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Chapter 1 : A Mad Game of Chess
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A Mad Game of Chess
Sitting comfortably in his stuffed leather armchair, the elderly man leaned forward to gaze at the feathers and beads that sat before him. He had been at it for hours, attempting to divine a future that remained all too uncertain. Whatever it was that governed fate had decided to get very creative with the individuals he was keeping an eye on. They were inextricably intertwined, so much so that he had immense difficulty extracting the information he was searching for. Books lay scattered around him, evidence of his desperate search for a means by which to decrypt the mad tangle he was looking at for what seemed like the thousandth time.
“One way or another,” he said, “they're all going to converge.” His gray eyes, gleaming like mist struck with a ray of sunlight, examined the portents. “The jackals will be victorious, but for how long? And at what cost?”
One particular feather, a phoenix feather, lay exactly in the middle of the haphazardly strewn materials. It had done so every time he'd attempted a reading session with these materials in the last couple of days. Its position in relation to the other divining implements was rather telling, or so it seemed to the fortune teller's gaze. “Harry,” he whispered, “you have a noble heart. Always your greatest strength, yet your greatest shortcoming.”
Sharp thudding caught his attention. Ah, at last. Ever since he had seen the gryphon feathers crossing beneath the needle, he had expected this. He took one last searching look among the rubbish, then swept it off the table with one movement of his arm, catching the mess neatly in a purple cloth bag sitting on the floor beside the table. With a flick, he cast it under his chair and snagged a random book, flipping it open and reclining just as the door burst open. He didn't look up from the page he had opened it to, but neither was he reading it.
“Can I help you?” he asked. He couldn't see their faces, but he could sense their intentions. The invaders certainly weren't friends of his, and at this point, any turn could be for the worse. He listened for movement in the corridor. Had she come with them? If she had, he could use that. Her familiarity had always been a crippling factor in their associations. She couldn't hurt him - but she could hurt someone he cared for. And she would be willing to. Still, he might as well learn as much as he could. What his divining skills has been unable to extract, perhaps his deductive skills might discover.
“Where is it?” demanded one of the figures that now stood in front of him. Two wizards. A booted foot struck out and dashed the tome from Fortunato's hands. The book keeper slowly raised his gaze to meet the hard icy eyes of the wizard who had disrespected his property. The eyes were all he could see, as both men wore masks fashioned in the general visage of a troll. And trolls they were, judging by their brutish behavior.
“Where is it?” asked the assailant again. His wand was out, pointed at Fortunato's chest. “She knows you have it.”
“Has she finally come, then?” Reynold asked idly. “I've been expecting her. Has she brought the League as well?”
“You're a pretty poor psychic,” sneered the other wizard. “No, us lads are just here to help things along. Give us what we came for and we won't have to hurt you. She fancies you, I guess, so she doesn't want you to suffer too badly.”
“She doesn't fancy me,” The book keeper answered wearily. “But we were close once, so I suppose that would account for her sentimentality.”
“She says you have it. If you don't give it to us, we'll have a little fun with you until you do. Worst comes to worst, we'll finish you and find it ourselves.”
“I doubt that,” Fortunato stated flatly. “In fact, even if you kill me, you won't find it here. I don't have it.”
“Then who does?” snarled the first wizard. “Tell us before we get ugly. My mate here is a little thirsty for action, to be honest. I'm not sure I can keep him from taking a bit out of your hide. He's knackered.”
“I couldn't tell you,” The fortune teller said patiently. “But I can tell you one thing: I'm the only one who knows how to find it. So kill me if you want, but your employer will probably be very upset.”
“Rubbish!” snapped the second wizard. He brandished his wand very rudely in Reynold's face. “Why should we trust you? She told us you have it, and she didn't say anything about making bargains!”
Fortunato turned to the door, smiling at the figure who had silently approached the door to his private lounge. A hood obscured the facial features of the mysterious guest, but he knew who it was. He spoke directly to her. “The answer to that is simple. She can't afford not to trust me.”
“I'm afraid he's right, boys,” she replied smoothly. Her accent reflected a variety of cultures, but the English was more pronounced than the rest. “We need our prize far more than we need his death. You are excused.”
“You sure?” asked the second brute, his wand hovering uncertainly as mask angled toward his boss. “We could cut him up a bit, teach him some respect.”
“As amusing as that would be... No. Must I repeat myself?” Her impatience was clearly something to be feared among the League thugs, as they wasted no time. Wands were tucked away as they sidled toward the door. One kicked an end table, sending the neatly piled books toppling.
"If you need us to make him talk - " said the last one began, and her head whipped around toward him.
"Out! I will not ask again! You have done enough. If you are needed, you will know." She slammed the door closed with a flick of her wand as the wizard exited the room.
“Does our history count for nothing?” asked the fortune teller dourly, examining his cuticles.
“Shut it,” she barked. “Your wit is an even greater irritant in light of recent...inconveniences. If the plan weren't such a delicate one, your friend would be dead by now. As it is, one of ours took his place.”
“Harry Potter. He's responsible for the death of my private investor, a man who would have eventually uncovered the prize we seek. A loss we could ill afford, which is why I'm here now.”
“Oh good,” Reynold responded with a cheerful smile. “Detective Potter is making difficulties for you. It's always been his way, you know. If you're a nefarious mastermind blinded by brutal ambition and dreams of enslaving the world, Harry will find a way to stymy you. Sounds as though he's doing a swell job of it.”
Her answer was sharp and cold, like icy knives falling all around him. “He was inclined to have the boy killed for his audacity. He left the man unconscious in the middle of a building rigged to explode.”
“And I'm sure he was minding his own business when Mr. Potter cursed him.”
“You're funny.” Sarcasm dripped from the reply. “The head of the League has sent me with a proposal.”
“And if I refuse?”
“Shut up and listen. You claim to possess the skill required to locate our missing ingredient...if you can find it, I leave it to you to do so. My master fully intends to confront Harry Potter in the near future. If you are not there with the – the prize, the boy will die. My master will do it himself. He's been wanting to for a very long time.”
“You needn't threaten him.” Fortunato's tone was admonishing. “And I fear you underestimate him.”
“No, you underestimate us. If I didn't know the extent of your skills, you would already be dead." Despite the idle disregard of her tone, he knew she was bluffing. "He doesn't like loose ends. But you could prove a valuable asset, and I know you won't risk the life of the Boy Who Lived. I've convinced him that you would be more useful alive than dead – for now.” She stepped closer. “But if you remain uncooperative, he may decide he doesn't need you. And then I won't have any choice. I'll have to handle matters the unpleasant way, and your friend will be the Boy Who Died.”
“When did you become so cold?” The question was sad, almost mournful. “You didn't used to be like this.”
“I discovered something greater than myself. We've been over this.” Her voice lowered. “Reynold, I don't want to kill you. We would much rather share the future with you. The point was never tyranny or genocide. We want a better world. You've never appreciated our quest, but – ”
“Ah yes, the quest,” the book keeper interrupted, nodding sagely, despite having only the vaguest idea of what the word entailed in this context. “Your quest to transform the world. I'm surprised you pursue such miserable aims, knowing what fruit it bore for the last wizard to climb that particular tree.”
“He made mistakes. We won't.”
“Of course. But... enlighten me as to the purpose of this prize? I haven't quite deduced it.”
“That is none of your concern,” the woman spat, her gentle tone of familiarity gone. “Find it, or the boy will die when the time comes.”
Fortunato closed his eyes. “This will not end well for you.”
“I'm sure you've prayed that it will be so. Save your prayers...it's far too late for that.”
He opened his eyes again at her words. “Are you so confident in your plan?”
“Not confidence. Knowledge. We share a gift...and I have seen it happen. The present need only catch up to the future.”
“I do find it ironic,” he commented casually, “that you are employing your greatest nemesis to locate the most prized ingredient in your scheme. You're just asking for hindrances.”
Her tone was gleeful. “Ah, the most delicious detail in all of the plan. I do love a good game of wits.”
He blinked. “Pardon?”
“There are the ingredients, and then there are the tools. We are all players in this mad, mad game of chess. The wheels were set in motion a while ago. And as long as you play, our victory is assured. You may not realize it until the very end, but that is the reality. Just remember, if you don't play, Harry dies. He won't see it coming, but the moment you fail to do as my master wants - ” Her hand rose, a single gloved finger drawn across the neck in a universal gesture.
“His life depends on your success. Don't disappoint us.”
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