"Mr. Warrington is dead," Snape said.
It had been a week since the disastrous first duelling club session, and Warrington had been transferred to Saint Mungos. I was now in the Headmaster's office, facing Dumbledore, Snape and the Auror Moody.
"I had nothing to do with it," I said quickly. "He basically killed himself."
"That's what you say about everyone who dies around you, isn't it?" Moody said. He stared at me with his human eye, while his mechanical eye whirled wildly.
"You aren't bothered by his death?" Dumbledore asked.
"Should I be?" I asked. "In America, when people try to kill you defending yourself is allowed. I didn't do anything that would kill him, so why should I feel guilt?"
"How did he die?"
"The snakes were summoned from elsewhere," Moody said. "They had curses inscribed on them that made their venom impervious to wizardly healing. The boy died in pain."
"He meant that for me," I said quietly. "The Death Eaters meant that for me."
"It was perhaps a message," Dumbledore said. "One intended to encourage you to become more circumspect in your dealings."
"I AM circumspect!" I said. "I hadn't hurt anybody in months before Christmas."
"I'm not sure you understand what circumspect means," Moody said. "You take more risks than a Gryffindor."
"Did the boy say anything to you?" Moody asked.
"He said his father's friends taught him to make the circle. I'm assuming they taught him some of the other spells as well. Considering that the Death Eaters are the only people I've killed recently, I'm assuming his father was a Death Eater."
"Recently?" Moody asked, leaning toward me.
I rolled my eyes. "It's an expression. I'm eleven. How many people do you possibly think I could have killed?"
"I don't know," Moody said. "Why don't you tell me?"
"Less than you," I lied. "The important question is whether this was an escalation, or just them trying to save face given what's been happening recently."
"I'd have thought the first question on your mind would be whether you are being charged or not." Moody said.
"For defending myself in front of fifty witnesses?" I asked. I shook my head. "And if you were going to arrest me, I think you'd have brought more aurors."
"You think I need help bringing in a pipsqueak like you?"
"I think you know I wouldn't go down without a fight," I said. "And that I'd fight back even if Dumbledore here was trying to take me in."
I likely wouldn't stand a chance, not with the three of them standing in front of me, but I might be able to escape if I revealed my only trump card, my insects. The weather was starting to warm up, and I'd been intentionally breeding as many of them as I could in the out of the way places in the castle.
The number of bugs I could control was growing toward my old levels, although my multitasking still wasn't what it had once been. Also, while there were a lot of bugs in Hogwarts, it wasn't nearly the number that could be found in a shithole like Brockton Bay.
He stared at me for a moment, then nodded.
"There's some people in the Ministry who want to press charges, but they're clearly biased toward the Pureblood faction. The liberals still have control of the Wizengamot, and so nothing is going to be done."
That was probably going to irritate more than a few people, but it didn't bother me.
"I'm assuming that I'm still not a big priority for the Death Eaters," I said. "Since they're still using these low cost low risk strategies against me."
"Oh?" Snape asked.
"Getting an idiot kid to do their work for them isn't a strategy that is likely to work. But what did it cost them? Spend an hour teaching a kid a few spells... if he fails, then he wasn't a member of the team anyway. Maybe he gets lucky and succeeds. Maybe the girl kills him and she ends up in prison... these are cheap attacks that remind people that the Death Eaters are still relevant, even though they are currently on the run."
"You sound like you admire them," Moody said.
"I admire good strategy," I said.
"And what would you do, were you leading the Death Eaters?" Moody asked.
"I wouldn't attack anyone at all," I said. "I'd have my people start using the Imperius on everyone who was anyone in the government. Do the same to the people running the papers. The Wizarding world seems to be fairly credulous, so whoever controls the Ministry and the papers pretty much controls the country."
It was the nightmare the Protectorate had worried about incessantly. People who were under the control of Masters couldn't be trusted. There was a reason that Master-Stranger protocols had been invented.
"It wouldn't be as easy as that," Moody growled.
"You have contingency plans for when people fail to control someone," I said. I almost said that there were ways to make people disappear, but I saw Moody watching me closely, and so I chose to stay quiet.
"Most aspiring dark lords end up in Azkaban or dead before they get very far," Moody said. "It's not a profession to be envied."
"Because your own minions are always jockeying for your position and you can't trust anyone not to stab you in the back?" I asked. "Or because you've set yourself against the entire Wizarding world?"
"Both," he said.
"Well, I'm not planning to become a Dark Lady, so there is no reason to worry," I said loftily.
For some reason not one of the three seemed convinced. I felt a moment of irritation.
It had been harder to keep my temper lately. I worried a little; was it my new brain and new hormones making it harder to regulate things, or was it simply a function of being eleven years old and having more trouble controlling myself.
Or was it something deeper?
I'd seen heroes who'd been in fights with the Slaughterhouse, and sometimes there were long term effects. Post traumatic stress wasn't a pretty thing, and sometimes it took effect as anger; soldiers felt fear as often as anyone else, but they learned to focus it as anger. However, sometimes that fear manifested long after the danger had passed.
Did I need some kind of psychological treatment? Possibly.
Unfortunately there was no way I could trust any counselor in this world, muggle or not. I had too many secrets, and in a world where every wizard could mind control people with a flick of their wand, no counselor would be safe.
Discovering what I was might well be enough to have be declared a non-human, and I wasn't sure what rights I might have at that point. I was fairly certain that I would no longer be allowed to carry a wand, which would be the end of me.
Worse, if my bug control was discovered, then any adult wizard, and half the students at Hogwarts would be able to work around my defenses. I'd be dead within a month.
I wouldn't be able to get psychological treatment until my enemies were dead.
"Are they likely to come after me again soon?" I asked. "Because the smart play would be to attack when nobody expects it."
"I doubt that he really cared if you died or not," Moody said. "This was just a way of keeping his people in the limelight. It's well known that the Death Eaters don't like you; you've put your head in the noose too many times for it not to be noticed. In the bigger scheme of things, though, he's got a lot more to worry about than you."
"We'll stay vigilant just in case we are wrong, Miss Hebert," Dumbledore said. "I will do everything in my power to keep you safe."
"Have you found people for me to stay with over the summer then?" I asked. "Because it's only a couple of months away now."
"I have," Dumbledore said. "But I will keep it to myself. I trust my own occlumency, but leaving something that important to others would be foolish at this point."
"You could tell me," I said.
Knowing who I was to stay with would give me a chance to research them, and that would give me a chance to figure out how to work around them. It was frustrating being a child. In some ways Hogwarts was wonderful; in other ways it was like a prison.
"You have natural talent as an occlumens," Dumbledore said. "But it is inconsistent. I'm sure you would prefer not to face death eaters the moment you step off the train."
I stared at him.
"Why don't we do that?" I asked.
"I've pissed enough people off that there will likely be at least a few people waiting on the platform when we leave school. Avery is likely to be one of them, and he's probably mid-rank in the organization. With luck, they'll be more people there waiting to murder Potter."
"With Luck?" Moody asked.
"There are two ways to deal with an ambush," I said. "Well, three actually. You can avoid it entirely. You can ambush the ambusher, or you can power through it. The train station is a place you know Death Eaters will be waiting."
"Why are you so sure of that?" Dumbledore asked.
"Because Tom's organization is flailing right now," I said. "I wouldn't be surprised if he wasn't losing members... not the core fanatics, but the people on the outside. No terrorist organization can survive without help from the population. That's probably somewhat less true in the Wizarding world, but I'll bet there's a lot of sympathizers among the regular wizard."
The three of them glanced at each other.
"He needs a win," I said. "Something big to convince his followers that he's still relevant. Where better to attack than the train station."
"The place will be crawling with aurors," Moody growled.
"What do you want to bet that half of them get mind controlled or mysteriously reassigned right before school lets out?" I asked. "If he manages to kill me or Potter, he doesn't even have to make a big scene. It'll send the message that even in one of the safest places in Wizarding Britain that the Death Eaters can reach anyone."
"And there are wizards who will join up like sheep just because they are afraid," Moody said.
"I won't allow it," Dumbledore said.
"You are talking about using yourself as bait," he said. "I am not willing to take that risk, and for the moment I am your de facto guardian."
"There may never be another chance to make as big a strike on his organization," I said. "The raids on his safehouses are already tapering off, and he's only going to gain strength over the next year. He won't be nearly as desperate next year."
Moody stared at me with an unfriendly look.
"This isn't how a child your age should think," he said.
"I had a tough childhood," I said. "And it hasn't really changed all that much since I came here. It's actually calmer here than back at home."
"And America isn't a steaming pile of rubble," Moody asked.
"Well, I didn't know magic then," I said. "And there are limits to what a young girl can do."
"Are there citizenchip limits to who can be Minister for Magic?" I asked.
"What do you mean?" Moody asked.
"Well, in the states you have to be a natural born citizen to become president. Is it the same here?"
"No," Dumbledore said. "That would be covered in third year History of Magic."
"Never happened though," Moody said. "Won't happen either. Nobody would elect a foreigner."
"Why do you ask?' Snape asked suddenly.
"No reason," I said. I smiled innocently.
I was needling them for my own amusement. I had no intention of becoming Minister for Magic, but the look on Snape's face made it all worth it.
"Perhaps it is time for you to go back to class," Dumbledore said.
"Be careful," Moody said. "No place is safe!"
"Constant vigilance!" I replied, grinning at him.
I'd heard him muttering that a time or two, and the look on his face was worth it too.
As I left, I heard him muttering to the others, "That girl isn't right."
I listened to their discussion as I headed toward class. I kept an eye on my surroundings too; no point in getting murdered because I wasn't watching where I was going.
I saw Hermione running up.
"What did they want?" she asked.
"Warrington is dead," I said. "The snake venom was cursed so it couldn't be healed."
Her eyes went wide.
"That doesn't upset you?"
"Considering that he meant for me to get bitten, it does," I said. "His being dead bothers me less than you might think though. It was really the Death eaters who killed him."
I continued. "They sent him after me unprepared. I think they meant for me to kill him, so that I'd get sent to Azkaban."
Her eyes widened again.
"Are you?" she asked.
"I'd be moving a lot faster if I was," I said. "It was a clear case of self defense, and the Death eaters don't have the votes yet to overrule that."
"They're using the Imperius Curse on the aurors," I said. "It's only a matter of time before they go after the members of the Wizengamot. Having their own people declared innocent will get them a lot of power."
Truthfully, the only way to stop the Death eaters was going to be to kill as many of them as possible, and then cut the head off the snake. Given their ability to control people, their organization now was a lot like a hydra; cut one head off and two heads appeared in their place.
Hermione still seemed dazed at the news that Warrington was dead.
It had probably all seemed like a game to her before now. She hadn't been around for most of the attacks on me. She'd heard about them, but not even all of those; nobody knew about Filch, and the only ones who knew about the Death Eater attacks were probably the Death Eater children.
She's watched the fight between me and Warrington though, and no a boy she'd known was dead.
"We're adding some new members to the study group," I said.
Now that the dueling club was a thing, the Weasleys were enjoying their new status as the crack duelers of their year. They wanted to work even harder to stay ahead of everyone else.
"Who?' she asked.
"Potter," I said. "And the youngest Weasley."
"Him?' she asked disdainfully.
I shrugged. "Potter, George and Fred think they can keep him under control."
"He's got a big mouth," she said.
"It's not quite as important that we keep it secret as it was before," I said. "That's not to say I want anybody blabbing. But if he does start bragging to people, we'll find ways to deal with it."
"He won't like how you deal with it, will he?" she asked. Hermione sounded almost gleeful.
She had a mean streak buried deep down; possibly it was the reason that we got along as well as we did. For all that she liked to pretend to be a good girl, she had a ruthless nature that I sometimes felt a little guilty for exploiting.
In a better world, Hermione would have been allowed to get through school unmolested. She would have sunk or swam with her own charm. In all likelihood, she'd have kept her head down, made good grades, and then become successful in the Wizarding World. She might have been Minister for Magic.
However, this wasn't a world where she could afford to be a normal schoolgirl. She was going to have to fight in one fashion or another, sooner or later. Whether it was when Death eaters showed up at her door, or when they assaulted Hogwarts as the last stronghold in a Wizarding Britain that had otherwise been conquered, it was going to happen.
Helping her, and others like her learn to stay alive, that I couldn't regret. And if that took a certain degree of ruthlessness, then I'd foster that too.
There was all the time in the world to foster her gentler nature once Voldemort and his servants were dead and in the ground.
I'd put the idea in Dumbledore's head. While he was holding out based on morality, I suspected that Moody was a lot more pragmatic.
There would be complications, of course. Operational security was paramount. If the enemy learned that you planned to ambush their ambushers, they'd likely ambush you in return. That meant that operations would be limited to Moody and his team, and I had no idea how large that group was.
Moody probably kept them separate from everyone else; otherwise he was risking someone suffering from the Imperius.
Sooner or later they'd follow my plan, and maybe we'd finally be able to cut the head off the snake once and for all.