Chapter 14: The Winter Solstice
And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all. Poe's words lingered for a moment in the shadows of the dormitory. Taylor haphazardly lounged upon her bed. Spine pressed to the mattress, her legs became a ninety-degree angle propped against the cold stone wall. A complete copy of Edgar Allen Poe's works levitated above her face. Wingardium Leviosa, the hover spell, was convenient for all occasions. She brought the book to her chest, waiting for the eerie aftereffects of The Masque of the Red Death to dissipate. Mechanically, her fingers wrapped around the opal. She elevated it up to her nose. An alternating crimson fire danced in its dark depths. Taylor closed her eyes, grasped the stone tightly, conscious of the heart beating within her chest. Lub dub, lub dub, lub dub, lub dub, lub dub, lub dub.Unfortunately, the girl's bunkmate broke the meditation with a shrill chatter.
Reluctantly, Taylor opened her eyes. Perched strategically out of arms reach, Jezebel peered down at her contemplative keeper from atop a columnar bedpost.
The raven did not answer verbally. Instead, she descended from her roost and landed softly on Taylor's abdomen. Well, at least you've gotten more comfortable. An exodus of students disembarked from Hogwarts for the Winter Holidays, which gave Jezebel quasi-freedom to inspect the hominid decorum. The bird, naturally curious, did not seem impressed by Slytherin house. Jezebel did, however, have an interminable obsession with Taylor. The raven waited patiently for her to return from class and magnetically settled upon the girl's shoulder until she retired for the night. Taylor released the opal pendant and gingerly set aside Lily's book. She sat up and invited Jezebel to rest on her shoulder. Sharp talons clenched her clavicle.
A care package for Taylor arrived less than a week after Lily left for Cokeworth. Receiving a present was a rare and monumental affair at the orphanage. If a child was lucky enough they may have received a piggy bank or a flying disc. Taylor was never so lucky. Father Christmas only left new cleaning supplies, while birthdays were designated for new underwear. After years of disappointment, Taylor expected to see a battered dress or a pair of socks when she ripped passed the tape. Instead, Lily had forwarded unanticipated mirth and merriment. A forest green mask with silvery crisp ivy leaves and semiplume feathers rested near the top of the box. Underneath the mask was a moss green, sleeveless, Victorian styled dress, completed with a complementary silver skeletal hand belt.
The outfit accurately represented an aristocratic macabre. Edgar Allen Poe would have been impressed by the design. As part of her promise, Lily also included the Complete Works of Poe, an armful of Wagon Wheels and Bazooka bubble gum, and a note reminding Taylor to correspond by means of owl over the holiday. The delighted Slytherin responded to her friend the same day with humbled gratitude.
Following the package's arrival, Taylor tried on the dress several times. Although she was slightly taller than Lily, the ensemble fit agreeably to Taylor's stature. It was the eleventh hour, as Taylor picked up the box. The Winter Solstice party began at midnight and she needed time to navigate the halls. Jezebel snapped at Taylor's collar and flapped her wings. If only I had Lily's beautiful hair.
The hallways were frigid, absorbing the arctic temperatures from outside. Beyond the walls, snow littered the ground and misty gray skies like an overwhelming spray of volcanic ash. The trees from the Forbidden Forest groaned under the added weight of the falling snow. A blizzard outside hurled around the castle, causing the stones to moan and wooden doors to rasp.
A singular thought drifted in the back of her mind as Taylor hurried down a flight a stairs, careful not to step on the fringes of the dress. I am so happy Remus doesn't have to be in that shack on a night like this.Remus discreetly confronted Taylor before the Winter Holiday about the general store owner's disappearance. The conversation was more than a series of contemplative speculations. The siblings used the tragedy as the first stone toward the path of reconciliation. Like a perennial tulip, their friendship did not inevitably perish, but merely went into a period of hibernation. Remus even suggested that Taylor return home for Christmas, so they could investigate the curiosity of the case further. She apologetically declined, conscientious of the fact that Remus may want to lavish in the company of his own parents. Regardless, he wished her a happy Christmas and departed for the Hogwarts Express with Lily close behind.
With both Lily and Remus away, Taylor was sequestered into a quiet solitude. Fionn spent a majority of his free time with other Slytherins or studying with Professor Greer. As a result, Taylor utilized the interlude to practice spells, finish papers, and tamper with the institution's rules. On more than one occasion, she wandered the halls at night. The urge to explore was insatiable. While Taylor maintained no issue with breaking curfew, she did not want to get caught by patrolling prefects, especially before the Winter Solstice masquerade.
Her nerves amplified normal sounds. Around every corner, Taylor thought she could hear footsteps, scuffling, or growling. The noise was only the wind moaning deep foreboding sorrows. Hastily, Taylor maneuvered through the dungeons, mimicking Fionn's instructions attentively. She confirmed the accuracy of his directions, when she entered into a room with an extensive vermillion window ceiling. The rich deep colors effectively held her attention. Red stained glass was the most expensive in the ancient world. Gold was used to produce red and violet glass. I wonder if they bewitched it, or used the muggle method. The patter of snowflakes only barely covered the surface, as if they melted upon impact. For a moment, she stood in awe at the height of the subterranean room. Through the red glass, Taylor distinguished ancient trees rising around her. Stone roots were etched into the walls of the empty space. It did not take her long to realize that she was below the Forbidden Forest.
A circular inscription in the center of the room read: Genius loci. Et earum omnia adirem furibunda latibula, ubinam aut quibus locis te positam, patria, reor? A stone ouroboros hungrily devoured itself around the writing. Taylor walked to the center of the coil and pulled her wand from her skeletal girdle.
With a heavy breath, she pointed her wand at the ground and whispered, "In girum imus nocte, ecce et consumimur igni." The ouroboros's eyes ominously flickered green, startling the conjurer. The words melted away into the stone floor and the snake swallowed its tail, minimizing the circle. A flurry of tiny pallid moths enveloped her. They beat against her face obscuring her vision. Alarmed by the insects' impromptu appearance, Taylor swatted and stumbled backward. The moths dissolved into bursts of harmless green fire, allowing her to regain her balance. Instantly, she realized that she was in an entirely different room. The ending scores of Carmina Burana, O Fortuna echoed off the dungeons marbled walls. Stabilized, Taylor fixed her mask and rounded a corner. There was much of the beautiful, much of the wanton, much of the bizarre, something of the terrible, and not a little of that which might have excited disgust.
The massive room was decorated with green and silver floral arrangements. A bewitched ceiling swirled with snowflakes which dissipated before they reached the heads of those dancing. The only source of light came from the banquet table's tea lights and a crystalline chandelier emanating green flames. Three boys appeared from behind her and joined the festivities.
Taylor easily melded into the crowd of students, who chatted and conversed openly. Amongst the clamor and disguise, Taylor realized she could not easily recognize anyone in the dim lighting. I wonder if Fionn is here yet. Not bold enough to dance to the omnipresent music, she stood by the refreshment table to observe the other Slytherins. Dresses danced with suits licentiously. Taylor turned her attention to the table, where a metal dragon roasted chestnuts. She peeled away the warm shell, removed the papery skin, and munched on the rich treat. Down the line of plates, she noticed a violet bowl of punch. Just as Taylor poured herself a cup of Mermaid Nectar, a boy approached her.
"Careful there." He teased. "That'll stain your beautiful dress, if you spill it. No amount of magic can remove it." A twinge of anxiety gnawed at her hand muscles.
"Yet we drink it? What is it doing to my insides?" Taylor brought the cup to her lips. Surprisingly, the violet liquid tasted like cookies and cream. "Well, it's plenty good." She admitted. The boy laughed and prepared himself a cup.
"Right you are." The stranger next to her wore an old-fashioned black felt hat, with a wide brim and silver feathers. His green and silver face mask concealed all but his chin. "Did you come alone?"
Prying questions usually agitated Taylor, but she had to consider his query for a moment. Am I technically here alone or with Fionn? She straddled the fence. "I am here with a friend." Sensing her uncertainty, the boy continued.
"I'm here with two of my best mates." He explained rather coyly. "But seeing as they are both blokes, and I haven't any lady friends, perhaps you'd care to dance?"
"I don't really dance." Taylor put her cup down. "I never had any time to learn." This was partly true. Additionally, the orphanage never encouraged the classical arts.
They boy turned back to the Mermaid Nectar and dropped a few measures from a phial into the silver bowl. Taylor opened her mouth to object, but his gloved hand wrapped around hers and he pulled her to the dance floor. "I can teach you some steps. It's simple."
"What did you put in the—" He twirled her around and brought her close to him. Swaying from side to side, he led her across the floor with ease. Violins and trumpets culminated into a crescendo.
"Isn't dancing much more fun than standing near the food table?" Synchronously, the pair danced to the center of the room.
"That was a rhetorical question." Briefly, Taylor could make out his cadet gray eyes beyond the shadows of his mask. "You're quite good. You've only stepped on my feet twice." She blushed from embarrassment, but he did not seem to notice.
"You're a half decent teacher." Taylor retorted.
The boy smirked and opened his mouth to deliver a witty comeback, but retreated when they were intercepted by another partygoer in silver robes. His mask, which covered only his eyes, consistently shifted from argent to green in a kaleidoscopic effect.
"May I have the pleasure of interrupting?" Taylor's partner hesitated, but released her hands. Am I being passed around like a piece of meat to different slaughterhouses? Her first partner dipped his hat to her, and turned on his heel toward the exit. The silver robed boy grabbed her by the waist and brought her irritatingly close to him. Without a word, he led her around the floor aimlessly.
"I am not familiar with this composition." She explained. Momentarily lost in the music, Taylor only barely heard her partner's reply.
"Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer."
"I've never heard of him." Taylor shook her head, hoping he would talk more to ease her gawkiness. Her words were answered by an unwarranted and obscene action. His hands slid down her waist toward her backside.
"It's a chaconne in B flat. Charming isn't it?"
Warningly, she attempted to pull her body from his, but he held onto her tightly. She looked into his gray eyes, startled to see that they were so familiar to the boy who had left her with the devil. The eye contact, however, invited him to lean in for a kiss. In the most forward form of rejection, Taylor pushed his face away. Stunned, the boy loosened his grip on her. It was enough for her to edge away, but only barely. Nervously, Taylor's hand felt for the wand on her side.
"Are you daft? You should feel honored that I chose to—" The complaint was interrupted by a boy decorated in myrtle green attire and a silvery spider web mask.
"Sir, I've been looking everywhere for you. There is a young lady, Adrienne Hebert, just over there, who is most interested in a lavatory tussle. If you know what I mean?" Her savior's tuft of unmistakable red hair flooded Taylor with confidence. The assaulter turned for a moment to examine his victim. He considered his options and pointed at her aggressively.
"Don't think that this is over. I always get what I want."
As the boy's silvery robes disappeared into the crowd, Fionn turned his attention to Taylor. "You need to be more careful. I don't think Regulus recognized you in that dress. It is very becoming by the way. But you'd have a lot more to worry about than his wandering hands, if he did realize you were here." Taylor dismissed his chastisement and chose to bask in his compliment instead.
"I'll try. Maybe we should keep moving, so he can't find me so easily?" Fionn easily identified her transparent attempt at asking him to dance. The shrewd Slytherin boy did, however, oblige her. Progressively, Taylor improved her dancing skills. After only an hour, she had memorized Fionn's basic waltz. Her partner's energy, on the other hand, was quickly waning.
"By the way, this necklace makes you quite noticeable to those who are observant enough." Fionn mentioned casually, pausing briefly to catch his breath.
"I don't like to leave it anywhere for too long." Taylor put her hands on her hips. "Are you tired already?"
He laughed heartily. "No. I don't like dancing to Johann David Heinichen."
"A likely excuse." In good sport, Fionn shook his head and let out an exasperated sigh.
"I think I need to get a drink. Then we can resume. Isn't that—"
"No!" Taylor yelped. No one around her cared to stop, but Fionn looked concerned. The chiming of an old clock prevented her from further explanation.
Regulus, who was smeared in lipstick, stood up on the banquet table and clanged a fork against a glass. In an effort to quiet the whole room, he broke the glass all over the floor. The merry Slytherins fell silent to listen to the second year. He cleared his throat.
"The time has come for us to pursue an active endeavor against all mudbloods and blood traitors." A few of the Slytherins nodded in agreement, but Taylor felt slightly flustered. An active endeavor? What does that mean? "They are not only a scourge on the magical community, but a hindrance here at Hogwarts."
As not to draw attention to herself, Taylor whispered close to Fionn's ear. "What is a mudblood?" Her friend paused, but whispered back.
"It's a somewhat derogatory term for a Muggle born witch or wizard. Mingling with mudbloods is an act of treachery for most pureblood families. They are considered to be from a lower breed of magic. Undeserving of the potential. I guess you could say they have dirty blood."
"Some new names on our list of mudbloods and traitors include; Mary Elizabeth Fleetwood, Dirk Cresswell, Lily Evans—" A flash of passion flared within Taylor's stomach like angry ulcers. How dare he threaten Lily! She'll be one of the greatest witches of her time. Immensely offended, Taylor looked at Fionn who was beginning to nod with the others. She turned for the exit and left Regulus upon his soapbox. Taylor ripped off her mask as she reached the Vermillion Room, barely noticing the ripple of moth wings. In her mind, she reversed Fionn's directions and made her way toward the dormitory. The thud of footsteps echoed from behind her, she froze and looked around for prefects. To her dismay, she saw Fionn. Catching his breath, he matched her pace and walked by her side.
"What's this about now? Did you suddenly get tired of dancing?" He joked lightly.
"You think that it is alright to riot a mass of people against muggleborns?" Her tone was splintered and rough. Taken aback by her ferocity and straightforwardness, Fionn rubbed the back of his head speechless. Before she could walk away though, he stepped in front of her.
"I can't stop the way others feel. Purebloods don't associate with mudbloods. That's just how it is." His explanation was not worth her time. Taylor pushed passed him angrily. "Regulus is just a zealot. If I had known his declaration was going to affect you that much—"
"If I was a muggleborn would you associate with me?" Taylor rounded on him in the fashion of a discontented prosecutor. Fionn took a few steps back.
For a moment, she considered blasting him through the wall with her wand. A violent reaction from me would only reinforce their ignorance about muggleborns. I don't even know. I was never warned about any of this. So maybe I was born into a muggle family. Why should it matter? Taylor ignored the straggler and continued her journey through the dark. Trying not to attract the attention of prefects, she skirted up a flight of stairs into a dreary corridor. Loyalty pushed Fionn to chase after her.
"You know, I don't owe you anything." Fionn growled. "I don't have to take your attitude."
"Then don't. I didn't ask you to follow me. Go back to your ignorant friends."
A muffled snarl from a side corridor cut short their argument. The sconces on the walls flickered violently and extinguished, leaving the two in complete darkness. Taylor backed up into Fionn, who grabbed her shoulders to steady her. A spectral dog manifested from the granite floor and illuminated the intersection with a formidable intensity. With a singular rapid motion, the canine flicked its long forked tail and bounded for the first years.
Fionn pushed Taylor to the side, drew his wand, and shouted "Stupefy!" The incantation dissipated upon contact and the phantom tackled the boy to the ground. Taylor jumped to her feet and pointed her wand at the drooling hound.
"Flipendo!" Blue sparks exploded from her wand, but the jinx went through the transparent beast. It was not phased by Taylor's defensive magic. Three other specters appeared, along with a thick rolling mist. Simultaneously, Fionn used Incendio to no avail. The creature pinning him to the ground, opened its jaws and clamped down onto his wand arm. Defenseless, he screamed in agony. Blood pooled bitterly on the cold stone floor.
Two of the transparent canines circled Taylor and another bounded toward the thrashing boy. Boldly, the larger of the two beasts lunged at the fumbling witch. The opal around her neck dangled uselessly. The creature tore into her shoulder, gouging its claws into her collarbone. A surge of adrenaline pumped through her veins, as time slowed a fraction of a second. She pointed her wand at the monster and shouted the first spell that came to mind.
The dog howled with excruciating pain as a supernova of green light filled the corridor. Taylor blinked away the pain in her own pupils. The spectral dogs converging on Fionn turned to look at their whimpering brethren. They growled in defiance, but backed away as she hobbled to her feet. Fresh blood dripped from her shoulder onto the bodice of the dress. Weakly, Taylor pursued the creatures with her unwavering green light. Fionn held his arm to his chest and used his other hand to cast his own Wand-Lighting Charm.
The pack of dogs retreated to a haven of darkness. Dazed and in shock, Taylor walked over to Fionn quietly. Together, they kept a weary on the surrounding area and supported each other on their way back to the Slytherin common room.
After a short trek, Taylor sat Fionn down on a cushion in the common area.
"Sit here." She commanded hoarsely.
Her friend complied, inspecting the gash in his arm in disbelief. Taylor hurried out of the room and to her personal luggage. The silver chain around her neck grazed her open wounds. Fresh pangs of agony blossomed every time the necklace scratched the coagulating cuts. From her trunk, she pulled the stolen Essence of Dittany. To stop the irritation, Taylor pulled off the opal pendant and placed it on her bed. Jezebel ruffled her feathers, but remained observant. With great effort, Taylor hurried back to help Fionn.
"What were those? Not werewolves." She asked trailing off. Delicately, Taylor poured a small amount of dittany on Fionn's injury. Air whistled through his teeth, as he tried not to holler.
"I have no idea. Maybe Hogwarts has released ghost dogs to deter pesky curfew breaking students." It was plausible, but Taylor was not convinced. I would sooner accept the legend of the Baskerville Hound. There was a brief moment of silence, while she took advantage of the dittany on her own wounds. The laceration seared with a fiery flash of pain. Slowly the edges of skin melded together. Is this what Remus experienced when he was attacked? "I am sorry this happened. The party wasn't supposed to be a bust and I didn't mean to get angry with you." His apology was sincere, but he was preoccupied with deeper thoughts.
"Thanks for following me." Fionn nodded. She waited an additional moment, before bidding him goodnight. He silently watched her disappear into the girls' dormitory.
I've completely ruined Lily's dress. Fantastic. I wonder if magic can get blood out of fabric. Exhausted, Taylor entered the room and moved to sit down on the bed. The silver necklace was sprawled upon her mattress, but the black opal was missing. Her heart beat in her throat, as she frantically looked around the room. Where is it?! Where is my grandmother's opal?! Frenzied, Taylor's gaze fell on the quiet and observant Jezebel. The grandiose bird perched on its usual bedpost, the gem in its beak. Before the young witch could react, the raven swallowed the stone whole.
"NO!" Taylor screamed.
A rage accelerated to the core of her very essence. Jumping on the bed with newfound energy, the Slytherin girl swung at the white raven. It squawked loudly and glided to her neighbor's bed in fear.
"Give it back you blasted bird!" Chasing the animal wildly around the room, Taylor was finally able to grab the bird by the wing during midflight. She shook the creature angrily. Throw it up! I can't lose it! A cascade of tears streamed down her face as Taylor stared down at the bewildered and frightened raven.
In her hands, Jezebel's heart thumped rapidly. "I should throw you to those damn dogs."
Staring at the defenseless creature though, Taylor was filled with instant regret at having acted so aggressively. With immense gentility, she placed the bird in its cage. Safely behind bars, Jezebel sat reserved in the corner. A feeling of failure swept over Taylor, who lay upon the bed stifling tears. And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night.