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    A/N: I apologise in advance for this chapter. I've gone for what feels like ages without writing anything so I just turned desperate and pushed stuff out. I haven't checked too thoroughly for typos/grammatical errors SORRY. I'm just so relieved that I've broken what I refer to as The Curse of Becoming a TA. Y'know, the curse where, "OMG-I'M-A-TA-I-CAN-POST-STUFF-UP-WHENEVER" and then just never post another thing up EVER.

    Sorry for rambling. At least this chapter is a little saner than the others.






    FOUR: Voidism and Avoidism





    “The Portkey is about to depart in approximately thirty seconds, Joanna, what the hell are you waiting for?”

    Nora has quite a growl, which I do indeed find reminiscent of a bad-tempered old drunk, and the more I look at her, the stronger the feeling that there ought to be some sort of feline figure perpetually entangled with her ankles. Her left hand makes erratic arcs through the air, just missing the heads of Lily-Lou, The James and Sir Loinsteak Albus Potter, who are all squashed together beside her, looking rather disagreeable. Nora’s right hand, along with the right hands of the other three are firmly fastened to a packet of Bertie Botts’ Every Flavour Pita Bread, drawn at random from the fathomless depths of The James’s trenchcoat pockets.

    In other words, the Portkey, they’re all clinging to the Portkey as though it’s about to depart any moment, which it is. The packet of pita bread begins to glow blue. The James reaches into the plastic wrapper and absently tears out a wedge of bread and eats it.

    “Pork floss flavoured,” he announces to everyone, nodding. “Just as I expected. My precognitive abilities are working perfectly.”

    “Kindly desist with ingesting the Portkey,” Nora says, coldly. “Fourteen seconds, Joanna!”

    I refuse to budge from my seat on one of the Horseshoe’s barstools. I’ve glued my arse down using every inch of willpower. Skippy the Clown has just come on barkeep duty and now he’s mixing together some unholy cocktail behind the counter, dressed in nothing but thick coils of a child’s luminous skipping rope.

    “What’s wrong with Joanna?” Lily-Lou demands. There’s a furious glint in her eyes and black smoke whirling out of her nostrils and ears. The James and Sir Loinsteak are whimpering in pain, as Lily-Lou’s mounting wrath begins to blister their delicate skins. Nora is impassive; she’s probably immune to hellfire as a result of some transferable Gotchump-Altruist characteristic from the Other Dimension.

    “It appears that Joanna’s irrational fear of rollercoasters has translated to Portkey travel,” Nora quips.

    “Jo, don’t leave us,” The James begs, unhappily. “We need you. You promised to help us, remember?”

    “Mannering,” says Lily-Lou in deceptively calm voice.

    “Eight seconds, Jo. Eight.”

    “I prefer driving,” I tell them all in the sulkiest tone I can muster. “I’ll drive.”

    “You will do nothing of that sort,” Nora snaps.

    The pita Portkey packet is glowing with a greater intensity, making the whole pub look as though the sky itself has descended into the premises. Skippy does a whoop of delight and unravels a length of skipping rope from around his torso and proceeds to do a skip.

    Two seconds, Joanna.”

    I Apparate across the room, curse them all to kingdom come, and slam my hand on the pita Portkey packet just as it takes off. Portkeys are worse than Apparition and rollercoasters. Somehow, the journey sucks all my innards out, atomises them and disperses them across the world. Then by some unholy glue of the cosmos, all the dispersed atoms of my existence are clumped back together and life goes on. I’ll never fathom how most people always end up looking rather intact and unfazed. Soon, the blur of speed dissolves and the world refocuses itself into sensible dimensions.

    We’re standing outside a set of towering iron-wrought gates, barring off a massive estate. Acres of lawn unfurl behind the gates. Lakes glint in the sunlight. A maze of hedges, statues in togas, albino peacocks, modern art sculptures that look like a conglomeration of diapers, exotic rose beds, et cetera. Far off in the distance, a whitewashed house-shaped speck.

    “Welcome to Krum Castle, Hollywood,” Nora says. “Strangely, I still do not know why I am here away from home with such undesirable company.”

    “You know you adore us,” Lily-Lou yawns and stretches her arms above her head, cuffing Nora on the chin in the process.

    “If I am to keep undesirable company, Nora, then you must keep the same company as me,” I answer. “Aren’t we partners of a sort?”

    Nora harrumphs. “Right, keep this in mind, Joanna, that I am doing all this for you.”

    “I appreciate this truly.”

    “After all, you do not have long to live. You will be dead within the year and it is the paramount duty of the living to attend to the wishes of the dead and dying.”

    “This I don’t truly appreciate.”

    “Sexual tension,” The James wails.

    “Oh, be quiet.”

    The James looks mortified.

    “Careful there, Mojo-Jojo.” Lily-Lou waggles a finger at me. “He’s a dunce, but he’s still my brother.”

    “I can scale these gates,” Sir Albus declares. “After my two o’clock protein shake.”

    He draws out yet another tumbler of the milky gunk he’s been drinking all day and drains it to the last drop. His cheeks begin to glow and his complexion turns ruddy. He gives a joyful whoop and begins climbing the gates easily, using the iron curlicues as footholds. At the top of the gate, he swings his foot over to the other side and leaps down before giving his own chest an affectionate pat.

    “Nobody cares,” I tell Sir Albus rather nastily.

    The rest of us Apparate over the gates.

    “So, this Viktor Krum bloke,” says The James, “He’s a Voidist?”

    “Viktor the Voidist,” Sir Albus muses.

    “Indeed,” Nora answers curtly, before striding far ahead of everyone toward the direction of the white house in the distance.

    Viktor the Voidist turns out to be a tall, strapping, tanned, late middle-aged bloke in a purple suit, white starched shirt and with a towering turban of tea-towels coiled around his head. On the topmost towel is a stack of pancakes. On the highest pancake is reputed to be the location of the entire Who-ville, together with a post office, movie theatre, town centre and a population of three thousand. Nobody can see Who-ville with their naked eyes.

    Viktor the Voidist oozes Hollywood celebrity. Hollywood celebrities have a very special ooze to them, and Viktor the Voidist definitely has the ooze. He also smells like cucumber and aloe vera lotion.

    “Velcome! Velcome! Vell, you are early for the meeting,” Viktor exclaims.

    “What meeting?” I say.

    “Vy, the Veekly meeting for Voidists, of course.” Krum’s eyes narrow at our blank faces and his smile evaporates. “If you are not here for the meeting, then you are not velcome. Only the initiated may enter.”

    “Feel free to reconsider your choices.” Lily-Lou gives a sagely nod, but the edges of her lips are turning black, and ugly patches are rising to the surface of her skin. She’s going to turn into a furnace and incinerate the whole lot of us if nobody stops her.

    I haul Lily-Lou behind me and step forward. “Mr Krum, we are here to – ,”

    Sir Albus Loinsteak Potter cuts me off. “Allow me, Joanna!”

    He steps forward gallantly, arms outstretched, his bare torso catching sunlight and gleaming like a shield. “Viktor Krum! I say – I’ve definitely heard of you!”

    Krum’s jaw drops. “I know you! But you are the bodybuilder, Sir Albus Potter. Velcome! I did not see you earlier.”

    Sir Albus grins widely and him and Krum give each other that one-armed manly embrace of manliness.

    “Sexual tension,” The James murmurs.

    “Vot are you all standing out there for?” Krum gestures to the rest of us. “Come in at vunce. You must join our Voidist meeting; perhaps you shall be enlightened by the vays of The Void, yes?”

    “I believe in the light of the burning coals in The Pit,” Lily-Lou replies.

    “Your brother fits in completely with the celebrity lot,” I say to The James.

    Lily-Lou sniffs. “You think he would have got to where he is without my help?”

    “What, you’ve got his soul as well?”

    “Satanic intervention always comes with a price.”

    “She hasn’t got my soul,” The James says. “My soul is whole and pure, Jo. For you.”

    “Give it to Nora, Potter.”

    Nora aims her coldest glare at The James and he shrinks, his neck sinking into the collar of his grimy trenchcoat. We go inside Krum Castle. It really is a big celebrity palace kind of venue: seashell staircases, chandeliers clinking with Swarovski crystals, square lily ponds cut into the middle of the marble tiled floors, solid gold cabinets filled with trophies and numerous Academy Awards. Gaudily dressed people are milling around the rooms of Krum’s grand house sipping flutes of champagne and making elaborate curlicues of hand gestures to accompany the random phrases of Tagalog injected into their conversations. Tagalog is currently the most fashionable language to speak in Hollywood and just what is Hollywood if not fashionable.

    Before the war, Viktor Krum was a mildly famous international Quidditch player. But once the war was over and done with, he had a brainwave and moved to Hollywood and began making Muggle films of himself starring as a shark. He got the idea from back in his teenage days when he’d participated in the Triwizard Tournament and Transfigured himself into a half-shark, half-human creature as part of the competition. Years later, he perfected his self-Transfiguration into a fearsome deep-sea predator and starred in a number of box office hits including Jaws XXIII, Shark Attack XI, Megalodon IX, Deep Blue Sea XXI, Jaws of Death VI. But soon enough, he began experimenting further with his animal transfiguration and discovered that he could transform half his body into a shark and the other half into another creature of his choice. It was then that he really became famous, making movies such as Sharktopus, Sharkantula, Sharkbear, Sharkosaurus, Batshark, and the Oscar-nominated Sharkhuahua. The Muggles film reviewers kept praising the stupendous CGI work of his films, and the reviewers from the wizarding world kept marvelling at the genius and precision of his improvisatory shark-Transfiguration.

    “Yes, yes,” Viktor Krum beams at me when he catches me peering into the glittering depths of one of his trophy laden display cabinets. His teeth are pointed and curving to the tips, protruding from crimped red gums like rows and rows of razorblades in his mouth. Like the mouth of a sand tiger shark. “I am doing very vell as you can see. I am loved here. I vos not as vell-loved back in Europe. And I vould haf von an Oscar last year for Best Picture had it not been for that – that seventeenth remake of that abominable Pride and Prejudice book.”

    The James points at Krum’s head still bandaged in the tea-towel turban and balancing a stack of pancakes, which in turn is bearing the weight of the entire population of Who-ville. “May I ask about that?”

    Viktor nods solemnly. “I am a Voidist. In Voidism, vee believe in the importance of balance in vun’s life. Every day of life, vee believe, is a balancing act. And so vee must follow these principles.”

    “Fascinating,” Lily-Lou yawns rudely.

    “Vell, enjoy yourselves. There are still a few minutes before vee begin the meeting.”

    Nora and I exchange looks. There’s a chance that the ninja assassin who’s also a Voidist and who’s trying to knock off The James will be attending. A slim chance, but I’m itching to get rid of this inter-dimensional nuisance and be done with this whole Potter Protection Project thing.

    Viktor the Voidist leaves us, taking Sir Albus with him and they both proceed to mingle with Hollywood’s elite. Lily-Lou links an unwelcome arm through mine.

    “Assuage my fathomless boredom, Joanna,” Lily-Lou says. She smells of freshly-cut mangos and laundered sheets and hay fever and short-circuiting machinery and –

    “Would you stop sniffing at the Devil Incarnate, Joanna?” Nora scowls and I jolt back to reality and try to wrench myself free of Lily-Lou. She doesn’t let me go and pretends not to notice.

    “Let go!” I snap and she begins to hum.

    “Joanna Mannering!” This new voice sounds incredibly familiar.

    It’s Bernie Buttons, the Big Boss, the one who assigns Nora and I all our Redirectionist jobs.

    “Mr Buttons,’ I blurt out. “Fancy seeing you here in Hollywood.”

    Bernie Buttons is a portly man with sideburns and a monocle and a silver moustache. He’s a follower of a particular fashion trend that emerged in the last decade or so: New Victorian Vogue. Consequently, he goes around dressed like someone from Great bloody Expectations or something. Waistcoats with notched collars and pinstriped trousers, suspenders and frock coats and gloves and frilly cravats, stovepipe hats and elaborate walking sticks and pocket watch and fob. He also believes in workhouses, the coming of the ninth industrial revolution, and magical Babbage computers made of chrome pipes and spinning cogs that compute the exact date for the End of Days.

    “Mannering,” Bernie Buttons says, adjusting his monocle and tapping his giant hook of a walking stick on the ground. “Patil-Brown and Scamander told me you weren’t able to meet me earlier on today under the pretext that you were violently ill with an unpleasant intestinal disease, the primary consequence of which is the transformation of your bowels into a pair of giant bellows.”

    “My apologies,” Nora mumbles behind me.

    “I won’t forget this,” I snap over my shoulder. To Old Butts, I say, “I – well – by the way, I can explain everything about the last job and – ”

    Butts cuts me off. “But first, kindly explain your sudden recovery. I am most invested in your health and wellbeing, you being one of my employees.”

    “Oh, didn’t Jo tell you?” Lily-Lou interrupts, her face twisted with a most unpleasant grin. “Jo has accepted another job offer. Her time is now divided between work for you, Buttons, and for her new employer.”

    I will exorcise Lily-Lou. Somehow I’ll find a way to rid myself of the curse of her presence.

    Nora sticks up for me. “Why don’t you just bugger back off to that flaming pit of yours, Potter?”

    Butts, however, ignores Nora. His face flushes into an alarming shade of crimson. The corner of his mouth develops a dangerous tic, and his whole body goes rigid; the effort it takes for him to contain his rage is enormous, and his movements appear somewhat constipated.

    “Mannering, is this true?”

    “No!”

    Lily-Lou grins and rubs her palms together, lifts them to her mouth and blows into them. Then she spits out a long train of parchment, which turns out to be the contract of employment, and it falls to the ground and rolls out like a carpet. This, she hands over to Butts.

    “Not going to lie, Buttons, but I do lie heaps. I’m just not doing it right now.”

    Buttons seizes the parchment, fiddles about with his monocle and proceeds to peruse the document in its entirety. Twenty minutes later, he looks up, his face turning green, then a sickly yellow, then returning to crimson. He resembles a malfunctioning traffic light.

    “That’s a fake document. A forgery of my signature,” I lie helplessly.

    Lily-Lou tsk-tsks.

    “You’re fired, Mannering,” Butts growls. He throws the contract back at Lily-Lou who curtsies and stuffs the parchment into her mouth and swallows it. She burps and the smell of burning paper and ash fills the air. “Also, you have forfeited your deposit, which you paid at the start of employment.”

    “No, don’t! You can’t do this!” I yell at him and quite a few of Krum’s other guests cast disapproving glances at us. “Alright I’ll leave, but I want that deposit back! I’ll exchange it with its value in cash!”

    “What’s the deposit?” Lily-Lou asks curiously.

    “None of your business!” I snarl at her.

    “A fragment of Mannering’s soul.” Butts leers at me and my hand twitches toward my wand, and the words Avada Kedavra pop into my mind.

    “I foresee bad things,” The James moans. “Jo, what have you done?”

    Lily-Lou’s eyes brighten. “I’ll buy it from you, Buttons.”

    “Fuck all of you!”

    “I’ll sell it to you gladly for a fixed sum of five hundred Galleons,” Butts says.

    “Fixed, Buttons? I would love a redefinition of that term. And by redefinition, I mean one-tenth of your offered price.”

    “I’ll pay you five hundred Galleons for that, Butts!” I’m beginning to yell now and a woman with flittering wings from her midnight blue butterfly suit tut-tuts at us.

    “I’ll let you have the item at no less than four hundred Galleons, Miss Potter.”

    “And I’ll not pay anything above sixty Galleons, Mr Buttons.”

    Butts and Lily-Lou ignore Nora and I. The deal is settled at seventy Galleons. Seventy Galleons for a piece of my precious soul. Lily-Lou always wins every fucking deal she makes. She spits out a smoking cheque for seventy Galleons, mimes a kiss at me while holding that transgressive slip of paper between her second and third finger, and then gives it to Butts.

    And that is how that evil demon bitch bought a section of my soul.

    “Pleasure doing business with you, Miss Potter. Your purchase will be at your doorstep tomorrow morning,” Butts says in his most gentlemanly voice. He taps his hook-cane on the floor, tips his hat toward her, ignores me completely and stalks off.

    “I, too, am throwing in my resignation!” Nora calls after his retreating figure. “By the way, Mr Buttons, going on the assumption that your presence in this place suggests that you’re a devotee of the religion of Voidism, would you happen to know anything about ninjas?”

    “I most certainly hope not,” Butts calls back and then he’s swallowed up in a titter of socialising with a couple of reality TV stars.

    I raise my wand and point it at Lily-Lou. “How about I kill you now, Lily-Lou, and retrieve my piece of soul.”

    “How about you try,” Lily-Lou says, lazily.

    Nora grasps my arm firmly, sensing my intention. The James takes my other arm.

    “Not right now, Jo. We’re in the middle of Hollywood,” says Nora.

    “Why d’you do it, Jo?” says The James sadly. “That’s got to hurt, splitting your soul like that. What did you have to accomplish to wreak such ruination and brokenness upon your own soul?”

    “Spare us the poetics, big brother,” Lily-Lou says. “Everyone’s soul is a little broken, isn’t it? Well, except maybe yours, which increases the value of your soul tenfold. I keep a running meter on the ever-increasing value of your pure soul, by the way. And as for Joanna, she had to kill someone in order to break up her soul and gain immortal life, or some shit like that.”

    “But why?” The James’s voice is plaintive. He plunges his wrists deep into his trenchcoat pockets and accidentally draws out a pair gardening shears, which nick him on the fingers. He sucks his fingers angrily before tossing the shears behind him, where they bounce off the head of someone’s pet Chihuahua, which begins to whine. “Why taint your beautiful intact soul in such a way?”

    “The Carkett Curse,” Nora says, impatiently. “Isn’t it obvious? Joanna is intensely terrified of the reality of her imminent death.”

    “I am not intensely terrified of the –”

    At the mention of death, The James looks even more morose than ever. “My condolences, Joanna. I think I understand you a little better now.”

    “Shut the fuck up all of you,” I snarl at them and Lily-Lou unleashes a peal of laughter.

    A loud gong! resounds through the house, the floors and walls shivering around us. All the guests gather up their skirts and capes and butterfly wings and Chihuahuas and champagne flutes and begin to cat-walk toward the lush, scarlet-tapestried ballroom of Krum’s mansion. The grand ballroom is crowned by a band of chandeliers, though there aren’t any actual sources of light on those fixtures: no candles, no bulbs, nothing. In fact, the place is illuminated solely by the glittering light of the thousands of clinking diamonds of the chandeliers, shedding rainbow fragments on the ground below. Viktor the Voidist is standing right in front, beating a large gong hanging from an ornate gold frame. Rows and rows of gilded armchairs have been arranged across the ballroom, and the fact that the seats outnumber the guests does indeed raise questions on the popularity of the Voidist faith.

    “See you in a few hours.” Nora selects a seat at the very back row, sits down stiffly with her hands folded on her lap, shuts her eyes and zaps off to Gotchump-Altruissia.

    Sir Albus Potter Loinsteak saunters into the ballroom, arm-in-arm with a film star who became famous in the eighties when he starred in an action movie about drug dealers, winks and waves at me and Lily-Lou and The James but doesn’t sit with us. Instead, they make their way to the very front row and sit right before Viktor the Voidist, who’s still banging away at the gong.

    “You can stop now,” Lily-Lou says testily, and the multiple glamorous heads of the seated glamorous crowd swivel round to direct their glares at us.

    Viktor the Voidist shrugs, but good-naturedly puts down his beater and removes the stack of pancakes with Who-ville on the top from his head. Then, he unwinds the turban of towels to reveal his very normal, non-celebrity crewcut.

    “Velcome, my brothers and sisters of The Faith, to our veekly meeting. I am pleased to announce that vee haff a few visitors who are most eager to learn about our sacred vays vith The Void.”

    A shuffle of applause through the crowd.

    “For god’s sake,” Lily-Lou utters, loudly.

    For once I agree with her. No sound from Nora, whose pulse seems to have gone silent. Probably engaging in hand-to-hand (or claw-to-claw) combat with a handful (or claw-ful) of Latec rebels.

    “Where’s Potter? The other one? Your big brother?” I whisper to Lily-Lou. The James has disappeared.

    Lily-Lou groans. “That twerp. I’m going to flay him. I’m going to flay him alive. Then I’m going to pour salt on him. Then I’m going to stretch him on my rack in the deepest, most sulphurous chamber of The Pit. Then I’m going to regrow his skin and whatever limbs he’s lost and do it all over again. If anything happens to that piece of shit, Mother’s never going to shut up about it.”

    “I see all this as a sign that we need to exit this place,” I say.

    The diamond-glow of the chandeliers are extinguished and the ballroom dims like a movie theatre. The double doors shut and an automatic Sealing Spell welds them together. I can hear the fizz of magic.

    “Oh, excellent.”

    “In our faith,” Viktor the Voidist begins, “Vee are alvays seeking The Void. The Void is the manifestation of all the emptiness vithin us. Day by day, vee must strive to empty ourselves, to return ourselves to The Void, until vee reach the state of total enlightenment.”

    “I’m guessing,” Lily-Lou declares, “That the 100% Enlightened Ones are all vacuum cleaners.”

    The crowd hisses at her. The woman with butterfly wings shimmers with poisonous radiance, which of course has no effect on the Devil Incarnate.

    “Close your eyes, everyvun,” Viktor’s voice booms through the darkness. “And together, let us recite the Voidal prayer to profess our faith.”

    The room goes deathly silent for a moment, and then the crowd raises its voice in a flat chant.

    “We believe in The Void, the Great Emptiness that presides over all life, and whence all life sprung out of nothing. We believe in the providence and the compassion of The Void who birthed us out of its own essence, out of the flesh of nothing and from nothing we are composed. We are the beloved of The Void, we who cherish our origins, we who were non-existent. We believe in the universality of The Void. All things shall be returned to The Void, all life be taken back into The Void, all our hopes and our laughter and our grief and our burdens shall be swallowed by The Void. We shall feed its Great Emptiness with the emptiness that is our existence. Solemnly, we swear to muster every ounce of our strength to return ourselves to the welcoming embrace of The Void, that we may be unified in the absence of substance with The Void, that we may ever seek sanctuary in its divine oblivion. Glory be to The Void Eternal, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.”

    Something strange happens while the Voidists are reciting their little creed. There’s a cool tickle of air against my eyelid, and I blink away that itch of a draught. It persists, a thin ribbon of air rubbing against the tender membrane over my eyes. I start to rub at them, gently at first, then the irritation seems to diffuse through into my eyeballs.

    “What’s wrong with you,” Lily-Lou says. “Stop rubbing your eyes like that.”

    “Bloody. Itchy. Something’s got in,” I hiss, gritting my teeth.

    “Is that an invitation, Mannering?”

    “I’m being fucking serious.”

    The itch vanishes and I drop my hands. My vision is blurry, swimming with movement, but the world doesn’t clear up, doesn’t slide into focus. In fact, everything darkens and the whole room begins whirling around, warped out of shape, breaking up and flaking away, sucked into a spot in front of me: all the pieces of the broken world gathering into a black shapeless mass. Matter, light, bodies – everything becomes clots or bulbous silhouettes; everything is eaten into The Great Nothing in front of me. A Nothing so dense and so pervasive that it is Something. And then, don’t ask me bloody how, The Void looks at me. The Abyss Gazes Back. I am Viewed by the Vacuum, Contemplated by the Chasm, Noticed by the Nothing, Beheld by the Blankness, Eyed by the Emptiness, Seen by the Space. Its Non-existent Invisible Eye penetrates through all the clumsy opaque flesh of my existence and peers nakedly into my heart and pulls all the thoughts out of my head. Nothing is mine; I am not mine; I am an agent of Nothing. I am The Void. I feel like I’m being lifted off my seat and I’m floating toward the gaping maw of oblivion.

    “Snap the fuck out of this, Mannering,” someone hollers down my ear.

    I jump to my feet and now everybody is looking at me but I honestly can’t give a fuck. Turns out I’m yelling pretty hard. I yell loud enough for Nora to be pulled back from princessing in the Other Dimension and she jolts awake in her body.

    “Goodness gracious, in the name of the High Deities of Gotchump-Altruissia, what is the meaning of this racket, Jo?” Nora demands.

    “You’re embarrassing yourself, Joanna,” Lily-Lou adds, petulantly.

    Everything appears to be normal. The room, intact. The people, still as gaudy as ever. The diamonds are still twinkling their expensive light down upon us. No trace of the great emptiness, that just a few moments ago, was swallowing everything up, sucking the light and life out of the world.

    “The Void was looking at me. The Abyss Gazing Back. I was Viewed by the Void, Contemplated by the Chasm, Noticed by the Nothing, Beheld by the Blankness, Eyed by the Emptiness, Seen by the Space!” I yell at all of them and they look blank. “I’m a believer!”

    Nora looks disbelieving.

    “Well, someone has finally cast aside all her heathen ways,” Lily-Lou says, after a pause.

    I kick my chair aside and stride toward the doors. Nora sighs and follows, and I can hear Lily-Lou’s stilettos clicking behind me. I whirl around, wand drawn. “Open the doors!”

    “But – vee haff just begun!” Viktor the Voidist protests. “And you haff been chosen; The Void has bestowed its blessing upon you!”

    Open the doors.”

    The doors swing open and the three of us march out, Nora making apologetic hand gestures behind us. Nora’s always big on things like courtesy and empathy and alien concepts like that. Must be a Gotchump-Altruist thing, because it certainly isn’t human.

    “So,” Nora says. We’re standing in one of Krum’s marbled, gleaming hallways with four ceiling-to-floor aquariums full of rare sea fungus instead of walls. “It has indeed been a productive day. Jo is a Voidist now.”

    “Actually, an Avoidist,” Lily-Lou quips, smirking.

    “Such as an Atheist? But she no longer disbelieves the existence of The Void.”

    “No, she’s just going to Avoid the hell out of all things Nothing.”

    I tell them to shut up and Lily-Lou to screw herself. “Also, we’re still missing your brother, remember?”


    ➴ ➶ ➴


    The James is nowhere to be found.

    We search high and low for that twat, through all the rooms of Krum’s mansion, through his shaving rooms and billiard rooms, through his conservatories and greenhouses, through a room with a complete driving range in it, through the tennis rooms and the smoking rooms and the powder rooms and the trophy rooms and the props rooms and the sock storage rooms. Some rooms have walls plastered with posters of monsters. All the monsters are half-sharks. All of the monsters are Viktor Krum starring in different films. There’s even a poster of him as a half-shark, half-duffel bag chewing at a yellow dinghy containing a scared looking couple in Baywatch swimsuits.

    All that but no Potter.

    Lily-Lou’s temper is becoming worse by the minute. Already, she set several expensive suites of furniture on fire, and razed millions of Galleons’ worth of paintings.

    “May I suggest that we adjourn to the gardens and continue with our search there?” says Nora.

    “May I suggest that you go and boil your head?” Lily-Lou replies rudely.

    But we go outside anyway, Nora and Lily-Lou sniping at each other. First thing to do when I get home: Google the exorcism prayer.

    Most of the next hour goes into traversing the vast grounds of Krum’s estate. He’s got a lake bigger than the Caspian Sea and a woodland patch denser than the Amazon. Lily-Lou leaves a trail of destruction in her wake, and all that greenery and expensive flowers are reduced to charred stumps and beds of ash. I don’t know what Viktor the Voidist is going to say once his meeting is over but we really need to pick up The James and get out of here before further devastation of Krum’s property.

    It’s Nora who finds The James.

    She gives a shout and Lily-Lou and I rush over to where she is, by a stagnant duck pond, the surface membraned with dirty feathers and the water smelling sharp and ammoniac. The James is floating face-down in the centre. Nora’s already wading into the muck, her jeans sopping wet and mud-stained. She hauls him out all by herself, grunting as she dislodges him from the tangling grasp of waterweed wound around his knees and drops him to the ground. He isn’t conscious, and the front of his shirt is slashed open and stained red. His face is chalk-coloured, as though he’s lost a couple of pints of blood.

    “Oi!” Lily-Lou slaps his cheek. “Wake up!”

    “I wouldn’t do that,” I say.

    Nora shoves Lily-Lou aside. She points her wand at his still form. “Rennervate.”

    He draws in a deep sudden breath, chokes on the influx of air and spews out a stream of water. The next few moments are filled with his loud gasping and Lily-Lou and I just hover at the periphery and let Nora take charge with her knowledge of Healing Spells.

    “What happened?” Nora says.

    He frowns.

    “We found you trying to drink the whole pond, big brother,” Lily-Lou adds.

    The James’s eyes widen, and something like memory flits through his stare. “L-lobsters,” he wheezes.

    “Hungry, are you? Well, we can get you some food right after you tell us who did this to you. Was it the bloody ninja?”

    He shakes his head weakly. “Lobsters.”

    Nora gasps, both hands flying to cover her mouth. “Lobsters?”

    “Lobsters,” he confirms.

    “You are absolutely certain?”

    “Lobsters. Yes, lobsters.”

    “I see you two have formed quite the rapport.” The edge of Lily-Lou’s mouth curls and her smile becomes thorny.

    “It wasn’t any ninja Voidist that mauled him in such a vicious manner,” Nora explains. “It was the Latec rebels from Gotchump-Altruissia. The very same rebels I’ve been battling all these years. It appears that the Latecs have unfortunately found a way into this dimension.’

    “Those Latex rebels are lobsters?” Lily-Lou says, doubtfully.

    All Gotchump-Altruists are lobsters,” Nora snaps. Then she does a double take. “Wait. We aren’t lobsters! We’re Gotchump-Altruists. Kindly refrain from labelling us as such.”

    The James groans weakly, his eyelids flickering. His breathing is laboured.

    “He requires an immediate dose of Instant Blood Replenishment Solution,” Nora concludes. “We’ll never get it in time.”

    I reach forward and stick my hand into the pockets of The James’s trenchcoat and begin fumbling around. There’s an unbelievable amount of junk in there.

    The James opens his eyes. “Y-you’re fumbling in my p-pockets, J-J-Joanna,” he moans. “It f-feels very much like s-se – ”

    “It isn’t sexual tension at all,” I cut him short. “Groping around in someone’s pockets doesn’t mean anything. Stop trying to read signs into things.”

    Accio Blood Replenishment Potion,” Lily-Lou says, and a scarlet vial zooms out of The James’s pocket, brushing against my hand. “Open your mouth, big brother.”

    His mouth cracks open, his jaw quivering, and Lily-Lou empties the vial down his throat. Colour returns to his ashen cheeks and his breaths broaden out and deepen and he manages to pull himself up to a sitting position.

    “Sorry, everyone,” The James mutters.

    “What were you doing out here by yourself? Especially now that you know that there’s a ninja who can slip between dimensions out to assassinate you?” Lily-Lou demands.

    The James wrings his hands. “I – I was just coming out here to examine my options, to – to test my precognitive abilities. I – I didn’t think they were working properly.”

    We look at him blankly.

    “It’s Jo,” says The James.

    “What have I got to do with anything?”

    “Well, before I met you I foresaw that you and I would well, build a future together. We’d be happy. We’re supposed to find fulfilment in each other’s company for the rest of our lives. But so far you haven’t shown a whit of interest in me, and so I was wondering if my Sight is mistaken, or if I’ve misread the Future or something.”

    “You definitely misread the Fog.”

    Nora snorts. “Jo doesn’t have a future. Her future lies within the grave. Even with her split soul and her various other endeavours to elude Death, the great Equaliser, which is how we Gotchump-Altruists refer to it.”

    “Another time for that,” Lily-Lou says, “What I want to know is exactly what happened to you.”

    “I was – I was just walking along the pond, and then something knocked me to the ground. I can’t tell what it was or from what direction, I never saw. All of a sudden I was biting dust. And – and when I rolled over, there were two huge lobsters bent over me. One of them slashed at me, then picked me up and threw me into the water.”

    “Where did that come from?” Nora says, tersely, pointing to the empty vial of Blood Replenishment solution.

    “From his pockets,” I answer. “He’s got all kinds of shit in there. Look.”

    I reach over into The James’s trenchcoat again and pull out a car battery, a glockenspiel, and Celestina Warbeck’s sex appeal. Another dip of my hand, and out comes a kitchen sink.

    Nora groans. “Those aren’t just pockets. They’re portals, sewn into his pockets, doorways to heavens-knows-where, to other dimensions, I would suppose. That’s where he’s been drawing all that stuff from. That must be where the Latec rebels emerged from.”

    “From his pockets.”

    “It appears so.”

    “Pockets.”

    “Pockets.”

    Pockets.”

    “Pockets.”

    Pockets.”

    “Pockets!?”

    Pockets.”

    “Sockets.”

    “What?”

    “My bone sockets hurt,” whines The James. “One of those lobsters must have pinched me too hard.”








    Disclaimers
    Who-ville is from Dr. Seuss's books
    Shark Attack (1999) is a film directed by Bob Misiorowski
    Deep Blue Sea (1999) is another shark film, directed by Renny Harlin
    Megalodon (2002) is a terrible shark film, directed by Pat Corbitt
    Sharktopus (2010) is a half-shark, half-octopus film directed by Declan O'Brien (starring Viktor Krum)
    Baywatch (1989-2001) is a TV series created by Michael Berk, Douglas Schwartz, and Gregory J. Bonann


    I think that's it. :)

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