An honest to goodness stairway, hewn out of the rock and apparently wide and winding up the tallest hill of this floating island. Obviously not a natural phenomenon. But what could this mean? After Bellatrix and Hermione cleared the vines with some carefully placed magical fires, they could see that the staircase went down to the beach.
"Hah, if only we'd have found this sooner," laughed Bellatrix. "It'd saved us a lot of traipsing through the jungle."
"We're obviously not the first ones here," said Hermione.
"We've talked about how this entire place might be an artificial construct," said Bellatrix. "Maybe it was built by ancient wizards? So much of the oldest magic has been lost in the Hyperborean cataclysm. Still, it's strange that this is the only sign of habitation."
"That we haven't seen any other buildings doesn't mean they aren't there," said Hermione. "It just means we haven't found them."
"Good point," replied Bellatrix. "Judging from the state of the stairway, wherever it leads must not have been in use for a very long time. But I'm willing to bet we might find a good place to set up camp."
"I agree," said Hermione. Both girls followed the staircase up as it would along the mountain, clearing vines and overgrowth as they went. Even Zipper helped in his own way, flying ahead and snipping at vines with his mandibles. The staircase, as they expected, led them to the top of the highest hill. Behind them lay a magnificent view of the atoll and the jungle as well as the other floating islands high in the sky. The non-existent sun was setting and day would turn to night soon.
The top of the mountain had a most unusual shape, and they soon saw why: a domed structure was built on top of it, its shape reminding Hermione of an observatory she had once visited with her parents when she'd been much younger. It was so overgrown that both girls would have completely missed it from a lower vantage point.
The staircase led them to a large open and doorless entryway. A lobby, perhaps? Nature had done its best to reclaim this place, as the building had been pierced by roots, vines and branches. Entering this place felt like entering St. Paul's Cathedral: a high ceiling, imposing columns and tall arches. Yet there was something about the way this building was shaped that made it seem so very alien. The shapes, the contours. It felt... organic. As if the building had been grown or shaped, rather than, well, built.
To their side were the remains of what seemed to be some sort of lobby and ahead of them was a large central staircase winding both up to a large loft-like floor and apparently lower down into the mountain. Time had taken its toll however, as part of the building had collapsed, letting in the light of the setting sun and blocking off the way down with debris.
Bellatrix stopped to examine the fallen stone, branches and grit. "I can see through the rubble," said Bellatrix. "There's more down there."
The collapsed stairway leading down seemed to go deeper into the complex, but any access had been completely cut off. "I think we can get through," said Bellatrix with a grin.
"I don't know," said Hermione. "That whole stairwell looks dangerously unstable."
Bellatrix thought a moment. "I think a well-placed bombarda might clear it. Or perhaps disintegrating a few of the heavier boulders."
"Are you daft?!" Hermione exclaimed. "That might bring it down completely. Look how precarious those cracks in the ceiling over there look? You might bring down the entire complex on top of our heads!"
"We can't just leave it!" Bellatrix returned. "From the look of things, there's many more floors below our feet. The entire mountain might be hewn out, just like the Ministry of Magic back home! Who knows what we can find down there?"
"Our tombs if we're unlucky!" Hermione pressed. "Say we manage to clear this obviously unstable stairway and we go down. Then, while we're down there, it collapses again, but much more severely this time. We'll be stuck there and, since nobody knows where we are and we are the only humans in this place, we will die down there when our food and water runs out. This'll take more than just the two of us. We'll need an experienced excavation crew with specialized equipment. The ceiling and the hallways need to be braced. Not only here but also on the levels below. Who knows what state the lower levels are in?"
Bellatrix closed her eyes. "FINE!" she exclaimed, accepting the argument but still being immensely frustrated about it.
"Chin up," replied Hermione. "There's still plenty to see. Besides, shouldn't you be taking pictures?"
Bellatrix blinked and gave her a look as if to say 'how could I have forgotten that?!'. Immediately, the camera was out and flashes illuminated the darkening building when the curly-haired witch started to take picture after picture after picture. "Hold on," she said, excusing herself. "I want to take a few outside shots too while I still have the light. Be back in a tick."
As Bellatrix raced outside, it left Hermione to contemplate the implications of what they had found. Who built this? What was it for? How long has it been abandoned? Why had it been abandoned? With its cathedral-like appearance and prominent location, naturally her first thought was that it could be a temple of a place of worship. That also caused her to chide herself, because that was exactly what every first year anthropology student would say. Her train of thought was interrupted by bright flashes from outside: apparently there wasn't enough light after all. Not much of a problem in itself, but from the top of this hill they would be extremely visible from a long distance. To a point that it might alert the murder-unicorn to their location.
Thankfully, Bellatrix found herself inside not long after, taking a few more photographs on her way through the lobby. In fact, one of the flashes alerted her to something on the wall in between the two staircases. The young witch stepped forward, whispering a quick lumos before holding her wand closer. Bellatrix did the same and together they stared at what looked to be rather impressive and colourful mosaic mural. It depicted this very floating island, with the atoll in the distance as numerous figures stood on the mountainside looking at the numerous floating islands in the distance. Though it was more of an artist's rendition, both could clearly see that even though the figures seemed human, they most definitely were not. They were tall and almost unnaturally lithe with long hair. In their faces were high cheekbones, almond shaped eyes and… delicately pointed ears.
"Elves…" Hermione whispered.
"Elves?!" Bellatrix gave an incredulous look before letting out a laugh. "Elves are pathetic, insipid creatures who can't even operate properly when not given an order! How could they have built something on this scale?"
Bellatrix' blatant racism made Hermione bristle for a moment, but though it was a crude statement, it was also hard to deny the truth behind it.
"I'm not thinking about house-elves. I'm thinking more along the lines of… King Oberon's court," said Hermione, her eyes floating over to a banner with writing on the mosaic. It was a runic script, curved and elegant like the architecture around them. What was frustrating about them it that she could almost recognize them, but it felt as if knowledge of whatever alphabet she was looking at simply escaped her.
"Infuriating," said Hermione. "I don't recognize them, but I feel like I should."
Next to her, Bellatrix nodded. "I agree. There's a lot of similarities with old runic iconography just… a lot more intricate and complex."
They decided to leave the mosaic for what it was and, for now, the only way to go was up. The staircase on the left going up lead only one story up to an absolutely massive plateau at the top of the building. If this building hadn't left an impression before, it certainly did now. Above the plateau was an enormous glass... no... crystal dome. And though it was partially overgrown with vines, this was a place from where every single floating island could be clearly seen above. The dome was cracked and pierced in several places by the weight of the intrusive foliage, but the chamber was almost completely intact otherwise.
Fifteen round metal pads lined the edges of the domes, all of them of equal distance away from a large round dais, on top of it was a round raised structure, about waist-high. At first, Hermione thought it was some sort of decoration. A fountain, perhaps. The more she stared at it, the more she questioned that.
"Whoa," sounded next to her, a hush of awe.
"Took the words right out of my mouth," said Hermione.
"Well," said Bellatrix, grinning at her while removing her pack and setting it down next to the staircase. "I know where we're setting up camp tonight. Imagine how this will look once the sun fully sets and the stars come out."
"Undoubtedly breathtaking," said Hermione. "What do you make of this room, Trix?"
"Hm," though Bellatrix. "Some kind of observatory, perhaps? You can see all of the Fae Realm from here."
Hermione and Bellatrix stepped forward, Bellatrix of course rather busily snapping pictures. What Hermione thought was a fountain at first seemed to be a large round stone table. Zipper's buzzing actually caused bit of an echo until he landed on top of the table and sat still for a moment. That is, until Hermione and Bellatrix came so close to the table that... it sprang to life.
The startled wasp took off in a hurry and rushed back to fly next to Bellatrix, eyeing the table warily. Meanwhile, both witches stared in awe as they were now looking at a blue-tinted holographic projection of the Fae Realm, a large mapping of all the fifteen floating islands.
Hermione approached, being able to make out more of those same elegant runes as they had seen on the mosaic below. Almost instinctively, she moved her hand to touch one of the islands. Immediately, the image shifted, zooming in on it. The floating island in question was the grasslands biome, the one they had used to enter the Fae Realm. Zoomed in, it was a holographic depiction in incredibly realistic detail. She could see the savannas and the forest, with both sections of the island being clearly labelled with different sets of runes. Another wave of her hands and it zoomed in further, showing a herd of borses grazing.
"Oh my god," whispered Hermione. "I think this is real-time."
"What is this thing?" said Bellatrix, waving her hand through the hologram, causing the image to go back to the apparent starting screen.
"Not just an observatory," Hermione concluded. "A control center! This is some sort of computer. But... I don't see any sort of technological parts or any power source. Yet it has remained active when abandoned for god knows how long."
Bellatrix leaned forward, placing her hands on the stone table. "It's magical. Deeply magical. I can feel it in my bones."
"I guess technology and magic don't have to be so divorced from each other as we previously thought," replied Hermione. Zipper, in the meantime, had calmed down somewhat and landed on the table again.
"What's that?" said Bellatrix, pointing at a section of the map which had several red dots and flashing red runes near it. "Isn't that the plateau we came to when we entered this realm?"
"It is," said Hermione. "Flashing red light usually is a bad thing. Like an alert. Or a warning."
"Or a breach," suggested Bellatrix. "Maybe we weren't supposed to get into the Realm that way."
Yes. Yes, that made sense. Hermione tried a few movements and found that, with a wave of her hand in a certain direction, she could zoom out to take a look at the entire Fae Realm. Apparently, there were similar red dots on almost every island. That would make sense, as Fae Mirrors had been popping up semi-regularly over the centuries. If they were caused by some sort of malfunction, it made sense so many warning lights were on.
"It makes sense. The point where we entered the Fae Realm. It was at the edge of an island, just like all the wildlife crossings. Somehow… these wildlife crossings must have been making contact with our world somehow," said Hermione. "I'm… not sure it's supposed to do that. It must be a malfunction of some kind. It explains why Fae Mirror sightings are so rare and are inherently unstable. I can't imagine how long this place might have existed. Complex systems break down over time. And this looks to be very complex."
Hermione decided to navigate to the central island which they were one. Though still considered one of the biomes, she could see there were a few more options to choose from. She picked one at random and the projection changed. A holographic depiction of a hippogryph appeared, next to the helix of what looked to be a DNA strand and a large textbox filled with runes. Above the text box was another smaller box depicting its island biome with runes she recognized from the previous projection. Names of the biomes, perhaps?
Of course, Bellatrix was diligently taking photographs of every single projection and after a few complaints from her, Hermione swiped through the database a little slower.
She continued to swipe through this database of magical creatures, apparently denizens of the biomes. She came across magical creatures familiar and strange and new. She stopped when the projection showed to be a giant monstrous fish somewhat resembling a coelacanth. If coelacanths would be large enough to swallow small whales whole, that is. "Aren't you happy we never ended up in that ocean biome?" Hermione chuckled.
"Are you kidding?" Bellatrix laughed. "This only makes me want to see that thing up close even more!"
Hermione rolled her eyes and kept swiping.
"Hey, Zipper! That's you!"
Zipper seemed to be more intent to playing around with some rock he had found to pay attention to the projection. But, indeed, it appeared that this species of wasp found its home on the insect hive biome. Though calling it a hive biome was selling it short: from the hologram it more resembled an elaborate city, with artistically crafted tall organic spires. Parts of this 'cities' were clearly dedicated sections and it seemed that, aside from foraging, the wasp society seemed to be growing their own food to a degree in an agricultural section. The wasps were generally more intelligent and capable than Hermione had given them credit for.
The next projection was eerily familiar as well. "Our friend the murder-unicorn," Bellatrix crossed her arms. Not surprisingly, red runes flashed and most of the text in the box was tinted blood red as well. Whoever created this place had recognized the creature's danger, alright.
What came up next gave her pause, however. Above her, almost life-sized, now stood the clear projection of a man and a woman. The description, while illegible, seemed quite a bit longer than the one other creatures had and it raised an interesting question. As with all the other creatures in the database, there were parts of the DNA helix which were highlighted yellow. But what could this mean?
Highlighted points of interest, perhaps?
It was a bit overwhelming to think about it. Still, there was no way to tell without being able to read the runes. 'Any sufficient advanced techonology is indistinguishable from magic', was the quote that went through her mind right now. Arthur C. Clarke. Her father would be proud of her. Still, the sentiment stood.
Hermione navigated to another projection. Immediately, a path of energy lit up on the floor, leading to all the fifteen pads in the corner. A soft hum filled the room as, above all the pads, a shimmering portal appeared. Large enough for a person to step through, she could see glimpses of the different biomes through the shimmering haze. "Well," smiled Hermione. "A stable transport hub. That should make it a lot easier to get around."
"I'll say," said Bellatrix, putting her hand to her chin. "What does the other option do?"
"Only one way to find out," smiled Hermione and waved her hand over it. Instantly, there was another shimmer as all fifteen portals shifted. A more complex looking projection appeared showing dozens of different options. More interestingly, the portals all showed new locations. One was instantly recognizable as the Forbidden Forest. It was still night-time, in fact, which wasn't surprising. Other portals showed other locations. "Fae Mirrors," said Hermione. "The pads connect to Fae Mirrors. Or maybe opens them proper."
"Whoa," said Bellatrix as she stepped to investigate. "Fifteen pads. Fifteen Fae Mirrors. Fifteen islands. More multitudes of three. What was this place for? Were these gateways meant to ensnare creatures into this Realm or... bring them to ours? They do work both ways."
"This does seem like a preserve. Or perhaps a research facility. Or... breeding grounds? All three?" said Hermione. "No way to tell until we manage to translate some of these runes."
"Thank about it," grinned Bellatrix, taking hold of Hermione's hands. "If we control the Fae Mirrors, we can set up a permanent gateway between this place and both our time-lines! We... we could be together and I wouldn't have to give up my sisters! Maybe I could even bring my sisters with me to 1998!"
Hermione couldn't help but smile at Bellatrix' enthusiasm, but she had to stay grounded. "Not to rain on your parade, but this looks to be very complex. We'd have to either find a way to translate those runes or go through a lot of trial and error to make that happen."
"Maybe there's a key to that somewhere deeper into the complex," said Bellatrix. "But we do have a stable portal until March, right? We could use that set up a real expedition! Think about it, Hermie. We could change the world with the things we've found here. I... I have to take a few pictures."
Truth be told, she had rarely seen Bellatrix being this... bouncy, though she certainly didn't fault her for it. While Bellatrix sauntered over to the portals near the dome, Hermione started to fiddle with the console a bit more, trying to make sense of the settings on this projection. A few moments later, she was roused from her thoughts by the clank of a stone hitting stone. Near her, Zipper was still fiddling with the stone he had found. At first, she thought it was a simple stone in between his mandibles, but the moment it caught the light, it seemed to be glinting.
"What have you got there, Zipper?" asked Hermione.
The wasp sauntered over and offered his prize, which looked to be a smooth and almost transparent crystal about the size of a fingertip. She held it out and noticed it was about the same size of a slot near the edge of the stone table. Curious, she place it in the slot and found it to be fitting perfectly. A second, smaller projection appeared and, a few moments later, a bar started running. After it was finished, the crystal was ejected from the slot and Hermione held it up to the dome.
Blue light shifting to purple was running through the crystal in mesmerising patterns. She appeared to have charged something. Or perhaps downloaded something. The contents of the database or perhaps logs? Though it was doubtful that humanity would ever develop any sort of technology able to read said crystal during her lifetime, she felt it was better to have it than not. Hermione pocketed the gem and resumed fiddling with the console.
"Oh, wow, this one leads to somewhere underwater!" yelled Bellatrix from the other side of the room, her voice echoing loudly. She rather enthusiastically started to take a few more photographs.
Hermione looked up for a moment to smile before digging back into her task of trying to understand the Fae Mirror control panel. As far as she could determine, the portals here were the same as in the islands, but the ones open which were giving off red warning lights were 'wild' portals of a sort. Some kind of system error, which would explain why they were so unstable. Just as she was fiddling with some controls, a new warning light popped up. But this one was in the screen she was working with and corresponded with their entry point, the portal leading back to the Forbidden Forest in their time-line.
"Trix!" Hermione called. "I'm going to check something out for a bit."
"Sure!" Bellatrix yelled back while Zipper took flight.
Hermione made her way over the to the pad and, at first glance, nothing seemed to be out of the ordinary. When she stepped onto the pad for a closer investigation, however, time around her seemed to freeze. The young witch spun around, only to see Zipper frozen in mid flight. Same with the harsh flash of Bellatrix' camera.
Since the portal could connect to different time-periods, Hermione surmised that this must be some sort of temporal airlock.
However, she didn't have much time to contemplate this further, as a familiar voice sounded from the other side of the portal. "Mademoiselle Granger?" sounded from the distance. The distortion made it difficult to make out who the voice belonged to, until she peered at the portal in question. Beyond it, she could see familiar sight of the Forbidden Forest at night. Standing over the pool, taking a swig from a bottle of cognac, was Achille Rosier.
"Mister Rosier?" Hermione said, turning her head to call for Bellatrix until Achille put his finger to his lips.
"Non," he shook his head. "Let 'er keep 'er innocence."
"What are you doing?" she asked as she watched the more than slightly tipsy man sway a little above the pool.
"I apologize for lying to you," said Achille. "I actually am a good researcher, if I say so myself. I did pay attention to papa's travails. I simply enjoy painting far more. I withheld things from you. Still, I am impressed you figured it out so quickly, mademoiselle Granger. You are indeed a clever witch. If you and Bella 'ad 'ad more time, you would 'ave likely figured out a way to break the time-loop on your own, I am sure of it. It is simply a risk I cannot take."
He produced two vials of red liquid from his waist-coat and held them up for Hermione to see. "Blood of the past. Blood of the present."
Hermione blinked. "Our blood... How did you get it?" she said before catching herself. "Bellatrix's body. And you drew mine during my visit."
"That slight 'eadache you felt when leaving my atelier," he gave an apologetic smile. "My assistant. I apologize for the deception. Blood of the past..." he said, pouring Bellatrix's blood into the pool. "Blood of the present..." he said, pouring Hermione's. The portal itself coloured deep red as the blood spread through the water. "And, it requires a third ingredient," he said after producing a butcher's knife. "Blood of the living..."
Hermione swallowed hard as she realized what Rosier was about to do. "Wait!" she hissed. "Don't do that! You don't have to! I've already convinced Trix to come with me to 1998! You'll be able to see her again soon! Please don't!"
"Pardon, miss Granger," Achille shook his head. "But the time-loop will only be broken if there is never a way back. You and Bella, hm? I take it you two 'ave kissed?"
Hermione slowly nodded.
"Ah, To 'ear that your love has born fruit gives me hope. You 'ave kissed and... perhaps even more?"
Instantly, Hermione felt her cheeks starting to burn. Achille didn't need more of a hint than that. She smiled warmly. "Ah, my niece was always passionate, mademoiselle Granger. She 'ad much love to give, but no one to give it to."
"All the more reason you don't need to do what... what you're about to do!" Hermione repeated desperately.
Achille chuckled. "You misunderstand, mademoiselle Granger. All of this. All experienced. It 'as already 'appened'. In the past, in the present. But it's not enough. The Fae Mirror will still fail in April. And despite everything, my niece will still be at the wrong side when that 'appens. The Fae Realm exists out of time, you see? The time-lines are already drifting apart, stretching and stretching like a rubber band. I am just going to snap it while both of you exist outside of either."
Hermione shook her head. "Don't do this…"
"I will," Achille chuckled. "Things will be better."
"You don't know that!" Hermione hissed.
"They can't get any worse for my family, non?" said Achille, Hermione not having a retort for that one. She could only watch nervously as Achille held the knife.
"You worry about Bellatrix' innocence," Hermione narrowed her eyes. "But what about my innocence? I've lost far too much of that already! You have no right to take more from me!"
"For what you are about to witness, I am truly sorry," Achille spoke softly. "Promise me to take good care of my niece, mademoiselle Granger. She is far more fragile than she might seem. She needs love more than anything."
Seeing there was nothing she could do to convince him, Hermione simply sighed and nodded briefly. "I promise..." she whispered.
Achille gave her a final nod before raising the knife to his throat. Hermione squeezed her eyes shut, turning her head away. But even though she could not see it, she could hear the knife slice through his neck and blood splattering forth. She could hear the sound of a body falling over and the splash of water from landing in the pool.
Her heart pounded in her chest. Hermione didn't want to look, but, moreover, she didn't want Bella to see. It was obvious her girlfriend loved her uncle very much and to see him face down bleeding out in the pool wouldn't do wonders for her sanity.
Though she was still frozen in time, she realized that Achille had done... something... upsetting to the magics of the Fae Realm. She never had an inkling of an idea of just how bad until she actually stepped off the pad.
Hermione was almost thrown to the floor as the ground shook beneath her feet. A deep rumbling came from very core of the island. A surprised Bellatrix did fall to the floor while the sky above turned an angry, deep blood red colour. Zipper buzzed around in a panic while the projection from the stone table changed… red spots appeared on the holographic maps at the edges of all the islands, along with more messages in red. A few seconds later, the projection turned into a single red rune... obviously a serious warning or some sort of fatal error. The island itself was apparently shifting and at this sudden shift Hermione did find herself on her back and on the ground.
"Hermie!" Bellatrix shouted. "WHAT'S HAPPENING?!"
Hermione's eyes grew wide when above her, she saw two of the floating islands moving right towards each other. They were going to collide. And the dome was right below them.
"WE NEED TO GET OUT OF HERE!" Hermione said, scrambling to her feet. "COME! TO THE PORTAL!"
The portals were shimmering in and out of existence. The whole system had become unstable now.
"MY PACK!" Bellatrix rushed to the edge of the staircase, where she had parked her backpack. As Hermione looked, she just saw it falling over and sliding down the staircase.
Another tremor and Hermione fell to her knees. Bellatrix had managed to keep standing and rushed to the staircase. Hermione grunted and rushed to her side, pulling on her arm when she finally reached her. "LEAVE IT!" Hermione shouted.
"IT HAS ALL OUR SAMPLE! OUR PHOTOGRAPHS! OUR LOG! OUR FAMILY TENT!" Bellatrix yelled, turning her face to her with desperation etched on her face. She jerked her arm loose and jumped onto the stairs going down.
"TRIX!" Hermione yelled just as Bellatrix pulled out her wand.
"ACCIO BACKPACK!" Bellatrix cast her spell with desperation on her voice, only to smile broadly when her pack came flying up. Just as she grabbed the strap, there was another tremor which shook the entire island. Bellatrix let out a yelp as she lost her footing and was about to topple down the stairs. With reflexes she didn't know she possessed, Hermione lunged forward, making a grab for Bellatrix' arm while holding onto the railing.
Thankfully, Bellatrix was a slight girl who wasn't very heavy, nor was her pack. Otherwise, Hermione would have only succeeded in getting the both of them tumbling down the stairs and potentially breaking their necks. As it stood, Hermione was able to hoist her back to somewhat solid ground.
"Thanks," smiled Bellatrix while throwing her pack on her back and securing it.
Above them, the two islands collided with a resounding rumble. Both girls looked up and were horrified to see the two islands grinding into each other, sending a waves of debris about to rain down upon the central island.
"Let's go!" Hermione yelled at Bellatrix and, still holding her wrist, started to pull her back to the portal. This time, Bellatrix did not pull away. The two of them rushed back towards the pad where the portal to the Forbidden Forest was located. The moment their feet touched the pad, time froze and they had a moment to breathe.
"Oh, Merlin," Bellatrix chuckled despite herself. "Well, I did promise you an adventure, didn't I?"
"I honestly wasn't expecting this," said Hermione.
"Why did this happen? What went wrong?" Bellatrix asked.
Hermione thought for a moment. The truth simply wasn't an option here, despite the fact that it had been an ultimate act of love from a beloved family member, telling Bellatrix that her uncle had given his life to secure her future would at the very least greatly sadden Bellatrix. "I don't know," she lied instead. "I could have activated the wrong option on the projection, but who knows..."
Bellatrix offered a smile. "You don't know if you did. And even if you did, how could you have known?"
That was more kindness from Bellatrix than Hermione felt she deserved after lying to her face.
"Oh no," Bellatrix suddenly froze. "Where's Zipper? Have you seen him?"
Indeed, the giant wasp was not in the temporal airlock with them. The curly-haired witch frantically started to look around into the chamber. "We have to go back for him!" Bellatrix demanded.
"Trix," Hermione spoke softly. "Look above."
Above them, a large piece of debris had just crashed through the crystal dome. The huge rock, along with a hail of crystal splinters hung frozen in time just above their pad. It had a mesmerising quality as the shards caught the light of the red sky, making it seem as if they were about be showered with crystallised blood. "If we go out there, we'll be crushed within seconds," Hermione said softly.
Bellatrix closed her eyes and sighed. "You're right, of course. But... dammit..."
"I'm sorry, Trix," said Hermione. "It's... it's time to go."
At that moment, something moved within Bellatrix' pack. Two antennae peeped out first, followed by a head. Apparently, Zipper had taken refuge inside the pack like he had before in the fog biome. Bellatrix didn't waste any time and clutched the wasp to her chest. The wasp seemed to be quite happy to be hugged and treated Bellatrix to some play-bites, but not nearly as happy as Bellatrix seemed to be.
Hermione figured she'd better get used to having that wasp around. Zipper was coming with them, like it or not.
Bellatrix' expression turned pained as she looked up at the colliding islands, now frozen in time. "Merlin… all those poor animals…"
"There's nothing we can do for them," said Hermione. "Only way is forward."
Bellatrix took one last look at the Fae Realm, before suddenly kissing Hermione on the lips. Together, with a wasp in tow, they stepped through the portal.
"Still, Bellatrix should reappear very soon," said Andie as she and Cissy were still at their perch behind the fallen log. Bellatrix had just disappeared after performing the blood ritual, but if the earlier experience was any indication, she should reappear soon.
So they waited.
"How soon?" Cissy asked after a minute had passed.
Andie, now very worried, stepped out of her hiding spot. "Something is wrong."
With Cissy in tow, Andie carefully approached the pool. Of course, with her luck, Bellatrix would pop back into being right as they arrived. No doubt their elder sister would be quite pissed to find the two of them there. She could already imagine the insinuations thrown at her and Cissy in her head. But she quickly pushed those away: She and Cissy should be angry at Bellatrix, after all. It was Bella who'd been keeping secrets from them, after all. It was Bella whom had been performing blood-rites with a total stranger. It was Bella going Merlin-knows-what inside some sort of dubious magic pool!
Yes, when Bella returned, Andie was poised to give her a piece of her mind. She shouldn't worry her sisters so, after all.
Just as they were approaching the pool, the ground started to shake. A burst of power shot outward and Andie felt the magical tremor shred through her, knocking both her and Cissy off her feet. Every inch of her body hurt when she opened her eyes and found herself unable to move. Ahead, from the pool, now rose a column of blood-red energy high into the sky. It surged for about ten seconds and then faded away as quickly as it had come.
"Oh, Merlin," Cissy groaned. "Is... is this what the cruciatus curse feels like?"
"I hope not," Andie grit her teeth.
"The pool! Bella!" Cissy yelled.
Both sisters ignored their pain and rushed forward. Where once, in the middle of this grove, had been a petrified dead tree with a pool between its roots, now only left a pile of dirt where it had once stood. There were absolutely no sign of there ever having been a tree or a pool.
"No," Andie yelled, feeling tears sting in her eyes. "Bella!"
Andie dove to the dirt and started digging with her hands. Deep in her heart, she knew it was futile. Deep in her heart, she knew what had just happened had closed whatever portal Bellatrix had stepped through. But maybe, just maybe, they could hit water and the pool would bubble up from the ground again.
"Bella!" Cissy screamed in denial as she started to dig alongside Andie. "Bella, come back!"
What happened next was a little hazy, but at some point she and Andie simply held each other, crying in the night as it started to sink in that their sister... their beloved elder sister... was gone.
Ronald Weasley had been walking through the forest for hours now. Truth be told, he was never much of a navigator. Even though he had a map, the Forbidden Forest was thick and dark and lacking proper landmarks. Finding place where the magical lay-lines intersected was easier said than done. He had left Hogsmeade around eleven in the evening and by now it was probably the witching hour. The snow didn't make traversing the forest any easier either.
Still, he wouldn't give up. Hermione needed him and, even though his navigational skills were rather naff, he still had his inborn Weasley tenacity. A breakthrough had come when he had come across a passing centaur whom actually deemed to speak to him and, wonders above, was actually willing to give him proper directions.
He was well and truly on track now and actually felt the flow of magic underneath his feet. Heh, who knew that being a pure-blood was good for something after all?
"Merlin's saggy ballsack, hallelujah," Ron whispered to himself. Her drew his wand and approached the glen: he had no idea what to expect, after all, nor did he know if the person whom had tricked Hermione into performing blood-rites was still somewhere around. So far, the glen seemed quiet enough.
He hid behind a tree and scanned the glen. A spell revealed one only source of magic and that was the pool. For now, he felt secure enough to investigate the pool.
There was a body floating in the water.
Fear gripped him by the throat. "No," he hissed. "Hermione?"
Throwing all caution to the wind, Ron rushed toward the pool. "HERMIONE!"
Before he could get close, a magical burst shot from the pool. The moment the shockwave hit him, he was knocked clear off his feet. For a moment, he felt a pain akin to being splinced. Ron lay on the ground and needed a moment to recover. A column of angry red energy shot into the sky with tremendous speed. The moment it dissipated, Ron groaned while getting to his feet. He blinked when he regarded what was left: the glen was almost completely destroyed. The pool, the tree and the body had been completely vapourised, while all around him trees had fallen or had been partially disintegrated. The snow was gone, as if the burst of energy had destroyed it along with a great portion of the topsoil. In truth, Ron felt lucky to be alive.
"Hermione?" he asked.
There was no answer.
There would never be an answer.
The moment Bellatrix and Hermione landed on the soil of the forest, the chill of the winter air hit them quite harshly after having enjoyed the tropical climate of the island atoll. Hermione found herself hugging her body as her exhales produced a wispy plume. Bellatrix was in a similar state: unfortunately, their coats were in the tent which was in their pack.
Though they had had quite the adventure, it was just good to be home. No more worries about floating islands, paralyzing flowers, mind-altering fogs or murder-unicorns. The wasp seemed a bit surprised at the cold, but seemed to be curiously buzzing around the glen.
It left a question, though.
But that question would have to wait. Certainly because Bellatrix and Hermione were suddenly hoisted up in the air and violently thrown across the glen by a wave of magical energy. They landed with a thud, far too hard for Hermione's liking. With the wind thoroughly knocked out of her, she let out a groan. Just as she was recovering, another burst of magical energy shot upwards into the sky. She heard Bellatrix screaming, for she was far more sensitive to changes in magical energy around her. The energy was close, it was wild and it produced a searing heat.
And then, it was over.
Bellatrix lay panting as Hermione turned to her side. "Trix," she asked. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah," Bellatrix said, suddenly grunting and grabbing her left arm. "No..." she corrected.
Hermione looked to the place where the glen used to be and where now simply was a perfectly round sinkhole. The young witch felt her body ache as she stood up and peeked over the edge. The soil had been turned into glass by the searing heat of the magical discharge, all leading into a pit of which she could not see the bottom of. "Well," Hermione sighed. "We're not going back through the portal."
"At least we saved all our evidence," Bellatrix grimaced again while Zipper landed next to her on the ground. The curly-haired witch patted his head before grunting in pain again.
Hermione helped her up, to which Bellatrix was grateful. "Careful," hissed Bellatrix. "That arm feels broken. I think I heard it snap when I hit the ground."
"We need to get you to the infirmary," said Hermione. "We could probably floo to Hogwarts from the Hog's Head."
"So how do we explain the giant new hole in the forest?" Bellatrix chuckled.
"That's not the question I'm too worried about," said Hermione.
"What question is?" Bellatrix asked.
"When are we?"