I'm surprised by very glad that so many of you enjoyed Death and Marduk's conversation. Death is quickly becoming one of my favorite characters to write, just because he is so funny (from a safe minimum distance, of course). Thankfully, he still has some big scenes coming up, including one that I've been waiting on for at least a year now.
On a related note, there were supposed to be two or three more chapters after this, including some honestly awesome scenes that would have made for a great climax even after the Camelot fight, but I unfortunately outsmarted myself with Draco and Bellatrix's plan. (Curse her for being crazy but not stupid!) That means my notes had to be rapidly rearranged, and as a result, this is the last chapter of Coronation of the Black Queen.
Now that it's posted, though, I can start work on the fourth and final installment in this series. The Black Queen's War will begin in the next few weeks.
Hermione stood with the rest of the prefects who had stuffed themselves into Marchbanks's office. "We have a problem. Two students did not return from Edinburgh with the rest of you." Giving them a gimlet eye, the headmistress demanded, "Do any of you know where Daniel Potter and Ginevra Weasley are?"
Merlin's beard, Ginny, what did you do?
"They went off on a date." Ron's eyes shot to her in disbelief – she didn't know how the younger girl pulled it off, but somehow Ginny had kept her brothers in the dark about her budding relationship with Danny – and he was soon emulated by the rest of the room. "She knew she had to be back by two, though. I told her several times. She should have remembered."
"Unless the date went so well she stopped thinking with her head," muttered Black with a knowing smirk.
At the same time, Marchbanks asked, "Did she say where she was going?"
Mastering the urge to snap back at the rude Ravenclaw, she focused on the headmistress's question. "She didn't say where she was going, but I know she put quite a bit of effort into it." Hermione thought back to the conversation they had just that morning. "She did mention a reservation, so probably one of the nicer restaurants in the area. It's only three-thirty; it's entirely possible that they lost track of time."
"If they are old enough to be out on their own, they're old enough to be back when they're supposed to be back," Torquill bit out. "We're going to Edinburgh to find Potter and Weasley. You'll be in groups of three. Michaels, take Goldstein and Parkinson. Abbot, Macmillan, Malfoy…."
Ten minutes later found Hermione, Ron, and a very disgruntled Black walking down Horne Street. Hermione could only guess that Torquill put the Dark witch with them because she was officially Danny's half-sister and should have some familial love for him, but what it really meant was it was her and Ron looking for their friend while Black tagged along doing nothing.
"You're sure you haven't seen him?" Ron asked the clerk at the confectionery. Despite knowing that Ginny and Danny were headed to a restaurant, the Head Boy had made a very good point that they did not know that the pair were still there. They had more than enough groups to look at all the restaurants in the area, and it would be a waste if they only looked there and missed the lovebirds who were just across the street.
"You think I wouldn't know Danny Potter if he walked in my store?" the young man behind the counter demanded. "No, I haven't seen him."
"That was a waste," Black said once they were outside again. "It will be just our luck if they made their way back to the castle while we are all out here searching for him."
"Do you have anything constructive to say?!" Hermione spat out, whirling around to glare at the other teen. "No? Then be quiet and let us work. You'd look for your friends if one of them went missing, wouldn't you?"
Black blinked languidly and gave her a thin, nasty smile. She then reached up to her lips and mimed turning a key. It was probably the best they were going to get from her.
A scream rang out, and she and Ron immediately started running in that direction, the worst possibilities running through their heads. Ahead of them sat a small brick building, a sign depicting an upright fox hanging above the door. Several other prefects ran inside, so it was a good guess that was where they needed to go. The people who had barged in ahead of them were already moving to the edges of the room, which gave Hermione a clear, terrifying look at what waited for them.
"Ginny!" Ron shouted, running up to where his little sister was spread-eagle but skidding to a stop before he touched the pool of blood that surrounded her. "No. Ginny…."
She looked away from the sight, but all that did was show her the rest of the bodies shoved onto booths and tables. "I think I'm gonna be sick," she muttered almost to herself.
"Potter isn't here," Malfoy said, looking bored with everything going on the way only an awful person like him could. "Do you think there's a back door somewhere? The kitchens, maybe?"
Despite the source, that was as good an excuse to get away from… from all this as there was. She walked forward slowly so she could pull Ron away from Ginny's side. He resisted at first, but after a couple of seconds all his strength left him, and he let himself be led away. The kitchens were free of any of the carnage from the dining area, something Hermione was grateful for more than she could put into words. There was a door at the very back of the room, and the prefects filed out one by one into an alleyway that ran behind the stores on this side of the street. "Nobody would have seen anything if whoever did this went out this way," Anthony Goldstein pointed out unnecessarily.
"All the Death Eaters would have to do is walk until they were out of the wards," Hannah Abbot agreed tearfully, because who else would have done this besides the Death Eaters? Ron pulled Hermione close, putting aside his own sorrow to offer what comfort there was in such a terrible situation.
The Death Eaters had Danny. The Death Eaters had Danny, and there was nothing they could do about it!
The group of prefects walked back into the restaurant, everyone silent as they grappled with the obvious implications. That silence was broken when Parkinson of all people shrieked, "What are you doing!"
Black, who apparently had not followed them, did not look up. Instead, she stayed crouched where she was in the pool of Ginny's blood. "If you know what you're looking at," she finally answered, "a body can tell you a great many things."
"That's my sister, you freak!"
"What are you talking about?" Daye asked, ignoring Ron's outburst but still angry at the obvious disrespect Black was showing.
Black beckoned them closer with a bloodstained hand. "Most Death Eaters murder with the Killing Curse," she said once they were far too close to Ginny for anyone's comfort. "That she bled to death means the one who did this is on a much shorter list. Furthermore, he knew what he was doing. These incisions"—she pointed at the cuts on Ginny's sleeves, almost at her shoulders—"are right over the brachial artery. Same here." Now she pointed to the girl's skirt. "Femoral artery. One cut each, through clothes. That indicates someone who was familiar with killing in this way. She was also cut here." Pulling up Ginny's shirt, they all saw a long cut going across her waist. "You can tell from the lack of pooled blood that this was postmortem. The killer wanted to make sure she was dead before he left, and if she weren't dead by then, this would have done her in.
"Now look at the way she's arranged. If she were just cut, she would have curled up to try to staunch the flow, but she's not. She was held down by a jinx and then cut; if it had been the other way around, there would have been blood smeared on the floor. It also lets us know that she wasn't tortured." Black thought about that for a second. "Well, not physically, anyway. Mentally is a different story entirely."
"How the hell can you tell that?" one of the seventh-years demanded.
"No marks, either on her clothes or on her skin. The Cruciatus could do the same, but it causes its victims to seize violently. With her being held down like this, her muscles would have ripped themselves off her bones or even broken the smaller bones. There's no sign of that."
"How long?" Torquill asked, her face green. "How long would it have taken for her to die?"
Humming thoughtfully, Black tucked a few strands of hair behind her ear. She didn't seem to notice the scarlet smear it left on her face. "With all four major arteries severed? A couple of minutes, probably. Enough to terrify her, but not enough for her to truly suffer. And that's interesting all by itself. The short list of Death Eaters I mentioned? All of them like to play with their victims. That didn't happen here. They were on the clock, but no one heard any screams, so it can't have been because of that. Add in the rest of the corpses, all of whom look to have been dead for longer than her and were killed more carelessly? Only one explanation presents itself."
"Just get to the point," Hermione almost shouted. Her nerves were frayed to the breaking point, and Black was taking far, far too much sick enjoyment out of all this.
The black sheep of the Potters raised one eyebrow. "Very well. The point is we need to find out who knew Weasley and Potter were coming here for lunch, because whoever that is sold them out. This was a trap. That's why the Death Eaters moved quickly; they had been here for a while already, and the longer they stayed, the greater the chances they would be found."
Everyone started muttering amongst themselves at that bold declaration, and soon eyes fell on the Slytherins in the group before just as quickly moving on. Would the Slytherins have reason to tell the Death Eaters where Danny was? Absolutely, but there was no way Ginny would have told any of them about her plans. She hadn't even given Hermione the details.
Daye walked over and conjured a handkerchief for Black to wipe her hands and face clean. "You said there only a few people who would act like this," Hermione could barely hear him say. "Who?"
"According to my cousin, a few of them liked slicing people up, but with this kind of precision? Only one name springs to mind, someone who worked closely with my mother." Black gave him a cold smile. "And someone who's officially dead, though I know differently. Bartemius Crouch, Jr."
Jen sat slightly apart from the remaining prefects, waiting for her turn to be interviewed about what they found watching the magical forensics experts go over the crime scene with a fine-toothed comb. They had not been happy that she had muddied up the evidence with her 'amateur sleuthing', but despite their grumbling she was pretty sure they did not expect to have lost any significant clues. It wouldn't be until the formal autopsy that they noticed anything strange, and that they would blame on the Death Eaters, too.
She forced her hand not to stray towards her pocket and the precious organs she had hidden inside. There was no way she was going to pass up a solution to a major problem, and besides, she doubted Weasley would care at this point.
"Miss Black. You're next."
Hiding her smile, she stood and walked over to the short Auror with mousy brown hair. This witch looked very familiar. Sure enough, the core revealed the truth once she was close enough. "Trying to avoid accusations of favoritism?"
"Pretty much," Dora agreed. Once they were out of sight, she stretched back to her usual shape. A scrunching of her nose turned her hair metallic purple. "Ah, better. Now what's this I'm hearing about you mucking up a crime scene?"
"I didn't muck anything up. I was just taking a look to see what could be found." Dora did not seem convinced, so she asked, "If we weren't sure this was Death Eater activity, would it still be the Aurors investigating this, or the Patrol? I wanted to be sure this wasn't just an overeager admirer. I've found out firsthand how bad they can be."
Hopefully that was enough to settle Dora's doubts. She would be far harder to baffle with bullshit than the prefects had been.
Dora led them to a quiet corner before stopping and throwing a silencing charm around them. The gaze she turned on Jen then was pure Auror. "And you've gotten a lot of experience reading bodies lately, haven't you?"
"I was on a team recently that was investigating four very strange people," the elder Black said, and Jen felt the bottom of her stomach fall out. She had worried that Dora would connect her and Queen, especially after their mid-air fight, but when nothing came of it, she had let herself relax. She may have been too hasty in that decision. "Three were chasing the fourth and trying very hard to kill him. One of them, interestingly enough, could fly without a broom and used wandless magic. She used the same spell the Unspeakables do to hide her face, too, but it didn't disguise her voice."
"She could fly? I'm jealous." Dora shot her a narrowed-eyed glare, and she sighed. "Dora, I'll be the first to admit that I'm incredibly arrogant, but I'm sure I'm not the only witch in the history of ever who's mastered wandless magic. And if you knew it the way I do, you'd know that just because she cast some spell that worked like the Unspeakables' doesn't mean that she had to learn it from them. I'm sure I've recreated any number of spells from first principles."
"That is true," her cousin admitted. Jen smiled, and then Dora struck. Her left hand was yanked up, and Dora pulled her sleeve away to display her wrist. "But that witch got her left arm cut off when she went out of her way to save my life, and once I suspected it was you, I took a closer look at it." Dora's fingers tapped on the lily-tipped line where she always cut herself when working black magic. "Word of advice: you have a very distinctive scar. Two British witches mastering wandless magic I could maybe believe. I could even let it slide that both had reasons not to let an Auror get killed, since you were careful to tell the other guy that you still needed to live here when you were done. But all that and sharing identical scars? Too many coincidences." Shaking her head, her cousin let go of her arm. "You owe me some answers, Jen."
Lies probably were not going to help her here, were they? "Who else knows?"
"No one yet. I wanted to hear it from you before I got the rest of the Corp involved."
Wonderful. The whole country's worth of Aurors on her tail was exactly what she wanted. Stepping backwards, she slumped against the brick wall. "What do you want to know?" she asked with a resigned sigh. Maybe if she gave Dora what she wanted, she could avoid the worst consequences of hunting down the Turk.
Jen's laugh was humorless. She took a moment to collect herself, and with that time she forced her magic into the rune carved onto her tongue. Her mouth came alive with the sweet taste of honey, and her tongue felt oddly heavy as she spoke. Hopefully this was a sign that the silver tongue she stole from Zabini was working.
"The witch and wizard I was working with are bounty hunters. They picked up a contract to hunt down a serial killer, and apparently Priest had worked with Elsie before I met her, so he intended to bring her on board. Of course, Elsie's been dead for the last few years, but I guess she had told him about me, because I got a letter from him explaining the situation and requesting my assistance." Dora was watching her suspiciously, and she added, "Well, maybe 'request' is the wrong word. It was more or less a demand, payment for a debt or something Elsie owed him and that, as her heir, had been passed down to me.
"At first, I didn't have to do much. A little research here, some scrying there. You know, simple stuff. Around November or so, they told me things weren't going quite as planned and they needed a third wand in the field. We only ran into the Turk, the killer they were hunting, a few times, but…." She shrugged and looked down, looking as pitiful as she could manage. "One of those times was that fight you're talking about, yes."
"And the Buckleys?"
How had she known that would come up? "We found some evidence that he was hiding there, so we went to find out. Everything looked abandoned, so we poked around a little and found a secret passage. I think you know what we found at the end." Dora nodded slowly, but at least her expression was softening somewhat. "I covered the other openings with ice to make sure we wouldn't get ambushed, and they examined the bodies for clues. Priest taught me a couple of things while they did that—"
"Which is why you felt confident examining Weasley's body," Dora interrupted. "I get it. Where are they?"
"They went back to the Continent almost two months ago. I don't know where they are now."
"And where's this Turk? They took him with them?"
Jen looked up and gave her a brittle smile. "Their contract was very clear. Dead or alive."
Dora sighed, but she also relaxed slightly. "Why didn't you tell me about this, Jen? If you were in trouble, I could have gotten you out."
"At first," she said, thinking quickly for a believable excuse, "it was…. It was kind of exciting. Very cloak and dagger. It wasn't until January that it got dangerous, and after that?" She pointed back and forth between them. "I wanted to avoid having this conversation."
Her cousin crossed her arms. "It was exciting. Was fighting Voldemort not exciting enough for you?"
"It wasn't the same. We weren't chasing down someone with an army at his beck and call. There were three of us, one of him, and we had him on the run. Like I said, it didn't seem that dangerous at first." Scowling, she continued, "And when you didn't say anything, I was sure you hadn't figured it out."
"I planned to bring it up the next weekend, but surprise surprise, you wound up almost getting yourself killed by your stalker. Interrogating you when you could barely string two words together would have been excessive, and your recovery gave me time to cool down. I decided if that was the only time I could even tentatively link you to that group, I'd let things lie for a while, but then you had to go and pull this Miss Sherlock Holmes shite."
Oh. In hindsight, this lie was almost becoming more trouble than it was worth.
"Jen, for such a smart girl, you are an idiot." Dora bopped her none too gently on the head, and then she pulled Jen into a tight hug. On the upside, clearly her enhancement worked. "I don't want to hear about you doing anything this stupid ever again, do you understand? I don't care if you're almost seventeen, you call us and let us handle it. You don't run off and try to deal with it all by yourself. If I didn't know better, I'd think you were part of Dumbledore's Order with how dumb that was."
"Don't compare me to them," she said, affronted at the comparison even if the irony was vaguely amusing.
"Then don't act like them."
Pulling out of the embrace, Jen looked up and asked the question that had been circling her mind ever since Dora revealed she knew about her illicit activities. "I'm not going to have to spend any time in jail for this, am I?"
"You really should. A week in the Ministry cells for vigilanteism and resisting arrest would make sure you never did this again." Despite Dora's tone, Jen smiled slightly. These were not the words she would expect if Dora was going to go through with that threat. "Don't get too happy," Dora warned her. "Just because I won't tell Scrimgeour doesn't mean I won't tell Sirius and Mum."
She stared at her cousin in confusion. "You…. What?"
"Yep. Since I'm clearly not enough to keep an eye on you, I'll get the rest of the family to help me out." The twinkle in Dora's eyes was savage. "Don't expect to get away with anything this summer, that's all I have to say."
"I'm so sorry."
Albus winced at the torrent of sobs coming from both women, neither of whom was helped much by their husbands' shocked immobility. It was hard to tell who was more upset; was it Molly, who now had lost not only her firstborn but also the daughter who was her youngest and her favorite, or Lily, whose son did not have the peace of death but was still in the Death Eaters' clutches? With the clarity of distance, he knew which child he pitied more.
Young Danny's suffering had only just begun.
As both families were consumed by their grief, he quietly left the room to give them some privacy. Some might have said that giving them the news together was dangerous, as either woman might have believed that the other's child was hurt less than her own, but this was the beauty and the wonder of the Light. No matter what trials came their way, they had friends and loved ones they could turn to in their time of need.
Regretfully pushing that warm thought to the back of his mind, he instead walked into the second library of the Longbottom's estate that the Order had transformed into a war room. Danny's kidnapping had created other problems that needed to be solved as soon as possible. He had refused to reveal the prophecy to the Order, partly to respect James and Lily's privacy regarding their estranged daughter but even more because thinking that Danny was destined to defeat Tom was more powerful than knowing that he was simply the only one who could do so. Unfortunately, that was going to backfire on him now. In their eyes, the Chosen One had just been kidnapped by the Death Eaters and was all but guaranteed to be murdered in some barbaric fashion. Even without knowing the truth, they would know their hope was gone.
If he were still headmaster of Hogwarts, he could have suppressed this information and spun a tale of secreting Danny away for intense training while in truth arranging for a rescue mission, but that power was no longer his, and by tomorrow morning, the whole world would know the truth and despair.
And people wondered why he believed truth to be a great and terrible burden!
There had to be some way of stopping the Order's panic, and only with his own forces bolstered could he try to change the mind of the public. He was sure he could do something, but it would require a great deal of very delicate work, and still it would give him nothing he could use against Tom! It was not as if he had a backup plan for this….
No. No, no, no. No!
Albus trembled with horror as Sibyl's words rang like a gong in his ears.
'…another, knowing only Hate and Cruelty, will Fall into darkness… should the Dark Lord not fall at the One's hands, his reign will be forevermore…'
There was one other. There was one other child who could possibly triumph over Tom. A girl whose soul was stained black and had strayed so far away from her roots that she would rather claim monsters and bigots as her kin. A girl not so different from Tom himself.
If the words of Fate were to be believed, this fight was no longer one where evil would be fought by good. Evil would instead be fought by another kind of evil, and no matter who fell in the end, goodness and decency would quickly join them in the grave. Their way of life would be replaced by one of blood and hatred, and there was nothing he or the Order could do about it.
Falling into a waiting chair, Albus covered his face with his hands. Alastor had brought up this possibility months ago, but he had not listened. He had rejected this alternative as something he could prevent. After all, he had Danny, had plans for how to train the young man to defeat Tom and defend the Light once he left boyhood behind and truly became a man. All those plans were naught but dust now.
"And thus I am doomed to watch the end of the world."
Supporting himself on his staff, Voldemort covered his panting breaths as subtly he could. That… had been exquisitely painful, and was not something he was looking forwards to going through once again. If only it were not necessary for his plans.
"I told you not to try that," the Mongolian wizard said, the mocking clear even through the distortion of the translation charm. "Crawl. Walk. Run. In that order."
"I don't have time for that nonsense," Voldemort bit back. "Not unless you have changed your mind about the girl."
"The only Power who doesn't tell his followers what they are is yours. If this girl you hate so much really is a necromancer, the Gatekeeper would have told her long ago." The other wizard took a gulp from his mug. "And if you need proof, look at what she did to you. She bound your soul together so you couldn't use your magic, taking away your greatest weapon and the one you didn't even know you had. She couldn't do that by accident. No, she knew what she was doing."
"And that is why I hurry. If what you say about her magic is true, she cannot perform any rituals for the next few months. She is at her weakest now. She is too dangerous to be left alive."
Nergui shook his head but said nothing. They had already had many arguments about this over the two months in which Voldemort had 'apprenticed' under him, and neither of them was going to budge on their positions. Nergui had harped on the importance of putting aside his grudge and focusing on fighting these white wizards, but this was also a man who wasted his time and power sitting in a tent in the middle of a frozen desert.
No, Voldemort had far better things to do than chase after some old man's nightmares.
The pain receding, he walked out of the tent and cast a spell to keep the cold winds off of him. He had a nation to conquer, after all, and he could not do that from here. Nor could he do it alone, and even with the Death Eaters and the dark creatures that had joined his cause, that was still too few for the decisive victory he desired. He needed an army, one that did not question him, that followed orders, that did not feel fear or pain, and that would not stop. The wind slowed, the swirling frost revealing the hundreds of fighters he had laboriously created.
Yes, these would do beautifully.
Silently Watches out.