Luck had been on Tod Alden's side last summer. He'd been unable to twist people's minds with a power that had left him and refused to return; his silver charm. Had his parents set him a single chore they would have discovered the state he'd been in. Perhaps, if Tod wasn't an Alden, it wouldn't have been a problem. But in the Alden family everything was a transaction. What could you offer? What was your worth? How would you repay what you asked for?
The Alden children repaid the generosity of their parents, who birthed, housed and fed them, with chores. But these chores weren't clearing away the garden gnomes, or repelling the attic ghouls, or even banishing boggarts. They had house elves (that they technically weren't allowed) for that.
The Alden childrens' chores were something far more specific, something only an Alden child could do, because Alden children had a youthful silver tongue and the instinctive trust of adults who didn't see them as a threat. Tod had been lucky because he'd managed to survive a whole summer lacking his silver charm without his parents noticing his main value had vanished.
This summer, Tod didn't need luck on his side. His power had been restored to him, courtesy of Bagsy Beetlehorn. Now, as he sat on a small boat that descended in the large koi pond in the family's garden, he felt no worries about completing his chore. With a jerk, the boat dropped into the branch of the underlakes linked with the gated community of Liberality, where he and his family lived. His parents had spared no expense hiring history experts to craft a plethora of extensions using the precise same materials, tools and methods of the period the barn was originally constructed, converting it into a family home. Tod's parents liked to meddle with things without their meddling being noticed, Tod thought to himself as a bubble formed around him and the boat, dark water obscuring the sky above.
It wasn't just with their children that Tod's parents made transactional relationships. Everyone they interacted with was a client who would be given something in return for a favour. This was why Tod had these chores in the first place. His parents had needed a favour from someone and, in return, Tod was to meddle with some minds to cover up actions the clients wanted to go unnoticed. He wasn't bothered; his parents had given him life, and his power gave him purpose. He owed them this task, and these chores were a part of the meaning of life for him. It was all as it should be.
Sure, his friendship with Bagsy wasn't transactional, but that was an exception. Tod was under no illusion; the rest of the world didn't run that way, and he was trying his best to accept it.
The boat continued silently through the dark, ripples lapping at the stone walls of the tunnel deep below the earth's surface and water dripping down from above. Tod glanced up, seeing fish darting to a fro, and a bottom feeder blink its glistening eyes at its surroundings. They couldn't see him; the floor of the lake he was passing below only allowed those underneath to see up.
After a time, the boat rose and jolted through the ceiling into the waters of a small river. It continued to rise until the bubble surrounding him vanished as the fresh air of a forest took the water's, place. Carefully, Tod pulled the boat to its mooring, and stepped off. Dusting his grey and blue wizard's robes, and tossing his dark hair out of his eyes, he approached the hidden village tucked between the trees. Hut entrances were sunken into the trunks of trees, and vine woven walkways were strung from one oak to another above his head. It didn't take him long to find the home he was looking for.
Without knocking, he threw the door open, stepping into a small, circular hut, half-merged with an oak tree. Swaths of shrubbery swarmed the surrounding over-grown garden, and by the time he made it inside, his neat wizard's robes were scuffed up with leaves and twigs. Picking them off in annoyance, he looked around the space. It was crammed with plants, herbs and a bed that barely fit.
A man was huddled over a small cauldron on the floor that was boiling a tasty looking stew. Tod's mouth involuntarily watered. He reminded himself that once his chore was complete he would have earned his supper. Food was one memory trick, and one short boat ride, away.
'Are you Bromley McMartyat?' Tod asked.
The man, who was pale, skin and bone with jutting cheekbones, looked up blankly. After a pause, he nodded, mouth hanging open.
Tod sneered at the lack of manners the man clearly held. 'Were you in the class of Perdita Jewel?' Tod pressed. It was better to perform his chores swiftly. Plus, the sooner this was done, the sooner he could get home to a nice roast dinner.
'Yes.' Bromley nodded, narrowing his eyes. 'What do you know 'bout Perdita? Everyone's seems to 'ave forgotten 'bout 'er. I went on one blummin' 'oliday and when I got back no one remembered her.'
Cold invaded the air around Tod as he pushed his power into his words, his heartbeat increasing as energy drained from his fingertips and toes to his tongue. It buzzed as if his mouth was filled with popping pumpkin flakes. 'You never met Perdita Jewel,' Tod announced, unleashing his power. At the misted colour entering the pale man's eyes, Tod felt a thrill of excitement. There was nothing this man could do – he was helpless, and he'd have no clue what had happened once it was done.
'I never met Perdita Jewel,' the man slurred.
Tod refrained from rolling his eyes. Sometimes, his targets droned back his instructions. He wasn't sure if it was because those victims were particularly dense, or some random fluke of his power. 'You have no clue who she is,' Tod continued. 'Today, you woke up, went about your life, and found nothing out of the ordinary. No boy visited you.'
The man nodded, repeating Tod's new truths with a monotone drawl. Satisfied, Tod pulled his power back, spreading it evenly around his body, allowing the air around him to warm once more. With a sweep of his robes, Tod turned and marched from the hut, swiping in annoyance at a fly that had started to bother him. 'Disgusting,' he muttered to himself, casting a disdainful look at the village as he hopped back onto his boat and set it into the river. 'Not worth a deep passage link, if you ask me,' he grumbled to himself. Underlakes were difficult things to create. Linking the deep passages to such a small, tasteless village seemed a waste to Tod. There were far more respectable locations to choose.
The boat set off swiftly, dropping efficiently into the underlake and moving gracefully back towards the gated community of Liberality.
As Tod was nearing the end of his journey and was wondering whether he should have caramelised bananas with flaming-ice cream or a rainbow tiramisu for pudding, he caught a tall figure waiting in the darkness. Whoever they were, they were trying to blend in with the black cave walls.
Tod's body froze at the sight, his hand gripping the rudder of the boat tightly. He opened his mouth to say something, but it just hung wide in dread. Tod always froze up when something bad was happening. He didn't choose to – it just happened on instinct.
The figure kicked off the wall and walked quickly through the ankle-deep water to him, their face shrouded in shadows, their shoes kicking up spray as they progressed. They were tall, taller than Tod, and lithe, too.
The idea of reaching for his wand had barely entered Tod's terror-stalled mind before the figure had drawn their own. With a merciless slash, Tod felt a hot sting fill his mouth. It was the worst agony he'd experienced, and he fell against the side of the boat, unable to hold his own weight in the thrashing pain enveloping his mind. The rocking caused by his sudden collapse nearly capsized the vessel but, thankfully, it remained upright.
Less thankfully, in fact quite horribly, he realised a warm liquid that stank of iron was filling his mouth and drooling unstoppably down his chin.
His mind finally kicking in, he grabbed the boat's rudder and set it going, more fiercely this time, away from the dark figure. He looked over his shoulder as he fled, but whoever it had been had vanished. Had he imagined them? No, he couldn't have, his mouth still felt like it was on fire, as if someone was sawing a cheese grater over the entirety of his lower mouth and throat.
With a surge, the boat resurfaced, and Tod flung himself from the vessel and onto the shore. Only, he'd come up through the wrong link; he was in the Vinski's garden, who also lived in the gated community of Liberality, and it was their pond he was crawling pitifully out of.
Tod spluttered and coughed and gasped and more liquid, that he could now see was red, was gushing from his mouth. It was slowly dawning on him, as he tried to move it, that his tongue was missing. Hands clasping at his throat and mouth, he let out a guttural groan, his eyes squeezing shut as he rolled onto his side and hunched in on himself.
'Well, well, well,' a cold voice tutted. 'Looks like we have a bit of a problem here, doesn't it? Please, try to cough your blood into the water and not onto our grass – we just had the scythe rabbits mow it.' Primrose Vinski, the half-scaled Hufflepuff, put the book she was reading down and stared at him contemptuously from the lounger she was reclined in as she basked in the sun. She seemed entirely unphased by Tod's sudden and unannounced appearance, as if boys who'd just had their tongues cut out showed up in her back garden every day.
'Eeeeellll…' Tod moaned, trying to ask for help but unable to form any words.
'I'm sorry, what was that?' Primrose asked, picking her book back up and turning a page. 'Rose might be about to become a vampire, so I'll need something worth my time if you want me to stop reading my book.'
Tod made another noise, but his mind was running blank. He knew he needed help, but everything had happened so quickly and he was too stunned to know what to do. He rolled onto his back, his spine arching in pain and his limbs thrashing in the water. When he found himself choking on his own blood, he turned onto his hands and knees, spitting it out.
'Really,' Primrose sighed. 'I told you to leave the grass alone.' Slamming her book down, Primrose got to her feet, taking off her sunglasses and walking, hands on hips, over to him. 'Come on, I'm sure your parents will know what to do,' Primrose reasoned, fastening her arms below his armpits.
'Oooo!' Tod protested as Primrose lifted him to his feet, traying to say no and shaking his head fearfully. If his parents saw he'd lost his tongue, no amount of luck in the world could help him.
'No?' Primrose checked. 'Hmm. Well, I'm not taking you to St Mungo's, I want to finish my book. Is there anyone else who could deal with this for me?'
Tod frowned, eyes darting back and forth as he thought. He stiffened as a name came to mind.
Primrose groaned. 'Don't tell me,' she muttered. 'I know exactly who you're going to say.'