It was dark and grimy, small balls of flame, hanging in cages flickering their light pitifully in the gloom. Edward could make out the familiar shimmer of red, as the light caught fresh blood splattered across the walls. Screams and cries called out to him from the shadows intermittently, and his hands balled into fists to stop them shaking. Draco could feel Edward's heart hammering, feel the sweat beading on his brow, the breath leaving his lungs as images flashed through his mind quickly. His legs shook and almost gave way, but the splash of a drop of water on his forehead seemed to pull him out of his mind and back into the moment. He quickly wiped his head, gazing up at the damp roof, where water leaked through from above. He focused on the drips they made as they fell, breathing deep calming breaths. He could not show weakness, especially here.
During his campaign in the highlands, there had been much talk of a new name among the witch hunters, famed as they were among the people. Edward had paid little attention to them, seeing them butchers rather than actual soldiers. His return at the King's request, however, had shown that the King saw these men as so much more, valuing their input on the matter of magic users. That meeting had proven worryingly final; the witches and wizards were to be eradicated and he was to pick the best man to do it. The best man, according to his previous bloody works, was Tharin Morax. The name had not struck any particular fear within him when he'd heard it but, as time went on, word of his actions had spread the country until it was impossible to ignore the man behind such carnage. Now when people spoke his name it was with the same fear and reverence afforded the grim reaper.
Edward focused on putting one foot in front of the other, breathing through his mouth as the stench of decomposition, excrement and blood grew thicker in the air with each step he took. Draco was almost certain that if he wasn't in the memory he would have passed out from sensory overload, almost certain that it was impossible for something to smell so bad and not actually be a physical presence.
Edward paused when he came to a low stone arch, glancing through into the dimness of the tunnel and gulping. He had never been particularly afraid of anything, such fearlessness always making him a formidable opponent, even against those that were significantly more experienced than himself, but something about the tunnel filled him with dread. For the first time in his life he felt the distinct urge to flee, to turn back the way he had come and never set eyes on the man that had become so famed, even to the King. He shook his head, gripping the hilts of his daggers that were resting against his hips. The feel of them in his palm calmed him, grounding him to the floor and to the knowledge that no matter what he faced he could always kill it. With a nod of reassurance, he stepped under the arch, ducking slightly so as not to hit his head.
In the gloom, he could make out small cages that lined the wall on either side of the tunnel, the bars thick and rusted. The inhabitants of the small confines stared up at him with wide haunted eyes, their bodies a map of pain and torture that challenged anything he had seen on the battlefield. The further down the corridor he went, the less they looked like people, reduced to open wounds and scars stretched thinly over bone. They reached out to him half-heartedly, fingers grasping at his clothes barely able to grip. He turned as one yanked at his trousers, her hair hanging limply over her face in greasy clumps, dyed red with old blood. Her legs were covered with excrement and sores, and when she looked up at him to speak, her mouth held no teeth. She dribbled helplessly, mouthing breathy words that Edward couldn't hear. The sight made his heartache in his chest, fighting the need to reach out and unlock the cage, let her free, or end the torture.
"Edward, Edward, Edward." The voice was clipped and proper, greeting him familiarly as if greeting an old friend. Edward turned, noting how small and wiry he seemed, his vibrant dress the only thing that seemed remotely strong or bold about him. He grinned broadly but the action did not meet his eyes leaving them somewhat cold, like flecks of ice in the darkness. "So glad that you could make it." His arms were spread out before him as if to embrace Edward but dropped at the last moment. Disgust burnt in the back of Edward's throat like bile as well as general annoyance at the man's complete disregard for his title. He swallowed heavily, pushing them down and taking pains to remain as expressionless as possible.
He nodded his head slightly, offering the small man a tight smile in return, "Lord Morax, I have been sent on behalf of His Majesty. He wishes to," he glanced around at the pitiful remains of human that Tharin had locked away, "enquire as to your work and offer mine and my men's services, if we may," he cleared his throat uncomfortably, "be of any use."
"Ah yes, well I'm afraid you've caught me at a difficult time." Edward glanced wearily over Tharin's shoulder, at the two guards either side of him. One sneered at him, making Edward raise an eyebrow, vaguely recognising the scar that ran the length of his face. Tharin noticed, grinning widely. "Oh, forgive me, how rude. Standing here all proper while there is a reunion in progress. You remember Aygust. His Royal Highness believed his particular skills would be better suited with me. I'm sure you two will get along famously." He clapped his hands together and let out a delighted laugh that sounded to Edward almost manic.
Edward cringed glancing once again at Aygust; the young man had grown quite significantly since he'd last seen him, filling out obscenely. He guessed, however, considering his reinstatement to torturer, that his fighting had not improved much, his size doing little to encourage speed and agility which he had always lacked. Edward and he had been trained together, both having the same childish dreams of being warriors, determined that they would not be called to the slaughter as so many men were. As with any group of boys, there was a hierarchy and Aygust had found himself at the bottom time and time again. The scar that Aygust wore was put there by Edwards own hand, a cruelty that he wished he could take back.
"Aygust," Edward muttered, nodding his head again, hands gripping the hilt of his daggers harder.
"Edward," The man hissed back, his voice gruff, eyes squinting in hate.
"That's Commander James to you," Tharin patronised, all but giggling in delight when Aygust growled, "We must not forget our manners. Even if we are in the company of old friends." He rubbed his hands together, "Well enough with the niceties, perhaps you can help me, Edward, I'm in a spot of bother, as it were." He gestured for Edward to follow him, walking jauntily down the tunnel as though there weren't suffering people either side of him.
Edward paused when Tharin disappeared behind a black door, metal studs protruding from its surface. He thought of Mina, wishing with every fibre of his being he was back walking with her. They had met frequently, their conversations never ceasing to stray to her wonderful, flawless view of the world. She had such childish dreams and impression, but he could not take them from her, loving them for their beauty and loving her for nurturing to the extent that they seemed almost possible. Shut away as he was though, their beauty seemed just a figment of his imagination, imagined in one of weaker moments.
Tharin quickly stuck his head around the door, glancing confusedly at Edward, noticing his wide-eyed stare.
"Oh, this was here when we arrived," he gestured to the iron studs, "ghoulish don't you think. Not at all what I had in mind." Tharin tutted, before shrugging his shoulders casually, "Still, beggars cannot be choosers and we have been so very lucky to be allowed such space. Most places we have visited have forced us into such small abodes. I am a man of my work however and squalor does not put me off, only serves to increase my resilience." He held the door open for Edward, his stare almost too much to bear as the warrior walked into the room.
He managed to school his features as he gazed up at the ceiling. Hooks hung down, their sharp ends still caked in blood and strings of skin. Instruments crowded every available surface of the darkroom, devices that Draco had never seen before and did not want to guess what they were used for. Edward gritted his teeth as his eyes landed on the small child that was stretched across a stone table, burns marring his skin and his small head lolling to one side as he struggled to keep his eyes open. Each breath seemed like agony, his chest rising and falling with pitiful wheeze after pitiful wheeze.
"Fantastic utilisation of space, if I do say so myself." Tharin murmured, eyes glinting in amusement as he stood watching Edward, his hands planted firmly on his hips. Edward did not in any way wish to agree with the enthusiasm of the man before him, but he had to admit he had never seen so many instruments of death packed into such a small space. It was all so unreal and strange that he found his head spinning a little; taking a deep breath through his mouth so as to limit the stench, he managed to ground himself.
"A far cry from the battlefield, my Lord." Tharin tipped his head to the side at Edwards words.
"Hmm, the argument of the warrior, such righteous work you do slicing a man open and leading him to bleed in the dirt. Blood is blood, is blood, wouldn't you say, Aygust?"
"Yes, my lord," the man answered gruffly.
"Flailing about a battlefield is so terribly tiresome. My talents are so much more deliberate, particular, you might say, in nature."
"Particularly one-sided wouldn't you say? When a man meets me in combat, he has a chance at life." Tharin tipped his head back and practically cackled.
"How quaint, and how utterly childish. Did your lady teach you such foolish notions?" Edwards' eyes widened in panic, the grip on his daggers tightening as Tharin walked towards the table, gazing at the boy before turning to Edward. "Put a sword in his hand," he pointed down at the child, "and he would die either way." He sauntered over to one of his many tables and picked up what looked like a bent piece of wood. Draco started a little when he realised it was a very crudely made wand, misshapen with knots as though it had simply been plucked from a tree and wielded.
"Give him this, well he might just kill you where you stand before you have so much as taken a breath." He dropped it onto the table and shook his head almost sadly. "What you and I do, Commander," he spoke the title as if speaking to a child and Edward found that infuriated him more than the man's disregard for its use, "is practically the same. But I – I am measured, every action has a purpose a reason." A stove burnt white-hot embers in the corner and Tharin made his way over to it, taking a large leather cloth in hand and pulling an iron rod out of it.
"Every cut, every burn," he emphasised his words by pressing the glowing end onto the child's skin, the hiss turning Edward's stomach. The child groaned, back arching off the table, before falling back with a thump, eyes rolling back in his head as he once again passed out. "Every bit of pain has a purpose. I can take man, woman, child, to the very edges of their fear and back, and when they return, they tell me everything. You just have to find the right…" he tapped his chin thoughtfully for a moment, before pressing the rod back into the child's flesh, just below his ribs, "angle."
Edward took a step a step forward, his blades halfway unsheathed. It would spell certain death for him to end the life a man that had full sanction of the King, but surely the king could not know such atrocities were taking place in his name. Tharin looked almost amused, waving his hand at his guards to keep them back by the door. Aygust seemed desperately uncomfortable, his thick fingers turning white as he gripped the hilt of his sword tightly. The man had to know that in such close quarters the smaller man would win, there was no space for a brute his size to move about; both their throats would be cute before they had time to draw their swords. The brightly dressed man made his way to the stove, pushing the iron rod back into the coals.
"I really wouldn't do anything you could possibly regret, Commander. It has already come to the attention of the King that your leanings have somehow changed as of late."
"I do not know what you mean." He ground out, knowing that it would all be over soon. He would kill them all and be far away before anyone knew the difference.
"Of course, you do. Sympathies to witches and wizards do not easily pass my notice, no matter how subtle."
"I am not sure what sympathies you speak of, I have only ever done my duty, for my king." Tharin nodded, picking up a small blade from the table and inspecting it closely.
"And yet you threaten me, why is that?"
"It's just a child." He choked on the words, swallowing his emotions in embarrassment. The boy's eyes had opened, his lips trembling, mouth opening and closing as if struggling to find oxygen. It was as if the boy that had saved him at the Battle of Black lake were laying across the table, fear in his eyes and the want to go home.
"This is no child, Edward, this is a demon, a devil in disguise. Do not be fooled by the supposed innocence. You should know as well as anyone what these things are capable of."
It was true that he had seen some terrible things during the battle, such powerful forces wielded with such ease, but he had also seen the terror in the boy's eyes as he realised, he would never see his family again, that death was coming for him and there was nothing that could be done.
"You have a choice, Commander. You can kill me and my friends quite easily, of that, I have no doubt. Or you can show your allegiance to your King and to me by killing this demon." The imbalance in the options confused him, and then he realised, with sickening clarity, that he'd walked into a trap, a very neatly planned and executed trap.
"And if I kill you? You know that I can." Tharin shrugged, his ice-cold gaze settling on Edward sending a chill all the way down to his soul.
"Of course, you could, a seasoned warrior like yourself, against me?" He laughed heartily, "I know my limitations, Commander. But as I said, I do take pains to find the necessary angle and yours was so…obvious." Edward didn't dare breathe, he had been a fool of that he was certain. "She really is beautiful you know, living with the Masarvas family, the only remaining heir, what is his name now…Lord Arden Masarvas is it? Such a woman of the people too, taking part in the market, selling her wares at such shamefully low prices," Tharin tutted, "you really do have an eye for them."
The fight seemed to leave him at these words. He had been out-manoeuvred and out-witted before he had even realised, he was taking part in some sort of elaborate game.
"You threaten her life?"
"Oh, there is no threat, none at all. As long as you do all that I ask. It's that simple."
"How can I trust your word?"
"A man is only as good as his word, Commander. Not a hair on her golden head will ever be touched so long as you work for me, of that you can be certain."
He re-sheathed his daggers slowly, nodding his head reluctantly. He did not trust himself to speak, knowing that whatever he said would betray him. He could never swear fealty to a man that thought nothing of harming a child in such a way.
"Excellent choice, Commander. You will find our work paramount to the survival of our kind. Without men like me, we would be as dirt beneath their shoes, squashed into the earth like nothing. That is how they see us, as weak and powerless, nothing more than beasts. But we will show them." Tharin strode around the table and placed his arm over Edwards' shoulders, finding it a little difficult due to their difference in size. "You will come to see things my way, everyone does." He handed him the small hooked blade, his eyes glinting. "Do the honours, Commander?"
Edward stood for some time unable to move, certain that it was all some strange dream and he would awaken in his own bed coated in sweat. Numbly he took the blade in his hands, trying and failing to grasp at a plan. Surely it would take a long time before anyone would notice that Tharin had died, surely, he could get to Mina before them. But…what if he didn't? The risk was too much, she has fast become the most important thing in his existence and life without her was too much. He stumbled forward, his legs seeming not to belong to him as he made his way closer to the table. The boys head lolled to one side, eyes half-lidded as he gazed up at the Commander. There was no fear in them, only faint resignation.
He choked past a sob that made its way into his throat as he lifted the blade to the boy's neck. The world was so quiet, only the wheeze as the child took in painful breath after painful breath met his ears and, in that quiet, he thought of Mina. She was beautiful and she was smiling at him, arms help open in the acceptance he so desperately craved from her. She would never know this world and he would keep her safe from it. The blade bit into the child's neck and warm blood covered his hands, dripping off the table onto his boots and running through the gaps in the cobbled floor. It would be over; the pain would be over. There was a choking sound, like a small cough petering out into a gurgle that made him grit his teeth and pushed harder. He let out a final sigh and his chest rose and fell no more, blood continued to patter on the floor, the scent of it filling the air with a sickening tang.
Edward ripped himself away from the body, the tiny blade clattering to the floor as he sucked in several shuddering breaths, realising that his cheeks were soaked with tears. He could hear Tharin clapping behind him, excited chatter that congratulated him on a job well done. He stared at the table feeling as though another man had climbed into his skin and killed the child, another person had gripped the blade. He thought of Mina, of all that he had wanted to be for her and realised that it had been such a foolish fantasy. Beside the boy lay the shadow of the good man that he had attempted to be, his life ended with the boys; over before he even had time to grow, to even begin to be.
Draco fell to his knees, retching when the world came rushing back, the final vestiges of the memory clinging on with visceral clarity. When he had finished throwing up, he lifted his hands staring at the pale of his skin as they shook.
"Malfoy?" He felt her hand gently rest against his shoulder and all he wanted was to tilt his head and press his cheek against the warmth of it. The magic around them grew and the familiarity of its presence settled his stomach and stopped the shaking. With great difficulty, he got to his feet meeting her brown eyes, his heart hammering in his chest when he realised that she was worried about him.
"Malfoy, what happened?" Her voice sounded far away, dark spots flickering on his vision making everything seem blurry.
"I think I'm going to throw up…" He was falling and he vaguely heard Hermione shouting his name before the world faded into blackness.