The End of the Beginning

by Marina

Chapter 4

There was a time, Ethan reflected sourly, when he could've drunk all of Ripper's Scotch at night and still feel bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in the morning. That time was long past, though, and now he crawled out of bed at noon, feeling like something that had been scraped off the bottom of a shoe. Experience had taught him that simple remedies worked best; he staggered into the bathroom and gulped down three large glasses of water in quick succession, then crawled into the tub and turned the shower on as hot as he could stand.

By the time the water ran lukewarm he felt more or less human again -- enough to contemplate coffee and toast, anyway. *Not* enough to notice the uninvited guest in his living room until the stranger announced his presence with a loud cough. Ethan was quite proud of his reaction: he did not yelp, fall over, or jump for the ceiling. All he did was gasp a little and drop the towel he'd been rubbing his hair with.

"Pardon my intrusion," the stranger drawled in accents posh enough to raise the property values in the entire neighborhood. "I hope I didn't frighten you too badly."

"You didn't frighten me at all." Ethan left the towel where it was and leaned against the wall in what he hoped was a nonchalant manner. He was about three feet away from the counter that separated his living room from the kitchen area. There was a set of knives on the counter, each blade neatly slotted into its proper place in the wooden stand. Ethan did not look at it. "May I ask what you're doing in my flat?"

The stranger sat in the armchair by the window, perched stiffly on the edge of the seat, as if contact with such an inferior piece of furniture was an insult to his distinguished arse. He had light, silver-gray eyes and a pale, chiseled face with hair so blond it looked almost white in the sunlight that streamed through the window. No one with that coloring had any business wearing dark green, yet that was exactly what the man wore -- a long, flowing robe of what looked like raw silk, trimmed with black velvet and fastened with elaborate silver clasps shaped like entwined snakes. He should've looked like a corpse. Instead he looked like a Renaissance noble slumming in a peasant's hovel. Ethan became uncomfortably aware that he himself was dressed in nothing but a shabby flannel bathrobe which currently hung open in a way that did nothing for either style or modesty. He resisted the impulse to pull it shut and shoved his hands into his pockets instead. Let the bastard get an eyeful.

"You are Ethan Rayne, yes?" The man didn't even wait for Ethan's response before continuing. "I'm Lucius Malfoy. I wish to speak with you about a business proposition."

"That's nice." Ethan couldn't quite match Malfoy's accent, but he thought he did a pretty good job emulating the drawling tone. "Call for an appointment, and I'll see if I can fit you in sometime next week."

Malfoy reached inside his robe. Ethan kept his hands in his pockets. Malfoy pulled out a wand and polished it on sleeve. His face looked thoroughly bored, but something about the measured slowness of his movements made Ethan think he was wrestling with his temper.

"I know you met with Albus Dumbledore two days ago," he said. "And I know he tried to recruit you to work for him, and you turned him down. I -- and the people I represent -- think this shows remarkably good judgment on your part. We'd like to make you a better offer."

"Ah." Ethan wasn't exactly surprised, but he wasn't about to be taken in by Malfoy's unconvincing attempt at a friendly tone, either. He kept an eye on the man's wand and poised himself to duck if necessary. "You'll be with…" He searched his memory for the name. "Lord Voldemort, then?"

"Precisely." Malfoy gave his wand one final polish and tucked it into the cuff of his sleeve, where it was not immediately threatening yet easily accessible. More accessible, certainly, than any weapon Ethan himself might conceivably reach for. "Now I'm sure Dumbledore filled your head with all sorts of terrifying nonsense, but I hope you'll listen with an open mind."

Ethan considered asking what would happen if he said no, but decided not to push it. Not until he was in a better position to defend himself, anyway. "Do you mind if I get dressed first?"

"What? Oh, yes, of course." Malfoy looked faintly surprised, as if he'd only just noticed that Ethan was standing there with all his unmentionable bits hanging out. "Take your time."

Alone in the bedroom, Ethan surveyed his wardrobe and concluded that his one good suit would still look grubby next to Malfoy's archaic finery. So he decided to go to the other extreme and pulled out his shabbiest jeans, a Pink Floyd t-shirt he hadn't worn in years, and a denim jacket with plenty of pockets. He dressed quickly, then took a moment to dig through the box he kept in the back of his closet for emergencies, pocketing a number of crystals, vials and pouches that might prove useful. He had seen enough to know that he couldn't cast a spell from scratch faster than Malfoy could wave his wand, but with a little preparation he thought he could still beat the other wizard to the draw.

Back in the living room, Lucius Malfoy had deigned to settle more comfortably into the armchair and was sipping something that looked like cognac from a crystal snifter. Ethan, who owned neither cognac nor crystal and didn't feel up to consuming more alcohol anyhow, went into the kitchen and poured himself a glass of orange juice before sitting down on the couch.

"All right," he said. "My mind is open. Make your offer."

Malfoy circled the rim of his glass with one long finger, an elegant gesture he probably practiced in front of the mirror. "Lord Voldemort wishes to offer you employment," he said. "He can offer you a great deal of wealth and, more to the point, a great deal of power. I assume Dumbledore has told you that you cannot learn to do our kind of magic?"

Ethan nodded, interested in spite of himself. "His wand wouldn't work for u--for me. He said I wasn't born with the ability."

"Ah, yes." Malfoy looked smug. "That old story. Nonsense, of course. A wizard can't work with just any old wand -- it must be custom made, and it takes months of training before you can start getting any use of it. Letting you wave his wand around and declaring you're no wizard because you couldn't cast a spell is like handing you an unfamiliar musical instrument and declaring you're no musician because you can't immediately play it."

This confirmed Ethan's own suspicions, but he was careful to maintain a skeptical expression. "So Dumbledore was lying, then? You can teach me to do what you do?'

"In return for you teaching us. Magic for magic. A fair trade, wouldn't you say? More than fair, since you'll be getting paid. What do you say, Mr. Rayne?"

"That depends. What if I say no?"

Malfoy's smile lowered the temperature in the room by about twenty degrees. "I really suggest you do not."

Ethan stuck his right hand into his pocket and sorted through the items inside by feel until he felt his fingers close around a small packet of wax paper. He took a good grip on it and met Lucius Malfoy's pale gaze with a thin-lipped smile.

"I say, let your Lord make his offer himself. I don't deal with flunkies."

Malfoy's face turned a very unbecoming shade of pink when he was angry. "What did you say?"

Ethan enunciated very carefully, as if speaking to an idiot child. "I said, I don't deal with flunkies. You know -- messenger boys. Servants. I want to speak to somebody who actually has author--" he stopped talking, because Malfoy had sprung from his seat and was looming over him, wand raised. Ethan waited until Malfoy opened his mouth before pulling out the paper packet and blowing the powdery contents into the wizard's furious face.

A cloud of fine silvery dust surrounded Malfoy's head just in time for him to inhale a good lungful as he started to speak. He sputtered, coughed and froze like a statue, the tip of his wand held motionless about six inches in front of Ethan's nose.

"Why, thank you." Ethan plucked the wand from Malfoy's rigid fingers and tucked it into an inside jacket pocket. He stood and not-so-gently chucked Malfoy under the chin, closing his gaping mouth with a click. "Don't worry, the spell will wear off in a few minutes. Long enough, hopefully, for you to absorb the notion that I'm neither helpless nor stupid, and that I *really* don't like being threatened."

Ethan left Malfoy standing there while he went into the kitchen and put on the kettle. He toasted two slices of bread and buttered them, spooned instant coffee into a mug. The water boiled just as he took out the sugar. Ethan mixed his coffee, carried the mug and the plate of toast to the counter, pulled up a stool, sat, and looked at his wristwatch. "Seven… six… five…" He took out Malfoy's wand and held it in front of his face, gripping at both ends. "Four… three… two… one."


"Temper-temper…" Ethan flexed his hands. The wand bent a little, and Malfoy froze again, temporarily this time. "I'll break it if you don't behave."

Malfoy clenched and unclenched his fists a few times. His face had gone even more pink than before, clashing horribly with his robes, but when he finally spoke his voice was low and steady.

"My wand is of no use to you. Give it back."

"In a minute." Ethan held the wand out of sight behind the counter while he took a sip of his coffee. "Tell me -- have I made my point now?"

"Yes," Malfoy hissed. "Very well. I will not threaten you again."

"And you will take me to Voldemort?"


"Excellent. You may have your wand back when we arrive. But first, I must have my breakfast."

For a moment Malfoy looked as if he might attack after all. Then he spun on his heels, marched back to the armchair and sat down. Ethan gave him a cheery little wave and took a bite of toast.

By the time he finished, Malfoy had regained his normal pale coloring and haughty manner.

"Are you ready to go?" he demanded.

Ethan spread his arms. "Lead the way."

Malfoy dug into his pocket and produced a finely worked gold pocket watch on a thick, flat chain. He dangled it by the chain in front of Ethan's face like a stage hypnotist.

"When I count to three," he said, "touch the watch."

Ethan started to ask why, but Malfoy was already counting and ,really, how much harm could it do when Malfoy himself was holding the watch? One had to take a chance sooner or later. So when Malfoy said "Three," Ethan reached out and lightly touched one fingertip to the dial.

There was a sharp, painful tug behind his navel, and the world disappeared in a blinding rush of air.

A minute later, throwing up his breakfast onto a very fine parquetry floor, Ethan thought Lucius Malfoy might've found a way to kill him without a wand after all. He knelt with his hands braced against the wall in front of him and retched until he thought his insides would fall out, but then it passed and there he was, still alive.

Someone grabbed his collar and hauled him to his feet. Ethan was too dazed to tell who it was until he felt rough hands patting him down and reaching inside his jacket. Malfoy, retrieving his wand. Ethan wished he could throw up on the bastard's shoes, but the opportunity had passed.

"He got your wand, Lucius?" Someone appeared to be deeply amused by this. "Oh, I can't wait to hear the details."

"Sod off, Severus," Malfoy growled. "Dobby, why are you just standing there? Clean up this mess immediately."

"Yes, Sir!" a high-pitched voice squealed somewhere down at Ethan's knee level. "Right away, Sir. Dobby is sorry, Sir. Dobby is cleaning up right--"

"In silence, Dobby."

The squealed apologies faded to barely audible whimpers. A tiny, twig-limbed creature scurried forward, clutching a scrub brush nearly as big as itself, and began to frantically scrub the vomit-stained floor at Ethan's feet. Every spot the brush touched instantly shined clean. Little pink bubbles floated up from under the bristles and burst, permeating the air with the faint scent of gardenias.

Ethan sidled away from the creature, clutching the wall for support. His legs were still weak and his skin felt clammy, but he was recovered enough to take stock of his surroundings.

He was in a large, candle-lit room that looked as if it should've been on display in the Victoria and Albert museum. There were wrought-iron candelabras and mahogany chairs upholstered in silk brocade. Marquetry tables and porcelain urns. Leather-bound books in glass-fronted cases. Portraits of pale, platinum blond men and women with pointed chins sneered from the walls. Ethan sneered back, just on principle.

There were two occupants in the room besides Ethan and Malfoy, and both of them managed to clash hopelessly with the décor. One was a scrawny young man seated on the floor in front of the fireplace, hunched over with his feet tucked in and his elbows resting on his knees as he pored over a book. He had long, stringy black hair, which he'd tucked inside his collar to keep it out of the way. His face was gaunt and sallow, with sharp cheekbones and a nose about three sizes too big.

The other… the other wasn't human at all. Ethan gathered his wits with effort and forced himself to be calm, or at least to look calm. He had encountered demons before, but this tall, skeletal figure wasn't like any he'd ever seen or read about. The scaly gray skin was unmistakably reptilian, but the figure's size and color didn't match any of the snake or lizard species Ethan could name. The face was flat and expressionless, with blood-red eyes and a narrow slit for a mouth. The creature was draped in a floor-length robe of emerald-green velvet embroidered with silver snakes. It may have been just a trick of the candlelight, but to Ethan it looked as if some of the snakes were writhing.

"My Lord." Malfoy dropped to one knee, lifted the hem of the snake-creature's robe, and pressed it to his lips. "I have delivered the Muggle as you commanded."

That's Voldemort? The back of Ethan's neck prickled unpleasantly. He didn't like the looks of this reptilian Lord, didn't like the ready way Malfoy groveled before him, didn't like the thought of being "delivered" like a parcel. He'd thought he could control the situation well enough to bargain himself into an advantageous position, but now he wasn't so sure.

"Well done, Lucius." Voldemort's voice was a soft, icy hiss. "You have, of course, confirmed his… abilities?"

Malfoy nodded and rose to his feet. "Your source was correct, My Lord. He can do magic, or something that looks like magic. He… took my wand from me when I tried to attack him."

Under different circumstances, Ethan would've relished the note of enraged humiliation in Malfoy's voice, but now he was too busy worrying about the implications of his words. Had the entire confrontation in Ethan's flat been a test of some sort, a charade designed to discover what he could do? Malfoy's shock and anger were almost certainly genuine, but that could simply mean he hadn't expected Ethan to pass the test...

"You. Muggle." Voldemort's gaze held Ethan frozen in place as effectively as any spell. "Come here."

Ethan's instincts were screaming at him to bolt for the door, but he knew better than to attempt it. Even if he made it out of the room, he'd never leave the house. Ethan took a deep breath. Stay calm. Don't panic. They'd brought him here because they wanted something. He could use that. All he had to do was play along and wait for an opportunity.

"My Lord." He crossed the room with a reasonably steady gait, knelt, and kissed the hem of Voldemort's robe just as Malfoy had done. It hadn't been a trick of the light -- those embroidered snakes really did move. He actually felt them slithering against his lips. Ethan made no attempt to disguise his shudder. "How can I serve you?" Was that too much? Ethan sneaked a glance upward. It was difficult, but he thought Voldemort looked pleased. Apparently he was used to excessive groveling. Ethan lowered his head again and kept it lowered until a cold, scaly hand cupped his jaw and forced him to look up.

"I never thought I'd say this about one of your kind," Voldemort said softly, "but it seems you have skills I can use. Serve me well and I will let you live."

So much for promises of wealth and power. "What do you wish done, My Lord?"

"I want you to kill a man." Voldemort's hold tightened painfully, one sharp claw digging into the soft flesh under Ethan's left ear. "He hides behind wards and concealing spells; my magic cannot reach him. But it seems that yours can." He leaned forward until his face was nearly touching Ethan's. His breath was cold and stale, like the air in a crypt. "I want you to kill Albus Dumbledore for me."

Ethan looked up into the glowing red eyes and tried not to blink. "No problem," he said.

"Good." Voldemort released his grip and stepped back, gesturing for Ethan to rise to his feet. "Do it, then."

"Uhm… You mean right now?." Ethan retreated a few quick steps, putting a pricey-looking crystal vase in the line of fire between himself and Voldemort. "I'm afraid it's not that simple. I'll need my books, some supplies, time to prepare..."

"He's stalling, My Lord." The stringy-haired kid finally deigned to look up from his book, mouth curled into a corrosive sneer. "I don't believe he can really do it."

"Of course I can do it!" Ethan snapped. "But we're not talking about some minor parlor trick here. If you wanted me to snuff some random fellow in the street, I could do it in a couple of minutes. But if Dumbledore was that easy to kill, I'm guessing you'd have done it yourselves by now." He returned the kid's sneer, then composed his face into a more respectful expression as he turned back to Voldemort. "I can give you what you want, My Lord. But you'll have to trust me on the details."

Voldemort's response was a series of short, soft hisses. The sound made Ethan's skin creep; it took him several seconds to recognize it as laughter. "Trust a Muggle?" His hand held a wand now, though Ethan hadn't seen him retrieve it "No, I don't think I will. Imperio."

It was like being suddenly immersed in a warm bath. Ethan gave a deep, contented sigh as the tension flowed from his body. He felt weightless, mellow, wonderfully relaxed. He didn't understand why he had been so afraid a few seconds before. Voldemort wasn't at all frightening. He was beautiful, really, with those gleaming red eyes. He was telling Ethan what he wanted done and Ethan was happy to do it, he really was; it was what he'd always wanted to do anyway, he'd just never seen it quite so clearly before...

Bollocks, a rebellious little voice murmured in the back of his head. Why are you letting that snake-faced git order you around?

I'm not! He wasn't. Lord Voldemort was being perfectly reasonable, after all, and anyway, Ethan didn't want to think about any of this; he just wanted to sink into this warm, cozy feeling and do what he was told.

You do? The little voice, which sounded disconcertingly like Ripper, gave a contemptuous snort. Since when? And why?

Because... Ethan's thoughts trailed off into a confused fog. Because... He didn't have an answer, and the more he struggled for one, the more that comforting warmth around him receded. Its loss was painful. Ethan whimpered, and the sound of his own voice jarred him back to cold reality. His legs buckled and he had to grab the edge of a nearby table to keep from falling. The feel of the wood digging into his palm was strangely reassuring. Ethan tightened his grip until it started to hurt.

"Don't," he said through clenched teeth, "do that again."

Voldemort's eyes narrowed to angry, glowing slits, and Lucius Malfoy's smirk wavered. Belatedly, it occurred to Ethan that he might've done better to at least pretend to go along with the mind-control spell. He plastered a smile on his face and hoped he looked confident rather than desperate.

"This is completely unnecessary, you know. I told you, I'll do as you ask. But I can't do it if I'm dead, or crippled, or if my mind isn't free to function. You want the old man dead? Then leave me alone and let me get on with it."

"Don't trust him, My Lord." It was the stringy-haired kid again. Ethan was starting to dislike him even more than he disliked Malfoy. "Our cause is not his cause. We can't control him, and we don't know the magic he claims to do. If we let him get on with a spell, how do we know he won't turn it against you?"

"Severus." Voldemort swept across the room to loom over the kid, who put his book aside and rose to his feet in one surprisingly graceful movement. Standing, even with his head bowed, he was as tall as Voldemort. "Are you suggesting that *I* could be harmed by his pathetic Muggle tricks?"

Severus' face turned pasty, but he stood his ground. "You're expecting Dumbledore to be harmed by them."

It was hard to interpret emotions in that reptilian face, but Ethan got the distinct feeling that Voldemort was not pleased with Severus' response. He wasn't the only one getting that impression, either: Malfoy was edging away with the air of a man trying to get out of blast range. Severus stood perfectly still, but a vein in his left temple was twitching.

Then Voldemort laughed again, and the tension in the air dissipated. "Your concern for my welfare does you credit, Severus. Still, it's a risk we must take." He turned to Ethan again. "I want fast results, Muggle. What do you need?"

Ethan licked his lips. "There is something I can try that would work relatively quickly, provided I have the supplies. I need five black tallow candles, some chalk, and three pints of virgin blood, preferably female."

No one in the room seemed in the least bit startled by this request. Voldemort and Severus both turned to look at Malfoy, who smiled thinly.

"I believe I have a reasonably fresh supply in the dungeon storeroom," he said. "Unless Severus used it all up the last time he was brewing in there. In which case we can always go and fetch more from the village."

Severus raised one black eyebrow and smirked. "There are still female virgins left in the vicinity, Lucius? Knowing your habits, I'm surprised."

Malfoy matched his smirk. "Jealous, Severus?"

"Enough," Voldemort said impatiently. "We're wasting time. Go, Severus. Bring what we need."

Severus bowed and headed for the door. Voldemort followed, pulling the young man to a stop at the threshold. They lingered there for a moment, exchanging whispered words Ethan couldn't make out, then Severus bowed again and left.

He returned about ten minutes later, bearing two small boxes and a large glass bottle on a tray. "Sorry for the delay. You really need to keep your storeroom better organized, Lucius. I had to look in three different cupboards to find the blood."

Malfoy shrugged. "You're the one who's always in there, and you won't let me send a house elf in to clean. If anything's out of place, it's your own damn fault."

"Never mind." Ethan grabbed the tray, wondering how Voldemort put up with this shit. *When I'm a powerful Dark Lord, I'm going to make my minions play nice.* "Is there a room you generally use for things like this? Someplace where you wouldn't mind a mess on the floor?"

Once again, Malfoy was completely unfazed by the request. "We can use the yellow parlor. There's no carpet there, and Dobby can clean the floor afterwards."

The yellow parlor was admirably large and sparsely furnished. Ethan set the tray down on the windowsill and moved all the chairs to the back wall.

"I'm going to summon a Pria Motu demon," he announced. "It's an assassin, and it's not especially choosy about what it kills, so don't hark it off. The handy thing about the Pria Motu is, it only needs the target's name in order to track it down. I assume Albus Dumbledore *is* his real name?" Voldemort nodded. "Good. Let's get started, then."

It was a matter of minutes to draw the pentagram and the appropriate runes, to light the candles at the five points, and to speak the incantation. Ethan kept an eye on his audience as he worked, noting that while Malfoy took great pains to look bored and contemptuous and Voldemort seemed to ignore the proceedings completely, Severus followed every word and movement with a concentrated air that suggested he was committing the whole thing to memory. Ethan made a mental note to place extra wards around his flat at the earliest opportunity, in case a Pria Motu came calling on *him* in the near future.

He chanted the final words and poured the blood into the center of the pentagram. It bubbled and hissed as it hit, as if the floor was hot. The red stain spread in an unnaturally perfect circle, covering the chalk lines beneath it as it grew. When it reached the points of the star, the candles hissed and flared, sending jets of green sparks shooting to the ceiling. A cloud of green smoke filled the room, and when it cleared the Pria Motu was standing there.

It certainly made for an impressive sight, with its hulking, muscled body, armored skin and ridged skull. Being seven feet tall didn't hurt either. Malfoy swore under his breath, Severus rocked back in his chair, and Voldemort emitted a barely audible hiss. Ethan suspected that none of them had expected him to actually accomplish anything, let alone anything this dramatic. He allowed himself a moment of quiet internal gloating before focusing on the demon before him.

"I have summoned you with fire and innocent blood," he announced, "and bound you according to the rules of your kind. You owe me a death now."

"I owe you a death," the demon agreed. "Give me a name."

For a brief, reckless moment, Ethan wondered what would happen if he pointed to Voldemort and said, "Get that one," but he immediately discarded the thought. The Pria Motu might have managed it, but the chances of Ethan surviving long enough to enjoy the results were too low to make it worth the bother. So he took a deep breath and said, "Albus Dumbledore."

"It will be done." And the demon vanished in a gust of wind that extinguished the candles.

"There." Ethan wiped his hands on his jeans. "Now we wait."

"How exciting," Severus drawled. "Accio *Most Potente Potions*." There was a loud whoosh of air, and the book he'd been reading earlier flew through the open door and smacked into his hand. He opened it and immediately became absorbed again.

Malfoy glared at Ethan with undisguised hostility. "How will we know if that… thing succeeds?"

"The Pria Motu have a tradition of bringing back trophies from their kills." Ethan made a point of directing his explanation to Voldemort rather than Malfoy. "Some body part from the victim, usually. So don't worry, you'll have your proof."

"It is not I who should be worried," Voldemort pointed out.

Ethan licked his lips again. Malfoy sneered.

Minutes ticked by, punctuated only by the occasional rustle of paper as Severus turned a page. Ethan stood by the window, looking out at an impressive if somewhat grotesque topiary maze -- the trees were sculpted into snakes, dragons and assorted mythological monsters -- and concentrated on resisting the desire to pace. He could feel both Voldemort and Malfoy watching him, and he was fairly sure that Malfoy, at least, was hoping for him to fail.

The explosion of green flames in the fireplace made everyone jump, even Severus, who had to fumble to keep from dropping his book. Something landed on the hearth with a dull, heavy thud and rolled forward. As the flames winked out, Ethan could see that the object was a large, cloth-wrapped bundle. Thick green slime seeped through the cloth and oozed across the flagstones. A rancid smell filled the air.

Ethan took a step toward the fireplace, but Severus got there first, pulling up the sleeves of his robe and squatting at the edge of the hearth. He unwrapped the bundle, apparently unbothered either by the smell or the slime that dripped over his hands, and lifted out the contents for everyone else to see.

The Pria Motu's severed head gazed at them with wide, empty eyes. Severus turned it over in his hands, frowning.

"There's something in its mouth." He jammed his fingers between the slack gray lips, pulled out something small and golden, examined it closely in his cupped palm, and abruptly lowered his head. His hair fell forward to hide his face from Voldemort and Malfoy, but Ethan, standing on the other side, saw the corners of his mouth twitch. When he spoke, his voice was perfectly steady.

"It's a sherbet lemon, My Lord."

At any other time, Ethan would've been filled with sincere admiration for Albus Dumbledore. At the moment, however, he was too busy contemplating the merits of pitching himself head first out the window.

Malfoy didn't even bother trying to pretend he wasn't gloating. "Is that the best you can do, Muggle?"

"No," Ethan said emphatically, once again talking past Malfoy to Voldemort. "It's *not* the best I can do. It is, however, all I could do at a moment's notice, without my usual books and supplies, against an enemy which *you*, from what I understand, have been fighting to a standstill for over a decade. At the risk of stating the obvious, let me point out that if this--" he gestured toward the severed demon head. "--is really Dumbledore's work, then Pria Motu must've gotten pretty up-close and personal with him, past whatever defenses he has in place. Have you ever gotten this close to the old man before?"

Voldemort lifted one clawed, skeletal hand and scratched thoughtfully at his chin. His nails made a rough, sandpapery sound as he dragged them across scaly skin. He gazed at Malfoy, who was still gloating, then at Severus, who was scraping demon slime from the flagstones into a glass vial, and finally at Ethan.

"No," he admitted. "No one in my command has ever gotten this close."

Malfoy's sneer transformed into a highly unattractive pout. "And what good does that do us? The thing got close enough to be killed, that's all."

"But that's not all." Voldemort's voice rose enthusiastically. "The creature got inside Hogwarts, Lucius, possibly even inside Dumbledore's own quarters. Past all the protective spells, past the Antiapparition wards… think of the possibilities! Even if we can't get the old fool himself, we can get at the place he values most. His precious Hogwarts is no longer a safe haven." He reached out to stroke the edge of Ethan's jaw with one long finger. "You've done well, Muggle."

Ethan ducked his head. "I'm honored to be of service, Lord."

"Oh, I'm sure you are." Voldemort sounded amused. "And I'm sure you will be again. Still, it always helps to make sure…" He raised one hand in a beckoning motion.

"Petrificus totalus!" It was Severus' voice. Ethan had almost forgotten about him, focused as he'd been on Voldemort and Malfoy. Now he silently cursed his own carelessness as his muscles stiffened into immobility. He could breathe; he could blink; that was it.

Severus walked to Voldemort's side, tucking his wand back inside his sleeve. His face was composed, his movements perfectly smooth and calm. Voldemort's narrow slit of a mouth curved into something that may have been a fond smile. "Very good, Severus. Do you have the potion?"

"Right here, My Lord." Severus produced a small glass bottle from an inside pocket. He placed it on the sill and dug into another pocket for an oblong black box with a hinged lid that sprang open with a click. Inside the box was a small glass syringe.

Ethan was screaming at the top of his lungs, but the sound refused to make it past his throat. He thrashed inside his own frozen body like a panicked beast in a too-small cage. He could feel his heart pounding in his chest, the blood racing in his veins. He couldn't twitch a finger.

Severus took the bottle from the sill and removed the stopper. The liquid inside was a pale aquamarine blue. He filled the syringe, squeezed it briefly to get rid of the air bubbles, and rolled up Ethan's left sleeve. There was a quick, sharp sting as the needle slid in, a deeper pain as it slid out a few seconds later. Severus took out his wand again.

"Finite incantatem."

The paralysis vanished as fast as it had come. Ethan staggered forward.

"What did you--" The words cut off in an agonized howl as every muscle in his body spasmed with pain. Ethan dropped to his knees, then collapsed face forward onto the floor. It felt as if his flesh was trying to tear itself from his bones. He writhed and clawed at the floorboards, whimpering.

He was vaguely aware of hands holding his head, of something being forced into his mouth, of a cold, thick liquid trickling down his throat. It tasted foul, and he gagged and sputtered, but couldn't help swallowing some of it. A few seconds later, the pain began to fade.

For a while, all Ethan could do was lie there and shake. Eventually the trembling stopped, and he rolled over onto his back and sat up. Standing seemed like too ambitious an undertaking so he stayed where he was, staring down at the floor.

Severus stood in front of him. He knew it was Severus because he was wearing scuffed black boots and a plain black robe stained with Pria Motu slime at the hem. Ethan didn't want to be anywhere near him, but moving seemed impossibly difficult; the best he could do was shrink away.

"That was a temporary antidote," Severus said from above him. "You will need another dose in twenty-four hours, and every twenty-four hours after that."

There was a rustle of cloth as Voldemort came over to stand next to Severus. The snakes on his robe wiggled their forked tongues at Ethan. He closed his eyes so that he wouldn't have to see them, but couldn't close his ears to shut out Voldemort's voice.

"You will go back to your home and collect your belongings. You will leave messages for your family and friends telling them you're going away for a while. Severus will accompany you and bring you back here. Do good work for me, and you will have your antidote every day."

Ethan opened his eyes and looked up. Two gaunt faces looked down at him, human and reptile, both equally cold. "How do I know you're telling the truth?"

"You don't." Severus said calmly. "Feel free to disbelieve. Head off for parts unknown, we won't stop you. Of course, tomorrow, when the pain comes back, you won't know how to find us. We may seek you out again." He smiled thinly. "Or we may not."

Ethan's legs still felt like jelly, but he climbed to his feet and made himself stand up straight. He wasn't sure why he bothered, really -- pointless displays of pride were not his style -- but it seemed important somehow.

"You didn't need to do that," he said and was pleased at the steadiness of his own voice. "I came here willing to work with you, you know? But have it your way. Let's go."

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