From James's wand, a stream of blood-red fire spat forth. The heat of it all but came before its existence; a scalding herald that sucked moisture from the air and hammered at Judith.
Judith's own wand blurred through the motions of a reflexive Shield Charm, the craft of it coming voiceless to her in her urgency. She kept the wand angled, and a shimmering plane of magical force sprung up before her at a forty-five degree angle to the oncoming flames. It didn't meet them head on, but deflected them to blaze past Judith's left side, turning the Shield prismatic with the collision of magical energies and producing what seemed almost like a tortured shriek from the same.
Before her, she saw that James had stepped with the spell, his sword rising to a proper ward as he moved within striking distance. His wand scythed through the air as he sang "Finite!" and sent a flash of light that struck at the burning Shield. The spell exploded with a furious retort of light and kinetic force, slamming against Judith and sending her footing agley.
Half-blinded and staggering, she glimpsed the royal rapier descending down through the same haze of disrupted energies. Behind it, the king's eyes shone in the firelight.
A wild swing of her backsword knocked away the rapier's point, and Judith forced herself to stand. She kept her sword pressing hard upon the rapier and bulled forward, shoving their swords up to maintain the bind and slashing her wand across James's exposed midsection with a cry of "Stupefy!"
Red light spiralled out and forwards, meeting the grey blast of James's own "Bombarda!" with an explosion of light and thunder, the force of which forced the two combatants back a step. Bracing herself for another attack, Judith adopted a low, crouched stance with the backsword ready in her grasp, her wand jabbing out briefly to weave a Minor Shield before her with a quick murmur of "Sartego."
James's rapier thrust out just before the Shield was raised, to be deflected with a flash of red light. His wand then thrust forward, throwing forth a blazing orange-yellow orb. Judith, knowing that the Minor Shield almost certainly couldn't withstand the effect of whatever spell this proved to be, instead sent the Shield flying towards the orb with a twist of her wand, smashing away some of its force and deflecting it away to a wall behind her. It flew past her side, and from behind her there came a sudden loud hiss, as if a furnace's roar had been compressed into a second, coupled with the acidic stench of what could only be burning stone.
James snarled with aggravation, and the rapier's point came slashing through the air again, to be met by Judith's wild and swift swings of the backsword. Openings between the clashing blades were quickly filled with blazing and rebounding curses and shields and counterspells, filling the room with the light of flashing fireworks and the sound of thunderstorms.
The sounds of a fallen man stirring came from Judith's side but she paid them little heed, focused as she was with James. Fragmented and parallel streams of thought, split asunder by the chaos of battle, were running through Judith's mind.
Shift to hanging guard to intercept overhead thrust while cutting with a Counter-Spell to overwhelm his Shield, to be followed up with a Stunning Spell to his midriff, adjust to changing circumstances, side-step thrust and bring a Stunning Spell to bear against his exposed side- opined a practical one which currently held court, focusing purely on keeping her alive in the duel.
A less focused and much more confused part of herself demanded to know why in the name of hell's darkest imaginings the muggle king knew magic.
A detached and worryingly unconcerned part observed that the king had quite a strength behind his wand arm, and some of the spells he'd used had been ones even Judith didn't know. His swordsmanship was above her own as well, managing to compensate with pure technique where she could press with greater speed and strength.
This answered none of the confused part's questions, and indeed raised some more.
The focused part took a moment to sweetly enquire whether they could both shut up, it was trying to concentrate, and returned to business.
They had split apart during the short-range firefight, forced to do so by the impact of detonating curses and the footwork of swordplay, and James had raised a Shield between them. Behind it, his wand was aimed for Judith's centre of mass, and Judith heard the first part of a distressingly familiar incantation. "Avada -"
Can't be blocked by any shield, tangible or magical; passes through barriers, ignores fortitude and resolve, requires a pure hatred in order to be cast, a dark and powerful mirror to the Patronus, all the victim can do is not be in its way- piped up the detached stream of thought, throwing the information from various memories to the focused stream.
Judith immediately jumped to one side as cold green light slashed past and swept into the wall behind her like a ghost. Stepping back into position, she fancied she could still feel the chill of its passage.
From behind his Shield, she saw James bringing his wand forward from a backwards sweep with a spell on his lips, already halfway through his next attack. In quick desperation, she slashed her own wand around with the quickest attack she knew, anything to put him off his balance and keep him from pressing an advantage. "Diffindo!"
The Cutting Charm flew upwards as Judith cursed her shoddy aiming, skimming past the top of James's Shield and into a wooden support beam in the ceiling above. A cut was opened in it with the sound of an axe splintering wood apart, running right through to the mottled brick ceiling itself, and splinters, dust, and brick shards rained down upon James. He raised his sword arm to protect his face with indecent haste, clearly caught off guard.
It clicked for Judith then. The king was a ferociously powerful magic-user, with a good wand-arm and the capacity to put real potency behind his spells. His reflexes were impressive, if perhaps not at Judith's own level, and his technique was impeccable.
So taking him head-on obviously wasn't the answer. You looked for something to exploit, and if nothing availed, you made one.
Actions and consequences ran out in a single cold line of clarity in Judith's mind, and her eyes narrowed and her sweat-streaked face tautened. A gasp of pain from a fully-conscious guard came from her side once more and was put from mind; she couldn't afford to be distracted.
James recovered, and his arm twitched forward in the same movements as before, his voice rattling off the incantation once more. "Avada Kedavra!"
Judith ducked just as the second phrase was spoken, just as the spell turned the air above her head to green lightning and as she stabbed her wand out with a barked "Finite!" The acclaim of James's Shield shattering into directionless chaos sounded the action; and she fell with one knee on the floor, the basket-hilt surrounding her sword-hand pressing into the floor. Her wand was held out from her side, ready to be swept forward.
Judith flicked her wand out again, bringing one of the few rote Transfigurations she knew to mind. Transfiguration in battle was always chancy but … needs must. Stone-to-Water. "Terraques!"
An area beneath James's feet of a foot long in length and breadth and half a foot in depth turned to water, and into it James fell with a startled cry. His feet and shins splashed into the water, and his slipping body hit the stone floor, releasing a short and involuntary gasp of pain from him.
Judith strode forward; to where the king lay prostate with his feet and lower legs submerged in water, aimed her wand at the pool of water, and said once more "Finite."
The water collapsed into flurried and unmoving grey waves, in which James's legs were caught. Grey mottling appeared up the length of his breeches and where water had splashed upon him. He struggled, his face blanching as the pressure of the stone began to assert itself, and his wand rose in his shaky grasp.
Judith's backsword descended in one swift movement and struck it from his grasp, sending it clattering across the floor.
His rapier came up in a thrust that tried to be sudden, but which was thwarted by his inability to manoeuvre. Judith caught it in the elaborate crossguard rising from her sword's great hilt, twisted savagely, and threw the two bound swords aside.
Her wand, still tight in her left hand, came forward with the point angled at the king's throat. His pain-etched, sweat-streaked face glared up at her, lips curling back from his teeth.
At this point, the sensible thing to do would be to make sure everyone was unconscious, clear up any damage, apply Obliviations, and then Apparate away to Diggory and Clemency.
Part of Judith, slithering through the tracks in her mind still slick with pounding battle-fury, whispered Burn him.
Her wand's point hovered, a faint orange glow creeping around the tip.
You saw the bodies in the room. You know what he feeds people to. You know what he's been doing to innocent muggles these last months. He's fed people to fire. Repay the monster in kind.
The vengeful thought was met in its tracks by a cold spear of rational realisation; that killing King James would see every punishment for violating wizarding secrecy heaped upon Judith, that neither Diggory or Clemency would protect her, that Rebecca would be sad to see her executed, and that there were too many questions left hanging over this, too many prospects for other players she hadn't yet encountered. Kill the king now, and nothing would be served.
Slowly, with great effort, she drew back the sword's point and banished the growing fire around her wand. A basic clean-up would have to suffice for now.
"Apologies about this, Your Majesty," she hissed, extending her wand to aim between his glaring eyes. "Obliv - "
And then Judith's world fell away in shock and pain as a bullet slammed into her right arm, racing through the retort of a gunshot. She fell to her left, flailing and taken utterly by surprise, and collided with the stone floor in an impact that knocked the breath from her lungs and the senses from her mind.
To her right, Judith became vaguely aware of one of the now-all-too-relevant Witchguard rising, a smoking pistol in his hands. He was reaching down for the backsword and rapier.
Judith's wand was still in her left hand, her knuckles white around the handle. She tried to twist around to let off a curse at the guard, but a bolt of agony surged up from her now-unresponsive right arm as she briefly leaned on it.
To her front, Judith heard the king shout, his voice twisted with agony. "At her, Dunn! Cut her down!"
The king's command seemed to spur the man on, and he rushed forward, both rapier and backsword separated and twirling in his grasp.
Judith breathed in, an action that emerged as more of a hiss, and tried to concentrate -
Don't concentrate, just Apparate, no matter how painful it is at the other end, just get out of here, you still have your Dittany come what may, GET OUT, APPARATE –
- And vanished, just as two swords struck up sparks from the floor where she'd lain.
Under a ceiling that shifted with the movement of clouds, a witch sat and stared into her mirror.
After a moment, she irritably waved away the Inferius holding the mirror, and sat and pondered.
Killing the investigator before she came clamouring back to her payers would be dicey; her location for Apparation wasn't known, and the odds of anyone being able to kill her were dicey based on that display.
Another angle of attack would have to be considered. What did she know about the investigator?
The witch summoned her Patronus – a gleaming white scorpion with molten orbs of silver in place of eyes – and when it sat upon the table before her, she said "Tell good Captain Desjardins this – 'Vous devez aller à Hogsmeade - '"
"My king!" Dunn turned to where King James had let out a loud and frustrated snarl as he had witnessed the witch escape. "I apologise, I should have been faster - "
"Wand!" bit out James, cutting through Dunn's words. His torso twisted and his arms shoved against the ground, and he bit out another gasp of pain. Where the stone covering his legs parted, small trickles of blood were starting to emerge. "Retrieve my wand!"
Dropping the swords, Dunn ran to where the king's white wand lay on the floor. He picked it up, cradling it carefully as only an artefact of Heaven deserved, and rushed with it to the king. James snatched it out of Dunn's hands and aimed it at his entrapped body. "Terra – Ahh! Terraques!"
The stone collapsed into water once more and James heaved himself away with a great groan and shudder. His breeches were sodden with both water and blood, some of which trickled through the Transfigured pool. He swept his wand around to Wilkie and managed "Finite!"
Wilkie's form flopped to the ground with a crash, the paralysis suddenly lifted. He heaved himself up with one hand, craning his head around to face the king. "Your Majesty - "
"Help me up," snapped James, waving his free hand at the commander. "The – ah, bloody stone fragments when turned to water – must have soaked through, somehow. Help me to my quarters."
The two Witchguard hurried to help James up to his feet. "Was … was that a servant of the Enemy, Your Majesty?" ventured Dunn, as he wrapped one of James's arms around his shoulders. "Is that what happens if they get a chance to draw upon their full power?"
"Don't bother the king with questions - " growled Wilkie.
"It is. But that was a particularly fearsome one amongst them." said James, the effort of speaking reduced with the comfort of his attending guards. He sighed. "Do not blame yourselves for the witch's escape. I … had that responsibility. I should have called upon Azrael."
Wilkie and Dunn both couldn't help but feel glad he hadn't resorted to that last option as the king continued. "I should have drawn upon more of Heaven's fires. I was entrusted with that power." His voice lowered. "I had that duty."
James's voice rose again as they started moving out of the room as he managed to move at a hobble supported by the two men. "To my quarters. Do not send for a doctor for several minutes. I must pray. I couldn't channel what God required of me, so I shall beseech one of His own servants. Hell sought to shake us this day. We shall make it tremble."
Judith tumbled onto the cobblestones in the Diagon Alley alleyway, emerging from an inchoate, violent torrent of tumbling sensation. The suddenly-forming world was a mess of grey and brown streets and building walls, blue skies and distant white clouds-
She rolled to rest on her left side, retched, and added red to the mix.
It was then that the effect of the Splinching registered itself to her senses; a great and distressing hollowness that seemed to curl up inside her gut and rasp outwards in all direction.
Oh, joy. This had had all the makings of a spectacular Splinching, with a previous run of good luck compounded by a lack of focus in her Apparation attempt.
She recalled what Arborlun had instructed her to do in this sort of scenario, when the vagaries of Apparation magic saw fit to reach inside you, and grabbed for her jar of Essence of Dittany, dropping her tightly-gripped wand as she did so. Fumbling it out of the moleskin pouch as the pain in her gut redoubled its efforts, she all but tore the lid off and knocked back a mouthful.
It tasted like nothing a benevolent God could have permitted to exist, but she kept it down, and dragged herself into a sitting position leaning against a suitable wall, to wait while it did its work. She forced her mind to be still, to put away the physical pain into the well-practised compartment of her mind she often called upon when Splinching's effects proved a threatening distraction.
While Judith waited and concentrated on breathing in and out, she ventured a smear of the Dittany upon the wound in her limp right arm, and was unsurprised when nothing happened. The wound hadn't been caused by Splinching, after all.
Instead, she took up her wand and, with some gritting of teeth, extracted the gleaming bullet from the wound with focused levitation. She flicked it aside, cleaned the wound with a quick sweep of a Charm, and rummaged in her pouch for a bandage. One Charm cut away her sleeve, another Charm set the bandages thick about the wound, containing the loss of blood, and another small Charm would keep their surface clean and slightly.
Judith didn't know the Charms for repairing what had to be a fractured bone with relative speed – that was very much another matter to pester Arborlun with. Absent another suitable expanse of cloth, she drew out Rebecca's travelling cloak and, via with application of focused and multiple Levitation Charms with the wand pointed at an awkward angle, managed to form it into a sling.
As she finished, a sensation of wholeness returned to her gut, and she managed to rise as she brace herself against the wall. Looking towards the mouth of the alley, she saw the skull vendor preaching the merits of her wares to passers-by, and the street beyond her in full flow.
Judith emerged, wincing as her arm's movements bounced it off her chest, and the vendor turned. Her eyebrows rose as she took stock of the sling. "Been in the wars, dearie?"
"You should have seen the other army." An idea dawned on Judith. "I don't suppose you've got a Charm that repairs bones, perchance? I'd pay you for your trouble."
The witch frowned and peered at the arm. "I can do that, right enough. Don't pay. Immoral to profit off a person in need, I've always thought." She drew out a thick wand and tapped it upon the sling. "Os integrum!"
Feeling, ability, and a blessed reduction in pain all happened to the arm in a flash as the spell's energies took hold. Judith joyfully yanked off the sling and flexed the bandage-wrapped arm. There was still some pain and stiffness there, but not enough to make the arm unusable.
"My thanks," she said to the skull-vendor. "Surely there's some way I can repay you?"
A few minutes later, Judith was striding towards the House of the Council with a small glowing-eyed owl skull set fetchingly into the front of her hat's brim. She'd seen muggles wearing similar hats with buckled bands around the hat, and couldn't help but prefer her own take on the style. The skull-vendor had nodded approvingly and with some hint of speculation about her expression.
Judith had taken advantage of the brief and relatively mindless lull to think about what she'd just emerged from.
It had certainly been a revelation, say what else you could about the whole mess, but not an especially beneficial one. The question of King James's magical ability just spawned countless little questions more. How could a man as fanatical as him use the magic with a clean conscience? How had he kept it hidden from his court?
Who had taught him in the first place? It must have manifested in his youth, as it did for all magic-users, and it couldn't have developed into full-blown spell-casting without some sort of instructor – especially considering the complexity and power of some of the spells he'd used. Some of these would have had to be learned in adulthood, implying that the king still had access to magical resources or a wizard confidant.
She listed what she knew as a certainty. King James was magically-talented, and strongly so. He had been trained by some unknown party and still or at least had until recently enjoyed access to magical resources and education. He and his men were targeting magic-users across the country – across all of Great Britain, even, after Gallus Malfoy's capture.
But did she know even these things for a certainty?, whispered some inner part of her that the Sorting Hat must have decided tipped her towards being a Slytherin. Would it be so hard for an existing wizard to impersonate a perfectly innocent – correction; relatively innocent – muggle king using Polyjuice Potion, and arrange for these murders and employ the king as a scapegoat to some great advantage of their own?
All Judith could really admit in the end was that she didn't know nearly enough to reach anything resembling an informed conclusion. That was where briefing Diggory and Clemency would render assistance.
Judith remembered being ejected from the briefing yesterday, and how Diggory had accepted her account of the Witchguard's competency after Clemency had had a quiet word with him.
Clearly, multiple people knew much more about this whole case than Judith did, and that rankled. She let that same rankledness give speed to her strides and proper strength to her posture, leading her to the front of the House of the Council. The guards outside, the same pair from the first day she'd came, recognised her and checked her briefly for illusionary spells before giving her entry.
"You're recognised, and may count yourself admitted," said one of them as Judith entered. "But you haven't sent word ahead of your arrival. Be prepared to wait and be sure that your business is urgent."
She entered the front hall and embarked up the stairs. The suits on armour on guard had clearly been Charmed to recognise her by now; for they parted at her approach.
Judith reached the corridor leading to Diggory's door, and was surprised to see it open and Diggory sorting sheaves of parchment on the desk beyond. He looked up and sighted her, and beckoned for her to approach. His expression was wry, and clearly weighed with mounting worry which he did his best to hide.
"I don't normally accept meetings which haven't at least been asked for beforehand, Miss Fairweather," Diggory remarked dryly as Judith entered the room, the door gliding shut behind her. "But judging by the bruises and cuts on your face and the marks all over your clothing, I can only assume that you're fresh from some exciting event to which I was not invited. I must request your share of the gossip."
"Ask and ye shall receive, Chieftain. A question first, if I may. Will Lady Peverell be able to attend this meeting?"
"She's recently taken unwell, Miss Fairweather, from what I understand. She might be able to attend if I beseech her, but why would I disturb her? What do you want to speak about in her presence?"
"Matters relating to the muggle king of Scotland," replied Judith, making eye contact with Diggory.
The man returned her gaze with one of his own that seemed to be combing through her expression for intention, and then shrugged. His glance turned to the empty fireplace at one wall, from which a column of flame suddenly erupted. "Take a seat, Miss Fairweather. Let us see if she is receptive."
Judith seated herself before the desk as Diggory wrote briefly on a scrap of parchment. He folded it into the shape of a bird, sprinkled a touch of Floo powder on its nose, Charmed it with flight, and casually sent it right at the fireplace. The fire roared green just as the parchment entered, and Diggory barked "Peverell Maenor, in the solarium brazier." The parchment vanished amidst the flames, and Diggory took his own seat behind the desk.
Barely a minute had passed before the fire, since faded to red and orange, flashed emerald-green again and admitted the suddenly-materialising form of Clemency Peverell. The old woman was clearly under the weather; her skin had taken on a grey and mottled hue that suggested the early symptoms of dragonpox.
Clemency's voice, when it emerged, sounded as if it had been produced by something parched. "This many meetings in this many days? What an industrious investigator we have landed, Diggory." Clemency's sharp gaze turned to Judith, and continued to bore into her as the older witch summoned a chair from the side and settled herself into it with a satisfied groan. "Do you bring news of Malfoy's heir?"
"I do. I regret to report that Gallus Malfoy, along with all other magic-users reported missing thus far, are either dead or suffering from the Dementor's Kiss," said Judith.
There was a sharp intake of breath from both of the senior magic-users, and Diggory asked "You saw their condition for yourself?"
"I did. In addition," and here Judith straightened her posture in the chair, making sure the marks of her battle were clear and visible, "I wish to report that King James is a muggleborn magic-user, trained to cast spells in battle and in possession of a working knowledge of wizarding techniques."
This failed to produce the same intake of breath. Diggory closed his eyes, as if in contemplation, and Clemency's gaze remained fixed and unmoving. Judith ventured "Am I correct in assuming that this isn't a revelation to either of you?"
Diggory chuckled briefly, the sound of it grim and mirthless. "Correct, indeed."
"Excellent. Perchance, before the next time I am sent upon a mission, you could see fit to inform me of similarly salient details? I prefer possessing knowledge that diminishes my chances of dying when forced into an unexpected magical duel," said Judith, her tone growing harsher despite her company and the setting.
"We had unwisely assumed that you would conduct the mission in a suitably discreet way, and would have no need to engage in any duel," replied Clemency smoothly. "That, and the matter related directly to the highest possible security of both the wizarding British nation and muggle Scotland. We saw no need for knowledge of it to be dispensed."
"Let us dispense it now," said Diggory. "Bring her up to speed as you did me, Lady Peverell."
"Truly? Our investigator has proven herself a liability. It would be prudent to Obliviate her and dismiss the whole matter from mind-"
"Miss Fairweather's services might yet be of use to us. And if I am mistaken, then we can Obliviate her by the end of this meeting regardless."
Judith, who had shrunk back defensively in her chair at the talk of Oblivation even as her ire at Lady Peverell threatened to broil over, became aware of some silent battle of wills going on between the two lords. Eventually, Clemency shrugged her arms and turned to Judith.
"Oh, very well. But if the knowledge becomes widespread, responsibility for the mess will fall on your head as much as it will fall on hers, Diggory."
"That's a risk I'm willing to take," came the firm reply.
Clemency faced Judith directly, her expression cold and wry. "You guessed that good King James's talents weren't unknown to either of us."
"I did," replied Judith, leaning forward in her chair.
"An especially accurate estimation for myself. After all, I was the one who taught him."
On a snow-shrouded street in Hogsmeade, driving winds chased sheets of snow almost horizontal to the ground. What had begun as uncertain precipitation had turned into a full-scale summer blizzard.
It had cleared the streets of casual walkers, and made others reluctant to venture outside for as long as it lasted. It was perfect for the three wizards currently making their way up along a street of small and cosy houses in the central part of Hogsmeade towards the larger building at its head.
The central man in the group of three ventured a glance up at the sign over the building's front door, reading Gryffindor's Fine Baked Goods.
His pale blue eyes narrowed in satisfaction, shrouded as they were by windswept dishevelled brown hair. Snowflakes clung to his dark outer robes. Looseness at their front gave a brief glimpse of the golden sunburst that lay emblazoned on the robes below.
Past the windows, Captain Fleur Desjardins of the Oriflamme Company could see stocked counters and shelves, and a woman bustling behind the counter with several dishes in her hands.
He nodded to the wizard and witch on his left and right, respectively, and drew his wand from a recess in his robes.
"Callahan, Allesandrini, scout around the entrances and enter once you hear either my signal or battle joined," Desjardins said in French-accented English. "Incapacitate all within the dwelling, and bring them down to the ground floor. On my mark."