuck in his robes, to his annoyance) he was greeted with two enormous eyes locked directly at his.
"What did you do to my door!?" the creature shrieked.
Milo recoiled and almost fell, but the creature grabbed him by his collar and yanked him away from the hole.
It was then that he realized that the creature was, in fact, human. The giant eyes were really enormous spectacles worn by one of the strangest people he had ever seen. Her clothes were concealed behind dozens of chains, bangles, rings, and beads, the weight of which nearly caused her slight frame to buckle.
When Milo was put back on the ground, his foot brushed against a silvery rope ladder, which he kicked down the hole behind him. It would be a substantially speedier ascent than on the rope, he reasoned, and the longer he was away from the rest of the party, the more his teeth itched.
A glance down the hole told him that the other students were beginning to assemble down there, looking up in confusion at the splintered trap door. A great 'ahhhhh' of realization rose up from the crowd when they saw Milo's face, now knowing who was responsible.
"Sorry," Milo apologized. "I didn't see any other way up here."
"This simply won't do," the strange woman—Professor Trelawney, presumably—said. "I'll have to get Hagrid to make a new one. It could take days. Five points from…" she eyed Milo up and down. "…Hufflepuff?"
"Slytherin," Milo lied baldly.
"Very well," she said. "Five points from Slytherin, then."
As the other students filed in, Professor Trelawney glided over to a large armchair by the fire. The classroom itself was bizarre, even by Hogwarts standards. Rather than rows of chairs and desks, the room looked like a tavern for high elves. The floorspace was packed with small circular tables, armchairs, and pouffes. The combination of being at one of the highest points in the castle, the crackling fireplace, and the lack of windows or air flow made Milo yearn for the Endure Elements effect of his old robes. The walls were lined with spell components and foci, from candles to feathers to sticks of incense and bone runes—curiously, etched in Dwarven. Milo wondered if, given that Common was identical to this world's English, all of his world's languages had a local equivalent.
"Welcome," Trelawney said as they found seats. "How nice to see you in the physical world at last."
Milo nodded. It made sense; a Diviner who rarely left her tower would still have many ways of observing the goings-on in the castle. She likely would have been a huge help last year in finding Slytherin's Monster, had they only known to ask her. He'd only just sat down before whipping out a stack of paper and a quill and began jotting notes:
-local Divination seems largely equivalent to mine
"Welcome to Divination," Trelawney said. "I am Professor Trelawney. You may not have seen me before. I find that descending too often into the hustle and bustle of the main school clouds my Inner Eye."
-Double-movement and crinoline skirts provide penalties to local Divinations.
Milo frowned, then underlined that last one, and added, "How to exploit?" Which he then circled several times. Could a skeleton hamster constantly double moving in a wheel replicate the 'hustle' effect, thus providing countermeasures against the local Scrying equivalent? Perhaps if the hamster was wearing a miniature bustle…
"So you have chosen to study Divination, the most difficult of all magical arts. I must warn you at the outset that if you do not have the Sight, there is very little I will be able to teach you. Books can only take you so far in this field…"
-Sight=True Sight? Arcane Sight? Darkvision?
Milo frowned as he heard Trelawney talk about books. Based on everything he'd heard Hermione say, in this world, people could learn virtually any skill or ability from a book. The kind of learning Trelawney was talking about—a combination of in-born ability and practical experience—was much closer to how he worked.
-Possible convergence of rules sets?
This he underlined several times as well.
"Many witches and wizards," Trelawney continued, "talented though they are in the area of loud bangs and smells and sudden disappearances, are yet unable to penetrate the veiled mysteries of the future. It is a Gift granted to few."
-Divinations possibly based on different ability score than other magic? Milo noted. He took in Trelawney's outlandish appearance and flamboyant clothing. Addendum: Possibly Charisma-based, he wrote. Milo frowned. Loud bangs, smells, and sudden disappearances pretty much exactly described his modus operandi.
This went on for a bit, with Trelawney proclaiming various vague but foreboding things about people in class before giving them their assignment: drinking tea.
"This is the kind of assignment I could get used to," Hannah said, sipping at the steaming cup and reclining in her armchair.
Milo couldn't help but agree. "Beats Potions," he said.
Once they'd finished the tea, they were to perform a complex maneuver with the teacup—swilling them three times with their left hand, then flipping the cup upside-down to allow the leaves to drain onto their saucer. That done, Milo traded saucers with Hannah and consulted his textbook.
"What do you see?" Hannah asked.
"Uhhh," Milo said, hoping he wasn't going to have to invest precious skill ranks into Profession (Tasseographer) as he looked at the amorphous blob, "could be a shambling mound, a gray ooze, or an otyugh. Hard to say. Oh, this bit here is a down arrow, which means…" he consulted the text book. "'No, Bad, or Wrong Direction.'"
Milo glanced around to check that no-one was watching, then surreptitiously spun Hannah's saucer around. "Nevermind," he said. "Make that an up arrow, for 'Yes, Good, or Right Direction.' So that's some good news. Do you see anything in mine?"
"Looks kind of like an eight-pointed star," Hannah said. "Like two squares overlapped at a right angle. It would have been perfect, except one of the points is a weird blob."
"Can I see?" Milo asked, peering over at his own vision. Hannah was right—the tea leaves did form a surprisingly regular eight-pointed star, except for one point, which was deformed. Milo wondered if he'd slipped slightly flipping the teacup and messed up his fortune. "What's the book say that means?"
"Well…" she scanned the book. "There's the eight-pointed star of chaos, but that's more like a wheel with pointy bits coming out, and much less geometric."
"That's a relief," Milo said. "So it's nothing then? That was always a possibility. Trelawney said without the Sight that—"
"I think it's a copper's badge," Hannah said suddenly.
"Where's that?" Milo flipped through the book looking for the symbol.
"It's not in there," she said. "Look—seven points, but the top point is the crown."
"How can you tell it's copper?" Milo asked. "Everything's tea-coloured."
"No, uh…" Hannah thought for a moment. "Copper as in police. A guard," she clarified. "Like the Muggle woman at the train station that also arrested you at Harry's place."
"Iiiinteresting," Milo said slowly. "She seemed like a dead end to me."
"Maybe it's saying you should reach out to her?" Hannah asked. "Though it just as easily could be a warning. Maybe we should ask the professor."
As if on cue, Trelawney cried out from across the room. "The Grim, my dear, the Grim! The giant, spectral dog that haunts churchyards! My dear boy, it is an omen—the worst omen—of death!"
Milo whirled around to see what was going on. Harry, Ron, and Hermione were sitting together on a table on the far side of the room. Harry looked pale, and all eyes in the class were on him.
Milo frowned, deep in thought. Other students rushed over to examine Harry's tea leaves and examine the Grim for themselves, but Milo sat very still.
An omen of death. What could that possibly mean? As a rule, Milo was very, very cautious around predictions of the future. Magic, especially Divinations, could be a very reliable source of information about the present, and occasionally even the past, but the future?
Milo wasn't going to rule it out, but it brought up a bunch of very tricky questions around free will and self-fulfilment. For instance, say Harry was foretold to slip in mud on Tuesday but, knowing the prophecy, chose to stay indoors, then how could the prophecy have foretold that he would do so, and so on. Those kinds of conundrums Milo had seen analyzed to death even in fiction from his world. The most popular genre of such fiction was pure fantasy, that is, fiction that speculated a world without a DM (Deterministic Meddler).
Was this 'Grim' a sign of the DM showing its hand? Its intent to railroad? Milo shuddered at the thought.
In the example earlier—that Harry had seen an omen to slip in mud on Tuesday—the DM could simply force Harry to go outdoors. This could be anywhere from subtle ('the fastest way to your next classroom is through the courtyard…') to overt ('you have a vision informing you that if you don't go outside right now you'll die and the universe will end.').
The way Milo saw it, there were four possible interpretations for Harry's tea leaves:
The first: Professor Trelawney, a Hogwarts professor who is therefore held to the same standards as the likes of Professors Snape and McGonagall, had made an error.
The second: The DM was announcing its intention to railroad Harry on a path towards death. The omen didn't specify that it would be Harry who would die, necessarily, but still, few interpretations of the omen could be considered good. This was the worst-case scenario: if the DM would strip away Harry's free will like that, then it stood to reason that the DM would intervene and railroad on anything that went against its plan, and therefore this whole exercise was pointless and Milo could have stayed home in Myra (Cityoflight!Cityofmagic!), and doing so would have made no difference.
The third: Everyone was reading way too much into this omen. Perhaps, rather than literally revealing the truth of the future, the tea-leaf-reading-exercise was more of a nudge. Maybe a die was rolled against a table to reveal your fortune (in which case, a natural '1' was certainly this 'Grim'), and, depending on your roll, you got a bonus or penalty to a relevant die roll for a few days or some such. In this example, a vision of 'death' would probably result in a penalty to Fortitude saves, or possibly any saving throw against a death effect. The details were pure conjecture, but it was somewhat similar to, for example, the Cleric spell Omen of Peril—also, on the subject, a Divination spell.
The fourth: rather than an omen at all, the tea leaves were providing clues to the plot. In this case, if Hannah's interpretation were correct, Milo ought to speak to that Muggle woman again, and Harry ought to look out for large dogs—on that subject, there was only one large dog that Milo had seen recently, and that was the Animagus-form of Sirius Black.
Milo ruled the first option right out; he couldn't imagine Snape messing up a potion or McGonagall a transfiguration. The second option he had no choice but to dismiss; regardless of its truth, there would be absolutely nothing he could do about it. In the case of the third option, there wasn't a whole lot Milo could or should do beyond keep a close eye on Harry for a couple of days. But in the fourth, there was clear action to take.
The only problem was that little idea who or where that woman was, and therefore, very limited opportunity to follow up on the clue.
Milo looked up. The classroom was empty save for himself and Trelawney, who was staring at him expectantly.
"Oh," Milo said, standing up. "Sorry." He hurried down the silver ladder (reclaiming his grappling hook and rope as he did so) and hurried to catch up with the other students, who were heading to the Great Hall for lunch.
Fiona slipped through the crowds of Diagon Alley. She wore a ratty black hooded bathrobe from the Salvation Army over her borrowed clothes with the hood pulled up over her face. She'd lost her cane and old disguise when Malfoy burned down her flat, but was just able to manage a slow hobble without its aid. Travis' car was parked in a garage nearby; finding parking near Diagon Alley was surprisingly easy as wizards, it seemed, seldom bothered with Muggle means of transportation. She kept her face and eyes low, trying to avoid a repeat of the last time she was here, which seemed so very long ago now.
Eventually she made her way to the owl post office and slipped inside. She placed a knut and an envelope on the filthy table and left. She hobbled back through the crowded alley, the brick gateway, and the pub, and let out an explosive breath when she was back on the busy streets of London. She was shaking again.
Get a GRIP, Fiona, she scolded herself. She wondered, for a moment, if maybe skipping out on mandatory counselling hadn't been her wisest choice. She dismissed the notion and instead made for her borrowed car. She had a long way to go before she could rest.
Her response came when she was stuck in traffic caused by roadwork on a highway, based on the tourist bus that she was stuck in front of, just south of Hadrian's Wall. An owl landed on the hood of her car and pecked rapidly on the glass.
"Okay, okay," she eased, rolling down the driver-side window. The owl flew through the window and landed on the dash, sticking one leg out obediently. There was a piece of paper tied around its leg, which was something she'd never get used to.
Seeing as how the highway was virtually a parking lot anyway at this point, she figured she'd make the most of her time and read the letter on the spot.
The response was what she'd hoped for, which was a relief.
Unless it was a trap.
Fiona drummed her fingers on the steering wheel. Of late, everything had started to look like a trap.
It's not paranoia if there really are memory-erasing wizards out to get you, she reminded herself. Probably. She was sure her counsellor would have had something to say about that.
A long, angry honk told Fiona that traffic had begun to move. She reached a hand out the open window, flipped off the car behind her, then used a blue Bic crystal pen to write a hurried response on the back of the parchment (idly wondering if she was the first person ever to do something so anachronistic) and tied it back on the owl's leg. The owl bit her finger lightly, and Fiona remembered what she'd forgotten, and gave the bird a knut.
Seemingly satisfied, the owl took off through the window once more. Fiona hit the gas and the car lurched into motion, heading north.
The city, at least this part of it, was primarily dark, gothic stone that had been stained unevenly black from coal soot over the centuries. The taller and older the building, the more it looked like it had survived a terrible fire. Only these soot-blackened spires were visible through the thin fog from this height.
Milo wondered if it had been built originally by dwarves. Most of the buildings were made out of chiselled sandstone, and the enormous, sheer hills that rose out of the streets had a very 'mountain home' sort of vibe, though the stained black gothic stonework screamed 'don't forget your garlic and holy symbols.'
"Over there, I think," Milo said, pointing at the tall steeple of a temple to some local deity. He and Hannah were floating high above the city on her broomstick, concealed in their black robes against the night sky. The letter had asked him to come alone, but since the Dementor had taken away his ability to Teleport, he needed a ride. Enclosed in the letter had been an extraordinarily detailed painting of the place they were to meet—it was a like a coloured, non-moving image from the Daily Prophet—with the message written on the back. Hannah called it a 'postcard.'
The temple was surrounded by a huge graveyard; the grave markers were blackened sandstone like the buildings were. Several had crumbled over the centuries; the caretakers, were there any, were apparently content to leave them where they fell. Hannah dropped them gracefully behind a particularly grand one whose writing had long since worn away.
Milo loved graveyards. There was absolutely zero way this meeting was going to end without him mowing down hordes and hordes of skeletons, and he relished the XP that would provide. If he played his cards right, he might even be able to Teleport them back home.
"She doesn't know you're going to be here," Milo said, "So you should try to lurk nearby. Be the ace in the hole in case something happens."
"I'm fine being an ace," Hannah said, "but do I have to be in a hole? It's cold and damp out."
A light flicked on, almost blinding Milo in the darkness. It didn't flicker like torchlight, but was steady and clear, and therefore almost certainly magical in nature.
Holding the light in one hand was the Muggle woman that had arrested him over a year ago, and who he had seen in the train station earlier in September. She leaned heavily against a crumbling tombstone with her other hand. Her bloodshot eyes were weighed down with heavy bags, and her greasy hair was pulled into a clumsy bun.
This was a woman on the brink, Milo was certain, though the brink of what was less clear.
"I said come alone," she muttered. "Didn't think you would though. Your kind always flaunts the rules." She narrowed her eyes and her tone became sharp and commanding. "Keep your hands where I can see them. Drop the broomstick."
Milo shrugged and complied. He nudged Hannah to get her to as well.
"Hold up," she said, carefully leaning her broomstick against a grave marker. "I don't want it to get all muddy and wet. We're riding home on this, remember."
Milo sighed. At times, Hannah could have very little flair for the dramatic.
"Who are you?" Milo asked. "Why did you reach out to me?"
The woman's eyes flicked around the graveyard. "Not here," she said, almost as if to herself. "They've known about this location for hours. Keep them on their toes. Don't let them prepare. Who knows what shit they've got hidden out here." She spoke up again, clearly addressing Milo and Hannah. "Come with me," she said. "It's not far."
"Erm," Hannah interjected. "Can I bring my Cleansweep Seven? My parents bought it for my birthday; I don't want to lose it."
The woman blinked twice, then nodded, slowly leading them out of the graveyard. She moved from tombstone to tombstone, taking limping, uneven steps in-between. Frankly, it was painful to watch.
Wordlessly, Milo withdrew his quarterstaff from his Belt of Hidden Pouches and passed it to her. She looked at him suspiciously, but accepted the staff. After that, they made much better time as she leaned heavily on the darkwood shaft.
Milo flinched as they entered the street. Bright lights illuminated the foggy city, and a Muggle self-propelled car the size of the legendary Tarrasque barreled past him at unearthly speeds. Another car, this one small and Slaad-red, zoomed after it.
"Boccob!" Milo cursed, pressing himself flat against the wall as far from the street as he could manage. He broke into a cold sweat thinking about the damage an object moving that fast would do to his feeble d4-hit die spellcaster frame.
The woman ignored him and pressed on, but Hannah moved to his other side.
"I'll stay between you and the traffic," she said. "I guess it can seem pretty intense compared to a horse-and-buggy, huh? If you stay on this raised area, you'll be fine."
Milo nodded mutely, and tried to look anywhere other than towards the street as he followed the Muggle woman.
"Thanks," he said quietly. He was mortified at this display of weakness in front of the Muggle.
He'd just got the hang of walking along-side traffic when the woman evidently decided to succumb to latent suicidal urges and boldly walked straight into the street. Their island of raised concrete had run out.
To his horror, Hannah followed the woman, seemingly without a second thought.
Milo froze at the edge of the raised concrete perimeter to the street. There weren't any cars coming in his direction right now, but he could barely conceive of their speed as it was and visibility was poor. It would only be the work of a moment for another behemoth to barrel around the corner, and all that would be left of Milo would be a hefty chunk of XP for the driver.
Hannah was halfway across the street when, as if just to further raise Milo's anxiety, she stopped and turned around to look at him.
"Come on," she said, standing perfectly still right in the path of the gargantuan hyper-fast death machines.
Milo simply shook his head mutely. This was madness. Fighting monsters was one thing—there was always a chance of victory—but this was psychotic.
Hannah held out her hand. "Trust me," she said. "It's perfectly safe. The lights direct traffic to wait while we cross."
Milo swallowed. He didn't trust any magical lights directing him where to go (never trust something if you don't know where it keeps its brain), but he did trust Hannah…
Milo broke into a run across the street, figuring that if he was going to risk death, he may as well risk it for as brief a time as possible. Hannah grabbed his hand midway through his sprint and pulled him to the alleged safety of the raised concrete.
"Jesus Christ," the Muggle woman muttered. "You've got to be kidding me. We're just going two more blocks. Are you going to make it?"
Milo nodded, well aware of the irony of a woman with a leg injury asking him if he'd make it to their mysterious destination.
The next two streets were Hell itself, but eventually they reached a small café that, based on the sign outside, would barely be open for another hour.
"Here we are," the woman said. The entrance area resembled a miniature gift shop of sorts, selling toys and more Muggle "postcards," most of them elephant-themed.
"I think it'll be safe to talk here," the woman said. "No shadowy nooks, no hidden corners. Lots of witnesses." She nodded at the café staff who, even at this hour, were working through a long line of customers. "They also make a mean Earl Grey." She held out her hand to Milo and forced a smile. "I'm Fiona Smythe," she said, "Surrey Police." She hesitated. "Probably former Surrey Police. I haven't been able to check the post in a few days, but I'm sure the news wouldn't be good if I did. We met the other day at King's Cross."
Milo shook her hand. "Milo Amastacia-Liadon," he said. "But we've met before then."
Fiona gave her head a small shake. "So they tell me. Grab a seat, I'll get you two some hot cocoa. I suspect we have a lot to talk about."