Cognitively speaking, nothing had felt quite right with Nigel in the past couple of weeks since he’d been…doped? Cursed? One could still not be sure precisely what had caused that hallucinatory trance, which he recalled as being at once terrifying and serene, the night of the sorting. Sadly, the incident was one that Nigel must investigate on his own, given that none of the lads seemed eager at this point to explore the matter, and it went without saying that he could not seek help from a professor (Merlin’s beard, drugs had been involved in the equation!). Yet the school year had slipped into October, and Nigel was no closer to answers than he was the night that it happened.

“What in Helena’s name are you doing there, Nigel?!” Xenophilius asked worriedly.

Nigel looked down and noticed that he’d been dipping his hand in the frigid waters of the Black Lake, occasionally scooping a handful of the water into his hand and letting it flow slowly out of his cupped palm. In the process of doing so, his hand had become splotchy red from the cold. “Oh, look at that,” he observed.

“Indeed!” Xen stood above Nigel imperiously, like a father scolding his toddler. “Keep your hand out of that water—unless you intend to get yourself bitten by a horbwarbler! They are known to congregate at the shallow end of the lake this time of year. It’s common knowledge, ask the groundskeeper about it.”

Dipesh, who had been practicing spells with Teddy, intervened. “What are you yelling about, Xen?”

Xenophilius pointed a finger at Nigel, who was still sitting cross-legged by the lake. “Nigel’s been putting his hand in the lake water!”

“Stop that, Nigel!” Dipesh ordered. “You’ll catch a cold.”

“That’s nothing compared to what the horbwarblers will do to him!”

“What the hell is a ‘hornwarmer’?” Teddy asked.

“Oh, please, Theodore,” Dipesh began, “don’t get him started.”

“You think me a fool, do you, Dipesh?” Xenophilius had his hands on his fabulously autumn-colored robes. “Well, if you’re so smart, perhaps you can enlighten me on how you neglected to keep watch over Nigel here. After all, it is your turn to look after him.”

Ever since the night Nigel had “gone silly” (as Dipesh referred to it), Xenophilius and Dipesh had become something like the lad’s caretakers, even though Nigel had repeatedly asked them to leave him alone. Now, however, Nigel had given up on asking. Instead of fighting them on it, he simply ignored it and went about his business. “I’m tired of looking at the lake,” he announced. “I want to take a walk by the forest. You know, dig the way the leaves are changing colors? That whole thing?”

“Don’t you think we should be practicing for Transfiguration tomorrow?” Dipesh suggested.

Nigel rolled his eyes. “Bloody hell, Dipesh. You won’t be happy until we’ve transformed every blade of grass on the grounds into a fucking butterfly. I’m walking! Wandering. Ambulating. Ramblin’. Dig? If any of you wish to join me, so be it.”

“Actually, fellas,” Teddy said, “Julianna and I were kinda gonna be hangin’ out right about now.”

“Oh.” Dipesh’s voice went high, as if he couldn’t have been more pleased that Teddy and Julianna seemed to have a blossoming friendship. And yes, indeed, that’s all it was—friendship. Completely platonic. At least, that’s what Dipesh told himself. Out loud, he asked Teddy what the two of them would be doing together.

“Ah, nothin’ much. She said she wanted to show me a spot her and her friends like to go to.”

“I see! So, her friends will be there as well?”

“Maybe? She didn’t really say.”

Nigel observed this back-and-forth, silently wondering if Teddy could pick up what Dipesh was putting down. He made a note to himself that, for Dipesh’s sake, he would have a conversation with Teddy about Julianna. He’d better do so soon, though, before there was an opportunity for something more than mere friendship to develop…

Not now, though! Now, the Forbidden Forest beckoned him. And so, he turned his back to the quickly setting sun and marched towards where the pines stood tall, and among those pines a smattering of deciduous trees glowed golden and deep red. Oh, how blissful autumn was on Hogwarts grounds! The beauty of that all-too-brief season was almost enough to provide one the courage to face the death grip of winter. Nigel, in the midst of contemplating nature’s bounty while the lads shouted quizzical nonsense at him, concluded that October was probably his favorite month of the year. Of course, many young magical folk like him were drawn to the season—not only because of the refreshing coolness of the air, but also and maybe especially because of Halloween’s cultural significance. In days long past, witches and wizards practiced a number of rituals designed to engage with the supernatural forces that they believed governed life, death, and obviously magic. That was all passé, though; for a multitude of complex reasons, much of which had to do with the uneasy integration of witches and wizards into the non-magical world, Nigel’s people had become thoroughly secularized. Halloween, along with other of their holidays, lost all real religious function, becoming instead a festive occasion for poking a bit of lighthearted fun at the superstitions of the ancients.

Well, generally speaking, that is an accurate summation of magical Britain’s cultural evolution over time (along with the vast majority of the Western world), but there are and always will be outliers. Nigel was not one such outlier, but he suspected that his friend Xenophilius might have been a practitioner of the old ways, and he was also quite certain that the group of students presently making their way into the forest fancied themselves members of the ancient faith. Ever the curious bloke, Nigel couldn’t help but follow this offbeat congregation into the forest.

There were about a dozen of them, give or take, a roughly even mix of girls and boys, all dancing, giggling, cackling, singing, chanting, speaking in tongues, attempting to appear possessed, one or two apparently trying to foam at the mouth with no success so far.

“Oh, this is just too much,” Dipesh remarked. His voice startled Nigel, who had forgotten that his nannies were following him. “Is this why you brought us here, Nigel?” Dipesh struggled to make himself heard over the cacophony issuing forth from the “pagans” (for lack of a better word). “Did you know that this was happening?”

“I…” Nigel began, but his thoughts became scrambled by the

Acka hathawa sin sana wa

Hana bala

…and so on, coming from the group of students. Eventually, though, he found enough focus to continue. “I just wanted to see the trees, man. I had no idea this was a…what even is this? What are they doing?”

“It’s remarkable!” Xenophilius hollered loud enough for the pagans to hear him.

Sadly, Xen did succeed in getting their attention. They turned now to Nigel and his friends, and begged the three to participate. Some of the more confident girls in the group took Nigel and Dipesh’s hesitation as a cue to remove their shirts, exposing not quite everything, but enough to paint a nice picture. When this occurred, Xen moved yet quicker to participate in the fun, and Nigel began to seriously consider joining as well. Dipesh, meanwhile, became yet more wary of the pagans now that he had been given some vague sexual invitation (if that is indeed what those girls were up to…one could never be quite sure of these things).

Nigel looked at Dipesh, whose eyes were wide open with fear and suppressed excitement, and cajoled him into partaking—not because they believed any of that old-fashioned rubbish, but so as not to be rude to their classmates. As they made their way to the action, Dipesh asked Nigel if these pagans meant to have “some sort of orgy” with them (like all terms relating to sex, Dipesh said “orgy” in such an awkward and halting manner). Nigel’s response was to ask, with a verbal wink, if that would be such a terrible outcome, keeping to himself that he would be just as nervous as his friend should anything even remotely like an “orgy” actually occur.

“Welcome, friends!” one of the girls greeted Nigel and Dipesh, who had all they could do to keep their eyes from wandering where they ought not to. The girl did a little back-and-forth sashay and threw her arms in the air. She spoke again, her heavy intoxication running through each word she uttered, sounding as if she’d just woken from a long nap: “Play a song for us, you two.”

“Yeah!” a boy piped up. “You two look like Simon and Garfunkel. Don’t they? Ha-ha!”

Gesturing at Dipesh, Nigel said, “I think you might be a bit off the mark on that one, mate.”

“Whoa, man!” the boy replied. “We don’t see color here, dig? We’re all sons and daughters of the same gods and goddesses, after all.” He stared deep into Dipesh’s eyes and moved his chest up and down. “Where do you come from, beautiful brown-skinned man?”

“Er…” Dipesh began. “England?”

The strange lot burst into high laughter at Dipesh’s most sincere answer. “Us too, man,” one of them said, as if to suggest that they were in on Dipesh’s transcendentalist claim that one was always from somewhere and everywhere all at once. Little did any of them know, or seem to want to know, that Dipesh was a straightforward bloke. His words rarely carried double or triple meaning, and he almost never made comment on metaphysical matters.

“Friends!” Xenophilius struggled to be heard over the din of the pagans’ singing and chanting and speaking-in-tongues. “The sun is setting! And the moon begins to rise…” Somehow, over the course of a few minutes, Xen had become a master of the ritual ceremony, for at his words everyone in the group rallied round him and showed with their bodies that they hung on his every utterance. “Can you hear that?” he asked his flock. “It’s the song of the wonkabee!” With no one in the circle wanting to look foolish, all agreed that they could hear the call of this “wonkabee” of which Xenophilus spoke, and they were in awe of this creature’s beautiful pitch—despite having no clue what this animal was, what it looked like, or what it sounded like. Xen continued, “now that we have heard the wonkabee’s cry, we can proceed with the All Hallow’s Divination!”

All Hallow’s Divination?” Nigel whispered to Dipesh.

“I think he just made that up,” Dipesh said. “He has these fools eating out of the palm of his hand. I would say that it defies all logic, but then again…”

Now, everything about the pagans’ behavior continued to be nonsensical, only it intensified. The gibberish and the chaotic dancing reached a fever pitch. At that moment, Nigel thought he saw bright light issuing from the crazed student’s eyes, and horns popping out of their skulls. Demons, in other words. Everything became a bit blurry from his perspective. “This is all getting to be pretty uncool, man,” he said.

“JOIN US!” one of the demons shouted at Nigel.

“Yeah!” another piped up. He reckoned it was one of the attractive girls. Not so lovely anymore, though, with her contorted face and grey, scaley torso. “Don’t be afraid!” She cackled.

“Nigel? Are you alright?”

“Who’s that!” Nigel squealed.

“It’s me! What’s wrong? You’re all sweaty. You like you’re having a fit…”

Nigel swatted at some dark orbs approaching him. “I don’t want any part of this, this, whatever the bloody hell this is! Piss off! This is downright uncool, man. I don’t like this fucking game you’re playing.”

“Nigel, calm down!”

“Fuck off!” Finally, Nigel felt he had no choice but to show his wand. “You-you th-think I’m kidding?” His trembling hands struggled to maintain his grip on the handle.

“Whoa, whoa, be cool!” someone said.

Then, a bright light came from behind Nigel’s back. Everything returned to focus; the pagans lost their devilish appearance; the trees that surrounded them in the woods could again be seen; a tremendous heat that Nigel wasn’t even aware of suddenly dissipated. Nigel turned round to get a look at whatever was causing such luminous clarity: a prefect’s wand. Not any prefect, though—it was the famous Thomas Bainbridge.

“What is all this?” Thomas said sternly. None were too eager to give this dashing but intimidating newcomer a response. The girls who had removed their tops were now feeling quite naked and rather foolish, so they moved quickly to find their clothes and put them back on. Receiving nothing but mute, horrified stares from the cultish crowd, Thomas decided to break the silence himself: “I will not stand for these gross violations of school and general wizarding conduct. For one, you have all violated very serious and very clear Hogwarts policies by trespassing in the Forbidden Forest. Forbidden: Merlin’s beard, it’s in the bloody name itself! For another, you are all engaging in occult practice. Were you not underage, the consequences of your actions would, I assure you, be quite severe.”

Just then, a small noise came from Thomas’ left arm. Nigel’s eyes found the source of the sound and realized that the prefect’s free arm held his cat, Angel. As Thomas brandished a lit wand whilst holding a proud black cat, Nigel couldn’t help but think that the older student appeared downright heroic. The awe-inspiring tableau was soon broken, though, when Angel decided to struggle free from the pit of Thomas’ elbow. Angel ran to Nigel’s feet, made another small noise from his throat, and looked up with his vivid yellow eyes at his human companion.

“You can all thank this creature,” Thomas said, “for leading me to your ‘ritual site.’ This is your cat, I presume?” He looked at Nigel with a terrifying yet captivating intensity, a faint softness hiding behind his fierce dark eyes.

Nigel managed to sputter out an “er, yes.” The pagans shot scornful looks at the one who betrayed them. Presently, the two parties were no longer “cool” with one another, including even Xenophilius, their all-too-brief master of ceremonies.

Thomas, somewhat bemused by the silent standoff now occurring between the cult members and Nigel and his mates, said, “Right, then. I command all of you to return to your respective houses at once. Each of you, of course, have cost your houses points for these violations.” The predictable shock followed these utterances. “Ten points. Each! Be grateful it’s not twenty! Run along, now. Except for you…what is your name, lad?”

“N-Nigel?”

“Are you asking me?” Thomas said.

“Er, no,” Nigel replied. “I know my name, and it’s Nigel.” He tried to sound magnanimous, but really, he just sounded stupid.

Dipesh, Xenophilius, and the group of students they met in the woods hurriedly broke off from Nigel and Thomas. Nigel’s mates, who were still fancying themselves his nannies, gave him worried expressions, but they did not linger, for Thomas’ authority trumped any custodial rights that Dipesh and Xen had over their mentally disturbed friend.

“I need to speak with you alone, Nigel,” Thomas said. “We’ll start walking back to the castle once the others are out of earshot.”

The forest that surrounded them bustled with evening noise. Pines swayed and creaked in the wind; autumn-colored leaves fell from branches and rustled against each other. Birds settled in for the night. Insects buzzed in the crisp air and hummed some farewell tunes, for their time was coming to an end.

“Tell me, Nigel. Have you been troubled lately? You look like a fellow who has not been sleeping well.”

Not wanting to come off as mad, Nigel blamed his disheveled appearance on the evening’s proceedings and the Year Five academic stresses that weighed on him. Thomas was not fooled by these explanations, though, and said he could surmise greater disturbances in Nigel’s mind than some silly school examinations. He concluded, without needing to ask Nigel, that he had been seeing things and hearing things that were not really there. Nigel wondered how this fellow, who didn’t even know his name until this evening, could possibly draw such accurate insights. Did he receive advanced training in Legilimency from a professor, or was he simply that good at reading faces?

“You should have brought this up with someone,” Thomas said as he, Nigel, and Angel navigated their way out of the forest. “At the same time, though, I can rather understand why you were hesitant to bring this matter to a professor. Hearing things and seeing things that aren’t truly there is a very sensitive issue, indeed. Especially in days like these, when the authorities are tightening the noose round our necks…and when everyone always suspects drugs are involved.” Thomas, who was walking slightly ahead of Nigel, turned his head halfway round. He knew, without having to see Nigel’s expression directly, that his words were resonant. “Even so, Nigel, is there not a single professor at Hogwarts that you can trust?”

“Well,” Nigel began. “I rather respect Professor Quirrel. He is certainly my favorite instructor and I am keen on his subject.” Nigel found himself using an elevated way of speaking in Thomas’ presence, and he did everything in his power not to end his sentences with a question. “Nevertheless, I would be very hesitant indeed to come to him with these concerns. As such, I have really only been able to discuss these matters with my closest of confidantes, Xenophilius Lovegood and Dipesh Patel.”

“Yes, I understand,” Thomas said. “But your companions, trusting as they may be, are simply not qualified to address the problem that is in front of you. It is not my intention to frighten you, Nigel, but I believe that someone—or perhaps a number of individuals—is using Dark Magic against you. Yes, I know, it’s quite a lot to take in. And it may be difficult to imagine why anyone would want to be targeting you—no offense, of course. Yet there may be something you know that is cause for concern in dark circles. Think, Nigel, of late, have there been any suspicious characters in your life?”

Immediately, Nigel thought of the Ministry thugs, the men in those grotesque, out-of-fashion hats. What was the opposite of “a la mode”? Yes, surely it was those two who had something to do with it. “I have an idea of who could be behind this,” he said. “But you will think me mad for saying it.”

“Try me.” A wry smile flashed across Thomas’ face. They were now on the vast expanse of the school grounds. The moon shone on the wet grass beneath them. Everywhere one looked, there was not a soul in sight. Nigel, Thomas, and the black cat who followed them, had the field to themselves.

“I think,” Nigel hesitated, “that there are some characters at the…Ministry of Magic…who have a sinister plot in mind.” If Thomas had a reaction to any of this, it was impossible to discern. Nigel had no choice but to continue to try to explain his reasoning. “I believe that at least certain members of the Ministry, and perhaps the Ministry as a whole, intends to exercise greater control over Hogwarts. And I think that they might know that I know something.”

Thomas absorbed these words without judgment. “Let’s keep this between you and me for now.”

“Should we not tell the headmaster?”

“It would not be prudent to bring Professor Dumbledore into this just yet. If he is ultimately the person they are targeting, and if your suspicions are correct and they are targeting him first through you, then we need to keep his hands clean. After all, what he doesn’t know can’t hurt him, right?”

“I reckon that’s true.”

“But don’t worry, Nigel. You are under my protection. I’ll be keeping my eye on you, checking in regularly, but I also want you to feel very free to come to me early and often whenever you experience even an inkling of trouble. Will you promise me that, Nigel?”

“Yes.”

“And will you also promise me that you will not go to anyone else about this? Especially not Dumbledore?”

“Certainly. But, sir—”

“Thomas will do.” Thomas smiled. “We’re only a few years apart, after all.”

“Er, right. Thomas, can I at least talk to my friends about this? They already know a great deal, anyway.”

“I suppose it wouldn’t do a great deal of harm. It might do your mental well-being good to have people in whom you can confide. I would caution you not to divulge too much, though, for their protection. And do make sure that they—Xenophilius and Dipesh, did you say?”

“Yes, and there’s also Theodore and Julianna.”

“Yes, well, do make sure they keep it to themselves.”

“You have my word.”

“There’s a good lad.”

They had reached the gates of the castle. That loathsome caretaker, Argus Filch, was there to greet them. With a deep scowl written on his face, he clearly had many questions for the two students. Thomas Bainbridge deftly waved him off with his eloquent, authoritative words. Filch retreated as quickly as he appeared, attempting to maintain composure even though he secretly must have known that Thomas, a mere teenager, could handily defeat him in a duel.

“I trust you can find your way back to your house from here?” Thomas said.

Nigel nodded confidently, the first time he felt assured about anything since being in Thomas’ awe-inspiring presence. Presently, in fact, he had just enough courage to ask the prefect a candid question. “So, you actually believe my suspicions? About the Ministry?”

Thomas laughed, revealing for the first time all evening his capacity for mirth. “I’m a Slytherin, Nigel. It’s in my blood to question authority.” Thomas started to make his way down to the dungeons, but then a thought came to him. “By the way, Nigel. Were you by any chance looking for a certain species of mushroom out there in the forest?”

“I…er, no? I just fancied a walk in the woods. Mushrooms? No, I don’t know anything about that.”

“Hm, well, I had heard that there was a group of students interested in tracking down a…‘special’ type of mushroom that only grows in the Forbidden Forest. It’s supposed to have psychedelic qualities.”

“Psychedelic? Like, makes you hallucinate?”

Thomas smirked. “That’s right, Nigel. But, like you said, you don’t know anything about that, do you?”

“I’m afraid not, Thomas.”

Thomas shrugged and told Nigel goodnight. With that, the two parted ways.

Returning to the warmth and safety of Ravenclaw tower, Nigel thought non-stop about his conversation with Thomas Bainbridge. He sat by the fire in the common room, his limbs restless while he went through this exchange over and over again in his mind. Nigel simply could not countenance that he, a regular bloke, had forged a close partnership with one of Hogwarts’ most skilled wizards. Who knows? Perhaps Elisabeth Small would soon be in on this alliance too. But no, she would never align herself with a Slytherin—especially not Thomas. It was unfortunate, Nigel thought, that Gryffindors and Slytherins were so often caught up in their black-and-white worldviews. Not Thomas, though, he was clearly different. Well, he had Slytherin qualities, certainly, but he could also see above “Cold War politics”. That must be part of what made him a great wizard. That, and his superhuman ability to read minds.

Oh, but all of this drama and intrigue was so heavy. Nigel rubbed his weary eyes, took a deep breath, ran his fingers through his long black hair. “Shit, man,” he muttered to himself whilst looking into the fire, the flames hypnotizing him. The adrenaline brought on by the evening’s events had finally worn off. Now, he wanted nothing but to smoke a joint, tune in briefly to some late-night Muggle radio, and sleep.

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