Cecil's candle flickered as his book hit the desk with a thump, almost knocking over a vial of ink. Cursing softly, he caught it just before it tipped, then dropped it entirely as a bony hand gripped his shoulder in a vice-like grip.
Cecil yelped, trying to twist away, and found himself being wrapped in a heavy cloak, which tangled his arms. He looked up, trying to see who was attacking him, and was greeting by the glowing red eyes of a skeleton.
"Seriously, James? That's not funny." The skeleton loomed ominously over him for a minute, then reached down and pulled the cloak off him. James Sparkman pulled the mask off, revealing a mop of curly brown hair, blue eyes, and a mischievous grin.
"It is, and you're only saying its not because I scared you," James said. Knowing his friend had a point, Cecil rolled his eyes and turned back to his books.
"It's not even Halloween yet, you idiot."
After an age of nagging from James, Cecil agreed to go to dinner, abandoning his study for the DADA finals. James argued that it wasn't possible to study for a practical, and therefore he shouldn't bother, but Cecil thought that if he could learn when to use a certain spell, he would only have to identify the circumstance. They were still arguing over which was better, studying or using instinct, when a Prefect called Cecil over at the entrance to the Great Hall.
James remained in the doorway, watching as the blond boy wove through the hordes of people to reach the Prefect. Cecil walked with his worries on his shoulders. The two exchanged a few words, with Cecil mostly nodding and listening. Then James blinked, and they were gone.
The Great Hall spun away from them in a dizzying blur, steadying again into a picture of darkness. There was mist and hedges. Cecil looked around, panic rising in his throat. The Prefect had warned him that he couldn't stay, but being whisked from the warmth, light, and bustle of the castle to the dark, cold, and emptiness of the Maze was still terrifying.
As he took a series of deep breaths to calm himself, there was a flash of silver in the corner of his eye.
He didn't stop to think, just took off running after it.
Left turn, left, right turn, middle fork, left turn, right turn, stop. Cecil could hear footsteps coming from the right fork. Not wanting to be alone any longer, but not wanting to walk into a trap, he hung back, pressing into the hedges, breathing and waiting.
Left, left, right, middle fork, left, right, left fork, dead end. Ellie exhaled sharply, her breath rising as a misty barrier between her and the hedge. She took two steps backwards, looked right. Nothing. Two more back, looked left. Still nothing. Spinning around, the blackness of the Maze opened up before her, a great gaping maw of some beast composed of shadows. Fiddling with the silver quill pinning up her dark hair, Ellie wandered back down the path towards the intersection. Suddenly, she became aware of the sound of breathing. Backing towards the hedge for cover, she pulled her wand from her pocket, holding it loosely and running her fingers over the scarred edges. Advancing back the way she had come, the breathing got louder. Ellie peered out of the hedge, trying to catch a glimpse of what had been stalking her since she entered the Maze.
The footsteps were getting closer. Cecil swallowed a whimper, pressing back into the hedges while he thought. As they got closer and closer, he closed his eyes and held his breath, trying to will himself into invisibility.
Suddenly, a bright light flared against his eyelids. He threw up a hand to shield his eyes, wand jumping up to point at the light source.
"Hey, whoa! Peace earthling!" Ellie raised an eyebrow slightly. "Ok, not the most elegant of surrender speeches, but at least you're not aiming at me anymore," he said.
"Definitely not the most elegant. Even 'don't shoot' would have been better."
"I wasn't shooting at you. See? No gun." Stowing her wand back in her pocket, Ellie started to walk towards him. Cecil's eyes went wide, and he backpedalled so fast he almost fell over. He looked so funny, Ellie just had to grin. She was still grinning when the Doxie appeared above her and sank its double rows of razor-sharp teeth into her shoulder.
The next few moments happened in slow motion for Cecil. He managed to stay upright by hitting a corner of the hedge, giving him the perfect view of the Doxie removing its teeth from the girl's shoulder as she fell. The creature rose slowly till it was level with Cecil's head, and then dove straight at him. He ducked with a shout, and the Doxie crashed into the hedge above him, burrowing straight through and disappearing. As soon as he was sure it was gone, Cecil ran over and dropped to his knees beside the girl.
"Hey, quill girl. Can you hear me?" Tentatively, Cecil poked her uninjured shoulder. She coughed and sat up.
"Ow. Damn Doxies." She blinked several times, the started to stand up.
"Hey, don't do that. You got bitten, you need medical treatment. We gotta get the professors." Cecil stood up, pointed his wand at the sky above the hedges.
"Vermillious! Vermillious!" Frustrated and frantic, Cecil shook his head. "Work goddamn it!"
"Try slash and jab, the jab and slash does nothing. You've got to be very careful to get the movement right as well as the incarnation, otherwise the spell is nothing." Slowly, Cecil turned around. Ellie was leaning against one of the trees that grew at every intersection, watching his attempts.
"Have you ever done this spell outside of a classroom?" Cecil felt the anger building up inside his chest again, a vessel with not enough space. "Do you have any idea how hard it is to do this under pressure? I'm doing the best I can, for you might I add, yet you stand there with Doxie venom coursing through your veins acting like you've not a care, then you have the nerve to criticize me for attempting to get you help!" He ran out of words then, and raised his eyes to meet hers with a defiant stare. "I don't even know your name!"
"What?" The anger infused his word as he nearly hurled it at her.
"My name is Ellie. I'm in Ravenclaw, as well as your DADA class and the Doxie didn't bite me, which is why I'm still standing. See?" She undid the clasp that held her cloak on, hanging it over a tree branch. Pulling aside the neck of her robes, she showed him the strip of leather protecting her shoulder.
"I got burnt in Potions last week. Madam Pomfrey made it, the leather has a cooling potion in it so the burn doesn't crack or dry out or anything."
"Oh." Cecil slumped against the opposite tree in defeat. "Ok. Sorry I yelled at you. I'm Cecil, by the way."
"It's ok. Shall we continue?" Cecil nodded, and after Ellie had refastened her cloak, the two students set off through the Maze.
They'd been walking aimlessly for nearly twenty minutes when Cecil grabbed Ellie's arm.
"Look. Ghosts." He pointed down a vast, open stretch of Maze to a clearing. "I think that's Rowena."
Ellie nodded excitedly. "Yea, I think you're right. Maybe we can ask them how to get out of the Maze. Do you think they'd know?"
"Probably. I mean, we can at least ask them." Cecil set off towards the ghosts, turning to watch Ellie as she settled the quill in her hair. "Are you coming, or no.. Aahh!" Something tangled around his ankle, tripping him. Lying on his back, struggling to draw breath, Cecil noticed something out of the corner of his eye. Still coughing, he rolled over, staring at the books he'd been reading before James had dragged him away.
"How the hell did you get here?" He coughed, reaching out for the water next to his book. His hand touched it and went straight through, the desk vanishing. "What the.."
"Imps." Ellie reached down and pulled Cecil to his feet. "There's string stretched across the path, that's what you fell over. Plus the bucket suspended from the tree, I'm guessing there's something not nice just waiting to fall on..." She broke off as something landed with a splat at their feet, closely followed by one on Cecil's shoulder.
"Oh yay, slugs." Simultaneously, they turned to go back the way they came, only to find it had become overgrown. Suddenly, the slug rain increased, coating them both in slime and the occasional whole slug. They started to run towards the ghosts at the end of the path, the slime making the ground slippery. "In here, there's a shelter." Ellie overshot the break, skidding along and bumping into a hedge. Almost immediately a thin arm snaked out of the bush and pulled out the quill, causing her hair to fall around her shoulders in dark brown curls. Cecil caught her hand as he ran through the break, pulling her away from the Imp and into the clearing.
They skidded to a standstill, panting. Cecil was bent over, hands on his knees, when a piece of green moss filled his vision.
"Here. It might help get some of the slime off." She'd clearly done the same, as there were traces of green amid her hair.
"You got your quill back." Cecil took the moss and started to wipe himself down. "And there's no slime on you apart from your hair."
"I have a spare quill in case, and my cloak has a permanent Impervious Charm on it. Really useful for snow, and slug rain."
The Bowtruckle attacked just as they were about to leave, whipping out and cutting Ellie across one cheek, whilst reaching out and wrapping its long fingers around Cecil's wrist. Stunned, she stumbled backwards, tripping into someone's arms.
"Hey, thanks Cecil. Much appreciated." Ellie patted one arm before attempting to stand upright herself.
"Um, Ellie?" She looked up, freezing when she saw Cecil still held firmly by the tree as it attempted to get to his eyes. "Little help here?"
Meanwhile, Cecil fought to keep his head tucked into his shoulder. The Bowtruckle had hold of his right arm and across his chest. It had managed to cut his cheek several times, and a nick above his eyebrow dripped blood into one eye, obscuring his vision.
As a result, the strangled scream that echoed across the clearing was sudden and very scary. Even the Bowtruckle froze, giving him enough time to loosen the constraint on his chest.
"Ellie? Ellie, are you ok?" Cecil called, fighting to rid himself of the branch that was intent on removing his eyes from their sockets. He cried out as a hand grabbed his, pulling him away from the suddenly loose grip of the malevolent tree. He heard another cry, and almost slipped as he was pulled back into the aftermath of the slug rain. Thankfully no slugs were falling from the sky, only the slime on the ground remained.
"What happened?" he asked, wiping blood out his eyes.
"Just run. I'll tell you later." After about 100 metres, the slime stopped and they ran into a massive garden, full of flowers and other plants. Cecil stopped short, almost running straight through the ghost hovering in front of them.
"Clear to clear." Ellie glanced at Cecil, and shrugged when he raised a questioning eyebrow. "Clear to clear." The ghost said again, flew straight at them. They ducked and it swooped overhead, vanishing into the hedge that had suddenly grown over the entrance to the Imp's passage.
"What did he mean?" Cecil asked, turning to Ellie. To his surprise, the Ravenclaw was kneeling in the dirt, looking under a plant. Suddenly she stuck her hand under the plant again, and pulled up what looked incredibly like a potato with stumpy legs.
"De-gnoming time," she grinned, handing him the gnome. Cecil carefully took it, holding it upside down by one leg while it screamed "Geroff me!" at him.
"You start over that side, I'll do this one. Shouldn't take all that long." Ellie took off her cloak again, laying it on the stone wall at the edge of the garden. It took them both a bit of time to get into the rhythm of de-gnoming, but soon the gnomes were swarming to the surface to see what was going on, and then it was just a case of picking them up, spinning them and throwing them. As they worked, Ellie explained what Cecil had missed during his tussle with the Bowtruckle. Apparently the Hag had set her clearing up halfway along the Imp's path, hoping to lure people to the relative safety. Then, she would catch the children that came through, and she would eat them unless they got away.
"So how'd you escape?" Cecil snatched his hand back from a gnome's head before it could bite him.
"Easy. I stood on her foot." Ellie grinned, looking very pleased to have such a simple solution.
"Cleared. You may go." Both students looked up, startled, at the sound of the ghosts' voice.
"Huzzah!" Grabbing her cloak from the wall, Ellie put it on and checked her wand was still in her pocket. Cecil stood up, brushing the dirt from his green robes. Joining Ellie, they stood in front of the ghost, waiting. Standing one minute, falling the next.
The wind was rushing past her ears so fast Ellie was concerned she was going to have her wand wrenched from her grasp. By arching her back, she was able to stabilise long enough to yell "Verdimillious" above the wind, and illuminate whatever they were falling towards. She could see the ground approaching at a frightening rate, but she simply waited; the calm of the storm.
For Cecil, the fall was anything but calm. His scream was lost in the rushing air, and he tumbled head over heels. This was every nightmare come true, and from the occasional glimpses he could get, Ellie seemed perfectly calm. Taking a deep breath, Cecil tried to flip himself to copy what she was going. Arch back, hands and knees parallel. You're crawling, that's all, he told himself. Crawling vertically at high speed. The ground seemed to be getting closer with every blink, and Cecil was starting to worry when a bright pink light started to build above him. After about 20 blinks, the pink light sped past him, covering a section of floor in bright pink light. The Spongify spell.
They hit the floor one after the other, Cecil then Ellie. The floor was still hard, knocking the wind out of them, but thankfully not their brains. Cecil curled up on his side, wheezing slightly as he tried to suck in oxygen. His lungs felt like, well, like he'd just fallen down a deep deep well. When he could breathe enough to speak, he asked, "How did you know the floor was wood and Spongify would work?"
Ellie looked down, seeing the polished, slightly spongy surface as if for the first time. Then she looked up, grinning. "I didn't."
Soon enough they were both walking around, mapping out their cell with Lumos charms. Eventually Cecil got bored, and went to the centre of the well.
"Verdimillious." This time he got the motion right, creating green sparks a couple of metres from the pink ground. In the magical light, the outline of a door slowly appeared out of the gloom. Ellie reached out and opened it, only to be met with a blast of fire and smoke aimed straight at her. She quickly slammed the door and backed away from it, feeling her eyebrows.
Suggestion after suggestion was traded back and forth as they tried to figure out a plan. Obviously, in order to get out of the Maze, they would have to get past the Fire Crab. Eventually, they came up with a plan.
"Ready?" Ellie asked, her hand on the door knob once more.
Cecil swallowed. "Ready." She nodded, pulled her hood up, then opened the door and slipped through, pressing herself against the stone wall of the Fire crab's room. As the column of fire subsided, Cecil followed, leaving the door open. Together, they slowly started to creep around the sides of the room, the occasional movement attracting the crab. Its jewelled shell reflected the candles in the chandelier, throwing a kaleidoscope of colour across the room. The opposite door looked tantalizingly close, but Cecil forced himself to go slowly. Across the room, Ellie readjusted her grip on her wand, holding her cloak with her right hand to stop it moving as much. The Fire crab turned its black eyes to stare at Cecil, and then back to Ellie.
"Cecil!" Ellie whispered. He looked up at her, still edging around the room. He registered her wide eyes and the shaking of her head at the same time his foot hit the candlestick. It fell, hitting the stone floor with a clang that echoed around the room. The crab whipped around, aiming at the source of the noise. They gave up on being quiet and ran, Cecil covering his head to try and avoid the fire he knew was coming.
Dimly, he was aware of Ellie casting the Knockback Jinx, blue light shooting past him to hit the creature on its thick grey skin, pushing it back slightly. Something grabbed his arm and the two students were pulled roughly into a circular chamber.
"What in the name of Merlin's beard are you two doing down here?" The tall man looked down at them as they stood up. His face was covered in shadow, and his hands were shaking.
"School exam." Ellie said cheerfully, rearranging her cloak. "We're third years, and this is our Defence Against the Dark Arts practical."
"We've been following the challenges in the hopes that they lead to an exit." Cecil said, watching Ellie examine the chamber. There were twelve different doors, arranged around the room like a clock face. The door leading to the Fire Crab's room had a six in roman numerals stenciled on it, the opposite one a highly ornate twelve. The rest had no numbers or any distinguishing marks.
"I wouldn't open them if I were you," the man said. "The entire room spins except for that circle. I've tried and anyways, there's nothing in half of the doors. I've tried that side from twelve to six and I was about to try that one when I heard you guys shouting." He gestured to the right side of the room, then to the door on the left of number six.
"Open it then." Ellie said. Her voice was cool, and she ignored Cecil's worried look. The man nodded, walking across and opened the door. There was an empty pedestal made of black marble carved into the wall, creating a recess.
Cecil and Ellie retreated back onto the circle in the middle of the room. The man turned to join them, but Ellie stepped forward. The room was beginning to spin slowly, picking up speed.
"Do you know what's happening to you?" she asked casually. The man hesitated. "It's ok; we're not going to hurt you. I need to make sure everyone is safe, that's all."
Until then, Cecil hadn't been aware of how awful the man looked.
"Yes. I'm becoming a monster." He was pale and shaking, teeth gritted and sweat beading on his forehead. "You need to get of here, now, before I hurt you."
Ellie nodded. Turning to Cecil, she said, "Behind one of these doors there's going to be a passage, or a device that can get us out of here, but we need to find it first. We've probably only got a few minutes at most, and there are twelve doors. So choose carefully."
"What's happening to him?" Cecil asked, knowing in the answer in his heart.
"He's transforming." High above them, a small window let in the light of a huge, pale, full moon.
When the room finally stopped spinning, Cecil stood in the centre, alone. Ellie was trying to talk to the man, trying to slow the change.
Twelve doors, Cecil thought. One to get us out. Trapped with a transforming werewolf. He looked at each door in turn, thinking.
A room with twelve doors that spins to confuse you. Number twelve and six have numbers, with six being the door you just came through. In this situation you know at least one door: number six. So you rule that one out in the hope it'll be easier. Eleven to go. Then again, six would be a good place to hide something; you think you know where it leads.
Cecil stepped forward, and opened the door.
"Ellie!" Cecil called. She glanced up, looking for him. He stood by an open door, a door with a shining golden cup balanced on the pedestal. "Come on, we need to go."
Glancing at the writhing form on the floor once more, she stood up and ran over to him.
"Ready?" He asked. "On the count of three… one, two, three!" Together, they curled their hands around the handle and vanished, just as the werewolf threw back its head and howled.
They landed in a dungeon, sprawling across the stone floor with the Portkey between them. Ellie rested her head back against the floor, smiling triumphantly.
"We made it." Sitting up slowly because of the headache building in his head, Cecil looked around the chamber where they'd landed. Their Defence against the Dark Arts teacher stood outside, holding a clipboard and a stopwatch.
"Good job, both of you. I had the utmost confidence you would make it, and here you are." She smiled at them both. "You've passed third year DADA. If you go back to the classroom, you'll find the Prefects have some hot drinks and food. There is also first aid, should you need it. Congratulations once again."
Cecil let himself fall back onto the floor, grinning crazily at the ceiling.
Told you, James.