"The Thing That Should Not Be"
It was growing darker as the rain pelted down. Morgan felt the cold running through her veins as her fingers clutched the steering wheel in desperation. She was lost. Damn the map and all those horrible people beside the road gaping at her as she passed! What was worse was that she was running late, and the hotel probably wouldn’t hold her reservation. Morgan strained her eyes, trying to make out anything familiar on the road before her. She could only see a vast darkness stretching out in front of her. There were no lights, save her headlights, nor were there any buildings. There were only huge, gloomy trees.
What had that old woman said? Turn right and then left? That bitch must be laughing now, Morgan thought bitterly.
Not that this was new to Morgan. She'd always had a poor sense of direction and had frequently lost her way ever since she was a child. She could never remember which classroom she was supposed to be in and was habitually late. Her lack of attention had always gotten her into trouble. Her current situation, however, was serious; this was a foreign country and she was becoming anxious. The heater in the small rental car started to hum suspiciously, and Morgan wondered if the battery was dying. Her fingers felt so frozen that she was afraid she would never be able to let go of the steering wheel. Her ankles hurt. God! Her entire body ached. The miles went by until the road disappeared and the car turned onto a slippery dirt track. After a few minutes, she reached a crossroad. Through the gloom, she could make out a tall, wooden sign, but she couldn't make out what it said.
The moment she stepped out of the car to get a closer look, Morgan was drenched to the bone. She splashed her way over to the sign. She tried to use the small light on her mobile to read it. The words mean nothing to her –Peeves or something - she was sure there was nothing in the map that came close to that. The rain kept pouring around her. It was too dark to try and decipher the words. She returned to the car, thoroughly soaked.
Which way should she go? Right? Left?
Another wrong turn was not worth the risk, so she remained on the dirt road. The car began behaving erratically. On either side, all she could see were tall, ancient trees. Occasionally a wolf cry broke the silence. Then, unexpectedly, a shadow darted in front of the car. It looked like a horse and rider. Morgan braked hard and the car lurched, coming to a stop as it crashed sideways into a tree. She felt her head bang against the steering wheel, almost knocking her unconscious. Nausea, dizziness, and a searing pain overtook her senses. She staggered out of the car, seething with anger. Her wet clothing weighed down her every step. It was a bloody rental car, for God’s sake! Running her fingers over her forehead, Morgan felt blood there. This was all she needed: to be conked out on a forsaken dirt road. The rain continued hammering down, and she knew she had to get out of there. She got back inside the car and turned the key, but the engine was dead. She tried again, and this time the headlights went out.
"Oh Lord!" she mumbled. “Bloody hell!”
What the hell was she going to do?
"Think, think..." Morgan mumbled softly, trying to regain her composure.
The obvious choice was to get out of the car again and find a house, or better yet, the hotel she was looking for. She felt so tired she wasn’t thinking clearly. Her other prospect was to faint and freeze to death. Her gaze fell on the passenger seat, cluttered with maps. Driving Single Track Roads, Country Living, The Drove Roads of Scotland and Castle Tours. What had possessed her to misuse her precious holiday in such a cold, miserable country, searching for these ridiculous places? Driving alone in a foreign country had been a completely reckless idea. There was no point in getting herself in a tizzy over this. She needed to figure a way out of this mess. Using the mobile was the obvious choice, but she’d tried to call the hotel earlier so they would hold her reservation, and it had been impossible. There was no signal; the little bluish screen showed nothing again. One couldn't find a signal anywhere in this godforsaken country. Morgan put it back into her bag, and came to a decision. She hated to get out of the car again, but it was necessary. There must be some farm or someplace where she could find a phone.
Opening the glove compartment, she began looking for something useful. Her fingers felt for a round heavy thing and she took out a torch. Her luck was improving.
When she got out of the car, her head was throbbing with pain. The torchlight bounced about as she walked, the heels of her boots sinking in the soft mud. Her left foot got stuck. She cursed the inventor of high heels and herself for buying them!
Moments later, she didn't feel much pain, just a little wooziness. She wiped her face with her wet sleeve to clear her view, barely noticing the smear of blood that now stained it. Rain kept pouring relentlessly on her for what seemed like an eternity. Surrounded by trees, Morgan felt that it was impossible for her to continue walking. She had to get out of there. Terror made those words repeat in her head, over and over again. She had to get out of there, she needed help, she had to get someplace safe. A sudden sensation almost made her drop the torch. She felt herself compressed until she couldn’t breathe. Every fibre of herself was being pressed as if she was going through a very narrow tube; she was dying–she was sure! But then, just as sudden as it had started, it ended. Morgan fell to the muddy ground, panting. The torch lay beside her, illuminating the surroundings. Morgan tried to breathe, and with unsteady legs she rose from the ground, taking the torch in her hand.
What had happened? She looked around her, breathing heavily and rubbing her chest. Was that a heart attack? But her thoughts were interrupted by what the light illuminated.
The torch light revealed a massive iron gate in front of her, flanked on both sides by enormous walls. Two grotesque, winged statues loomed above her, illuminated by her torch. Was this here before? Why didn’t she saw this before?
She tried to open the gate, but nothing happened. "Come on!" she muttered. "Open up, you stupid thing!"
The gate unexpectedly swung open. She paused for a moment before venturing through. Her torch blinked twice, and then died. The road ahead was not very encouraging at all. A flash of lightning revealed a vast forest and a narrow pathway. There was no other choice but to continue on. Morgan walked down the path in the dark, studying the trees that stood on both sides and the odd shadows they created. Morgan hurried a bit and then suddenly stopped, in awe from the glorious sight before her. It was the most beautiful castle she'd ever seen in her life. With every flash of lightening, she saw huge turrets that gave the castle a mysterious beauty, and within the many windows, a dim light shined through, as if there were candles flickering inside. The thick, dark forest surrounded the castle like a blanket, and beside it there was a silvery lake. Morgan wiped her face again, attempting to clear her vision, but only managing to smear more blood. She ran, fell once in the mud, then got up and continued running.
She could see the wooden door in the distance. Panting and light-headed, she finally reached it and noted it was adorned in a very unusual way. It had a brass lion, a serpent, an eagle, and what appeared to be some sort of rodent. A clap of thunder muffled her cries for help as she knocked on the door with the heavy torch. She dropped the torch and tried to push the door, but it was locked.
"Come on, open, you bloody door!" Morgan screamed in desperation.
The door clicked and eased open to reveal a stone entryway dimly illuminated by torches.
Morgan's vision started to blur. She stretched out a hand and touched something cold and solid. She turned around and blinked, marvelling at the beautiful statues next to her. Actually, they were more like gigantic hourglasses, each with an enormous creature on top. Where the hell was she? This was not the hotel she was looking for; it was a castle, of course, but not as big and grandiose as this one. The room was vaulted like a cathedral. She could see a tall wooden door on her right, a shiny marble staircase in front of her, and to the left, stairs leading down somewhere. Not knowing which way to go, she decided to go where there was light, so she turned left. At least the stairs were illuminated with more torches than the entrance. Her headache was worsening. As Morgan reached the bottom of the stairs, she steadied herself, leaning against the cold wall for a few moments. She thought that perhaps it had not been a sound idea to leave the car after all.
Footsteps echoed in front of her, interrupting her thoughts. Her eyelids felt heavy. Through her lashes, she saw a tall man in black walking towards her. He was clutching something in his hand that looked like a stick. The room began to spin, and she slumped to the floor.
The Head of Slytherin House glowered at the woman lying sprawled at his feet. He concluded she must be a witch, but she was wearing Muggle clothes. Snape crouched beside her, trying to figure out who she might be. Her long, red hair covered her face. He pulled it up a little to reveal a nasty wound near her hairline. She was bleeding profusely. Professor Severus Snape flicked his wand and produced a stretcher. The woman was clearly not a student, nor a parent; perhaps a visitor to one of the teachers. He raised an inky eyebrow as his brain also warned him that she could be a Death Eater posing as a helpless female. He needn’t bother to check her left forearm. If a Death Eater wanted to go unnoticed, they were absolutely capable of doing so – a supporter perhaps? He was unsure. The Death Eaters were a very small group these days and they knew each other personally; on the other hand, supporters were unknown to them and vice-versa. Safety precautions led the Dark Lord to prefer his Death Eaters to remain a mystery to outsiders–even to faithful supporters.
"Mobilicorpus," whispered Severus, pointing his wand at Morgan, but nothing happened. He thought he must not have spoken clearly. He waved his wand again and repeated, "Mobilicorpus."
The woman still had not moved. What the hell was wrong? Irritably, Snape waved his wand a third time. "Mobilicorpus!”
Her body remained in its place. Severus glanced around disbelievingly. What could be preventing his spell from taking effect? He wavered a bit, trying to decide whether he should touch her. At last, he made up his mind. He placed his wand inside his cloak and lifted the woman into his arms. He narrowed his eyes with distrust. She wasn't heavy. When Severus reached the first floor, he entered one of its many corridors and walked towards an old tapestry. He muttered a few words, the tapestry moved aside, and he entered the dark corridor, bending his legs and walking sideways so the woman wouldn't bump her head against the stone wall. Severus moved silently through the passage until he reached another tapestry. Pushing it aside, he found himself in the hospital wing. Looking up from her work, Madam Pomfrey beheld a sight she had never expected to see: Professor Snape carrying a woman in his arms.
Severus saw Madam Pomfrey's startled look, her eyes wide with surprise. He cursed himself for getting into a situation like this. "I'm sorry to disrupt you, Madam Pomfrey, but I found this...woman…near the dungeons, and she has a nasty cut on her head," he said, laying Morgan on a nearby bed. “I’ll leave her in your care, while I’ll go inform the headmaster.”
Madam Pomfrey prodded Morgan's head with expert fingers. "Of course, Professor Snape, it's just a little cut. I've seen worse during Quidditch season. I can manage it."
Snape nodded and rushed out before she could ask him anything. He went back through the same dark passage and continued up the moving stairs to Dumbledore's office.
When he reached the huge gargoyle at the entrance, the thing slid apart to reveal Professor McGonagall coming out.
"Good evening, Severus. Is something the matter?" Professor McGonagall asked, looking curiously at him. The front of his cloak was dishevelled, sopping wet and muddy, which was unusual as his attire was generally spotless.
Severus saw her eyeing his clothing and, with a flick of his wand, he cleaned his robes before saying the password. “Chocolate Frogs.”
The gargoyle moved aside, and both teachers ascended the stairs until they reached the heavy oak door. Professor McGonagall knocked and entered Dumbledore's office. Most of the portraits of the former headmasters were asleep or were pretending to be. Dumbledore sat behind his desk, reading a book. "Minerva, did you forget something?" Dumbledore asked, smiling at her. But as soon as he spotted Snape behind her, his smile was replaced by a furrowed brow. "Is something wrong?"
"Headmaster," said Snape, approaching Dumbledore's desk, "I'm sorry to disturb you so late, but I found a witch wearing Muggle clothes near the entrance to the dungeons. She was injured, so I took her to the hospital wing."
Dumbledore was about to reply to Snape when the door swung open and a shaken Madam Pomfrey entered the office. She was wringing her hands, close to tears.
"Professor Dumbledore! I'm sorry to barge in here like this, but there's a big problem. The woman Professor Snape brought to the hospital wing. She’s bleeding profusely and I...I can't make it stop!"
McGonagall and Snape looked at her in astonishment. Dumbledore rose from his chair, his mouth compressed into a thin line as he digested the information.
"Are you certain, Poppy? Have you tried...?"
"Yes, Headmaster, I've tried everything, but she just keeps bleeding! I can't stop it. I couldn't close the wound either," she said between sobs.
Dumbledore walked towards her and took her hand. "Do not worry, Poppy. We will find a way. Severus," he said turning to face Snape, "is there something you could brew to help this woman?"
"Why don't we take her to St. Mungo's?" Professor McGonagall interjected anxiously.
"She won't make it," Madam Pomfrey answered frantically. "She's lost too much blood, and...I don't...know how long..."
"There, there, Poppy." Dumbledore patted her shoulder and handed her a handkerchief. "Severus?"
“I could brew something that resembles a blood coagulant.” Snape’s eyes fixed on Dumbledore’s face for a few moments. “However, I cannot guarantee the results, Headmaster.”
"Fine. Poppy, try to make her as comfortable as possible. I’ll join you presently.” Dumbledore looked at Snape. “Severus, we'll be waiting for you."
After the Potions master left, Dumbledore turned to Professor McGonagall. "I'm sorry, Minerva, but I need a few moments alone. I'll be along as soon as I'm finished."
McGonagall nodded and closed the door behind her.
Dumbledore moved to his desk and sat down for a moment. Abruptly, he rose from the chair and opened a small cabinet behind him.
Fawkes observed him curiously.
Dumbledore had from a very young age taken a fancy to reading Muggle literature, and there were many medical encyclopaedias he kept nearby for reference. He pulled out a large, red book titled First Aid: A Step By Step Manual and proceeded to the hospital wing.
Several hours later, the teachers were alarmed by how much blood the woman had lost. They were also astounded that she wasn't carrying a wand.
The woman had regained consciousness for a few minutes and muttered the words “dirt road” and “car”, so they assumed she had travelled by Muggle transportation.
The potion Snape brewed helped Madam Pomfrey control the bleeding. It had also given her time to bandage the woman's head and perform an involved procedure which Dumbledore had to explain to her. It consisted of stitching the wound, as if she were embroidering a sock – the Muggle way!
It was nearly three in the morning when they finished. Now all there was to do was wait until the woman regained consciousness.
Morgan reclined against a rock watching the wind stir ripples in the lake. Wildflowers scented the air, giving her a sense of peace as she breathed in their fragrance.
As she began exploring the lakeshore, the rose-coloured satin fabric of her dress shimmered and flowed about her, blending its colours with the water and the blossoms. The warm grass under her feet comforted her. This place was heaven.
After a few moments, Morgan saw someone approaching. It was a tall man dressed entirely in black, his cloak flowing around him like great wings. He stopped right in front of her, smiling coldly. Morgan felt uneasy, sensing he was evil. She knew it without knowing why. He raised a gloved hand, holding something resembling a stick. It looked like a long white chopstick. The man pronounced some words that she couldn't understand, then a green light shot out of the stick. Morgan knew that the moment the green light touched her body, she would die. She turned to run, realizing she had to save herself and her baby.
Morgan woke up distressed and grabbed her head with both hands. It felt like it was going to explode. It had been one of those damned nightmares she’d been having ever since she’d landed in this miserable country.
"Now, now, no need to do that," said a woman's firm voice. Her gentle arms held Morgan down against the bed.
Morgan tried to open her eyes, but sunlight flooded the room. This must be some sort of hospital, she surmised. She turned to look at the woman. Her vision was still blurry, but from what she could see, she was a nurse. The woman appeared to be in her mid-fifties. Her clothing looked like it was out of the nineteenth century – something similar to what Florence Nightingale might have worn, Morgan imagined. The woman tugged the blankets under her and fluffed her pillow.
"Please try to remain still. It's been hard enough to keep your wound from bleeding." The nurse shot her a scolding look, and Morgan felt like she was five years old again. "Now don't touch the bandage, I'll be right back."
The woman told her not to move. Where the hell was she supposed to go with her head bandaged? She poked under the sheets. Her clothes were gone! Morgan raised her head a little and looked around. Her vision was improving. She could see beds on either side of her and pictures on the walls. Out of the corner of her eye, she detected motion. When she turned her head, she saw two women watching her and murmuring to themselves. Who were they? Then she realized, in utter shock, that she was looking at one of the paintings and it was actually moving! She looked at the others, and they were moving too! What kind of place was this?
A noise made her start as the massive, wooden door opened at the far end of the room. The nurse was walking towards her bed. Then she noticed a group of oddly dressed people: a woman, an elderly man with an unusually long silver beard, and a tall, thin man, dressed in black, who looked vaguely familiar. They approached her bed. The nurse sat on the chair next to her, the old man sat to her right, and the others sat in front of her. Morgan could swear there were not that many chairs near the bed before. They were all looking at Morgan as if she were some sort of new species.
"Where am I? What is this place?" she demanded. Then, pointing a shaky finger at the pictures on the walls, she asked in a frightened voice, "Why are those things moving?"
Snape stared at the woman, bewildered.
Professor McGonagall frowned, wondering why anybody would fear a painting. Perhaps whoever had attacked her had also Obliviated her memory.
The older man spoke, his light blue eyes shining through his half-moon spectacles. "Don't be afraid, my dear, you are safe now."
"Where am I?" repeated Morgan in a shaky voice.
With a disgusted look on his face, Snape thought, She's about to cry.
Morgan, however, was far from crying. She felt more like killing someone. Why wouldn't they answer her questions?
Dumbledore decided to try a different approach. "May I ask how you found us, my dear?"
The teachers turned their startled faces to Dumbledore. What kind of question was that? She was a witch, wasn’t she? How else could she have found the castle?
Morgan was more confused than ever. What did he mean? How could anyone miss an enormous castle like this? She began her story from the wrong turn to the left, until she passed out on the stone stairs. Then Morgan realized where she had seen the man dressed in black before. She turned to face him.
"I remember you," said Morgan, smiling at him. The man was pale, with stern features, black piercing eyes, and long dark hair. "I haven't thanked you for your kindness; you must’ve been the one that found me." She noticed a muscle move in his jaw before he jerked his head a little. The old man looked amused, beaming at the thin man dressed in black.
"Professor Snape found you lying near the entrance to the dungeons and brought you to the hospital wing," Dumbledore disclosed lightly, smiling at her. “It is quite extraordinary the way you said you found the castle. You see, no one of your kind should be able to see it."
Morgan stared, flabbergasted. Did he say ’her kind’? What did he mean by that? Was he referring to the fact that she was American?
"I'm afraid I don't understand..." said Morgan angrily.
The woman sitting stiffly in her chair next to the old man said, in a gentle tone of voice. "Albus, I'm afraid she was attacked before entering the castle and they must have modified her memory. She can't seem to remember a thing!"
What was that about her memory being modified? What was it that she didn't remember? Morgan didn't get it. The old man and the woman looked at her with concern. As for the man dressed in black, what was his name? Sven or something? He was looking at Morgan as if she was some kind of peculiar animal that might jump down his throat at any moment.
Dumbledore turned towards her without answering Minerva. This woman was quite exceptional. She had managed to open the gates even though he had placed a permanent spell there that only a teacher could break. She had also been able to see Hogwarts castle, which was impossible for a Muggle -- and she had been able to open the entrance door. No one except Professor McGonagall or Snape could do that.
Who was she? Was she a Squib, or perhaps a witch that never attended school? He decided to try a little experiment and see how she reacted.
"This might come as a shock to you, my dear, but allow me to explain where you are. It is going to be difficult to understand at first, but I promise you, it is the truth."
Morgan looked at them, trying to figure out what they were talking about. It reminded her of that Twilight Zone episode in which a beautiful girl wakes up in a hospital and everyone tells her that her face is badly disfigured, only to find out that it isn't so, because in their world, the norm is to have a pig's snout. She forced her mind to stay calm. Fantasy was just for TV. That sort of thing wasn’t real, was it? "Okay, what is it?" asked Morgan, fearing for the worst.
The old man leaned over and took Morgan's hand in his, squeezing it reassuringly. When he’d started talking, her first thought was that they were just pulling her leg, but no, they were serious. When he concluded, Morgan's brain was swimming. She looked blankly at them, but at last found her voice. "Well...hmm, this has been a riot. Thanks a lot for the hospitality. Could I have my clothes back? I'll be out of here in a flash." That's it, Morgan thought, I’m getting out of this asylum!
They stared back at Morgan in a rather patronizing way.
“I believe, Professor McGonagall, that we should give our guest a demonstration of what we are talking about.”
The old man nodded to the woman sitting next to him, and she immediately rose and transformed herself into a tabby cat and jumped on Morgan's bed! Morgan screamed and cringed as the Sven character jumped up, holding that long chopstick in his hand.
“Lower your wand, Severus," said the old man, raising his hand. "She is merely surprised. She won't harm us."
Morgan looked at him like he was nuts. What could she do to them? Morgan could barely think, let alone harm anyone. The tabby cat transformed back into a woman. She regarded Morgan with a thin smile on her lips. My God! These people were for real! They really were witches and wizards -- and God knows what else! Dumbledore felt pleased with her reaction; it meant that she was not faking her behaviour. The question now was what was she doing inside the castle? What was the purpose of her visit?
The Sever-whatever his name resumed his seat and placed the chopstick in his pocket. He gave her a hard stare and folded his arms across his chest.
"What do you want from me?" asked Morgan in a shaky voice. She observed him warily and wondered why he reminded her of a vampire.
"We do not want anything from you," he spat impatiently.
"In fact, my dear, all we desire to do is to help you," said the old man, smiling kindly at her.
"Help me? I am... I mean, I've never ...." Morgan rambled incoherently.
"Try to calm yourself, my dear," said the cat woman. "We understand this has been quite a shock to you. What you need now is some rest." She rose, nodded to both men, and left. Her chair vanished.
"I assure you that, in time, your wounds will heal and you will be able to return to your home. May I ask your name?"
"Morgan...Morgan Stone," she answered in a whisper.
There was a blink of recognition in the headmaster's eyes, but as soon as Morgan glimpsed it, it was gone. He smiled again and patted her hand, which she suddenly realized he had been holding since he’d started weaving his fantastic tale.
Dumbledore let go of her hand and rose from his chair. "Well, Miss Stone, I must leave you. Severus, I'll be waiting for you." With a wave of his hand, his chair vanished.
Morgan turned her attention to the remaining teacher. The vampire, she couldn't help thinking to herself. He looked like a walking corpse.
Severus spoke with deadly calm. "Miss Stone, I will brew a potion which will help to heal your head injury. You must drink it everyday for seven days, after which time you should be well enough to...leave." He stood and, without another word, left the room, his black cloak billowing around him.
He seemed so familiar, like she'd seen him somewhere before. The door made a dull noise as it closed. Had Morgan just imagined it, or had he emphasized the word ‘leave’? What the hell was she going to do now? She sank into the warm bed. It was all too much! How could this be possible? Magic? Witches? Those things were only in childrens’ books! Not in the real world! Morgan closed her eyes. She needed to rest.
"All that we see or seem, is but a dream within a dream..."
Edgar Allan Poe.
Thanks to my betas Cariel and Jackie and to Vocalion for believing in the impossible.