A new chapter for you, dahlings! I know it's a long time coming, but life, the universe, and everything Riddikulus conspired to keep me from writing this story for a long time. I'd really like to get it done by the end of 2018, so I'll be working hard from now on to make that a reality.
Please do read the Author's End Notes at the bottom of this chapter when you're finished with it. I have some important news for you!
Finally, in classic fantasy mythos, fairies (fae) are deal-makers by nature (think Rumplestiltskin, for instance). And breaking a deal always comes with consequences for the oath-breaker.
CHAPTER FIFTEEN: REVELATIONS – PART VI
(real date and time unknown)
Panic made his hands shake.
Ginny was gone.
Her room was empty, too. As in, ghosted. Even the furniture had disappeared. It was now a blank, white space.
His baby sister was missing! Just like Sea and Lav, they'd blinked out of existence between one moment and the next. Worse, she'd been hurt, and she'd needed medical attention… Why hadn't he been at her side? He should have been right there, caring for her! He was the older brother, so she was his responsibility!
"Promise you'll look after your sister," his mother had asked of him before they'd caught the train back in September to return to school this year. He'd given his mum a half-hearted, "sure" at the time, but he'd done what was asked. At least, he'd done his best to, anyway. Ginny was her own witch and her hex arm had assured he'd stayed out of her personal business as much as possible, but he'd always kept one good eye on her anyway.
Now she was gone, and he was to blame because he hadn't tried hard enough to protect her!
Not just me...
Zabini had been her partner, and from the brief impression he'd gotten of the two, the guy had seemed to fancy Gin. So what the ever-loving fuck had he done to piss off Eros enough that Ginny had been made to pay, too?
Anger settled like a black haze over Ron's mind, a curtain of rage that felt almost bestial in its need for violence.
He should never have trusted that nasty Slytherin bastard with her! He and all his friends were as treacherous as vipers!
He turned back to Nott, who'd slumped down onto one of the couches, his head in his hands. "Where the fuck are they?" he roared, wand arm shaking, looking for an excuse to be unleashed. "What did you see in the bathroom?" he demanded of the guy again.
Nott looked up at him, his face as white as chalk and as bloodless as Nearly Headless Nick's. "I already told you everything I know," he insisted.
Yeah, he'd heard the first two times: giant cards on the wall, Zabini's and Lav's names being crossed out. But if something was done to them, why would that affect their partners? Shouldn't Sea and Gin still be here? It didn't make sense!
"Then tell me again," he snarled and headed straight for the Slytherin wanker, bristling for a fight. "Tell me every fucking detail until I believe you, you sodding snake!"
Pansy suddenly stepped in front of him, hands out as if to ward him off, and he came to an abrupt halt. Her expression was one of wary concern as if she knew he wanted to rip Nott's arms off and turn his intestines inside-out.
"Ron, this is not Theo's fault. You can't blame him for this."
No, he couldn't, 'cause it was really all his fault, 'cause no matter what she'd wanted, he didn't insist Gin stay out of this sodding game! "FUCK!" he snarled and hurled a powerful hex at the spot where the door used to be. It smashed into the spot, splashing the wall in a bright orange glow before it faded away, leaving no mark in passing. He cast a few more after that for good measure before he felt a little bit more in control.
No one said anything. They waited him out.
The door never reappeared, but to his satisfaction, it seemed he'd added to some of Seamus' and Lavender's earlier attack marks so now the stone wall looked good and scorched. He hoped that wankstain, Eros, had felt every one of those hits.
Something dark and cruel inside him smiled at that.
Pansy's hand on his was unexpected. Her touch was controlled, gentling. "Better?" she asked, and there was no condescension in her tone, no judgment.
"Yeah," he admitted and dropped his wand arm to his side. "Sorry."
Her dark hair swung as she shook her head. "No need to apologise."
Her easy acceptance of this worst side of him worked to help him regain his cool. She was used to forgiving the men in her life for all sorts of twisted shit, wasn't she? This was just more of the same. And really, he was acting no better than her sick fuck of a father, shoving all his feelings and needs on her, expecting her to shoulder it all... With a deep breath, he let go of the fury that had threatened to consume him and in the next breath, he took her back into his arms. Pressing a kiss to the top of her head, he held her to his fast-beating heart and let her gentle him with her soft, roaming hands while he sought a way to apologise for being no better than the other arseholes in her life.
"Thanks," he whispered simply in her ear.
Pulling back a bit, she glanced up at him, bemused. "For what?"
As he looked into her dark eyes, he found it difficult to put into words what he was feeling. All he knew was she was his centre and that she saw into the very heart of him and didn't flinch. She found him worthy and still wanted him despite all his flaws.
"I love you."
Her lips curled into a shy smile. "I'd think you a fool if you didn't," she teased and rubbed her hands up and down his arms.
He kissed her, feeling his heart shake at the strength of his desire for her.
He'd never known such a connection with any girl, honestly. Sure, he'd cared for 'Mione and Lavender, and even Romilda that one time, but he'd never loved any of them. Not like this. Pansy was the wind under his broom, the topping on his dessert, his Lumos in a world full of Nox.
She put the 'mate' in 'checkmate'.
"Ron, if you're good, we need you both over here," Hermione called out.
"Yeah, I'm good," he told his ex, but he was looking at Pansy when he said it. Taking her hand, he kissed the backs of her knuckles and then led them across the room towards the others.
On the way past Harry, though, he stalled.
His best friend looked...off.
Literally. He was staring into the distance, his eyes glazed over as if he was lost inside his head. And he was touching his scar.
"Mate, you a'right?" he asked, nudging Harry's shoulder.
Harry blinked and focussed on him. "F-fine. Sorry, I was...listening."
"To what?" Pans asked, frowning and turning her head to catch whatever sounds Harry was tuned into right then. "I don't hear anything."
Ron's roommate looked away, clearly uncomfortable. "I think it might be Psyche, the courtesan who 'Mione said Eros killed. I think she's trapped in here with us, too." He tapped the side of his head. "I told you earlier, she's been talking to me." His green eyes glazed over again. "I can...hear her."
"Well, what's she saying, Potter?" Pans asked when it seemed Harry would say no more.
"She's just repeating the same words over and over again: 'play' and 'win'." Harry blinked, shook his head. "It's not important. If it was, she'd be saying more, right?" He elbowed Ron. "Come on, 'Mione's waiting, and you know how she gets when she's forced to wait for us."
Yeah, Ron knew. In spades.
His ears still rung from the years of her haranguing.
The two hurried over to their other best friend, partners in tow. When they reached the couches, Ron took a seat on the Gryffindor side, next to his fianceé. Harry sat to his left, with Davis just past him. 'Mione and Malfoy were already sitting directly across from him on Slytherin's sofa. Nott was next to Malfoy, with Greengrass on his other side, waiting patiently.
"Now that you've decided to grace us with your presence," his ex said with a wry smirk that screamed she'd been hanging out too long with the Malfoy git, "I believe I can answer the mystery as to what happened to our missing friends."
She took a deep breath, letting it out nice and slow, as if to calm her own nerves before launching into what was, surely, going to be a seriously crazy-mad idea.
Hermione always had the best theories.
Didn't hurt that they were usually right, either.
"I believe Seamus, Lavender, Ginny, and Zabini are no longer inside the horcrux with us and that they're out in the real world again."
A glimmer of hope sparked to life in Ron's chest for Gin's fate, even as he played to type and did what he was expected to do: he challenged 'Mione's claim. "What makes you say that?" he asked.
"Well, for one."
She pointed up.
Everyone's eyes followed the direction of her finger.
The ceiling was no longer white but was an ugly shade of coral pink with an off-white border. A crystal chandelier hung down from it, giving off a warm, yellow glow.
"And the floor," she said.
The rug under their feet was now a thick carpet that Ron was betting Fleur's snooty family back in France would own. It was cream-coloured and was decorated with green leaves and roses in the same shade of vomit-inducing pink as the ceiling.
"And just a second ago, the furniture."
Well, what did you know? The couches had been changed, too! They were now some fancy piece with coral-pink cushions that had more flowers and pretty shite painted on the fabric. The carved wooden back and sides and legs were all painted a dull gold.
Fucking tacky, if you asked him.
In fact, the decor reminded him too much of his Great Aunt Tessie's house—all that frilly crochet, pastels everywhere you turned, and the strong smell of roses permeating the place to cover up the slow decay of the house and the woman.
"Okay, granted it's impressive that so much pink actually exists in the world, but how does any of that tell us Gin and the others made it out of here?" Ron asked her, wondering how his brilliant ex-girlfriend had come to that conclusion from the limited info on hand. "I mean, so the place changed. That could mean Eros ate them, for all we know!"
The thought made him shake with anger and worry again.
Pansy reached out and put a hand on his jiggling knee to calm him back down, and whaddya know? It worked like a charm! His leg went still and his anxiety backed off.
"True," Hermione conceded, "but the lack of white everywhere tells us Eros suddenly has more energy to use to maintain the illusion of this place for us. He doesn't need to maintain the magic for twelve anymore, only eight. It's apparently given him a boost. Then, there's that." She pointed to the coffee table in the middle, between the two sofas. One of the Interrogations cards was flipped over. "It seems Eros has sent us a message at last."
What the fuck? When had that happened, Ron wondered.
Like cats drawn to the curious, he and the others leaned forward to read Eros' directive.
I gave your frienbs their freedom. Now you must give in. return.
Ron wasn't sure who said it, but he sure was thinking along those same lines. "Sure, I'll give him something," he growled and flipped the card the two-fingered salute.
Davis giggled but quickly hushed it up with a hand over her mouth.
"Somehow, I don't think that's going to satisfy the request, Weasley," Malfoy told him, his expression sour and his tone dry. "So put it away before you hurt yourself."
Friend of Pans' or not, the smarmy, white-haired git always managed to get Ron's hackles up and it was hard to ignore his taunting. "Up yours, Malfoy," he bit back. "I don't see you making any offerings."
"Because I don't have anything left to sacrifice to the sodding bastard, do I?" He held his arms out and smirked. "He's already seen the best parts."
Davis' exclamation of surprise got everyone's attention.
Ron turned to her. She looked as grey-faced and bloodless as a corpse. "He's seen," she whispered in horror and her eyes filled rapidly with tears. "Harry, he watched, didn't he?"
At that, Harry suddenly stiffened and began swearing under his breath as he took Davis into his arms, speaking softly to her to calm her down as she broke into a bout of near hysterical crying.
Cor, but if looks could kill, Ron thought his best friend would be swimming in corpses right about then!
It took a second longer for what Davis was implying to sink in.
This time it was Ron who said it first.
It was pretty obvi early on in the game that Harry's witch had been lying about her sexual experience levels. Chick was as innocent as a lamb, and Ron suspected her of being a straight-up virgin, first to last. At least, she was before tonight. How Harry was acting now and by how mortified poor Davis was, it was clear that milestone had been met and dusted during the game.
To know Eros had been spying on that action?
"The ruddy, perverted bastard!" Nott exclaimed.
"What he said," Ron agreed.
Everyone else seemed to as well.
Colour him surprised when he watched Nott reach out and gently take a hold of Greengrass' hand, as if the guy was trying to comfort her, too. The blonde seemed to have gone a shade of pale that made Malfoy look like he had a tan in comparison. That set Ron back a step. No way the girl was the same as Davis, so why'd she have to be embarrassed by? Hell, she'd seemed as if exhibitionism was her thing!
It took a moment longer for him to understand the gravity of the situation when Pansy turned to him, similarly stricken. "I didn't consent to Eros peeping at me like that either," she growled, her face a dark mask of fury. "I stayed in the game and played the cards as they were dealt so I could share myself with you, Ron. That was my decision, my choice...and the limit of my permission. I never agreed to sharing such things with others, much less agreeing to let them get off watching me!" She bared her teeth and looked ready to tear the wings off of a Hungarian Horntail. "What a sick, skeevy thing to do!"
Despite her fury, when she wrapped her arms around her middle and hunched in on herself in a protective move, that vision was like a thunderbolt straight to Ron's brain, making his blood boil.
That was the same thing she'd done that day in the Transfig corridor, just before the game, when he'd found her there crying. Back then, she'd looked like someone had ripped out all her internals, leaving her to pick up the pieces alone and try to shove 'em back in. It was the same expression on her face now, the same body posture.
It was the look of a girl who'd been...violated.
The thought gutted him.
A year ago, wanker that he was, he would have said it was just a bit of harmless peeking that Eros has done, and what was the big deal, but now he finally got it. It wasn't something to dismiss. In fact, it was a whole bang full of wrong, 'cause not only was watching Pansy strip down and have sex without her permission invading her privacy, but it was also treating her like a bit of sket, like she didn't count as a real person with feelings and shite. Like all she was put on the earth to do was to entertain that moist, little sadist who'd trapped them in the freak zone with him, acting as a poppet on strings that he pulled for his enjoyment.
Hell, that could be said of the whole lot of them, actually, now that he thought about it. They were all just playthings for Eros' amusement, weren't they? Watching two people fucking or making love, or getting up to whatever kink twisted their knobs was just skin for someone like their 'host'.
...Which begged the question of what Eros really wanted.
Ron put aside his anger for the mo' and really considered it as he would a chess problem.
Was Eros only interested in feeding off of their souls until they went completely barmy, while he sat back and enjoyed the show from the cheap seats? Or was there more to it?
While Malfoy and Theo were off in the men's having a heart-to-heart with Greengrass, Harry and 'Mione had told the group all about Voldemort and the nest of snakes having played the game before them. Talk about brown-trousers time, for reals! That list of their predecessors was some scary shite...well, all except Lockhart, but that smiley-arsed wanker had been an evil git to his core, too. Still, Ron couldn't help but wonder why someone like Tom Riddle had played the game in the first place. Had there been a bird he'd fancied and wanted to seduce, so he'd turned to the cards for the chance, as Malfoy had obvi done to win over 'Mione? Or had Voldemort been after an even bigger prize, like the secret Eros knew about one of the darkest magics in their world? And how had the bloke escaped the game in the end anyway? Had he beaten Eros, or had Eros beaten him?
Either way, Riddle had gone dark soon after playing the game, according to Harry. He'd murdered Myrtle with the basilisk first, then sicced it on the school. And everyone knew what he'd done during the war.
Had that been a result of his time toying around with Eros, though?
He stared at the card deck, feeling that same panic from earlier creeping back in. They'd bitten off a whole lot more shite than they'd expected with this game. Originally, he'd joined to stick it to Slytherin's Queen Bee, but now that he had, Ron found he rather liked the taste of her honey. Any thoughts of revenge against her for the years of fighting and rivalry and misunderstandings between them had blown right out the window by the end of the first round.
That had been something of a shocker, but not an unpleasant one, really.
Eventually finding out this crib was really a stone cage, though?
Yeah, that had sucked all the fun out of the game for him.
Harry said Zabini had called it a 'sweet trap'. No fuck? Pans had been the sweetest snare he'd ever been caught up in, true. He wasn't sure he'd ever clear that addiction.
Not that he wanted to.
"So whaddya think he wants?" he asked, nudging his chin towards the card that was still face-up and staring them down. "For giving up Gin and the others?"
"For us to keep playing," Harry replied, his gaze turning inward again as he rocked a calmed Davis back and forth in his arms. "I think we have to win to get out."
"Win, how?" Ron asked, exasperated. "The wanker keeps cheating!"
"But what if he can't do that again?" Hermione asked, staring intently at the cards. "Listen, he knows he went too far and nullified the game when he cheated by changing the text on cards and by hurting us, yes? Both Captains called him on that fact, and they made it official. The game was magically null and void at that point. Eros obviously doesn't like to lose, though, so he had to pay a penalty to reset the game to force the majority of us to stay." She glanced up at them. "Perhaps releasing Ginny, Lavender, Seamus, and Blaise was his 'flesh' sacrifice to offset the 'blood' magic he'd used? Give up a few to keep the many."
"Plus, doing so would give him extra energy," Ron pointed out, waving at the noxiously coloured room all around them. "Two less couples equals a whole lot of entertainment watching us vomit in our mouths."
Nott hissed between his teeth like a snake. "No way! No fucking way! He seriously expects us to play again?" he asked, looking six shades of enraged right then. "Not in this lifetime! If the game is null and void, I want out!"
Ron shook his head at that. "We already tried that, mate. Eros isn't ready to let us go yet, seems."
Hermione tapped a pretty, painted fingernail on her bottom lip as she considered that. "Besides, he's not asking, is he?" She pointed at the card that was still face-up, sitting on the top of the deck and staring at them like a death note. "Look at the way it's worded. 'Now you must give in. return.' See the period there between 'in' and 'return'? It's easy to mistake that as a run-on sentence as a result, but it isn't. Those are clearly two separate sentences. The 'r' should have been capitalized to indicate that fact." She paused and pulled a face. "Also, he misspelled 'friends'."
Ron could feel the eye-roll trying for an appearance but wisely avoided it by turning away. Merlin knew he loved the witch, but Perfectionist!Hermione could really kill a guy's boner.
"Despite his atrocious spelling, grammar, and punctuation issues, it would seem Eros is telling us what he expects from us," Greengrass pointed out, picking up the ball and rolling with it. "Namely, that we must give in to his petulant demands and return to playing the game or we will never escape."
"All of us play?" Ron asked. "Or just those of you who hadn't forfeited in the last game?"
The card on the top of the deck magically moved to the bottom of the pile on its own and shuffled itself. It then dealt a card to each of them.
Yeah, they were all expected to play again.
"Guess that answers that," he said and reached for the card. "Well, here goes nothing."
"Don't fucking touch it!"
Ron's hand froze half-way to the mark at Malfoy's barked command. "Wha-? Why not?"
"Because I said so, Weasley. For once, do as you're told!"
He was about to reply something scathing in response to the blond prat, but Pansy beat him to it. "Fuck off, Draco," she warned with a kittenish growl. "You may command Slytherin House, but you don't talk to my man that way!"
The guy's icy gaze slid to her. It was enough of a sinister look to make the hairs on the back of Ron's neck stand on end.
Instead of backing down, though, as he'd noticed the other snakes all tended to do when dealing with Malfoy, Pansy stared right back, unflinching, her little chin tilted up to indicate she wouldn't be cowed this time.
Ron was so proud of his girl's quick recovery, from looking like a whipped puppy a few minutes ago to becoming a tigress within seconds, and all in defense of him, that all he could do was beam at her. He still wanted to kick Malfoy's arse, but watching Pansy spit at her ex was reward enough for the mo'.
No one spoke as everyone waited for one of them to give.
A minute went by. Two.
Neither spoke, but the weight of their stare-off was starting to become uncomfortable.
To his surprise, it was Greengrass again who diffused the tension. "If I am correct in my assumption, I believe Mister Malfoy only meant to convey a warning against engaging with the cards. If we do not touch them, it is possible Eros cannot make us play."
It took the ferret a minute more to relent.
"Exactly," he said.
Pansy stared at him with a narrowed gaze, still unwilling to back down. Her eyes glittered with a warning for Malfoy not to push that button again. The arsehole seemed to get the message finally, even if he refused to lay down and die.
Turning his attention back to the cards on the table instead, he deflected by asking, "Really, what can Eros do if we all refuse to read the cards he's dealt? He can't force us to play."
Across the way, a tear-streaky Davis suddenly jerked out of Harry's embrace and stood up, swaying like a puppet on strings. Next to Ron, the same thing happened to Pansy.
Davis gasped. "I...I'm not doing this! I have no control!"
"Me, either," Pansy agreed as her arms were yanked out from her sides to hang in mid-air.
"I thought you said he couldn't cheat anymore!" Ron howled in accusation at his ex.
As always, Hermione had the answer. "We're not technically playing the game, yet! He can do whatever he wants to us until we fall under the protection of the game's rules."
Across the way, Harry's partner was pirouetting like the tiny ballerina poppet found inside Ginny's childhood jewelry box, the one Ron had stolen and buried in the backyard at the Burrow to get even with her for trashin' his fav Cannons' poster when he was twelve.
Godric, if he ever saw his baby sis again, he was so giving her back that stupid thing!
Davis was crying again. "Harry, help!"
Harry grabbed his wand and cast Arresto Momentum on her.
It worked...until something countered the spell and set her back to spinning in place.
Pansy, meanwhile was flapping her arms up and down like a bird trying to fly. "What the ever-loving fuck?" she snarled. "How the hell is he doing this? I can't... I can't seem to stop him!"
Everyone else got their wands out and tried a number of spells to cancel or halt whatever magic was being used to force the girls to act out, but nothing seemed to work. Even 'Mione was stumped, and she knew more magic than anyone Ron knew, even more than Bill!
"I don't know what's causing this or how to stop it," she admitted, plainly upset by that fact.
Ron pulled at his hair in frustration, feeling as helpless as he had earlier after losing Gin. How could he stop Eros? How could he cut the guy's strings?
Quickly, he turned to his witch. "Candiss Aedelind Parkinson, I order you to stop!"
Like a puppet under his power, Pansy did as required. Between one second and the next, she went stone still, and her arms hung motionless above her head. Her eyes glazed over as he took over mastery of her body and will once more.
"Drop your arms."
She did as bade.
A second later, her arms went back up as Eros grabbed hold of her magical 'strings' once more and attempted to commandeer her body for his amusement.
"Candiss Aedelind Parkinson, you're to obey only me," Ron commanded her and signaled for her to step towards him. "Now drop your arms and come here."
Her arms fell to her side and she turned to him, fully under his control. Her neck went loose and she bobbed and jerked around, finally flopping into his arms like a rag doll. "Shit, fuck!" he swore under his breath as he caught her, remembering suddenly why he shouldn't have done this to her again. Just twenty minutes ago he'd had a revelation about respecting Pans' privacy and rights, and yet here he was taking them from her again. Sure, it was for a good reason, but still... "It was all I could think of," he weakly tried to explain to her, to the others, and to himself to justify stealing her will away once more. "Damn it!"
Harry made a whimpering noise. He cringed and shivered, rubbing his hands over his arms as if he was feeling some kind of residual effects from Ron using magic to force Pansy to heel. Nonetheless, the guy took his cue and did the same thing to his woman a heartbeat later.
"Diantha Euterpe Davis, obey only me and stop."
Davis went still and dropped her leg and arms. She stood before Harry as compliant and blank as a poppet, too.
"Bloody hell," Harry swore and took Davis into his arms. "Bloody, bloody hell! This is so wrong!" He looked at 'Mione, his expression filled with guilt and helpless frustration. Ron knew that feeling, intimately. "What can we do?"
She glanced at Malfoy, but the guy only shook his head, as unsure as the rest of them. "We may have no choice but to keep playing," she resignedly admitted. "Unless you want to keep Tracey and Pansy like this until we figure out how to beat Eros and get out?"
"NO!" Harry and Ron shouted at the same time, together.
"This is..." Harry seemed to have a hard time putting his feelings into words, especially around all the swallowing the guy was doing just then. He even looked like he wanted to cry. "It's horrible! It feels like I'm...raping her."
Ron nodded and winced at the oily sense of shame writhing through his guts. "Yeah," he agreed.
"If you release them, Eros will only be able to do it again, though. Won't he?" Nott asked. "He's not bound by anything. He can torture them all he wants, because we haven't sealed the deal with him, yet!"
"Deal...deal..." Hermione's face lit up. She moved to the coffee table and picked up the card that had been dealt her. Malfoy moved to stop her, but the damage was already done, and there was no taking that shite back. She wasn't reading the card, though. Strangely, she was looking at the picture on the back. "He's got wings." She looked at them with dawning comprehension. "Eros has wings!"
She showed them the back of her card.
"Don't you see? The game of chance, making deals, sealing the bargain with magic... He's Fae!"
Ron didn't get it, but it seemed Malfoy certainly did.
"Fairies make deals," the git explained. "They're bound by them." He snapped his fingers in understanding. "That's why Eros had us sign the cards and speak the oath. It locked in the deal with him, creating a binding magical contract."
"What deal?" Ron asked. "That we play this sodding game with him?"
Greengrass stood and came over to them, taking the card from Hermione's hand. She examined the back picture, contemplating it. "Not with him, Mister Weasley," she said, "but for him." She traced the image of the lovers entwined on the back of the card with one of her long, painted fingernails. "We have already established that the purpose of this game is two-fold: one, it serves as a trap for unwary players, imprisoning them within the horcrux for the purpose of Eros siphoning off their energies so he may feed his hungry soul, and two, for Eros' voyeuristic entertainment. As such, it must be assumed that his interference was not intended at first, but became necessary as a result of the choices we each made during the game."
"You're saying we weren't playing how he wanted or expected us to, so he cheated to compensate?" Hermione guessed, glomming onto the new theory. "He risked a serious magical backlash by breaking our deal all because he was...what? Bored with our performance?"
"Or we threatened his objectives for the game," Greengrass postulated.
That gave everyone pause.
"You mean, aside from his draining our sanity and turning us Dark like everyone else who's ever played?" Ron dared to ask, feeling a bit frayed around the edges at the mo'. He stared at the card deck on the table and grimaced with distaste. "Sounds like Eros pulled a pitfall and a swindle to me, and we fell for it."
"A what?" Nott asked.
Figured the guy wouldn't know what that was. Nott seemed more like a typical lothario, going wherever the wind blew him and doing what it wanted. He wasn't the tactical sort, to think out moves ahead of time so he could counter them before they were even made by his opponents. That was more Malfoy's style.
Surprisingly, it seemed to be a Greengrass thing, as well.
Maybe Nott could rely on her to keep his nose out of trouble.
"They're chess terms," Ron explained while rubbing soothing circles over Pansy's back as he held her. "A pitfall is when one player sets things up for the other player to do something really stupid that'll leave him in a bad position on the board. A swindle is when the losing player tricks the winning player into an even worse position to turn their inevitable loss into either a win or a draw instead."
"Sounds as if the pitfall was the card game," Hermione stated. "And the swindle was when he cheated. The question is, why did he cheat? What were we doing that he didn't like?"
Again, Ron wondered what more could Eros be up to, 'cause from where he was sitting, it had been barkin' mad for the guy to have risked a magical bitch-slap of that magnitude. He must've been really hard-up for them to stop playing the game their way.
And he must be equally as desperate to get them to play again, he thought as he lifted a listless Pansy into his arms and carried her like a bride back to the sofa, where he set her on his lap. Using someone's TWN against them for a nefarious purpose...well, that was a serious no-no, wasn't it? Same as using an Unforgivable. If the Ministry ever found out, it would mean an automatic Azkaban sentence for Eros—wherever his real body was out in the world.
Guy didn't seem like an idiot to Ron, more a deranged sadist, so he had to know that.
Yeah, something was putting the pressure on their 'host' to act out. But what? They needed to find that out stat, 'cause he didn't intend to leave Pansy in her current state for long. Just looking at her dead-eyed stare was killing him.
As if she'd plucked his thoughts out of his head, Greengrass took her glasses off and dabbed carefully under her eyes with the back of the same hand. "That is what we must discover if we are to find a way to defeating his goals," she said, blinking. Witch looked exhausted, and yet she straightened her spine and hardened her resolve as she replaced her glasses on her nose, setting them back into place. "Eros' willingness to sacrifice four players to make amends for breaking our accord was not a risk uncalculated. It seems to me our gamemaster is far too cunning to have rashly decided upon jeopardizing his potential gains against the negative effects of magical entropy."
Hermione appeared to agree. "Everything Eros has done has been by design, from getting this game into people's hands through his proxy, Madam Aset, to locking us into an Oath of Silence regarding this game once we leave here so we can never tell anyone else how he manipulated and used us for his aims. His deciding to break the rules and cheat during the game itself couldn't have been chance or whim. I think he did it all for a purpose."
"I'd like to know what that reason is," Harry growled.
The guy was rubbing his scar again, Ron noticed.
That was three times tonight. He'd seen Harry in convo earlier with Malfoy and Zabini the first time he'd reached up an touched the curse mark on his forehead, then he'd done it again earlier when talking about the voice in his head. And now here he was brushing over it again, harder this time like the thing was starting to hurt him.
"Mate, what's up with your scar?" Ron asked him.
Harry dropped his hand and made like Ron, gathering Davis up in his arms and sitting them both down on the couch next to Ron. "It's...her. Psyche, I think. She's getting louder and starting to make my head pound."
"What's she saying, Harry?" Hermione asked.
He shrugged, but it was clear by the way he was wincing that he was having head pains. "She's been telling me to 'play' and 'win' for the past half-hour. Insistently. It's becoming almost manic now."
Hermione took her card back from Greengrass with a polite, 'May I?'. She stared at it again for a few moments in contemplation. "But why would Psyche want us to play at all since doing so will only give Eros the energy he needs to continue her imprisonment here within the horcrux? That makes no sense. You'd think after almost two centuries trapped with a demented soul as her jailer, she'd want Eros to just devour her and be done with it or to set her free." Something occurred to her of a sudden and she glanced around at the room. "Unless... She's not actually a prisoner." She looked at Harry. "What has she told you so far?"
"Only that she's here with us, that this place is a cage, and that the reason I can hear her is that I don't have a TWN. Oh, and she repeated that card, the one that said, 'The first must play to win, or all are cursed to lose'."
"But she didn't say she was imprisoned here?"
Harry frowned. "Not directly, no."
She glanced back at the image of Eros and Psyche on the card in her hand. "Draco, Madam Aset told you the prostitute who owned these cards committed suicide over them, yes?"
"That's what she claimed." Malfoy took in their surroundings again. "She also said the courtesan who owned them died in a brothel."
"Did she say the courtesan was female?"
The blond git barked a laugh. "What other kinds are there?"
Hermione gave him a raised eyebrow in warning and her expression hardened.
Uh-oh. Someone stepped over the line one time too many.
Ron gently moved Pansy off his lap and tucked her into the space between him and Harry. Then, he palmed his wand, prepared to clean up the imminent mess.
Luckily, before things went that far, Slytherin's verbal swot intervened again. "Cicisbeo are male courtesans in Italy," Greengrass interjected, very assured of that fact. "It is a Muggle term, but it is what their Sex-Warlocks are called."
Malfoy stared at her for a moment, obviously reevaluating his teammate. "I've heard Italy has a Sex-Witch rumoured to be as powerful as Madam Aset," he said, "and that she has a partner who's a Sex-Wizard. And that they give lessons to anyone who has enough cash to pay them."
Nott's partner merely shrugged. "I have heard that rumour as well."
Hermione cleared her throat to get Malfoy's attention, her tone edged with irritation. "Focus, please. We're deviating from the subject again."
Malfoy gave his partner a lazy, dragon-eyed look. "How may I serve you, Granger?"
The double-entendre was hard to miss.
Ron tried anyway.
Hermione's cheeks pinked, but she forged on despite that. "Can you please just answer for me this: does Madam Aset happen to have blonde hair?"
The guy seemed entirely unfazed at being in the crosshairs of Hermione's displeasure. "She's a Sex-Witch, part Veela. Blonde comes with the territory. Why?"
She held the card out to her partner. "Have you actually looked at the image on the backs of the cards, Draco?"
"Of course I have," he said and took it from her hand.
He glanced at it...and froze. His jaw unhinged.
"That can't be!"
And the other shoe didn't just drop, it hit the floor running.
Ron felt it like a kick in the gut, in fact. It was the same sort of sensation he got when falling off a broom, that desperate sweat that flushed through the body and the rush of fear that accompanied it. It was the need to evac the bowels and vomit at the same time as your heart was exploding.
Yeah, that feeling.
"Your Madam Aset looks just like Psyche on the card, doesn't she?" he asked, sensing the same sort of doom he'd once experienced in the Forbidden Forest while walking towards a giant spider's lair. "They're the same person, aren't they?"
Malfoy said nothing, but his lips were pressed together so hard they went bloodless, and his forehead started to shine with perspiration, the kind brought on from nerves being shook so tightly that you weren't sure if you were going to run screaming for the hills any second or curl up into a ball and start rocking back and forth instead.
Yeah, he was going to be sick any second now.
Where was the loo again?
"Alright, let's think this through," Hermione offered, looking a little green around the gills as well. "It's just a different angle because it's all speculation at this point, but what if...what if Eros isn't the gamemaster at all?" The worry wrinkle in her forehead was back, probably etched permanently in place by now, Ron thought. That fact only exacerbated the rolling, seasick sea-serpent sensation going on in his belly. "What if the 'courtesan' who died was really a male one, our 'Eros'? What if it 'Psyche' who killed him?" Hermione postulated. She tapped the image of the lovers on the card in Malfoy's hand. "See how sad she looks, even as she holds tightly onto him? See how Eros hides his face in her shoulder? If we believe the picture, they were obviously in love, but tormented by it for some reason. So, what if we turn our old theory on its head and consider that she may have, for reasons unknown, killed her lover instead and this is her horcrux, not his?"
"You're saying he's the one trapped?" Malfoy asked, looking like he'd taken a major stunner to the head. It was going around, apparently. "But the courtesan died in a gentleman's establishment! What would Eros be doing in a place like that?"
Everyone just looked at him like he'd lost the plot.
"You can't be serious!" he exclaimed, having caught on to their silent implication. He threw his hands in the air. "So, you're saying Eros was a gay rentboy?"
"Or bisexual," Hermione offered. "Many of the Fae are. Look at the Veela. They're an offshoot Fairy species, hence the glamours and sexual allure. And Eros is the Greek god of romantic love and lust," she pointed out, "and such emotions, when untainted by societal expectations, don't distinguish between body parts."
"Yeah, love is love," Nott said, sidling up to his partner, taking her hand, and looking pointedly at her. "You want who you want, and you love the kink that gets you off, and that's all okay as long as no one gets hurt and everyone says 'yes' to it."
"Zabini would certainly say so," Ron grumbled, recalling his sis' partner stating he'd shag anyone in the group when the question had come up earlier in the night. Guy probably had no qualms about the wheres or hows, either. He seemed the type to fuck anything, so long as it was breathing.
Maybe even then...
"But why would she kill him," Malfoy insisted, still skeptical of the new option. "Why not just buy out his contract and free him from the brothel?"
"Maybe she didn't have the money," Ron said. "Not everyone's born with a silver spoon in their mouths, Malfoy."
Greengrass was examining the stack of cards on the coffee table. "Perhaps intense jealousy regarding his occupation swayed her hand in a moment of tormenting despair or rage. I...I imagine it would be unbearable for a person to watch their lover go into the arms of another, much less many others, especially in exchange for coin."
At her side, Nott seemed to shrink in on himself a bit, but the guy turned and took his partner into his arms and held her much the same as the caricature of Psyche held Eros. Even the same frown marred his face, too.
What the eff was going on there?
"Whichever one of them was the killer, that person would have had to plan it in advance," Harry added, "so he or she could capture a piece of the other person's soul and make a horcrux. It wasn't a heat-of-the-moment thing. It was a calculated murder."
"And murder itself is an offense to nature," Hermione said. "Professor Moody said in fourth year D.A.D.A. that not only does it ruin a person's soul, it also taints others by proxy as a result of the negative energies it creates. It...darkens...everything it touches."
On the sofa next to him, Harry readjusted Davis on his lap to redistribute her weight. "Maybe that stain on magic is responsible for what happened to everyone else who's played the game then. Everyone whose name is on that box top went some shade of murderous and mad after the fact. I mean, look at Tom Riddle. He was power-hungry and insane. And many of the names on that list belong to some of his most loyal followers, the ones who called themselves 'Death Eaters'."
Nott huffed cynically. "Including my bastard father."
"Even Lockhart," Ron said, recalling how demented their former teacher had been. "He was all smiles, but he had a serious issue with the self-love thing. Like, to the point where he hated everyone else who was better than him. He'd steal their memories and destroy them just to hog all the glory for himself."
Ironic how that had ended for him, actually.
Karma's a bitch, baby.
"And Umbridge, too," Harry added. "Pink, fake smiles to everyone, and all the time she'd secretly hated kids and wanted to punish us for simply breathing."
Because that's what psychotic clowns did.
They ruined your childhood and fucked you up for life.
"And Lucien Bole," Nott said, glancing down at his feet with a look that said the guy knew what he was talking about in this instance. "A charming sadist. Sexually deviant. Makes you like his kind of pain and uses it to make you his slave."
Everyone was quiet for a bit in the face of that painful confession.
In his head, Ron whistled. So Nott was batting for the other team, too. Well, that certainly explained the earlier drama between him and Zabini. They must've had a falling out over Bole.
Now there was a story Lav could sink her teeth into someday, maybe.
As he recalled, Pansy had called Bole a 'misogynist bully' when she'd read his name off earlier. Ron wondered if that sodding wanker had ever laid a finger on her, too, since it seemed from what had been tossed around for the last few hours that the guy had fucked around with Nott and maybe even Zabini, and not in a consensual kind of way. So help him, if he found out Bole had dared attempt to hurt his girl like that...
He stared at the love of his life now, gently touched her face and felt such regret for being forced to keep her in this doll-like state. Like he was one to be throwing stones, yeah? Pans was effectively his slave right now. And the worst part of it was, despite the fact he finally understood the importance of respecting her rights as a person, there was something cancerous growing inside that liked the idea of owning her complete submission, of forcing her to her knees to service him as he wanted. He could feel it slowly rising like a black, poisonous tide inside him.
Panic made his hands shake.
Ginny was gone, and her fate was uncertain, and it looked like she was out of his reach for the now. He'd failed her.
Pansy was totally out of commission, and it looked like she would continue to be until they found a way around Eros and Psyche's manipulation of her via her TWN.
And they still didn't have any concrete answers as to who precisely was messing with them, only a bunch of clever guesses as to what was going on and why.
God, it was all so hopeless, wasn't it? They were never getting out, were they? And if, by some miracle they did escape, they certainly weren't going to be the same people they'd been before they'd signed their names on the cards anyway. Too much had changed.
Ron eyes dropped to the silver chains and black jewelry on Pans' outfit and he began fiddling with them out of nervousness.
Onyx and silver. Just like a fancy chess board's pieces.
He traced the twining snake earring over her left earlobe and the matching bangle on her wrist.
Yeah, no doubt about it: she was definitely Slytherin's Queen.
Or was it?
To Ron, what was happening was like an elaborate chess game in real time. And if he thought about it in those terms, things didn't add up.
Specifically, Eros or Psyche—or whoever the fuck was toying with them—had performed a pitfall and a swindle, two chess moves that were rarely paired, because it was nearly impossible to think that many steps ahead to assure victory or a draw at the end. Yet, despite that, they'd managed to get around the rules by cheating, and then they'd avoided the consequences by making an appropriate sacrifice. They'd planned it in advance, in case things went sideways.
So, if they started up the game again, why couldn't the players do the same?
And speaking of things planned in advance...
Had this game of Exploding Snap that Eros and Psyche had been playing with his emotions all night been the same feeling that had ruined so many others who had played this game in the past, too? Was this the power of the horcrux: to fuck with your head and your feelings? Had those others been forced to become evil or just given into the horcrux's sway?
Had Tom Riddle felt this? Had Umbridge? Had Lockhart? Had Bole?
Would it get worse for him as well, or was it already too late and he'd cross the line?
He looked at what he'd done to Pans again...
Just past her head, Harry met his eye. "We did what we had to protect them," his friend reminded him, his belief in that as resolute as his duty to his witch's safety. "This doesn't mean we're like Riddle because we're doing this for love, not power." He looked back at his own witch and reverently touched her cheek. "For love."
Harry's words cut like a holy light through Ron's doubt, 'cause it was the same thing Pansy had been trying to tell him earlier, but in a round-about, Slytherin kind of way: you were there for the people you cared about, and you did what you could to do right by them. That was love. That was its power.
"Right," he said, and couldn't stop nodding. "For love."
Honestly, he didn't know if the game had corrupted Tom Riddle and the others, turning them into the fuckfaces they'd become, but one thing he was now sure of: he wasn't going to let this game do the same thing to him. He was making a choice to stand and fight for Pansy and his friends, and that was his decision to make...and it was done so with his full consent.
No way was he ever becoming a puppet for Eros or Psyche!
Get fucked, he hissed at his 'hosts' in his head as he held tight to the hope that Pansy was carrying his child right then, and to the bright vision of the future that they would build together once the game was over and they were free.
The dream was, after all, his only lifeline as the sea of darkness and fury began rolling in all around him, attempting to draw him and the others under its vengeful waves.
TO BE CONTINUED...
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Musical selection for this chapter: "Tonight (Acoustic Version)" by Def Leppard. Lyrics are as follows...
I don't wanna play the waiting game,
and drift away, leavin' an illusion.
I don't wanna hide.
It's foolish pride to close my eyes
a touch away from wanting you.
Don't try to look away when we're face to face.
I see your eyes, that animal emotion.
You don't have to set your tender trap.
It's in those eyes…
It's gonna happen anyway.
Moving to the rhythm of your heartbeat.
Yeah, I'm wanting, willing, touching you.
We'll be...moving to the rhythm of your heartbeat.
Ooh, babe, when you get that rhythm,
gonna move into your room.
Tonight - gimme love with no disguise.
Tonight - I see the fire in your eyes.
Tonight - so right, this night could be dynamite.
Wait and see.
If it pleases you, it pleases me.
There's nothing I can say, no mystery.
It's in your eyes.
Those eyes are where I wanted them.
So, give me heart and soul.
I lose control!
Can't stop my eyes from fallin' into fantasy.
Tonight - gimme love with no disguise.
Tonight - I see the fire in your eyes.
Tonight - I wanna win the greatest prize.
Tonight - so right, this night could be dynamite.
Wait and see.
If it pleases you, it pleases me.