Merry Christmas to you all. This is my gift to you, the end of our six-year journey together.
Age of Darkness
Ilya Black looked up from her Arithmancy notes with a glare. There was only one person who would be bothering her now of all times, not even a month away from her OWLs. Particularly when it was her worst class she was trying to study for. Indeed, the boy who stood in front of her was none other than one of her cousins and the eventual heir-apparent. "What do you want, Vega?" she asked with a sigh as she closed her notes.
Anyone else she would ignore, but Vega could be such a whiner when he did not get his way.
He scowled at her, or more precisely at the tree she sat beneath. It was her favorite place in Hogwarts, the great yew growing in the middle of the courtyard. Riddle's Folly was just as much a part of the history of the castle as the Great Hall and the Astronomy Tower, but other parts of the school were not routinely patrolled by the resident ghosts to be sure the knots on the trunk that resembled screaming faces never grew to become anything more. Most students considered it at least a little creepy and avoided it except around Halloween time.
It was no surprise to anyone who knew her that it was her favorite place to study. Her great-great-grandmother had laughed herself silly when she heard about it.
"Grandfather is summoning us both home." Vega held out a slip of parchment, and Ilya cast her eyes over the short message. His voice lost some of his customary pompousness. "It's Gran. She's dying."
Gran. Not 'Grandmother', wife to their mutual grandfather and the Head of their House. Gran. Their great-great-grandmother. Ilya rolled her eyes with a soft smile. "What did you expect? She's over a hundred and fifty years old. Even she had to die some time."
"You're not surprised," he said accusingly. "You knew she wasn't going to survive this sickness."
She shook her head. Oh, she knew. So had Gran. Everyone had their allotted span on this world, some longer than others, but this was the end of Gran's. She could feel it in her soul, the ice-cold slivers stirring as the hour drew nearer.
Gran had done great work over the course of her life, but now their master and their lord was calling his servant home to the Labyrinth.
Marcus Longbottom stepped through the emerald flames into a darkened room. Dark sheets were draped lightly over some of the furniture, and in the morbid atmosphere the elaborate family tree that wrapped around the walls took on an even eerier cast than it normally would. His wife came out of the Floo behind him. "Are you sure we must do this?" he asked.
"Yes, Marc, we need to do this," she said with a fond sigh. "Don't worry. Nobody is going to throw you in an oven and eat you for being a Longbottom. Your grandparents are the only ones who still hold on to that silly grudge between the families."
"They didn't have any grudge against you," he reminded her.
"Because they focused on my maiden name and conveniently forget that as a Tonks I'm still a member of the House of Black. It's as much as your grandfather would allow himself to bend on that score, I'm sure." She looped her arm in his and pulled him towards the doorway and the hall beyond. "Besides, this isn't a time for personal grudges. Not when the Lady is on her deathbed. Boggle?"
A pop signaled the appearance of a house elf. "Miss Rachel. Sir. You bes expected. Mistress be in her suite upstairs."
Snakes and morbid paintings abounded in the stairwell, reminding Marcus with every step that he was venturing deeper and deeper into the lair of one of the Darkest witches alive. He, and most of the Light he was sure, had grown up on horror stories of the Lady Black. A killer who dedicated her murders to Death itself, an assured Dark Lady who had managed to hide herself behind the Ministry's influence. All lies according to Rachel, and of the two of them he could admit that she was the only one who knew the former Lady of House Black personally and was probably the better judge of her character. It was still hard to shake off prejudices that had lasted for generations.
They reached the top floor and a door that stood cracked open, and his wife raised a hand to knock before they were interrupted by a creaky voice. "Come in, Rachel."
He glanced at her only to see her shake her head. "She always knows everything that happens in this place. You get used to it."
Behind the door was a room that had obviously been expanded to allow everyone within to be comfortable. The largest portion of the crowd was the Blacks, of course, though he could also see Rachel's parents sitting and talking with the current Head of the House. Also in attendance was a set of blonds that could only be the head of the Lovegood clan and the more recognizable Lord Davis and his children, longtime allies of the Black family.
"Rachel. Come here, my dear." Rachel approached the white-haired woman lying in the bed, and despite the matriarch's milky eyes she showed no hesitation in reaching up and grasping her hands. "I had hoped you would be here, too. That must be your beau, then?"
"No, Lady Jen. He's my husband, as you well know. He hasn't been my beau in three years."
"How would I know? I'm just an old woman. I can't know everything, especially about a man I've never met." She winked at Rachel, the conspiratorial grin on her face one that would belong on a woman a century younger. "A Longbottom, wasn't it? And he's here with you. Courage grew in that family over the generations."
Marcus could not tell for sure if that was supposed to be a compliment or an insult, but he nodded his head toward her anyway. She probably did not see it, but considering how she seemed to be preternaturally aware of what was going on, he would never bet his last galleon on it.
"Head Priestess?" asked a brown-haired man who had been sitting out of sight behind the contingent of Blacks. He looked familiar in a vague manner, though Marcus knew he had never laid eyes on the man. Some of those features looked extremely similar to his best friend's, Toby Granger. One of the 'Dark Grangers', perhaps? Even growing up with Toby and having Sunday lunches at their estate, he still did not know any of the details of the schism within that family other than the Light Grangers blamed it on the Blacks. "Is there anything else you wish me to convey?"
"No, Dante, that will be sufficient. Ernest knows what our flock needs in order to growing. There is a reason I passed my responsibilities on to him." The priest or attendant or whatever he was for Death's cult nodded and departed with a few muttered words.
"Polaris." The current Lord Black, grandson to the famous matriarch, took a few steps closer and knelt at the side of her bed. "I must admit, I had my doubts when I abdicated my position to you. You were young, hot-headed, impulsive."
Marcus felt his eyebrows rise. Polaris Black was widely known to be a cold, calculating wizard. Snakes and sharks could learn from him. And yet this woman was calling him hot-headed and impulsive?
"I have endeavored to grow past the failings of my younger self," Polaris said.
"In that, child, you have succeeded beyond your or my wildest expectations. There is no one in whose hands our family would be safer. I am proud of you, Polaris. It is up to you now to keep this circus we call a family in line."
"A greater challenge you have never given me, but I shall do my best."
She smiled at him before giving him a light push back toward the rest of the family. "Ilya, attend me."
"I am ever at your side, Gran," spoke a young woman, taking Polaris's place.
The matriarch's expression shifted too quickly for Marcus to make sense of before another smile, sharper than the one she gave Polaris, took its place. "Ilya. You are so much like Christiana that it hurts. She would be so proud of you were she still among us."
"I hope so."
"I know so. You grow more and more like your mother as the years pass. I, too, could not be prouder of you." There was a significance here that Marcus knew he was missing, for despite the comments none of the other Blacks seemed congratulatory or envious. If anything, most of them seemed wary. At least the Lovegoods and Davises seemed as equally confused as he was.
The former Lady Black slipped a silver ring from her left hand and placed it on the girl's. "You know what you must do. Pa kite Baron an bliye, epi pa bliye benediksyon li bay yo."
"Never, my lady."
She patted the girl's hands. A bird flapped into the room, and at first Marcus thought it was a dove before it landed onto the woman's chest. Doves did not bear black stripes. Instead it was a raven, one old enough that much of its plumage had lost its color. The matriarch sighed and ran one finger through its breast feathers. "My time has come, I'm afraid. I must depart to Death's side."
"Do you wish us to give you privacy in which to rest?" asked Polaris.
The woman chuckled, and the bird began to glow with an eldritch light. A second later, that light flickered into blue and white flames. "I will be gone before you could clear the room."
Those flames roared with hunger and poured forth over the woman. In moments she was obscured, but she gave no scream or sound of pain as her skin and bones alit like kindling. The flames twisted upon themselves, collapsing instead of spreading, and from deep within the flames Marcus could start to see an image of a younger woman with head full of black hair. The vision wavered as the fires stretched again, unfurling into large wings and a head with a coal-black eye.
He was not the only one to gasp, though perhaps for a different reason. There was no possible way that he was watching the birth of a phoenix, and especially not with the death of one of the Darkest women to ever walk the earth.
The firebird opened its beak and let out a triumphant shriek. A single flap of its wings lifted it off the bed. The flames from which it was made lost their form and spiraled inwards. Like the ouroboros of legend, they consumed themselves.
And then there was nothing left.
Last Creole Corner: "Do not let the Baron be forgotten, and do not forget the blessings he bestows."
I have no plans at this moment to write anything about what happened in the century prior to the epilogue, though we'll see what my muse says. This just felt like the appropriate point in which to end the story.
It has been a joy and an honor to write this saga and share it with you, and I am thankful for every review and message you guys have sent me. I am a much better writer today than I was when I first set Jen's story to the page, and it is all thanks to you.
Now, just because this story is done does not mean that I'm done writing. Far, far from it. As I think I've mentioned before, my next project is "Eternal Fantasy", and I've already posted the prologue slash first chapter for that. I hope to see you there.
Silently Watches out.