“He'd been an angel once. He hadn't meant to Fall. He'd just hung around with the wrong people.”
Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
“I'm floating in a most peculiar way
And the stars look very different today”
Space Oddity, David Bowie
Tuesday, 1 December 1998
Draco stopped and looked over his shoulder. No one was following him. Night was setting over the Hogwarts castle. From where he was standing, on the threshold of the Forbidden Forest, it shone like a lodestar, nestled among the snow-capped fir trees.
Turning his back on the castle, he took a step, then another. Draco wasn’t worried about leaving a trace: his footsteps in the fresh snow melted away as he took the next step. Behind him, he was leaving nothing but untouched whiteness.
Soon he was under the cover of dark trees. Above him, the naked branches framed the starry night sky, stark and ominous like bad omens. He breathed again. No one in their right mind would follow him into the Forbidden Forest—except perhaps Hagrid if he spotted Draco out on the grounds past curfew. But the light in his cabin was on: Hagrid hadn’t gone out for an unplanned evening patrol.
Draco walked and walked. The snow thinned; the vegetation thickened. He wasn’t mindful of the noise anymore. There was nothing in the Forest for him to fear.
Not anymore, anyway.
He finally reached it. It was a massive oak tree, standing eerily still in the middle of an open clearing. Its trunk and leaves were bright red as if on fire, glowing unnaturally in the darkness surrounding it. Draco had always thought the look of the ancient red oak tree was fitting.
Because that tree was the Entrance to Hell.
For Draco Malfoy was a demon, and this was his hundredth life.
The tree was a familiar presence in Draco’s life—this one, the previous ones, all of them. It didn’t mean he liked it. Demons’ flair for the dramatic got tedious after a while. Yet the tree was a part of him, almost comforting. He approached it carefully. He laid his hand on the gnarled trunk. The rough bark was warm. Draco had often wondered if it was blood, not sap, that was coursing underneath it. He waited another quiet moment, the sound of his breathing his only company. He wished he could be back in the Library, pretending to study for his Potions homework like the rest of his Eighth year classmates on a normal Tuesday night of December. He liked sitting next to his friends, listening to the comforting scratching of quill on parchment. He liked the chance to feel Harry’s gaze on him—Harry, who kept meeting Draco’s gaze across rooms and smiling at him. Since they’d returned for their Eighth Year, he didn’t even bother being surreptitious about it.
The quiet never lasted. The tree had a way to summon demons faster than a Firecall.
He heard the flapping of wings and the rustle of leaves over his head, and a familiar voice called overhead, “Hello, Draco.”
Draco lifted his eyes to look at the demon hanging from a thick ropey branch just above him.
“Hello, Mephisto.” He schooled his features into a practiced bored look. This never failed to annoy his demonic tutor. He lifted the piece of red parchment streaked with a scribble in blood-red ink: 'As much as it pains me to see your obnoxious face in-between annual meetings, I require your presence at once, you little good-for-nothing.' “You requested I come here, I gather.”
Mephistopheles—it was his full name, and Merlin knew how much he hated that Draco shortened it—flapped his bat-like wings and landed in front on him on the moss-covered ground. His skin was shining, a puffy, sunburned-looking red. He smelled like sulfur. The scent was all the rage in the Hereafter, but Draco had never really cared for it.
Two white-eyed ravens descended from the tree after Mephistopheles and perched on each of his shoulders. From inside the demon’s coat pocket, the pointy, twitching nose of a tiny creature emerged. It was a black Niffler whose beady little eyes fell on Draco’s signet ring instantly.
“Indeed I did, Draco, but first—” He raised a hand and recited: “All hail Lucifer, the Adversary, Destroyer of Kings, Angel of the Bottomless Pit, Prince of The World, Father of Lies, Spawn of Satan, and Lord of Darkness.”
Draco waved vaguely. “Ah, yes. What you said. Cheers to that.”
Mephistopheles dropped his hand and watched him with bloodshot, annoyed eyes. The white-eyed ravens on his shoulders shook their wings.
“Anything to report before we begin?”
“Oh, yes. Always,” said Draco. He tapped his fingers on his chin, pretending to think. “So... All is good in the human world. Child labour, starvation, disease, financial crises, general pettiness. Next to it, my minor acts of naughtiness and bullying seem a lover’s caress.”
Mephistopheles narrowed his eyes at Draco.
“Are you sassing me, youngling?”
“Sassing!” Cawed the first raven. Her name was Scylla.
“Youngling!” Answered the second. His name was Charybd.
“Pretty,” said the Niffler, holding out his tiny paw toward Draco’s ring. His name was Jeff.
“Never,” Draco gave Mephistopheles his most angelic smile. It was quite something, given that he was the literal opposite of an angel.
Mephistopheles took a step back and surveyed him.
“Good. Because I have to be honest with you, Draco. The bosses are not happy with you at the moment—”
Here we go again. “Yes, you tell me this at every check-in, Mephisto. I’m almost used to it by now.”
“—and if you can’t prove you’ve made significant efforts to improve your level of commitment to the Cause,” Mephistopheles continued, raising his voice, “they’re going to crack down on you and it won’t be pretty.”
Draco shrugged, unphased. “They don’t have much leverage, now, do they? What’s the worst they can do? Slap me on the wrist? We all know I love it. Demote me? I’m already at the bottom of the demonic ladder.” He lifted a smug eyebrow. “I’m so shite at my job, I’m basically untouchable and you know it.”
“You–you insufferable little snake. Ugh!” Mephistopheles reached up to rake his fingers through his hair. Sadly for him, there wasn’t much of it left, the few remaining strands brittle and singed. “That’ll teach me to agree to tutor younglings. Teenage demons are the worst.”
“Only because you’ve never met actual teenage humans, Mephisto,” Draco said. To his immeasurable pleasure, the demon turned redder.
“Stop. Calling. Me. Mephisto.” He folded his wings around him so briskly he scared Jeff the Niffler. With a squawk, the creature jumped out of his pocket and ran to hide in the dark undergrowth at the foot of the red oak tree. After a visible attempt to calm himself, Mephistopheles lifted his hands. “Fine. Fine. Listen, now. You’ve been summoned here because the bosses have a new mission for you.”
Draco looked up, his curiosity piqued in spite of himself. The bosses had let him live his lives without too much supervision lately, save for his annual meetings with his tutor. Mephistopheles saw the change in him and grinned. Ugly, yellow, crooked teeth flashed in the dark.
“They have conducted a post mortem of the whole Voldemort fiasco, you see. The general consensus is that Voldemort should have received more direct support from our higher-ups in the Hereafter instead of letting him run unchecked. You know as well as I do that the bosses hate to meddle with human evilness when it reaches such professional levels. But the lad had a lot of potential. He could have gone far. And to be defeated by—by a—“ Mephistopheles stuttered the words as though the very thought of them was repulsive. “—by a human child—”
Draco felt the blood leave his face.
“Potter,” he breathed, praying his voice wouldn’t quiver.
“Yes. Potter.” Mephistopheles took a deep, steadying inhale. “The bosses want him gone. They can’t afford to let the Boy Who Destroyed An Opportunity walk away unscathed. Humans like him need to be taught a lesson.”
“And how do I fit in this grand scheme?” Draco asked. “I’m hardly worth the higher-ups’ notice.”
“Draco. Oh, Draco,” Mephistopheles said with an ugly, carnivorous grin. “They think you’ve been off the hook long enough now. They think you can take on more responsibilities, Draco. They definitely think you–ah, proved yourself in the last few years.”
“Proved myself? I failed at all the missions anyone has given me. Take Voldemort’s requests. Those sure backfired with me in charge! I’ve barely–“ Realisation dawned on him. Suddenly, he felt cold. Colder than he had any right to be this close to the gaping maw of Hell.
He swallowed. Slowly, he asked: “What is my mission?”
“Why, Draco dear. Haven’t you guessed? It’s easy as pie.” Mephistopheles grinned like the old shriveled demon he was. “They want you to kill him, of course.”
No, Draco had been wrong before. This felt colder.
But let Mephistopheles see—let anyone see—and it was the end of the story.
For him, and for Harry.
“Kill Harry Potter?” He hoped Mephistopheles couldn’t see the bobbing of his Adam’s apple as he swallowed. “A ridiculous and utterly useless plan, if you want my opinion, but if it makes the bosses happy...”
“Not only does it make them happy, Draco, the idea comes directly from the Big Boss,” Mephistopheles said, and his expression turned sickeningly reverential at the evocation. “Lucifer himself thinks it would be a glorious way to bring your first hundred-lives cycle to a close. Something you could leverage for a promotion on your next life. When your next life starts again next June, would you rather still bully playgrounds and schools, or move on to bigger, badder things?”
Frankly, Draco didn’t want to think about his next life. He’d grown quite attached to his current one. Leaving it again—soon, so soon—wasn’t something he looked forward to.
He must obey, though. He couldn’t refuse a direct order from the Hereafter, not when it came from the Boss himself. He couldn’t refuse, but he could half-arse it, like he had half-arsed all of his assignments in recent years. In fact, in addition to bullying, Draco could have added another prideful line on his demonic curriculum vitae: Masters Degree in Half-Arsing Things.
“Kill Harry Potter,” he nodded, mustering a businesslike tone. He examined his cuticles. “When do you need it done by?”
Mephistopheles bristled like he always did when he wasn’t sure whether Draco was pulling his leg or not. Given that Draco did it every occasion he got, he was surprised the demon hadn’t dropped dead from sheer irritation yet.
But irritation couldn’t kill a demon, so Mephistopheles was still here.
“There isn’t a deadline,” he said, tapping his dirty-nailed finger to where Draco’s heart should have been if he had one. “But I expect significant progress to have been made by the end of the month.”
“Meaning he should be at least a little dead by then?”
Mephistopheles dropped his head in his hands and groaned.
“Ughhhh,” the white-eyed ravens Charybd and Scylla repeated in unison.
“Unbelievable,” Jeff the Niffler sighed from among the roots of the oak tree.
Draco smiled, his breath misting in the cold winter air.
This wasn’t going to be pleasant. But if Draco had learned anything over the course of a hundred lives, it was that what didn’t kill you... made you a more experienced demon.
Because there were only two things that could kill a demon, and plotting Harry Potter’s assassination wasn’t one.