Welcome to the third and final installment. As usual, I don't own HP. If you think I'm making money from this, I have an anti-gulibility pack available for sale at a mere thousand dollars a pop. Bulk discount rate available.
On with the show. Enjoy!
You know, I’m getting really damned tired of having to regain consciousness. Over the years I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to struggle to attain some semblance of lucidity in an unexpected location. Of course, it’s not the actual waking up itself that bugs me; it’s the fact that I’d been knocked out in the first place that really pisses me off.
Due to the repeated times I’ve had to experience it, I have unconsciously developed a basic grading system, where I take clues from my immediate environment to decide whether or not it was a good thing or not to wake up. Unfortunately for me, at least this time, there were no crisp white sheets smelling faintly of disinfectant, indicating that I’d been moved into Madam Pomfrey’s realm. There was no tantalising scent of frying bacon or bubbling stew to hint that I was anywhere near Dobby’s cooking. So, no high points this time. Hell, there wasn’t even the eye-watering orange that I’d come to associate with Ron’s old bedroom at the Burrow. Nope, there was absolutely nothing comforting about where I’d found myself this time.
I was lying on my stomach, with my left cheek pressed tightly against the ground. The cold, gritty and uncomfortable ground. With a low grunt of effort, I lifted my head, ran my hand up the side of my body, and wiped off whatever crap had stuck.
Moist, grey sand rubbed off my cheek, falling to the floor. Yep, this had to be one of the worst ways to regain consciousness.
I rolled over, ignoring my grumbling muscles and painful side, and sat up. In the dim light, I could only make out a few details, but it appeared I was in a squarish stone alcove, about three metres wide and four deep. Rough-hewn stone walls surrounded me on three sides, with an equally unrefined stone ceiling above my head. An empty wooden pail sat in one corner. The sandy floor I now sat upon was awful - coarse, gritty, damp and cold. I felt dirty just sitting on it.
I slowly stood and stretched, noting that the ceiling was so low I could place my palms on the rough rock without standing on my toes. My stiff muscles protested briefly, before deciding that actually having some sort of mobility was far better than the enforced state of non-mobility they had recently been subjected to. The little alcove was probably only the size of a small prison cell.
A corridor ran left to right at the open side of the alcove, as though the room I was in had been cut into the corridor wall. Where (I assume) the wall had been, there was now just a simple white line on the ground, as though a reminder to where the original corridor wall had ended. Oddly, it was the only part of the floor of both the corridor and my alcove that had been swept clear of sand. The line had been etched onto the stone floor. I looked closer at it. It seemed rather familiar. I just couldn’t place where I’d seen such a thing before.
I patted myself down, noting wryly that I had been relieved of my stolen wand and all my other items, including my backpack and the expended portkey the embassy official had given to me to return to England. My captors obviously didn’t want me to use magic. Shortsighted buggers, aren’t they?
Or were they? Usually, after an enforced period of rest, I woke up nearly fizzing with energy. It was most noticeable during Zab’s brutal regimen during my apprenticeship, where he magically exhausted me every day for nearly two years. Then, I’d wake up almost bouncing, only to have to undergo the most magically exhausting experiments, sending me right back to my bed. Today, I felt lethargic and listless, as though I’d been hurling magic around for a full day or so already.
I shook my head to clear it and scanned my memory. The portkey from the Embassy in Berlin had activated as expected, but instead of being greeted by a Ministry official looking for a photo op, I’d appeared in a small room and hit with several spells before I could even catch my balance. The conniving smile of the Embassy official swam into my thoughts, and in hindsight, it looked damned self-satisfied. No wonder he was so desperate to get me home through non-official channels. Bastard.
I took the two steps necessary to stand near the line and glanced up and down the corridor. To my left, it took a sharp turn to the right after only about ten metres. To my right, it continued on for as far as I could see, which, considering the low light, wasn’t too far.
"What in blazes is going on?" I muttered to myself. Not even the most incompetent wizards would go out of their way to kidnap me and then put me in an open room. Either they have another way of preventing me from leaving, or I was supposed to attempt escape, and maybe get caught doing something illegal in the act. Either way, staying here was probably a bad move. I stepped over the line and into the corridor.
Or at least, I tried to.
With the painful sensation reminiscent of being hit in the stomach with a bludger, I was hurled backwards, connecting painfully with the rough, rocky wall. My vision swam with the impact, and it took a fair presence of mind not to lose consciousness. I’d had enough of being helpless for the moment.
A thrice-damned age line. Just. Fucking. Wonderful.
I slowly rose to my knees, shaking uncontrollably and wondering just how old I would have to be to cross the thing. Knowing my luck, I’d probably have to be around a hundred or so. Swearing softly, I reached around and clutched the back of my head, discovering two things.
One, the skin on the back of my head had been split open with the impact with the wall, and I was bleeding from the cut.
Two, a great big patch of hair from the back of my head was missing.
Further tentative exploration with my fingers revealed that nearly half my scalp was bald, or close to it.
I started swearing ever more loudly.
"Language, Potter," an amused voice chided me. I knew that voice.
Sure enough, the unimposing, portly man strode down the corridor, with two others behind him. "Cornelius Fudge. It’s so nice to see you again," I said sarcastically. "Any chance you’d like to come over here so I could tear your head off? I’d put it back in that fucking ugly bowler hat you always wore, but you seem to have developed a rudimentary fashion sense in the past two years."
He smirked at me at first, before developing a scowl half way through my spiel. "Now, now, Potter, there’s no need for threats or insults. In any event, I’m quite comfortable out here, thank you."
I took a deep breath to quell my anger. All three wore the same dark grey robes, though Fudge’s had silver trim, indicating some sort of rank. Both of his toadies had their wands out and ready, but not pointed at me.
"So what poor, misguided soul had the ill-fortune to end up with you as an employee?" I snarled. "Have you managed to send them into bankruptcy with your usual level of incompetence yet?"
Fudge instantly lost his faked joviality. "It’s because of you that I’m stuck here, Potter," he spat, sending spittle flying as he all but shouted my name. "Therefore, you’re going to help me out."
I snorted with laughter. "You think?" I asked while my mind worked through that little piece of information. I’d embarrassed the Ministry enough that they’d taken a vote of no confidence in him, but I had no idea what happened to the moronic Gestapo-wannabe after that. Whatever his job now, it had to be the Magical world’s social equivalent of garbage collector.
He grinned evilly at me. "Oh yes. Your childish fit of pique at the Vatican stirred up a lot of interest in you." He laughed out loud. "Again."
I stood on wobbly legs, refusing to kneel in front of him. "Was there anything of interest to someone who possesses a modicum of intelligence? Or just you?"
His eyes flashed with anger. "Do you have any idea where you are, Potter?"
Another clue. From his tone, this had to be somewhere bad. A prickling feeling of dread crept over my now-exposed scalp. "I’m in Hell," I replied simply. "That is, until you bugger off and leave me alone. As soon as you’re out of sight I’ll be as close to heaven as to make no bloody difference."
That didn’t go well. With a quick nod to his underlings, a pair of hexes flew towards me. I managed to dodge one, but the other hit my shoulder, sending a crackling wave of electricity up and down my arm. I fell to the floor and hissed in pain, but didn’t cry out.
Internally, I was screaming out curses. Zab had taught me that hex. It caused little to no permanent damage and didn’t take a great deal of power to use, though it did require a certain level of discipline and skill to cast. It was taught almost exclusively to a specific subset of Ministry employees. I knew exactly where I was now.
"Don’t annoy me, Potter. I have the ability to make your life bearable if you cooperate, or the opposite if you don’t."
With a twitching arm, I rose again to my feet. "You think?" I asked dangerously. I glanced at his hands. There, on his left index finger, was a jade ring. Unwelcome conformation of my deduction.
He stepped back, behind his lackeys. "Go ahead and try it, Potter. I know all about your ability to cast a wandless banishing charm. I’m rather interested to see what the wards here do to you."
I paused for a second or two. My Gryffindor instincts wanted to push the trio so hard that they would end up as greasy smears on wall opposite. But my Slytherin side pointed out that Fudge had no reason to bluff here, not when he had me trapped. There was also the fact that my lethargy was directly due to the wards here. I’d be better off discovering the results of experimenting with magic in my own time, without an audience.
After a few moments of silence, Fudge said mockingly, "Oh, poor little Potter, afraid to use his magic."
I rolled my eyes. "Oh, poor little Fudge, afraid to use his brain," I replied in the same tone.
That earned me another couple of jolts.
Fudge waited patiently for me to stop jerking. "Well, as nice as it is to catch up with an old friend, we really need to get down to business. A few more of those and you won’t be able to tell me what I need. Not for a while, at least."
I gingerly rolled over onto my stomach, and pushed myself up onto my hands and knees. "And just what would the warden of Azkaban need from me?" I snarled, with an odd sort of echo to my voice. My larynx wasn’t functioning properly after the repeated zaps.
That made him blink. "How did you know, Potter?"
I swallowed and coughed, trying to get my voice back properly. I could tell him that I knew that that hex is used to control prisoners, and is only really taught to prison guards. Or because the bloody Abrogo wards around Azkaban are powered by draining the power of anyone under them who don’t have a piece of jade against their skin. Or because he was here after being voted out of office after I exposed his idiocy to the world, and that being the warden of Azkaban was the most unwanted job in the Ministry. But pointing any of those out would give away the fact that I could actually use my brain. It was not a good idea to let your captors think that you were smarter than them.
"Dumbledore told me," I mumbled.
Fudge actually rubbed his chin in thought. "Odd. I wouldn’t have thought he would have told you that."
I glared at the man, deciding that ascribing his own traits onto others would make him less likely to prove my lie. "He told me thinking that I’d enjoy knowing that you were forced into doing something this bad. He was right."
Fudge glared at me, but stopped thinking. I slowly gathered my power. If the wards were going to sap my strength, I had to conserve it for when I needed it most. "Just what do you want, Fudge?"
"The Horcrux," he said simply.
My breath caught in my throat. "What?"
"Don’t play dumb with me, Potter. I know about your little trip to find You-Know-Who’s last soul jar."
I raised my gaze to look directly at him. I knew some magic that didn’t take much power to use. "What do you want it for?" I asked carefully, as soon as he’d met my eyes.
I wasn’t expecting him to answer. Or at least, I wasn’t expecting him to answer honestly. With the eye contact I had with him, I was rather hoping he’d bring those memories to mind, where I’d get the answers myself.
Sure enough, the little bastard didn’t even have a rudimentary knowledge of Occlumency, let alone any skill in the discipline. No wonder Lucius could manipulate him at will. I ignored Fudge’s spoken answer and gently rifled through his forethoughts.
Well, I wouldn’t have believed it, but the Ministry is even more idiotic than I gave them credit for. Ex-Ministers (or at least, ex-Ministers not convicted of a crime while in office) were apparently permitted to peruse sensitive Wizengamot documents even after their term had expired. Ostensibly, it was so they could take precautions to ensure their own safety. It was assumed that a Minister would have cultivated a certain number of enemies during his term in office; or at least, it was assumed he would have if he were doing his job right.
Despite his being voted out of office a full three years before his term was up, Fudge was never brought up on charges. If I had to guess, it would probably have been because too many of the Wizengamot members who had danced to his tune would have had to answer some decidedly uncomfortable questions.
So, thanks to this supremely imbecilic situation, Fudge knew everything Dumbledore had decided to reveal to the Wizengamot. Thankfully, given it was Dumbledore doing the revealing, I suspected it wasn’t much. But the real problem was what Fudge had managed to infer for himself. It was spookily accurate.
Voldemort’s Horcrux existed, I had it, and it was his ticket back into power.
The one bright spot in this whole mess was that he still wasn’t sure what he was going to do with it. He had some vague plan to use it to â€˜buy’ his way back into influence either by visibly being the person who finally destroyed the last vestige of Voldemort, or to blackmail whatever remained of Riddle to help. Well, I’ll have to give Fudge credit here; not too much, but a little bit. He has a firm goal in life, and is absolutely unencumbered by anything even remotely resembling a scruple.
"Potter!" Fudge snapped.
I blinked, leaving his mind. "Sorry, what? You were boring me so much I phased out there for a moment."
He took a deep breath and let it out through his nose while clamping his lips together tightly. "Tell me where the Horcrux is, and I’ll let you go."
I paused, making some deductions of my own. There was no way he would let me loose after kidnapping me in the first place. I discarded that offer out of hand. It was odd that he hadn’t just petrified me and force-fed me Veritaserum, which in and of itself told me something. Either he couldn’t requisition it from the Ministry without a few flags being raised, or he didn’t think it would work. He had mentioned my â€˜fit of pique’ at the Vatican, which was probably a reference to my first visit. Perhaps he heard that I resisted their Veritaserum, and decided it wasn’t worth trying it on me.
"Tell me who you have impersonating me with polyjuice, and I’ll tell you everything I know about its location," I replied, being both specific and honest.
That raised an eyebrow. "How did you know?" he asked, clearly baffled.
I snarled at him and pointed to my exposed scalp. "I prefer to frequent barbers who aren’t as incompetent as you."
He swallowed, and nodded thoughtfully. "Well done, I wouldn’t have guessed you could have figured it out. At any rate, a kissed criminal is currently in the spell damage ward at St. Mungos. It doesn’t matter who it is. Now, where is the Horcrux?"
I started chuckling. "Right. Sorry, can’t help you."
He clenched his teeth so hard, his jaw whitened. "You promised to tell me where it is," he said through his clenched teeth.
My chuckle grew into a laugh. "No, I promised that I’d tell you everything I know about its location. I really can’t help you. I don’t know where it is."
"I think you’re lying, Potter," he growled threateningly.
I didn’t stop laughing. "No, you hope I’m lying. But I do really mean it when I say I don’t know where it is."
Fudge actually looked thoughtful. "No, I really don’t believe you. There is no way you’d let someone else have control of the Horcrux."
I shook my head. "Unless…?" I prompted him, to get him well and truly onto the wrong track.
Incomprehension flooded his face. He obviously wasn’t used to doing his own thinking. He’s very much like the rest of the wizarding world, in that respect. "Unless what?"
I rolled my eyes. "Come on Fudge, keep up. You ascribe a value to it, what makes you think that I didn’t?" I asked dismissively. "Perhaps I’ve already sold it." Classic misdirection. Start the story with enough truth to get their attention, then gently guide their attention away along a different path and let them come to the wrong conclusion themselves. Then deny it strenuously. With any luck, he’ll come up with a ludicrously complex conspiracy theory, and I won’t have to force myself to laugh when denying it, which should just make him believe it all the more.
Fudge drew himself up to his full, still unimpressive height, and said with a smirk, "No, I don’t think so. There would have been too many buyers for you to just hand it over to the first offer. I think Mr. Potter here needs to be introduced to the special guards."
With that, he wandered off. He did shout over his shoulder, "Any time you want to talk, Potter, just scream. One of us will be along. Eventually." His mocking laughter echoed back as he turned the corner and disappeared out of sight. His two nameless goons stayed for a few seconds, one pulling out a stone with some sort of glyph on it from a pocket. They placed it on the floor of the corridor, tapped it with a wand, and with a high degree of intensity, ran for it. I was depressingly certain what the runed stone summoned, and I only had to wait for a few seconds for confirmation.
The sensation of an icy hand running down the back of my recently exposed scalp was as wholly unwelcome as it was familiar. The approaching Dementor came from the opposite direction to where Fudge and his boyfriends had just bolted. It glided gracefully towards my little niche, instantly filling my head with my mother’s screams.
Mumbling, "No, no, no…" I tried to occlude my mind. Even if raising Occlumency shields proved only partially successful at blocking out a Dementor’s aura, it would have been better than nothing. As it was, I couldn’t tell the difference; my mother’s screams still echoed undaunted through my mind. I saw the green flash that took her life. I tried to force the split in my mind, hoping that the unemotional side of me would be less affected. It didn’t work. The unholy creature drifted to a halt in front of my little alcove, and simply hovered there. I clutched the sides of my head and rolled on the gritty sand, screaming silently with emotional agony.
The only defence I had left kicked in. I grabbed hold of the anger that had served me well over the past few years and drew on it. Memories of being manipulated, lied to, and abused flooded into my mind with ease, greased by the Dementor’s aura. It took an eon, since my mind simply wanted to give in to self-pity, but eventually I’d become so angry that the cold slowly slipped away.
I did everything I could to delve into my reserves of magical power. My fists clenched so tightly that my fingernails cut into the palms of my hands. My face reddened, and I trembled uncontrollably. I sucked in a lungful of air and with a shout of pure defiance, pushed out as hard as I could, directly at the Dementor.
With all the effort I put in, the foul creature should have been blown backwards like a leaf in a cyclone, crashing against the wall like a suicide jumper hitting concrete. Instead, it merely staggered backwards into the wall, as though my efforts were for naught.
Still, for several seconds, I pinned it to the wall, pushing with all my magical might. At the Vatican, I’d been able to keep up this level of effort for well over a minute or two, but now, with the Abrogo wards feeding greedily on any magical expenditure, my already low reserves were being depleted like a sink without a plug. With only scant seconds of strength remaining, I focused my efforts on the Dementor’s toothless face, letting my hatred for the damned thing draw out the last of my power. For just two seconds, I pushed an area on its face a tenth of the size of a knut.
In the instant before I collapsed totally spent to the floor, the Dementor’s head seemed to just deflate, its skull falling in on itself, crushed under my onslaught. The sudden disappearance of the permeating aura of cold left me gasping with relief, leaving the damp, dingy alcove feeling like a summer’s afternoon.
Emotionlessly, I watched the Dementor’s body fall twitching to the sandy floor of the corridor. The thing’s face looked as though it had been stepped on by an oval-footed elephant. A bubble of laughter hiccupped through me, slowly building up until I was howling with amusement. There was a definite edge of hysteria to my mirth, but the whole scene just struck me as incredibly funny.
If I’d had the strength, I’d have jumped into the air and pumped my fist. Mind you, I’d probably have hit my head on the ceiling if I’d done that. That random observation set off another gale of laughter from me.
I was stuck in prison, with no real hope of escape, and someone else living my life. As depressing as it was, believe me when I say that giving your worst fear a face like a car accident does wonders for morale.