The Road to Hell
Chapter 13: The Viper’s Den
It is well-known that Russia was among the last holdouts against the Order of Merlin. The tales of them repelling the empire’s forces throughout late 1940 and all through 1941 are the things of legend.
Since its founding at the hands of Peter II, following his faked death in the early eighteenth century, no one had launched a successful siege of Magical Russia. Its positioning in the caucuses made it nigh unseigable.
It resisted all physical onslaughts and even Grindelwald’s infamous ring was only so effective against a nation so vast.
Little is known about the events leading up to the nation’s destruction. Some say the second Ring of Dominion was constructed specifically for the task of destroying Magical Russia, whereas others say it had been present but dormant for years before its usage. Three decades later, we remain unaware of exactly what the ring did.
But we remain acutely aware of the destruction that it caused.
The second Ring of Dominion was deployed against Russia in March of 1942. Little of the caucuses remained once its power had been unleashed and naught but rubble was left of the nation that held out so well for so long.
Harry rubbed his eyes and sat back in his chair. The library was eerily empty; the bright sunlight streaming in through the windows and splaying out across the desks and floors a stark contrast to the dead and vacant air inside the room.
He glanced back down at the page that so intrigued him and read it for a second time.
What sort of magic could do that?
It all felt so wrong. The Dumbledore whom he had known would never have unleashed anything like that. Dumbledore, who praised lawful capture and would not raise his wand even when his life was on the line. Dumbledore, who bound Death Eaters in air so they would remain unharmed.
But they say it was the second ring. The first had been Grindelwald’s, unleashed against Britain nearly two years prior. And there was a ring on Dumbledore’s finger when he visited Hogwarts. There had been an aura about it and the light had seemed not to know which colour to shine when contacted with its gemstone.
But why? What had Russia done? What horrible act would be required for a man like Dumbledore to unleash such destruction?
Harry grunted; pain was beginning to prickle in the base of his neck. He had been nose-deep in books for a long time. The library had not been open when he had first woken and no light had streamed through those high windows when he had snuck in.
Snuck in not so he could stare at the same set of numbers for hours on end like he had been doing for an entire month now.
His choice had been made; he had done the best work he could. All that he could do was act, and that act would come at the time he judged most opportune. It was the last advantage he could garner.
A bag rustled nearby and he looked up in time to see Lily take the chair across from him.
Just seeing her stirred up anger so hot, it set his blood to a painful simmer.
You’ll never have her, Riddle! Never!
There was a worried look floating in Lily’s eyes and a deep frown etched onto her lips. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” he said. “Sorry, it was a long night. I didn’t get a ton of sleep.”
“It’s going to be okay, you know? Marlene’s upset, but she’s mostly just embarrassed. She’ll get over it; it will all be like it never happened.”
“I just feel like an idiot. I should have realised what was going on before Prince sneered it out in front of everyone.”
Lily averted her eyes. “That was awful of him.”
Harry bit back a dozen sharp remarks. “Do you mind if I ask what happened once I left? The last I heard, you were cursing at him.”
She balled her fists and glared past him. “What happened is that he just sneered at me and said that, if I was more interested in hanging around with you than him, then he didn’t give two shits what I thought.”
There was a savage part of him that leapt for joy; the exchange sounded so similar to the time when Snape had called Lily a mudblood — the single slur that had ended their friendship in another world.
“I’m sorry,” he forced himself to say. “I know you two have been friends a long time.”
Lily tossed her head. “If this is the man he’s becoming, I don’t regret losing that friendship. He had no right. It was just so… heartless!”
Madam Pince — who hardly looked a day younger here than he remembered — shot the pair a pointed look when his mother’s outburst echoed through the rows of shelves.
Possessing not the faintest hint of what to say, he glanced up at the clock. “You’re heading home for the holidays, right?”
Her nod sent his heart tumbling. Soon he would be alone, deprived of the few people who made this twisted world worth living in.
It’s better this way, he told himself. All they would do was complicate things.
“We should probably make our way to the hall, then,” he got out. “It’s not much longer until breakfast is over and you won’t want to miss the train.”
Before long he watched his friends step outside and trudge between high banks of snow, down the pearly lawns to where the carriages — pulled by thestrals he could only see because of Riddle — waited.
Riddle, whom one of his friends lusted after, and who himself lusted after Harry’s mother.
The wand seared burning hot inside its holster and his eyes flicked back towards the Great Hall, where the headmaster was still dining.
Bells chimed in an artificial wind, swaying between wreaths of holly and heads of mistletoe. Fir trees loomed up above the room’s lone table, adding their citrusy-pine scent to the usual festive smells of well-cooked food.
There were more students than he could ever remember seeing during the holidays. They still all sat around a single table, but it was thrice the length of the one needed during Christmas back where Harry came from.
Seating himself as far from a teenaged Lockhart as he could, Harry levelled Prince with his most acidic glare.
When the git appeared to be unaffected, Harry cast his eyes further down the table. Riddle was the picture of cheer; his full-toothed smile could have charmed the castle walls. Harry did his best to pretend the bastard wasn’t there.
Until Riddle slid down the table and into the chair beside him. “Many of your professors were surprised you stayed behind.”
Harry’s heartbeat drummed against his ribs. Did Riddle somehow know what Harry planned on doing the moment he could be excused without suspicion? Or had he found a hole in the thin veil that was his backstory?
I’m being stupid. Riddle had moved to sit beside half a dozen students already, he was just trying to win over everyone.
“But not you?” Harry asked in a measured, level voice.
Riddle smiled; the sort of smile that told its recipient they were being let in on some sort of subtle secret. “No. You remind me of myself, like I told you the last time we spoke.”
“There are strange likenesses between us, Harry Potter. Even you must have noticed. Both halfbloods, orphans, raised by muggles. Probably the only two parselmouths to come to Hogwarts since the great Slytherin himself. We even look something alike.”
Riddle’s words and the proceeding memory sickened him worse than any spat with his father ever had. “There’s just something about Hogwarts.”
“Oh, I understand completely. There is a reason I stayed here all these years.” Riddle’s expression grew more serious. “How have you been, Harry? I heard about the incident at Professor Slughorn’s party. I hope it hasn’t put too harsh a damper on your holidays.”
It was so easy understanding how people fell for this monster’s charm, but that comprehension only deepened the pit of hateful loathing that yawned open whenever he looked at Riddle.
Harry kindled that pit of hatred, fanning the foul feeling that it conjured like an open flame, hoping it would burn away the final shreds of doubt that lingered. “I’ve been all right, sir. I’ve been trying to catch up on sleep.”
“Have you been troubled?” Riddle’s face was a model of compassion. “I’m sure Madam Violette would be happy to prescribe some dreamless sleep if need be. I could write her personally, if you’d like.”
“Thank you, Headmaster. I’d appreciate that.”
“Excellent. Just let me know if there is ever anything I can do for you. My office is always open.”
The headmaster slid gracefully back up the table. Harry continued picking at his roast beef and mashed potatoes, waiting until the last morsels of dinner were replaced by dessert before he stood and left the hall.
It was like being caught in a dream as he moved up towards the seventh floor, disillusioned and silenced. Each step of the marble staircase felt like its own small mountain, yet the feel of his feet against the polished floor was almost imperceptible.
The gargoyle was dozing when he stepped into its corridor. All the better.
Layering the area in wards, he got to work. His scheme would not fool someone half so skillful as Riddle, but the wards would keep away the ghosts and wanderers.
I have to work fast, he thought while carving runes into the wall around the gargoyle. Riddle would be among the last to leave the hall, but that still only gave Harry so much time.
Each second dragged as he carved his runes, each heartbeat slammed into his ribs hard enough to turn his stomach.
Once finished, he stumbled back on shaky legs and examined his work, withdrawing a sheet of parchment from the pocket of his robes to compare against what he had carved.
Piercing light seared through eyelids that he had pressed shut following the activation of his runes. Riddle would now be alerted that his wards had been compromised. Bill or some other curse-breaker could have done his work more subtly, but this was the only way Harry had come up with.
A wordless spell ripped the gargoyle off the wall and he was through the opening.
Now for the hard part. A flick of his wand threw open the office door and he lunged across the threshold.
A thousand tortured screams lanced through his thoughts as a thousand phantom pains harassed him.
Agony assaulted every inch of him, but he could hardly feel it. The screams were far worse; so many doomed souls screaming their final bloody screams.
Not like this. I can’t die like this.
But oh, how he wanted to die. Death would be nothing compared to this; death would be a weightless dream, a welcome escape from the worst the world could offer.
No! I can’t die! No one can stop him if I die!
“Either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives.”
Clawing his way upright, Harry’s own release of pain tore his throat raw as he fell across the threshold.
The curse’s grip around him crumbled as he gasped for air.
Tears blurred his sight and something hot and sticky streamed out his nose and down his lips.
Flicking out his tongue, Harry savoured the metallic tang. It was as familiar as his own skin, as grounding as his hatred for the monster he was combatting.
There were two more wards that he could sense. One on the carpet and one on the glass encasing the four trinkets.
Harry wiped away the stream of blood. How much time had he wasted writhing in the mouth of Riddle’s office while the man himself came after him?
Too much time. I have to hurry.
A conjured stone plopped onto the dark green carpet and the fibres came alive. The embroidered serpents slithered up from the now writhing fabric in an incoherent wave of spits and hisses.
A powerful freezing charm washed over the writhing mass of snakes but had no effect. Cutting curses sliced harmlessly into scales that might as well have been hewn from well-forged steel. A wave of purple fire left the serpents smoking, but still they slithered towards him.
His heart pounded. Fiendfyre would be a last resort; it would burn the floor away and leave him with another host of problems.
What do I do?
A powerful gust of wind blew the serpents back long enough for him to think.
The answer came, as predictable and certain as the rising sun.
Stupid! he thought as he watched the serpents melt back into the fabric. This was Riddle — Riddle, who always felt special and assumed no one could be like him.
A probing inspection of the glass revealed little beyond that breaking it would be nigh impossible.
There was no time for experimentation; Riddle would be here any moment.
Maybe just a little Fiendfyre.
A single emerald tongue licked out from his wand and slithered up the container. The glass beneath it melted, but the rest crumbled into pale, opaque dust and then resolidified and started moving.
Fuck! Banishing the hellfire before it burnt the office down, Harry staggered back.
An army of skeletons had assembled from the case’s ruins, naught but bleach-white bones and empty eyes.
A lance of lightning scattered shards of bone across the office. The bones twitched and re-knit themselves.
The purple flames he had cast once already washed over them with all the impact a single wave wields against smooth stone, and a volley of blasting curses glanced off them like they were a walking wall of shield charms.
Fiendfyre would be no use here; this would require too much of it, and besides, he could hear footsteps pounding up the stairs behind him.
Fuck it. “SGRIOSFÀILE!”
Unearthly wails echoed through the office as the air exploded outwards, slicing through the undead army and leaving naught behind but dust.
“These four spells must be used only in times of great peril,” Dumbledore had once warned him. “Do you understand, Harry?”
He had nodded eagerly back then — young, naive, and unaware what kinds of destruction his mentor was placing at his disposal.
“I have talked already of Fiendfyre, you will recall.”
“Yes, sir. You said it was a specialty of Voldemort’s and that he could conjure it without a wand.”
“I also recall warning you of the destruction it could cause and telling tales of the cities it has levelled. You remember?”
“Fiendfyre is a terrible power, and not one that is unique. It is one of a set; a set of four some scholars call the Elemental Incarnations of Hatred.”
The air howled. It was a sound like cracking ice if that sound had possessed a voice with which to laugh.
Harry brought the spell to heel before it could ravage the office and spun, still invisible, towards the sound of footsteps drawing near.
Riddle’s eyes had just enough time to widen before malevolence manifested in the very air lashed out at him.
A silver shield comprised of coiled serpents shattered and Riddle tumbled backwards down the stairs.
Harry released control of the spell and let it tear towards the headmaster as he scooped up the founders’ trinkets and threw himself against the window.
The glass gave way with a jarring lurch and the sill flashed past his eyes. The dark sky spun in and out of sight, rapidly swapping places with the gleaming banks of snow that were rushing up to meet him.
“Sometimes a man must throw caution to the wind.”
— Nnedi Okorafor
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