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Chapter 20: Persuasion
A/N: Sorry it took me so long to update! Original fiction has been eating up most of my attention lately. I would just like to say thank you to all of you lovely people who voted for this story in the Dobbys. You are amazing.
Lucius held five fingertips to the barrier, marveling at the solidity of it. For something he couldn’t even see, it felt inflexibly strong and smooth. Impenetrable. He could feel the rise of his fingerprints against the glass, and the barrier seemed to breathe. He sensed the wall draw a deep gust of air inside it and then let out a slow, ragged exhale, pushing Lucius back ever so slightly.
He moved away, slanting his head to examine the landscape with caution. The wolves had been able to swim past this point, he had seen them doing it. Lucius was standing at the very edge of the lake, white-blond hair streaking his haggard face, trying to figure out a way past the invisible barrier that seemed to surround the entire lake. In the distance, a tiny white-blue dot appeared and disappeared. There and gone, there and gone, on a rotation of sorts.
Narcissa lit up his mind, not at all like he’d imagined. She was not a princess from a fairy tale. He had tried to prepare himself for this, hoping fruitlessly for the chance to see for himself if the mental image matched up to reality; but she wasn’t the swooning, delicate creature he had envisioned. There was no long hair, no pink cheeks and red grin. She was dirty and ill-groomed, with lips chapped and a complexion pale and rubbed raw like that of old bones found half-buried in the sand. And she was absolutely perfect.
He’d gotten a healthy glimpse of her surroundings, and observed enough to realize that she was that light in the distance. Lucius’s heart beat fast as he recalled the emotion welling up inside him when he gazed into the mirror on his bedroom floor. Finally, at long last, he would see what everyone else had already seen. The jealousy because Ramien and Horatio and Cook were already familiar with her features was nothing, not anymore. Not when he could now cross to the other side, privy to the world of the seeing and living. And with an expectant heart, he laid eyes on Narcissa, his Narcissa, and the feeling of her looking at him while he was looking at her was the most terrifying moment in his entire life.
But it was worth it. Oh, it was so worth it. And he wanted more of it, to see more. He wanted to ask her, tentatively, if he could please just sit next to her for a short while before she began her journey home. And if he was lucky, he might be able to touch her hand...if she would let him…
But of course she wouldn’t. It was out of the question. She would want to swiftly return home to her father and the mess she had left behind.
Lucius’s shame for himself did not prompt him to turn away from the barrier, however. He continued to pace around it, thinking quickly. It was evident from Narcissa’s state that she was trapped inside a tower of sorts, most likely at the very top of it. A wry grimace crossed his face; it was painfully recognizable work.
His memory reeled to a snowy night eight years ago, and the horror that dawned over him when he realized he was a prisoner in his own home. The thought of Circe being near, still inflicting psychological torture on people whenever it suited her, made his skin break out in a cold sweat.
“Narcissa?” he asked hesitantly. He cleared his throat, staring past the mist to the pinprick of winking light.
“Hey there!” a voice responded. Lucius gave a start, turning around in one sharp movement. Two tall men were walking down the slope from the forest, closing the gap between them. The one who had called out to Lucius was smiling politely, waving in a friendly sort of way. The other had a black goatee, and the tops of his boots and collar of his coat were trimmed with thick brown fur. He wore a surly expression and lingered on the fringe of the forest, his eyes clearly emitting distrust.
Lucius did not speak. He watched the friendlier of the pair stride forward, glancing furtively at his wary companion every few seconds. Just like that other man, Lucius was not inclined to trust.
“Couldn’t help but overhear you, and we thought we would come on over and introduce ourselves,” the man stated.
Lucius’s eyes narrowed slightly. Not moving an inch, he replied with slight accusation in his voice, “I spoke only a minute ago, right before you did. You had to have already been behind me.”
The other man was intimidating in his length, and his black eyes glittered with something that was supposed to resemble kindness. He spread his hands out in a gesture of cordiality. “That’s true, friend. However, I –”
“What are you doing here?” Lucius’s voice was blunt, closing them off. He withdrew a pair of black leather gloves from one pocket and slipped them on, not deflecting his eyes from the man. There was something territorial in the way he eyed them, warning them without needing to speak that they were trespassing. That they were not welcome.
“Well, now.” The man’s pretense dropped. He craned his neck around to appraise his companion, who looked like he very much did not want to be there. “Igor? Thoughts?”
“Let us leave,” Igor answered stonily. His tones were rough and thick – Bulgarian. “I do not like the look of this one.”
Lucius took a step forward. “It’s not often that I get visitors. You must have some sort of purpose here.”
The fellow studied him with calculating intensity, pursing his lips. “You’re right. We do.” Igor’s mouth opened wide, dumbstruck. “We’re looking for a witch by the name of Circe.”
Lucius stared at him, every bit as surprised as Igor.
“We don’t know much about her besides the fact that she could possibly be a threat to a certain organization…I won’t go into the murky details. We have been charged with finding this person, if she does indeed exist, and bringing her back to a friend of ours. We’re not sure if she’s real, we just –”
“She is,” Lucius told him brusquely. “She is very real.”
The man raised his eyebrows and extended a hand. “My name is Rookwood.” Before he could clear his head, Lucius found himself shaking it, the cogs in his mind faintly cockeyed as they worked to decipher the meaning of these circumstances.
“My name is Lucius Malfoy.”
Rookwood and Igor exchanged loaded expressions. Igor finally conceded to joining his friend, and Lucius saw that up close, the skin on his face was swarthy and sagging, etched with tiny crisscrossing lines. Everything else about him, besides this, remained youthful. “If what they say is true, and you’ve personally met Circe, then perhaps you could be of some assistance to us,” Rookwood purred. “Consider this an opportunity, Malfoy. Come along with us.”
“I have absolutely no intentions of going anywhere,” Lucius told him blithely, turning back to the invisible wall. “I have imperative business here.”
Igor was impatient. “Doing what?”
Lucius’s eyes snapped, but he did not switch his attentions. “As it so happens, Circe has been here very recently.” He tapped the solid air, and the pair of newcomers froze at the sound of three melodic pangs. “She has locked someone very dear to me inside of this…whatever it is she’s built around my lake…and I have to get her out.”
Rookwood swallowed, peering beyond them to the shining beacon of light trapped in a cyclone of lilac clouds. “You say that a spell has put her in there?”
Lucius’s gaze trailed across the water, eyes sad. With his hands still pressed against the imperceptible barricade, he answered very softly, “Yes.”
Igor’s mouth twitched, and Rookwood’s countenance shifted from one of doubt to slyness. “I know someone who can help you with that.”
Two deep lines were embedded in my forehead, the imprints of rails I had sunk against two hours ago. Here I still sat, waiting for the drizzling mist to pick up the tempo. I glared at the empty tomato can clanging against the glass door, moving with a life of its own from the wind.
“Rain,” I growled demandingly at the sky. I was incredibly parched. The clinging moisture in the air was enough to keep me unendingly freezing, but not enough to quench my thirst.
Sighing, I rolled my legs out from underneath me, numb from being pinned there for so long, and pulled up on the railing so that I could see properly over it. The black crow statues in the distance were no longer burning with tiny lights, and I wondered if I had imagined the spheres suspended in thin air, protruding from the crows’ heads in the form of eyes and beaks. I trickled one finger along the railing, resting my chin on its cool surface. Something about the marble design of it reminded me of my grandfather’s chess pieces. I mimed curling my fingers around a bishop, watching it hop towards the queen across the board.
The pieces toppled off the railing into the iron sea below, sloshing through sharp waves into rocks surrounding the lighthouse, crumbling into pieces. The water had risen hungrily higher and higher against the lighthouse, covering the entire door at the bottom; when the clouds broke and sunlight hit the water at just the right angle, I could still the glinting rocks below. Even in the darkness, I thought I could see the chess pieces churning amongst them.
“Damn,” I murmured. “That was my last set.” Swerving back around and staring groggily at the tiny circular room at the summit of the lighthouse, I wondered what I was going to do next. All of this piddling around and doing nothing was grueling.
I refused to move away from the bit of pavement where the mirror had appeared, unwilling to miss the appearance of Lucius if he was able to somehow see into the mirror again. I recalled what he had told me, that it would not show you the same thing twice. From what I’d learned within the past few months, however, nothing was impossible. Nothing at all.
“I’m here,” I called lowly, tilting my left cheekbone against the railing and absently still trailing one hand along it. “I’m still here.” My voice was stronger this time. “Good-for-nothing Portkeys. Good-for-nothing Bellatrix. Went months without hearing from her, months without any money. If I ever see her again, I’ll strangle her…”
I slid my arms far out over the railing, letting my hands dangle freely. I could feel blood pooling in my fingertips, making them heavier. Filthy hair blew every which way across my face, the strands flayed like dragon scales.
From somewhere far away, the bell of a fisherman’s ship clanged and clanged, and I realized I had been on the verge of falling asleep. My eyelashes fluttered, opening, and I stared blearily upon the waters at a bobbing grey shape stretched into a long, slender oval.
Clang, clang, clang.
The boat sliced through the water, coating under its shining skin, and bumped noiselessly against one of the glossy black boulders hiding below. Something that looked like an enormous four-limbed creature was dumped over the side of the boat, a coil of rope tied to one of its hind legs. When the creature hit the bottom of the sea, the rope attached to the boat itself gave a powerful tug, sloshing the ship back and forth for a few terse moments.
I straightened up, watching closely. Lucius.
But it was not Lucius. A great red wolf leapt through low-hanging boughs of silvery vapor, emerging from a door in the steering cabin of the fishing boat. It surveyed the flooded rocks and rising water levels, its ears switched away from its face as though listening to a faraway conversation. Four tremendous paws worked circles around the ship’s floorboards, looking for a way into the lighthouse. It simply stood there for an immeasurable period of time, watching or listening to something – I couldn’t tell. I blinked again, idly pondering my state of lucidity. Perhaps I was only dreaming.
It certainly was a peculiar dream.
I slumped against the balcony railing, the edges of my shorn hair tickling my neck. The wolf considered the lighthouse impatiently, and gradually its large, intelligent eyes travelled upward…
The hairs on the back of my neck prickled, standing on end. The animal took a step backwards, lowering itself just a fraction, like a jaguar about to pounce on its prey. I saturated the sight of its bristling brick-red fur, sunburned like the hills in Doorturn, and the quietly whipping tail; I felt disconnected from the scenery playing out, apart from it. I might not have been there at all. I was merely a bystander, watching it all happening to someone else.
The wolf cocked its head, narrow muzzle wrinkling as it curled away to reveal long teeth. A smile, asking for invitation. Let me in, it seemed to say.
I shook my head, pointing to the swamped door. “It’s blocked.”
The wolf twisted its neck, glancing beyond us to black skyline still distorted into the shapes of crows. Snow was falling gently now, mixing with the pepper-grey rain. They were like feathers, soft and floating... I clamped my hands to my throbbing temples, trying to counter-pressure the headache slowly seeping in. Molten blackbird feathers drifted through the sky all around me like peeling paint, littering the balcony. I touched one of them and it disintegrated into cinders. How odd, I thought.
Chills rippled along the wolf’s thick fur, and it implored me with its gaze once more. “What startling green eyes you have,” I murmured. “I’ve never seen green eyes on a wolf before.”
Let me in, the echo repeated.
“I told you, it’s blocked.” I sounded irritated now. I wondered if I was speaking out loud. It was difficult to hear myself over the softly-falling feathers; I could feel them curl against the whistling wind as they descended. I heard them as I saw them, falling everywhere. They slipped into the thrashing ocean and I shook my head, momentarily confusing the blurred specks for lacy white snowflakes. I closed my eyes for a split second and reopened them, dazed with a pounding vertigo.
No feathers. No cinders. Only snow, melting on the pavement as soon as they landed. I was seeing things again. This was definitely not a positive sign…
The wolf edged closer to the rim of the boat, eyeing me intently. It’s not flooded; you’re only imagining it is. All you have to do is unlock the door. Come down and unlock the door.
I studied the animal. If my surroundings weren’t lying to me, then opening the door at the base of the lighthouse would lure torrents of water inside – water that was presently leaning against the door with a suffocating weight. If the stairway flooded I would truly never be able to escape, even if exterior water levels decreased in a few days’ time. I leaned over the railing as far as I could hang, biting down on my lip as my eyes roved over the icy depths. The sea was a wash of colors – muddy green, navy, and maroon wine. And something like black, but not quite soulless enough to be all the way there.
There’s a rope at the very top of the lighthouse, looped around the glass of fire. Lower it down for me.
Draining the weak vestiges of my energy, I grasped the railing with stiff, waterlogged hands. A sting of arctic air blew into my face, serving to clear my mind somewhat. I arched a condescending eyebrow at the waiting beast. “No,” I said, my tone emotionless and unsympathetic.
The pair of emerald eyes darkened, and its jagged teeth grew longer, sharper, as its lips spread back even farther away from the broad black gums. Not a smile, not anymore. It released a dangerous growl, those inky pupils dilating with anger as they seemed to swallow me up. The disdain in my demeanor seemed to give me life; it enabled my ears to drown out the hollow clangs of the bell, still ringing through the night whenever the boat rocked from side to side in the tossing water. None of it was real.
“What sharp teeth you have,” I replied scathingly, imagining my words plummeting one by one into rain droplets of their own, dripping like condensation down the surface of a glass of water; down through the filmy smog and through leagues of air and absence until they reached the brutish creature that surely did not exist. I was alone in my tower, of this I was certain. Lonely, thirsty, and hallucinating. I snapped my own teeth together, flashing a malevolent grin. “It’s too bad you’ll never reach me.”
This struck a nerve in the wolf’s disposition. It rolled its shoulders, releasing something warm and thick into the air – power like breath. The revolving cerulean light above me glinted more brightly, the Gubraithian fire absorbing the strength of whatever it was the wolf had just lost through its skin. And then, without warning, the wolf wasn’t a wolf at all. It sprang through space, fur recoiling backwards into bare flesh, ripping and contorting until it resembled something human.
Until it was human. An ancient, grandmotherly-looking woman who had been cowering in wolf’s skin.
Her white hair was thin and mangy, plastered to the sides of her withering face and trailing down her back like rat’s tails. She stared up at me, her eyes just as green and piercing as they had been in animal form, and seemingly larger when gaping through emaciated features. Her skeletal fingers bunched together, shaking slightly.
Words were not needed to express what she was clearly telling me. I shuddered, a thrill of fear coursing through blood run cold.
Oh, yes I will.
She shrank back into a wolf, so rapidly I almost missed it, and hastened to the edge of the ship and used her teeth to saw the rope that tethered the boat in place. The bells did not ring anymore, and the temporary spike in temperature waned until it was cold again – even colder than before. I gazed out at the sea, remembering suddenly that it wasn’t the sea at all. I had forgotten, and probably would forget again, that the salt had been sprinkled in my mind, not in the water. Broken reeds disguised as seaweed gushed forth between frothy waves, rumbling in whispers that reminded me of piano chords. But it was all a mirage, intended to crack the membranes of my psyche.
The rise of black statues in the distance were not crows or blackbirds at all; they were the turrets and towers of Malfoy Manor. I reached out a hand and curled my fingers around their form, so close to me that I was surprised when I did not catch them in my hands for substance.
I had disappeared on an empty plain, draped over an old stone well. I had reappeared in a lighthouse that had sprouted out of the barren lake overlooking Malfoy Manor. Where there had once been long grass and the flickering yellow squares of illuminated windows above, there was now endless water that circled back around me, circling and circling in a fishbowl of dim clouds that never lifted.
There was something about the image of a fishbowl that caught my brief attention. Walls of glass, but no ceiling…the only way out being up. I lowered my eyelids and sank to my knees, numb to the scraping of my palms on cement. My mother rested beside me, disapproving of what I had done to my hair. Andromeda sat somewhere away from us, her eyes gliding away from me when I glanced at her, as though trying to pretend that the isolation didn’t bother her. And Bellatrix was there, too – but there was something unsettling in the way she looked at me. Her expression was too gleeful, too greedy, as though she was seeing something valuable in me that I wasn’t yet aware of.
Her face flashed red, as though electrified by a rebounding spell. I could see all of them in a circle, bearing down on me until my muscles were so tense with crawling anticipation that they hurt. The biggest mistake I had ever made in my life…
The snake in my arm moved with fire, blazing furiously as it wound its way through an eye of the tattooed skull. A missing link in a chain – a link no one had even known was missing until this very moment – clicked into place, long-awaited and immediately belonging. Expected, even. Steam rose from my branded flesh, and I let my head fall back weakly, resting against the frigid metal rails as I fought against the pull to let go, to allow unconsciousness to envelop me in a cloak of blackest black with me falling through it for miles and miles. The last part of myself to slip away felt the snake slither and hiss, awakening to greet an old friend.