Although it was March, a raging blizzard was sweeping through the city. People only went outdoors if they had to, hurrying through their errands to get back into the relative warmth of their homes.
For the three remaining members of the Magic Army, there was no heat and the dilapidated, bomb-dusty flat in a collapsed building was not their home. Alexander McElroy, Sergei Dolohov, and Jakub Paweza could not return to their homes, ever. They were all wanted for the murder of Albus Dumbledore.
The three young men sat on the mottled wooden floor around a dying fire. Their robes, worn continuously, were torn, filthy, and barely provided any warmth. Their faces were so dirty that they could hardly recognize each other. Alexander often mixed up his two blonde Eastern European comrades.
"Sergei, light the fire, will you?" he muttered to the man next to him.
"I'm Jakub," the man replied carelessly; there was hardly a point in bothering to correct him anymore. "Incendio!"
The men were quiet for another half hour, basking in the light and warmth of the newly blazing orange fire.
Alexander was debating whether or not to pull his boots off to try and dry out his socks. They'd gotten wet earlier when he'd marched through the snow to find some food or money some careless muggle may have left. Since his boots, like his robes, were in tatters, icy water had found its way to the bones of his feet quite easily.
"Shh!" Sergei said suddenly, pressing a finger to his lips even though nobody had been speaking. "Did you hear that?"
They all froze, holding their breaths. Alexander, who had a hand over his boot, ready to pull it off, leaned toward the door instinctively. Silence stretched on for another 20 minutes until their muscles relaxed in exhaustion. With a daily diet smaller than a street rat's, they all struggled to keep their physical strength. Luckily, in their determination to find their Leader, Gellert Grindelwald, their magical strength was almost unaffected.
"It was probably just another wall crumbling," Jakub said at last. "Building's about to go any second."
"Do you reckon we should head back east?" Sergei asked. "They still can't be so watchful after all this time…"
"No, no, it's much more dangerous," Jakub told him. "They're still uncovering secrets of the regime. I still can't even write to my mum." He bit his lip, thinking about his mother and how her every move was being watched by the Ministry of Poland. None of them could take the risk of contacting their families.
Alexander's own mother was also in London, a mere 20 or so blocks away from them at the moment, with his gran, sister, and brother. He'd grown up on these streets, his routine remarkably similar to what it was now—foraging for food, searching for direction. He was grateful that they'd survived the muggle bombs, but that was the only highlight of his childhood, that and caring for his little sister. A pang shot through his body when he thought of his family for too long.
"Alright, I'm taking my boots off," he announced, removing them with force.
Jakub and Sergei groaned. "Might as well drop one of those muggle chemical bombs," Sergei said, wrinkling his nose in disgust as the smell of wet, unwashed socks filled the room. "What do they call 'em? Atom bombs?"
"Oh, shut up," Alexander replied, but he was smirking in amusement. "It smells worse when you pull your trousers down."
"Please, when's the last time you even got close to a bar of soap? In '45, I reckon."
Jakub, who'd been chuckling along, suddenly grew quiet and fearful.
"What's wrong, mate?" Alexander whispered.
"I heard something." Jakub's blue eyes were wide and his face paler than usual. He clasped his hand around his wand, about to stand up.
The creaky door was thrown off its hinges and Ministry wizards flooded the room at once, wands pointed at the three boys. "Expelliarmus!"
"Do not fire!" one yelled at Jakub, the only one who'd held onto his wand. Alexander's and Sergei's were now in the hands of an official.
"Stupefy!" Jakub yelled in response. A shield charm was cast and his spell bounced off over his shoulder, narrowly missing his face as he ducked. Another official seized the opportunity to manually snatch Jakub's wand from his hand. Now unarmed, the three were pushed together and on their knees.
"Incarcerous!" a chorus rang out behind them, and ropes tied their hands together, linking them to each other's.
Marius Hewes, a lieutenant-type official, stood in front of them imperiously, pointing his wand at each of their faces in turn. "You filthy rats are under the arrest for the murder of Albus Dumbledore. Crouch! Put those wands in the evidence sack."
"Yes, sir," an eager young wizard said nearby.
Hewes bent down so that he was eye-level with Alexander. Although the boy was indeed filthy, his handsome olive-skinned face now hollowed out and dark curls a bushy, matted mess, he was still recognizable. Hewes looked into his dark eyes and said, "We are going to Kiss your wretched life goodbye, boy. Crouch! You know what to do."
"STUPEFY!" Crouch bellowed, and Alexander's world turned black.
He woke up strapped to a chair, drool plastered against his chin. Looking around, he saw that he was in the Ministry of Magic, in a court room between Sergei and Jakub.
Hewes tucked his wand away and took his seat next to Leonard Spencer-Moon, the Minister of Magic. On the stands next to them, about a dozen blue-robed wizards and witches stared down at the three accused with blatant loathing.
"Alexander McElroy, Sergei Dolohov, and Jakub Paweza, you are being charged with the murder of Albus Dumbledore." Hewes turned to Spencer-Moon. "Minister, these three are the last and most vicious of Grindelwald's ruthless Magic Army. Not only did they capture Dumbledore in a weakened state after the duel, they tortured him after casting the Killing Curse. This Unforgivable Curse was cast by the Magic Army's leader, Alexander McElroy at the tender age of 22, that one there in the middle."
Every single enraged eyeball in the room was on Alexander shivering in the wooden chair, shoeless, with his wrists bound in chains. Though he wasn't feeling very defiant in his current state, he hardened his face and held eye contact with Spencer-Moon. Go on, throw us in Azkaban, he thought. We will emerge victorious!
"Not only did they murder in cold blood one of the most brilliant wizards of the century, all three of them have tortured countless muggles just for fun," Hewes continued, his round eyes gleaming. "And they hand-delivered Aurors from all over Europe for Grindelwald to throw away to Nurmengard! This is why we must keep utmost vigilance against Dark magic!" There was spit flying from his mouth as he paced in front of Spencer-Moon's podium, no longer speaking to just the Minister but to everyone. "Dark wizards are only after power and destruction!"
Many of the blue-robed wizards and witches were nodding in agreement. Spencer-Moon, however, held up a patient hand. "Thank you, Marius." To his credit, Leonard Spencer-Moon was a very fair wizard, even in the unfairness that came with running a magical society through wizarding and muggle wars running concurrently for almost his entire time in office. For many of Grindelwald's soldiers, he could almost understand the motive, the conquest for security. Not that Spencer-Moon was against Muggle relations himself, no sir, but Gellert Grindelwald was a very powerful and persuasive man. The Ministry could only hope such a man would not rise to power again for a very long time. It is for this reason that they had to crack down on Dark soldiers after Dumbledore's death. A sentence in Azkaban was too light, too risky.
The tired, white-haired Minister let out a sigh. "The Ministry will no longer take such atrocities lightly. Albus Dumbledore was a great, yet kind and wise man, and you three have snatched such a gem from our world." His voice grew heavier, touched with anger despite trying to speak neutrally. "Muggles are not destroying us. Grindelwald and his army have done much more damage to wizard-kind than any muggle ever will."
He turned to the blue-robed jury. "All in favor of guilty?"
Every single person raised their hand.
The Minister's face was not masked in hatred like the rest, only graveness. "Alexander McElroy, Sergei Dolohov, and Jakub Paweza, I sentence the three of you to the Dementor's Kiss, to be effective immediately."
A low sob escaped Jakub's lips as Spencer-Moon slammed his gavel against the podium.
Grim-faced, blue-robed wizards, one of them Barty Crouch, led them down to an empty stone hallway to a vast, cold room where three chained chairs and three Dementors waited. Each of the young men were lost in their minds, reflecting on their immediate fate.
"Any last wishes?" Crouch sneered, now more comfortable out of the watch of Hewes. "Rhetorical question, boys. I don't need to hear any sniveling."
No matter—the trio didn't feel much like talking, even if any of them could wrench their mouths open. Silent tears dripped off Jakub's cheeks while Sergei stood rigidly and proudly.
"Expecto Patronum!" A silvery fox sprang out of Crouch's wand and trotted around the room keeping the dark, hooded figures at bay as the remainder of the Magic Army were forced into the chairs.
As the icy chains wrapped around their arms, legs, and torsos, Alexander thought about his last wishes. He had many—that he could have found Grindelwald and restored the Army, that he could have recruited more soldiers, converted more to believers, controlled more muggles.
But his strongest wish of all was that he could go back just a day or two, or even just a few hours, and find the courage to sneak to his mother's flat to see her, his gran, sister, and brother one last time. Especially his sister, who was still sorting out all of the changes and losses in her young life. He wished he could have brought back glory to the McElroy name.
Stateira McElroy, a fifth-year prefect, sat at the Slytherin table in the Great Hall of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, picking at her breakfast and balancing her Charms textbook on her lap. Preoccupied with studying for OWLs looming ahead, she didn't notice the frequent glances her way by her fellow prefect, Alphard Black, and his good friend Abraxas Malfoy. Sometime during their fifth year, the Hogwarts students had started to transform and mature. However, this was not yet noticed by Stateira, who wasn't yet 16. She had other concerns, such as beating every poncey Gryffindor and Ravenclaw with Outstanding OWLs, which Headmaster Dippet would hopefully announce in September.
The morning post flew in, dropping parcels, letters, and newspapers to various students. Stateira wasn't expecting mail, as it had been ages since anyone had written to her, but she was unable to stop her head from lifting hopefully. After all, they'd had to sell her owl, Greta, for a few galleons to keep the flat, and Alex? Well, it would be too risky for him to write; what if they owl had gotten intercepted?
No, Stateira had to cut out the hopeful nonsense and focus on her studies. She read one sentence and looked back up sighing, unable to concentrate. Perhaps she would fare better at the library, but she only had an hour until her Charms lesson. It was at least a ten-minute walk to the library from the Great Hall, and that's if the stairwells weren't acting up. As her dark eyes scanned the tables, Stateira noticed something so odd that she was immediately jolted out of her thoughts. Every other student, or at least the majority, seemed to be looking at her and whispering amongst each other.
Perplexed, she turned to the nearest Slytherin sitting about a foot away, which was Alphard Black. Before she could open her mouth to ask what was going on, she noticed the Daily Prophet in his hands. DUMBLEDORE'S MURDERER CAUGHT AND CONVICTED was stamped across the page above three mugshots.
"Ooh, can I see that?" Stateira asked curiously, momentarily forgetting her surroundings.
"Erm, well…" Alphard began reluctantly, looking uncomfortable.
She frowned at him before looking back down at the paper. Then, the world stopped turning as she saw the black curls, tanned skin, and the dark eyes so very like her own in the middle photograph.
Abandoning all pretense, she snatched the paper from Alphard's hands. Her textbook slipped off her lap and crashed onto the floor, unnoticed, as her eyes scanned the paragraph under the pictures.
Alexander McElroy, aged 22, was the leader of Grindelwald's infamous Magic Army, and caster of the Killing Curse against Albus Dumbledore, aged 64… The three convicts were sentenced to the Dementor's Kiss… took place on 21 March 1947…
There was a horrible, piercing ringing in Stateira's ears. She could feel the dusty ink against her palms and her fingernails tearing through the soft paper, but she was unable to keep her fists from clenching. When she finally tore her eyes away from her brother's face, the first one she saw belonged to Antonia Longbottom, fourth-year Ravenclaw and Stateira's former best friend. Like Stateira, Antonia was clutching the Daily Prophet, staring in horror.
Robotically, casting her gaze down at her cold food, Stateira neatly folded up the newspaper and placed it gently on Alphard Black's lap. "Thank you, Alphard," she croaked, rising slowly from the table, careful not to make any sudden moves. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see, no, feel the disapproving glare of Professor Merrythought, and her hands curled into fists once more.
Get out of here, forget her, get out of here!
"McElroy?" Abraxas Malfoy called concernedly from Black's other side. "Are you alright?"
Stateira could barely hear him over the incessant ringing in her ears. The faces were blurring, the floor was humming under hear Mary Janes… Get out of here… Finally she unlocked a leg and took a step forward. Feeling many pairs of eyes on her, she calmly strode away from the Slytherin table toward the doors of the Great Hall, leaving her textbook forgotten under the table. Alphard Black picked it up and attempted to call to her, but Malfoy elbowed him and shook his head.
Once she was safely in the corridor, Stateira legged it to the first-floor bathroom, where she knew no one would enter. Everyone avoided that bathroom since the end of Stateira's first year, when a girl named Myrtle Warren was found dead. Headmaster Dippet and the other professors had told them she was killed by a rabid acromantula illegally owned by a third-year Gryffindor, Rubeus Hagrid. However, Malfoy and Yaxley claimed that Myrtle was killed by a monster that dwelled in the Chamber of Secrets, which could only be controlled by the heir of Salazar Slytherin. Since Hagrid was clearly not Slytherin's heir and his spider did not come from any chamber, few people believed that rumor. Nevertheless, the bathroom was avoided and abandoned.
Stateira locked herself in the farthest stall from the door, sat on the toilet seat cover, and collapsed into tears. One of her clenched fists, the left like always, made its way to her mouth on its own accord. Her lips parted and her teeth sank down around the first knuckle of her pointer finger. Even the taste of blood in her mouth wouldn't help her pull it away.
It was not Dumbledore she was concerned about. To her, the old Transfiguration professor was just that, a man who preferred Gryffindor kids over Slytherins, regardless of everyone's ravings about his brilliance. Anyway, he'd been dead for almost two years, his auburn hair and twinkling blue eyes dominating posters and magazines of all kinds. Even his last move, banishing Grindelwald to who-knows-where, had been honorable.
No, it was not the loss of Dumbledore but her brother Alexander that Stateira cried for. Alexander, who had worked long hours at Borgin and Burke's for money for food and rent, who had stood up to the Blood Traitor, who had fed his brother countless bottles when their mother was too distraught to rise, who had held his sister close when the bombs came, was gone. Maybe he was still alive, but not for long, and his soul was gone. Did it really matter if his body was alive or not? Her brother was gone.
Crying and biting through skin was no longer going to suffice. Her vision was blurring and every bone in her body shook as she rocked back and forth. The stall of the door was blasted off the hinges and Stateira's eyes snapped open momentarily.
Stop it… Control yourself, lass…
She could not—it was too late. The porcelain of the toilet cracked as she stood up and exited the stall. Immediately the mirror shattered, throwing shards of glass on the floor. Pieces of the sinks broke off, and water shot out from one of the taps. A conjured wind whipped the shards of glass and ceramic chunks into the air while the walls shook. Stateira was on her knees, howling, as the floor tiles shifted, the stall walls wavered…and then it was over. The girl opened her mouth, took a deep breath, and sucked in the magical energy into her lungs, nearly throwing herself flat on her back. Loud planks and clangs echoed through the bathroom as the glass and ceramic shards dropped onto the floor.
The ringing had subsided, leaving pure silence in its wake. Stateira stood up, knees cracking, her stockings and the bottom of her skirt and robes soaked with water. Her face was hardened, her dust-stung eyes blank. With a steady hand, she pulled out a handkerchief from the pocket of her robes and dabbed the tears off her freckled cheeks. Breathing evenly, without a glance at the rubble around her, Stateira McElroy turned and walked out of the bathroom, glass crunching beneath her feet.
The air outside was stifling, uncannily hot even for June, but inside the castle was cool and dark. It was officially the last day of term, but the Hogwarts Express had already left to London, so the majority of students had gone home for the summer, leaving the hallways empty. Tom Riddle was not a nostalgic man, but it was quite enjoyable walking down the corridors of Hogwarts again. He'd graduated in 1945, only two years ago, but he'd been busy those two years.
Not as busy as Alexander McElroy, he thought somewhat bitterly. McElroy, who had graduated in 1943, was not nearly as talented and intelligent as Tom Riddle, but nevertheless he'd managed to kill Dumbledore. He and Tom had only spoken directly once, outside of Hogwarts. In the summer of 1943, right before he departed to Eastern Europe, McElroy was invited to a supper at the Most Ancient and Noble House of Black. He'd spoken only of his devotion to Grindelwald, leaning back in his chair with a cigarette hanging out of the side of his mouth. Once in a while, he'd give it a rest and scold his first-year sister, who seemed to worship him almost as much as he worshiped Grindelwald. McElroy had nearly been expelled from Hogwarts in his fifth year for writing a 430-page manifesto on The Greater Good, the belief that wizards should be prioritized over muggles. The Black cousins, Cygnus and Orion, admired McElroy, but Tom did not. McElroy had spent his life bowing down to someone else.
If there was a touch of jealousy, it was very slight. Yes, Tom would have liked to be the one to kill Dumbledore. Be that as it may, McElroy had only made it easier for him. With both of them out of the way, Tom could execute his plans with minimal disruption.
After momentarily rehashing the details of his plans, always a pleasurable experience, Tom found himself in front of the stone gargoyle guarding the headmaster's office.
"Unity and peace," he told it, suppressing the urge to roll his eyes. The gargoyle jumped aside. Tom ascended the spiral staircase and knocked on the door.
"Enter!" he heard Dippet say.
The headmaster's office was exactly the same as when Tom had been there last in 1943, when he'd framed that dumb half-breed Hagrid for the mudblood's death. The memory brought a genuine smile to his face, which he aimed at Dippet as the older man stood in greeting.
"Ah, Tom Riddle, good to see you again!"
"You as well, sir," Tom replied, shaking his hand.
"You know, two years have passed since your graduation and you're still unrivaled! I've been waiting for another brilliant mind, but yours comes once in a blue moon, I suppose. Here, have a lemon drop." He slid a glass bowl filled with candy across the desk, which Tom ignored.
"Well, sir, I may have a solution to the lack of…excellence at Hogwarts."
Dippet raised his white-streaked grey eyebrows. "Oh? Do tell…"
"I've heard that Professor Merrythought is planning to retire. If you haven't got a replacement, I would be happy to fill the position."
"Ah, well…you would be the perfect candidate to teach Defense Against the Dark Arts." The old man scratched his head absentmindedly, looking away. "I can't think of anyone more qualified, except Galatea, of course…"
Tom sat patiently, waiting for him to get to the point. His foot lifted, ready to tap, but he held it in place.
"But the problem is…Galatea isn't retiring this year, or the next. She is thinking about going to 1950…"
Tom's plans could not wait until 1950. He knew his mind; if he did not start now, he'd consider the Horcrux route again. "Perhaps we could divide the classes? I could teach the younger years while Professor Merrythought takes the NEWT level." He would have preferred the older ones, having graduated with and recruited a couple of their siblings, but he was not in a position to bargain too strongly. Not yet.
"The other way around," Dippet muttered, tapping his chin and gazing somewhere past Tom's head. "You could take the NEWT students and Galatea can have the easier lessons…she's rather fond of the young ones…of course I'd have to keep her pay the same, but if Spencer-Moon keeps his promise to expand the education budget, it won't be an issue. Alright!" He stuck out his hand again. "Welcome back to Hogwarts, Professor!"
Against his will, Tom's eyes widened; he had expected to use more of his persuasion skills. He shook the old man's hand and smiled. Step one: complete. "Thank you very much, Headmaster."
Dippet waved a relaxed hand. "You're one of us now, Tom. Call me Armando."
After a lengthy discussion about procedure, Tom was again walking down the corridors. The teaching position offered two benefits: recruitment of students and the familiarity of his first home. Alas, these were only temporary, as he didn't plan on staying more than a few years.
For old time's sake, he decided to pop in the first-floor girls' bathroom and, unknown to all except him, the entrance to the Chamber. How powerful he'd felt upon learning that he was the heir of the noble Salazar Slytherin and not just some pitiable, half-blood orphan. None of his Knights would ever be as extraordinary as he; with the diary, he had power Grindelwald and Dumbledore had not. Now with his new plan, he thought as he pushed opened the door to the bathroom, he might not even need the diary. They would all worship the ground—
Tom stopped short, frowning as he looked around the bathroom. Someone—or something—had destroyed it. The entrance to his glorious Chamber was cracked and broken, the mirrors shattered into pieces. Yet he supposed it was better this way. Still no one would want to use this bathroom, let alone look for the entrance to the Chamber. Until one day far in the distance, when it would be opened again.