The End of the Beginning

by Marina

Chapter 7

Ethan Rayne had always known that he was going to come to a bad end. People who had fun in life usually did, unless they gave it up and went all virtuous and respectable, like Ripper with his prissy haircut and his tweed. Ethan had no intention of ever sinking that low, so he had resigned himself to the consequences and devoted his efforts to ensuring that the journey to his inevitable messy death and unpleasant afterlife should be as long and as enjoyable as possible. And where did all his efforts get him? Trapped in a luxurious bedroom suite, staving off the death in his veins by doing magical slave-work for a madman, and having no fun at all. Life just wasn't fair.

He didn't know how long he'd been locked up. He'd lost count somewhere after the first week, and he refused to do anything as cliché as making scratches on the walls to mark the days. Besides, the cringing house elf that delivered his meals would probably remove the scratches the same way he removed anything else he considered messy or unsightly. No one came to see Ethan except Malfoy and Snape. Voldemort had not appeared again, apparently preferring to give his orders through his lackeys. It hardly seemed worth the bother anyway, since the orders were always the same: find a way to kill Albus Dumbledore, or else, with the "else" part being invariably protracted and painful. Ethan had tried three more demon summonings and one elemental spell that was supposed to set its target on fire. He was particularly proud of that last one -- it had originally been designed as a line-of-sight spell, and he had spent several intense days modifying it to target a specified set of coordinates instead. Ethan thought it a remarkably clever bit of work, spoiled only by the fact that after it was over, Dumbledore was still alive and kicking.

Now Ethan felt a growing sense of desperation as he sat at the desk poring over his books. He was running out of ideas, and Voldemort, according to Malfoy, was running out of patience. Ethan didn't know how many more failures he'd be able to get away with it, and he didn't want to know what would happen when Voldemort decided he'd had enough. He'd spent the past four days paging through one yellowed, brittle-paged grimoire after another, until his eyes felt full of sand and his dreams came in Greek, Coptic and Sumerian, but no brilliant new ideas had presented themselves.

The lock on the door clicked. Ethan clapped his book shut and slid his chair back from the desk just as Severus Snape walked in, carrying a thick leather-bound folder under one arm. He looked sour and ill-tempered -- in other words, no different than usual. He pulled over a chair and sat, opened the folder, and shoved it under Ethan's nose.

"Do you know what these are?"

"Hello to you, too." Ethan took the folder from Snape and laid it across his lap. He recognized the drawings inside immediately: they were copies of a Celtic protection spell he and Giles had researched together over a decade ago.

"Where did you get these?" Ethan schooled his face into an impassive expression and his voice into a light, casual tone. The drawings were done in an unfamiliar hand, on parchment rather than paper. They could've been acquired through any number of means, many of them quite harmless.

"That's none of your concern." Snape's expression grew even more unpleasant, but no more revealing. Ethan wished it had been Malfoy who came in with the drawings -- his face was generally easier to read. "Just tell me what they are."

Ethan considered lying, just on principle, but there was always a chance that they already knew and this was a test. "It's a ward. You draw it on a stone or clay tablet, place the tablet over a door, and it protects the space inside from certain kinds of dark magic."

"How do you disarm it?"

"Remove the tablet. Or break it. Or wipe it clean."

"And if that's not an option?"

"Why isn't it?" Ethan asked. Snape glared at him.

"I'm asking the questions here."

"Yes, yes, and you're being very manly about it." Ethan rolled his eyes. "If you can't physically remove the ward, you'll need to disarm it. Drain the magic out."

"How?"

Ethan decided to risk a plausible lie. "There's no standard counterspell that I know of. But I could work one out, given time. And the proper supplies, of course."

Snape's black eyes narrowed suspiciously. "What supplies?"

"Well, a stone tablet to start with." Ethan did his best to look honest and reasonable. "I'm sure I don't have to tell you that the best way to research a counterspell is to cast the original spell first. If I can actually create a ward, then I can experiment on it until I find a way to disarm the pattern." He hesitated, wondering how much he could get away with here. "The tablet would be just the beginning, of course. There's also the matter of making the ink… I don't know exactly what all the ingredients are--"

"We can find out," Snape said in a flat voice. Ethan nodded.

"And the incantation?"

"That, too."

"All right, then. Uhm…" Ethan found that his hands were sweating. He resisted the urge to wipe them on his trousers. "I'm glad we've got that settled. Fetch me what I need, and I'll get on with it, shall I?"

Snape got up from his chair and stood looming over Ethan, arms folded across his chest. It was a habitual pose he adopted whenever he was trying to appear especially menacing. Ethan found it worked very well, especially combined with the swirling black robes and the glittery black eyes. A bit over-dramatic, perhaps, and more suited to a much older man, but it certainly got the message across. "I would advise you to show some results this time, Muggle. Lord Voldemort is becoming impatient with your repeated failures."

"They are not failures!" Ethan said defensively. "Every single one of my spells has worked as advertised. If they don't always produce the desired results… well, I'm not the one who chooses the targets now, am I?"

"Would you care to try that explanation on Lord Voldemort?" Snape's voice was icy. Ethan bit his lip and lowered his eyes.

"No," he said after a moment.

"Then I suggest you start producing the desired results." He raised one eyebrow expectantly, as if daring Ethan to voice another objection, but Ethan remained silent. After a while, Snape gave a quick, satisfied nod and reached into his pocket to pull out the small glass bottle in which he always brought Ethan's daily dose of potion. Ethan reached for it, but Snape stepped back. "Don't take it straight away," he said. "Wait until you start feeling the symptoms again. Better yet, wait as long as you can stand. Note when the symptoms start, and how quickly they progress. The more details you can give, the better."

Now it was Ethan's turn to lift his eyebrows and look suspicious. "Why?"

"Because I said so."

"And if I don't?"

Snape's bony shoulders lifted and fell in a gesture that could've been a shrug, or a nervous twitch, or an attempt to make his robes drape more elegantly. "Then you don't. Things will go on as they are now."

"And if I do this, things will change?" Ethan's hands ached. He looked down and realized that he was clutching the edges of the folder in a white-knuckled grip. It took several seconds of concentration to get his fingers to relax; when he did, his nails left little half-moon indentations in the leather. "In what way?"

Snape sneered. It wasn't quite a Malfoy level sneer, but it made up in malevolence what it lacked in natural superiority. "I'm not in the habit of explaining myself to imprisoned Muggles." He slammed the bottle down onto the desk in front of Ethan. "You have your instructions. Follow them or don't, it makes no difference to me."

He was lying. Ethan had devoted a great deal of time and effort to studying his captors, learning to decode nuances of gesture and voice and facial expression. Snape was harder to read than Malfoy, but Ethan was pretty certain he knew what he was seeing. Severus Snape was afraid. Terrified, in fact.

Ethan picked up the bottle, turned it over in his hands a couple of times, and put it down again.

"All right," he said. "I'll do it."

Snape did not relax. If anything, the tension in his posture seemed to increase. For a moment he looked as if he was about to say something, but then he only nodded and stalked from the room in a dramatic swirl of black cloth.

Ethan sat staring at the door and tried to collect his jumbled thoughts. Snape's actions had been unexpected, to say the least. What was the bastard up to? Something Voldemort wouldn't like, apparently, but that didn't mean it would do Ethan any good... How did they get those drawings? If not from Giles, then from somebody close to Giles… Snape said they could get more information as they needed it... seemed quite certain of it, the slimy little git… maybe one of those "nice people" Ripper had hooked up with wasn't quite so nice after all... Maybe he should drink his potion right away, just to spite Snape… but if the git was trying to help… why would he help? Maybe it was all a trick… maybe they had Giles locked up somewhere and they weren't telling him… Malfoy would've said something, just to gloat, but you never could tell with Snape... what was the story with that potion...

"Fuck!" Ethan stood up so fast he nearly knocked his chair over, and began to pace the room. "Concentrate, damn it, one thing at a time…" Talking aloud to himself was probably not a good sign, but the sound of his own voice did help him focus. Snape's potion was one problem. Giles' spell was another. One thing at a time. Right. The potion.

Ethan picked up the bottle and examined it. It looked the same as always: square shape, cobalt blue glass, no marks or labels of any kind. He pulled out the stopper and sniffed. The thick, bitter smell made his eyes water, but Ethan couldn't tell if it was different from the last time. "Oh, to hell with it." He replaced the stopper and placed the bottle back on the desk. There was no point in trying to guess when he had no information, and only one way to find out. He would do as Snape asked... at least this once.

"All right, that's one problem down." That left the issue of the ward spell. The fact that Voldemort had it in the first place was cause to worry, but Ethan resolved to put it out of his mind. There was nothing he could do about Giles' situation. He had to deal with his own first, and here was a chance to finally accomplish something.

Ethan walked over to the bed, knelt, and stuck one hand under the mattress. Some days before, he had torn a slit in the underside to make a hiding place. Now he reached in there, scattering goose feathers onto the floor, and pulled out the small, handkerchief-wrapped bundle that contained his treasures.

Three lumpy candle stubs, melted down to almost nothing, but with enough wick still left to burn for a few minutes. Little pinches of herbs, wrapped in scraps of parchment. A glass vial with just a few drops of virgin's blood congealing at the bottom. Remnants of past spells, carefully tucked away for future use. Not enough yet to actually do anything with, but if could just get his hands on a few more ingredients… He could claim he needed them for research. Neither Voldemort nor Malfoy would know any better. Snape might -- he actually paid attention to the details of what Ethan did when he worked magic -- but Snape, it seemed, had his own agenda, which meant he could be bargained with in an emergency.

Ethan sorted through the bundle, taking stock of what he had, then re-wrapped it and tucked it back inside the mattress. Then he gathered up the feathers that had fallen on the floor and stuffed them inside the pillowcase, where he hoped they wouldn't look too suspicious if a conscientious house elf happened to find them. Returning to the desk, he took some parchment and a quill from a drawer and began to write up a list of what he still needed. It was a dauntingly long list, but Ethan Rayne refused to be daunted. For the first time in weeks, he could see a way out. All he had to do was lie convincingly enough.


Snape did not look pleased when he read the list the next day.

"You really need all of these things?"

"Yes," Ethan said firmly. "I'm trying to find a counterspell that may not even exist. I need to experiment. Don't tell me this is going to strain the Malfoy purse?"

Snape's lips pressed together into a thin, pale line. He folded the list into a neat square and pocketed it without comment.

"Did you do as I asked yesterday?" he demanded.

"Yes." Ethan handed him the empty potion bottle and another piece of parchment. Having decided to be helpful, he had dutifully catalogued his symptoms up to the time when he drank the antidote and after, until the pain had receded enough to allow him to hold a quill again. "So is there any chance of you telling me what this is all about?"

"No." Snape put the notes away without looking at them and reached into his pocket, taking out an oblong box Ethan recognized from his first day at Malfoy manor. It had contained the poison syringe Snape had injected him with.

He didn't remember moving, but somehow he was at the far side of the room, back pressed against the wall.

"Get that thing away from me!"

"Don't be ridiculous." Snape took the syringe from the box and held it up to the light. It was empty. "I need to draw a blood sample from you."

"Why?"

"Because I said so, you idiot Muggle." Snape advanced into the room, scowling. Ethan edged sideways into the farthest corner until there was no place left to go. "It's not going to harm you. Stand still and do as you're told."

"What if I don't want to?" Ethan found himself curling his arms protectively against his chest, as if that could possibly do any good. "What if I scream?"

Snape shrugged. "Go on, then. No one is around except the house elves, and they're used to people screaming in the spare rooms." He took another step forward.

"I'll tell Malfoy!" Ethan said desperately. Snape stopped and glared at him.

"You could do that, yes. And Malfoy will tell Voldemort, who will no doubt kill me in some prolonged and highly unpleasant manner. And you will be stuck here, with no one left to make the antidote for you. Is this what you want?"

Ethan had no idea what to think. Snape had as good as admitted that he was doing something Malfoy and Voldemort didn't know about and wouldn't approve, but Ethan was still reluctant to assume that any of it was going to be of any benefit to him. The thought of letting Severus Snape come anywhere near him with a needle was unbearable. But what choice did he have, in the end? Snape could paralyze him with a word and a wave of his wand. And if the greasy sod was trying to help, then Ethan couldn't afford to piss him off, could he?

"All right." Ethan stepped away from the wall and lowered his arms. "Just get it over with."

It was one of the hardest things he'd ever done, to stand there and not struggle while Snape drew blood from his arm, but Ethan managed it, though he couldn't quite keep himself from shivering. Snape worked in tight-lipped silence, filling and pocketing three vials of blood before putting away the syringe and leaving another bottle of antidote on the desk.

"Same as yesterday," he said. "Wait as long as you can before you take it. Write down everything that happens." And then he was gone, sweeping out of the room before Ethan had a chance to reply.

Ethan sat down on the bed, feeling cold and shaky. He stared at his arm, with the darkening bruise in the crook of the elbow where Snape had stuck his needle.

"Fucking bastard," he muttered, not sure if he was addressing Snape, or Voldemort, or himself, or the universe in general. The urge to just sit there and wallow in his misery was overwhelming, but he knew it wasn't going to help. There were things that needed to be done. He had to work on his own plans, regardless of what Snape was doing. Growling curses under his breath, Ethan rolled down his sleeve, fetched a book from one of the tottering piles next to the desk, and sat down to work.

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