Disclaimer: I do not own HP or its characters. I'm just taking them out for a spin.
AN: There's a character mentioned here who I borrowed from another work. Luckily she exists in the public record so I don't have to disclaim her. If you're familiar with this character, please forgive any OOC-ness. Also, I know this goes against what we know of Hogwarts ancient history and I ask you to remember that sometimes history gets slightly skewed over time and it's with that view that I wrote this. I hope that doesn't hurt your opinion of it.
Cold in the Grave
As dusk fell a cloaked figure started up the worn dirt road from the village to the castle. It had been over a decade since he left in search of a better life. He had found it in abundance. From dusty villages to elaborate cities it seemed every corner of the world saw his people treated as equals. In some places, they were recognized as the titans they were, even revered as gods. It was only here, in this corner of the globe, where his people were hunted and killed.
Now he returned to share the proof with his oldest friends. It could be better, it should be better.
There was a spring in his step as he imagined their reactions, not only upon hearing his news and his plans for the future, but upon seeing him again. He would be a liar if he said he wasn't looking forward to one person's reaction above the rest. He held the delicate treasure he carried a bit tighter to his chest. He had no intention of telling her what lay within it, instead allowing her the joy of reasoning it out herself. If such a mystery didn't get him back in her good graces after a decade of chilly absence, he didn't know what would.
His memory seemed to be failing him. He did not recall the forest ending so far from the castle walls or, more likely, things had simply changed in the time he was gone. He was struck once more with the fear that things had changed more than he hoped. Had his last heated words to his friends cut too deeply to heal? Beyond that, could they even forgive him for leaving at all?
Helga would be furious that he'd left his students. He had, of course, left them in the care of not only the others but his own former apprentice. It remained to be seen if she would accept this as a reasonable alternative. Godric, with his warrior's heart, would understand the need to walk away but would he be able to forgive it? And Rowena would be the hardest. He did not dare entertain those dark thoughts that lingered at the edges of his mind and had haunted his dreams many times over the years. She was in emotion as she was in mind - firm in her stance unless shaken by logic more weighty than her own. It had taken him eight years to see her blush prettily at him and that only after her husband's death, to count the years before would make him appear a lovesick fool.
Perhaps he was.
It was too dark by now to see if he smiled and for that he was grateful. He slipped through the final wards and past the sight of the students standing sentinel on the walls. He wanted to announce his own return.
He organized his thoughts as he walked the torch lit halls. Oh, he had seen wondrous things in his travels, but he had also seen horrible things. It would not help his cause to speak of the cities ruled by wizard kings along with the Muggle sacrifices that took place there or to mention the revered shamans of the vast deserts in the same breath as the horcrux the most revered of these had invented. He shuddered at the memory of the man. To look on him was like seeing the empty space where a missing limb should be. There were other horrors in the wide world, Muggle and wizard alike - he'd walked into a war in the far east and almost lost his soul to an ancient witch so twisted by her pursuit of beauty and youth that one half of her body was as Aphrodite while the other forever betrayed her true age.
Perhaps one day, when he was long-since forgiven, he would tell Rowena of his encounter with Duessa and how he had been saved from that vile creature by the memory of her lovely face.
His feet seemed to know where to go without him and he found himself climbing ever higher towards Rowena's rooms in the castle's highest tower. It would, perhaps, be easier to win over Godric or Helga, but he owed Rowena his first apology.
As he drew closer to the sky laughter filtered down and he was taken back to late nights in the shadows, listening to Rowena practice her storyteller's art on her students, and often some of the others', who had snuck up from the dormitories to listen to her reenact heroic tales from long ago. The tradition had begun long before the school, before it was even the four of them, back when it was three and a friend. Helena would always beg to hear more and Thomas would claim he was far too comfortable with his head in his wife's lap to put the girl to bed. It was then, her fingers twined in her husband's curling hair, that Rowena would look to Salazar. Her eyes would glow in the firelight as she asked if he would put the babe to sleep for them. He never quite knew if it was a desire to hear her speak more or the sickening knowledge of what would come if he left husband and wife alone that had him pretending he had no skill with children night after night.
Those nights were long past now. Thomas had been cold in his grave for nearly a quarter of a century and Salazar had long since dealt with any lingering guilt about his feelings for his lost friend's widow. He had no reason to hide in the shadows now.
He paused, his hand almost on the door. He had every reason to hide though. This was not a reunion he wanted to happen in front of any students and certainly not one he wanted them spreading tales of all over the castle.
A bit of magic was all it took to wrap himself in shadows and slip through the door without ever opening it. Rowena's chair sat, as always, with its back to the door, blocking her from his immediate view. Laughter swelled as he entered and he circled the room, intent on seeing her before hearing her.
He had been nearly killed a hundred times while away. He knew what it was to be knocked off his feet by a giant's swing, to have lightning pulse through him in waves. He'd felt the worst curses in the world, ones that drowned the victim in pain so intense it blocked out all feeling and thought. The sight of Helena's ghost was worse than any of those.
He remembered watching her play at her father's feet, holding her tight as he carried her to safety, listening to her cries in the days and months after her father's death. She was the closest thing he had to a child of his own and she was dead.
He stumbled backward and was saved from making an invisible scene by the residue of the spell he'd cast to pass through the door. It carried him easily through the wall into a dark sitting room where he fell to the ground. His heart was pounding heavily but the sound seemed to come from very far away and his deep, gasping breaths brought him no air. What felt like an eternity of horrified shock was in truth only a few moments. The room he'd fallen into was occupied by a creature who had no trouble finding him, despite his invisibility.
"Troy," he said fondly as the hound licked his face.
"Troy? What are you-" The voice cut off, for which Salazar was grateful. He had not thought until this moment how Helena's death would affect others. He let the remains of his glamour fade away and lifted his eyes over the boarhound's head, bracing himself to meet his former apprentice for the first time in a decade. The sight of Helena as a ghost had broken his heart. The sight of Gareth as one as well turned his shock into hysteria.
He laughed, great sobbing chortles that had Troy whining and looking from living man to dead man for guidance. Gareth did not move from his spot beside the wall. He merely floated, watching and waiting for Salazar to gain some composure.
"I assume you died defending her," Salazar said finally. "Futilely, though that much is obvious." As a ghost Gareth was covered in silvery blood and weighted down by cloudy chains. His death, it seemed, had been a brutal one.
Salazar looked up sharply at the single, hanging syllable. The ghost looked so young, barely any older than when Salazar had last laid eyes on the living man.
"I killed her."
Salazar's heart clenched.
"She had run away and refused to return even when I- It doesn't matter," he amended quickly. "I lost my temper and I've always had trouble keeping my emotions and my magic separated."
"And who killed you?" Salazar asked coldly.
"I did - after I saw what I'd done." He lifted his chin, ready for a punishment Salazar could no longer bestow. There was silence between them for several minutes, broken only by the dull echo of Helena's storytelling and Troy's sharp whines.
"You're a fool," Salazar said finally and put a hand to Troy's head, calming the dog. "To kill yourself over the loss of a woman."
"I am glad to hear you feel that way, sir."
There was a weight to the words beyond that of the conversation thus far. Instantly on guard, Salazar rose to his feet. "Why?"
"Rowena is gone. She was weak with heartache even before Helena left. The news of her death … it killed her."
Gareth left him sometime later when Helena finished her story. He left Troy, perhaps hoping the devotion and unassuming love the dog offered would help ease the pain of Salazar's loss. Salazar barely paid the dog any mind.
Eventually, well after the midnight bell had tolled, Salazar rose. He scooped the egg up from where it had rolled after his fall and set off for one of the castle's other towers.
Godric was his old self, ready for a fight and jovial when none was brewing. After realizing who had roused him from his sleep he dropped his sword and embraced his dearest friend. Salazar did not bother to return the gesture.
"You know then," was all Godric said as he stepped back. A house-elf brought them ale and sometime later Helga arrived with joyous greetings and heartfelt condolences. Salazar waved them all away.
"I have returned for a purpose," he said. Beneath his cloak his hand tightened around the egg. He had returned for several reasons but now only a few remained; that would not deter him. "I've traveled the world and seen with my own eyes how our people could live if only we were willing to fight for it."
"Salazar," Godric said, "you know I, more than any, would stand beside you against any foe, but we have been over this. To make war on the Muggles would destroy us."
"The Muggles live in squalor and are content with their place. They live in huts and hovels. They sleep with their pigs and sheep because they have no better means of warmth."
"And we would be just like them were it not for our magic," Helga pointed out.
"Exactly! Our magic makes us better than them and thus it is our divine right to rule over them."
He ignored her scandalized outburst. "There is a city in the east where the noble classes are made up entirely of wizards. They keep the peace and their elevated place in society allows them the time and energy necessary to share their gifts with the Muggles under them."
"At what cost?" Godric asked, his voice harsh. "We have heard of places such as these, even while we have remained here, maintaining the work which we all set about together-"
"Godric," Helga said gently.
He too ignore her. "Can you honestly tell me the Muggles there are better than slaves? Or have we been led astray by those who told us they were considered little better than cattle? Is that what you want? For people to be used as workers of hard labor, as playthings for when a wizard is bored, or a tool to carry on a legacy when the pureblood witches you so value cannot? And these gifts that are shared in return for such services, do they take the form of tests for new potions or spells or even curses? And this is what you want for our home?" Godric had risen as he spoke and now stood nearly toe-to-toe with Salazar, staring down at him where he sat.
"Godric," Helga said, more sternly this time. "This is a happy day. Salazar is home again and no doubt the news he has missed is hitting him hard. We can talk about all we missed of each other later but for now I think it best if we rest. Salazar, your rooms are as you left-"
Salazar rose abruptly, cutting her off. He met Godric's fiery gaze over her head. "I have seen my friend ripped apart by fearful Muggles, lost my entire family because my father would not defend himself against them, and I have traveled to lands where our people are worshipped as gods. Is it truly so difficult to understand why I would prefer that alternative?"
He held Godric's gaze for several seconds more before turning on his heel and heading for the door.
A heavy sigh followed him. "There must be some middle ground, Salazar."
Salazar did not stop.
His feet carried him down the castle's ever-changing stairs, past the dormitories where the students slept, past the turn for his own rooms deep beneath the lake. He traveled so far that the stone floor and walls gave way to dirt. They had not yet built here.
A wave of his hand moved the earth ahead of him to form a stone wall behind. He walked down, ever deeper into the earth below the castle. They would never understand. Neither of them had ever lost so much as Salazar had, not even as much as Rowena had, and they could not fathom the danger the Muggles posed. Anything he said to them now, any argument he made, they would see as merely a result of his grief and perhaps it had always been that way. Perhaps they had always seen him as the wounded orphan boy seeking vengeance.
He walked forward, his magic forcing the earth to open up before him, creating floor and walls and covering both with designs meant to invoke images of his beast. Stones along the walls glowed, their eerie light making the carvings almost seem to move. Salazar set the egg gently down in the midst of all this. It was frigid down here. Despite his magic flowing freely around him his fingers felt like ice. It wouldn't kill the egg, only keep it from maturing until it was brought back into the warmth of the world above.
He would never see it hatched, would never see the world he'd dreamed of - and he no longer wished to now that so much of what he'd cherished was gone - but he could pave the way. He would not be the last to see all that was wrong with Godric and Helga's dreams and he intended to make tearing those dreams down much easier for whoever came after him.