Dear readers,
I feel I owe you all an explanation. My sudden disappearance from writing was not planned; after the arrival of my eighteenth Birthday a month ago, I hit a deep realisation of how I want to live my life, so my Birthday present to myself was walking out the front door of my old house and never looking back. I'm currently in the UK again, facing new challenges, taking on new responsibilities, but despite a few troubles and setbacks, I honestly couldn't be happier.

My writing and your dedication to it has been at the back of my mind constantly over the last few weeks. I have all the newest chapters planned out, but not yet written. This four thousand word update isn't enough to make up for the time I've been away, but I want you to know that I'm eternally grateful for the patience and dedication you've all given me, even as TVoV grows to a slow closure. I hope you'll continue to enjoy my stories as you always have, for I'll continue to write them for a long time.

Thank you for your patience,
-Angstier


76 – Avery

Avery had never been good at latching his attention onto any situation for long. He sat slumped at a table full of Death Eaters, his eyes growing glassy as he listened to stories about the most recent crimes in England. He was here to bring news to the Dark Lord about a traitor he had silenced with Mulciber, but – likely due to the several drinks he had had already – he was finding it hard to remember what, exactly, the traitor had been named, and why it was so important for him to wait in this dark, icy entrance hall with the others.

"...but I strung them Muggles up," someone said confidently, "right there in the underground! Then I goes to Rosier, I goes – 'How do you reckon anyone'll ever find 'em here?' Do you know what he said to me? He said, 'With filth like that, I don't reckon it'll be long before someone smells 'em out, dead or alive!'"

Laughter broke out across the table; dark, muffled chortles. Avery found the corners of his lips twisting into a faint smile, but he wasn't sure why. He couldn't grasp the joke. The thought slipped away and he grew bored, his eyes unfocused on silver a goblet clutched between his cold fingers.

The Death Eaters were waiting in the freezing entrance of the Chimera Hideout, their small group crammed onto a single stone table that visitors were asked to sit at. It was the only seating area in the entire entrance hall, even with its vast corridors and high ceilings that echoed every small sound. The ceiling looming high above was too high to see and the edges of the room – if there were any – were distant and shadowy. Travers theorised that Dementors could be nearby, wandering the corners of the room and spreading this unnatural coldness. Nobody doubted the possibility.

In the last fortnight, Voldemort had tightened the security of all of his hideouts with neither a warning nor an explanation of why. Meetings were limited, reports had to be blunt, and only a handful of people ever seemed to see the Dark Lord anymore. When Death Eaters gathered around to give the latest news these days, they weren't allowed past the entrance hall. They had to speak to high-ranked followers who were flanked by several guards. The guards patrolled the corridors, wandering in and out of the mist nearby. It was unnerving, Avery thought.

If he didn't know any better, Avery would say Voldemort had become paranoid. In the last few weeks, he spent the majority of his time locked away in his safest hideout, speaking to hardly anyone, refusing all visitors, directing captured enemies to other locations. Avery sometimes thought that his Lord didn't trust his own Death Eaters, but what stopped him from vocalizing this suspicion was simply that all the others refused to question it. "Who would doubt the Dark Lord?" they'd ask. "Who could compare to his power?" Since Avery had no answer, he got nowhere with his theories.

A lot of Death Eaters believed the Dark Lord's distance was a good sign. They grew excited at the prospect of their Lord creating new hideouts, or taking further steps to overthrow the Ministry, or building greater weapons to use against Muggle Britain. Other, self-absorbed Death Eaters fell silent at the Dark Lord's changes, believing that his encouragement of separation and secrecy was essential for security and protection. Avery hated this opinion and refused to believe that Death Eaters should hide who they were. It was against everything he stood for. As a sworn worshipper of the Dark Lord, he was proud to state openly who he was.

Whatever use Voldemort had for secrecy, it was always discussed amongst Death Eaters in the rare instances when they met up in groups lately. Even amongst the table Avery sat at now, new theories were being born and passed on. Today's topic focused on the puzzling mystery of why several young Death Eaters – Bellatrix Black, Lucius Malfoy, and Severus Snape amongst them – had grown secretive lately and why they had become some of the Dark Lord's favourite followers overnight. It outraged and enraged everyone who noticed it it.

"I'm telling you, they must have done something really important for our Lord," Mulciber slurred the for tenth time tonight. "Something really wicked."

"Like what?" asked Travers.

"I wish I knew. All I know is, they must have done something really great."

"Do you reckon our Lord sent them on an important job?"

Mulciber breathed thickly, slowly, thinking it over. "He could've done."

The others were unconvinced. Lestrange spoke his thoughts first, sounding drab and impatient.

"The Dark Lord assigns jobs to us all," he snapped. "He wouldn't give such young Death Eaters an important job on purpose. If these new recruits found a pathway to victory and won the Dark Lord's favour, it was fortune that took their hand and lead them onwards."

"What does that mean?" asked Avery.

Lestrange turned to him, his eyes narrowing. "It means they got lucky, you buffoon."

"Oh." A look of concentration passed Avery's ham-like face. He shrugged heavily with one shoulder. "I 'spose that makes sense."

Lestrange turned back to the others, sitting up straighter in his chair.

"Our Lord's new favourites are too young to possess much talent," he said bluntly. Avery thought he heard a tone of pride in Lestrange's voice now. "They likely struck luck by finding themselves a member of the Order of the Phoenix, or even an Auror to interrogate."

"Is that enough to gain our Lord's favour?" asked Mulciber, looking interested. "That wouldn't be so hard. We could track some of those wizards."

Lestrange's gaze was cruel when he turned it upon Mulciber. "We're all already on the hunt for Phoenix followers and Aurors, Mulciber. Virtually no one but you has failed to grasp that."

Mulciber responded with a sour expression. "Where's the wizards you've captured, then?"

Lestrange didn't answer. He hissed through his teeth, an old Slytherin sign of warning.

"Capturing an Auror or Phoenix follower alone wouldn't be enough," mentioned Travers, ignoring Lestrange. "They would have to be tortured for information, surely. Maybe the new Death Eaters found out something important."

The others seemed to agree. Avery wasn't sure why. He took a swig of alcohol, waiting.

"You've seen how furious the Dark Lord gets with the Order of the Phoenix," Travers carried on darkly. "The only question that remains now is: What's he looking for?"

Nobody answered. Avery's mind wandered to memories of Voldemort's new favourites growing proud and entitled. He knew everyone around him must have realised something had changed.

"Maybe there's a secret hunt going on," Mulciber suggested in a low voice. "Maybe – just maybe – we should figure it out for ourselves."

Mulciber was amongst the most brutal and idiotic Death Eaters around, but Avery felt a sudden sense of instinctive anxiety and thrill – a rush to figure it all out. He wanted to be one of the Dark Lord's favourites. All the others seemed to feel exactly the same.

"You know... I heard a rumour," Mulciber carried on slowly.

"Yeah?" a few others responded.

"Yeah," Mulciber agreed. He was quiet for a moment, building a deeper atmosphere of suspense as he licked his lips in thought. "It's been passed on a bit, so I'm not the only one who knows, but I heard Black's been leading a secret group."

"Black?" someone repeated.

"Which one?" asked Lestrange.

"That woman," Mulciber answered. "You know the one – that woman who's not been 'ere long."

"Bellatrix Black?" Travers suggested.

"That's the one."

"It's 'Lestrange' now."

"Whichever," Mulciber slurred. "My point is, she's been picking out special Death Eaters and sending 'em on private assignments. Who knows what for, but this could be a part of what the Dark Lord's after."

"Does the Dark Lord know?" someone asked.

"Does Black explain what's going on?" another asked more eagerly. "Does she let 'em in on the secret?"

"I doubt it," answered Nott calmly before anyone. "Whatever secrets Bellatrix Lestrange is keeping, she's clearly sworn loyalty to the Dark Lord. If she knows what he's after, that information is her worth and it's why she's favoured amongst us all."

"But how do we find out what the Dark Lord's after?" asked Travers.

Nobody answered. Avery took another swig of alcohol and over the brim of his goblet, he glanced at the others, trying to suss them out. After this meeting, a war was going to break out amongst this group. They all knew it. A sense of competition was straining the air. All of them would hunt alone to win the Dark Lord's favour, but few of them would succeed. Some of them, Avery thought, would go begging to Bellatrix Lestrange, but he knew better. If Voldemort wanted Phoenix followers and Aurors, Avery would supply them. He'd find a trail and follow it, and if that didn't work, he'd go after Severus Snape, who looked like the weakest favourite. It was bound to work.

Lestrange straightened up in his chair slowly, a prideful, mischievous look on his face. Avery would have missed it if Nott weren't sitting opposite him; Nott's bright eyes were fixed on Lestrange as if he was about to do something interesting. Lestrange never did, sadly, but Avery barely noticed it in his drunken state – all he cared about was the sudden realisation that Lestrange was the father-in-law of Bellatrix Black. If he didn't respect Lestrange so much, Avery might have seen this as an opportunity to abuse that connection. Lestrange glanced up and fixed his eyes on Nott, who swiftly looked away.

"I might join up with Black," said a new follower. Even Avery was surprised by his stupidity. "I really might."

"No chance," said Travers flatly.

"What?"

"You've got no chance. She won't take you in, you've got nothing to offer."

"How haven't I?" the young man demanded, suddenly angry. "Do you think I –?"

Several voices hissed at once, silencing the young recruit. Echoes surrounded them, telling them a door had slammed shut in a muffled bang down the hallway, followed by footsteps. Two guards, who stood by pillars in the nearby shadows, grew tense. They clutched their wands and straightened up formally. Every Death Eater knew what this meant. Someone had arrived to hear their reports.

Avery heaved himself up into a half-decent position in his chair, a hand slipping from his goblet. The others had grown still. They recognised these footsteps. It wasn't the hurried sound of a high-ranking follower, but the slow, calmed footsteps of someone far more powerful. In spite of his better judgement, Avery felt low, burning anxiety in the pit of his stomach. A silhouette was heading towards him. The Death Eaters were transfixed. Their Lord had arrived.

A young Death Eater, slouched at the end of the table, stood up nervously when he realised what was happening. Voldemort approached, his hollow eyes sweeping over the table and the nearby surroundings. He paid no attention to it when the young Death Eater bowed and said, "My Lord!"

Avery sensed something was wrong. He always felt this way around the Dark Lord, but since he was particularly drunk, he felt something must have been particularly off tonight. Voldemort was dressed in black robes of the finest design and held himself with perfect composure, appearing taller than even the most brutal Death Eaters. By now, many people had stood up to greet him.

"My Lord, it is an honour to see you," said Travers.

"We didn't expect you in person," said Lestrange. "There is much news, my Lord."

"I trust you haven't grown impatient?" Voldemort asked them all gently.

Avery glanced around, bemused. A moment ago, that's precisely how he had felt: relieved that their waiting was over and impatient to get this meeting over with. A few others grew nervous. There were a few faint claims of: "No, my Lord! Of course not, my Lord..."

Voldemort grew quiet. His dark features appeared more defined than ever against his pale skin and hollow cheeks, turning his once traditionally handsome face into a skeletal, almost freakish exaggeration of what it once was. His black hair had been combed back, but fell loosely in some places as if he had run his spider-like fingers through the dark roots recently. He didn't seem impressed tonight. The Death Eaters continued talking in the hope of pleasing him.

"My Lord, I have the latest Ministry reports," Lestrange began clearly, sounding calm. "If I may speak with you in private, I –"

"That will not be necessary, Lestrange," Voldemort interrupted. "I am here for a very particular reason..."

For the first time, Avery wished he was sober. He had an awful feeling about what was coming and his fears were confirmed when Voldemort's eyes fell upon Mulciber. It was in that instant that Avery realised he'd made a terrible mistake.

"It appears," said Voldemort in a cold, slow tone, "that some among you have taken it upon yourselves to initiate unauthorised attacks yet again..."

Avery told himself he knew it was a bad idea from the start to agree with Mulciber's plan. He shifted where he stood. Voldemort's eyes fell upon him. He struggled to swallow both fear and disappointment – he meant his latest attack to impress the Dark Lord, but Voldemort was already angry with him. He couldn't think of a single thing to say now, so he played dumb.

"You mean that traitor we tortured, my Lord?"

Voldemort's expression was deadly. "That's exactly what I mean, Avery..."

His tone was enough to give anyone a desire to run away. Avery couldn't take his glower: the dim lighting only made Voldemort's bloodshot eyes gleam a deeper crimson. Thinking as fast as he could and realising his plans had failed, Avery chose to lie.

"We never killed him, my Lord. I swear. Mulciber and I, we were only after information."

Voldemort's eyes bore into Avery's with the intensity of several suns, he felt, piercing him in a way that unnerved him deeply. If he didn't know any better, he would have thought the Dark Lord could read his mind and see the truth. Voldemort's extreme intelligence made him rarely miss a trick.

Avery had, in fact, killed the traitor in a way so gruesome that he suddenly felt he couldn't repeat it to anyone. As if Voldemort had found what he was looking for, he took a step forwards, closing in.

"Who gave you those Orders?" he demanded coldly. "Who in the world sent you after my traitor?"

Avery didn't answer. He opened his mouth to speak, but he couldn't say it was Mulciber. On instinct, Voldemort turned mechanically towards Mulciber, who shifted where he stood. Voldemort could sense his fear. His eyes reverted to slits, his glare more piercing than ever. "Who gave you the orders?"

Mulciber's mouth was agape and he fumbled with his words. His plan to impress the Dark Lord alongside Avery was ruined and he wasn't sure what to do. Avery grew suddenly envious of those ruled under Bellatrix Lestrange. As well as those who had more alcohol.

"There – there weren't any orders, my Lord," Mulciber murmured. "We sort of thought... well, maybe you'd understand."

No words could convey Voldemort's fury. The very air seemed to turn to ice, causing a few others to shiver and shift away. Voldemort gave every indication that he wanted to curse Avery and Mulciber for their idiocy, but he didn't let anger overpower him so easily. Not yet. Before he even reached for his wand, the echoing sound of a door opening and closing drifted down the hall. Voldemort seemed to know who it was. He turned his attention to an approaching figure.

Avery didn't think the night could get any worse. His Second Lord had arrived, stepping from the shadows with a calmness that was almost as unsettling as Voldemort's wrath. He had grown as pale as the Dark Lord, with messy hair that was equally as black, but it was their eyes that set them apart. If Voldemort had not fallen silent at his arrival, Avery felt things would have been better, but Voldemort always waited. The two Lords exchanged a look that seemed to pass a thousand messages Avery failed to understand. There was no one on this earth that Voldemort valued more than him.

What terrified Avery so much about him was that he had no name. For years, he had drifted at Voldemort's side, never mentioned by the newest Death Eaters, rarely spoke of amongst the oldest. When Avery was fresh from Hogwarts, the Dark Lord's favourite was referred to as simply 'Jonathan', but 'Jonathan' had stopped suiting the strange, green-eyed young man who trained alongside the Dark Lord long ago. He had shed his name as surely as Voldemort shed his own, but the difference was that Jonathan never took up a new title. The Death Eaters had no choice but to refer to him in recent years as 'Our Second Lord'.

"How nice of you to join us," Voldemort greeted softly.

Jonathan faced the Dark Lord with a look of calm familiarity. Avery was unable to understand it.

"Who are you angry with?" Jonathan asked.

"I should think it obvious."

"Mulciber?" Jonathan suggested. "And Avery?"

Avery couldn't grasp how anyone could stand in front of Lord Voldemort and speak to him so calmly, asking blunt questions with no fear of repercussions. Some of the others had mentioned before that this is why Voldemort admired Jonathan; he showed no fear.

Voldemort smiled coldly. "Indeed. It comes as no surprise, I am sure, that the pair of them should betray my rules yet again..."

Jonathan turned to Avery and Mulciber, studying them. He didn't show signs of anger, nor surprise. He remained calm. Always calm. Rarely did Jonathan speak his opinion, but when he did, it was valued highly. He was Voldemort's most praised follower for a reason. Only rarely, in a drunken moment of true genius, did Avery come close to realising what that reason actually was.

"It appears they took initiative with one of our traitors," Voldemort carried on, his burning gaze unsettling the silent Death Eaters nearby. "What is more, they have taken it upon themselves to cover up their story, to lie to Lord Voldemort."

"I ain't lying!" said Avery at once, panicked. "I swear, my Lord. I ain't lying! We only tortured him for information, we didn't think –!"

"You dare to lie to me again, Avery?" Voldemort asked in a scathing hiss. "You dare to interrupt me now?"

Avery fell silent. Even Mulciber looked mortified.

"Have I not made my instructions for you clear enough?" Voldemort asked. "Have I not shown you the consequences of causing obvious trouble?"

Avery couldn't answer. He couldn't look at the Dark Lord. He thought about the man he had killed and what a magnificent show he had put on in a dance toward death, dressed in little else but fire that horrifically bunt and scorched his exposed skin. Avery hadn't seen the problem, at the time, but he realised the Dark Lord wasn't happy. Not only had this man been a traitor, but he was a known blood-traitor too, so why should Voldemort be angry?

He looked up and found Jonathan watching him. There was that same cutting stare in his expression that Avery knew so well in the way Voldemort looked at him. Only, Jonathan's piercing green eyes grew grey instead of red when he found what he was looking for. Avery didn't understand it. Jonathan looked disappointed of all things. Suddenly Avery felt ashamed.

"I have wasted enough on this," Voldemort said in a cold tone. "Your punishment will come soon enough, Avery, I assure you... Now, as you wait here, I shall speak to the others. Who here has the most important news, I wonder?"

Nobody gave any objections to Voldemort's plan. Jonathan nodded stiffly in understanding, saying nothing, but studying the Dark Lord for a time. Avery thought he might be able to make up a story with Mulciber quickly, if Voldemort spoke to the others in a different room. His hopes rose when Voldemort summoned Lestrange forth and began walking away with him. For the next hour, Voldemort took his followers one by one and asked them for information.

The hour was painfully dull for Avery, but it was nothing compared to the catastrophe that took place in the duration of his meeting. He knew Voldemort had kept him and Mulciber waiting for so long to weaken them; by the time Avery had a chance to speak, he was tired and too anxious to lie. Voldemort learnt the truth and Avery considered himself lucky that the Cruciatus Curse wasn't involved. Why, exactly, Voldemort was so angry remained a mystery to Avery; the Dark Lord mistook his pure hatred of Muggles, Mudbloods, Squibs, and blood-traitors for idiocy. Even if he caused more trouble for Ministry-bound spies than anyone, Avery thought he was doing right.

As soon as the meeting was over, Mulciber headed out the door of the Chimera Hideout without a backwards glance. Avery would have followed him, if it weren't for the half-goblet of alcohol and a few spare coins he had left at the table. He had won that gold in a fair bet of a gruesome game involving a few abducted Muggles, Dementors, and a chance of souls being taken. He meant to take the money and head directly for the nearest pub, but voices called him out of his fantasy and distracted him. It was Voldemort's voice.

Looking up, Avery saw Voldemort and Jonathan speaking quietly in another section of the entrance hall, which was partially obscured by pillars from this angle. Clearly, they thought they were alone and they didn't realise their voices echoed right into Avery's abnormally large ears. Despite his fear of being punished further, Avery decided to listen.

"...I cannot bring myself to put faith in any fortuneteller, least of all one who decides to work alongside Dumbledore," Voldemort voiced irritably. "If what she says is true, I cannot grasp it."

"Prophecies are made by chance, not choice, Tom," Jonathan observed. "Real ones, anyway."

"So you believe in the Prophecy?"

Avery could see Jonathan sitting in a chair in profile. Voldemort was staring down at him, suddenly very interested. Jonathan dropped his gaze, staring dead ahead for a moment, his eyes flickering. Curtly and stiffly, he nodded.

Voldemort was deathly silent. Jonathan seemed to notice. When he looked up, however, he held Voldemort's gaze with such calmness, it startled Avery. It was unnatural, how he could look upon the Dark Lord with eyes that softened.

"I haven't lost faith in you," he said quietly. "Even if the Prophecy is true, we have a huge advantage over Dumbledore already by knowing his plans. We're safe. We can protect ourselves."

Avery expected Voldemort to be furious that Jonathan was somehow doubting him, but he wasn't. His accusatory glare faded. He shared a long look with Jonathan that carried meaning Avery couldn't understand. Then, to much surprise, Voldemort smiled.

His teeth appeared sharp, his grin unnatural and inhumane. Avery got the sudden deep desire to turn away and keep walking.

"I suppose you are right," Voldemort said gently. "Dumbledore has lost his only weapon..."

Jonathan smiled back softly, but did not laugh. He breathed out a haze of warm breath in the cold.

"Come," Voldemort hissed, noticing the temperature now. "Let us speak in further privacy..."

Jonathan nodded silently, standing up. There was nothing to indicate what he was thinking. He stepped forwards and – Avery knew he saw it wrong – brushed a hand against Voldemort's as he passed. Voldemort smiled and hissed something Avery couldn't catch. He then followed Jonathan through through a tall, metal door, leaving nothing behind but a muffled boom.

Avery decided to count the Galleons in his pocket before leaving, sure he had bought a few drinks too many.