Pyrrha had killed her sister.
The thought screamed through her burning head over and over as she soared through the storm on Ashlin's broom.
She's dead. She's dead. I killed her.
A sudden downdraft nearly sent her crashing into the shadowed forest rushing by below; she yanked the broom upward with numb fingers and leveled out again. Wailing wind clawed at every sodden inch of her and lanced under her bones like driven splinters of ice. She didn't dare release her grip on the broom to repel the elements, petrified at the thought of falling.
The voice in her ear was impossible.
Pyrrha chanced a glance behind her, and lightning flashed, illuminating a cloud of black wings closer than before. Thunder boomed and darkness reclaimed the skies, pierced a thousand times by the shining yellow eyes of the murder, sinister spots of light like a malevolent swarm of fireflies. On the horizon behind them glowed a writhing pinprick of orange; the flaming remnants of Pyrrha's home.
She could hear them now, over the rumbling sky and pounding rain: a cacophony of hoarse cawing, calling for her blood to wet their beaks. Adrenaline coursed through her as she leaned further forward, nearly flat against the broom, willing it to go faster. Pyrrha was rigid with numb terror, but there was no choice; she had to break the jinx and apparate.
The roaring storm tossed her about like a child's doll as she released her right hand's white-knuckled grip on the broom handle. Her stiff limbs worked in her favor, keeping her seated as she withdrew her wand. At a gesture the wind and rain parted around her, and flying came easier, the shrill howling in her ears abruptly muffled. Pyrrha took a deep breath, and regretted it. Blood and burning flesh flooded her senses.
She turned her wand on herself, redoubling her firm grip on the broom handle, and said, "Finite." She felt nothing; the jinx held.
"Did you really think something so simple would work?"
The cawing grew louder every second. Yellow flashed below, and Pyrrha looked beneath her to see dozens more sets of shining eyes moving silently through the brush. When her eyes met theirs they abandoned all pretense of stealth, unleashing chilling howls and guttural roars; there were bears and wolves and untold other creatures, baring savage fangs that caught the moonlight. They matched her speed, weaving between the foliage with preternatural awareness, never once looking anywhere but directly up at her, waiting for her to slip.
Pyrrha swore and began casting, moving her wand steadily in a series of complex movements in harmony with a mental litany of counterjinxes. A new sound brought a fresh stab of fright; under the storm, under the coarse calls of the crows, was a nearby flutter of flapping wings, carrying with them the sickly smell of decay. The mad cawing echoed in Pyrrha's skull, and she botched a wand movement. She cursed and started over.
They were too close; throaty cawing and guttural roars sounded from all around her, a gruesome clamor of frenzied beasts. Pyrrha's heart thundered as she performed spell after spell, soaring blindly through the dense downpour, through inky darkness deep and black as the depths of the sea. Laughter rang in her ears. The smell of rot was almost overpowering, as if she sat in a mass grave of the plagued. Lightning ripped the sky ahead and burned jagged lines into her vision.
Pyrrha finished another incantation, and the subtle inward pressure on her body vanished. The last thing she heard before disapparating was the sharp click of a beak snapping shut inches from the back of her neck.
She reappeared under a clear black sky in a forest clearing far away, and found she was missing a leg. She toppled to the ground with a grunt.
Her left leg was torn away from mid-thigh downward; the stump bled freely. Her breathing came in quick, ragged gasps as she fought the pain and ran her wand over the wound, stanching the bleeding, sealing the flesh together.
Pyrrha rifled through the pouch in her robes, withdrawing a Blood-Replenishing Potion and a large, ornate silver hand mirror. The bitter potion stung her throat, and she cast the mirror aside for the moment. She summoned Ashlin's Nimbus 3000 from where it had rolled away and stowed it in her pouch.
Her wand became a blur as she flicked and twirled her wrist, wrapping the clearing in several defensive charms from where she sat in the bloody grass.
"It won't help. She'll find you."
Pyrrha whipped her head back and around, but there was no one in sight. That didn't mean they weren't there.
Homenum Revelio! she thought with a sweep of her wand. The charm emanated outward and revealed no one—no one human.
The witch wasn't the only threat. Belua Revelio! All around, sparks of life in a range of sizes made themselves known. They shined briefly as tiny, twinkling stars imposed over Pyrrha's vision, then winked out of existence together. Too many to count; not unexpected in the middle of a forest. Most beasts, magical or not, posed little danger to Pyrrha . . . until tonight. They had proven themselves tenacious pursuers under Morrigan's thrall.
Pyrrha directed her wand at the nearest tree. The dark trunk warped under her direction, separating a large chunk of wood. The wood shifted under her wand, and she formed a perfect replica of her splinched leg, complete with a matching low-heeled boot. She guided the substitute into place and melded wood to flesh with an itchy, tingling sensation at the divide. Running her wand down the limb, she wove charms into the grain; it seemed to shine dimly from within.
She leaned back and tested the limits of her new appendage, allowing herself a moment of pride at the way the wooden knee bent and the ankle rolled at her will. She could have regenerated the limb, of course, but the telltale ache in her heart cautioned otherwise; she would have to be judicious with her strength until she could heal.
The lack of sensation from her makeshift leg was disconcerting as she staggered to her feet. The forest loomed inward from all sides, shadows upon shadows between the trees. Shrill chirping and buzzing of insects sounded over a soft breeze, which carried pleasant, earthy smells. The moonlit glade appeared the same as Pyrrha remembered; a relatively small patch of grass, dirt, and stones, unremarkable but for its perfectly circular shape, and the fact that Pyrrha had created it.
She flicked her wand, and from its tip sprang hundreds of tiny lights which scattered in all directions until they blanketed the dusky clearing like a star-strewn nebula, bathing the area in an ethereal blue-white glow. With an elegant series of waves and whirls she bent the trees and their boughs, shifting their trunks until they lay across each other all around the clearing, forming a flowing, circular wall. The branches extended and wove tightly into each other overhead, becoming a thick, latticed canopy. With a sweeping gesture, she turned the entire domelike structure to gleaming steel.
That would have to do for the moment, she thought. There was no telling when Morrigan would find her again. She needed Wasila's help.
Pyrrha wiped sweat from her brow with a forearm and hissed in pain when she brushed the burn. The last of her adrenaline fled her, and the throbbing steadily intensified. She picked up her hand mirror and examined her face.
Her coal-black eyes were pinched with pain; a gruesome burn emanated from a spot below her right temple, the flesh charred black in the center, blooming outward in violent shades of red and purple. The burn covered the upper half of the side of her head, with dark purple tendrils creeping across her cheek and forehead. Every inch of it throbbed, and it felt like a white-hot brand pressed against her skull even now. Her right eye was bloodshot, but otherwise, luckily, unimpaired.
Pyrrha gritted her teeth at the pain and turned her wand to the mirror with a sharp tap. "The Lodge."
Her reflection shimmered, then went black before resolving into a familiar room; the Lodge's common hall, where the Cabal gathered to trade favors and knowledge. The room was dominated by a circular ebony table surrounded by seven high-backed chairs of fine red velvet. Luminescent fungi of various sizes and shades of gold sprouted from the dark walls and ceiling, casting an otherworldly glow over the many cluttered shelves and tables set against the walls. A fire crackled merrily beyond the meeting table, burning within a grand fireplace that could fit three abreast.
Aradia Tavani stood hunched over a desk laden with flowing rolls of parchment, quill twirling between her fingers as she frowned at a weathered old book. Her dark hair, streaked with grey, was pulled into its customary tight bun, revealing the lined olive skin of her face.
"Aradia!" Pyrrha called out.
Aradia turned sharply in a whirl of elegant vermilion robes. "Pyrrha. You startled me . . ." Her low voice had a subtle Italian lilt. She approached the mirror. "What business merits . . . ?" She trailed off as she caught sight of Pyrrha's scar, eyes widening almost imperceptibly.
"My apologies for interrupting your studies. Is Wasila about?" Pyrrha asked in what she hoped was an even tone.
Aradia ignored her. "You've been injured. Cursed." Her eyes narrowed as they met Pyrrha's. "How?"
Pyrrha kept her expression carefully neutral. "A duel. How else?" This wouldn't satisfy Aradia, she knew. "I was investigating rumors of an unexplored system of catacombs in Paris, magically concealed. Someone didn't take kindly to my curiosity," Pyrrha lied, trying for an untroubled look. "I sorted them out."
"Indeed?" Aradia said, tone laced with suspicion. "I've never known anyone to get the better of you in a duel. They must have been truly remarkable."
"They were," Pyrrha said simply. Something snapped in the distant woods, and Pyrrha glanced away from the mirror, but she couldn't see past her steel barrier. She fought down the dread rising in her chest and turned back to Aradia, straining to keep her voice placid. "If you could fetch Wasila for me, I would be grateful."
Aradia gave her a knowing look. "Do you require her in particular? Perhaps I can be of assistance."
"Thank you, but I do need her, yes." Wasila was the only one of the Cabal to vote with her, and therefore the only one Pyrrha could hope to persuade into aiding her under the table.
"How curious. Why?"
Pyrrha was running out of patience. Morrigan could arrive at any moment. "Because she's—she's uniquely qualified, now will you retrieve her, please?"
"I won't." Aradia's voice was hard. "I think you're lying to me." She leaned forward intently, searching Pyrrha's face. "You released Morrigan."
Aradia found what she sought. "You did." She shook her head slowly, sorrowfully. "Foolish. We concurred lifting the curse was beyond our capabilities. What on earth possessed you to attempt it alone?"
"I . . ." Pyrrha wanted to fling the mirror away; her ineptitude at lying had just cost her. "I couldn't just let it lie—just leave her there, biding her time. Something had to be done."
"That is neither here nor there. If the legends have any merit whatsoever, Morrigan is far too dangerous for a lone witch to engage with, regardless how skilled she thinks herself."
"'Too dangerous' is a craven's evasion. It's unacceptable."
"I am no coward, Pyrrha." Aradia's shoulders seemed to bear invisible weight. "I simply have more vital concerns, as you are aware. More vital concerns, and a thorough understanding of my own limitations . . . Now," she said, "tell me what you've done."
"I meant to accomplish what we discussed; I attempted to put Morrigan to rest, to release her from . . ." Pyrrha clutched at her skull as it throbbed like a smouldering heartbeat. "Instead, she overpowered me, fought back, and I couldn't—couldn't beat her . . . I fled. She tracked me somehow, and I led—led her straight to my . . ." Pyrrha bowed her head, a sharp ache blooming in her chest.
Her sister was gone.
Aradia sighed, looking somber. "I am truly sorry, Pyrrha, but you know what must happen now. You've defied the will of the Cabal, acted against the vote . . . and unleashed a horror on the world."
"Wasila . . . she voted in my favor," Pyrrha said with a hint of desperation. "With her help, perhaps—perhaps I can—"
"No," Aradia said firmly. "I will not allow you to endanger our lives as you have your own. Pyrrha Clay," she said, straightening up and clasping her bony hands together, "you are hereby excommunicated from the Cabal of the Hebdomad. You are marked for death; such is the way our secrets remain so."
"You're making a mistake," Pyrrha said, gripping the mirror so tightly her hand hurt. "If we don't stop her, who else—who else will?"
Aradia drew her wand and aimed it at the mirror, her expression carved from stone. "Goodbye, Pyrrha."
Fury and panic coursed through Pyrrha, and she gave Aradia the most hateful look she could muster. "You'll regret this," she whispered. "Your son—"
The mirror cracked down the middle, and the sharp sound rang out unnaturally in the clearing, an echoing noise of finality. Aradia and the Lodge faded from view until Pyrrha stared at her own stricken reflection. She hurled the mirror away with a shout, shattering it against the steel wall. The shards littering the grass reflected all she had left in the world, her own broken self, and it wasn't enough. She'd never been enough.
"You handled that quite poorly."
Pyrrha's heart skipped, and she spun about to see Ashlin standing there, looking at her with a scornful turn of her mouth. Her bright blue eyes carried an unfamiliar coldness.
Breath abandoned Pyrrha like she'd been struck in the gut by a speeding bludger. Her heart hammered erratically, and her vision began to swim with tears as elation, guilt, and terror overcame her like a tidal wave. She took a few halting steps forward, her arm halfway outstretched. "A-Ashlin? Is . . . how . . . ?"
Ashlin raised a contemptuous eyebrow. "Will you be finishing these questions, or should I start guessing?"
Pyrrha drew her wand with a trembling hand and began casting, mumbling incantations shakily under her breath. Her fear was confirmed, and it pierced her like a shard of ice in the heart. There was nothing there . . . but she could see Ashlin standing before her, as real as anything. Her hair—long and auburn, like Pyrrha's—even stirred in the breeze.
"Y-you're—you're a hallucination," Pyrrha said faintly.
"You're—you're—you're—" Ashlin mocked. "Of course I am, imbecile." Her voice dripped with loathing. "You watched me die, didn't you? Have you forgotten already?"
"No," Pyrrha whispered. Every detail of that moment was seared indelibly into her memory, and would remain so for the rest of her life.
"Good," Ashlin said. She vanished from sight and reappeared inches from Pyrrha's face. Wintry blue eyes filled her vision. "Never forget what you've done to me." Hearing her sister's voice channel such raw malevolence was beyond unsettling.
"You're not Ashlin." Pyrrha took a shuddering breath and closed her eyes. She concentrated on taking deep, steady breaths, attempting to quell the storm in her head—
"No! How dare you try to shut me out!"
Pyrrha gasped as her cursed burn pulsed with agony, pain so potent she collapsed into a heap in the dirt. It felt like someone was bashing her exposed brain with a blazing fire poker, like molten metal pouring into her eyes. Something was clawing at her head. Seconds passed like hours as she writhed and screamed and cursed and babbled until, gradually, the pain receded, settling back into a more tolerable, but still excruciating rhythmic throbbing.
Panting roughly, Pyrrha opened her eyes to see her sister smiling down at her. "You won't ever try that again, will you?" Ashlin crooned, reaching down with a pale hand. Pyrrha felt icy fingers against her forehead.
She scrambled backwards across the dirt, her limbs like jelly. Her nails were wet with her own blood.
Ashlin's derisive laughter was just as incongruous as the rest of her malicious behavior. The hateful sound coming from her sister's mouth made Pyrrha's heart crack.
"You . . ." Pyrrha began hoarsely. What the hell was she?
A sound caught Pyrrha's ear, and Ashlin cocked her head at the same time. A chorus of howling wolves pierced the relative quiet of the night. As Pyrrha looked up through the steel canopy, she saw that the sky had begun to lighten, the stars dimming. It was approaching dawn. Whatever was happening to her had to wait. She had to get moving.
She stood and waved her wand down herself, cleansing her robes of dirt and blood. She gestured at her face, sealing the furrows she had carved there. Her robes had ripped where she splinched; a casual flick saw them restored. She found north with the Point Me Spell and oriented herself in the correct direction, then paused, considering placing a rebirth mark inside her makeshift shelter.
"Yes, brilliant idea," came Ashlin's voice from behind her. "Return to the middle of the forest, where Morrigan's beasts will surround you. A flawless plan, that."
Pyrrha shook her throbbing head and raised her wand, bending away the steel trees in front of her, and she walked awkwardly through the gap, familiarizing herself with her wooden leg. After glancing back at her metal dome one last time, she flicked her wand again and her wooden limb became steel, no heavier than before.
"It's a nice bit of spellwork." Ashlin was suddenly there, ambling through the brush beside her. "I'm surprised you didn't muck it up."
Pyrrha remained silent, picking her way over thick roots with care. She cast out with her wand, sending a ring of pale light outward all around, hovering above her head like a giant halo. Insubstantial, it passed through trunks and branches as it drifted overhead. The first steps of her hike progressed without incident, but she braced herself for the distance to come; her path was long, chosen in a split-second, but free of the risk of collateral damage.
The scents of the forest seemed to cleanse her lungs. Among the saturated earth and decaying leaves, she thought she could detect a hint of something flowery in the air. Less pleasantly, the metallic smell of her blood still clung to her robes. She had neglected to disperse the smell quite on purpose; she hoped the wolves would find her.
The wolf pack of the Forbidden Forest was unique; the result of a moonlit union between transformed werewolves, they were of a kind with normal wolves, yet distinguishable by their superior intelligence and beauty. These wolves were familiar with Pyrrha and, more importantly, the Forbidden Forest; with luck, they would help expedite her trek through the woods.
"Yes, you're so very clever. Don't break your arm patting yourself on the back," Ashlin said. She stared unnervingly at Pyrrha, never checking her footing on the uneven forest floor. Ashlin scoffed. "Idiot, there's no footing to check. I'm a bloody delusion—this whole physical form business is for your benefit."
Pyrrha looked askance at her, not bothering to conceal her worry. This figment masquerading as her sister had unrestricted access to her surface thoughts, and the ability to cause her immense pain whenever it pleased, not to mention the thing's vindictive temperament. It was nothing like her sister—kind, playful, forgiving Ashlin, who looked at Pyrrha as if she could do no wrong even as she was abandoned. Pyrrha had had experiments to conduct, theories to chase, progress to make, and Ashlin had been left to summers in an empty house. And in the end, Pyrrha's advancements had counted for precisely nothing. Her incapacity had cost her sister's life. Sickening guilt-laden misery crawled through Pyrrha's insides to rest on her heart.
"I am your sister." Ashlin broke into Pyrrha's black musings, grinning venomously. The burn pulsed. "I'm the sister you deserve. Yes," she said softly, "you'll be making things up to me for a long time to come."
An involuntary chill swept over Pyrrha as she studiously ignored the specter, gaze fixed on the foliage ahead. They covered ground in silence for a while, to the tune of the melodic chirps and trills of unseen birds somewhere high in the towering trees. Dawn began to break, and Pyrrha let her light spell fade as the sun's rays started to spill through the leaves. She cursed softly as her ersatz leg caught another knotted root.
"Why not take my broom and fly?" Ashlin asked with a smirk.
Pyrrha sighed. "I'm useless on a broom. Weaving between these trees would . . . would take me at least twice as long as walking."
"So fly above the trees." Ashlin's tone conveyed an implicit you idiot at the end.
Pyrrha's heart lurched at the idea as she shook her head. "I'd be that much easier for Morrigan to spot."
Ashlin snorted. "And you think she relies on sight to find you?"
"I don't know. It doesn't matter; I'm making good time."
Ashlin chuckled, shooting Pyrrha a dark look. "Your estimations don't tend to pan out, though, do they?"
Pyrrha's heart and head throbbed in agonizing unison. She'd apparated straight to the house and told Ashlin to gather her possessions; she hadn't imagined it possible the witch would find them so quickly . . . if she'd moved Ashlin right away, then perhaps . . . Pyrrha's head pulsed again.
"We'll never know, will we?" Ashlin said. She smiled icily at Pyrrha, a baleful look in her eyes. "Why don't you tell me the real reason you won't fly?"
Pyrrha had a feeling Ashlin already knew. She kept her mouth firmly shut until pain lanced through her head, and she bent double, clutching at her scalp. "A-alright!" she said. "I'm—I'm afraid to fly!"
"You're afraid of heights," Ashlin corrected with a fiendish smile. "Rather stupid of you. What danger do heights pose to a witch, even incompetent as you are?"
"Fear isn't rational," Pyrrha ground out, rubbing her head.
"Shut it. Hear that?" Ashlin stopped pretending to walk and tilted her head. "Scuttling. An acromantula—a large one."
Pyrrha flicked her wand and found its location precisely, a distance away to her left, quickly approaching. Unconcerned, she surveyed the remainder of the surrounding forest, looking for loose clusters of life that could denote a wolf pack, but saw nothing in that vein. It was disappointing; the wolves were truly remarkable to witness.
"You'll be seeing them soon enough, I expect," Ashlin said. "With shiny new peepers." She laughed delightedly at Pyrrha's horrified expression.
The acromantula burst through the undergrowth in a flurry of limbs, pincers clicking ominously. It was twice the size of a muggle car, and much more repulsive; venom dripped from fangs the length of Pyrrha's forearm, and eight beady black eyes secured her in a hungry stare. Its spindly, furry legs stood taller than she did.
Pyrrha met the massive spider's gaze, struck by sudden inspiration. "Take me to your colony," she called out, "and I won't hurt you."
The acromantula made an outraged chittering sound and bore down on her, legs scuttling with a speed deceptive for their size; Pyrrha raised her wand, the picture of tranquility. The tip flashed a deep red.
The monster collapsed and flew into a fit of spasms; its legs flailed about in a blur as it writhed in agony, massive thorax kicking up clods of dirt in every direction. Tortured hissing escaped its disgusting maw, high and shrill. Pyrrha held the curse a little longer as it bucked and thrashed pitifully, then lowered her wand.
The acromantula twitched and seized, wracked with residual pain. Caked with dirt, its formidable body heaved as it drew quick breaths, emitting a series of odd, hissing wheezes. Gingerly, it rolled over and propped itself up on trembling legs.
Pyrrha leveled it with an even look. "Will you take me to your colony, or must I hurt you again?"
The beast shuddered. "I take . . . I take," it said with a voice like a knife against stone.
"Smart of you," Pyrrha said. "Remain still; I'm going to climb onto your back. If you attempt to bite me or throw me off, your death will come as slowly as the seasons turn. Do you understand?"
"Yes," the monster said. The monosyllabic response conveyed a remarkable undercurrent of rage and fright.
Pyrrha raised her wand again, conjuring a staircase leading up to the monster's back. It flinched violently, then froze, trembling in anticipation, but Pyrrha ignored it. She climbed the stairs, metal leg clanking annoyingly, and her heart skipped a beat as she leapt onto the acromantula's hairy back as gently as she could. It dipped a little before straightening up, turning and bearing her away without further ado.
She situated herself as comfortably as she was able, eyeing the monster carefully, her hand never leaving her wand. The overgrown spider navigated the forest with ease, infinitely more sure-footed and nimble than she had been, even after being subjected to torture. They seemed to glide through the foliage; as Pyrrha watched the trees pass by, she rather felt like she was riding a lumpy, hairy, odorous flying carpet.
As Pyrrha ducked under a low-hanging branch, a light tingling across her skin told her that they had passed into Hogwarts' outer protections. She doubted they would delay Morrigan for long, if at all; the enchantments around the perimeter weren't meant to turn away approaching magicals. It was a school, after all, not a fortress, though the charms throughout the castle itself told another story. With luck, that story involved a foiled Morrigan languishing outside indefinitely.
Ashlin appeared in front of Pyrrha, sitting cross-legged in midair. She remained there at a fixed point as the acromantula skittered along. Her face was set in a sardonic grin. "'Your death will come as slowly as the seasons turn,'" she repeated in an exaggerated, theatrical tone. "How dramatic of you—you should've been a thespian."
Pyrrha glared. "It helps to threaten in terms they comprehend." She wasn't certain why she bothered to engage with the fake.
"Oh, you're so very fierce!" Ashlin said derisively. "Perhaps you should try scaring the crows away with that look of yours. Their hearts may flutter as they pluck the eyes from your head."
Pyrrha's stomach squirmed. She looked up sharply, eyes raking over the gaps in the canopy. She watched the birds carefully; they circled indolently in the pale morning sky, occasionally dipping out of sight. They didn't seem to be following her. Lower, the surrounding forest was quiet and static, strangely devoid of wildlife.
"Not so strange," Ashlin said. "We're quite close to the acromantula colony, after all." Pyrrha conceded her point with a small nod.
A few minutes later, Pyrrha began to notice black, furry shapes of varying sizes, under bushes and perched in trees, scuttling over distant roots or clinging to webs high above. They stared with beady eyes, mandibles flexing menacingly, but they made no move to attack . . . yet.
Pyrrha leaned forward, one hand gripping her mount's coarse fur, the other aiming her wand. She spoke at the monster's bulky head: "If your brethren get too close, warn them off. I'll have no trouble killing them if they attack me. Actually," she said, "tell them to follow us. I have something to say to the lot of you."
"Yes," the monster hissed with barely disguised hostility.
The acromantula hissed and clicked as it passed its brothers and sisters. They returned the chittering speech in kind, falling into line behind Pyrrha. Their peculiar procession steadily swelled as they ventured further into acromantula territory; the air soon drummed with the patter of countless slender limbs. The trees were hung with numerous wide-spun webs, each one large enough to ensnare several quidditch teams, and they quickly became so thick that the swarm was forced to split up, flowing around obstacles like a series of revolting tributaries.
Pyrrha scanned the branches and webs above warily, wand at the ready. The webs overhead were so densely woven the sunlight was nearly filtered out completely, throwing the surrounding forest into a dim twilight. Acromantulas followed from the trees, leaping from branch to web to trunk with disconcerting agility. There was hardly anything not covered in silky white webbing now, and Pyrrha could see the lip of a gigantic pit ahead, lined with clusters of pasty white eggs the size of quaffles.
A particularly reckless acromantula flung itself at Pyrrha from a nearby tree; with two lazy waves of her wand the beast was suspended helplessly in the air, squealing and spitting as it burned to death. There was an outburst of furious hissing and clicking, but the horde made no further advances.
"They're cowed rather easily," Ashlin observed with contempt.
"They're not cowed at all," Pyrrha said quietly. "They're presenting their patriarch with an offering of prey. They'll wait for the word before tearing me apart."
Ashlin snickered. "But they'd prefer to carry you in their jaws, rather than on their back." She leaned back and cast a bewildered look around at the deadly mass. "Do they all expect to get a piece of you?"
Pyrrha hummed, still watching the high places. "Me, and those who are trampled to death in the feeding frenzy."
Pyrrha's mount crested the lip of the depression, conveying her smoothly down the slope toward an acromantula with greying fur. It was a colossal thing, with fangs of a height with Pyrrha, glistening with deadly fluid. Even from her perch atop the subdued spider, the grey monstrosity loomed at least a dozen feet over her, its trunklike legs spanning a width that might reach from one side of Hogwarts' Entrance Hall to the other.
All at once, the bowl-like valley echoed with deafening silence. Thousands of malevolent black eyes appraised Pyrrha from all sides as she was brought to a halt in front of the elder. She stood and hopped off the spider adroitly; it scuttled backward and melted into the teeming, twitching swarm barely ten feet behind her. Pyrrha stared up at the monster without a care; it was far from the most dangerous being she'd ever dealt with, even in the past twenty-four hours.
The grey acromantula's pincers snapped thoughtfully, the morbid sound echoing impressively in the valley. Its titanic form rested on the forest floor in the midst of a nestlike arrangement of webs. Dozens of egg clusters dotted the network of dense webbing. The beast shifted, creating a noise akin to a landslide.
"You encroach upon our domain . . . by your own free will . . ." Its voice was somehow deep and shrill at the same time, a dry rasp that scraped against Pyrrha's skull. "Before my children feast . . . tell me . . . Why?"
Pyrrha drew her wand and performed a quick series of twirls and flicks; the nest of webs split apart and twined into dense cords; they wrapped themselves tightly around the elder's body, weaving through its hairy legs, securing it firmly in place. It called out a furious shriek and the acromantulas surged as one, leaping and scrambling over each other, pincers clicking eagerly. Pyrrha swung her wand viciously around, and a howling blast of wind sent spiders spinning away in all directions; she followed the motion through, whipping her arm around again and again, and the gale became a bitter cold winter wind swirling around her, flinging away another wave of lunging spiders. The temperature began to drop.
The elder struggled against its bonds in vain as Pyrrha stood in the eye of the storm, stirring the atmosphere; the mass of spiders struggled towards her, more sluggish every moment as the cold crept in. The chilling cyclone became suffused with snow and hail, a blinding white tempest of ice, and it roared outward at Pyrrha's direction and grew into a glacial barrage that swept through the swarm, hurling the nearest spiders through the arctic air like toys. The air was a downpour of sleet; it shot like a hailstorm of bullets and assailed the horde, clinging to flesh and fur, compacting itself into thick ice against their bodies. Every sound was torn away by the screaming wind.
The swarm had nearly fallen still in the midst of the violent squall. Pyrrha swung her arm around once more, and the wind wailed as the relentless blizzard swelled further, wrapping the valley in a deathly embrace. The elder was stiff, coated in thick frost, and Pyrrha could barely make out the legions of its children through sheets of white, a grim collective of dark shapes encased in opaque ice throughout the clearing, from the center to the edge of the storm, frozen through to the last.
Pyrrha let her arm fall, and the blizzard was snuffed out in an instant. Her ears rang in the sudden silence. She spun in a slow circle, steady breaths fogging the air as she took in the aftermath; a final blanket of snow floated in the air like stars, falling softly upon countless icebound acromantulas posed in various positions of retreat. The intricate tangles of webbing around the valley were encrusted in glittering ice that coated every strand and tapered out into spiky, crystalline patterns. They were strangely beautiful, like magnified snowflakes.
She swept her wand in a wide arc. A booming shockwave of air burst outward in a wave of concussive force, creating a cascade of discordant shattering as it hurtled through the frozen horde, sending innumerable shards and chips of ice flying in all directions. She turned and set her wand on the massive nest, blasting the many clusters of frozen eggs into tiny fragments. They tinkled as they blew away.
Pyrrha's eyes fell again onto the elder acromantula. It was almost completely concealed, covered in ice, snow and frozen webs. She raised her wand again; it spat a torrent of fire that licked at the ice, thawing the beast in under a minute. She set its carcass ablaze, whisking away the foul smoke with a twirl of the wrist. As the hulking corpse slowly burned, Pyrrha lamented the loss of so much valuable acromantula venom, but there hadn't been time . . .
Time was wasting. Mindful of the forest, she snuffed out the flames with a twitch of the arm. She studied the charred remains, little more than a heap of melted, blackened flesh with eight legs stuck out awkwardly. Satisfied that Morrigan couldn't raise it back to haunt her, she spun on her heel and headed for the light incline of the valley, back the way she came.
Her low-heeled boots crunched jagged shards of ice as she strode through the snow. She melted a path for herself up the slope, pausing briefly at the top of the valley's lip to glance back at her handiwork. From where she stood, the former colony looked like an encompassing snow globe, a self-contained, frozen tundra sparkling with ice in the middle of the summertime forest.
Pyrrha turned away and consulted her wand on the location of true north, orienting herself towards Hogwarts. She set a steady pace, gait still slightly awkward on her surrogate leg, and she trudged over drifts and banks and broken branches. As snow gave way to dirt, a flash of deep blue in a patch of white caught her eye; Pyrrha vaguely registered hoofbeats approaching as she knelt in the snow and plucked a half-buried stone from the drift. It was smoothly polished and small as a fingertip, a crack snaking down the center of one side, which obscured a vaguely familiar marking.
"Hey! Pay attention, halfwit. Centaurs headed our way." Ashlin's voice sounded from inside her head.
Pyrrha stood and brushed at her knees, dropping the odd stone into the pouch in her robes as a small herd of centaurs galloped between webs and trees, slowing to a canter as they moved to surround her. Most of them wielded bows, nocked and cautiously half-drawn, though aimed at the ground.
Pyrrha crossed her arms, her fingers within close reach of her wand tucked into its pocket. "Yes?" she said, tapping her steel foot impatiently.
The metal limb drew several suspicious glances: her burn, looks of revulsion. One of the centaurs, a male with lengthy black hair and beard, trotted forward, looking down at her with narrowed eyes. "The forest is not yours to walk as you please, human. What are you doing here?"
"Walking as I please, centaur." Ashlin cackled in Pyrrha's head as the centaur's nostrils flared. "The forest is, in turn, not yours to police. Why do you bar my way?"
The black-maned centaur's fingers flexed on the handle of his bow. "One of our number reported a snowstorm in the middle of acromantula territory, and we arrive minutes later to find only you—not a single one of Aglaeca's children in sight. Tell me, interloper," he said, "what have you done to them?" Pyrrha noticed several armed centaurs subtly adjusting their grips.
She snatched her wand and twisted her wrist; the centaurs reared in surprise as their bows were ripped from their hands, hovering in front of her as she splintered them with a flick. She let them fall to the dirt in a pile of kindling.
"That," she said.
The centaurs bridled with rage, kicking up dirt with their hooves. The black haired male loomed over her, red-faced. "You've murdered an entire colony of acromantulas, upsetting the forest's natural balance, and you have the gall to attack us directly afterwards?" His voice trembled with fury. He, like the others, seemed to be barely restraining himself from retaliating; they all cast frequent, worried glances at her wand.
"I haven't attacked you. Drawn bows make me nervous. Here," Pyrrha said, waving her wand over the remains of the bows; the splinters flew back together neatly. She transfigured the earth beneath the centaurs in the same moment. "As for the acromantulas—it was necessary. That's all I have time to say. I apologize." She didn't feel sorry in the slightest as she pointed her wand at the male; a warm, euphoric feeling shot up her arm and into her head. His wrathful expression fell blank. At her mental direction, he knelt, allowing her to clamber up onto his back.
The circle of centaurs bellowed with outrage, but found themselves securely anchored in a thick quagmire of mud. The black-haired one followed Pyrrha's commands readily, leaping through a gap between two panicked, thrashing centaurs and galloping off through the trees. Pyrrha kept a firm one-handed grip on his long hair as they rode.
"Not very fond of centaurs, I see," Ashlin said, sounding amused.
I detest the arrogant, Pyrrha thought back.
"You're quite arrogant yourself, you know."
"You're also astoundingly lazy. You just can't resist catching a ride through the forest—acromantulas, centaurs, whatever it takes, as long as you're not walking . . . or flying."
Pyrrha shot an annoyed glance vaguely upwards. Riding is much faster. I'm trying to stay alive.
"If you were really trying, you'd fly. We'd be at the castle by now."
But I wouldn't have thought to exterminate the acromantulas that way, Pyrrha thought triumphantly.
"Well, that hardly matters. You don't plan to fight Morrigan here on the grounds of Hogwarts."
It's one less horde of beasts for her to send after me.
Pyrrha straightened up as she thought of the wolves again. She was near the edge of the forest, where they were unlikely to dwell, but she cast the Belua Revelio anyway. She surveyed the area, taking in dozens of scattered life forms shining through the foliage, and—there! A large gathering of sparks: it was likely either the wolf pack or a group of old Hagrid's thestral herd, and they appeared too low to the ground for the latter.
The moment Pyrrha thought it, the centaur abruptly changed direction, cantering through the underbrush towards where the sparks of light had been. She cast again, and watched as their sparks began to move away, no doubt hearing the centaur's drumming hoofbeats. The centaur skidded to a stop and Pyrrha dismounted, leaving him staring blankly forward as she dashed around the undergrowth. Their sparks were closer, but still retreating.
Pyrrha stopped, cupped her hands around her mouth and howled long and loud, doing her best to imitate a wolf's cry.
"You failed," Ashlin said, snickering. "You sounded like a wolf being molested by a dementor—but I suppose that makes your distinctive call all the more recognizable."
After a few beats, a chorus of answering howls rang in the air. Pyrrha howled again and waited. She cast her gaze over the brush, listening intently. A bird trilled, answered by another trill further off. There was a stretch of relative silence, a gentle breeze sliding through the foliage in the background. A branch snapped. Leaves crunched. A bush rustled as a lupine head poked around it.
"Hello there," Pyrrha said softly, stowing her wand and sitting on her heels in the dirt. "Remember me?"
Pyrrha sat motionless as near a dozen wolves crept out from between the flora all around, stalking around her, watching her intently with gorgeous silver eyes. Their silvery-white fur shimmered like liquid moonlight in the dappled sunshine that snuck past the leaves. Wet black noses sniffed at the air curiously. Pyrrha nearly jumped as a wolf came around from behind her, wiry limbs moving in near silence across the leaf-littered ground. It turned and stood before her, head cocked to the side.
Pyrrha stood slowly, looking around at the gathered pack, a vague sense of warmth inside despite everything. They were beautiful.
"And here we are again," Ashlin said. "Surrounded by dangerous beasts for the third time today, and it's not even noon."
"It's—It's nice to see you all again," Pyrrha said, still slightly anxious; they hadn't sat down yet.
The wolf in front of her stepped forward and sniffed at her clothes, making what Pyrrha thought was a curious sound in its throat.
"Yes, I've—I've had quite a day. That's why I'm here. I've got something import—important to tell you."
The wolf yipped quietly, stepping back. It turned away and padded back among its brethren, turned back to her, and sat. As if on cue, the other wolves sat down as well. Relief flowed through Pyrrha as they stared at her expectantly.
Pyrrha knew they were more intelligent than normal wolves, but she didn't know to what extent, beyond that they seemed to understand her simple sentences. She hoped she could get the message across.
"There's a bad witch coming. Soon," Pyrrha said, rubbing at her cursed burn subconsciously as a dull pulse of pain went through her head. "She's going to hurt you all. You can't kill her."
The wolves uttered menacing growls, fur bristling. Their eyes were locked on Pyrrha as their claws kneaded the dirt.
"You need to—need to flee. Run away. Leave the forest."
The wolves shot upright and started barking, defiant and livid. The one in the center that had sniffed her before—Pyrrha took it to be the pack leader—turned and, astonishingly, began barking back at them. The uproar that followed was resounding as a few wolves abruptly switched sides, and the woods were a clamor of dissent. Pyrrha surreptitiously drew her wand as their baying escalated in volume.
"Please, just trust—trust me, it's the only way to—"
A wolf swiped a paw across the leader's muzzle with a snarl. The attack incited a series of outraged barks, and the leader lunged, the other wolves following suit, and brother fought brother in a rolling, leaping flurry of silver fur. The air resounded with guttural growls and pitiful yelps; blood splattered across the ground as they slashed at each other.
Pyrrha watched helplessly, torn on whether or not to intervene. The tide of the melee suddenly turned; outnumbered, the leader's allies turned on him, and the pack bore down on the alpha in a primal frenzy. Pyrrha thrust her wand, sending the wolves tumbling across the dirt. She pulled the alpha across the ground to her feet with a yanking motion while the rest of the pack regained their footing and charged, barking savagely.
She stepped over the prone form of the alpha and swept her wand out; a wall of fire erupted from the earth, and the wolves slid to a halt, baying and howling defiantly. Their eyes glowed eerily in the firelight.
The cursed burn throbbed as Pyrrha urged the crackling flames forward. The wolves backed away with tensed bodies at an angle, still uttering a clamor of booming barks, less angry and more wary. She flicked her wand and the flames flared to new heights, burning quickly across the ground with a rush of fluttering air; the wolves turned tail and fled into the woods. Their howls slowly faded into the distance until the forest's gentle ambiance reclaimed the silence, deceptively peaceful.
Pyrrha let the flames die after a minute of vigilance and spun around, dashing to the alpha's side. It was covered in weeping gashes, but the worst wound was at the throat; the flesh was torn ragged from a bite that bled freely. The wolf's head lay in a puddle of its own blood, eyelids slitted.
"It's—it's alright! I'm going to fix it," Pyrrha said, running her wand over the wound. As she cast, tracing the bite repeatedly, the flow of blood seemed to slow a little, but it continued to gush forth. The wound remained stubbornly open; her spell was failing to seal it. The wolf panted shallow, gurgling breaths, whimpering softly.
Pyrrha groaned, still tracing the bite. She pressed her other hand against the flow. Warm blood soaked her fingers and spilled in between. "Damn it, damn it, what . . . ?"
It struck Pyrrha then—these wolves were descended from werewolves; these injuries were cursed. "Ah!" she said, and she yanked open her pouch—quickly replacing her hand on the steadily weeping wound—and summoned a brown vial of dittany. She unstoppered it with a jab of her wand and set it aside. She cast Accio again, but nothing flew out of the pouch; she had no powdered silver.
Pyrrha flicked her wand at her neck; a necklace snapped off, and she held it suspended in the air before her. It was a simple chain of thin silver, with a small, oval emerald dangling from the end. A gift from her mother after her sorting. She waved her wand and watched the necklace grind to dust in the air with a pang of sorrow, but she knew her mother would approve. The emerald dropped into the dirt.
Keeping the silver powder suspended, Pyrrha waved her wand at the dittany, and a measure of the brown liquid rose from the bottle, floating formlessly. Pyrrha twirled her wrist; the cloud of silver powder mixed with the murky dittany, swirling around and forming a sickly yellow paste, which she hastily directed at the wound on the wolf's throat. It plastered over the bite, stemming the flow of blood. Pyrrha resumed casting, tracing across the wound with steady and precise repetition, over and over. Gradually, the flesh wove itself back together, although a scar remained.
She siphoned off excess paste and began to cover the most serious slashes along the body, which had stopped rising and falling. The wolf wasn't breathing.
Pyrrha's heart raced as she stood back and raised her arm. She waved her wand and felt an unpleasant tugging sensation in her chest, down her arm to the wand's tip, which oozed her own blood into the air; it undulated gracefully in a cloud of crimson, like a drop of ink in water. Pyrrha gestured, and the blood wafted through the air over the wolf and sank, seeping into the myriad open lacerations across its silvery body. The wolf's lithe frame shuddered.
"Will it work on an animal?" Ashlin asked dubiously.
"I don't know!" Pyrrha snapped, blinking away a bout of dizziness. She jabbed her wand at the wolf's chest. A red light struck, and the wolf's body jolted, then fell still. She cast again; the animal's legs jerked, and it stilled. Again. It jolted and stilled.
Pyrrha's heart sank like a stone.
The wolf shuddered, and its chest rose sharply, fell as it exhaled. It breathed again.
Pyrrha let out an astonished laugh, bubbling with relief. The wolf's eyes fluttered open and looked at her tiredly. It didn't protest as she knelt back down and stroked its beautiful head, still slick with blood.
"You had me worried, there," Pyrrha said, returning to sealing the gashes that still bled on the wolf's back and chest. "But I think you're going to be okay now."
The wolf made a small noise of acknowledgement and closed its eyes again with a sigh. Pyrrha watched it carefully as she methodically sealed as many slashes as she could with the available paste. The wolf stayed still throughout, but its chest continued to rise and fall. As Pyrrha closed the final wound, she realized the wolf had fallen asleep. She sighed contentedly as she looked down at the creature, elated that she had been able to save it.
But what now? It had been cast out of the pack, for defending her, no less. Morrigan would arrive within hours at the longest, Pyrrha was certain. It wouldn't be safe in the Forbidden Forest, and it hadn't the strength to escape in time on its own. Pyrrha bit her lip. She would have to take it with her to Hogwarts.
Ashlin appeared standing over her, eyes a mirror to the clear blue patches of sky past the treetops. She had an eyebrow arched. "You don't look thrilled enough about your new pet—he's gorgeous. It's a he, by the way. I can see dangly bits."
Pyrrha stood and vanished the blood and dirt from herself. "He's not a pet. I'm just taking care of him for a while."
"Lie to yourself if you must, but you can't lie to me." Pyrrha's burn throbbed. Ashlin grinned down at the wolf, then gazed up at the sky through the canopy, shading her eyes with a hand. Caught by a ray beaming down through a break in the branches, her auburn hair shined like fire in the sun. "You really need to get a move on. Despite appearances, I don't want you dead." She put a peculiar stress on 'dead'. "Don't forget Mum's emerald," she said, then vanished.
Pyrrha stared at where Ashlin had been for a moment, then bent down and plucked the emerald from the grass, cleaning it with a charm and dropping it into her pouch. The black-haired centaur, still enthralled, cantered through the woods to Pyrrha at her mental nudging. He gathered the wolf gently in his arms, face still a blank mask, and knelt as Pyrrha sat astride him again.
As they galloped toward Hogwarts, Pyrrha pondered the dark mirror of Ashlin. It was clear the hallucinations were connected to the curse that Morrigan had struck her with—the targeted activation of the burn's excruciating pain when Ashlin was displeased was evidence enough of that; it was like being struck all over again. What Pyrrha didn't understand was—
"Too many things to list," Ashlin said.
Pyrrha huffed with frustration. Why you? she thought. Why am I having hallucinations of my sister?
"Well, that's rather obvious," Ashlin said. "A curse fried your brain. You're actually a drooling vegetable in St. Mungo's right now."
You know what I meant. Why Ashlin, and not Mum and Dad, or—?
"You are just the deepest well of stupid questions, aren't you? You stood by and allowed that rotting bitch to murder me," Ashlin said, her voice turning lower and more vehement with every word, and Pyrrha's burn throbbed, each pulse more painful than the last. "You must have some shred of humanity left, however, because you feel guilty. That's why the curse brought me back."
"I did not stand by and allow anything!" Pyrrha said, so appalled she forgot to think her response. "I fought as hard as I could and she—"
"Did you?" Ashlin said, voice dripping with contempt. "Or did you fight with half a heart, Pyrrha, hoping Morrigan would rid you of your irksome little sister?"
"That is utter madness!" Pyrrha's burn was pulsing like an agonizing second heartbeat. This delusion of her sister might know her mind, but that didn't mean everything it said about her was true. It had flashes of the real Ashlin—albeit darkly twisted—but now, something other had leaked in.
"Well done," Ashlin snarled. Pyrrha gasped and clutched at her head as her burn seared like molten magma poured over her face, the pain nearly toppling her from the centaur's back. "You've deduced that a curse is dangerous."
Pyrrha clung to the centaur's shoulders as she recovered, vision swimming with tears of pain. She drew deep, shuddering breaths as the pain receded little by little. Wiping at her eyes, she looked around listlessly at the sunlit forest as it passed, struck by nature's serene beauty, and how wrong it seemed at that moment. In the space of a night, Pyrrha's own world had turned infinitely more terrible, more a hellish nightmare than waking life. She inhaled slowly, exerting her will on her chaotic emotions.
A thin bar of greenish gold shone brilliantly between the trees ahead; the sun-soaked lawns of Hogwarts peeked in beyond the edge of the forest, which was fast approaching under the centaur's power. Pyrrha clenched her knees as the centaur leapt over a burbling stream and burst through clustered bushes to emerge onto the Hogwarts grounds. The morning sun warmed Pyrrha's back as she took in the castle, a monolith of stone set upon a cliff, lofty spires nearly piercing the scattered drifts of white clouds in the sky. Ancient stone walls, turrets, and towers safeguarded millennia of magical history.
It was here at Hogwarts she would find refuge, and prepare to unravel the threads of secrecy spun around Morrigan. She would rectify her mistake; the Nightmare Queen would die one way or another, even if it cost Pyrrha everything. She owed it to her sister. The curse smoldered.
In the distance, the hoarse cawing of crows resonated across the air.