Disclaimer: I'm not muscling in on JK's turf - just gambolling on it, like a spring lamb, having fun working out the literary and psychological puzzles which she is having fun setting us.
N.B. I have a habit of using punctuation partly as musical notation, to control the rhythm of a sentence and thereby to indicate inflection of both speech and thought. This means basically that I omit commas after quotes, in cases where I feel that the dip in emphasis caused by the comma would spoil the music of the line, and sometimes insert commas where I think that the speaker/thinker would pause slightly, even if a comma isn't grammatically necessary at that point. This is not an error, this is a stylistic quirk - so please don't bug me about it.
This story is canon until HBP and thereafter AU, but it has been edited to incorporate the backstory given in DH.
1: GOING UNDERGROUND
((In which the Death Eaters decide to broaden their power-base by investigating the basic powers used by Muggle witches.))
By the time she came out from the seminar on Shamanism in an Urban Environment, people were already beginning to assemble for the closing ritual. She drifted outside to join the crowd stringing themselves out around the perimeter of the plaza - though with no good expectations.
The ceremony was hardly begun when her attention began to wander, as it did every year. A short, fat, bald man, wearing a sugar-pink plastic skull-cap decorated with a huge pair of antlers, was taking the role of the Horned God and reciting the usual doggerel attempt at holiness, very badly. Her eyes kept straying to the equally pink roll of flesh which sagged over his collar at the back, in awful fascination.
But holiness was here, if you knew where to look for it on this June evening. She leaned against the low wall and looked away from the perfunctory ceremony, down into the drowning-green of the young trees which sprawled down the steep slope below the wall. A small breeze moved through the leaves, ruffling their colour from green to silver and back, and she felt the soul of Scotland breathing gently under her feet.
As the ritual ran down to its close ("Depart in peace from our circle well-made" - good gods, couldn't they have come up with something a little less clunky?) she ran her eyes around the assembled congregation. Almost everyone was in robes or costume of some kind. One of the most spectacular examples was a haughty-looking man with waist-length silver hair, and she wondered idly if it was real or a wig.
She saw the white-haired man again in the distance at the Samhain parade, part of a small group all wearing robes which were at once better-quality and yet more worn-looking than the usual run of made-for-show costumes. These actually looked lived-in. She should have enjoyed looking at this odd, self-contained little party - especially the one with the hair - but the hard, sneering expression most of them wore made her uneasy, and she wondered if they were chaos magicians. Or even Christian fundamentalists, come to heckle - despite the outfits. The only one who didn't give her that cold grue was, perversely, the most overtly sinister-looking: a tallish ageing-Goth type, with straight black hair and dusty-black robes, whose body-language suggested a degree of prickliness towards his companions. Neither scornful nor devout, he looked merely intrigued, in a detached way, by the ritual dances taking place all around him.
But the next day there were other things to worry about, with the news that two prominent members of the pagan community, a ritual mage and a druid, had gone missing at some point during the parade - although nobody seemed sure just when they had seen them last.
The third time was so much worse. She had gone to the so-called Winter Solstice moot in London, even though the local group had been unable to secure a venue for the solstice itself, and the event ended up stranded in that cold dreary sandwich of a week between Christmas and Hogmanay. At least nearly everyone was on holiday and had plenty of time (but, post-Christmas, no money) to waste on the jewellery stalls and the instructive talks.
She wondered why she bothered to go to these events at all: group ritual on this scale had never really been her thing at the best of times, and she was getting old for partying. But it was a chance to earn a little money, from readings and from lectures; and perhaps more importantly it was a chance to wear her robes in public and slide into the atavistic, Mediaeval or possibly even Bronze Age persona which she felt suited her best, without sticking out like the proverbial sore thumb.
So somehow there she was doing just that - getting into persona, and sticking out like a sore thumb - wandering through the streets of Croydon in a long cream robe and a gold-trimmed black cloak to go with it, freaking-out the mundanes. She was wearing a duffel-bag under the cloak, to carry her purchases: had indeed just been stocking up on some minor supplies she had promised to pick up for the New Year party one of her friends was giving, when she felt a hand on her shoulder, and a smooth voice said "Miss O'Connor?" She turned around, startled, and there he was - silver-hair himself, in dark glasses and the middle of Croydon: and, gods, it wasn't a wig. She ought to have been impressed - the hair was absolutely beautiful, and he was good-looking in a cold, spiky sort of way - but something about him made her want to step back fast.
So she tried to, she really did, but his grip bit into her shoulder like ice and he lifted something towards her face - insanely, it was an empty cigarette packet - and touched her cheek with it, and the world wrenched sideways and then they were somehow somewhere else entirely.
It was some sort of cave - the walls creamy-white and irregular, with low, rough-walled tunnels leading off in several directions. It looked as though she had interrupted some bizarre cocktail party - at the edge of the room she could even see a table, with the remains of drinks and sandwiches - yet she thought she had heard the trailing edge of a scream, roughly cut off. Perhaps it was her own: she felt as though someone had just lodged a giant fishhook in her belly and yanked her out of her natural environment. Within the cave, twenty or thirty people were standing around in black robes which should have made her feel more at ease: but the blank silver masks which they all wore had quite the reverse effect. They all stopped - frozen, it seemed, in the midst of whatever they had been doing - and stared at her, mask on mask. Silver-hair still had his hand on her shoulder - gods, had he slipped her some sort of drug and then brought her here unconscious? But how could she have woken up standing?
"What the hell is this?" she demanded indignantly, and no-one answered her; except one of the silver-masks, who tittered in inane, drugged-sounding mockery. She saw that although their faces were covered their arms were bare to the elbow, and every one of them had the same tattoo on the inside of the left forearm - or was it a brand? It was a skull, anyway, with a snake crawling out of the mouth, and she wondered if they were a biker gang. Silver-hair shoved her forwards, so hard that after a few steps she lost her footing. As she stumbled, the black-robes parted to either side of her and left her to crash to her knees. She found herself facing four legs - two human and two of heavy, carved wood. Trying to compose herself, she looked up at the man seated in that dark, heavy chair - and found herself staring into the face of nightmare.
For a moment she thought it was another mask - that white, smoothed-off, noseless face, the nostrils set almost flat into the skin. Then for another moment she thought the tall, thin man confronting her had been horribly burned - but his skin, though clammy-looking and of a peculiar texture, had none of the irregularity of scar tissue. Ye gods, she thought, it must be a birth defect - and indeed she had seen photographs of such faces in her textbooks at university: but those had been on something floating in a jar, too deformed ever to be born alive. This one, though - she tried not to stare at his deformity, but he seemed to invite staring deliberately - he was wearing tinted contact lenses, slit-pupilled like crimson cat's eyes, and she had to admire the sheer bravado which made a virtue of necessity and converted his handicap into a fashion-statement.
She was predisposed to look on him favourably, then, insofar as she could look at him at all without appearing to stare; but a profound psychic chill radiated off him, worse even than white-hair. "Miss - O'Connor" he said, with an obvious attempt at a sinister-mobster inflection; but the voice was so high and so almost-squeaky that she had to struggle not to laugh.
"Pleased to meet you, I'm sure. And you are...?"
"I am your death, if you do not cooperate."
It was direct, at least. "And what would I be cooperating with?"
"A little - experiment. A little - transfer of information."
"One way or both?"
"From you to me, only."
"And what would be in it for me?"
"Do you really suppose that that matters?" He stood up, and she did, scrambling awkwardly to her feet. As he came towards her - as the strange face thrust itself towards hers, the flat nostrils twitching as they tasted her scent - she had to nerve herself to keep still. He put up a white, clammy-looking hand and raised her chin, so that she was afraid for a moment that he was going to kiss her. "I could make you do or say anything I wish" he crooned, trailing his spidery fingers along her jawline.
"I could kick you in the goolies" she replied, stepping back smartly. A little screaming hamster of common-sense was jumping up and down in the back of her mind, trying to get her attention: but so many of the old gods were gods of war and of martial courage that she had always felt that to allow herself to be motivated by fear would be a dereliction of her sacred duty, and in these circumstances common-sense was, quite literally, against her religion.
However, she was not above being relieved that the noseless man didn't seem to have understood what she had just said. He stared at her blankly for a moment and then said something almost as odd as his face. "Stand still - muddle."
"I told you to stand still, if you have any idea what would be good for you."
"Not that bit."
"I called you a Muggle, which is what you are. A creature without true magic or true intelligence - bland, dull, fit only to serve as cattle for those more able and more worthy than themselves."
"Oh, you mean a mundane! I'm not a mundane - I'm a witch."
"No, you are not. You are only that pale apology that Muggles call a witch: a feeble imitation of the real thing."
"And what would one of those be, then?" she asked warily, clutching at her cloak.
"This" he said, and pointed a crude-looking wand at her. Abruptly, and to her fury and embarrassment, she found herself folding at the knees and kneeling to him, with no idea why she had done so. The sense of chill emanating off him grew stronger - the weird burning-coal eyes glared into hers and she felt the ice-cold psychic weight of him bearing down on her spirit - trying to get into her mind, she realized, but bigger and weirder things than him had tried it. She turned the surface of her mind outwards towards him, and felt the point of his attention circle and then skate away from her, like a drill bit skating off a hard surface. She was rewarded by seeing a slightly glazed, abstracted look come over his strange face.
He wasn't daft, though - unfortunately. The eyes snapped back into focus: he made a sharp gesture with the wand again and she yelped and fell sideways, feeling as if she had been struck in the face. How was he doing that?
"You will not resist me again," piped the ridiculous voice, "or I will make you seriously regret it."
"What do you want from me?" she said woodenly, keeping the edges of her mind battened down hard. Despite what he said, if she kept the Someone-Else's-Problem Field in place he would probably forget to look at her head again - would find himself thinking of something else entirely every time he tried to remember it.
Sprawled almost flat on the floor as she was, she could see underneath that great posy, throne-like chair, now - and she realized with shock that what looked like a coil of cable thrown down behind the chair was looking back at her. It was a snake - some sort of viper, maybe a bushmaster she thought, and unusually large and thick-bodied: a good twelve foot long, as big as a small king cobra. She nodded to it, polite but uneasy: she had always rather liked snakes, but had no desire to become intimate with one as venomous, muscular and agile as a Lachesis.
The snake's master stared at her for a moment, and then looked away and began to pace back and forth, jerkily. She noticed that wherever he moved, the black-robes fell away from him in what looked more like fear than respect. "You see here the true heart, the true blood of wizardry, long denied by the fools who would pollute the vital stream they swim in with tainted blood - long oppressed, but now once more in the ascendant."
Oh-kay Lynsey thought to herself. Tainted blood. Nutter alert. Nazi alert. "Where do I come in, then?"
"Muggles such as yourself can never be true witches or wizards" he said coldly. "They are not suited to perform magic of such power and purity. But it has been claimed that Muggles may have some shreds of power of their own: inferior magic, tainted magic, but magic nonetheless."
"And I wish to - investigate. When I have brought all wizardry under my control, I will not have - creatures such as yourself running around loose with your feeble little magics, outwith my control. I need to learn the limits and the uses of Muggle powers, and I will have your cooperation in this."
"Ah" she said, tidying herself into a sitting position and keeping a wary eye on the snake. "And you can't, in fact, force me to do something when you don't know what to order me to do."
"There are - other methods, and I and my Death Eaters are well-versed in them."
"Uh-huh - but if you torture me or drug me I really doubt that I could do trance-work for you in that state." Death Eaters - they just had to be a biker gang, surely?
"But if you refuse to work for me voluntarily then I have nothing to lose and may torture and drug you as I please. I assure you Miss O'Connor, you will come round to our way of thinking."
"Don't hold your breath" she muttered - under her own.
"Enough!" he cried sharply, and turned to his - whatever they were. "Shall we show her, my loyal followers, what happens to those who are less than loyal?" They tittered and stirred uneasily, caught in the blowlamp of that fantastic, blood-red gaze. "Let us hear how matters are progressing with our - former friend."
He made a languid gesture with his string-like fingers, and abruptly the room echoed to a low, guttural wail, full of such pain and weariness that it made her hair stand up in sympathetic fright. Searching for the cables and speakers she knew must be hidden here somewhere, she hoped that that miserable agony, and the sobbing breaths and thundering heart-beat she could hear behind it, was just a recording of something which was long done with. But as she stared the snake-faced man snapped his fingers, looking mildly amused, and the torn voice yelped like a hurt dog and cried out "No! Please, no!" Dear gods, she thought, sickened to the core, they really had set up some sort of remote link over which this man was torturing someone, live.
She looked distractedly at the masked dancers, or whatever they were. Some of them seemed merely amused at what their master was doing, but it was queasily obvious that a lot of them were aroused by it, in one sense or another. There was a flabby, giggly little man with one silver glove who looked as though he was about to climax from excitement; and white-hair, the only one without the robes and the mask, was licking his lips, staring eyeball to (presumably, behind the mask) eyeball with a black-haired, square-jawed woman who seemed to be in some sort of transport of vicarious sexual sadism. As Lynsey watched, silver-hair tore his eyes away from the panting woman and said "Master, please - let me!" His pupils were so dilated that his pale eyes were black with it.
"In my own time, Lucius" the snake-faced man said coldly and gestured again, making the disembodied voice whimper and jerk like something caught on a line. The blank masks pressed in all around, the mouths beneath them mocking or lascivious or dismissively bored - but Lynsey saw a slender, young-looking boy with silver hair, and with Lucius's pointed chin showing beneath his mask, who flinched at every cry as if it cut him.
But she was really stuck now, wasn't she? If she just left, escaped, walked away - assuming any of those things to be possible - she would spend the rest of her life worrying about the crying man, until what she only imagined about his suffering ate her alive. Would she be leaving here - if she would be leaving here at all - in any way which might enable her to work out where "here" was, and fetch the police? She remembered with a chill that the two pagans who disappeared at Samhain had never, so far as she knew, been found.
Easy to be brave for oneself - much harder to be brave for someone else. If herself told herself she wasn't afraid now, herself was a liar - she was dizzyingly, hammeringly afraid, on behalf of an unseen stranger. And for someone else's benefit, she could pretend to be really showing the fear which she (really) felt. Maybe if she toadied up to them after all, she could get out of here in time to fetch help.
"Will you show me this - real magic, then? I've always wanted to meet a real wizard. Can you - what can you do?" she said, trying to sound smarmy and ingratiating over the awful backdrop of that suffering, breaking voice.
White-face stared at her for a moment and laughed shortly. "What can I not do?" He pointed his wand at the edge of her robe and said sharply "Incendio!" As she threw herself backwards from the sheet of flame he laughed and gestured again, and instead of fire there was suddenly seaweed trailing from her now ragged hem, slimy and moist against her scorched shin. Another gesture, and the snake began to rise up out of its coil, transforming into a rattling chain as it rose, and yet still somehow poised to strike.
Illusion, she thought wildly - she thought she knew what magic could do and she had seen most of it, and none of it had been like this. Her heart was pounding - worse when he transferred his attention from her for a moment and waved that stick-like hand again, and the disembodied voice in the walls moaned aloud in such obvious agony and despair that her palms were sweating with it, though several of the black-robes laughed uproariously.
"No, Miss O'Connor - not illusion. Crabbe - disarm her, take her and leave her for a few hours where she can have a better view of what her fate will be if she fails to please me."
Crabbe (presumably), a large, blond, bouncer-type, pointed his wand at her bag and said "Accio weapons." She was amazed and annoyed to see her precious Swiss Army Knife and several other assorted craft tools fly out of the top of the bag and fall at his feet as if by - well, magic. As the animated chain which was still somehow a snake began to drift towards her, sniffing the air with a head like a metal gin-trap, the bouncer pulled her to her feet and shoved her towards the mouth of one of the tunnels.
Samhain is a Gaelic word for Hallowe'en which is pronounced either Savvun (Scots) or Sawwun (Irish). It is not - despite what many people, even in the UK, seem to think - pronounced Sam-hane.
I have cheated by setting the ceremony in the first section in June. Aside from the presence of Lucius Malfoy, this is an accurate description of a Pagan Federation bash in Edinburgh: except that those are held in May some weeks after Beltane. Since we know Lucius was in prison up to the time Harry's 6th year ended, in early June 1997, I have recast the ceremony as occurring towards the end of June, some days after the summer solstice.
Mundanes is what people who are Science Fiction fans call people who aren't.
We are told that Nagini is venomous and has a triangular head, so she isn't a python or a boa. The head-shape suggests a cobra or a viper, and because the name Nagini is almost the same as Nagaina, the female cobra in Kipling's story Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, I originally assumed she was a king cobra. However, the description in Deathly Hallows of how thick her neck is, combined with the fact that her venom keeps both Arthur's and Snape's wounds bleeding, has caused me to change my mind and make her a thick-bodied viper - probably a bushmaster, Lachesis muta muta. Bushmasters are typically marked with blotches rather than diamonds, but diamond-patterned individuals do exist and in exceptional cases they can grow to over 14ft long.
They aren't really thick enough - a 12ft bushmaster would be about as thick as a man's arm, not his thigh - but it's conceivable that Nagini is some sort of hybrid with a much smaller but proportionately thicker snake such as a Gaboon viper, or that she has been magically adapted.
Even so, it may be that when Voldemort feeds people to her, he uses an Engorgement Charm on her to make her even bigger. Even given a snake's well-known ability to unhook their own jaws, the width of human shoulders must mean that an adult would be a tall order to swallow for something with a head the size of a human hand.
Note written with hindsight: this was only my second Potterverse fic and I realise now that some of the details here derive from the films, not the books. Specifically, the ideas that Lucius has long, fluffy hair and that the Death Eaters wear separate, silver masks belong to Warner Bros. In the books Lucius's hair is merely described as sleek and blonde, and the Death Eaters' masks are fairly firmly established as being some kind of cloth flap on the front of their hoods. The idea of a seriously evil Lucius has also been somewhat canon-shafted by events in Deathly Hallows although it's still just about possible, on a longish hook.