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Black Sands by Violet Gryfindor
Chapter 11 : In the Hand of the Devil
 
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 2


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Chapter Ten
In the Hand of the Devil


The train compartment was no larger than the jail cell, but it was worlds away, no matter how hot, how dusty, and how noisy it proved to be. I leaned back against the worn red velvet, trying to remember the last time I had ridden first class. They had served tea and cakes in the dinning car, and clean, new frock had awaited me in a tiny lavatory. It was, in fact, just short of heaven itself.

Well, excepting my companion. He sat across from me with crossed arms and a raised eyebrow, Milton’s Satan in a Savile Row suit. In the last week he’d transformed from a beastly thief into a... God only knew what he was now. He must have been significant enough to warrant the expense, yet once we’d settled into the compartment, he’d shed the persona of slimy government official with an easing of his shoulders and jaw, his accent reasserting its rebellious colonial identity as he began on a moralizing tirade which revealed just how much he knew of my circumstances. I closed my eyes and half-listened, taking unexpected enjoyment from the rhythm of his speech. After all, he was only telling me everything I already knew.

“How you’ve managed to survive this long, I have no idea. Most people of your sort couldn’t have made it a week out here on their own. You should have gone into gambling, with all the luck you have.”

It was probably one of the few things I hadn’t yet tried.

“One might almost think it was–”

“Magic?”

His elegantly arched eyebrow said it all. He had recognized what I was from the beginning, though he wasn’t a wizard himself, unless he was very good at disguising it. Surely I would have felt something, a certain frisson in the air around him, if he had been. There should have been something wrong about his appearance, an inexperience with fashion, an eccentricity of style, but he was flawless from his onyx cufflinks to his well-oiled hair. Even his shoes were polished to a mirror state. It was problematic, to say the least. I couldn’t categorize him in any of the usual ways.

We were miles away from Luxor and many more from our first meeting. I couldn’t even remember how much time had passed since Alexander Moody had sidled his way into my life. He had transformed little by little, a true chameleon, and even now I didn’t think he was himself. Maybe he never was. It made him as dangerous as he was useful, for even as he lurked in society’s shade, adapting to its every whim, he could unflinchingly turn traitor.

“Like you would know.” I sat back with crossed arms.

Did I detect a tightening of his lips in response? For a second I could have sworn that a wild look had appeared in his eyes, fury burning in their depths..

The carriage rattled over a precarious switch. I blinked. The moment passed and his face had relaxed.

“Don’t judge a kettle by its looks. It can still make a damn good tea.”

It was one of the strangest things I’d ever heard. Maybe that was why it made so much sense. He was not as he appeared, neither before nor, if I guessed correctly, now. He had been too pleased about his performance in the prison. Yet he couldn’t have been a thief, either. There was too much of an official air about him; there had always been. I had just been too pig-headed to take it seriously.

“So what are you, exactly?”

A series of muscles on his face twitched.

“It’s complicated.”

I waved aside his words. “So is everything lately.”

One corner of his lips moved, whether upward or downward, it was hard to tell.

“I work for the Liaison Office. If any agency in the region requires my... expertise” – he pronounced this word with relish – “they send me to look after things.”

“Such as errant witches causing mischief.”

He shrugged, but the smile was growing on his face. “Among other things.”

The Liaison Office was new to me, though he seemed to expect that I knew something about it. Maybe the name itself was supposed to be a clue, but I didn’t feel like venturing into linguistic analysis at that point in time.

“How long have you known what I am, Moody?”

He blinked, his lips twitching, but the smile held, even if it lost some of its authenticity.

“I knew for certain when I saw you apparate outside my window.” His voice had lowered, softening to what must have been his normal accent, impossible to place.

The train rattled on. I tried not to stare open-mouthed, but the coincidence was just too much. To think that he had been that shadow, that I had chosen that particular alleyway at that particular moment. It was as though something had made that moment possible, fate bringing us together. Or just my bloody bad luck.

“It was a convenient coincidence, to say the least.” He watched me through half-closed eyes, his lashes visible from my side of the compartment. “You were otherwise very good at concealing your... special abilities.”

What a strange way of putting it! But I postponed my analysis of his diction for the time being.

“So that’s why you tried to stop me from going to Philae. You knew how dangerous it would be! Next time, do put greater effort into your methods of persuasion.” With crossed arms and an exaggerated frown, I must have looked like a petulant child.

He had the gall to shrug. “I had to return to Cairo to check the records. And there are a good few of those about you.”

If that was meant to pique my curiosity, it was successful, not that I’d ever admit it.

“Now that you know what I am, pray enlighten me on the subject of your occupation.”

“Officially, I am a translator.” He sat back, awaiting my reaction.

“So you’re a spy.” I didn’t even blink.

With a sigh too long and a frown too deep, he leaned back in his seat. “You really take the wind out of a man’s sails, Black.”

“When I’m not killing them, you mean.”

My lips tightened too late. Moody’s eyes went wide as he digested the words, suddenly unable to meet my gaze. He fumbled in his pockets – one... two... three... – before he extracted a worn pack of cigarettes and a strange metal box. I watched as his thumb flicked over one end of the box, again and again until a flame appeared.

Perhaps I jumped because he finally looked back at me.

“A lighter.” After taking in a deep breath, he spoke again. “Not magic. Invention.” He tossed it in my direction.

It looked like it should have been a magical object, with its fancy engraving of twisted leaves. I ran my thumb over the mechanism, but it would not produce a flame.

“I’m surprised you’ve never seen one before,” he said with a puff of smoke.

The smell of gas overpowered that of the smoke, and I returned it to its owner without hesitation. How was it that the whole object did not explode when lit? There would be advantages to such a thing, which was far more practical than a pile of failed matches, but I didn’t think I could ever be comfortable carrying it about. All the same, it proved that Muggles weren’t the dimwits my people seemed to think them.

“Would you prefer if I opened the window?”

I shook my head, unwilling to trust myself to speak. It was still too fresh. If I closed my eyes for a moment too long, it would all come crashing back. The cry of the birds. The stillness of his flesh. The light on his eyes.

My fingers picked at the alien fabric of the frock, crisp and smooth. I’d only seen the likes of it on the Dumb Doras that waltzed through the sites with their empty heads and full wallets, only to be snapped up by the first eligible male who looked their way. It was the life from which I’d escaped, the life that had despised me as much as I despised it. So why was it that when I needed a disguise, this was it? Why was it a role that people assumed would fit?

“It’s only temporary.”

I looked up.

“The dress. You’ll blend in.”

“To where?”

“The tourist district. The Cairo Ministry was induced” – here his upper lip turned upward – “to move quarters into a more convenient location for visiting wizards.”

“Can’t have them running amuck in the back streets?”

He shrugged, attempting to exhibit a disregard for the subject, but his shoulders resisted the motion. A nationalist, then. Not that I minded – quite the contrary. The country may have been declared an independent state the previous year, but there was still a long process ahead to entirely free itself of British rule. Those soldiers back in Luxor were only one symptom of a larger, lingering problem.

Some would say that I was another as a member of the British gentry. But at least I could argue that, officially – meaning by Muggle standards – I was a citizen of nowhere. No passport. No papers. I was happy enough to adopt this country, if it would have me.

“I’d have thought you lot would have commandeered a pyramid for the purpose.”

That brought a fleeting smile to his face. “They did for a while, but there was this smell that no spell could... dispel.”

“Mmm. The sweet smell of decay.”

His laughter was not pleasant in the least. He barked out the notes like a poor comedian, yet his face displayed genuine mirth. Even the tightness of his jaw had lessened, and for the first time I wondered whether he was younger than I’d initially assumed.

Funny, is it not, how a person could be caught up in the strangest of mysteries – like something straight out of a bad novel – and yet here I was, with greater curiosity for my travelling companion than for the murder that had taken place right under my nose. Maybe it was a coping mechanism, my mind darting away from the source of the trauma. I didn’t like to think of the way Cadogan had used me. Had he been possessed by a demon, or had he been trying to entrap it, with myself as the bait? And those dreams–

No, no, Moody was a far safer subject of speculation.

I watched as he finished off the cigarette and flicked the remains into the small brass chalice hanging beside him. His laughter had died quickly enough, his face settling back into a misleading state of repose. That was my problem with him: he was never just one thing at a time, but all things at once. I liked for things in my world to remain clearly defined.

Once again pulling at the hem of my frock, I watched us pass the world by.

After some minutes of the train’s persistent rattle, he drew a book from his pocket and my heart stopped, plunging into the underworld with a deafening boom. This was not so much due to the sight of a book in Moody’s odd, scarred hands as it was the book itself, one that I had nearly flung into the Nile. It was Cadogan’s book, the gilt letters glittering between Moody’s fingers.

I drew in a breath, and he raised his eyes to peer at me over the top of the book.

“He recorded his work in here. I’ve been told he was one of the best.”

“At what?”

“Curse-breaking. He didn’t normally work in the tombs, though. Maybe that’s where it went wrong for him. Tomb demons are a nasty sort.”

I frowned. “But why wouldn’t they have found someone with experience curse-breaking tombs? It seems so strange, especially for a tomb of such importance.”

He lowered the book so that it lay open across his lap. “The war, mostly. And from what I’ve heard, it’s been difficult to train new ones fast enough. The goblins and Department of Antiquities can’t agree on anything.”

“Of course not,” I murmured, uncertain of how else to respond. I knew too little of wizarding politics, but I had little interest in rectifying that grave error in my education. History of Magic had focussed on all of the wrong things, dreary rebellions and other events that held no value because we never learned why they mattered, only that they had occurred. It was trying to read a history that only ever featured wizards and British ones at that. How did he rest of the world work? If I had not left England, would I have ever noticed?

“Are you seeing it again?”

My eyes watered as I struggled to refocus them onto reality. “Pardon?”

Moody tilted his head. “What happened to you.”

“No.”

He hesitated, the seconds stretching between us. There was a subtle narrowing of the eyes and a slight twitch above one corner of his mouth.

“Anyway, all his notes are in code, but this book could still be of use to us.” He gestured with the book in hand. “It describes the nature of every known type of demon, from those most often used to guard tombs and temples, to those we’ve only seen in paintings. Some haven’t made an appearance in millennia.”

One of my fingers tapped against the seat. “Let me guess: my demon’s one of those.”

His eyebrows raised, I assumed because I’d claimed the demon for my own.

“Don’t get your hopes up too high, Princess. It may be more than a standard tomb demon, but its strength appears to fall well short of apocalyptic proportions.” He flipped another page, this time too dramatically to actually be reading the damned thing.

I put out my hand. “Give it to me.”

The book was passed across the compartment without complaint. The spine crackled as it fell open on my lap, revealing yellowed pages and cramped annotations in the margins. Alchemical symbols appeared between the paragraphs, presumably those necessary to call forth the demons and send them back again. Everything was written in a sort of archaic English, halfway between Latin and Shakespeare, and while my grasp of the Muggle classics had been improving these long, last boring years, I still couldn’t get my head around these sentences.

“It’s certainly nothing like my old schoolbooks.” There went the bloody eyebrow again. “And no, they weren’t cute girly things about manners.”

“That’s obvious enough.”

Oh, so he hadn’t changed at all. I could have cursed him, the bastard! Every muscle in my body tightened until pain shot through my limbs. But I mustn’t show anger. I might as well have been perched at my mother’s knee as she enumerated on all of the ways I was an inappropriate little witch and I had to hold my tongue under threat of being jinxed.

The image slipped away as fast as it had come, another taking it place. Philae. The water lapping at the temple’s base, the red-headed god looming above me.

Only one of your kind can bear me.

“What was that?”

Moody leaned forward in his seat, hands on his knees.

I picked up the book, riffling through the pages. It had to be here, some reference, some description of the things from my dream. The demon had created it, a sort of vision, like the old oracles. It was likely the same moment that it had arrived on the boat–

The book fell open at a much-creased page.

Unless it had been there all along.

“What is it?”

I looked up into his face, close beside mine. It should have startled me, should have repelled me into the next compartment, but I held, frozen by the words I’d seen on the page.

Demonic Possession.

So that was it. The demon hadn’t arrived on the boat; it had been there from the beginning. It was Cadogan, taking on his body, doing God knew what with his soul, transforming him into a tourist, engaging me as a guide, then enticing me onto that boat, and from there... I hadn’t been wrong to feel afraid as the hands had reached for my throat. He was a murderer, and I had– I–

But no, he had changed before that moment; his hands had been shaking, his manner had softened. He had given me a choice.

It seemed possible that the demon had relinquished its hold for some yet unknown reason, then returned, discovered Cadogan’s betrayal, and killed him. But there was also the dream. Which had occurred first?

“It spoke to me in a dream. I thought– Hell, I don’t know. There wasn’t time to think.”

The air was hot and close, no thanks to the lingering scent of his cigarette. I should have let him open the window, but I did not want to speak. The dream... what had it meant? It would be easiest to slip it into the back of my mind, to claim that it was only due to indigestion and the rocking of the boat, not to mention an overactive imagination. I had, after all, thought for a moment that Cadogan wanted to strangle me–

“The temples are dangerous places for magic.”

I shook myself from a reverie. Moody was leaning back in the seat beside me, staring at the ceiling, appearing to be entirely unperturbed by the heat.

“The Temple of Isis would be a stronghold of ancient magic, the kind that would attract a demon trapped in our world.” He glanced sidelong at me. “Isis was a particularly powerful witch, to use the modern term, and her priestesses were selected from the best in the land. If anyone could send a demon back to its world–”

“It’d be one of them.”

“Yes.”

The book was still open in my hands and my eyes wandered across the page, though I could not concentrate. I slammed it shut with an awkward laugh.

“It thinks I can do it too.”

It was just what I needed: a demon mistaking me for some sort of priestess, of Isis no less. Perhaps there was a compliment in there somewhere.

“That’s how it would appear.”

“So why murder the worker? Cadogan I can understand, but that was after it tried to kill me!”

After a moment, he rose, reached for his cigarette case, then with a minute shake of his head, he went instead to lean against a window, one hand still in his jacket pocket. His muscles were taunt, the jacket straining across his shoulders. He had changed again, genuine feeling knocking that mask of the suave Ministry official aside so that even the suit fit him ill, yet when he at last turned to face me, his face might as well have been carved from stone. Except for the scar that traced the line of his jaw, thick and pink.

“There’s too much we don’t know and perhaps will never know. I’ve been ordered to take you to Cairo.”

I held up the book. “So why bring this? Not for light reading.”

He said nothing.

“Come now, Moody, you’re not the type to just follow orders and be done with it. You were as interested in the death as I was, and if not for you, I’d have never seen those claw marks on the rocks.” I took a breath, clutching at the book. “Someone has to stop the demon.”

His face took on the most perfect example of a glower, his lips twisting in disgust.

“Not me.”

With studied precision, he straightened his clothes and once more took the seat across from me, refusing to meet my eyes. He stared out the window and did not say a word until we reached Cairo, the train screeching as it entered the station, but even that sound was difficult to register amidst the roar of the crowds. Moody must have been used to the din because he used hand signals to guide me through the station. Something about his presence deterred the sellers of jewellery and fake antiquities; they scattered after one glance at his face, turning to the overwhelmed tourists behind us. The only being that did not remove itself from his path was a flea-bitten cat with only a half a tail. It rubbed against his legs, its purrs audible above the noise of the city.

Moody reached down to pat its head. “There isn’t enough time for a meal. I’ll get us something on the way.”

As we traversed the labyrinthine streets, skirting the main streets, I wondered at how much and how little the city had changed. There were so many things I seemed to have missed during the year I had lived here, yet the atmosphere of the place remained constant. The same people pushed past, the same stalls occupied the marketplace, the same urchins snatched at whatever was within reach.

At some point, Moody passed me a handful of Turkish apricots, and soon after, as we entered a main road, he slowed his pace to match mine. His demeanour had changed again, his mouth taking on a dull droop, gazing at the world with practised indifference.

“I thought it best to not hire a car. You are not tired? Good,” he added in respond to my nod. “It’s not much further. There is Shepheard’s.”

He pointed out the old hotel, its edifice a grander version of the Winter Palace, the wrought iron porch framed by sycamores and squat palms. Ladies in Parisian dresses and long strings of beads stood side-by-side with men in linen suits, waiting for their motorcars or preparing for a stroll. It differed little from the sight in Luxor, yet I could not help but stare at a perspective of Egypt so unlike my own.

We turned down a street that ended in a sea of green, an oasis in a metropolitan desert, the Ezbekiya Gardens. I had an exaggerated memory of some place comparable to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, though the reality did not seem in the least disappointing. The disappointment came when Moody redirected me through a backdoor of the American Mission. There was an unpleasant smell emanating from the floor, but that soon disappeared as we passed through another set of doors, down a flight of stairs, and through a tunnel lined with mosaics. I paused to study a scene depicting a priest in flowing robes dwarfed by a raging blue demon while a tomb opening gaped behind them.

“Look here, Moody.”

After making a dramatic effort to check the time, he glanced over my shoulder.

“Yes, that’s how they would have summoned the cursed thing. If only it also showed how to send it back again.”

I looked back at the demon’s face before following Moody away. It was strange to see how well hatred could be represented in little chips of stone.

My name echoed down the tunnel, and I hurried along, feeling as though I’d been transported back in time to Hogwarts, some professor or another calling out as I dashed down to the common room. That too had been underground, but damp and cold, even in late summer.

At last we turned into a vast room tiled in lapis and gold, with three storeys of archways and windows in the Islamic style surrounding a courtyard where a fountain burbled and splashed. And all of this was below the surface, below the Muggle city. I was rooted to the spot until Moody let out an impatient cough. Soon, we stood before a closed door on the upper storey, but when it opened, Moody slipped away without a word. I was about to complain when a voice emerged from the room.

“Ah, Miss Black. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you.”


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