Yes, it is finally here, people. The last chapter of Ghosts of the Past, 6 years and a couple of months after I started it. Which would perhaps be more impactful if I hadn't technically had to split it into The Phoenix and the Serpent. Ah well. And this makes it more than 10 years since I first opened up the Word document for this series. A Word document that has survived multiple computers, my last year of school, a gap year, two degrees, and contains the entire main series (i.e. not spinoffs and not the stuff I'm planning post Thanos) and is now so large it threatens to crash every time I save it. Take note, people – Microsoft Word was never meant to have documents with more than 2 million words in it.
I'd like to thank all of you who have been with me on this rollercoaster ride, most especially those who have been with me since the beginning. I have no idea how you do it. It's been one hell of a journey so far, and I don't propose to stop any time soon. Still. Thank you. You've made it that much easier.
And I know that you're all very kind about how long it sometimes takes me to put out a chapter, but I've been a touch busy recently. There were the holidays in France, of course (at one point I actually walked right past the villa we rented where I first started this story, big nostalgia moment), the last few days of which were meant to be some relaxed writing. It ended up with me helping my parents play host, cool uncle/big brother to some young first cousins once removed as their car had broken down near us. It was fun, but also kind of exhausting. Then, got back, restarted my job, my 28th birthday comes up.
My birthday is on the 8th of September.
The same day that the Queen died.
You could say that I have decidedly mixed feelings about that particular birthday, my sister's company, delicious birthday cake, and Rings of Power (which is better than I feared it would be, Morfydd Clark is killing it as Galadriel) aside.
So, yeah, been busy, plus marching steadily through this chapter, and chopping together a little mini-snippet teaser chapter for The Phoenix and the Serpent for people to jump straight onto.
Now, this chapter… really, it's a round up, tying up a fair few loose ends, and starting anew. It's all about confronting the Ghosts of the Past, and yes, I am far too pleased about that.
So, without further ado, for the final time, I welcome you to this latest chapter of Ghosts of the Past. I hope you enjoy it.
Hank Jones: Sure, Harry wins the 'whose life has sucked more' game pretty much every time (unless it's against Maddie or Magneto). But that doesn't negate what Hermione has been through, or her right to her feelings. She is 15, and she's just been both thoroughly traumatised and had her world turned upside down.
She is not who she thought she was, she is not even technically what she thought she was. Everyone around her, with one or two exceptions, has lied to her, and you could make a very good argument that the rational reasons to do so expired over a year ago, at the latest. Meanwhile, her best friend has changed rapidly into someone she genuinely fears – and not entirely without reason. It's not rational, but fear, and all these other deep emotions (the sort which Hermione is not historically good at dealing with) aren't rational at all.
As for Ron, his father's neck was snapped six months ago, and the changes in Harry have affected him all the more.
This is why I don't like bashing: life is more complicated than that. People are more complicated than that.
Random Norwegian: Nope. There is some fan-art of this fic, but not of an armoured Harry, on DeviantArt, courtesy of the magnificently talented Helena-Markos! Plus a couple of other very kind people. If you want to commission some, by all means. Thank you kindly. That would be epic, most certainly. However, I, as ever, have my own plans. And I'm not going to just repeat the God-Butcher run's admittedly remarkable finale (much less the War of the Realms finale, which concluded much the same way).
Whatever Michael's worries had been either about or for Wanda, she seemed sharp and attentive. As soon as they'd got into his van, Thomas with them at Wanda's request, the vampire had paused, eyeing Michael's expression, poised to give both of them a graceful way out.
"Harry trusts you, and in the past, so have I," Michael had said evenly, before raising an eyebrow. "So far, you have failed to prove us wrong. Are you planning to change that?"
The unusual vampire had stared at him, before shaking his head ruefully and hopping up beside Wanda. "Okay, though I'm not sure what use I'll be, unless it's charming witnesses," he said lightly, tone belying his gratitude.
Wanda looked up at Michael, already buckled in and as they pulled out, she said quietly, "Thomas."
The vampire frowned at her, bemused, then saw the tension around Michael. He exhaled. "I'll do whatever I can," he said, a hint of apology in his voice. "I'm just not sure what I can offer other than making someone talk or carving something up."
"You have advantages neither of us does, Master Raith," Michael said evenly, sliding his gaze over to the other man. With any other vampire, or, indeed, this one until not so long ago, he wouldn't have hesitated to spell it out. Now, however, he would rather not.
Thomas met his gaze, before smiling. There was no mirth in it. "Ah," he said, brittle and bitter. "You mean my experience as a vampire, tracking young, frightened prey. Yes, I can see how that would come in handy."
Michael's grip tightened on the steering wheel. That was exactly what he'd meant. That did not mean he liked hearing it put so bluntly.
"There isn't much difference between wolves and guard dogs," Wanda said, cutting through the tension in the cab. She looked up at them both, sternness in her gaze. "We cannot help what gifts we are given, or what demons we are cursed with." Her tone turned wry. "Some more literal than others." She sobered and looked at them both. "We can only decide how we manage them, and what we do with them."
Michael exchanged a glance with Thomas, who sighed and nodded. "Sorry," he muttered.
"As am I," Michael said. At the surprised look he got, he smiled wryly. "I thought I was doing you a kindness by being indirect."
If anything, Thomas' surprise intensified. Then, he huffed a laugh. "Thanks," he said. "But I know what I am."
"Is that the same as who you are?" Michael asked.
Once again, Thomas looked surprised, then pensive, and didn't answer. Wanda, meanwhile, smiled for the first time. For a moment, there was silence, then she turned to Michael, her expression serious.
"All right," she said. "I have questions."
She did. She had very many, as it happened, some more obscure than others. A few were the sort that Michael had heard Harry ask before, and he had answers ready and waiting, and others were similar, so easy to answer. Others were more difficult.
"What is Molly's relationship like with you, and the rest of her family?"
Michael winced. What seemed like only a year or two ago, that would have been relatively easy to answer. Molly had been a responsible and respectful daughter, if an occasionally somewhat irreverent one, who was a good big sister to her younger siblings, all of whom she adored. In the last year or so, that had changed.
As Molly had settled into her mid-teens, she had increasingly clashed with her mother. This was regrettably not surprising – Charity had a strong personality and a will of iron, while Molly was cut from precisely the same cloth. That would always make the teenage years a bit trying, but Charity was also rather protective. Indeed, privately, Michael would admit that she was somewhat overprotective.
Given what they knew about what the world was really like, the terrors that went far beyond things other parents had to fear, as well as the potential risks attached to his family because of his calling, it was understandable. The events of the last few years had only exaggerated it, dramatically.
Understandable as it was, Michael thought that Charity took it too far. Molly, after all, was a young woman now – still legally a child, but only for another year or two. She had a right to make decisions about her own life, for better or for worse, and smothering her would only incur more and more of her resentment. She would inevitably act out and lash out under pressure. She had already, if he was being honest. Just as inevitably, Charity had pushed harder, trying to restrict the people Molly could associate with. The results had been tempestuous to say the least.
Since he was honest, and his experience with Harry had taught him that a detective needed as much information as they could get, especially in missing persons cases, he relayed this to Wanda.
He was not expecting her react as she did: the blood drained from her face and she went rigid, staring into the middle distance, before letting out a hollow laugh. Thomas, meanwhile, had spent Michael's entire explanation wincing.
"Someone up there," she said. "Is either trying to tell me something, or has a very twisted sense of humour."
"Or both," Thomas murmured.
"Or both," Wanda echoed with a sigh. "I'm sorry, Michael, right now I'm just seeing… well, I'm seeing a lot of parallels. A fair few differences, but enough parallels. More than enough."
Concerned, Michael shot a glance across at Thomas, who grimaced, but said nothing. "I see," he said. He glanced at Wanda. "Would you like to talk about it?"
Wanda blinked, then laughed, this time warm and gentle. "After all this time, I should stop being surprised by heroes," she said. "And yet, I always am, in the best of ways. But now isn't –"
"You should," Thomas said abruptly. He was looking out the window, carefully not turning to meet their gazes, but he seemed to register them all the same. "Harry says he gives good advice," he said, by way of partial and unhelpful explanation, before pausing. "He'd have better advice, for you, than I would."
Michael noted the emphasis and added it to the suspicions that had germinated in the doorway of Harry's apartment, and started growing when he'd noticed Wanda's reaction to Molly and Charity's travails.
"Maybe not now," Thomas went on. "But later."
Wanda frowned at him, but a frown of thoughtfulness and discomfort rather than annoyance.
The silence that followed remained until they pulled up outside the Carpenter residence, and the door practically flew open, Charity bursting out. Her eyes, red with weeping, had widened with hope, hope that he had found their daughter and was bringing her home. Now, on seeing that he had done nothing of the kind, her shoulders slumped. On seeing his company, they rose again, and her eyes sharpened.
"Michael," she said, imbuing one word with a score of questions, with many more to follow.
"I went looking for Harry," her husband explained. "He has been called away, however. Lady Maximoff and Master Raith offered to assist."
"I'm not the natural at thaumaturgy that Harry is, but this is far from my first time tracking a lost child, Lady Carpenter," Wanda said, radiating politeness and reassurance. "I will do everything in my power to help."
Whatever had been bothering her, Michael thought, had clearly been buried for the time being.
Charity hesitated for a long moment, and Michael steeled himself. Much as he loved his wife, he knew very well that she was not particularly fond of magic. Part of that was the fact that the Church was not always the most flexible on the subject (and he had to admit that some aspects of magic that Harry practised left him a little uncomfortable), and part of that was her dislike for Harry and her perception that he tended to get him, her husband, into trouble.
Most of all, though, it was probably the fact that her first exposure to magic had been when a dark sorcerer had attempted to sacrifice her to a dragon. That, he had to admit, would leave even the most forgiving soul with a sour aftertaste.
As it was, though, she took it surprisingly well.
"I see," she said carefully. "Thank you, Lady Maximoff."
She would have spoken again, but before her gaze even flicked to Thomas, the vampire spoke. He'd already been standing back, carefully in both their shadow, remaining in their peripheral vision – a gesture of relaxed and non-threatening submission designed to set them all at ease.
"I've got no magical talent whatsoever, but I've helped on a few cases," he said, and leaned against the van. "Mostly as muscle, so I'm pretty useless for this part." He glanced at Michael and Wanda. "I'll keep the engine running."
Michael opened his mouth to disagree and at least offer him the opportunity of an invitation under guest's rights – the man had earned that much – when Wanda nodded. "Once I've got what we need, we'll probably need to move fast," she said. "Every second could be vital."
Michael shot a glance between the two of them, Wanda's speaking calm and Thomas' impenetrably pleasant and mild expression, then sighed slightly and tossed the latter the keys, which were deftly snatched out of the air.
"Be welcome in our home, Wanda Maximoff," he said, as he led the way over the threshold. Charity's expression tightened, and he did his best to ignore it.
"Thank you, Sir Michael," she said gracefully. "I promise to abide by all the codes of conduct required and expected of a guest."
She paused suddenly, this form complete, and frowned. She murmured something liquid, and coppery light sparkled in the air. She blinked.
"Wanda?" Michael asked, with a mixture of hope and trepidation. He hadn't expected her to pick up something this quickly. Even Harry, as gifted as he was, usually required some time to get a feel for the energies that had been wielded in a place, or, indeed, to set up one of his tracking spells. The only exceptions were when something very, very serious had happened. Given that the house was intact, he didn't think it was the latter. Then again… not all disturbances had physical effects. And for all Harry's abilities, Michael knew that his magical education had been somewhat disjointed, to put it mildly. Wanda, by contrast, had learned from not just a master, but the master.
"Nothing," she said. "Well. Something. More than I expected, really. Enough to solidify a hypothesis." She sighed. "One that reminds me of just how unsubtle divine guidance can be." She turned to Charity. "Could you please show me to Molly's room? There should be something to work with there."
"Of course," Charity managed. "This way."
Michael frowned, and followed the two women upstairs. Charity was nervous, though doing her best to hide it, as stiff-backed as a prisoner going to her execution. Wanda, meanwhile, was, so far as he could tell, pensive. This was not simply Charity's distaste for magic at work, there was something more, something that both women either knew or suspected.
For now, he held his peace, as Charity opened the door and gestured Wanda inside. The other woman looked around with a practised eye, then descended on one of Molly's hair brushes. A pale golden hair was obtained, and surrounded by a silvery glow. Images flickered around it like old film run too fast, before Wanda nodded her satisfaction.
"Molly is your eldest, right?" she asked.
"She is," Charity said.
Wanda's gaze paused on her for just a moment too long, before nodding again. A beaded wire with a small glass bauble at the end was pulled out of thin air, and the hair was inserted into the latter as Wanda swept a quick circle and murmured a few more liquid words. Satisfied, she stood up, letting the bauble snap out at the end of its beaded string.
"She's alive," Wanda said, scrutinising the spell. "Alive and well, physically, at least. Emotionally is quite a different story." At Michael's surprise, she smiled briefly as she clipped the wire to her belt. "I don't have Harry's particular talent for this sort of thing, but I've been doing it for longer, and there's a lot to sympathetic magic that he has yet to learn." The smile turned wry. "Say what you like about Stephen Strange, the man knows how to teach."
"Thank you," he breathed, a great weight of fear and uncertainty vanishing from his heart. It was still there, but distant now – hovering in anticipation of something going horribly wrong, but like the Sword of Damocles, the execution was stayed.
Charity, meanwhile, forewent words for almost collapsing against the doorframe, face haggard with both exhaustion and relief.
"You're both very welcome," Wanda said, with possibly her most genuine smile so far. But there was something in her grass green eyes, eyes that were drawn back to Charity as with a swift flick, her round golden belt buckle slipped off the belt and up to her forehead, where it settled. A mere instant later, the dome of the buckle opened like an eye, shining with an intense but bearable white glow. The light enveloped the room, revealing glimpses of movement – Molly, cast in silvery image, first as a child, then as a gawky pre-teen, now as the young woman she was, darting in and out of the light, passing through each of them like a ghost. They were echoes, he realised, echoes left behind.
But was the mere side-effect. Because the light was focused on Charity, revealing everything and nothing: a burning silver-white light, vital lines of gold and green, shapes and forms, everything from an infant to a girl to an old woman, all these and far more, blurring and weaving in and out amongst each other.
Then, less than fifteen seconds after it had opened, the buckle's dome snapped shut, dropping from Wanda's forehead into the palm of her hand. She closed her hand and it vanished, reappearing on her belt – golden and innocuous once more.
"I thought so," she said calmly.
"What did you just do?" Charity snapped, shaken.
"Something I would normally have asked, or at least explained, first," Wanda said. "Given the circumstances, we don't have time. It would involve cutting through a lot of denial." Her expression shadowed, saddening, and suddenly she no longer seemed like the crisp, professional, and wise woman of mystery, but once more like the haunted figure who'd opened the door barely half an hour earlier. "The kind that I have very personal experience with. Divinity is indeed being unsubtle today."
"Wanda," Michael said firmly. He severely doubted any harm had been done, but at the very least, it was not good manners – and it both portended something ominous and required explanation. "What did you do?"
"I confirmed a theory," Wanda said. "Using the Eye of Agamotto." She tapped the buckle. "It's essentially the Sorcerer Supreme's personal source of the Sight. Every wandless practitioner has it, of course, but this amulet streamlines it and manages it: unlike using your own Sight, it doesn't burn whatever you see into your memory forever, and it provides detailed and intuitive knowledge of what you're seeing. It can also share those insights. And that is just scratching the surface of what it can do. All in all, a very useful, and very powerful, tool of analysis." She looked at the now milk-white Charity with a mixed combination of frustration, pity, and compassion. "One that you can't hide from. No matter how much you might want to."
Michael raised an eyebrow. "And why did you see fit to use it?"
"Because, Michael," Wanda said. "Your daughter has magic, powerful magic." She gestured around them. "And unless I am very much mistaken, by what I'm picking up, so do most – if not all – of the rest of your children."
Michael blinked. Then, he blinked again. "I see," he said, as level as he could manage, then frowned. "Isn't magic usually…" He trailed off, as his thoughts reached the logical conclusion.
"Inherited?" Wanda said softly. "Not always. The genetics are… complicated. Sometimes, it just pops up, for any number of reasons. After the Battle of New Orleans, it's been doing so much more often. Even without such stimulus, though, it can just… happen. My best friend was a witch, and there wasn't a drop of magic in her family. A surprising number of psychics, yes, but no magic. Not until her. But once it's there, yes, it is usually inherited." Her gaze slid to Charity. "And when it is, most often, it runs in the female line."
Michael turned to Charity. Who flinched. His heart broke.
"Oh. Oh, angel," he said quietly.
"I buried it," she whispered through silent tears. "I buried it as far as it would go, ignored it, starved it, and let it die." She swallowed, a despairing note entering her voice. "And then it came back. And Molly –" She stopped abruptly. "This is all my fault."
Michael took her hands gently. "It is not your fault," he said. "Whatever has happened, we will work through it together." He looked her in the eye. "Angel, why did you feel the need to hide this from me?"
"I," Charity began, then looked away in self-loathing.
"Oh," Wanda said quietly. "Of course. I think I know this story."
Michael looked up, full of questions, and met a gaze full of sadness and compassion, one that shifted back to Charity.
"You were young," Wanda said. "You began to develop powers, powers that you couldn't understand, let alone control. You were estranged from your family; run away, thrown out, sent away… one or the other, it doesn't matter. You were alone. There was no one to guide you. No one to support you. No one who understood. And then, you fell in with people who did. People who knew what you were, people just like you, people who took pride in it. They made you feel like you belonged. You explored your powers together, without teaching or guidance. You touched darkness."
"You do know this story," Charity said, quiet and bitter.
"It's common enough," Wanda said gently. "I've seen it plenty of times. I've even lived parts of it. You were lucky to have survived it." She smiled fleetingly. "Though in my experience, where Knights of the Cross are involved, luck has little to do with it."
She met Charity's blue eyes with kindness and understanding.
"You were lucky, and more importantly, you were strong. One way or another, you pulled away. But our legacies, our secrets and our lies… they have a way of catching up to us, no matter how hard we try to outrun them. Believe me, I know. Your daughter's demonstrated that." She hesitated, looked at Michael, and swallowed. "Just like mine, in fact."
There was a stunned pause. For Michael's part, he could only think one thing.
Well. That explains a lot.
The wizard – or, perhaps more accurately, the entity – known as Voldemort was pleased. Very pleased, in fact.
It was true that his carefully arranged distraction had proven entirely unnecessary, but the time taken in setting it up had not been wasted. Not only was tormenting Harry an end in itself (and distinctly amusing), it had also provided further data in terms of his capabilities. While he hadn't had the chance to observe it himself, enough raw power had been expended to leave easily read traces scorched into the bedrock. It had also given him some more, very interesting information.
"When is a mudblood not a mudblood?" he murmured to himself, before smiling and providing his own answer. "When she is something else entirely…"
He had not thought that Wanda Maximoff had had any children of her own. It would seem that he had been wrong. Most intriguing. And the sheer power… he could use that. Yes, he could certainly use that.
As for the rest, it was much as expected: the boy's power was growing rapidly, if less exponentially than it had from this time last year. By Voldemort's estimation, he had made up most of the ground in his development, and now, his growth was something closer to the expected norm.
This was not just his own assessment, of course. He had done plenty of research, of course, but so had others. While he had not been fortunate enough to stumble across one of the copies of the thing that called itself Essex, he had had the good fortune to find one of its servitors before Loki had.
He'd been interested by what he'd found – one mind with many bodies, like a horcrux, but both more and less. And that mind was, he had to admit, very meticulous in its studies. True, it primarily used muggle equipment in its research, recording information in muggle jargon, but the servitor's mind (what was left of it) had been very helpful in decoding both.
Unfortunately, it had not explained just how the boy had gone from compliant tool of the Red Room to rampaging force of nature that ripped open a mountain sized hole into another reality and obliterated a lake the size of a small country, along with an army of golems made of his flesh and blood and of those even stronger than him, like they were nothing. Nor had it explained how he had been stabbed through the heart, got up, and proceeded to incinerate all in his way, or, indeed, how he had repeatedly survived Voldemort's own attempts to kill him.
He had looked in the boy's mind, when he'd connected, insofar as he was able, and he had looked in the minds of his friends, both at the World Cup and more recently. But whenever he did, there was a very suspicious blur over the precise details. Whatever that protection was, it was sophisticated. Sophisticated enough that it was almost alive. Sophisticated enough, in fact, that it was hiding something.
He bared his teeth in frustration. Oh, he had rumours aplenty to call upon. Whispered hints, fragments of information, stories of an ancient Power that had made its home in the body of a little boy god. And it was a Power, oh yes.
Once, he'd thought that Lily Potter had woven some kind of magic, a spell of vast potency powered by her life itself. It would make a certain degree of sense. The strongest magic was fuelled by death, and bloodline curses were not unknown. In fact, they were often some of the most dangerous and beguiling magic he had ever encountered. Usually not worth the trouble, of course, given the time it took to really take hold, but still – when he was assured of his immortality, when he had nothing but time, he had some interesting experiments to run.
Still, for someone as foolishly brave and admittedly talented as her, such a thing was not beyond possibility. It would fit with Dumbledore's decision to hide him with the muggle relatives, too. True, even he had only heard rumours of the kind of protective sacrifice that she had supposedly used. But she been surrounded by Albus Dumbledore, Wanda Maximoff, and Stephen Strange himself. All would know of strange and mysterious magics, the sort that, with the right fuel, could forestall the Killing Curse itself.
Yet all the evidence indicated that it was nothing so simple. Or, at least, not simply that simple. Magic had been involved, but whatever this was, it was older than magic itself. Now that was a thought to get the heart racing. Or it would, if Voldemort had actually had one.
He still had much to research, he knew that. Much of what he had recovered from the Department of Mysteries promised to be very helpful in that regard. Copies of the full prophecy about him and the boy, for instance, and even a copy he'd made about the second prophecy made about the boy, this summer past. It had necessitated breaking the second prophecy, but that had been no great hardship, especially since the events of that particular night had acted as perfect cover for a little demolition in the name of disguise.
The Department of Mysteries itself had been fascinating. A little difficult to navigate, mind you, even from his servant's detailed instructions and what he'd managed to pull out of Croaker's mind to corroborate them. The latter had been problematic, as the Unspeakables seemed to be well ahead of the curve of most of the Ministry, and that included mental defences. For one thing, they seemed entirely willing to destroy their own minds to prevent an invader gaining information, and hopefully taking them down too.
As an individual tactic, it was foolish – dying was bad enough, but dying for someone else? Subservience at its most pathetic. As a strategy, though, it was masterful – they'd nearly got him, at the cost of only one Unspeakable. If he ever reconstituted the Death Eaters, or bothered to reclaim the few that were left, he'd apply similar methods. Really, it reminded him of a more subtle variation of the Zataras' Death Curses.
Limited information be damned, he'd found enough. True, it was a bit distasteful that the Time Room had been mysteriously devoid of Time Turners (and a small part of him, the small part that whispered of a threat, a threat that saw through masks and told no lies, was discomforted as it whispered of who might be responsible).
It was also true that a few of the other rooms were a bit esoteric, too much so to be useful. Interesting enough for study, yes, if he had had more time, but limited. And then there was that Arch, marked out only by the stone steps it stood at the top of and the rippling, transparent Veil in the midst of it. He didn't know what it was, but something about it made him very, very uneasy.
Yet, at the same time, he had long known that the Department of Mysteries was where the Ministry put things that it did not quite comprehend, both those that it wanted to control, and those that it most certainly did not want to deal with. He had expected much and he had not been disappointed.
He held up the rolled up map that he had been considering, and examined it. That map alone, with its annotations from a long buried report, written in the throes of near madness by a cracked mind, would have been worth the trip alone.
Of course, it wasn't alone.
He ran his finger around the rim of a great bowl, the largest thing he had stolen, tracing its intricate designs, savouring its latent power, and smiled. No, it most certainly was not.
His servant had been thorough in his inventory, it would seem.
He turned away, turning his attention to two of the other artefacts. Dusty and long forgotten, they were proof of the sheer cowardice of the Ministry, to have such power at their fingertips and rather than use it, or even try to understand it, they had buried it.
"Do you think that they even knew what they had, Bartemius?" he asked, as he levitated the bronze-green and silver-inscribed disc, turning it over and over with a leisurely flick of his wand. As he did, though, he kept an eye on the other artefact that he had retrieved. That one was never leaving his sight. At least… not yet. Not until the right moment.
"No, my lord," the younger Crouch murmured. "Even if they knew the names of what you have taken, they never understood them." His expression, normally smooth and calm, took on a disdainful twist. "Like far too many, they dimly perceived power, power that they buried, hoarding it like misers and containing it like cowards. They confuse possession with true mastery, and they deserve neither."
Voldemort chuckled. "Well put," he said. "Tell me, Bartemius – how do you define the true mastery of power?"
Crouch considered this carefully. With practically any other Death Eater, past or present, it would have been a matter of thinking about which response would please their Lord. Even this one would have once been the same. Now, though… the years had taught him patience. Patience enough to mull over an answer on its own merits.
When he looked up, there was an edge of fanaticism in his eyes, a gleam dancing like candle flames.
"True mastery, my lord, is about control," he said. "Absolute control."
"Intriguing," Voldemort remarked. "Go on."
"Without control, any power you have is subject to others," Crouch said plainly. "The likes of Albus Dumbledore fear their power, so they delegate its control to laws written by the unworthy, and to so-called 'ethics', which constrain them even further. They confine themselves and think themselves righteous, when they are nothing more than cowards. The likes of Thor Odinson lack control because their power is subject to the judgement of another, as he is constrained by the enchantment on his hammer. And the likes of Harry Thorson, and many other so-called heroes, have their power subject to others through inexperience and naivety, that allows others to control them as easily as if they had direct access to their power. Control of your power must belong to you, and none other."
Voldemort let this speech roll over him, and smiled. "I quite agree," he said. Then, a pair of gleaming red eyes slid over to Crouch's brown ones, penetrating and mesmerising. "Your speech is a very pretty one, Bartemius, and quite sincere," the Dark Lord said, as soft and dry as a serpent's scales. "Which leads me to wonder why, if you believe this, you serve me so loyally?"
The other man did not flinch. He had, after all, seen worse.
"I serve you, my Lord, because I believe in you," he said. "I believe in you about power." That fanaticism grew, burning like an inferno. "I believe that you, my Lord, can tear down this rotting world so that something better can be built from the ashes. I believe that you, Lord Voldemort, can claim true mastery."
Voldemort delved into his mind, seeing it open before him willing and unflinching, like a flower.
He saw the truth of Bartemius Crouch the younger.
And he thought it good.
The search was, perhaps, the most straightforward part of the whole day, Michael thought. One of the less straightforward parts was the revelation that his wife had magical powers, powers that had been buried to the point of withering away before being reawakened with a vengeance by the side-effects of the Battle of New Orleans.
This reawakening had apparently been part of a scheme by the power behind the Battle, none other than the Nimue of legend. The details were a bit more complex and involved than that, but her intention had seemingly been to awaken magical potential in all who had it, as a way of gaining the numbers – and power – to achieve dominance and avoid persecution.
Of course, according to Wanda, this concern for her fellow mages had only extended so far as was convenient for her and as far as those with magic were willing to obey her purposes. Which, unsurprisingly, most of them had not.
In any case, Charity's potential had also been inherited, leading to their current predicament and the search for Molly.
It also, it seemed, had left Wanda in a predicament of her own. He and Charity were not the only one with a daughter in distress. Wanda had divulged the story in fits and starts, stopping every now and then to nominally check and double-check the direction they were going in. It was not a comfortable one. When it reached the point where Wanda admitted that she had continued to hide the truth from her daughter, hide their connection, hide their powers and the legacy that was attached, Charity had shifted from a mixture of instinctive censure to a hunch of discomforted sympathy.
It must, Michael supposed, seem very much like looking in a mirror and seeing one's mistakes reflected back at you. Wanda certainly seemed to think so, eyes damp, voice steady, but ringing with self-censure, bitterness, and regret.
Thomas, meanwhile, stayed quiet and unobtrusive, as discreet as a leopard in the bush. Instead, he seemed to be discreetly sweeping the streets for threats, gaze apparently unfocused but alert. It was an attitude, Michael realised abruptly, that he must have developed in Harry's company, allowing the other man to focus on his magic without concern for his own safety. He also had absolutely no doubt that Thomas was hearing everything that was said. If he had had any suspicions otherwise, they were extinguished when, at the mention of legacy, something flickered across Thomas' face, indescribable and indistinguishable, gone in an instant, but there nevertheless.
"Lady Maximoff," Charity said, then swallowed, and corrected herself. "Wanda." The other woman had insisted on that. Not in some chummy tone to say 'we're all friends here', but in a sombre sort of way that said 'here, and now, there is no difference between us'. That much, Michael could not argue with. "My magic, our magic…" She grimaced, as if having difficulty even forming the words. "It was forced out by this spell."
"And it will stay out," Wanda said, apparently reading Charity's train of thought. "Nimue's spells set this in motion, but all they did was push the rock down the hill, to jolt the heart into beating – it has a momentum of its own now."
She looked at Charity.
"Normally, if you leave magic, it will fade away," she said. "This is not normally. What Nimue did… the world is humming with magic now, more than it has been in eons. She flooded the world, this world and others, from Earth to well past Mars, with the oldest and wildest of magics, the primal stuff that's truly alive. It is imbued into every single person in this world, one way or another, and it's crackling in the air like static. Like static, it's earthing itself on those most receptive to it – those with magic."
Charity set her jaw. "I set it aside before, I can do it again," she said. "As can Molly. As can all of our children. It –"
"It what?" Wanda asked, sudden and sharp.
Charity whirled on her, eyes ablaze. "It ruins everything and everyone it touches!" she shouted, near hysterical with anger and fear. "It nearly destroyed my life! It has nearly got my husband killed, time and time again, and your lover with him! Ask Harry Dresden to think about what magic has done to his life, and the true answer, the honest answer, will be that it has brought him misery and suffering! Magic has even almost ended the world! Why would I want, why would I want my children, to have anything to do with that?"
"Because it has saved it," Wanda replied, steely and cool. "Magic has saved them all; the world, your husband's life, Harry's life, and, yes, your own. What has it brought them? Nothing that their own choices did not bring. Magic might have a will and a whim, it may be powerful and strange, but it is a force that is directed by our choices. What power do you think your God wields, Charity Carpenter? What wellspring do you think that the power of faith springs from? Every pantheon, every divinity, every one of the powers cosmic has to do business with magic."
There was a very unpleasant, uncomfortable silence, as two women who seemed carved of marble and riddled with stress fractures, stared each other down.
"Magic is a power of its own," Wanda said eventually. "What matters – all that matters – is how you use it. You have magic, Charity Carpenter. It is a part of you, and it always has been, in your blood and in your bone. You set it aside once, put it down and walked away, and given the darkness you must have been exposed to, the trained support that you lacked, that may well have been the only thing you could do. But it is back now. You are older, and I would hope that you are wiser. Wise enough to recognise that this time, it is not going away. You…"
She trailed off, then chuffed a soft laugh. "Unsubtle indeed," she murmured. "But, perhaps, necessary."
"You can't bury the past," she said, in tones of dawning realisation and acceptance, her voice softening. "You can't run from it. And you can't hide from it. In the end, you must face it. If you do not… then one way or another, the ghosts of it will always come back to haunt you. Just as they are haunting you now. Just as they are haunting me."
The storm of tension ebbed away, fading into uneasy clouds.
"Magic, my magic, never brought me anything but sorrow," Charity said. This time, though, it was quieter, not strident insistence, but sadness, nerves, and uncertainty.
"Then maybe it's time to change that," Wanda replied gently. "You don't need to use it much, Charity, if it makes you so uncomfortable. Understand it, yes, master it, definitely, and ultimately, accept that it is there. That is the only way in which you will find both safety and peace. But beyond that? It is your power, your life, your gift. What you choose to do with it, or not, is your business."
Charity nodded, and said nothing, but when Michael slipped an arm around her shoulder, she leaned into his side. Wanda, meanwhile, turned back to following the pendant. Where it led them was somewhere that was both unexpected, and completely unsurprising.
In retrospect, Michael thought, St Mary's was where he should have looked first.
"Well," Thomas remarked mildly. "There are worse places to go."
"I would quite agree," Michael said, both intensely relieved and very confused. "But… I spoke to Father Forthill. He would have called us if Molly had made her way here."
Thomas looked over at him. "Even if she didn't want to be found?" he asked.
Charity whirled on him, blue eyes ablaze, but the vampire wasn't fazed.
"She's just come into what sound like some pretty serious magical powers," he said bluntly. "Your faith hasn't always been the most magic-tolerant." His gaze rested pointedly on Charity. "Some members of it more than others."
"Molly is our daughter," Michael said, a calming hand on Charity's shoulder, both to support her and pre-emptively prevent her from launching herself at Thomas, and a hard look for the man in question. "And we love her, and accept her, no matter what."
"I'm sure you do," Thomas replied. "But does she know that? She's, what, fifteen? Sixteen? That's the perfect age to be second-guessing yourself." He looked away, up at the Church, a bitter look on his face. "And take it from me, getting unexpected superpowers at that age, finding out that you're not what you thought you were and neither is the rest of your family… that's never easy." He looked away from the Church, bitterness mingling with self-contempt and remembered pain. "Even when everyone around you, especially your family, is telling you how this is normal, how this is right, how this is the way things are meant to be, how everyone else is just –"
He stopped abruptly, then exhaled sharply. "Looks like the trail ends in there," he said. "I'll wait."
Michael stared at him for a long moment. "Charity, Wanda, I'll be with you in a minute," he said. Charity sent him a questioning look, then directed a suspicious one at Thomas, before looking back at him, a silent question in her eyes. "It will not be a minute wasted," he replied, answering that silent question.
Wanda, meanwhile, was looking at Thomas with undisguised sadness, but no great surprise. She had known what Michael had just inferred, what Thomas had almost all but stated. As it was, she shot him a grateful look, then turned to Charity, the two heading into the Church. Michael, meanwhile, waited.
He did not have to wait long.
"You know, you don't need to stay out here with me."
"I don't," Michael agreed. "But I choose to." He looked at Thomas. "I had heard that White Court vampires were born as humans are. I did not know that they were human until their… abilities manifested."
Thomas did not meet his gaze.
Michael weighed up his next words carefully, then remembered how Thomas had responded to his attempts to dance around the subject.
"You could not control them, the first time," he said.
"None of us can," Thomas said flatly.
There was a long silence as Michael imagined what that must have been like. The images were fit for nightmares.
"You were never told," Michael said quietly. "Were you? About what you are. Until it happened."
"My father's policy," Thomas said curtly. "Probably because it's possible to kill the demon on manifestation."
Michael's eyes widened in surprise, no, shock. "God's blood," he breathed. "How?"
"Love," Thomas said simply. "If our first time is with someone we truly love…"
"… then the demon is poisoned, burnt out before it can take hold," Michael concluded.
Thomas nodded. "It was a theory," he said lightly, as if it was just a piece of casual speculation. Michael was not fooled. He knew that this must have been the result of a lot of very careful thinking and research. And, he thought with a great deal of pity, he had a pretty good idea why.
"You proved it," he said.
Thomas nodded. "I did."
This was also said lightly, but this time, there was a faint caress of both sincere happiness and wistful longing. Michael could only imagine – living a life where touching even a token of love burned like flames or acid was one he'd consider near unbearable.
"Information like that," Michael said slowly. "It could mean the end of the White Court."
Thomas smiled. This smile was all teeth, and it made Michael wonder just how he could ever have underestimated this man. "Yes. It could, couldn't it?" he murmured. "In theory, it's an existential threat. That's part of why we're kept ignorant."
He rolled his shoulder in a shrug.
"Father would never put it like that, of course. He claims that the shock of the first feeding helps us become strong, to accept who we are and ease the transition." His lips twitched in a brief, humourless smile. "He's right. We're all much easier to mould into good little monsters after that."
Michael took several long moments to control his breathing, and to remind himself that redemption was possible for all sinners, that it was not his place to judge, and that while it might be deeply satisfying and thoroughly earned, it would also not be morally correct to kick down the doors of the Raith castle in order to shove Amoracchius' burning blade through Lord Raith's withered heart.
"I am truly sorry," he said instead, meaning it from the bottom of his heart.
He could hardly fathom such cruelty, such evil. Even the Fallen, with very few exceptions, let their victims choose. Oh, they twisted the choices, or presented them as no choice at all, but they were still able to choose. This was a complete negation, no, a theft, of choice. It was deliberately and callously staining the souls of others, over and over again.
What kind of father would trick their children into becoming murderers?
Thomas regarded him impassively. Then, deliberately, he nodded.
"I know that vampires of the White Court can walk upon holy ground," Michael said eventually. "Though I can understand why you would not wish to. However… God does not judge you for what you are, Thomas Raith. He judges you for who you choose to be." He considered his next words carefully, then nodded. "I believe that He sees what I do; someone who wishes to help. Someone who was given every reason to be a monster, but chose to be better. Someone who is cursed, and who found a cure he could never take." He met Thomas' gaze. "Someone who risks everything, time and time again, for his brother."
Growing up in the White Court, surrounded by scheming incubi and succubi, probably taught one a great deal about hiding your true feelings. This particular vampire would have had to do so more than most. And yet, Michael saw the widening of the eyes, the stiffening.
He chuckled slightly. "I have seven children, Thomas Raith," he said. "I know what it looks like when siblings fight. It took me a while to recognise it, but I did in the end."
Thomas stared at him, inscrutable, inhuman, and predatory, before slumping into a very human sigh.
"How long have you known?" he asked.
"I have suspected something for a little while," Michael said freely. "I knew that you valued Harry, but I did not know why." He coughed. "I had thought that the two of you, ah… well. After Wanda, I realised my initial assumption was incorrect."
Thomas let out a small, but surprisingly melodious peal of laughter. "You wouldn't be the first, and you won't be the last," he said, voice suddenly rich with amusement, and here and now, Michael could see the resemblance between two brothers who otherwise could have looked hardly any more different, and he wondered how he had missed it. Then again, he mused, it wasn't like either showed themselves so openly.
"I am sure," Michael said wryly. "In the end, I only guessed just now." He smiled. "In retrospect, it is rather obvious. I assume he knows?"
"I told him," Thomas said. "About eighteen months back. Took a little for him to believe me."
Michael nodded, and looked at Thomas, searching the other man's face. "You do not look much alike," he agreed. "Except for your eyes. Those are very much the same."
Thomas raised an eyebrow. "They're different colours," he said. "Multiple different colours, in my case."
Michael smiled faintly. "That is not what I meant."
Before Thomas could do anything more than scowl (which, Michael noted with amusement, made him look exactly like his little brother), there was a half choked sobbing shriek.
Michael's reaction time would not have shamed an Olympic sprinter, but Thomas moved with the blurred speed of a supernatural predator, bursting into the cathedral. By the time Michael got in, the vampire was halfway down the aisle, and had come to a somewhat embarrassed stop into the midst of an awkward silence.
Michael had seen Thomas fight before, carving through Red Court vampires even in fancy dress, and facing down the forces of Faerie with nothing more than fists and grumbling. In earnest combat, he was a deceptively fearsome sight, all swiftness and lethal grace. And that was when his hands were not suddenly filled with a kukri and a very large pistol (and where he'd been hiding that, Michael had no idea).
All told, it was quite amazing that he managed to look so sheepish.
Then, he shoved that observation aside, because he saw what had caused both the shriek and Thomas' pause, and rushed past him.
His daughter, alive, unhurt, safe, and currently clinging to her mother, the two of them weeping. He gathered both wife and daughter in his arms and shot Wanda – who was standing over them, with damp eyes and smile of her own.
"Thank you," he whispered, overflowing with gratitude and relief.
"You are most welcome," she replied, then slipped away, leaving the family together, going to talk to the arriving – and understandably baffled – Father Forthill, Thomas following in her wake like an embarrassed ghost. As he passed, however, he reached down with a once more empty hand and gripped Michael's shoulder briefly. Then, they were both gone.
The reunion took quite some time, and even after, Charity was understandably not inclined to let Molly out of her reach, let alone her sight. Neither was Michael, to be frank.
"It was pretty simple, in the end," Wanda explained. "Molly is a Sensitive. It's a rare gift, and even rarer for it to be so strong - as far as power is concerned, she would meet the White Council's tests without much real effort. However, it is also very delicate, and potentially, very dangerous. It requires careful handling, and it is very easy to lose control over. Which, in fact, is what happened."
She directed her next comments to Molly directly.
"You were frightened and shocked and in the process you managed, completely subconsciously, to whip up one of the most powerful and comprehensive veils I've ever seen," she said. "You obscured yourself from sight, from sound, and probably from smell. You even redirected notice, a living notice-me-not charm, making people instinctively edit you out of their perceptions. You neatly shut out the entire world. On purpose, it would have been incredibly impressive, especially to maintain it for so long, especially at your age. By accident… it must have been terrifying."
Molly just shuddered.
"There's not much that I can offer to help train you at the moment," Wanda admitted frankly. "But I can offer some tips on the basics, and…" She trailed off, suddenly thoughtful.
"Wanda?" Michael prompted.
"One advantage that Sensitives like you, Molly, have is that their gifts are arguably the meeting point between psionics and magic," Wanda said slowly.
"What do you mean?" Molly asked, piping up for the first time, voice soft and raspy both from crying and crying out for someone to see, even to just listen.
"Magic and psychic powers are related," Wanda said. "The how and why is complicated, and no one who was 'just' a psychic could give you a full grounding in your gifts. But a lot of the magical basics, those I think that Harry and I could drum into you on weekends. It would also give Bruce, Bruce Wayne, a chance to pass on his grounding in magical theory – which he understands frighteningly well." She paused, noticing that Molly had perked up. "Though I'm not sure how well giving him a willing partner in crime to test his theories would go…"
"Badly," Thomas said dryly. "Hilariously badly."
"I'm sure the Manor will survive," Wanda said equally dryly, before returning to sobriety. "The most difficult, delicate, and potentially dangerous aspects of a Sensitive's gifts, though, are the ones that overlap with psionics. They'll be the ones that come most naturally to you, Molly."
"Like what?" the teenager asked, puzzled.
"Psychometry and empathy, illusions and veils," Wanda said, before her voice turned warning. "And mental influence."
Charity stiffened, detecting a threat, but Wanda did nothing more than meet her gaze steadily, before returning it to Molly, who looked between the two, uncertain.
"You have power, Miss Carpenter, and power comes with temptations," she said, gentle but firm. "With gifts like yours, for instance, you might be in a situation where you would be inclined to try a Jedi Mind Trick. Something simple, something silly, something that could bail you out of trouble. Something that would also walk the very finest line on the edge of black magic. Both enthralment and invasion of another's mind are banned under the Laws of Magic, because they are dark magic and dark magic corrupts. Suggestion is permitted, yes, but the line between suggestion and enthralment, between a nudge and a compulsion, is frighteningly thin. Even something so seemingly harmless, so potentially useful, as that is among the very greyest magic. And let me tell you, as someone who has spent a lifetime on the edge of that line, it is very easy to slip over the edge."
There was an ominous silence, as Molly stared at the older woman with wide eyes, a hint of fear mixed with… a flicker. A hint of resentment, of instinctive teenage rebellion, the reflexive response to authority developed most by those who grew up in strict (if very loving) households. Wanda saw it and pounced on it.
"The Laws of Magic are not simply arbitrary parental rules to be broken, or even mundane laws to be flouted as necessary, they have consequences that cannot be evaded," she said, voice suddenly hardening. "The sentence for breaking even one of them, even in ignorance, is execution. I nearly paid that price when I was barely more than twelve years old, for the crime of having powers I could not control. If you doubt me, ask your parents what happens to those who, to continue the Star Wars analogy, turn to the Dark Side. Ask them how quickly the best of intentions are twisted into something vile and cruel and completely unrecognisable. Ask them how such practitioners are dealt with."
"Enough!" Charity snapped, as Molly shrank back, eyes wide. "You are –"
"Telling her something she had better learn now than later," Wanda said bluntly, before sighing. "Though perhaps I did go in a little too hard, especially after what you have all been through." She sighed again. "I am sorry, I haven't been at my best, these last few days." She shook her head. "A psychic could teach you a great deal about your gifts and how to use them safely, Miss Carpenter, and I happen to know a couple of very talented ones, only a little older than you. They're learning rather more advanced stuff at the moment, but teaching is the best way to reinforce the basics, I find. And they will need those…"
She sat up.
"One way or another, I will find you a teacher," she said, before adding, under her breath, "though who I'll find to teach everyone else, I have no idea…"
"Thank you, Ms Maximoff," Molly said, polite and subdued, both by the experience and by what had just said.
Wanda gave her a warm, tired smile, before standing. "Then I will take my leave," she said. "Miss Carpenter. Charity."
Molly nodded her goodbye, before closing her eyes and resting her head against her mother's shoulder in a way which, in the normal run of things, she had not done for years. Michael could not say he objected to seeing it again, and nor could Charity, going by the way she clutched their daughter to her. As she did, she looked over her daughter's mussed mop of pale blonde hair and opened her mouth, before closing it, unsure of what to say. Words seemed beyond her.
Wanda got the message all the same, and dipped her head in acknowledgement. As she slipped out, followed by Thomas, Michael looked down at his family, and for a moment was tempted to join them and forget everything else. But Molly was safe now, and he would have time. Right now, there was someone else in need.
"Wanda," he said quietly, as he shut the door behind him. The sorceress turned politely. "May I ask… what were you planning to do now?"
Wanda smiled wryly. "Well, the answer isn't 'fall back down a bottle', if that's what you were worried about," she said, glancing between him and Thomas. She shook her head, and exhaled. "I… well, I have a lot to do. Fallout of the Battle of New Orleans, and all that. Your daughter, your whole family, they're just a few of the many talents jumpstarted by that night, and many of them will have the same problems or worse. I'll be pretty busy."
"As, I am sure, will I," Michael observed, earning a nod of agreement. "But before you do, Wanda… I think I was put in your path, yes, to help find my daughter, for which I will always be grateful. However, I think that you were also put in mine."
He does not look at Thomas, who he rather suspects was also put in his path, and if the other man is half as intelligent as Michael thinks, he might well have realised it. Either way, what passed between them is between them.
"Why is that?" Wanda asked, suddenly neutral.
"I think you know why," he said gently. "Wanda. If you will permit me to advise you on this: go and see your daughter."
Wanda flinched as if struck. "I don't think that would be a good idea," she said, voice clipped, turning away.
"You mean that you do not want to," Michael said.
Wanda froze. So did Thomas, who looked very much as if he was about to dive for cover. "Excuse me?" she asked, soft and dangerous as the puff of snow before an avalanche, as something crimson glimmered deep in those grass green eyes.
"As Charity was, you are afraid of confronting the ghosts of your past, because you know the pain they will bring you," Michael said calmly. "You said it yourself, Wanda. You cannot run from this. Your daughter needs you, every bit as much as Molly needs us."
Wanda stared at him for a long moment, then looked away, sagging.
"I know that," she said quietly, bitterly, ragged with suppressed grief. "But what if… what if she doesn't want to see me? She's made it rather clear how she feels, and I can't blame her. I don't… I don't want to abandon her. But I don't want to go where I'm not wanted, either. It took me years, decades, to come to term with who my father was and what he had done. For her, it's hardly been a week. I won't hurt her again, I can't."
"I think that there are things between you that remain unsaid," Michael said gently. "I think that you will not know what she feels until you ask. And I think that we both know that you owe her answers."
Doctor Strange stopped on the main street through Hogsmeade, and slowly turned on the spot, looking down at the person who had hailed him, who had just come to a puffing stop. As he did, the crowd around them contrived to find other places to be.
"Ah," he said. "I wondered when this was going to happen."
Ron Weasley glared up at him, with no fear in his eyes, still sweaty from a training session with Sean Cassidy. This was usually a sign of great courage, greater foolishness, or a severe lack of sobriety. Whatever else could be said about Ron, he was most definitely sober.
"I've got questions," he said.
"Many people have questions, some even for me," Strange said. "Usually, they start with something like 'how did you take me all the way across the country without me noticing'."
Ron startled, and looked around. They were inside an old and somewhat eccentrically decorated townhouse, the window looking out onto a fashionable London street. Or, at least, one that had been fashionable a century or two ago.
"Now," Strange said, settling into a slightly dusty armchair, indicating that Ron do the same. "I have paused time, but even my stretching of the now is not infinite, nor is my patience, and certainly not my indulgence. Ask away."
"Will I get an answer?" Ron asked warily, sitting down.
"Most certainly. Whether it will satisfy you is another matter entirely, and the answer to that is 'almost certainly not'," Strange said briskly. "Come on. Out with it."
"Did you know?" Ron asked. "Not just about Hermione, but about Harry. That he would lie to us about it."
"Harry had a choice, he made it," Strange said, shrugging. "Truthfully, he'd have regretted either choice, because it was not a set of very good options. He took the one that he felt would cause least harm. And in many timelines, it did."
"What?" Ron asked.
Strange fixed him with an arch look. "Mister Weasley, if you think I intended for your nearest, dearest, and most beloved friend, the daughter of the woman I raised as my own – not always very well, it has to be said – to undergo what she did, then you have gravely misunderstood who I am and what I do," he said. "Hermione deserves the whole explanation, and I don't feel like giving it twice, but the brief answer is that chaos – especially chaos magic – is hard to pin down and prone to doing the unexpected the moment I glance away from it. Often especially when I glance away from it. Why do you think I kept Wanda so close for fifteen years? For me, it was more like sixty, I had to keep looping to keep an eye on her." He shrugged. "It was worth it, of course, but it wasn't exactly easy."
"… oh," Ron said, digesting this answer as best he could.
"In any case, Harry's decisions are his to make, for better or for worse," Strange said. "I guide, yes, but I do not control. I have shaped enough of his life, and I will not take more of it from him if I can avoid it." He steepled his fingers and regarded Ron. "Next question."
"What else has Harry lied to me about?" Ron asked.
"Less than you think and more than you would like," Strange said. "Next."
Ron scowled, and thought hard. Then, he hit on it.
"Could you have saved my father?" he asked.
There was a long silence.
"In theory? Yes."
"'In theory'. What does that mean?"
"It means that I am not invincible, nor am I infallible, Ronald Weasley," Strange said quietly. "I am neither omniscient, nor am I omnipotent. I guide, I manipulate, and I manoeuvre, but I do not control. Everyone makes their own choices, and your father made his. He chose to be at the Ministry that day, when he could easily have skived off. He chose to stand and fight against HYDRA. He chose the one to make the last stand and protect the last, when it could so very easily have been someone else."
"But he was a grown man who made his own choices," Strange said, sharp, but not unkind. "You would honour him better by allowing him the dignity of those choices and respecting his sacrifice. By all means, mourn him, miss him, grieve for him. But honour him, too."
Ron looked up, tears in his eyes. "HE WAS MURDERED!"
"Executed," Strange corrected quietly. "Quickly and cleanly, out of mercy. It was the kindest choice available to his killer out of a whole range of horrible options, the worst and most cowardly of which would have been to do precisely nothing. There are many fates worse than death, and many of them awaited your father had he been captured alive. I know that isn't much comfort to you. He was your father, and he is dead." His face shaded with long remembered sadness. "He is dead," he said softly. "And you never even got to say goodbye."
He turned a surprisingly gentle, compassionate look on Ron. One that was, perhaps, when you thought about it, perhaps not so surprising.
"I have lost more people than even I could ever hope to count," he said gently. "I have seen them die, sometimes quickly, sometimes easily, sometimes slowly, and sometimes horribly, and despite all my power, all that I am and all that I can do, it is not enough. This is not to claim your suffering is non-existent by comparison, oh no. It is to say this: I understand. Truly, I do. My lifetime has been one long parade of funerals and memorials and grief. I, more than most, know the inevitability of death. And I know, no matter how gentle the greeting on the other side of the Veil, that it never stops hurting."
"Some people have said that I was made for war," he said. "Others for healing. But I think, sometimes, that I was made for infinite sadness." He leaned forward and took Ron's unresisting hands. "The kind of sadness you are feeling now." He smiled gently. "Feel it. Accept it. Do not be ashamed of it. Do not let it fester, let it flow, and let it carry rage and bitterness with it. Remember your father for how he lived, for what he died doing, rather than simply dwelling on the fact that he died at all, much less on the what ifs. Down that route lies madness, believe me. It is one I have trodden often."
Ron did not reply.
Strange stood, pulling him to his feet with gentle, but inexorable force. They were back in Hogsmeade. Apparently no time had passed at all.
"One of the other questions that burns away at you is 'what is my place in all of this'," Strange said. "It is written right through you. That place is what you choose to make of it." He looked down at Ron, releasing hands. "One day, all the realms may rest on your shoulders, Ronald Weasley. All I ask is this: remember who you are. And remember that everything – everything – comes with a price."
"What does that mean?"
"It means that in the end, the price for getting exactly what you want… can be getting exactly what you want."
And then, he was gone, leaving Ron with tear-streaked cheeks and much to think about.
"The Ministry has decided that it wishes to keep a closer eye on Hogwarts," Dumbledore said. "Officially, the given reasoning is that the events of the First Task and the discovery of the Fallen Fortress have proven that the current security arrangements are insufficient. This is, naturally, combined with a response to ongoing concerns for student safety by the Governors following the death of Luna Lovegood last year, the Heir of Slytherin the year before that, and the matter of Professor Quirrell the year before that."
"The Minister is playing politics," McGonagall said irritably. "Of course he is. As if we didn't have more important things to worry about."
"Cornelius professes to believe, as I do, that nothing is more important than the safety of our students and the future of the magical community, Minerva."
"And we both know very well that his interpretation of that and yours are very different, Albus!"
"I fear that you are correct, Minerva, and in private, I am certainly not inclined to take him at his word," Dumbledore said calmly. "You are quite right. Cornelius' actions are driven by fear and a desire for control, control that he has lost. He sees an opportunity to regain that control by undermining Wisdom and thereby MI13. He has spent more time closeted in meetings with the new muggle Prime Minister than any Minister has since the days of Grindelwald. That alone shows how serious he is."
McGonagall nodded grimly. Amiable as Fudge could be, his attitude towards Muggles tended to be one of benevolent condescension at best. Muggles, even Muggle Prime Ministers, should be seen only occasionally, and not heard at all. She rather suspected that if the climate were not as it was, he would prefer to use magic - a Confundus charm, perhaps - to influence the Prime Minister into the appropriate decision. It had been done before, after all.
However, MI13 were watching like hawks and had some extremely talented young witches and wizards to call upon as well as a non-magical psychic of exceptional power in Lady Braddock. And that was before one considered SHIELD, who were smaller but increasingly paranoid, and the White Council, still on a war footing and now with years of renewed experience in detecting mental influence on muggle leaders - and far, far less tolerance for it.
"Do you think he could persuade the Prime Minister to rein in Wisdom?" she asked. "After all, the Minister can be charming enough, when he wishes to be." Though the air of condescension would doubtless grate, she added silently. "As for Wisdom, well... charm is not one of his notable qualities. He frightens people, Albus, muggle and wizard alike. Even some of the Avengers are frightened of him!"
"They are," Dumbledore said. "With good reason. Peter Wisdom, as he now calls himself, is one of the most dangerous men I have ever encountered. Like Doctor Strange, he is not fettered by fear, favour, or any higher principle than the protection of his country. He sees everything as a weapon in a never-ending war and he is utterly devoid of personal ambition. There is nothing he will not sacrifice, no one he considers anything other than expendable - himself included. In fact, himself especially. He is a zealot of the most dangerous kind, a second coming of the Crusaders of old. That is something he disguises very well, behind cold logic and merciless pragmatism. Oh, it's clear enough that he is a ruthless man, driven and married to his job. But the depths of his dedication, the truth of how far he will go... only glimpses of that appear, unless he chooses to show it."
He looked at McGonagall.
"Cornelius does not have to persuade the muggle government that Peter Wisdom is dangerous, for I imagine that they know that very well," he said. "What he also has to do is to persuade them that the Ministry - that he - is a better alternative, and with it, a return to the previous status quo. There he has stumbled. His assumption was that his muggle counterparts would wish to return to a state of blissful ignorance. That is no longer possible - the Statute of Secrecy hangs by a thread, the secrecy of the magical world being more of a polite fiction than a true concealment. In any case, as with many non-magical governments around the world, they wish nothing of the kind. They want control over their own destiny, for which I cannot blame them. So instead, their impulse is to co-opt, to tighten their grip. And in Peter Wisdom, they have the perfect tool to do so. One they fear may slip in their grasp and turn upon them, yes, but one that they think they can control."
McGonagall narrowed her eyes in thought. "They intend to play Wisdom and Fudge off against each other," she realised. "Slowly gaining greater control over both."
"That is what my sources tell me," Dumbledore said.
"That is absurd," McGonagall said, shaking her head. "Fudge is foolish, but it would take the puppetry of Stephen Strange himself to make him submit the Ministry to muggle government in either fact or name." She paused. "He is not involved in this, is he?"
"With Stephen, it is always hard to tell what he isn't involved in," Dumbledore observed. "But no, I don't think he is. He has made it abundantly clear that he considers the Ministry far beneath him and that he has more important things to be getting on with. In his eyes, Cornelius is simply... irrelevant."
"Well, I can hardly say that that surprises me," McGonagall said. "But Wisdom? They think they can control him? Albus, he barely defers to you, let alone anyone else. The only person with any hope of controlling him is Nicholas Fury and somehow, I don't think he'll be all that inclined to try."
"Wisdom cannot be controlled, but he can be directed," Dumbledore said quietly. "His personal ambition is non-existent, and his ambition for MI13, while significant, is focused. He also has a number of more manageable subordinates, as does Cornelius. The muggle government has either realised this or will soon: they are reaching out to senior figures in both the Ministry and MI13, nominally to strengthen lines of communication and cooperation. In practice, they are identifying those like Kingsley Shacklebolt and Jessica Drew who might, at an appropriate point, serve as suitable replacements."
McGonagall opened her mouth to say that there were a fair number of members of the Ministry, even after Malfoy's attack the previous year, who were far senior to Shacklebolt and would be vying for the position of Minister. Scrimgeour, Umbridge, even Crouch - he would thrive in such a climate. Though, she had to admit, perhaps not with the widely (and for once, accurately) rumoured knowledge that both Harry and his father were carrying a very large grudge against him over the Sirius Black affair.
Then, she closed it as she reconsidered. Pitting the Ministry against MI13, Fudge against Wisdom, didn't just mean interdepartmental squabbling. Not with Fudge's fear and Wisdom's seething ambition, even if it was by proxy. It would mean war. A brief, vicious, and above all, quiet war. One that MI13 would almost certainly win. Once that was done, Wisdom could then be symbolically removed as a peace gesture, doubtless remaining as a powerful figure behind the scenes. And then…
Eventually, she sighed gustily.
"Merlin save us from politicians and their scheming."
"Regrettably, I don't think he intends anything of the kind," Dumbledore said.
"You're probably right," she said, not without regret. The return of the legendary Merlin had sent shockwaves through the magical world, which for the most part did not doubt him after he had established his bona fides at the Battle of New Orleans. Minerva herself was somewhat in awe. Even aside from his well-earned status as a living legend, never before had she heard of someone who could stymie and out-argue Doctor Strange – a miracle in itself, even if it had apparently been in some ancient Welsh dialect. "What form is this Ministry presence going to take, anyway?"
"Officially, a detachment of Aurors and selected senior officials from across multiple departments," Dumbledore said. "Their role being to supplement the security measures in place, and investigate recent events in and around Hogwarts, addressing any failures and trauma that they have caused."
He met McGonagall's gaze as she bristled, his expression solemn.
"A student died on Hogwarts premises, Minerva. In fact, two have, even if one of them came back immediately after. Several others have had very close encounters with death, beyond that which one might expect for Hogwarts, and two have developed strange and - in the eyes of the Ministry and the Governors - extremely dangerous powers. A teacher has also been killed, while another lost his memory in what are officially unknown circumstances, and a third has been confirmed to be a werewolf prior to his resignation. While this last is immaterial in my eyes, both the Ministry and Governors disagree. And finally, the Triwizard Tournament has been tampered with. In any event, the events of the last few years are considered by the Ministry as ample right and reason to investigate."
"Of all the absurdity," McGonagall said angrily. "This is aimed at you, Albus, as much as it is at Wisdom, you can count on it."
"I have no doubt," Dumbledore said calmly. "Apparently, Cornelius believes that I have not taken his part sufficiently in recent events. He believes that I am a partisan of Wisdom's - either that he is my partner, or my pawn in a plot to supplant him. He is also unhappy that I have not supported his claims that Voldemort has not returned, in the face of the insistence of Harry, the Avengers, the Sorceress Supreme, the White Council, and a number of others that, in fact, he has."
Anyone familiar with angry cats might have recognised the noise that McGonagall let out, before she regained her composure.
"Very well," she said, chill calm in her voice. "Which meddling imbecile are we to expect to darken our doors?"
Dumbledore glanced at letter on his desk, purely for form.
"Dolores Umbridge, I believe."
Carol shifted uncomfortably on the fashionable Belgravia doorstep, then stopped and swore as her toe collided with overgrowth of stone vines.
"Carol," Steve said, shooting his great-granddaughter a look of mild reproof and slightly less mild amusement.
"Language?" she asked, rolling her eyes.
"Language," he said evenly.
Carol made a face, then a more uncertain one, looking up at the door whose bell Steve had just rung. While she had back-handedly suggested this meeting, her thought had been more of a phone call.
"Are you sure this is going to be okay?" she asked.
"I'm certain," Steve said. "Jackie's effectively retired now."
"Yeah, but it was her name," Carol said, and grimaced. "This is stupid, I should have picked another one, I mean, I don't even need a hero name –"
"I think it's perfect," Steve said with gentle warmth that made Carol smile and blush from her toes to her hairline. "And I think that Jackie will quite agree. She's more than happy to pass it on. She just wants is to meet you, first."
"Because she knows who I am," Carol said.
"I knew her during the War, through Monty, though she was always closer to Peggy," Steve explained. "She saw the resemblance at the Battle of London, and well, she's part-vampire –"
"Which is weird."
"You should hear how it happened," Steve said, without missing a beat. "It was nearly as strange as your friend Peter's story. Anyway, she heard about you being a super soldier after Halloween, and she put everything together." He smiled at Carol. "Honestly, I think she'd want to meet you anyway. She sounded quite impressed." His smile faded and he studied Carol. "Are you really bothered about this? Because if you are, if you want to put it off, she'd understand. And even if she didn't, that'd be my problem to deal with, not yours."
Carol looked at him, two sets of cornflower blue eyes meeting, one steady, one searching. Then, she latched onto him in a tight hug.
"You," she mumbled. "Are too stupidly nice to be real."
Steve chuckled, returning the embrace. "So I've been told," he said, vibrations of his reply thrumming through his chest. "And for what it's worth, I can understand why you chose a name. It's not just about code or sounding cool. It's something more."
Carol half-shrugged, leaning into him. "I thought it sounded cool," she said. "It… it fits." She wrinkled her nose. "'course, that means someone just had to have that idea first."
"Twice, even," Steve said, amused, and chuckled as Carol made a sound of irritation. "I meant what I said, you know. I think it's just perfect."
She looked up at him, eyes wide and very bright. She'd been very close recently; a little clingy, though not in any way he objected to. It wasn't the aftermath of New Orleans, necessarily. Well, not entirely. Both he and Marie had noticed how she'd sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and start stretching suddenly, pushing her flexibility, moving through every joint and sinew. If she was at the Mansion, she'd head down to the gym and start running through every one of the calisthenics and gymnastics routines that he and Natasha had taught her, and wouldn't stop until she was streaming with sweat. If it was at her home, it would be somewhat more subdued, a routine almost like yoga, all to the same end.
They'd talked about it a little, and they all knew why. Oh, they knew why, and it made Steve angry enough that had Nimue seen the look on his face, she'd have been unaccountably glad to currently be a spirit trapped in Doctor Strange's enchanted metal golf ball. For one thing, it put her out of his reach.
But this was more than that. She'd refused to say why, but from what his granddaughter, her mother, had said, her father had something to do with it. There was another individual, a dark part of him thought, that should be very glad he was a very long way out of Steve's reach.
As it was, though, Steve put aside his anger and held her close, doing what he could for her. He helped her, guided her, advised her, and comforted her. He was there for her.
After all – it's what dads were for.
"You think so?" she asked.
"I do," he said, then paused, and smiled. "Spitfire."
Carol's cheeks heated, and she matched his smile.
"If everything I've seen is anything to go by, then I quite agree," said a rich voice with the clipped vowels of another era, as the door opened, revealing the most recent bearer of that name.
Lady Jacqueline 'Jackie' Falsworth, sister of Lord James Montgomery 'Monty' Falsworth, aunt of Brian Falsworth, super-fast ex-secret agent, looked over her would-be successor with dark eyes, and smiled, revealing ever so slightly pointy canines.
"It is not every young person, after all, who can master the Green Lantern," she continued. Her eyes smiled at Steve. "And you come with the highest recommendations."
"Um. Thank you?" Carol said.
That got a kind laugh. "You are very welcome," the older woman said. "Now, please, come in, come in. I haven't caught up with you," she said to Steve. "In far too long. And as for you, young lady…" She pauses, appraising Carol again. "I'd like to swap stories, if you're willing." Her eyes twinkled. "One Spitfire to another."
As Steve would later note, Carol could not say 'yes' fast enough.
Hermione looked up from her book as the door opened. What she saw did not leave her especially pleased.
At this time of night, she could, and probably should, have been in bed, but she was minded to take her new freedom from the tyranny of permanent bed rest for all she could get, and was consequently curled up in a transfigured armchair by the Hospital Wing window.
The downside to this, in her opinion, was that she could not pretend to be asleep. While a large part of her had wanted this conversation, another part was considering exactly that. She'd been blanked for fourteen years, after all, she thought, as the new entrant took the opposite seat. A little turnabout was fair play.
"What do you want?" she asked coldly.
Wanda flinched, then took a deep breath. "I want a lot of things," she said, soft and low. "Starting with being able to go back in time and stop myself from being such a gods damned coward."
Hermione blinked. This was not what she had been expecting. She narrowed her eyes.
"If wishes were horses, beggars would ride," she said shortly. "You've realised what you were? Good. Now, what do you want and why are you here?"
Wanda looked at her, eyes sad. "I deserved that," she murmured. "That and much more." She shook her head. "What I want is to do anything I can for you. I can't change the past. I can't change what I have done. No matter how much I might want to. All I can change is what I am going to do." She closed her eyes. "I was not there for you, at first, to protect you from my baggage and my legacy. By the time that you needed me, I wasn't there because I was afraid and I was ashamed. I thought that I could run away from it, and from you, that I could bury my head in the sand and it would all go away. It didn't. It didn't, and you were nearly killed."
"It's not like I didn't have warning," she continued, this bitterly. "Your chaos magic manifesting wasn't exactly a magically bound secret. But I pretended that nothing had really changed, that you wouldn't –" She stopped, and swallowed. "That you could manage without me. I thought that there was nothing I needed to do other than keep you secret, that keeping you secret would keep you safe."
"It didn't," Hermione said, as cold as deep space.
"I know," Wanda said quietly. "Oh god, how I know. I know, and I should have known, and there is nothing I can say that could possibly convey how sorry I am." She looked up at Hermione. "I wasn't there for you," she repeated. "I am here now. If you want to ask me anything, you can ask it. If you want me to do anything, I will do it. If want you me just to stand here and scream at me in a way that I've long since earned… I will."
Hermione stared at her for a long, long time. Part of her wanted to do exactly that – to scream and shout, and then banish Wanda from her sight forever. Part of her, seething with resentment as it did, reminded her that this woman was meant to be teaching her chaos magic, and the only other person who was qualified was quite pointedly making himself unavailable. Another part… wasn't sure what it wanted, roiling with bitterness, resentment, loneliness, uncertainty, and desire-to-know, a bubbling toxic mix that saw the woman before her and produced nothing coherent but pain.
"I have questions," she said eventually, voice chill but even. "You have answers." She swallowed, and her voice cracked. "You will give them to me."
Wanda bowed her head. "Whatever you wish," she said softly.
Hermione was not satisfied. Truthfully, she doubted she would be, even once this was over.
But it was a start.
Harry was restless.
This was not a particularly unusual state of being for him, it had to be said, but the reasons for this restlessness were more than usual or, indeed, superficial.
The story of what had happened with Hermione had inevitably been garbled, all the more so once the unusually accurate story of Magneto's visit had whipped around the school (and half of the student body had been coaxed out of the dungeons), but the essence was understood. Something was Not Right between Harry, Ron, and Hermione.
Given how close this particular group often was, with Ron and Hermione having recently been taken as a mixture of sources of information on Harry and – in extremis – coal mine canaries for his mood, this was felt to be somewhat ominous. Harry could be difficult enough as it was, a statement that monumentally understated things. Harry without the restraint of his friends was an exponentially more terrifying prospect. And right now, that restraint was gone.
The reasons for it were still somewhat uncertain, though, again, rumour had answers. Some off them surprisingly close to the truth. Cedric Diggory had, naturally, enquired.
"They trusted me," Harry had told him. "And, one way or another, I lied to them."
His tone had been one of resignation, a lack of expectation of any kind of forgiveness. Even Cedric might consider it melodramatic, even if he might be a bit more tactful about how he put it, if it wasn't for the fact that Ron and Hermione showed no sign of being particularly forgiving. Though, granted, not much could be heard from Hermione, as she was in the Hospital Wing, but Cedric had it from his girlfriend Cho Chang, who had it from Padma Patil, who had it from her twin sister Parvati, and the overriding impression was that Hermione was Not Happy. And Viktor Krum's unexpected revelation of why explained a great deal, both about Hermione and Harry's gloomy assessment of their friendship.
As for Ron, that was one that Cedric had a bit less of a handle on. He'd asked his 4th year Housemates, of course, but even they were a bit vague on it. The best they could provide was that Ron had been a bit frustrated with Harry's unwillingness to talk. He'd tried Ron's older brothers, his year mates, but if Fred and George Weasley were good at anything, it was obfuscation.
"Ron doesn't like people keeping secrets," Fred had said eventually.
"Which is unfortunate, since Harry's very good at keeping them," George had added.
"And," they added together, in the strange unison that they had been using to disturb their classmates from the first day of first year. "When he shares them, it isn't with Ron."
All of this was manifestly, true, as was much of what Cedric deduced from there. Tension, distrust, and the jarring, ragged edges of a chasm in two dear friendships had all combined to leave Harry in a mood to be elsewhere. Unfortunately, this conflicted with many of his instincts, which were to hang around and to keep an eye on Hermione in particular.
"You know, you don't do them or yourself any favours by worrying."
Harry, who had been brooding (or, as Carol or Hermione would have put it, 'sulking'), and staring out a window, looked up sharply. For the first time in a while, he was in his red leathers, refitted to his growing frame, another sign of how out of place he was feeling.
"Did that ever stop you?" he asked.
"No," Doctor Strange said. "However, I am both a doctor and a conscientious manipulator of destiny to ends involving the preservation of reality itself. Worrying is somewhat in my nature."
"They'll be fine," Strange said. "Perhaps the better for a little space. There are things they need to work through themselves, perhaps without you hovering over them."
"Hovering?" Harry replied, indignant.
Strange's look was amused. "From a distance, yes," he said. "And all the more detectable for it. It casts quite a shadow." He looked out the window. "The two of them need answers, and the space to think about them, and they are getting those answers, one way or another. What you need, I think, is a bit of a sabbatical. A little 'back to basics' approach."
He rolled his wrist and produced a flute. It was made of wood, hand carved, done so with love and remarkable care. Harry recognised it. What caught him off-guard was the fact that it was now chased with twining strands of silver.
"Mithril," Strange corrected, as if he'd heard the thought, which Harry was not prepared to discount. "It contains… well, a little more than it seems. It will learn you as you will learn it. Something made much easier by the manner of its making."
Harry frowned. "Hagrid made it for me," he said, before rolling his eyes. "Unless you somehow secretly swapped it with one you made earlier."
"No, my sole contribution was the inlay," Strange said. "Hagrid is rather more than he seems, and much more than he realises. He has a gift for the magic of the natural world."
Harry eyed him, waiting for an elaboration, and wasn't overly surprised when he didn't get one.
"What do you mean by sabbatical?" he asked instead. "And 'back to basics'?"
"I mean that as you have been learning advanced psionics and Phoenix theory from Gorakhnath, it is time for you to learn the practical," Strange said. "Have fun. See the sights. Say hi to your many times Great-Aunt for me."
Strange swept his hand in a circle, creating a portal rimmed in green-gold sparks.
It was right under Harry's feet.
"Don't worry," he said cheerfully, as his student dropped like a stone. "You'll be back before anyone knows it!"
Harry's response, as the portal closed, was unprintable.
Elsewhere, a portal opened, one of flickering torchlit shadow. It passed in a moment, and left a strange figure behind; human-shaped, more or less, and human-sized, thereabouts, but very definitely not. Cloaked in shadow, it flowed over the ground, leaving little trace, the only colour being in the eyes, which gleamed the colour of burning ashes.
Most people would have been wary, to meet such a creature at all, let alone under shadowed trees where such a being could blend and vanish in an instant.
The other was not most people. For one thing, there was a fair amount of reasonable doubt whether he was a person at all. If he was anything, however, it was assured of this: the broad, dark greenwood obeyed him. Him, and none other.
He was tall and slender; human-like, but very definitely not so in a thousand indefinable, yet beguiling ways. He was of a kind whose very grace had left observers of both gods and men alike in awe for eons untold, whose words rang like a bell, who wore the world lightly, shedding it and reclaiming it with the ease of a favoured jacket.
They entranced. They were wondrous. They were glorious.
No one ever said that they were good.
Half of his face seemed designed to some mathematical ideal of perfection. The other half was a beautifully carved and wondrously crafted bone white mask. Once it could have been removed. Once, and no more. Its edge was melted and seared, a formerly ragged edge filed down to absolute smoothness. Now, it moved in an eerie mirror of the living flesh.
"You're late," he said. The music of this voice was off. The shape of this bell was cracked.
"Would you prefer I was on time with no information at all?" came the reply. At a contrast to its shadowy source, it was very… human.
Both the natural eye and the masked lids narrowed. "Remember whom it is that you speak to, whisperer," the masked being said, voice suddenly a soft and deadly caress, like blood encrusted silk. "You have not regained the pleasures of physical form for so long that you would be willing to risk losing it, I think."
The shadowy figure said nothing, and instead produced a crystal. The masked figure examined it, letting light play around it, and smiled.
"Excellent," he said. "If all holds true, then your master shall have his part." His eyes narrowed. "If not, if he tries to betray me, to take what is mine… then he shall find that his current imprisonment is practically luxury compared to what will follow."
The shadow inclined his head. "And if you should betray my master and refuse to serve as promised, then you will be made into something that will." It was not a threat. The delivery was flat, calm, and disinterested. It was a statement of fact, one to send chills down any normal spine.
This one merely turned and flicked a hand in dismissal.
The shadow tilted his head. As the sun moved behind the clouds, for a moment, the shadows shifted. When they shifted back, like a flickering of torch-light, he was gone.
Far away, in a place much less easily plotted, but somewhat less obscure, a military facility was hard at work. They too were seeking information, and they too sought it from something crystal, if something vastly larger than the small piece that had been passed from one hand to another.
They had been having rather less luck. Which was not to say they were having no luck at all.
"Mentor," a brisk voice said, and one of the scientists turned from his analysis. He was a member of the Shi'ar Imperial Guard, their analyst and technopath, and until now, he had been making very little progress.
"Praetor," he greeted, saluting the towering amethyst skinned figure in flowing imperial red and gold, the mighty Gladiator, champion of the Shi'ar Empire. He had been spending much of the last few months uncomfortable, impatient, and would have been pacing had such discipline not been trained out of him years ago.
His Emperor faced rebellion, and now, an attack from a fleet, even a species, unlike any the Empire had ever faced, something terrible enough that even Asgard was freely sharing tactically relevant information. Or at least, more freely than they usually did. Yet here he was, not putting that to use on the battlefield, but deployed with the elite of the Guard, guarding and trying to decode this particular artefact. If it wasn't for the fact that it radiated such power, power that could provide a critical edge in the battles to come, he'd consider it a waste of time, for all that he would still obey.
Power, however, was of no use without a way to use it.
"Can you operate it?" he asked.
"No, Praetor, though we have isolated part of the upper layer of programming that may be repurposed as a key, or at least an interface," Mentor said. "It is designed to adapt to whatever input is attempted, to be understood." He paused. "It left… a message. It is incomplete, but…"
Gladiator regarded him, noted the unease, considered this, then nodded. "Play the message," he said.
There was a moment of silence, then, a female voice spoke, indistinct and interspersed with static, screams, and sounds of destruction.
"We send… a warning… of our mistakes… our Doomsday."
Nothing like a bit of ominous foreshadowing to end a book, eh?
Yes, that rounds of Ghosts of the Past, and good grief, it has been one hell of a roller coaster. It has been an absolute delight and a privilege having you all with me, and I hope you'll stay for a while yet, because I am by no means done. Now, by all means, hop on over to the first chapter of The Phoenix and the Serpent, which carries a little teaser of what is to come, and put it on your alerts, so you won't miss a thing of what is to come.