Many, many thanks for all the lovely feedback and comments on the last part. It really has encouraged me, as well as put a huge smile on my face. So...this remains a work in progress - and it is in progress again.
Thanks to Cartography, whose keen eyes have looked over this flawed labour of love, and made it less so!
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms
- T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men
The wind whipped at her hair, a knife-edge wind of winter and mountains. It chafed her burned skin and flung dust into her eyes. Still she did not close them on what lay before her. Stories, legends, mingled in her mind of this most notorious of prisons. The once-high walls had tumbled, leaving only a frail line of stones – aside from the vast iron gate, which dominated the foreground.
Behind it, the remnants of the prison sprawled. It was at once irrevocably alien and uncomfortably familiar.
Nurmengard, of the nightmare halls. Nurmengard, where Grindelwald had cleaved the world in two, into us and them, into before and after, into the living – and the dead.
She had seen the pictures of him spattered throughout Dumbledore's biography – a smile full of confidence, brassy hair and mischief glimmering in his eyes. Even though he was dead by then, that golden boy seemed larger than life. He'd thought he was: larger than the lives he placed no value on, at any rate. He'd sent them to Nurmengard to die, those who opposed his dream of a world where wizards ruled humanity with iron will and steel bars.
There were echoes of other places here; the bleak sheer walls of Azkaban, the sinuous corridors of the Department of Mysteries, twisting into shadow – and a queer likeness to Hogwarts in the derelict turrets, the lone rickety tower that stretched up to the broiling mass of the clouds like some dark crooked finger. So much had ended here.
But not everything, it seemed.
"The beginning of what?" she croaked.
"Many things," said the man. His left leg dragged a little as he approached the great gate, its motto eaten away by time and the bloodstain-marks of rust. He stood looking at it, small, as everything became small before it. "This war among them."
"Grindelwald's Rebellion was a different war," she protested.
"And in its end was the beginning of the First Wizarding War," said the man, turning to her. "They learn from those who go before them, these dark wizards. Each of them moves a little further into the darkness, and so the one who follows him must go further still. Grindelwald and Voldemort are not so different."
"You talk like you knew them." Blaise looked up from where he was bent over, hands on his thighs. His voice was a rasp, rough as sandpaper.
That changed the playing field.
"How?" said Blaise, who sounded stunned. "You never said..."
"It was a few months of my life, a favour to a friend. I taught at Hogwarts for a time. Care of Magical Creatures. I could tell you that I knew the darkness in Tom Riddle the instant I saw him...but it would be a lie. He was a boy, then. An arrogant, selfish boy, but then, teenagers often are."
"And Grindelwald?" she asked cautiously.
Blaise stared through red-rimmed eyes. "You can't have known him. You aren't – you weren't old enough."
"Time has been kind to me," said the man. He turned his hand over, looking at his missing finger. "People, less so. What do you know of the custodial camps?"
Facts piled up behind her eyes. Before, the truth of this place had been like a pressed flower - a pale imitation of the reality. Now she felt the weight of history all around her, as tangible as the air she breathed, the burns on her skin. The numbers that had been meaningless - so large they were nearly nonsense - took on chilling meaning as she began to imagine the people filling this huge space, dissolving into ashes and fading cries.
"Nurmengard was the biggest," she said, her voice husky from more than smoke. "He made them as prisons for his enemies, and for the humans that he didn't think should survive. He believed that the only the best should live, and he weeded out the rest – the old, the sick, the mad – and after them, those who were imperfect in any way. They say that he wanted to make executions normal, so they happened by the clock, every hour on the hour. He thought people would get used to it if he timetabled murder."
Like ghosts at midnight, she thought, and the truth of Actaeon's words hit her: they learn from those who go before.
"I never knew that," said Blaise. He looked at Actaeon. "But I remember you telling me that Fiendfyres burned day and night from the bodies, and he used them to power the camp. That when it rained, it tasted like ash."
"For the greater good," murmured Actaeon. "He was ruthless in his efficiency. Nurmengard was the blueprint for the others."
"There were others?" Blaise asked.
"Three that were finished," recited Hermione. "Here, Todesfalle, and Schattenspitze. And plans for another nine." In her mind, she saw the world as he would have had it: uniform, unpolluted, a machine churning out order and blood. "This was his base. All the high-profile prisoners were kept here. Most of them died here, too, on the Plaza of Justice. Were you a prisoner?"
"Yes," Actaeon answered, soft.
"Then you'll have a number on your arm." She already knew there was nothing there, and her fingers tightened around her wand. He was a liar.
The man's smile was full of understanding. "No. I was part of Sector Twenty Nine."
She glanced at Blaise, puzzled. Clearly it meant nothing to him either. "I've never heard of it."
He gave a slow nod. "Many men worked hard to make that so. There were...things in Nurmengard which were not allowed to reach the light of day. And at the time, I suppose they thought that right. I was too young to understand what they had done until much later. We all were."
"We need more than riddles," she said. "There are too many questions you haven't answered. Why could you Apparate us here when Blaise and I couldn't? Not only that – we're in Nurmengard! We're a continent away. No one can Apparate that far. What was Sector Twenty Nine, and why does it mean you don't have a number? Everyone had a number. That's how Grindelwald kept track. He was proud of what he did. He wanted a record – so why were you hidden?"
Blaise made a motion and she pointed her wand at him without a second thought.
"And you have a few things to answer for as well, so keep your hands exactly where I can see them."
If her demands fazed the man, it didn't show. "I'm sure you know that Grindelwald was expelled from Durmstrang for experimenting with the dark arts. What you may not know is the nature of those experiments. He had attempted to fuse magical creatures together. Not a crime in itself you may think – many animal handlers have done the same. But when you consider that Grindelwald considered people the most magical of all those creatures...well, it takes on a different light."
Nausea swirled in her stomach like dirty dishwater draining down the sink. "I've never read that."
"No. It was hushed up. He was so very brilliant, after all. I am sure Durmstrang thought that when they expelled him, he would learn his lesson. And he had – just not the lesson they intended. When he built Nurmengard, Sector Twenty Nine was right at its heart. Secret. Buried. He knew that what he intended was unforgivable." He rested a hand on the bars of the gate like a man greeting an old friend. His smile held pity. "You don't believe me. Wise of you. Come on then, children. Let me show you my home."
He heaved on the gate, skinny arms straining, and it opened with a shriek. Flakes of rust tumbled to the ground. They followed him inside, Hermione gesturing Blaise ahead of her so she had both of them in her sights.
Many of the buildings still stood, particularly around the main body of the prison where Grindelwald had lived out his pitiful days. She felt the first twinge of nerves as they moved inside the complex, still webbed in shadows, still barred and black and forbidding.
She saw landmarks she knew from pictures. The rotten old gallows, where humans had swung like pendulums as a message: you can die cleanly, by magic, or you can resist and dance for the reaper. The Plaza of Justice, its paving stones pitted, some still marked by deadly spells. They passed beneath the Siegertür, all that remained of Grindelwald's suite of rooms – a tall thick archway, the lintel lined with the wands of his enemies. Hundreds stacked the sides, mahogany and pine and oak and yew. Many were rotting - drooping feathers and lank hair hung from the cores.
Deep within the remaining buildings, they stopped at a blank wall. The man pressed his hand to a brick and said, "Fur das hohere Wohl."
The wall swung away silently. With a flick of his fingers, the man sent tongues of flame to light torches that hung on the walls, revealing a shallow staircase. At its base was a large wooden door that someone had affixed a plaque to.
"What does it say?" said Blaise, leaning past the man to peer at it.
"There is an island which only knows twenty eight families of pure blood and sacred power. Now let the world know the twenty ninth, a family more powerful and magical than any other. It is a family of all languages and all people, unfettered by blind sentimentality or naive optimism, a family which will truly live and fight for the greater good." The man did not need to read the words: he recited them with the ease of practice, like a child talking through their times tables.
A shiver of revulsion ran through her. The door opened with a blast of stale air, and before she could talk herself out of it, Hermione followed them into Sector Twenty Nine, into Grindelwald's sad stale secrets.
X – X – X – X – X
In St Mungos, Dennis can hear them dying as his hearing returns. It should be a terrible sound, he thinks, but instead he mistakes the thin, sweet cries that waft between the fire's hiss for birdsong until he captures the source of them in his camera lens.
Magnified, she hangs from the fifth floor window, gasping between her cries as if there is not enough air in the world. As the smoke billows out around her, he realises that there isn't.
She arches out like a ballet dancer, perilous in her grace and her desperation, and he cannot help himself. His finger squeezes down.
Click. She is beautiful, in a way, this limp girl dusted with soot as if it is icing sugar.
Others think him cold because he does not feel behind the lens. Every ounce of his self is focused on capturing that perfect moment which comes only once, which is so easy to miss. It is what sets him apart from the other photographers. They look at the people. He looks at the truth.
He sees it – she glances behind her, and scrambles onto the narrow ledge. Her legs are trembling. Twin plumes of black smog stream around her like wings. She coughs; she slips-
Click. She is in eternal freefall, her face veiled by a swirl of blonde hair, one arm reaching to the sky as if the phoenix there will swoop down and save her.
He hardly hears the thud.
So it goes. He immortalizes them all: the bystanders, weeping and weary. The wounded, marked by fire. And the dead. The wretched dead, broken on the concrete are embalmed by his lens. He does not think of Colin.
He cannot think of Colin.
Then a noise penetrates his awareness. He turns from a boy's curled body to the building. It is a rumble, like the sound of the Tube, only there are no trains here. Then, as if in slow motion, the top floor vanishes.
He lowers his camera, baffled – and the building collapses as if it is nothing more than a sandcastle, spewing out smoke and masonry in a roar that rattles the sky.
Zabini, he thinks with a sick lurch, and then he is hit by a cloud of grit. It is everywhere – stinging his eyes, scouring his hands, dry and acrid on his tongue. A body bounces off him in the haze. There are screams all around.
When it has passed, he is left staring dumbly at the flattened wreckage where St Mungos once stood.
No one could have survived that.
He cannot think of the fact that he is the last man to see Zabini alive. There will be questions, later. He will not enjoy answering them. A minister dead under the Order's sign.
Best to be useful. Best to give them something which will make their propaganda believable. Dennis raises the camera again; he slides back into his world of glass and glance.
It's always been his way – finding the best angle. That, he thinks, Zabini would approve of.
X – X – X – X - X
Draco swung off the broom and clipped it into the bracket. What might have been stables for horses in another country home had always been reserved for less volatile steeds in Malfoy Manor. Like everything else, they were made to the highest specification: beams a neat lattice on the low ceiling, the stone smoothed by time and magic.
He breathed in the scent of wood polish and straw. For a moment, he was a child again, sat on the rosewood pew with his father, who turned a small broom in his hands with careful reverence.
"Well, Draco, the time has come. I promised that when you turned seven you should have your own broom, and so you shall."
He had squirmed. Trying to snatch the broom would displease his father, but he had waited so long.
"First though, a few things we must discuss." His father's face was stern. "Flying is a gentleman's sport. Unfortunately, no one has made the great unwashed aware of that. Therefore, Draco, we must speak of gamesmanship."
Draco had frowned up at him, but his eyes kept wandering back to the broom. It gleamed like his mother's hair.
His father gripped his face with implacable fingers. "This is important. There are always two games of Quidditch and we play them both simultaneously. One is played on the pitch, and it is a game of training and instinct. Fools will tell you it is the only game that matters. But there is a second game, a shadow game, which outlasts even the most obdurate Snitch and it is played in the mind of men. Amateurs think they need only triumph on the pitch. Gentleman know that the second game will always win the first. Defeat your opponent in his mind, Draco, and he has conceded victory before his first step onto the field."
"How, Father?" he had asked, puzzled.
His father had given him a thin smile, curving like a scimitar. "There are many ways, Draco, and in time you will learn them. Others will seek to play the shadow game with you, because you are my son. Do not allow it. No one but you controls what you feel. And control it you will."
So it was he had learned the subtle art his father practised. He knew what it was to be made small, a mote of dust beneath the heel of some immense giant. How to modulate his tone to contradict his words. How to deliver an insult, to turn a phrase, to be witty and cruel in one effortless sentence. How to cut with a glance, the power of silence, of implication.
A shadow game it was, played at soirees and in the green-carpeted halls of the ministry, played with smoke and mirrors. And he a shadow within it, not understanding that he was serving an apprenticeship in something that was not a game at all.
He blinked, and the ghosts were gone. He was alone, adult, but his father had been right: control was everything
With another relic of his childhood tucked under his arm, he left his memories to the spiders crawling in the rafters. He had other games to play, now.
X - X - X - X - X
There is a story here: Blaise can feel it, a story free of spin, free of lies, a story that has been almost forgotten, mouldering in the shameful wreckage of Nurmengard. It is all around them, hunched in the darkness like a prisoner curled hopeless in his cage, despairing of the light.
Well, the light has come. Not in the form he expected, either.
The corridor is long and straight and the sconces that line the walls flare in pairs. Doors are set either side, regular as soldiers. They are not barred or numbered. This is more like part of a farmhouse than a dungeon.
Actaeon stops by one. "This was mine," he says. "The first place I remember. It was where I ran when Nurmengard fell. They found me under the bed, slicing spells at anyone who came near. Three days, they waited for three very long days before hunger drove me out."
"How old were you?" asks Hermione. Her tone is cool, sceptical.
"Ten." His fingers feel the handle, reverent; he is gentle as he pushes the latch down, and the door swings open silently. "He was like a father, you know."
"Grindelwald?" she gasps. Blaise is not surprised though: no wonder Actaeon fell for his mother, whose love gleams like a diamond when set against the velvet darkness that surrounds her. To be loved by the cruel, the powerful, the pitiless – there is a seduction to it.
"Grindelwald," Actaeon confirms softly. He steps inside the room and snaps his fingers.
Like a thousand glimmering stars, the mica in the stone glows. It is gold and pink and summer sky blue, the ruby red and bottle green of light through a stained glass window. And it illuminates a child's room, with a broom displayed in brackets on the wall, and a big bed draped with the remnants of mouldering covers. The bookshelf is thick with dust, the desk covered in tiny figures which move creakily, as if their magic is winding down.
With one thumb, Actaeon rubs away the grime on the broom to reveal his name craved onto it. "He made that. And he made me, too."
"How?" Hermione waits in the doorway, her wand moving between them like a metronome. Her composure is impressive, but then, he would expect nothing less from the leader of the Order.
"There were six of us who lived. All of us different, all of us the template for what would come. They wouldn't show me his notes, of course. But some of it he told us, and the rest I think I can guess. My mother was a witch. As for my other parent..."
He turns his back to them, and hooks his trousers down a little to reveal a round ugly gouge above the cleft of his buttocks, as if...
"The tail was removed after I was born. Far too dangerous. And it took many complex spells – operations, really – to realign my arms so I was bipedal. I hardly remember any of it."
"My god," whispers Hermione. Blaise meets her eyes: the two of them are united in their revulsion.
"My other parent was a manticore, of course." Care of Magical Creatures, Blaise thinks sickly. How fitting. "Which is why my magic worked and yours did not. There was some element of manticore power in that explosion. Their skin repels charms - burn one, and anyone who inhales the smoke will be compromised. I suppose they found one dead somewhere and thought it an apt use."
He sees the moment that Hermione realises, as he does, just where that manticore came from. The blood drains from her face, leaving her a grey, stricken ghost in this room swirling with colour. Her hand, trembling, rises to her mouth and for the first time, he glimpses vulnerability in her.
Blaise hates the vicious symmetry of it. She has defied Voldemort – so the Dark Lord will mutate her defiance, make of it something as barbed as the manticore's tail. "It was you. At Krum's house."
"Yes." Grief rings in that one word. "It was my fault. Those people...all those people..."
She seems to be dissolving before him, this woman who walked into fire, who confounded a dozen men in Kings Cross with spells as swift and dazzling as falling stars. She is crumbling, the horror opening up in her eyes as he has seen a thousand times before, because she understands now the price of even the smallest victory.
They will fight, because not to is unendurable. But it will be no clean duel, fought on an agreed battleground. The cost will be reckoned in blood upon blood, win or lose, and the Dark Lord will do all he can to make monsters of them.
And even if – when, Blaise tells himself, when – victory comes, they will be a generation decimated and damaged, nothing remaining of their innocence but the sweet fresh scent of the flowers growing in the graveyards.
It took him a long time to understand that. Even longer to believe that the price was worth paying.
Hermione is only now feeling the full weight of what is to come.
"They would have died, either way," he says quietly. "The Dark Lord was waiting for an excuse. If not today, tomorrow, the day after, too damn soon whenever it was. He summoned me to the Tower to make sure I knew what was coming – and to make sure that the news blamed the Order of the Phoenix. Blamed you. The manticore would have been a bonus, that's all."
She takes a breath; another, and he sees the determination seep back into her eyes. "I had forgotten what he truly was." Her mouth draws tight. "Never again."
"That old battlecry," says Actaeon idly. "They should change it. Never again, until next time."
She looks hard at him, measuring, analysing. "And now the next time is here. Are you going to hide under the bed again?"
His brows snap together. "This is not my war."
"It will be your war if he realises what you are. What you can do."
"What about the others?" Blaise asks. His instincts tell him there is more; he knows the shape of a story, and this one is unfinished, like wet clay. "Were they in St Mungos too?"
"No. We all went our separate ways." He smiles, briefly. "Mine led me to madness for a time, and to St Mungos. Then it became easier to be mad than to leave. Annalisa, I heard, died young. There was unicorn blood in her, and they do not live long in a world like this. Of the others, I know where three are. And the last...I do not care to know."
"Could Voldemort find them?" Hermione says, her tone light, musing.
Actaeon picks up a figurine. It is one of seven, Blaise realises, and this one is a wisp of a girl, gleaming even under a patina of dust. Six children, and a blond giant of a man. A family, of sorts. "How would he know to look?"
"He killed Grindelwald."
Actaeon jolts, and the figure in his hand cracks on the floor. He stares down at it, his voice iron. "Tell me."
"The Dark Lord came to see the man who went before him, and found him wanting. He didn't care that Grindelwald had lived decades in a cell. He didn't care that once, he carved a boy's name on a broom and gave him a room full of light. All he wanted was power, and Grindelwald couldn't give it to him, so he died. But not before Voldemort wrung his secrets from him."
"Enough!" One word, echoing like thunder.
The wordsmith in him cannot help but admire how deftly Hermione steers Actaeon. This is not a woman to underestimate; amidst her own shock, she has listened, she had learned, and she has seen the way to Actaeon's heart with an ease that is a little frightening. And now she presses on, relentless.
"Enough for you. But it isn't enough for Voldemort. If he knows what you are, he will use you. You Apparated us halfway across a continent. What else can you do?"
When Actaeon does raise his head, his eyes are black and full of fury. "I could clog your veins with poison with one touch. I could stand in a maelstrom of battlemagic and never take a scratch. I could tell you your future, if I thought you could bear it."
Blaise puts his back to the wall. The gentle man he knew has vanished: revealed is what lies under the human veneer.
But Hermione is unafraid: she only gives him a strange sad smile and says, "You won't tell me anything I don't already know."
"What do you want from me?"
"Why did you bring us here?" she says. "Why tell us – why now?"
"So you can see what's coming." Actaeon tenderly collects the figurine from the floor. A leg is crooked. "So you can be ready for what you will find, and be gentle. I dreamed of you, girl in the walls."
She starts, as if he has surprised her.
"You will change everything. It will be wonderful and terrible, and there can be no going back. You will betray, and be betrayed. You will learn the uses of love, and weep for the learning. And all that was buried will be uncovered, and men will be afraid." Actaeon's eyes are wide and blank, gazing into a future they cannot see. "You are the lady of white light and silence, and light is unkind to those who have only known the darkness. So I implore you – remember, when you are at the very edge of your hope, your reason and your humanity, remember that the world is wilder and stranger than you can ever know, and be gentle."
The prophecy rolls through the room like funeral rites, and goosebumps cover Blaise's skin.
Hermione says, quietly, "Help me to remember. Come with me to the Order of the Phoenix."
"Yes." His fingers strokes the figurine's blonde hair. "I suppose I must. Twice I have spoken prophecy about you. Only a fool would ignore it." He glances up, and all that old warmth is back in his eyes, warmth that Blaise was too self-absorbed to appreciate as a teenager. "And I like to think I am a little less of a fool, these days."
"My mother fools everyone," Blaise says. "Don't blame yourself."
"We should go back to the Order." Hermione closes her eyes. "I should...let Neville know."
"I'll help if I can," Blaise tells her. "Believe me, or don't, but I will."
"I won't believe anything until I see it with my own eyes," she says flatly. "And neither will they."
They, he notes, startled. As if she and the Order are separate. "What do I need to do?"
"Prove yourself. Can you help Ernie?"
He hesitates. He had almost forgotten Macmillan, deep in the bowels of the Tower. "Not on my own."
"Is there a way to contact you?"
He almost says no, certain every method of communication he uses is laced with Ministry spells. Then he thinks of what he buried that will, as Actaeon promised, be revealed. "I have the last of the coins from Dumbledore's Army."
Her eyebrows arch. "That will do."
"Actaeon, can you take me back to St Mungos? An alley or a building nearby. There'll be enough confusion that no one will ask too closely where I've been, but if I stay away much longer..."
He feels the icy thrill of fear. His mutiny is no longer his own secret. Even his silver tongue will not help him escape if someone else talks. For a moment, he wants to take back his words, to slip into cowardice like an otter into water.
"Wait." Hermione moves forward. "You need to explain how you got out. Voldemort will know that anyone in there shouldn't have been able to work magic."
"Not entirely." Actaeon meets his eyes. "A manticore's power is bound into its bones. If you did not inhale the air, your magic would work still. I can disperse the effects."
Hermione loans him her wand. He casts a spell that makes Blaise feel as if someone has scoured his lungs with sand before he spits up a wad of grey gunge. When he tries his wand, this time it works, to his relief.
"A bubble charm would have protected you," remarks Hermione. "You need to clean your face, or they'll know you couldn't maintain the spell."
She submits to Actaeon's ministrations herself. Then there can be no more delay: he must return to St Mungos, to create his elaborate lies.
"Good luck," she says. "Watch the coins."
"Tell the Order that I'm with them," he says, and for the first time in three years, he speaks the truth.
X – X – X – X - X
As he entered the room, the Dark Lord's head turned and his nostrils flared as if he could scent Draco on the air. A small smile curled upon the lipless mouth. "You found it."
"Great Lord." He dropped to one knee, proffering the book like an altar cushion.
Voldemort laid a spidery hand upon it. "The Grimoire. Amusing men, your ancestors. Clever men. You are cut from the same cloth. Read to me, Draco." He gestured to the wingback chair opposite him.
Slightly puzzled, Draco sat down and opened the tome. The musty smell of parchment rose on the air. "What should I read, my lord?"
He turned the thick pages. Feeling like something of an idiot, he began to read.
Once upon a time, in a magical land lived a king and queen who wanted a child with all their heart...
The words tumbled from his tongue like rain, a strange rhythm in them. Images blossomed in his mind. He saw the land with its pristine castle of golden stone that glowed in the sun. He saw the king and queen, resplendent, cradling the daughter they had so dearly wanted.
Bored, he trundled through the familiar story. He imagined the princess, hunched over her book in a window-seat, her red dress puddled like blood upon the floor. Curious: she was not how he had always imagined his princesses, spun sugar versions of his mother. Instead she had snaky black hair, and an imperious tilt to her head.
And then the tale began to twist under his tongue.
It was no evil fairy, but a sorceress who came to the princess on the cusp of her eleventh birthday. A jealous sorceress, who knew that she would no longer be the most powerful witch in the land. Cunning, she tried to trick the princess into death.
The sorceress formed in his mind; devoid of the princess's icy beauty, she had steady brown eyes, stern brows, a face that he knew too well. She came to the castle in disguise – a beggar woman who knelt before the princess with an apple outstretched in her shrunken hand, all she had to give in exchange for a warm bed, a little work.
The princess slapped her away, a sneer on her lips and anger wild in her eyes.
A moon waned and waxed, curd-white, and the sorceress returned as a seamstress with her spinning wheel, fitting the princess for a dress the bold green of grass and luck. The princess took the dress and did not pay, lying to the king about missed deadlines and being stabbed in the finger with a spindle.
The seasons whirled by like dancers and the sorceress walked across the bridge to the castle for the final time, hoping beyond hope. She came as a young girl, asking only for the heir to the throne to bless her wand. The princess met her in her private rooms, blazing in a green dress, and took the fine black wand, saying that the blessing would take three days to complete. In exchange, she gave the girl a gold bracelet.
At the gateway, the king's men stopped the girl. The princess claimed to be missing a bracelet, a precious heirloom.
The girl was thrown into a cell. When the guards opened the door the next morning, no one was there, and the fine black wand had become an old stick.
The tricks did not work. The princess survived. And so the sorceress came to the golden castle with murder in her heart – and the curse she cast slew every last soul within it. The princess feel into sleep, yes, the sleep of death.
As the princess tumbled, he realised he knew her too: that slithery grace, the rage in her black eyes.
A hundred years later, the sorceress was a cruel force upon the land. There was no opposition – except for one boy. A strange boy, who did not see the world as others did, who began to walk the razor edge between life and death. It changed him, this bold prince. He became apart from other men, alone able to see through the sorceress's glamours and tricks. Alone, he was not enough to defeat her.
So he went in search of help. He asked every living witch and wizard he found, but none could see how dangerous the sorceress was. He asked the magical creatures, but they did not care for mortal wars.
And then he knew there was only way left to him. He must ask the dead for help, and find his way into their twilight kingdom.
He moved further and further from life, fearless in the pursuit of what he knew to be right. He walked between worlds, between the rain, along moonbeams and shadows, beyond the sun. And one day, using magic so strange that he was labelled mad, dangerous, he came to a great gate of stone.
He saw the man, maggot-white, hardly human at all, lifting his head to gaze at a pointed stone arch. And Draco knew his eyes would gleam red as rubies, red as the princess's cold lips.
A tattered veil hung on the archway, twisting in some unfelt wind.
He had found the threshold between the worlds. He spilled his blood upon it and spoke the words and the veil became a wall of thorns. With his hands he tore them down, and the way into the land of the dead was opened to him.
There, deep within death itself, he found the princess. Her body was long dust, but he had found the body of a woman whose mind had decayed, and he breathed her soul into it. As midnight struck, the princess came into her powers, and she was as wonderful and as terrible as the sorceress had feared.
In a winter clearing ringed with leafless trees as black as prison bars, the sorceress faced down her enemies. He saw how this battle must go; saw she knew it too by the sorrow in her eyes. Yet she could not stand aside: that was not her way. Spells seared the air, a valiant defence, but at last a bolt of scything green lashed across her throat and blood fountained onto the packed mud.
She slew the wicked sorceress and so the people would know they were safe, sent the parts of her body to the four corners of her kingdom. The people cried out at the sight, for they could not understand that the prince had saved them, and that their princess had returned to them, though she was cold and white and empty of breath.
Together they ruled for a hundred years, and death had no dominion in their lands.
His throat was sore. His mind was filled with things he shouldn't have known – with the awful knowledge that this was not merely a story. Draco looked down at the page – and saw the words were gone.
Only a spell remained, its title written in a crabbed hand. To walk the path of thorns.
"Ah yes," breathed Voldemort. "It is as I had hoped. The answer is obvious, is it not?"
He stared back blankly. He felt unease, deep in his bones, as if the story had left a stain upon him. "Great Lord, I don't understand."
"Our enemy has grown bold, Draco. So we must be bolder. They want a war: then we must have weapons. And what finer weapons than those who have fought for our cause before? Go beyond the veil, Draco, and bring them to me. The dark wizards, the dark witches, bring them howling back to our world – every last one." The smile grew in the Dark Lord's eyes like fire. Draco looked for madness, for some sign this was not happening, but he found only his own horror.
"Me, my lord?" he said. Show nothing, he told himself. No fear. No judgement. Polite interest.
"Only you can read the spell. You are the last of the Grimm heirs. Yes...I was wise to spare you." Voldemort leaned forward, shoulders hunched like a vulture. "Many urged your death, Draco. The apple does not fall far, they whispered to me, silky liars, sycophants. But I of all people know that the child can surpass the parent – and now you shall, my faithful servant."
"Of course, my lord. But surely they will need..." He had to say it. "Vessels."
"Azkaban has many uses."
A chill wracked him. "And the gateway, Great Lord?"
"You will find it in the Department of Mysteries." His last hope that this could be put off faded. "This is a great task, Draco – men will remember your name as surely as they will remember mine. Bring me the dead. Tell them that I will give them the revenge that they have dreamed of – and it will be glorious."
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