It starts as so many incidents seem to, these days. The muggle news monitors pick up reports of a strange flying object – an uffo, or something, he always forgets the name – and, as the junior ranking member of the aurors on evening duty, Ron is 'nominated' to investigate. Again.
Nine times out of ten, these investigation gigs end up being nothing more than an excuse to torment the newbie, he thinks, shrugging on his cloak. Muggle cameras just don't record magical things properly, and, for the most part, the random blurs in the sky which result from a magical object being captured on film conceal nothing more sinister than a careless wizard on a broom-ride, or perhaps a swarm of fairies, if it's their spawning season.
It's a hell of a nuisance, though, Ron thinks, as he checks the report he'd been handed again, and apparates to the site it lists. At this time of year, the North York Moors are bitterly cold, empty, and practically endless; waves of heather stretch into the distance, rippling under the biting wind that's blown in from the North Sea. A handy charm restores a measure of vision ("A far sight better than night-vision goggles." Hermione had commented, pleased; Ron hadn't responded, embarrassed that he had no idea what a goggle was); but nothing shows up against the deep grey of the cloudy sky; aside from a sharp sliver of barely visible moon, the only source light's a mile or so away, where a small cottage is nestled in the crook of a hill.
Ron had read, before he left, that a muggle plane driver had seen some kind of shadow worming its way across the sky, and the local television news had shown a dark blur, captured by an intrepid wildlife photographer earlier that day. But the sky is nothing but shadows, now, and none of them seem particularly magical.
Ron thrusts his hands into his pockets, shivering, and takes another minute to survey his surroundings; finally, though, he figures that he won't learn anything standing there, and apparates a second time, to a couple of hundred metres from the cottage he'd noticed before. He takes a moment to concentrate, and taps his cloak, which bunches up around him as his transfiguration takes effect, leaving him in something approaching a convincing puffer jacket.
"Worst part of the job, this." He mutters, sourly, as he sets off for the house. Standard protocol in a statute-breach investigation, if the source isn't immediately obvious, is to check with the nearest muggles and see if they've seen anything themselves. If they haven't, a paranormal enthusiast in a dumpy coat is hardly something to write home to the kids about, and if they have, an obliviation is coming their way in any case. Ron, however, still struggles with the vocabulary, not to mention the references, of muggles; Harry, unsurprisingly, is rather more comfortable in situations like this one; but he's been undercover for almost a month ("It's my favourite job," he told Ron, "if only because I get to be somebody else for a little while.") so it's Ron who finds himself knocking, first politely, but increasingly firmly, on the door.
"Hello?" He finally calls, a minute later. "Is anyone home?"
Still, Ron gets no answer, and he finally shuffles away, ready to give the whole thing up as a bad joke and head home. But as he turns to go, he glances through the kitchen window, and stops short. There's a fully laid dinner table – four plates, a casserole dish, food already dished out – but the chairs are pushed away from the table, a couple of them on the floor, and – Ron hurries to peek around the corner, and, yes, there's still a parked car out by the side of the house – it doesn't look as if the muggles have actually left.
Quietly, he draws his wand, and charms the door open with a muttered "Alohamora". The house is very still, and silent but for the quiet buzz of what Ron recognises as a muggle Wireless, a few rooms away. There's a crack of open window in the living room off to his right, and, sidling over to it as quietly as he can manage, Ron sees a hint of a scratch-mark on the window-sill – something very much like tooth-marks, and he freezes in horror, just for a moment.
"...or it could be a dog." He murmurs, trying to force himself to relax – but the nerves don't go away, and he swaps his wand to his off-hand to wipe a suddenly sweaty palm on his trousers. He takes a deep breath, weighing up his options, but he finally settles on a course of action.
"Homenum Revelio," he incants, sweeping his wand across the room. If there's a wizard, somewhere in this house, he'll realise that another magic user's there; but Ron needs to know whether the muggles are still here – whether they're even still alive – before he can do anything else. He stands stock-still, and lets the strange sensation of an extra sense wash over him. There's nothing immediately close-by, he realises, but – yes. Above him, a couple of children are – hiding under a bed, maybe? And – his eyes widen for a moment, horrified – there's about two thirds, make that half, of a man, flailing at something which is making him – not there.
Dropping the charm, Ron runs back across the room to the hall, and takes the stairs up to the second floor two at a time, noise no longer a concern. Whatever's in this house isn't a wizard, and it's clearly already occupied. He makes it to the landing, takes a moment to calibrate his human-sense to the dimensions of the house, and elbows the door open, wand raised to cast at -
There's nothing but the top half of a man's torso, lying against the wall, his face showing a peculiar mix of terror and confusion. Ron can hardly bear to look, but he's seen worse, back in the war. The room seems empty, and a quiet "Specialis revelio." comes up blank, as well – so Ron takes a few steps into the room, as cautious as anything, before moving to examine what was left of the man that must have been the children's father.
"Poor bugger." Ron mutters, and, of course, this is when the creature chooses to strike, sweeping out from under the man's bed and tumbling him to the floor as it engulfs his ankles and pulls. Ron swears, and slams a banishing spell, a stunner, and something rather darker (another relic of the war, and not one he has any intention of admitting knowledge of) into the thing, but it isn't affected in the slightest, and is already above his knees and climbing.
Ron's mind races, as he thinks harder than he ever has before. He can feel his legs – the creature isn't doing the same thing to him as it did to the muggle, then – and none of his spells are doing anything at all. The thing's like a blanket, almost – pitch-black, and an inch thick – and Ron knows he's seen it somewhere, just -
It is of course the voice of Hermione, all the way back when they'd been revising for their OWLs, that manages to deliver him from his predicament. "The Lethifold," she reminds him, rolling her eyes at his work-burdened gloom, "is a carnivorous creature, usually found in the tropics, rated XXXXX by the ministry because it predates on wizards. It is immune to most spells, but has recently been discovered to be vulnerable to the -"
"EXPECTO PATRONUM!" Ron roars, and a Jack Russell terrier tears out of his wand, battering the lethifold away from him, and pinning it against the bedroom wall. The creature emits a horrible shriek – strangely, Ron thinks, it's a bit like the sound of a dementor in pain – and, as the terrier nips at its fringes, the lethifold slowly begins to disintegrate, little fronds of it breaking off until there's nothing of it left at all.
"Bollocks!" Ron shouts, more instinct than intent. "Oh, Merlin. Thanks, Hermione." His fiancé is out of the country – she's playing special envoy to the Australian ministry, which is coincidentally an excellent excuse to visit her now-resident parents there – but he knows that, once she sets aside her worrying, she'll be rather pleased to hear that she's managed to save his skin, again. He hears a little yelp of fear from the next room over, though, and remembers that his job isn't yet done.
"Hello?" he says, knocking quietly on the next door over. "I've – I've made the bad thing go away, kids. Is it okay if I come in?"
There's a tense minute of quiet – Ron stands, patiently, aware of the furious whispering of the children on the other side of the door – but finally, the door opens, and his heart almost breaks at the sight of the a boy and a girl – they can't be older than seven or eight, he thinks to himself – staring up at him, eyes wide with worry and confusion.
"Who're you then, mister?" The boy asks, voice heavy with its Yorkshire burr.
"And where're ma and pa?" His sister continues, wringing her hands with worry. "Only – there was this thing -"
She can't finish her sentence, but Ron crouches down to stand on their level, and pats them both comfortingly on their shoulders. He's never liked lying, but sometimes – well, sometimes a lie is a necessary kindness.
"Do you want to see something amazing?" He asks, waiting for them to nod, confused. "The thing that came into the house tonight – it was something really, properly horrible, and scary. But – it's gone now, alright? You see, I'm actually -" he sends a sea of golden bubbles streaming from his wand - "a real-life wizard, and I scared it away."
Both of them gasp, fear briefly dispelled, and watch the bubbles burst, each emitting a soft musical chime, for a few moments, but – of course – it's only a little while before their minds refocus on their own situation.
"You still an't told us about ma, though." The boy says, frowning. "I saw that – thing, catching 'er on 'er ankle, and -" he shuts off again, but Ron, though he hates himself for it, knows what he has to do, now.
"No, no, it's alright, I promise." He says, smiling broadly. "I was able to catch it in time, but your parents are both quite sick. I had to -" he wracks his brain for the right word - "teleport them to a magic hospital, but they're going to be alright. Do you want to go and see them?"
Both the children look profoundly relieved, and nod their acceptance – now that the danger's over, excitement at a whole world of magic actually being real is beginning to overcome their very justifiable fear.
"Alright, then." Ron says. "I'm going to cast a spell on you both, so that you can both go to see your parents, too. All you need to do is close your eyes for me, alright?"
Once both kids have their eyes screwed shut, Ron grimaces, and – as carefully as he can – casts a sleeping charm on the pair of them, catching them as they crumple to the floor. At least, he thinks, it's kinder than the stunner that a less sympathetic auror might have used.
"I'm sorry." He whispers, as he hoists them in his arms, and carries them to their beds. "It's not fair – none of this is fair."
Once he's tucked them in, Ron goes downstairs to the dining room, and sets the plates to clean themselves (it's practically an automatic instinct, the way his mother drilled it into him), after he's sent a patronus back to the ministry. He's almost done by the time that clean-up arrives in the form of a couple of Obliviators, neither of whom look pleased to be out at that time of night. They accept his cursory report, tell him to stay out of the way, and are then set to work with the intensity of people who know that this is their last job of the evening.
Ron sits, and watches as dispassionately as he can manage. The contents of a couple of bottles of wine are vanished, and they're left on the kitchen table along with a couple of stained wineglasses. The man's torso is transformed, crudely, into a couple of mannequins, human flesh but only the crudest of human features; these are loaded into the car, which – one complex enchantment later – sets off by itself. A mile or so down the road, Ron understands, it'll careen off the road, burst into flames, and leave the unfortunate occupants burned beyond recognition or recovery – a tragedy, of course, but one which the muggles can actually understand.
Finally, the Obliviators announce that they're about done with the house, and that there's nothing else to do but obliviate the children and implant false memories of the evening, so that the statute can survive another day. Before they head upstairs, though, Ron can't help but make a request of them.
"You're going to sort them out, make them think their parents got drunk and died in a car crash, aren't you?"
The older of the pair snorts, rolling his eyes. "It's a classic, innit? Mum and Dad have an argument, drive off to the pub, oopsie daisy, all neat and sorted."
Ron smiles, weakly. "Yeah. Neat and sorted. But – d'you think you could just make it a bit happier for them? They all had a nice evening together, kids went to bed, parents headed off to the pub, and that? Only – it's been hell for them already, and I don't want their last memory to be – well, that kind of argument."
There's a moment of silence, as the pair of them look at each other, more than a little doubtful. Finally, though, the man shrugs to his partner, and turns back to Ron.
"If you think that'll work," he says, slowly, "we can prob'ly manage that."
"But you'll owe us, okay?" the other continues, her face creased into a frown. "You'll handle one PI gig apiece, off the books, whenever we want it. Alright?"
It's hardly a surprise to Ron – obliviators, by and large, tend to be terrible creeps – but a day or two spent spying on a stranger's behalf is hardly onerous, in the end.
"Alright." Ron says. "I'm going to head back to the ministry – got to make my report." He leaves them in the kitchen, finding he can't bear to be in the house a moment longer, and apparates back to the ministry, feeling lower than low. Work offers something of an antidote to the gloom, and Ron stays late into the night, trying to work out how the hell a tropical beast might have made it to England in February.
It's a couple of days, though, until he's able to get his ducks in a row, after a furious conversation with an official in the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures. Apparently, the South African ministry, several weeks ago, had reported the passage of a lethifold, caught in a high-altitude windstorm and headed out of the country; a few days ago, the Spanish and then the French government had both filed reports of their own to the same effect, and the British ministry had done – well, Ron thinks, about exactly as much as they always did, which is to say, nothing at all. One starving lethifold lands in the north, orphans a pair of children, meets its end at his wand, and that's that. He files his report, finishes his shift, goes home as calmly as he can manage, and promptly bruises his fist trying to break a hole in the wall of his apartment.
"Well, it doesn't matter, anyway!" the official had said, indignantly, as Ron castigated him for his negligence. "I mean, you killed the damn thing, didn't you? It's not like anybody important got hurt!"
There was a time, not too long before, when Ron would have pummelled the bastard into the ground for saying that, he thinks. But he's learned enough from chess, and loss has tempered his pride enough to stay his hand. Instead, once he's home, he digs out the neat little list that he, Harry, and Hermione have slowly been compiling, and adds another name to it.
One day, he thinks, Hermione will be minister, and he and Harry will have leverage in the aurors; Susan Bones is already rising up through the ranks of the ministerial prosecutors, and a whole host of their generation are slowly, gently, easing their way towards the power they'll need to make the world change, to end the careers of people like that reptile in Magical Creatures.
For now, though, Ron pours himself a stiffer drink than Hermione would probably approve of, downs it, pours another, and slumps on their sofa with a heavy sigh. Lethifolds need magic to survive – it's why they are so much rarer in the muggle-dominated northern hemisphere, he's discovered – and if he hadn't dispatched it, it would have killed and killed and killed, desperate for the slightest taste of magic after weeks without, and unable to find it.
"Still won't bring their ma and da back, though, will it?" Ron says, and drains his second glass. He wants to finish the bottle and find another, but he's long since learned that drink is no salve for a guilty conscience, and he has work to do tomorrow – so he heads to bed, pulls the covers tight over himself, and hopes that he can snatch a couple of hours' sleep before he's due back in the office.
He doesn't imagine that he will.
A response to the 22 December 2017 challenge on the HPF Discord: A lethifold is found roaming the English countryside, drifting over the moors. How did it get there? What did it do?
Thank you for reading.