“Into nonbeing, which is to say, everything,” replied Professor McGonagall.
Scarlet spurted three feet high in the Devil’s Basin, droplets leaping over each other like arcing fish. Fred Weasley’s trajectory shot the highest, followed by Nymphadora Tonks’s, and in a phenomenon never before fathomed in Round Five of the Devil’s Duel, there was a third presence: the blood of Colin Creevey.
However, no one was there to witness it.
The depot attendant had not left his station yet, taking a few extra minutes to cross off the name of a man native to Edinburgh who had been scheduled to arrive at midnight but had been delayed in St. Mungo’s. The attendant was not altogether certain how the paperwork had mixed this up, as he was more knowledgeable about death than anyone he’d ever met and knew that there was nothing as concrete, as sure-fire as one’s precise date and cause of death.
While he took his time entering the island of Cliodna’s Clock, grimacing slightly (as he did not care for the place and therefore only visited it properly once a year, on this very day), the stadium surrounding an enormous scallop-shell Pensieve was erupting into chaos.
Remus Lupin had seized Colin Creevey the moment he stumbled out of the Pensieve, leading him by the hand through the crowd swarming down the stands to congratulate Fred Weasley. Claudius Ptolemy craned his neck all around, perplexed while he searched for the young boy and did not find him, but was soon nearly knocked off his feet by Mad-Eye Moody, who had chosen that moment to accidentally shove his cane right into Ptolemy’s lower spine.
“How will you spend your twenty-four hours?” cried one reporter for the Daily Departed, elbowing her colleague out of the way. She conjured a notepad and quill out of thin air, leaning forward eagerly.
Fred looked helplessly back at her, at a loss to respond, and searched the sea of faces for the young, brave boy he had grown to know better than he’d previously wished. “I don’t – have you seen –?”
“Mr. Weasley!” called someone else, jumping up and down to be seen over many converging heads. “Would you consider it cheating that you did not physically have to wait until midnight? Would you say that the planning in this round was flawed?”
“It wasn’t cheating, he won fair and square,” Gideon Prewett growled, shoving a finger into the chest of the man who’d spoken. “Back off if you know what’s good for you.”
The other man stuttered into silence, frowning peevishly all the same, while Fred drowned under a deluge of questions and intense speculation about the fairness of him having won when the contenders hadn’t been given as much time as promised. Fred’s being overtaken by a memory that occurred after midnight had allowed him to beat the system, and when he was yanked from the Pensieve, Colin had had no choice but to vanish along with him.
“But there were other memories post-midnight and those didn’t count,” Orla Quirke yelled angrily, red cheeks dimmed under a sky now sparkling with stars. The heavens were vast, cathedral-like, and unfeeling as celestial specks shone over Fred Weasley’s shaking shoulders.
“There were,” chimed someone else. “Remember what someone said about Dennis calling Colin’s parents to retrieve his body? That had to have been well after dawn.”
“Calm down,” Claudius shouted over the roar of voices. “At that point, no one had done anything to try to save their doppelgangers. No one would have won. This is how the tournament goes, everyone. Someone’s got to win and someone’s got to lose, and both contenders were well aware of the stakes upon signing up – voluntarily, I might add. Now I know that you’re upset, since our town is about to lose a beloved citizen, but –”
“You helped Weasley win,” Florean Fortescue accused, and a ripple of snarling agreement ripped the air. “That barrier didn’t appear until after Fred was in the lead. You fiddled with the timing to ensure he would come out victorious.”
“Codswallop,” Fabian told him. “Creevey wasn’t doing anything to try to win. You all saw him hiding out at Hagrid’s, just sitting on his hands.”
Claudius was beginning to look nervous. He held out his arms. “Quiet! Everyone be quiet! Just listen to me for a moment.”
Hundreds of faces turned towards him, half angry and half unsure, and that was when Salazar Slytherin’s voice broke out, louder than the rest:
“Listen to your lies? To hell with that! This isn’t the first time you’ve staged a win in your favor, Claudius, which you damn well know.”
“We have never staged a win,” answered Cliodna herself, brittle voice quivering behind the thick veil. “Do not dare make such accusations.”
Her rare input stunned a majority of the protestors into silence. Claudius’s bright eyes roved around the dark stands, most of the seats empty because everyone had drained out of them down to sea level, bodies packed tightly together. A smug smile of satisfaction touched at his lips, pleased that Cliodna’s words had rendered them docile, and he continued, “As per tradition, Mr. Creevey will not be Vanished quite yet.”
“Vanished?” Fred whispered hoarsely. There was a wide berth around him, an airless circle that no one wanted to occupy. It was not entirely his fault that he had won, but people didn’t know how to treat him. If the duel had been thrown, tailored to give Fred an undeserved edge, then how could they applaud him?
“He will have until midnight to say his goodbyes,” Claudius went on. Fury swelled in the crowd again, threatening to surmount his domineering presence, so he fairly shrieked, “Fred Weasley, as the grand champion of this year’s Devil’s Duel –”
“Rubbish!” Orla screamed, violently tearing her way through people in efforts to get to Claudius. James Potter and Regulus Black grabbed her and held her back; she was sobbing but still fighting against them, trying to wrench herself free.
“– he will now receive his promised twenty-four hours on earth. I am sure you have all of our hearty congratulations. Your actions in the duel were most worthy of such an honorable prize, and –”
“Colin never got a fair fight!” Cedric yelled.
“This is ridiculous,” Lily Potter added, her voice somehow carrying over everyone else vying to be heard. “If Fred wins under fair conditions, then he’s the rightful champion. But that duel was nowhere near fair.”
“What do you want me to do about it?” Claudius barked, composure slipping. He petitioned Cliodna with an imploring look, but she said nothing and made no move to interfere.
Lily exchanged glances with Sirius, who nodded fervently. “We want a do-over!” she announced, and several people close to her clapped passionately. “A different Round Five.”
“We have never done a do-over, nor do we intend to. Not every little detail about duel conditions is under our control. What is done is done. What you call error I prefer to think of as fate.”
Lily glared at him in outrage. “Are you really as daft as you look?”
He gazed sharply back at her, patience wearing thin. “I advise you to take a more respectful tone with me. I am not someone you want to cross.”
“If you knew the first thing about me, you wouldn’t want to cross me, either,” she shot back.
Fred’s stomach was tied up in knots. He’d gone from feeling relief at not being the one to die to guilty that Colin came in second, to absolutely hating himself. All around him there were titterings of, “Nothing against Fred, but…”
The murmurs changed direction after a few minutes. Fred’s eyes darted around, noting the absence of Remus and Tonks. Orla had somehow slipped away unnoticed, and more importantly – although it took an embarrassing amount of time for everyone to realize it, Colin Creevey was nowhere to be seen.
“When I said I would take your place, I meant it,” Tonks reminded Colin, sliding her arm around his shoulders. She cast an anxious frown behind her at the faraway lights of the stadium, a draught of memories in the Pensieve still shining like a silver sea. They walked as quickly as they could towards the nearest house, not caring which one that might be. It would be empty, of course, just like all the others. Every resident was in one place tonight, their cries of dissent shattering City Center, and she knew that their time was limited.
“No, I don’t want that.” Colin shook his head, opening his mouth to speak again, but was interrupted by the sudden arrival of Orla.
“I’m here,” she piped up breathlessly, taking one of his hands in hers to lend emotional support.
“Colin,” Tonks chided gently, “you don’t know what you’re doing. I can genuinely say that I knew what I was getting into when I registered for the Devil’s Duel. I don’t believe you had that same realistic outlook.”
Although it pained Remus to hear her talking like that, trying to convince the boy to let Tonks take his place, he offered Tonks’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze.
“I didn’t,” Colin admitted glumly, “but that’s not your fault.” He stopped walking, the gravel beneath his shoes grinding into dust as he turned on the spot to face her. His eyes betrayed no hint of fear or regret as he said, “I know that you feel bad for helping me in Round Four because it enabled me to be in Round Five, which I lost, but I don’t want you to feel sorry for me. If one of us has to die, I’m quite glad it isn’t Fred. He’s got a lot more family members than I do, and they’ll be wanting to see him someday.”
She slumped weakly against her husband, all of the light gone out from her eyes. “But –”
He shook his head again, smiling ruefully. “Polyjuice Potion won’t last me forever. It barely got me through the duel, even though it was cut much shorter than it should have been.” He touched his hair, which had long since faded from pink to brown. “I can’t depend on that every day, pretend to be you.” He gestured to Remus. “And I think that trying to do so would kill him.”
“This is your decision, Colin,” Remus said quietly. “I will not begrudge you if you accept my wife’s offer, and will do my very best to protect you, disguise you. No one need know that you’re still here and she is not.” But even as he said it, trying to conceal the anguish making each syllable tremble, he could bear to look at Colin no longer and angled his face away.
“I’ve already made my decision,” he replied serenely. “I should never have let you go into the Pensieve tonight in the first place, Mrs. Lupin. You owe me nothing.”
“You’re so young,” she whispered, eyes filling with tears.
“I’ll be all right.” Without announcing it, he embraced her. “Thank you, really, for everything you’ve done.”
“Done?” she repeated hysterically, voice high. “I ruined your chances, Colin! I just sat in Hagrid’s hut and did nothing, I meant to die for you, to spare you both… But I could’ve done something if I’d known you’d change your mind. I could’ve won for you.”
“And then Fred would’ve died, which is no better,” he said reasonably. She gaped at him, marveling at how he could be so cool and unruffled in light of what was about to happen to him. “Thank you, Mr. Lupin – I mean Remus – for your support.” He grinned at his old professor, still unsure whether it was okay for him to call Mr. Lupin by his first name, and extended a hand for him to shake.
Remus did not speak, dumbfounded, as he permitted Colin to grasp his numb fingers and apply pressure.
“I’m going to go now,” Colin informed them. “I’ve only got a couple of hours left until they come and get me, so I want to make them count.”
“Will you…” Tonks trailed off, hand lifting to her bloodless lips. “Will you be okay?” She immediately chastised herself for saying such a thing. Of course Colin wasn’t okay. He was about to die. His deceptively calm front was only for her own benefit, and Remus’s, and as soon as they were out of earshot he would peel it off.
Colin only smiled, a gesture that did not carry to his eyes, and waved goodbye. Tonks and Remus held each other close as Colin and Orla walked hand in hand down the avenue and into the night, the taller of the two determined to Vanish in peace.
“We’ve got to hurry,” Orla muttered, dropping his hand once they’d sprinted out of sight. The sea rolled towards them with hungry, puckering mouths of sapphire foam, gurgling with every rush and recede of the tide. They had been planning this for what felt like ages, but neither could be positive that their theory was correct. Everything pointed to it – the seashells from the Adriatic Sea, the depot’s curious location, and the way that no one was allowed to swim away from the beach past eight feet.
And then there was the final piece of the puzzle that Remus Lupin had unknowingly given them just last night, before Tonks propositioned him with the offer to switch places: Keep your head above water.
Orla stared over the water, where everything in this life began, as if she could visibly see the mysteries lurking beneath its scrolling surface.
“I hope we’re right,” Colin said, turning around to scan the village behind them so frequently that he seemed to have a twitch. “We’ll never get another opportunity to have the attendant gone.” His eyes slid to Orla’s. “Or at least I won’t.”
She grasped his upper arm, beseeching. “I’m not leaving here without you.”
“You don’t have to do this, you know.”
“Are you kidding?” She adjusted her glasses, haughty and defiant. “I’m seeing you through to whatever end you meet.” She pointed her wand at the dock jutting off from the depot, black and waterlogged. Several shapes bobbed up and down next to them. “Accio boat,” she said quietly while Colin continued to keep a vigilant look-out.
Her face radiated excitement when one of the little boats zipped away from its fellows, skidding over wave after wave until it thumped the sandbar. The two friends grinned deviously at each other, elated that their conjecture was right: While citizens of Cliodna’s Clock could not swim out to sea past eight feet, the boats designed to transport people to the island were immune to this rule. They would not have to journey far. If Orla’s endless hypothesizing was correct, then they would only need to pass the eight-foot boundary.
They hopped into the boat, cold water splashing their skin as the boat swayed back and forth. “And no one’s ever tried it before because people are so disoriented when they’re first using these boats,” Orla said earnestly, bouncing on the edge of her seat as the boat took off at full speed. “Maybe if they knew what we know now, they wouldn’t have tried so hard to climb on dry land.”
“What we think,” Colin corrected sternly. “Not know. We can’t be sure just yet.”
“I’m telling you, I felt something,” she plowed on, undeterred from her rapidly-snowballing theories. “It might’ve been harder for you to feel it, since you were wearing shoes. But I wasn’t wearing shoes when I died, and I distinctly remember kicking a –”
“Here,” he interrupted quickly. Without thinking twice, both he and Orla instantly dove over the sides of the boat, their heads slipping underwater for a brief moment before they swam back up to the surface. To Colin’s intense relief, they had not been magically yanked backwards behind the eight-foot invisible line. They were at least twenty feet away from shore, the windowless depot rising like an aquatic monster out of the water just behind them.
The weight of Colin’s clothes bogged him down; he’d never been the best swimmer, but he wasn’t utterly hapless, and treaded the waves with swift, manic bursts of his arms to stay afloat. Orla, naturally, was maneuvering around as easily as a seal. “Okay,” he said, spitting out a mouthful of water. His face was so pale and urgent, paved with moonlight, and as Orla gazed at him it suddenly struck her how wrong they could be, and what she would do if she were to lose him.
“On three,” she replied solemnly, tucking her glasses into a pocket. “One, two –”
“Three,” Colin added before the third second was up, ducking underwater with such force that his feet kicked open air for several seconds before disappearing.
The tips of their outstretched fingers met each other underwater, though it was too dark to see anything. Orla laced her fingers in his and they both kicked with all their might, delving deeper and deeper until the cool pressure felt heavy against their temples. With Colin’s other hand, he reached and swiped for substance, finding nothing. He felt himself drift sideways as Orla led the way, and he knew with a fierce jerk of his arm that she had found something.
His feet skimmed the sandy bottom, hand still swiping away at cold, black water, and then he found something, as well.
It was metal, and curving, and as he blindly grappled along its length, he found that it seemed to go on for several feet. Long and rectangular, and fixed right into the sandy sea bottom with only a handle to make it obstructive, noticeable, he knew what unmistakable form this was. Hope surged in his chest as a torrent of bubbles crept out from between his lips, floating away from him. He tilted his head backwards to view the waves far above, their caps dappled with silvery-white from the moon and stars.
He focused his attentions on the handle again, touching the hinges, feeling the perimeter. He pulled on the handle with every ounce of strength inside of him while Orla messed around with something else not too far away. Their hands lost touch as each grappled at the handles of separate doors. And although they could not see it, there were far more doors than they realized. Across the wide, endless sea floor, door after door after door lay under granules of white sand ghosting over top of them in currents. In his mind, Colin recalled Orla’s initial wonder at how they had ended up here:
“What’s the last thing you remember?” she asked, perpetually curious about his final moments.
He didn’t want to talk about it, didn’t want to remember. “I don’t know, there was so much destruction going on. It was loud and –”
“No, no,” she amended, cutting him off. “I mean in the water. As soon as we got here. Don’t you remember coming from…below?” She gazed out at the ocean, eyes losing focus as she wrapped her arms snugly around her knobby knees. “I wonder how we got from there to here. I can’t remember what was in-between.”
“Does there have to be an in-between?”
She ruffled his hair affectionately. “There has to be, doesn’t there? That’s logic. If you want to get from one place to another, you have to have something in-between, even in things like Apparition and Floo. It all happens so fast, but nevertheless, there is real space you’re traveling through. And if there was no in-between that we can remember leaving, then that means that we’re still in it.”
After a final tug, the door handle came away in his grasp, heaving almost unbearable weight along with it. Rust coated everything, making it all the more resistant. He wedged one foot underneath so that it couldn’t fall down and crush his fingers. Just as he was about to search the water for Orla’s form, the last of his oxygen supply trickling out of his mouth in more bubbles, Orla grabbed him and pulled.
“This way,” she said, words garbled but still distinguishable.
He frowned and pulled on her, as well, signaling that he had also found something. When she refused to budge, he sat there frustrated for a second before remembering his wand. Feeling like an idiot for not using it all this time, he muttered, “Lumos,” and the ocean sprang to life in pearly rays of cerulean.
Orla was trying to suppress the urge to breathe, her ribs concave with breath that had been sucked in long ago and then depleted in the ticking minutes since. She looked foreign without her glasses to magnify those ever-inquisitive eyes, hair floating all around her head like tentacles. Tiny bubbles clung to the strands of her hair and to her skin, which was slowly turning blue. He thought that she could have been an angel, or an Inferius – he couldn’t be sure which.
Colin’s wandlight passed over the ordinary handle he still clutched to a different hatch Orla levitated over, arms and legs splayed as she glided dreamily along. The handle to her hatch was a gilded round knob, the door itself painted a deep crimson.
Her eyes met his, and he knew then that he would let go, that he would follow her. Things always just happened to Orla, things mysteriously happened because of her. Without her by his side, there might not have been any doors scattered all around them, and the boat might not have agreed to be summoned, and a thousand hands might have held him back before he tried to flee the stadium. It was her special magic, a kind that could not be learned or necessarily even understood.
As he pulled his foot out of the hatch he had been investigating, heart palpitating violently against a set of shriveled lungs, the heavy door scraped off his trainer. The shoe fell down through the depths of the hatch, lost.
The door Orla had found was much, much easier to pry open – which told Colin that the other one was probably much less used to being messed with – and they dropped neatly through the red door without difficulty, pulling it closed behind them.
From there, their whole world turned upside-down. The waters on the other side of the hatch were warmer, brighter. They could see sunlight streaming down from a midday sky far above, penetrating the waters with heat, with life. The two of them kicked harder, the lack of air in their lungs somehow much more painful now. Colin could not explain how it felt – the panic, the dizziness enveloping his consciousness, the throbbing as his body told him to breathe and he could not heed its demands.
Orla’s hand found his once more and their fingers entwined; with her assistance, Colin seemed to float without volition to the delicate waves that washed right over their heads. When they broke the surface, lungs cramping from severe spasms, they turned in churning circles with eyes closed, gasping for breath, for more and more oxygen. It was not until some minutes later that they realized they had an audience.
Tinkling laughter filtered into their eardrums against a melody of a thousand other voices, other sounds – wind through tree branches and seagulls cawing and murmurs of secrets, and broomsticks passing by shops with a ding, ding, ding of their handle-bells.
Colin felt a hand on his own, flushed with warmth. His eyes opened against the harsh daylight to see a woman kneeling on the edge of a long dock. She had a large, curving nose and heavy brow that was currently arched in surprise, but there was something familiar about her even if Colin was sure he’d never met her before.
A gleaming chestnut horse stood on the opposite end of the dock, its hooves sinking into dunes of sand, wearing an elaborate sheath of medieval armor over its muzzle. A pretty woman was perched on top of it, flaxen hair swept up under a dented copper helmet. She stared at the two people thrashing in the water with happy disbelief etched across every inch of her face. Standing just a small ways behind her, wringing her hands nervously as she stood on tiptoe to see clearly, was Lavender Brown.
“Well, that’s one way to get here, I suppose,” said the woman kneeling over Colin. She smiled warmly at him. “My name is Eileen.”
She made to lift him out of the water but Colin took Orla’s hand instead and offered it to the woman, gesturing without words for her to help his friend first. When both of them had clambered onto the wooden surface, dripping wet and freezing from all the cool wind stirring their hair and clothing, Eileen turned to face the two others.
“Dorcas, Lavender, come and look at what we have here.”
But Colin had eyes for nothing but the world around him: It was not one cramped little island but a massive continent, extending farther than the eye could see. The sky looked so much higher than what felt possible, so much brighter, so much more natural than he remembered. With an aching twist of homesickness, Colin realized that this was what had been missing in Cliodna’s Clock. They had not had the same endless sky in Cliodna’s Clock as they’d had on earth, and this one was just like home.
But all the same, this was not earth. This was more than earth – he could taste it, sense it, feel it. It was uncomprehendingly huge, hundreds of times the size of earth, engulfing that flimsy little planet many times over.
And as soon as he drew his first step, he could feel his skin tingle, inherently knowing that if he were to scratch it, the cut would take days to heal rather than seconds…this was a place where one could feel, where one could age. He could already feel himself growing older.
Colin gazed open-mouthed at Orla, a different Colin than he was before. He was two minutes older now than he had been two minutes ago, and as he stood there while the seconds passed, they did not pass around him but also within him, and his first intelligible thought was that he wished Dennis was there to feel such an extraordinarily miracle right along with him. He wished his brother knew that Colin would not be a boy forevermore.
The pretty one called Dorcas dismounted from her horse and waltzed over, beaming at the both of them. “Welcome to Witching,” she said. “We’ve been waiting for more of you.”
Unbeknownst to Colin, his missing shoe had already soared across great distances, defying time and travel in ways its owner would never know. After it vanished through the rusted door, it found itself in a river snaking somewhere along a dense ridge of trees. In a whirl of fast-moving water, the shoe soon became wedged in a sandy riverbed next to a queue of canvas bags decorating the bank. Within an hour, all of those empty bags would be filled with heavy sand and then tied securely with twine, waiting to be loaded onto the back of a lorry.
Something inside Colin’s shoe, lining the bottom of it, fluttered as a gust of wind overtook it – and as though by magic, as though being helped by some undetectable source, the small white square tumbled on the breeze over those bags of sand. It rolled itself inside the open mouth of one of the bags, revealing a flash of white oak tree curving up into a ‘Y’ shape before sliding out of sight.
The photograph lay quietly on the bottom of the bag’s interior, innocently waiting, destined to be delivered to a play park near Spinner’s End, Cokeworth.
A/N: And so we see a glimpse of one of the other many, many afterlives! If you can call Witching an afterlife, that is, since the people there can age and seem to be very much alive.
The beginning lines: ‘“Where do Vanished objects go?”’ and ‘“Into nonbeing, which is to say, everything,” replied Professor McGonagall.’ is from page 591 of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, USA edition, by JK Rowling.