31 October 1981

Voldemort's spirit flew, shrieking like a firebell, from the ruin of the Potters' tidy cottage. Harry Potter lay sobbing in his crib. Lily, his mother, lay dead on the floor.

No one noticed Death, fuming in the shadows of Harry's demolished nursery.

The demise of both Potters was all correct and in order. The survival of baby Harry was preordained at the highest level, although Death had been notified that his path would cross the child's again. All he had to do was wait.

No, the Potters weren't his problem. His problem was the audacity, insolence, and inconceivable idiocy of one Tom Marvolo Riddle.

Every missed appointment was a thumb in Death's spectral eye-socket. But this one was special. This one would require his utmost patience and cunning. No falling brick or last-minute barbecue explosion could balance this particular book.

Every scrap of Riddle's mutilated soul would have to be reaped, and Death unfortunately could not break the spell binding those scraps to the material world. (Wretched spell! He collected every Horcrux and its owner in the end; why, why did they persist in making them?)

As if left behind specifically to mock him, a tiny fragment of Riddle's leprous soul remained in the room, gleaming through the blood sheeting down the Potter child's face. Head wounds always bleed terribly, and Death knew the child would survive, but really there was quite a mess.

And that damn bit of soul twinkled at him evilly. He couldn't recover it without killing the child, and the child's time was most certainly not now.

Death sighed. He had been suffering from ennui, every immortal being's curse, and at least this terrific cock-up would pose a challenge.

Sadly, his plotting would have to wait until Riddle regained a human form. Or … some approximation of human, at any rate.

Voldemort stretched out one spidery hand, admiring the blackened nails. Yes, this new body would serve him very well. He'd tried charm and cunning, as Tom Riddle; now he could fully unleash his venomous power. He did miss his thick, wavy hair, and the less said about his nose the better, but in all things could have gone much worse. Look at Wormtail, for Circe's sake.

He had solid plans to deal with the Ministry, Harry Potter was for the moment not his problem, and Lucius Malfoy was a delightfully terrified host. Voldemort opened the French doors leading to the master suite's balcony and took a single step into the crisp morning air.

As soon as his foot touched stone, the entire balcony crumbled. Without his cobra-like reflexes, the man who used to be Tom Riddle surely would have fallen several stories to the courtyard below.

After a few rounds of Crucio to the soles of Lucius's feet, Lord Voldemort graciously accepted a new suite of rooms.

Draco Malfoy was an obnoxious little twat, but watching him learn to respect his elders was mildly amusing. Voldemort couldn't wait to see what Bellatrix made of him.

Speaking of Bella, Operation Jailbreak was taking longer than expected. It was August, and Voldemort was still relearning how to fly. Not that anyone dared comment on that fact.

Draco had thrown a tantrum in his father's study upon learning that his Quidditch pitch was now Voldemort's aerial arena. Unfortunately, the Dark Lord happened to be perusing the library and overheard the brat shrieking about Slytherin's odds of winning the Quidditch Cup if their Seeker failed to practice all summer.

Post-tantrum, the Malfoy scion enjoyed a refreshing nap via magically induced coma for several weeks. In that time span, Voldemort moved from levitation to short flights to increasingly ambitious heights.

On one such flight, as he rocketed straight up before cruising comfortably on a warm current of air, Voldemort was admiring the English countryside when suddenly an albatross dive-bombed his skull. The damn bird split his scalp, blood streamed into his eyes, and Voldemort was stunned and blinded in the space of ten seconds.

Unable to hold onto his happy thoughts (literally how the spell worked, a bit of whimsy that no one save for Severus Snape had ever guessed), Voldemort plummeted to the ground like a huge dead crow.

When he splashed into a cow-pond, the Dark Lord could have sworn he heard a resonant, otherworldly groan.

"Who sent the Dementors after Potter?" the Dark Lord hissed.

Everyone seated in the dining room froze.

"Allow me to make myself clear." As Nagini reared up at his side, Voldemort was fairly certain that at least two of his minions lost bladder control. He made a note to Crucio them after supper. "Any person who takes any such drastic action on the boy does so at the cost of his or her own life. Potter is mine to kill. Am I understood?"

There was a low chorus of agreement.

He nodded imperiously. "Now that my Death Eaters have gathered –"

His crimson eyes widened. Lucius glanced nervously at his wife.

"Is there shellfish in this soup?"

"No, my lord," Narcissa said calmly. "We had shellfish and strawberries banned from the manor before your arrival."

"Then why, Lady Malfoy, is my throat closing up?"

For some reason, Peter Pettigrew always carried an Epi-Pen. He was spared, for once, from the generous administration of Crucio that followed.

(Death stamped his feet in rage, resolving to make the vermin's death both painful and horribly ironic.)

Lord Voldemort exercised an unusual degree of caution for the next several months. Nevertheless, he managed to slip on Floo powder and knock himself silly on a hearthstone; choke on a fishbone, a bite of apple, and a sip of red wine (on three separate occasions); get so twisted up in his green silk sheets that he would have suffocated had Nagini not somehow untwisted him; and nearly find himself minus a head after an oddly quiet helicopter snuck up on him whilst flying one day.

He was beginning to suspect some variety of bad-luck curse, perhaps by way of sympathetic magic, and was racking his brains for which of his belongings Dumbledore might have discovered. Lucius Malfoy had informed him, under duress, of his diary's gruesome fate in the basilisk's fangs. In return, Voldemort put him and Narcissa in charge of wrangling Bellatrix for her first few months out of Azkaban.

Without magic, naturally. Given her fragile state.

He exercised his ire further by charging Lucius and Bella with recovering the prophecy. Lucius would fail – he was destined to failure, born only to lick boots, sire an heir, and serve his betters as a living bank vault – and Bella would ensure the mission's success.

But things didn't quite work out as planned in the Ministry for Magic. Tom Riddle fought for his life, perhaps for the first time since the orphanage, and escaped Albus Dumbledore.

The instant he reappeared in the Malfoys' dining room, Voldemort slipped and brained himself on a hearthstone again.

"He's growing paranoid," declared Severus Snape, pacing around the Headmaster's office. His keen eye noted that several spindly instruments were missing from their usual posts.

"Tom has ever expected a dagger in his back," Albus murmured. "You must be very careful, Severus."

Snape shook his head. "He doesn't fear betrayal. There have been … accidents … ever since his resurrection. Slips and falls, choking at dinner – I myself performed the Heimlich Charm on two separate occasions – a few near-fatal encounters that he has not seen fit to share with the rest of us. Narcissa told me they've had to call in a private healer on half-a-dozen occasions."

Dumbledore glanced at his bookshelves. "I feel as though I'd heard this story before. Nature seeks a balance. If one has cheated Death, as Tom Riddle certainly has …"

"… Death has his ways of collecting," Snape finished. "Perhaps Mr. Potter is not the so-called Chosen One, after all."

His friend and mentor winced. "You've heard the prophecy, Severus. If Death is to claim Tom Riddle, he must work through the only person who can vanquish Lord Voldemort once and for all."

An icy breeze sprang up, extinguishing the torches and clattering the windows in their frames. Fawkes woke and shook out his feathers before hunching back down on his perch.

"Bloody Scotland," Severus muttered, wrapping his cloak tighter.

The Headmaster looked thoughtfully at his wand.

He was aware that the Potter family held his cloak. Death had whispered in Albus Dumbledore's ear, convincing him to borrow the Cloak days before Voldemort's visit to Godric's Hollow, using knowledge of the Stone as a lure.

With the Cloak, Lily and Harry, if not James, could have easily hidden that night. Unbelievably foolish of James Potter to give up their best back-up plan, but then he wasn't known for careful planning. The event had been fated, in any case.

Were it Death's wife and child, had he been granted a wife and child, he would have kept the secret himself. In another secret-kept location, far away from his family. And he would have died before giving up either the secret or a foolproof method of concealment, like his cloak.

Those who won precious things often failed to keep them.

In any case, Death took a jaunt to Little Hangleton (delightful name), dug up a ring guarded with many inventive curses, and reclaimed his Stone.

He burned the hovel to the ground with a lightning strike. The next day, as Voldemort took a cautious walk around the Malfoy grounds, another bolt from the blue struck a boulder directly in his path. It would have been Tom's skull, had he not paused to dust off his robes.

Death used the Stone to question Tom Riddle's victims, seeking to unearth every last Horcrux.

An Albanian peasant told him about the diadem, although the tree where it had been concealed was no longer standing.

Regulus Black had a heart-wrenching tale about the locket. Death well remembered Black's death, which had seemed so unnecessary. Why could the House Elf not simply Apparate with his master? Even a short apparition, say to the rocks outside the cave, would have saved them both.

The fragment of Tom Riddle's soul that the Diary kept was most informative. Apparently he'd planned to make six Horcruxes. In exchange for an extra hour of peace on the material plane, the teenaged Riddle described his older self's plan for four Founders' heirlooms and speculated on what other objects might have caught his fancy.

He was wholly at ease with the knowledge that he was ratting out his older self to Death. There was no mystery as to why. Riddle openly resented his truncated life as a sentient Horcrux, and he especially resented sharing in Voldemort's punishment in the afterlife – whatever that may be.

"Technically, I never murdered anyone," the shade argued. "Myrtle Warren's death was a mistake – I told my Basilisk not to kill, or else they'd close the school. I had to prove I was the Heir of Slytherin so Abraxas Malfoy would stop short-sheeting my bed …"

Death listened to Riddle whinge for an extra quarter of an hour – he could be generous, on occasion – before sending his soul back to whatever torment it was so desperate to avoid. Hellfire, biting insects, an eternity of listening to his own gripes and moans, whatever.

Not his department.

The living Lord Voldemort was having a very good day.

Albus Dumbledore had died unexpectedly, from unknown causes. (Severus Snape indicated that it may have been poisoning, and implied that he, the Potions Master, had deliberately failed to save him. Voldemort already trusted the younger Slytherin implicitly, but icing on the cake was always nice.)

Potter was devastated, the younger Malfoy dutifully reported. (Voldemort realised with a start that he'd completely forgotten his original revenge-on-Lucius plan, which involved sending the Malfoy heir on a suicide mission to assassinate Albus Dumbledore. Needlessly complicated, upon reflection, so it was just as well that he'd forgotten …)

(… to be quite candid, after multiple head injuries Voldemort felt lucky to remember his own name. Especially since no one ever said it aloud.)

Dumbledore's funeral had been held on school grounds, Draco further reported. There was one very odd moment near the end, when the elderly wizard's wand mysteriously levitated out of his desiccated corpse-hands and disappeared into thin air, but otherwise it was as saccharine and vomit-inducing as Voldemort had imagined it would be.

Now it was summer again. He secretly loved sun-bathing on his balcony, warming his blood and getting a very slight tan. There had been no life-threatening accidents for several months.

At that moment, Death was talking with Hepzibah Smith's House Elf, and then with Smith herself. Both shades wept and hugged one another, and it was all very touching. He was no closer to discovering where Hufflepuff's Cup might be, or so he thought until, with the House Elf's prompting, Smith suddenly recalled that the blood of a direct descendant could be used to materialise the Cup from wherever it might be.

"It's inlaid with unicorn horn, plated over with gold," Smith told him. "The drinker can never be poisoned, and there are other healthful properties – if you're injured, a healing potion drunk from the Cup will rescue you from the brink of death, begging your pardon. Find one of Helga's descendants, mix a few drops of their blood in with unicorn water in a silver chalice at the full moon, and the chalice will swap places with the Cup."

Death thanked both women, and they faded away holding hands.

Now to find a descendant of Helga Hufflepuff's …

Zacharias Smith was not a nice person. He'd been a fussy baby, a sullen toddler, and a bullying child before reaching his full potential as a jackass teenager. He was a blatant coward who was somehow still full of self-importance.

Death took a petty pleasure in tripping Zacharias Smith with the butt of his scythe. Smith split his scalp on the castle floor, and it was easy to siphon off a vial of bright red blood while he screamed like a stuck pig.

Head wounds, Death thought sagely, and glided through an outer wall.

He was glad to leave Hogwarts Castle for the Forbidden Forest. So much ambient magic made his teeth hurt, and he'd never been a fan of ghosts (or poltergeists either). Anything he couldn't reap gave him the willies.

He had considerable difficulty convincing a unicorn to hold still long enough to dip its horn in the silver chalice. Finally he chased a young stallion to exhaustion and explained the situation.

Once the beast understood that Death was after Tom Riddle, he cooperated and insisted on giving more. Death accepted his gift of twenty strands of tail-hair and a vial of silvery blood and apologised for the chase. Seeing the surprise on people's (and creatures') faces in response to his moments of kindness was one of his few joys.

If there is a battle on castle grounds, the unicorn thought at him, be sure to alert the herd. We will fight to the death to avenge our fallen sisters.

Will do, Death thought back. It would be foolish not to. As he'd read in The Chronicles of Narnia – the last one, his favorite, where he enjoyed a starring role – unicorns are a force to be reckoned with in battle.

Death was shadowing Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, and Ron Weasley. They were in hiding at No. 12 Grimmauld Place, so shadowing them was very dull.

He was in possession of three Horcruxes: the Locket, the Cup, and the Ring. All had been de-souled with extreme prejudice. Now they were just priceless artefacts.

Tom Riddle, version 1.0, had wanted to make the Basilisk into a Horcrux following the death of Myrtle Warren. He said that his better judgment led him away from creating a living vessel for his precious soul.

"Given my older counterpart's mishandling of our immortality, I believe that my – his – better judgment was sheared away several Horcruxes past," Riddle told Death, who had to agree.

Aside from Potter, the accidental living Horcrux, Riddle hypothesised another: a large snake, as like to a basilisk as Voldemort could find.

So. The Diary, the Cup, the Locket, the Ring, Potter's scar, and a very big snake. Plus the missing Diadem, and the largest piece of soul that was Voldemort. All accounted for.

Why was Death concerned with the three teenagers, then?

Morale was at rock-bottom. Dumbledore had died without a plan. He had failed to locate another Horcrux after the Diary. Granger was brewing Liquid Luck, which Death considered cheating, and Weasley and Potter were butting heads like young bulls. On an unusually interesting day, Weasley stormed out of the house and was instantly captured by Death Eaters.

(Voldemort would suffer an extra-painful death for that insult. "Death Eaters" – what the hell, Tom Riddle? Although the Dark Mark was a reasonably terrifying emblem … he liked the snake particularly. But he did wonder whether Tom Riddle understood that the skull, symbolising his followers, was not actually eating Death, the venomous snake. Death had taken over and nested inside the skull. The skull itself was stone dead. Because it was a skull.)

Death knew very well that Weasley had a long, dull life ahead of him, so he stayed with Potter and Granger. It was an exciting day when they danced to Nick Cave, a favorite of Death's, and finally discovered their mutual compatibility. While they were ensconced in one of the bedrooms upstairs, Death had tea in the kitchen and spoke with Kreacher, the House Elf who had given him the Locket months earlier in exchange for a few kind words from Master Regulus, whose shade reassured him that Kreacher was not in any way at fault for his demise. Death kindly kept his own thoughts to himself.

The elf was babbling on about Master Regulus and his adventures at school, and how they'd discovered that Regulus could call Kreacher to the Come-and-Go Room and Kreacher could pop into Hogwarts, which was otherwise warded against uninvited elves.

The name tugged at something in Death's memory. A gigantic storeroom he'd visited once, in which a tower of splintery desks had fallen upon an unlucky student attempting to hide a failed breeding experiment. A cross between a Doxy and a Bowtruckle, if he recalled …

Why, a student could hide anything there.

The Diadem was his. Death lifted it to his grinning mouth, and the ring of yellowed teeth had barely touched the metal when Riddle's soul broke free.

He pinched the struggling, shimmering scrap between thumb and bony forefinger, and it vanished into the aether.

Death stood for a moment in thought, then slowly crowned himself with Ravenclaw's Diadem.

Outlandish, brilliant ideas flooded his mind. He could kill anyone, anywhere. No one would ever escape his grasp again.

A falling fire-escape ladder. A set of kitchen knives. A woodchipper, a sheet of glass, a tanning bed, a nail gun, a metal pole, a bit of pipe, a cherry-picker, a flying tire …

When he lifted the Diadem from his brow, Death realised he'd been standing there for … hours? Days? Long enough that, had he been human, he would have soiled himself and perhaps died of thirst. A drift of mice and insects lay dead at his feet.

Mine, he thought, touching the metal. The wrought silver turned black as plague. My Diadem.

The New and Improved Deathly Hallows: The Stone, the Wand, the Diadem.

Potter could keep the Cloak, he thought magnanimously. Poor little bugger would need it.

Weasley had been ransomed back to his family. Potter and Granger were now exceedingly boring, making all manner of lovesick sounds for hours on end, so Death opted to stay in Malfoy Manor.

Voldemort had been lulled into a false sense of security. Now knowing why all his deathly efforts had failed, Death was content to wait until the Potter boy appeared as the instrument of Tom Riddle's doom. He could work through preordained channels.

He was after the final Horcrux, save Potter.

Nagini was fanatically devoted to her master. She was a crossbred venomous constrictor, an unholy abomination, and suffered from myriad conditions including dysplasia and scale rot. She was extremely fussy with her food, and while she could (and did) eat humans for show at Tom Riddle's command, she always vomited them up afterwards. On two memorable occasions, the humans were not quite dead. Neither the young man nor the middle-aged woman were on his list, so Death resuscitated them and even aided their escape.

It had been rather fun, playing hero, though neither human fully recognised his presence. They were dazed and covered in snake saliva, so he forgave them their lack of perception. The woman had thanked Severus Snape just before Apparating to safety, once Death escorted her to the edge of the Malfoy grounds. Death supposed that Snape echoed his own intimidating presence, if only slightly.

Still, as Death was well aware, all good things must come to an end. On a warm day in late April, as Nagini bathed on a rock in the pale English sunshine, Death unceremoniously brought down a tree branch and broke her back. The bit of Riddle's soul that escaped managed to flee through a pile of cedar mulch.

Death's curses startled several deer into leaping away through the trees. When he finally caught up to the soul, he stomped it into fragments and watched them fade away.

The battle was at Malfoy Manor. Death was a natural showman himself, and he would have been gravely disappointed had the last grand setpiece been, say, the Dursleys' house in Little Whinging.

(He was mildly let down not to see the unicorn herd in battle. A horn through the chest would have been a fantastic end for Tom Marvolo Riddle, perhaps mid-monologue or just as he was about to cast a final curse at Harry Potter.)

But still … giants! Trolls! Fawkes the Phoenix, bursting from nothingness to spirit away Severus Snape, who had just turned coat and killed three Giants! Betrayals and true loyalties revealed, humans driven berserk, Bellatrix LeStrange blown to bloody bits by Augusta Longbottom, Nymphadora Tonks rescuing her sane aunt from Fenrir Greyback's jaws as her husband put him down like a rabid dog, and a duel to the death between Tom and Harry.

At the exact right moment, Death materialised over Riddle's shoulder. Harry gaped in shock just long enough for Tom to deliver the Killing Curse.

Both wizards fell to the ground in a stupor. Neither side was yet aware that one or both of their champions had prevailed. Battle raged on around them as Harry slowly stood, pointed his wand at Tom's prone body, and said: "Rictusempra Maxima."

Death decided that Harry Potter deserved the kill. Tom Riddle died as he never had lived: convulsing with mirth until his lungs exploded.

Tom Riddle had imagined the afterlife as a train station. Grossly unimaginative, but Death didn't really mind. He enjoyed visiting his trains. His favorite was embellished with a cowcatcher in the form of a gigantic skull.

There were eight soul-pieces in all. The biggest one, Diary Tom, organised the others by size. Voldemort was the smallest but for one, roughly toddler-sized. The very smallest was the scrap from Potter's scar.

I hope you're all properly ashamed of yourselves, Death told them. This is not how the game is played.

Diary Tom rolled his eyes, but seemed very slightly chastened. The others sat around sullenly, made a rude two-fingered gesture, or continued to moan in a disgusting red heap on the floor.

Death worked his way up the line, least to greatest. Toddler Voldemort tried to run, but at the wave of a skeletal hand, he faded to nothing.

When he was the last, Diary Tom spoke. "D'you think I'll have a chance to redeem myself? Any chance at … not an eternity of torment?"

I truly can't say, Death said. But I think ... yes, I think you're big enough to ride the train.

Tom smiled – that disarming, all-too-charming grin – and said: "Well. That's good enough for me."

Better than you deserve after all this trouble, Death said. But these things are not my department.

He turned away, already laying glorious plans. He gloated over his new Diadem, wondering vaguely if he was due for a vacation. He'd heard Paris was lovely in the springtime.

The train whistle sounded. Young Tom Riddle waved from an open window as Death strolled away.