Prologue: The True Curse of Dada
Sally-Anne Perks always was curious about the world around her. Once, her class went on a tour to a paleontological museum. Most kids alternated between being amazed at the enormous skeletons of dinosaurs and being bored at old rocks, but Sally-Anne absorbed all of it, listening intently to the tour guide and asking questions. She forgot most of the answers later, leaving her with only a few scattered factoids. One thing, though, she knew from that day to be true: dead things were cool.
Another day she and her friends went to a pool near their homes. While others were busy playing in the water, Sally-Anne followed a small stream trying to find its source. She got lost then and was found only a few hours later, scared and crying, yet on the next day she returned with her mother, holding a map and a compass to complete her task.
It was no wonder then that she spent all her free time in Hogwarts exploring. The castle, after all, was too fascinating for her to ignore its secrets. Every corridor, every room hid something amazing. Ancient suits of armor moved when nobody was looking, portraits visited each other, taking parts of their paintings with them, changing the environment around their hosts (after watching them for several weeks, Sally-Anne noticed that there was a secret war going on between political factions that were dead for centuries), secret passages were hidden behind statues that were perpetually breaking down but never truly destroyed, a few corpses were hidden with magic inside the walls over the centuries, and their ghosts were all too happy to show her the place of their final rest.
There were countless wonders to discover, and so when an entrance appeared to the side of her as she was heading to an Astronomy lesson, she didn't hesitate to step inside. The wall closed behind her, though there was a small hole on her waist level through which faint light from the corridor was coming. The entrance probably opened when Sally-Anne tapped it as she walked by, she decided. There were two other passages responding to the same trigger. Opening it again could be tricky - a lot of passages required different actions to pass depending on which side of the entrance you were. But she could think about it later. Right now, she had a mystery to uncover.
She quietly conjured a dim light at the tip of her wand and looked around. She was standing on the top of a narrow staircase curving in the beginning of a spiral. Judging by her location, the stairs were probably coiled around the towers, hidden inside its walls.
There was nothing interesting around her, so she descended, the light from the corridor soon disappearing behind her back.
She couldn't tell for how long she was going. Time was hard to measure in that dark confined place, with walls touching her shoulders and the light of her wand blinding her more than helping to see. There was nothing to see, anyway. Just stairs before her and stairs behind, disappearing from her view at equal distances. There were no windows, the walls were bare, lacking even imperfections inherent to man-made work or erosion caused by time and elements. Nothing to see, nothing to hear but her own steps, nothing to smell.
Sally-Anne was starting to question the wisdom of her trip when she finally reached the bottom of the stairs. They ended in a sharp spiral stairwell framing a conical room with a single object in it.
She hurried her steps. It was a long descent, and she already dreaded the trip back, but for now she could ignore those concerns. She smiled, anticipating the taste of a new discovery.
It was a painting cast in a heavy frame and floating in the air. Sally-Anne had to remain on the stairs to see it from a good angle, and the painting was too big to see it all at once in the dim light of the spell. Slowly, Sally-Anne moved her wand from right to left, studying the details and trying to piece them together in her mind.
The painting depicted a grass field under a night sky, with people lying on the ground in a half-circle. Each of their hands were spread, almost touching those of the people to the left and right. Vines coiled around the people, covering them in a plethora of delicate white flowers that had yet to blossom. The shading was weird, as if the scene was not illuminated by the stars or the moon but by some unseen source just outside of the frame, so half of the details were shrouded in deep shadows.
There was something vaguely disturbing about the painting, but Sally-Anne couldn't put her finger on what. It was probably nothing, she thought. Headmaster Dumbledore had warned students to stay away from a certain area under fear of certain death, so it stood to reason that every other area she could get into was safe. He would have warned them otherwise.
She stepped closer to read the name of the painting.
"This Is Not the World," she read aloud, then felt a light breeze on her neck.
She turned away from the painting and saw that she was inside of it, even though the painting itself was still there. She remained calm. It was not the first time something like this had happened to her, although the last time she visited a much more lovely place, a feast thrown by one of the headmasters to impress royal ambassadors. She was welcomed there, and Headmistress Holloway (then Deputy Headmistress, but her other portrait had informed her of her promotion) shared a joke about the King and how the number of his kids didn't match the number of nights he spent away from his wife. She didn't get it but laughed anyway.
Somehow she doubted her experience in this painting would be similar. She finally understood what was so disturbing about it. The people didn't move.
"Do you like it?" a woman's voice asked.
Sally-Anne searched for its source, but it originated outside of the frame of the painting, from the area that didn't exist.
"Who are you?" she asked.
"So few people come here now," the voice said. "And so much work yet remains. But it will change. Snow fell in April this year, an accident resulted in death of exactly thirteen people in seven cars, three pairs of conjoined twins were born and separated in Vladivostok and a unicorn died to curse someone with murder from its blood. The signs are promising."
"What are you talking about?" Sally-Anne said glancing back at the painting. She'd arrived there by speaking its name. Perhaps the way back was the same.
"Don't worry about it," the voice said. "You'll understand soon enough. You have the honor of being my first student in centuries. Well, a part of you. Of that, you can be proud."
The light at the tip of Sally-Anne's wand went out.
"Interesting," a boy who could have been called handsome if half of his face wasn't missing said. There was no blood, no gore and no exposed bone. Half of his face simply wasn't there. He had holes all over his body, and the ones near the ground were dripping ink. Where ink touched the plants, they withered and died in moments. He was seated near Sally-Anne, squeezing her hand.
Sally-Anne was lying among other people in the painting, vines slowly growing through her body, coiling around her organs. She felt no pain, just slowly spreading numbness.
"I think I am dying, Tom," she said calmly.
"Of course you are. I am eating you."
"A rather underwhelming reaction. No fear, no anger, no pleading?" Tom sounded slightly disappointed.
"It's fine. I've been dying for years now. Disappearing bit by bit into the flowers. I think I was scared at first. Now I am not. And... if my death can save another life, that has to count for something, right?"
"Hmmm... Not an attitude I share or understand."
They were silent for a moment.
"Tom?" Sally-Anne called.
"I am here."
"Can you... fulfill my last request? That's how the phrase goes, right?"
"I make no promises... But I may consider it."
"Can you find my parents? Tell them what happened?"
"I can track them down. But while my knowledge of recent events is limited, I am reasonably sure that nobody knows you disappeared. Considering what happened this year, it would have been a natural topic of conversation, and even if there were some kind of cover-up, it's not really something that can be concealed for long. Not without some powerful magic... In other words, chances are good nobody remembers you, your parents included."
"Oh," she said. "Probably for the best, given... everything."
"Then," she said after a long silence, "can you stop it?"
"Stop what's happening to you? Leaving aside that I am part of the reason why you are dying and not inclined to stop, I doubt I could detach you from those plants without killing you anyway."
"No, I mean all of it. The painting and whatever that woman is doing."
"Why do you care?" he asked curiously. "One way or another, you won't be here to see it."
"I want my death to have meaning. I don't know you, but I know enough to tell you have power. My life sustains you now, helps you recover from whatever happened to you. So, in a way, I am responsible for what you will do after I am gone. And I want my last act to be something good. Then... then, I can be content. I think."
"I can't promise you 'good,'" Tom said. "But I can promise you I will do great things. And yes, I do intend to deal with that woman. I suspect she won't look kindly on my intervention here. It appears that Hogwarts is too small for both of us."
"Thank you," she said and smiled.
The smile froze on her face.