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Black Sands by Violet Gryfindor
Chapter 10: In the Pit of Snakes
In the Pit of Snakes
After that point, my memory enters into questionable territory, and I’m afraid that I cannot provide you with the details you may wish to hear.
There are, however, two things that I do remember. The silence and the light, the winter sun beating down on the deck, down on him, lying there, hitting him in just a way that made his hair look like fire. He was not the sun god of my night, just another Icarus of the morning after. The birds were there on the riverbank, their voices raised, a great cacophony, cheering on the fall of another who had reached for the sky, but only grasped the dirt.
No, not even that. His hands were empty. There was no dirt here.
The mummies I’d seen were nothing like this, their features too decayed to seem human, their existence prized only as relics of an ancient past. Cadogan was still too real, and but for his wide, terror-stricken eyes, I had thought him still alive, still human.
I took one last look at him, then deafened, blinded, I stumbled back inside.
From what I have scraped together of my memories and the hearsay of another, I must have packed all of my belongings, as well as those items of his that betrayed his magic, and released my carpet from its long sojourn in my trunk. What other way was there to escape? The crew was gone, and I did not think that taking the ship into harbour, complete with dead body, would not be a wise decision. Anyway, the carpet was only too pleased to fly, for it took me away from the dahabeeyah at a great speed, the air whipping against my face, the wind scouring the guilt from my flesh.
It was one thing to possess a magic carpet, but quite another to actually make use of it.
My memory returns at a point when I stood at the front desk of the Winter Palace, the porter staring rather oddly at my chosen costume. Looking down, I was gratified to see that I had at least changed out of the dressing gown, but the combination of native and English dress was something I tried to avoid when entering so-called civilized territory. When I met his gaze again, I raised a single, elegant eyebrow and gave him a glare that would send Medusa scurrying back to her cave.
It was enough, in the end, and he spluttered a little before speaking.
“Mr. Moody is not in, miss. Would you like to leave a message for him?”
I shrugged negligently, but could not disguise the impatience in my scribbled incoherent message that was meant to relay all of the relevant information while preventing my own condemnation. Nor could I entirely hide the shaking of my hand as I passed the note to the porter, but he gave no sign of taking notice.
My memory then skips to the scorching heat of tea on my tongue as I sat on the terrace, feeling remarkably calm. Perhaps they had learned how to make something more than a weak brew of century-old leaves, though it is more likely that I was so desperate for everything should appear as normal, that nothing of the morning, the night, the previous day, had occurred, that I convinced myself that I had never left Luxor, that I had never gotten on that boat and, perhaps if I was lucky, I could even convince myself that I had never known a man my the name of Cadogan.
He was there, in my mind’s eye. I kept seeing him, the shadows of him, always on the edge of my vision.
Moody did not appear. Seeing him would only be a comfort in that he was familiar. I could not be certain that he would believe my garbled and heavily-truncated, but at least he was aware of the extraneous circumstances involved. I caught myself wondering what it would take for him to convince him that I was not a murderer. I was not innocent, but I had not committed this particular crime, and if anyone was going to be made to believe me, it would be Moody..
I went home soon after to stare at the ceiling, black cloth draped over the window to keep out that blinding light, the sun’s murderous rays.
In the darkness, I thought I saw him. Cadogan. Just a shade, a flash of white in the corner of my eye that vanished when I turned my head. His face as it was in the shadows before he kissed me, his pale skin reflected in the mirror, crowned with fire. Maybe it was just a dream and I would wake beside him, then the story could go on from there.
Huddled on the carpet, my back to the wall, I stared out into the dim light of the room, and knew that, if I continued to deceive myself, I would go mad. His shade, that menacing ghost was there in my mind’s eye, nothing more. He was dead. I had run away. There was nothing more to be told. Until they came for me.
How long would it take to discover the boat? Not long to find the body, though perhaps the birds had gotten to it. They always started at the eyes, didn’t they? The softer flesh was easier to consume, and so the body went back to earth, starting at the beginning again.
Where was that cursedly useless Moody? His leering face and tasteless jokes would be an odd comfort, anything to distract, to annoy, to retain my focus so that I would stop chasing the ghosts in my head, round and round. I tried to picture Moody’s face and his reaction to my story. He would believe it. He must because, if he didn’t, I had nothing, no one. I would be alone again.
Being alone, truly and wholly alone, is a terrible thing.
They came for me at last, their fists thudding hollowly on my door, clashing with the echoes of their footsteps in the courtyard beyond. They were neither Aurors nor the prefect’s men, but a pair of surly Muggle soldiers, their leave home long delayed by political meanderings.
“You’re coming with us, miss.”
I did not like the look of them, but by this time, I really didn’t care what fate had in store for me next. It really couldn’t get any worse, could it?
Well, in case you were wondering, it did.
Some time later, I found myself in a filthy cell, balanced on the edge of an equally, if not more filthy cot, my arms wrapped around my legs, afraid to let my toes dangle too low in case my cellmate the rat arrived to take another nibble. There was a window, very well-placed, if I may say so, ensuring that a small quantity of sand blew in at regular intervals. Perhaps if the breeze continued, enough sand would collect so that, by the time I starved myself thin, I could squeeze between the bars and find my freedom.
I had discovered one additional difficulty of being a witch: the lack of a passport, and therefore, a lack of citizenship. I may have spoken the King’s English and had the general appearance of an English female, but when it came to the English records, I technically did not exist.
The group of officials debated my citizenship for an uncomfortable amount of time, then interrogated me regarding it for an even longer and more uncomfortable amount of time. It did not take long before the words “German spy” entered the fray, and that was when I was rudely shoved into the deepest, darkest cell they could find with no hope of afternoon tea.
It was Moody’s fault, of course, for being absent at just the time when I needed him. Somehow, I wasn’t surprised.
He was the only other person who I knew shared my suspicions regarding the recent activity in the Valley of the Kings. Something was wrong, and now it had cost another life. Right beneath my nose, too. Perhaps that was the most frustrating – or should I say worrying? – thing of all: that I had slept through Cadogan’s death.
It had not been a large boat and the walls were certainly not thick, so it seemed impossible that I should have missed the terrified screams of a dying man, or at least his movements on the deck, struggling for life, or even of whatever had caused his death. It all couldn’t have occurred in utter or near silence.
But there were too many perhapses that got in the way. Perhaps I had been drugged. Perhaps Cadogan had spelled me to stay asleep when he’d woken. Perhaps his murderer had used magic.
Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.
None of it mattered. He was dead, and I was in prison. Nothing else mattered.
With that, I leaned my head against the wall and closed my eyes, now waiting for the scrambling claws of the rat.
At least I didn’t have to be alone.
Time slowed, each second feeling like a month, each minute a year. Perhaps they would leave me in this dungeon forever. “There’s a murderess, the traitorous spy,” they would say, pointing down a dark corridor. “Name it and she’s done it.” All the crimes in the world laid at my door.
They would claim that I’d robbed the tomb next. That wouldn’t surprise me one bit. It would be the first crime that I’d wish that I had committed. To see the inside of that tomb....
The question of what I would give for such an opportunity occupied me for some time, long enough for the cell to grow dark and my eyes to remain shut, the sound of scrabbling nails on the stone floor lulling me into a fitful sleep. Thoughts of the tomb filled my early dreams, for dream I did, my mind drifting through the dark, secret corridors deep within the earth’s surface, much deeper than the reports of the tomb’s design had described. It was meant to be shallow, a minor tomb appropriated for the body of the too-young, lately-dead pharaoh, but instead I followed tunnels for what seemed like miles until, impossibly, there was a light ahead.
It always remained ahead, at the same distance, and even though I walked and walked, growing weaker with faltering steps and palms scraping against the tunnel walls, I never reached it.
“Not long now,” a voice whispered, so close that I could feel the breath stir my hair. “But not yet. Not yet.”
The darkness overtook me, and I awoke.
It was night, no more scorching sunlight pouring in through the high, barred window. There was only silence now. I supposed that even rats had to fall asleep sometime.
Imagine dreaming of the tomb, of all places! This cell was no better than a tomb, when one really thought about it. In fact, it possessed one thing that a tomb did not: a window. I had to be thankful for small favours. For all the wondrous things an ancient tomb could contain, it was also a house for the dead, continuously reeking of death, never distinguishable from its purpose.
As I didn’t mistake myself for the Count of Monte Cristo, I had no worries of this jail cell becoming my tomb, so after taking a mouthful of tepid water from the jug near the door, I curled up on the cot for another round of broken sleep.
He flashed before my eyes over and over, the living man of the night blurring with the dead man of morning to wring drops of sanity from my mind. Everything replayed itself in ghastly detail, joy and horror set in reverse. I was there again before the mirror on the boat, watching as dead, white hands reached over my shoulders, their skeletal fingers grasping for my throat. A flicker and the scene changed to the blinding light of morning on the deck where he smiled up at me, his hand extended, beckoning me to join him. To join him in death.
His features took on a darker aspect, the fiery hair burning low as his light eyes turned black. There it was. That thing which had invaded my dreams, polluting my memory of Cadogan. It stared out from his eyes, smiling with his lips. It opened his mouth.
“Resist me.” The words rang hollow, echoing off every grain of sand. “Fear me.” It grew in volume. “But in the end, you will come to me.”
I was there again on Philae, there with him on that impossible island, the water gushing around us, rising, falling, ever in motion. My black robes had been replaced with a white shroud gathered tightly across my chest and tied to a thick leather collar at my throat. He pulled me along, though I struggled, though I used all my magic to resist, he drew me toward him, closer, closer, until all I could see was his face, all the little details, perfections and imperfections....
The face closed in, growing to obscene proportions until it consumed me whole.
I shut my eyes tight until a gentle hand touched mine. Exaltation swept through my veins, raising every nerve to a raging point. Another voice, more familiar, too familiar, glided into my ears, its dulcet tones no longer silenced by the hand of Death.
“Do not let it catch you.”
Waking, I sat up with such speed that the cot shuddered on its rusted legs. I blinked, rubbing the sand from the corners of my eyes. It was everywhere, the sand, always getting into everything. There was no escape from its presence. I dusted it off my clothes, though it made no difference to their state of wear.
Blasted dreams. If I paid too much attention the unconscious mind rattling its chains all night long, I’d end up in the madhouse much sooner than expected.
I leaned my head back against the wall, but did not close my eyes. I wanted to think.
All of this trouble had begun when the tomb had been opened. Nothing irregular had coloured life before that day. The monotony of it all had been excruciating, but that day, something had happened. The way the sand had acted, it was as though something had come out of the tomb, something intangible, not an object but a being, a living thing. I’d heard of curses and demons, but only peripherally. There had never been any major tomb openings since I’d arrived in this area, and even then, it wasn’t as though the curse breakers would make a public spectacle of their work.
Speaking of which, it was impossible that anything should have escaped the tomb without first being caught and destroyed by the curse breakers. They were fabled throughout the country; even in my avoidance of all things magic, I had heard of their ruthless efficiency, their quiet persistence in carrying out their work under the noses of Muggle archaeologists. Perhaps that was the sort of job I should have aspired to, however much the thought of grappling with demons terrified me.
But where had they been at Tutankhamun’s tomb? I assumed that they’d have been in and out before Carter had broken the seals, but if so, they had missed something. It was impossible, and I knew that if I’d gone to the authorities, they would have laughed me back into the streets. The curse breakers could do no wrong. They never made a mistake.
If not that, then what?
I knew what I’d seen, what I’d felt. I also knew that things had been going wrong ever since that day, for me, and for many others, especially those who died as a result.
If there was actually something roaming around the desert, surely it would have killed me by now? The thing which had forced the rock down the cliff-face had left behind claw marks, as though metal had ripped through stone. The thing which had killed Cadogan had been horrific, even monstrous, enough to leave that look on his face... oh Merlin, that look...
It was there, again, before me. That face. That horror. Those eyes, the sound of the birds screeching above....
“–hardly your best accommodations, Major.”
My eyes shot open, the cursed things having closed again, for Merlin knew how long. The sky outside the window was blue and clear. Morning had come. So had a vistor.
“We don’t provide for murderesses, sir. She’s got what she deserves. More even.”
It was my jailer, his keys jangling against his holster, his accent thick as mud, all the letters slurring together out of drunkenness rather than lack of education and status. I daresay he was one of those jolly English-fellow types to most of the world, but to me, he was an undistinguished brute.
But the other one, the other voice, it was strange. English, but not English, too. I could not place it and strained to listen for a hint, any hint at all.
“There’s very little proof of that, you know. She is, after all, a lady.”
The Major guffawed, a hideous sound that made me clench my teeth and itch for my wand. Now here was the kind of Muggle who was just asking for–
“Her? Never! We’ve had word of her little game for ages, but nothing concrete ‘till now. We’ve got her good, believe me.” There was a pause filled with the jangling of keys as he unhooked the ring from his belt. “Are you sure you’ll be wanting to see her, sir?”
“I’m sorry to say that I’ll be taking her off your hands, Major.”
The keys hit the ground with a clang.
“The evidence on the boat was inconclusive, Major. You know that as well as me, and even if Miss Black has been getting, and I quote, ‘what she deserves,’ I don’t think it fair to charge an innocent young woman with a murder she obviously did not commit.”
The Major fumbled to pick up the keys.
“Now will you please open this door?”the voice continued.
“Pardon me, sir, but she’s the only one who could have done it. They were alone out there, entirely alone–”
There was a different kind of laugh; it must have been from the other man. It gave him away.
When the door opened, I thought I knew who to expect, but I found myself staring at a pair of very polished black shoes, neatly-pressed linen trousers – my eyes made their way upward – a blazer with a blazing white handkerchief in the pocket, its blinding whiteness only matched by the open-necked shirt he wore. With one hand, he adjusted an obsidian cufflink, the stone a perfect match to his eyes, which surveyed the room and my person, displeasure taking root in the twist of his lips as he addressed the Major.
“I think you may expect a transfer soon, Major.”
“I’m sure that there are places well-deserving of your, let us say, attentions?”
He turned to the Major, his smile broad, but entirely without feeling.
An awkward swallow was his only reply.
“Very well, then. Thank you, Major. Please have Miss Black’s things – all of them, mind you – ready for her departure.”
The sound of jangling keys faded into the background, or was it that they faded with the roaring in my ears at that moment? All of this felt less real, more dream-like, than anything I had yet experienced all the night through.
“What is it, Black?” Moody asked, crossing his arms in what seemed to be his favourite pose, his voice slipping back into its American lilt. “Aren’t you glad to see me?”
I blinked. I gaped. There were no words for this vision.
“That much, eh?” He grinned, but anxiety flashed in his eyes before he reached out a hand to pull me to my feet and brush some sand off my shoulder. “Come on, Princess. We better be out of here before the dear Major starts losing his awe for my godlike appearance and starts checking up on my credentials.”
The dryness in my throat was only one reason why I found it difficult to speak. I grasped at the first thought that entered my head as I heard his extravagant and impossible speech.
He led me toward the door, but my footsteps lagged, my feet tingling with numbness. They weren’t the only portion of my anatomy feeling numb.
“I can’t say you look it at the moment, but looks can be deceiving, as you can see.” He bowed me out of the cell before guiding me up the corridor, his hand resting just above my elbow.
It wasn’t my numb feet that drew me to a halt. I stared straight ahead, not seeing the corridor or the jail, not feeling Moody’s presence close beside me, not even aware of my body’s aches and pains as it sought to remind me of the neglect it’d been suffering over the past twenty-four hours. My mind was at work, tying knots, pulling threads together.
“Yes, that’s very true....” my voice trailed off.
His fingers tightened around my arm.
I looked up at him. “....a person could be many things at once.”
Perhaps the missing curse breaker hadn’t been missing after all. Perhaps he had instead failed, somehow; it didn’t matter how, only that something went wrong. He takes on a new identity, pretends to be a Muggle tourist, hires the local witch, but again, something goes wrong, but this time, I knew what that something was.
Cadogan. Me. That night.
But Salazar’s socks, however was I going to explain that, or anything else, to Moody?
No need to call the gravediggers for me. I was going to do a very good job of it myself.