The Road to Hell
Chapter 14: Cleansing Winds
The muscles in his cheeks ached from too many artificial smiles. What did he care if old Bathilda Bagshot had known his grandfather? Henri Potter had died fighting against the empire before James was ever born. It had been nice hearing grey-haired Griselda Marchbanks comparing him to his father, but no amount of praise made up for the long and torturous lectures about politics from a dozen witches and wizards too old and batty to realize none of it would be his concern for decades.
“You’d think Dad was going to keel over tomorrow, the way they go on,” he complained to Sirius, once disentangled from Lord Gregory Bones and his new wife.
“You think you have it bad?” the Black heir asked with a derisive snort. “You should come to half the parties I get dragged to. Most of the folks your dad invites know how to have a laugh every now and then.”
James feigned a shudder. “Your family has always been an awful bunch of stuffy gits.”
Sirius snatched a glass of brandy from a floating tray and drained it in one pull. “Most of them,” he agreed with a smack of his lips.
“Oh?” James asked. “Which ones aren’t?”
“Your mother, for one.”
Opening and closing his mouth without sound, James was forced to inwardly admit his best mate had him there. “I guess I never really think of her as one of your lot.”
“I don’t either, really,” Sirius admitted. “It’s funny. She’s more a Black than most who sit around and wave old family heirlooms in the face of any poor sod that has the misfortune of pissing them off.”
James frowned. “I’m not sure if I should be insulted on her behalf.”
“They’re not all bad, you know? My grandfather’s one of the best men I know, and Pollux is all right if you can get past all the ranting.”
“Ranting’s one word for it.” James had a fair few unpleasant memories of his uncle’s tirades. “Bitching sounds more accurate to me.”
Sirius averted his eyes. “I think if anyone’s got the right to bitch, it’s him.”
“Nothing justifies the sorts of things he’s said about Moony.”
“They’re… not great, but you’ve got to remember that he comes from a time before the empire, and… well, he’s bitter.”
James sniffed. “None of this is making me like him any more, you know?”
Sirius ran a troubled hand through his glossy mane of hair. “It’s like I said — he’s all right if you can get past all the ravings. There are some real gems hidden there if you look for them.”
“Maybe.” The last thing James wanted was an argument; there had been too many of those since the disaster on Samhain. “I just don’t know how anyone can get past all the shit he spews.”
He regretted those words the second they escaped him, for Sirius suddenly laboured under that stoic, far-away look that made him appear a decade older.
“It’s not easy,” the Black heir admitted. “It’s not easy talking to most of them, but Pollux is pleasant compared to some. Maybe my bar’s just too low.”
James squeezed his best mate’s shoulder. “Sorry, Sirius. I didn’t mean to drag up all that.”
“It’s all right,” his friend said gruffly. “I’ve got to learn to face it. Like I said, there are some good folk bunched in. Your mum’s a saint, and I know you two don’t talk much, but I think you’d like my grandfather once you adjusted to him. He’s the one who wised me up to Pollux and made me start listening. He’s always said there’s something to learn from everyone; some people just have more valuable lessons to teach than others.”
“What sort of thing does he think you can learn from an old sod like Pollux?” The question slipped out, unbidden.
“‘The price of vanity and cost of arrogance’ was how he phrased it the first time I asked.”
James felt his spine go stiff when remembering something Sirius had said to him the night of Samhain.
“Did you learn nothing from the fight back there? Has it not occurred to you that a month of scheming has gotten us fuck all? You’re going to have to learn, Prongs, there’s a price to arrogance. I’d have thought you learned it last year when Moony nearly killed Prince.”
“I figure I can learn that by studying most of your lot,” James grunted.
“Some of them, but Pollux is different. He was the golden child back in his day. Plenty of people thought it should be him who was lord and not Grandfather. Half our lot were sure he’d lead Britain past the emperors and have us in better shape than ever.”
James shot a hasty glance around them, but no one was in earshot. Talking about the empire like that always made him nervous. It would be quite the scandal if the governor’s son was overheard discussing how the empire might once have been toppled.
“I’ve heard he was a menace with his wand,” he admitted.
“Grandfather says Pollux was the most talented in our family. Him and Cassiopeia.”
“Cassiopeia? That old…” James trailed off; there were some things you did not say about your best mate’s family.
Sirius just smirked. “Slut? Whore? I’ve heard her called worse. But yeah, Grandfather says she was the strongest of the lot. Says she’s still a monster with a wand when she wants to be. She just wasted it gallivanting around and fucking anything she thought was pretty. Pollux was different. That old sod had national titles in duelling. He didn’t waste anything; he knew how good he was. That just wound up being the problem.”
“You’re damn good, Prongs. You’ve got nothing to prove chasing a no-name like Kalloway.”
“Enough about all that,” said James. “Did you hear about Lily and Snivellus?”
Sirius smirked. “I wouldn’t go running off to be her white knight, if I were you. She almost cursed him herself, I heard. She might do worse if you try and flirt when she’s in that sort of mood.”
James tossed his head. “Oh, come off it. She’ll be over it by the time we’re back at Hogwarts. She can’t have cared that much about a git like Snivellus.”
Someone clicked their tongue nearby and both boys startled. “You will not harass that poor girl,” James’s mother said with a stern expression levelled on him. “It’s the last thing she needs.”
“Don’t but me, James.” He snapped his jaw shut and slumped against the wall. His mother could be right scary sometimes. “We will talk before you go back to school. There’s someone here I think you’ll want to meet.”
A forlorn groan escaped him. “Come on, Mum, I’ve been walking around and shaking hands for hours. Surely a few more minutes’ rest won’t hurt anything.”
Dorea’s expression was unchanged. “I think you might want to come see for yourself, James.”
James sighed and did his best to pat down his mess of hair. “I’ll be back,” he told Sirius as he followed his mother through the throng of guests towards the ballroom’s entrance.
The carved wings of a phoenix spread wide across the double doors, their edges frayed and tattered like his old cloak’s hem, bearing aloft a black-helmed knight and its varnished shield. He had always liked those doors and the way they held the Potter crest above the ballroom.
His father was standing just inside them, shaking hands with a middle-aged man who looked strong and wiry with his grizzled face and mane-like nest of hair.
James nearly missed a step. Merlin… He would recognize that face and its owner’s blood-red cloak anywhere. Watching that cloak stir in a slight breeze as the doors slid fully shut, James marvelled at the way its golden tassels flashed when exposed to torchlight.
“Ah, here he is!” His father slapped a hand down on his shoulder and pulled him forward with a smile. “Rufus, I’d like you to meet my son. James, I’m sure you know who this man is?”
Words stumbled over one another as they all tried forcing their way out of him. “It’s an honour, sir.”
Scrimgeour clasped his hand with a grip like iron. “Your old man tells me you’re interested in my line of work?”
“Yes, sir. I’ve wanted to be a venator for as long as I can remember.”
“Whenever you weren’t dreaming of playing quidditch,” his father said beside him.
“We all have our fancies,” Scrimgeour said as he released his grip on James’s hand. “You have a good strong build and your father says you’re sharp with a wand. Good traits for a venator; those are the sorts of things we look for in recruits.”
James was practically bubbling with excitement. “I’m doing my best, sir. I’m near the top of my year in all my classes.”
The next sentence froze atop his tongue. He had been about to say how he was the best in his year when it came to transfiguration, but then he remembered the construct of air Kalloway had snagged him with and their duel in the dungeons. The boast crumbled; his own saliva tasted like a clump of bitter chalk.
“I’ve been told.” Scrimgeour had the air of a man saying what he must, but James kept a frown from encroaching on his lips. The fact Scrimgeour was speaking to him at all was special; the Lord Consul did not lower himself to scouting out recruits.
He could have hugged his father. What sorts of strings did he pull? “Do you have any advice, sir?” Important people always liked it when you asked them for advice. It had been among the first lessons from his mother.
Scrimgeour’s piercing yellow eyes roamed up and down his frame. “Educate yourself. Don’t just read the folktales. Read first-hand accounts of what it’s really like. I don’t doubt you have the talent, knowing your father the way I do, but you should be sure you want to do this.”
Keeping his expression free of incredulity required no small amount of will. What was he on about? It was what James had wanted all his life. “I will, sir,” he said nonetheless. Men like Scrimgeour were not to be questioned lightly.
“That’s a good lad,” the Lord Consul said. “If you decide you’re still up for our kind of work when you graduate, I’m sure the force will be happy to have a boy like you.”
His father followed Scrimgeour from the room — doubtless they had important business to discuss — and James slunk back through the crowd in hopes of finding Sirius.
How did a broad, distinct young man topping six feet tall disappear so well in crowds? It must have been a Black thing; James’s mother was always sneaking up on him — like she had not long ago.
He had almost given up when he spotted a head of glossy black hair thrown back nearby, laughing at something said by a straw-haired youth lounging against the wall.
“Oi! Why’d you—” His words cut off when he realised his mistake. This boy was an inch or two shorter than he was and slighter than Sirius. “Oh,” James said when they turned to look at him. “Sorry, Regulus. I thought you were your brother. Any clue where he’s gotten off to?”
Regulus’s lips moved, but his words were drowned in the storm of sound that exploded through the room; the shattering glass was like a thunder clap, the piercing screams worse than any wind.
James jumped back and lurched into a thickset man who grunted and stumbled. The hardwood floor smacked against his side and left James gasping for air as countless pairs of feet slammed inches from his head.
The first breath he took in stabbed at his chest, but the next came more smoothly. Rolling, he placed his palms against the floor, but a large foot stamped on his fingers and its owner went sprawling over him. Both of them tried flailing free, whilst all the while, the screaming intensified alongside a din of fresher sounds.
A boot slammed against his nose and sent him reeling back down when next he tried rising, but finally, he found himself upright and stunned as he gawked around.
The floor-to-ceiling window that composed the ballroom’s backmost wall was gone, and glittering projectiles were whizzing through the churning crowd of panicked guests.
James just moved fast enough to draw his wand and banish three shards of glass back the other way before they bit deep into his throat.
What was going on? What had happened? Why were there so many black-robed bodies interspersed among the guests who were running around like chickens with their heads cut off?
Someone grabbed his arm and he threw out his elbow. There was a loud grunt, then something flat smacked against his head. “It’s me, you fucking idiot!” snarled Sirius. “Come on. We have to get out of here.”
The screaming hurried them towards the doors as Sirius dragged him step by step. James tried running on his own, but his legs felt slow and leaden. Blowing his nose, he cried out as sharp pain flared behind his eyes.
Sirius cursed and pulled them to a sudden halt. James tripped over his feet and toppled head over heels. Two pairs of trainers slammed into his ribs and sent him flopping back against the hardwood floor as their owners went tumbling.
James’s heart was thudding against his ribs when next he rose. It was as if he was staring through thin slits and seeing naught but blurry shadows rushing off in all directions.
What the fuck is going on?
“Fucking idiot!” his best friend cursed. “Episkey.” There was a sickening crack and pain so fierce that his vision flashed. James found himself lying on the floor again, gasping but with his vision clear. “Fucking idiot,” Sirius said for a third time as he hauled him back upright. “If I ever see Scrimgeour again, I’m going to tell him that, when you broke your nose, the first thing you did was fucking blow it.”
That would explain the slits he had been staring through; blowing a broken nose almost always meant grotesque swelling around the poor sod’s eyes.
“I didn’t realize it was broken, I—” Sirius seized the scruff of James’s neck and dragged him down. His hair ruffled in a sudden breeze.
A spell, he realized. Someone tried to curse me! “Sirius! What’s going on? What’s happened?”
“We’re under attack! They—” Sirius grunted when a jet of purple grazed his shoulder. Half a heartbeat later, James could discern the spread of blood beneath his best friend’s robes. “Fuck! The fuckers came in through the window, they—” This time it was James who saw the spell in time to tackle Sirius.
James was back up first this time. Half a dozen bodies slumped not ten feet from them and a pair of black-robed, white-masked figures were stalking between the corpses towards him and Sirius.
Snarling, James brought up his wand. Their black robes came alive and sprouted thick, tree-like branches that dragged them to the floor.
“Nice one!” Sirius shouted from beside him. “Glad you’ve got your fucking head on straight!”
James ignored his friend and turned his head from left to right. All around the room, spreading streaks of scarlet discoloured bright hardwood, and still, screaming came from all directions. The crowd was thinner now; that meant either casualties had been heavy, or a fair few had escaped.
“Duck!” Instinct drove James into swift obedience and the jet of green light sailed over him as four more black-robed shapes drew near.
One of them was no longer wearing his mask; his twisted face was gashed and smeared with blood. “Take the Potter boy alive!” the maskless man shouted as his wand came up.
A silver shield sprouted between the teens and their assailants, absorbing half a dozen curses before winking out.
Gold flashed in the light of a nearby torch as Rufus Scrimgeour unleashed an offensive torrent that bought a larger group time enough to surge between the pair of teens and their attackers.
“Come on!” shouted Sirius. “The cavalry’s here; let’s get the fuck out while we can.”
“Yeah, all right, let’s—” An ear-piercing crack and cacophony of screams sliced through both words and thoughts.
The floor cracked, sending a large contingent toppling through open air while another section contorted into the shape of a serpent’s head that swallowed half a dozen men and sent a handful more tumbling down towards the floor below.
James moved without thinking; his wand flashed and the construct crumbled. Another flick of his wand thrust up the floor in front of their cavalry and bought them a moment to recover.
Sirius had just enough time to grab his arm before both boys cried out and scrambled away from a searing wave so hot, James’s body prickled with a thousand burning needles. Scarlet flames swept through the remaining defenders and reduced their line to curling ash.
Sirius was shouting something, but James was, at once, both deafened and paralyzed by the awful sound crackling through the ruined ballroom. It was like the cracking floor mere moments past, but louder and unspeakably malevolent. It heralded cruelty past imagination; mirthlessness beyond the purview of foul plagues or bloody conquests.
The flames from which that sound emitted were rushing towards them, but inches before contact, they reeled back and wailed. Writhing into the form of a flaming serpent whose burning crown rose almost to the ballroom’s ceiling, the scarlet fire spat and hissed.
Back to the flames, a thin man stood tall and motionless. The fire’s crimson glow cast his silver mask in sharp relief and illuminated the singed and tawny mane of his opponent.
“Lord Consul.” The silver-masked man had modified his voice; it was a sharp and jagged thing not unlike the laughing flames behind him. “What an unexpected pleasure.”
Scrimgeour threw one last glance at James. “Run, boy!”
A jet of green light left the Consul’s wand, but a flaming head lunged forward in time to swallow Scrimgeour’s spell as the silver-masked man gave his wand a twist.
The scream torn from the Consul’s lips would have unmanned James alone, but it might as well have been white noise. Louder, it seemed, was the crack of bone as Scrimgeour’s leg rotated all the way around, then wrenched free of him.
Blood sprayed out from the gaping place a leg had been, spattering the walls and floors. James could only stand and watch as the scent of copper overrode all else. So much blood. How could so much come from a single wound?
There were a pair of eyeholes in that silver mask, James noticed when the madman looked his way, but all he saw behind them were matching scarlet slits.
The sounds of fighting had died down except for Scrimgeour’s screams. Everyone had either fled or been incapacitated.
James opened his mouth. He had possessed grand intentions of saying something fierce and bold, but all that came out was sick. Searing up his throat, it spilled out in an audible patter across the ruined floor.
Gasping on all fours, James looked up. There were at least two dozen black-robed figures standing behind the man who must have been their leader. Of Sirius, there was no sign; the lucky bastard must have made it out when that awful fire sent them sprawling. At least there’s that.
James tried to stand but couldn’t. Every muscle shook and every inch of him felt frailer than the cracked and battered twigs on those old Hogwarts brooms.
“He is the Potter boy?” It was a woman’s voice, high and breathless, coming from behind a white mask just beside the leader.
“Yes,” said the man whose face was cloaked behind that silver mask. “This is him.”
James could sense movement from nearby and shut his eyes against the end. Why does my dad have to be important? Why couldn’t I be better? Why couldn’t I get out? Why—
Thunder roared, then something hard struck him in the back and sent him reeling forward.
There were screams again, but this time, they were coming from where the black-robed figures stood.
James rolled and tumbled, lashing out in hopes of finding purchase somewhere, when something snatched him mid-roll and hoisted him up into the air.
“No!” He fought and flailed, but the screams were growing fainter and he was being held in place.
Opening his eyes, James glimpsed black-clad figures sailing out the shattered window — all but the one whose mask was silver.
Gale-force winds shredded both the walls and ceiling, but they warped around the final black-robed figure. His mask was cracking and he was hunched against the wind, straining in an attempt to drive it back away from him as he slid slowly back and toppled into open air.
The winds died with a final wailing gust and James flopped hard against the floor, gasping and twitching as warm liquid trickled down both legs.
Hands rolled him over and a welcome face peered down at him through a tangled mess of hair. “James!” his mother choked, running her hands along his ribs, his chest, his neck, his face. “Oh, thank Merlin, you’re alive! I thought, I thought—”
She broke off into incoherent sobs. That surprised him almost more than anything; it was the first time he had ever seen her cry.
A single pair of footsteps picked through the rubble. “Can you stand?” his father asked.
“Then up you get.” James obeyed as his father helped his mother to her feet.
The roof had blown away and rubble was the only evidence that four walls had once enclosed the ballroom. What remained of the floor was cracked, stained, and stunk of blood. Half of it was missing altogether. There was no sign of the furniture, nor any of the guests, sans Scrimgeour — hanging unconscious in the air behind James’s father.
Lord Charlus Potter stared hard at his son. “You can apparate, yes?”
James swallowed welling stomach acid. “Dad, I’m sixteen, the test isn’t until—”
“I didn’t ask about the test! Can. You. Apparate?” James found himself nodding, too scared and weary to worry about admissions or their implications. “Good. Take Scrimgeour to St. Mungo’s.”
Scrambling across what remained of the ballroom’s floor, James seized a handful of Scrimgeour’s blood-soaked robes, then stepped sideways into a yawning void of airless nothing.
“When something tragic happens, it’s a rude awakening that life doesn’t go exactly the way we plan.”
— Andrew Shue
I think this was a fitting chapter right before Halloween on Tuesday. Back to Harry’s POV next week.
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