Apparating with baggage was something of a feat, and Harry had never quite shaken the feeling that he was going to Splinch himself at any minute, so it was with great relief that they landed at the Apparition point outside of Aberdeen. The city in the distance, Harry and Ginny brushed off their cloaks.
“I told you it would be windy and rainy and bloody cold,” Ginny said sourly, but she perked up when she noticed a figure walking quickly towards them. “Is that Neville?”
“Yeah, he's going to get us to the school. Apparently it's quite a bit up the coast.” Harry waved a wand over his trunk, and it rose slowly off the ground and began to follow him.
“It is sort of beautiful,” Ginny said, turning around and surveying the sight in front of them. It was early morning, and the ground was covered in a hazy fog. The chill was visible — little flakes of ice coated the grass — but there was a beauty in the desolation.
“Hello!” Neville's voice was cheery against the dreary morning.
Harry nearly winced at the bright smile on Neville's face. “How's it going, Neville?”
“Glad to see you, Harry!” He held out a hand and shook Harry's firmly. “I'm really hoping you can help.” He held out his arms and Ginny stepped into them, hugging him and smacking his cheek with a kiss.
“Hello to you,” she said. “We're glad to see you, too. We'll be happy to help out.”
“I don't know much about the origins of the story,” Neville said without preface, “but everyone in town is getting more and more nervous.”
Ginny raised her eyebrows at Harry but addressed her question to Neville. “About a ghost?”
“It's not just a ghost. The story's a bit… complicated,” Neville said, gesturing down the road. “Shall we walk and talk?”
“Absolutely,” Harry said, but he was scanning the area with his eyes. The hair on the back of his neck was standing up. He was starting to get a feeling about this — a feeling that things were about to go bad.
“Neville, would you excuse us for a minute?” Ginny's voice was saccharine-sweet.
Neville smirked and looked at the ground. “Yeah. I'll just take a walk in that direction.” He pointed away from the couple.
“Thanks. It won't take a minute.” Ginny whirled to face Harry, her hair following her in a delightfully distracting way. “You're in Auror mode. This is more than a lark. You tricked me.”
“Tricked is such a… loaded word,” Harry said, waving his hand. “I prefer the term…” Ginny waited. “Well, actually, tricked is a pretty good word.”
Harry shrugged his shoulders. “You were just dead-set on me having a proper holiday and I didn't think you'd be in favor of me, you know. Running off to Scotland to help track down a zombie… ghost… thing.”
“I should kill you.” Ginny reached in her pocket and pulled out a band, whipping her hair into shape viciously. “I should just… urgh.” She threw her hands in the air and then grabbed his hand. “Listen. You're Harry Potter. I knew what I signed up for when we moved in together, yeah?”
Harry felt his ears go red and he swallowed. “And what exactly was that?”
“Self-sacrificing heroics, a work ethic that can be extremely annoying, commitment issues…”
Harry laughed. “I sound like a real catch.”
Ginny shrugged her shoulders. “Well, you're good in bed.”
“Just good?” Harry asked, moving in to kiss her. “That's not what you said last night…”
Ginny covered his lips with her hand. “Groveling.”
“You've got at least an hour of groveling time before you get to kiss me again.” Ginny turned and walked towards Neville.
“Hey, who makes these rules?” Harry called after her. “I'd like to have a conversation with her!”
“She's not listening to you until you've done the groveling.”
Harry sighed and waved a wand over Ginny's trunk, and both trunks followed him as he rushed to catch up to Ginny and Neville.
“Everything all right?” Neville asked.
Ginny linked her arm through his. “Everything's all right. Why don't you tell Harry and me why we're here, exactly?”
The jump rope slapped against the concrete slab rhythmically. “Cinder-ella dressed in yell-a went upstairs to kiss her fell-a,” the girls in the school yard sang, “made a mis-take and kissed a snake. How many doc-tors did it take? One, two…”
The fog of morning crept over their play, but they ignored it. They'd grown up in a perpetual haze, living so close to the sea. In the center of the rope, Elsbeth Dougal bit her lip in concentration. Mary Louise had just reached thirty-six doctors, and Elsbeth's goal in life was to do better than Mary Louise. Her braided hair flapped up and down to the rhythm of her jumps.
She was on twenty-seven doctors when it happened. A scream on the other side of the school yard, where the older girls were “playing” — an activity that seemed to involve a lot of gossiping about the boys and being too cool to join in on the jump rope songs or the games of footie the boys were playing on the green — broke her concentration and that of the girls swinging the rope for her. Elsbeth tripped and the girls dropped the rope, so she watched what happened next in abject horror from her vantage spot, face down on the concrete.
From the fog, a figure emerged. Bony, with pieces of flesh hanging off of it, it was clear that, at one time, it had been been human. The schoolyard erupted, teachers and students fleeing from the horror of the sight.
Whatever it was, it looked from side to side as though it could see, but there were no eyes, only holes that seemed as deep as the skull itself. Elsbeth tried to find the courage to hide from its gaze, but she found herself frozen to the spot. A hand tugged on her elbow, quietly insistent.
“Elsbeth, come on,” a voice whispered in her ear. “We've got to run before it gets us. That's the skinwalker.”
“It's not time,” Elsbeth muttered. “He's early: it's not time.”
“Don't think he cares about that,” Mary Louise Parker said, yanking her up off the ground. “Elsbeth, we've got to run!”
Then it opened its mouth and screamed — at least it sounded like a scream, a cacophony of screams — and with Mary Louise Parker's hand on her elbow and the sound of that motivating her, Elsbeth found the courage to push herself off the ground and run for the school.
“It's a local legend with some basis in fact,” Neville was saying as he made tea for Harry and Ginny in his quarters. “It's pretty complicated, with some different variations on the origins of it, but basically what it boils down to is that once a decade, the skinwalker comes and takes a little girl.”
“Once a decade?” Harry raised his eyebrows. “We don't have a record of anything like that in the Auror department. I did some research on this area. There's basically nothing there.”
Neville shrugged his shoulders. “I've always got the impression that the local people seem to take it as a matter of course. It gets to be that time, and they do everything they can, but they don't really expect to stop it.”
“And we're approaching the decade?” Ginny asked, grabbing the milk from the refrigerator and adding a splash to her cup. She passed it to Harry without thinking, and he added some, tasted, and made a face before adding some more.
Neville smiled faintly at the sight but said nothing about it. He was sure that neither one of them were interested in the observation that they were already an old married couple. “Yes, we're approaching the decade mark. The headmaster is adamant that it's only a local tale, and that this year everyone at the school will be safe, but…”
“You don't believe him,” Ginny said softly.
“These people are scared.” Neville stood up and brushed the sweat off the palm of his hand. “These people live on the cliffs of bloody Scotland. They've got nerves of steel. But whatever this is, it's got them scared.”
“That's got weight,” Harry said, rubbing his forehead. “Have you been able to figure out anything about this skinwalker… what it looks like, anything like that?”
“It's apparently bad luck to talk about it,” Neville said, shrugging his shoulder. “But then, Harry Potter asking questions might be slightly different than Professor Longbottom asking questions.”
“Unfair advantage,” Ginny teased, bumping Harry with her shoulder until he smiled.
“It's got some advantages,” Harry said quietly. “Neville, is there something going on outside?”
Neville paused. “What? Why?”
“Because I think I hear…”
There was a pounding at the door, and Ginny rushed to open it. A frightened Lonnie stood in the doorway. “Professor Longbottom! The skinwalker's in the schoolyard!”
Harry grabbed his wand and ran past her without thinking, Ginny on his heels, Neville right behind her.
Once outside, it was easy enough to locate the creature. It seemed purposeless, like it was wandering without an aim. Swiveling its head from side to side, it screamed eerily but didn't approach the building.
Harry gripped his wand, prepared to approach it until Ginny's hand grabbed his elbow. “Do you think it's got rules?”
“Like with vampires, how they can't come inside unless you invite them?”
The creature turned and faced Harry and Ginny, its mouth closing, somehow managing to convey an expression of glee without any flesh on its face at all.
“No idea. Question,” Harry said as he advanced, Ginny right behind him.
“Why do they call it a skinwalker if it hasn't got any skin?”
“Better question,” Neville said.
“Yeah?” Harry asked.
“What are we going to do to stop it?”
“Oh, I dunno. Something like this.” Harry bent down to the ground and side-armed a stone at the creature. It struck the side of its skull with a resounding crack but didn't stop it.
“Great plan, Harry,” Ginny said sarcastically. “What's your next idea?”
“Sectumsempra!” Harry shouted. The slicing curse severed its spine immediately, the creature looking stunned before it fell to the ground. “I thought I might rip it in half. You'd be surprised how often that works.”
Neville swallowed. “Do you suppose it's safe to approach it now?”
“No idea. Don't get any closer. I want to see if it twitches first,” Harry said firmly.
Ginny took a few cautious steps forward, ignoring him. “Harry, this creature looks human.” With her wand, she poked at something on the body until her face went ashen. With trembling legs she bent down and took a closer look at it.
“What is it, Ginny?” Harry rushed forward, and his face went pale, as well. “Shite on a stick.”
“What?” Neville rushed forward, his face decidedly green, as though he might lose his lunch at any second. “Ugh, it smells vile.”
“She.” Harry rose to his feet, a locket in his hands. “She was a she… once. Either that or she steals jewelry from her victims.”
“She didn't seem to have enough intelligence to do that,” Ginny said quietly. “So… she was a…”
“I think the lay term is 'zombie',” Harry said. “Reanimated corpses are seriously bad news. I might be in over my head. I've got to get hold of Hermione.”