DISCLAIMER: The Harry Potter series and all the characters associated with it are the property solely of J. K. Rowling, her agents and publishers. No infringement of any rights is intended from the creation of this story. Nor is any money being made from it.
Circles of Power
Part Twenty-Eight - Into The Darkness
By Mad Martha
It took a moment or two for Ron Weasley to work out exactly what had happened. One minute he had been cheering Harry on to the Snitch; the next, there had been a familiar tugging sensation somewhere behind his navel and he was here - wherever here was. The room he was in didn't offer many clues to location, but it wasn't anywhere he was familiar with.
At least he wasn't alone though. When he landed on the carpet - with a heavy thump and a gasp - someone else landed with him, someone who fell to their knees with a sharp squeak of pain.
Ron dragged himself to his own knees, then to his feet, and reached out to help her up. She looked quite shaken.
"Yeah, it's me. What happened? And where are we?"
He looked around. The room they were in was like a bedchamber in a grand old castle, with stone walls, a high ceiling and slightly moth-eaten, faded furnishings from a bygone era. There were tatty hangings on the walls, sturdy wooden chairs with faded upholstery, and a huge four-poster bed with curtains that were beginning to rot away from their finishings. There was a big stone fireplace near where they had fallen; it was empty of kindling, but there was an enormous mirror hanging above it in an ornate, gilded frame.
"It felt like a portkey," Hermione said to him shakily.
"Which means one of us must have touched it," Ron replied. "Do you remember touching anything strange? Because I certainly didn't."
"I think it was this," and she held out a tiny silver object.
Ron took it warily; it was a very worn silver coin of a type he didn't recognise. If it was a portkey, it was only set for one way. "Where did you get this?"
"Draco dropped it," Hermione said. "I picked it up and …." She shrugged. "I must have been touching you somehow at the time."
Ron frowned. Draco had been on one side of him and Hermione on the other, and there hadn't been much room in the stands for manoeuvring. It was possible that she had been brushing against him if she was reaching around him, but: "I don't remember that."
"Probably because you were jumping up and down and yelling at the time," she said wryly.
"Draco …." Ron got a very cold feeling in his stomach. Stupid as it seemed, he had started to trust Draco. "I don't understand. How could he have something like this on him and us not know?"
"It's just a coin," Hermione pointed out. "Not exactly something you're going to notice him having in his pocket." She turned away, looking around at the room. "I know this is a long shot, but - could this be somewhere inside Hogwarts?"
"Hermione …." Ron stared at her in surprise. "What possible legitimate reason could he have for having an active portkey on him?" Actually, the more he thought about this, the stranger it seemed. Draco couldn't easily have had an ordinary portkey in his pocket without activating it by accident, so it had to be keyed in some way, either to a person or to a specific time. And that still didn't explain …. "I'm not saying it's necessarily a Dark object, but I can't think of a good reason for him carrying it about. So why didn't his Seal activate?"
Hermione turned back to him, frowning. "What seal?"
"What do you mean, what seal? The Seal of Honour, remember? That thing we both have on our backs?"
For a second she looked quite blank; then the frown was back. "I think we have bigger problems than wondering just how Draco came to be in possession of a portkey," she said flatly. "I for one would like to know exactly where we are and how we get out of here again! Because somehow I don't think this can be a good place for us to be, do you?"
She gave the stunned Ron a sharp glare and started to investigate the room. "You know, I really don't think this is Hogwarts. It just looks wrong to me. Any suggestions?"
Ron stared at her, bewildered. For a moment it had almost sounded like she didn't know what he was talking about when he mentioned the Seal of Honour … but that was ridiculous, because she'd been present on both occasions when it had been used.
"If the portkey belonged to Malfoy, then maybe this is Malfoy Manor," he suggested uncertainly. "Not that I've ever been there, but it's described in Notable Architecture of the Wizarding World as being a converted mediaeval castle. Although this looks a bit … worn out for Lucius Malfoy's tastes."
"When did you ever read that?" Hermione walked over to a long arrow-slit style window and peered out. There was a pause, then she added, "If it is Malfoy Manor, it's been transported halfway across Europe."
"Eh? What do you mean?" Ron joined her, looking over her head through the window.
His stomach dropped. Unless Malfoy Manor was perched on the side of Ben Nevis, they were definitely somewhere else. The building was built right into the sheer face of a mountain, and stared out across an intimidating range of other mountains, all of which were capped with snow and wreathed in mist. Dense forest covered the lower slopes.
"Oh shit," he breathed, taking a step back. This couldn't be happening, it was unreal …. "Hermione, where the hell are we?"
"The locals have a specific word for this place, Mr. Weasley," a voice said unexpectedly, "but I doubt that you could pronounce it."
Ron nearly leapt out of his skin and whipped around quickly. There was no one there and he took several steps back, heart suddenly hammering, until he was pressed up against Hermione's side.
The disembodied voice continued, "The rest of us call this place the Apuseni Mountains. Welcome to Transylvania."
Something stirred inside the depths of the mirror above the fireplace. The reflection of the bed opposite it shivered and rippled like a stone dropped into a pool of water, then the ripples widened and grew, and the glass suddenly bulged outwards. The air in the room seemed to turn thick and tight for a moment –
- and a tall figure in floor length, silver-grey robes stepped out of the mirror and dropped to the floor lightly. The surface of the mirror snapped back into perfect smoothness and the air returned to normal, albeit leaving a unpleasant metallic tang behind.
The figure turned to face them, and Ron only just bit back a cry of horror.
It was Lord Voldemort.
Well, you idiot, his brain told him in a cross, prissy voice just like Percy's. Just who did you expect it to be? The ghost of Godric Gryffindor? But Ron had never seen the living Voldemort before, only illusions and artists' impressions, and he felt he could be pardoned for his lack of preparation for the reality.
Holy cow, but this – this creature was ugly and in a really disturbing way. Superficially, Voldemort was a man; he had human form and generally human features. But his eyes were slit-pupilled like a cat's and red like a demon's; his nose was flattened and ended in two small, reptilian slits; and his skin was pasty-white and had an odd sheen to it, not quite scales exactly, but almost as though he suffered from an horrendous skin disease like psoriasis, only much, much worse. He was very tall, easily as tall as Ron himself, but his frame was narrow and skeletal, looking stretched out.
But the eyes were the worst part without a doubt. The combination of red, elliptic eyes and reptilian nostrils made him look like a snake or Naga, which added credibility to why in some quarters Voldemort was referred to as the Master of Serpents. He was a Parselmouth after all. At one time he'd even possessed a giant snake as his familiar, although the monster had been destroyed by Remus Lupin and Sirius Black during the incident that had secured the capture of Peter Pettigrew. And there had been the basilisk in the Chamber of Secrets ....
The red eyes were watching Ron now with an eerie, unblinking stillness, emphasising the resemblance to a snake, and when he spoke there was a hint of sibilance in his high, cold voice.
"Mr. Weasley ... Miss Granger. Welcome to my current home."
Ron wondered for a mad second if he was actually supposed to thank the man for his hospitality or something. And if he didn't, would Voldemort take offence? Hermione saved him the bother.
"Why are we here?" she asked, and her voice shook just a little.
"Because I want you here."
Ask a stupid question, Ron thought disgustedly, and was shocked to hear himself asking boldly, "Okay, so we're here. What do you want with us?"
"From Miss Granger? Nothing." Voldemort smiled as he said this, and it froze Ron's blood. "From you, Mr. Weasley ... well, I am still giving that some thought. In the meantime – " He half turned towards the door behind him and flicked his wand at it casually.
The door flew open and two figures dressed in heavy, hooded black robes walked in. It was impossible to see anything of their features, but there was something not quite right about the way they moved; it was odd, regimented, and yet stiff.
Voldemort turned back to the two of them. "Oblige me, Miss Granger, by accompanying my servants."
"Why should I?" Her voice quavered up a register.
"I can, of course, dispose of you here and now." The tone remained quite friendly and amiable, even faintly amused; Ron stiffened and beside him he felt Hermione shudder.
Quickly, he thrust an arm out in front of her to prevent her moving. Staring defiantly at the other wizard, he said, "She's not going anywhere."
The amusement in the lizard-like face became overt. "Do you really think so, Mr. Weasley?" There was a tiny pause. "Are you challenging my authority?"
"Ron, don't – " Hermione clutched at his arm in alarm.
Challenging Voldemort was something Ron had only ever half-heartedly joked about when he knew it wasn't going to happen. Face to face with the reality, he felt cold sweat breaking out all over his body. This creature, this wizard, had power he had only ever felt in the presence of one other person – Dumbledore. Mostly you didn't even feel it then. But there had been a few occasions when Dumbledore's magic, combined with the force of his personality, fairly crackled in the air around him and the same electric aura surrounded Voldemort.
But Ron knew now that power didn't have to reside in just one wizard. Locking eyes with the Dark Lord, he reached out inside himself to the silky, ethereal cord that bound him to Harry and Draco.
"Oh, I don't think so." The sibilant voice dropped to the merest whisper. "Enviola!"
Time seemed to stop between one breath and the next. When Ron sucked in his next lungful of air, it was to discover that Hermione and the two black-clad servants were gone, and that he had just locked a curious plaited leather bracelet around his own wrist. Worse, Voldemort was holding a wand – Ron's wand.
"That's a good lad," Voldemort said, and smiled.
The bottom dropped out of Ron's stomach. What the hell had just happened? And what - "What is this?"
The leather felt obscenely warm against his wrist. And he couldn't feel the link to Harry at all.
"A little something to ensure you don't get out of hand." That lipless, reptilian smile was beginning to turn Ron's stomach. "You are a veritable treasure-trove of gifts, Mr. Weasley, did you know that? I hardly know where to begin with you. You were born into one of the oldest pureblood wizard families in England. You are one of the finest natural Seers born in over a century. You appear to have an inherent trait that enables a wizard circle to function. And you just happen to be Harry Potter's closest friend."
"Are you planning to use me against him?" Ron's voice shook and he was infuriated that he couldn't stop it.
"Oh, I don't think so." That was an eye-opener, but Ron didn't have long to wonder at it. "We've tried that already, haven't we? And Harry miraculously escaped again." Voldemort began to pace back and forth slowly, almost strolling across the worn carpet, as he spoke. "No, all my previous attempts to destroy young Mr. Potter by proxy have so far failed. Tools have their limits, after all, and there comes a point where one has to dirty one's hands. No, I think I shall savour Harry's demise in person ... the way it was always meant to be."
It was tempting to point out that the last time Voldemort had faced Harry in person, he'd also rather spectacularly failed to kill him, but Ron wasn't quite suicidal yet and he suspected that the whole Tri-Wizard Cup fiasco probably rankled as much with its author as it had with the victims.
So instead he asked, "What do you plan to do with me, then?"
Voldemort came to halt just in front of him, and smiled that serpentine smile again. "I shall savour your company, Mr. Weasley. In addition to your other talents, I believe you are an accomplished chess player."
Ron stared at him. This was too lunatic to be believed. "You want ... to play chess with me?"
The Dark Lord gave an artificial little sigh. "It's so difficult – as I'm sure you will understand – to find really able chess opponents. My dear friend Lucius, though possessing many excellent qualities, is hardly up to my standard. Are you acquainted with Lucius Malfoy?"
"Not as well as I'd like," Ron replied, thinking of Lucius Malfoy's continuing resistance to capture, and Voldemort chuckled. The hissing edge to the sound sent nasty prickles up Ron's spine. "What about Hermione?" he asked.
Voldemort chuckled again. "Ah yes – dear Miss Granger. I'm sure we can arrange for her to be present too." Turning his back on Ron, he began to stroll to the door, but when he got there he paused and turned back to look at his captive. "Do make yourself at home in this chamber. My servants will see to your comfort and refreshment. And when you're ready, perhaps you'll join me in the main hall for dinner – I have another guest I'd like you to meet."
The idea of eating in the presence of such a creature - in fact, the idea of being able to eat at all under such circumstances - was so nauseating that Ron nearly told Voldemort where he could stick his dinner. Fortunately for his own continued safety, the dark wizard had quietly exited via the door before he could frame the words.
The door clicked shut, and Ron was on it immediately, twisting the handle. To his astonishment it turned quite easily under his hand, but when he pulled it open he found himself facing no less than four of the faceless, black-robed servants. Smiling at them weakly, he stepped back and shut the door again.
He was stuck here in some mouldering old castle in Transylvania - Transylvania! - at the behest of Lord Voldemort. He had no wand, he was cut off from Harry and Draco, and Hermione was -
Ron sat down gingerly on one of the chairs and wrapped his arms around his middle, tucking his hands into his armpits. He was starting to shake with reaction, and his thoughts were going around in circles.
Draco. Hermione. And Harry - oh God, Harry …. Harry would probably be going out of his mind with worry.
How the hell had Draco got hold of a portkey? Had he made it himself? If he had, how had he managed it when he had the Seal of Honour on his back? And how had Hermione managed to pick it up like that without Ron seeing? For the life of him, he couldn't remember her bending down or reaching around him at the moment when Harry caught the Snitch. Dammit - okay, his attention had been elsewhere, but there had been so little room in the packed stands that he would have noticed if she'd done something like that. And besides, how could she have seen something so small dropping out of Draco's pocket when Ron was standing between them? Nor did he understand that flash of incomprehension in her eyes when he'd mentioned the Seal of Honour.
None of it made any sense. How could Draco have created a portkey that was keyed to a specific time or person, that would take them directly to Voldemort's hideaway? He'd sworn under Veritaserum that he didn't know where Voldemort was. Unless …. Ron dragged one hand out and rubbed the side of his nose anxiously. Okay … much as he hated to admit it, maybe Draco had been contacted by someone - a Death Eater - recently. He had a new wand and it wouldn't have been difficult for a wizard of his skills to create the portkey.
It still didn't explain the Seal of Honour. The whole Auror Facility should have known if he was up to anything remotely Dark-related.
It just didn't make sense, any of it.
And what the hell was happening to Hermione? Was she locked up too? Were they hurting her? What could he do about it if they were?
Ron looked around the room again, and grimaced. This had probably been quite a grand place once, but it was definitely looking a bit run-down. It was cold too, and he had no way of making a fire to warm it up. At this rate he would be forced to join Voldemort for dinner, just in the hopes that it would be warmer in the main hall; maybe that was Voldemort's intention. He wondered once more at the castle. Transylvania had been the favoured haunt of Grindelwald in his day, but surely this couldn't be Grindelwald's Retreat?
Not that it wouldn't be just like Voldemort to set up shop in the home of the previous would-be Master of the World.
Ron's eyes fell on the giant mirror above the fireplace, and he scowled. Not only was it clearly anything but an ordinary mirror, but it was also directly opposite the bed, which seemed more than a little kinky to him. When he and Harry first got together their first few months in the student house had been spent in separate rooms, and Ron, quite without thinking, had hung his full-length mirror on the closet door opposite his bed. Harry hadn't been very amused when he saw it there.
A tiny grin formed on Ron's lips at the memory, only to slide away again. Harry …. Without thinking about it, his fingers strayed to the thin gold bracelet he wore on his left wrist, twin to the one Harry wore. Those had been his idea, something he'd bought for Harry's eighteenth birthday. Thinking about it, it had been a bit of a rash move on his part, considering that they hadn't been together for more than three weeks at that point. But he'd been quite certain that he wanted a long-term relationship, and despite his initial doubts Harry had been keen to pursue it too ....
His fingers suddenly encountered the plaited leather band Voldemort had made him don. Ron examined it for the first time and discovered that it had no fastenings of any kind – the loop was smooth and endless, but fitted snugly enough that it couldn't be slipped over his hand. There wasn't even enough give in it for him to ease a fingertip underneath, but when he tried he could a feel a subtle magical deadness about it that cut off the link to Harry through the wizard circle.
It didn't affect his other bracelet, though and he felt a bitter triumph at this. Over time the gold band had developed a weak but reassuring psychic link to Harry and although it was nothing more than a trace of warmth, a whisper of a sensation under his fingers, he could tell that his lover was alive and well. That was something.
Thinking like this wasn't going to get him anywhere, though. Training, Weasley, training. The Auror training programme covered capture by Dark agents in some detail.
First: Know your limits. That was a curious little phrase of Moody's, and it didn't just refer to the limits of the Auror himself. Ron got up again and began going over the room as methodically as he could, first examining it by eye alone and then in more depth.
Okay. This was a medium-sized room (perhaps twice the size of the room Ron shared with Harry at the student house), with stone walls, a polished hardwood floor, a sturdy, iron-chased door, and a small arrow-slit of a window. The window was glazed and had ancient iron bars outside; it looked out from a smooth outer castle wall over a sheer cliff face with a drop that looked pretty well endless.
The door was unlocked, but had no bolt or bar on the inside. It was made of thick oak planking. It had four heavy iron hinges and a large ring-handle opening inwards, and there were long, flat pieces of iron extending horizontally across the surface to support it. The lintels were of stone, just as the walls were of plain, dressed stone. No plaster, panelling or other dressings. The door opened into a passage, but more than that Ron didn't know. He had no idea of what storey his room was on, or how many storeys the castle boasted. He could walk out if it if he wanted to, but only if he cared to tangle with Voldemort's minions – and Voldemort himself. There was no tingling when he touched the door, however, so it did seem that he wasn't even being restrained by magic.
The door appeared to be the only way out of the room, but that remained to be seen.
Ways into the room, however – those were a different matter. Ron's eyes fell on the mirror once again, with a feeling of great dislike. Any mirror could be used for magical purposes if the wizard or witch concerned had the knowledge and power to do it, but actual magic mirrors weren't really very common in the wizarding world, largely because it took a Master Glass-Smith of extraordinary magical skill to create them. Ron had only ever seen three before this one – the Mirror of Erised, the mirror portal into the Auror Facility, and the great magic mirror at the Ministry that served to transport officials from Great Britain to other Ministries around the world. Rumour had it that there was at least one other at Hogwarts too, in Dumbledore's room, but if there was Ron had never seen it and he didn't think Harry had either.
That this mirror was here could not be a coincidence. They were too valuable just to be left hanging around, so this whole set-up had clearly been planned in advance and in some detail. Well, that was no surprise. But Ron really hated having that mirror watching over him. Aside from being used to transport people, they could also be used as magical spies in the same way that he would use a scrying bowl. There was no way of telling if he was being observed right at this minute.
That being the case, he didn't want to examine the room any further until he had at least tried to neutralise the threat it posed. The obvious answer was to smash the glass, but the enchantments inside a magic mirror were dangerously potent, making it a risky endeavour. And Voldemort might not be too happy if a useful artefact like this was damaged by his captive. That left two other options; to cover it or to turn it to face the wall. Given the choice, Ron preferred to turn it, as covering it might not prevent the mirror being used.
He eyed it doubtfully for several minutes, though. It was enormous, about five feet square, and looked pretty heavy. He dragged the sturdiest of the chairs up to the fireplace and stood on it, taking time to examine the mirror as best he could and see how it was hung. It was on a heavy piece of chain hanging from a hook bolted into the wall. He gave the frame an experimental shove and it didn't move. Heavy as lead. There was no way he could lift this thing down, and even if he could move it, there didn't appear to be enough play in the chain to turn it around.
Shaking his head and jumping down from the chair, Ron went over to the bed and grabbed one of the mouldering curtains. A sharp tug, and it tore away from the rings and hooks that suspended it from the rail. Clouds of dust enveloped him, making him cough, but he dragged it back to the fireplace and climbed onto the chair again. It took a couple of attempts, but eventually the face of the mirror was swathed in faded blue velvet.
Not having the mirror staring down at him made Ron feel a little easier, but it certainly made the room seem smaller and darker. Putting the chair back against the wall, he continued his examinations.
First, he rolled back the rugs. The floor was made of some naturally dark, very dense wood. Surprisingly, there was little sign of worm or dry rot considering the neglect it had suffered, but it hadn't been polished in years and the surface was dull and dusty. The rugs themselves were very mildewed and smelled of mouse-droppings, although there was little other sign of rodent infestation, for which he was grateful. Ron hadn't felt the same about rats and mice since he'd discovered Scabbers was really a middle-aged Death Eater.
There were no hidden doors in the floor, and none in the walls. Gritting his teeth, Ron even scrambled under the bed to check, but it was just a mahogany bedstead, standing on a solid floor against a solid wall. Nothing betrayed itself by tingling in a way that indicated the presence of magic. He stripped the covers off the bed, choking himself with yet more clouds of dust, and discovered that it had a feather mattress over a solid wooden base. The mattress and pillows felt faintly damp and also smelled of mouse-droppings. The velvet canopy over the bed rotted away into fibres when he touched it; there was nothing lurking above the bed either. He tapped the posts with his knuckles but they were solid, not hollow.
He turned each chair over, examining it minutely, and prodded the upholstery with his fingertips. A squat footstool and two small tables got the same treatment, but there was nothing to be discovered from them. There were no shelves, other than the bare mantelpiece above the fire, no books or boxes or ornaments. Lighting came from an iron candelabra bolted to the ceiling; the candles were made of ordinary yellowish wax.
All in all, the room was just a room. There was no escape unless he went out of the door, and if he walked out of that door he would be as much at Voldemort's mercy as he was in here. And he had no idea what was happening back at home.
Looking at the candles, Ron suddenly had an idea. He grabbed a chair and placed it underneath the candelabra. When he climbed onto it, he could just reach up and carefully pluck one of the candles from the bracket.
Clutching his prize and shielding the fragile light with one hand, he got down again and sat in the chair by the fireplace. It took a moment or two for the flame to steady and for him to still his thoughts. Then he looked into the flame.
Candle-scrying wasn't a favourite of any Seer, mostly because you ended up with spots in front of your eyes and it could ruin your night-vision at an awkward moment. It also limited you to viewing the here-and-now. But it wasn't like Ron had a lot of choices – there was no way he was going to try and use that magic mirror to scry into, that was for sure. And since all he wanted to know was what was happening at present, this was as good as any other method.
The image that came to him was silent, as scrying images usually were, but he could see at once what was going on. It was the changing rooms at the Quidditch stadium; people were standing around arguing, but Ron's focus was at once upon Harry, who was sitting on a bench looking absolutely stricken. Beside him stood Draco and curiously he didn't look any happier than Harry – the little git should be hard put to keep a grin off his face if he'd just managed to hand two Aurors over to Voldemort ....
Unless, of course, he hadn't.
Ron watched the scene for nearly twenty minutes, including the moment when Moody made Draco take his shirt off to display the Seal of Honour, until everyone started packing up to go home. Harry and Draco were escorted away by Sirius and Cho Chang, and the image began to blur. Ron blew the flame out, putting the candle aside, and sat back, feeling a dull ache behind his temples.
So. The Aurors were on the case, but it was anyone's guess what they would do to locate him and Hermione. Probably they would wait for instructions from Dumbledore, but did even he have an inkling of Voldemort's whereabouts? Whatever the case, Ron doubted that he could expect a rescue anytime soon.
He was stuck here with Voldemort, and it would be useless to say that the idea didn't terrify him. He supposed it should be a comfort that the dark wizard actually wanted something from him, for that meant his life was relatively secure, but he didn't kid himself that this was a cast-iron guarantee of his safety. If he ceased to be of use or if he pushed his luck too far, Voldemort would dispose of him in whatever manner best pleased his mood at the time. Judging by Pansy Parkinson's death, that didn't necessarily mean the Avada Kedavra curse.
The idea didn't encourage him to take the dark wizard up on his offer of dinner. On the other hand, if he stayed inside the room he wouldn't know what had happened to Hermione, he wouldn't know who Voldemort's mystery 'guest' was, and he wouldn't discover anything more about the castle. He wouldn't know what it was Voldemort wanted with him.
Put like that, Ron had only one choice.
Dusting himself down and taking a deep breath to steady himself, he walked to the door and opened it.
Voldemort's servants were unresponsive to questions, but it didn't take a genius to realise that this castle had a lot in common with Hogwarts where internal construction was concerned. Judging by the tangle of passages he was led down, Ron soon realised that either the castle was bigger on the inside than should be physically possible or there were Misdirection Charms at the junction of each corridor. Probably it was a little of each.
At length he was guided to a staircase that spiralled around and down into a large circular chamber that was the great hall. There was no handrail of any kind, which made Ron cling nervously to the wall despite his usual lack of fear of heights. Somewhere around halfway down the stairs he passed the largest candelabra he had ever seen hanging centrally above the hall; when he followed its chain upwards with his eyes, it seemed to disappear into the darkness above, many storeys away, making him feel dizzy and nauseous. The hall lay underneath a tremendous tower from which the rest of the castle sprouted outwards, and Ron couldn't help feeling, as he reached the ground, that even so this was not the bottom of the structure - there was probably more, reaching deep underground.
Voldemort was standing in front of a fireplace opposite the foot of the stairs, and Ron was relieved to see that there was a substantial fire burning; the castle was more than a little chilly and dank, and it had not escaped his notice during the walk to the hall that parts of it were in very poor repair indeed.
The dark wizard glanced up almost casually at his approach, but Ron fancied there was a touch of satisfaction in the red eyes. "Mr. Weasley. I'm glad you decided to join me."
Like I had a lot of choice, Ron thought sourly, but kept his expression neutral. If he thinks I'm going to roll over and lick his boots - ! Maybe I should try to establish some ground rules here, so we both know where we stand.
"What should I call you?" he asked, and was gratified to see a brief flash of surprise across the Dark Lord's cold features at the unexpected question.
"Most call me 'Master'," was the cool response.
"I'm not prepared to call you that," Ron replied bluntly. "I won't call you 'Lord' either."
"Indeed." The single word was silky, cold and dangerous.
"But," Ron forged on in spite of the hair rising on the crest of his neck, "my mother raised me to be polite to my elders, so I'm willing to call you 'Sir' for the time being."
For a moment Voldemort's red eyes narrowed. Then he relaxed and seemed genuinely amused at his prisoner's audacity. "I see. It will be an interesting process, winning you to my cause."
Don't bet on it, matey. Ron waited, refusing to back down in the face of those frightening eyes, and was rewarded for his courage a moment later when the other wizard nodded.
"Very well, Mr. Weasley. You may address me as 'Sir'. For now."
Ron let out a shaky breath he hadn't realised he was holding, and nodded nervously. "Okay ... thank you." That was one hurdle over with. Now for the next. "Hermione – "
"Is quite well," Voldemort replied indifferently. "She will join us for dinner."
"Ah. Thank you." Ron hesitated. "May I ask how long you plan to keep me here - Sir?"
"You may," Voldemort replied. He regarded Ron coolly for a moment. "It depends very much upon how useful to me you prove."
Not a reassuring statement, especially when it was accompanied by such a searching look. Ron had to fight not to flinch or look away, and when the dark wizard finally released him from his gaze, he could feel the pain in his palms where his nails had dug into them.
"In the meantime," Voldemort continued mildly, "I should imagine you are hungry. Shall we ...?" He gestured towards a door a few feet away.
The door led to a passageway lit by burning torches. Harry would have called it a horror movie cliché; Ron, not having his partner's exposure to Muggle media, merely thought it very old-fashioned. Voldemort led the way, talking casually as he did so.
"As you have probably already surmised, Mr. Weasley, this is the citadel known as Grindelwald's Retreat after its last owner. You are, of course, far too young to have any real knowledge or understanding of the warlock Grindelwald's work, and I understand from my friend Lucius that his achievements are predictably misrepresented in the Hogwarts curriculum, but I have in my possession a volume or two on the subject which I think you will find interesting."
There was a pause into which Ron realised he was expected to say something. Thinking that the words Didn't Dumbledore defeat Grindelwald? would be unnecessarily provocative, instead he asked, "How did you find this place, Sir? I thought – "
" – That the Romanian Ministry failed to find it?" Voldemort finished for him. "Quite. Grindelwald was far too experienced to allow such individuals to casually come across his home! But some of my earliest followers were men whose first loyalty had been to him, and they came to me as his natural successor. And one or two of them still possessed the means to locate the Retreat. At the time my focus was, of necessity, elsewhere and as I believed the Retreat merely to be a curious relic of the past I spared no time to seek it out. But of latter years it has proven a most useful base for my operations in Europe, especially as the people of this region have a more sensible outlook upon the dark arts."
Ron could well believe it. Eastern Europe was legendary for its mixed approach towards dark and light magic; and it was no accident that the Durmstrang Institute was located somewhere in this area. The place was also a hotbed of activity for the darker magical creatures, such as vampires, werewolves, hags and trolls.
They were approaching a large, heavy-looking, iron-studded door that swung open silently at a wave of Voldemort's hand. Inside was a much smaller room, pleasantly furnished with carpets on the floor and tapestries on the walls, and brightly lit with candles. There was a table laid with enough places for four diners, and a crackling fire effectively combated the dankness that seemed all-pervasive in the castle.
Two of Voldemort's cloaked servants guarded the door on the inside, and in a moment Ron saw why. A figure was huddled on a stool beside the fire, a figure with long, tangled white hair and beard, dressed in filthy, torn robes. When Voldemort walked inside with Ron, this figure raised its head slowly, and it was all Ron could do not to cry out in horror.
It was Dumbledore.
It couldn't be possible. And yet he knew almost immediately, from Voldemort's very stillness and the hooded-eyed look he was giving him, that it was no trick. Something about the cold self-satisfaction of the dark wizard, the triumph in that tiny lizard smile, said that this was the truth, that Albus Dumbledore was in his possession and that he was drinking in Ron's reaction to the realisation like a fine wine.
It felt like the floor heaved under Ron's feet; he felt sure he was going to be sick. It wasn't simply that Dumbledore was here, although that was bad enough. It was the condition the elderly wizard was in.
It was difficult to say what precisely had been done to him. There were no obvious marks to suggest violence, but Voldemort was not an ordinary man nor yet even an ordinary wizard; his ideas of torture were more ... sophisticated ... and subtle. As far back as Ron could remember, Dumbledore had looked elderly, but now he looked old. His face was haggard, his eyes sunken, and there were lines of pain around his mouth. His skin looked grey, paper-thin and translucent.
And he was filthy, in a way that couldn't possibly have happened within the last few days. He had to have been here at least a week or more. That realisation was, in some ways, more disturbing than all the rest put together.
Then Dumbledore's eyes met Ron's and one thing had not changed; the mischievous twinkle might be missing, but the fierce determination was still there and he managed a very, very small smile for the younger wizard.
"Courage, Mr. Weasley," he said. His voice was a mere whisper, but the sound carried easily in the pin-drop silence.
Voldemort seemed very satisfied with this exchange.
"It is always pleasant for friends to gather together for a evening," he commented. "When Miss Granger joins us, I feel we shall be quite a convivial party – wouldn't you agree, Mr. Weasley?"
Reeling mentally, Ron could only stare at him.
As if discovering that Professor Dumbledore was in Voldemort's clutches was not enough, dinner was to give Ron a taste of just what was in store for him over the coming days.
The four of them sat around a square table, Voldemort at its head and Hermione at the foot, with Dumbledore and Ron on each side of the dark wizard. Ron had to help Dumbledore to his seat. The elderly professor was stiff and clumsy from pain and was hobbled with spellrope to control him. Hermione had arrived within moments of Ron himself, and had reacted with equal horror to the discovery of her former headmaster.
Ron glanced at her now, while they waited for Voldemort's servants to finish putting dishes on the table. He couldn't shake the feeling that something was not right with Hermione. Her reaction to Dumbledore's presence had been all that it should, and yet for some reason it had seemed false to him – almost as though it had been rehearsed. Which was surely ridiculous. And yet ... there were other little things. The way she was sitting in her chair. The way she held her head. The way she fiddled with a knife beside her plate while they waited. She was also dressed differently, in a hugely outsized black robe with her hair loose about her shoulders. Ron supposed this had been Voldemort's doing, but he didn't like to ask her outright. And Dumbledore hadn't spoken to her since she entered the room, which was more than odd.
Voldemort didn't offer many opportunities for talking. He maintained a steady flow of conversation that was more of a monologue covering many subjects, while his servants moved around them silently, placing dishes on the table and pouring wine into goblets. A large, covered platter was placed in front of the dark wizard, and then the servants withdrew.
He looked around at the three of them with an expression that was almost benign. "Do help yourselves," he invited, and lifted the lid from the platter.
Ron's stomach turned over. The dish was piled high with small, dead animals - mostly rodents. Mice, hamsters, rats, even a couple of bodies that looked like guinea pigs. Voldemort leaned over it, sniffing delicately.
"Excellent," he commented with deep satisfaction, "absolutely fresh." And he picked up one of the mice by its tail.
It was a little like witnessing a particularly nasty splinching accident; horrifying but impossible to look away. Ron watched in revulsion as the wizard tipped his head back and dropped the mouse into his mouth, swallowing it whole. There was a series of tiny crunches, and the sounds released him. He looked down at his plate, fighting the urge to gag. It took a lot to put Ron Weasley off his food, but Voldemort had just succeeded. The smell from the rest of the food on the table - roast duck, glazed vegetables, a thick soup and fresh bread - turned from being appetising to nauseating in a heartbeat.
He looked across the table to Dumbledore, who returned his gaze with sad, weary, but unsurprised eyes. Forcing himself to breathe evenly, Ron looked down the table to Hermione - and leapt from his chair, letting out a cry of shock and horror.
Something was happening to Hermione - her skin seemed to be rapidly boiling all over in lumps and swellings, her flesh writhing. Her hair shrank back into her head, turning darker with greying spots, and her entire body swelled and grew until she was a good six inches taller than she had been. When the eruptions ceased, Hermione sat there no longer. In her place was a middle-aged man with dark, rather unbalanced-looking eyes - a man Ron recognised.
It was the Muggle Nick Curtis - the real Nick Curtis, not the younger version he and Harry had encountered in Godric's Hollow and on the Astral Plane.
"Sit down, Mr. Weasley," Voldemort said. His voice was silky with amusement. Shaking, unable to take his eyes from Curtis, Ron slowly did as he was told.
"I am endlessly entertained," Voldemort commented, "by how people can so easily be fooled the same way twice. Having once used Polyjuice Potion against my enemies to great effect, one might have assumed that they would be guarded against such a thing happening again. And yet, as you can see, I was easily able to substitute one of my more useful followers for one of yours, was I not, Albus? Twice, in fact. I am sure young Mr. Weasley has been wondering why I am not attended here by my good friend Lucius Malfoy."
Ron hadn't been wondering any such thing, but now that Voldemort mentioned it, it was all too sickeningly obvious what had happened. He had been wondering how Dumbledore could be abducted and no one notice, but with Polyjuice ….
"You may regret leaving the real Miss Granger in place, Tom," Dumbledore said quietly, his voice rasping with pain. "As for myself - I am a mere figurehead. It will not be long before others realise what has happened and take action - "
"Much as it pains me to correct you, old friend, you underestimate the damage a man of your status may effect," Voldemort replied. He looked thoughtful for a moment. "Always your problem, now I consider the matter." He returned to his meal, sparing a brief glance towards Ron. "I would suggest you eat, Mr. Weasley. I can assure you that you will need your strength and concentration later … although if you force me, there are potions that may ensure your attention indefinitely. But I doubt that you would enjoy the experience."
Ron's hand shook as he picked up his fork. Right now there was nothing he wanted to do less than eat, but ….
"Your captor offers you food," Moody's voice whispered in his mind. "Will you eat it?" It was the memory of a training session some two years ago.
"No," Harry had answered.
"You won't, eh, Potter? And why would that be?"
"Could be poisoned," he'd replied promptly.
"Could be. Or it could be he'll want you dead anyway, and not eating won't make any difference. What about you, Weasley?"
"Not eating it could buy time," he'd offered.
"And not eating it could mean you're a whole lot weaker when your opportunity comes." Moody had fixed him with his magic eye. "I'm telling you now, boy - you don't want to be weaker when a chance against the likes of Voldemort comes. You don't want to be weaker in his company at all. So you need to make a decision - is it poisoned food or not? If there's a chance it isn't, you eat it, no matter how little you might want to."
Except, of course, that Moody didn't have to sit next to the most evil wizard in recent history while he consumed a plate of dead rats.
With the greatest difficulty, Ron dug his fork into a potato and raised it to his mouth. Chewing and swallowing it was one of the hardest things he had ever done. Then he speared a carrot and forced that down.
If I ever get out of here alive, he promised himself, I will never tease Ginny about worms in the cauliflower again.
When he was returned to his room later that night, Ron was nearly collapsing with stress and exhaustion.
After dinner Dumbledore had been taken away, leaving Ron alone with Voldemort and Curtis. Voldemort had wanted to play chess. He possessed a fine wizard's chess set made of red and white marble that took up nearly the entire dining room table, and he was a reasonable player, but it didn't take Ron long to realise that he was no master at the game.
This added a new twist to an already nightmarish situation, for it was inconceivable that a creature like Voldemort could bear to lose. Fortunately, he blamed his loss of the first game on his own lack of attention – like all megalomaniacs, he liked to talk at great length about himself and in Ron he had an entirely new and therefore far more interesting audience.
One game was all it took for Ron to catch on that he wasn't supposed to beat the future master of the wizarding world. Unfortunately, losing wasn't something Ron himself was much better at than his new chess partner, and even if he had been, deliberately losing at chess without it looking deliberate was not easy. By the time Voldemort's elaborate clock struck midnight, he was sweating and wrung out with the strain. It was just as well that Voldemort hadn't required much in the way of response to his near-monologue.
Ron learned a few interesting things though, mainly about the nearly-Muggle Nick Curtis. Curtis sat to one side of Voldemort throughout the evening, but in that time Ron didn't hear him speak a single word, and it wasn't long before Voldemort enlightened him on the subject.
"I'm sure you are curious about Nicholas, Mr. Weasley," he stated, as he debated his next move, "if only to wonder at how a Muggle-born could ever be of interest or use to me."
"It does seem a little odd, sir," Ron murmured.
"I assume that by now you understand what he is."
Ron replied cautiously, "I guessed that he must be one of those Muggle-borns who don't have much magic ...."
"Oh, he has almost no magic of his own," Voldemort replied casually. "Enough to spontaneously move small objects around occasionally, but really nothing to merit a magical education. No wand would choose him, even if the opportunity were presented to him."
Ron glanced at Curtis, uncomfortable with a discussion about the man that he had no part in. But Curtis's attention was fixed solely upon Voldemort and he appeared to have no interest in what was being said.
"Perhaps, in spite of your upbringing, you are unfamiliar enough with Muggles to fully understand his condition," the dark wizard continued. "They have a number of euphemisms for such individuals – quite quaint, really. Typical of the breed that they should choose to hide the truth from themselves .... I believe the term that is currently popular is "special needs", which in itself should tell you a great deal about the weakness of Muggles as a race, that they should choose to willingly maintain such persons in their midst. Although it was undeniably useful to me on this occasion."
He paused for a moment, his hand hovering over a pawn, and once again gave in to the urge to lecture.
"You see, Mr. Weasley, how simple it is to use one's enemies' weaknesses against them? Some of my pureblooded followers have the oddest notions about making use of Muggles and mudbloods in my campaign. They do not see, as I do, that even Muggles have a place in the proper order of things – as "hewers of wood and drawers of water" I believe the phrase is. After all, we wizards were born to rule, but to rule one must have subjects! And one must never assume that a tool has but one purpose. I find that using such a creature as Nicholas here has a certain pleasing symmetry to it."
Ron, not knowing how he was supposed to respond to this, settled for looking politely enquiring and hoped that Voldemort wasn't going to make as uninspired a move with the pawn as he feared. He glanced at Curtis again and realised now what was wrong with the man. He had heard the term 'special needs' from Hermione once or twice.
"I'm sure you understand how he is useful to me, Mr. Weasley," Voldemort prompted, after a moment.
Ron swallowed. "Um ... I suppose he must be susceptible to control, Sir."
"Indeed. He is very susceptible to control. Nicholas is not without intelligence, you understand, but what wits he possesses are somewhat easily manipulated. His moods are less so, but one of my followers is adept at brewing potions to control him."
Snape, Ron thought, with revulsion.
"But that small hint of magic within him is what makes him so useful. Perhaps you understand why."
Ron began to sweat. It was difficult to concentrate on the chess game and what Voldemort was saying to him, let alone come up with answers to questions. "Er ... Draco Malfoy told us something about you being able to act through others? Is that what he meant?"
"Young Mr. Malfoy has his uses," Voldemort commented. He made his move, and it was as bad as Ron had feared. "Really quite intelligent, if something of a disappointment, especially to his father." The dark wizard chuckled, and it was an unpleasant, cold little sound. "Yes, indeed, Nicholas's most valuable trait is that tiny hint of magic that makes it possible for me to use him as – how shall I phrase it? – my proxy? I can go anywhere, do anything, with Nicholas acting as my body. Useful, don't you think? Your move."
Useful, Ron thought now, as he sat on the edge of his bed, but as useful as all that? He was inclined to doubt it, personally. If Voldemort was really able to do anything through Curtis, absolutely anything and everything, then why didn't he just do it? He could put effective illusions on the man, enact killing curses ... so why didn't he use those abilities to more effect? It was a puzzle, but one he was too exhausted to work out.
His room had been furbished up a little in his absence, made more liveable, with better bedding and a small brazier in the fireplace that gave off heat without affording him any means of setting fire to the room. Looking up, he saw that the candles had also been replaced with small, glowing wizard lights. Someone had clearly noted his removal of the candle earlier and decided to act before he got ideas. It was annoying but predictable.
More annoying still was the uncovering of the mirror once more. The liquid face glared back at him as he sat on the end of the bed. There was no way Ron could sleep with that thing in front of him, so he dragged himself to his feet, once again took down the bed curtain and covered the face of the mirror. It at least gave him an illusion of security.
As he slumped back onto the bed he noticed that someone had even laid out a long white nightshirt for him on the pillow. He looked at it and chuckled wearily. Was it safe to wear it? Somehow he doubted it would strangle him in the night, so he took the hint and undressed, putting it on before he slid between the fresh sheets.
The lights in the room dimmed automatically, as though from some hidden signal. Suddenly feeling very frightened and alone, Ron ran his fingers over the gold band on his wrist, feeling the faint psychic pulse of Harry's heart. Comforted, he slept.
What happened next Ron would take to his grave with him largely unspoken. He told the Aurors a little of it, and Harry substantially more, but even his partner never heard the whole story.
The morning after his arrival he awoke from the most restless night's sleep he'd had in years to find that someone had already entered his room. The cover was once more gone from the mirror and a light breakfast had been left on one of the small tables. He dressed, uncomfortable at the lack of washing or shaving facilities, and ate the breakfast. Then, as with the night before, he reluctantly went to the door and opened it.
Voldemort's servants were waiting for him again and once more led him through the passages. This time, however, he was led to a different set of stairs and directed to a room at the bottom of them. Ron approached it with the greatest reluctance, not knowing what was waiting for him. Not for the first time since his arrival, he cursed his inability to see into his own future. His grandmother had once called it 'the Seer's greatest burden', but only now was he appreciating the full truth of the statement.
Nevertheless, having no choice he knocked and opened the door.
The room beyond was small, windowless and lit with red lamps. Voldemort was standing in front of an empty fireplace opposite the door, but it was only after Ron had stepped inside that he realised the wizard was not alone. He came to an abrupt halt, but too late – someone shut the door behind him and stepped in front of it to prevent him retreating.
There were seven other men in the room besides Voldemort himself, and Ron recognised each and every one of them. All Aurors were trained to recognise the Dark Lord's closest intimates and followers, but Ron in particular had been told to focus on six of these men. He looked around now, feeling panic rising in his chest as he identified them: Faucault - d'Aeth – Baher – de Larouyenne – Hicketts – Ngayo. He had never expected to see all of Voldemort's Seers together in one room.
This was not good.
Worse, when he glanced around the seventh man, now leaning casually against the door, turned out to be Avery. If Macnair was Voldemort's executioner, this man was the torturer. Voldemort himself rarely sullied his hands with anything more exotic than the Unforgivable Curses, but victims whose bodies were returned to their families sometimes had horrific physical injuries and it was the common consensus of those in the know – including Draco – that Avery had been the one to inflict them. Macnair might be a bloodthirsty monster, but Avery was a sadist.
Ron looked at Avery now, remembering the brutal injuries on Pansy Parkinson's body, and nearly forgot to breathe. The man was staring back at him with a look that was almost as frightening as Voldemort's own – a kind of sleepy-eyed anticipation, like a snake choosing its moment to strike.
"So good of you to join us, Mr. Weasley," Voldemort's voice said softly, and Ron quickly turned back to him – although turning his back on the man behind him made his skin crawl.
"Do you know my colleagues?" the Dark wizard continued conversationally.
"I know of them, sir," Ron managed.
Something touched the back of his neck; a hand. Ron froze.
"You will give my Lord Voldemort due courtesy, boy," Avery's voice breathed in his ear. "You will call him master, as we all do – "
"Unhand him, Avery." Voldemort sounded almost amused, but there was an undercurrent that Ron didn't like. "Mr. Weasley and I have come to an agreement on such matters – unhand him, or I shall be forced to give you a taste of your own medicine."
"Yes, Master. Forgive me ...." The hand disappeared at once, but Ron didn't have any sense of the man stepping away from him.
"You must forgive my old friend Avery," Voldemort said to Ron. The cold red eyes were fixed on him unpleasantly. "You see, he has a particular interest in meeting you ... in the light of certain rumours that have come to the ears of my spies."
"Sir?" Tension knotted Ron's insides, making him wish he hadn't eaten the breakfast provided.
"Most extraordinary – but I feel sure you can provide an explanation. You see, a most curious suggestion has been made, that you are – how shall I put this? – intimately involved with our mutual friend, Harry Potter."
Ice flooded Ron's veins. "Sir, I don't – "
"Don't be shy, Mr. Weasley. Really, it's quite a simple question – are you and Harry lovers?"
There was something hideous and obscene about the way Voldemort casually referred to Harry by his first name, as though he and the Boy Who Lived were old friends. But worse, infinitely worse, was the inflection he gave the word "lovers", like some particularly unpleasant voyeur amused by an intimate scene he had happened across.
Unbidden, a memory of a conversation with Remus Lupin surfaced in Ron's mind. It had been after the incident on the Astral Plane, and they had been standing in the garden at the Burrow while Lupin lectured him on the perils of recklessness.
"You do realise that if they catch you, if they realise you and Harry are lovers, they can use you against him, don't you? If you won't think of your own safety, will you at least consider Harry's?"
"That's a lie," he said coldly now. "With respect, sir, your informants are wrong."
"Are they?" Voldemort stared into his eyes for an impossibly long second. Then he turned to look around at the other men standing against the walls, and the Seers shifted uncomfortably under his gaze. "Are they? I wonder .... Crucio!"
The curse was so swift, so unexpected, that Ron had no time to prepare himself for it. Not that anything could ever prepare anyone for the reality of the Cruciatus Curse. A single shocked scream ripped the last breath from his throat, and then it was all he could do to stay sane under lash of the curse.
As an experience it was nearly impossible to describe, like being flayed with knives or scalded all over or blasted apart from within .... The agony was total. Every limb, every digit, every follicle was tormented with equal viciousness. When it was finally over, Ron found himself sprawled out on the stone floor, heaving sobbing breaths, every nerve and muscle in spasm.
Someone else was breathing heavily ... Avery, who watched the scene with something close to sexual pleasure. Voldemort, by contrast, was as cool as a pillar of stone.
"Get up, Mr. Weasley."
It took him two attempts, but somehow he managed it and he wiped his face shakily with the sleeve of his robe. The sudden absence of pain had been almost as shocking as the onset of it.
"I don't appreciate being lied to," Voldemort told him softly. "I hope you understand that now and will give me the truth, my young friend."
But he underestimated the depth of Ron's feelings for Harry.
"I – w-wasn't lying," Ron managed. His throat felt raw. "S-sir."
The sudden stillness in the room was horrible.
The rapid rate of Avery's breathing was very audible in the silence. "Master, if you will but permit me to – "
"Be silent!" The look Voldemort shot him shut him up at once. Then the red eyes were fixed on Ron once more. "Again, Mr. Weasley? You were saying?"
Ron flinched – he couldn't help it – but stubbornly stuck to his guns. "I didn't lie, sir. I'm not Harry's lover."
For a moment he felt absolutely certain the Dark wizard would curse him again, but after several moments of unblinking scrutiny, the lizard-like face turned away.
"I see." Voldemort's gaze drifted once more over his shrinking Seers. "Very well, let that stand as the answer for the present. But Mr. Weasley – be assured, should I discover at some later date that you are lying to me in this matter, the consequences will be very much more unpleasant than the Cruciatus Curse. Am I understood?"
Ron nodded shakily. "Yes, sir."
"Very well. There is a great deal to be accomplished here, so we had best be getting on with it. Avery, I shall not need you here after all. Return to my other esteemed guest, if you please, and continue in his ... treatment."
Other esteemed guest – that could only mean Dumbledore, and Ron's insides cringed at the thought of it. There was no longer any need to wonder how the elderly professor came to look so frail and broken.
"Yes, Master." There was no mistaking the disappointment in Avery's voice, but he did as he was bidden without argument.
Ron braced himself when the other man was gone. He didn't know what Voldemort intended, but the fact that his best Seers – all of his best Seers – were in the room was a very bad sign.
Later, Ron sat in his room and prayed hopelessly for a way out of this nightmare.
What Voldemort wanted from him was his skill as a clairvoyant – or, to be more specific, his potential skill as a necromancer. The idea was horrifying, but not entirely unexpected; Ron had given a little thought to Voldemort's possible uses of him and this one had always had a lot of potential. What he couldn't work out was precisely what the Dark wizard hoped to achieve from it.
Necromancy was one of the many 'borderline' arts banned by the Ministry of Magic because it was deemed to have no good purpose. As a Seer, Ron agreed wholeheartedly with restriction. It took a true clairvoyant to understand just how dangerous dealing with the dead really was, and raising the dead – bringing them back into the world of the living – was fraught with potential disaster. The topic had been covered sketchily in Defence Against the Dark Arts classes, not at all in Divination, and at length by Ron's own grandmother. The latter had laid out the reasons for not dabbling in such things:
"Once a person dies, their priorities change," she had explained. "Most people who die a peaceful death simply want to get on with the business of moving on. They don't want to be bothered with the living, and why should they? But if someone dies with something on their mind – some problem unresolved or unfinished business – they tend to fixate on it, and out of all proportion to its original relevance. It becomes an obsession. And when the dead are obsessed, they become dangerous."
That explanation, Ron knew, might go a long way to explaining Harry's survival when his mother was murdered by Voldemort. At the moment of her death, Lily Potter had been fixated on saving her son's life – to the point where her spirit could have intervened when Voldemort attacked the baby.
And the dead sometimes had powers wholly unsuspected by the living.
If Voldemort wanted Ron to raise the dead – and, from the looks of things, he had someone particular in mind – it was a fair bet that he didn't fully understand what he might be getting. And that idea was just one more terrifying thing Ron had to face while he was in the other wizard's power.
But in the meantime, the who in the equation was a minor detail. For now he had far greater problems, for Ron had always shied away from clairvoyancy. He knew the bare bones of the technique, but he refused to explore it in any detail, largely because he feared his apparent affinity with the dead.
For some reason unknown to him, the spirits had talked to him from the first moment his gift had manifested. Worse, he didn't have to make much of an effort to initiate contact with them – in fact, as he had once told Harry, sometimes they didn't wait for him to make the first move but reached out to grab him whether he liked it or not. The intensity of the contact was so overwhelming, so alarming, that he had refused to take his lessons in the subject any further and backed away, erecting clumsy mental shields to try and protect himself. Ron hadn't needed his grandmother's sharp warnings against using Dark objects such as Ouija boards; he instinctively avoided the contact and would no more have initiated deliberate dialogue with the spirits than try to fly without a broom.
Which pleased Voldemort not at all, although his humour improved a little after one of the other Seers, Faucault, tentatively pointed out that having had little training in clairvoyancy, Ron would also have no bad habits (whatever that meant) for them to undo.
The hours that followed were almost more hair-raising than dinner the night before had been. Ron was forced to sit to one side with Voldemort and watch while the other men gathered in a circle and attempted to demonstrate, without much success, what would later be expected of Ron himself.
The only good part about it was that they failed in their attempt to raise anyone's spirit – proving, perhaps, that too many Seers spoil a seance. Ron did feel unwilling sympathy for the other men, though. Trying to perform any kind of clairvoyancy with Voldemort breathing over your shoulder had to be an absolute nightmare. Aside from his dominating presence, he had such a powerful magical aura that it was a wonder any of them could concentrate, and none of these men were masters of the art in any case.
When the candles finally spluttered out and the circle was disrupted, Ron heaved an inner sigh and relaxed, even as the other Seers muttered discontentedly and cast anxious, sidelong glances at their master.
His relief was to be short-lived.
"I have texts on this subject which I expect you to study, Mr. Weasley," Voldemort had told him coldly. "Tomorrow we will try again – with you in control."
So now he was sitting in his room, surrounded by books that covered everything from "offensive clairvoyancy" to voodoo to pure necromancy. The voodoo texts he took one look at and pushed aside, regardless of what the Dark wizard might want. For one thing, Ron could tell they were inaccurate, probably written by a European wizard who had little or no understanding of practical voodoo. For another, his own studies at school and with his grandmother had made it quite clear that voodoo was nearly impossible for a wizard who wasn't raised in the Vaudun tradition. The gift of clairvoyancy was close but not close enough.
What texts were left were bad enough. Frustrated and deeply frightened, Ron finally slammed shut the giant tome that Voldemort had seemed particularly keen on, and dragged it into his lap, resting his chin on the edge of the cover.
What he was reading only confirmed his worst suspicions about himself. Raising the dead would be terrifyingly easy for him, and with Voldemort and all his Seers watching over him he couldn't see a way of subverting the process. Which meant that tomorrow someone – probably someone deeply unpleasant – would be returning from the dead at Voldemort's bidding.
Whether that person would be under anyone's control – Ron's, Voldemort's, or even one of the other Seers – was another matter entirely. In some ways that was more frightening still, but Ron consoled himself that at least it wouldn't be the very late Salazar Slytherin, who had been dead long enough that a necromancer of twice Ron's power couldn't bring him back. Unfortunately, that still left a lot of possibilities.
Ron wished desperately that there was someone here he could talk to, if only to vent his fears. It was a bitter irony to him that Dumbledore himself was also incarcerated here, but unavailable to give advice to the younger wizard.
Frustrated, he gave vent to a spurt of temper and heaved the huge book onto the floor, careless of its age-worn and fragile bindings. It landed with a wince-making crash, scattering loose pages across the threadbare rug. For a moment Ron glared at it resentfully, then he reluctantly went to pick it up again. He doubted that a wizard like Voldemort really cared much about his belongings except as tools, but that was no reason to taken unnecessary risks.
It was only as he was straightening up the pages and putting them back into order that he realised the subjects some of them covered. Curious, Ron managed to get them all back into the right places and studied them with more interest.
It was at a much later chapter than the one Voldemort had instructed him to read, and covered something which first puzzled him ... then made his heart leap.
It couldn't be possible. Could it? He read on.
It was possible, he realised. Voldemort's Seers might not be up to much, but de Larouyenne or Ngayo would be quite capable of something like this, if Auror intelligence on their training was accurate.
Ron glanced towards the door speculatively, put the book down on the table and got up. He looked warily at the mirror, but it was already covered with his bedspread – the first thing he'd done after being escorted back to his room. He went to the door and, after a moment's hesitation, rested his hands and face against it, extending his senses a short way outwards.
The corridor outside his room felt cool and dark and empty of living 'presences'. Just to make sure, he opened the door a crack and peered out.
Four black-clad servants were standing outside, one on either side of the door and two directly opposite. Ron shut the door again quickly and leaned his hands on it, extending his senses once more.
He stepped back, staring at the door in rising excitement, although as yet he wasn't quite sure of what use the information could be to him. But one thing he was now quite certain of.
Voldemort's servants were zombies.
Given his musings earlier that day, Ron was a little surprised that when his summons to dinner came that night, he was guided to the room only to find Dumbledore inside, alone. The elderly professor was still hog-tied with spellrope, and physically he looked to be in worse shape than ever, but for some unexplained reason they had been left alone together. It was a priceless opportunity to discuss what was happening.
Ron's main concern initially, however, was how long exactly Dumbledore had been at Grindelwald's Retreat. The old man smiled faintly at this anxious question.
"Lucius Malfoy came to Hogwarts a matter of days after the three of you left," he replied. His voice was weak, little more than a whisper, and Ron had to lean in close to hear him. "He appears to have been making rather ample use of the Polyjuice Potion .... I should have been ready for that."
His mind relieved of this one care (his main fear had been that Dumbledore had been replaced before the trio had gone to him for training), Ron quickly related what had been happening since then to his former headmaster. Most of it, he discovered, Dumbledore already knew. Voldemort and Avery had taken great pleasure in keeping him up to date.
"Unfortunately, there is one most disastrous detail that has been revealed," Dumbledore told him. "Severus has been betrayed."
Ron winced. He didn't like Snape, but the man had taken on the unenviable role of spy without flinching and God only knew what revenge Voldemort would exact for it.
"I suspect Lucius already knew and was hoping for just such evidence," the professor continued softly. "But there is nothing to be done about that. Continue, Mr. Weasley."
So Ron explained to him what had happened that day, the expectations Voldemort had of him, and his discovery of the zombies. Dumbledore nodded slightly when he said this.
"I guessed as much, although it would not be so obvious to you. Grindelwald also favoured the undead as servants. Repugnant, but not unexpected."
Ron hesitated for a moment, considering. "Professor, I was thinking – "
"Say no more." Dumbledore roused himself enough to give him a meaningful look. "We may still be overheard. But I would impress upon you the need to be exceptionally cautious, Mr. Weasley. Do nothing that Voldemort could interpret as an assault upon his authority or challenge to his power, do you understand? Your life depends upon you maintaining at least the appearance of submission to him."
"I know, but ...." Ron hesitated again, looking at him.
"Say what you are thinking."
"Professor, is saving my own life more important than at least trying to take a pop at him if the opportunity comes?"
Dumbledore's eyes closed and for a long moment Ron wondered if the conversation had been too much for him in his current state. But then they opened again, and instead of the old twinkle of mischief there was nothing but a grim and weary resignation.
"Too many young lives have been lost to this enemy already, Ron," he said softly. "Two such losses all but ruined the life of someone very close to you. Would you see him suffer another? I wouldn't."
"N-no," Ron admitted, and he gave Dumbledore a wobbly smile. "But I've thought about this all afternoon and ... and you know, Harry's pretty tough. Tougher than me, if push comes to shove. If something happened to him, I – I don't think I could deal with it. But Harry, he'd pick himself up somehow and carry on. Because that's what he does."
There was a moment of silence, then the professor stirred himself to speak again. "I will not say I condone this," he whispered heavily, "but nor can I choose your actions for you. Not in this arena. All I will say, Ron, is that whatever you do, take no risks without first balancing the possible gains. And weigh the consequences carefully. There are worse fates than death, you know."
Ron had no chance to respond to this, for the door suddenly opened and Voldemort swept in. He smiled at his two captives genially.
"Well! I'm sure it must be very pleasant for two friends to catch up on their mutual experiences, but I'm afraid I must break up the tete a tete. One must eat, after all. And young Mr. Weasley has an exciting day ahead of him tomorrow. We must keep his strength up, mustn't we?"
End Part 28/30
Calliope 14 – Well, you've realised by now that yes, it was Polyjuice Hermione had in her bottle! And darn, I can't believe you picked up on that – either I'm horribly obvious or you must be psychic (any tips on what JKR has in store for us in book five? *grin*). I'll admit that I worried about the Ron-as-Seer cliche, but by that point I wasn't about to stop writing. So I'm glad it doesn't bother you.
Jadea – I owe you a review *makes mental note*. I think possibly I go overboard on the bits and pieces and descriptions, but I can't help myself. I also go overboard on dialogue, but I do love a good conversation. Were your suspicions about Ron and Hermione's fate correct?!
Beth Ann – I don't think Fanfiction.net likes any of us! The weird thing is that I got the e-mail notifications of most the 'missing' reviews! Regarding chapter 27, it's just my personal experience coming through I suppose, but in a disaster either everything happens at once, giving you no time to breathe or recover, or you get notification of it and then have to wait. In this, it's a split – Harry's saddled with the waiting while Ron has everything on his hands. Bit of a role reversal. And Draco got a chance to show what he's made of, which was important for him as a person. He can act in a crisis.
SparkySparkles – Hope this chapter answers your questions *smile*
Jillian – How am I going to tie this up in three chapters – well, they're long chapters *grin* And Draco will share his suspicions eventually. Don't worry!
Nayako – Don't pass out now – the next chapter is an important one!
Sally – When I was writing this story, I initially paid more attention to the weirdness of wizard life, which is why the earlier chapters are more fun. (Also I still didn't have a plot at that point, but let's pass on that quickly!) But I think wizard life is also quite frightening and unpredictable – you can walk through a door and unexpectedly find a three-headed dog, that kind of thing. And there are Dark Lords .... Since you miss Ron, I hope Chapter 28 was satisfying *smile* As for Harry and Ron getting together, I'm considering posting the little companion story I wrote about that. You might like it.
Ice Lupus – I hope you have a better local library than me! Mine is really bad. Glad you enjoyed the twist though *grin* Regarding your other review, I always thought it would be interesting to see what Charlie's like in a Quidditch game. And yes – it was definitely a portkey!
mIcHi – Don't panic about Harry and The Forbidden Artes – he's just taking a leaf out of his mother's book! (That's not an intentional pun, honest.) All things will be explained in due course. Glad you're enjoying it so far *smile*
Mary Caroline – I'm glad someone didn't see that Hermione was Polyjuiced! I would be heartbroken if all my surprises turned out to not be surprising .... I'm glad you noted Cedric's statement about Ron's powers – although I don't go into it in full detail in this story, it's certainly a significant comment, as you can see from this chapter.
Jilly-chan – You don't need to apologise for not reviewing – nobody needs to do that. In all honesty, I never expected the level of interest people have shown in this story, largely because Harry/Ron is not a popular pairing. So I'm thrilled that anyone reviews! As for Draco ... I can see why people might make him the villain in Harry/Ron stories, because that is his role in the books, but I at least wanted to round out his character as an adult in this. People are very complex as adults, far more so than when they're children ....
Jennavette – I hope what Harry and Draco come up with works for you, because you'll find out about it in the next chapter *grin* As for the others leaving Ron to rot ... hm. Not exactly, as there's stuff going on behind the scenes.
Jen - *grin* It just occurs to me that a race of people who can Floo, portkey and Apparate in and out of their houses might not have much use for the front door in the conventional way! Poor Cho! Can you imagine what Moody would say to her? Well, you haven't got long to wait for answers to your questions – I hope you'll continue to enjoy it *smile* By the way, regarding your other review, I'm glad you picked up on why Ron didn't see what was going to happen at the Quidditch match – I wondered if someone would see that.
Harmoni – I'm glad you enjoyed Chapter 26. There was a lot going on in it, considering that it was sort of 'between the action'. I don't think the Seamus situation will be resolved easily, although as you'll have seen in Chapter 27, a temporary truce is in place. But you can't change people, they have to change themselves, so I think that situation will continue to be a problem.
And finally ... I'd like to thank everyone for making extra efforts to review in spite of Fanfiction.net's little hiccup. Most of the first reviews appear to have got through to me, in spite of it, and despite not appearing on the actual website. I appreciate all of them! I'd also like to thank everyone for their kind wishes for my father. He's doing a lot better now (well, he must be – he's causing trouble in hospital again!) and we hope he'll be home soon. I do appreciate all your kind thoughts – they do help.
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