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Posted: Nov 4 2017, 04:04 AM
Table of Contents
Posted: Nov 4 2017, 04:07 AM
I Have Seen An Empire Falling
December 1992. London/Malfoy Manor.
They were whispering together just by the door, an impromptu meeting of minds in the dingiest corner of the Auror Office. What they did not realise, apparently, was that dingy corners in government offices were the preferred habitat of that most resilient of creatures: the eager trainee. Of course, Rowan wasn’t quite a trainee...not anymore. He’d earned his badge fair and square only the previous Tuesday, when Mad-Eye had finally (and, it had to be said, very reluctantly) given him a Pass in Stealth and Tracking. A noiseless phantom of the night, Rowan would never be - but at least it seemed he’d learnt how to exercise ‘CONSTANT VIGILANCE’. He could hardly have avoided it, really - after three years in Mad-Eye’s classes he was fairly sure it was imprinted on his eardrums.
‘Constant vigilance’ served him well enough when Heads of Department huddled in dark corners with their Head Aurors and engaged in shifty, covert discussions, complete with darting eyes and carefully lowered voices. A couple of words were just about loud enough to carry to his pseudo-desk (sort of a table, really, because resources were limited and star recruit Nymphadora Tonks hogged them all) - something about a ‘raid’ and ‘utmost discretion’. Had he been a cat, his ears would have twitched; as he was not, he leaned out from around his towering intray to get a better read on any lingering snippets of conversation, keeping his eyes trained firmly on the report he was most definitely no longer writing.
“Can I help you, Mr Drake?”
With a yelp, he dove back behind his intray and scrawled down a couple of hasty words. “Uh...no, I just...um, was just writing this...er.” What was it he was supposed to have been writing? “Writing. Ma’am.” That’s right, Rowan, finish strong. Externally unfazed (internally doomed), he looked up to meet Amelia Bones’ eyes. A deafening silence descended between them, broken only by Scrimgeour very quietly clearing his throat and taking a couple of steps back. It seemed to stretch forever; far longer, certainly, than would have been acceptable in any other human conversation. Even tapping the parchment helpfully to indicate the actual words he’d written (in English, presumably, but entirely unintelligible upon closer examination) did not seem to have an effect; it was only when he squirmed and dropped his gaze that she finally relented.
“Writing.” She stared down at his parchment, seemingly unconvinced. “I don’t believe we’ve wasted time and resources on you just to have you sit in a corner and write. Rufus, what do you think?” Scrimgeour shrugged, non-committal, and Rowan felt like he could have strangled him. Tonks had been deployed three times already, and here he was still stuck in the office a full six days after getting his badge. He glanced between them, knee bouncing with barely-contained nerves - he knew he was ready. If Vanya were here, she’d have told them. Then again, if Vanya were here they’d probably all be yelling at each other already, and Rowan didn’t think Bones would take very kindly to that. He suppressed the urge to beg, settling instead for a wide-eyed, expectant silence. A mission, a mission, please, you’re thinking about a mission.
As it turned out, she had been thinking about a mission...and Merlin, what a mission! Tonks must have wondered why he kept shooting her smug smirks (all the way across the office to her nice, shiny desk); she may have been out three times already, but none of them were a raid on a Death Eater estate. A pureblood estate, he corrected himself. There was no call to be prejudiced and besides, they were raiding to find out whether the Malfoys were Death Eaters. Or at least, he assumed so - Rowan hadn’t been told very much, but he didn’t mind. It was enough just to be deployed at last.
Malfoy Manor was magnificent beyond anything he could have imagined, a towering monument of imposing stone walls in the heart of the Wiltshire woodlands. The inside of it was somehow even more handsome than the exterior: they’d been asked to wait in a spacious entrance hall until the House Elves summoned the mistress of the estate, and Rowan could hardly stop gaping. That one room was bigger than his entire flat. Did one family really need all that space? Eventually, the Elves had returned with Mrs. Malfoy (Lady Malfoy? Duchess Malfoy? A house like that looked like it should carry some sort of honorific), and Robards had elbowed him in the ribs and hissed at him to stop acting like ‘a bloody tourist’. Rowan had straightened up accordingly - he was a representative of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, after all - and adopted what he presumed was a professional expression, firm in his duty yet sympathetic towards the plight of this woman whose home they would imminently be ransacking.
Or, well...Robards and Savage would. Rowan, in the meantime, was left behind in the drawing room to watch Mrs. Malfoy and make sure she didn’t try anything funny. ‘Make sure you don’t drink anything,’ Savage had told him before they’d left London. ‘Purebloods are poisoners.’ It seemed a bit of a generalisation, but either way he needn’t have bothered - the Malfoy lady was sitting straight as a rod in an upholstered chair, staring at the fireplace, and didn’t look at all inclined to offer Rowan refreshments. He fidgeted a little, glancing around the room. Magnificent though it was, there was something…cold about it. The spaces were too big, the floors and walls nothing but hard, uncovered stone. Perhaps it was just this part of it, where they entertained guests; perhaps the living quarters were a little more cozy. Living quarters. He shook his head, amazed - he’d been lucky to fit a bathroom in his place.
He kept shooting curious glances at Mrs Malfoy where she sat, unmoving in her rigid seat. It must have felt horrible, he thought, to have one’s home violated like that. And to have to deal with it without the support of her husband...briefly, Rowan wondered whether they’d planned it this way, set the raid up so Lucius wasn’t home. But that didn’t make sense - what could they hope to gain from it? It wasn’t like he could have resisted, not against three Aurors. Three Aurors. Rowan puffed up a little, momentarily distracted by the enormity of his own accomplishment. He was an Auror now, and he had the shiny badge to prove it.
Aurors were civil servants, weren’t they? So they served society...and wasn’t Mrs. Malfoy part of society? Rowan had seen plenty of those Muggle police films, and the detectives were always polite and even comforting towards anyone who got mixed up in their business. Anyway, if anyone was guilty here it would be Lucius, not her - the least he could do was try to reassure her. He edged a little closer, eyeing her cautiously. She didn’t exactly make it easy, sitting like that silent as the grave. Not that he could blame her; this entire ordeal was probably unimaginably stressful.
Eventually - after working up some courage - he cleared his throat and threw her a hopeful glance. “They’ll be done soon...and I’m sure they’ll clean up. Robards is very finicky about putting things in their place.” He knew, because once he’d knocked a box of paperclips off the man’s desk by mistake and he’d near enough hexed him. “I’m, uh...Rowan. Drake. I mean, Rowan Drake. That is...Drake’s my surname.” He clamped his mouth shut and frowned; if that hadn’t been the definition of ‘babbling’, he didn’t know what was.
For a long time, there was silence - a different silence, however, to that of Amelia Bones. This silence was cold and empty where the other had been warm, alive with tension. This silence was like knocking on a suit of armor: hollow, lacking in feeling, devoid of substance. Rowan stared at his shoes, suddenly self-conscious. He probably shouldn’t have said anything, and no doubt Robards and Savage would give him hell if they found out, but how could he just...stand there? Her house was being dismantled for something her husband had gotten tangled up in. Even if they had been Death Eaters once, that was years ago - she’d been young then, why should she have to suffer now for things she likely regretted?
Then she moved, and Rowan glanced up to find her staring at him, elegant and composed even in the midst of a Ministry raid and with her house in almost certain disarray. He shifted from foot to foot, his hand in his pocket curling and uncurling around his wand for the sake of movement, and his lips twitched in a fleeting smile which faded quickly against her barren expression. Silence was the one thing Rowan couldn’t stand, and it seemed to follow him everywhere. Just as he was about to say something more, however, she spoke. “I did not ask.” The words dropped like ice between them, hard and cold. “Know your place.” Then she turned away, to stare once more into the empty fireplace.
By the time the others returned - empty-handed, of course, though Robards’ scowl suggested that Bones wouldn’t be too pleased with that - Rowan had taken up a position on the far side of the room, standing stiff and rigid with his hands stuffed deep in his pockets. As they left, escorted by the House Elves, he afforded her a single backwards glance, curious even after his spectacular faux pas - she hadn’t yet moved, and remained entirely frozen right up until he passed into the echoing entrance hall and lost sight of her.
Posted: May 18 2018, 02:23 PM
Down In the Forest With the Devil In Me
12 JULY 2021. Somewhere between Greece and Bulgaria.
The consensus seemed to be that they had to cross the Grecian border. That is, no direct Portkey into Bulgaria. Rowan, brimming with a totally unjustifiable innocence given his many years of service, had dared to ask why, and was promptly inundated with so much legal jargon it barely sounded like English anymore. The long and the short of it (just the short of it, actually, since the long of it gave him a sizeable headache) was that it all had something to do with permissions or the lack thereof, allies or the lack thereof, and diplomacy...or the lack thereof. No matter, Rowan, they’d told him in cheerful tones, we can drop you off right up against the border. It would be just a short hike, said these people who wouldn’t be hiking at all, just a couple more days tacked on to his itinerary of weeks-slash-months-slash-question-mark. They’d had the temerity to write it that way on his briefing notes. ‘DURATION: weeks/months/?’ - just like that.
“Years come after months, you know. Decades after that.” he’d offered helpfully. They hadn’t found it amusing, which he thought was rather snooty given that these were his years and decades under discussion.
At least everyone agreed that the sooner he got a start on his centuries, the sooner he’d be back, and so the briefing was gratifyingly...well, brief. An amiable young man from the Portkey office gave him the standard transport safety instructions, which hadn’t changed one iota in the past thirty-odd years, and then he was shepherded off towards a very safe open space and sent about his business with one or two claps on the back and quite a lot of administrative blustering. The Portkey, in the time-honoured tradition of every Portkey known to wizarding history, was singularly nondescript: an empty Muggle chocolate wrapper, which reminded him first that he’d only had a coffee for breakfast, and second that he probably wouldn’t taste chocolate again for a very long time. He suspected they’d chosen it just to fuck with him, a favoured pastime of bored Ministry officials from all walks of life.
Well, they could try. Nothing was going to bring him down, not today - finally he was out in the field again, alone as he’d always preferred. Sure, having company on missions could be reassuring sometimes, but it wasn’t worth all the negotiations and all the time wasted trying to make sure everyone knew what everyone else was doing. Rowan had always worked faster alone, and this was no exception: as soon as the worst of the Portkey nausea had faded, he unfolded his map for the purposes of subjecting it to the most intense scrutiny, the paper shivering mere inches from the tip of his nose. His current position was supposed to be marked in red, but unless the Portkey office had progressed in leaps and bounds since he’d last deployed, it would probably be a kilometre or so out. He fumbled in his pocket for a second before retrieving a stubby pencil and carefully outlining a kilometre-radius circle around the red dot. They’d gone a little crazy with the colours, to be honest - blue, yellow, orange, brown, and green dots (the latter slapped right in the middle of a forest, bafflingly) were sprinkled with abandon across the mapped terrain. Apparently, these were sites which the Ministry had identified as being particularly ‘dark’ - rife with heavy black clouds and suspicious persons cackling maliciously, one imagined - and which he was therefore supposed to inspect. It was rubbish, and he would not.
The only dot Rowan was going to take any advice from was a bright pink one a few kilometres across the border: a location used frequently as a dead drop for Britain’s agents in Bulgaria, and where he was scheduled to meet someone who could give him the most recent updates regarding the escaped Morriganites. Not that anyone was calling them Morriganites apart from him. He liked the word. It reminded him of stony things: granite, labradorite, spanielite, chihuahuaite, ectoparasite, et cetera and thank you Castor’s strange and incomprehensible books for this rather impressive lexical expansion he was experiencing. It had occurred to him to wonder for a very brief moment how rock classification featured in the legal profession, but with a shrug he’d concluded that there had to be a reason Castor was so smart. Maybe he just liked rocks. Rowan would bring him back a Bulgarian rock, he decided. And a few Bulgarian flowers, for good measure, and a carefully selected pine cone just in case. The Eastern European wilds, he expected, would prove distressingly devoid of more conventional souvenirs.
The Eastern European wilds were beautiful, however, just as he remembered them, a verdant emerald landscape criss-crossed with rough, long-forgotten trails. The Ministry had warned of the possibility of a few tourists here and there - it was July, after all - but they’d tried to set him down somewhere unfrequented, and just at the moment he couldn’t hear or see anyone in the vicinity. Stuffing both map and pencil unceremoniously back in his pocket, he hefted his backpack and set off with all the avid enthusiasm of Bilbo Baggins in that film Orsen had lent him, the one with the massive dragon. When he’d left home it had been barely an hour past dawn, but the sun was high in the sky here, bathing everything in that hard light reserved exclusively for mountainous regions and the more northern latitudes. The grass was crisp, the trees almost aggressively green, and just to his right a cheerful little stream bubbled and gurgled away in welcome. Had deployment always been this peaceful? Why had he stopped? “Two months,” he’d told Castor, and then “I’ll be back before you know it”...but really, if it had to be more, well...Rowan didn’t think he’d mind very much.
Posted: May 22 2018, 05:14 PM
The Low Road's Easy And Deep
20 JULY 2021. Eclipse, a nightclub in Sofia, Bulgaria.
She was watching him.
It had been going on for a while, since the moment they’d first set foot in the dingy but lively little nightclub just opposite the Palace of Justice. Why anyone would think to open a nightclub - dens of sin and iniquity that they were, and Rowan would know - opposite a courthouse, of all places, was a mystery he had not yet solved, despite his best efforts and much to the consternation of his companions, who’d resorted to studiously ignoring all of his questions on the subject.
“Were they trying to cut down on transport costs? Smash a bottle over someone’s head and just cross the road for your trial?”
“No-one smashes bottles over people’s heads anymore, Rowan. Mer-...God, how long’s it been since you’ve been out?” Pandora cast a shifty look about her and sank a little lower in her seat, trying to hide behind the miniscule shot glass she was nursing. This wasn’t exactly a wizard-exclusive spot, or even a wizard-majority one, and Muggles tended to look at you funny when you name-dropped Arthurian legends every second sentence.
Rowan ignored her in favour of sipping his drink and frowning at the woman by the bar. She was still watching him, apparently entirely unfazed by his watching her right back. People watching him were an issue, generally, particularly in this part of the world and especially given his reasons for being here. Usually, however, they tried to hide the staring, or lingered in shadowy corners with their collars turned up high and hats pulled low over their eyes. They didn’t stand right under garish neon tubes and stare him down while sipping delicate purple drinks, and they certainly didn’t wear three-inch heels. Very striking heels, he was forced to admit, but hardly footwear adapted to espionage. Then again, what did he know? Women could do incredible things in a good pair of shoes, regardless of elevation.
“Ten years, wasn’t it? That’s what they were saying back at archigeío. You’re out after ten years.” This from Argo, who was grinning maniacally as though this was the sort of news the Prophet would have killed to publish.
“You say it like I’ve been in prison or something.” Rowan turned his frown on the two of them, noting as he did that Argo’d been through three drinks of varying hues already, while Pandora had barely touched her one meagre shot. He wasn’t surprised - they’d always been exactly like this, even decades ago (before his apparently infamous ten years) when Rowan had spent his days dashing across Europe chasing werewolves and vampires and all manner of darkness. Greece and Britain were on fairly good terms, so whenever he’d wandered across into eastern climes the DMLE would request a rendezvous with their Greek counterparts, just to make sure he’d have help on the ground if he needed it. The Greeks always sent Argo and Pandora, because no-one else could keep up with him. Of course, that was back then; they were all much older now, and some of them had even given up shaving. Rowan shot Argo’s admittedly impressive beard a look of deep concern, one of many that evening. It drew attention, and they were not in the business of drawing attention. Maybe the woman was staring at him.
“Hey, you seen her by the bar? Can’t take her eyes off you.” Argo said, immediately dashing any such hopes Rowan might have harboured. Beard or not, that grin was as wide and bright as ever. “Archimalakas you are. You don’t even try and you’ve already got one.”
“Got what?” Rowan was fast getting frustrated. He turned bodily in his seat to narrow his eyes at this woman, only to see her smile and turn away, ostensibly to order another drink. She didn’t look very threatening, but looks could be deceiving in this city. It had been a bad idea for them to come here, he’d known it from the start, but orders were orders and they hadn’t left him much of a choice. The Greeks would not send their people out into the wilderness on a manhunt for Rowan, and if you wanted the low-down on where certain fugitives might have squirreled themselves away you sort of had to skulk in the shadowy belly of the capital. But Sofia was a sullen and unforgiving city; the sooner he got out and back on the trail, the better. “Pandora,” he turned to appeal to her. “What’s he talking about?”
Pandora, for her part, considered him over the top of her shot glass, eyebrows raised. “Ten years is a long time, I think. The vlákas is right, she wants you.”
Rowan leaned back in his chair to stare at the ceiling, perhaps hoping to find answers amid the strobing lights and questionable stains. Not a spy, then. Not a femme fatale with poison-tipped heels and deadly curses up her sleeve, no James Bond moments for him. Or perhaps it would be a James Bond moment...from those parts of the film that had always made Orsen giggle like a schoolboy and nudge Rowan’s ribs halfway through his torso. Slowly, he tilted his head to the side to stare at her out of the corner of his eye. She was beautiful, there was no doubt about it, with that haughty look and deep red lips twisted into mild dissatisfaction; and then there was the way she’d downed five drinks - he’d been counting - and still looked like she could knock him flat on his ass at the slightest provocation. Slight provocations would be wasted on her, anyway - it was go big or go home with this one, but that was okay. Rowan knew how to fascinate a woman like her.
And would he? Well...maybe. He straightened up again and rested his elbows on the table, considering her more intently now. For one night she was more than good enough, and one night would be the extent of it. Tomorrow they’d all be gone again, Argo and Pandora back to Athens and Rowan off north towards Romania. There were miles and miles of emptiness in his future, nothing but dense woodland and howling mountain peaks, and months yet until he could go home. Months before he could wrap his arms around someone in the dead of night and press kisses to warm skin. He could have this, he could...hadn’t he always? Rowan went on missions and never behaved, everyone knew that. Why should this time be any different? Besides, Castor wasn’t there…
Castor isn’t here.
Just like that, it was gone. Rowan looked away from her, suddenly bone-tired, and fingered Asa’s ring, turning it slowly around his knuckle. He didn’t want her, he wanted Castor...and Castor wasn’t there. Beside him, Argo mumbled impatiently into his (fifth? seventh?) drink, only to startle and half spill it when Rowan poked a toe into his shin. “You’re drunk, Argo, you’re not seeing straight. She’s staring at you. Go get her.”
And that was all it took: he was off like a shot. Pandora, meanwhile, had not looked away from him, and now her eyes were narrowed in deep suspicion. Rowan, pinned under this intense scrutiny, shifted a little uncomfortably and shrugged. There was no way to explain it that he could stomach just then, and regardless he did not owe her any sort of justification. Ten years was a long time; people changed. They lost things, and they found things, and sometimes they left their most precious things behind. Rowan knew this very well.
After all, Castor wasn’t there.
Posted: May 26 2018, 04:12 PM
Talk Enough Sense And You'll Lose Your Mind
25 JULY 2021. The Bucegi Mountains, Romania.
It was dark.
The dark of the wild places is not like the dark of cities. Wherever humanity wanders, it trails light in its wake: chemical, biological, electrical, magical. Whether it is fire, blazing neon, a shower of red sparks or just the soft glow of a Lumos, it is there and it guides our steps as we move forward. By day we are sun-worshippers, rising at the first soft caress of dawn and retreating to safety and incandescence of our own making when the shadows begin to lengthen. The night brings monsters, horrors unseen and spoken of only in most fearful whispers, and so we ward them off with our roaring fireplaces, our bedrooms lit gentle with fairy lights, and our screens glowing fierce and alive.
But what about out there? What happens when you step past that comforting, human luminescence holding the whole universe at bay? Ah, then there are the stars, watchers and guardians with their thousand eyes, and the moon their master painting a world grayscale in scintillating silver. There is nothing to fear out there on the open lands, not when you can stare up into the face of history - a history of existence, from the birth of galaxies to planetary death, every stroke writ large in the language of eons, millions of years barely more than a gasp in the burning vacuum of out there. You are nothing, and in being nothing you are saved. Monsters cannot hunt nothing.
Under the stars, there is a sense of invulnerability: it is light, it loves us, and so we are untouchable. But there are places that the stars cannot see, hidden corners of the world where the moon will not venture and where light, silver or gold or brilliant white, is no more than a memory. There are the caverns and spaces beneath the earth, sunk deep into mountains, brimming with shadows ice-cold and sharp; there is the dead of the ocean, where no man has tread, so far in darkness that it crushes you, rips the air from your lungs and the blood from your veins, and grinds your bones to dust.
And then there are the woods.
Trees as ancient as the Earth itself throw their branches to the sky, crowding and clustering to blot out the very sun. At night, what hope do the moon and stars have? It is a darkness absolute, it is a refuge for the horrors that spurn the frozen caverns and cannot survive the ocean’s abyss. And if you are in the business of hunting horrors, what choice remains to you? This is where you must go.
Rowan dug his heels into the leaf litter, pushing himself further back against the sprawling beech and trying to curl up small, unobtrusive and hopefully unseen. There’s nothing there. There’s nothing there. The words had lost all meaning, repeated over and over until all he heard were sounds pounding in his head. There’s nothing there. His eyes were stuck wide, staring straight ahead, although whether they were open or closed made no difference; there was no light, and so he could not see. But he could hear...everything.
Crack. A twig, snapped beneath the paw of a roaming fox. A twig, snapped beneath the boot of the enemy who knew he was there, who could see him even in this blanketing, blinding nothing. Hissss. A breeze caressing the canopy far ahead. A basilisk, venturing just a few hundred miles north of its ancestral range, hunting him over mountains and through deepest forest. Crunch. A lizard scurrying through the undergrowth. An acromantula, a werewolf, a necromancer, something ghastly and unknown, unseen, unheard of. Fear and pain and death.
It had not always been this way. Decades ago, he’d wandered through forests darker than this, hunted demons far more dangerous than these, suffered hurts more grievous than anything waiting for him here. Decades ago, Rowan could have stared darkness right in the eyes and dared it to take him...and then it had. In the empty places, that feeling came again - he was glass, a fragile shell filled with screaming, burning shadow, and the night knew its own and so how could it fail to find him? He’d swallowed up her darkness and brought it here. He’d brought it home. When the stars faded and the moon was obscured, when all the light died, Rowan discovered that he had none left of his own. Out here, he was prey for the nightmares.
They’d come every night since he’d left home, right from the start, but in the beginning it was easy enough to push them away. He’d wake, in his room or in his sleeping bag or wherever he happened to be that night, and the nightmare would still be on him, claws in his spine, but there was light everywhere and it could not survive. Then the Greeks had come and it was even easier, because now when he woke he couldn’t remember what he’d dreamed and so there was nothing to be afraid of. Pandora knew him and his disturbances well, and had slipped him a Sleeping Draught in his whisky one evening, so that he woke up the next day ready to fight the universe.
But the Greeks were gone. The light was gone. The trail led into the woods, and Rowan had had to follow. Slowly, insidiously, dreams had bled into reality, until all at once it was gloomy all the time, and Rowan walked like a man possessed in the daytime and lost himself completely in the night. He’d forgotten how to sleep, he thought, because his eyes would not close, but sometimes he froze to the ground where he lay and couldn’t have moved regardless of the danger. He was close, so close, he knew he was close - the paths he walked had borne footsteps not long since, the intelligence was good...the trail was fresh! He pushed on, but the nights became darker.
Another sound. Crack! Louder, closer. His knees were drawn up tight against his chest, and he pressed his palm across his mouth and nose to muffle his own breathing. There’s nothing there. But what if there was? He would die here, in this forsaken place, alone. Without his mother, without his friends. Without Castor. A soft whimper escaped him, and he bit down hard on his hand to kill the moan that threatened to follow. The night had to end. The darkness had to lift, even if just a little. The woods were not infinite. He would find the sun again, the moon and the stars; he would finish the mission, he would go home, he would curl up at night against the steady beating of Castor’s heart. And he would not leave again.
Posted: May 31 2018, 02:22 PM
Soldier Keep On Marching On
03 AUGUST 2021. Bulgaria.
Over in the East, at the limits of the horizon, dawn had begun to threaten, reaching pale fingers over distant mountains to turn the sky a drab, tired grey. Soon it would be magnificent, flashing into a sumptuous blaze of orange and vermilion shot through with liquid gold, but not quite yet - it was too early for that. It was too early for anything: the birds had not yet begun to sing, the insects had not stirred from their hideaways in the undergrowth, and the trees were silent and still, undisturbed by even the slightest hint of a breeze. All was calm, all was serene; it was the perfect quiet morning. Well, except for all the arguing.
Argo sighed and offered the owl another caterpillar. It leaned back in mild disdain, talons tightening around the edge of its tree stump, and hooted softly. Caterpillars did not quite meet its standards, as far as food went, but there was precious little else up and about and it had a long journey ahead of it. Eventually, after much preoccupied hooting and many exaggerated head tilts (one so exaggerated as to be practically a head inversion), it edged a couple of inches closer and took the morsel primly in its beak. There was no call for snatching, after all, particularly not caterpillars. They were horrendous, mushy things, and the owl did not want to give anyone the mistaken impression that it was enjoying the experience.
The sound of raised voices came again, floating over the ridge. Argo winced. They’d been at it almost all night, ever since that blasted owl had shown up, with the result that none of them had gotten any sleep - including him, who’d done his best to keep out of the whole bloody thing. Merlin, but he was fucking exhausted. And this right after a Portkey in and two days’ travel. Glumly, he rooted about in the undergrowth for another caterpillar, ignoring a faint warning hoot from somewhere to his right. He might as well give up on sleep, he figured. Pandora always wanted to pack up and move at the break of dawn, and she would, with or without him.
“You are mad.” Pandora’s voice was dripping with disgust; she shrugged, shook her head, and scowled out across the valley. “I can see why they did not let you work for ten years. This job has broken your mind. At least, I can think of no other explanation.”
“Didn’t let me--...” Rowan sputtered. “I did work, Pandora, I just didn’t-- you know what, forget it. I’m not going over this again, it’s been all bloody night. You refuse to underst--...”
“I refuse?!” she cut him off, jerking around violently to glare right at him. “You are nothing like what you were. Do you remember? Always smiling, always joking, broad and strong and...and…alive. Look at you.” She waved a hand at him, and Rowan crossed his arms tight across his chest, suddenly self-conscious. He trained three times a week back home, didn’t he? He’d not lost a single ounce of muscle in the ten years he’d been off the long-term missions. Pandora, of course, had meant something entirely different, but it was in Rowan’s best interests to play dumb and so he did.
“What is your point? That I look like an Inferius?” His tone was icy, but she either didn’t notice or didn’t care. Probably both.
“You are lucky we came back.” she said, about two seconds away from wagging a finger at him in admonishment. “I think one, two more days and we would have found you dead. Walked off a cliff, maybe. Tried to pet a bear--”
“I would never!”
“--tried to pet a bear, shut up Rowan, accidentally cursed yourself, tried to disapparate and splinched your dick off, do you know how much that would hurt? Imagine. You were this close...” She held up finger and thumb pressed tightly together. “To self-inflicted magical castration.”
Rowan did not quite know what to say to that, and settled instead for a bewildered glare. The notion was horrifying. Pandora, for her part, lost patience after just a few seconds of silence. “And still you will not tell me! Explain, if you are not mad. Why won’t you go home? Look what they tell you!” She brandished a stiff yellow parchment, the owl’s message, and began to read as though Rowan himself hadn’t gone over that neat script a hundred times already. “...have received troubling reports on your state of mind and character from the rotational shifts, and therefore suggest that we arrange for your extraction as soon as possible at…well, wherever the hell they said. Rowan.” Frustrated, she flapped the letter inches from his nose. “They offer you a chance to go home. You look like you have not slept in weeks. There is a logic here, and you are missing it.”
There was logic there, but he was not missing it; he simply had a logic of his own. It was not, however, the sort of logic that he wished to share, and so he remained silent, still clutching at his own arms and staring sullenly down at the dew-jewelled grass.
“Is it the mission?” she tried again. “It will not fail. You go back for a week, maybe two, and Argo and I will follow the trail. Then you return, if we have not caught them yet, and we continue together. You need to rest.”
Rowan shook his head. “I will not go back. If I do, I know I won’t return, whether you catch them or not.” It would be an utter impossibility, to see Castor again - to touch him, to kiss him - and then to have to leave after only a couple of weeks. The next time he went home, it would be for good. Before that, he had a duty to see that the work was done. Pandora, meanwhile, had ventured closer, her expression a little gentler now, and laid a hand on his arm.
“There is something you keep to yourself. How long have we known each other? Out here in the wilds, secrets are safe.” She was almost pleading now, and Rowan knew she must have been worried, but there was nothing he could do. This secret was not his alone. Carefully, he extricated himself from her grip and took an awkward step to the side, gaze turned resolutely away. Silence fell.
After a few minutes, he heard her footsteps crunching in the grass, fading away over the ridge in the direction of the camp.
Argo, meanwhile, had lined up a selection of caterpillars, which the owl was staunchly ignoring. There was a fat green one, a toxic-looking purple one, and a hairy orange one which, in hindsight, he probably shouldn’t have touched at all. “Hey, Pandora!” he called, when he saw her descending towards them. “We have the, ah…pos to les, the antidote kit, yes? Um...Pandora…?” He trailed off as she stormed past, nearly sweeping the aggrieved owl right off its tree stump as she went. A puffy grey mushroom just in front of the tent was not so lucky - a well-placed kick reduced it to no more than a wispy cloud of jet-black smoke. “Vlasfimíes,” he swore under his breath. “What has that malakas done, eh?”
The owl had no answer for him. With yet another sigh, Argo stood and followed after his sister.
Posted: Jun 7 2018, 01:33 PM
Fear Like a Phantom Waits
08 AUGUST 2021. Bulgaria.
Bulgaria had vanished, metre by metre, inch by inch. In its place was a land wholly unfamiliar even to the Greeks, who had wandered there not so very long ago, picking their way through the aftermath of Britain’s tragedy. There had been more flowers then, Argo had pointed out, even as Pandora hazarded that maybe it just wasn’t the season for them. July, not the season. Rowan had raised his eyebrows at that, but said nothing. After all, the flowers weren’t there. Same as the trees, same as the bushes. The grass was still there and still green, but it did not look to him to be the sort of green one hoped for in vegetation. Even Drip looked healthier than that grass, and Drip was two bad days away from classifying as a weed.
Not the season, then, even though summer was normally lush and beautiful in these latitudes, a sweet spot between northern chills and the sweltering hell of the Mediterranean. Did the season explain the lack of birds? The lack of small things scurrying in the undergrowth? Pandora seemed even more uncertain on this point, but eventually they all agreed that yes, a lack of proper vegetation would lead to a lack of things that lived on and ate that same vegetation. Well...Argo and Pandora agreed. Rowan reflected on the ample flowers and birds and animals he’d seen earlier in the month in other parts of Bulgaria, and said nothing.
The water was an even deeper mystery, so much so that even Pandora shrugged and gave up when Argo pointed it out. The rivers were still there, and the small gurgling tributaries that wended their way across the landscape, but they seemed somehow…sluggish. Rowan stood for a good ten minutes staring at the first stream in their path, eyes narrowed in deep suspicion. Water was never slow. In no way, shape or form could moving water be described as slow, especially not in this case, given that this was the first time he was encountering this particular body of water. He had nothing to compare it to. No prior observations in the dataset. And yet, there they were: the water was slow. It was also turbid and faintly grey, and entirely lacking in the sort of movement that would indicate fish. Rowan scratched at his chin, considering.
“Magic,” he muttered, eventually. Argo, who had not heard him speak in close to five days, nearly tripped over a pebble.
Rowan shrugged and turned to move on. It was the only logical solution, if a little overwhelming to imagine the scale of enchantment required to affect an entire region like that. “Don’t know. Smells of magic.”
There was a short silence, and then a shuffling as Argo picked himself up and made to follow. The low sounds of him grumbling carried easily across the distance between them: “Smells of magic. Alright, Bear malakas Grylls.”
Rowan didn’t know who that was. Someone Greek, presumably. Pandora, meanwhile, had not stopped with them at the stream, and was by now a good way ahead. He knew from experience that she would not wait, so unless they ran (which he had no intention of doing), they would see her again at nightfall when they made camp. It was no matter; she hadn’t spoken to him in days, anyway. Of course, he hadn’t spoken to her either, but that was entirely besides the point.
So the plants were wrong. The animals were missing. The water was slow. Then there were the mushrooms. Argo had been the first to notice them, crazed botanist that he was; he’d grabbed his sister’s arm and chattered excitedly in Greek for a full two minutes before she could get him to calm down and explain what was so special about the squishy-looking grey blobs scattered haphazardly across the plains. Apparently, he’d never seen anything like them. And apparently, this was a matter of some consternation, since one of Argo’s many strange hobbies involved meticulously categorising all of Europe’s fungal species, great and small. Rowan couldn’t see what was so riveting about a mushroom, not even one that had a forty-something-year-old law enforcement official in raptures and weak at the knees. It was grey, it was squat, and it was blob-like, none of which were adjectives that had ever demanded his full attention before. It was also faintly disturbing. Perhaps it was how they’d popped up seemingly from nowhere: one moment the group were walking through a normal meadow, the next they were surrounded by silent grey shapes. Perhaps it was how they grew, some small and clumped in ghastly clusters, others larger and more imposing, with monstrous white roots (“Fungi don’t have roots, they have a mycelium,” according to Argo; Rowan had never cared less) digging deep into the earth. One or two appeared almost oleaginous, their caps (“It’s a pileus!”) shiny with a curious, smoky liquid. Argo was desperate to get his hands on one. Pandora exchanged a glance with Rowan, who’d been frowning at the nearest cluster, and dragged her brother onwards without another word.
A little further on, one of the mushroom caps (pilei, Rowan corrected himself, and immediately despised his entire existence) was broken open as though it had been kicked. Pandora released Argo long enough for him to have a look, albeit from a distance because neither she nor Rowan quite trusted this new development. It felt slightly foolish, to be glaring suspiciously at mushrooms, but the wizards they tracked were crafty and full of evil intent, so who knew what they might have left behind for their pursuers to find?
In the end, Argo’s long-distance examination proved fruitless, no matter how he craned his neck, and so he allowed his sister to usher him on with only one or two murmurs of dejected Greek. The mystery of the mushrooms was quickly forgotten, however, when they came across a dead rabbit strewn somewhat haphazardly in the grey-green grass. There were no visible wounds and no blood, and so Pandora (who’d taken a course in magical forensics and never let Rowan forget it) concluded that it must have been killed by magical means. Argo suggested disease, but was silenced with a look and a hiss of “Diseased animals do not drop dead out in the open like so.” Rowan, for his part, thought it best not to ask when Pandora had interrogated a diseased animal in order to find this out. The question of why their targets had hunted a rabbit only to leave it behind, uneaten, remained similarly unvoiced. All that mattered was that they were close.
And soon, he would be home.
Posted: Jun 15 2018, 09:03 AM
This Battle Is Never Through
SUMMER 1998. The Leaky Cauldron.
So the Russian was free. That did not, of course, mean that he was innocent, only that the Ministry couldn’t find anything that would stick. Obviously, because they didn’t have him on the case, even though that was his own fault. As was the fuss they’d kicked up when he’d gone back there, he supposed, although really they should have been thanking him for all the work he’d done alone in the wide world, without the resources of the DMLE. Rowan scowled and kicked the odd stair as he stamped up towards where the bartender had said Dolgorukov was staying. It was amazing, what sort of information the flash of a badge could get you. And to think, he’d had to make do without for so long. It was a relief to be a proper Auror again, not that he’d ever admit it; after all, Rowan Drake didn’t need the institution of the Ministry to do his job. It did help, though, rather a lot.
The staircase was old and creaky, but he wasn’t much bothered with stealth; it had never been his strong suit. Besides, why would the Russian run? He was clean, exonerated, all charges dropped, and no-one was about to listen to some angry Auror fresh off a defection trial with no proof beyond the circumstantial and a really, really persistent gut feeling. That was just fine. He didn’t need to be believed to be right, and he knew he was right. His fingers slid along the banisters, catching on the rough bumps in the wood. “Purebloods are all the same,” he reminded himself. Not a right one in the whole lot of them.
“Kolya,” he called when he reached the top of the stairs. He knew which room it was, of course, but why not be friendly? It was only a chat he wanted, nothing legal. Certainly nothing official. He was even grinning, wide and white and about as amicable and placid as a shark. “You decent? Not in your birthday feathers, I hope?”
“Nah,” came the answering call through the door. “Your lot haven’t tarred and feathered me yet, so guess I get to keep my skin a little longer. Have to get your pervy jollies somewhere else.”
Merlin, but this one was uncouth for a pureblood. Rowan wrinkled his nose, trying to figure out whether or not he wanted to address that particular comment. In the end he decided against it, and reverted instead to the comparatively safe territory of those pesky Animagus rumours he kept hearing. “Hmm, I’m sorry.” His voice dropped low, becoming all at once smooth and dangerous. “That wasn’t you, was it?” It was him and they both knew it - or at least, Rowan suspected it, which was as good as knowing, in his book - but every criminal played this game, so he would play along. He rapped on the door, three times hard. His other hand was in his pocket, tight around his wand...just in case. “Open up, Dolgorukov. Let’s talk.”
It swung open to reveal the criminal in question, expansive and cheerful just as he’d been when Rowan had sat in to watch his hearing. “I believe the correct answer is: Who? Me? Why, I know not of what you speak, Mr Auror, sir.” His voice was dripping with mockery, and it was all Rowan could do to avoid rolling his eyes as he stepped inside. Kolya wasn’t nearly done, however: “What? No stake? Brimstone and fire? Or...perhaps that’s for dessert?”
“That does sound fun,” Rowan agreed, eyes darting this way and that to take the measure of the room. The suitcase on the bed, closed and packed, was glaringly obvious, but it was nothing he hadn’t expected. If he were Dolgorukov he’d be tempted to beat a hasty retreat too. Still, it did sort of, kind of prove his point, didn’t it? The trials were done and they’d not managed to pin this one down...so was there some shred of evidence he feared would come to light? Something he was hiding, perhaps? Only the guilty run.
“I’m afraid I can’t chat long,” Kolya said from somewhere behind him. “You’ll be chuffed to hear, I’ll be eating irons far off from your turf soon enough.”
Eating irons? Rowan turned and raised his eyebrows, but said nothing, concluding privately that Russian purebloods were far and away the weirdest kind. “Going on holiday? I’d avoid Europe, if I were you. It’s hunting season. They’ll blast anything out of the sky.” These regular avian allusions were far from subtle, but then he’d never really seen the point in subtlety. It wasn’t as though he could actually do anything about Dolgorukov’s escape, not with the entire Ministry tied up in bureaucratic knots.
The Russian, on his part, gestured towards the luggage as though it were the most obvious thing in the world. “You’ll have to find other falsely accused non-delinquent immigrants to stalk and annoy. Sorry.” He did not, of course, mention his destination, but then Rowan hadn’t really expected him to. That was not how the game was played. Besides, it wouldn’t be much of an issue so long as he stayed away.
He’d stowed his wand (up his sleeve, most impractical), but Rowan made no move to relinquish his own; they’d just been through a war, and he wasn’t stupid. Well, he wasn’t that stupid. He’d been pacing the room, slowly, peering into every corner, and now he stopped at the foot of the bed and gazed thoughtfully at the packed suitcase, thinking that if an inanimate object could look self-satisfied, that was how it would look. “Falsely accused?” he asked. “No-one’s accused you of anything. In fact, last I heard...you got off scot-free.”
“Da!” Dolgorukov barked. “I invited myself to stand before the Wizengamot. Wasn’t nearly enough excitement in the spectator seats.” Rowan turned to fix him with an intent stare as he leaned against the wall, rolling his eyes unconcernedly. “If by scot-free,” he continued. “You mean acquitted of all charges and deemed falsely accused due to insubstantial evidence, then yes.”
“Either way,” Rowan replied, unruffled. “You can understand...I’m a little confused-- ”
“A daily occurrence for you, I’m sure.”
“Why this rush to leave the country? We’re done with you. There was no evidence.” The corner of Rowan’s mouth twitched in an echo of his earlier glee. “Was there?”
The Russian sighed and clapped his hands together, smiling with not the slightest hint of humour. “None whatsoever. Tends to happen when the dogs go sniffing up the wrong tree. What’s it to you, though?” He pushed off the wall and went for his suitcase, for all intents and purposes preparing to leave.
Rowan, for his part, shrugged and made no attempt to stop him. “I don’t like unfinished business.” he said. “Your business feels…very unfinished.”
“I don’t remember setting up an interview with you, so playing twenty questions to cure your paranoia isn’t on the docket. But if you’d like to provide me with an official Auror escort, feel free.” Kolya winked as he headed out the door, and Rowan scowled in return. There was plenty the Ministry had left undone, scattered as they were in the aftermath of the worst crisis to hit the wizarding world for decades. And this one...this one had done something, Rowan knew it, or at least his role in the war was more than what he’d made it out to be. He’d contributed, somehow, to their collective pain and suffering, and yet he stood there grinning as though the world couldn’t touch him. And it couldn’t.
For now, there was nothing to be done. His own position within the DMLE was far too up in the air for Rowan to risk unilateral action, particularly with such a dearth of evidence. So he remained where he was, arms crossed and lips twisted into a slightly irritated smirk. “Enjoy your trip then. I wouldn’t be in too much of a hurry to come back, if I were you. You never know...once the Ministry gets its shit together, things might...come to light.” And once he got the DMLE brass off his back, Rowan would be doing everything in his power to bring them to light.
“Right you are, birdbrain!”
These quips were getting old. Rowan’s brows rushed into a thunderous glare, but before he could say anything there was a crack as the Russian disapparated...and another crack as he reappeared right next to a suddenly very confused Auror. With not so much as a word of warning, he leaned in, pressed his lips to Rowan’s cheek, and then vanished once more.
“You...fucking...!” Rowan practically threw himself to one side, scrubbing furiously at his cheek, but there was no point. Dolgorukov was gone. Which was just as well, because it meant he’d miss Rowan’s face turning a somewhat violent scarlet, or his hands curling into shaking, enraged fists. Was that a-...a-...what the fuck was that? A Russian thing? He certainly fucking hoped so, but he wasn’t about to ask Ravensby to find out. The alternative was that it was a Dolgorukov thing, intended to poke fun at Rowan’s rather lax standards when it came to whose bed he slept in, but how the fuck had some slimy Russian Death Eater heard about that? Still, all this meant was that he’d look into the case with even more gusto, and when Kolya came back…if he came back...the DMLE would be ready for him.
(OOC: collab with @Saero)
Posted: Jun 26 2018, 02:44 PM
Hold On For Your Life
28 August 2021. Bulgaria.
Two months? It had begun to feel more like two years. Rowan had always loved this aspect of deployment - being out in the wilds so long that you began to forget what home was like, or even that it existed at all. Now, for some unfathomable, indecipherable reason, he hated it. Everything was just the same: he could remember nothing beyond Bulgaria’s endless plains and Romania’s tangled forests, and memories of his flat in London seemed to belong to another lifetime, another person. Every single time before this, he’d lived for this feeling of utter freedom, of being a soul without roots, with no connections to anything or anyone but the earth beneath his feet and the air in his lungs. So why, now, did he feel so displaced? The earth and the air weren’t enough any longer; he had roots, strong ones, and a string tied tight around his right ring finger that stretched all the way back across the continent and the sea, to his love in England.
A love that might well have moved on by now. The notion plagued Rowan at every waking moment, but there was little he could do from here. His last owl to Castor had been two weeks ago, along with a report to the Ministry in which he’d instructed them to send no further birds. They’d all agreed they couldn’t risk it; they were far, far too close, so much so that they feared a British owl in the sky would be spotted by unknown enemies, hiding somewhere in the landscape where they could not be seen. Pandora had decided, and these days when Pandora spoke, Rowan tended not to argue. She’d not paid him much attention since their spat at the beginning of the month, and he’d not realised how much he would miss her quick wit and sharp tongue. Argo, for his part, was happiest when his sister and ‘best ginger friend’, as he called Rowan, were getting along, which meant that he’d spent the past few weeks looking very glum indeed.
Precisely why the Greeks were still hanging around was a mystery Rowan had been unable to get to the bottom of. Queries directed towards Argo had been met with barely more than a shrug, and he didn’t dare ask anything of Pandora just then. As far as he knew, their mission had been to get him across the border into Bulgaria and that was it. There’d been an exchange of one or two owls since then, presumably from command central back in Greece, but if they had anything to do with Rowan and his mission, Pandora failed to mention it. That was alright by him; it was their business, after all. Not that it would have made much of a difference either way. Alone or with a team, a mission was a mission.
The silence between them all was deafening. Argo had even stopped asking about the mushrooms. Those fucking mushrooms. They were everywhere now: undulating plains of grass had given way to those horrendous white blobs as far as the eye could see. At first Pandora had had to tug Argo away from each one - she still didn’t trust them - but when he saw how they’d taken over the landscape, her brother began avoiding them himself. It was just too odd. Rowan began to think it might have something to do with the Morriganites they were stalking...some form of dark magic, perhaps, perpetrated to keep trailing authorities at bay. If so, they weren’t very effective because they hadn’t done much so far. And then there were the dead animals - even insects - scattered with alarming regularity in their path. Why were they killing animals? Why weren’t they eating them? Why so many? All Rowan had were questions, but he was determined to find answers.
It was now certain that their targets were heading for the old Dark stronghold in the heart of Bulgaria, where the Ministry had met with such devastation not too long ago. The closer they got, the more frequent became the signs of recent battle: scorched earth here, a tree split down the centre of its trunk there. And the silence, the utter silence; creatures remembered disturbances all too well, and it seemed none of them wanted to return to land still so soaked in blood and death. Rowan wasn’t sure he wanted to return either, but he had markedly less choice than the birds in this respect.
And then they found the bodies.
“Archidia me louloudia, this is too much. Look, Pandora, these things they give me the fucking creeps, eh?” Argo sounded dismayed as he gesticulated towards the first one, strewn a few metres to the right with limbs every which way, its skin strangely distended, the grass around it near swarming with mushrooms. It was not alone; three more were scattered at varying distances from where they stood. Rowan frowned, entertaining the beginnings of a thought.
“How many ran into Bulgaria? According to your intelligence.” he asked Pandora softly, gaze flickering from one body to the next.
“Four.” she replied, tone grim. “Maybe we have found them, yes?”
“Yes,” he agreed, perhaps more emphatically than was appropriate under the circumstances. Good, they’re here, they’re dead, I don’t have to catch them, I can go home. There was obviously some cleaning up to do, but the Bulgarian authorities could deal with that. If the Ministry ever informed them, given all that diplomatic tension or whatever that was happening there. Rowan didn’t know and he didn’t really care, beyond the fact that it made Castor grind his teeth at night. He wasn’t even supposed to be in Bulgaria in the first place, was he? Or was that Romania? Either way, it was decidedly not his problem.
“We should confirm that it is them.” Pandora stated, in a manner that brooked no argument. Argo, for his part, took a couple of steps back as if to indicate that whoever was doing this confirming, it was definitely not going to be him. Rowan didn’t really blame him; the mushrooms were creepy, and all of this seemed like an unconscionable waste of time when he could be heading for an England-bound portkey that very minute.
“For fuck’s sake,” he growled, striding over to the nearest body. “Look, confirmed, are you happy, can we go now?” He’d tugged the mission file out of his backpack and flipped it open to a full-sized colour photograph that bore a remarkable resemblance to the swollen corpse at his feet. Pandora eyed the other three bodies dubiously, and seemed about to argue when Argo swatted her on the arm and mumbled something low and desperate in Greek. There was a moment’s terse silence, and then she gave in with a sigh and a shrug.
“Great,” Rowan muttered, stuffing the file back into its place and turning away from what threatened to become a full-on Greek spat. He’d never been particularly queasy about bodies, but this one was...unusual. That swelling, for one thing - he knew corpses tended to accumulate gas after death, but that generally led to abdominal bloating, not this...this full-body distension. Even the thing’s face looked more stretched out than it should have been. And what in Merlin’s name was that?
Brow furrowed, he crouched down to examine what he’d spotted: thin tendrils of black curling like veins somewhere beneath the surface, as though the skin had turned translucent to reveal a rot eating away at the corpse on the inside. “What the fuck,” he breathed, reaching out the trail a finger along the closest creeping shadow. He’d never seen magic like this - was it some sort of curse? Or a potion of some kind? But how would all four of them have ingested poison out here in the middle of nowhere? The skin was peculiar to the touch, too, chilly and dry and almost powdery. When he prodded it a little harder it began to flake, cascading into the grass like a dire case of dandruff.
Behind him, Pandora and Argo had stopped their arguing, but Rowan barely noticed. He shifted a little closer, dropping his backpack to the ground in the interests of a more thorough examination. That flakiness was happening all the way down the corpse’s arm to the wrist, which was as far as the tendrils went. As for further up...well, Rowan didn’t really want to look too closely at its face, but its torso was very, very distended. Curious, he reached out to give it a gentle poke in the ribs, just to investigate its consistency.
He felt the give of flesh, soft and a little flabby. He watched, amazed, as ripples spread slow across the entire surface of that swollen monstrosity. And then it exploded.
It was so unexpected that he barely registered it at all. One moment he was following the ripples, the next he was engulfed in a cloud of absolute, impenetrable black. A spell, he thought, until he took a breath that felt like inhaling ground glass, and then his eyes darted to his hands and saw them covered in a thousand tiny drops of blood, and he remembered where he’d seen this before.
Immediately he lurched back and away, toppling to the grass in an attempt to get back into clean air, but it was too late. His eyes were burning, his nose was burning, his mouth was burning; every breath was agony, and no amount of scrabbling at his chest would relieve the tightness that had settled there like a lead weight. Distantly, he was aware of the sounds of shouting - Argo and Pandora. They had to stay away. Rowan clenched his teeth and sucked in jagged air, but couldn’t manage more than a faint, dusty croak, and then his throat seemed to close up for good and he couldn’t get any air at all, not even the barest of painful breaths. A darkness was creeping at the edges of his vision, black tendrils just like the ones that twisted through the skin of that unfortunate Morriganite; in his last few seconds of clarity, Rowan knew nothing but a boundless regret for having been so careless - for having made all the wrong decisions, and for leaving Castor, his Castor, with only broken promises and a hollow goodbye.
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