To be freed from the curse felt as if she'd downed some abortive draught in one go. It sapped the amniotic warmth from her body. Every suppressed element of her thought patterns came surging out from the fading haze through too narrow a channel—the detrimental dreads, the wishes and wonders, the subliminal second guesses—and her breathing fluttered, her stomach roiled, her hands trembled until they found each other and made slender squirming knots of her fingers.
Daisy shuddered and labored for breath under MacLeod's level look. Nothing of her aims had changed course, but no longer did the curse preserve in her that unnatural focus and composure that had steered her here. As planned, she turned the loss to her advantage, and let her feelings loose to spill out artfully and paint her a victim. She sobbed, ringing and genuine.
Ashlin was gone.
The Pyrrha she'd known was nearly lost in pursuit.
While she emptied herself over the wide table between them MacLeod murmured to her in short phrases, calm and comforting, yet he watched with a fixed attention unbecoming toward a devastated bystander, a discarded tool. An uneasy stillness settled in as Daisy wound down. The hidden door appeared, thrown open, and Baranov swept back into the featureless white void of the room—she had stepped out with a contemptuous noise when the crying had begun.
"Thank you," Daisy said hoarsely, swiping tears from her cheeks. "God, thank you. I was trapped, I—in my own head, trapped—what I did—"
"Yes, what did you do?" Baranov's voice cut the air behind Daisy like a scalpel. "Further, how did you come to be involved with Pyrrha Clay to begin with?"
MacLeod aimed a cold stare over Daisy's head, eyes wide and white with bridled outrage, and it gave her a crawling chill. "That line of enquiry ends right now, Ms. Baranov," he said. "This woman is the victim of an Imperius Curse, and you'll comport yourself accordingly, or I'll have you out on your arse with nothing to show for your motherland but squandered time."
"That and yet another strike in the face of your own Minister." Disdain so dripped from the oddly weighted words that Daisy could picture the auror's regal sneer. "I am sure he would find your disregard for his instructions worthwhile information. At the same moment, I may find the time to relay that his department head is as foolish as he is insubordinate. Do you believe, truly, that she, out of better than a dozen professors, was chosen at random? I know you do not. I know you are aware that, given the options and time, the caster always has criterion for the Imperiused, whether they are conscious of their biases or not. Perhaps her looks have sent all the blood from one abused head to another."
MacLeod's hand twitched up from the table, toward the earless plane of skin behind his right cheek, and he produced a furious smile. "It's somewhat of a reach from 'subjugated victim' to 'willing accomplice' . . . Quite plainly it is your judgment clouded by unchecked feelings. Regardless, what we believe is immaterial when her truth waits patiently to be told." He turned his focus onto Daisy, and his expression thawed a little; he gave her a nod. "Please, describe what happened to you. From the beginning."
Daisy bit her lip and stared down at her hands. The subtle chill filling the still air lay heavy on her hunched shoulders. Drawing from the harrowing experiences of the past week, she sounded properly rattled; MacLeod glared over her at the auror's soft scoff when she began, haltingly, to speak.
"Well, I—there isn't a lot to tell . . . I was in the middle of finalizing lesson plans when I received a patronus message calling for an urgent staff meeting. I made my way over, and . . ." Daisy shook her head, still looking down. "All I remember is opening the door. When I woke, it felt like I'd been out for days. I couldn't see a thing, she blinded me, or—or stuck me in some bloody dark hole. That's when she cursed me," she spat, "as soon as she had me up. I was sent here to get you lot off her case and—and—oh God," Daisy said, nearly hyperventilating, "oh, God, I failed, I fucked it up—she's—she's going to hurt my father!"
"I'll have both of you taken into protective custody," MacLeod said at once. Daisy looked up to meet his expression of lock-jawed determination. "Consider you and yours out of her reach from this moment forward. Now think back to—"
"No, no, you can't! You can't protect us from her—my father, he's already under her control! If you go after him, he'll hurt himself! Please," Daisy said, "you must let me return with her wand—that was how I was meant to prove I got it done right. After that, she doesn't need us, she'll let us go!"
"Ms. Pitcher," MacLeod said, looking momentarily at a loss. "Ms. Pitcher, I trust you understand why I can hardly consider that an option. There are several more tenable courses of action to weigh; my people are more capable than what public opinion credits them. We can reach your father and bring him in safely. I'll not have you return to the 'mercies' of your captor for the hope that she holds to her promise."
"It's not your bloody risk to take!" Daisy's voice rose, strong and shrill. "It's mine! I don't care how good your aurors are, I won't chance my father's life just to make your job easier. Listen," she went on when MacLeod made to interrupt, "she's going to wipe our memories when this is over, and that'll be that. I believe her; the whole point of this was to shift your department's attention off of her. K-killing us would bugger that all up, especially if she thinks her plan went off without a hitch."
A stretch of silence followed in which MacLeod kneaded at his forehead, looking as if he couldn't quite believe what he'd decided to say. Baranov let out another faint derisive breath.
"I . . . can't force you to accept our help, of course, and your assessment of the woman may be apt. It may not be." He leaned forward with an earnest light in his eyes. "The manner in which we proceed is largely in your hands . . . and I must urge you to reconsider. You have my word; your family would be safest in my department's care."
"Thank you, but I stand by my choice. I just want this to be over. Even if you do manage to steal my father out from under her, she'll—she'll hunt us down."
"Why?" The question cracked like a whip at Daisy's back. Baranov paced closer and placed her hands on the chair, looming above and behind. "What makes the the two of you so important that she would not simply cut her losses and disappear?"
A surge of blood shook Daisy's heart and deafened her for a moment of panic. She could've cursed aloud, but short of that her mouth ran away from her flailing mind. "What? I dunno, loose ends, or—look, she's raving mad—"
"Either she ensured you learned nothing of value, as you claimed," Baranov said slowly, seeming to taste each word, "or you are a loose end, which you have also claimed. Which of these is the lie, Pitcher?"
Pain radiated up from Daisy's clenching fingers. On traitorous impulse a glance up from her hands flicked toward MacLeod, an instinctual bid for help, and she tore her attention away an instant later and an instant late. The flash of his expression was impressed on her mind; rather than concern or sympathy or patient anticipation, he had an eyebrow up in the manner of one whose estimations had pivoted.
There was no one on Daisy's side now.
"Neither," Daisy said a bit loudly. Her spiraling nerves nearly drove her onward, spurring her to salvage the mistake, but she clamped her mouth shut and crossed her arms.
The table shrank until it had the proportions of a stool, and Baranov skirted around and planted herself on it, her knees inches away from Daisy's. Behind her, MacLeod scooted aside to regain his view with an annoyed huff. The sudden lack of any barrier between them made the chamber feel infinitely closer.
Baranov's eyes glinted like burnished stone. "How well do you know Pyrrha Clay?"
With the distinct notion she was walking into a trap, Daisy answered in the only way she could.
The smile that strained Baranov's face made Daisy's heart plummet. The auror dipped a hand into her robes and withdrew a faintly yellowed newspaper clipping. With the wand still in her other hand she produced an identical page and set it drifting behind her, crinkling like crushed glass in the quiet, and MacLeod plucked it down and studied it with darting eyes; the whole of his brow arched up.
With an unsteady hand Daisy received the proffered page. It was a column of a size typically relegated to sections near the back end of the Daily Prophet's spread of stories. The cramped headline read:
HOGWARTS DUELING TOURNAMENT WINNER REJECTS ALL DMLE CONSIDERATIONS
Depicted beneath, the castle's Great Hall was barely perceptible behind the exuberant student body jostling about the raised platform that bisected the chamber. They exchanged mute shouts, jeers, cheers, traded high fives and slaps on the back, as if on hearing that their collective genius had rendered all final exams pointless. Daisy had forgotten how deeply unpopular Eilith had been, that Pyrrha's victory would excite them like that.
Guilt burrowed into Daisy. The upswing in students' perception of her friend, and by extension the ever so slight lifting of her grim spirits, had only been part of what Daisy wanted out of that tournament. She had detested Eilith like no one else she'd ever met, and before she thought to recall her reasons she knew they didn't really matter. It had been wrong of her. The memory of the girl's crushed countenance as she slipped out of the Hall, and the associated vindictive pleasure, left Daisy with a horrible pit in her stomach.
The pit yawned deeper when the focus of the scene played out in full, then wound its way back to the beginning in a strangely organic way. Eyes locked on the page, Daisy watched again as Pyrrha edged her way past the congregation with little of the confident poise of her adulthood. She stopped short when Daisy shoved through and tackled her in a hug, red-cheeked and silently shouting; Pyrrha recoiled some, then settled in to the inevitable. After a patient interval she gently extricated herself and departed the Hall, with Daisy nearly bouncing close behind. It stung her to see that not a one of the reveling students appeared to have noticed that their victor had departed.
The clipping drifted from Daisy's loose fingers to settle on the floor between them. Heart in her mouth, somehow she spoke around it without a stutter. "That was over a decade ago. Until all this, I hadn't seen her since school ended."
"I have heard enough of your tall tales," Baranov said. She tilted her head down to catch Daisy's downcast gaze, her smile held with the care of someone concealing a razor blade between her teeth. "Let me tell you a story.
"Not long ago, my government's intrusion countercharms were tripped on a desolate stretch of mountain, far removed from most anything worth the travel and the risk. Several teams of aurors, including my own, were dispatched to secure the few sites which merited safeguarding. I was assigned to the giants' reservation. It was not long before we traced a spell back to the invader, appearing as an old man; this was a decoy." A bitter twist of the mouth inflected Baranov's account. "The assailant struck from cover. My unit . . . they were felled in an instant. Brought down by a single spell."
Behind the auror MacLeod's mouth hung open a moment, an expression halfway between astonishment and a desire to interject; he checked himself when Baranov brushed past the admission.
"I engaged them in a brief duel, and throughout I took pains to notice what I could, should I manage to escape. The assailant was a witch; faintly I heard her laugh. Though she was Disillusioned, I caught glimpses of her outline. She was thin, and quite tall—several inches taller than I. What held my attention was the way she moved . . . a telling dichotomy of power and frailty. Reactions faster than one could blink, yet when she covered ground, it was with all the vigor and haste of a pox-ridden crone. When she approached I could hear her struggling to breathe, though our contest had ended quickly and decisively in her favor—I had not landed a thing. This disconnect between the function of mind and body is often a mark of the influence of dark magic, as the one is augmented at the cost of the other."
Breath chilled in Daisy's chest to hear it stated so plainly, upending the denial she'd buried herself in thus far. Images forced themselves up: Pyrrha's blackened heart; her pallor and rail-thin frame seeming to erode further to the bones between their every meeting; the anemic battle to move, to breathe, to live, after her duel with Aradia . . .
She was dying, and she was doing it to herself.
It had to shut up—it all had to shut up until Daisy was free to process it, free to act. She interrupted her thoughts and the auror's, every ounce of her self control put to the test again, that she didn't betray distress for her friend.
"I'm sure that's all very compelling," Daisy said, sitting back from their attentions, "but it's nothing to do with my father and I."
The wake of her dismissal carried on past what was natural. Across the bleak white nothing of the cell the aurors observed her with no more response than the weak wince of MacLeod's wooden chair, or the whisper of sleeves put to rest on Baranov's knees as she hunched forward to match Daisy's retreat. Their stares provoked no reaction—not until the slither of rubbing skin began to hiss between Daisy's hands and fingers.
"You've an anxious nature," MacLeod said, peering down at her lap. "I see nicks and callouses, roughened patches . . . you've been quite hard on them. That's rather a lot more than one week of wear—one terrible week, to be sure, but nevertheless . . ."
"I'm a potioneer," Daisy said shortly. She didn't give them the satisfaction of suppressing her habit, instead letting her motions become more methodical. "Part and parcel of the trade."
"You have been Hogwarts' Potions Master for hardly two months," Baranov said dryly.
"I've helped attend my father's shop all my life," Daisy shot back. "Brewing was my primary focus as a trainee at St. Mungo's."
MacLeod gave a curious tilt of his head. "Why didn't you stay on that track?"
"Wasn't for me."
Another studious lapse followed, though breached early by Baranov's thoughtful hum. Eye contact with the auror felt like being turned inside out, that Daisy's character was written in the set of her mouth, her thoughts denoted in the patterns traced by her gaze.
Pyrrha's attention had a similar effect, yet with another world of intention behind it, a sense of omnipresent affection and stability guiding her designs for their relationship. There had never been a breach of trust, because Pyrrha loved her, and so she had counseled Daisy until it was all but outside of even her own power to intrude.
Composed as she was, Daisy felt she need not fear what the aurors may attempt to pry from her. It seemed her resolution had made an outward appearance; Baranov hummed again, wide mouth quirking a little.
"I will allow that your grasp on the practice of Occlumency is comprehensive. An interesting skill for one whose academic background is otherwise relentlessly average . . . but you should realize that there are more ways than one to read a person."
MacLeod made an appreciative noise in his throat. "Caught that too, did you? It appears, Daisy," he added at her attention, "that the rate of your hand wringing drops off when you're focused on delivering a lie."
Caught entirely off guard, the observation lit an indignant fire in Daisy; she sat up straighter, pressing her hands to her knees, her brain an irate passenger as her mouth wrested control.
"Yeah? You'll find my hands speed right back up when I'm focused on delivering a wallop—" At their startled looks she shook off her flare of anger, though not entirely. "No—I'm sorry, but for God's sake, have you forgotten how I got here? Why are you interrogating me?"
Still with a look of mild surprise, MacLeod regarded her carefully, then traded a glance with Baranov.
"I suppose that is my cue to conclude," Baranov said, running a finger along her wand in what was surely a pretense of absent mindedness. "As I said, I was overpowered and left unconscious, badly wounded . . . at first. I woke to find the worst of my injuries mended. And this."
From within her robes Baranov withdrew a stoppered glass vial and held it up delicately, just out of reach, for Daisy to see. It contained nearly a full measure of a deep violet potion with a syrupy consistency. The wax seal was broken.
"Er . . . Petri's Philter?" Daisy said. There was no answer but expectant stares. "For pain relief?"
As Daisy watched the substance ooze up the sides of the vial in time with the tilting of the auror's hand, it began to dawn what the medicine's origin must be. The realization came with a blanketing numbness as her mind raced through probable chains of events that had led to this, to Pyrrha's plan pushed to a precipice.
Daisy had brewed it.
And Pyrrha had left it with a downed auror in some confounding fit of derision, with little idea, for all her expansive knowledge, what one with a purpose could glean from it. Contrary to the ethos of most every curriculum Daisy had ever encountered, the process of concocting a potion was closer to an art than a science. Nothing was definite. No matter how closely one may attempt to adhere to a proven recipe, the result would never react the exact same as for anyone else; consequently, it was entirely possible for a skilled practitioner to trace the signature of a brew back to the source.
All the FS3 would have needed was another sample from a batch they knew she had made. They would leave no possible source untested—somehow they had already connected Pyrrha to the attack on Hogwarts, and from there it was the obvious step to investigate what they could about the only missing professor. The vial in Baranov's hand would have been a match for the supply stored in Daisy's faculty depository.
"You have not been employed by the Raging Boil for several years," Baranov said. One long finger tapped at the stopper. "And they do not cork with birch bark. You do." She slipped the vial back into her robes without shifting her attention. "Explain to us how your potion came to be in Pyrrha's possession before the assault on Hogwarts, if you are so estranged as you claim."
"Well, I suppose I gave it to her, didn't I?" Daisy channeled irate sarcasm. "I've been in league with the lunatic from the word go. All part of my master plan to upend my own life! My motives? So bloody complex even I can't make sense of them! Hang on," she said, "why are you trying to pin us together like—you can't even prove it really was her at your giants!"
"Who else do you imagine may have had your potion?" MacLeod said evenly.
"Oh, I dunno, only anyone I'd ever transacted with in the years spent running my father's shop? My Petri's will keep for better than a decade."
Baranov sat back and crossed her legs, wand still in the hand resting on her lap. "We dated the sample," she said, flicking a gesture at her robes. "The potion left with me was no more than four months aged. Try again."
"This is ridiculous," Daisy said. "I've had about a dozen batches made for the entire castle this summer; upcoming first year lessons, private stores for the professors and myself, some for the older house elves, some for Mr. Eshmun's Hospital Wing—I even donated a good bit of my more general surplus inventory to a struggling apothecary in Hogsmeade . . . so, y'see," she said with an exaggerated helpful tone, "that potion wasn't exactly difficult to come by."
The stymied pause that followed gave Daisy a gratified glow inside; the aurors didn't know her as well as they thought they did. Not by a longshot.
MacLeod shifted with evident discomfort and cleared his throat. "Ms. Baranov?" he said after a moment.
"The giants were massacred," Baranov said. Her stony eyes pried. "Torn to bloody ribbons. Did Pyrrha tell you that?"
What Pyrrha had intimated was that no more than a fight had taken place, a brief struggle. The auror was lying. Why, then, did Daisy feel a thrill of illness?
"I've not been in contact with her." Daisy fought against a quiver. She devoted intense focus to maintaining a steady pattern with her hands. "How do you know she was—?"
"One survivor. It—he fled into the wilderness. My unit and I tracked him down and extracted his memories," Baranov said, twitching her wand up, "wherein we saw this witch meet with the Gurg."
The clipping Daisy had dropped flitted up to display Pyrrha's discomfited face again. It vanished at another flick.
"She was after the location of a landmark—a legend. The Giants' Causeway. What does that mean to you?"
Daisy stood so quickly her chair juddered; neither auror reacted beyond monitoring her movements as she set to a frenetic pace, back and forth across the space. Pyrrha's boot heels clicked, and the sound brought up in Daisy a senseless wish that it was the sharp gait of her best friend come to put the whole mess to rights.
But this was her undertaking alone. She tried to look so furious that she may lash out. It wasn't hard, as the feeling was far from unsuitable—what if she really had been victimized?
The aurors had pushed her further than they could reasonably expect a purportedly innocent woman to withstand. Daisy felt the time had come to secure her exit, and with it, her freedom from association, if not suspicion. Pyrrha's plan had damned her further even as it set Daisy free.
As long as she hadn't betrayed any cause for them to arrest her.
"You—the pair of you—you ask a lot of goddamned questions for someone who won't listen!" Daisy stopped short behind her chair and clutched its back with white fingers. "I'm not involved with Pyrrha, and that's the very last time I'll repeat myself. Not apart from this bloody disaster," she said, waving an arm at the chamber. "Not apart from the mind control. I think I'm about finished trying to help you people. I need to get back—" she cringed, a crack of feigned fear in her fury "—back to her. Back to my father."
Still seated, the aurors regarded each other wordlessly. They seemed to communicate with no more than twitches of expression in a display of eerie professionalism, weighing options, converging on the proper course of action, Daisy imagined. MacLeod cocked his head and Baranov smirked; she dipped her free hand into her robes once again.
"Don't tell me there's more, now—really, how many bits of evidence have you got rattling around in there?" Daisy said.
"As many as I need," Baranov said, brandishing yet another sheet of parchment, this one handwritten in a painfully neat, cramped script. Her eyes bored into Daisy's, and there was something different and unsettling in her stare. Something like a predator fed. "This is a copy of a transcript provided by Britain's ministry, recorded in the course of their own investigation into the Hogwarts attack. It is an interview with a centaur of the Forbidden Forest." Baranov glanced at the page. "Crath."
There wasn't enough air in the room. Daisy leaned forward on the chair for support while the white walls seemed to recede from the corners of her view. For all her focus she couldn't make sense of the words on the page, not with the vertigo twisting the chamber beneath her, spooling her stomach tight as rope twine.
"You understand," Baranov said. White light gleamed off her frigid eyes as she studied Daisy's body language. She passed the parchment to MacLeod behind her, and again she bared too many teeth. "Yes. Though his memories of the events leading up to the attack have been excised, he does recall your meeting with Clay in the Entrance Hall."
"'Received one another like close friends,'" MacLeod murmured, eyes roaming the page at an unhurried pace.
Daisy's heart rocked against its confines with such urgency she felt it may pitch her forward. She looked down at her cramping hands and pried open her lungs, forced them to loosen and regain a rhythm. Sweat had beaded from every able pore, a sickening slick warmth inside her sleeves, upon her palms, down her rigid spine. The moisture trailing her hairline nearly stung with the cold of the stagnant air brushing her forehead like a shroud when she moved.
With a mechanical sort of fluidity Baranov stood and stepped forward into arm's reach. There was empty quiet. Head hung down, Daisy could see no higher than the wand lingering at the auror's side. Then, still moving with the uncanny precision of an expertly animated statue, Baranov perched a shoe on the seat of the chair and leaned in until Daisy looked up.
Their faces were inches apart; Daisy barely beat the instinct to flinch back. No sort of triumph or satisfaction shaped the auror's expression. Instead all Daisy could see was a bloodless and malevolent cast, a detached sort of hostility, like the chill of blade metal against skin.
"If there is any pleasure at all to be found in this profession," Baranov whispered, "it is here. Beneath the mask. Against the pale, squirming underbelly. Inside the same emotional orifices your kind violate at will. How does it feel . . ." She seized Daisy by the face to stop her from turning away. "How does it feel to know you will be judged? Held accountable? Tell me. Do you hear the wraiths of the Ergastulum moaning your name? Do you feel the eyes of the under-elf wardens watching from the walls?"
"Get off!" Daisy prised the auror's hand from her face and staggered back until she bumped a wall.
Her brain burned panicked pathways through all the coherent thoughts she could gather. It wasn't the prospect of prison that worried her most; Pyrrha would never allow her to see the Ergastulum's insides. What was slipping away now was her life. Her freedom. Her burgeoning career. If the aurors decided there was cause enough, they would make her a fugitive. She would spend her days in ceaseless hiding, in constant worry. Her father would lose her. She would lose her father.
Like Pyrrha, she would be left with nothing. That thought struck deep and agonizing in her chest; she should've been more forceful. Should've been all she could to Pyrrha, as she had tried to be to Ashlin after the Clays' deaths.
If Daisy had wrested Pyrrha's confidence sooner, perhaps everything that had happened could have been averted.
MacLeod's voice came like a bucket of cold water on her feverish reflections. "As charming as you make our accommodations sound, Ms. Baranov," he said, aiming at her a dry look, "she is a citizen of England. In the matter of complicity in the Hogwarts attack, it would be Azkaban she'd have to look forward to . . . if sufficient evidence should surface."
Baranov whipped her head around and shot him a dangerous, alarmed look. "Hold your tongue!"
"No," MacLeod said. He received the auror's silent acrimony with no more than a ruffled sort of indignation. "Clearly you in the east do things differently, but here, we have laws and we abide by them. And somehow I'm quite sure you know as well as I that, from the standpoint of legality and due process, the testimony of a centaur is worth nothing. In Ireland as in Britain, the centaurs are classified as Beasts, not Beings. They have no standing from which to influence a criminal investigation."
In the time it took for Daisy's chest to swell with hope, Baranov was across the room looming over MacLeod, unsettlingly still. Her voice came slow and weighted with rage barely restrained.
"Think carefully about what you are doing . . . and who you are doing it to."
Somehow, MacLeod hadn't withered to dust; he looked unimpressed. "I'm doing my job. I suggest you run along and do the same; I believe we're done here. My department is thankful to the FS3 for its cooperation in this matter."
MacLeod had barely finished speaking before the hefty steel door tore from its frame and shot outside to collide with the hallway wall opposite, Baranov storming out just behind it. The racket echoed in nearly tangible aftershocks of head splitting noise, and raised voices came in their wake up and down the hall. Several wizards poked their heads in along with ready wands; MacLeod waved them off.
"A small mishap," he said easily. "No cause for alarm. Back to your duties, everyone! Thank you. Yes, you too, Tibbetts, go on—where's that report on the mass defenestration from Wednesday? That's what I thought."
At the direction of one of the staff outside, the door floated back to settle into its huge medieval hinges, metal warping with light squeals and groans. Clinking broken bits flew to meet and weld together until it looked as if nothing had happened.
Returned was the familiar airtight nothing. Each waited and watched the other.
Daisy hadn't the patience to bear it any longer. She met MacLeod's scrutiny, wringing her fingers, uncertain where she stood. "I've got nothing left to say. Am I—am I under arrest, or . . . ?"
She felt every second of silence in her chest, blow after blow counter to the drum of her heart, pounding inward to stall each beat before it could complete, compelling it to start anew. Breath caught in her throat when MacLeod opened his mouth, closed it to form an unreadable expression, then opened it again. The tone came so flat and direct as to give Daisy a jolt of unease.
"You're free to go at this time, Ms. Pitcher." The ascending relief in her deflated as he continued, his stare pinning her to the wall like an insect that had every inch been catalogued. "Don't mistake me; this is the furthest thing from finished with. I hope you fix that firmly in mind as you go about your business." He leaned forward and set his elbows on his knees, chin resting on clasped hands, and his attention shifted to something far beyond the confines of the pale cell. "Hundreds of people died in that fire . . . and someone is responsible. It couldn't be clearer that to whatever extent recent events involve Pyrrha Clay, they involve you equally as much. This Morrigan—" he swatted the thought aside "—well. Whether or not there is any veracity to the things you've told me is beside my concern. I will learn the full truth of it. And we'll be seeing each other again."
The way he'd spoken as if she were a despicable criminal let free on a technicality made Daisy feel a complicated twist of guilt and affront. Since she was old enough to understand what it meant she'd done everything in her power to live like a good person, the sort of woman that her mother had been, that her father imagined she was. And though it was as closed off as the rest of her best friend's self, there was boundless good in Pyrrha too.
All that Daisy had learned in days past disturbed her to her soul, there was no doubt. It had also affirmed what her mother had taught her about Pyrrha and everyone; beneath all thoughts and feelings and actions, love was at the root of a person. But it didn't always grow into something beautiful.
"Was there something else?" MacLeod's voice gave her a start.
"Er, yeah," Daisy said quietly. "I need to return Pyrrha's wand. Please."
The director shook his head, still not looking at her. "I submitted it for processing . . . it's in pieces by now. Standard procedure for studying implements that exhibit signs of extensive dark magic. I'm sorry."
For a long moment an immensity of heartbroken anger anchored Daisy to the spot. Pyrrha's wand. How much more did her friend need to lose?
Daisy struggled with herself, with a desire to burst and let out what was inside, and she blinked hard and forestalled the battle. Before something awful happened she turned and heaved at the door and left the chamber.
The laboratory below Byron's quarters had become a morgue. Bodies draped the surface of every table, counter, and desk, the excess laid upon conjured biers set in rows down the length of the basement. Fleshly decay curdled in the air and left a putrescent taste at the back of Pyrrha's tongue.
At a sweeping arm gesture their shrouds pulled down to bunch at their feet and bare mangled meat to the air. Pyrrha paced the aisles and surveyed the aftermath of Aradia's play. A second death left behind even less than the first; grey flesh sloughed from crumbling bones, sunken faces collapsed into a commixture of melted features, and rent limbs rested by their erstwhile berths and curled in on themselves with a rigor that nearly suggested the sound of groaning tendons.
All but the smallest pieces were accounted for; Wasila had been meticulous. Though some were nigh unrecognizable mounds of mashed rot after the melee, enough of Byron's former subjects were intact that he may in time put identities to them all and tend to them as he saw fit. The basement carried the clicks of Pyrrha's boots to every quiet corner as she continued her course.
Ashlin kept pace with her along the next row, glancing thoughtfully at each corpse they passed. "Why does he want to cure vampires, d'you think?"
"I don't believe he does." Pyrrha set a wheeled instrument table trundling out of her path with a flick of the wrist. "He wants to cure one vampire. Whatever else may come of his work is a perquisite."
"Just like you only care about bringing our family back."
"Including Claire Pitcher, yes."
Fluid in every hue of bodily waste seeped down the leg of a gurney to form a fuming puddle across the aisle. Pyrrha weaved between a pair of desks and found herself at her sister's side, matching measured strides toward the far end of the lab. Ashlin's warm fingers wormed their way into hers, the sensation mirrored by a glow from the scar across her temple, and Pyrrha felt a wistful jolt.
Two black shrouds marked the incongruous pair at the end of the charnel crowd of whites and greys. Driven by a vague impulse Pyrrha lifted her free arm to peel back the cloth, and the stump of her wrist brushed at it uselessly. She smothered a discontented hum at having forgotten again. A jerk of the arm threw back the coverings.
Irving Omand and Maven Anzeray. Pyrrha remembered their introductions, facilitated by a grinning Wasila, who had likely spoken more on that occasion than the rest of them put together. Despite the shifter's efforts there had been a distanced disinterest between the three of them, though Irving had made overtures toward friendliness. The meeting had left a heartening impression; here were peers who understood what mattered and what didn't. There would be no trivial interaction.
There was a greenish tint to their pale wrinkled skin. It glistened under the clinical white candlelight straining thinly across the width of the basement. The sterile stench of the preservative slathered over the bodies stung to inhale. Pyrrha's gaze traced the drooping curve at one corner of Maven's mouth, where the shadow of a vindictive smile clung loosely. If only the impulse could be tracked back to its source, Pyrrha would know the reason the seer had pronounced her doom with such certitude.
"Could you bring her back? No need to create a new body, right?" Ashlin squeezed Pyrrha's hand and let go to draw nearer to the cadaver, head canted in musing. "You could ask her what she meant to say."
"I could restore her body to life, but her soul would still be lost. Aradia was meant to resolve that conundrum."
"And she's dead for a bit too," Ashlin said with a slow nod, mouth twisting in discontent. "So . . . how are you going to do it? There's got to be some way to yank a soul over to us."
"I've only ever heard legends of such a thing being done," Pyrrha said. Something tingled at the back of her brain. "And I don't know enough about Aradia's work to follow what threads she may have left. Not yet."
"Well, that's a start, right? The legends." The burn bled heat for a moment. "Some of them are all too real."
Across from Maven, Irving looked as if he had merely nodded off again. The ragged pink wound parting his throat put an end to that fancy. Pyrrha could nearly hear the deep rumble of Hati's chest, and the slick clicks of his dripping claws pacing the common hall.
She covered up her late cohorts and spun around to face the basement's entirety. Tracing and retracing every row of remains with her eyes, along the walls and among each central aisle, back down her path and up all the others she scanned and could find not a hint of the glint of brilliant silver fur. That Hati hadn't been among the dead at Furnival's manor gave rise to a lurch in her sternum she couldn't decipher.
Graffitied trainers falling soundless, Ashlin ambled back into view and shot her a sympathetic look.
"I'm not certain what I feel," Pyrrha said.
Ashlin winced. "You know what it means." She continued when Pyrrha didn't speak. "He didn't die . . . and it might've been better if he had."
The scar flashed hot in time with a bolt of fury and guilt spearing through Pyrrha. Thoughts of Morrigan jostled to the forefront of her mind and probed at her, picked at her, peeled at her to force in all that she wanted not to recall. Ashlin's whisper, Daisy's sob. Fire and dust. Blood and agony. Burning endless empty yellow eyes staring and waiting and seeking and screaming voices wailing in her ears in her head—
As one the corpses sat up and stared at her with gleaming hollow sockets and Pyrrha went for her wand, her fingers scrabbled at an empty pocket—blood roared and she turned to her sister and jerked back—Ashlin's eyes were molten gold—
The wheel of a rolling cart caught Pyrrha's heel and she took it with her to the stone floor in a racket of flimsy metal, silver implements clanging and skittering in every direction. Amplified by the quiet, the echoes still rebounded as Pyrrha did, body swimming with adrenaline. She turned every which way.
The corpses were supine again, staring and gaping up at the low ceiling as if nothing had stirred them or ever would. All she could hear was her heart in her ears.
"Hey." Ashlin's voice gave her another start. She sat at the foot of a gurney, lips pressed thin. Her eyes were again sky blue. "Are you okay?"
Metal keened when Pyrrha kicked the cart aside and met her sister with a hand clamped around the jaw, torn between surprise and wrath when she made contact with skin again. It felt precisely the same as it ever had, those few times she had lost her temper with Ashlin and resolved to make an impression. Ashlin wore the very same wide-eyed look.
Pyrrha let go and stepped back, breathing still labored. The scar shed searing heat down her face. "You," she said. "Was that you? Answer me."
"Yeah. I mean, I think so." Ashlin ran a hand through her hair, looking miserable. "It doesn't happen on purpose. I'm sorry, Pyrrha."
"Get out of my sight," Pyrrha said, voice low with venom. "You are not Ashlin."
"No," the counterfeit said, already gone. "Close enough, though."
The admission didn't register until Pyrrha finished righting the cart and its contents. Nothing about the curse was clear cut or even consistent, and perhaps that was the point. As she plucked up her fallen glasses and made for the exit, it occurred to her that an affliction which defied all sense applied was an excellent vector to take in driving her insane, if lacking in expediency.
When Pyrrha saw Daisy poised at the bottom of the basement steps, everything stilled. She was pale and disheveled in the oversized robes hanging from her frozen frame. Only her round eyes moved, flicking over Pyrrha to the inhabitants of the morgue and back again, then a cursory scan of the empty spaces between it all. The spaces Pyrrha had been interacting with.
Pyrrha's mouth was dry. "Welcome back. I see things went to plan, more or less?"
"Were you speaking to Ashlin?" There was no quaver in Daisy's voice, instead so direct it unbalanced Pyrrha further.
The scar at Pyrrha's temple pulsed with heat enough to make her wince, but it escalated no more when she waited. Her sister's shade was mute. There had been drastic change in the shape of things since Daisy had entered into her complete confidence; her best friend had met with and withstood the most unsettling parts of her life and her mind, and still Daisy remained with her down there in the dark, among the filth, beneath the amber stare that breached beyond all boundaries.
"Yes . . ." Pyrrha's bounding heart rattled the few words she managed. ". . . and no."
She turned to cast a last look across the basement, cluttered clusters of equipment shoved aside or stowed away in accommodation of the dead, white skin beneath white sheets beneath white firelight. Throughout the room the sheets rustled and spread back up to cover slack mouths and glassy eyes when Pyrrha extended her arm.
Wordlessly she led the way away from Byron's quarters, Daisy falling into step just behind. All sorts of Daisy's thoughts and feelings radiated out and writhed about through Pyrrha's awareness while they walked, and still their strength, their intricacies left her interpretations far behind, wanting and yearning. Humanity came so easily to Daisy she had but to exist near someone to make them seem deficient by comparison. At the opposite end of that spectrum was Pyrrha, proficient with naught but rage, guilt and sorrow. Life, she felt, was largely wasted on her, but for the intellect she would use to trade herself for the people who she should love.
Any time she'd said the words they felt hollow as the cavity they had been dragged from. It had pained her from a young age; did she really love her mother, or was she a liar in denial? Did she truly feel nothing for her father, or was she yet too young to recognize what affection felt like? As Pyrrha aged she had numbed herself to that corner of her conscience and adhered to the script assigned to her.
The burn smoldered as they navigated the dreamy halls, and Pyrrha rubbed at the smooth striations of scar tissue spiderwebbing from temple to cheek. The motion snapped Daisy's focus onto her.
"It's got to do with that, hasn't it? The hallucination." She still sounded almost businesslike, as if she were already in hot pursuit of a solution. "The pain. They're both part of the curse that burned you."
"That's right," Pyrrha said. She stopped short and fell silent at the sound of approaching footsteps beyond the intersecting corridor. Byron nearly ran into her as he rounded the corner.
"Oh! Ah, my bad." A floating train of trunks and cases bobbed along behind him and wobbled to a stop as he did. There was a sheen of sweat over his face, and the smell of steaming muck clung to him; he'd been attending the vapor chamber. He grew more stiff at every moment of Pyrrha's attention. "Er, you—I take it your business inside my lab is finished with, then?"
Pyrrha walked past him and his earthen effluvium back into the exotic scents emitted by the Lodge, bruised colors swimming along the ridges and ribs of the tunneled passages. From behind she caught a few soft snatches of sentiment between Byron and Daisy before the clicks of her borrowed boots dogged her progress again.
Through and through the curving corridors, past the giggling echoes of Vinci's ghost haunting his mother's haven, at length they reached the stone barrier that throbbed in time with Pyrrha's own racing pulse. The antechamber shuddered along with it like an aortic valve fit to split at the seams. She brushed the black acid scar with the tip of a finger, and the wall wasn't there, the hall falling still.
The study beyond prickled with the smells of ozone and fresh blood. Without pause Pyrrha led the way past the crackling aurora of the nerve cloud and between several overburdened bookshelves, through the door to the lamplit hallway, where she took the lefthand door at the end. Daphne's portrait snoozed through their passing.
The snap of the shutting door hadn't receded before Daisy spoke up. "So what exactly have you been seeing and hearing?"
Drifting above, the floating candles flared up and winked brighter at Pyrrha's motion. The room was as ghostly white as the morgue. She shifted the clinical light to a warm fireplace tone, but the golden ripples from the wax that that dripped across the ceiling set her further on edge; she turned them a gentle shade of red instead.
"I'll explain all I can," Pyrrha said, indicating for Daisy to join her beside the scribing desk. With a wave of her hand she vanished several etched bones from its surface. "But tell me what happened at the Ministry first. I expect yours will take less time."
Daisy's hands leapt together and wrung. "Were those human bones?"
"Some of them. I've been exploring Attanic scrimshaw as a means to influence departed spirits by their worldly remains."
Daisy's head tilted back to shoot a pleading look at the ceiling. "God, do I even need to say it?"
"Trust that they're not worth your concern," Pyrrha said with a flick of the hand. "They've evaded me thus far, anyhow. Now tell me, have the DMJ cleared you of suspicion?"
"No . . . no. They let me walk out, but I looked about as suspicious as it gets, short of hauling off with a great big sack of stolen galleons over my shoulder. It seemed alright until that woman Baranov barged in and—"
They discussed at length Daisy's arrival and subsequent interrogation. Her tone grew increasingly penitent as the narrative advanced, despite Pyrrha's reassurances, and the skin of her fingers soon went pink with wear. Saying little else apart from pertinent questions, Pyrrha reclined back in her armchair and listened to the account with undivided attention until the rapid fire sequence of events and their details began to peter out.
"—blasted the door right off its hinges and bolted, the lunatic! She's got it all the way in for you, Pyrrha, and I'm sure she wanted me to tell you so. Speaking of," Daisy said, "what the hell got into you, leaving my philter in her hand? Were you trying to set her off, or . . . ?"
"No." Pyrrha pinched at the bridge of her nose against an impending headache, faint needles of embarrassment trickling down her nape. "I didn't realize it could be traced back to such a precise degree. It was careless."
Daisy only gave a shrug and a look that said, and?
"I felt badly for the state I left her in." The needles sharpened. Pyrrha ran a hand roughly through her loose hair. "Because she struck me as attractive. A careless mistake, as I said. Nothing like that will happen again."
After a few moments spent stewing in her disgrace Pyrrha still heard no response. She looked up to find Daisy staring at her like a life form descended from outer space, mouth ajar, brown eyes rounded.
"But you never told me you're attracted to women!" Daisy burst out. It sounded bizarrely like an accusation.
"I suppose not," Pyrrha said. Her voice went dry. "I understand I've never before confessed so desperately dark a secret. Hopefully you can make peace with this terrible knowledge, in time."
"Oh, do shut up!" A flush crept up Daisy's face, her eyes bright with unreadable feelings. "I couldn't be expected to suspect any of this insanity—" she threw an arm out to encompass the Lodge "—but I bloody well should have known—well—known that about my goddamned best friend! How could you possibly hold it in all this time—why would you?"
"Breathe, Daisy," Pyrrha said, entirely nonplussed. "I didn't 'hold it in,' or otherwise conceal it from you. It was, and is, irrelevant. A rare impulse that I don't care to pursue anyhow."
"Well, why the hell not?"
Pyrrha couldn't fathom the origin of Daisy's ire. Her scar tingled with pain where hair brushed against it; she fashioned an updo with a quick gesture. "Because people are tiresome, Daisy, myself included. I haven't the will to inflict myself upon someone else, nor have I the energy to attempt to meet their needs . . . are you really this disturbed by a matter so small?"
Daisy gave an owlish blink and darted her gaze around before snapping back with the same fire. "Not only by that, no. Remember what the auror told me about the giants? Is that true?"
"It's true," Pyrrha said, nearly reeling at the pivot in tack. "I killed them in self-defense."
It landed a dull blow to see Daisy's expression crumple at the admission. Her hands still worried at each other. "Pyrrha . . ." She watched the rhythmic wringing in her lap. "Look, I realize I wasn't there. God knows you work yourself into impossible situations, and it's only ever for someone else—someone you love—and then you—you sort of headbutt your way out of it, yeah? I mean, you do what you know is right, in the most direct way possible."
"What are you getting at?" Pyrrha's gut squirmed. The burn pulsed steadily. "If you feel I was in the wrong, then say as much."
"Alright." Daisy took a short breath and met Pyrrha's eyes, steadfast. "Being as brilliant as you are, I don't think—I know that bloodbath shouldn't have happened. There's no reason I can see for you to wipe them out like that. They were at your mercy; you might've tricked them, restrained them, knocked them unconscious, something. Anything. You slaughtered the giants. The Pyrrha I knew before wouldn't have done that, not when she had other options."
Something in Pyrrha recoiled as if stung, and from the site swelled the beginnings of outrage. A response reared up and stalled at the expression on Daisy's face, braced and resolute, though with rigid anxiety in the set of her shoulders and the sudden stillness of her clenched fingers. The sight was sickening. It was the look of someone cornered into bravery against a greater evil.
"The Pyrrha you knew." Silence beat within the room, suffocating under wan red light. "Is that so?"
Daisy raised her chin. "She wouldn't have ripped out that poor man's tongue, either. Not as a first resort."
"That poor man did his utmost to roast us alive." Pyrrha leaned forward in her seat and filled her vision with Daisy's pale countenance. "Giants are little better than mindless beasts—ignorant, bloodthirsty, worthless blights on the ecosystem. The Bennadon tribe only reinforced an opinion I've held since our time at Hogwarts."
"You thought less of muggle-borns back then, too," Daisy said quietly. "But you came around. You know violence isn't all giants are; you even said as much to Furnival! Think of Care of Magical Creatures, seventh year, when Hagrid took us all to meet his brother. D'you remember how he—?"
"Enough." Turmoil swirled in Pyrrha such that one moment to the next a different response shaped her lips. She sat back and nestled into cold anger. "Consider that you've never known me the way you imagine you have. I'm not a virtuous person, and I've never pretended otherwise. I won't start now."
"But you are!" Daisy thumped the desk. "You went out to face Morrigan, by yourself, because she was a threat to all of bloody civilization! You've sacrificed more than two years and your good health to do something that no one considers to be remotely possible, and give Ash her parents back! And I'm afraid—I'm afraid this magic you've been using, it's taking even more. It's changing you here." Daisy touched the side of her head.
That the dark magics Pyrrha explored would warp her mind had lurked in the periphery of her thoughts from the outset. She had always imagined she might feel it coming, the moment when a well-worn path of reason led her astray to conclusions she'd never before considered, or when familiar stimuli gave rise to the wrong reaction. The idea of transforming into a different person was not at all repellant; Pyrrha often desired to accede to her limits, rather than wield a liminal sense of humanity without the substance, the emotions that gave it meaning and worth.
What Daisy put forth might well be the truth; perhaps a year ago, two years, Pyrrha might have taken a more measured approach against the obstacles in her path. Perhaps her studies had kindled in her a pernicious appetite for crushing the opposition. While Daisy bit her lip and watched, Pyrrha made the same inward journey she had embarked on what felt like every day of her life, and she searched wide and deep for the solitary spark that may become the guiding light toward personhood.
But her soul was dim and hollow, and it wasn't in her to care. There was no further damage left to be done. She would never be more than a flawed instrument.
"You have a point, Daisy," Pyrrha said, "if I were anyone else. But I was born malfunctional . . . or perhaps my childhood experience with Drang warped me. I think you've always seen in me what you wanted to see, and for some time I did nothing to refute your preconceptions." She gestured with her one hand at nothing in particular, gazing up at the somber red candle wicks. "And here you are at long last. This is what you befriended. I've done nothing since Morrigan that I wouldn't do again. My metamorphosis is immaterial beside what's at stake, and I can't succeed without blood magic."
Despite her matter-of-fact delivery a furtive unease pulled at Pyrrha. She felt as she always had for Daisy and still didn't know if it was love or selfish possession of a source of comfort and support, no different than for a loyal dog. In either case she hoped Daisy would persevere with her in the new light cast upon them.
For a minute all Daisy did was look anywhere but Pyrrha, giving small shakes of her head, blinking back the wetness filming her eyes. Her hands were locked together. "You're not that lost, Pyrrha, goddamnit. I know I can't change your mind, but I'll say it every day until you strike me dumb; you're not beyond recovering. You've shown your heart in a thousand small ways . . . and—" Daisy snorted faintly "—in big ways too."
The same recollection flashed from Daisy's head to Pyrrha; the Hospital Wing, when her insides had been evaluated. She allowed a hum of amusement.
The wavering smile faltered before it could form, and Daisy hugged herself tight. "Your body's still failing. I saw it at the manor. I revived you."
"You told me you would mend yourself."
"And I did," Pyrrha said gently. A precipitous feeling dangled in her chest; there was no soft way to deliver the answer Daisy dug for. "I resolved the problem of my failing heart, but . . . it was a temporary measure."
Daisy's expression began to fold. Her fingers dug into her robes at the shoulders, trembling with effort, clenched as firmly as her voice was brittle. "You promised me you wouldn't die."
"And I won't," Pyrrha said, gentler still, inflection poised for the addendum.
"Pyrrha," Daisy said sharply, a warning or a plea.
"Not before I'm ready."
The trembles became tremors, and Daisy's breathing rasped louder and less even. She doubled over in her chair and hung her head there for the length of several shaky breaths, and then she rocked back and gasped at the ceiling and began to cry. Her cheeks glistened with rivulets of tears turned pink in the candlelight.
Piercing straight into the center, the delicate sound didn't long saw at Pyrrha's spirit before it broke into passionate sobbing. Mercifully, Daisy crumpled forward and buried her face in her hands, covering up the contortions twisting her features into a miserable cast they were never made to take on. In Pyrrha's dark robes, the sight struck like that of a mourning widow.
The dreadful weight oppressing the bedroom then was infinitely greater than that of the morgue. Shadows in shades of dry blood flickered and swayed at peripheries, licked and tickled at the undersides of the beds and bookcases, flitted along the curving hollows carved in the doors of the armoire. Pyrrha watched everything but Daisy, and felt nothing but the same empty gnawing of self-indulgent guilt that followed her failures.
Daisy shot up with a wail, a keening worse than Morrigan's curse, and she yanked at her hair, yanked at the drawers of the scribing desk and flung them out behind her. One by one the drawers soared half the length of the room and strew their contents about, crashing and tumbling to the wooden floor. Daisy ripped out the last and slammed it over the desk's surface until it shattered in her hands and she hurled the pieces away, slapped and slashed at the parchment flitting about. Her voice cracked and broke; she whirled and hurled a shove at her armchair to send it backward.
The bang of its landing was the last sound in the room. Daisy's shoulders rose and fell, gradually loosening, her clenched fists unfurling with shaky effort. Still without facing Pyrrha she sniffed and wiped at her eyes, arranged her hair with a few smart swipes, and gingerly righted the armchair. She turned and eased herself down, hunched against an existential weariness. Her eyes were puffy and half-lidded.
Pyrrha didn't know what to say, or even where to settle her eyes. She cast her vision over the field of debris littering her chamber. Quills and inkpots, carven bones and weathered texts, sickles and envelopes. Ink pooled a deep purple in the light.
After an interval Pyrrha forced herself to witness Daisy. Despite her efforts she looked disheveled, elbows set on her knees, her elegant hands cradling her forehead. She met Pyrrha's attention blearily.
"Sorry about your fucking drawers," Daisy muttered.
The oath was so unexpected that a short laugh escaped Pyrrha. She repressed it immediately, but Daisy let out a watery giggle, and then they cracked up quietly together in a ridiculous, fleeting spasm of levity. Somehow at the end of it the air in the room felt infinitely lighter.
They sat there and smiled until their world came back to them. Against an unpleasant tension in her core Pyrrha rose, reached out and captured Daisy's hand, drew her up and enfolded her in a hug. It felt intrusive, gainless, like an animal burrowing for shelter only to hit upon bedrock. Pyrrha's brain derided her gesture: manipulative; inadequate; empty. The thoughts thickened her blood and made her stiff.
But Daisy molded herself to fit, arms wrapped snugly. She sighed into Pyrrha's collarbone. "Feels like it's been years since I got to do this . . . Don't apologize; I know you hate it . . ." She squeezed tighter, nuzzled deeper. "Let me be selfish for a minute."
Pyrrha watched the candles weep wax onto the ceiling, watched the ruddy drops ripple out and rebound off one another in little waves that tapered off and sank up into the dark of the edges. Soft hair tickled at her throat.
"I don't hate it," Pyrrha said, faintly surprised to hear the truth in her words. She felt Daisy twitch against her, felt an upsurge of something quickly obfuscated in outreaching thoughts. "It's only that I regret how limited I am. I don't like to accept affections because I can't return them in kind, not without feeling . . . fake. I thought you'd guessed that." She patted Daisy's back gently. "But it's not always about my comfort—it shouldn't be. Another front I've failed you on, I'm afraid."
There was an air of something different between them, a change difficult to place, but the unease it brought heightened every second of their prolonged contact. Daisy leaned away to look up at Pyrrha with warm brown eyes shining, her arms still linked around the small of Pyrrha's back. She bit her lip against something she was working herself up to say.
With an inexplicable stab of worry Pyrrha pried them apart with a hand on Daisy's shoulder and guided her back to her armchair, straining not to appear like she was retreating when she reclaimed her own. She left behind the sudden invasion of dangerous impressions without a backward glance. Dull pain emanated from her scar and her clenched stomach.
In her periphery she saw Daisy shift restlessly and let out a resolute breath. "Pyrrha . . . I—"
"Finish your account of the interrogation, please." Pyrrha kept her gaze elsewhere. "Did you retrieve my wand?"
After a long half minute Daisy gave a quiet, dejected sigh and picked up where they'd left off. Her voice shook as she related her parting exchange with the head of the DMJ.
"I'm so sorry, Pyrrha, I—I don't know what I could've done . . ." Daisy sniffled. "God, your wand. I'm sorry. I can't believe he disregarded me like that—where would I be, if my safety really depended on returning it? Some bloody auror."
Pyrrha hummed. "This isn't your fault; you followed our plan precisely. I'm quite proud of how you held up, in fact. But I believe MacLeod misled you."
"What?" Daisy sat up straighter.
"It's likely the wand is destroyed at this point," Pyrrha said, "but I'll warrant that only happened after you left it behind. I think he lied to you to see your reaction; if you panicked and begged for him to repair it, replicate it, find some other solution to the threat hanging over you, he would find you genuine, and reveal that he'd preserved the wand for your safety."
"But I left," Daisy said, hand pressed over her chest. "I took him at his word . . ."
"Because it wasn't truly a matter of life or death, but a ruse you were eager to see through to its conclusion," Pyrrha said, looking down at her empty fingers. "Clever of him."
"I can't believe this—God damn it!" Daisy pounded a fist into her thigh. "The nerve in his lopsided head! I could just—!" She shook her head, blonde locks whipping. "How aren't you furious, how aren't you upset? Your wand!"
"It served me well," Pyrrha said. She removed her glasses and wiped at the lenses with a sleeve, struggling a bit with one hand. "With the magics I've been channeling through it, its efficacy was slowly degrading . . . it had three good years left, at a guess. As such, I've prepared for eventualities like this. There are other wands. None quite as in tune with me, granted, but they'll suffice."
"Suffice? Sure, but . . ." Daisy struggled with herself. "That wand was yours. It's the one you've had since you were a child, since our school days—your every memory is tied up with it. Only our own wands can work magic exactly the way we want, the way we expect. Won't you miss it at all?"
"I don't think so," Pyrrha said. To her the loss was equal to that of a glove, rather than a hand. She was already considering which of her replacements best met the challenges to come. "No more than I would miss another proven tool."
"Oh." Daisy looked stunned, her fingers drifting toward her pocket. "Is that . . . have you always—I mean, do you, erm . . . d'you miss Hati, then?" At Pyrrha's shrug she twisted her hands, flitted her gaze around, gathering herself. She looked at Pyrrha again, cheeks bloodless. "Ashlin?"
Though Pyrrha understood where the question came from—their time together in Morrigan's wake, far more intimate than ever before, had surely been an upheaval of every idea Daisy had of her personality—she still had to fight down outrage.
"Right, of course you do," Daisy said, failing not to appear relieved. "Sorry."
Ashlin's chipper voice shattered the somber atmosphere. "There's no need for that, though, is there? I'm right here."
Pyrrha sat back. Her sister sat cross-legged on the desk, beaming. Despite herself the sight was a shot of warmth to the heart.
"Are you—do you see her again?" Daisy said, eyes tracing vainly around Ashlin.
For a moment there was no sound but rustling robes as Daisy wrung her hands, and adjusted herself in search of a position that would alleviate a discomfort not physical. "Your turn to explain," she said. "What do you know about this curse? What's it doing to you?"
"I can only speculate," Pyrrha said, "and my perceptions are skewed, undoubtedly. But I don't think it's a stretch to say that the curse is meant to drive me to madness. It pursues this end from several angles; hallucinations, voices—impersonations of Ashlin—localized pain, and amplification of my negative emotions."
"Christ," Daisy said, clasping Pyrrha's hand in both of hers. "All that, from the beginning? And I never picked up on it . . ." Her eyes went wide, and she squeezed. "Back at Hogwarts, in the Great Hall—you saw something then, didn't you?"
Ashlin leaned between them when they parted. "For the record, that was also unintentional. Sort of."
"Yes," Pyrrha said, waving her sister back. The figment of her sister. "The curse seems to draw power from my mental state; the worst symptoms occur when I experience overwhelming guilt or grief. It's as if . . ." She paused to formulate the thought. "I suffer what I feel I deserve to at any given time. That would explain why it was worse in the beginning, more intense, when events were fresh in my head; now I've been preoccupied working against Morrigan, Ashlin has settled down."
Daisy's lips thinned, and she glared through Ashlin's shoulder. "So, it's meant to be some sort of demented punishment? Softening you up so you'd be easier to capture later on?"
"Punishment!" Ashlin clutched at her heart. "I'm a prize, Pyrrha, and nothing less! Tell her."
"That's what I make of it, yes," Pyrrha said, "though Ashlin takes exception to the thought."
"Why are you calling it Ashlin?" Daisy looked between Pyrrha and the specter she couldn't see, pale and narrow-eyed. "When you know it isn't?"
"In the beginning, she recriminated me for not acknowledging her as such." The burn simmered with embers of old pain; Pyrrha ran her fingers over it. "Now, it's . . . simpler, I suppose."
"We've come a long way." Ashlin was behind, wrapping her arms around Pyrrha's neck. Her head rested against Pyrrha's. "I'm glad we're not so angry anymore. Or that we haven't had the time to linger, at any rate . . . You do miss me, don't you?" she whispered in Pyrrha's ear, hugging tighter. "You weren't lying?"
"Pyrrha?" Daisy leaned over to intercept Pyrrha's far-off gaze, hands wringing. "Did you hear me?"
"No." A dull ache pulsed in her chest.
"I said I don't think you should entertain it," Daisy said. Her expression was tense, brows furrowed; she could have been back in her father's shop, pioneering her own formulas. "Naming it like that, you're projecting your feelings for Ashlin onto something that witch put inside you. Something that sure as hell wants nothing good. We have to find a way to be rid of it, not make it comfortable."
"Oh, I'm not quite that reformed," Ashlin said. The scar's warmth flared into heat for a moment. "I won't let you go."
"She has a hold over me." Pyrrha couldn't meet Daisy's eyes, instead watching her fingers graze the puckered ridges at the stump of her wrist. "She doesn't want to leave, and I'm not sure I—I'm not sure anymore."
In the lapse that followed, in the rasp of robes against upholstery, she knew Daisy had made the lie in her voice. She didn't want to lose the apparition. There wasn't a shred of doubt. The shape of her attitudes should have revulsed her, and she could touch the decisions she knew must be made, well within her grasp, but her mind was set on the safekeeping of Ashlin's shade. Warmth trickled from the scar.
"What d'you mean you're not sure?" The pace of Daisy's wringing picked up. "Listen—this spell, it's just one more force of dark magic wearing away at you. Nothing less, and certainly nothing more. You know it's not your sister." Her hands clasped in her lap, knuckles white. "That means if you leave it be, it's for nobody but yourself; you'd be self-destructing to satisfy your own guilt, or—or clinging to some twisted semblance of her you can fool yourself into feeling for. And all the while it'll go on poisoning you. Please . . . you know it's the wrong thing, I can see that much on your face!"
"Don't found judgments solely upon your few rotations as a sanamency apprentice." Pyrrha's voice came harsher than she intended; she moderated herself when Daisy stiffened. "It's all too clear to me that the visions are not faithful to Ashlin. But that doesn't mean there are no traces of her to be found . . ." The candle lights overhead glinted like polished rubies lit from within, staged for display upon weeping plinths. "My mind feeds the curse. My thoughts, my memories. It's a phenomenon beyond the rote classifications of magical psychiatry; as much as Morrigan's intent guides it, so does my own. The visions are, I think, an amalgam. The Ashlin shadowing me is of Morrigan, but she's also of me, and of my recollections of her living self. I've had glimpses of her spirit; each one was worth the agonies incurred countless times over. As I see it, this curse is the closest I can be with her for a while yet. I won't let it go."
In the womblike encasement of Pyrrha's chamber they bargained and quarreled over the soft blots of drops drumming across the ceiling like restless fingers. Voice ringing with passion, Daisy matched her metaphysical acumen with Pyrrha's and pursued her end from every angle and argument she could draw. Their volumes shot up with emotion and plummeted with the same. In little time their conflict turned circular, and little longer than that point did Pyrrha entertain their pantomimed debate.
"I'm quite clear on your position, Daisy. We must disagree. It is my mind to 'poison' and I'm willing to accept the costs."
At Pyrrha's side, her sister did a small triumphant bounce and raised one hand, blue eyes gleaming. She thoughtlessly held out her palm to receive a low five, brain afire with neurons thought dead. The enthusiasm of it stung her skin.
Daisy didn't miss it. She glanced between Pyrrha and the empty air again, and something seemed to grip her such that she couldn't refuse it a voice, regardless her feelings.
"And what if the cost is your grasp of magic? Your family's chance at resurrection?"
When the question registered Pyrrha felt the room skew beneath her. A chill skittered up her spine and abated the burn's steady heat, a dizzying sensation, and she sought Ashlin without a thought what she would find.
There were the sorrowful blue eyes that could sway her toward nigh on anything. Ashlin crossed an arm to clutch at her elbow, weight shifting gently from foot to foot. "I'd never hurt you like that," she said. "You, or me; we're in this together, remember? I've told you I want revenge. There's nothing that could make me compromise that."
"What if it's not up to you?" Pyrrha said quietly.
"Yeah? What if it isn't?" Her voice rose a little in time with an unpleasant flare. Blue eyes shimmered. "Would that be it for me? Would you snuff me out for something I can't control, crack on with your insane plans all alone? Damn it, can't you just put up with me? That's what sisters do!"
The curse was responding to the crumbling of Pyrrha's earlier resolve; that it reacted with despair in place of castigation only shook her further. "My work is more important than either of us," she said. "What else would you have of me?"
Ashlin blinked against tears. "I dunno, Pyrrha, I . . . I don't want to die. Even though," she went on, choking back a watery laugh, "even though most everything I know about being alive, I've experienced through you, and it hasn't—" another spasm, a laughing sob "—it hasn't made for a ringing endorsement, to say the least. But I still want to—I want—I don't know. Sharing your head puts me right up against the concepts of life and death no matter where I am. And you, with so much more insight than most, you're as sure as anyone can be . . . and so I am too. We know, right?" Ashlin swiped at her cheek, missing the tear. "There's no afterlife for curses."
All Pyrrha could do was look on her sister, stiff and trembling, distraught as the day they'd been brought news of their parents' deaths. Not minutes earlier she'd been a more complete person, slinging paints across a canvas in her room without any cares at all. Then, a limp knock at the door.
Here she stood again. And dotting the fingers curled around her elbow, there were flecks of green and gold paint.
Ashlin whispered, entreating without a ghost of malice: "I'm afraid."
Chalk white veins webbed their way throughout the brown marble beneath Pyrrha's boots. Her forehead rested against the cool porcelain rim of the sink, beaded with droplets from the pour of the faucet. The low roar of running water drowned the chamber from the adjacent toilet stalls to the far-flung sunken bath and shower alcove.
She wouldn't look up at the mirror; the stolen glance upon entry had been enough. Pyrrha had never been pretty and had never cared to be, though the effort it would take to change that would be negligible. What ate at her was the gaunt, bloodless features befitting a deathbed case, the shining red scar unwinding from her blackened temple, twining about her hollow cheek, her lightless eye. No transfiguration could mask what blood magic had made of her.
However much time was left before she lost herself, it wasn't enough.
"We'll make it work." Ashlin hung inverted from the bath's brass railing with the crooks of her knees, fingertips nearly grazing the bottom. "Why did you ever bother putting this here when you're too chicken to stick your head underwater?"
Pyrrha shut off the faucet and turned to make for the door, swiping the damp from her face. "The same reason you always chose outsized brassieres."
"Pfft! Well, you got me there."
No longer suffocating in depthless red, Pyrrha's bedchamber gleamed with natural candle light refracted in the polished wood floor and the glass-fronted cabinets abutting the dreary walls. From the surface of the restored scribing desk a gramophone warbled out an energetic symphony of piano and violin, thoughtful and tentatively upbeat; a Gambara piece.
Daisy reclined in the same chair and watched with the familiar concern one could never earn. With a flick she vanished the record player, and Pyrrha joined her again. She stowed her wand with a wan smile.
"Feeling any better?" Daisy said. She picked bits of dry skin from the tips of her fingers, then snatched them apart and shook her sleeves down. "Oh, don't look, I know they're revolting. Nerves, y'know. It sounds absurd, but I really wish I'd thought to grab my moisturizer."
"What's absurd is to malign your hands like that. All I see there is a pair of delicate implements, engraved by care and passion for your craft; to my mind, they reflect some of your most beautiful qualities."
The moment she'd finished speaking Pyrrha wondered at herself. Some variation of the same scene had played out between them countless times prior, but until now she had always politely let the instance pass. Something had spurred her to blurt private thoughts. In the recesses where reason should dwell all Pyrrha could unearth was a displaced sense of playful mischief.
Across from her, Daisy looked at a loss for words, round eyed and pink in the face. Not so much as a twitch of a finger stirred the sleeves.
"At any rate," Pyrrha went on, "now we've seen to your legal situation, you're free to return to Hogwarts as you like—you're expected even now, I'm sure—and there's time yet before your first term begins." She paused to look past Daisy, frustrating any passive inquests of thought, and added, "Yes, I've managed to settle myself. I—we're still processing."
Daisy nodded, expression unfocused as if her attentions were split several ways. "It's a lot."
"That it is." Pyrrha's arid tone recaptured Daisy's full focus, told by the darkening flush. "It seems to us that nothing need be set in stone until Morrigan is dead. Any of our possible futures hinge on her defeat; that's where we must direct our energies now."
"Right." Daisy's expression fell into something more guarded. She glanced off to the space by Pyrrha's right; Ashlin appeared on the left and blew a raspberry. "It's going to help you, is it?"
"Right," Daisy said again, rubbing at her eyes. "Say, what were the two of you talking about down in Byron's lab, before I walked in?"
Though she couldn't know the specifics, Daisy was picking at the commotion between them as a result of the vision Ashlin had conjured. Restraining her annoyance, Pyrrha elected to interpret the question a different way.
"We spoke of spirits, and how to coax them from their afterlife. It was Aradia's part in our endeavor. Her death has left me with no recourse but to raise her back; she shared precious little of her knowledge with me, nor I with her. Counterproductive, but that way neither of us could cut out the other."
"And it's leverage to make sure you'll help resurrect her son," Daisy said, nodding to herself. Within the overlong sleeves of the borrowed robes her fingers twined. "Er, what does Vincenzo think of this plan? I can't imagine what I'd . . . Is it different for a ghost?"
"We haven't yet made a comprehensive attempt, so I can't be certain. The ghost isn't truly Vincenzo, merely a persistent echo; as such we still have need of a way to contact his soul. Aradia suspected that phase of the process might resolve more easily if she could somehow harness his ghost." Pyrrha watched Ashlin toss up a battered quaffle and catch it from more and more dextrous orientations. "As for his opinion, I've no idea. I doubt Aradia ever considered it."
Daisy made a pensive, troubled noise. "But it matters, right? Shouldn't he have a say in what—?"
"He was a child." An upsurge of passion sharpened Pyrrha's voice, though she couldn't trace it; it was temper and terror she wouldn't confront, a black cloud around her family's place in her mind. "Where was his autonomy while his father choked the life from him? No. It doesn't matter. No one gets to choose their beginnings; there is nothing but to adapt to circumstance. And th—that he will."
A minute dragged on undisturbed but for the rhythmic pattering of wax. Ashlin fumbled the quaffle, and it landed with a thud and rolled beneath a bed. When she passed to follow it the smells of turf and leathery sweat lingered in her wake.
"Well, um . . ." Daisy squeezed her hands together, looking worried and forlorn. "Did you two come up with anything down there? Any new ideas?"
"Not quite . . ." Pyrrha rubbed at the gently pulsing burn. "Ashlin suggested we might look to wizarding legends of death thwarted—tales of returned spirits. In light of what we know now it is, admittedly, not an entirely hopeless idea, but very nearly so." For the second time something tickled at Pyrrha, distant and niggling beneath her attention like a grain of sand in her boot. "I'm not prepared to grasp for straws yet."
"That's not a bad thought, actually," Daisy said. "Must've come from your own subconscious bit of the curse." Behind Daisy, Ashlin straightened up and shot an affronted look from where she knelt beside the bed. "We should give it a think, at least. Can't hurt to name off some legends that'd fit. Let's see . . . there was that one, erm, what was it . . . The Meandering Maple? It ran around getting people blitzed on its sap, and they had all sorts of visions, right, like visits from the dead. Could there be something to that, d'you think?"
"We can't rule it out completely, but I doubt it's what we're looking for. That story is one of the Bard's fairy tales, not a cultural myth. The two classifications have overlap, however, tales told by the likes of storytellers such as Beedle often lack the foundation of fact and sourcing at the heart of legends disseminated in wizarding folklore. Though I will say," Pyrrha added with a note of levity, "I rather enjoy the picture you painted with that summation; far more entertaining than the original."
Daisy smiled. "Thanks. Maybe I'll make a funny teacher, if not a competent one." She bit her lip and leaned back to cast a ruminative look at the floating candles.
A subtle, bitter scent became apparent as Pyrrha shared in their contemplation. Biting and peppery, the warm prickling sensation that trickled in her sinuses triggered a stir of nostalgias, even as the air invited her instinct to breathe deeper. Fleeting wisps of brown haze curled down from the wicks. The herbal incense, a palliative for anxieties ground from the roots of the ninir shrub, had been a pervading aroma in Daisy's personal spaces since their fifth year at school. Though she lamented how it tended to cloud about her robes and hair so stubbornly, the diverse flavors of potion vapors she spent so often immersed in made the situation 'sort of a wash.'
"'Sort of a wash' is what she needs," Ashlin said, writhing halfway beneath the bed. Everything about the quip's delivery rung bells, as if from pensieve-perfect playback of one of Daisy's visits. "Gah, c'mon!" She wriggled a bit further, giving frustrated grunts amid clattering junk. "It's a holy show down here, Pyrrha. Honestly, is that a muggle golf bat? What for?"
"Ooh!" Daisy snapped her fingers. "The Three Brothers! I know, that's Beedle again, but listen—there's definitely more to it than a children's tale, isn't there? D'you remember a few years ago, those nutters who tried to steal Harry Potter's wand? The one that was Dumbledore's. They were convinced it was the unbeatable wand out of the story."
"The wand he took from Voldemort."
Still on her belly, Ashlin slid back along the floor inch by inch until she pushed free of the bed's underside, speckled with dust. She sat up on her heels. Something glinted in her cupped hands; her attention was locked on it.
"Well, yeah. So maybe it's not unbeatable, per se, but 'the somehow more powerful than other wands wand' doesn't really have the same ring to it. My point is, it could be real, it could be helpful, and," Daisy said, leaning forward with a spark in her eyes, "it might mean that the Resurrection Stone is out there too. Could there be a magical artifact more perfect for you than that one? What d'you reckon? Pyrrha?"
With a dreamlike stupor Ashlin turned her head, face white and eyes wide, and she rose to her feet still cradling something the size of a robin's egg. The room seemed to dilate around her as she crossed and came straight through Daisy. She stuck out one upturned fist and stared hard at it. Her fingers unfurled with the stiff reluctance of the dead to present a cracked blue stone, glossy with melting snow.
"What's wrong, what're you seeing?"
The floor keeled beneath Pyrrha's feet, though she didn't remember standing. Her arm was already plunged to the elbow into the pouch in her robes. With her mind full of the flight from the Forbidden Forest and the strange find she'd impulsively plucked from the drifts, her hand closed around what it sought, the stone smooth and cool.
Pyrrha held out her open palm to match Ashlin's. She thumbed the cleft in the stone, then tipped it over to the other side with the care of a tending mother. Etched into the untarnished face was a bisected triangle enclosing a circle.
A Deathly Hallow rested in Pyrrha's numb fingers.
Where Ashlin had been Daisy now stood, gaping behind her hands. She lifted them apart and mouthed without a voice until she sucked in a short breath. Her voice shook. "That—that's the symbol. Pyrrha, that's the symbol! Where in the hell did you—is it really—?"
Electricity coursed through every fiber of Pyrrha's body, raising hairs and rousting blood. The feeling expanding in her chest left little room for breath.
Her vision flickered.
Empty blue sky extended forever, thin and mute as untaken breath, and the further Pyrrha searched for an end the more crushing became the expanse. She was fixed yet untethered, not standing but not yet falling to the green-gold wetlands billowing out far beneath. Panic doused her as the last echo of the depraved voice receded from her skull.
The world turned beneath her until she faced a distant castle wider than tall, built of craggy, uneven hunks of grey stone. It crouched on a wooly bed of clouds. Particolored posters, banners, pennants, flags and signs flapped and waved in advertisement from countless posts, poles, or stakes affixed anywhere the passing eye might wander. Miniscule figures darted to and from the crumbling turrets and apses and streamed in and out beneath the half-raised portcullis biting down on the grand entry.
Wizarding Ireland's most bustling hub of commerce, Caerialto had been a favored haunt of Ashlin's since her very first trip. The old fortress bazaar was a fraction of the size of Hogwarts, which meant little, being similarly enchanted for capacity. Thousands of souls occupied the edifice at any given time.
An excruciating chill bit into Pyrrha.
ONE OR EVERYONE