|The Black Road I: Unpaid Debts
Author: Guede Mazaka
“Death reaps, but the devil harvests.”
* * *
They’d broken something in the world when they had triumphed. Even for the British Isles, the weather had taken a turn for the blacker, and the air always carried a tinge of cold rot no matter how deep into the unspoilt countryside one took oneself. Of course, life carried on—it adapted itself to the darker, cloudier, colder world. It grew rougher hair to keep out the weather and brighter, madder eyes to light the day; it went about in a perpetual seething rage to keep itself warm. It was not, Lucius secretly admitted, what he had expected.
The entire point had been to refine the state of things, to pare away the wildness and yet what seemed to have happened was a resurgence of the very primeval coarseness that should have been done away with, once and for all. What should have happened was a purification: the sky should have become clearer, the air better, and the sunlight sunnier. Romantic nonsense it might be, but what was the damned point of owning a country manor and Italian summer villas if it was always raining?
And when it was not raining, it was bleeding. The side of the Dark Lord certainly had won, but the resistance lingered on at the margins of the world as if it too was a manifestation of the dregs of the past that refused to be washed away by the more advanced present. Time wore down on the fools, but strangely enough, it aged them into something hungry and vicious and resilient instead of weakening them. They skulked at the edges and snapped whenever a weakling strayed too near, but they were growing into the skulking, reveling and flourishing in it instead of dying gradually away.
For that reason, Lucius was out tonight prowling the old ruins of Hogwarts. He should have been home hosting the Dark Lord, who was making one of his tours of the land as the old English kings had done, or at the very least, been overseeing matters at the Ministry, but instead he was here chasing down a dubious tip. This sort of duty was menial and hadn’t been assigned to him since the war had begun in earnest. It worried him somewhat to think that the balance of power might have shifted without him even having an inkling of it. He’d managed to have many of his rivals neutralized during the war, but a few had been too lucky or too clever.
On the other hand, lately something had been on…Lucius gazed around the gnarled half-tiers of broken staircases, empty of all life…on Voldemort’s mind. The Lord had had visible flaws before, what with his obsession with Potter, but in all other aspects he’d been one worthy of serving. Now he was sending off Dolohov to do library research in the Serbian hills, and Macnair to digging up the remains of burned witches, and Lucius to poke about an abandoned school in hopes of something he kept buried deep from any of them.
Hogwarts had survived the final campaign in relatively intact shape, but immediately after it’d come into his possession, Voldemort had ordered it torn down as much as possible. All that was now left aboveground were the spindly remnants of a few stairs, arching up like the broken ribs of a giant, but the foundations and much of the basement levels had resisted any damage. Lucius headed for the most stable-looking entrance into the earth.
It made sense to him—after all, the pro-Voldemort base at Hogwarts had been centered in the Slytherin halls. It also made sense, in a twisted sort of way, that any resistors that would dare venture here would take shelter in the most complete part.
He unsheathed his wand as he went over the threshold and down the first step, murmuring spells for light and for detection of magic. The tip flared, then settled to a low yellow glow, but nothing else came to life. The stairs were so covered with refuse that his shoes sank an inch into it and he had to probe each step with his cane prior to trusting his weight to it. They didn’t appear to have been disturbed any time recently, nor had they been rearranged magically, but he still remained on his guard.
Little things scuttled out of the way of his wavery circle of light once he’d reached the bottom. They could have been rats, but even Pettigew in Animagus form didn’t throw off such distorted shadows. Lucius drew his cloak more closely about himself, gritted his teeth, and reminded himself that he had risked a good deal to get where he currently stood with Voldemort and that losing ground over some vermin would be pathetic. Even if he was currently doubting how that gained ground’s value had appreciated over the years.
He moved quickly through the halls, peeking here and there but mainly letting his spells do his searching for him. No signs of life greater than raccoon-size were in evidence here; not even the darker denizens of the Forest had dared move into these ruins. Reasons for why were given by the occasional sharp slam of a door far too close after Lucius’ heels, or the flickering at the edge of his magic that had nothing to do with the wind. There shouldn’t have been any wind down here, anyway.
But nothing. Nothing even remotely capable of danger to a full-grown pureblood wizard was in evidence. Vaguely relieved, Lucius withdrew back towards his point of entry. He was almost certain now that this mission had been fabricated by a jealous colleague in order to humiliate him, and was quite enjoying his composition of a scathing, insinuating report that should draw out that poison well.
The light went out.
Lucius didn’t make the mistake of whirling about, or any of the moves so favored by idiotic heroes. He stood calmly in place, keeping a firm grip on his wand and his cane, and quickly reconstructed in his mind what his surroundings had looked like. The nearest wall had been to his left, the hall had extended before and behind him and had angled slightly rightwards. The moment the darkness had descended, every tiny sound in the place had been magnified and distorted, but he remembered something of having to sneak around in the dark to early meetings. Nothing was moving that was much larger than a housecat.
He glanced down at himself. None of the charms he had woven through his clothing were glowing, which indicated that no kind of magic was responsible for this. Of course, he could have walked into a magical dead-zone, and the chances of those appearing in Hogwarts had greatly increased since its fall.
He held out his wand and whispered, “Lumos.”
It obligingly lit. Lucius looked carefully around himself, but only saw what he had before the light had gone out. It certainly had been a disturbing anomaly, but apparently not a dangerous one. He made a note of it and turned around to continue moving towards the exit; the beam from his wand swept about and passed over a white, white face with burning eyes.
He instantly recoiled, raising both cane and wand as half-a-dozen defensive spells sprang to mind. His heel trampled on something that moved and he stumbled, sliding sideways to avoid a complete fall. In doing so he lost sight of the other person, but he managed to snap off a Stupefy in the correct direction. His cloak whipped about him and he irritably beat it down with his cane, searching wildly for the other intruder.
His spell apparently had missed, because no body lay on the stones, but once again, no one else appeared to be in the halls as indicated by magic, sound or sight. It could have been a ghost, perhaps.
Lip curling, Lucius gave his stunned mind a rough shake. Hardly a possibility. All the ghosts had been sent on their way, and any new ones treated the same; Voldemort hadn’t wished for lingering reminders of what had been, and neither had Lucius. So it—
Something tore his cane out of his grip, and almost in the same instant, he was struck heavily on the back of his neck. His entire body immediately numbed and his joints loosened, lost their understanding with gravity. He fell, and so slackly that he hardly felt the impact of his knees on the ground. He did feel when his palms belatedly slammed out, sting of their save rocking up his arms and curling painfully about his shoulders. His breath hissed raggedly out through his teeth.
He’d held onto his wand till nearly the last moment and so it hadn’t fallen very far from him. The tip still cast its light so he could see it had landed a mere five inches from his right hand.
“Wouldn’t be thinking of that, if I were you,” said Harry Potter’s voice. A cool, rounded object lightly touched the back of Lucius’ sore neck. Then it pressed down and twisted so something sharp caught at the skin there, and Lucius understood what had happened to his cane. “Mr. Malfoy.”
The pain in Lucius’ neck was near-stunning and negatively affected his vision for some moments—so long, in fact, that he almost feared serious injury had been done to his spine. It offered the incredulous part of his mind something to busy itself with so the rest of it could deal with what apparently had just happened. “I was under the impression that you were dead, Mr. Potter.”
“Then get under the impression that I’m alive.” It definitely was Harry Potter’s voice, with all the brat’s customary badly-suppressed rage and fear. He abruptly spun the cane-head and pulled it up so it knotted itself in Lucius’ hair. Then he jerked so Lucius was thrown off one knee and to the side.
It looked like Potter as well, down to the scars peeking from his shirt-cuffs and -collar. Someone with a marginal sense of style had dressed him in black Muggle-style clothing: trousers, shirt, slightly oversized suit-jacket, sneakers. He still had his glasses, the nose-bridge taped together and a crack gracing the right lens. The crack Lucius remembered: it’d been from Alecto's final shot before Potter, screaming like a harpy, had turned on her. He’d killed her, but had fatally forgotten about the rest of them.
The cane in Lucius’ hair jerked again, and this time the snake-head fangs scraped over his scalp. “I’m alive,” Potter repeated more calmly. “And I’m here to—”
In this position, Potter couldn’t see immediately behind Lucius, who took advantage of that by snatching up his wand and flipping it to point straight at Potter. “Crucio!”
Potter shuddered back, a look of horror on his face…then relaxed. He even grinned; the brat seemed to be growing ever more comfortable and assured of himself. “Don’t be an ass, Malfoy.”
Lucius did not, in spite of the shock, drop his wand. He scrambled around and made an attempt to escape, only to be hauled back by his hair. He felt several strands wrench out before Potter did something and suddenly the cane was out and slamming down across the back of his neck again. This time, it was hard enough to knock him out.
* * *
He woke up with aching head and limbs, and the taste of raw cotton in his mouth. His cloak was gone and he was lying directly on the chilly stones; a crack in one flagstone was wide enough to allow his knee to slide partially into its jagged grip. When he attempted to move, he found that his hands had been bound.
“That took a while.” Potter was casually seated on the ground next to Lucius’ head with Lucius’ cloak in his hands. He’d stopped with his fingers raised so Lucius could see the thin, silvery strands that Potter had wound around them and appeared to be pulling from the fabric itself. When Potter noticed, he flicked them off and they dropped sluggishly back into the cloak. “Probably a good thing to remember, that. You’re more delicate up here than I remember.”
He folded the cloak with a deft quickness that Lucius didn’t remember, and secreted it away somewhere without a single bit of magic flaring. The removal of the cloak revealed Lucius’ cane and wand lying over Potter’s thighs. The latter Potter picked up first, twirling it lazily in his fingers. Lucius’ hackles rose at that, but he remained silent to see if Potter would let any more information drop.
“Like I was saying, I came back. And I did that for a reason,” Potter said.
“I suppose people don’t generally resurrect themselves on a whim,” Lucius allowed himself to reply. He pushed himself up with his hands till he could sit on his heels. His head ached abominably, and the stripe of bruising across his nape occasionally made his senses spin off-kilter, but otherwise he seemed relatively intact.
Potter’s mouth twitched, then twitched again. The first time might have been anger, but the second was clearly amusement. He stopped spinning Lucius’ wand and held it parallel to the ground with one hand while he pinched the fingers of the other around the tip. Then he drew away his left hand, as if pulling…and he was pulling out something, a thick greenish fiber that elongated at about the same rate that Lucius’ ribs were abruptly crushing themselves. When Potter wrapped the fiber around his hand and snapped it free, it felt as if fire had replaced the blood in Lucius’ body.
His breath echoed harshly in his ears, and he was dimly aware that he’d collapsed onto elbows and knees again. Lucius forced himself to breathe slowly till he’d recovered, then looked up in time to see Potter dangling the green strip like a treat. The shadows from the walls and the floors and ceiling suddenly flooded towards him, little tendrils curling upwards like so many begging hounds. After teasing them a few times, Potter let them have it; Lucius couldn’t stop himself from writhing as a thousand tiny mouths ripped into his flesh.
Not physically, because he wasn’t missing gigantic chunks of himself when Potter yanked him onto his feet, but nevertheless it was debilitating. Lucius swayed, staggered back and fell almost gratefully against the slimy wall. He stumbled through a nest of shadows as he did and they broke up with near-audible snarls, a thin mist rising from them to his nose: sulfur and brimstone.
Potter stood back and watched Lucius without any particular expression on his face. The brat had been all of sixteen when he’d died, barely beginning to grow, but wherever he’d been since then, it had allowed him to continue maturing. He was slender as the cane he nonchalantly held, but only two or so inches shorter than Lucius. His eyes flickered red as Lucius watched—red, but not quite the same shade as Voldemort’s, which ruled out one conclusion. They were the red of drying blood, old and full of memory and cold vengeance, and not young or hot at all.
Wizards were not religious, and for good reason, but Lucius could find no other explanation. “You do realize that dealing with the devil rarely turns out well.”
“Thanks for your concern, but there’s no deal,” Potter said, pitching his voice to be condescending. He didn’t quite cover up the bitterness. “I work for him. And y’see, he takes care of his own, too.”
“And here I would have thought that you, of all people—”
Potter’s snap-temper hadn’t entirely disappeared. Before Lucius could finish, he was sharply pushed towards the stairs. A blast of wind whistled down through the top and cut straight through his clothing. Then another one rose, but from behind him, and this one was blistering hot so he was sweating by the time he staggered up the first stair.
“I see your former allies don’t approve,” Lucius muttered.
“Yeah.” It sounded like Potter had regained his strange sanguinity. “Hogwarts isn’t exactly blessed ground, but it’s pretty close.”
Nothing untoward greeted them at the top, which left Lucius faintly relieved. The wind must have been Hogwarts’ last protest. He shivered as the cold night air hit him, but was still able to note the way Potter had talked of ‘holy ground.’ If they passed a church…“I never realized you’d grown so desperate near the end, to invoke that. You might as well have joined our side.”
“And then we’d all be talking to Lucifer anyway,” Potter snorted. He jabbed Lucius hard in the side with the cane-tip, then repeated the gesture precisely on the other side to keep Lucius on a pained but even keel. “Voldemort’s the one he wants to get. He’s tired of getting put off his debt-collection.”
Lucius stopped and turned around. “You’re here as his collector?” he asked in disbelief. “What, no angels greeted the fallen hero?”
They were just on the edge of Hogwarts’ grounds; the ankle-high crumble of rock that marked the old walls bumped up against Lucius’ heel as he backed away from Potter, whose eyes had gone reddish again. He stepped over it without looking down.
“I am here,” Potter said in carefully-modulated tones of rage, “Because Voldemort was stupid enough to promise his soul, and then even stupider to think that he could get around that by partitioning it so Lucifer couldn’t collect it all at once.”
“Partitioning it?” The idea rang a small—a very small—bell in Lucius’ mind. He took another step backwards so he was standing entirely outside of Hogwarts. “I still fail to see what this has to do with your ending up on Lucifer’s doorstep. Unless you mean to say that in your final foolishness, you thought a sixteen-year-old boy could beat Voldemort at his own game?”
Without a wand, the kind of magic Lucius could perform was limited, but an emergency escape shouldn’t have been beyond him. He waited till the anger in Potter’s eyes had risen and spilled over, and the moment Potter lunged for him, forgetting all about magic, Lucius threw himself to the ground.
For a heart-stopping second, he felt nothing and he feared it wouldn’t—
--but then he was rolling on a hard wooden floor, and not wet grass. He knocked up against a hard piece of furniture, then tipped backwards and over to come to a rest on his side. Breathing heavily, Lucius slowly pushed himself up the side of the bench and pulled at his bonds. Of all the things Potter could have used…the ropes weren’t even bespelled, and came undone easily.
Then Lucius looked around himself, and understood that in fact, his spell hadn’t worked. He was in a church and not a polished marble hall, and moreover, the church appeared to be occupied. Three dark figures stood at the other end of the aisle, frozen with their heads turned towards him.
It was dark. He couldn’t make out any details of them, so they couldn’t possibly see anything of him.
One of them raised a wand and aimed it. Lucius scrambled behind the bench, wincing as his haste made him bang his foot against the wood. He heard something strike the ground where he’d been and the entire area briefly lit up. Keeping his head down, he made for the end of the pew, where he thought he could see a sidedoor hidden in the shadows.
“It’s Malfoy!” someone shouted. “It’s a trap! Come back, damn it!”
Somewhere to the left, a pew suddenly rattled as if a heavy weight had dropped on it. Then another, but this one was closer, and—someone was jumping from pew to pew. The benches were so long that Lucius didn’t have room to move laterally…he ducked down and wriggled beneath the pew to his left, reasoning that they’d expect him to flee. His back hit something and he reached behind himself too quickly so his sleeve caught on a splinter. When he yanked it free, the damned thing snapped too loudly.
“Then why’s he crawling? He’s not got any bloody back-up with him! Go to it! Get that bastard!”
He shoved the foot-rest up without even trying to keep silent, rolled the rest of the way under, and kept on going more silently for another two pews. Then he resumed his crawling for the end of the bench. The second voice had been recognizable as a Weasley, though which one was currently beyond Lucius. He had no idea who the first was, but it was obvious he’d gotten himself dropped into a resistance meeting. Wandless as he was, he didn’t stand a chance in facing them.
A pew only two away suddenly clattered. Lucius dropped himself low to the ground and froze in place, listening as hard as he could for any indication as to who or what was coming after him. He could hear rough, deep breathing that had a peculiar wet wheeze to it, and the slight creaking of wood, as if the other had to constantly shift his weight. It sounded as if they were still quite a few feet from him, so he slowly raised himself enough to crawl.
The bench top right above him rattled; Lucius whipped around just in time to see yellow eyes and snapping teeth. He threw up his arm, then twisted in an attempt to hit the beast in the side of the head, but the werewolf was too fast. Its head flashed forward and suddenly Lucius was holding very, very still lest the teeth pricking through his sleeve sank any deeper.
Running feet soon resolved into the other two, one of whom had their hood down and wand outstretched. The wand-tip was glowing purple and the arm holding it was visibly shaking, as was the werewolf. A quick glance showed that the beast’s eyes were the same color: so they’d figured out a way to control lycanthropes. This was information that had to be passed on.
“Is it Malfoy?” the Weasley asked. It was one of the boys—older, Lucius thought. “Damn it, that tail’s in the way. Make him move—make him move.”
A name had almost slipped out there. One that may or may not have started with an ‘H,’ but the echoes in this church were too distorting for Lucius to be certain. He glanced about himself again, but couldn’t see any means of escape.
As if he knew what Lucius’ thoughts were, the wolf growled. It didn’t cause the teeth clamped over Lucius’ arm to break the skin, but it did push the point. Then it went very still, and he could see the purple bleeding in and out of its eyes.
“Church is closed for service,” the Weasley called, apparently to someone at the door. “Sorry, but--Harry?”
The wolf abruptly dropped Lucius’ arm. It paced forward along the bench, then half-turned so its breath hit the back of Lucius’ head. It whined, shook itself hard, and then whined again, pawing at its muzzle. The figure with the wand had turned to look at the doorway, and their hand was shaking even more.
“I’m not Harry,” said Harry Potter. “I’m a figment of your imagination.”
The Weasley boy laughed incredulously and started to lift his hand to his head, then dropped it. “And if you were a Death-Eater, you would’ve said ‘yes, it’s me.’ Come in here so we can see.”
“I can’t.” There seemed to be genuine regret in his voice. There certainly was real bitterness. “I can’t come in the church.”
The werewolf stopped scratching at itself and drew itself up so it could look down at Lucius. Its upper lip curled to show saliva-stained white teeth, and every hair on its body seemed to be bristling. Its eyes were pure yellow.
“What do you—” Weasley started.
He was interrupted by his partner, who was frantically jabbing her wand at the werewolf. “No. No, no, no! No—get away from him—don’t bite—”
“I can’t come in the church,” Potter sang out almost cheerfully. He wasn’t speaking to them now.
Lucius glanced in Potter’s direction and almost missed the werewolf’s forward lunge; he slammed himself backward as teeth snapped a hairs-breadth from his face. The wolf was in a frenzy, jerking and throwing his head about as he struggled against some invisible hold. In the aisle, Weasley and his partner were alternately shouting at Potter and at the werewolf, but whatever control they had over the beast was rapidly slipping away. A good chunk of it abruptly gave way and the werewolf instantly strained forward that extra fraction of an inch.
At the same time, Lucius took the chance and dropped himself to the ground. There was the risk that the wolf would catch part of him on the way, and he did feel teeth snatch at his shoulder, but they came away with only a scrap of fabric.
He hit the floor and scrambled towards the end, only to have a barrier spring up in his way. Lucius turned himself around, ducking quickly to avoid the wolf still snapping at him, and saw Weasley starting to run in from the other end. Damn Potter, but what on earth was he—
An audible pop and the wolf surged forward, leaping off the pew between Lucius and Weasley. All restraints on it were clearly gone now, and it was already gathering itself for a last leap.
Rational thinking failed and the instinct to preserve oneself at all costs took over: Lucius seized a Bible from the nearest book-holder and tossed it at the wolf, who caught it between its teeth and savaged it in passing. Scraps of paper blew up around Lucius, then spun inwards so quickly that he had no time to throw up his arms.
A rough hold took him by the back of the neck and pressed him back down towards the floor, while two feet abruptly dropped to either side of his head. Potter squatted over him like a triumphant hunter over the bloody carcass. “Sorry, Remus,” he said. “You never were going to get this one. You don’t want him, anyway.”
The werewolf had been thrown off its feet by the wind, but had quickly scrambled up and was warily watching Potter. It kept its head down, but held itself in preparation to dive for the throat, not to grovel.
The quality of Potter’s voice changed again, lost its hard edge. He shifted so he could lift his hand towards the werewolf…who recoiled quite vigorously after some hesitation. The grip on Lucius’ neck snapped so tight he could hardly breathe.
“You’re not Harry,” Weasley’s partner finally said.
Potter produced a credible snarl himself; the werewolf responded by withdrawing further down the aisle with teeth bared and every muscle stiffened. “No, I’m not. Get us out of here, Lucius.”
“What?” Lucius gasped.
“This is an even dirtier trick—” Weasley said. Apparently he still thought of things in terms of school-life.
A bright flash and an explosion briefly obscured the werewolf and his two keepers from Lucius’ sight. When things cleared, Lucius had just enough time to glimpse the trio stumbling away before Potter jerked him up and slammed him into the floor. His head had been turned so his nose remained unbroken, but his cheekbone felt as if it’d been pulped.
Then, to his utter shock, Potter slid his wand into his hand. “Get us out of here,” Potter softly, viciously repeated.
As far as Lucius could tell, Imperio was nowhere in evidence, but he found himself obeying nonetheless.