Milo couldn't sleep.
Or rather, he could sleep. Quite easily, in fact—as with everyone else from his world, he could fall asleep as easily as he could blink. It wasn't even an action. He just didn't want to, right now.
He wasn't sleeping because he was worried, and decided to prioritize, in the way people do late at night, stressing ineffectually about tomorrow over sleep.
Nobody had told him what happened to Myra (CityofLight!CityofMagic!) while he was gone. They were very pointedly not talking about it.
Bellatrix Lestrange was loose in the city, and she was certainly up to no good. Milo had read about what she'd done in the last wizarding war. Apparently she'd tortured five people to insanity with the Cruciatus Curse for no reason other than that she'd enjoyed it.
Of course, that particular curse would do her little good here—Milo had demonstrated that to Tom Riddle in the Chamber of Secrets—but that wasn't her only asset.
Milo was worried because Bellatrix had every advantage here that Milo had had in the other world. She ran on different rules. Rules that nobody knew about, much less how to counter.
Milo had gone up against Lucius's Death Eaters several times and won, not because he was a more powerful wizard, but because he was a weirder wizard. Draco Malfoy, of all people, had shown in the Duelling Club that a wanded wizard who'd done their homework had a very fair chance of beating him. He'd only lost because Milo'd had a handful more tricks up his sleeve than Draco had predicted. Milo had had to adapt rapidly to the new world, using spells and tricks that would have gotten him slaughtered here.
But here, it was Bellatrix who was the unknown factor. She had spells and powers that nobody here knew a thing about. She could ignore fundamental rules of the universe that her opponents would take for granted. She could act out of turn order. She could cast infinite spells every day. She could kill without allowing a saving throw. Of course, she could be countered in a few simple ways—such as using Protection from Evil against her Imperius Curse—if you knew how.
If Bellatrix played her cards right, Milo's home town wouldn't have stood a chance.
And now, thanks, in part, to Tom Riddle, he had people here who he actually cared about.
And that's why Milo wasn't sleeping.
Lucius Malfoy stubbed his toe through his leather loafers on an exposed tree root and cursed like a pirate, thankful that nobody had seen him.
He'd had it up to here with these clandestine forest meetings.
"You're late, Malfoy." Lucius felt his whole body go still. When had he gotten here? How long had he been watching?
Lucius turned around, slowly. Tom Riddle was lounging on a low tree branch.
"I was delayed by a meeting that ran behind schedule, my lord," Lucius said smoothly. "There was no way I could leave and maintain my cover. The fault, however, is mine."
"No. The fault lies with me for expecting punctuality from you. However, I can be forgiven, as your other suggestion is working perfectly. Nobody suspects you had anything to do with the deaths."
Lucius bristled inside, but kept it from his face. The reason nobody suspected he had anything to do with the deaths was because he hadn't. And this hadn't been his plan. When he'd said Sirius would make an excellent scapegoat, he hadn't expected this. The boy was insane. He had everything that had made the Dark Lord terrifying with none of the restraint.
"And what is the count now, my lord? Three?"
"Twelve," Riddle said happily. "Were I a gambling man, I wouldn't be placing any galleons on Minerva returning as headmistress of Hogwarts in September."
Lucius licked his suddenly-dry lips. He'd been on the verge of getting Snape given the position permanently as it was. Now he'd have to start finding strings to attach to a whole new group of governors.
"And what of the... last headmaster?" Lucius asked. "Has anyone found information as to his whereabouts?" Lucius knew full well that no-one had, because he had eyes-and-ears watching and listening the world over. But he had no intention of tipping Riddle off to that fact.
Of course, the entire concept of locating the whereabouts of a wizard such as Dumbledore was ludicrous. When you could Apparate across the world with the snap of your fingers, could you really be said to have any whereabouts at all?
No, Lucius didn't care where the old headmaster was. He cared what he was up to. And on that, his sources had been irritatingly silent.
"Dumbledore?" Riddle spat. "The man was older than the bloody Magna Carta even when I—" Riddle hesitated slightly. Someone less perceptive than Lucius wouldn't have noticed it. "—was in school," he finished smoothly. "I doubt we have much cause to worry about a senile old relic." Lucius suspected that Riddle had been about to say 'when I was alive.'
"Of course," Lucius said. "I only mention it because he has interfered with your plans in the past, my lord."
"Regardless. I did not summon you here today to speak of ancient history," Riddle said, dropping down from the tree branch with the grace of a cat. "Tell me of the boy."
"Potter?" Lucius asked. "He's an unremarkable student at best, showing only moderate aptitude in any field of study. He's headstrong and has little regard for authority, but also only displaying only limited capacity for planning ahead. I doubt we have much to—"
"No. The other boy. The one you brought here."
Lucius was genuinely surprised. One of the others at the ritual must have told him. "Milo? A freak. He wields extremely unusual and unpredictable magic of great power, but by all accounts appears to be completely insane. He disappeared midway through last year and has not been seen since. Nobody... official... is looking for him. I saw to that." Lucius glanced at the sword Riddle wore at his hip. Milo had had one just like it...
"They won't find him anyway," Riddle said. "He's dead. No, I want to know about how you summoned him. And why."
"Ah." Lucius hesitated. He hadn't expected this, and wasn't sure how much to tell the monster standing in front of him. "It was a very old ritual that Narcissa uncovered," he said eventually. In your things, he didn't add. This strange new Riddle seemed to be sometimes lacking in knowledge that the Dark Lord had had. "It seems to only have been used once—twice at the most—in all of history."
"Yes, yes," Riddle said. "But what did it do?"
"It makes a trade," Lucius said. "Equivalent exchange. Sacrifice someone great, and get someone great in return. Or so we'd believed. It didn't work."
"We tried to summon a great mythical wizard only hinted at in ancient texts from... the other side. We believed he would have the power to bring you back, my lord. There was only one viable candidate to create a fair trade. We gave them our greatest in return for theirs." Getting her out of Azkaban had been the hardest part of it, by far. "But even though we specified the great wizard by his name in the ritual, all we got was that freak instead. It seems there is an unknown factor involved, my lord. The ritual is too dangerous."
"But it did work," Riddle said quietly, largely to himself. "He did bring me back. But maybe not in the way you had intended." He looked up at Lucius. "But that wasn't all of it, was it? There was more. A second step."
Lucius frowned. How had he known about that? Lucius was an accomplished Occlumens, but if he wasn't, he'd have thought Riddle was reading his mind. "We had... a backup plan. But it is quite impossible, now."
"Tell me of this backup plan, Malfoy."
"Our agent in the other world had an objective," Lucius said. "But with Milo dead, there is no way to bring her back, now. The point is moot." That wasn't, strictly speaking, true, but Lucius had no intention of experimenting with the ritual and other subjects.
"And what was that objective, Lucius?"
Lucius Malfoy could see no particular danger in telling him. Bellatrix's real mission, as far as he had been concerned, was to stay as far away from him as he could manage. She was charismatic, popular—well, among a certain kind of individual, anyway—and frighteningly talented with magic. She had also been the Dark Lord's favoured lieutenant. She was, in short, a threat to his position. Lucius had never had any intention of bringing her back.
Of course, he hadn't thought Voldemort would return, either...
Still. As long as the Dark Lord was around, Lucius needed to stay on his good side. And besides...
Looking into Tom Riddle's eyes, Lucius could absolutely believe that this was the Dark Lord returned.
So he told him Bellatrix's objective.
In the darkness of the forest, unbeknownst to either of the conversing dark wizards, an enormous black dog lay among the underbrush with its ears perked up...
Newhaven was pretty much your basic thorp. It wasn't much more than a cluster of one-to-three room cottages built around a combination tavern, livery stable, and general store.
It was, as adventurers like to say, a one-quest town. Drop in, find the innkeeper's stolen family heirloom, stock up on trail rations, and leave. It was the sort of town that might get a passing mention in a sentence such as "you pass through a few small villages in your travels to the Forest of Shadows..." While nominally a fishing and farming town, most of the incoming money came from travellers, especially Player Characters, who happen to be passing through on their way to more interesting locales.
At least, that was how Milo remembered it. But that had been before someone had burnt the tavern to the ground and forced the residents to flee. They left, in fact, in such a hurry that they left some things behind: things like clothes, tools, and, in some cases, heads.
Milo stared at the ruins from the deck of the Roll for Initiative.
"Garl's Glittering Gold," Zook said in a hushed tone.
"What happened here?" Milo asked.
"We'd heard rumours of this sort of thing. I told you there were hints we ought to go to the City, didn't I?" Relkin said. "Soldiers have been rounding up anyone with even a Cantrip of magical talent and taking them away. Sometimes people raise an objection or two, and are made examples of." Relkin shrugged. "Typical evil villain stuff, really. I thought that grand vizier guy was behind it, but it's looking like it's this Lestrange person instead."
"And where were you through all of this?" Milo asked, trying to keep his voice as neutral as possible.
"You know. Adventuring," Relkin said.
"Rescuing cats from treants, that sort of thing?" Milo said. "Getting treasure and Experience Points?"
"With clockwork efficiency," Relkin said. "We went up three levels in the last year alone."
"And Wellby was a prisoner during this time."
"As far as we can tell, yes," Relkin said.
"So you're saying that you let a hardened killer burn and kidnap her way through the countryside, with the only other person who might stop her out of action, while you were busy level grinding?" Milo stopped bothering to keep his voice in check.
Relkin stiffened. "I don't see why you're angry at me," she said. "Bellatrix was the one who razed this town."
"Because you had a responsibility to stop her and you didn't even try."
"Milo—" Zook began.
"You weren't there," Zook said. "You didn't see her. We wouldn't have stood a chance the way we were."
"Zook is right," Relkin said. "We needed the levels. Besides, they're only NPCs. Most of them haven't even been named."
"You really don't get it, do you?" Milo said.
"No. Please, enlighten me." Relkin's voice was completely free of sarcasm, but Milo suspected her colossally-high Bluff skill might have been part of that.
"Just because we didn't know them doesn't mean they didn't have names," Milo said. "NPC or not, they were people, just like us."
"Just like you, maybe," Relkin said. "But who are you to talk? I don't see you coughing up your wealth-by-level to bring them back."
"I don't even have a wealth-by-level anymore," Mio said. "All I've got are the clothes on my back and a spellbook written on human skin."
Zook coughed and surreptitiously sidled to the far side of the ship.
"That's an excuse and you know it," Relkin said. "That Belt of Hidden Pouches you used to have? Five thousand gold pieces. Same as it costs for a Raise Dead. You could have used that money to bring back, say..." She scanned the horizon briefly, "that one." She pointed at the body of a small humanoid, probably a gnome or halfling, lying in the street. At least, Milo hoped it was a gnome or halfling. "And if we just so happen to find a Headband of Intelligence in our travels, I somehow doubt you'll sell it to bring back, say, him." Relkin pointed at a dwarf lying against a well, riddled with arrows.
Milo said nothing. The fact that Relkin was right did nothing to improve his mood.
Together, they watched the village roll past them. Milo was tired. It had been so much easier when he'd been like Relkin. These sorts of quandaries never even occurred to him.
There were all kinds of arguments that Milo could make to defend himself. He could say that he'd earned his right to expensive magical gear by defeating monsters. He could say that he needed it to fight evil and protect the innocent. He could say that it was inherent to the system that heroes gained treasure. He could say that even Paladins collected expensive magical gear, and their moral position was unquestionable. After all, if they did wrong, they'd stop being Paladins. He could have Zook cast Detect Good on him and prove that Milo's actions were in the right.
But none of that would change the fact that Milo liked being powerful. He loved being able to magically suplex bad guys. The thrill he got when he'd worked out the salt trick, allowing him to craft magic items at a small fraction of their usual cost, had nothing to do with being able to use his new equipment to defend the innocent from He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.
Newhaven disappeared behind a steep hill.
Milo needed to change the subject. Ethical conundrums would get him nowhere.
"How come I'm only a kid?" Milo asked, eventually.
"Sorry?" Relkin blinked.
"The starting age for Wizards is seventeen to twenty-seven," Milo said. "But I was level three by the time I was eleven."
"I don't know anything about that," Relkin said woodenly.
"Oh, come on. You and I both know you do."
"Fine," Relkin relented. "It's basic age optimization. Look, we're both human, right? The bonus feat is a solid choice that tends to outweigh the ability modifiers of the other races. But it comes with a drawback: the simple fact of the matter is we don't live for very long. Not compared to elves and dwarves, anyway. There are ways to extend our lifespan, but they're generally available only at higher levels and are deeply suboptimal. I wanted to put that off for as long as possible, so I—er, that is, you—started out with a level in Commoner, which has no starting age, and retrained out at first opportunity. A longer adventuring career means more chances to gain experience and magic items."
"You must know I have no intention of dying of old age," Milo said. "That's just not in the cards for us."
"One should always have plans in place for the event of failure," Relkin said wryly.
Milo stared out over the burnt wheat fields. He could just barely make out the pink-white walls of Myra, City of Light! City of Magic! in the distance.
"We're taking her down," he said. "Boccob's task regardless."
"Deal," Relkin said. She stuck a hand out of her burgundy cloak. "And that's a promise."
Milo grasped her hand and looked her in the eye.
She could Bluff circles around Milo's Sense Motive, and Bards were almost required to be Chaotic, but nevertheless he believed her.
He shook her hand.
Tom Riddle hovered over the London cityscape, admiring the skyline.
Well. Admiring wasn't quite the right word. Perhaps... analyzing.
So much had changed since he'd killed Myrtle. The last time he'd visited London, it was a smoking ruin. How he had marvelled at the capability and the sheer, stunning willingness of Muggles to kill each other. He had only ever paid scant attention to their news, but he had been so certain that England would soon fall to the Germans. Not that it would make any difference, in the end.
Their so-called Great War, of course, only lent further evidence for the mastery of wizards over Muggles. They killed millions of each other, and over what? Minor differences of race and creed? Material resources and wealth? Wizards had no care for either. National pride and ethnicity were immaterial concerns compared to the very real, very powerful difference between the magical and the non-magical. Wizards and witches had the power. It was their destiny to rule. Any idiot could see that. And as for fighting over resources? The idea was laughable! Who needed pig iron and rubber when you could transfigure a house out of thin air in an afternoon? Hunger, disease, poverty, scarcity—even mortality itself. Magic could solve any problem. It could solve every problem. It was being squandered, used only in secret.
The world was tearing itself apart, begging to be drawn into the light. What was the loss of a few lives along the way? They would thank him, in the end.
For he was Lord Voldemort, and he had conquered death.
Tom Riddle flew away from the city, his captive tied securely across the back of his Nimbus Two Thousand and One.
All he had to do now was make sure death stayed conquered.
The walls were of the fantastical scale that you only really get when the person designing them earned their position by virtue of heredity, rather than by holding a degree in Architecture, Military Science, History, or Common Sense.
The towering walls were shining, pinkish-white marble, dotted with frequent guard towers and roofed with green tiles. Great expense had gone into magically treating the walls to keep soot and mildew off, with the unexpected side-effect of causing migraines in those who left their Detect Magic switched on. The overall effect was quite intimidating: "Watch yourself," the walls said. "We're so powerful, we don't even understand why we'd need walls for non-decorative purposes."
Normally, there was a long wait to enter through the gates as the guards checked visitors for undesirables (read: kobolds) and their wagons for contraband (also, primarily, kobolds).
Today, there were no other travellers on the long, broad causeway into the city, though there were twice as many guards stationed at the entrance as was the norm.
"Halt," one of them said, holding out her mailed hand. "No admittance."
"You take the six on the right, and I'll take the six on the left?" Gerard whispered loudly to Zook.
"Garl Glittergold teaches of patience and restraint," Zook said sagaciously.
"The one second from the right is a hobgoblin," Gerard said.
"Oh, then bugger restraint. Divine Mi—"
"Wait," Relkin said sharply. "I'll talk our way in." Relkin advanced up to the guards. "Yo," she said, pointing a thumb over her shoulder. "Am-scray."
All twelve guards lowered their halberds at her in one smooth motion.
"They're under some sort of mental control," she said, ignoring them entirely. "My Diplomacy check result was pushing low orbit."
"May I try?" Milo said.
Relkin shrugged, and stepped back.
Milo advanced to the guards, keenly aware that he had less hit points than a camel and their pole-arms looked very pointy.
"Aunt Regina!" Milo exclaimed, conveniently remembering her existence. "So good to see you! It must have been, what, three years? So long that you didn't recognize me!" She lowered her halberd uncertainly, blinking as if there was sand in her eyes.
"Milo?" she said. "What... what am I doing?"
"Uncle Reginald!" Milo said, moving to the next guard in line. "Why, you taught me my first cantrip! And Second Cousin Reggie! Remember all those long nights in the woods hunting, er, huntable animals? And, why, if it isn't Adopted Cousin Regan! What unspecified good times we had!" Pretty soon, they all had their weapons lowered, and were milling about in confusion.
"What did you do?" Relkin asked in a hushed voice.
"I remembered each and every one of them as a treasured friend or relative from my backstory," Milo said quietly. "One who would never, ever raise a hand against me or impede the cause of Justice or the furthering of Good. And who gets +2 and a reroll against magical orders against their nature." Thank Boccob that Bellatrix wasn't controlling them directly, he thought. He was pretty sure that the Imperius Curse had no such convenient clause.
"You can do that?" she choked.
"Evidently," Milo shrugged. He raised a hand. "All Amastacias and Liadons, with me!" he said, and strolled through the mighty, adamantine-banded gates into Myra, City of Light! City of Magic!