Chapter 1 : Prologue
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“Intruders,” a voice echoed from above him, “will not be tolerated. Especially when they are those such as… you.”
Altair Ritter blinked hard, trying to stop the images before his eyes from swimming quite as persistently as they were. All of a sudden, breathing had begun to cause a burning in his chest, and he wondered how long he could go without having to resort to that necessary but painful process of the inhalation of air.
“Suppose… my invitation… lost in the post?” He looked up, smiling almost ridiculously at the unwelcome sight before him.
This cottage on Dartmoor was the same as any other in the middle of nowhere in Britain. Small, ramshackle, ignored by all save a few misfortunate hikers and locals who knew of its existence. The general populace probably assumed it was haunted, and the latest occurrences in the area would only encourage that little superstition.
Altair Ritter was keenly aware of who the five most dangerous individuals in the country were. Unfortunately, two of them were standing in front of him as he was slumped down the wall of the living room of that cottage.
To be fair, they were likely numbers four and five, but it still probably wasn’t the best time for wry retorts.
The man who had spoken and now had his wand pointed at him, the one who had sent him flying into that wall in the first place, seemed to agree with that likelihood, if the expression on his face was anything to go by. “Scum. You really are just too stupid to understand just what you’ve wandered into.”
“And what would that be?” Ritter forced another stupid smile as he clambered to his feet and wrapped his cloak around him a little more tightly, the chill sweeping into the cottage suggesting this would be a good idea.
The man’s face twitched a little, until the third individual in the room let out a small bark of laughter. This other man had been standing in the corner, watching the proceedings since Ritter had been pulled out of his hiding place, and it was the first noise he had made so far.
“Thanatos, Thanatos… do calm down. Why, Mister Ritter was a gnat’s wing away from having you make a villainous exposition speech. Do remember to not let the half-breeds get you talking. You love the sound of your own voice too much for that.” Unlike ‘Thanatos’, this speaker sounded warm and lyrical, and most certainly amused.
There was another mutter from Ritter. “I’m not a half-breed. I’m just as wonderfully inbred as you two bastards,” he declared quietly, but resentfully.
Thanatos Brynmor didn’t seem too impressed. “Let’s just kill him, Robb, and have done with it. Who knows what he heard?”
Idaeus Robb gave an exaggerated shrug. “I don’t know. I don’t know what he was listening for.” Robb stepped out of the shadows into the centre of the room, moving around to perch on the corner of the sturdy oak dining table. Where Brynmor was tall and broad of shoulder, bearded and dark, Robb was small, slight, and perfectly attired.
“Does it matter?” Brynmor grunted.
“I’d like to know who sent him. Who’s so interested in our goings-on here. How he knew even how to find us.” Robb folded his arms across his chest.
Ritter scowled, trying to keep his breathing light as the ache in his ribs grew with each word he spoke. “So I talk, and then you kill me? However did you become such a fantastic businessman, Robb?” he asked wryly.
“Natural talent.” Robb grinned, almost genuinely. “You might, right now, be underestimating the worth of a quick death in exchange for your co-operation. Make Thanatos here angry, and you’ll be begging for that end by the time he’s done. And he does so hate people being unresponsive.”
“See, I know you work for Cole,” Brynmor said, beginning to pace, twirling his wand with practiced ease. “But I also know that Daedalus Cole couldn’t be more spineless if he were a Flobberworm. For him to send you would suggest that he has an interest in events, which would suggest he’s going to get involved in events, which would suggest that he’s developed perhaps a degree of bravery to even think about siding with a camp in this war.”
Ritter managed yet another one of his broad and ridiculous smiles. “Is that a fact?”
“You’re his pet dog, Ritter.” Brynmor’s expression was cold and humourless. “And it takes someone as pathetic as Daedalus Cole to keep a toothless guard dog.”
Ritter gave an exaggerated shrug, and ignored the pain this movement caused. His eyes were flickering around the darkened room of the cottage, evaluating quickly. They were in the dining end, a window on the far side of the wall opposite him, Robb perched on the table in the way, Brynmor pacing before him. Down the left side was the other half of the house, the beaten and worn and falling-apart furniture of the lounge. If Ritter didn’t know better he’d have assumed that nobody had been inhabiting this cottage for years, maybe even decades.
“Then why am I here? Give me your great theory.” He pasted another grin on his face.
“I want to know who you’re working for, who sent you.” Brynmor stopped in the pacing, looking Ritter in the eye at last.
“I thought you just said that I work only for Daedalus Cole, because only he would hire someone as toothless as me? Asking questions you already know the answer for isn’t particularly…”
But Ritter didn’t manage to finish the taunt, as he hadn’t expected he would. When he’d first been dragged in through the window, his attempted eavesdropping failed, and Thanatos had hit him with the curse that had sent him flying into the wall, he’d been taken by surprise. This time, he knew exactly what was coming, and was entirely prepared to deal with it.
He whirled his cloak up before him, presenting a woollen barrier between himself and Brynmor as the Death Eater raised his wand, spitting out a curse Ritter didn’t even have the time to identify. He was fortunate, he knew, that Brynmor preferred far more dramatic and physical forms of torture than the plain old Cruciatus curse. It normally made him a little more unpredictable and thus more dangerous than most of his type.
Ritter had banked on that unpredictability to get through this alive.
The blue flash of the curse rocketed towards him, even though the cloak was in the way – and then it struck the wool, and the barrier was all of a sudden made of far much more than just cloth. It shimmered with a similar blue energy, crackling as the curse splashed over it harmlessly, and absorbed the magical power with little more than some interesting lighting patterns.
Thanatos Brynmor took a step back, his expression shocked. “What in the…”
Ritter didn’t waste time. Neither of the two men had thought to search him when they’d dragged him into the cottage. It would never have crossed the minds of either of them that he might have something on him which would be dangerous. After all, they could take down his kind within seconds, and all three of them were aware of it.
That was why his plans consisted of flight, not fight.
Taking the most of the element of surprise he had from the stunned nature of both men, Ritter reached down to his waist and grabbed one of the small glowing orbs dangling from the hooks on his belt. He yanked it out, his fingers wrapping around it and giving it one good, hard squeeze before he threw it down on the ground before them all.
Then, just as he had planned for, they were plunged into darkness.
That was the problem with wizards, Ritter reasoned to himself as he reached up to grab the walking stick strapped to his back, the burning of his broken ribs washed away with the adrenaline pumping through his system. Wizards always expected battles to be fought on terms they were familiar with. They expected wand-magic, duels, and other safe, habitual methods of combat.
Ritter smiled to himself as he stepped around behind where Brynmor was waving his wand ineffectively, stick upraised. Throw a wizard in a situation where he couldn’t use his wand and he was rendered useless.
The blow from the walking staff cracked down on the back of Brynmor’s head, and the sound of the Death Eater falling to the ground with a small whimper could be heard. Ritter, in direct contrast to his enemies, had spent an entire career being very good at what he did without needing to resort to a wand. Darkness was a small challenge compared to the others he’d face, and one he had learnt to combat a long time ago.
Still running off adrenaline and a dim recollection of his surroundings, though unfortunately keenly aware that he had no clue where Robb had gone, Ritter took a few quick steps forward through the impenetrable darkness, lunging towards where memory claimed the window he’d been dragged in through was.
His shoulder took a brief blow when he misjudged slightly and knocked into the window frame as he leapt, but fresh air hit his lungs and light his eyes when he landed heavily on the ground outside the cottage.
The pain in his ribs screamed in protest at the impact, and all he could do for a few long moments was lie, motionless, on the grassy but rocky and uneven ground.
Then the sudden noise from behind him prompted action, and Ritter half-heartedly tried to roll to his feet as Idaeus Robb leapt through the same window he had made his escape from, landing heavily and clumsily on the ground beside him.
Ritter didn’t waste time. Despite the pain, he knew he could only use the trick of the Shield Charm cloak once, especially on one like Robb. So he decided to go for the second method of fighting a wizard was usually unprepared for, and lunged forwards to physically tackle the Death Eater down the hill the cottage stood at the top of.
Robb, clearly taken unawares, could only grab onto his assailant as the two of them rolled down the slope heavily. His wand was in his hand, though, and even as the two of them struggled against each other, he tried to bring it to bear with Ritter.
Ritter was no fool, however, and he reached out to grab the wrist of Robb’s wand-arm, keeping it at bay for the entire tumble. The two of them rolled, each trying to get the upper hand, Ritter having the advantage of size and skill but still keeping all of his focus just on the wand, that small, seemingly harmless but fight-winning stick.
And so, when they finally reached the bottom of the hill and fell out of their tumble, Ritter found himself sprawled flat on his back in front of Robb, who was on his feet and clearly in control. They were also both holding wands pointed at each other.
Robb let out a small snort of laughter. “What are you going to do with that? Wave it at me threateningly?” he scoffed. “Nice bluff, Squib. If I were one of my mindless goons, it just might work.” He raised his wand. “But I’m not. Petrificus Totalus!”
And there was no flash of light. No swirling of magical energy. Just, finally, a small squawk…
…and Robb’s wand turned into a rubber chicken.
Ritter stood up slowly, grinning at the astounded Death Eater, and lifted his own wand – Robb’s real wand, which he had swapped in the fight – before calmly snapping it in two. “Bad luck, Robb,” he said, shrugging. Then his hand curled into a fist and, before Robb could react, he stepped forwards to punch the Death Eater soundly, sending him spinning to the ground and into unconsciousness.
He shook his hand at the faint sting of the blow, and did his best to breathe as shallowly as possible with the continued ache of his ribs. Ritter wrapped his cloak around him to chase off the chilly Dartmoor breeze, even in midsummer, then turned around to calmly stumble down the path the way he’d come, towards the nearest Portkey. Taking Robb and Brynmor with him would have been impossible, desirable as it would be – more Death Eaters would be on the scene in minutes, and he’d do well to be a long way from here.
Ritter could, he reasoned, have bought one of the false wands which was just a simple stick and nothing more. But the element of surprise from one of the transforming trick wands, the expressions on the faces of his opponents, and the sheer amusement he got from humiliating the Death Eaters certainly made it worth the extra cost and risk.
Besides, sometimes the Daily Prophet would catch wind of incidents like this… and considering how much the products of Weasleys’ Wizarding Wheezes had done for him, a little bit of advertising for them in return could hardly hurt.