Lacuna, Volume Two: SABER; the Rise of Cybertron - chunkerror (2024)

Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Metal Men From Outer Space! Chapter Text Chapter 2: Darkening Shadows Chapter Text Chapter 3: Penny For Your Thoughts? Chapter Text Chapter 4: Ten Minutes to Midnight Chapter Text Chapter 5: Dread Captain Prott and the Russian Revolution Chapter Text Chapter 6: Project Lacuna Chapter Text Chapter 7: The Fall Chapter Text Chapter 8: Hey, Jude Chapter Text Chapter 9: An Unlikely Detour Chapter Text Chapter 10: The World Eater Chapter Text Chapter 11: Midnight Chapter Text Chapter 12: Time And Relative Dimension In Space Chapter Text Chapter 13: Unseen Foes Chapter Text Chapter 14: The Hero of Dormantia Chapter Text Chapter 15: Judith, Angel of Death Chapter Text Chapter 16: O Mother, Where Art Thou? Chapter Text Chapter 17: VENGEANCE Chapter Text Chapter 18: Seven Slytherins Chapter Text Chapter 19: Dragons, Quidditch, and a Cursed Violin Chapter Text Chapter 20: Bird-Snake Brawl and the Rogue Professor Chapter Text Chapter 21: Let's Make A Deal! Chapter Text Chapter 22: Silly Alchemist, Snakes Are For Kids! Chapter Text Chapter 23: The Heist Chapter Text Chapter 24: From Raziel, With Love Chapter Text Chapter 25: Dame-Saint Jude, Spymaster of Arcadia Chapter Text Chapter 26: Death Chapter Text Chapter 27: Demon, Familiar Chapter Text Chapter 28: Hogwarts' Newest Adventuring Party Chapter Text Chapter 29: A Nat 20 Stealth Check Chapter Text Chapter 30: The Hogwarts Exam Caper; War Chapter Text Chapter 31: Empress Jude and the Fucile Crime Family Chapter Text Chapter 32: The Halloween Duel Chapter Text Chapter 33: To 'Make' an Heir Chapter Text Chapter 34: The Third Destiny Of Jude le Fay Chapter Text Chapter 35: The Death of Penelope Prott Chapter Text Chapter 36: Epilogue Chapter Text References

Chapter 1: Metal Men From Outer Space!

Chapter Text

“Do you see it?” I squinted, tracking six small meteors as they entered the upper atmosphere.

“Yeah. Looks like they’ll land in the net.” I clipped my radio back to my side, and hurried down into the valley, kicking through the arctic tundra down to where the meteors were headed. They’d been picked up by the head of the ‘ET’ department—extraterrestrial—passing by the moon, headed for Earth. What was unique about them, aside from their seeming inability to melt under the heat of entry, was revealed by a satellite: inside the rocky exterior of each was a frozen robot, each the size of a small building. No one on the planet had any idea how or why they’d even gotten into space, let alone came back (or to) Earth, but I was placed as the lead ambassador for whatever these things were, as I was still the most durable. I waited at a safe distance as they each impacted, one after the other, before moving closer.

“Oi, big metal things! Come out of there.” None responded, a tap of my wand revealing that they were, in fact, frozen solid. Aiming upward, I shot a green spark into the sky, withdrawing my pipe as Saber agents descended onto the craters.

“Think whatever consciousness they have is asleep. Keep ‘em on ice till I say otherwise.” In the six years following my time at Hogwarts, I’d stepped into a formal position with the Americans, Penny running for Minister in my place with Hermione as her Senior Undersecretary—they hadn’t lost an election yet. The Hogsmeade Hellhounds proved to be one of the fastest rises in professional Quidditch history, going on to win five consecutive European Cup trophies, as well as several book deals in the process; I’d founded the first ever magical secondary school, Symposium Magia, in southern Ireland—which was where most of the others worked, as professors and researchers. The sharing of knowledge and technology had catapulted the world into what many were calling a ‘golden era’ of biotechnology and magic (I’d even formally presided over the dissolution of the International Statute of Secrecy in 2002), though I had no clue what to do with the six metal things that I now found myself in possession of.

“Move them to Highburn; I’ll be there shortly. Prep the hangar to house them.” One of the agents nearby nodded, and I turned on my heel, marching over to where a jet was slowly touching down.

“Here I was excited to see you in a fight.” I rolled my eyes as I boarded, blowing a puff of smoke at Tony’s visor before sitting, the jet already rising back into the air.

“I will need you at Highburn, too. They’re tech of some kind, that’s for sure. I’m just not sure who or what made them.” He nodded, already pouring over the data being collected while the meteors were moved.

“This is some serious technology. Guess you’re going to be the one thawing them?” I shrugged.

“Highburn is my research facility. Aside from any incidents with solar radiation, I think this should be a walk in the park. I just hope they speak English.”

Tony departed over New York City, having something to attend for Stark Industries, leaving Natasha and I alone for the flight across the Atlantic. It was spent in silence, though I did move up to the co*ckpit before resuming proofreading a treatise Siobhan was putting together, with the help of Flamel. Highburn was located off the northern shore of Scotland, an underground system of bunkers carved out underneath a seemingly deserted, grassy island, able to withstand nuclear detonations in the kilotons without so much as a scratch. It was the international headquarters of Saber, housing over six hundred people and functioning as a veritable city, tunnels dug connecting to the ocean for aquatic testing and communication with Seabed via a magically-tuned sonar array and hydroponics labs for growing food. I didn’t hurry to examine the meteors, instead taking a break to shower and change clothes before joining Doctor Banner in the main hangar.

“This one is bigger than the others. Might be their leader.” I raised an eyebrow, glancing at the rock he indicated.

“Sure.” Once the assembled scientists and soldiers were at a safe distance, I drew my wand, tapping the outer layer of rock—causing it to shatter, revealing a smaller chunk of ice, containing what was most definitely an anthropomorphic robot, or at least an insanely detailed metal statue of one. With another tap, the water superheated, turning into a cloud of steam and leaving the thing lying on the ground, still unresponsive. Due to it’s size, in order to get a good view of it’s face I clambered up onto it’s shoulder, standing on it’s chest and frowning down at the lifeless face.

“Should I shock it? Maybe it’s out of battery.” As I looked up, I felt myself being snatched into the air, a massive metal hand wrapping around my midsection as the robot’s eyes lit up, the massive thing sitting up with a horrendous screech.

“Put me down.” The eyes seemed to narrow, as though it was focusing on my face, before it spoke in a rich, slightly robotic voice.

“What are you? What planet am I on?” I glared at the large metal fingers around me, but replied calmly.

“I’m a human, from Earth. What are you?” After a moment, it relaxed the grip, moving so I could instead stand in it’s palm, at eye level.

“I am Optimus Prime, from the planet Cybertron. I have come in search of the Allspark, a sacred artifact of my people.” His massive head swung back and forth, noting the five other meteors.

“I assume you’re the one who woke me?” I nodded, stowing my wand back into my pocket.

“Poppy le Fay. We were there when you impacted, up near the North Pole. I’m, let’s say, one of the people in charge of protecting our planet. You’re the first alien I’ve ever met, so forgive me if I’m unfamiliar with protocol.” A deep, rumbling laugh vibrated his chest, and his metallic features clanked into an approximation of a smile.

“You are the first human I have met. If you would allow me, I would like to wake my comrades, as well.” After carefully setting me down, he set to work cutting into each of the other meteors using a strange laser-like attachment on his arm. While he did, he explained that Cybertronians were primarily composed of machinery, but could transform into certain objects or vehicles—similar to Animagi, but for robots. Once all six were awake, I was going to begin grilling them—before Nat thrust a phone into my hand.

“Prott.” On the other end, Nick Fury, leader of SHIELD (and my boss) cleared his throat.

“One of your friends has turned up in the southwest. Ever met any Norse gods before?” I scowled, withdrawing my pipe and beginning to pace as Banner took over the questioning.

“Which one?” The reply was quick, as was my eye-roll.

“Thor Odinsson. His hammer landed in New Mexico.” My groan must’ve been audible, a chuckle coming back as I thought quickly.

“We’re wrapping up here. They’re friendlies, looking for a cultural artifact of some kind. Is Thor nearby? I’m going to kick his ass myself.” After receiving the coordinates, I handed the phone back to Natasha and turned to Prime, who was on one knee, looking down at me.

“As a gesture of our goodwill, would you allow us to accompany you? It will also give us an opportunity to learn more about your world.” I shrugged.

“Sure, although you might cause a… disturbance if spotted out of context. Can you change into human vehicles, if I showed you some?” It took around twenty minutes for the six aliens to look through a catalogue of the vehicles we had on base, each requesting a different one. Three of them (Prime, Jazz, and Deadshot) were going to go with us, while the other three (Ratchet, Ironhide, and Broadbird) stayed at Highburn. Prime chose an armored SUV, Jazz a sleek ‘high-speed pursuit vehicle,’ and Deadshot a dune buggy. In order to transport them, Natasha and I would Disapparate with them, the rest of the agents accompanying us taking various jets—I avoided them whenever possible—and I held up my staff, instructing them to each touch it, Natasha grabbing onto my other arm. Carefully, the three robots each pushed a finger against the staff, all of us vanishing with a louder-than-normal crack.

Once we’d arrived, and after Jazz had vomited a strange oil-like substance, Nat and I climbed into his car-form, Prime leading the way with Deadshot bringing up the rear. It was very strange to sit in the front seat of a car and watch it drive itself, but his voice from the car’s speakers helped distract me somewhat.

“So, what’s the weather like on Earth? Got any sunshine?” I nodded, peering through the tinted windshield at the tiny outline of a perimeter fence.

“Tons. I’ll have to show you a few good sunbathing spots on the island.” Natasha snorted, reading something in a manilla folder.

“Optimus has been archiving your datacenters, and has several questions about competitive sports.”

After being introduced to a few of the higher-up agents on-site, I strode out to the center of the crater, around which a field-research site had been hastily erected, and in which sat Mjollnir, handle-up.

“No one has been able to lift it, not even with construction equipment.” I nodded, reaching out and flipping it up into the air, catching it by the head.

“Don’t feel bad, Agent Coulson. I’d imagine any divinity could lift this.” Drawing my wand, I tapped the hammer, casting a Tracking Spell to locate it’s owner, Thor. However, I was met by a strange result; my wand didn’t move.

“Is he underneath it?” After a brief scan of the surrounding soil, I frowned at the hammer, which was still in my hand. With a flick of my wrist, I tossed it across the clearing, and cast the spell again. My wand whirred, spinning in my palm before coming to a stop, tip pointed at me.

“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding. Thor Odinsson!” I cracked my staff against the ground, a bolt of lightning striking the crater and depositing a heavily-charred, blond, and infuriatingly nonplussed Norse god.

“Have you my hammer?” I scowled.

“I picked it up, and now magic says it’s my hammer. What did you do?” He scowled, turning and holding a hand out to Mjollnir, which didn’t move.

“It deemed you worthy?!” I stuck my hand out, and watched as the hammer flew quickly through the air, landing in my palm.

“I’m just as surprised as you. Again, care to explain?” After climbing into Prime’s SUV form—for the air conditioning—I listened to Thor’s version of events, that he’d been kicked out of Asgard for ‘being too powerful in battle,’ most likely meaning he'd made his father angry at him somehow.

“I don’t know how to give it back to you. I already have a weapon, I don’t need another one.” Mjollnir, sitting on the seat between us, shivered slightly.

“Lady Prott, ownership of Mjollnir is not simply the ability to summon it. Those who can lift it are worthy to rule Asgard.” I fell back in my seat, a low groan escaping me.

“But I don’t want to rule Asgard. Where’s Odin?” Thor scowled.

“Asleep. There is no telling when he will awake; perhaps when I am once more worthy.” At once, we were moving, Prime shifting around us and dropping us onto the ground where he’d been parked as a massive beam of light blasted through the space over our heads. He stood in front of us, staring out at where the shot had come from—Jazz and Deadshot clustered around us to protect from all angles—and when he spoke, his tone was ominous.

Megatron.” The three Cybertronians scattered, diving and scattering clouds of sand into the air as another beam shot over Thor and I, the pair of us exchanging looks as Prime spoke over his shoulder.

“They’re four miles away, behind a ridge.” I had no idea who ‘Megatron’ even was, but nevertheless drew my wand and raised a mirage in front of us, rendering the five of us invisible to whoever was shooting at us.

“They won’t be able to see us for as long as I maintain the spell. Do we retreat, or attack? Sounds like one of your old friends.” Prime scowled, Jazz changing back into a car and opening the doors for us. “Can you keep it up while we move?” I sat down, sticking my wand out of the window to keep it trained on the illusion, and heard two others climb into Jazz with us—a look over my shoulder revealed Nat and Agent Coulson, the slightly balding man who was in charge of the New Mexico site—and at my cue, all of us fled, heading back the way we’d came so I could Disapparate.

“Catch me up to speed, Jazz. Who the hell is Megatron? I thought you six were here to recover an artifact, not fight a war.” His voice was slightly subdued, a bit of sadness creeping into his tone as he replied.

“The leader of the Decepticons, our rivals. Both groups are after the Allspark; it’s an infinite source of energy, not to mention being able to create life out of machines.” I resisted the urge to bang my head on the steering wheel, adding yet another group of interest to my mental list.

“How convenient of Prime to forget to mention them.” Prime’s voice sounded over the radio, sadness distinct in his words as well.

“Megatron and I were brothers, once. Before the fall of Cybertron, we ruled under Sentinel Prime together. However… the war changed many things. We both seek the Allspark, but I fear that if he were to attain it, it would spell the end, both for Cybertron and the universe at large.” With that cheerful revelation, we continued driving for about ten minutes, until Prime was certain we could Disapparate safely. Once back at Highburn, both Thor and Coulson extremely queasy, I crossed my arms, staring down Prime.

“You neglected to mention that you were bringing a planet-wide war to Earth.” He sighed, sitting up against one of the walls of the hangar.

“I was not aware that Megatron knew even the quadrant of the universe that the Allspark was hidden in, let alone that the Decepticons would arrive here before us. I truly am sorry that our conflict has been brought to your home world.” I sighed, pacing in front of him as Jazz loudly drank down a drum of oil nearby. At the prospect of fighting several wars on several fronts, I held out a hand, Nat depositing the phone in it moments later.

“Fury.” I glanced up at Prime, thinking.

“Our robot boys have a rival gang here. Apparently their Allspark is a power source that both want. I’m requesting clearance to assemble a strike team to prepare for any eventuality.” At the mention of hostile metal machines, Nick quietly swore.

“Send me a list and I’ll see what I can do. Learn anything I could research?” After relating to him the names of both groups (Decepticons and Prime’s group, the Autobots), he promised to dig up whatever he could, hanging up and leaving me to assemble a ‘preventative military force’ for Saber.

One week later, I stood in the hangar, viewing my picks. All of them had been approved, obviously, and as I surveyed the mixture of gods, machines, and vampires, my confidence slowly started to grow.

“The nine of you are being recruited for a joint-strike force, operating under the jurisdiction of Saber, for the express purpose of combatting any and all threats, regardless of origin or nature. This includes, but is not limited to, groups of interest such as the ‘Decepticons,’ the ’Volturi,’ the ‘Brotherhood of Mutants,’ and anyone else who poses a threat to Earth—or Cybertron.” Prime and Fury had signed a treaty, ensuring that the only bots to be targeted were Decepticons; subsequently, that meant we were taking the Autobots’ side in the Cybertronian conflict. Assembled in front of me were Prime, Deadshot, Jasper Whitlock and Alice Cullen (the former could influence emotions, and the other was a Seer similar to me; both were vampires), Siobhan, Natasha, Agent Clint Barton—a SHIELD agent and friend of Nat’s who went by the codename ‘Hawkeye’ and was deadly with a bow—Thor, and Bast.

“Try to get along with each other—we’re probably going to be working together a lot.” As those unfamiliar introduced themselves, I walked over to Deadshot, wanting to get to know the bot better. She hadn’t spoken once since arriving, and had moved back over to a massive screen, where the Autobots had been permitted to access the Internet.

“Hey, got a second?” I only came up to about her mid-shin, and she bent over, viewing me curiously (and silently).

“You don’t talk much, do you? Just wondered if you were settling in alright.” She nodded, turning and typing a message onto the screen.

My voice modulator was ripped out, shortly before we departed Cybertron. Thank you for asking. I smiled, and left her to her study, next going over to where Jasper and Clint stood, the former examining the latter’s bow.

“Fine work, on this. Ever gone hunting with it?” Jasper’s voice had a light southern drawl, almost undetectable, which I liked.

“Few times. Biggest I shot was a 12-point deer; it’s over my fireplace.” Jasper turned, likely having detected my arrival, and nodded.

“Ma’am.” I tipped an imaginary hat, getting a chuckle out of Clint.

“Quite the team you’ve assembled. Can’t say I’ve worked with many sentient robots before.” I glanced over at Prime, who was enjoying an animated conversation with Siobhan, who’d levitated herself up to his height.

“Me neither. You’re here on the recommendation of both Fury and my secretary, Natasha; by-the-by, I haven’t read your file. Wanted to ask permission.” Both Jasper and Clint were surprised, Bast drifting over and slinging an arm around me.

“That’s… considerate of you. If you would, skip the section on ‘Relations’ for me. Our techies get a little… personal, at SHIELD. You’re not about to ask for my Social Security Number, are you?” I rolled my eyes—it was in his file—and shook my head.

I’m not. The bunkrooms are keyed to them, though. There’s a mandatory colonoscopy, as well. Nasty parasite broke out a few weeks ago—do not ask to see the file.” His face went whiter than Jasper’s, muttering out a quick

“Thanks, ma’am,” and leaving as soon as my eyes turned to Bast.

“You’ve filled out! By several inches, it seems.” Even after I magically extended my height, they still call me short.

“Magic is… magical, after all. How have you been? It’s been a while.” Jasper remained with us as we updated each other on our lives (she’d taken a vacation in Australia recently), pulling his phone out of his pocket as it began to ring. We were joined by Thor, who shot me a sheepish look, as Mjollnir was belted to my waist (it got upset and began shrieking if I even thought about stowing it somewhere).

“Would you like a replacement weapon? I’m sure I’ve got something I can loan you.” He shook his head, clasping his hands behind his back.

“I am grateful for your offer, but must decline. I must earn my weapon; perhaps you are the one to bequeath it, when the time is right.” My magic eye twitched, but I said nothing, nodding wisely. Thor, then, turned to Bast, smiling politely and nodding.

“I was… hoping to speak with Lady le Fay, in private. If that is alright, of course.” Despite the fact that the majority of people had superhuman hearing—and the fact that every laboratory was bugged—I nodded, Bast separating with an invitation to play cards later. The nearest private place was, sadly, my office, which overlooked the main hangar (I briefly watched the game of ‘shoot an arrow and I’ll catch it’ that had started up between Clint and Jasper). Once we were seated, Thor giving an admiring nod to my surroundings, he spoke plainly.

“I am formally asking you to take my hand in marriage, and become the Queen of Asgard. You are as worthy to rule as I.” Abruptly, all of the muscles in my body tensed, before I sagged back into my seat limply.

“C’mon, I’m already married. And I don’t want to rule Asgard, again. Trust me, the more time you spend around me, the more chances you’ll get to be a hero.” He sighed, looking down at my nameplate (Senior Director Poppy Granger).

“How is your wife?” At that precise moment, I didn’t know, and explained as much to him.

“What I see on the job stays under wraps, until I can be there in person. Classified, after all.” We took a vacation every year, but it’d been five months since our last, and I was looking down the next several months with a sour taste, if the last week had been any indication.

“Don’t worry, Thunder-boy, nobody can go insane twice. I’ll be fine.” His eyebrows rose, but at my face he didn’t press further.

“Very well. Would… we’re having a night of drinking, to celebrate the founding of our party, and to foster camaraderie between our members.” I wasn’t aware he knew that the word ‘camaraderie’ existed, but took it in stride, already slumped in my chair. When dealing with gods, protocols had to be… bent sometimes, so a late-night party was par for the course. Especially for the Greeks.

“I am the final member of the group; ‘captain,’ so to speak. I’ll be there. Is it in the hangar?” Even as I looked over, I spied Ironhide carrying in two semi-trucks’ worth of something that came in barrels, Jasper using his unnatural strength to assemble a row of casks against the far wall under Alice’s direction.

“Indeed. You need not assist in the preparations; you are the host, after all.” I glared at him, though it did nothing but make him chuckle, standing and casting a forlorn look at Mjollnir.

“How long have you used it?” He sighed heavily, pausing at the doorframe.

“In Earth-years, many, many centuries. She and I have seen many battles. I hope to see more, with her in my hand.” The hammer began vibrating at my side, emitting an audible hum, which Thor smiled at.

“Wait, is it—she, sentient? Come back here, Thor.”

I sat, smoking at my desk, for fifteen minutes until Mjollnir stopped making noise, at which point I glanced into the hangar. Thor was beside Clint, and caught my eye, waving and showing a thumbs-up. Figuring the party was about to begin, I stood and snuffed out my pipe, making my way back. At this late, not many people were up and about, though I did run into Doctor Banner in the elevator.

“Evening. Coming to the party?” He snorted, shooting a look through the glass window.

“Not my scene. Tony just sent over a few models of a new element he’s synthesizing; the arc reactor in his chest contains palladium.” At my incomprehension, he continued.

“It’s poisoning him, even with the best our Biomedicine department can offer. I’m going to look through his notes, probably going to be a late night.” I nodded, and resisted the urge to apologize for being unable to help (if Muggles drank magical potions, death was the preferable outcome. It was another of my side-projects).

“Feel free to use my tab in the canteen. They don’t charge me for coffee. Or cigarettes, if you want another habit.” He laughed, shaking his head as the door opened with a pleasant ding!

“I’ll take you up on the coffee. With all of the things I work with, it’ll be a miracle already if I don’t get cancer.” I stepped out, pausing briefly to authorize his use of my account for coffee at a nearby terminal (SHIELD hadn’t managed to make everything hand-held yet, but R&D seemed determined to try) before walking up to the others, who were loosely circled around the far wall.

“Ah, when last myself and Lady Death enjoyed this sort of festivity, we were at the gate of Heaven.” I rolled my eyes, sitting down between Siobhan and Jazz, who was laying on his back to be eye-level.

“I watched you read my nameplate.” Siobhan snorted, offering me her pipe, which I exchanged for mine.

“Ah, but your true name is a secret, as are the names of all the Devil’s children.” While it was technically classified information, his way of saying it was so archaic I doubted anyone would understand or believe him.

“I believe this hammer was at your hip, then. Whatever happened? Surely that tale is worth singing to the stars.” He turned bright red, downing an entire tankard of ale before replying.

“Surely not! Sir Optimus, as you are the newest of our rank to arrive to this planet, have you stories to tell? Surely one as fearsome as you has seen much glory!” His deflection was not lost on anyone, but the series of stories the Autobot told rivalled even mine (though not my ‘Sun-Grabber’ one. That one won me a lot of points), epic battles spanning entire planets and world-destroying weapons, though I noticed he refrained from mentioning anything related to Megatron or the Decepticons. As Ironhide began a story about some bombing run he did, Alice flicked a pencil at me from across the room. I only realized this after it skewered my neck, resulted in several shocked gasps until she appeared at my elbow, apologizing profusely.

“I can’t see the future whenever I want! You’re lucky you hit me.” After removing it, I joined her and Jasper, who had moved over to a corner, talking quickly into a phone.

“What is it?” He handed the phone to Alice, turning to face me fully.

“There’s been an… incident, back in Washington. Judie met someone Carlisle calls her ‘blood-singer,’ and almost butchered an entire Biology class. Nothing world-ending,” he added quickly at the sight of my slowly-clenching jaw, “just some family issues. No word yet otherwise; Emmett still wants to fight you.” I snorted, and shook my head rapidly.

“I’m too strong, I’d kill him. Tell him I said that.” Jasper snickered, nodding once as I turned back to the others, retrieving my pipe from Siobhan.

“What’d I miss?” She sighed, daintily puffing her pipe.

“Several admissions of war crimes in an attempt to convey whatever ‘glory’ means. Thor has already taken his clothes off.” I looked around wildly, finding the Asgardian standing in front of Jazz buck naked with his hands on his hips proudly.

“Apparently they’re studying ‘Asgardian physiology.’ I stopped listening once Jazz asked him to flex.” I downed my drink, sadly aware I needed to stay somewhat sober, as I was in charge of the entire base.

“Obliviate me, then kill me.” She giggled, taking a drink from her flask and offering it to me.

"Sticking to mead, thanks. Have a facility to run and all.” I spent five minutes ignoring her lecture on ‘cutting loose on occasion,’ instead watching Natasha, across the circle, talking with Clint and Bast. I’d met her several years ago, when she was Fury’s secretary, and upon formally assuming my role at Saber she’d been assigned to me. Her file was so classified I didn’t even know where to request it from—and I had one of the highest clearances in the organization—and while she’d never been in combat while I’d known her, she had a distinct familiarity with violence, something I’d begun picking up on after my time at SHIELD (A resigned scowl, as if constantly planning a way to neutralize the room).

“I’m a bit glad you’re here, to be honest. Not many magic users at Highburn.” In fact, I was the only one.

“I’ve missed the old crew as well. We should have a reunion, sometime.” I nodded, the main extent of communication between the Scarheads relegated mostly to letters and postcards.

“What are we looking at, here?” I detailed some of the intel I’d gathered, having granted her the clearance directly below mine, Siobhan swearing softly as I explained the multitude of problems on the horizon.

“At least it won’t be boring. What’s the deal with the redhead? She’s been radiating what I can best describe as ‘curious observance’ since I got here.” I snorted, and took another drink of mead.

“My secretary. Never seen her in combat, but she’s got the look to her.” Siobhan’s eyes narrowed slightly, watching Nat, but she said nothing, likely remembering my admonishment about getting along.

“Keep an eye on her. Dunno what, but something’s there.” A grimace overtook my face momentarily, not wanting to worry about any possible ulterior motives within my newly formed task force, but it quickly dissipated, replaced by the usual bored, slightly angry neutral.

“I shouldn’t have said that, eh? You’re overflowing with suspicion, right now.” If looks could kill. I puffed my pipe, blowing an evil eye, which hung over the center of the ring and gazed out at all of the members. Surprisingly, the only ones to be bothered were Alice and Nat, who upon noticing it quickly looked away, some of their relaxation fading.

“Ugh. I’m off to bed before my brain blows a fuse. Don’t let anyone get too rowdy.” She nodded somberly, giving a mock salute as I rose, giving a general farewell and making tracks for the elevator before anyone tried to corner me. Once more, I ran into Banner, though this time he looked much worse for wear, face flush and pale, while his hands shook in his pockets.

“Are you alright?” He nodded, though his entire body began vibrating as he did, causing me to draw my wand in alarm.

“Experiment—didn’t—” Then, amazingly, before my eyes, his skin slowly started to turn a light shade of green, veins boldening with a similar, though mottled hue. The elevator was about halfway up, and I grit my teeth before pressing the ‘emergency stop’ button and pulling off my cloak, which quickly made itself scarce through the ceiling vent, taking my wand and sword with it.

“While you can—any words to help me help?” He groaned, sagging against the wall, and I lifted his heavier-than-normal form upright.

“Super-Soldier Serum—gamma experiment—oh, god…” A deeper, much rougher note had come into his tone, skin slowly darkening as his form grew, stretching upward and adding on at least fifty kilos of muscle, hair shooting out and tinting green, settling at his chest—which, prior to before, had now burst his button-down flannel open, revealing green abdominal muscles that doubled in size as Banner added on several more inches, soon towering over me in the elevator. I looked up, slightly awestruck, before a roar emanated from behind the curtain of hair that rattled through my metal hearing, making my eyes vibrate in their sockets.

“Banner? It’s me, Poppy.” Whatever I could’ve said next was stopped as a hand was placed over my face, obscuring my vision, though by the sound around me the scientist had jumped through the reinforced glass wall of the elevator, dragging me along through the shards of glass. After a brief moment of weightlessness—during which I coated myself with metal—I was slammed into the floor of the hangar, hard enough to crack the floor. Reaching blindly, I snagged a throat, latching on with my left hand and throwing whoever I had (hopefully Banner) across me, rotating to a kneeling position as the hand vanished. Below me, struggling mightily around my hand, was Banner—though whatever experiment he'd subjected himself to had caused his face to take on a much more feminine appearance; though it might have been the hair.

“Banner! You’re alright, it’s me.” Again, I was stopped, this time by a fist that snapped my face sideways, knocking out one of my metal teeth. Well, if Banner didn’t want to talk it out, I’d respond in the language of whatever he’d turned into. I spat out the tooth, and some black ooze, before smacking his—or hers, I wasn’t sure and they obviously weren’t in the state of mind to talk about it—head against the ground lightly and screaming back, punctuated by a roll of thunder. Then, to a chorus of frightened gasps, I let go, standing and walking a bit away before turning to face my opponent, who was standing, watching warily. From the five words he’d given me to work with, I deduced that he’d been working on one of Fury’s pet projects—trying to replicate the Super-Soldier Serum used back in the Second Muggle World War. The gamma radiation was tricky, however; I had none of the various degrees Banner did, but based on what I could see it was similar to how I imagined a Neanderthal or incredibly intoxicated person—perhaps a mixture. They lunged, closing the distance in an instant with one arm drawn back to punch—but before the strike, my hand was firmly grasped around their shoulder, twisting Banner in midair slightly as I twisted into their body, swinging my other elbow around in a devastating blow to their collarbone—this slammed Banner’s face into the back of my head, the satisfying crunch of broken bone accompanied by a rush of air as they were clotheslined, falling to the ground heavily, dazed. I squatted down, looking down at Banner’s nose with a little worry—it was practically flat, blood and bits of bone oozing out around the cartilage and flesh—however, as I watched, it healed, much faster than even mine, the snicks and pops of the bones reassembling nearly making me shudder. I was slightly surprised that the thing hadn’t moved, instead regarding me with an inscrutable face from the ground, lower cheeks and chin coated with green blood. As our gazes met, we pondered each other, and after a moment, I stood, holding a hand out to Banner. A flash of surprise was quickly stamped out, and I watched with some bemusem*nt as the hand that grasped mine slowly grew smaller, skin lightening until standing before me was an exhausted Bruce Banner, with a fresh set of ripped clothes.

“Are you alright?” He nodded, eyes wide, though he no longer seemed to be in any pain.

“I don’t remember much, but… canteen? I think I might take you up on the offer for an extra habit, after all.”

After reassuring both the partiers and the various armed agents waiting around us, Banner and I took the stairs up to the canteen, where I bought two pots of coffee, and a carton of the ‘base-brand’ cigarettes, meeting Banner at a corner table. He eyed the carton warily, inspecting it as I sat and drew my wand.

“’Dragonbreath Smokes: ‘Take a puff of the dragon!’” I snatched it away from him, scowling.

“We’re going to sit here and work through this whole situation until either we’re dry or out of these. Then, five minute break. Ad infitum, ‘till we can cure you, or whatever needs done.” He rolled his eyes, but when I continued to unpackage the ‘smokes,’ his expression sobered.

“Look, it’s really nothing, I know how it happened, I’m sure I can fix it—” He was interrupted by my—slightly menacing—snap, lighting my cigarette and another, which floated over to him.

“I need the practice in Muggle knowledge. I’ve been assured several times that you’re the best in… pretty much every field. It’s the least I can to repay you, though I may be required to dock your pay for the elevator.” At his confused look, I snickered, reaching into my cloak and withdrawing two large, spiral bound notebooks.

“Run me through what went wrong. I’ll see if my ‘witchy’ sensibilities are any better than your nonmagical ones.” Banner shot me an incredulous look, handing me a pencil before reluctantly taking a puff of the cigarette, scowling.

“Color me a skeptic, but I doubt your witchy sensibilities were what saved you back there.” After glancing at the empty room around us, he leaned forward and lowered his voice.

“Full transparency, both ways. I’ve heard some things about your… unique anatomy, and since we’re probably going to end up attempting to sequence my genome, it’s only fair I learn a few things in return.” If there was ever a true scholar, let it be Bruce Banner.

“…Very well. Though, be warned: most humans go mad upon learning the things I have seen. I doubt you will, though!” I added the last part a little too cheerily, taking a long drink of cheap coffee. Banner began scribbling a few notes, which evolved into several diagrams, each explained to me (some several times) in ‘layman’s terms as he walked me through the process. What Muggles knew as ‘radiation’ was difficult to initially attribute within magical societies, so much so that I resolved to schedule a few sick days in order to travel to the castle, and my vault. If there had been any sort of information on the subject during her time, Morgana was sure to have either made a copy, or written her own version; beyond that, the options became increasingly slim. I wasn’t sure whether or not to bring Banner, a question I mulled over for the latter half of the conversation, where I gave him as best a description of what I saw as I could. So soon after the event, his brain was still a bit scrambled, but two cartons and seven pots of coffee later, we had a workable plan. I then promptly Scourgified myself, offering it to Banner, who politely refused before leaving, carrying both of our notebooks, which were full of notes. After stopping to deposit our empty dishes, I entered the stairwell, trying to climb as quietly as I could to lock myself in my office until morning. Surprisingly, I made it with no obstacles, breathing out a quiet sigh of relief as the bolt clicked, magically sealed and muffled. With another flick of my wand, the shutters closed, only light coming from the small, attached bathroom for when I was working overtime. Opposite my desk, against the wall, was a small couch, which I pulled out into a rather sturdy metal foldout bed (though I didn’t have a blanket). Obviously, I wasn’t planning on sleeping, but I did still enjoy the feeling of resting on a bed—my back did still hurt, especially after Banner’s ‘experiment-gone-wrong,’ but I was more glad that no one else was hurt. A familiar, dreadful feeling settled into my stomach, and I groaned, mid-undressing to change. I could almost feel myself settling into ‘protect-mode,’ which is what Hermione had termed my battle-mindset: draw all fire at all costs. I’d been putting it off, trying to ignore the feeling, but my neck stayed tense until I was fully changed into SHIELD sweatpants and t-shirt, seated on the edge of the bed. As it left, however, all of the hair on my neck stood up—I wasn’t alone.

“Quite a dangerous path, to creep into the chambers of Lucifer’s daughter.” The room was still, and I jerked my head to the side as I heard the faintest rustle of wind, approaching rapidly from behind. Instead of being beheaded, a brief scream quickly cut as my limbs sprung from my back, capturing someone so completely that when I stood, all that was brought in front of me was a black, writhing ball.

“Let me see.” Somewhat reluctantly, a few black tendrils parted, revealing Thor, still screaming into the impromptu gag.

What are you doing here?!” the tendrils moved, and he spoke hoarsely.

“I merely thought you might not like to be alone. The light is motion-activated, and Asgardians have been known to petrify after standing in one place—” I scowled, limbs setting him down before retracting to nestle around me—judging by the strange licking sensation on my neck, they started guiding a small garter snake out of my bra—much to Thor’s chagrin.

“You can stay. I can’t sleep, though, so feel free to use the bed if you need to.” He puffed out his chest, walking over to the light and, at my nod, turning it on.

“I once settled a contest by staying awake for an entire lunar cycle; I doubt one mortal night is much in comparison.” I raised an eyebrow, both at his words and the slightly battered pack of cards he produced.

“Does that work back on Asgard?” He scowled, sitting across from my chair at the desk.

“Through what means would I be capable of knowing, currently? Come, Lady le Fay; play cards for a while.” After he withstood an incredibly skeptical look, I joined him and watched him shuffle, slightly worried.

“I’m terrible at cards. Think I’m cursed.” As we played, it soon proved true, losing twelve consecutive rounds of something as random as ‘War,’ though the thirteenth round I finally won. Before he could mutter a snide remark, I flipped my next card; sure enough, I lost.

“I told you, Thor. My luck has to balance out somehow; if I was good at everything, then it wouldn’t be fair.” He snorted, and I proceeded to lose even more, though when I offered to quit after twenty-five rounds, he shook his head.

“There’s only one card left each. Might as well?” I shrugged, flipping my card simultaneously with his, brow arching as mine proved higher than his.

“Were those both sets of thirteen? I wonder if… Mind playing the whole deck again?” He didn’t, and after a slightly quicker game, we came to the same conclusion; no matter what, I won every thirteenth round, without fail. Switching to blackjack, every thirteenth round I had an ace and a king. Every thirteenth round of poker was four aces. The realization dawned on me that I wasn’t cursed with the inability to play cards, rather that I was gifted to always win the thirteenth round of every game—which could come in very handy.

“I suppose I owe you thanks, Thor. It’s not often I learn something new about myself.” He smiled wisely—infuriatingly—and put the cards up carefully.

“Though I may seem a dullard with a hammer, there are many things that do not escape my eye.” I scowled, digging through a drawer and withdrawing a notebook, half-full of notes and drawings, as well as a pencil.

“Oh, mighty and wise Thor, whatever would I do in your absence?” Soon, the only sound was the methodical scratching of pencil on paper, punctuated by the occasional mutter as Thor examined Mjollnir, who (?) was resting on my desk.

“You’ve not polished her.” Setting down my pencil carefully, I folded my hands into my lap and looked up at him.

“Would you like to? You’re being annoyingly forlorn.” He carefully tested the handle, visibly breaking when it refused to budge.

“Is there any way we can expedite your worthiness? What if we duel? I doubt you’d win, but I imagine you’ll prove yourself.” At the manic glint that formed in his eye, I raised my hands simultaneously with the threatening emergence of my tendrils.

Not now. Wait until after the first mission, at least. My brain still functions at human speed.”

Chapter 2: Darkening Shadows

Chapter Text

The first official mission of ‘Saber Squad’ came a little over a month later, a file appearing on my desk detailing a recent data breach that revealed the locations of several meta-human hotspots, and a hidden gathering that was to take place in France. Our directive was to infiltrate the event, gather as much information as possible, and get out before anyone caught on. After some discussion, it was decided that Alice and Siobhan would be the ‘boots on the ground,’ while the rest of us would hover close enough to intervene if necessary. Having the Autobots on our side was perfect for espionage scenarios; instead of cars being potential weak points they were now massive robots in disguise. Prime and Deadshot scanned a few ‘civilian vehicles’ before we departed, Prime a red and blue semi truck and Deadshot a Ferrari—not exactly inconspicuous, but there was no way anyone would be able to correctly guess what was off about the two vehicles. The rest of us were split between them, communicating using their radios as we neared the region of forest the meeting was set for, a rather removed valley with no roads leading into or out of it. Prime and Deadshot stopped on a ridge, allowing us a view of a massive group of people, circulating between quickly-assembled booths, all radiating outward from a central stage, where someone stood, speaking. At my cue, Alice and Siobhan made their way down, communicating via Disillusioned earpieces. As they demonstrated their ‘mutant powers’ to gain entry, I withdrew my pipe, leaning back in Deadshot’s driver seat and tracking the pair with my magic eye. Within the mass of people, there wasn’t very much information to be gathered, but as Alice came into earshot of the stage, she stopped. “The man on the stage is a member of the Volturi.” My eyes widened, and I sat bolt upright.

“Does he know you? If so, call it off—I’m not walking you into that.” After learning that the vampire onstage—Aro—was the leader of the vampire coven that had tried to have me killed in my seventh year at Hogwarts, I resisted the urge to march in myself and demand answers. Alice returned to where we were, as Aro knew her, leaving Siobhan to navigate the crowds alone. I couldn’t hear him from our position, but Siobhan related that he was essentially calling for a unification of vampires and mutants, though the ‘threat’ he kept alluding to was never stated plainly. After another ten minutes, I pulled her out—there wasn’t anything to steal, and we’d heard all we needed—and sighed as she climbed into Prime, who began leading the way back towards the coast. Natasha was beside me, hurriedly writing down everything important, and we were jostled slightly as Deadshot rolled over a tree root.

“Get that to Fury as soon as possible. If they’re actively trying to join forces, we’ll need to get authorization for a few assassinations.” She nodded, not looking up.

“Loud and clear. Director Fury has arrived at Highburn, in order to inspect the squad, ma’am. Stark is with him.” Since wrapping up whatever business he’d been up to, Tony hadn’t left Banner’s side, having invented at least six new medical devices in the past three weeks—if he felt comfortable enough to leave Bruce alone, I was confident in his progress.

“We’ll need to put on our dress robes, then. Want me to?” At her noncommittal shrug, I flicked my wand, changing her standard ‘field uniform’ into a SHIELD-approved, smaller version of my own cloak, black and emblazoned with her nametag (and a logo, of course).

“I don’t think I’m ever going to get used to that. Oh, Thor is trying to talk to us, from Optimus.” Deadshot’s radio was blinking, and I grimly nodded, already knowing what was coming.

“Lady le Fay, if perhaps the pair of us could detour?” Grinding my teeth together, I considered replacing them with titanium, but responded cordially.

“Certainly. Deadshot, could you pull over?” At Natasha’s confused look, I grinned tightly.

“I’m off to duel Thor, to get this bloody hammer off of me. Shouldn’t take long; keep dinner warm.” Before she could protest, I stepped out of Deadshot, nodding to Thor and shooting a long look at Siobhan, who nodded imperceptibly. She’d keep an eye on things for me, just like in the castle. As the two robots trundled off, I turned to Thor and cracked my knuckles.

“Where is this happening? We can start now, if you want.” He paled, shaking his head rapidly and gesturing to Mjollnir.

“Use her, to access the Bifrost. We shall duel before Odin himself, in Asgard.” My only memories of the place were heavily obscured by alcohol, and after being reassured that it wouldn’t take long, I raised the hammer, following his instructions.

Asgard!” For a moment, nothing happened, and I was about to start swearing when a cylinder of flashing, whirling rainbow light slammed into the ground around us, centered on the hammer. Thor rudely gripped me around the waist, shortly before I screamed as my stomach seemed to turn inside-out, the rest of me vanishing shortly after.

I landed, or materialized, in a spherical, golden room. It had a raised platform, in which was mounted a large sword held by an armored man, who withdrew it and strode towards me.

“Who are you, intruder?” I fell back, hands up, Thor stepping over me to intercept him.

“Heimdall, it is I! Thor, son of Odin, returned with Mjollnir! Er, perhaps not perfectly, just yet.” I endured a sterner look than McGonagall could dream of for several seconds, before the man sighed heavily, and nodded. After standing and brushing myself off, we shook hands.

“Welcome back to Asgard, Lady le Fay. It is curious that Mjollnir chose you, as worthy.” I scowled, belting the hammer back onto my waist.

“A better word would be irritating. The plan is to duel before Odin, so he can earn the damn thing back.” An indignant jolt of electricity shocked my side, which I ignored, following the other two out and onto the bridge. As we retraced my drunken steps, I pieced more and more together, the skyline as we crossed the bridge familiar, in a strange way. Obviously we’d made an impression on the locals, as I was recognized several dozen times in the gilded streets, giving autographs and politely receiving several pounds of food, sweets, and alcohol—most of which I passed to Thor and Heimdall, who didn’t seem to mind. By the time we’d reached the main palace, my cloak was ten pounds heavier, and I’d replenished my store of mead twice over. At the end of a long, massive room filled with symmetrical pillars sat a golden throne, atop which sat Odin, adorned with golden armor and a (new) golden eyepatch. It took a solid minute to cross the distance, and as we approached my nose slowly started to wrinkle.

“Thor, that’s not Odin.” He paused, alarmed, but I shoved my arm through his and dragged him forward.

Play along.” I could only hope he’d heard me, as we shortly came to a stop at the foot of the throne, where Odin frowned.

“What is this, my son? Have you returned from your punishment so soon?” I gulped, and stepped forward, bowing respectfully.

“I am Poppy Prott, of Earth. Mjollnir has chosen me, and I Thor; one as weapon and wielder, the other as husband and wife.” It took every ounce of will I had not to vomit at the words I was speaking, though by the thunderstruck expression on the old man’s face, he believed it.

“My, that is… wonderful news! Of course, we must celebrate Thor finding his bride—” I smiled, taking another step forward and drawing Mjollnir.

“I wish to duel him, to return her to her rightful wielder. I ask no other price, nor even ceremony, if you wish.” That seemed to be to his liking, and he rose, nodding rapidly and grasping his staff.

“Tonight, Thor shall duel his bride, for the honor of wielding both her and Mjollnir, eternally and compassionately.” This was punctuated by a clang of the staff—I really hoped it wasn’t magically binding—and Odin departed, in order to oversee the preparations for our fight, leaving Thor and I alone in the massive room.

“Thanks for not giving it away. You remember my hearing, right?” He winced, leading the way towards a side-corridor. “It didn’t sound like 'Odin music', at all. It must be someone disguised as him; do you know anyone that can shapeshift?” He shot a dark look over his shoulder, throwing open a pair of massive, wooden doors to reveal his chambers. It was one large room, with a firepit big enough to house a bonfire in the center, beneath a skylight; half of the room had a balcony overlooking the city, and the mountains nearby. Once the doors were shut behind us, I leaned over, trying not to be ill.

“I am assuming, by your current state, that we are not to be wed?” I shot him a dark look, rising and moving over to a nearby chair.

“I’m sorry to disappoint you. Have any idea what we’re dealing with?” He scowled, sitting across from me.

“Loki, my brother, is the most likely culprit. He is able to take on the appearance of others, at will. Odin is probably still asleep.” I jumped to my feet, beginning to pace as I considered the puzzle pieces.

“Assume Loki is at least tangentially related to what’s going on back on Earth. If he’s in league with them, he’s likely to either try and assassinate you or me during the duel. I propose a heist.” At his incredulous look, I scowled and resumed pacing.

“We steal anything valuable from Asgard before Loki gets a chance to use it, survive whatever trap he’s currently setting, and escape before anyone is the wiser.” Thor seemed slightly ill at the concept of burgling Asgard, but my explanation of how we were going to fight in the duel brightened him considerably and got him moving. He’d memorized the rotations of the guards, and led me quickly down into the guts of the palace, past magic dungeons and dusty storerooms until finally, we arrived in a wide corridor holding several different raised platforms, each holding a strange object that radiated magical power.

“What do we take?” At his instruction, I shoved a massive golden gauntlet, a strange ice-cold blue box rimmed in metal, and a perfectly shaped blue cube, which emitted an icy chill and nearly deafened me with magical energy. After making sure nothing would suddenly explode in my cloak, we returned to his rooms to wait until ‘Odin’ came to call us.

After an afternoon of Thor regaling me with stories of his childhood—they seemed to include just as much violence as his usual ones—a smartly dressed man arrived to escort us to an arena, where we were to fight. Along the way, I repeatedly threatened my staff with horrible death, until I was certain it wouldn’t kill Thor, and handed it to him, in sword-form.

“It’s long, but lighter than a feather. I use it in my offhand, but I’m sure you could two-hand it if you want.” He nodded, inspecting the blade with an expression approaching worship.

“He is quite learned; I am surprised one in your company retains such nobility.” I fingered the handle of Mjollnir, a burning question refusing to go unacknowledged.

“Can you talk to weapons? Or, can I just not hear them?” He shot me a condescending look, rubbing a stain off of the flat of the blade.

“With age, those companions we would not normally consider reveal their deeper meaning.” I was tempted to start the duel there, in the entryway of the arena, but resolved to wait a few paces, emerging into a wide-open coliseum, a sandy soil constituting the ground while the walls rose almost thirty feet, stands full of almost every Asgardian in Asgard—and a few other species I didn’t recognize—while, across from the entrance in an elevated booth, Odin stood.

“Welcome, all, to the festivities of my son, Thor, and his wife-to-be, Poppy Prott!” The stands roared, and with a slight nod Thor walked out in front of me, turning to face me once we had about fifteen feet between us. At the signal (a very loud horn) I lunged, drawing Mjollnir and trying to close the distance between us. I’d never fought against my own weapon before—neither had Thor, it seemed—as our first few engagements were clumsy, but Thor quickly became accustomed to the reach of my blade, keeping me just out of hammer-reach. The balance of Mjollnir lent it to looping, often overhead strikes, most of which Thor was able to avoid with a grace that surprised me; after five minutes, neither of us had injured the other. While the audience was enraptured, Odin obviously wasn’t, as the trap was sprung just after I narrowly missed Thor’s leg: the sand around us exploded, three massive robots (of the Decepticon variety, I suspected) digging up in plumes of dust and aiming their weapons. Without a word, we both turned and charged, arriving at the first one just as the dust cleared. It was at least twenty feet tall, but I watched, impressed, as Thor leaped straight up, slicing the robot’s head off and impaling it in the chest in one blow. Sadly, my reflexes were again too slow, a liquid-metal hot bolt shearing off a third of my head, skating off of my metal skull and causing my entire body to encase itself in metal, extra limbs emerging and propelling me towards the attacker, who was already preparing to fire again. I dodged the shot, driving Mjollnir straight through it's chest, caving a hole through it and sending it to the ground, with me atop it. Thor had dispatched the last one similarly to the first—though he’d also cut it’s legs off—and I stumbled, head still hazy from almost having my brain vaporized. It was my ‘Achilles’ heel,’ so to speak, and I shrugged off the shiver as I limped over to Thor, who looked at me with worry. “I’m not dead. Are we done here?” People in the stands were screaming, but neither of us seemed to care, Thor directing me to withdraw the blue cube and focus on where I wanted to go. When I did, a strange, smoky portal opened up into a doorway beside us, Thor stepping through first; as I followed, something slammed into my back, knocking me forward and into the portal.

“You look positively radiant, Director Prott.” I’d fallen through the portal and landed, face-first, at the feet of Fury, who was standing in the hangar. I’d been impaled by a strange golden scepter that radiated magic I’d never heard before, and shrugged it off, standing and allowing two researchers to remove it as I unloaded the rest of my loot to several agents.

“Thank you, sir. Asgard is truly a radiant city, after all. I’ve retrieved several items of interest, as well as hopefully solving Thor’s problem; I’ve also… expanded one of ours.” My words were punctuated by a grim schlock as the scepter was removed, which Fury met with a savage grin.

“Good. I just finished examining your facility, if you’d like to return to your office, we can conduct your performance review.”

After exchanging my torn shirt for a whole one, I joined Fury in my office, where he sat at my desk, examining a thick file.

“Special Operation Base Delta-09 ‘Highburn,’ under your care since it’s inception in 1999, has consistently been one of the highest-scoring facilities in the entirety of SHIELD. You, however, routinely abandon your post, amend or disobey orders, sanction alliances with extraterrestrial lifeforms without any prior authorization.” He closed the file, regarding me critically.

“Fix the problem.” I had no idea I’d been performing poorly, at least in the eyes of the few above me, and I looked down, turning through every possible solution—from mundane to otherworldly. There were a multitude of threats on the horizon, but at least we knew about them.

“I will change my behavior, firstly. Secondly, I have several projects that, if they pass the testing stage, will help increase efficiency and my own… remembrance of the code of conduct. Sir.” He raised an eyebrow, but when I didn’t relent, he sighed.

“Those were my own concerns. The board of directors has voted to promote you to Assistant Director, directly beneath me—this comes with a raise, and you’ll receive a list of recommended file readings to complete tonight. I believe they intend for you to handle the… weird parts, while I remain the public face. Congratulations.” Fury handed me a letter, mostly filled with kind words and a few signatures.

“Obviously, you’re remaining here. I’ll begin moving some items from other sites here for research, as well. I trust you’ll appoint trustworthy, intelligent people to the appropriate positions.” I nodded, knowing not to look a gift horse in the mouth, and stood to salute as he rose.

“Just… occasionally ask for approval. A maverick is good, but it’s nice for some of us to be forewarned.” Again, I nodded, waiting until I heard the ding of the elevator before releasing the pent-up breath I didn’t know I was holding. I then promptly screamed at the knock on my door, turning to see Tony, white-faced and frozen in position.

“Sorry, just had a meeting. Can I help?” After overcoming himself, he entered, placing six sheets of paper in front of me once I’d sat behind my desk.

“All of these, with the help of the Cybertronians. Most of the designs rely on their ‘Allspark’ for full efficiency, but even partially active… How would you like a voice-controlled shower that learns your routine?” The prospect was becoming more and more worth the money his department practically burned, though with my new position I doubted anyone would care; Fury had a soft spot for him.

“All-clear from me. By the way, I’m tentatively feeling out a replacement for Senior Director. Interested?” His expression darkened, and I raised my hands in a pacifying gesture.

“I’m not leaving. Just got promoted, is all. You’re speaking to the Assistant Director of SHIELD, as of two minutes ago.” Tony turned pale again, warily saluting until I burst into laughter, at which point he scowled.

“I would love to micro-manage every part of this facility, yes. No offense, but your design is very… magical. We’re about to jump forward at least a century.” Already, the glint of inspiration was forming in his eyes, and I chuckled before waving him off.

“Start your improvements, then. I want a connecting office to my room; this one’s yours. Oh, and I’d better have a talking shower by the end of the month.”

The next item on my itinerary was complex, possibly fatal, and extremely dangerous; I went directly to Deadshot.

“Do you think I could get your help on something?” We’d been working on a replacement voice box, but human manufacturing just wasn’t at the required level, Deadshot still using a keyboard and projector to communicate.

“The, er… last bit of me that’s human is my brain. Nearly got boiled by one of the Decepticons on Asgard. I’ve been noticing that my reflexes aren’t up to par with Cybertronians—or vampires—and I’ve been turning an idea over in my head, but figured I’d ask you.” I slid a series of pages beneath a magnifier, which detailed a replacement or casing for my brain, magically enchanted, that would enhance my cognitive processes at least to where I didn’t get stabbed in the neck without prior knowledge. It was risky magic—anything that messed with the brain was—and judging by Deadshot’s careful perusal, she knew about something similar. While any method was unknown, she was able to produce an ‘improved’ schematic, as her understanding of both engineering and quantum computing was centuries ahead of mine. This resulted in an interesting amalgamation of Cybertronian tech and magic, even if still in the ‘paper’ phase, and I resolved to get Tony’s input, thanking her profusely and heading over to where he stood, with Thor and Jazz.

“Sorry to interrupt what I’m sure is an intelligent discussion, but I need Tony.” Stark and Jazz exchanged looks, Thor unable to conceal a snort. Strangely enough, committing a robbery and faking a duel constituted as worthiness (I suspected defending Asgard from Decepticons helped), and his hand hadn’t left Mjollnir once he’d been able to lift it; I was strangely glad to have my staff returned to me, though a multitude of questions about sentience came with him.

“Lady Death is not one to be kept waiting, especially when in need.” The three of them erupted into laughter, my hand clamping down on Tony’s shoulder and steering him away, towards the elevator.

“I want to replace my brain with a computer. Whether or not you help is up to you, though I imagine it would qualify you for a degree in neuroscience.” After a bit of snooping through Stark’s file, I discovered that it was the only degree Banner had that he didn’t, and the hint of competition was enough to get him on board, at least initially. I refrained from spilling the details until we were in Banner’s ‘medical dormitory,’ a series of reinforced concrete and lead-lined rooms that had previously served as the nuclear bunker at the bottom of the base. Once both of them were attentive, I shared what I’d gathered so far, and the most important part: what I needed.

“I can use magic to craft parts down to the molecular level, but the actual design and constitution of those parts is where you two come in. Deadshot was helpful for explaining how those parts interact.” After a few minutes, during which they silently read through and exchanged my notes, Banner retrieved a marker and began writing on a nearby whiteboard. Tony turned to watch, only flapping his hand when I offered to help, so I took that as my dismissal and left them to the finer details. It was late, the canteen almost empty, but I ignored anyone present and settled for a dinner of coffee and my pipe, reading over the inter-base ‘newsletter’ a few agents had started up between assignments; mostly gossip and weather, though it did have a crossword I’d completed faithfully since it’s inception. After finishing that week’s puzzle, I leaned back, stifling a scowl as Natasha appeared across from me between blinks.

“It’s rude to do that. There’s cameras in almost every room; why do you have to follow me?” She raised an eyebrow innocently.

“I just got here.” I stowed my pipe in my cloak, shaking my head slowly.

“The music hasn’t changed since I walked in. I’m not stupid.” I could feel my extra limbs stealthily worming down my sleeves and out from the bottom of my cloak, preparing to strike.

“Music?” She was visibly anxious now, most likely wondering if I was going insane.

“You’ve got the clearances for my file. I’d wager a stack of Galleons you’re not actually a secretary, either. I just want honesty, alright? I don’t mind being spied on, as long as I know about it.” I kept my palms up, resting on the table.

“…All I can say is yes. No elaboration, don’t look into it. It’s for a reason.” I nodded, satisfied, tendrils retracting back into my body—a little sad, I noticed.

“No sweat. And, if you ever want active fieldwork, feel free to ask. Coffee?” After retrieving two fresh cups, I slid the newsletter over to her.

“I’m assuming you’re staying on as my secretary, in light of my promotion?” She grimaced, shaking her head and taking a sip of coffee before responding.

“I’ve been promoted, as well. You’ve got a personal bodyguard, as the ‘Assistant Director’ of SHIELD; I’m now to be present at all times, aside from showers.” My mood soured, but I hid it behind a swig of scalding hot coffee.

“You can take my bed. Unless you prefer the floor?” Natasha rolled her eyes, flicking a finger at the windows overlooking the hangar.

“As your bodyguard I’m obligated to inform you that every member of your task force, aside Agent Barton, constitutes a serious danger to your wellbeing.” A muffled bang! conveniently punctuated her sentence, which I ignored.

“So far, none on this planet have bested me in combat. The trouble with that lot is getting them to stop talking long enough to listen.”

A week later, we still had no leads on any of the groups of interest, but we’d made groundbreaking progress with some of the weapons Thor and I had stolen, specifically the blue cube and the scepter that had impaled me. After extensive testing, it was discovered that one could travel to any point in the universe while holding the cube, traversing distances humans couldn’t comprehend in an instant; the sheer amount of energy it radiated meant only the Autobots, Banner, or myself could operate it. The scepter had similar energy signatures, but operated in a completely different way: it could be used to influence the emotions of those around the wielder, similar to Jasper’s power but almost limitless and unavoidable. These weren’t a part of Asgard’s history as far as Thor could verify, further increasing the mystery surrounding them even as we extracted any information we could. The atomic structure of the oblong gem at the tip was classified as a new element—Muggle chemistry uses lights and mirrors to examine incredibly small objects—and, even more incredibly, there was another gem, or mineral deposit, inside; when pinpointing the source of the radiation, it was surmised whatever the stone was made of was responsible. I left the Muggles to the process of extracting, as I hadn’t made any headway in terms of magical research into the subject, distracted by the surprise arrival of Penny, fresh off of her retirement from the position of Minister (Hermione, naturally, was her replacement). We met for tea in my new office, a shiny addition to my rooms that came with an expansive, though not very talkative, shower. She’d dyed her hair the same shade of pink Siobhan had, though hers was shorter, stopping just above her jaw.

“I must say, you look radiant.” I scowled into my cup, thoroughly unamused.

“If you’re just here to gloat about your retirement, I already sent you a card.” She snorted.

“No, I’m here to join up with you, and the Americans. I’ve finished what I wanted to do in Britannia, so now I’ve returned for further training, Lady Death.” I clenched my jaw tightly enough that she was able to hear three of my teeth crack, causing her to sheepishly look down and take a long drink of tea.

“Would you like to join SHIELD, or Saber? Rather, do you think you’re ready for Saber?” At her indignant look, I smirked.

“While whatever may or may not have happened during the Russian Revolution will remain a mystery, I’m sure, you need to prove you can work within my organization; every agent in my employ is skilled in various fields, prepared for any potential situation. I’ll let you join Saber, under a few conditions.” A scroll of parchment, pre-thought out, and a black feather quill appeared in my hands, which I held out to her.

“You’ll start from the level of a new recruit, to go through our basic training and such. From there, we’ll see what happens. Stark is the one in charge of this base, so I’d get in touch with him for your introductory process.” She was scanning the parchment rapidly, muttering to herself, and after a few minutes, she set the parchment down and signed it.

“Great! Welcome to Saber, Miss Prott. Report to Senior Director Stark for intake procedures.” She drained her tea, shot me a dirty look, and gave a mock-salute before striding out of the door, obviously thinking that I wasn’t serious.

Chapter 3: Penny For Your Thoughts?

Chapter Text

Penny

Tony Stark’s office was Poppy’s old one, though it had been retrofitted with Muggle technology that looked like it cost more than Gringotts had in all of it’s vaults.

“Take a seat. Your uniform is being made; it’ll be waiting at your bunk.” I sat across from him, watching me with some curiosity.

“We have the facilities to train new recruits on-base, so you’ll be joining a squad here who’ll help get you up to speed; part of a “multidisciplinary” effort between communities, so being a witch shouldn’t be too much of an issue. After you finish basic, you’ll be assigned a commanding officer and begin fieldwork in earnest—you’ve also got the best health insurance on the planet, by the way.” I snorted, nevertheless nodding to show that I was paying attention.

“That’s all for now, I suppose. Head on down to your squad’s dorm and introduce yourself. Welcome to Saber, Agent Prott.” Stark sat back, and I stood, giving a much more genuine salute before exiting his office, unsure of where to go. Thankfully, as I boarded the elevator, I ran into an equally confused-looking guy with cropped brown hair, who stood a whole foot shorter than me.

“Are you part of the new squad, too?” When I nodded, he sagged against the elevator, breathing a sigh of relief.

“Do you know where we’re supposed to go? I’ve been wandering around for the past ten minutes looking for a map.” I didn’t, but drew my wand, laying it flat on my palm and focused on our dorm, whispering “Point me,” which caused it to spin about in my hand before tilting slightly downward.

“Six floors down. Name’s Penny, by the way. Penny Prott.” He shook my outstretched hand, eying the spinning stick in my hand warily.

“Magical, then? Rowan Kadner, charmed. I’m afraid I don’t have any magic tricks of my own.” We exited the elevator, my eyes glued to the wand in my palm as I responded.

“Lucky for you, this one doesn’t require sacrifices.” I heard the sharp inhalation, and snickered as we rounded a corner, passing an ankle-height robot that dusted the floor beside us, beeping happily at me before rounding the same corner we’d come from.

“Muggle, then? Er, non-magical. Some folk have taken to calling Muggles “Mundanes” or just “mundos,” if that’s better.” My wand abruptly jerked right, and I looked up at the shiny white door we’d stopped at, labelled BR134.

“S’pose this is us. And, for your information, I’m not mundane by any means. I’m a mutant.” I was intrigued—having never met a “metahuman” before—and pressed my hand onto the reader beside the door, which scanned my handprint before the door opened with a pneumatic hiss.

“Glad to know I’m in good company. Wonder if any of our comrades managed to find this place yet?” As it turned out, two others had, a primly-dressed robot complete with an old-fashioned nurse hat and a lithe, black-haired woman that towered over all of us, clad in full tactical gear and leaning back in her bunk, smoking a cigarette.

“Greetings, fellow agents. Allow me to be the first to welcome you to our squad; I am a prototype medical android, of the “universal diagnostician” model. Please, call me Maud.” I pocketed my wand, and stretched out a hand, which the bot didn’t take.

“While contact in the form of a handshake is globally noted as a sign of kinship and greeting, the likelihood of bacterial transmission is high enough that I must request limited physical contact; my processors and neural pathways are highly sensitive.” A bit put out, I dropped my hand, merely nodding to the smoking woman, who nodded in return.

“Penny Prott. I suppose I’m the resident witch, although don’t expect any love potions out of me.” She smirked, before sitting up and putting the cigarette out on her tongue.

“Shade. I handle stealth and marksmanship. Smoke?” I took the offered cigarette, a brand called “Dragonbreath Smokes,” and lit it with my finger, a trick Poppy had taught me.

“Handy. Might keep you around on poker nights.” Both of us ignored Maud’s comment on the risks of smoking, while Rowan stretched out on his bunk, withdrawing a small, worn book and cracking it open. There were five bunks, arranged in a ‘U’ around the entrance: from left to right, Shade, me, Maud (more a charging pod than a bed, but I digress), Rowan, and the final member of our squad, who hadn’t shown yet.

“Wonder what job our latecomer has. Think it’ll be one of those big robots?” I frowned at the doorway.

“How would it get in the room?” Shade, incredulous, looked at me as if I was stupid.

“They transform. You’re obviously not the brains of the operation, either.” I smacked at her, which was gracefully dodged, and she jerked her chin over at Rowan, who was out of earshot.

“What’s his deal?” I shrugged, sitting down on the other end of her bunk and accepting the bottle of water she offered.

“Mutant. Seems nice, if a bit soft.” She nodded, before blinking rapidly and leaning forward.

“Hold on… squint your eye, like you’re looking down a scope. Humor me?” After a quizzical look, I complied, causing Shade to burst into laughter, collapsing back against the wall and nearly eating her cigarette.

You were at the siege of St. Petersburg! Nearly took my head off a few times. You shouldn’t limit yourself to magic, girl—you’d do just fine with a rifle.” I reddened, before squinting as a realization struck me.

“You were in the bell tower?! What the hell?” She raised her hands, puffing a defensive cloud of smoke to stall.

“Before coming here, I was a mercenary. Nothing personal, though I didn’t get paid.” I scowled, but relaxed back, never losing track of my wand in my pocket.

“As long as we leave it in the past, I’m willing to start fresh; honestly, I’m glad to have you on my side, this time. What you did from that church tower…” Shade grinned, a tad maliciously, her eyes flicking over to the door as it opened again, admitting the last member of the squad, a grizzled slab of concrete with more scars than clean skin—which was covered in tattoos—and he had a cigar clamped between his teeth.

“Evening, all. I’m Instructor Colt, your commanding officer during your basic training for Saber. Each squad has it’s own instructor, which is why my bunk is here with yours; I’ll even go out with you on the first few missions before you’re cleared for active duty.” We went around the room giving our introductions, as well as a quick run-down on our various skills and abilities: Mine was magic, obviously, but I hadn’t been half-bad with a rifle, so I mentioned it too; Shade was, as she mentioned, marksmanship and stealth (I had a feeling she was skirting around the word “assassin” as best she could); Maud ran through the same speech as before, likely the third time Shade’d heard it; and Rowan explained that his ability as a mutant was to manipulate electrical signals, which he’d cultivated into a wickedly good skill with computers and all sorts of tech. All in all, we had a well-rounded team, and Colt finished his impromptu speech by noting that lights-out was in a few minutes, and that we’d start our training in earnest the next morning (which was fine by me). My bunk was surprisingly comfortable, as were the blanket and pillow, and after putting out my cigarette and finishing the water, I tried to rest up for whatever was coming the next day. Our training began much too early, Colt taking the four of us up to the surface of the island and having the humans run the length of it repetitively until the sun rose. After that, we were put through two hours of seminars and instructional classes, covering everything from combat medicine to how to drive a car in America; those two hours also served as our only opportunity to eat, the rest of the day spent sparring in a multitude of unique ways. Shade was the best at hand-to-hand combat by far, slamming Rowan and I onto the reinforced mat more times than I could count—she barely broke a sweat after suplexing me for the sixth time—but I took solace in the fact that I could at least beat Rowan, who’d had next to zero combat experience. Maud merely observed, commenting on various forms and calling out each injury as it happened (which did nothing to help me focus), though I did get a slight break giving a demonstration of magical combat, using a nearby wall as an “enemy.” Rowan was enraptured, asking a multitude of questions about each jinx, hex, and curse—I had half a mind to direct him to Poppy for magical theory—while Shade, who’d been on the receiving end of magic before, watched warily from a safe distance. Once Colt was satisfied, two of the three humans drenched in sweat and covered in bruises, we were dismissed to our dorm, Shade, Rowan, and I heading to a nearby restroom to shower and change. The showers were arranged on either side of the room, separated by individual stalls, and I took the one next to Shade, as we were both tall enough to see over the stall wall.

“Tomorrow, could you throw me less? I wouldn’t mind a broken nose in exchange for it.” She snickered, steam slowly filling the air as the water heated up.

“Instead, try to be better. Word on the street is your sister did her own “magical enhancements,” so why don’t you?” I rolled my eyes, sniffing the base soap and wincing.

“One, it’s incredibly painful. Two, I have nowhere near the knowledge of magic that she does. Three, I doubt that would go over well if I started experimenting on myself.” She rolled her eyes, and Rowan’s muffled voice from my other side made me jump—he wasn’t tall enough to be seen over the stall.

“What about cybernetics? Stark would definitely approve it, and I could help with the process.” I mulled it over for a few minutes, finishing my shower first and waiting, dressed, by the door for the others. After we’d all gotten comfortable near or on Shade’s bunk, Rowan brought over a notebook and began sketching designs for potential “upgrades” in the future. Maud was already charging, blinking lights dimmed and eyes powered off, but we still had a bit of time before lights-out, so the three of us smoked and discussed what sort of robot parts I’d like, which eventually devolved to the point of hyperbole.

“What about an arm with a built-in rocket? You could fly around like Superman.” I didn’t know who Superman was (Muggle idea, most likely) but nodded regardless.

“Wouldn’t that get in the way of the chainsaw?” He swore, and scratched out a few lines of notes, a manic glint entering into Rowan’s eyes as he dug into the proposed project. Sadly, before the next proposal could be brought, the lights went out, signaling an end to our antics, for the moment.

The mindless routine of run, learn, fight, and sleep became our entire universe in the following weeks, the only natural sunlight coming from the few rays of sun that crested the horizon before we were sent underground and the steady accumulation of bruises and callouses, though the former was happening less and less frequently as time went on. Shade taught me to shave the forming calluses on my palms, to keep them smooth and less-noticeable for infiltrations; Rowan and I managed to circumvent the magical protection on one of the vending machines, resulting in a night of smoking and eating junk food until Colt had arrived—we’d run laps the entire night that time—but one morning, instead of being woken by Colt’s firm, loud voice, I woke of my own accord, blinking in confusion and looking around the room. Our instructor was gone, the others asleep or charging, and I glanced at the clock above the door to see that we’d been allowed to sleep in, for whatever reason. Then, I reached up and around my bunk, tapping Shade on her ankle and rolling my eyes at the muffled swear.

“We’ve overslept, it seems.” By the time I’d rolled out of bed, she was standing beside me, perfectly dressed and styled.

“You have to teach me how you do that. It isn’t fair.” We both walked over to Rowan’s bunk, ignoring the slight snoring, and exchanged a look. He was curled around his pillow, book upside-down beside him, and had collected an impressive puddle of drool onto his sheets.

“Take solace that you’re better than he is.” Shade leaned forward, and flicked his nose, causing him to flinch and jerk awake, scowling up at us as he woke up.

“Colt didn’t wake us up.” Maud was slowly booting up, looking around with mild curiosity at what we were doing. Once Rowan had begrudgingly gotten out of bed, I walked over to the door, keen on seeing what was going on—strangely, my hand didn’t work on the reader.

“Er, are we locked in here?” Rowan was beside me in a flash, examining the device, before frowning. “I don’t know what the protocol ID means, but the whole base is in lockdown, under command of the Assistant Director.” I scowled, and drew my wand, summoning a bowl to me from a table and sitting cross-legged on the ground. I’d never attempted this sort of blood magic before, but I was confident in Poppy’s teaching, making an incision in my palm and dripping the blood into the bowl. Once it had half-filled, I waved my wand, murmuring a scrying spell into the shiny surface of red liquid. At once, the cut healed, and an aerial view of the island was displayed in the reflection of the blood, making me suck in a breath in surprise as the others crowded around the bowl to see. An all-out war had broken out on the surface between Saber agents and a veritable horde of humans, though they moved much too quickly to be Muggles, almost a blur in my vision as they decimated the lines of our comrades.

“They’re getting slaughtered… We’ve got to help them, right?” Maud chimed in, in the process of examining the hand reader.

“To do so would be to disregard the order of the Assistant Director.” I scowled, ending the scrying spell and standing.

“I’m going to Apparate up there, if anyone would like to join me.” Shade darted over to her bunk, returning with a pistol and several magazines I had no clue she’d stashed there, while Rowan turned pale.

“No judgement. Shade’n I will go up there, kick some arse, and come back down. See you in a few, eh?” Before either of them could stop us, I grabbed Shade’s hand and turned on the spot, vanishing with a loud crack and reappearing behind our lines, which were rapidly being pushed back. There weren’t any magic users or massive robots on the field, so I took the element of surprise to yank up a silvery-white barricade across the width of the island, cleanly separating the two groups and giving Saber a chance to regroup. Students at Symposium Magia chose a branch of magic to specialize in, and while I’d considered focusing on Dark Magic, Dugan had talked me into studying Light Magic, in order to complement Poppy’s skillset if needed. I quickly darted to the worst-injured agents, healing them to the best of my ability as the opposing forces pummeled the wall of light, rapidly draining my magical energy.

“I can’t hold it for much longer!” With an entirely too cheerful Pop! The wall shattered into smithereens, and now that I was feet away from them I saw how truly outmatched we were; this was a horde of vampires, much larger than any I’d ever heard of, and time seemed to slow to a crawl as three of them rushed me, porcelain-perfect features twisted hideously into longing, hungry demons. Before more than a brief prayer could cross my mind, the middle one had slammed me down to the ground by my neck, vision blacking momentarily as my head slammed off of the ground, pain arcing around my skull. My wand-arm was pinned by the second, who immediately tore out the belly of my forearm ferociously, spraying blood onto his face and nearly sending me unconscious from shock; thankfully, the pain of the first attack distracted me from the second, on my other arm but just as violent. I shrieked, trying to use any spell that would get them off, but the noise was cut off as the third vampire tore out my throat in one motion, practically inserting her head into my throat. A blissful, cool feeling was tickling at my feet, slowly working it’s way up my ankles, and my eyelids fluttered, lethargy overcoming me as I bled out. Then, my body realized that it was dying, being killed gruesomely and painfully, and a surge of adrenaline shocked my brain back to life just long enough for me to wandlessly (and wordlessly) cast a spell. A deep, guttural rumbling began building in my chest, growing in volume until the ground below me began to shake, at which point a roiling torrent of Holy Fire—the Light counterpart to Fiend Fyre—exploded up out of my stomach, frying off the face of the vampire in my neck as it exited my mouth, growing and expanding until a full-sized dragon, made of fire, stood over us. An earsplitting roar shook the island further, rattling my teeth in my jaw, before it leaned down and released a much larger gout of fire, which spread out like a tsunami, incinerating any vampire caught in its wake. While I was still conscious, I used the last of my strength to repair the damage to my body, veins and muscles searing hot. Gunfire erupted once more, but I must’ve routed their main body, as I was quickly reached and carried back inside, gaping wounds slowly knitting themselves together. Multicolored shapes spun across my vision, slowly settling into the people carrying me as I finished mending, levering myself up and out of the two agents’ arms, turning around and stalking towards the exit before they could react, intent on finding Shade. She was shooting at the retreating vampires, unharmed, and I sagged against a nearby rock as my strength drained, fire lancing through my body.

“Ugh, are they venomous?” Looking down at me, the blood drained from her face, and she holstered her pistol before scooping me up under one arm.

“You’re about to turn into a vampire. We need to get you somewhere safe.” The burning sensation was steadily increasing, moving from the bite spots towards my chest, and I was unable to stop a gasp of shock as a shard of fire pierced my heart, sending me into unconsciousness.

Consciousness only came in brief spurts, punctuated by burning agony across my entire body; each breath pulled fire into my lungs, and visions of Grindylows danced in front of my gaze as I tried to fight off the heavy weight that had settled over me, keeping me unable to move while my veins filled with lava. I didn’t have any idea where I was, or how long I’d been there, but my hearing was the first thing to return, so strongly that the squeaking of a far-off door was enough to break my body’s paralysis, clapping my hands to my ears and cringing with my entire body. Blinking rapidly (it was entirely too bright) I looked around wildly, eyes registering the threads in Doctor Banner’s coat before I refocused onto his face.

“Where am I? What happened?” His face was grim, and he smiled tightly before speaking, a few steps away from the bed.

“You were bitten, and subsequently turned, during the vampire attack three days ago. How are you feeling?” I did a quick systems-check, noting that while the fiery pain was slowly dissolving, replaced by a coolness that was strangely comforting, in a way.

“Like I just lost a fight to a bowtruckle. Am I still on bedrest?” He shook his head, glancing at someone in the doorway, who was revealed to be Jasper Whitlock, one of the members of Poppy’s elite squad—and a vampire I’d met in Washington. His face was somber, but he did tip an imaginary hat to me as he sat beside the bed.

“Shame we’re meetin’ again under these circ*mstances. You have my condolences.” I tested my legs, finding that I could still move, so I swung into a sitting position.

“Vampires that were once magic users can still use magic, so I’m not particularly bothered beyond the pain. Maybe now I’ll outlive my sister.” He chuckled, shaking his head slightly as he scrutinized me.

“Well, I s’pose you know the basics, but there’s a few tricks here and there that might help you. Try to avoid short sleeves and skirts, or move somewhere overcast. Since the vampire who turned you isn’t around to teach you the ropes, I’ve been assigned to keep an eye on you ‘til you’re out of your newborn phase; I’m also escorting you to SHIELD’s base in Alaska, for an altered training regimen. Don’t worry, your squad is going to be trained at Highburn to accommodate your new abilities. Oh, and here,” he dug around in a small wheeled-cooler, withdrawing a bag of suspiciously blood-colored substance, “You’ll be nearly ravenous as a newborn around humans, so if you’re able we’ll do that witchy-trick where you disappear in one spot and reappear in another—what is it called?” I rolled my eyes, reluctantly taking the offered bag and opening it.

“Apparitio—oh.” The smell of the blood had hit my nose, an all-consuming hunger—no, thirst—rose in my chest, drying my mouth and burning at my throat. In less than ten seconds, the bag was emptied, and I slumped slightly as the burning sensation faded, though it was still present at the edge of my mind as a constant, lingering reminder.

“You’re faster, and much stronger than you think. It’ll take you a bit to stop ripping clothes, or breaking plates; you’ve got to adjust to the change your body just went through. Ready?” I nodded, hopping out of the bed and checking my pockets for my wand, breathing a slight sigh of relief when my hand grasped it’s handle. With a nod, I grasped his hand, and with a crack we appeared out on the helipad of the Alaska facility, Jasper looking very queasy from the travel.

“What’s wrong, can’t handle a little discomfort?” He shot me a dark look, but nevertheless continued, leading me into the facility and explaining as he did.

“Originally this was entirely human-ran and operated; however, with the rising division in the vampire world between those aligned with the Volturi and us, this facility was converted to serve as the training grounds and base of those vampires that joined up. Not a human for at least a hundred miles.” I nodded, a little disconcerted, the feeling multiplying as we entered the warehouse-sized observation room, which had been converted into a massive, impromptu hamlet, various areas sectioned off, complete with doors, rooves, and running water, judging from the hand-written sign in front of a larger structure we passed, labelled “Bathhouse.” Vampires flitted back and forth everywhere, forming a unique variation on human society encapsulated in one military facility. Since vampires had no need for food, the mess hall had been converted to a series of classrooms, each holding courses on military history, chemistry, physics, and a plethora of other disciplines, all taught by people old enough to have been there when it was discovered. Jasper led me through the winding, improvised corridors in the cafeteria-turned-university until we reached a door bearing the inscription, “Magical Studies,” my jaw dropping as I registered who was teaching.

Professor Dumbledore?!” Sure enough, the wizened headmaster was stood at the front of the room, stopped part-way through a demonstration.

“Ah, Madam Prott! How good to see you; I must extend my congratulations on your retirement from the Ministry, as well.” I was doubly confused, both by his presence and the fact that he was, as far as I knew, human, and at my face he chuckled.

“Magic is quite magical, my dear. It’s quite lucky you’ve arrived just now; would you mind assisting my demonstration?” My mind was reeling, back in my scant days at Hogwarts, but nevertheless I joined him, drawing my wand as Jasper leaned against the back wall, thoroughly interested.

“We were discussing the Tracking Spell, specifically the constitution of the golden “powder” extruded from the wand.” I dug through my magical knowledge, flicking my wand a few times and releasing gouts of the powder, which trickled through the air gently before coming to rest on the floor.

“It appears metallic, though I’m not sure if it’s gold or not.” He nodded, familiar twinkle in his eyes, and clasped his hands behind his back.

“While the material dissipates too quickly to be examined, it has been theorized to be pyrite, or Fool’s Gold. While I am unable to award you points, I do congratulate you. Please, feel free to find an open seat, as well as your companion at the rear.” Jasper sheepishly slid into the chair next to mine, though his curiosity swiftly overcame shyness as Dumbledore continued lecturing, demonstrating for the six (now eight) vampires present both the manner in which to cast the spell, as well as the proper outcome—a room dusted in powder, various spots lit up with magical energy. As I’d just arrived, he dismissed the others in order to properly orient me.

“A rather ingenious endeavor, between Britannia and America. All those affected by vampirism, if they so choose, may come here and study, or join ‘SHIELD,’ in a safe environment—humanitarian, ironically.” I nodded, still in my seat, and carefully scratched my nose.

“How does being a vampire affect magic? Will it be more difficult for me to cast spells?” He shook his head, brows furrowing slightly.

“Quite the contrary, in fact: magic users, when ‘turned’ into vampires, experience a similarly exponential growth in magical ability to the physical increases; simple Stunning Spells, when cast by a vampire, are able to knock even experienced duelists unconscious.” I nodded, satisfied, as Jasper spoke for the first time.

“Why aren’t there more vampire wizards, then?” Dumbledore’s face brightened, and he nodded encouragingly.

“Why, indeed! Some nine-hundred years ago, the ruling body of vampirekind decreed the use of magic unlawful, claiming it detracted from the purity of their—I suppose your—culture. To think, if they had embraced magic, how the course of civilization may have changed…” His eyes misted over, gazing far away, Jasper shooting me a slightly confused look.

“Regardless, I do welcome you to this facility, Penelope. While the circ*mstance of your turning was quite strenuous, I can imagine, the time spent here will hopefully be more than adequate preparation and acclimatization.” After bidding him farewell, Jasper led me back through to the main room, where a small room with a desk and chair had been allocated for me to use. Before I could ask where the bed was, Jasper reminded me of my lack of a need to sleep, sitting on the desk lazily.

“Follow the signs for the library; you’ve got more time than you’ll ever need to read up. Heard a few of the books there were pilfered from the ruins of the Vatican Archives.” I nodded, familiarizing myself with the small space. A plethora of scents wound through the air, each identifiable to my enhanced nose, and I singled out the musty, rich smell of old books, nodding to Jasper before heading out into the facility, tracking the scent as my guide. I was met with curious looks, but no words (thankfully, vampires seemed to be just as guarded as I was), moving down corridors and staircases until I entered a door to another, smaller warehouse-like room. It was lined wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling with heavy metal shelves, on which various people were climbing, sitting, or hanging from. Before I could get any further into the room, a hand pressed against my chest, stopping me in my tracks.

“Newborn?” I looked over, nodding in mild confusion to the bearded man who’d stopped me.

“Until you’ve got a good understanding of your strength, no books. Some of these are older than Aro, and I won’t have you shredding original copies of the Bible.” I raised my hands in surrender, and he lifted his hand with a sigh.

“If you’d like to request a digital copy, or an audio format, we have a selection in-house. Once you get a handle on your strength, you could volunteer to help record audiobooks, as well.” I nodded, and followed him over to what I assumed was his desk, a bronze nameplate reading ‘T. Kaz, Head Archivist.’

“Have any recommendations? I was turned a few days ago.” Kaz typed rapidly for a few moments, a printer sputtering to life beside him and spitting out a sheet that, even from across the desk, I was able to read clearly.

“I’ll have them sent over to your phone. Do you have a way to put in earbuds without breaking them?” At my indignant look, he rolled his eyes, reaching into a drawer and withdrawing a pair of steel chopsticks.

“Until you can use these to build a house of cards, get someone else to put ‘em in.” I scowled, carefully taking them from him, and paused, unsure of what to do next. Seeing my indecision, he rolled his eyes and pulled out a set of earbuds.

“C’mere.” Feeling completely useless, I leaned forward, Kaz putting each in and withdrawing my phone.

“Most of these models are built to handle bullets, so you should be alright to use it.” I nodded, gingerly tapping the screen, and smiling up at him once I’d managed to start the first book, A Complete Guide to Latin.

“You can request books from your phone, too, if you get tired of seeing my face.” I rolled my eyes, and stuck out my free hand.

“Penelope Prott. Nice to meet you.” He eyed my hand warily, choosing to shake my pointer finger.

“Thomas Kaz. Welcome to Starfall.”

My new, vampire brain was able to suck up information like a sponge, so much so that I stayed in my nook for several days, listening to Kaz’s recommendations while I labored with the chopsticks and a battered deck of cards. The passage of time was punctuated only by Jasper arriving to deliver blood, though after four days of continuous work I had made dismal progress. When I emerged to take a walk on the helipad, my clothes were partially ragged due to accidental tears, my hair was wildly unkempt, and I had a deep scowl worn into my face, causing anyone nearby to give me a wide berth, except Jasper.

“Emerging from your seclusion, I see.” I still had the earbuds in, which he smugly plucked out of my ears as we made our way towards the exit.

“It’s not an easy task, I get it. Fresh air will help clear your head a bit, I reckon.” The cold blast of air striking my face as we exited send a shard of ice into my lungs, but I took several greedy breaths of air, standing by the railing of the helipad.

“How long did it take you to get over it? ‘Newborn strength,’ I mean.” He shrugged, looking out at the vast, snow-white wilderness around us.

“Didn’t get as much hand-holding. Don’t get me wrong, I would’ve appreciated the help. It’s a process, like anything else; a lot of vampires meditate to help themselves focus.” Kaz had included a book on meditation and “thoughtful thinking,” whatever that meant, and while it didn’t make much sense to me, it was easier to learn than Latin.

“I’m going to kill something if I don’t figure this out. Sooner, rather than later.”

Chapter 4: Ten Minutes to Midnight

Chapter Text

Poppy

Despite unleashing enough magical power to fry half of a city, I was barely able to put a scratch into the building-sized Decepticon ahead of me, about three hundred feet north in the Sahara Desert. There was a worrying trend rising in the bots, being shields mysteriously resistant to magical damage (the technology still wasn’t available to us), though the tried-and-true method of conventional weapons still worked like a charm. Thor and Optimus had become the centerpieces of the squad, barreling through enemy lines and splitting battalions into chunks for the rest of us to churn through gradually. The big bot was flanked by ten other Decepticons (two of which had been felled by ‘Thunder and Steel’), and while their larger weapons weren’t precise enough to hit humanoids, the ‘leadslinger’ guns—what Cybertronians called conventional firearms—had kept us pinned in an impromptu trench Siobhan had dug during the first salvo. None of the non-divine members would be able to survive long outside of cover, leaving us short-handed for melee combat. A split-second after a concussive grenade blew a car-sized hole in the dune in front of us, Thor’s strangled cry of pain reached my ears, and I knew something had gone wrong. Fully encased in metal, I lunged over the sand, sword guiding itself out of my cloak and into my hand as my tentacle-limbs propelled me forward. Optimus and Bast were still fighting furiously, standing over Thor, who’d crumpled to the ground, impaled by a sickeningly large steel bolt. Almost before I could think, I’d Apparated to his side, grabbed him, and deposited him in Siobhan’s arms before taking his place and freeing up Bast and Prime.

“I’m not sure how much your stabber is going to do against the big one!” I scowled at the Egyptian goddess, darting forward and cleaving a smaller bot—about my height and a half—completely in twain. Any witty retort I could spit out was stopped as the foot of the big Decepticon crashed down onto me, sending me ten feet down into the sand and denting the top of my head. As it raised the leg, I latched onto it and began scaling the massive pillar of wires and steel plating, punching holes into it with my hands to maintain my grip. The route I took quickly became pockmarked with bullet holes and laser singes as several smaller opponents started trying to shoot me off, but my exterior armor made them little more than nuisances. In the time it took me to reach it’s waist, three more Decepticons fell, though I was more concerned with the one I was climbing. Two of my tentacles were hoisting my sword, the rest deflecting projectiles, and I awkwardly looked at the blade, suddenly unsure.

“Uh, if you are able to change size, may you please become large enough to kill this robot?” A shiver seemed to travel up it’s spine, and before my eyes it expanded to almost six times it’s former size, still easily wieldable by my tentacles, which seemed to be quivering slightly in excitement. With a strained grunt, I used my arms to throw myself up into the air, pirouetting and slashing horizontally across the Decepticon’s waist. The screeching, rending of metal was punctuated by a series of staccato poppopopopopopops as the magical shielding splintered, shattering into shards of smoky, glasslike objects that broke against my metal form; it took three seconds to fully cut the robot in half, resulting in it’s top half toppling forward as I fell, sword shrinking and ducking into my cloak as the tentacle-limbs wrapped around me to cushion the impact. Through a crack in the tendrils, I saw the massive automaton crumple onto itself, legs falling backwards underneath the torso, which was still very much alive—though spitting green, viscous liquid and smoking. The impact shook my teeth in my mouth, kicking up a massive cloud of dust and sending tremors through the ground strong enough to knock Bast off of her feet. Thankfully, the tentacles shielded me from the initial wave of sand, and I jumped up, squinting with my magic eye to scan the area around me for the other Decepticons. Siobhan joined me, using her wand to disperse some of the sand around us.

“Thor’s stable. Sensors are showing the ‘Cons are retreating.” I nodded, stopped in my tracks by Prime, shouting through the dust.

“The core of that Decepticon is superheating; we need to leave!” I turned to run to the others, in order to Disapparate to safety, before Siobhan grabbed my arm.

“The nearest town is less than seventy miles; the blast from this thing is probably going to be nuclear. I’ll handle it.” Ignoring the incredulous look on my face, she stomped forward, levitating herself up onto the bot as I followed closely behind, trying to dissuade her.

“Ollivander, this is suicide. Not even gods can survive a detonation like that, especially at the epicenter.” Flicking her wand, she wrenched the massive chestplate from the felled Decepticon, revealing a pulsing, very hot mess of cables, wiring, machinery and oil, the center of which was rapidly growing bright white before our eyes.

“Trust me?” I snorted despite myself.

“’Course. Doesn’t mean I think you’re sane.” She shot me a sly grin over her shoulder, leaning down to tap her wand against the core.

“Where’s the fun in that?” As soon as her wand touched the pulsing machinery, all sound around us ceased, replaced by an unnatural, tinny stillness reminiscent of Eden. At the tip of her wand, the white light had concentrated into a small ball that was so bright I couldn’t look at it directly for more than a moment.

“What the hell…” She was sweating profusely, entire body rigid with concentration as she raised her wand to her mouth and ate the ball, turning and surveying the desert around us critically. Her jaw was clamped firmly shut (and… vibrating?), and with a huge swallow she raised her wand, whipping it in a complex pattern several times and slashing it downward aggressively. Nothing happened for several seconds, until a rumbling much louder than the Decepticon’s fall nearly threw me off of my feet, watching in awe as geysers began to spring from the sand, stretching out further than I could see; we both began to float as the body of the robot sunk into the ground, digging out a massive pit into which water began to pool, trees and plants sprouting up in vibrant green highlights—a stark contrast to the sandy terrain—and a truly massive lake began to take form, stretching several miles and fed from the various springs that had burst into existence, a mouth at one end stretching north, towards the Mediterranean.

“Siobhan?” She was maintaining our levitation, and began gently guiding us to the shore, where the other members of the squad were waiting.

“I converted the energy from the atomic blast into magical energy. I’ve done it before on smaller scales; I also have a rudimentary understanding of fission detonations from my timeline.” By the time we’d reached the shore, I was still spluttering, though she refused to explain further; judging by the awestruck looks on the non-deities’ faces, they were just as impressed as I was. Prime wasted no time in asking Ollivander about what had occurred, while Deadshot was kneeling by the water, gazing down into it. Thor was in one piece, though predictably sulking, and after checking over the more fragile members (Natasha had a broken arm, while Barton looked as though he’d just seen his own funeral), I called Fury.

“Satellite imagery shows a brand-new lake sitting in the middle of the Sahara. Smile, by the way.” I rolled my eyes, stepping away from the others for some privacy.

“Thank Ollivander. The big bot was going nuclear.” I heard him suck in a breath, before heaving a sigh.

“Not the solution I expected, but better than the projections. Penelope is acclimating well, from the reports I’ve been given.” Upon hearing the news that my daughter-slash-flesh-golem had been turned into a vampire, all of Deadshot’s windows had shattered, the only thing keeping me from burning down Volterra being her continued existence.

“Good. We’re going to drop a marker for the rest of the wreckage, but the big one is at the bottom of the lake. Thor got banged up pretty badly, so I’m requesting permission to pause the Madagascar trip until he’s healed.” The affirmative reply was immediate, and after Fury hung up, I turned back to the others, Alice gasping as a positively overwhelming mental force brushed against my mind, one far greater than even Dumbledore’s—to an exponential degree—not attacking, but merely announcing it’s presence. I warily lowered the barriers around my mind, greeted by a polished, slightly aged British accent. Hello, Madam Granger. My name is Professor Charles Xavier, and I represent a group of peaceful mutants in New York State. Would you be able to find room in your schedule for a meeting? Considering I’d just been given leave until Thor was operational, my schedule was free, and I responded as such. Once my business in the Sahara is concluded, I would love to stop in for tea. I am in need of directions, however. From him, I received a memory of a wrought-iron gate, framed by brick pillars, one of which bore a nameplate reading “Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters.” It was enough to Apparate, and I thanked him before returning to the others.

“Siobhan, you’re in charge of exfil. I’m headed to New York to meet with a potential ally.” She nodded, Natasha shooting me a concerned look, which I caved to after an appropriate pause.

“Fine, I’ll heal your arm. Apparating with an injury like that can have… interesting results.” She paled, and quickly held out her arm, which was mended with a quick tap.

“Take a second to breathe, alright? We’re going from active combat to a private boarding school, as best I can tell.” Her eyes were still a little too wide, motions jerky—undetectable to the Muggle eye, of course—and we were soon left alone as the others Disapparated with a loud crack.

“A little overwhelmed. I just watched one of my comrades turn the Sahara Desert into the Sahara Savanna.” I nodded, withdrawing my pipe and squatting in the sand.

“Heady magic, that. I could tell you a few stories from our school days that’d turn your hair white.” She snorted, kicking a fist-sized bolt into the water.

“Could say the same for my “school days.” We should swap stories over a bottle of the stuff in your flask.” A smoky, transparent snake slithered out, a few inches above the surface of the water, and I stood.

“Why don’t we spend some of our time off trying on the civilian life? After this meeting with the mutants is over, we could hit up the ’Big Apple’ for all it’s worth.” Her arm was already stuck out, and I shot her a sly grin before grabbing it and turning on the spot, vanishing with a puff of sand and a crack.

After taking a moment to regain our footing (going from a desert to upstate New York was quite a temperature change), I led the way through the now-open gates, following a gravel path up towards a Victorian-esque manor, not dissimilar to Malfoy Manor in size, with wide grassy lawns and a small garden enclosed by hedges. We were met halfway between the gate and the wide stone steps leading up to the building proper by a man in a wheelchair and a woman with whitish-gray hair, the former of which spoke.

“Welcome! I must confess, I wasn’t able to brew tea in time for your arrival.” I smiled, shaking his outstretched hand.

“I’m sure we can come up with something to talk about while we wait. Oh, I’m quite curious as to how you were able to make contact with my mind at such distance.” Xavier chuckled, turning and heading back up towards the manor; the white-haired woman did nothing but scowl before turning to follow—Natasha and I exchanged confused glances, but nevertheless fell into step behind the pair.

“If you would like to relax in the garden, Storm and I need to finish a lesson before meeting with you.” I nodded, and broke off from them onto a narrower path that tracked along the side of the main building, Natasha a persistent second shadow.

“Do you think there’s a smoking section?” A poorly-concealed snort made me smirk, entering through a carefully trimmed archway and into a lush, not-quite-overgrown assortment of flowers, berry bushes, and a multitude of vegetable varieties. Arranged at each corner were a few small tables, Natasha and I settling into one that sat beneath the shade of a tall yew tree and relaxing. She was most likely sore from the exertion, while my head was still a bit fuzzy from the proximity to whatever Siobhan had been doing, so I took a moment to lean back, closing my eyes and feeling the breeze play across my face.

“What… What did she do?” I didn’t open my eyes, responding candidly after a moment of consideration.

“She didn’t explain details, but the Decepticon’s core—what I assume to be the Cybertronian version of the soul or their power source—was about to undergo some sort of complicated Muggle process that would result in a fission reaction. She was able to convert the nuclear energy that would have vaporized half of Egypt and Libya and redirect it into what you saw.” She swore softly, and I smiled slightly.

“The true power of magic isn’t to kill with a word or brew undetectable poisons; rather, to manipulate a terrible act into a beneficial outcome. That concept is applicable in most facets of life, as well.” Natasha was quiet for several seconds, replying in a curious tone.

“A wise witch and a clever assassin chance upon each other at a crossroads.” I opened my magic eye lazily, wishing I had a big pointy hat to tilt dramatically as I drawled, “Would you like to make a deal?” She visibly shivered, and shook her head decisively.

“If only my soul was mine to sell.” The slight rattling of teacups alerted me to Xavier’s arrival, sans Storm, and he deftly served both of us before pouring himself.

“I do apologize for making you wait—several of our younger students are having difficulty with trigonometry. As to why I invited you here, however.” He took a sip of tea, Natasha nodding slightly to me after tasting hers, as an extra layer of protection atop my magic eye, and I drank as well.

“While this school and those residing within it are focused on finding a peaceful life within the greater world, there are some—which I am sure you have heard of, or encountered—that are bent more towards a violent overthrow. The Brotherhood of Mutants, to be precise.” My expression darkened, and I nodded grimly.

“While they do recruit in earnest, their ability to mobilize and their rapidly increasing numbers have not gone unnoticed, even in a location as remote as this. The aim of this meeting is of a similar fashion to the dissolution of the magical Statute of Secrecy, in that this is hopefully the first in a tentative alliance between our two parties, for both intellectual and physical support.” He leaned forward, features hardening slightly as his jaw tightened.

“While we as mutants are powerful, this is a school for children and young adults with special abilities to learn and develop in safety from the outside world. We would be ill-equipped to defend ourselves from an attack, if one were to come.” I understood him completely: if the Brotherhood were to attack, there would be nothing left but rubble and fire. I withdrew my phone and called Tony, who answered on the second ring.

“I need a diagnostic bot, a surveying drone, and six cargo planes prepped for launch. Send the bots to my phone, use satellite imaging to land in the lawn. I’m designating a new high-value secure location, codename Aerie, protected zone.” My instructions were concise—Tony’s preference—and he replied in the affirmative before hanging up. Thirty seconds later, during which I finished my tea, two metallic blurs shot down from the sky, coming to rest hovering above the ground beside us (he’d missed setting the tree on fire by millimeters). The surveyor was a clunky, heavily-augmented drone with the first rudimentary learning models, lending it the nickname ‘Dopey’ after Stark had scraped audio files from a certain celebrity to use as a voice.

“Scan the area denoted by the wrought-iron gate and wall as unobtrusively as possible, and calibrate defensive strategies to minimize all negative outcomes, please.” It beeped twice, before carefully navigating back into the air, spouting off a pithy one-liner I didn’t care to listen to, turning to the diagnostic bot.

“Take an inventory of what Dopey’s relaying you, and start preparing munition and fortification requisitions for Highburn, top priority. Let me know when you’ve completed your assessment.” Diagnostic bots were Stark’s second-generation androids, and had a multitude of professions to specialize in, as well as what he described as ‘the mind of a high-schooler, in terms of comprehension and problem-solving,’ the slim android doing a half-curtsy and speaking in a more refined, though robotic, voice as it floated towards the archway we’d entered through.

“Right away, madam. Calculations theorize a total work time of seven minutes.” Xavier’s jaw had been open since I’d started talking to Tony, and I smiled, floating the teapot over and refilling our cups.

“I… I cannot say that I was expecting that.” Shrugging, I slipped my phone back into my pocket.

“You’re referring to my rather barbaric reputation, I presume? While I am quite able to resolve most, if not all situations with force, I prefer peace. I also understand your position, as the former Ministrex of Symposium Magia, in Britannia. Oh, and don’t think of this as turning your school into a fortification, either; my intention is purely to ensure the safety and defense of both students and faculty, should the need for the latter arise.” He relaxed back into his chair, some of the tension in his face vanishing as well.

“For that, I am truly grateful. Our doors are always open, and if there is anything I can do to assist you, please ask.” I was already shaking my head, setting down my cup and adjusting my cloak.

“There is no debt, favor, or any sort of owing. When I was in my sixth year at Hogwarts, the magical primary school in Britannia, I was presented with two options to defend my safe haven, my home: forge an alliance across all peoples, or raise my fellow classmates, children¸ to defend against an army of the dead. No matter the task, if it is the only alternative to exposing them to a fraction of the horror we see, I will choose it.” He nodded soberly, Natasha’s cup rattling slightly as she set it down, empty.

“You are quite noble, Madam Granger.” Quashing the butterflies that arose whenever someone addressed me by her last name—there were four months remaining until our vacation—I nodded in thanks.

“There is no agony too great to ensure the safety of the world.” Just then, the diagnostic bot returned, holding a print-out of the requested items, which I perused quickly.

“All of these are approved, and may you exchange Tau-9 for Gamma-3? In consideration of the protectees.” Tau-9 was currently at a black-site in Madagascar, finishing their final training before inspection, and while their projected combat effectiveness was the highest of any military unit in recorded history, the… specifics of the members would be difficult to mesh with those they would be defending. Gamma-3 was composed of several former members of the orchestra, much better suited to long-term stationing at a school. The bot nodded, reporting that the cargo planes would begin arriving within the hour before leaving to designate landing zones. The surveyor drone, once it’s job was done, had returned to wherever it’s home base was, and I stood, Xavier following Natasha and I as we walked out to the lawn.

“They’re able to hover, so don’t worry about making a runway.” He snorted, and the three of us watched the bot place down blinking neon lights at regular intervals, creating a replica of the SHIELD logo in the grass as the sun slowly began to set. Once I was able to find a free moment, I withdrew to the spot by the gate, putting in a call to a secure facility that connected immediately.

“Cub.” Annabel’s voice was tranquil, and I resisted the urge to roll my eyes.

“Snake. News?” After their last season had ended in Britannia steamrolling the Quidditch World Cup, the members of the Hogsmeade Hellhounds had taken up teaching or research positions at Hogwarts and Symposium Magia, aside from Annabel, who had joined Saber to spearhead Project Lacuna in Madagascar. The information was so classified that I had given a formal presentation to the Department of Mysteries explaining the methods of secrecy and intelligence-dissemination undertaken at Saber black-sites, though Annabel had never failed to produce results.

“Delightful. The shattered pieces of stained glass are coalescing into the weft of destruction.” While most magic users didn’t fit the ‘evil’ stereotype, there are always exceptions. Thankfully, she was on my side.

“I shall come to be enlightened soon.” I hung up, and sighed, mood lifting somewhat as I watched one of the members of Gamma-3 show a gaggle of young children her cello, the soft notes of music slowly coming to life across the grass.

After the last jet had deposited it’s cargo, I bid Xavier farewell with a promise to return for tea, and once Natasha had finished barking orders at the assembled agents, we Disapparated directly to Madagascar. The facility was located deep within the jungle, nestled in a valley between two inclines, and was completely invisible from the sky (Unplottable, and Fidelius), protected by several thick stone walls and alloy reinforcement as a precautionary measure in the event of an attack.

“I’m updating your clearances, by the way. Standard procedures, and if you tell anyone without this clearance about anything you see here, a hex will flay you alive.” Once we were past the three exterior checkpoints and inside the lobby, I withdrew my pipe and clamped it between my teeth, smiling at Annabel as she swept into the room, reminiscent of Professor Snape.

“It’s lovely to see you, Finlayson. Sunny, as ever.” She beamed, brightening the room slightly, and we embraced over the Saber logo emblazoned on the floor (a dragon eating it’s own tail).

“Considerate of you to visit before the official unveiling. Tea, coffee?” At my nod, a robotic spider-dog the size of a small gorilla scuttled out from the door she’d entered from, a tray of tea and biscuits atop it’s many-eyed head, though it never lost balance. I fell into step behind Annabel, sipping the tea (steaming hot and bitter), as we entered the main corridor of the facility, lined on either side with various laboratories, alchemical setups, and a few fabrication machines, all full of scientists and engineers working frenetically; each room seemed to be playing it’s own music, creating a cacophony of genre and sound that was not quite maddening, nor harmonious.

“We’ve made groundbreaking progress in bio-cybernetic integration, potionmaking, and chemical engineering that will jump civilization forward at least half a century, if not more. Tau-9 isn’t field-ready, but they’ve been running combat training programs to increase their preparedness since they left the testing stage.” Using her palm, Annabel unlocked the door to an dormitory room, where the six members of Tau-9 were assembled in various spots on bunks and chairs, though at our entrance they all snapped to attention.

“At ease. Assistant Director Granger is here to inspect this squad.” Those with blood paled, and I clasped my hands behind my back, moving down the line and examining each of them curiously. All were modified with technological implants, such as cognitive processors or robotic eyes, and while none of them so much as breathed, there was a primal emotion just beneath the surface, like a wire pulled taut to the point of snapping.

“You six are the future of our planet, and our people. Regardless of performance, all of you will be receiving commendations and awards for your bravery and fortitude. Thank you for your service.” In unison, they saluted, and after a moment I turned to Natasha.

“Could you run through a few combat hypotheticals with them? I need the loo.” She nodded, and I ducked out of the observation room, a light tap at my elbow signaling that Annabel was with me. Once we were out of sight of Natasha and Tau-9, she Apparated us two-thousand feet directly down, into the underground warehouse that stored Project Lacuna. It was open-air, cloaked in shadows and smoke from the various whirring and thrumming machines and robots scurrying back and forth across a set of ten massive robotic figures, each of which was hovering in mid-air for a full range of access.

“Psychological complexity notwithstanding, any of them are cleared for field-testing. There isn’t any serious deviation in ability to necessitate ranking, yet.” I nodded, walking down the center of the room, examining the floating machines on either side of me.

“I’ve made another ally, opposed to the Brotherhood. Decepticons are getting bigger and more numerous—Penny was turned in the vamp attack on Highburn.” She sucked in a breath, and I paused, shoulders slumping slightly.

“I’m not sure how much longer we’ll be able to keep this from spilling into the public eye—at least, any more than it already has.” She stepped past me, examining one of the bots as she replied, pensive.

“If Thor’s brother is the one behind this, we may have to contend with an interplanetary invasion; not to mention if he’s working in concert with Megatron. I doubt total destruction is the goal, as they likely would have done that earlier, if not immediately. The more probable outcome is invasion to subjugate.” I scowled.

“Then we’ll fortify the entire damn planet. No more secrets; the world deserves to know what we’re up against.”

After securing approval for a press conference at the United Nations headquarters from Fury, I selected which bot I wanted and returned to the surface, rejoining Natasha as she finished demonstrating a rear choke.

“Ready to head out? We’ll swing through New York on our way back.”

Chapter 5: Dread Captain Prott and the Russian Revolution

Chapter Text

Penny

One thing that surprised me about vampires the most often was their taste in music. While building or losing muscle wasn’t a possibility, during combat exercises, sharpshooting drills, and even mock-wargames, an eldritch, myriad and ever-present radio station would play everything from Gregorian chants to 90’s hip hop, at all hours of day—they did provide noise-cancelling headphones when I asked—and spent weeks practicing with the same model rifle I’d used in St. Petersburg, an antique model I’d ripped from a display case when things had gone sideways. When I wasn’t listening to audiobooks or shooting, I fell into the habit of cleaning the rifle, as it seemed to be the only thing I was able to properly handle without breaking; the night before the next marksmanship test, as I was looking down at the disassembled pieces of ‘Mosey,’ my mind was drawn back to the first time I’d seen it, passing through a collection of antique Muggle weapons. At that point, the Russian Revolution was in full swing, both sides of an ideologically fractured government resorting to increasingly desperate—and brutal—tactics to hold what power they had. As Minister of Magic, I had traveled to St. Petersburg, then untouched by the fighting, to speak with the rapidly-rising pacifist sect, when, unbeknownst to the other, the main body of both forces began to push into the city. As both were attempting to secure the city peacefully, the shooting didn’t start until they spotted each other, at which point both armies were spread through streets and restaurants, leading to a near-perfect split along the city; the museum, of course, was along the frontlines.

“While I understand your concern, action by the armed forces of an outside country would only make the situation worse, without reason. Believe me when I say that there are several agreements in place with bordering countries in the event a single shell lands outside of your borders.” I was seated with the likely soon-to-be Russian minister, in a room bearing relics from various Russian Muggle wars, banners, and faded posters showing strong-jawed workers and grandfathers arming their grandchildren. The minister, an aging man with short hair and a white goatee, seemed relieved at my words as the translator relayed them. As I took a sip of tea, the window behind me shattered, a dime-sized hole appearing in the man’s forehead before he fell back, dead. In a flash, my wand had dragged a shimmering, bulletproof barrier over the window, and I turned to the translator, who was staring at the corpse, face frozen in slack-jawed terror.

“C’mon, we need to get out of here. Grab my hand, I’ll Disapparate.” Though she was Muggle, the cross-cultural integration championed by my Senior Undersecretary, Hermione Granger, had ensured the most basic knowledge in the event of an emergency; the woman reached out and grabbed my hand, but when I turned, we remained where we were.

“Damn! Anti-Disapparition Jinx. Can you shoot any of these?” I waved my wand, smashing the glass protecting several guns, which she quickly darted over to with me.

“These are at least fifty years old, if not more. Besides, I doubt they’ll even fire anymore.” I scowled, and grabbed a rifle at random, tapping my wand along the receiver.

Reparo.” Several creaks and snaps shuddered the length of it, dust and rust vanishing as the magic scoured it clean. I glanced around, spying another display case detailing various mass-produced types of ammunition, and performed the same spell, scanning the placard to find the correct rounds for my rifle (an M1891) and the weapon the translator chose (a massive gun she said was called a Maxim-Tokarev), a muffled explosion that rattled the door causing me to fumble loading, swearing as a round dropped onto the ground.

“No time, carry what you can in your pockets.” I nodded up at her, and loaded the fifth bullet, slinging it over my shoulder as she led the way to the door.

“Hey—what’s your name? I’d at least like to die with someone I know.” She snorted, glancing over her shoulder as she hefted the machine gun.

“Anastasia. Call me Stan.” With that, she raised a leg and kicked down the door, falling back as a gout of fire burst into the room, quickly blocked with my wand.

“Are they trying to burn us out?!” She scowled, and I twirled my wand, cutting a hole through the wall of flames for us to duck through. As I passed, I spotted a dazzling, precious-looking jewel in a now busted case, swiping it for safekeeping as we passed. What I’d first heard as one explosion turned out to be multiple simultaneous blasts, demolishing the three upper floors of the museum and caving in the massive skylight in the center, leaving a pile of rubble where a wide, grassy courtyard had once been.

“We need to get to street level. Avoid windows but be ready to do that trick with the magic again.” She spoke through her teeth, jaw tight, but before I could ask her if she was alright, a wall across the courtyard exploded, revealing a heavily armed and armored squadron in all black, who immediately began to fire at us. My barrier bought us enough time to find cover behind a thick concrete pillar, Stan bleeding from where concrete shrapnel had cut into her forehead.

“This is bad.” I squinted, flinching as a grenade detonated on the other side of the pillar, spraying the wall on either side of us with bits of metal.

“Can’t you kill them with magic? Just wave your wand and cut their heads off.” I scowled, nearly hexing her.

“I studied Light magic. I can heal you, but murder isn’t what I studied to become Minister.” She scowled back, and growled before darting out and nearly blowing out my eardrums as she opened fire, the heavy gun spitting bullets much larger than those our enemy had. Following her cue, I darted the opposite direction, Stunning and Disarming anyone I could, all the while maintaining the one-way barrier between them and Stan. None of the soldiers had any markings or flags—meaning they’d been sent here either for me or the dead minister—and I suddenly twisted mid-step, six tiny fists punching into my shoulder and hip, spinning me in midair and knocking me to the ground. Once I’d finished sliding, I cursed my lack of preparedness in anything other than basic combat magic, flicking my wand and causing the floor in front of me to crack, a massive block of stone rising from the ground between my attackers and where I lay. The barrier around Stan was still up, though a fierce migraine signaled that I was nearing the end of my magical ability. There was no way I was going to be able to properly use the rifle, especially while injured, and for the first time, I was afraid I was going to die. The rush of adrenaline that overcame me acted like diesel fuel to the guttering match that was my magical energy, sending a jolt of electricity through every nerve in my body that flexed each muscle, jumping my body five feet directly into the air—something must have happened, or the enchantment that wound my ‘golem’ soul was fundamentally different due to the divinity of my creator—and I froze in midair, as did all of the debris, bullets, shells, and sound.

I set a facility record the next morning, as well as a world record, and was given a day off before the final phase of Starfall’s requirements to enter Saber’s ‘Deadeye Club:’ I would be pitted against ten other vampires in a specially-designated valley, each of us carrying three color coordinated flags and ten bullets. The two vampires who emerged from the valley with the most flags (ordinary bullets could only really disable vampires for about forty minutes, even with a headshot) after one week were accepted. The eleven of us were kept separate for our time off, so as to prevent any attempts at assassinations, and I spent the afternoon in my cubby with Jasper, talking about everything except shooting.

“So, word around town is that you’ve been real Puritan-like since you got here. No secret romps in the broom closet, or your desk?” I set down my phone and reached over, squeezing his knee until it cracked, and he howled in pain.

“I do not. Next topic.” He smirked, and leaned on my desk.

“Whatever floats your raft, gal. I had to stop going to the bathhouse ‘cause a few folk were getting real bawdy sharing fantasies.” While I sorely wished to give in to my instinct, which was to headbutt him through the wall, I merely flicked my hair and began examining my nails.

“I’m not sure what you’re trying to do, but it’s not very entertaining.” Jasper had the audacity to pout, and tipped his hat back before shrugging.

“While what I said is true, I’ll admit I’m nothing if not nosy; as your impromptu mentor, and as a gossip fiend.”

The resulting explosion leveled the entire block, expanding out in a dome of force and energy from my body and pushing everything except people outward in a fraction of a second—the next moment, as my eyes cleared, I watched three of the black-clad soldiers fall to their knees as their lungs were ripped out of their bodies by the vacuum the blast created, those lucky enough to have their mouths shut standing in awe, weapons at their sides. Wasting no time, Stan resumed firing, taking them all out and turning to look at me, amazed.

“When I said to use magic, I didn’t mean destroy everything!” Rolling my eyes, I slid the rifle off of my shoulder, and peered down the scope at the street beside the building that had once stood here.

“sh*t. That hit squad isn’t our only problem.” She looked over, in time to see the mechanized tank roll fully into view, spot us, and begin rotating the massive cannon mounted atop it towards us.

“We need to move!” Stan turned and ran, hooking her arm through mine and nearly yanking it out of the socket as I stumbled, eyes glued to the foot-wide barrel. A tiny spark of light started from deep inside it, and the building behind us exploded, showering us with rubble and crushing both of us underneath it, propped under two larger pieces of cement beneath several feet of debris. Sounds were muffled, and after I managed to dig my wand out of my pocket, a soft light suffused the tiny space we were pinned in.

“Handy. Now I can see my vision fading.” I ran my hand along the ground, wincing as my ankle, which was behind me and out of Stan’s view, slowly was crushed under a steel door. I was still exhausted from my exertion, and couldn’t move the door, but nearly cried in relief as my hand found the groove of a manhole cover, quickly using my wand to Vanish it, also freeing my mangled ankle as I fell, landing hard ten feet below on old, musty stone.

“Are you alright?” I replied in the affirmative, wand still lit, and dragged myself out of the way for her to land, refusing to look at my ankle.

“I’m hurt, be aware.” She landed much more gracefully than I did, looking down at my foot and grimacing.

“What do we do?” I gulped, and took a shaky breath before responding.

“My sister taught me how to… replace damaged parts of my body with metal. Sadly, I’m not carrying twenty pounds of steel in my back pocket.” She looked down at my foot for a long moment, before dropping her gun at my feet.

“Use this. I’ll find another one, we need you mobile.” I made to protest, but at her steely gaze, the words died in my throat, and I simply cut off the foot, eyes going wide at the pain—the gun began to melt, condensing down into a ball of liquid metal—and waved my wand, amputated foot and blood vanishing as the metal touched the stump of my leg, worming into my muscles and bones until I had a shiny, metal foot.

“I’d bet they’ll try to dig us out, so we should get a move on.” Stan hauled me to my feet, new foot working as expected, and we began moving through the sewers, the light from my wand shining a few feet ahead of us. Periodically, impacts from shells would shake dust from the stone above, sending cascading, strange shadows across the narrow passage.

I was dropped on a ledge, several hundred feet above a sheer cliff-face, with my clothes, rifle, and flags, promptly dropping down and scanning my surroundings, using my vampire eyes in place of a scope, which would reflect light. The valley was still high enough in the mountains that only a few stunted conifers were clustered at the center, vast expanses of ice and snow only broken up by startingly gray boulders and shelves of rock. The others had likely been dropped in similar positions, and I kept myself low to the ground, strategizing. How do vampires hunt each other? The answer struck me as forcefully as if Poppy were standing in front of me, rolling her eyes. I quickly drew my wand, and with a series of improvised spells, I (hopefully) eliminated any natural scent my body could produce. It wasn’t permanent, thankfully—the spell takes your sense of taste as a ‘deposit’—but as long as I stayed conscious, my scent would be obscured. Realistically, there were only two methods of victory: firstly, by incapacitating opponents, stealing flags, then likely being incapacitated myself, ad infinitum until it was over. The second option, one I doubted those in charge of the selection process would have considered, is to be the only vampire left alive, thusly ensuring that I have the most flags; such a tactic would be in direct defiance of my dedication to Light Magic (it wasn’t so much a strict set of rules, but rather that lethal magic should only ever be used in self-defense), as I would become the hunter, not the prey. Carefully, I moved my rifle up into my lap and disassembled the scope, tucking it into a pocket and peeking back over the edge of the rock. My vampire eyes compensated for the iron sights, and my gaze sharpened as a blur kicked up a line of snow, down in the center of the valley. Before I could even consider firing, the flash of two separate rifles on either side of the valley cooled my resolve, the running vampire stopping mid-stride, limbs going slack as two bullets collided with their head, on either side, cracking it in half with a resounding snap that echoed several times. The vampire wasn’t dead, merely temporarily disabled, and I tracked another blur as it darted down, pausing briefly to snatch a strip of fabric off of the downed one before flying back off towards the cliffs.

I extinguished my wand as we neared a bend in the tunnel, having detected a few soldiers in the sewers ahead, beneath a manhole. Stan kept to my left and slightly behind me, opposite my rifle, which I held at the ready. Sadly, I didn’t know any spells that would let me see through walls without them also being able to see me, and as I peeked around the winding corridor, my eyes strained against the sudden brightness—the manhole was open, sending a shaft of light down—pausing only to register their uniforms before opening fire, catching two unaware while the third managed to turn around, the report of the rifle ringing down the sewer and nearly deafening me. I didn’t move forward until the last man fell, splashing into the thin layer of sewage face-up.

“Grab a gun from one of them. Should we climb out, or keep moving?” Stan leaned over one of the drier corpses, pulling a submachine gun and a few magazines off of him as I examined the simple rope ladder they’d tossed down.

“Dunno where we are, but I’d rather die in the fresh air.” I rolled my eyes, and after a perfunctory Revealing Charm revealed nothing above us, slung my rifle over my shoulder and began to climb. The street we emerged on was much more intact, the only damage broken windows and the occasional hole in a wall; we were at the mouth of a wide, paved courtyard—judging from the remaining shop signs, it was a farmer’s market—in the center of which sat a dried-out, half broken fountain, and directly across from us a modest church, though the bell was no longer in the tower. Nearly two-dozen bodies, soldiers and civilians, were strewn about the courtyard in an arc radiating out from the church, the doors of which were partially opened. It was eerily quiet, the sound of gunfire now far-off and rattling faintly up the streets around us, and I surmised we were past the worst of the fighting. The manhole was in the shadow of one of the buildings in the courtyard, and Stan heaved a sigh, massaging her forehead.

“Almost forgot what it felt like, on the surface.” She shot me a half-smirk, and I rolled my eyes, reloading the three shots I’d taken as she stepped out into the sun, squinting briefly.

“Think they’ve moved on. Only thing we’ll need to worry about for a bit are ghosts, from the look of it.” Her shoulders slumped a little at the sight of the bodies, and I joined her, walking over to the fountain and peering in. Part of the basin at the bottom had been destroyed, causing a small river of water after the initial spill. There were three bodies in the fountain, all soldiers, who seemed to have been crawling behind the main pillar when they’d died. I squatted down, inspecting the patches on one of the corpses, instinctively flinching as a muffled crack rang through the courtyard, but no bullet struck me. Not knowing where the sniper was, and in the center of a wide space, I realized we’d walked straight into a trap at the same time as Stan collapsed onto me, lifeless and bleeding from a hole through the side of her head. I was too surprised to move, falling underneath her body, which pinned me half-under her, legs sticking out one side while my eyes were barely able to see the sky on the other. She was dead weight, and nearly impossible to move, another crack chipping the fountain inches from my head and spraying my face with shards of cement—I realized what had given me away, and quickly yanked my hair back behind the column, another shot skipping off the stone where my hair had been a moment later. Now whoever had killed Stan knew I was still alive; I could only hope they were alone, thusly putting us at a bit of an impasse, as neither could move without giving the other an opportunity. My rifle was pressed between my stomach and Stan’s back, wand-arm still holding it and pinned as well—I nearly retched as the warm pool of Stan’s blood seeped up against my face, which was pressed sideways into the stone beneath an arm—and tried to think of a way out.

The first vampire fell for the bait, predictably, and while she was examining my left hand, which was hung from a piece of string attached to a boulder—not under the protection of the scent-erasing spell, until I reattached it—I crept up behind her and twisted her head off, a series of pop-pop-pop-pop noises echoing as it separated from her neck, the rest of her body falling limply to the ground. The vampire wasn’t dead, though I figured a decapitation would slow them down long enough for what I had planned. Quickly reattaching my hand, I knelt down and stripped her corpse of all it’s flags, and hefted it over my shoulder, carrying her head in my opposite hand. While there were a series of rocks and boulders strewn around my immediate vicinity, what I was going to do would attract a lot of attention, necessitating speed. Once I’d found a good spot, I dropped the body, keeping the head at a safe distance, and drew my wand, quickly flicking it upward and shaping the pillar of rock into a tall, slightly thin obelisk, ending in a brutally sharp point; a wave of my wand levitated the head, impaled it on the tip of the obelisk, and another hoisted the body, upside down, and attached it to the obelisk, so that the feet of the body were a foot below the head, arms hanging loosely to the ground. Her ammunition was useless to me, though I did note that she was missing one, likely from the initial fight, as there’d been no more gunshots since. As quickly as possible, I darted back up into the hills, using my wand to erase the path of footsteps I carved into the snow until I was safely ensconced on the same cliff as before, aiming down at the area around the obelisk. My suspicions proved correct, the first vampire arriving minutes after it had gone up, stopping to stare up at the body in horror. Working without a scope only made it marginally more difficult to place my shot, and I watched grimly as the bullet cracked into the vampire’s neck, cleanly separating the head from his shoulders. Now that I’d fired, my position was likely about to be swarmed, but a brilliant idea popped into my head. Taking a lock of my hair, I sliced it off and bundled it up before throwing it at an outcropping a bit further down, between my spot and the obelisk. Hopefully, the smell of my hair would trick the first to arrive into searching the other spot, giving me an angle to fire again, though I only had nine bullets left.

After the flow of blood from Stan’s body had slowed to a dribble, puddle beginning to cool down around my face, a light rumbling vibrated the fountain; I stifled a groan as I realized an armored division was likely rolling into the courtyard. At that moment, I was truly at the hands of fate: if the tank and supporting infantry were the sniper’s allies, I was dead—if not, I was still likely to die, but with less certainty. A cold wind was blowing through the courtyard, and muffled words slowly grew louder as what sounded like a trio of soldiers approached the fountain. I didn’t dare breathe, keeping my eyes half-lidded and as empty as I could make them. One of the men spat into the fountain, others facing away or towards the church as the rumbling slowly tracked along beside the fountain, tank gradually rolling through the courtyard. The spitter watched the man facing the church light a cigarette, and scowled, saying something in Russian before slapping the pack out of the other man’s hand, which clattered onto my neck and between Stan’s arm and her torso. After another minute of sphinx-like concentration, during which the three men were called back to wherever the tank was going—I thanked my sister (the only god I prayed to) that they appeared to be opposing the sniper—and scowled at the corner of the pack of cigarettes, which lay in my field of vision. I had to pee, discomfort slowly building along with the now-sticky, drying blood, but I didn’t dare leave cover, carefully wriggling out from under Stan enough to peer over the edge of her body, looking out into the courtyard—empty. The sniper was either scoped again or moving, and I hurriedly crouched behind the column, digging my rifle out from under her and shakily wiping some of the blood off. A quick scan of the buildings around me revealed several potential shooting locations, but again, Poppy seemed to appear in a mirage before me, shaking her head. Numbskull, you’re a witch! In an instant, my wand was out, and I performed a quick Disillusionment Charm, shouldering my rifle as the sensation of a cold egg being cracked on my head ran over me. What the three dead soldiers (and Stan) didn’t have was magic, and I leaned out from behind the column, knowing I was invisible but still shuddering a little at coming out of cover. There wasn’t a protruding barrel, but the most likely place was the bell tower; it was the tallest building for around a block, with nothing in the square high enough for a counter-angle. Moving quickly, before the charm wore off, I darted out into the courtyard, wincing as Stan’s blood dripped rapidly off of me—leaving a literal bloody trail—and I Disapparated up onto the roof of a nearby building, immediately falling down behind the chimney as my body slowly came back into sight. Hopefully the sniper was Muggle, as the crack of Apparation sounds remarkably similar to gunfire, and I laid down behind the incline of the roof, behind the chimney with the rifle poking along one side, as small of a profile as I could make. While I wasn’t the same height or higher than the tower, the increase was still enough for me to catch the faintest glimmer of light as the muzzle swung, briefly exiting the shadow of the column the sniper was kneeling beside. I couldn’t make out exactly where, due to the shadows, and eased myself back behind cover, drawing my wand and trying to think of a solution. I didn’t have any parchment to write on, so instead I pried up a shingle and began writing calculations, using the tip of my wand to leave thin white lines, like a quill. I needed a way to either remove the shadows or see despite them—contrary to the name, Light Magic actually has little to do with physical lights, which are rooted more in Dark Magic, due to the use of fire—and while there were spells that could work quite well, I didn’t feel comfortable summoning a miniature star in the center of St. Petersburg. Another consideration, outside of the immediate, was that Apparition still worked as long as it wasn’t me trying to leave; this meant that the caster had used a dome-shaped containment spell, as opposed to a ‘permeative,’ what is used for smaller areas and renders any Apparition impossible. However useful that information was, I still couldn’t see inside the bell tower, and thusly was back to exactly where I started.

After another one-shot decapitation, I darted down towards the bodies after Disillusioning myself and hurriedly constructed the next two obelisks, retrieving both sets of flags and—miraculously—a box of ten rounds perfectly suited for my rifle, though the vampire I took them off of had a much more expensive looking Mosin. Now I had eighteen bullets, only seven opponents, and an evil, crooked smile began to creep into my face as I darted back up to my nest, waiting for the next vampire to take the bait. The next four, in fact, ended up taking the bait, though I needed two bullets to get through the neck of an absurdly muscular woman, lowering my supplies to thirteen. The remaining three were likely the smartest, not having fallen for my trap, and I hefted the slightly bulky ball of flags that was stuffed into one of my pockets, climbing up to just below the ridgeline and beginning a long, vampire-speed lap of the valley in order to try and locate the remaining targets. I found one, a thin woman with blonde hair and an absolutely massive rifle that looked like it was more suited for tanks than people, and crept up behind her, trying to snap her neck. Before I could pounce, she whirled around, forcing me to dive on top of her to prevent her from shooting me—a bullet from that thing looked like it could crack the mountain, let alone me—keeping the gun jammed sideways as we struggled for dominance. I was larger, eventually using my size to force the rifle downward; my hearing shut off for a split-second as she managed to shoot the gun, a deafening bang shaking the snow off the surrounding rocks; the bullet hit the ground and bounced, flying off into the stratosphere, but I’d already twisted her head off, knowing the other two would know exactly where we were. Leaving the body, I lugged the head and her flags back up to the ridge, and dug a small shelf into the snow, tunneling far enough back that I could fit both myself and the length of my rifle inside, blocking all but the smallest opening back up with snow to disguise my position. Like clockwork, the first vampire arrived at the shelf, presumably found a headless body and one scent, before his head popped up in range, removed from his neck with a single shot. Almost simultaneously, a bullet punched through the woman’s head, which I’d set about a foot to the side of my hole, accompanied by a far-off flash that revealed the location of my final enemy.

There was an alternative option, though. Ravens and other smaller carrion-birds had begun to descend on the courtyard, and with a simple Charm I was able to communicate with them, for a short time. I learned very quickly that while magic could allow me to speak to birds, it did nothing for the relative intelligence of the animal, most of the smaller birds thinking in one- or two-word sentences such as “Eat!” or “Food!”, which wasn’t particularly useful. Ravens were marginally better, closer to a dog in terms of conversation (I’d taken an elective course in Non-Humanoid Linguistics at Symposium Magia), but my breath caught in my throat as a very large bird landed directly in front of me, co*cking its head to the side to inspect me with one eye.

“Who are you?” It was about three feet tall, with dark black and brown feathers, vicious claws, and an even more deadly-looking beak, which clacked as it talked.

“Penny Prott, Minister of Britannia. I’m only asking for a favor, there’s no binding magical contract or anything.” Animals were often more knowledgeable about magic than Muggles, as most magic-users don’t particularly worry about animals—they can’t talk to Muggles, and before the Statute of Secrecy was dissolved we had no reason to care—so in effect, intelligent species of animals were sometimes sources of wisdom. I wasn’t quite sure what bird this particular visitor was, and it regarded me shrewdly for a long moment.

“In return?” Birds were also notoriously transactional, and while I didn’t have food or wine, they did accept gold.

“Ten Galleons to have a look up in that tower? I need to figure out where the shooter is. Don’t worry, they shouldn’t go after you.” The bird leaned down, inspecting the coins, before gently presenting a leg, a small pouch shifting down into sight. Once all ten were secured, it took flight, gaining height before swinging in a long arc around the courtyard, circling twice before returning and landing behind the chimney, next to me.

“She’s up there, alright. Behind the pillar closest to us, aiming down at the fountain.” I nodded, thanking the bird and preparing to end the spell before it spoke once more, slightly hastily.

“—May I ask you a question, human?” I paused with my wand out at looked back at the bird.

“Are the tales true, of your kind choosing the exceptional among our kind to serve alongside you, in search of glory and riches?” Bird-culture wasn’t something I’d really ever considered, though I was able to deduce it was referring to the concept of a familiar; one could either Summon one, receive one in pact with a deity, or use an already-existing animal. The process was complicated either way, and I said as much to the bird.

“There are certain rituals required before you could fully become my familiar, but if you wish, you may accompany me as I work my way out of the city. If both of us survive, I would be honored to take you on as my familiar.” If a bird could smile, that one managed it, bobbing it’s head up and down several times and letting out a cheek-acheek noise that made me snort.

“Do you have a name? Er, and my apologies, but I’m unfamiliar with which family of birds you come from.” It puffed out it’s chest, fluttering out it’s wings in as regal a manner it could.

“I have not received my name, as I have neither mated nor pledged service as a familiar; my family are the bearded vultures, proud and shrewd!” it punctuated that with a small hop, talons clacking against the shingles slightly.

It took two minutes of scanning the area near where I’d caught the flash before I spotted the other sniper, who was nestled up in a pair of boulders on the peak of a taller slope. I wasn’t able to get a good angle on the actual sniper, instead settling for a magically-guided shot that split the barrel of the other gun, muffled echoes of a small explosion letting me know that the gun had misfired, and I exploded out of the dugout, snagging the head and making my way back down, kicking the remaining bodies down by the obelisks and making a separate pile for the heads. Once the bodies were all strung up, but before the heads, I heard the last vampire approaching, not attempting to be quiet and at human speed.

“Barbaric, aren’t you? Never change.” The wind shifted, and I froze completely still as the scent of blood trickled across my nose. Turning, my eyes widened as I recognized Shade, about twenty yards away and holding a busted-up rifle.

“What the hell are you doing here?! I could kill you, get out of here.” She rolled her eyes, and tossed the gun down.

“Oblivious. You pass, psycho; the last vamp called your command whining about how you’d gone berserk, so they sent me in as a last-ditch attempt to calm you down.” I scowled, and withdrew the ball of flags, tossing them at her feet.

“None of them are dead, I’m just keeping them incapacitated until I win. Er, I guess I already have?” She rolled her eyes again—it seemed to be one of her favorite expressions—and was unable to keep the grin from her face as she spoke.

“Our squad has been selected for a top-secret operation, codenamed ‘Operation Nassau.’ The file is back at base.” I was extremely wary of her grin, but began walking at human-speed towards a jet that had crested the ridge as we’d been talking, Shade falling into step beside me.

“Do tell.” Her blood was very noticeable, only a foot away, but I found that the aching hunger in my throat mattered less to me than she did.

“Aquatic activity has been on the rise since the Red Right Hand flooded the Sahara; seems the Decepticons lost confidence on land. There’s already a submarine division, Leapfrog, but they need an on-the-surface operator, as reports are coming in of bots the size of destroyers attacking merchant routes across the globe. Back at Highburn they’re building us a sailing warship reinforced by magic, somehow, and you’ll never guess who’s been selected as captain.” Once the door of the jet had shut, the whistling wind was reduced to a muffled variation, and I arched an eyebrow at her.

“Kadner.” Rolling her eyes for the third time, Shade shook her head.

“You, skipper. Though, Colt is using one more ounce of authority to make the name democratic, at least between our squad. Rowan suggested ‘Pearl of the Sea,’ and Maud, ‘Saber Combat Galleon One.’” Again, I was thankful I couldn’t get headaches, and sat in the seat across from her.

“So, I’m being put in charge of a wooden boat and sent to fight robotic monsters from outer space? Lovely.”

If this sniper was worth her bullets, I would only have one chance to fire. The vulture had flapped off to find a corpse—I specifically told her to avoid the fountain—and I peered back over the peak of the roof, unable to suppress a smile as I spied the front half of the barrel and part of the scope, sticking into the sunlight—she still thought I was in the fountain—and I put a shot into her scope, shattering it and hopefully delaying long enough for me to chamber another round. I jumped up, laying the rifle across the top of the chimney and peering down the scope, brow furrowed angrily, to see the woman’s face, now in the light and staring back down her sight at me. That time, the crack of gunfire was simultaneous, her bullet striking the chimney in front of me as mine chipped the column directly behind her, passing close enough to blow the hair back from her face. I was too slow on the reload, ducking down behind the brick and lunging sideways, placing a shot into the wood of her rifle and falling, rolling down the side of the roof before Apparating to the street below. While I’d managed to beat her once, and disable her gun, I knew she was far better than I was, and decided my revenge was set enough with the destruction of her rifle. All that was left now was the several Disapparations to the edge of the city, then freedom.

Chapter 6: Project Lacuna

Chapter Text

Penny

Penelope f*cking Prott!” Every muscle in my body locked into a statue, and I turned, forcing myself to meet Poppy’s gaze. We were in the main hangar, with the rest of Red Right Hand and my squad. Jasper had attested to my self-discipline, as had Shade, but my thoughts were concerned mostly with my sister, and staying alive.

“It’s wonderful to see you, Poppy.” I couldn’t keep the dread from my voice, and caught a chorus of snickers due to my hearing. She lowered her voice, slinging an arm around my shoulder and steering us towards a less populated corner.

“First off, cheers on the ‘mountaintop massacre.’ Made me proud. Secondly, you are bloody lucky you survived that fight, and only got turned into an immortal killing machine. While I’m bothered by it, you are a genetic copy of me, so I s’pose I shouldn’t be surprised. Don’t muck up your second chance.” I nodded wearily, though I couldn’t sleep, and sighed.

“I am sorry about that, on the mountain. Someone went out there and put them back together, right?” Poppy stifled a laugh, and nodded as she withdrew her pipe.

“Yes, and, I’m here to escort you and your squad to examine your ship.” My ship. I grinned, and shot a look over my shoulder at Shade, Rowan, and Maud, before beckoning.

“C’mon, you sorry landlubbers!” Maud, of course, didn’t react, while Shade scowled. Rowan was at my side in a half-second, doing a mock salute and beaming. The elevator ride down to the dock was tense with anticipation and pipe smoke, a blast of cold air hitting us as the doors opened, out into a half-submerged cavern that had been half-converted into a shipyard, and half into a port that let out into the wider sea. Anchored at the end of a narrow steel dock sat what looked like a pirate ship; sails, cannon ports, and even a gold figurehead resembling an avenging Lucifer, with the wood painted a dark, matte black—perfect for stealth.

“Er, how exactly are we going to… sail it? I can’t speak for the other three, but I have no idea how, magic or otherwise.” Poppy led the way, speaking over her shoulder between puffs of smoke.

“You’ll have a crew of sixty; ten sailors, fifty gunners. All vampires who’ve either studied sailing or been around long enough to remember it. Ah, and you’ll have an in-house doctor, along with his family—everyone should start arriving within the day, and your projected cast-off date is dusk, tonight.” As we walked along the steel dock, I counted the gunports, though a frown grew across my face as I looked at the cannons.

“Those don’t particularly look like ship cannons.” Poppy flashed me a wicked grin, boots thudding against the wooden plank up to the deck.

“They’re not. SHIELD’s been holding onto a few weapons from each war since their inception, and I managed to snag forty 88 millimeter flak guns, as well as ten 128’s, courtesy of Captain America, eighty-ish years ago. Normally it’d be insane to try and pack that much weight onto a wooden ship, but we have magic. Anti-rust, inertia-dampeners, Siobhan even pitched in with a gravity regulator for stormy seas. Since you’ll have a crew of vampires, instead of needing a full complement for the cannons, one is strong enough for each; Also, your “rations” will be under the direct supervision of the doctor. He’s quite disciplined.” On the deck, I examined the black sails, counting a few rows of thread before smiling at Poppy.

“Thank you. I’ll give ‘em hell.”

The crew trickled in slowly, emerging from the waves to stand on the dock and examine the ship, each as inhumanly beautiful as I, though a few were missing an eye or finger—from before they were turned, I assumed—and assembled in front of my squad and Poppy, some greeting old friends or cracking jokes. Rowan was the only human visibly perturbed, though Shade’s heart had definitely sped up slightly; Poppy was serene as always, though I took the time to note that, now that I could hear her heart (or whatever approximation of it existed in the black ooze), it beat perhaps once every three minutes, and was much louder than normal, as if it was twice the size of a normal one. Several shot me skeptical looks, but a few overheard whispers of ‘the Starfall Slaughter’ reassured me that they’d take me seriously, if somewhat out of fear.

“Ah, Carlisle! It’s been too long.” She darted over, shaking the hand of Carlisle Cullen, who we’d met for the first time on the path to kill Judie. Esme, Judie herself, and the other Cullens who hadn’t joined Poppy’s squad were behind him, along with a human girl with brown hair and an iron-grip onto Judie’s side.

“I’m glad to see you in good health, Poppy. As well, I again wish to thank you for offering us this place; I shall do my utmost to return the favor in my actions.” She smiled, and they disengaged, Carlisle shaking my hand before beginning the process of moving what looked like an entire hospital below deck, Muggle technology that whirred and blinked worse than Dumbledore’s office. The only one I hadn’t met was the human, and I nodded politely, choosing to keep some distance until I was used to the scent.

“This is Bella.” Judie was curt, and I could detect the subtle warning behind her words, slightly lifting my chin instinctively, showing my neck in a pacifying gesture. I had no interest in this Bella person, more so the pirate ship I was being put in command of; Poppy turned to me again.

“Now that everyone is present, I am going to formally present you with your letter of marque and reprisal, as well as the title of Captain of Her Majesty’s Ship… er, have you decided on a title?” Though it was supposed to be democratic, I doubted any of them would disagree with a vampire now renowned for brutality, and I nodded decisively.

“Popelia.” I endured a look that could kill a graphorn for several seconds, but when I didn’t back down she sighed.

“Very well. Captain Prott, of the HMS Popelia.” A few polite claps were scattered through the crowd, and I accepted the document that made it legal for us to attack Decepticon or otherwise allied ships; a quick scan through it showed that this was a letter of marque from the United Nations, meaning I effectively had clearance to scour the entire planet. After a salute, Poppy Disapparated, leaving my squad in charge. The most recent sighting was in the northern Atlantic, a few hundred miles south of Greenland, which would be our first target. I heard from a few sailors that Leapfrog, the submarine division, was deadlocked in a heated fight at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, and after reminding everyone our castoff time, I ducked below deck, keen on a closer look at the guns we’d been gifted.

Poppy

“I welcome to the microphone Madam Granger, esteemed witch and protector of our planet.” Thunderous applause went up from almost every UN delegate, and I strode up to the podium, a little anxious about what I was going to ask of them.

“Thank you, all, for allowing me this opportunity to speak before you. We are at an inflection point in the history of our species, no, our planet. Internal threats have long been a part of life on Earth, but never before have we been met with an external danger of this magnitude; I speak of the Cybertronian incidents across the globe, and their growing concert with fringe groups such as the Volturi, and violent radical mutant groups, to mention two.” My voice carried throughout the entire assembly, all eyes rapt and focused on me.

“The position of SHIELD, and by extension Saber, is only on protection of our planet. I am here today to request operating permissions within your nations’ borders, as a sign of goodwill and proof of our stated mission. SHIELD hopes to work in collaboration with the United Nations for our operations; never has it been more vital for us to come together as one people, one planet—the threats we face require as much, lest we fall to those who invade us.”

Penny

The sea was beautiful at night, stars glittering like thousands of diamonds floating in the waves. I spent some time introducing myself to the crew, familiarizing myself with their names and scents. The humans would sleep in my cabin, which was where I found myself, sitting across the wide oak desk from Carlisle and Judie; Emmett stood by the door like a gargantuan bouncer as we spoke quietly.

“She’s lucky, then. From the amount of blood you’ve described, not to mention the broken bones.” Swan, the frail, sickly-looking girl, had recently been attacked by a nomad, though details seemed to upset Judie, so we didn’t go into much.

“Indeed. Thankfully, we arrived in time to save her. Judie showed remarkable control, as well; she sucked venom from Bella’s hand.” I inclined my head to her, and thought for a moment.

“She’s currently in one of the safest places on the planet, I’d say. I’ll protect her like I would my m-sister.” This seemed to reassure all three of them, and I smiled kindly.

“I’d love to show you the ins and outs of just how high-tech this ship is, but I’m afraid it’s classified—though that might be a good indication itself.” Carlisle chuckled, looking perfectly at home despite our remote location, somewhere west of Ireland.

“By the way, might we discuss your transformation into one of our kind? My experience with magic is quite limited, and I’m very curious as to how you can still use it after being turned.” I shrugged, and glanced at the other two vampires.

“I’d like at least four people I trust in here, but would you like to walk onto the deck? I could do with some fresh air.” Both Emmett and I were having a bit of difficulty being so close to sleeping humans; I expected it was a vampire-instinct, and I contained a sigh of relief as Carlisle nodded, a curt knock sounding as two other Cullens, Edward and Esme, entered. After a quick glance back at the three sleeping forms—Shade was rigid as a board, back against the wall—I followed Carlisle out onto the deck, where several vampires were fishing, smoking, or doing minor repairs after a hailstorm two days previous.

“The way I understand it, as I was a witch before I was turned, I retained my magical ability. Typically, a magic-user’s wand is taken from them if they’re turned, so I imagine that explains the lack of a record.” He nodded, leaning on the railing to examine the horizon.

“Strange times, are these. I’ve seen a great share of years, but none quite as… perilous.” I joined him, hands clasped behind my back. Though I couldn’t read minds, I could tell his family meant quite a lot to him, and debated putting a hand on his shoulder before scowling—I’d tear his shirt at the very least.

“I’ll do everything in my power to protect your family, Carlisle. Everyone on this ship, in fact.” He glanced over, calculating, a softening creeping into his expression.

“For that, I thank you. It seems your family is of noble stock, Madam Prott. Or, would you prefer Captain?” I smiled ruefully, and shrugged.

“Makes no difference to me. I’m just the one they gave the title to. As to the quality of my family… Would you keep a secret?” We’d been talking at normal volume, and I didn’t change my tone, knowing the other vampires were likely hanging on every word.

“Poppy and I are direct descendants of Morgan le Fay; whether that gives you more or less faith in us depends on your opinion of King Arthur, I suppose.” He grinned, and a mischievous glint crept into his eyes.

“Would you require I kneel?” That got a guffaw of laughter out of me, and I shook my head wildly, taking a minute to compose myself.

“I am no more a princess than I am a human.” After a few minutes talking about less-important things, such as weather patterns and the history of sailing, Edward joined us on my other side, Carlisle politely excusing himself after a moment, the younger vampire’s voice a quiet, accusatory hiss.

“You’re going to get them all killed, you know.” I furrowed my brow, and turned to face the crew, who were trying very hard to look busy.

“If anyone harms so much as a single eyelash on the head of any of those humans, I will personally rip you apart and impale those parts along the railing of this ship. Is that understood?” Under my steely gaze, none so much as made eye contact, and I knew the others below deck had heard me as well. Turning back to Edward, I smiled triumphantly.

“Besides. I happen to know the goddess of death; I’m sure we can work something out.” He was scowling, looking down at the water and trying very hard to keep his mouth shut.

“I can read minds, you know.” My response echoed my thoughts on the matter:

“So? The only things you’ll find in here are rifle calculations and fantasies about Julianne Moore.” Edward made a face, and shook his head slowly, trying to dispel the image I was thinking.

“Not that. Shade.” My gaze sharpened slightly, and I arched an eyebrow, waiting for him to continue.

“You think about her quite a lot. At the edges of your mind, usually, but I’ve noticed you keep a track of where she is on the boat.” At that, I growled involuntarily, taking a step forward to meet him eye-to-eye.

“Is there an issue?” I nearly slapped the smug look off of his face, and scowled again, turning back to the sea.

“Why do you care? Stay out of my head if it’s bothering you so much.” He snorted, gently shaking his head as he walked away.

“Can’t. Never stops, actually. Enjoy your candlelit daydreams, Captain.”

We sighted the ship, a small robot-sloop with several laser cannons, the next evening. Darkness would likely bother neither side, and once we’d gotten within accurate range of the cannons, I gave the command for the 128s to start firing, as they sat on the upper deck and could angle further. A chorus of explosions shook the boat and sent shockwaves through the water around us, massive guns belching rounds out at the sloop, all but two striking it, disabling one of the cannons and tearing a hole in the side. Instead of running, the ship turned towards us, accelerating rapidly as the hole in it’s side began to mend itself; the entire ship must be a Decepticon. About a quarter-mile out, I signaled to turn, opening up the broadside at the same time as the first laser cannon fired, shot skating off of the main mast and evaporating against the water on the other side of the ship.

“Ready… Fire!” Now that both the 88s and 128s were shooting, I watched the sloop be torn to pieces as a hail of rounds minced through the hull, a bigger shell punching a hole in the bow of it and causing it to dig straight down into the water, flipping into the air with a spray of water and flames. It landed upside-down, though I could still see the metal trying to reassemble itself, and called another barrage, the water around the ship erupting into mist as another salvo struck it’s underbelly, a much larger detonation sending out a wave as the ship exploded, an oily-black fireball roiling up into the sky. Using the scope of my rifle, I watched as the destroyed pieces of the sloop sank beneath the waves, lights slowly blinking out as they went.

“Damn fine work. Whoever shot out the first cannon of that thing gets an extra half-ration of blood; we’ll continue on to New York once the divers are done salvaging.” Ten vampires, armed with knives and swords, dove into the water to salvage the wreck—a wonderful side-effect of vampirism was invincibility to drowning or water pressure—and I took a moment to inspect the massive weapon pieces, looking for any damage (they’d been sitting in a SHIELD depot since the forties), but the crews attached to each had kept them as immaculate as they were deadly. New York was our next port, a stop to refuel our supplies before receiving our next heading; our first mission was a resounding success, and I grinned at the celebrating sailors before ducking into my cabin, where the humans waited, anxious.

“All clear. These cannons are a force to be reckoned with, eh?” Shade snorted, sitting by an open window to smoke, while Rowan and Bella were still twitching every so often, likely on edge. Judie came in shortly after, and I excused myself, walking out to the forecastle deck to supervise the water for the salvagers. Despite my hope of recovering the core of the bot—one of our ‘if possible’ objectives—the guns had shredded it to pieces, though they did bring back a combined ninety pounds of plastic-wrapped… herbs, further illuminating just how the hell the Decepticons were funding both machine parts and their human allies. After a lengthy discussion with Carlisle, I announced that we’d set a course for New York, the general agreement being a night to hunt: for those that fed on humans, it was stressed to only go in pairs or alone, while the animal feeders had to get either out of town or lucky in Central Park.

About midday, I was the only one above deck, checking on our surroundings visually. A vampire ship, unlike a human ship, considered daytime as a rest—I could hear a lively game of ping-pong going on two floors below me—and I scanned the sea around us, not seeing anything other than infinite, unremarkable waves. As I stood by the main mast, a peculiar scent wafted across my nose, one I’d never smelled before. It didn’t set off my vampire-brain’s alarm bells; if anything, it seemed to be completely stunned. The smell was slightly fruity, a hint of cherries not unlike pipe smoke, and seemed to be trailing down the mast, presumably from the crow’s nest. There wasn’t a sense of danger, more curiosity, and I pocketed my wand, quickly scaling the thick wooden beam and flipping gracefully into the small viewing platform, far enough in the air that I couldn’t hear the others anymore, or anything other than the breeze around me. Habitually, I avoided the sun, but up at the very top of the tallest thing for miles, a clear sky opening up a much larger ocean above than below brought a smile to my face. I was glittering, on my exposed skin, and examined a hand with interest, noting how the flecks of light darted and danced across my skin.

“Magnificent, isn’t it?” I didn’t flinch, mind knowing this was the owner of the scent, and turned to see a white-haired girl, cross-legged on the railing and gazing at me.

“My kind tend to avoid the sun. My memories before are… fading, but pleasant.” The girl nodded somberly.

“Such is the way of the world. Though, you are in the rare position of having much more control over your destiny than others, don’t you think?” I pondered this, looking out and counting two-hundred waves (about ten seconds).

“That is true. Though, it seems my destiny is merely an imitation—as am I.” The girl’s face remained impassive, but I could detect a slight edge to her tone.

“There, you are false. The King in Red is no imitator; none of us are.” My brow furrowed at the seemingly meaningful words, and my jaw worked momentarily as I thought.

“Five are fated; two remain. But, be warned: while all five are crucial, the fifth will rise to counter the four. Such is the way of the world.” I fought back a scowl, wanting something other than cryptic remarks and strange prophecies.

“This isn’t much more than an ominous warning from a stranger, you know. How can I trust you?” The girl, seeing I still wasn’t getting it, hopped down from the railing and stepped over to me. We were the same height, but in that moment she seemed to tower over me, looking like a mountain rising high up into the clouds.

“I am the Pale King; the eldest sister, Morgana.” All wind ceased, the ocean becoming a flat, glassy plane all the way to the horizon. Even the sun seemed to flicker momentarily at her full title, out of reverence—or fear.

“You are the King in Red, third-born but second-fated. Your progenitor, Poppy, is the Black King, ‘Middler.’ The Lord of the Sun, the fourth, shall rise next. Beware the coming of the Plutonic Emperor; it is inevitable.” A massive amount of information was short-circuiting my brain, but I managed to get a question out as calmly as possible.

“What does this mean? You, Poppy, and I need to sit down and talk. What are you, other than Morgana?” At that, she smirked, and merely shook her head, hair trailing out in a non-existent wind like silver thread in zero-gravity.

“The three eldest shall commune in New York City. It shall be a brief reprieve, yet vital. Heed my words, and all will be well, sister. Farewell.” She blinked out of existence, no crack, puff of smoke, or wand—her scent evaporated too, now only a memory, one that was beginning more and more to remind me of what had happened during the attack on the museum, as if it was forcing me to dig through that day in slow motion. The talking, gunfire, explosions, all murky and blurred, out of focus. Then, everything froze to a snail’s idea of slow as my body jerked off of the ground, the darkness that had once obscured the memory now parting through the refocused lens of my mind.

All my eyes could see was the Egg. It was truly massive, stretching so far in every direction that I was only barely certain of it’s shape; lying on its side, shell almost an aura of pure white light that filled my senses with warmth, light, and a sense of peace. From it, I reflected the light, which was altered—I realized it was my aura, a deep crimson red with spots of brilliant white. Though no communication was apparent, I suddenly understood perfectly: the World Egg, this thing, was all that was or ever will be—every spell cast, laser fired, emotion shown or hidden, any and all sources of energy or variation, like anger and joy, all of it was contained within the Egg; I was too. However, my place was not among the dead—not truly, and my purpose was not yet fulfilled. With a snap, I awoke in the leveled building, and resumed the fight.

This was right. Now, with that memory as proof, I believed Morgana, and sent a Patronus to Poppy, asking to meet once we’d docked, before climbing back down and resuming my daily routine, sequestering myself to several books at once and the gentle rocking of the ship in the now-choppy sea. To my delight, the Russian vulture cheek-acheeked, gliding down in a wide arc to land on the railing where Morgana had departed, eying me curiously. As per our agreement, after it’d gone back to announce it’s eminent “familiarship,” the bearded vulture had returned.

“Welcome back. Are you prepared for the ritual?” The beak bobbed, and I drew my wand, gritting my teeth slightly at what was to come.

“Do you have a preference on which is exchanged? It won’t impair your eyesight, as far as I am aware.” The vulture shook it’s head, and I nodded decisively, murmuring the spell and flicking my upright wand in an oval, each end at one of our eyes. As the spell finished, all sight from my right eye blinked, then returned, wincing at the sudden readjustment to light, and size to fit my socket. Thankfully, it was painless, though it was strange to look at the vulture and see it’s left eye was now mine, even as my right was it’s.

“We are now bound, in life, death, and all beyond.” The vulture blinked several times, before tentatively opening it’s beak.

“He-Hello, Madam!” The first syllables were rough, but speech quickly became fluent as she continued.

“I’m truly honored to have been chosen.” Then, amazingly, it bowed, slightly flaring it’s wings out and bobbing it’s head. Thoroughly embarrassed, I was again glad for the lack of bloodflow, and waved it off.

“No, please, don’t think of yourself as my servant. If anything, you are my valiant squire, a vital ally and companion through the unknown. By chance, have you decided upon a name?” The vulture nodded proudly, puffing out it’s plumage and giving another cheek-acheek.

“Nox, ser-squire of Dread Captain Prott, reporting for duty!”

Aside from the chatty vulture that perched atop my shoulder—which I didn’t mind, Nox was dead useful—New York arrived without issue, alongside a mid-afternoon “meal” to stave off our thirst. The meeting was taking place in my cabin, after the Cullens had convinced me to let them take the humans out to sightsee (a positively lethal look at Edward had ensured he’d keep an eye on Shade), and I greeted Poppy with a fresh pot of coffee.

“So, what’s going on? Who’s your informant?” I frowned a little, wondering how she’d gotten that from the Patronus I’d sent.

“Not an informant. Magical… someone. Not hostile, either.” At that precise moment, Morgana appeared in the chair next to Poppy, the latter turning towards the white-haired woman with muted interest.

“I see.” Unsure of what to do, I turned to Morgana, who was blank-faced.

“This is, er… Morgana.” Poppy’s eyes widened slightly, and her full attention went to the Pale King as she began to speak.

“She says the truth. We—that is, our bloodline—extends to true divinity, something beyond the collection of dimensions and timelines we call universal. All of us, the divine children, are destined for power because of this. There are five; Myself, Penny, you, and the final two. They will rise soon, but I cannot say for certain where, or even when; such things are beyond even my sight.” Poppy took it well, as usual, a slight furrow creasing her brow as she withdrew her pipe.

“I’ve killed gods before. This is just a bigger god, right?” Morgana sighed, a faraway expression entering her face.

“It is not the time for understanding completely. What I am able to say is that, as firstborn, I exist at both beginning and end; I am unable to inform you about it’s contents. Fate, or destiny, is inexorable, but do not be afraid.” With that, she vanished again, leaving us in utter silence. Before either could speak, a far-off rumble reached my enhanced ears, fast-approaching and positively massive.

“We’ve got incoming, dunno but it’s big.” In a flash, we’d both Apparated above deck, seeing what everyone on board had paused to stare up at in horror: above the clouds, slowly defining itself in shadow, was a monstrously large ship; it covered the entirety of the city, extending as far as my eyes could see, gaining definition as it lowered through the atmosphere, finally bursting through the clouds and revealing what had to be the largest Cybertronian in existence; from several hangars, swarms of smaller bots, mutants, and some strange bluish-purple aliens began pouring out, either descending to buildings or gliding out on weird mechanical-biological machines. Two seconds later, a series of underwater detonations rocked the ship, spreading out in a ring in the bay as I assumed Leapfrog had been decimated by something, likely not on our side. I debated casting off, but realized I’d be dead in the open water against an unseen, underwater enemy, face twisting into a snarl as I began to bark orders.

“Move half of the port-side 128s to starboard, and flood an extra foot on the left to counteract for balance; I want to be able to shoot three degrees lower, no more, no less.” My voice cut through the frozen crew like a hot knife, vampires darting unnaturally quickly to fulfill my orders—it was undeath or death, and no vampire aboard wanted to die twice—and I sent Nox up to scout the water from the air, relaying anything critical through our magical link (which had been represented by the exchanging of eyes). Oil and corpses were beginning to float to the surface, and a glimmer of metallic scales flashing through the water nearby clued it in, swinging around to spot a robotic facsimile of a whale, though sleeker and much deadlier.

“Merlin’s taint. We’ve got a Decepticon whale on our hands, be ready for anything.” My rifle was out, scope trying to find the whale from my angle, but the glare from the sun made it next to impossible, relying instead on Nox to triangulate it as she approached the ship rapidly.

“Aim one degree above new minimum, wait for my mark…” It covered at least three-hundred feet per second, finally within line of fire as the gunners muttered about seeing the glint, “FIRE!” the water above it erupted, Nox reporting that it had begun to zig-zag through the water—making it impossible for our guns to hit. Cursing, I drew my wand, and prepared to lift the entire damn thing out of the water for us to shoot at.

Poppy

I didn’t want to leave Penny and the ship, but as I was the closest of my squad to the fighting, I Disapparated, arriving with a crack at the top of Stark Tower, running into Tony on the balcony.

“All units are converging. There’s been reports of smaller craft and bombing runs across the continent; looks like this is the opening move.” My face darkened, and I eyed the massive ship in the sky, automated laser cannons (courtesy of the joint Cybertronian-human weapons development programs) firing on overtime across the city.

“Priority one is evacuation of all noncombatants. I need to make a phone call.” Two seconds later, my phone was at my ear, Annabel picking up on the first ring.

“Tau-9 is authorized to assist with civilian evacuation. Have you seen it?” Her grim affirmative told me she understood what my next response would be, too:

“Send Lacuna to intercept. Extreme prejudice.”

Penny

I managed to lift it’s head out of the water a mere two-hundred feet from the ship, a whirling chrome vortex of teeth and lights eating three shots directly before I lost the spell, though Nox reported that it turned and scuttled off through the water, likely to regroup. Poppy reappeared beside me, face devoid of any emotion but resignation.

“This is the start of the war.” One of the buildings behind the ship was struck by a water-to-air missile, blasting a massive hole into it that exposed six floors of offices, rubble falling down like a meteor shower onto the sidewalk below.

“All we need to do is hold out for ten minutes. Can you do that?” I scowled, scanning the horizon for any above-water craft and finding none.

“I can try. We’re blinder than a Niffler against anything underwater; had to use my familiar to find the damn whale.” Nox returned to my shoulder, and Poppy nodded, a slight crease forming in her brow as she drew her wand. “If I drained this bay, would it help or hinder you?” I kept my gaze outward, but thought it over at vampire speed.

“Hinder; ideally, we could set up our battery on the shoreline, but time wouldn’t be on our side. Our human contingent is in the city somewhere, with the Cullens. Could you…” Her eyes had gone wide, and she nodded quickly, already casting a Tracking Spell.

“Do what you can. I’ll get them out, and as soon as I’m back, get out of here.” She vanished with another crack, and the vampire in the crow’s nest shouted out a warning—flying Decepticons were incoming.

Poppy

Of course the Muggles wanted to go sightseeing. The curiosity of nonmagical folk yet their complete ignorance of magic until recently never ceases to amaze; thankfully, Tracking Spells worked wonderfully on vampires, and I was soon Apparating through the city, towards a small courtyard with a statue of a Roman goddess. As my foot stepped onto the stonework, Judie appeared, inches from my face—realizing who I was, she promptly staggered backwards, apologizing profusely with terror in her eyes. Waving her off, I turned to Carlisle, wand out.

“You all are leaving, now.” The seriousness in my tone convinced him, and I held out my staff, making certain that everyone had a finger on it before Disapparating, arriving back aboard the ship—the humans promptly ducked into Penny’s cabin, while I joined her, still scanning the bay.

“Time to go. I’ll help with the wind, but after that I’m staying to supervise Lacuna.” Ignoring her protest, I flicked my wand, air billowing out into the sails as the moorings unwound themselves, an additional flick of my wand moving the guns back to their positions, as well.

“This is an advanced weapons test, so you need to stay very far away until I notify you of the situation further. Understood, Captain?” Penny nodded, saluting and jerking her chin towards the Atlantic, crew wising up and dashing about the deck to prepare. I returned to Tony exactly seven minutes after first warning Penny, accepting a co*cktail and watching from the inside as the entire tower went into lockdown, all windows and doors shuttered by two-foot tungsten plating and all of the balconies mechanically folding up and retracting within the building—all but the wide set of windows at the center of Tony’s penthouse, affording us a commanding view of New York in a building designed to withstand something like the very ship above us. I received a report that ninety percent of New York had evacuated, through the use of emergency Side-Along Apparation by the American Ministry, who were able to whisk the entirety of the city to magically reinforced bunkers in designated safe-zones, mostly upstate and away from fighting. Tony seated himself at a plush captain’s chair, next to a glass coffee table, onto which he placed an old, gold-trimmed cigarette case and ashtray. I withdrew my pipe, raising an eyebrow, and lighting it at his nod; two minutes to arrival.

“Nasty habit, you know.” He snorted, and took a swig directly from a bottle of whiskey, lighting a cigarette.

“We’re about to unveil Project Lacuna to the world, and our enemies. Forgive me if I’d like some sedation.” I smiled thinly, looking back out of the window as he began to hum some Muggle tune. At a minute and twenty seconds ‘til, Annabel arrived, bringing along a platter of sandwiches for herself and Tony, though I doubted the “Iron Man” would have much of an appetite after what we were expecting to see. Once her pipe was lit, and a third chair pulled up to the coffee table, a mere thirty seconds remained; a faint light, visible to my enhanced sight, was beginning to form on the horizon, coming from the southeast.

“The command given was, “Attack targets until all are neutralized.”” I nodded, draining my co*cktail and digging a bottle of Ogden’s out of my cloak, refilling mine and setting the bottle on the table for the others, just as the first meteor entered my vision.

They were each launched using ICBMs, custom-fitted to transport biological cargo and to fall apart as they entered the city’s airspace—landing wouldn’t damage them—and they impacted in a cluster across Central Park. Project Lacuna was the culmination of all the shared knowledge of our planet’s species, and the Autobots: sixty- and seventy-foot tall human-piloted bio-mechanical robots, composed of Cybertronian parts recovered from fallen Decepticons and… “synthetic biomass,” something that came with an incredibly scientific explanation, but effectively boiled down to the joint-use of the strange magical stones stolen from Asgard, Siobhan’s Sorceror’s Stone, and Annabel’s esoteric knowledge of Dark Magic to grow organic material from my body that would mesh with the Cybertronian parts. Officially, it was cosmetic—meant to replicate a particularly popular animated show—as it was by no means moral or legal by magical and nonmagical communities to perform the magic Annabel and I had done. Rippling, multicolored masses of muscle and tendon flowed seamlessly into the steel plating, bones, and jointwork, weaponry and life-support systems for the flesh-mass and the pilot, who resided in the “head” (inside a modified submersible design for additional protection). As the ten “mechanoids” oriented themselves, scanned their surroundings, and began splitting off, Annabel informed Tony and I that their lethality in combat simulations was so high that she’d “pressured” most major cities into planning evacuation protocols, as any humanoid or target-adjacent life form had a very low chance of survival. This was punctuated by the roar of gunfire as three began engaging ground forces between the streets, four more beginning to climb buildings and trade fire with the airborne targets, while the final three, including the tallest, were still looking up at the massive ship, deep in thought. According to the onboard sensors, each one was running almost two-hundred calculations a second, resulting in the two smaller mechanoids each being hefted and thrown by the taller, up at the ship. The first throw missed, falling back down to where one of the rooftop mechanoids caught it; the second managed to jam an arm into one of the open hangars, latching on and beginning to tear at the bottom of the ship with it’s free hand; a concerned look from Tony had Annabel reassuring him quickly.

“They are also programmed to avoid structural damage, if possible. I believe they are planning to crash the ship out into the Atlantic.” With another heave, the first mechanoid was able to latch onto the second’s leg, quickly climbing up and beginning the same punching and ripping process on the other side. The third, now out of comrades to throw, joined the surface-to-air group, firing shoulder- and back-mounted missiles, heavy machine guns, and laser cannons in a dazzling display of light, heat, and energy. Quickly, the swarm of gliding craft began to thin, most of them attempting to attack the ones on the ship and being shot down by the tallest. The first on the ship managed to get all the way through the ship vertically, second pausing as it reached through the hole, hanging both of their weight onto one side of the ship and slowly beginning to tilt it, listing out towards the open ocean gradually. Tony took a sip of Firewhiskey, and once he’d stopped coughing he asked Annabel a question.

“What sort of training does a mechanoid pilot get? Is it like a submarine, or more a plane?” At that, Annabel looked distinctly uncomfortable, the sun outside momentarily obscured by a cloud and casting long shadows across the city.

“It is not for the faint of heart. Informed-consent volunteers only, and it’s a lifetime position. Many live in their command pods. I… don’t feel comfortable discussing the rest aloud. I’m sure Poppy would give you the file.” His eyes flicked to me, and I nodded. I’d send it to him once this was over. Outside, a storm began to roll in, pulled by the accelerated, though still slow, movement of the ship east. Horrendous groaning and shrieking of metal tearing and snapping was nearly constant, as were the shouts and screams of dying mutants and aliens, and the ship was projected to crash far out in the Atlantic only ten minutes after Lacuna had arrived. The two on the ship would stay with it, to retrieve any valuable items (they were currently stripping it from the inside as it fell), while the rest would take care of the remaining enemies in the city.

“Merlin’s beard.” I took a long drink of Firewhiskey, and gazed out at the carnage around us; true to Annabel’s word, damage to structures was minimal, aside from where they’d scaled buildings or taken fire from the air. Annabel had steadily eaten through half the sandwiches (and half my Firewhiskey) by the time the order was given to withdraw; cleanup and salvage would arrive soon after, Tony promising a horde of drones descending on the city in minutes—a projected reopening to the public, including reconstruction, of only one day, with no casualties. After Disapparating with Annabel to Highburn, I kicked my feet up on my desk, still smoking.

“Damn fine work. If possible, I’d like it if you could get permanent stations for twenty, send me the bill. Ideally, once all of them are up and proven effective, we’ll split the planet into twenty chunks, one for each to protect. Oh, and here.” I dug through my desk, withdrawing a sack of Galleons and tossing it to her.

“Consider it a bonus, I s’pose. Did you see Gringotts is opening a location in New York?” She arched an eyebrow, blowing a Hogwarts crest in smoke.

“I hadn’t. That’ll be convenient, eh? Wonder if they could be persuaded to dig a tunnel under the Atlantic.” I rolled my eyes.

“Not likely. Ask Siobhan, she’d probably know how to support a tunnel like that. What would you need it for, anyway? Just Apparate.” Annabel was already shaking her head, a sunny grin emerging through the pipesmoke.

“Not for me, for the Muggles. Imagine, they could get in a car in Alaska, and drive all the way to China. We’ll put a bloody highway across the ocean.” The only thing that was actually confusing me was why exactly she was so gung-ho about a project that wouldn’t benefit her at all, and at my confused look she scowled.

“Am I not allowed to do nice things? I can just as easily start researching how to turn magical poisons into gaseous alternatives, or how one would go about summoning—” I waved her off, suddenly feeling the weight of my mental exhaustion crashing back onto me.

“Build the tunnel. And, if you have time, a ten-ish foot scroll collating a project proposal for the gas.” A wicked glimmer entered her eyes, and she saluted before Disapparating, leaving me in silence. Two tentacles poured a glass of Calming Draught, and I took a long drink, setting it down and sighing. Two months until vacation.

Chapter 7: The Fall

Chapter Text

Penny

While the humans couldn’t see “Lacuna” arrive, the vampires aboard were able to see a lot, Carlisle taking notes at vampire-speed entirely in Latin, sketching and theorizing about the biological makeup of the creatures; Shade, reading over his shoulder, turned pale and stepped to the other side of the ship, pulling out a cigarette. After checking our course again, I walked over to her, taking the offered smoke silently, lighting both with my finger.

“Heady magic, that.” She nodded.

“Dr. Cullen is a talented artist.” I could tell that it had bothered her, and went to pat her shoulder before stopping—I didn’t want to rip her arm off by accident. Shade noticed it, though, and smiled slightly, glancing up at me.

“I appreciate it. Here, lay your hand face-up on the railing, and don’t move it.” I did so, watching curiously as she gently placed her hand, face-down, on top of mine. It was warm, temperature pronounced due to my own relative cool, and I felt the muscles in her hand shiver on contact with mine.

“Sorry, comes with the package. I could probably come up with a spell to make me warm, though.” She rolled her eyes, looking back out at the ocean after a moment.

“More and more, I feel like I’m outclassed.” At my look, she puffed her cigarette and continued.

“Maud is a robot, you’re a vampire, even Rowan is “gifted” in some way—meanwhile, I’m a Mundane who’s halfway decent with a rifle.” I scowled, and looked over at her sternly.

“You’re incredible with a rifle. The only reason I walked out of that courtyard was because I had magic. That should say something, right?” She shrugged, and I glanced furtively over my shoulder before lowering my voice.

“While I won’t do it on the spot, I would have no problem turning you into a vampire, if you want that. I do want you to think it through, though. If we’re ever in battle, and you get a life-threating injury, I will do it to save your life.” She nodded once, finished her cigarette, and put it out on my palm; the heat sizzled against my marble skin, and I suppressed a wince as she walked towards the cabin. Edward materialized at my shoulder, glaring accusingly at me before hissing in a whisper yet again.

“You shouldn’t drop that on someone, you know.” I scowled at him, blowing smoke into his face.

“You should stop being a prat. D’you have the hots for her too, or something? I’d love to duel for her hand.” His eyes widened slightly, and he took a step back at the steel in my words.

“N-No, nothing like that. It’s a curse, our existence; I couldn’t bear to see someone willingly subject themselves to it.” My eyebrows entered outer space, and I fought down a laugh that emerged as a weak squeak.

“It’s not either of our decisions to make, is it? If she wants to, I will—if she doesn’t, I won’t. Simple as that.” Likely sensing my rising annoyance, and hopefully seeing my point, Edward raised his hands half-heartedly.

“I understand. I’m only urging… consideration, of what turning someone entails for them. I’m sorry… thoughts and words blend together, sometimes.” For the first time since I’d met him, he looked slightly ashamed, and I put out my cigarette before responding kindly.

“I will think it through, I promise you. I merely wanted her to be informed as well, as opposed to being turned at the point of death, with no warning.” He sighed, nodding slowly.

“What happened in New York… do you—” the words caught in his throat, and my jaw clenched slightly as I felt the same emotions he likely was—confusion, horror, disgust.

“All she told me was that it was an advanced weapons test, and…” I scanned through my vampire-memory, Edward seeing it before I did.

“’Lacuna.’ A pit, or gap; either anatomical or ontological. Strange…” Just then, his phone rang, actual fear entering his eyes as he read whoever was calling. “Alice?” For once, my vampire hearing was useless, though I could hear every note of Alice’s sobbing gibberish.

Poppy

Several cities in the mainland United States had been attacked, mostly major port cities or population centers; a swath of Midwestern towns had also been struck, mostly burned, in what was likely an attempt on the Americans’ agricultural reserves. As a show of goodwill, my squad went on several humanitarian missions throughout the region, helping rescue survivors and clear debris—part of me wished Penny was here; I was horrendous with healing magic—and Prime quickly became a fan-favorite, partly due to his voice and partly his truck-form. It was one of these towns, slightly larger than most previous, that had taken an invasion from bots, as well as firebombings; from what had initially been a town of thousands, when I cast a Revealing Charm from the center of the town, I was horrified. Three people remained, buildings shattered and destroyed, fires slowly being put out, lawns torn up and soaked in blood, the entirety of the city had been systematically destroyed by the invasion. We split into three groups: two groups of four, with one bot each, and the last group, Siobhan and myself—the pair of us were more than enough combined to protect ourselves, despite Natasha’s grumbling. As we trekked down the main road, which was littered with broken cars, bodies, and the like, I shared my memory of Lacuna’s battle with Siobhan. She was quiet for a few blocks, kicking at stones with a bit of malice.

“I’m not sure how to feel about this. Nothing against Annabel, I just feel like it has the potential to spiral out of control very easily. Do I even want to know what the process for the pilots is?” I rolled my eyes, saying nothing, to which she groaned.

Poppy.” Indignant, I spat on a passing windshield, which bubbled and melted under my black saliva.

“It works. It's all informed consent, they get paid on par with professional Quidditch players, so where’s the problem? I trust Annabel’s judgement, and you saw how effective they are.” The light of the third survivor was a few blocks away, now, and I noted that it was about two feet underground.

“Morality is neither of your strong suits, is it? It just feels… wrong, and I don’t even know the half of it. Never forget, we don’t control magic, we channel it.” We arrived at the remains of the building whoever this was was under, and I flicked my wand, slowly floating the rubble upward into the sky.

“Don’t preach at me, McGonagall. The technology she’s devised is able to regrow limbs, even on Muggles—once the patent clears, it’ll be in every hospital in the world, for less than a Firebolt.” The last piece, a heavy concrete slab, lifted upward, revealing a small boy, reading a book. He was relatively unharmed, though covered in dirt and dust, and looked up at us, squinting in the sudden light. As our eyes met, a brilliant corona of light exploded out from his skin, blinding me momentarily and sending a blast of hot wind at us that ruffled my cloak. When my vision cleared, the boy was unchanged, save a soft golden glow that seemed to emanate from his body, and bright golden irises flecked with silver. As I looked at him, it felt like we’d met before, even though that couldn’t have been possible; the same recognition flashed across his face, and after a moment he marked his place in the book and stood. Morgana’s words returned to me, and I suppressed a groan as I realized who this was.

"Siobhan, meet the fourth king, the Lord of the Sun. It’s… a long story.”

After grouping back up with the squad—the other two survivors were airlifted to the nearest hospital—we returned to Highburn, with an additional passenger that was subsequently put through the entirety of the base’s medical technology, Banner and Tony returning with everything from allergy panels to a completely sequenced genome. I didn’t know how to get into contact with Morgana, and after three days of medical tests and fruitless searching, I found myself seated in my office, across from the boy, named Charles. At that moment, I was debating how to scry a ghost, or whatever she was, brow furrowed and face tight.

“What are you doing that for?” I started, nearly jumping out of my chair and rounding on the witch herself, who was seated on a plush chair, reading a magazine.

“I was trying to figure out how to reach you, actually. Can we talk?” She glanced at Charles, who was viewing her with mild curiosity—he hadn’t spoken since I’d found him for some reason—and nodded.

“Could we talk in private for a moment?” Shrugging, I directed the kid to the attached bedroom, casting several secrecy charms on both that door and the one to the main corridor, returning to my desk, where she’d taken the seat Charles had previously occupied.

“You’ve found him. Good. Things are progressing accordingly.” I was about to explode, filling up with millions of questions, and she arched an eyebrow accusingly as I withdrew my pipe.

“That looks familiar… How is Damon, by the way?” At my confusion, her look became incredulous.

“The fire-centipede? Have you not checked the pockets, girl?!” I snorted, realizing exactly who she was referring to.

“Ah, that’s it’s name? Ornery little bastard, but he’s growing on me. There’s a… graphorn, as well. They’re friends.” For the first time, emotion crossed her face, in the form of joyous, tinkling laughter that made me smile involuntarily. I lit the pipe, taking a puff before hesitating, and holding it out to her, a little uncertain. Morgana appeared unsure, before taking it and taking a long drag, blowing out a dragon that circled our heads.

“I advise that the Lord of the Sun remain at this facility, for protection. Ultimately, it is your hold.” After another drag, she handed the pipe back, and I puffed several times, thinking.

“I agree. Is there any way to stop or delay the fifth? You mentioned he’d be against us, right?” She frowned.

“I am… unsure. Specific events must occur, but the time between them isn’t within my Sight. I see you bear the markings of a hag; are you too blessed with Vision?” Grimacing, I withdrew the knucklebones, setting them on the desk.

“I’ve… avoided using them. A rather nasty effect happened, where my natural Sight by blood and hag-divination occurred simultaneously, resulting in the marks. It—there never seemed to be much by way of good news.” Morgana nodded sagely, taking the offered pipe and humming.

“Such is magic: fickle as life. My daughter was cursed by Merlin to become a hag, the first hag in Britannia.” My eyebrows rose, and I withdrew my flask, after a long moment of consideration also gingerly pulling King Bastard out and setting him on the desk. He seemed to look around for a moment, spot Morgana, and let out a squeal before rushing over to her, earning a scowl from me and several coos from her.

“Is that why you were enemies? What he did to Vulpa?” She nodded, letting King Bastard crawl up her arm and nestle on her shoulder.

“Yes. And he paid very dearly for his crime.” The room became very still, a sudden chill blowing in through the vents.

“I’m sorry. If you’d like the knucklebones, I have no use for them. There is enough pain in the present.”

Penny

I was atop the crows nest, along with Carlisle, Edward, and Shade, the latter of whom was sharing a cigarette and bottle of whiskey with me—thank Poppy, vampires could still drink alcohol—and discussing “Lacuna.”

“Alice gave us a location. Madagascar.” Carlisle was thumbing through his notes, having given us a rundown of what he speculated was going on: some sort of magical biomass, likely with a horde of technology infused into it. As for the pilots, his hypothesis on how they were trained to integrate with the biomechanical monsters was so disturbing that I stopped reading one sentence in. How could anyone, let alone Poppy, voluntarily allow just the experiments, let alone working prototypes?

“What do we do?” Shade’s words put all eyes on me, and I scowled around the cigarette.

“My instinct is to investigate. However, it’s likely protected by a myriad of magic, guns, and walls—not to mention jungle. If our ship so much as strays within a heading towards it I imagine we’d get a phone call. Though, we don’t currently have orders—I could set a course for Cape Town, to dock and resupply, awaiting them. That would put us close enough for a night mission, I reckon.” Shade nodded, as did Edward, though Carlisle still looked uncertain.

“If… If I am correct in my theory, and we discover proof, what will you do?” My face hardened, and I looked him squarely in the eye.

“I’ll discuss with the crew, and, democracy willing, we will become actual pirates. Though, saving the planet takes precedence, I will say.” He bowed his head, mouthing the words to a prayer, and I glanced over at Edward, who nodded reassuringly. Once the prayer was complete, Carlisle spoke again.

“Is there a magical contract binding you to ‘Light’ magic?” Finishing the cigarette, I withdrew another and lit it for Shade.

“No, I just didn’t study Dark Magic. Think of it like getting a doctorate in English, as opposed to Physics. I suppose, with enough time I could learn all disciplines of magic—but time isn’t something we have much of at the moment.” He nodded, the four of us lapsing into silence, broken only by the faint rustling of wind against the sails.

Poppy

Finally, finally, we’d been given approval to go after the leaders of the Volturi. They’d invaded and slaughtered almost the entirety of the Mediterranean coastline in a single night, prompting the UN and SHIELD to authorize my squad’s involvement. Admittedly, this was slightly personal; they’d been behind the attack that turned my sister, after all, and after a brief discussion, both the bots and humans would be left at Highburn, the former to avoid raising suspicion and the other for their safety. Due to their connection to the Cullens aboard Penny’s ship, I put Alice and Jasper on leave, taking only deities to the small town of Volterra—more precisely, about five miles outside it, as satellite imagery had revealed a heavily fortified city in addition to the ancient castle.

“We’ll camp out tonight, under a few protection spells, then make our move in the morning.” The four of us present (Thor, Bast, Siobhan, and myself) made camp behind a larger hill, in a copse of trees. None of us would sleep, and a fire would only attract attention, so once the extensive framework of hiding and disguising spells was up, the four of us sat together, sharing pipes and drinks from flasks as the sun began to set.

“If it really is entirely a fortification, we’ll likely have to fight our way in from the start.” Siobhan was polishing the blade of her glaive, humming thoughtfully between puffs of her pipe.

“If we have to split up, one witch should be in each group. Slash and burn, eh?” I smiled humorlessly, Thor also polishing his hammer, while Bast shared my pipe. Annabel appeared in front of us, descending in the black smoke of the Death Eaters and sitting cross-legged on the ground, pipe out.

“What brings you to our little campsite?” She smirked, withdrawing a slip of paper, bearing a list of unit designations, with a number beside each.

“Figured this would best be done by hand.” I nodded, scanning the entries as a tentacle withdrew a Self-Inking Quill. I circled two, scribbled several notes, and blew on the parchment lightly before folding it and returning it to Annabel, who vanished in much the same way she’d appeared after a short bow.

Penny

“Everyone either saw it, or has been informed by someone else, I presume?” The crew and Cullens, all assembled on the main deck, nodded in unison.

“From Doctor Cullen’s speculation, and a prophetic vision from Alice, we are aware of the location this “Lacuna” program resides in. I am proposing that we set a course for Cape Town; then while in port there, a clandestine team goes under cover of darkness to investigate the facility.” I left it open-ended, no one speaking for several tense seconds until one of the 128 operators cleared his throat.

“I want to know what’s going on. Don’t much like what I saw.” A large portion of the group seemed to be in agreement, most others more afraid than curious, and a vote was called, to which the majority was in favor. After notifying Highburn about our destination—and receiving approval—an uneasy silence settled over the ship, like a thick, invisible fog—somehow undetectable, yet there. In contrast to our somber attitudes, the water remained calm, wind agreeable; almost as if the sea itself was shepherding us towards Cape Town, then Madagascar. While we sailed, I spent most of the journey going over print-outs of maps, covering the coastline that ran alongside the island and the island itself; from the estimations, a team of vampires would have no trouble slipping out of town, investigating the island, and returning before dawn. Hopefully, I’d gotten a bit of Poppy’s luck as well, and found myself alone in the captain’s cabin, kneading my forehead. I smelled Shade approaching the door before she knocked, and lazily flicked my wand to swing it open, her hand half-raised.

“I smelled you. Is something going on?” She shook her head, entering and shutting the door behind her.

“Doctor Cullen asked me to bring you your… meal, since he assumed you’d want to have a working lunch.” Leaning forward, she set down my ration of blood on the desk, before sitting across from me. As politely as I could, I drank it down, unable to prevent a slightly feral noise from escaping as I finished it. After wiping my face, I smiled at Shade, who visibly recoiled.

“What? What is it?” Before I could hex everything in sight, she waved her hand quickly.

“Your teeth have… blood on them.” If I could’ve blushed I would’ve, quickly spraying water into my teeth from my wand until she was satisfied.

“Sorry about that. So, uh—if the weather stays like it is, we should get to Cape Town in a few days.” She raised an eyebrow, and I cringed slightly into my chair, unsure of what to say.

“Do we have enough time for me to undergo the transformation before we arrive? Self-discipline has never been an issue for me.” It was my eyebrow’s turn to climb, and I leaned forward, putting my elbows onto the desk between us.

“Would you mind telling me why? As in, why so suddenly?” She paled, and rolled her eyes, though there was a distinct fear in them that didn’t go unnoticed.

“This Lacuna business. If even half of what Cullen hypothesized is true, those things are a danger to all life. Not to mention the interplanetary war we’re fighting at the moment. Any advantage that also prolongs my life is a plus.”

Poppy

After getting closer, within range of my magic eye, I scowled.

“Of course. Anyone need time to put their armor on?” Both Thor and Bast did, while I simply turned into metal and Siobhan twirled her wand over her head, clothes shifting into a light, glassy-blue set of armor.

“Remember, we’re trying to limit the damage to the city itself. No polluting the atmosphere or nuclear magic; think of it as a test in combat prowess, eh?” I puffed a cloud of smoke from my pipe, sword rising up out of my cloak to rest in my hand as we walked out onto the road leading to Volterra, the first rays of morning sun greeting us. Examining the scenic countryside of rolling hills, patches of trees and bushes, Thor hummed to himself.

“An idyllic land, for such evil creatures.” No one replied, and a grim silence fell among us, spreading out in an intangible wave that caused every bird, bug, and bigger animal to cease chirping and barking; even the wind stalled, the only sound our boots on the road. As we reached the long shadow of the city’s wall, a hailstorm spun up around us, as well as a spraying mist of acidic rain that, hilariously, bounced off of my metal skin without a scratch.

“Attack at will!” Thor charged forward, surging past me and making a beeline for the massive, ancient-looking oak doors, rearing back and heaving Mjolnir at them; with an explosion of splinters and chunks of wood, they burst inward, hammer jumping back to Thor’s hand as he gestured for us.

“Please, maidens first.” Again, I was tempted to restart our duel, instead taking my sword and channeling a bolt of lightning through it, down the street we were entering—frying six or seven vampires where they stood; apparently, whatever substance their body became after turning was highly conductive, as well as combustible. Filing that information away safely, I darted forward and slashed through two mutants, Thor jumping to the roof of a nearby building to dismantle a Decepticon laser cannon. Bast had darted off down a side-street, much more suited for close-quarters combat in such a tight space; Siobhan leapt over a cloud of noxious-smelling gas that a mutant belched at her, flipping in midair to bisect the woman’s head with her glaive as she went, landing gracefully a few feet from me as the mutant fell. Before I could blink, four vampires darted towards me, little more than blurs—thankfully, my sword dragged me sideways, giving my human brain enough time to react—and I ducked low, continuing the spin and cutting two in half at the waist. Siobhan threw her glaive like a spear, somehow impaling both of the remaining vampires around us, and I quickly decapitated all four as she joined me.

“S’pose it makes some sense. They’re solitary hunters, eh?” I shrugged, looking at the broken remains (which Bast would collect to be burned in the central square) with slight distaste.

“Let’s get this over with.” Door to door, house to house, the four of us went, Bast and Siobhan splitting off as Thor rejoined me. Thankfully, there weren’t any civilians we could find, though Thor received a nasty shard of ice to the eye, which took several minutes for me to mend. Given our supernatural abilities, the only ones who could truly threaten us were the vampires; the mutants were human, after all. Thor was fond of kicking in doors, and we made steady progress while keeping a tally of our individual kills—I was ahead of Thor by ten as we met back up with Siobhan and Bast, in the central square. They’d already begun collecting the broken shards of defeated vampires, and I left both there while Thor and I pressed forward; time was of the essence, and we needed to leave no trace other than the magic. The door to the stone citadel resisted Mjolnir twice, to the point that even Thor turned to me, defeated. After a few seconds of thought, I beckoned him out of the way, and ran the finger of a dead mutant along the length of my blade, coating it in blood. Next, I raised the sword above my head, vertical and parallel with the doors, and with a shout, swung it straight downwards. A rumble struck the ground around us as a line of clear force blasted through the doors, blowing them back in much the same way Thor had, though with several times the force. Behind the broken-in doors we spied several vampires scrambling backwards, and with a shout I charged after them, Thor following behind me, loosing a mad cackle as we rejoined the fray.

Penny

After consulting with Carlisle, it was determined that waiting until we were sailing out of Cape Town to turn Shade was the better option, and after another three days of sailing (during which time the raiding party was selected, and I did my best to try and anticipate any sort of magical defenses we’d be running up against) we were inbound to port. As the only magic-user aboard, and nowhere near as learned as Poppy, I could only hope we could get in and out quick enough. The Popelia took a southern swing before angling towards Cape Town, the six raiders jumping off the side just out of sight of the town and swimming quickly, underwater, along the coast to the east. Each of us had memorized the maps, as well as a rough estimate of where the site was located, team comprised of myself, Edward, two gunners, a lookout, and Rosalie Hale; all either had experience with infiltrations or skills that could assist us, and from beneath the waves we were able to watch the sun setting, casting fiery waves of color across the sky and refracting down into the depths like a cathedral of stained glass. The rifle was securely aboard the ship, leaving me just my limited ability with combat magic, and as we surfaced on the southern tip of the island I missed the familiar weight on my back. No words were spoken, the group splitting into three sets of two, Edward and Rosalie heading up the center while the other two swept along the coast—he’d be able to read the thoughts of either group—and the silent operation shifted. I didn’t dare cast magic until I had to, the energy likely to trip a ward or charm and bring the island down on us, and it was Edward and Rosalie who spied the facility, in a small valley ringed by trees that hadn’t appeared on any satellite images we could find. Linking back up at a safe distance, we reviewed our options carefully. Any sort of assault was out of the question, given the several layers of concrete barricades, barbed wire, assault turrets, and roaming guards, so I pulled out my wand to try a spell that might slip past any warding. It was simple Light Magic that revealed ambient sources of energy, magical or otherwise, and would likely give me a better idea of the layout of the facility. Behind a tree, I held my wand upright, in front of my face, and lightly breathed across the tip, a small whisp of silvery light puffing out and settling on the ground around me. A moment later, I was nearly deafened by a wave of deep, heavy noise that assaulted my ears, vampire senses able to locate it far below the visible surface level, and I ended the spell quickly, wincing slightly.

“It’s below-ground. I can Apparate us, but it’ll be tricky as I’m navigating off of sound alone.” Edward shot me a dubious look, having read my mind, but nonetheless reached out to grasp a finger on my free hand, as the other four did the same. With a loud crack, we were transported directly down, emerging in the center of a large, warehouse-like room about ten feet in the air. Each of us landed gracefully, before freezing as we registered our surroundings.

Scattered around us in various states of disassembly were the creatures we’d seen in New York, floating clouds of bloody flesh congealing around solid steel plating; up close, I could see that where the metal met flesh, thousands of hair-thin needles stabbed into it, some flickering with electricity, others spewing out liquids of various colors and consistencies that spread mottled patches of necrotic flesh out, which were rapidly reforming at a rate just enough to hold whatever it was back; the congealed liquid was collected at the bottom of each cloud, piped off to Merlin-knows-where. Now that I could see it up close, my dead heart sank as I realized what Poppy had done: she’d created life with no soul. The squirming and squelching masses of flesh around us were grown with complex, powerful Dark Magic—bad enough in of itself—but the fact that she’d seemingly chosen not to give them the ‘spark of life,’ as I’d received it just fine, was tantamount to creating a Horcrux, in magical culture. In obscure sections of magical philosophy, the body is considered the vessel for the soul; the logical conclusion is that an empty vessel is merely waiting to be filled, and history is scattered with the consequences of a vessel suddenly filling itself—though nothing had ever been attempted on this scale. The blood itself smelled dirty, almost like even my thirst wanted nothing to do with it (magic pollutes blood, especially Dark Magic), and one of the gunners quietly motioned to me from atop one of the other robots, face grim. Nonchalantly (the others were converging around a terminal, where Rosalie was attempting to download as many files as possible) joining him, I saw that the top held a hatch—this one’s was open, and I squatted down to peer inside before going completely still, in shock at what I saw. Inside a hot, smoky sphere of metal slick with fluid, atop a specially-designed seat, was the separated pieces of a person, head, arms, legs, and torso all suspended in place and connected by hundreds of tubes, wires, and spears, impaling each limb or part and holding it in place, an almost syrupy blood oozing from each wound. Worst of all, when I focused on the head, I realized the skull cap had been removed, brain fully exposed beneath a glossy plastic cover and filled with similar metal needles to those that connected metal and flesh; the eyes were replaced with a series of cables, and despite the horrific, terrible sight before me, it’s expression was nothing short of rapturous. Two seconds later, Edward was beside me, jaw slack and eyes wide as he stared down into the sphere. If I was still able to vomit, I would’ve, instead stuck with an icy churning in my stomach that made my teeth clench on instinct.

“Files are downloaded.” I nodded once, and stood, jaw still tight, and the three of us jumped down from the hatch, meeting up with the others to Disapparate, but as I turned on the spot, dread sank into my chest. We hadn’t moved, which meant a Disapparation Jinx had been cast. Thinking quickly, I snatched a pen from a nearby table, instructing all five of them to grip it before making it a Portkey to the ship (the spell to block Portus takes two minutes to cast, so I knew I’d have time), and as I went to place a finger on it, a thud accompanied by a sharp pain in my shoulder yanked me backwards, turning to see a spike on the end of a chain embedded in my shoulder, which puffed into dark smoke as I met the eyes of Annabel, clad in all black with an unreadable expression on her face.

“Come to find answers, for New York?” I scowled, wand by my side but ready.

“This is a crime against magic, Annabel. Creating a vessel without a soul… you’ve made magical bombs big enough to destroy this entire planet.” She scowled back, glaring at me, wand also at her side.

“This is beyond your rank. You’re only alive now because of who you are, understand?” She flicked her wand, not at me, and continued.

“Leave. If I ever find you digging around here again, not even Poppy will be able to save you. I’ve always wanted to experiment with vampires…” Her voice gained a thoughtful tone, and I Disapparated, arriving on the ship just as it cast off. My shoulder was already healing, and I convened with Edward and the gunner, Jack, in my cabin. No one spoke, though when Edward rose I knew it was to get Carlisle and the rest of the raiders, as I’d asked him to mentally. With the requested vampires came Shade and Esme, who refused to leave Carlisle despite several warnings. First, Edward recounted what the three of us had seen, eliciting several gasps—at which point I opened up both the liquor reserves and a few pounds of the… herbs we’d recovered, a think miasma of smoke from cigarettes and spliffs soon hanging along the ceiling. Most of us went for Firewhiskey or rum, Rosalie beginning the process of sifting through the files she’d extracted; not like it made much difference to me.

Poppy

I didn’t like the Volturi’s castle; too old for my tastes. Though, it seemed fitting, given the positively ancient vampires standing before Thor and I.

“You turned my sister. That is unforgivable.” Just then, Annabel appeared beside us with a loud crack that split the stone beneath her, eyes wild. Thor charged forward, though only one strode forward to fight, a blond that held his own quite formidably, even without a weapon.

“Penny saw Lacuna. All of it.” Time slowed to a crawl, even the blurred strikes of the blond now laughably sluggish, my eyes widening as a cascade of images, sights, and sounds overcame me—I was having a vision, the first in years—and a thunderbolt of pain struck my head, forcing me to my knees and bubbling up a shriek of pure pain that cracked the floor beneath me in two. What is this? A blinding light blocked out my vision, and I fell fully, crumpling onto my back and writhing, trying with all of my might to escape what felt like a molten hot nail being hammered into my head. My heart began beating faster, faster, until I thought it was going to explode in my chest—what’s happening? Am I dying?—until the light and pain vanished, suddenly and completely, leaving a cold… emptiness that I… My phone had gotten a notification from Siobhan--she'd stepped away after breaking inside to handle a series of incoming reports--that Britannia was under attack, and that the Ministry had been destroyed. Had it… Surely, surely this…

“Hermione?” I reached out, up towards the ceiling; light was filtering down through a small square in the dome, setting particles of dust alight with a spectral fire that nearly blinded me again. I was… alone.

Penny

“There’s something else here, in the files for Lacuna. Another secure facility, I mean, in Antarctica. ‘Project Abacus.’” Rosalie glanced up from the computer screen, face bathed in dim light. It had been radio silence since our escape from Lacuna, and I scowled.

“We’ll go there next, then. Every second those things exist is another opportunity for the world to end. Damn the aliens, of course we’d be our own executioners.” Just what in the bloody hell was going on? I couldn’t trust Poppy, not with the knowledge of what she’d done, but I couldn’t just sit out a war for the planet like a child throwing a tantrum. I finished my cigarette, Shade offering a freshly-rolled spliff.

“Antarctica, then. Find Abacus, and if we can, find a way to win the war without those things. Whether Poppy wants it, or not.” Edward nodded, and Shade leaned over my shoulder.

“Is now a good time, skipper?” I scowled, and glanced up at her, expression stormy.

“Fine! Here’s the new plan: everyone on this ship that wants to be a vampire gets turned. We storm Antarctica, butcher whatever we find, and burn the Decepticons out of the sky. You want to do this, then let’s go all the way, right?” My voice was rising steadily, frustration overriding my shock and reason momentarily; Shade was more than happy to match me.

“If you don’t have the guts to do it, I’ll find someone else! This isn’t some happy-go-lucky magical tale where the good guys win, and I want to survive, Penny. What would you do if I got killed in Antarctica, as a human?” A clap of thunder shook the boat, punctuated by three knocks at the door. Seething, I flicked my wand a tad bit harshly, snapping the door open to reveal a man wearing gold-trimmed robes, with jaw-length black hair and a slightly weasel-y face.

“Who the hell are you?!” He stepped in, almost morose, and clasped his hands in front of him, head bowed.

“I am Loki, of Asgard. I would like to speak to you, Madam Prott.” This time, when my jaw clenched, several teeth cracked, and I withdrew another cigarette before gesturing to an open chair as calmly as I could.

“You’ve caught me at a… stressful moment. Tell me, why should I let you leave this room alive?” A brief flicker of indignance crossed his face, but his shoulders slumped after a moment.

“I wish to join forces with the people of Earth; I cannot continue to serve Thanos and that machine creature your kind call Megatron. The atrocities…” His voice trailed off, pale face growing paler as his eyes glazed over. I sighed, taking a long drink of Firewhiskey before responding.

“The feelings are mutual. I am not the one to speak to about that, however; go find Fury or Poppy. I’m just a sailor.” The slight edge to my tone was enough to persuade him, and he rose, shooting a mournful look over his shoulder as he left. Once another thunderclap struck, I kneaded my forehead, thoroughly exhausted and angry; my voice was much weaker when I spoke.

“I can turn you, Shade. I’d advise either of the other humans aboard to do the same—it’s going to be cold at our next port of call.”

Chapter 8: Hey, Jude

Chapter Text

Penny

After some discussion, it was decided that Carlisle would take venom from the vampires (Judie and myself) to inject Bella and Shade with; it was an easier process to biting, and less likely to send anyone into a frenzy. Unfortunately, the venom was injected directly into the chest, meaning both Judie and I nearly killed Carlisle when he withdrew the massive needle, having to be held back by several sailors each until both doses had been administered. Rowan had opted not to, prompting Esme to begin sewing together several of the extra heavy coats for him to wear, and as Carlisle monitored the two turning humans, I stalked across the deck, turning to glare ahead of us at the approaching ice sheets, then back to stare at where Cape Town had been on the horizon. The crew was tense, most gunners remaining at their stations and keeping a grim watch on the sea around us; the deathly stillness still pervaded the ship, though I could sense a slight tinge of hope as we sailed toward Antarctica: possibility. Rosalie was still working to crack the full Project Abacus database, but several revelations had caused us to re-evaluate our initial idea of massacre. Namely, the discovery of schematics for an inter-planetary warship designed for self-sustained voyages through space, an attempt from SHIELD to meet the inter-planetary threat of the Decepticons. If Abacus was a spaceship, it could be our way off the planet and away from Lacuna; if that meant keeping a few prisoners of war as… cattle, then so be it. A few pints of blood in exchange for safety is a wonderful deal, at least according to Edward. As I stood at the wheel, watching the ice around us slowly growing more uniform, the lookout spotted land several miles away, and more importantly: a SHIELD base. Despite the requests of several crewmen, I refused to sanction a mass-butchering of the isolated base’s residents, pushing the ship through the ice until we were close enough for them to spot us. A flare went up, which I responded to with a jet of light from my wand, and disembarked alone, crossing the ice with only my wand and a copy of the information Rosalie had downloaded about Lacuna. I was met by three men with guns, two younger while the third was much older, patches of gray streaking through his black hair—he was chewing a cigar hard enough to break steel at my appearance.

“Captain Penny Prott, of the HMS Popelia. I have something I need to show you.”

Once I wasn’t attacked on sight, Rosalie and Emmett joined us, one for tech skill and the other for protection. I gave quite possibly the most horrifying presentation in the history of humanity, several trash cans being distributed through the small mess hall as photographs of the pulsing masses and descriptions of experiments were shown. At the end, I concluded with my hands clasped behind my back, looking out at the crowd of assembled soldiers and scientists.

“Among these files were the ones that led us here. Project Abacus. I’m sure you can see the logical conclusion.” Escape. Whatever monstrosity was on the horizon, the entire planet was at stake, and I wasn’t as self-righteous as Poppy to stay and die when I had the chance to live. Judging by both my crew at our first vote, and the human faces assembled in front of me, the sentiment was shared. The older man, Sergeant Davies, raised a hand (to my surprise).

“I see your reasoning; I’m sure the rest of the folks here do, as well. My only concern is… well, vampires need blood to survive.” I nodded, having expected this, and raised my hands in surrender.

“It would be entirely optional. The technology exists to clone organic matter, so I imagine we could find a way; it would mostly be similar to blood donation if you chose to do so. Doctor Cullen is the finest physician I’ve ever met, rest assured.” The assurance we weren’t going to kill them all worked wonders, and the three of us vampires stepped outside to let them deliberate—I took the opportunity to light a cigarette, despite Emmett’s complaints—Rosalie kicking a loose stone several hundred yards down the slope.

“What we are doing is cowardly, you understand that, right?” I nodded grimly.

“If you’re hung-up morally, consider this: we’re also taking a figurative Noah’s Ark of humans and vampires up into space. If the planet goes, at least there’ll be something left to rebuild somewhere else.” She sighed, staring out at the bleak, frozen landscape around us.

“What happened to her? To any of them, to make them turn out like this.” Shooting her a wry grin, I puffed my smoke before stamping it out under my boot.

“Most of it was before me; I’m only eight years old, you know.” Leaving both of them flabbergasted, I turned to greet Davies, who had replaced the torn-up cigar with a fresh one.

“You got some way of making a magic promise? That we won’t be, y’know, cattle?” Chortling, I nodded and withdrew my wand, Summoning a sheet of parchment and quill that began scribbling out the terms.

“Again, we want to work together as much as you do. This contract essentially states that any murder, whether among one group or against the other, results in execution of the offender as well. That should keep it from getting out of hand, eh?” With a flourish, the quill finished writing, and floated over to him, parchment rotating in midair to face him. As he read, I lit another cigarette, warmth slightly soothing in my chest, however small. By the time half had burned down, Davies finished reading and signed it. With a spark of light, the parchment lit on fire and burnt up into the wind.

“Then, I suppose, would your crew like to disembark? My techies report that it’ll be a few days before launch is possible, and it’ll be more comfortable on dry land, I imagine.”

Poppy

With a brutal churning in my stomach and stabs of pain in my eyes, I jerked upright at the sound of someone pounding on my door.

“F-f*ck off, that’s an order!” digging around in my coat, splayed out on the bed next to me, and finding my flask to be empty, I scowled thunderously and stood. My own legs weren’t complying with my commands, so the tentacles emerged to lift me up and gently carry me to the door, where the pounding hadn’t stopped. With a pneumatic hiss, the door opened to reveal Natasha, eyes wild.

“What.” Her words caught in her mouth, eyes darting over me quickly, and I glanced down to see I was wearing a torn button-down, no trousers, and was covered in liquor and suspicious black stains.

SPEAK!” She jumped back, stammering out a coherent sentence under my threatening glare.

“You-You’ve been absent for several days. Director Fury asked—” Under my stare, her hair turned white, and she stopped mid-sentence with a squeak.

“I will resume my duties in exactly one hour. Thank you for notifying me.” Before she could squeak again, I swept back into my rooms, slowly cleaning myself up and putting on unripped clothes.

Penny

With an entire ship’s crew crammed into the SHIELD outpost in addition to it’s usual garrison, space became incredibly cramped during the final preparations of Abacus. In fact, most of the vampires spent the nights out in the wilderness, enjoying the pollution-free sky with their enhanced sight; I found Shade the first night after we’d arrived, standing on the beach with a cigarette.

“How’re you feeling?” She lifted a shoulder, puffing out a ring of smoke and gazing at it for a moment.

“Almost like… the ghost of the pain is still there. It doesn’t hurt, but I remember it so vividly I trick myself into feeling it again.” I nodded, and lit my own cigarette, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with her, facing the ocean.

“Lucky we ended up vampires before coming to Antarctica, eh?” Despite her slightly grim expression, she snorted, finishing her cigarette and gazing down at it curiously, other hand rising in a similar fashion to when she’d put one out on my palm. As carefully as I could, I shot my hand in between hers, smirking at the stinging burn (and her eye-roll).

“It’s the Prott family motto, you know. ‘Better me, than you.’” Shaking her head, she slipped fingers between mine, comfortably holding my hand for the first time. The warmth was noticeably absent now, but there was familiarity in both our chilled forms; a weight lifted from me knowing I didn’t need to worry about hurting her just by tapping her shoulder.

“Are we cowards?” My sigh was response enough, but I elaborated as she lightly squeezed my hand.

“Yes and no. We’re running away, yes, but there’s a high likelihood Lacuna will destroy Earth, so taking both humans and vampires off-planet would ensure our continued existence. It would also be beneficial in order to combat another New York incident.” We lapsed into silence, hands intertwined, and gazed out at the icy ocean, both deep in thought.

After a while, Shade went back inside, leaving me alone in the harsh, freezing wilderness. Deciding to move out a little further, I walked to the edge of the water, just out of range of the lapping waves, and lit another cigarette. The moon was steadily rising, casting strange waves and shapes of light across the surface of the ocean, filling me with a strange, auspicious air.

“Peaceful, isn’t it?” I hadn’t noticed anyone approaching, but remained calm, flicking my gaze further down the beach and spying someone I had desperately been hoping to avoid.

“Calming, even. Should’ve expected you, what with the sailing.” Siobhan Ollivander, who was standing at the edge of the water around twenty feet away, shrugged listlessly, still staring out at the moon.

“That would be succinct, wouldn’t it. Would you walk a ways, with me?” Regardless of the situation, it was never a good idea to turn down a request from a god, so I nodded, falling into a leisurely walk with her along the shoreline.

“May I be honest with you? Truth is something I give rarely; even moreso as time continues.” I shrugged, glancing up at the stars.

“Assuming you’ve guessed our plans, you’re here to stop or kill us? On her orders, I bet.” Siobhan sighed, looking down at her bare feet.

“Quite the contrary. The truth I speak to you has never been known or uttered by anyone other than I. You will take it to what lies beyond the afterlife.” At that, she stopped, turning to face me—still looking down somewhat somberly.

“I am not, nor have ever been the goddess of the sea. I lied, all those years ago, and I am very glad to have done so, for otherwise I doubt I would survive what is to come.” I was unable to stop my jaw from dropping, a dead, deep silence surrounding us as I stared at her.

“When each of us, fledgling gods, decided which domains we would oversee, all but two spoke the truth aloud. Myself… and Annabel. I claimed the sea, but in truth my ascension was to time itself, not this great expanse of water. The rest of the deception involved only thaumaturgical and occasional Transfiguration magic. Of note, there were three that chose something greater than elemental or knowledge itself: Myself, time; Poppy, death; and Annabel, the abyss.” A chill wind, even for my vampire indifference, rolled across the shore, moon slightly obscured by a passing cloud on the horizon.

“All were clever in their own right, but by far was Poppy the cleverest, for what could she fear if she herself was Death?” Her tone was closer to telling a children’s story, but a growing horror was filling me as more and more information was revealed.

“And Annabel, the strongest, for who else could stand the lure of such emptiness? Finally, there was Siobhan, the eldest, for whom else exists before and after?” The moon emerged from the clouds, like a massive eye staring down at me, and I shuddered.

“Don’t worry. Draco doesn’t tell secrets. The witches three, not what they claimed to be, each fell prey to the lures they seized. Already I have lived thousands of years, seen civilizations rise and fall, all to understand as much as I possibly could. And yet, I find myself disturbed the most by what occurs now.” Finishing my cigarette, I flicked it onto the shore and lit another, guessing the answer darkly.

“Lacuna.” Her somber expression deepened, nodding with another look out at the moon.

“It is no small thing what your sister has done. My great-uncle was fond of the expression, ‘terrible, but great.’ While you know some, from my cursory glance at your findings, the entire picture is not yet drawn. I walked each step of her life, thrice, in attempts to understand. Plumbed the same depths, watched each choice and consequence, each draw of fate and line of history. Lacuna, made of the flesh of death, is the gap between ascension and destruction. An oblivion of everything, the grand crucible, what thousands of alchemists and philosophers have theorized as the beginning or end of this world. Her flesh contains something ancient, terrible, the first horror and the final terror. I stood on the rocky cliffs of Terra and watched, as it impacted the planet. As it seeped into the cracks of the infant planet, worming it’s way into the very destiny of the cosmos. Though she knows it is terrible, the vilest of the vile, she does not fully understand. Those creatures, constructed using her flesh and the magic of oblivion, are the vessels for the Old One to wreak annihilation upon Earth.” My mind was reeling, trying to piece together the torrent of knowledge Siobhan was granting me and almost immediately short-circuiting.

“I know this. Either they must be stopped, or this planet is left to die. These robots and petty human squabbles are nuisances, distractions.” She gazed out across the waves again, seeming to age rapidly in the dim moonlight.

“Your plan is one I approve of, though I would request a favor, for one in return.” My eyebrow rose slightly. A favor from the goddess of time sounded like the best possible deal I could make.

“What is it?” Smiling slightly, she held out a hand, glancing at the moon a final time.

“I would like to add a few passengers to your ship. Don’t worry, it won’t take too much time.” With a wink, she snapped her fingers, causing us to vanish into a ripple of space itself.

Instead of emerging in a mystical witch’s tower or end of the universe, I found myself standing in Knockturn Alley, a place I’d rarely been to before. It was strangely quiet, street empty, and when I glanced up I saw why: the crows above were frozen mid-flight, clouds even higher just as still in their movement.

“Look, there.” I followed her finger, reading the name of a dingy bar aloud.

“Devil’s End. Looks like a standard dive.” She sighed, and led the way, stepping into the small room, which was empty save a lone woman at the bar, wiping down the countertop.

“Near closin’, can a get ya something?” Siobhan tilted her head to me, and I sat at the bar, withdrawing a few Galleons.

“Firewhiskey, double. ‘Preciate it.” The woman, a bit of a hunched-back and warty nose type, withdrew a glass and bottle, filling it silently and snagging the gold before resuming cleaning. Siobhan sat next to me, and as the woman’s face was turning back to move, everything inside froze as well.

“This is your mother. She was killed when Poppy was young, the same night as her father. You-Know-Who’s revenge for her first year. I thought you might like to see her, at least once.” I glanced back, amazed, and studied her face, noting the similarities and differences between us.

“I’d barely even thought about her, to be honest. Won’t she recognize me?” She rolled her eyes, and gestured over the lip of the bar, to where the woman’s clearly pregnant stomach was paused, mid turn.

“Not until she sees her daughter for the last time. Poppy hasn’t been born yet.” I slugged back my drink, time resuming as I set it back on the bar, thanking her quietly and leaving. Siobhan led me further into the frozen Knockturn Alley, taking turns and side-passageways seemingly at random until we arrived at an even smaller corridor, holding a few ramshackle buildings—one of which still had a faint, flickering light inside.

“I’ll be just a moment. All I needed was your permission for the additional passengers. Don’t worry, the day of liftoff I’ll have explained it to them and everyone else.” She vanished inside, staying for a long while, after which the candle was extinguished, and she returned.

“Now what?” Siobhan smiled, taking my hand again and stepping into another ripple, this time emerging back onto the Antarctic beach, though at a completely different section, atop a sheer ice-cliff of a glacier edge that stretched hundreds of feet to the water below.

“I, unlike my sister, am not afraid of heights.” She snorted, withdrawing a pipe and lighting it before sitting on the edge of the cliff.

“I now have a difficult question to ask of you. This is what my favor is in exchange for. Would you remain, here on Earth? I seek to kill them both, and avert the planet’s destruction, or die in the trying. This ‘Abacus’ can still fly, and must, but I would only ask you remain here, and we attempt to stop them together. I fear I am unable to do it alone.” After a moment, I sat beside her, accepting her pipe and joining her gaze out at the world.

“Shortsightedness is the fatal flaw of many of us, despite what we may attempt to convince you of. In her search for knowledge, Poppy has lost herself to it. The death of Hermione has only quickened the collapse. She must be stopped, at any and all cost.” I blew a cloud out, scowling.

“We’re talking about the actual goddess of death. I am just a vampire witch, and a copy of her. How can we be sure she wouldn’t just undo the spell that brought me to life once I show up to do the deed?” Siobhan met my eyes for the first time, flashes of countless histories, wars, and people running through them.

“I will take you as my follower, and grant you the power you need to accomplish this task. As I am divinity, I can act as your patron in terms of sorcery. All it requires is something given to me, in exchange.” A heavy weight settled onto me, causing my shoulders to sag slightly as I pondered an impossible, yet obvious choice.

“What sort of thing, in exchange?” Her eyes sank back slightly, shadows suffusing her face as the moon was entirely blocked by the encroaching clouds, casting the blasted, snowy ice around us into near-utter darkness.

“Some have bandied their souls. Others, their eyes, or their memory. A significance, both personal and magical.” I looked back down, watching the waves slap against the ice, far below.

“Do you know if Abacus will work?” She shrugged.

“There is a point, approaching, that I cannot see into. An inflection, so to say. A choice is to be made, but until it is, I cannot know the outcome. It occurs here, though, so my presumption is any fleeing ship would have a higher odds of success.” I nodded in return, giving her the pipe back and steepling my hands.

“In exchange for your patronage, gift, and power, I give you my name, Penelope Prott.” A wave of thunder roiled out around us, blasting the snow off of the ice in a three-hundred foot radius and burning hundreds of thousands of runes into the ice, which began steaming violently. Siobhan’s eyes were wide, a dim glow suffusing her features, and she placed a hand on the side of my icy face, a tinge of sadness in her face.

“In return, you are my follower, both in life and in death. May your boon reflect the measure of your gift.” The light began drifting along her body, down her arm, and into my face, slowly filling me and refracting off of my vampiric skin into a brilliant kaleidoscope of light. Simultaneously, a wave of knowledge—and power­—rushed into me; thousands of spells, memories of grand battles and silent assassinations across the entirety of history. I watched Flamel invent the Sorceror’s Stone, Herpo the Foul create the first Horcrux, and millions more of Earth’s wisest and most brilliant minds, expanding the breadth and depth of human history and even some that lived before. Alongside this knowledge came the understanding that I could cast any of these spells, knowing both how and that I now was possessed with the power of a god, strengthened exponentially by my exchange. A name is the most powerful piece of magic, and in return I felt myself overcome with possibility and potential. Siobhan stood, and I knelt, after a moment feeling the tip of a blade touch both of my shoulders.

“Rise, my chosen.” I did so, seeing the same grim determination I held reflected in her face.

“I grant you a blade, that can serve as a dagger in shadow, a sword upon the battlefield, and a staff to guide your travels. Elkir, the first blade of death.” In her hands, presumably what she’d knighted me with, was a black, warped blade, one side jagged and shattered while the other was honed finer than possible, even with magic. It was the length of a longsword, but I assumed it could change size according to her description, and accepted it reverently.

“I name you my Knight, and may you go forth and accomplish this task. I also will allow you to choose a new name for yourself, with which to forge your destiny anew.” Once I’d belted it to my waist, I bowed again, hands over my chest.

“Jude.” She smiled, clasping me by the shoulders.

“Saint Jude, I believe in you. Good luck on your quest, and know that I will always be with you.” With that, she vanished into another ripple, leaving me to find my own way back to the base, to deliver the news.

Poppy

Seventeen bots were dead by my hand, and I still didn’t feel any better. My sword was coated in Fiend Fyre, sending crackling shadows across the Parisian countryside the squad was fighting in. They had been laying siege to Paris for several weeks, and our arrival was meant to help turn the tide. Thor was regularly calling down bolts of lightning, dancing an insane duet with Bast through lines of human fighters, spraying clouds of blood and viscera as their decimated the attacking ranks. A thundering, persistent roar of gunfire and explosions rattled a gentle rhythm into my head, and I vaulted from Prime’s outstretched hand, soaring through the air and impaling another Decepticon, beginning the dismantling process all over again.

Jude

When I arrived back at the base, I was slightly surprised to find it completely empty. A cursory check revealed that Siobhan had moved us to the day of the launch, meaning they’d already left, likely with her explanation of what was happening. Thankfully, the ship remained, and after scavenging a few bottles of liquor and cigarettes from the base, I climbed aboard. It felt strange to be the lone member of the crew, a slight wistfulness for what once was filling me as I waved my wand, using magic to begin undocking. I was headed north, for better or for worse, to first kill Annabel, then my sister. With a lit cigarette and open bottle of rum, I steered the ship towards the sea and wondered if I really was a saint, or just a damn lucky pirate.

Chapter 9: An Unlikely Detour

Chapter Text

Jude

As quiet as it was, Nox was more than happy to chat my ear off to fill the silence. I managed to teach her a few of the shanties, and we sang the days away, me keeping a watchful eye for when she tried to sneak a beak full of rum. There were a few bags of blood left belowdecks, enough to get me to Madagascar, though I wasn’t entirely sure if I had enough alcohol. Elkir gleamed in the sunlight, made of a strange onyx-obsidian stone that could cut through almost anything if I swung it, evidenced by a part of the railing that now lay on the deck below. Despite the sinister appearance, it didn’t whisper into my mind or really corrupt my soul, which was relieving. I did find that it could return to my hand if thrown, and functioned as a powerful conduit for spellcasting, when transformed into a staff. With a bit of experimenting, I was able to get it to disguise itself as a normal, wood-made staff, though a shiver did go up the blade when I initially asked. By scrounging through the left-behind items below deck, I was able to put together a decently protective set of reinforced leather armor, throwing a long, brown cloak over the top of it during a rainstorm. As I neared land, the storm only worsened, and I watched as I wound around the tip of South Africa as the nexus of the storm came into view, centered over (of course) Madagascar. Sleet railed against both me and the ship, Nox reporting that the storm extended at least a mile upwards, forming a whirlpool in the sky that was sucking lightning down into the central point. There was no way of knowing what Annabel was attempting to do, and deciding to abandon stealth, I ran the HMS Popelia aground, screams of shearing wood and enchantments failing joining the roaring thunder and cracks of lightning. The ship, once aground, listed slightly, and I drank a last bag of blood before jumping overboard, dragging myself to shore and beginning to walk inland, Elkir providing support and a glimmer of light from the tip of the staff.

The journey was made on memory, as currents and waves of water flooded through the undergrowth, erasing tracks, plants, and whole colonies of animals in the wake of the torrential downpour. The rain was so thick that even with my vampire vision I could see no more than ten feet ahead of me, trees like the grasping fingers of a monstrous creature racked with light and silhouetted by the ever-present, continuous strikes of lightning. Once I had neared the source of the lightning, I was only able to look at it for a moment before being blinded; atop the surface-level entrance stood a massive pole of a silvery metal, which was being repetitively struck by the lightning, almost red from the sheer amount of electricity running through it. I doubted I could Apparate, instead flipping the hood of my cloak back and stepping forward, sword out. Annabel had mentioned not having experimented on a vampire before, and I was willing to bet there weren’t any at this base, deciding to forego stealth and charge down towards the gates. The air was thick with steam and ozone from the repeated strikes, and I bounded over the fencing, noting that the exterior defenses were either deactivated or smoking piles of rubble—the electrical input must have been great enough to overload their systems—and found the door half-open, a massive beam wedged diagonally, bent slightly outward. There was enough room to squeeze in beneath it, though I paused as I stood fully upright on the inside. Fires were everywhere, debris and rubble from broken walls and shattered windows littering the floor, punctuated occasionally by the bodes of various Saber agents. I figured they were killed in the blast, and darted forward, using the staff to extinguish any nearby flames. A few of the agents were still alive, breathing their finals gasps as I passed, until I reached a junction in a hallway that had been torn apart by the pole of the lightning rod, carving a massive hole into the ground the entire distance to the large underground bunker that housed Lacuna, and hopefully my target. A quick Slow-Falling Charm later, I began leisurely descending, careful to stay far enough away from the metal pole to not be electrocuted myself—my hair was standing straight out just by sheer proximity—and after about two minutes, I emerged into the room once more. This time, I noticed that the stations were empty, likely meaning the monsters were out somewhere, and landed softly to see Annabel, almost in the same position as before, but with her back turned, examining a few flashing screens thoughtfully. She was so focused, in fact, that she didn’t seem to notice the slightly-disintegrating ground around her, almost as if reality itself was crumbling away, and focused enough not to notice my arrival. Like a breath on the wind, I jumped up, flying through the air and landing with my arm outstretched, sword buried into the back of her neck and cleanly decapitating Annabel in a single strike. She didn’t have time to even react, but a magical supernova formed in her chest as whatever spell she was channeling was released as free energy, rapidly becoming a blinding ball of light and heat that surrounded me, overwhelming me into unconsciousness.

With a gasp, I sat up. Elkir was firmly in my hand, comforting me somewhat, but I was sitting in a strange, purely white world of solid… nothing. In an instant, my mind was shattered into a near-infinite amount of pieces, spiraling into a kaleidoscope of stained-glass as a presence that was truly incomprehensible contacted it. In an instant, the shards of my consciousness understood that the only way for my soul to remain unbroken was for this to occur; lines of text, images, sounds, and smells assaulted my senses, serving as a strange, eldritch language that the parts of me knew as some sort of ultimate power—this was something I could believe creating the world egg, for example. In another blast of light, I was knocked over, freefalling through white space for what felt like countless eternities until, slowly, the sky began to change color around me, going from pure white to a mixture of different, faint shades. Almost too fast for my vampire senses to track, landscape appeared around me, flying rapidly to meet me until I struck the ground, digging a witch-sized crater into the loamy earth of wherever I was. From the crater, I looked up to see Siobhan, flickering in and out of existence and bearing a clenched jaw from the effort.

“I don’t have much time. You’ve been pushed across dimensions—I can’t even do that—so whatever sent you here must have a way for you to get back. Be smart and be safe, and from what I can tell time is passing much faster here than in our world. I will safeguard your spirit until you return.” She made to say something else, abruptly fizzling out into a puff of smoke, leaving me alone once more. The fall hadn’t done too much damage to me, likely cushioned, and I rose, peering down at the ground itself in a bit of confusion. Massively oversized blueberries, oranges, and a few other citrus fruits coated the countryside, the grass tinged purple and smelling slightly of sickly sweet fruit. After a Compass Charm, I noted that the fruit thinned out further north, and that I was only a hundred feet or so from a tight-packed dirt road, bearing the tracks of hooves and wagon ruts. If what Siobhan said was true, and I was in a different world, I wouldn’t yet be able to Apparate, instead changing Elkir into a staff, picking a direction, and beginning to walk. It was around midday, but I noticed that my skin wasn’t shimmering in the sunlight—strange—and I wondered if they even had vampires in this world, let alone witches. The road was patched up in places using carved fruits (the blueberries were the size of my head, for scale), and I noted a set of wagon tracks seemed much more recent than any others. Hopefully I’d chosen the correct direction, following the road through rolling hills studded with various gargantuan fruits and trees bearing truly massive apples and lemons, emerging slowly into a valley ringed on both sides with tall cliffs and mesas. A river trickled through it, crossed by a bridge in the center of the valley, and as I neared it I first heard the sounds of crossbows, then spied the flashes of magic. Darting forward and taking cover behind a tree, I peered around it, amazed at what I was watching. With my vampire sight, I watched as a group of people made from what looked like various fruits, meats, vegetables, and candies duked it out on the bridge. A tree had been felled in front of a watermelon carriage, likely making this an ambush, and—a bit curious—I stepped out, heading towards the bridge genially. As I drew near, I realized that I hadn’t heard the fighting due to a strange, almost tangible aura centered on the carriage, where the clanks of sword on armor and boots on the ground were rendered deathly silent. Slowly, almost one at a time, they each began to notice my presence, surveying the pitched combat, and all stopped, staring at me with some confusion and a mixture of terror and curiosity. Before I could speak, a dagger flew at me from one side of the carriage, which I dodged gracefully before twisting my staff and causing the offending fighter (a man who seemed to be made from an omelette) to engulf in flames, silently.

“I seek no trouble; I am merely a passing traveler.” The strange aura vanished, screams of the charring egg man suddenly filling the valley as the door to the carriage opened, revealing a tall, stately woman made from a cluster of blackberries. As one, the attacking side gasped, a wizened old beet man throwing his hands to his head in horror.

“Where do you hail, strange one?” I inclined my head slightly, not sure if I was supposed to bow, and replied candidly.

“Britannia. I was sent to this world by… something, for reasons I am unaware of.” The small beet man appeared conflicted, eyes darting between the blackberry woman, (now dead) omlette, and me, before he turned to stand protectively in front of her, the other attacking side joining what looked like guards made from different hard candies in standing between us.

“I am the Queen Pamelia Rocks, of house Pomegrana, Queen of Candia. Who are you?” I wasn’t sure how exactly to introduce myself, so I decided to be somewhat honest and try to use Poppy’s clout in my favor.

“Crown Princess Jude of Britannia, of house Fay. If I may ask, what exactly is going on here?” At that, all but two people knelt, Pamelia and another fruit lady, made of what looked like mango skin in fine robes.

“I believe it would be prudent to sit and discuss. Free from both this bridge and any other ambushes. Bishop?” The beet man, presumably some sort of holy figure, exchanged several looks at the three standing folk before stepping into the carriage. Pamelia turned to the other woman, who introduced herself proudly, if a little subdued.

“Queen Amangeaux Epicee du Peche, Queen of Vegetania. I have never heard of a place called ‘Britannia,’ much as I assume you’ve never heard of us. Princess, would you join myself, Queen Rocks, and the others inside? I’m sure this blockage can be cleared in the meantime.” I shrugged, not knowing what else to do, and joined both queens as they entered the carriage as well. As I went to shut the door, my nose caught a scent that wasn’t tied to anyone here already, meaning one thing: invisibility. It was spicy, with an undercurrent I couldn’t quite pick up, and after the door was shut I spoke.

“There is another among us, or this bridge. Hidden from sight.” To my surprise, the bishop smiled, seated on a wooden crate at one end of the small room.

“Do not fear; they are no enemy, and we are guided further by the purifying light of the Bulb.” Unsure of whether or not he was being serious, I refocused onto Amangeaux as she spoke.

“We—that is, my party—were sent here to assassinate an important enemy of Calorum itself, but… we were misled. It seems that the powers that be, whomever they are, attempted to trick us into assassinating the Queen of Candia. To what end, I can only speculate.” A dark silence settled over all of us, though part of me was still wary of saying too much.

“I was sent here somehow, which means there must be a way to send me back. Either through my own magic or, if I am sent with a purpose, if that is realized. Magic is fickle, after all.” A glimmer crossed the bishop’s eyes, quickly suppressed, and Pamelia replied with a slight knowing look.

“That it is. I would propose, as this may not be the only attempt made on my life—or any of ours—that instead of traveling to Comida I and all of you return to Castle Candy. What with Vegetania on the verge of a war with Fructera and the turmoil in Ceresia, this may be a sign of darker things to come.” Amangeaux and the bishop were in agreement, and after a moment of consideration, I nodded as well.

“I can provide additional protection along the road, as well. My gifts with magic are quite proficient.”

Once the tree was cleared (and several explanation-apologies given), the two parties joined, turning tail and fleeing back to this Castle Candy after alerting the Candian scouts, who ran ahead to alert the castle to the situation. The only people in the carriage were myself, the queens, Bishop Raphaniel, and Pamelia’s guard, two of which were walking beside the carriage to give us room. As we traveled, I exchanged stories of Britannia for stories of Calorum, learning heaps of information about the history and politics of the continent, as well as a deep theological discussion with the bishop, who I began to like more and more with his wise sayings and muttered quips only my vampire ears were privy to. After a bit of speculation, and a slice from a knife, it was determined I was closest in relation to a region far to the north, known as the Meat Lands, as I most resembled their meaty peoples. At that discovery, Raphaniel casually mentioned the likelihood that I, as a Crown Princess in my realm, could potentially become the Queen of the Meat Lands, though the effort required to unite the tribes was very great. With that information in mind, I watched the fruity countryside shift more and more to rocky candy, far off on the horizon spying the Great Stone Candy Mountains, a region of near inhospitable mountain ranges that made up Candia’s eastern border. Once we crossed the Cola River, which split the border between Candia and Fructera, Castle Candy was only a half-day’s ride, and a regiment of cavalry had been sent to provide additional protection and an honor guard for our arrival. With them came the news that the King of Candia, Jadain, had survived an assassination attempt in Comida, where the queen had been traveling to join him, and was returning as well. The attackers had all been slain, revealing them to be Ceresian soldiers, and it was expected that upon his return, Candia would go to war. Castle Candy itself was aptly named, massive rock candy walls surrounding the citadel, double-thick, with a small village closer to the river connected by a winding road to the front gate. As the carriage rode through the village, the faces of the candy people were drawn and worried, likely having heard the news of either attack, and I looked down at my shoes, thinking. If I was sent to help these people, then I would do so to the most of my ability, and potentially learn some of the strange magic that the bishop spoke of, to help back home. Despite my relative separation from large-scale warfare like this, I felt a sense of security as the gates shut behind us, and even more once we were within the halls of the castle itself. A feast was provided, a runner reporting that Jadain was on the road to Candia as we dug in to various candy-based dishes. Surprisingly, I was able to eat it, but it still tasted flavorless and gross (I sucked it up for appearances, of course), chatting with the other nobility in the room. In addition to myself, Pamelia, and Amangeaux, there were two of Pamelia’s four daughters present—Rococoa and Citrina—and her son, Amethar, was off somewhere in the Dairy Islands, a region inhabiting the (no joke) yogurt sea to the north. Both the Dairy Islands and the Meat Lands were close allies of Candia, and in the event of a war with Ceresia would likely lend aid, which reassured me somewhat. Upon discussing what abilities and skills I could give to help, it was decided that once King Jadain returned I would become his spymaster, as my magic ability was better suited for one-on-one or stealthy activities. During the feast, after Citrina had left and the wine had been uncorked, the discussion turned to speculation, as often it does.

“If Fructera and Vegetania go to war, and Candia and Ceresia, I don’t see it being anything but a bloodbath.” Amangeaux nodded wisely from behind the rim of her goblet, eyes hooded slightly in the flickering torchlight.

“It seems inevitable, sadly. One will trigger the other, in some way. I just hope we’re able to survive it.” Before Pamelia could reply, the door swung open, revealing Raphaniel and a massive, strong-jawed candy man with a huge mace. Before I could even react, the voice of the bishop whispered into my mind, at the same time feeling a small spell connecting with me.

“You are the rightful Crown Princess of the Meat Lands, house Chevon; the alteration of documents is already underway. May we speak in private, after dinner?” Making eye contact with him, I nodded, looking up at the man as he stopped at the end of the table, staring down at me.

“And who might you be?” Drawing myself up to my full sitting height, I spoke as regally as I could.

“The Crown Princess Jude of House Chevon, rightful ruler of the Meat Lands. And you?” He was surprised, visually reeling for a second, before leaning forward to kiss my proffered hand.

“Duke Joren Jawbreaker of House Rocks. It is an honor to meet you, your majesty.” I smiled kindly, Rococoa gesturing to an empty seat beside her while Raphaniel took the one beside me. The last course, a delightful tiramisu imported from eastern Candia, was punctuated by the almost feverishly energetic presence of the priest next to me, who seemed barely able to contain what I imagined were thousands of questions. Joren was loud, vulgar, and hilarious, but the unfamiliarity of the situation prevented me from fully getting into the spirit (though the wine helped). Finally, after the meal was concluded, I bid the others farewell before leaving with Raphaniel, heading towards his lodgings in the castle without a word. He was much shorter than me, and trembled along the corridor as we walked, only making it a few steps before shyly asking me for my arm, which I obliged. As we walked, the guards we passed nodded in deference to him, a few curious glances landing on me as we made our way through the castle; I figured I’d be the hot gossip for weeks in a place like this.

The bishop’s rooms were modest, yet cozy, and I seated myself on a plush armchair by the fireplace as he busied himself brewing tea, despite my offers to help.

“You must forgive me, your majesty. Our cultures are meeting for the first time, and I admit I am very curious about you.” Once the tea was brewing, he sat across from me and peered deeply into my face.

“One of your kind has never been seen in Calorum. While you resemble Meat Landers, you’re… different. Whether the work of the Bulb or the Hungry One I cannot say.” From his brief introduction to religion, I was aware that the Bulb and Hungry One occupied creation and destruction, though the relation to me was still uncertain.

“I know not either, given your explanation. Perhaps a synthesis?” A gnarled hand reached up to stroke his chin, eyes drifting off into space as he thought.

“A balance of light and dark. Incredible… we will make a saint of you yet, your majesty.” I smirked, accepting a steaming cup of peppermint tea graciously.

“I’m not much of a saint, your holiness. Virtue rarely begets longevity.” A knowing look crossed his face, and he nodded sagely into his tea.

“As the soon-to-be spymaster of Candia, your political relationship to the new throne of the Meat Lands will be complicated somewhat. In all honesty, once the tensions in Calorum lessen and you control the entire territory, I would be honored to preside over the formal recognition of your title, as well as any political marriages you may wish to undergo. Until then, it should be known that I am planning to remain here, under the guise of maintaining a growing Bulbian faith within the country. I would be delighted to advise you as you settle into your role in Candia, as well.” Sitting across from a scheming priest, drinking peppermint tea and contemplating political marriages. If only Poppy could see me now.

“I accept, of course. In fact, once my rule of the north is consolidated, I would be happy to invite you as a missionary.” He grinned, a much sharper and dangerous one than he showed in public, before toasting his cup.

“To a successful partnership, your highness.”

It took three days for Jadain to return, during which time I was given my own palatial lodgings, complete with a secret tunnel to the edge of the castle and several hidden nooks and crannies to hide valuables in around a spacious office, bedchamber, and private balcony overlooking the river and small town of Dulcington below. After I was set up and ready, a contingent of forty soldiers was placed under my command, as well as a chest of notes from Amangeaux, Pamelia, Rococoa, and Raphaniel detailing potential sources, maps, allies, and spies to help me get a spy network going from the ground up. Rococoa especially proved invaluable, assigned as my personal bodyguard and captain of my troops, having a near photographic memory of geography and able to speak multiple languages fluently. We made several official trips to visit the nobility of other countries, aside from Ceresia, starting first with a trip to Brightgarden, the seat of the Bulbian church and where I needed to be recognized by the Archbishop. After the incident with Queen Rocks on the Glucian road—the one linking Candia to Comida—my escort was supplemented by Duke Jawbreaker’s best soldiers, accompanied by him as well in a display of strength. Thankfully, the heavy military escort was enough to dissuade any would-be attackers, passing Comida on our way south and, after another stretch of travel, arrived in Brightgarden. My carriage delivered us to the steps of the cathedral, where waited a squad of holy knights, who escorted myself, Rococoa, and Raphaniel in to meet the archbishop, a somehow even older priest with a stark white cauliflower head. After I was spoken for by both of my companions, and a totally legitimate family line was demonstrated by the bishop, I was given a series of vows and rites, swearing to uphold the ideals of Bulbian faith in leadership, et cetera, and formally recognized as the Crown Princess of the Meat Lands, until either I died or married. I also took the time while in Brightgarden to further my list of informants, finding purchase with the urchins and servants of the city with ease due to my unique appearance and abundance of money (as I was a witch, and able to create gold from lead, counterfeiting food-based currency was not beyond my grasp), departing for a stop in Comida to rest before making the journey northwest, to Uvano. Raphaniel was in high spirits, going on about how the Meat Lands had needed a true ruler since the dawn of time, while Rococoa and I shared disgruntled looks. Overall, things were progressing quite smoothly until our second day on the road, when a messenger arrived at our caravan, out of breath and wild-eyed. After a splash of cold water from the nearby river, the celery-boy was able to explain that Ceresia, instead of invading Candia as everyone had expected, was now marching a massive army into the Meat Lands, and word had returned that several tribes were willing to recognize my title if I quote “came and proved my prowess to save our homeland.” After some consultation with Rococoa and Raphaniel, I decided to honor their request, sending the messenger to Candia with the news before putting Raphaniel in charge of my operations while I was away. Finally, considering my options heavily, I invited Jawbreaker with me on my journey. I figured he would jump at the ability to win some political clout, as well as the chance to fight, and after explaining the process of a Portkey as best as I could, I used a map and the name of the place the current battle was being fought at (Corndog Canyon) to turn a stick into one, winking through the carriage window at Raphaniel before vanishing into nothingness. A split-second later, we arrived in the center of a wide plain, filled with wheat, barley, and other grains; the road appeared to be paved with hardened pieces of bread. Once Joren was done vomiting, I pointed to one side of the plain, where my vampire sight could make out massive steak warriors with clubs, bacon archers, and the like—a cursory glance at the other side revealed baguettes, croissants, and other bread foods in Romanesque armor—and I swirled my staff around my body, spinning in a rapid circle and whipping a vortex of wind around the two of us, quickly starting to pull smaller plants from the soil and kick up a cone of dust into the air. With a shout, I slammed Elkir down, all of the wind shooting out from us, snapping the stalks of grain and flattening the entire field; subsequently revealing a crouched group of Ceresians who’d been hiding in the grass. Joren grinned savagely, drawing his mace and striding towards the now-charging bread soldiers eagerly while I cast another spell, opening fissures in the ground wide enough to swallow entire rows of soldiers, the roars of charging meatlanders approaching us from behind just as the row of spearmen reached us. Elkir flashed into a sword, slicing through the shields and spears that tried to strike me and carving through the ranks of bread soldiers, Joren at my back. The meatlanders were each a force of nature, some strong enough to rip enemies in half while others could hide well enough to fool even my vision, appearing from stacks of hay or seemingly thin air itself. The Ceresians fought brutally, and I was reminded again of the strangeness of this world by seeing my own blood for the second time since becoming a vampire, something that shouldn’t exist spattering the ground around me a vibrant red with each push from the soldiers. My ability with swordplay was shoddy, but I made up for it by matching the ferocity of the meatlanders around me, roaring with each strike and using sword, dagger, and staff in a fluid chain of fighting that none could withstand. I was at the head of the wedge into their lines, suffering several cuts, arrow strikes, and bruises from improvised bashes, but whenever I felt myself starting to falter Joren would appear beside me like a typhoon, clearing space in long sweeps of his mace and buying me time to take a breath. At a certain point, once I was near-exhausted from casting magic and fighting, I pulled back behind the front and began tearing harded pieces of bread from the ground, some thrice or quadruple my size, and hurling them into the Ceresian lines, acting as a small catapult with deadly accuracy. A squad of archers formed around me, accompanying each impact with a swarm of arrows as I started calling my shots, feeling a bit like a schoolteacher explaining how parabolas work to a herd of peppermint rangers, who’d been in the area after an expedition through the Great Stone Candy Mountains and proved invaluable, both at shooting and covering up the scent of blood and gore (they seemed to exude a minty aura I quite liked). I made several forays back to the fighting, eventually leading the final charge that scattered the Ceresian forces, a decimated number sent scrambling back to the east, stragglers falling to the rangers in small pockets. Once the battlefield had been secured, bodies prepared for burial—or, in the case of the Ceresians, burning—Joren joined me, along with two chieftains who had fought in the battle. One was a massive porterhouse steak, carrying a greatsword longer than I was tall, while the other was a slender-yet-vicious turkey leg who’d sniped bread people with precision accuracy using an intricate longbow.

“Damn good fighting. Saved our sorry hides, that’s for sure.” I shot a crooked grin at the steak, who introduced himself as Chief Hei Faire, descended from the Great Cow.

“Jude, from the Great Goat. You didn’t do too bad yourself, you know.” He guffawed, waving a massive hand airily at the fissures and broken grain.

“Woulda been harder without the windstorm.” The other, descended from the Great Turkey, was Chieftess Wishbone, who viewed me suspiciously while I talked.

“Word comes that you swore to the Bulbian church for your throne.” At that, I pulled a face, finding a small bread stone to sit on, staff beside me.

“For legitimacy, yes. I care not for what they sell in their cathedrals. War may soon come between the Meat Lands and Vegetania, and if that is the case my allegiance lies here.” She nodded, arms crossed, and departed to oversee the reorganization of the clans after the battle, awaiting orders. Hei looked out over the wreckage, one hand resting on his sword, before looking back down at me.

“Will you wed, your majesty?” I pulled another face, leaning back to let the sun hit my face (and to meet his eyes; the chieftain was about nine feet tall).

“For love? Unlikely. I was considering a Candian or Dairy Island marriage.” He nodded sagely, before leaving to do the same as Wishbone, Joren kneeling in front of me reverently.

“It was an honor to fight alongside you, your highness. While we are in the Meat Lands, I would humbly request to serve as your advisor and bodyguard, until a time when you don’t need one, or find a replacement from your own people.” A little amused, I grabbed Elkir, rising and lightly tapping it to each of his shoulders in a similar fashion to how Siobhan had knighted me in Antarctica.

“If you wish, I would knight you as Lord Commander of the Knights of the House Chevon.” He didn’t look up, but I could almost see the excitement radiating off of him as he nodded slightly.

“It would be my privilege, your majesty.” I struck the staff into the ground, and felt a rustle of sugary sweet candy wind cross my face.

“Rise, Sir Joren of House Rocks.” He did, towering over me with a look of reverential glee.

“I will not let you down, your highness.”

A day after the failed invasion by Ceresia, Vegetanian forces marched across the border between Fructera and Vegetania, Ceresia promptly allying with Vegetania and withdrawing to defensive positions along their vast western border, fortifying the lone pass between Candia and Ceresia—Gumdrop Pass—and digging in for a long war. As Ceresia was at war with Candia, and allied with Vegetania, King Jadain entered into a defensive pact with Fructera and the Dairy Islands, meaning that Fructera, Candia, and the Dairy Islands declared war on both Ceresia and Vegetania. The only thing preventing the Meat Lands from doing the same was for word to travel along the rocky, sandy countryside that both Hei Faire and Wishbone had sworn fealty to me, something I was assured held enough weight to sway many others. In the meantime, Hei Faire began fortifying Corndog Canyon, as it was the largest point of entry between us and Ceresia, while a joint force of Wishbone’s archers and peppermint rangers took charge of surveying and scouting the breadth of the battle line, should it need doing; the most important aspect of which was Gumdrop Pass, a famously hard-to-take yet vital road into Ceresia—which also made it the perfect springboard for invasion. The fastest route for our soldiers to travel south was by sea, a brief back-and-forth with Prince Cheddar leading to an armada being promised to ferry troops to Candia and Fructera, the most vulnerable nations on our side. While word was being sent to the first announcers of fealty to move to the coast, I took time to rest and manage from a cushioned lounge inside my command tent, personally overseeing the construction of a massive wall, splitting the canyon in half and making it near-impregnable with the help of a few choice spells. Joren was patrolling the opposing side of the canyon, to prevent any incursion until it was complete, and once the gate was successfully installed I recalled his troop to garrison the emplacement, as I was headed for the coast, to meet with Prince Cheddar and the royal fleet of the Dairy Islands. Since Joren was staying, I took a squad of peppermint rangers, and stayed off of roads, skirting the mountains using animal trails and secret pathways to prevent any tails. The rangers were a riot when camping, trading stories and singing bawdy songs about mountain women and angry rams until everyone fell asleep. A few of the ridges we traveled had echoing tunnels inside them, though no cave mouths, an interesting observation that none of them had ever encountered before. The travel was rough, often lying under the stars or beneath jagged outrcroppings of bread stone, but the freedom in the mountains was well worth it. As a tradeoff, however, until we reached the coast, and city of Carn, I would be in the dark as to any developments in the wider world. Descending into the rocky coastline, the ground moving more into wide, sometimes bloody slabs of meat. On the first road we encountered, we were able to link up with a warband that was moving towards the coast, which expedited our progress and gave me a better peace of mind, for now. That night, the two groups camped beside the road, where a small stream of blood-tinged water drifted close to the road. After an experimental sip, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the blood held some flavor, though not nearly as satisfying as human—I wagered that these food people were all made of animals, as was this blood—and once I was sated, I helped construct a fire using magic, eliciting a few stunned gasps from the meatlander warriors we’d met. A peppermint ranger next to me, who’d been nominated “impromptu bodyguard” and never let me out of his sight, knocked into my shoulder.

“Got any good stories, lass? Er, your highness.” I smiled slightly, taking a sip of bloodwater and gazing at the fire.

“Back in my kingdom, I was the captain of a sailing ship sent out all privateer-like, letter of marque and all. One of the fights we were in was against this massive whale, think the size and a half of a ship.” Assorted swears and prayers circled the fire, to which I chuckled.

“Course, our cannons were meant to shoot straight out, not down, so I had the crew flood the starboard side to let us stick ‘em straight into the bastard’s mouth. Put a volley into his belly, scared him off quick. Guess he got his meal, one way or another.” The assembled soldiers laughed, a few spitting into the fire or swigging their drinks, grinning. Withdrawing my pack of cigarettes, I lit one, passing it around for any who were brave enough to try—which mostly resulted in bouts of fierce coughing and jeers from others—settling back onto the rock I was leaning against and enjoying the serenity of the moment, even if everything surrounding it was awful. A meat warrior, made out of what appeared to be a thick slice of bacon, spoke up with a knowing look to the others.

“We’ll have to introduce you to Manta Ray, once you’re delivered to the coast. Best captain on the Yogurt Sea, even better ‘privateer,’ back in the day.” Several people chortled, and after a few moments another story began, leaving me to gaze up at the stars in quiet contemplation.

Chapter 10: The World Eater

Chapter Text

Jude

Instead of going to Carn, as I’d expected, we took a sharp detour a few hours travel away, diverting to head directly to a hidden cove marked by this Manta Ray as a covert pickup point along the coast. The morning light had just begun to creep over the horizon as we spotted the crack in a jagged hill, leading to a wide, half-underground bay after a bit of a squeeze. Inside, the water was a mixture of blood and yogurt—yuck—and sitting, haphazardly moored to a stalagmite, was a large rowboat. On the shore beside it stood three sailors, made of cheese, though I immediately recognized which was Manta Ray after realizing his name meant Monterey as in the cheese. A short, crumbly wedge of cheese with an impressive moustache, feathered cap, and black bandana was leaned up against the wall, smoking a pipe.

“Your majesty! It is truly an honor to meet you.” One of the other sailors, a slightly more well-kept and taller stick of what looked like mozzarella knelt, muttering at the other two to do the same.

“Well met! If everyone I ran into got on their knees for me I think I’d have a damn good time, eh?” Manta Ray and the other sailor guffawed, the mozzarella rising, mortified.

“So, shall we? I’m not sure we can fit everyone unless a few of you are comfortable sitting in my lap.” The peppermint rangers snickered (the meatlanders had continued on to Carn), Cane—my bodyguard—doing a quick count before singling out those that would go with us. While everyone began loading up the boat, I sidled over to where Manta Ray and the other sailor stood, withdrawing a cigarette.

“I hear you’re quite the sailor, Manta Ray. Where I hail, I’m a captain of a vessel myself.” His eyes glittered with interest, and he puffed his pipe before responding.

“Jack, please. I’ve been on the seas my whole life, since I was a wee curd in my father’s groin. A pirate princess sounds much more interesting. Er, your highness.” I winked, puffing a ring of smoke into the air.

“Jude, please. And I believe they call it privateering, these days.” He laughed again, one hand to his stomach, and shot a look at the other sailor, a cube of potentially provolone cheese.

“We’ll be heading to Lacramor to meet with Prince Cheddar, where I wager you’ll get another letter of marque, and possibly a ship. Unless you’d prefer to requisition one?” The glint in his eyes was full of mischief, and I glanced at the rangers before leaning in closer.

“Word’s come in that the Ceresians are launching a warship from the Butter Lake, supposedly the biggest and worst ship to touch the seas since the Puree. A few ears in the right places caught wind that it’s headed for the Sangre, and Carn. Would be a feather in your cap, and a brilliant way to kick off the war, I’d say. Plus, if the cannons are as big as they say, Pangranos might even be within range of her.” My eyes lit up as well, and I wished I had a map near me before remembering the name of the place.

“Porkchop Peninsula would be a perfect spot for a ship to hide behind, waiting. Could we get into position in time?” Jack stroked his moustache, thinking, while the provolone was already nodding.

“We’d need to hurry, but I’d reckon so. If our guesses are correct, it should sail past the peninsula in a little over a week. Both the Cheesecake and the Brie could reach it in time.” The mozzarella stick walked over, announcing that we were ready for castoff, before freezing in horror at what we were discussing.

“It’s suicide! That ship has over a hundred cannons, and is almost twice the size of any of our craft.” I scowled, and put out my cigarette before turning to face him.

“We are at war. I feel much more at home dying on the seas then dying on land. If I die, that is.” Jack chortled, provolone guy already clambering into the rowboat while the remaining peppermint rangers began to exit the cave.

“Senator Carbano is on that ship.” I walked over to the boat, clambering in between Manta Ray and Cane, all the while scowling at the mozzarella.

“And I will be on the attacking ship. Seems a fair battle, to me.” The cheese spluttered, boat slowly slipping out back into the sea, where, several hundred yards out into the water, two cheese ships waited.

“There is likely to be an invasion force along with him.” I was beginning to lose my patience, leaning forward until I was inches from the mozzarella stick’s face.

“We will sneak aboard at night, undetected, and slaughter as many as we can while they are still in their beds. If the alarm is raised, we kill them loudly.” Jack thumped me on the shoulder, while the mozzarella stick shuddered under my gaze, which was admittedly a bit feral.

“Don’t worry! I can teleport myself and a few people to wherever my keen eyes can see, so it shouldn’t be too hard to get the jump on them. Besides, don’t you want to see what sorts of magic I can pull out of my cloak?” The cheese stick, cowed, moved towards the front of the boat while Jack and Povloni (the provolone man) remained next to me.

“A night raid on one of the most powerful senators in Ceresia is quite the opener, eh?” I shrugged, finishing my cigarette and lighting another as we headed out into open water, shore slowly fading behind us.

“A retaliation for what they tried in the canyon. And, I’d quite like to steal the biggest ship in Calorum after kicking their sorry crusts out of the Meat Lands.” Both their faces, and Cane’s, broke out into wide grins at the prospect, Jack slapping my back again in a burst of laughter.

“There’s a good lass! Princess of the privateers, eh?” I joined in with the laughter, Jack and Povloni teaching me as many shanties as they could on the short trip back, climbing up the side of the Cheesecake to find a mixed grouping of Candians and Dairy Islanders, captained by Povloni—Jack was in charge of the Brie. After waving enthusiastically to everyone aboard, and being introduced formally by the mozzarella stick, I was pulled aside by Jack and Povloni under the pretense of showing me to my quarters, instead barring the door behind us and speaking lowly.

“Moz is the first mate of this ship, but he’s Ceresian born. Promised us it wasn’t a question where his allegiance lies, but even I noticed he's being a bit odd. Also, a bit of news should be coming up from the hold, in a moment.” A brisk knock sounded at the door, in a five-beat sequence, and Povloni opened it to reveal Rococoa, Lazuli, and Amethar, all of whom were dressed for war and bearing equally grim looks. What clued me in to the situation on their end was the circlet that had once sat on Pamelia’s head now rested on Rococoa’s.

“Well met, Princess Jude. I’m glad to see you’re well.” I clasped her arm, before extending it into a quick hug.

“And I you. What has happened? We’ve been cut off from messengers since leaving Corndog Canyon.” Once everyone was inside, and the door re-latched, I was informed of the successful assassination of King and Queen Rocks, within Castle Candy, five days after I’d departed the canyon. It was through the use of “watersteel arrows,” a strange alchemical arrow that was especially fatal to Candians; Pamelia had been struck through the eye, Jadain in his throat. Rococoa was now the Crown Princess of Candia, and had brought a squad of soldiers aboard to also seek aid from Lacramor. However, when I introduced the plan Jack and I had come up with, a fiercely savage glint entered her eyes and she promptly agreed to switch course. Lazuli was a brilliant mage, able to teleport many more people over greater distances than I—I really wanted to see her spellbook—and during a moment where my counsel wasn’t needed, I caught her eye, nodding towards the door subtly. She nodded back, and we both left, separately, convening at the end of the corridor outside, in a small storage compartment.

“Witch?” I nodded, and she beamed, clapping me on the shoulder.

“Bit of a different process than yours, I think. How’re you all holding up?” A dark look crossed her face, shadows in the room elongating slightly.

“We’ll make it. Haven’t told anyone yet, but we caught the bastard. Ceresian.” I swore softly, beginning to pace across the cramped space, thinking.

“More and more trouble from them. Don’t they know when to quit?” As I finished speaking, near the curtain that served as a doorway, a hand wrapped around my neck, jerking me backwards as a blade sliced into my back, leaving a strange festering sensation, like something was trying to eat me from the inside out. I whirled around, blade still in my back, and slashed through the sheet with my dagger, promptly grabbing first mate Moz by the throat and yanking him close to my face.

“You think a little rot can be anything but amusing to me?” Holy Fire flared up inside me, shooting out of the wound in a gout and cleansing both it and whatever blade was in my back, Moz nearly scared to death already.

“You will be forgotten.” With a yank, I pulled his head off, face frozen into a horrified expression etched into it, body collapsing to the floor with a dull thud.

“Carry the body back to my quarters.” Lazuli, a bit in shock, did so, briefly glancing at the dagger, which I waved off from in front of her.

“It’s proof of his attempt. Something this small is akin to a splinter.” I chose to ignore her snort, as I ignored the knock passcode, waving my staff and opening the door for us. Everyone was still here, room permeated by gasps at the sight of Moz’s lifeless corpse and the dagger in my back.

“Attempted assassination. Must’ve been a loyalist.” Jack scowled, looking down at a flagon of ale darkly as Lazuli re-shut the door behind us.

“Auspicious beginning, I suppose.” I removed the dagger, healing myself and holding it out for the rest to examine.

“Had some sort of poison or fungus on it that tried to eat me. Strange magic, eh?” The room lapsed into silence, some regarding the body while others exchanged closer looks at the dagger.

“This is Vegetanian-made. How long did he have this?” Jack and Povloni shrugged, the latter speaking slowly.

“That’s the first time I’ve ever seen it. I’ve known Moz for almost fifteen years, and never would have guessed any of this—Ceresia, the dagger, anything.” Rococoa handed me a flagon, and I took a long drink, exhaling in a deep sigh as I set it down, nearly empty.

“Every last person on that ship is going to die. I’ll see to it myself, if I have to.” The ships rocked slightly, signaling the start of our journey east, and I lit a cigarette.

“All I need is to get within sight of the ship, and I can be our advance party. Quick and quiet.” All but Jack and Povloni shivered at my tone, one I’d heard from Poppy before that signaled, well, death.

“It’ll take five days of sailing, but we’ll get there in time.” I nodded, brow furrowing into concentration as he laid a map out on a crate Amethar had dragged over.

“Along Porkchop Peninsula, there’s a ridge of cliffs that rise higher than all but the Cheesecake’s crows nest, which should give us plenty of cover.” After a few more points about crew numbers and cannons, I was left to rest, a guard of two Candian soldiers set outside of my door to prevent any more assassinations. After finishing both my drink and cigarette, I crawled into the bed, keen on not moving as much as possible to save energy. Being a vampire, I was able to effectively lock my body into position, and had just gotten comfortable when a strange sensation started in my chest. I’d felt it before, but never as a vampire, and frowned as it remained, then involuntarily gasping as it worsened tenfold, like a ball of molten lava had suddenly materialized in my chest. Throwing the sheet back, I stared down at my chest, which looked normal on the exterior even though a frothing cauldron of fire lay just beneath the surface. After a moment, a sharp pain pierced my back where the molten ball was, rapidly shooting down every one of my nerves and brain, which would have killed me had I been human. As such, I was brought the closest to unconsciousness I’d ever been, tumbling out of bed and vomiting across the floor, vision blurring as I magically sealed the door, not wanting whatever was happening to me to spread.

“Get—hurk—get Lazuli, now!” Retching, I managed to rise to one knee, then fall again, coughing vehemently as I felt something entering my lungs and settling there. Something airborne, maybe? Not the first time my nonfunctioning biology had saved my hide, but something else was happening alongside whatever Moz had intended due to it. Lazuli’s voice sounded loudly through the door, and I crawled over, rasping out a question.

“Can you protect yourself from diseases and toxins? I can shield this room to contain it but not a person.” After a tense minute, during which I leaned over to retch again, she responded in the affirmative.

“Alright, it’s unlocked. I’m resealing it once you’re inside, though.” I still couldn’t quite see, only seeing the light as the door opened and shut, Lazuli gasping in shock at my appearance.

“I can’t quite see. Describe it, if you can?” Another wave of pain struck me, and I writhed, swearing through clenched teeth as she replied.

“You’re… there are… there are mushrooms growing out of you.” The pain vanished, my sight slowly clearing, and I coughed again, blinking rapidly to refocus on her before a voice sounded in the right side of my ear, so loud it made me snap my neck to the other side on instinct.

HELLO. With it came a strange pulsing sensation, Lazuli taking a step back in shock as the various mushroom sprouts and fungal growths I could now see emerging from my body began glowing, a soft luminescent blue light fading across my vampire skin.

“Uh, hello. With whom am I speaking?" The voice came back, just as loud.

SAPROPHUS. A tsunami of crashing images, sounds, smells, and memories struck my mind, vanishing just as abruptly as it had come, and yet, I understood. This thing was an ancient creature, or god, and through some process of trying to infect a vampire with a fungus, I’d been put into contact with it. Somehow.

“Can—Do you know what’s going on?” Lazuli was watching me, wide-eyed, as I seemingly talked to myself, head half-co*cked to the side.

NO. At that, I scowled, drawing my wand and cleaning up the spots where I’d vomited, noting with grim horror that I’d been throwing up sticky clumps of spores and mold.

“Nightmarish. Do you know what’s happening to me?” At that, a very brief flash of a strange masked face, in a cave.

“A what?! I am not whatever a brood-mother is and never will be.” Another flash, slightly apologetic, and I understood the full context; I was now part fungus, and as such, would grow—or birth, depending on context clues—mushrooms and other things, such as the mold, or spores.

“Jude please, what’s going on?” The voice seemed to stay silent, content with what it had shared, and I leaned up against the side of a crate weakly.

“Something happened with the assassination attempt—it infected me, but didn’t kill me, because my body doesn’t work that way. Now I’m in contact with some mysterious deity and growing fungus all over myself. I didn’t know if it was a gas or airborne poison, but this might be just as dangerous for you.” Using my staff, I drew the magical shield in until it was about an inch from my skin.

“You should be alright now. I have it protected from passing beyond an inch from me, so just be careful.” She nodded, and I concentrated, weaving the spell into an enchantment that stayed around me, drawing a small amount of my energy to maintain itself, like a ward.

“There. What the hell just happened?” Lazuli shook her head, still dumbfounded, and I looked down at myself warily, expecting another grotesque change. My vampire skin had cracked where the mycelium had sprouted through, almost like a weed through Muggle cement, most of the spread relegated to one side of my body, extending all the way from my ankle to the side of my face, where a few smaller caps grew from my cheekbone and temple.

“You seem to be… almost, half-rotted? But it isn’t hurting you, is it?” I shook my head, examining my now-mottled and slightly furry forearm with mild curiosity. A feeling of frustration was settling onto me, like I wasn’t feeling something I should, and I reasoned that the new mycelium growths acted as a strange sixth sense that was being constrained by the enchantment I’d erected for Lazuli’s safety.

“Not at all. It’s… altering me, though. I’m too strong for it to overcome me, but something is definitely different. I, uh… Could you get me some water?” She nodded, leaving and quickly returning with a pitcher of cold celery water.

“Notify me when we’re a day away from the peninsula. Let no one in.” She nodded again, eyes never leaving the fungal growths, and backed out of the room quickly. After resealing the door, I lowered the barrier around myself, feeling the cloud of spores filtering out and coating every available surface in the room, gradually. Sitting on the edge of a crate, I tried to understand the sensory input the spores were trying to give me, only getting it when I closed my eyes to rub them slightly. Even though my eyes were shut, I could still clearly see the outlines of everything in the room, from where the spores had settled onto it. Instinctively, I could feel spots of magic, like Elkir or my wand, this extra sense giving me a heightened awareness of my surroundings. I also knew there wasn’t anyone invisible or hidden somewhere in the room, as the spores would’ve detected their presence. Sighing, I fell back onto the bedding, a small puff of dust kicking up as I landed, staring at the ceiling ruefully. With the warding enchantment I’d devised, it shouldn’t interfere with my activities in Calorum, but the unnerving sensation of having a fundamentally different biology still took some getting used to. I didn’t keep track of time, mostly focused on working through the extreme horror, until Lazuli spoke from the other side of the door some time later.

“I’ve found something that might help. Can I come in?” After resetting the ward, she entered, burned and bloody but clutching an ancient scroll that looked like some sort of onion vellum.

“There is a temple deep in the Great Stone Candy Mountains which holds multitudes of secrets, both magical and otherwise. Things like the Ramesian Doctrine, you see.” Sitting across from me, she unfurled the vellum, scanning through an incomprehensible, faded text before looking back up to me.

“Of all the esoteric thought recorded in the Bulbian faith, the oldest and by far most hidden—I believe only the Pontifex and their archbishops are even aware it exists—predates many of the kingdoms of Calorum, perhaps even predating the existence of formal government. The Valentinian Heresy.” A gust of icy wind shot through the portholes, Lazuli drawing her cloak tighter around herself.

“It’s a theory about the fundamental operation of magic itself. If magic is a form of energy that is present and manipulable by all living beings, then the fewer beings that live, the stronger the remaining are, as the distillation of magic is concentrated. It led to the first Holy Unification Wars of the Bulbian church, and the nomination of the first Pontifex.” I lit a cigarette grimly, staring at the floorboards between us.

“So, the less people alive, the stronger everyone is.” She nodded dourly.

“Normally it wouldn’t be noticeable; the world is large, after all. But, during times of great strife—a full-continent war, say—it can be effective. However, that isn’t the conclusion of the Valentinists. Rather, they thought that if there was only one being left alive… The perfect world of faith, with a divinity of the church’s own.” Stillness filled the room, my brow furrowed and cigarette burning.

“Dark times, are these. Are we nearing the peninsula?” She nodded, jerking her chin at the darkening sky.

“By morning we’ll be in position. They’re about three days away, by our reckoning.” I rose, putting my cigarette out in my palm and heading towards the door, staff in hand.

“I’m moving to the crow’s nest. Once I can see them, I’m teleporting aboard and slaughtering them all.” She paled, but said nothing, everyone in my way jumping aside and bowing as I passed. The crow’s nest was unoccupied, but even now it was high enough to peer over the peninsula—no ship, yet. Now alone, I cast a few spells for privacy, and after a moment of consideration, dropped the ward, trying to direct the spores up and out, away from the ship below me. As a gust of wind crossed me, they scattered up, forming almost a dome around the ship; I couldn’t see through them like eyes, but I was almost able to feel the ship, like I was holding my hands around it to feel it’s course through the waves. If the ship would near two days in the morning, it would be about two hundred nautical miles away, well within even unobstructed human vision—this world appeared to either be truly massive or completely flat, as the curvature was nearly nonexistent. However, Apparation required a clear image of the destination, not a small speck on the horizon, which I estimated could be possible with my vampire vision. A spell, rising from the memories Siobhan had imparted to me, fit what I needed almost exactly, and I murmured a silent thanks to the sky, beginning to practice the ”Zooming Charm” on the trees near the ship, biding my time.

At dawn, a scout climbed up to bring me some food, and I examined the horizon as I ate. Sure enough, at the edge of my vision, a ship had appeared, almost nonmoving in my sight, headed towards us.

“Do you have a telescope, son?” The scout fumbled at his belt, withdrawing a spyglass and passing it to me. After casting a Magnifying Charm on the lens, and the Zooming Charm on my eye, I peered through, grinning with satisfaction as I was able to clearly see the deck of a truly massive ship, with scattered, yawning Ceresian sailors moving back and forth.

“Let everyone know that I’ve sighted the deck of the ship. It’s a first-rate, at least two-hundred feet long. I’d wager the count is around a thousand aboard.” The boy nodded, accepting his spyglass as I turned on the spot, appearing in a booming crack that split the wood below me, Elkir impaled through the nearest sailor before anyone could even register my presence. A shout went up across the deck, at least sixty bread sailors and soldiers thundering across the deck towards me. I swung Elkir in a wide arc, gaining some room, and whirled in midair, shooting a blast of wind out that knocked several overboard, a cloudburst of spores filling the vacuum around us and choking dozens more—I noticed that the mold grew unnaturally fast, turning massive baguette halberdiers to piles of white and black mold in a matter of seconds—and I leapt forward, slicing two hot dog buns in half simultaneously. Elkir was truly deadly, unbothered by plate armor, shields, or even other blades, deck around me littered with broken weapons, armor, and parts of dead crew as the sun—or Bulb, I supposed—rose steadily above the waves. After the first shout went up, more began streaming out from belowdecks, surrounding me on all sides and pushing my vampire reflexes to their limits. A memory from Siobhan, where she’d seen memories of Annabel’s life, floated to mind: her duel with Bellatrix Lestrange in her basem*nt. The grace and fluidity flooded into my body, and I danced through the Ceresians, bouncing off of them or falling back against the shield of another to gracefully—if a bit clumsily—fight my way through the ever-increasing horde. As I landed a brutal blow on a bagel, splitting it in half, a bolt of lightning struck me, nearly frying the fungal growths and turning all of my attention to the one responsible, a toga-clad, younger slice of bread standing next to a positively ancient clump of pasta—that must be Carbano. Twirling my wand in a circle around me, a ring of white light expanded out rapidly, cutting through anything in it’s way—namely, the mass of Ceresians surrounding me, who were most definitely not expecting such magic. The shouts and clanks of weapons were replaced in a wave by gurgling shrieks, screams, and cries for help as hundreds of Ceresians fell, leaving a field of quickly rotting corpses surrounding me. There were a few left, none willing to get close to me, and I pointed Elkir at the slice of bread, Apparating directly in front of him, sword still out and materializing in the space below his mouth, where I thought his throat would be. Sure enough, he gurgled, gross yeasty blood emerging in coughs as he fell over, remaining sailors charging as one to save Senator Carbano, who seemed surprisingly nonplussed at the massacre that was unfolding. A minute of fighting later, I stood before Carbano, the last Ceresian on deck.

“The Meat Lands will not fall to the likes of you.” He seemed to have accepted his fate, not raising a finger as I cleanly decapitated him, doing the favor of a quick death. Glancing out at the veritable field of rot on the top deck, I darted down below, using my spores to search rapidly for any other living beings and dispatching them, moving all of the bodies topside and dumping them into the ocean using magic. I could sail using magic, but sailing and operating what my spores told me was at least one hundred and twenty cannons felt a little beyond my reach. Using the Patronus spell, I sent a message to Lazuli, notifying her that the ship was ours, and to meet up to discuss our next move. Over the course of that day, I watched the Brie and the Cheesecake emerge from behind Porkchop Peninsula and sail towards my new ship. It took the entire day, but we met at around midnight, other two ships tying off on either side as House Rocks, Jack, Cane, and Povloni boarded with a complement of sailors, in awe at the truly massive ship.

“Cleared all of ‘em out, threw them overboard. Carbano died nobly, as it were.” Jack was practically foaming at the mouth, looking over the ship intensely, and I turned to Povloni.

“I can sail this ship using magic, but not fight at the same time. She’ll still need a crew.” He nodded, examining the quadruple-masted ship from the helm beside me.

“With the supplies aboard, all three ships could make it to Lacramor, where she could be outfitted.” I nodded back, withdrawing a cigarette.

“From Lacramor, we sail back to the Butter Lake. From there, d’you reckon these canons could reach Pangranos? I’d like to see how this ship would fare at a naval bombardment.” His eyes lit up, and Jack, who’d been listening, slapped me on the back, grinning madly.

“Your highness, if you wouldn’t mind, as the new owner of this fine vessel, allowing myself to pilot it toward this goal? I’m sure you’ve got many other things on land to focus on at the moment, after all.” I shot him a grin, and ceded the helm, giving a jaunty salute to Manta Ray.

“She’s yours until Pangranos falls.” He roared with laughter, quickly beginning to bark orders at a small group of sailors; I’d sail it using magic to Lacramor, where it would receive a new name and full garrison before sailing back east. Claiming Carbano’s quarters for myself, I drew the curtains around a large, slightly dusty bedspread, sitting against the headboard as the ships slowly began to move again. I thought back to the fight, how the mold and decay had ripped through the soldiers—I’d made sure to scour the ship of mold before meeting with the others—and began to worry about what would happen if this strange infection traveled with me back home. After a few minutes, a soft blue light began to pulse, and I sensed that ‘Saprophus’ wished to speak with me. I figured it preferred communicating through images, memories, and emotions as opposed to words, getting a sensation of respect and an image of a strange mold-person waiting politely for another to “speak.”

“Is something wrong?” To my surprise, a memory of myself was reflected to me: I was connected to the massive consciousness, and saw a sudden surge of energy as my worry was translated to it’s underground network.

“Ah, I’m sorry. It must be my magical ability amplifying it—I’m alright, just a little worried about some things.” After a moment, it receded, and I sighed, trying to wrestle my emotions under control. After a bit of Occlumency—I was never good at it, despite the best efforts of several experts—I pulled my knees to my chest, thinking about what to do. Disregarding the infection momentarily, there had to be some deeper meaning, a grand scheme or the other in this world. It was strange to see things I’d once considered as just food filled with the same life I possessed, even enough to develop complex cultures and theologies. The cyclical nature of the Bulb and the Hungry One (and Saprophus, I suppose) were so familiar, as if a solution was waiting right in front of me. Withdrawing my wand, I began writing in the air, collating my thoughts in dim, silvery-white lines of light until I had a good grasp of my thought process. Logically, there must be some link, metaphorical or otherwise, between the land of Calorum and my world, or another similar to mine; given Siobhan’s parting information that time passes faster here, it would be a logical assumption that this dimension is either smaller or contains less magical energy—I sorely wished Hermione was here to explain theoretical witchcraft before flinching—and my mind drifted back over to the Hungry One thoughtfully. I was never one for metaphors, but with it laid out in front of me, I began to move different words or sentences in the air to group them. If this world was food items to me, then this Hungry One must also be similar to me, or even just a representation of a human as deity, which began to make more and more sense as I stared at the floating words. Feebly, I lit a cigarette, taking a long drag and basking in the horrific epiphany that had struck me: I wasn’t the work of the Hungry One or even an avatar, I was the Hungry One. To other people, I was just a regular vampire, but in this world the manifestation of consumption and destruction itself; supposing this, my eyes (despite my wish not to) glanced over at the words “Valentinian Heresy,” which I’d written a bit to the side. The way I saw it, I had a choice to make. Either focus wholly on winning the war and returning Calorum to peace—a hefty task for anyone—or to embrace this world’s depiction of my species and consume everything, fulfilling the Valentinian Heresy and technically putting the world at peace. This would undoubtedly substantially increase my magical strength, but at a truly terrible price. I stared at the words until the cigarette had burned to my lips, and lit another. Suddenly, in the center of the main block of words, a new phrase appeared, not written in my hand.

Shall we?

Despite the unfamiliarity, I recognized flashes of the same handwriting from when I’d fallen into this world, in the strange white plane where my mind had been shattered apart. I thought through the process of both options: years of grueling war, politicking, and attempting to fix an entire continent in upheaval and strife—a place that was not mine to mind for—or, the darker path. If I chose to fight the war, I also wouldn’t gain any of the power that the Valentinian Heresy foretold; something that would be vital in my showdown with Poppy. I spoke softly at the words around my cigarette.

“Quite the conundrum.” They didn’t react, and I took a last puff of my cigarette and standing, moving to the center of the room and kneeling. I remembered through Siobhan a particular piece of magical theory from her own timeline, and considered it, before shaking my head and instead recalling one of the moments she’d witness from Poppy’s, where she had replaced her eye in outside the Death Eater tower. A saint should at least occasionally endure penance for her sin, and I figured this would be a reasonable exchange. Poppy was a brilliant spellweaver, and by picking apart her magic I could repurpose it into my own design, drawing my wand and beginning to Summon various precious metals from across the ship, building a pile of gold and iron at my knees until I was satisfied. Undressing, I first severed my left hand, replacing it with iron and trading my wand to that hand to do the same to the other, and my right foot, completely removing my sense of touch. Next, I swirled my wand over the gold and began to chant, watching the metal began to heat until it was glowing, molten liquid that I then guided up to my face, forming into two roiling, flaming orbs as it floated. This was technically blood magic, though it was also a hex wrapped in a curse: until I reached atonement for what I was going to do, two molten spheres of flaming gold would serve as my eyes, constantly burning and scaring my face and dripping liquid down my face that quickly cooled against my marble skin, reminiscent of Poppy’s adopted father, Lucifer. As my mind separated from the wails of agony I was letting out, I wondered if his hurt as well. The last part of the spell was the trickiest, as I needed to ensure the pain remained but the damage didn’t spread and kill me, requiring the grammatical format of the Horcrux spell combined with a mangled version of Poppy’s blood curse, cast on myself. The sensation of my very soul splitting, before being jammed back together in a strange, not-right way as I used my undead vampire soul to make myself a half-Horcrux… for myself felt truly wrong, but I had made my choice. Gasping several times, I realized I was on my side, intermittently vomiting and twitching as waves of agony rolled over my face, a heavy pounding sounding at the door filling me with dreadful purpose. Rising, unsteady on my new foot, I held my hand out, Elkir clanking into it, tip facing the door. With a flick of my wand, the door exploded outward, accompanied by a roar of fire that blasted from the tip of my wand as I charged forward, incinerating the entire hallway and pumping more fire deeper into the ship, flooding the lower decks with cursed fire and darting upstairs, slaughtering anyone I could see. My vision was blurred, smoky and still adjusting to the magic, and I didn’t stop moving and killing until the entire ship was aflame, several explosive charms scoring deep holes into the other ships, accompanied by enough fire to slaughter the occupants. The crackling of the fire was soothing, tickling at my chest with warmth and distracting me slightly from the lava-hot eyes I now possessed. Standing on the prow, I watched as the other two ships sank, fire slowly put out by the sea as they dipped below surface; the fire aboard this ship would consume it soon enough. With a whirl of my cloak, I Apparated directly to the field behind the encampment at Corndog Canyon, dispelling the ward around the fungal spores and readying Elkir as I charged, leading with another wave of fire.

Chapter 11: Midnight

Chapter Text

Jude

It took an entire week to travel the length of the Meat Lands, killing everything I saw and spreading a truly massive line of mycelium behind me wherever I walked that quickly grew, feeding off of the bodies and soil and even growing to consume entire buildings, with enough time. A few quick Apparations put me along the path to Pangranos, where I would turn south after consuming the capital of Ceresia. The magic of this world was incredible, but paled in comparison to that of mine in terms of speed and flexibility in spellcasting; as such, my progress was only hindered by the speed at which I moved. Villages and towns fell sometimes in minutes—after vomiting for ten minutes into the sewers of Carn, it had been overgrown in less than two hours—and I had begun to notice the rise in my magical strength after leaving Corndog Canyon a swirling lake of mold, fungal growths and bones. The spell that Siobhan had used was brilliant, complex, and required so much magical power that it was too unwieldy to use in Calorum, as I could only safely do it once. Most of the soldiers I encountered died quickly enough, some begging or pleading even as they began coughing up tufts of furry black mold, though a few had to be cut to pieces with Elkir before they submitted. Rivers were vital to my plan, and as I drew closer to Pangranos I found a few towns that had been overgrown before I’d even arrived from the poisoned water. It was almost like an art exhibit, or the excavated remains of Pompeii, with people frozen in place or on the ground, huddled together like forgotten remnants of meals long past. I caught the city unawares, as no one had escaped to warn them, and strolled into the gate, using magic to cut anything I saw in half, streaks of mold racing out like hungry tendrils that enveloped anything in their reach—I thought I heard horns blowing, but wasn’t sure—continuing through the city to the other exiting gate, to prevent any escape. As I went, I tried to set at least one house ablaze per street, drowning out the screaming with the sounds of cracking and popping wood, vast plumes of smoke beginning to curl up into the sky as I meticulously destroyed every block. After that, I took the road south, the wave of decay now spreading as far as my eye could see east or west beside me, advancing like a line in tune with my step as I traveled. Saprophus had been silent, and I was unaware if it knew what my full intentions were, instead focusing on my next objective.

As I killed more and more, the ease with which I did so increased alongside the strength I consumed, until I was able to level Comida with a single spell. I left it for the rot, continuing south and enveloping the entirety of southern Calorum and slaughtering the inhabitants indiscriminately. Once the mainland was done, I carefully navigated across the Dairy Islands, each small dot in the ocean eventually, inevitably covered in mold. All across the world, it was silent; only two remained, myself and Saprophus.

Fire proved extremely useful in clearing the tunnels to the heart of the mycelium, as did several explosive spells to open the massive stone doors guarding the pulsing blue center of the vast (now all-consuming) fungal colony. This was where I would use Siobhan’s spell. Holding my wand carefully, I turned it counter-clockwise, slowly pushing it forward before pulling back, a ripple spreading through the air. Next, I traced my wand in a circle, forming a silvery ring between myself and Saprophus, two small beads of light appearing in the middle. With a glance at the blue light, I held my wand like a quill and tugged on one of the beads, which swung out before returning and colliding with the other. After I’d tugged it, I’d Apparated aboveground and far away, feeling a muffled rumble reach me as the ground heaved, throwing me off of my feet and sending gouts of fire out of any caves within my sight. A few seconds later, as the fire began to die down, the entire world froze. The grass stopped moving in the wind, trees stopped swaying, all sound and silence vanished; with a snap of electricity, I was back in my body, sword in Annabel’s neck, but now I had the power of a god. As I settled back into the correct dimension, my skin shattered, cracks exuding blindingly bright light as my body tried to contain the magical energy it had just been suffused with. I noticed two things in the split second before time resumed: firstly, the fungal infection had stayed in Calorum, thankfully; secondly, likely as a result of the time dilation in some way, the power I had gained from fulfilling the Valentinian Heresy had exponentially increased, on par with the one-to-one-thousand ratio Siobhan had mentioned. I practically radiated energy, throwing Project Lacuna into bright, brilliant definition. Annabel turned, surprisingly, dusty particles moving from where I had cut into her as she turned to face me.

“Did you really—oh, f*ck.” Seeing what must have been one of the most terrifying visages in her life, her eyes widened, and she stepped back from the blade as she drew her wand, but I was faster, whipping my wand out and surrounding her in an impenetrable shield, closing it slowly around her despite the flashing of curses, hexes, jinxes, and anything else she could think of. With only a thought, the shield began to close in on her, crumpling her further and further until her wand snapped, a small ball of strange, reality-tearing dust trapped in a ball. I wasn’t sure how to kill her—or any god, really—so I used the Reducto spell until there was nothing left in the ball, letting it clank to the ground of the now-empty hangar. At that moment, a thunder of rain struck the ground, and I looked up to find that my return had excavated the several thousand feet of earth above us, revealing the thundering, stormy sky that, as I watched, began to dissipate. I had no idea where Poppy was, turning and seeing Siobhan, who was looking at me with a deep expression of sorrow.

“And so, the first fell. Are you alright? You seem to have run into some trouble in that place.” Not mincing words, I inclined my head and pulled my cloak around myself.

“Where is she?” The flat, emotionless note in my voice shook Ollivander more than anything I’d seen before, and she watched me warily as she responded.

“The Grand Canyon. On vacation.” Before she could continue, I Disapparated, appearing with a ground-splitting crack that sent a wave of dust out around me. From where I was, I could see her, several hundred yards away, sitting on the edge of the cliff face. With Elkir as a staff, I trekked over to her, watching her head rise as I neared a hundred feet.

“Who goes there? You sound… strange. Familiar, but not. Don’t make me turn around and kill you.” I stopped, and withdrew a cigarette.

“Your reaper, mother.” Her head whipped around, eyes widening as she took in my new form.

“What—what have you done, Penny? What did you do?” I smiled sadly, nodding to her herself.

“Made a deal with a devil. I’m here to put you down before those mechanoids are possessed by the same damn thing you cut some deal with. The Galaxy Eater.” All of the bugs and wildlife went quiet, only sound the slight breeze and the burning of my cigarette. To my surprise, she didn’t lunge, instead standing and looking me in the eye.

“I did what I had to do, as I’m sure you have, from the look of it. Why is your music different? Did you do something to your soul?” I scowled, puffing my cigarette angrily for a moment.

“Make your move, Poppy. There isn’t time to talk anymore.” I watched her eyes dart over me, taking in both Elkir and the magical enhancements I’d undergone, before she spoke with a note of pride in her voice.

“Giant’s Causeway. Major Fidelius Charm, but I’m a god, so. The name is ‘Seabed,’ and if you go a ways out of the city by broom you’ll find a pit. I don’t know what you did, but I can’t stop that creature because if I go back there, I die. You probably could, though. If you manage it, I’ll swear an Unbreakable Oath to never do it again, and whatever else you request. Unless, that is, my death is contingent on, say… a deal with a devil?” My sad smile returned, and she nodded, withdrawing her pipe and lighting it.

“I’ll show you the way. I die either way once that thing goes, so that’ll fulfill your deal.” My expression must have conveyed my complete disbelief, to which she simply said, “Hermione’s dead,” and grabbed my hand, Disapparating to one of the strangest places I’d ever been. We were at the bottom of the ocean, but instead of water there was about six hundred feet of magically-shielded air along the bottom. The topography was the same as regular ocean, strangely, and as we began to walk past different piles of bones, I put out my cigarette.

“You have my condolences, Poppy.” Ahead of me, she snorted weakly, accompanied by a puff of smoke.

“I don’t give a damn. As far as I’m concerned, we pushed the invasion back enough to get a foothold. Stark can take over Saber, the bots will either break down or be unpossessable, given the uniqueness of the host flesh. I’m tired.”

After skirting the bones of a massive dragon, we walked for a few more minutes before arriving at a ledge, which Poppy kept at least fifteen feet away from.

“It’s down there. Looks like it’s blackness, but trust me it isn’t. Now, do whatever you’re going to do. I’m going to have a drink.” She promptly sat down on a stone, withdrew a flask, and began to drink, staring out at the ledge with a mixed expression of weariness and disgust. As I considered it, peering over the ledge and indeed finding inky blackness several thousand feet down, the most obvious, yet preposterous idea struck me, on par with grabbing the sun or inverting gravity. Removing my cloak, I raised Elkir into the sky, magically levitating it several feet into the air and taking a breath to steady myself, kneeling to prepare myself for what I was attempting. Poppy, the genius that she was, took only a few moment to realize my plan, swearing under her breath. The spell I was going to cast was predicated on an archaic belief of magic called the Proportional Axiom, which was a way of explaining why, for example, a Stunning Spell cast by an adult is often stronger than one cast by a Hogwarts first-year; both due to inexperience and, more importantly, the power of the caster. The spell itself was used in magical blacksmithing to crack open meteorites for the extraction of starmetal, typically done orders of magnitude smaller—but, with the power I now wielded, was feasibly possible. After focusing on the point of impact, I clapped my hands together, staff striking downward in unison and releasing such a loud noise on impact that I briefly lost my hearing as it blew my eardrums out. When it returned, I was greeted by the most awful noise I had ever heard: cracking, rumbling, thundering sounds of rock tearing, entire tectonic plates splitting finely along where the staff had struck, snaking out along the oceans and sending a clean fracture through the entire planet. Then, before anything else, I cast the most powerful abjurative spell in existence to weave a barrier not unlike ozone around the split parts—temporary, until surgery had completed—watching as the two halves of the planet began to drift apart, under the gentle guidance of my trembling wand. It was burning hot in my hand, likely overloading with energy, and I felt molten tears streaming down my face as the planet finally split wide enough, revealing the horrifying creature buried at the center of the earth.

A writhing, pulsating mass of inky, oozing tentacles; billions of eyes, bloodshot and weeping under the new light of the sun that stared up at me with a hatred so pure and ancient it nearly drove me mad. The flesh wasn’t quite flesh, more formed liquid or pus of some sort—looking at it made my entire body feel lethargic—and before I could go insane on the spot, I used the entirety of the strength I’d gained from consuming Calorum to teleport the Great Old One directly into the center of the Sun. I didn’t look up until Earth’s core had been repaired, the two halves sewn together, and atmosphere fixed, but when I did my jaw fell open in shock. Through the water above, a brilliant light show of oranges, yellows, and whites was exploding out in the sky; flaming tentacles the size of planets whipped around in pain so great it was incomprehensible; as the creature flailed back and forth in the heart of the sun, I looked down to see that Poppy was watching as well, finishing her pipe.

“Good on ya, kiddo.” With a final drink, her body evaporated into a pile of metal, her cloak, boots, and staff. Where the rupture in the planet had been was now seamless rock; I rose, and Apparated to the shore, finding Siobhan, looking up at the sun. The sky was empty of clouds, giving us perfect vision of the cosmic cremation at the heart of our galaxy.

“Is she dead?” I nodded, dropping Elkir at her feet and hefting Morgana’s staff.

“I am no saint. My quest is over, and I will wander until the end of time, alone. I want no more part of this.” Again, I left before she could respond, Disapparating into the suffocating darkness with only my sorrows.

Epilogue to the Student Body Pantheon Arc

Siobhan

The time to act is now here. As I watched the Beast boil in Sol, I quickly began channeling the energy, drawing it across the cosmic weft and into my palms, where a trickling stream of solar fire began to coalesce in to the handle of a spear. I had never proclaimed myself a good or honest deity, and had only withheld information that wasn’t necessary for others to know. The death of the monster saved Earth, yes, but it also released enough magical energy to form just one shot at the Mind-Splitter. The creature beyond worlds, time and space; the architect of woe, who lay beyond even the pages of our story. The spear was of the same magic that first pricked the finger, and would do so again as a warning. Only half-completed, though it would finish construction in flight, I hefted it, taking a step back on the shore before darting forward and—every muscle in my body straining with effort—hurling it up, out at the sky, at you. As the spear flew, I knew from what twisted understandings I’d gleaned from my encounter with the Mind-Splitter that it would not lie defenceless. As the bolt gained both speed and definition, even the light of passing stars began to bend around it’s flight, darting through the space between galaxies in ever-decreasing amounts of time. The words were the key, and with research and logic I’d determined what best way to deliver my message. As it moved even beyond my sight, shifting through the skin of our very universe, I was met by three simple words, carried on the wind in a mirthful, almost guffawing voice.

As You Wish.

Chapter 12: Time And Relative Dimension In Space

Chapter Text

(Mini) Arc: VENGEANCE

“Long time ago, way back before the Titanoids fell, they say there was a city of gold, hidden deep underground on an old-world island. During the Great War, the city on top of it was leveled; but rumors come down the line about prospecters putting together some half-mangled mission to sail the sea, or that the Enclave has been hidden there the whole time. Nobody really knows anymore, at least not anyone still living. The ghouls that do’re probably hunkered down there now, eh?”

Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to be a Raider. Even though I grew up on an NCR base, every time a report would come in of a battle or invasion of Fiends I’d secretly long for the life on the road, lawless and free—no uniforms or mandatory classes. My brother Carter would knock me on the head whenever I mentioned it, saying I was stupid and that they didn’t even let girls be Raiders, which I thought made no sense if they were lawless. I kept it to myself, though, especially when the NCR instituted a draft to move more bodies into the Mojave, as a new threat from the east had purportedly arrived as well. Since I was still young, and hadn’t hit my last growth spurt yet (it would come three years later, at nineteen) I served as a military courier, delivering confidential messages, documents, and all manner of information back and forth within our own lines. It kept me out of danger, aside from the stray wildlife encounter—my service rifle “Betty” was enough to deal with those—and well-paid, enough to send some back home and afford one of the small apartments at the Mojave Outpost. In the aftermath of the first battle of Hoover Dam, I was among a vast swath of servicemembers honorably discharged, putting me out of work until I lucked into a job carrying letters to and from the town of Nipton, which was within sight of the outpost. Mostly, my deliveries were either to Goodsprings or Novac, the longer route, and life was good, if a little frugal. One morning, I woke to a knock at the door of my apartment, rising and pulling on a pair of pants before answering. Outisde stood a primly dressed man with a crisp navy fedora, who held out a package to me alongside a wad of NCR cash.

“Delivery, to Nipton.” I shrugged, knowing enough to not look incredulous at the clearly overpaid parcel, and took both from him.

“I’ve just woken up, lemme get dressed and I’ll get on the road.” When I looked back up, he was gone—unsurprising—and I swung my coat around my shoulders, digging around in my pockets until I found my sunglasses. The box wasn’t very big, and I slipped it into one of my hidden pockets I’d sewn into the lining of my coat, chugging a bottle of water and exiting with a stick of jerky in my mouth, locking the door behind me as I went. The perks of being a courier weren’t always obvious, at first; over time you start to notice just how unnoticed you are, almost like you only exist to deliver messages. I pulled a face at the wave of dry heat that enveloped me as I exited onto the Long 15, nodding to a nearby ranger and heading off towards the gate. A few people knew me from Hoover Dam, though they’d been promoted instead of discharged, one tossing me a pack of smokes with a nod as I checked out with him at the gate.

“Careful out there. Heard some news ‘bout Legion sightings on the road to Novac.” I smiled, adjusting my sunglasses as he opened the gate.

“Not goin’ that far today. Got a priority shipment, you see.” He raised an eyebrow dryly, and I waved as I exited, lit cigarette already in my mouth. As I did every time I walked, I wished the Mojave had bicycles. Back west, where I was from, I rode one to school every day, saving both time and effort—something I was constantly expending walking. The sun was still rising, delaying the full heat somewhat, and I made steady progress over the day, stopping at high noon to sit under an outcropping and drink some water. I was just outside of town, but the heat had increased exponentially, and after finishing two bottles I continued onward, arriving after another half-hour of walking. The town itself was one road, leading to the town hall at one end with a few houses and a general store along the road itself. Looking at the package, I saw the words ‘To The Mayor Of Nipton’ scrawled in brown ink, and made my way along the main road, planning to spend the hot afternoon drinking at the saloon and head back during the night. After leaving it with his secretary, I stopped outside to smoke, standing in the shadow of the building itself. A ways back down the street, I watched a dog wrestle with a rat, but after a moment the rat managed to wriggle out of it’s teeth and scamper off, ducking into the foundation of a nearby building. The dog, a little disappointed, scratched a few times at the cinderblocks before whining and trotting off. There was something about the frontier that I always loved, whether it was because that was where the Raiders were, or now, older, loving the solitude of the Mojave. Deciding where to go, and finishing my smoke, I crushed it under my boot and walked over to the saloon, where they hopefully had something cold. Before I had even fully opened the door, a loud, annoyingly boisterous voice echoed through the crack, with a unmistakably Strip accent. He was a somebody, or at least someone who knew somebody, and as soon as I’d stepped inside I spied a ludicrous checkered suit that the voice had to belong to. After taking an empty barstool at the opposite end of the bar from the city boy, I ordered a whisky nuke, a shot of whisky mixed with Nuka Cola, on the rocks. As soon as the ice-cold drink hit my lips, I let out an involuntary sigh, wiping a line of sweat from my forehead and gulping it down, before peeling off a few bills from the wad and ordering two more. Just from looking at it, the money from a day’s work was enough to maybe even buy my way into the Strip, or a caravan company, or whatever my heart desired. I’d heard you could win a fortune in Vegas, but I didn’t know the first thing about cards other than the basics of Caravan, so I settled for a career change. After finishing the second drink and half of the third, my mind wandered, catching a few whispers from the now-quiet, drunken group of khans and rich guy at the other end of the bar. Something about money—obviously—and my eye caught the glimmer of a strange poker chip as the checkered suit guy flashed it, slipping it back into his coat and downing his drink before rising. With a belch, he loudly stated he was “off to drain the snake, baby,” and headed for the back door. After a moment of contemplation, I finished my drink and stood, nonchalantly walking the same way. I caught up to him halfway out of the door, sliding an arm into his and smiling up at him as he stepped outside, offering my lighter to light the cigarette in his lips.

“Hey hey pretty mama, what brings a cool cat like you to this snoozefest of a neighborhood?”

An hour and a few scraps of my dignity later, he turned to finally piss, leaving his coat unattended—a quick feel found the pocket, and the strange chip, which I stuck into the same hidden pocket as before—and I stood, heading back into the bar and renting the room above it for the night, as well as buying a few Nuka Cola. After bolting the door, and cracking a bottle, I inspected the chip closer, listening to the sounds of drinking and muffled talking emanating through the thin floorboards. It was silvery, larger than a regular chip, and had the Lucky 38’s logo emblazoned on it—the casino owned by an enigmatic, shadowy figure no one had ever seen in person, who’d run it through robot guards since before the war—as well as a heft to it that didn’t quite fit the small size. Deciding it was most likely incredibly valuable to someone, I hid it in the most secure hidden pocket I had; taking off my boot, I popped open a hidden compartment in the heel just large enough to fit the chip, having to swap out a few choice items that were squirreled away into other pockets. Once that was securely hidden, I finished the Nuka Cola and flopped back onto the mattress, determined to sleep for a few hours before beginning the trip back to the outpost.

I was woken far to early by the door splintering off of it’s hinges, revealing several men in strange red getup, at the head of which was a man with a hood made from what looked like a wolf’s head. Four of the men rushed in, grabbing me by each limb as I fought wildly, until an elbow cracking into my head knocked my focus enough for them to throw me out of bed and strip me. My mind immediately went to the worst, but before anything else could happen, I heard an oily voice speak from the doorway.

“Stop.” From my position, face-down, I could only see the boots approaching; identical to the others.

“What is this, profligate? Answer, and it may spare your life.” As he spoke, a finger traced a spot on my right shoulder blade, where the tattoo of the NCR flag sat on my skin, once proud and colorful, but now crossed out by two jagged scars in my back I’d done with a switchblade in an old mirror outside of Camp McCarran after receiving my formal discharge.

“NCR screwed me over in a big way. Done with ‘em. Can we get this over with? I have mail to deliver.” I couldn’t tell if he saw through my bravado, and after a moment the finger vanished.

“She lives, untouched. Bring her and the others outside, and let her dress.” My clothes were thrown onto me, footsteps leaving as I sat up to put my clothes back on. Two were standing at the door, waiting expectantly, and the sound of gunshots and screams intermittently cut up the silence as I swung my coat around my shoulders, walking out past the men. They immediately began walking on either side of me, hands on cobbled-together machetes, and marched me down through the now-empty saloon and into the street. The sun was rising, and I saw fires burning at the edge of town, alongside several quickly constructed crosses, some already bearing occupants. In front of the town hall knelt what I assumed were the remaining survivors, among them the mayor, a few Powder Gangers—a band of escaped convicts with a penchant for dynamite—and townsfolk, hands bound. At the wolf-hood man’s signal, they were shot, while one of the Powder Gangers was released, taking off from the street like his life depended on it (which I suppose it did). Once the bodies had fallen, the man turned to me, indicating a small pile of bullets in his palm with a sickening leer.

“Your pistol has one round left. You may run in any direction you please, and if you survive you will have the privilege of spreading the word of what has happened here. Run.” Not hesitating at all, I drew my pistol, stuck it under his chin and blew his head off before I bolted, tearing off straight down the road without a single glance back. Gunfire began to pepper the ground around me, and I booked it back west, not slowing even for the brutally steep incline and collapsing into a heap behind the nearest stack of sandbags, chest heaving and legs and arms bleeding from shrapnel (thankfully, they were lousy shooters). The first face that appeared was my friend’s, then one of the rangers I’d seen on base, nicknamed “Ghost.”

“You alright?” I caught my breath, sitting up against the sandbags and nodding slightly.

“Just got back from Nipton. Town’s burned, crucifixions and all. The Legion came through in the night, dragged me out of bed to “spread the word” if I managed to outrun them. Consider the word spread and my obligation fulfilled.” I dug around my coat until I found a Jet puffer, taking a small hit to steady off the aching soreness that was settling onto me as my adrenaline wore off.

“Appreciate it, I guess.” By the time I’d stood up, she’d returned to her spot on the roof, and I scowled before stumbling in to trade with the base merchant, refilling my food and water as well as buying as many pistol rounds as he had, walking out with enough for at least three gunfights and then some, the itching feeling of eyes on the back of my head having hung over me from the moment I’d started running. I wasn’t staying at the outpost a second longer than I had to, planning to head north and hopefully find a spot to hide out after killing that important Legionnaire, at least until the search for the murderous courier died down. Goodsprings was a good spot, far enough in NCR territory to avoid most dangers of the frontier, and after giving a mock salute at the gate, I began walking north. I’d been further than Goodsprings before, for the army, but I found that they were much nicer to me without the uniform—and when I wasn’t delivering their tax reports. It took a full day to get there, passing along the cracked, old-world roads and ignoring the same defunct billboards advertising things like “Flavor Beans” and faded recruitment posters for something called “SHIELD,” neither of which had survived the war or intervening centuries with much grace. The way I saw it, I had two options: become a mercenary, or raider. I didn’t care to crawl on my knees back to the NCR, and after Nipton the Legion was certainly gunning for me, so there weren’t many options available otherwise. I didn’t know the first thing about how to join a raider group, stopping about half a mile from town to peer at a new sign, shoddily made and stuck into the sand next to the road. “Randall & Associates Bounty Hunting.” Whether it was a stroke of luck or misfortune, I didn’t care, turning off the road and walking through the sand to a ramshackle building, bearing another, smaller version of the sign on the door. Inside was cozy, a few desks, cabinets, and chairs scattered around the main desk at the back, where a man sat in a duster, hat, goggles, and mask.

“You takin’ applications?” The man looked up, stopping whatever he was doing on the typewriter.

“I just got one question: You willin’ to kill people for money?” I patted the gun at my side, nodding.

“Long as you’re payin’.” The man, presumably Randall, fished around in his desk before withdrawing a slightly crumpled, official-looking wanted poster.

“Your first mark is a mean sonovabitch named Bulldog. Word is that he’s up from Texas, though no one knows what for; bring me back his trigger finger and there’s a cool two-hundred caps waiting for you. Any questions?” I took the poster, shook my head, and left, examining the poster for his last known location—north of Vegas, which meant a tough trip either way. The two main roads north from Goodsprings were overrun with cazadores and deathclaws, but I couldn’t go east, as I’d inevitably run into a Legion hit-squad. The only surefire way besides the roads was to climb Black Mountain, but that wasn’t much of a choice either, given my inexperience rock climbing. After checking the secret compartment in my boot—chip was there, safe and sound—I glanced over my old NCR map, which I’d updated over the years as best as I could. Out of the two, cazadores weren’t as bad, and if I moved at night they would most likely be asleep in their nests (or whatever they did when the sun went down), eating a quick lunch before setting out north. I didn’t stop in Goodsprings, simply waving to familiar faces and hurrying to the canyon trail on the west side of town, reaching it and drinking a bottle of water as the sun set. Even from the edge of town, the faint sounds of buzzing wings were audible, though I noticed as it grew darker that the sounds started to peter out. Taking my chance, I darted off, moving as quickly and quietly as I could and sticking to ridges and cliffs as opposed to the path below. About halfway through, in a bend in the path, I saw mountains of Cazador nests, only a few of the orange-winged beasts visible sitting peacefully on top of each, likely keeping watch. Their bodies were too fat to do more than float a few feet above the ground, and I continued along the peaks, making it to the other side with a sigh of relief. As I slid down the side of a hill, I felt a sickening crunch as I came to a stop, lifting my boot to find the crushed body of a small, likely infant Cazador. A split second later, all of the buzzing returned, and I took off, tearing across the plain as fast as I could, hearing the sounds of a furious hive gaining ground rapidly behind me. The paved road restarted, and I took it, feet pounding against the ground and nearly giving under me as a four-inch long stinger struck my shoulder, not stopping as six more stings struck my back and arms, holding them over my head and forcing myself forward, not knowing the direction I was running until all of the bugs vanished, replaced with a terrifying roar I’d only heard described to me by shell-shocked soldiers, or Sloan when I’d made deliveries. In my haste, I’d turned east instead of north, running straight into deathclaw territory to escape the cazadores—the ground was already shaking as my now unobstructed vision caught a massive, full-grown deathclaw thundering towards me, claws like shining daggers in the moonlight. There was no way for me to beat it, body collapsing as the Cazador venom sapped the strength from my limbs, blood gushing from the host of stings I’d received. Not two steps from me, the deathclaw froze in place, as if someone had paused it in time, and I laid back, weakly laughing at my luck. I was going to die painfully, slowly, then this thing would step over and devour my body—of course. A blinding light suffused my features, and something lightly touched my chest, through my coat. I rolled over, wretching as I felt my wounds and skin stitching themselves back together, vomiting out disgusting purplish liquid that was most likely Cazador venom, some of the strength beginning to return to me on the ground. Was this it? Was I dying?

“Need a hand?” Blinking, the light diminished, revealing a woman, clad in white robes and carrying an old-looking staff. Taking the proffered hand, she pulled me up with relative ease, glancing over at the still-frozen deathclaw beside us.

“Run of bad luck, it seems. Thanks for saving me—how did you do that? Am I dead?” Laughing, she shook her head and reached into her robes, pulling out a battered, thick book.

“Not at all. Think of this as an extension of credit, on the house.” She pressed it into my hands, and I glanced down at the title in some confusion: Abridged Book of Spells, by Miranda Goshawk.

“Spells? I’ve already learned how to write, but I appreciate it.” With a dry look and a snap of her fingers, the deathclaw was beheaded, head falling to the ground with a spray of blood.

“Take this, and go on with your journey.” Leaning down, she pried off one of the deathclaw’s massive talons, doing something to it before handing it to me.

“Use that to use the spellbook. Don’t do more than your body can take. Good luck.” With a flash of light, she vanished, leaving me holding a book and a piece of a deathclaw in utter confusion.

With the near-death experience out of the way, I continued north, taking the main road through west Vegas—I didn’t run into much trouble, just a few stray Fiends—book sitting heavily in my coat, never far from thought. The strange lady had appeared, inexplicably decapitated one of the wasteland’s most fearsome predators—healed me—and gave me a book of spells. I wasn’t sure about anything, resolving to stop by Freeside and ask around for a “woman in white,” as well as restock my supplies. Before heading to the Jackal camp, where Bulldog was holed up, I ducked into the Atomic Wrangler, using NCR bills to buy a room and some drinks. The place was the knock-off Strip, though I’d never been to the real thing—air conditioning was a luxury in of itself—and I took the bottle of whiskey up to my room, enjoying some with my dinner of Gecko steaks and pinyon nuts. The book sat in front of me, unopened, with the deathclaw finger on top; through three-quarters of the bottle I watched it, expecting some monster or bomb to explode, though nothing happened. Finally, overcoming my wariness through another swig (old-world artifacts meant only trouble), I flipped open the book, finding that it was in English, and filled with annotations. Following the advice of the woman—“Don’t do more than your body can take”—I grabbed the finger, treating it like a magic wand and attempting to make a pinyon nut float. My pronunciation of the words couldn’t have been perfect, but as I swished the finger I confidently proclaimed, “Wing-hour dee-yum Levee-ohsah,” sucking in a gasp as the nut moved about half an inch upward, before falling back down into my palm. Magic was real?

A day later, I was a ways from the raider camp, still thinking about the pinyon nut. I hadn’t tried anything else from the book, too scared by the strange, unexplainable phenomenon I’d performed at the Atomic Wrangler. The camp itself was inside the ruins of a large office building, a brief scan with my binoculars revealing a few scouts up higher with rifles. My service rifle didn’t have a scope, so I had to slowly trace my way around the entirety of the building, spending four hours moving deathly still from spot to spot. The guards didn’t rotate, and I kept careful note of each, springing into action when one turned to piss. As quietly as I could, I crouch-ran up to the side of the building, using as much willpower as I could to keep my breathing quiet and even. After a few minutes, during which I tried my best to become a part of the wall, no one had raised the alarm—I was still undetected. The nearest window was about ten feet away, and I gently edged over to it, getting my pistol ready and leaning to peek around the window. There was only one staircase, on the opposite side of where I stood, and about six raiders were milling around the bottom floor. Reaching into my coat, I withdrew the Jet puffer, taking a long drag and hopping through the window as time seemed to slow; the first three raiders died before they could react, another only able to draw her rifle before a golf-ball sized hole blew through her chest. The other two were able to get to cover, and I darted forward, last of the Jet wearing off as I slid around a collapsed wall, using the last two shots to kill one of them. Before I could swing my rifle around, the sixth jumped on me, only to be gutted by the Bowie knife that flowed like water from my sheath to his stomach. Rolling him off, I stood, raising my rifle and taking down two of the upstairs raiders, swearing as the third shattered part of the wall next to me, sending shrapnel into my face. Ducking behind cover, I swiftly reloaded my pistol and squinted, only able to see out of my left eye—I charged out, spotting the last one coming down the stairs and putting four bullets into him, watching his body crumple down the stairs as my breathing slowed. In less than a minute, all nine raiders were dead, and I withdrew the wanted poster, pouring some water onto my face to wash out any remaining shards and wrapping a strip of cloth around my head, sticking myself with a stimpack as I flipped over the bodies, searching for Bulldog. The fifth I turned over turned out to be the ringer, and I used my knife to slice off his finger, wrapping it in cloth and stuffing it into a pocket. The two shots had struck his forehead and jaw, leaving his face a mangled pile of blood, teeth, and stringy meat spattered across the ground; I spat onto it, lit a cigarette, and began my journey south—I was taking the long way, damn it all.

After a nasty encounter with a pack of nightstalkers the second day of the trip, I bunkered down in Novac, getting my wounds treated by a conventional doctor (I was sure this weird magic could heal me, but I didn’t have the first idea about how to do it), renting a motel room and collapsing onto the bed after securely latching and bolting the door—I also stuck a chair under the handle for good measure. I’d been lucky in the fight with the raiders, only ending up with a few nasty cuts and scrapes around my eye from the shrapnel; flipping through the book, I found the section on healing magic and began reading, as it seemed the most vital part of my survival in the Mojave. Never before had I been so grateful that the military academy taught us to read and write, spending hours pouring over things like “Bone-Setting Charms” and “Sinus Clearing Jinxes” until the words floated, almost burned into my vision. Deciding to test the easiest one, I took my knife (wiped raider blood from it) and made a small cut on the back of my hand. Then, taking the deathclaw finger, I waved it back and forth over the cut, speaking the simplest spell I could find softly.

Sana.” A dim glow emerged from the tip of the claw, same itching sensation returning as the cut slowly knit itself back together, not even leaving a scar in it’s place.

“Hell yeah.” I continued to mutter to myself as I read, finding a spell to repair things and immediately using it on both of my guns, watching in amazement as the rust and scratches were scoured from the metal, leaving them both shiny and looking newer than I’d ever seen them. With those two spells, I figured I would be able to survive at least a little more comfortably, hiding the book under my pillow and drifting off into sleep.

The next morning, I walked down to the front desk, where the proprietor—an older lady named Jeannie May—had just made a fresh pot of coffee. Standing by the desk, I chatted with her about the weather, recent news from the south (after Nipton, the Legion had been worryingly quiet), and the latest Novac scuttlebutt, which wasn’t too heavy considering the double-digit population. Once I’d finished two cups (a cap each) I returned to my room, gathering my things and preparing for the journey south. I’d have to pass through Legion territory, or cross the sandy expanse just north of the road—a dangerous prospect, and I hated ants—resolving to follow the road, as men were easier to kill than monsters. It was cloudy, which helped with the heat, and I made decent progress, a stray gecko my only roadblock. I gave Nipton a wide berth, some of the buildings still smoking as the fire died down. After that, I returned to the outpost, spending the night in my apartment and paying four months in advance with the NCR cash I’d gotten, lifting an invisible weight off of my shoulders in the cool, slightly dusty bed. After a breakfast of coffee and cigarettes, I resumed my trek, following the road north before stopping as a strange sound met my ears. It was an almost… whooshing sound, repetitive and not natural, coming from some distance off the road, behind a rock outcropping. Drawing my rifle, I crept over to the rock and peered around it carefully. To my surprise, I saw a large blue box, with a light on top and a sign denoting it as a telephone box. Stepping out from cover, I lowered my rifle and examined the front, which had a small pull-handle on it. I’d never seen a telephone booth like this, but back in California there were ones of a similar purpose; I wondered if it took NCR bills. As I stood outside the door, a banging, rattling sound issued from the box, as if someone was trying to punch the door open—with a bang! The door snapped open, smoke billowing out and sending me staggering back, coughing wildly. A woman in a suit collapsed out of it, facefirst into the sand, and I dragged her free of the smoke before sitting down, still coughing. As I sat there, the woman slowly regained consciousness, suddenly snapping into a sitting position and looking around wildly.

“Earth. I’m on Earth, aren’t I? What year is it?” My nose scrunched up a little as I tried to remember the calendar in Jeannie May’s office.

“Somewhere in the mid-twenty-two-seventies, I think. Why wouldn’t you be on Earth?” Looking around at the old-world ruins around us with a bit of surprise, she patted her pockets before producing a strange, electronic device and pressed a few buttons on it, scanning it across the ground.

“Nuclear residue this high shouldn’t… This can’t be possible. What happened to this world?” This lady was weird, but I’d played cards with stranger Raiders, so I decided to play along with it.

“A few centuries ago, humans were all across the planet and super advanced—but there was a war, one that resulted in these big machine fighters going offline and detonating all across the globe, which started a chain reaction of nuclear warheads across the entire planet. In my history classes back home they said there used to be all sorts of incredible stuff, like vampires and robot-people and gods, but now they theorize they’ve diminished along with how few people are left.” The pallor that sunk into her face at this knowledge wasn’t surprising, but it was still sad to see someone comprehend what had happened to Earth; when I first learned that from my textbook I’d cried for a week.

“S’pose… Had to happen at some point, I guess. It’s not too bad now though, a lot like those old pre-war westerns but people are a lot meaner. You from the Strip? Dressed like it.” At her confused look, I rolled my eyes, standing as the smoke cleared and offering her a hand.

“Ellie Jones. You are?” Taking my hand, she stood, brushing the sand from her jacket casually.

“The Doctor. I think I’m in the wrong dimension, actually.”

Chapter 13: Unseen Foes

Chapter Text

Ellie

After clearing as much of the smoke as we could, the Doctor deemed it safe to re-enter, stepping in and beckoning me to follow. After a moment of trepidation, I stepped through, promptly gasping as I stepped into a much larger room than I was expecting. It was full of mechanical controls, buttons, switch panels, and all sorts of technology I’d never even heard of, a wide room with a walkway from the door to about the middle of the height, where a few chairs and staircases led off to other, somehow more rooms.

“Whoa. It’s… bigger on the inside?” The Doctor chuckled, flapping a rag at a smoking fusebox on the opposite side of the controls from the door.

“There it is. Best bit.” As she worked, I wandered around the room, examining incomprehensible screens and peering at the intricate machinery around the central console, before a loud dinging noise sounded and the lights brightened, accompanied by a clap from above.

“Now! Let’s run a scan, see what the TARDIS can detect about this planet. Come up and watch, it’s fun!” Joining her, I watched as the screens showed a holographic image of Earth, spitting readouts in a language I couldn’t understand while the Doctor grew increasingly grim with each line of information.

“Can’t read this language, Doctor. What are you, anyway? Some sort of alien? I’m packing iron, so don’t try anything.” She looked over at me, surprised, and nodded slowly.

“Yes, actually. I’m from another planet. So, technically an alien. But I’m not going to ‘try anything,’ don’t worry.” Scanning a few more lines of information, she moved and began inputting various things into the console. “The TARDIS is much more than bigger on the inside, though; anywhere in time and space, she can take us there. I’m going to go back and watch the moment this world went nuclear, if you care to join. No pressure, of course.” My wariness had been battling my curiosity since I first peered around the rock, but at the opportunity to travel through time, even I wasn’t stupid enough to say no.

“Why not. Would make for a great story.” With a snort, she threw a lever, a rumble shaking us slightly as the same whooshing noise from before started up.

“So! Ellie Jones—great name, by the way—What brought you over to me?” Shrugging, I withdrew a cigarette and made to light it, before it was snatched out of my hand.

“No smoking inside, please. Ruins the seats.” Scowling, I instead drew out my flask, and took a swig.

“I’m starting my career as a bounty hunter. Was coming back from my first job when I heard this box—er, TARDIS—behind a rock.” With another rumble, the telephone box dinged, and the Doctor shot me a curious look as she strode over to the door.

“We’re several miles outside of Earth’s atmosphere, at the moments before everything detonated. The sensors are already showing some—” As the doors opened, we both froze in place, in awe of what we were seeing. The whole planet was burning, ten or so giant monoliths emitting pulses of atomic fire on the side we could see; massive alien ships were scattered around the atmosphere, most burning or crashing into the surface; as we stood there in silence, the sea itself began to boil, before the entire planet split apart, revealing something so terrible that my brain couldn’t handle it, shutting off and sending me into blissful unconsciousness.

Groggily, I sat up, in one of the chairs by the central console, Doctor peering at the sensor readouts.

“We’re back where we were. Seems Earth is interesting no matter what dimension it’s in. I made tea.” Indeed, a lukewarm cup sat on the seat next to mine, and I gingerly sipped it.

“Never seen anything like that before. Whole planet on fire.” Her cheer seemed to fade a little, and she turned away slightly, responding in a quiet voice.

“Not pretty.” Once I’d gathered the strength, I stood, checking my guns and peering at the console, blinking lights an unsolvable puzzle.

“How do you understand all of this stuff? I’m barely able to figure out how to turn on a lightbulb, let alone… time travel, I guess?” she snorted, turning back to face me.

“Had a lot of practice. Would you like some help?” At my confused expression, she returned one back.

“I’m the Doctor. I help people.” Screwing up my face more, my hand twitched for my cigarettes.

“Fine. You probably won’t believe half the sh*t I’m going to tell you, though.” After withdrawing the chip, book, and deathclaw finger, I explained the entire process of acquiring them, Doctor wincing at the appropriate moments and cheering at others.

“Seen a tough road, eh? Don’t worry, I think I can help you out. May I sonic that chip?” Shrugging, I flipped it to her, watching with some bemusem*nt as she ran the strange ‘sonic’ device over it, humming to herself.

“Interesting. Energy readings on this are unique, but… Familiar. Do you know what it’s for?” I nodded, relating to her what I knew from overhearing the suit.

“Lucky 38 is a brilliant name for a casino. But, if it’s shielded from this magic you’re learning—well, I can’t imagine anyone would think to shield it against a TARDIS. Want to give them a visit?” Her nonchalance about what was surely suicide did not escape me, and I frowned.

“Are you trying to get killed? Showing up in someone’s private, centuries-locked bunker out of nowhere is a good way to get filled with lead.” Rolling her eyes, the Doctor began flipping more levers, turning wheels, and pressing buttons.

“If they’re worth their salt, they’ll know me.” After another jump, we both strolled out (I walked cautiously; the Doctor strolled) into a cozy, very high-end penthouse that seemed to occupy the entirety of the top floor. A massive wall of computer banks covered one wall, and sitting at a chair, holding a wooden stick, was a middle-aged man with a trimmed beard.

“Who the hell are you?!” The Doctor doffed an imaginary hat, coming to a stop a few feet from the man.

“I’m the Doctor. My friend here has a delivery for you, and I have a few questions.” Watching both of us warily, the man indicated the wood in his hand.

“Mind if I cast a detection spell on you? I’ve never seen someone like you before.” The Doctor—and I—was interested at the proposition, a quick flick and sprinkle of gold dust accompanying the man’s gasp.

“From another world! Please, tell me you’re not allied with Cybertron.” At both of our confusion, the man leaned back in his chair, relieved.

“Let me be brief. You look like you’re from the Mojave, right?” At my nod, he continued.

“The war, centuries ago, is still going. It’s almost entirely spacefaring, now, and most of the operations take place in other planets in the solar system. I’m Dugan Kehoe, by the way. General of Saber’s Terran Theater.”

After a much more in-depth history lesson than Ms. Smith’s in eleventh grade, I was up to speed with current affairs. The Doctor leaned up against a desk, arms crossed; I lit a cigarette.

“You were there, for the Titanoids?” A shadow crossed Dugan’s face, and he nodded.

“Regretfully. Poppy and Annabel’s bastard children. This was before I was a fully fledged member, before the war grew beyond the planet. Twenty flesh-and-steel titans, built to protect the planet. Made from the very flesh of the galaxy eater itself.” All three of us shuddered, a chill settling at the words.

“But, Jude split the planet, and teleported the creature into the sun, killing it. Poppy dying caused the Titanoids to detonate, then you know the rest. The only reason we still stood a chance afterwards was Project Abacus, another of Annabel’s projects. A bastion of vampires and humans, coming together in space to scour the Cybertronian Accord from our skies long enough for SHIELD to recover.” My mind jumped back to the old recruitment billboards, and my eyes widened slightly.

“Wait, like from the old signs? SHIELD still exists?” Dugan raised an eyebrow.

“We never left. Earth’s military force dug into the crust and mantle, setting up an entire civilization beneath what looks like the first steps of a tomb world. The moon, Mars, even Venus have underground metroplexes.” I was floored, cigarette burning down to my fingers without me noticing. The Doctor spoke next as I absentmindedly sucked my finger.

“This Cybertronian Accord. What of them? Who are they?” Turning and tapping a few keys, a list of organizations came up on a screen.

“Cybertron is a mechanical planet, embroiled in a civil war. For anything else, I’m going to need some information from you, Doctor. Who are you? Why are you here?” The Doctor stood, straightening her suit slightly.

“You’ve been honest with me, and I see no reason not to be with you. I’m the last of the Time Lords, an ancient race of time travelers. I’ve come to this dimension by some means, and I would like to help humanity however I can.” They held eye contact for a long moment, before Dugan nodded.

“Very well. The Decepticons, led by Megatron, are our primary enemies. They’re after the Allspark, a genesis-artifact hidden here on Earth and protected by the Autobots. There are a few clans in league with them on planet, but most of the fighting is in Europe. Our alliances are with most major pantheons, mythical creatures, and the Autobots. You too, I suppose. What planet do you hail from, for our records?” The sad look crossed her face again, and the Doctor shook her head.

“It’s gone. I’m a wanderer. May I speak with whomever is in charge?” Dugan snorted, typing away for a minute before responding.

“Sure. The council would love to meet a time-traveler.” After receiving coordinates, and a fancy revolver to replace my standard one, the Doctor and I returned to her TARDIS, to go to Europe and meet with this ‘council.’

“Funny guy. I don’t like this war, already.” Raising an eyebrow, I sat across from her.

“Is there a war you like?” Judging from her derisive snort, I chuckled, taking a swig from my flask.

“I will have you know, I will not kill. It’s against what I stand for.” I nodded, raising my hands placatingly.

“As long as I’m fed and have a place to sleep, I’ll follow the rules. This beats living in the Mojave by a longshot.” After another jump, this time to Europe, I stowed the revolver in a compartment and slung my holster over a seat before following him outside, into the ruins of a massive city. It was similar to pictures of California right after the detonation, completely empty and subsumed by waves of sandy ash.

“Radiation levels are off the charts.” As we looked around, a woman walked from the dust clouds, clad in robes and shoeless.

“Ah, hello! Dugan sent us.” As she drew near, all of the dust particles froze mid-flight, wind silenced and birds nonmoving in the sky. Both the Doctor and myself were unaffected, but she looked very alarmed at what was occurring, turning to focus on the woman’s face.

“Who are you? What power is this you’re wielding?” The woman seemed just as surprised as we were, pausing for a moment before replying in a whispery, raspy voice.

“I am the Goddess of Time, leader of the Council of Gods and Protector of Earth. Who are you?” Though she was supposed to be on our side, I was distinctly put off by her, as if she was radiating waves of tangible malice at us.

“I’m the Doctor, last of the Time Lords. This is my traveling companion, Ellie.” I tipped my hat, which the woman didn’t respond to.

“We have no need for more meddlers in the fabric of time. Return from whence you came, pretender.” With that, she vanished into dust, time restarting a split-second later. The Doctor turned to look at me, a deep suspicion etched into her face.

“Something’s wrong here. Back inside.” Once we were back inside the TARDIS, she kneaded her forehead, leaning over the console.

“I don’t trust that goddess. If this is a system-wide war, then the more help the better. Maybe…” A sudden rattle shook the ship, sending me to the ground. Sensors began beeping, text scrolling out on the screen faster than I could read it.

“We’re moving?! How are we moving, you’re parked!” several lights exploded, floor rolling like a ship in a maelstrom for an indeterminable amount of time, ending as abruptly as it had started.

Arthur

One day, as I was in the human world, a knock sounded from the front door. I didn’t really have any worries about being attacked, since I was pretty much invincible except to God and Death, so I opened the door without checking. In front of me stood Death, holding a large box.

“Here, let me help you.” She rolled her eyes, and I took the box from her, carrying it to the living room and setting it down.

“Y’know, even though I look like a burned-out college student, I am the personification of the end of existence. I can carry a box.” I raised an eyebrow.

“I was just being polite. What is it, anyway?” She pulled the top of the box off, revealing another box, this one wrapped in shiny Christmas paper.

“Present from Nick. He says congratulations on stopping the end of the world.” I dug through the wrapping, finding within the box a golden-etched mirror, though instead of reflecting the room it only seemed to hold a dark, gloomy fog.

“What is this for? Am I about to get cursed?” Death snorted, kicking back on a chair and lighting a cigarette.

“Impossible, given our deal. He was pretty mysterious about it, to be honest. Only gave me a command word for you to say. ‘Popelia.’” I frowned down at the mirror, before moving it to stand upright against the wall, squatting in front of it to be level.

Popelia.” For a moment, nothing happened, but as I watched it the fog began to swirl—forming a strange vortex reaching back into nothingness.

“Uh—” With a bang, a full person smacked against the inside of the mirror, cracking it in several places. Death was beside me in an instant, peering over my shoulder with more curiosity than I’d ever seen.

“Well? Let her out.” Shooting an incredulous look over my shoulder, I reached out and flicked the glass, causing it to shatter the rest of the way and send the person tumbling to the ground in front of us, covered in glass. In the next second, the mirror shifted, reverting back to a normal mirror—still broken, unfortunately. The girl stood, brushing the glass off of her already-torn cloak, and looked me squarely in the eye.

“What the f*ck is going on."

After making coffee and cleaning up the living room, I joined Death and the mysterious traveler on the back porch, pouring a cup for all of us.

“I know just as little as you. This is some sort of present, from Santa Claus?” She shot me a look of disbelief, taking a long drink before eying the cigarette Death smoked.

“How much for one?” Death was, at first, amused, until the girl pulled out a bag of gold coins and began counting them out.

“Wait, I know those coins. Where are you from?” She flicked the pack over to the girl, who responded after lighting one.

“Britannia. This might not be my home dimension, so to say. Wouldn’t be the first time.” Her face shimmered slightly, as did her hands, and I squinted, trying to get a good look at her. For a flash, I was met with the clear image of two molten balls of gold in the place of her eyes, searing and dripping liquid fire down onto her porcelain cheeks.

"You’re strong, for a human. Seeing through a glamour like this is difficult for deities.” I shrugged, taking a sip of my coffee.

“Recently crowned Queen of Hell. Has it’s perks.” A puff of smoke chortled out of her.

“That so? Where I come from, Lucifer is alive and well. My step-father, in fact. Nice guy.” My hand twitched, unbidden, at the memory of driving my thumb into Lucifer’s eye.

“Must be a different dimension, then. Do you know why you were brought here?” She frowned, cigarette drooping slightly.

“Not… really. The last time, I… well, it’s a long story, but suffice to say I was working with my sister’s friend, the goddess of time. I don’t know why, but this time feels different. Like someone or something else is watching over me.” Death shuddered, then ducked for cover a split-second before the sky seemed to split apart in lightning, striking the pole Wrath used for sparring and revealing—once my eyes had cleared—God, looking much less hospitable than our last meeting.

“You are not of this world.” The girl already had her hands up, and Death raised a hand as well, to my surprise.

“Peace. She was summoned here, with the aid of Kringle.” God scowled, stomping over to the porch and taking the last seat at the table, between Death and I.

“What are you?” The girl kneaded her forehead, putting out the cigarette and lighting another.

“Full story. I’m a flesh golem of the goddess of death in my world, who became a vampire slash knight of time in order to defeat my sister, who had gone mad with power, breaking laws of magic, et cetera. I had just saved our Earth and left to wander when I was summoned to this place. The last time this happened, it was to… find power, from others. There must be some threat on the horizon far greater than before.” God steepled their fingers thoughtfully, before holding a hand out to Death. To my surprise, she set a cigarette and lighter into their hands, which were promptly lit.

“The aid of omniscience implies some form of omniscience itself in opposition. This being that sent you here, have you communicated with it in any way?” At that, the girl winced reflexively.

“Twice. Once, in my mind. It had to shatter my mind to keep me from going insane at perceiving it, I think. I remember words, too, like lines on a page.” God nodded.

“I am unfamiliar, in fact. If this threat can cross dimensions, then whatever this mind-splitting being is may be attempting to resist it by doing something similar. What occurred the last time you shifted planes?” Her expression soured into her cup.

“What needed to be done.” A chill crossed the porch, Death briefly looking off into space, a twitch of horror flashing across her before it returned to nonchalance, speaking around her cigarette.

“We certainly have power, if that is needed. A threat to both our dimensions is most definitely a concern worth uniting over, in my eyes.” God nodded, and all eyes turned to me.

“I… I think that is wise. My concern is whether or not this enemy can be stopped from entering other planes. If we could fortify ours, somehow… It could be a sort of home base, if help is needed beyond just our world.” I’d obviously piqued the interest of all three, and after a moment God spoke.

“I presume you are of magic?” At the girl’s nod, they continued.

“I believe it to be possible, what Arthur has put forward. It would require removing the walls between myth and reality, and some sort of unification of all three realms, but… It can be done.” They paused, and glanced over at me.

“May I place a portal to Heaven, beside the one to Hell?” Incredulous that they’d asked me permission, I nodded, a gilded, pearly gate rising from the ground beside the stone obelisk.

“It will be easier to coordinate this way. I shall leave the matters of Hell to you, Arthur, and the affairs of Earth to you, Death. I need to fix a few… bureaucratic inefficiencies upstairs.” Both Death and I flinched instinctively, God rising after a few parting words to the girl, who introduced herself as Jude. Once they’d left, all three of us relaxed, door to the house opening and revealing Julia, in human form.

“Is everything alright? I didn’t cause that storm.” I nodded, reaching over and pulling up a chair for her.

“Julia, meet Jude. Dimension-traveling witch. Jude, Julia. Oldest thunderbird in existence.” Julia rolled her eyes, while Jude nodded politely.

“I may have to do a war in Hell, honestly. The Loyalists need to be dealt with.” Death was immediately—worryingly—in favor, while Jude leaned forward as well.

“I can help you, if you like. What is the story of this world? Why are you in charge of Hell?” After recounting our entire story, from being selected as Lucifer's vessel to fight Michael to seizing the throne of Hell, Jude felt obligated to share hers, which took until the sun had started to go down. After finishing two packs of cigarettes between herself and Death, Jude drained her latest cup of coffee and sighed.

“Strange times, eh?” I nodded wearily, worn out from just talking about some of the things we’d endured.

“I would gladly accept your help, if you wish. Do you know any sort of magic that could protect us?” At that, she was stumped, chewing on the end of a twig until it was shredded into fine powder.

“For us, magic works relative to the energy the caster has. The more powerful the magic, the more energy required. Some people, like gods or vampires, have innate ‘boosts’ to their strength, but something like a warding spell on an entire dimension would take… well, it would take the energy contained within a dimension to cast it.” I nodded, having started taking notes around an hour ago.

“How do you get more power? Can you stockpile it?” She frowned, before indicating a spiderweb of cracks that ran across her skin.

“It depends on who is holding the energy. The stronger the being, the more they can handle before it kills them. I had a small dimension’s worth for a few minutes and it nearly killed me. If we could get a god or something equivalent, then maybe.” I nodded.

“I’m not sure how time works between worlds, but we’ll have to strike quickly to have time to prepare. Shall we?” I was a little surprised at her readiness for what surely meant a massive war, and raised my eyebrows curiously.

“Inter-dimensional threat notwithstanding, you seem a little bloodthirsty to me.” At that, she crossed her arms, blowing out a puff of smoke at me.

“I’m no stranger to bloodshed. The sooner it starts, the sooner it’s over.” There was a tiredness in her tone I didn’t quite understand, but Death shot her a knowing look.

“I agree. I’m going to get started here, you take care of business downstairs. I’ll see if I can dig up anything on wards or dimensions, if possible.” She vanished in a puff of smoke, leaving Jude, Julia, and I.

“To war, I suppose.”

Jude was strange. She smoked non-stop, scared anyone that looked at her for too long, and walked seemingly as loudly as possible with a twisted, gnarled wooden staff that clacked off of the sidewalk. We were in Lisandria, near the square, and upon arrival we would meet with Abaddon to marshal our forces. The main body of loyalists was in the north, arctic regions of Hell, and as such an expeditionary force was being amassed to launch an attack. Drawing to a stop near the fountain, I was surprised to see Jude kneel, holding her hands out as if waiting for something—when I went to ask her what she was doing, she shushed me dismissively. After a moment of nothing, she turned her face upwards, mouthing a single word with a slightly uncertain expression. The ground shook, several of the tiles around her cracking as the ground sank downward, and to my surprise a line of hot, flaming light began to coalesce in her hands. Slowly, like it was weaving itself into existence, a spear made of pure burning energy took shape in her hands, tip sizzling as something seemed to be eternally boiling off of it. After a moment, the rumbling stopped, and she stood, hefting the spear gingerly.

“What the hell was that?” Raising an eyebrow, she leaned against the fountain.

“Needed a weapon. Surely you’re no stranger to deals with devils?” Despite my concern, I rolled my eyes, leaning next to her and watching the crowd.

“Haven’t made any yet, actually. Just started at this position.” Nodding once, she lit another cigarette using the butt of the spear.

“Wouldn’t recommend it. My first one led to my… current alterations. Desperation is a powerful motivator, as they say.” Before I could reply, Abaddon arrived, suited up in armor and carrying a winged helmet under her arm.

“Little bro. Who’s your friend?” After a quick introduction, Abaddon scanned both of us disapprovingly.

“You need armor. Devil or not. Come along!” Abruptly, she turned on her heel and marched off, the pair of us exchanging a confused look before rushing to catch up. She took a strange route, turning down countless side-alleys and passages between buildings, shadows deepening with each corner until we were almost entirely in darkness, though one of the perks of being in charge of Hell meant I could see in the dark.

“Can your vampires see in the dark?” Jude nodded, nimbly avoiding a stack of crates.

“Move quicker, too. Think a human but with everything amped up to eleven.” After another turn, Abaddon stopped in front of a worn wooden door, faded red paint peeling off around a scratched bronze knocker. Banging twice, she held an ear to the door, scowled, and shoved it open, beckoning us over her shoulder imperiously. Inside looked like, to my surprise, a simple tailor shop: racks of threads and rolls of fabric cluttered the walls, while half-finished garments adorned dusty demon-shaped mannequins and several spinning wheels, some broken, all shoved into a single corner.

“Abraxus! We are in need of a fitting.” Following that, she stomped her foot on the ground once. In a flash of bright green light, a wizened old demon with horns that curled at least a foot out from his head appeared in the room. He wore a Roman-styled toga and sandals, a golden circlet resting comfortably atop his head; when he spoke, it washed over me in an easygoing, if slightly oily tone.

“My, it is a supreme honor—to be visited by our mighty rulers! Please, come! Sit, sit.” Waving his hand, three plush chairs appeared beside us, Jude and Abaddon sitting as the demon grabbed me by the arms.

Jude

In yet another dimension, though not as strange as the last—these people were actually human—I watched with some curiosity as the horned demon took various measurements of the Queen of Hell, puffing on a pack of Death’s cigarettes. The girl demon beside me gave me a once over, and spoke quietly.

“Different dimension, huh?” I nodded.

“How bad is it out there?” Grimly putting out the cigarette on my palm, I lit another.

“Since I left? It was on the way to healing. But, if I’m here now, I must’ve been wrong. Earth itself was saved, so it may be a more existential threat than that. The energy it took., just to do that…” The measuring tape snapped shut, old man snapping his fingers and causing various fabrics, threads, and jewels to begin forming themselves on one of the mannequins. Next, he turned to me.

“I don’t need armor. A cloak is all.” After a momentary pause, he nodded, walking over to a door and digging through a dark, dusty closet for a few minutes. As he did, Arthur’s armor finished, a resplendent set of void-black, almost obsidian colored light armor pieces held together by a wafer-thin set of chain mail made from what looked like solid gold.

“I believe this will be suitable, madam.” The demon returned with a deep purple cloak, scattered with glinting flecks of silver that shimmered in the candlelight, complete with a pentacle broach to clip it in place.

“Thank you. How much would you like for it?” Waving his hands, he merely bowed and exchanged it for my tattered, old cloak.

“No charge, no charge.” Once Arthur had donned his armor, taking a few experimental moves in the small space, Abaddon thanked the demon and escorted us out.

“I don’t know about you, Jude, but Arthur doesn’t have much experience in true warfare. I would assign you as one of my generals, if you wish.” Fingering the strange, slightly pulsing spear at my side, I shrugged.

“Sure. I’m more of a front-line fighter, though. Is it alright if I lead from the front?” At that, she shot me a sharp-toothed grin, nodding and flicking her fingers at my cloak. Looking down, I noticed that a medal, bearing the design of a falling dove, appeared next to the pentacle.

“General Jude. Good alliteration, there.”

The travel north wasn’t as bad as I’d been expecting. The weather grew significantly colder, though since no one was human the troops weren’t affected much. It was a novel experience to be in command of so many, directly, and I decided to dispel the glamor over my penance as a sign of goodwill—it also earned me a lot of respect from the demons, some of whom had similar punishments from the war in Heaven—and lead the main army up to a range of twisted, snow-capped mountains that stretched high into the mist above us. The road was maintained, though it slowly grew less and less cared-for as we progressed, ending in a trampled dirt path leading up to the first of our objectives, Zephyr’s Gate. Our force was much larger than theirs, but the benefit of entrenchment meant we had to camp at the base of the hill, and figure out a way to get our armies in. Through sparring sessions on the road, I knew I wasn’t strong enough to fight these demons on my own (I could handle a few in single combat, but not an entire fort), and I convened with Arthur, Abaddon, and a battle-scarred, massively jacked woman who introduced herself as the horseman of War in a command tent. Abaddon began the meeting, sitting with her boots kicked up on a table bearing a map of the area.

“A frontal assault would work, but it would be a grind. Alternatives?” War spoke, crossing her arms and grinning savagely.

“A strike force, sent in secrecy, to open the gate? It’d have to be our strongest fighters.” I nodded, jumping in on her idea.

“I can make a few people invisible, and teleport to any place I can see. I should be able to handle a few at a time myself, too.” Abaddon nodded, while Arthur sat, slightly exhausted from the sparring she’d been “politely asked” to practice with--She wasn't a Metamorphmagus, but did possess some ability to shapeshift.

“So, let’s say an eight-man team goes in, destroys the gate. Army rushes up and in, clears the rest. Volunteers?” Both War and I raised our hands, Abaddon listing off six other demons to a soldier she called in before smacking her fist on the table.

“In six hours time. I’ll get the army ready to charge on the gate.” After that, I had a bit of free time, spending it walking through the tents and cookfires aimlessly, thinking through possible plans and contingency plans. By chance, I stumbled upon War’s tent, finding her sitting by a fire, making tea.

“Want a cup?” With nothing better to do, I sat, accepting a steaming mug thankfully and eying the fort.

“Seen your share, haven’t you?” I arched an eyebrow at her.

“I can see the violence around a person. Not fun, for you?” I snorted at that, taking a drink of tea.

“Necessary evil, no offense. The only other choice was to give up and die.” War shrugged, drinking some of hers as well.

“None taken. It’s not often one completes a deal with a god, either. You’re impressive, you know that?” I coughed on my tea, all senses on alert as she flapped her hand at me.

“Kid, I’m on par with some of the oldest powers around these parts. While yours might be stronger, I’ve been around for a while. That spear, too. Want a little lesson on demonic law?” Incredulous and suspicious, I took a long drink of tea before nodding.

“Power-granting beings work on tiers. Don’t go spreading that, but essentially anyone who makes a deal can make it with one from each tier, not just one total. Most don’t care what happens on other tiers. May I examine your spear?” Processing this new information, I handed the spear over, eyes widening as a bright handprint appeared on her cheek, slapping her head sideways so fast it nearly broke her neck—as soon as it left her grip again, the mark began to fade.

“Firstly, the spear can only be wielded by you. Secondly, the power you swore to is something like… many factors of ten above anything I’ve ever encountered before.” Her expression grew serious, and she leaned forward to refill our cups.

“Would you like to enjoy war?” The fire crackled fiercely, flames dancing higher and bouncing the shadows across her face.

“What exactly would that entail?” War shrugged, taking another drink.

“I feel in your blood the remnants of a demonic deal. Your creator’s, I assume. Similar to that, but the benefit is slightly different. It would grant you strength, quell your fears. Such is the path of demons, after all. There is only one stipulation.” At my look, she scowled.

“No souls. You would be named my wife, and be granted the gift upon laying with me.” Six cups of tea and a pack of cigarettes later, I replied carefully.

“Is this marriage… well—” War guffawed, slapping her knee several times and sending tea everywhere.

“You can sleep with whoever you want, I don’t care. It’s the contract, is all. Same as my…” A lightbulb almost appeared over her head, and with a thunderous clap two more women appeared in cracks of thunder beside her. One I’d met before, Death, while the other was a rail-thin girl in a flowy, lacy white dress.

“I have a question. Can we each make deals with the same person? This is Famine, by the way.” Famine seemed disinterested, pouring herself a cup of tea, while Death eyed both War and I suspiciously.

“Potentially. Why?” A glint had entered War’s eyes, and after a moment an ancient-looking lady in a knit cap and smoking jacket appeared beside me, very confused.

“Are you suggesting what I think you are, dear sister?”

After thirty minutes of quiet, fierce discussion in a language I didn’t understand, Death turned to me.

“Are you sure you want to do this? I don’t know what reservations you have about your soul, if any.” I shrugged, already having meddled with my soul and not caring much what happened to it anymore.

“I don’t plan to be underprepared, this time.” She nodded, and lit a cigarette, War speaking next.

“Then, it would be the honor of all four of the horsem*n to take your hand in marriage.” A thick, magical miasma began to settle around us as she spoke, and I intuitively understood that this was the contract.

“I accept.” Finishing her tea, Famine rose, opening the tent flap and holding it for the other three as they entered, beckoning me calmly.

“Come. We must consummate the union.”

Ellie

“Where are we now?” As I pulled myself up, she strode over to the door, swinging it open to find a strange camp, with tents and campfires strewn out on red sand around the base of a mountain range. Just in front of us, a tent flap opened, revealing a completely nude woman, coated in blood with several horrific injuries. Notably, her hands and feet appeared to be replaced with iron, and her eyes with molten, flaming gold, which viewed us inscrutably as we stood at the door.

“Er, hello! I’m the Doctor. Which dimension is this?”

After proving we weren’t a threat, mostly as neither of us had weapons, the woman and four others who emerged from the tent convened around us, cleaning blood off of themselves. Another quick introduction later, my world hand grown even stranger, but at least a war was constant throughout. The woman introduced herself as Jude, having some knowledge about a dimension-spanning war she was seeking support for, against an unknown enemy. I was more than willing to help, and once everything had calmed back down I sat with the Doctor and one of the women, the incarnation of Famine, for tea. To my surprise, the conversation was engaging, as Famine had never heard of a wasteland like the world I came from; the Doctor got marginally more uncomfortable each time I mentioned seeing the detonation, so I tried not to.

“Sorry if I’m… aglow. Newly wed, you see.” I nodded stoically, before shooting the Doctor a look of pure confusion behind my mug, making her cough laughter into hers.

“Never had the… pleasure, myself. I’m actually considering a vow of celibacy, at the moment.” Famine rolled her eyes, finishing the cup and rising.

“I’m off, to wish War and Jude luck in their surprise attack. Care to join?” Despite the offer, the tone indicated more of a threat than anything sincere, both of us shaking our heads. Once she was out of earshot, the Doctor leaned in conspiratorially.

“Vow of celibacy?” A light smack to the shoulder drove her off, giggling, as I steadily grew redder.

“I was going to make a cool joke about my gun, but then I realized I don’t have one anymore. Sue me.” She snorted, downing the rest of her tea.

“You should get a deck of cards. Or a yo-yo!” A weak groan escaped me as I slumped forward, contemplating keeling into the fire—my flask would help me light.

“Sure, where’s the nearest toy shop that takes bottlecaps?” The Doctor howled with laughter, falling back of the rock-seat and abruptly cutting off peals of laughter with a grunt as the wind was knocked out of her.

“I haven’t heard a joke that good in at least a thousand years. You’re terrific, Ellie Jones.” Now laughing a little myself, I shook my head at the slumped alien beside me.

“I’m just a bounty hunter. Well, “traveling companion,” I suppose.” She crooked her eyebrow at me, not moving from the ground.

“What’s wrong with that? It’s what I call all of my, well… companions. People that come along, you know.” Having just finished tea with one of the biblical four horsem*n, I wasn’t particularly inclined to take anything too seriously.

“Fair’s fair. What do I call you then? Boss?” The eyebrow rose higher, and I rolled my eyes again.

“Kidding. I’ve gotten into some scrapes before, so it’s probably good I’m traveling with a doctor. I fought at Hoover Dam, y’know, right when it started. Ah, nevermind.” Flapping my hand, I turned, lighting a cigarette as she righted herself.

“We need to go on a little side mission, I think. If this world needs unifying, I’m no good sitting on the sidelines of a fight. If there are any people I know here, they’ll be in other galaxies, if Earth is different. Let’s go!” Before I could even fully process what she’d said, the Doctor had closed with the TARDIS, leaving me scrambling to catch up, stumbling in behind her and carefully shutting the door.

“Won’t they notice we’re gone?” Raising her eyebrow, she indicated the console.

“Time machine.” As she laughed at my scowl, the Doctor input our destination before flipping the lever and walking over to me.

“How’s your stomach? Traveling by time vortex isn’t the easiest the first time.” I’d felt a little queasy, but nothing too serious, which surprised her.

“What were you doing, before you found me? Refresh me.”

“Returning from my first bounty. I was hoping it was the start of a new career, but obviously not.” She crossed her arms, brow furrowing.

“An inflection point, maybe. Generates a lot of temporal energy, maybe even enough to divert a TARDIS given the strength. Are you a Time Lord?” I squinted at her.

“I’m in my early twenties, Doctor. Very human. I’ve always been on Earth.” After a not-subtle scan determined I was, indeed, human, she sighed, kneading her brow.

“Either way. We’re off to a little saloon, to catch up with an old acquaintance.”

After landing, we stepped outside to find we were in the bathroom of a dingy, still-functional space-diner that hovered around some star—the names the Doctor said sounded like gibberish to me—and we found a booth opposite the star, at my request. The people around us were incredible, all sorts of different types; fish-headed people with small breathing gear setups, squid-people with beady, wide eyes smoking some sort of pipe in a corner, and the waitress was a full robot.

“Tea. Ellie?” The robot’s eyes were slightly pulsing, blue, but I smiled nonetheless.

“Coffee, extra sugar. Thanks.” She moved away, Doctor tapping my hand to get my attention.

“Stop staring. It’s rude.” Incredulous, I whispered as quietly as I could.

“There’s a centaur in the corner.” She rolled her eyes, smiling and passing a few of some strange currency to the waitress as our drinks arrived, steaming hot.

“We’re currently in a diner, orbiting a star, and you’re preoccupied with whoever else is here? At this point in time, you’d be the first—” She was interrupted by a tall, bald man with completely blue skin clearing his mouth loudly.

“Doctor, I presume?” At once, all of the noise cut off in the diner, music and talking instantly replaced by all eyes focusing on us. She stood, sticking out a hand cheerily.

“Maldovar, so wonderful to see you. Please, sit! We’ve only just got here, shall I get you something?” The man slid into the booth next to me, nodding politely.

“New here?” A little uncertain, I nodded through a sip of coffee. His tone, suddenly, turned darker than the grave.

“Working with the Doctor is like nothing you’ve ever dreamed of. You’ll see the best and worst of the universe, often without knowing which is which until after the dust settles.” My eyes widened, Doctor frantically waving Maldovar off.

“One last thing: Always sit next to the Doctor. Quickest draw in the entire universe.” The man then put in an order with the waitress, and turned his attention to the Doctor.

“I was actually planning on ringing. A distress signal was picked up recently, in the orbit of a gas giant two systems over. Old, old technology. For the life of us we couldn’t figure it out, until I just so happened to stumble across an Old High Gallifreyan archive in one of my… collections.” The Doctor’s eyes went wider than mine, her face tightening as she leaned forward.

“And? What did it say?!” Maldovar glanced around at the other patrons, before lowering his voice significantly.

“There’s an old research facility that was thought to have been lost to gravity, run by some Sontarans a few centuries ago. Apparently, it’s still online--though no one knows how they sent the signal in Gallifreyan. The coordinates are in the note I placed in your companion’s pocket.” The Doctor nodded, while I was at least smart enough to not immediately dig through my pockets.

“Be careful, though. This wouldn’t be the first time—” She was already waving him off, cheerily sipping her tea and winking.

“Never met this round, have you? I’m a new Doctor, through and through. I even wear matching socks, now.” For some reason, Maldovar was filled with an unspeakable horror at this revelation, swiftly bidding us good luck and absconding from the diner, taking his drink with him. The Doctor shot me a look, which I returned with an equally skeptical one.

“Who are the Sontarans?” She shook her head, draining her cup and indicating for me to do the same.

“No time. I’ll explain if it’s pertinent, eh?” I nodded, starting to get accustomed to the breakneck pace, and downed my coffee. Once inside the TARDIS, I pulled a napkin out of my pocket, reading off the coordinates to her and decidedly not mentioning the warning Maldovar had written on the inside of the folded piece, for me.

After the jump, and an external scan indicating that the hangar was still pressurized and oxygenated, we both stepped out. One entire wall of the room was a forcefield, opening out into empty, black nothingness dotted with the occasional star; the other side was partially subsumed by dust and particles, what the Doctor informed me was the very first layer of the gas of the gas giant.

“This facility is sitting right on the edge, the brink of destruction. Come on, let’s have a look around.” Staying to the middle of the space, we moved over to a set of metal stairs, entering a sealed laboratory, dusty and on low power. The Doctor began fiddling with a fusebox, muffled sounds of sonicing meeting my ears as I poked around the shelves, keeping an eye out for any medical supplies we might need. I couldn’t read the language, and thus didn’t find anything before the lights flickered on begrudgingly.

“Isn’t ransacked, or anything. Looks like they just loaded up and walked out.” I nodded, eyes scanning a few of the shelves, which had various boxes, tins, and jars.

“What is some of this stuff?” Joining me, she glanced over the wall sourly.

“Specimens. This may have been a biological site. Sontarans are some of the best cloners in the universe, so they might have been looking for genomic data to stabilize a mutated genome.” Trying my best to act like I understood, I nodded and scrunched up my nose, trying to peer through the foggy glass on one of the jars. Inside was some strange insect-like creature, at least a foot long, lying unmoving on the bottom of the jar.

“Gross. Like the mantises, back home.” The Doctor was already moving on, calling me into the next room, which was some sort of server room.

“This is our best bet to figure out what happened here; I wonder if there’s a spare datachip around here…” As I joined her, watching her dig through the various drawers and cabinets, I began to feel something strange, like something in the laboratory was watching me. A shiver ran through me, and I glanced over my shoulder, seeing nothing.

“Got it! Once I download a copy of the stored data, we can scan through it from the safety of the TARDIS.” Still slightly unnerved, I turned in the doorway, now facing outward, and really wished I had my gun to settle my nerves. The shadows cast by the ever-so-often flickering lights seemed to move, though I knew that it was from how hard I was focused on them, like dunes on the horizon. It wasn’t exactly cold, but having grown up in the scorched world that Earth had become left me vulnerable to the seeping chill that seemed to be inching closer to my skin. Something was… off, about this place. Not just why it looked so peacefully abandoned, either. Even with my severely limited understanding of astronomy, it seemed impossible for something to just be sitting, half-inside of a planet. The Doctor impatiently tapped her fingers on the desk, the vague melody making me realize that it was also totally, completely quiet, despite the noises we’d been making. The doors hadn’t made any noise opening, nor had the computer or the fusebox. It was almost like a dream, and I nearly jumped through the ceiling as the Doctor clapped, unplugging the chip and rising to leave. The walk back was slightly hurried by my nervous pace, not looking back and barely thinking until the doors of the TARDIS had shut behind us.

“Something bad happened, or is happening on that facility. I couldn’t shake this feeling…” Frowning, the Doctor retrieved a scanner she’d picked up from the facility and ran it over me.

“Oh, interesting. There’s a human-specific measurement system. You’re alright, by the way. Elevated stress-hormones, but since you were nervous, that’s expected. You’re safe in here, Ellie.”

Arthur

Seeing Jude in combat was like watching a thunderbolt, or a tsunami. She flowed through the demons like water after teleporting into the gatehouse, via a backlit window—three fell, impaled and slashed, before anyone could react—War bellowing out a roar and charging to follow. As they vanished from sight of the window, Abaddon rallied the army, charging up the hill towards the gate, which hopefully would be open by the time we reached the top. Arrows, javelins, and small boulders began to rain down on us; with a wave of my hand, an invisible barrier appeared to shield the army on approach. Death was faster than anyone else, catching and surpassing Abaddon just as they reached the top, gate shooting straight up, through the floor and eventual roof of the gatehouse and flying off into the sky. Our way clear, the demons under Abaddon’s command poured through the pass, affording me my first glimpse of the valley within. Jude and War met up with me, strangled screams of dying demons reaching our ears as the remaining loyalists in the gatehouse were executed.

“Neat trick with the gate." Jude raised an eyebrow, nodding to War.

“Thank her. Never seen someone get that angry before.” Indeed, War’s eyes held an ember of heat, nowhere near Jude’s but still intense.

“How could I stand by and hinder that which I am the namesake for? Come, there is blood to be spilled.” She charged off, and I turned to face the valley with Jude at my side. It was within a ring of mountains, though still quite large, a thick blizzard moving in from further north onto a massive shantytown, buildings haphazardly constructed on top of and within others and all surrounded by tall, onyx-black stone walls—the bricks were the size of semi trucks, at least. With a nod to the witch, I set off at a jog, not entirely suited for the front line and not eager to test my theory. The trampled bootprints of demon soldiers, some cloven, humanoid, reptilian, and a whole host of other, stranger species led further into the valley. Truly, being in command of the legions of Hell was never more apparent to me than in that moment; before we reached the walls.

Jude

The gifts of the four sisters were nothing to scoff at, feeling myself freer and stronger than I ever had. After keeping pace with Arthur for a few minutes, following the dirt trail down led us into view of a tundra dotted with camps and fortifications around the walled city. Positively massive ballista rained down bolts within several hundred yards, leaving the invaders no choice but to find cover for the moment. About a mile from the first larger encampment, which looked like it was built around an old town, I broke off to take a moment to myself. The forward base of the army was miles ahead, so I felt relatively confident I could keep myself safe and headed off to a small pile of rocks, a ways off the road. A low fog, about ankle high, was present across the plain, creating an almost-carpet of mist through which I waded, coming to find a small hollow within the pile, just large enough for a large person. Peeking in, to my surprise I discovered a small creature—like the faerie my sister once traveled with—inside the hollow, stuck under a smaller rock. Carefully, using the butt of Morgana’s staff, I moved the rock, freeing the slightly-struggling thing. Gaining it’s bearings and rising to face me, a flash of recognition seemed to cross the small creature’s face.

“Wait… Penny?!” Grimacing, I cleared my throat loudly.

“Jude, now. Are you… Iris?” Putting it’s hands on it’s hips, the creature nodded proudly, even doing a mock-salute.

“God of Light, at your service! Well, former God of Light…” Flitting up to sit on my shoulder, Iris continued as I stood fully again.

“I tried to go fast enough to go back in time, and ended up vaporized by a black hole. Died and ended up under that rock, for whatever reason. Where are we?” Plumes of smoke were beginning to rise from the hamlet, and I pulled the cloak tighter around myself.

“Hell. A different dimension, same war. New enemy, one we don’t know but can hop dimensions too. Gathering allies, trying to make this dimension a citadel. Up to speed?” The smoke was growing, faerie giving it an ominous look before turning back to me.

“Good enough. Mind if I crawl in your cloak? Seems safer than your hair.” I shrugged, small creature crawling into my chestplate and peeking it’s head out.

“I’ll need the full story later, but it’s good to see someone I recognize.” After a moment, I nodded once in agreement, walking back out to the road. Most of the demons had already moved on, and I simply followed their trail up to the burning city. Drawing closer revealed that only one building was burning at the moment, a larger one with a now-unreadable sign out front, likely an inn; the other buildings were intact, though almost all had either a broken wall or door. There wasn’t a single living thing besides the two of us, a foul odor reaching my nose as I stepped in through the small wooden arch that served as a gate. Lining the dirt street—itself churned up with demon blood into a slurry of mud and gore—corpses, both of soldiers and villagers were sprawled, diced and flayed into nothing resembling a living creature. The sidewalks were the same, flesh-mulch sealed with hardening blood squishing and screaming faintly as I stepped on it. Any eyeball within sight turned to watch as I examined the small well in the center of the buildings, which was a little more viscera-free. The crackling fireball of a building at my back soothed some of my fears, and I peered over the edge, seeing—to my surprise—a quivering pile of sheets, sitting at the bottom.

“Hello?” The quivering stopped, vampire vision allowing me to catch the small crack that appeared in the sheets, a flicker of red crossing it before the hole was covered again. A small, terrified voice reached my ears.

“They’re still h-h-here…” Iris had wriggled fully back out, and slapped me on the nose before practically shouting.

“It’s a trap!” Whirling around, I spied (thankfully) our own soldiers emerging from the buildings.

“Don’t worry, they’re with us. Any of you have some rope? There’s a kid stuck down a well, here.” One of them, a larger ox-headed, bear-bodied demon holding an axe the size of my head, stepped forward.

“Used the last of it to hang the cobbler, I’m afraid.” None of the demons had stopped moving forward, slowly forming a circle at the edge of the central area around the well—Iris had ducked into my hair, and I readied my spear, slipping the staff into my cloak.

“We’re allies, here. What’s with the intimidation gag?” A few throaty, guttural chuckles emanated from the demons. Ox-head spoke again, running one of six thumbs across the blade of his axe and whetting it with blood.

We are allied to the Devil. You are an interloper, mercenary, collateral damage. Who can say why you went off on your own, and ran into that loyalist ambush so far behind enemy lines?” The true gravity of the situation began to sink in—I was completely alone, surrounded by a horde of demons strong enough to negate my inexperienced power with sheer force. Magic wasn’t an option, as these things were far too fast for spellwork, and I felt my back bump against the well, not realizing I’d been stepping back. The spear slipped from my fingers in a muscle twitch, sizzling down into the muck and, to my horror, slipping down into the ground.

“sh*t—sh*t—” All of the assembled demons laughed now, ground beginning to rumble as ox-head closed in.

“Truly, those loyalists are barbarous, holding on to such beliefs as claiming “prizes,” hah…” For the first time, fear re-entered my cold, frozen heart, and I looked up to realize that the monster had closed the remaining distance, now leering down at me—salivating—axe coated in it’s own blood.

“You certainly seem sturdy enough.” Before I could move, the back of the axehead struck my side, flinging me sideways several feet and directly into the fist of another demon, feeling both my right side and upper back crack open, deep, landing on my knees. Vampire venom began to pool in my mouth, tinged slightly red, and I spit it onto the ground, staggering to my feet. Iris was trying to tell me something, but the force of the axe blow had popped my eardrums, leaving my only choice being to dodge under the swing and lunge to one side, rolling painfully and slipping in the mud, scrambling back on my hands and feet. Ox-head laughed, reaching over to rip off the wooden roof of the well to throw, providing enough time for my ears to heal.

“—the sword, Morgana’s—” The roof smashed directly into my face, slamming me back into the ground and breaking off part of my jaw—my hand was already in my cloak, digging out the staff and pushing myself up, sticking the broken part of my jaw into a pocket to heal later.

“A wooden stick? You’d better hope you know a few party tricks with that, girl.” As the demons roared with laughter, I looked down at the staff, wondering how Poppy had done it so effortlessly. The thing wasn’t budging, and I grew more and more panicked as the laughter began to die down, signalling the resuming of the torment. Slow enough that my vampire eyes could track it, the axe appeared in the corner of my vision, headed for my neck. My brain went into overdrive, sheer terror overriding any other sensation in my body as I instinctively knew I was going to die. The sword wouldn’t help me, and it was over—part of me was glad, understanding what Poppy had meant about being tired—but before the blade could reach me, it stopped. While I’d been consumed in fear, the staff had begun to molt, shedding the wood casing like expelling dead bark only to reveal the same, slightly curved and wickedly sharp blade my sister had used like an extension of herself. The terror remained—increased, if anything—but I found it wasn’t blotting out my thoughts anymore; I was sharper, focused and terrified, yes, but not petrified. I was afraid to die, and that only meant one thing: kill to survive. The ox-head demon moved to swing again, only momentarily disrupted, and following the instinct in my stomach, I darted forward to slash at his exposed leg. Before I could make contact, the axe blocked it, moving into another attempt to bash my side, which I managed to parry sideways into one of the nearby buildings, disarming it. Amazed at my apparent skill, I didn’t notice the massive fist until it crashed into the side of my head, sending me flying once more. After a few seconds in flight, my head desperately trying to repair itself as my mind flashed in and out of cohesion, I landed in the muck, hard. I tried to rise, demon kicking my other side and sending me tumbling back towards the well, coughing up an increasingly redder liquid--I was bleeding?

“Come on, we’ve only just started! Don’t make the lads impatient, we’ll go pull up the main course early!” At my face, which must have betrayed the realization that they were going to do the same to whoever was down in the well, the demon laughed again. A deeper feeling, beyond the terror, began to seep in, almost radiating up and down the blade I weakly gripped onto. Iris, watching my face, saw something that made it's eyes widen and duck back into my hair, gripping on tight for something. The blade itself shivered, and a memory of anger, helplessness, and fear seeped through it, into me. It showed Poppy, deep in the abyss on her first visit and being absolutely eviscerated by the creature within; completely trapped inside it, unable to even breathe and feeling her intestines falling out but still not giving up, still going despite a pain far greater than this. A snarl grew in my throat as I stood, pushing myself up with the tip of the sword and pointing it at the demon.

“Last chance. Leave, or die.” Apparently, the demon was done with games, lunging forward without a weapon, three hands stretching out to grab me. Again, my body moved fluidly, able to lean almost entirely back and swiveling sideways as it passed over me, merely holding the sword up and opening the demon’s front from chest to groin as it flew by. Behind me, the ground splattered with blood, pained groan turning to a roar of anger as a strange, stinger-like protrusion shot through the air next to my head. Since my deal with Siobhan was complete, I was no longer blessed by her, but this was supplanted by the four horsem*n; if anything, I was as strong as I had been, just in a different way. I couldn’t keep this pace if demons didn’t die as fast as regular enemies did, as I didn’t have surprise on my side. Snapping my fingers, the blade shrieked as Holy Fyre engulfed it, burning my hand and scattering the dust for at least twenty feet around it, demons gasping in surprise at the agony of a sword, and the radiant, Light magic fire in front of them. It was dangerous to me, too, but I didn’t care, so long as I killed them first. The ox-head demon had risen, guts spilling out of it’s stomach, and let out a gurgled scream at the sight of the fire, before turning and running on all fours through the houses. Seeing their leader frightened, the others quickly ran, leaving me half-shattered and leaning against the well, extinguishing the flames after a good minute. Fear of Holy Fyre was valuable information, and I spat a few times before speaking down into the well again.

“They’re gone now. C’mon, I’ll just summon a rope.” A flick of my wand attached a rope to a nearby building, and I lowered it down to the pile of sheets.

“If you want out, now’s your chance. They were talking about doing the same to you, so I’ll offer you at least a lift out of there.” For a moment, nothing moved, before the bundle of sheets moved over to the rope, tug signifying it had grabbed on. Using my strength, it was only a few seconds of heaving before the covered figure climbed out of the well, standing a good foot or so shorter than me and peering up, red eyes the only thing visible through the folds of fabric.

“Once we meet up with the army, we’ll be safe. S’pose not all demons are nice, eh?” My voice sounded flat, even to myself, but the person simply nodded, speaking quietly.

“T-Thank you.” After one last look around, finding nothing but more bodies and blood, the small (presumably demon) figure and I exited the village, last beam of the inn falling into the fire as we left. I hadn’t expressly invited them, but the small pile of cloth was never far from me, sometimes peering out from rocks up ahead of me or seemingly teleporting between bushes to peer at me. It wasn’t hostile, and I assumed it was merely curious, probably a kid of some kind. Iris had fun with it, chasing it from hiding spot to hiding spot as we passed more carnage, whole fields scorched and blood-soaked, mangled demonic cavalry torn up and left to die where they had fallen. Above, birds began to circle, likely having heard of the impending feast. The staff felt more comfortable in my hand, almost warmer to the touch, though I hadn’t forgotten how the sword had screamed in the presence of the fire. It made a sort of half-sense, as Poppy had frequently used some of the worst magic in existence, but I’d never heard of a weapon reacting so… intelligently before. Pushing it out of my mind, I beckoned the kid to my side, squatting down to it’s height.

“We’re almost to the camp. Stick close to me, and we’ll go meet up with Abaddon and Arthur. Sound good? The cloth showed no reaction, and I sighed before rising and continuing to walk, though I did notice it remained at my side instead of hiding behind things. The camp itself was well-maintained, situated by a small hillock between the walls and camp, safely out of range of the ballista but close enough to exert pressure. Hearing from a few soldiers that recognized me from the gate, I learned that several groups had split off from the main body, effectively encircling the city and cutting off any attempt at escape—thanks to the swiftness of Abaddon’s tactics. Her and Arthur were back in the command tent, situated near the center of the camp, and I entered to find them conferring over a different, larger map.

“Good to see you made it through the fighting. We’re digging in across the valley as we speak.” At the sight of the small creature, confusion crossed both their faces, but neither mentioned it.

“Lost a few squadrons clearing the forward defensive positions, but nobody important. Once camp is fully set, I’m having a nap.” Arthur appeared just as weary as her, and I wondered if he’d seen the hamlet’s destruction, taking a seat at the table and lighting a cigarette.

“I’m telling you both, demons do wars much better than humans. The whole war for Heaven puts your entire history to shame.” My cigarette bent slightly in my fingers, but I said nothing, instead glancing over the map, which showed positions of the encircling armies relative to the city.

“They’ll run out of supplies, eventually. While they do, auxiliary regiments are clearing any smaller footholds in the valley; there’s nothing north of here, so this is their last stand.” A bit of good news, then.

“Is there any chance at a bath? I wouldn’t mind some… blood, either. Vampire, and all.” Abaddon nodded, clapping her hands to summon a page.

“Erect a private quarters for Jude, with a hot bath and two—no, four goblets of the finest blood we have. Treat her like royalty, eh? She’s a war hero in the making.” I rolled my eyes, younger demon darting off out of the tent.

“Just don’t stray too far from camp, and you’ll be safe. Day and night aren’t much different here, but regardless. I’m arranging to find you a guard, and should have one for you by the time your bath is completed.” At my incredulous look, Abaddon raised an eyebrow in return.

“Combat isn’t the only thing lurking here. Assassinations, poisonings, you name it. Even for a vampire, it never hurts to have a second set of eyes and ears.” Figuring I could just reject whoever she proposed, I acquiesced, standing and making my leave after a promise to meet the next “day” for lunch.

Once the tent was built, a solid gold tub moved in and my bath prepared, I tied off the entrance flaps and, after a cursory magical scan, disrobed. A simple Scourgify spell cleaned my cloak and chestplate, and I found the jeweled goblets of blood on a small table by the steaming, flowery bath. All things considered, it was quite peaceful, and I leaned the staff against the tub, climbing in with my wand stuck in my hair—just in case. The sensation of water seeping into the still-healing cracks of my skin was oddly soothing, the soreness from where I’d impacted the demon’s fist beginning to fade. It had only been a one-off incident; I should’ve known as a non-demon there was a possibility. I wondered if Arthur had some sort of talisman or ward against it, as he clearly wasn’t as demonic as his “sister.” Clearing the mud and blood off took time, having to scrub particularly viciously at a spot on my leg for over a minute before deeming myself reasonably clean. As I contemplated staying in for a few more minutes, a quiet voice murmured from outside the privacy curtain.

“Reporting for duty, madam.” A little annoyed at being walked in on, sort of, I waved a hand airily.

“I’ll be out in a moment. Make yourself comfortable.” Once I was dry and re-dressed, Iris back in my hair (with my vampire hearing, it almost sounded like miniature versions of construction equipment were doing something back there), I stepped out from the curtain. Seated in one of the chairs beside a small fireplace was a human man, clothed in a fancy set of dueling clothes, with a thin-bladed sword strapped to his waist. As I inspected him, though, my eyes saw beyond the glamor, revealing that his eyes had no irises, he was much taller than he was letting on, and his skin was a strangle, scaly material that rippled in the firelight.

“Madam Jude, how pleasurable to make your acquaintance.” I held out a hand to shake, and he took it up, leaning forward and softly kissing my knuckles.

“I am Commander Eshir Taun, but you may call me what you wish, milady.” I noticed that he was keeping his eyes down, and frowned slightly.

“I’m just a soldier, commander. I don’t deserve this sort of reverence.” As he replied, I sat across from him and lit a cigarette.

“Your… impish companion may have removed an attempt at “going incognito,” as they say. It is becoming common knowledge that the heir to the throne of Britain is among us.” The arm of the chair I’d been gripping groaned in protest as my hand squeezed it nearly to breaking, but I smiled calmly.

“A failed endeavor is often better than none at all. I take it you are to serve as my… “bodyguard”?” Taun chuckled, inclining his head slightly and covering his eyes with the brim of his cap.

“If you would allow so, my lady. I am quite skilled in martial combat, and have a keen eye for subterfuge, should the need arise. If you request, I can produce both recommendations from six generals and a family lineage to Asmodeus.” Demon nobility was very confusing, but I was intrigued nevertheless.

“I must admit, I am much more disciplined with the ways of magic than the sword. If your prowess is such as you claim, would you be amenable to sparring with me? Should I accept you as my bodyguard, of course.” The demon nodded, leaning forward slightly and showing his eyes.

“But of course. To tutor a princess in the ways of war would be an honor above all else.” After a few more pleasantries, I noticed the sheet demon, sitting in a shadowy corner of the tent.

“Can you see them? Over in the corner.” For a moment, his eyes caught it, before an expression of confusion crossed him, like the others before.

“Pile of sheets, red eyes, teleports?” At my description, however, he understood—eyes widening very slightly—and spoke in a low voice.

“You see Tuma Dia? Sort of rippling fabric…” To my surprise, I saw a demon pale as I nodded, puffing a ring of smoke.

“Tuma Dia is an omen, or a prophetic herald. It’s passed in older stories, ones that come from the old days when Hell was first colonized.” At my clearly expectant face, he continued, albeit a bit reluctantly.

“Those that see the Tuma Dia are said to walk the greatest journeys, or see the gravest fates. Only one who has been cursed with it can perceive it’s presence.” With that lovely information, I set Commander Taun outside the door, on guard, and settled into a chair by the fire to read; hopefully, I could have some time to myself for once.

Chapter 14: The Hero of Dormantia

Chapter Text

Jude

The night after the second attempt on the walls, I managed to injure Taun. Having received a rundown of my pertinent abilities, and elated that I didn’t need to stop training for sleep, we entered a brutal training regimen designed to instill muscle-memory and precise movement, as I couldn’t exactly put on mass. The week leading up to the first attempt had seen me more cracked than smooth, grumbling into my tea while Taun taught me the history of demonic swordplay from a massive, skin-bound book that had an eye in the cover. Instead of just focusing on the sword, I was also tossed knives, shortswords, greatswords, and all sorts of bladed weapons in the small dirt clearing in front of the tent; being unable to cast spells made me realize just how weak I was martially—as did getting beaten into the ground near-constantly. Commander Taun was fluid, suave, and brutal in battle, almost able to anticipate my moves and already counter it before my arm had even moved. A few soldiers with nearby tents would watch, clustered around their campfires and shouting jokes or words of encouragement as I continuously fell facefirst. As such, I wasn’t allowed on either of the two attacks, settling for watching from a trench the army had dug into the hillock, sharing cigarettes with Taun. It was incredible to watch, masses of people so large they swelled and trickled through the land like water, pushing as hard as they could beneath a swarm of arrows and bolts from above. The first was repulsed quickly, with minimal losses; the second saw more casualties, but one of the ballista on the walls was destroyed, which Abaddon saw as a victory. As the beaten and bloodied survivors returned that night, Taun and I were in the clearing, facing each other calmly. I’d managed to block or evade all of the hits that day, but was constantly on the defensive; we’d agreed to take a moment to rest. Eyeing Morgana’s staff, which was impaled in the ground upright by the tent, Taun spoke.

“Is your blade named?” I shook my head, cleaning my fingernails with the tip of the knife I was using.

“To my knowledge, no. Poppy never called it anything, either.” He nodded, still looking at it.

“A proper weapon, not a training blade, should have a name. Especially that of royalty, my lady.” My brow furrowed slightly, contemplating a name as the first few soldiers pulled up crates and chunks of stone around us.

“I suppose it must not be frivolous, either?” He smirked, and shook his head. Summoning the staff to me, it melted away into the black blade, resting in my palms.

“Sword, I name thee Necroth, Blade of the World Eater.” Another shiver ran up it, pinpricks of light spreading along the blade; the handle superheated, nearly catching me on fire, but as the pain subsided I felt a sense of confidence, like when I held my rifle.

“With our blades, then? It would be impolite to not introduce that beauty’s dancing partner.” With a flourish, a solid diamond blade emerged from the sheath, sparkling and dancing in the fires around us and eliciting several gasps and cheers from the spectators.

“Toriel, Feather of Light, forged in the flames of Heaven as it burned.” Even I was impressed at that, readying myself and slipping the knife into my cloak.

“Enchanted weapons, given personality like this, often retain the skill of wielders past. This blade was used to smite Uriel down from the Second Ivory Keep.” Already knowing this was an intimidation tactic, I was prepared when he surged forward, nothing but a blur. Quicker than I could think, I twisted under his strike, kicking a leg out behind me and nearly breaking my back as I contorted like a snake, jabbing upward at his chin. A lightning-fast dodge avoided the strike, though I was quick enough to block the retaliatory strike and parry the next. A stab just missed his ear, slicing a lock of his hair off and overexposing me, another inhuman contortion saving me and giving an opening, right into his side. It didn’t go deep, mostly a thin scratch, but we were both surprised—the wind was knocked out of me as I landed roughly.

“I have not been wounded in almost a century, milady. Congratulations.” Accepting his hand, I was pulled up directly into his sword—but my knife had already impaled his chest, both of us smirking at each other.

“I’ll make a demon out of you yet, your highness.”

After three more weeks (and three more failed attacks), Taun decided I was ready for battle. Morale was beginning to tip, even with the increase in supplies the fifth week bringing extra liquor and “soul dust,” whatever that was. Abaddon was much more haggard than last we’d met, though her expression brightened at our arrival.

“I got your runner. Great coincidence, actually, as we’re gearing up for the next assault. Biggest one yet, too; bastards won’t be ready this time.” After a brief reminder of the map, I was given command of a division of cavalry; Taun was my direct subordinate, and left to wrangle mounts for the two of us shortly before I did, receiving a captain’s rank and being promised a promotion if we succeeded. With how the past five had gone, this was likely just motivation, and I checked my armor and gear as I walked to find Taun. I’d added a few knives, which would be useful for any tight spaces (I still hadn’t learned how to throw them accurately), stopping just before the crest of the hillock, where the group was slowly assembling. The mounts were strange, more dog-like than equine, with pulsing flesh and several rows of tentacles that emerged around each leg, writhing furiously at anyone nearby. They had six eyes, three on each side, with a too-wide jaw full of thousands of teeth—I had to surpress a shudder the first time I saw them. Taun was by the top, peeking over the hill next to two of the monsters that were tied to a tree. Joining him, I looked out to see several opposing army groups moving out from the currently-open gate.

“We’re expected, I see.” He nodded, not taking his eyes off of them as he handed me a plumed, silver helmet in the shape of a dragon head.

“I much prefer surprise parties. They aren’t expecting you, however. Does magic have any boons it can bestow upon us?” I rolled my eyes, trying on the helmet carefully.

“I can summon holy fire.” At that, Taun looked over at me, one eyebrow raised.

“Would it not… kill us, too?” Squinting at him through the visor, I shook my head.

“I can direct it, even coat my blade with it. Once, when I was turned into a vampire, I summoned a dragon of fire—doing that again would kill me. It would certainly surprise them.” Taun considered this for a few minutes, before darting down into the crowd of knights and nobles, talking rapidly. Meanwhile, I walked over to the two mounts, examining them curiously. Now that I was closer, they steamed slightly in the cool air, dripping blood from their maws and sniffing the air at me.

“Quite curious creatures, aren’t they? My father helped invent them.” Turning, I met the gaze of a very human-like demon, leading his mount behind him. He was wearing very fancy, bulky armor, and had a halberd in his free hand.

“I find beauty lives in all things, sir knight. Might I have your name?” Leaning his weapon against a tree, the demon knelt and put a hand over his chest.

“Sir Rithondriel, of Mammon. It is a great pleasure to meet you, your majesty.” He kissed my proffered hand, and I removed my helmet after a moment.

“Your second has warned us that you shall lead our charge with blessed fire; magic of this kind has not been seen in these lands since, perhaps, the fall. I do hope you are careful.” I smiled, nodding quickly to reassure him.

“But of course, Sir Rithondriel. Such flames as mine will only purify the enemy.” We both chuckled, Taun rejoining us with a bow to Rithondriel.

“We are saddled and ready, milady. At your word, the assault begins.” I was able to swing myself onto one of the mounts, inwardly gagging at the blood soaking into the saddle and donning my helmet. The basics of riding were explained to me, and the creature seemed able to read my intention from just my thought, so I rode slowly up to the top of the hill, facing sideways. Drawing my sword, I skipped any speech and held it high, Holy Fyre spiraling from the base to the tip—a roar of cheers went up from the cavalry behind me, and I turned, swinging the blade down to signal them and charging down towards the city, flames whipping in the wind and spooking my mount, causing it to surge forward even faster. As we rode, the ballista began firing, but a quick slash of my wand brought up a protective dome, covering my division and disintegrating any projectiles the enemy tried to fire. At the sight of my blade, several rows of demon spearmen screamed, holding fast even as I crashed into their ranks, sending gouts of fire out with each hack and slash I took. Each one, when contacted by the blade, would erupt in flames, screaming and writhing on the ground; I made it four rows deep before the rest caught up with me, driving a massive wedge into the main body outside the gates, which were still open. A group of soldiers was rushing out, gates not yet beginning to swing inward, and I cleaved through an entire line, mount biting with both jaw and serrated tentacles at anyone foolish enough to come close. In a flash, Taun was beside me, his mount bleeding from a few cuts and a broken-off javelin.

“If I can get to the gate before it closes, I can hold it open!” I wasn’t sure he’d heard me over the din of steel on steel and screams of agony, both armies fully mixing into a Quidditch-pitch sized melee around us. Taun lunged forward, breaching the back end of their lines and clearing the path for me; my mount jumped up, over the bodies, and skidded into a full gallop towards the gate, which was just beginning to close. Knowing if they managed to button up again we were finished, I aimed my wand at the massive doors, screaming out a spell as loudly as I could.

Impedimenta!” With a shrieking, grinding clash of gears and breaking metal, the doors froze in place—immobilized. The demons on our side rallied, managing to fully split the army into two groups and quickly surrounding them. Raising my blade again, I signaled to my division, hearing the thundering noise as they pushed through to join me as I rode through the gates. Once I was through, I paid little attention to much other than the massive, wrought-iron chains used to swing the doors, riding over and casting a Cutting Curse on the first set as Taun reached the second. The force of the chain snapping caused it to fly upward, ripping through the battlement above the gate and tearing straight up through the roof, cavalry and footmen charging into the city as Taun managed to break his, broken chain on his side doing much the same as mine. His mount leaped over the stream of soldiers, landing beside mine, and he grinned at me.

“Spectacular, your highness.” Just then, Rithondriel trotted past, three demon heads on the end of his halberd.

“A brilliant maneuver, milady!” Pushing through the crowd, he joined us on my other side, blood beginning to drip from the heads.

“It’s all but over now, I expect. Did you see how few cavalry were among them? Disgraceful, I say.” Leaning over, he lowered his voice slightly; I could already smell smoke on the wind.

“Upon capturing the city, I have heard rumor of a gala to be hosted, for those of some class, naturally. I could not imagine the festivities without our guest of honor, my lady.” Smiling politely, I nodded, flipping my visor up.

“But of course, Sir Rithondriel. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.” He kissed my hand again, this time the gauntlet, and rode off into the crowd, for “further glory, your highness!” leaving the two of us alone again.

“Pleasant fellow, isn’t he?” Taun sniffed, wiping his blade clean carefully.

“As the one tasked with your protection, I would be remiss to not advise you that a gala hosted by demons is equivalent to signing one’s own death certificate.” I lifted an eyebrow, and turned to face him.

“How little faith, commander. I shall merely observe that my sword was not named in jest.” At that, his eyebrow went up, to which I smirked behind my hand. Abaddon arrived, walking, and stood between our two mounts authoritatively.

“Congratulations, Commander Jude. Also, unfortunately, Major Taun. Now, quit slacking and clear the rest of the city—job’s not over, freeloaders!” With that, she swatted both our mounts, sending them off into the city—Taun refusing to meet my mischievous gaze.

“I believe that means I am able to issue you orders now, doesn’t it?” Enduring a deadly stare with the sunniest grin I could muster, we rounded a corner, heading up a quieter street—still bloody, though.

“Yes. It also means that I lose a bit of pay, as it were. Not to worry, I am affluent enough otherwise.” I rolled my eyes, summoning a brick of gold into my hand and extending it to him.

“For your trouble, Major Taun. If ever you need it, I’m sure I can magic a solution. Though, not food or living things.” A glint equal to mine appeared in his eye, and he shamelessly pocketed the brick.

“You are a good ally to have, so it seems.” Nearing another turn, I held my hand to my chest in mock surprise.

“Why, I thought we’d graduated to ‘acquaintances,’ Maj—” I was interrupted as he tackled me out of the saddle, landing on the steps of a small house painfully. As we did, six crossbow bolts filled the space my head had occupied, and I quickly summoned a barrier around us as we both scrambled upright. Without noticing, we’d rode straight into the fighting—I even saw Rithondriel, swinging his halberd about wildly, having been dismounted—and I forewent the mount, waiting for Taun to nod before I darted out, sword flashing as we joined the fray in a small square, near the northern gate. The bodies were knee-deep, forcing a balancing act that took all of my brainpower to remain upright, blade dicing through demons left and right as the two of us cut a way to Rithondriel and a few more knights, who were surrounded at the base of a fountain. I’d extinguished the fire upon entering the city, as it did take a lot of strength to maintain, and ducked between two swordsmen to join the knights, Taun leaping over another as well. Rithondriel laughed, clearly enjoying himself in the meatgrinder around us, and I deflected three spears, making room for a knight with a massive mace to pulverize an entire group. Taun was a blur, ripping through the enemy like a faster-than-light scalpel, and before long the footmen assembled broke, a large portion of people in nicer armor fleeing from the gate. As the remaining enemies were butchered, I joined Rithondriel at the gate, peering north.

“Where are they going?” He shook his head, lifting his visor and squinting.

“It is only vast plains of ice beyond this valley. No demon can survive such climes, and it is assumed a barren wasteland. They likely fled in order to die, for fear of trial. Cowards.” He spat, before bowing to me.

“I apologize, milady. I find myself forgetting your stature, given our comingling on the battlefield.” I smiled, visor up as well, and shook my head.

“Think nothing of it. Beauty comes also in that which is sometimes… impolite.” Rithondriel chuckled, bowing again and hefting his spear to return, Taun joining me after a moment.

“Last of the soldiers is dead. Abaddon has decreed that the army shall rest inside the walls, and leave the escaped to freeze.” Nodding, I turned and followed him back through the streets. Several of the flaming houses were being doused, now that they were captured, and I stopped a few times to use magic in assistance. The houses themselves were narrow, made of wooden slats on a base of stones, with a central palace in the center made from the same stone as the walls; it was clearly more for nobility than defense, hundreds of stained glass windows and minarets adorning fancy crenelations and confusing, winding walls.

“Ah, I’m sorry to ask this, but are you in need of a dress, for the gala?” I shook my head, indicating my robes.

“I don’t wear dresses. Not good for fighting.” Taun shrugged, and I cleaned both of us off magically as we approached the palace, which had splatters of blood leading into the wooden gate. Inside was closer to a cathedral, almost all of the bottom floor one massive room full of tables, paintings, statues, and hundreds of other valuable items that glimmered even in shadows; rubies the size of my head, diamonds even larger, and a massive tapestry across the ceiling depicting the entire fall from Heaven, start to finish. Seeing my awe, Taun chuckled to himself.

“Do they not still indulge in such luxuriance, in the human world?” I shrugged, not actually knowing whether this dimension’s world leaders did this or not. “Can’t say. When I said I was from a different world, I meant it both ways. Back in my home dimension, sometimes. Poppy never quite got how to decorate.” Taun nodded, a bit interested, and we made our way through the crowd of nobles who’d charged with me, all of them letting out a cheer at my arrival.

“Lady Jude, the Princess of Magic!” If I’d been able to, I would’ve blushed, instead accepting a silver goblet from a shorter, bald demon and finding it to be a pleasant mix of blood and wine.

“The glory was entirely yours, my good fellows. Without all of you at my back, none of it would’ve been possible. Why, Sir Rithondriel must’ve had some difficulty lifting his halberd with the number of heads he collected today.” A roar of laughter sounded out, and I spent the next few hours sitting with them, using my vampire brain to learn as much court protocol as I could from my interactions. I came to find out that women weren’t particularly rare in the military, rather, a mortal witch performing so well against demons was surprising. Despite being a vampire, as I wasn’t an angel or a demon, they termed it mortal, which I didn’t mind. Abaddon passed through after a while, going upstairs to oversee setting up for the party, tossing out sacks of gold coins to anyone in sight along with bottles of expensive wine, from the cellars downstairs. Rithondriel himself joined us after another stretch of time, clad in gleaming gold “dress armor” that Taun could not look at directly without bursting into giggles, requiring frequent kicks beneath the table. Once everyone had drank enough to forget the aches and soreness, the group headed upstairs, with myself at the front. The upstairs was more segmented, a wide corridor leading into a massive ballroom, complete with ancient, stained wood floors and tables bearing spider-silk doilies, platinum candlesticks, and golden wine decanters. Above the room, a massive glass chandelier hung from the rafters, making a bulb shape of glass rods that pulled the light into and through it, casting a kaleidoscope of light across the entire room. Abaddon and Arthur were already there, seated in two throne-like chairs at the head of a bigger table, as were several women dressed in fancy Victorian gowns—some of the knights dashed to them, and I reasoned they were likely family or lovers; I was escorted to prime seating next to Abaddon’s right side, Taun next to me and Rithondriel across from us, on Arthur’s left.

“The heroine of the hour!” Abaddon stood, holding her glass out as the rest of the room followed suit.

“In our darkest hour, was it not that which Father first tricked that would find the kindness needed to return to our aid? Princess Jude, though errant your path, you have extended us a grace long thought lost, and brought peace back, to the lands of Pandemonium. Cheers, to the Hero of Dormantia!” Everyone toasted, cheering again before the table fell into raucous conversation, servant-demons bringing out platters of meat and fruits and vegetables, dishes I’d never seen before and flavors I’d never tasted; after the seventh course, I finished my wine and excused myself, keen on some fresh air. The room had several balconies, and I chose one nearest the adjoining bathrooms (thank… someone, demons had plumbing), alcohol never long in a vampire’s body. The breeze was nice, a shadowy dusk covering the valley, which was laid out before me like I’d just stepped into a painting. A few minutes later, Taun joined me, carrying two flutes of amber liquid.

“I thought you might like something more… refreshing. Tea, if you’re wondering.” I snorted, and clinked our glasses, leaning on the railing facing him.

“I began to grow lost once I stopped recognizing the ingredients. Demonic cuisine is quite unique.” He smirked, looking over my shoulder at the city around us; from up here, I could see the flickering embers in a chunk of roofing that’d been missed, but would likely go out.

“I noticed you weren’t speaking much, and was worried you’d been poisoned. As to the meal, not to deride my own people, but,” he leaned in closer, “the dinners at the Unseelie Court surpass it unequivocally.” I was curious, sipping my tea.

“Perhaps I’ll have a chance to see the difference myself. I believe my cranial passenger could find a home there, if the jackhammer continues to be used.” Iris froze, meekly whispering an apology as Taun shot me an alarmed look.

“Don’t worry, I think it’s mostly a joke. If you wouldn’t mind, I’m going to step out for a moment.” He nodded, taking my flute from me, and I headed into the bathroom.

Upon exiting, I found both Rithondriel and Taun on the balcony, a slight tension vanishing as I returned.

“Apologies, my lady. We were having a… spirited discussion, as to the wind changing.” I frowned, holding a hand out. The wind was, sure enough, now moving the complete opposite direction; glancing over my shoulder, I noticed they’d moved the tables and were now dancing, a demonic band setting up in one of the far corners.

“Strange. Perhaps a storm?” As I turned back, I spied the Tuma Dia, peeking at me from behind one of the pillars in the room. A sneaking suspicion, more a gut feeling than anything, settled onto me, and I turned to Taun.

“Something feels off, wouldn’t you say?” Just as I spoke, the music kicked up, accompanied by all of the windows in the ballroom shattering inward as blasts of wind struck the building. I was knocked flat, Taun catching me mid-air and ducking back inside, where everyone was paused, confused—the band kept playing, likely under demonic contract to do so—and I was righted quickly, drawing my staff. Glass was raining from the ceiling, chandelier swinging dangerously back and forth; the floor began to shake as what I quickly realized were massive fingers reached through several of the balcony openings, gripping the entire palace roof and, with a crack of thunder, tearing it off. I raised a barrier from the winds around the frightened people, several of whom had run from the room, and gasped as I glimpsed something up, high in the fog. It reached down again, though this time the hand was pointing straight down at me.

“Oh, sh*t.” Blinding light erupted from the fingertip, arcing down faster than I could comprehend and striking me squarely in the chest, knocking me flat against the ground and cracking the wood panels. With a gasp, a severe bout of lethargy struck me, pain flaring up across my entire body as I was electrocuted for several seconds. When it vanished, I coughed, blinking furiously as my vision settled. Taun was at my side, helping me up with a look of amazement in his face.

“What, what is it? What is that thing?!” He was more preoccupied with me, speaking hesitantly.

“Milady… you’re human.” Looking down, I noticed a host of wounds fully leaking blood, registered my heart pumping again, heat surging into my flesh as I truly was, once more, human. Another bolt struck, Taun driving us out of the way while I comprehended what had just happened, now at human speed. Had being smitten cured my vampirism? The finger began firing indiscriminately, nobles melting into piles of ash as the crowd fled for the door in terror. My wind barrier cut out, not sustainable for my now-lower strength, and I snarled as I dropped, catching myself with my staff.

“We need… to leave. I’m not sure I can run.” Rithondriel darted over, bleeding from several glass shards embedded in his face, and understood my predicament immediately.

“Milady, I would not sully yourself with my hands, but the circ*mstance requires I offer to carry you.” Not speaking in response, I simply fell towards him, massive knight cradling me against his gold armor while Tuan led the way, kicking through the doors. Downstairs had received the same treatment, minus the lightning; the streets were pure chaos. A passing soldier shouted that the loyalists were back, surrounding the city; the gates had been repaired and shut, but somehow the enemy had more troops hidden away, now moving to encircle our entire army, deep in their territory—after we’d slaughtered and destroyed everything. The move to attack the gala was calculated, an attempt to kill as many of the upper class as possible, and I was carried down to the basem*nt, Rithondriel ducking into a secret hallway that led to a large, underground bunker. Abaddon and Arthur, as well as some of the higher-ranking nobles, were scattered throughout, on cots or at tables, arguing ferociously. I was brought to a nicer bed, towards the back, and weakly thanked Rithondriel for carrying me.

“It was my privilege, in your time of need.” He remained by me as Taun retrieved some water, Abaddon walking over after a moment, concern evident.

“I never would have thought something like that was possible. Surviving being smitten or it curing vampirism, take your pick. Are you alright?” I nodded slowly, several gulps of cold water helping significantly.

“I did just get hit with lightning. But, it’s true, I’ve been turned back. Somehow.” To my surprise, her expression darkened, and she eyed the knight and Taun suspiciously.

“Trust them?” I looked over, making eye contact with both of them in turn.

“I know a spell that can kill with a word. Do not make me use it.” They both quickly nodded, and I nodded to Abaddon, who leaned over so that her lips brushed my ear.

“You’re the lone human in a city of soon-to-be starving demons.” I went very still, her rising and returning to Arthur with another look at the others. Taun smiled slightly, genuinely.

“I’m not done teaching you, so no need to worry about me. Ma’am.” I smirked, before looking skeptically at Rithondriel, who placed a hand over his heart and bowed.

“I am first a demon of honor. You are a sorceress, no mere mud-crawler; any demon mad enough to try will be executed for the idea, your majesty.” I nodded wearily, having a few more sips of water before tasking them with watching over me, floating quickly into the first sleep I’d had in a long time.

The next morning, we were well and truly surrounded. According to a runner that had come from the last foothold to be cleared, the mine had opened up into a gigantic cavern housing an entire city of soldiers and civilians, who’d poured out in the night upon discovering what was happening. The leaders were still missing, presumed dead on the ice plains, but the gates were shut and everyone was on edge. Abaddon wasn’t foolish enough to try an immediate counterattack, what with half the nobility fried to dust and the roof of the palace torn off—after the initial attack, the massive hand had vanished, leading me to speculate it was a spell or ritual of some kind. After a breakfast of leftover feast food and bitter coffee, I donned my armor and walked out of the bunker, feeling much better than the night previous. Rithondriel and Taun walking along with me. Where the chaos and revelry before had been was now tense muttering, suspicious looks, and increased patrols. After a few minutes of walking, I climbed up to the wall, finding a small tower and sitting at a table far from any windows. We were alone, Taun leaning against the wall and Rithondriel by the entrance.

“What I’m about to say doesn’t leave this room.” Both nodded, and I continued.

“I saw the Tuma Dia again, right before the attack. I think they might be related.” Rithondriel sucked in a breath, while Taun grimaced.

“Also, as a human I’m significantly weaker in battle, not to mention needing to sleep, even with the gifts of the horsem*n.” Taun nodded, moving to sit across from me as Iris wriggled out of my hair.

“Could do what Poppy did, become half-demon. Though, dunno if it works that way here.” Taun shook his head, Rithondriel eyeing the faerie with some wariness.

“It’s not an easy process; for another being to become a demon is easier, but if power is what you seek, the path to becoming a fallen angel is much more difficult.” I nodded, steepling my fingers in thought.

“It isn’t possible to do here, either.” Swearing under my breath, I resolved again to have a talk with God about whatever anti-Disapparition Jinx was on Hell, and lit a cigarette, smoke drifting through a pane of sunlight by the window.

“So, I need to survive until we break through the line, then? Sounds easy enough.” Taun snorted, while Rithondriel walked over, kneeling in front of me reverently.

“I swear to your majesty that no trap shall befall you, while I draw breath.” With his head bowed, I exchanged a look with Taun and gently tapped his shoulder.

“Thank you, Sir Rithondriel. I feel much safer merely knowing the weight of your words.” He rose, resuming his post at the door, and I finished my cigarette, coughing slightly. A storm had begun to roll in, sky darkening slightly, and I rose.

“To Abaddon, then. Let us see what our next task is.”

After an hour of searching, I found her in the ballroom, now open-air.

“Ah, good. I have orders for you all.” A brief explanation later, we were tasked with preparing my division for a surprise attack from the north, with the main army charging from the south gate to draw attention. My mount was found and returned, remaining nobles and knights gathering in the north square, many still injured from the glass and wind. At my appearance, though, a weak cheer went up, some morale restored at the proof of my living, and I waved to them, a little nervous at riding back out, human. I could still use Holy Fyre, just for much less time than before, and began pulling every potion I could find out of my cloak as the soldiers assembled. Nearly twenty empty bottles clinked against the ground, thrown over my shoulder to the increasing shock of anyone watching. A horn sounded, signaling our attack, and I galloped out, feeling the mix of sharpening, awakening, and strengthening tonics taking effect as we exited the gate. With a shout, I charged the line, lighting my sword as before and crashing headlong into the spearmen. Immediately, my reflexes were agonizingly slow, barely able to dodge a javelin and feeling an arrow dig into my left shoulder, but I snarled down, dealing fiery death indiscriminately to anyone within reach. Suddenly, my mount collapsed underneath me—a spear jutting sideways through it’s head—and I leaped off, landing in a small space and swinging ferociously to gain room. Far off, I heard the other cavalry thundering in, and forced myself onward, managing to kill one at the expense of another arrow in my thigh that sent hot blood oozing down my leg rapidly. With a snort of smoke, the flame went out, leaving me entirely helpless in the sea of demons. I was bleeding heavily, forgetting all technique and fighting just to survive as demons pressed in on all sides, battering at me with strength now beyond mine. A shield caught the side of my head, knocking me unconscious for a split-second; when I came to, I was still falling, sword screaming in my hand, but now I recognized; words.

LET ME IN!” Accepting it, whatever it meant, I felt all of my pain vanish, sword flashing out faster than I’d been able to as a vampire and beheading three demons. Lunging, I ripped a hole through them, carving a swath of corpses out as I massacred through their ranks, trying to get back to my cavalry. Blood was gushing faster, letting me know that I wasn’t healed, just immune to pain; jumping at least fifteen feet, I cleared the last few lines and landed directly behind Taun on his mount. With a groan, I vomited up blood, pain returning as the sword stopped screaming and nearly knocking me unconscious. Taun was in shock, still fighting, and swore as a horn sounded from within the city, signaling a retreat. The remaining troops turned and fled, Rithondriel coming up alongside us, already apologizing profusely, which I waved off.

“My own hubris. One moment.” With a flick of my wand, I began casting Healing spells, closing the wounds and groaning through my teeth.

“We almost had them, that time. Have hope!”

Three weeks and two attempts later, the city was beginning to feel the strain. Supplies were nearing their end, and several of the wells had been poisoned by blood from the chaotic fighting. Civilians rarely left their houses, mostly peering out through boarded-up windows at any soldiers that passed. The army was eating well, still, but in four days’ time there wouldn’t be any food left in the entire city. Taun had begun planning escape routes, under cover of darkness, and believed an exit to the sewers lay beyond where the surrounding army had made camp. I’d been allotted one of the rooms in the upper floor of the palace that still had a roof, spending most of my time sequestered and reading, or sparring with Taun on the mostly-empty ballroom. Discussing what had happened with Taun, he surmised that the blade itself was so powerful that it had gifted me a boon, but one that was dangerous to use; I could bleed out and not even notice, while having the skill of a master. It hadn’t spoken since, and neither had I seen the sheet demon. The books were interesting, histories and poetry, odes of old heroes and despised villains all gilded and etched into silver, wafer-thin pages. Abaddon had been mostly working, maintaining as much order as possible even as everyone knew, without saying, what was approaching. I took my dinner in my rooms, receiving news that another, final attempt would take place the next day. Even with the additional time training, I wasn’t certain of myself given the previous failure; Rithondriel and Taun would occasionally withdraw, speaking in hushed tones as I prepared for bed, but I paid it no mind. That morning, the thirty or so cavalry remaining assembled in the southern square, having been put under temporary command of Taun’s subordinate, under the pretense of myself having fallen ill. In reality, before first light we slipped from the northern gate and ran towards the ice plains as fast as we could. Since the main army was defending the southern side, we managed to find a gap in the line wide enough for the three of us to sneak through, following faded footsteps of the loyalist leaders north. Once we were far enough, I summoned a sphere of warmth, Rithondriel carrying me in his arms so I could conserve my strength to maintain the spell. After some pre-determined distance I didn’t know, the pair stopped, Taun building a small hut using blocks of ice dug from the ground as Rithondriel set me down, exhausting already hitting me. Thankfully, demons could build quickly, the three of us clustering inside the walls and huddling around a blue flame, which filled a spare jar and cast jumping, flickering shadows across the walls.

“We’re away from the city, at least. Could be able to skirt across the mountains and escape, but the road is rough.” I was still smarting a little from my wounded pride—and wounded body—and scowled down at the flames.

“How could they have had so many more troops? Where did they all come from?” Rithondriel’s face was grim, Taun’s betraying nothing.

“Over the long millennia, many secrets were birthed. I suppose the loyalists were always preparing for this, one way or another. Must be a breeding ground.” My scowl deepened, and I lit a cigarette shakily.

“They’ll die in there, I know it. If this push fails, it’s over.” Neither demon met my eyes, while Taun spoke lowly, watching the blue fire carefully.

“There is… a third option.”

Chapter 15: Judith, Angel of Death

Chapter Text

Ellie

Everyone was screaming. Mostly at our arrival out of thin air onto a crowded Cybermen slave ship, but also at the fact that we were being shot at. The files from the Sontaran facility had led to an outpost on the actual gas giant below, atop the rocky, molten core; once inside, I’d accidentally bumped into a distress beacon, activating it and summoning the nearest ship that heard it. Upon realizing what it was, the Doctor had jumped us straight into the brig, beginning a stealthy evacuation of over four hundred prisoners, all species and homeworlds—we’d only been caught out by a patrol entering to examine the prisoners. Now, I was standing in the shielded doorway of the TARDIS beckoning people inside, shouting over the laser-fire and sonic-screwdriving for them to hurry. As the last group trickled in, I whistled loudly, Doctor sonicing a blast door shut and darting over towards me, hair fanning out behind her illuminated by the flashing lights. Almost faster than I had expected, she slammed into the door, shutting it and navigating the crowd of people to reach the console, a tense moment of muffled battering lifting as we jumped away. People were crying, hugging both myself and the Doctor; a gaggle of children was underneath the console, playing with the pile of scrap parts and letting out shrieks of laughter at the things they “constructed,” and she walked over to me once landing on a metropolis planet, where they would be safe.

“Good move, that whistling. Wouldn’t have heard you otherwise, to be honest.” I rolled my eyes, brushing some debris off of my coat.

“Never expected that to come of an abandoned research facility.” She winked, patting my shoulder before leaving to explain what was going on to a confused official-type.

“The universe is a mad, mystical place, Ellie Jones. What do you think, Napoleon or Catherine the Great? I fancy a spot of tea.”

Jude

Taun’s idea was insane, but that was almost genetic for me. Kneeling in front of the fire, I clasped my hands together and bowed my head. I’d never prayed before, but I figured it was as good a time as any, and directed my words to Lucifer—my Lucifer, not the one on divine house arrest. Hello? Lucifer? Er, step-dad, I guess. I need help. The wind slowed, dying down until an unearthly silence settled over the plain, fire flickering and dimming as even I felt a magical aura join ours, out on the ice. Fog was rolling in, seeping over the walls of the hut and obfuscating the world around us—both demons looked uncertain, terrified as the voice of Lucifer spoke, within the cloud.

“Come, little lamb. Come and see.” Almost in a trance, I stood, disregarding the cold and walking straight out, towards the voice. The fog seemed to coalesce, thickening and hardening as I approached a shadowy, tall figure; drawing near, I saw the face of Lucifer, peering down at me.

“Greetings, Jude. I offer my condolences, for your sister. Truly, a light was snuffed from creation that day.” I sighed, keeping my head bowed respectfully.

“And, when the kin of the savior requests aid, who am I to deny it? You have grown weaker, child.” I nodded.

“I was… smitten. Cured of vampirism, and now too weak to save my allies.” The fog dissipated between us, Lucifer going down to one knee to be level.

“You seek power, for a righteous cause. What power do you seek?” Looking up into his eyes, a little nervous, I stated my request plainly.

“I wish to become a fallen angel, or some equivalent. My blade will kill me, otherwise.” The angel didn’t seem surprised, nodding twice along with my words.

“And what is offered?” Powerful beings and their deals. Though, as a human, I had significantly more options at my disposal to bargain with; namely, organs.

“My heart.” Lucifer contemplated this, bringing a massive hand up to scratch his chin.

“I find these terms amenable. However, as a courtesy to Poppy, I shall warn you of the agony that lies ahead; it is more painful than even the manipulation of the soul. A true rebirth, body and mind. You will remember, fear not, but you will never be the same again.” At this warning, I was a little surprised—Siobhan never warned me, and he seemed to be truly doing this out of kindness—but my mind was made up. No running away in fear, from this or the war.

“I accept.” He rose again, and bid me follow his instructions to the letter, or I would surely die. The cold was numbing me now, but Lucifer radiated a strange feeling of warmth, almost emitted from his skin itself. I undressed, Lucifer drawing a long paring knife and turning me around, on my knees.

“It is thought, by many humans, that angels were birthed from the void, from nothingness.” The cold lessened the pain, but I gasped involuntarily as the blade sunk into the skin of my back, sideways, and began to move down, flaying the skin from my flesh and lighting every nerve of my body on fire.

“In truth, we were first formed of dust, like mortal man. The dust of the stars, so to speak.” His voice lulled me away from some of the pain, allowing me to stay upright and not shiver as blood, hot and oozing, rolled down my back in ever-increasing amounts.

“In birth, we were flesh. Our Heavenly ichor is not merely aesthetic; we were once as powerless as humans, wriggling about helplessly in the nebula of our birth.” It moved to my arms, still on the back side, flaps of skin hanging off or splattering to the ground beside us in a neat pile; the wind bit at my exposed flesh, muscles contracting with the curls of frost that tried to gain a hold—Lucifer kept speaking.

“To become greater, to fly across the void of night and the stars above, we were remade. The first, truly, in His own image.” My vision was darkening, likely due to blood loss, and he raised me up into the air, floating a few inches above a rapidly growing puddle of blood—with the extra access, he resumed skinning my rear and legs. He was doing as much of it away from my sight as he could, I thought, and blinked groggily as he stepped in front of me, knife and arms slick with blood.

“You will not die, by blood. I will maintain you, as Uriel did for me.” The front was infinitely worse, watching the pulsing muscles and tendons quiver at the cold air, something that should never meet them; he went faster, finishing my front and leaving my neck and head for last.

“Angels were made as sculptures, statues to adorn the glory of the Almighty. A fallen angel is no different, though the price is woe, not glory.” My scalp sloughed off, hair soaking into the blood, and I was barraged by waves of nausea, nearly driving me into unconsciousness before my ears were removed, rendering this step complete. I was still suspended, barely able to see from the blood and wind in my eyes, Lucifer pausing to examine me momentarily.

“Next, I shall remove your heart, and replace it with that of my own kin.” He reached out, muscle parting to allow his hand access, up under my ribcage, gently shifting a lung out of the way and sliding his fingers around my still-beating, living heart. A grunt escaped me as a shard of ice filled my chest, fading before being replaced by a supernova of heat, like what had occurred to my chest in Calorum, spreading out and across my entire body—when I looked down at my arms, the flesh was smoking, embers of fire running up and down the ligaments and bones. As the flesh blackened, it solidified, growing larger and stronger before my very eyes. He was already continuing, causing the pile of flesh to rise into the air, runes in an ancient hand appearing across the inside of the skin in dazzling, beautiful patterns; my blood was the ink.

“You need not eat, nor sleep; the field of battle itself shall quake, upon your arrival. I remake you, not in the image of God, but that of myself.” Like a living mass, the skin wormed through the air towards me, twin lances of pain exploding from my back—sticky, bloodstained feathers floated down in my vision and I realized, wings—skin enveloping me once more, slithering across my skin a similar shade to Lucifer’s. As it connected, it felt as though thousands of tiny mouths, full of serrated teeth, were biting me, and I screamed for the first time, collapsing to the ground as I was released from the air.

“You cannot step inside holy places, nor over north-flowing water. Beware, Judith, orphan of Heaven: though angelic, you are still at heart a demon.” With that, he vanished, leaving me covered in blood, naked, and lying in a puddle of my own viscera. I wasn’t cold, though not from numbness, two brilliant white wings having instinctively extended out to shield me from the wind, and I stayed there until the biting, searing pain had abated. Clearing the blood with my wand, I stood, redressing with some difficulty (I had to make a few hasty alterations to my clothes to allow the wings) and walking back towards the hut, fog beginning to clear. When I returned, Iris was sitting on top of the jar, telling an animated story about Poppy to the two demons, who were listening with rapt attention. At the sight of my face (and wings) all three snapped to attention, Taun looking up at me in amazement as I realized I’d grown to a similar height as Lucifer. With a thought, I shrunk down to normal, tucking my wings around myself and viewing them skeptically.

“My lady…” Rithondriel knelt, head down, Taun surprisingly doing the same after a moment.

“Rise. It seems we are now kin, in a way.” The Tuma Dia was peering over the wall of the hut at me, but I didn’t mention it. Taun spoke next, still eyeing my wings.

“Neither myself nor the good knight are of such strength as you. It is deserving, of your station.” I rolled my eyes, sitting back down while Iris inspected the wings, plucking one to my chagrin.

“Does this mean we are returning to the fight? You were gone but a moment, milady.” Ah, yes. The battle. I rose immediately, staff in my hand in a flash.

“Are either of you capable of flight?” At their heads shaking, I shot them a wicked grin.

“Then, I shall carry you.”

It took two tries to be able to fly, a hand around both the demons’ chests—their weight was trivial now, and I marveled at my strength even as a spark of fury caught light in my chest, aimed directly at the loyalist army. I was able to soar through the skies, high above the ground, coming into view of the castle after only half an hour of flying, Taun occasionally grumbling about a fear of heights. The battle was still raging to the south, all of the enemy army now swung around as they fought at the foot of the half-open gates. I streaked through the streets, taking hairpin turns and tucking my wings sideways to fit through alleys, eventually dropping the pair at the front and arcing up, coming to a stop about thirty feet above the ground, wand out. Letting out a battle cry, I summoned bolts of fire from it, scorching the back lines and driving an opening between the two armies before they managed to break through. Tucking my wings back into my back, I fell, sword flashing out as I impacted the ground, cratering the tundra and knocking a group of demons off of their feet. A cheer went up from our side, and I darted into the fighting, flame of wrath fueling my strikes as I dug into the demon footmen. The power of an angel was apparent, able to level entire lines in seconds with just a thought, slaughtering hundreds of demons personally and turning the tide as Abaddon’s army mounted a counterattack, chanting my name over the sounds of battle. The wings were effective in combat, too, able to block projectiles and slice through unprotected flesh with razor-sharp feathers. Quickly, I was joined by other fighters, Taun at my shoulder while Rithondriel had commandeered a mount, laughing wildly as he crushed and slashed. I felt a similar exhilaration, loosing all of my anger at being bested and the fear of the last few weeks onto anything near me, lines of fire charring the ground around me as well as the warriors. Taun and I led the charge through the northern flank, tearing a gaping hole in their lines and, struck by a sudden idea, I took flight, grabbing Taun by the armor and flying in the direction of the secret stronghold. He seemed to understand what I was doing, cursing vehemently at the ground far below us before grunting as I landed roughly at the foot of a cave etched into one of the mountains.

“In there?” I shrugged, and strode inside, able to see in the dark again and leading the way through tight corridors and crawlspaces, shadows lengthening the further we went.

“Cripple the snake, eh?” Around a bend, torchlight flickered, shadow of a sword raising up sending me into action, blinking down the tunnel and slaughtering the six demons in the room, not stopping to look and continuing onward. The tunnel did indeed open into a wide cavern, complete with a small underground stream and pond in the center—tents of all kinds were scattered around the area, and I moved like lightning through all of the demons there, eyes tinging red as I cackled, burning tents and bringing the wrath of—well, of an avenging angel down on their heads. In the span of a minute, the entire room was still, fires crackling as cloth and armor burned. By the time I was finished, the pond was stained red, a few bits of flesh floating in it, Taun quietly stepping up to me as I panted, not out of exhaustion but from an overwhelming flow of energy, like my senses had just been switched to maximum.

“Your majesty?” Blinking, the red began to fade, and I turned to face him, sword back to a staff.

“Yes? What is it, we need to get back to the fight.” Taun, to my surprise, took an unconscious step back from me, allowing me a wider view of the room, and what I’d truly done. All of the loyalist soldiers had left to fight, meaning that… I looked around, horror filling me as I realized what I had done. A field of civilian corpses, all struck down by my gleeful hand. In disgust, I dropped the staff, reaching down to a child before recoiling; it was only waist-up beside me, and clearly dead.

“I…” The flicker of fire returned in my chest, though this time directed at Taun. How dare he question me? This was war, and I was his better. Quashing the anger, I grabbed the staff again, face drawn and tight.

“We need to get back. I expect them to be routed, by this point.”

After a quick, silent flight, we returned to the battlefield, finding the remaining loyalist soldiers had surrendered at my display of might. I kept having flashes of memory, body parts flying out and blood spattering over the walls, paying it no mind and returning to Abaddon, in my tall-mode.

“Quite an upgrade. Yet again, the Hero of Dormantia prevails!” The army cheered, though my face didn’t shift, remaining a slightly stony mask.

“With their armies defeated, we shall return to Lisandria, for a grand feast. Will you be accompanying the army on the walk back?” A carriage was pulled out for me, Taun and Rithondriel piling in as I accepted a pack of cigarettes from Abaddon, who was looking me over strangely.

“They quit once you flew north. Don’t want to know.” I didn’t reply, shutting the carriage door and warding it against eavesdropping as we rumbled into motion. Rithondriel was going on about the battle, and how he’d split four heads in one bash, while Taun and I weren’t speaking or looking at each other; I was smoking. It was nice to be enclosed, if a little suffocating, and after a while I spread my wings, covering both windows and making eye contact with Taun.

“Is… anger a problem, for demons?” He nodded once.

“Most learn to control it, give or take a few decades. Those that fall prey to it are… Lost.” I grimaced, retracting the wings as Rithondriel chimed in.

“Some use their rage in battle, like myself. It can be a powerful ally in opposing odds, your highness.” I lapsed into silence, peering out of the window at the passing tundra, a few lines of footmen walking beside us.

“My sister, Poppy, wasn’t really my sister. I’m a flesh golem, or was.” One of the wings curled over me, almost like a blanket.

“She was already a god at that time, so instead of being a lump of meat I was fully formed, thinking, and so on. In a tutoring class, she’d done it for a lark. By my estimate, I’m about ten years old, give or take. Dimension hopping does strange things to time.” Both were stunned to silence, but I didn’t break my gaze, counting the blades of dead grass around a small bush as we passed. A small lump had formed in my throat, and I scowled slightly.

“I think what occurred only did so because I have done so before. Far, far more than this.” My voice was dripping with disgust, and I smoked a cigarette in one drag, flicking the butt out of the window. When I glanced at the other two, Rithondriel was looking down, while Taun, for the smallest moment, had been gazing directly at me, expression unreadable but complex.

“Your majesty, if I may speak plainly.” To my surprise, Rithondriel looked up, carefully schooling his features.

“You are a brilliant warrior, sharp wit, and extraordinary sorceress, despite that. You have survived more than most demons will ever experience, as a mortal. I will gladly follow you into death itself purely on the strength of your character.” A molten-hot tear dripped down my face, which smoked as I absentmindedly wiped it, but I kept my voice level.

“Thank you.” As we rode through the gate, a few of the guards shouted down at the soldiers, asking who was in our carriage—it didn’t have any markings—to which one dog-headed demon with a polearm shouted back proudly.

“Angel of Death, sire! Hero of Dormantia, in the flesh.” A chorus of cheers rang across the stonework, making me want to shrink even further behind my wing.

“Why won’t this carriage ride end.”

The air warmed up as we returned south, people crowding the street as the army came back, victorious. Roses and bouquets of flowers littered the roads, one falling within my reach that I snatched, sunlight bouncing golden light off of my exposed skin, causing gasps and shouts from onlookers. It was a single rose, dipped in gold yet still retaining the fragrance, and I sniffed it before sticking it in the lapel of my cloak. Then, spying the Tuma Dia peering out from under the bench the men were sitting on, I instead leaned over, holding it out to the creature. It inspected the slightly reflective flower, sniffed, and absorbed it into itself; a cloud of rose-scented mist exuded from it, and I raised an eyebrow as I sat back up.

“Is… someone beneath us?” Batting my eyelashes coyly, I responded as cheerily as I could muster.

“Why, a knight of your standing should be able to sense such things, do you not?” This sent him scrambling to peek under the bench, coinciding with the carriage halting, sending his head into my stomach. Instead of knocking the wind out of me, he simply… stopped when he came into contact with my armor, almost collapsing as I pondered just how strong a fallen angel was; with a shudder, I wondered how powerful Raziel had been. A carpet was waiting for us, taking a moment for Rithondriel to recover and exiting onto a gold-trimmed, purple carpet leading to the steps of a large manor complex, built from similar stone as the castle in Dormantia and a similar style.

“Raksas, leader of the Loyalists, forfeited his property by rebelling.” I rolled my eyes at the stained glass, Rithondriel shadowing Taun and I as we walked side by side, greeted at a massive pair of oak doors by a demon in a tuxedo vest and bowtie, who looked us over before scribbling a note, passing it to another demon, who stepped into the foyer and spoke loudly, introducing us as we entered.

“Sir Rithondriel, of the Unholy Knights; Major Taun, of Hell’s Royal Army; and heir to the throne of Britain, Crown Princess Jude, the Hero of Dormantia!” Applause broke out, fancily-dressed nobles politely cheering from behind fans and veils; smoke hung in the air like a living creature, winding around us as we made our way inside. Several demons came forward to kiss my hand, offer congratulations—or libations—and after several minutes of polite conversation we’d managed to find a table in the main hall, near a balcony overlooking an enclosed courtyard. With my chair against the wall, it was easier to dig in, eating much more than I’d done even as a human; it never felt quite like enough, as if I couldn’t quite get full, but eventually I reached the limit, having eaten two whole rams, a cask of mead, and half the garden in vegetables—much to the wonder of several demons nearby. The staff was leaned up next to me, within reach, and I quaffed a flagon of wine, bursting into laughter at the story Iris was telling and spraying a mist in the air.

“—and the whole time, she was convinced she couldn’t say her name, or else I would steal it!” Even Rithondriel laughed, a deep bellow slightly different than what I’d heard on the battlefield. Taun was admirably holding back tears, but all of the people near us froze as a fifth joined our table. The tired girl in the suit, or, Death—one of my wives—already had a cigarette lit by the time I’d registered her presence.

“Evening, dear. Traffic was hell.” Neither Rithondriel, Taun, or Iris moved a muscle, faerie caught mid-comedic improvisation.

“At a time like this? Dinner’s gone cold. What’s going on?” She leaned forward, snagging a turkey leg and gnawing at it.

“Turns out I’m not the one to call when uniting peoples. Majorly not. It’s actually good that you finished up the war in Hell so fast, because… er… I may need help on the surface.” I raised an eyebrow, and jerked my chin at Abaddon, who sat at a central table with Arthur and a few commanders.

“She’s the one to talk to. I’m retired from public office, thank you.” She rolled her eyes, leaning over to put an ice-cold hand on mine.

“I don’t think you understand what “majorly not” means. Somehow I shorted all of the electrical systems on the planet, and… well, people aren’t taking it very well. I just wanted to be on all of the screens in the world at once, but…” Unfortunately, fallen angels could still get migraines, and I rubbed my temple for a moment, frowning.

“S’pose Hell will have to invade. Or Heaven, or both. Again, I’m not in charge of this army. I’ll fight, but not alone. Not anymore.” She nodded, patted my hand, and left to go talk to Abaddon, Taun shooting me a look as she left.

“Don’t ask questions you don’t want to know the answers to. Got any more stories?” Iris finished off a thimble of ale, burped, and turned it over to use as a stool, beginning in a wise, squeaky voice.

“Has anyone told you the story of the battle of Hogwarts?”

Lightning cracked across the sky, accompanied by a slow, lazy shower of rain across the city of Lisandria. Tall spires of glass and rock pierced the clouds that drifted in, warped and twisted their shape, a few gusts bringing a tuft of mist down, past the tall, proud wall; up over it, past an angel sitting atop a spire, up and up into the sky until it passed the misty fog above, searching the black sky above, condensing smaller and smaller as air lessened, finally plonking against the upward edge of that domain. Like magnetism, drawn up towards something, towards a force designed to pull and weave the fabric of life; above, whether Earth or Heaven, it called to the orb of mist, beckoning it to be born anew—molded, combined—the black heart of life, the profaned egg, the king.

Chapter 16: O Mother, Where Art Thou?

Chapter Text

Jude

The next morning, I bathed in the gardens atop the roof of the manor, where the knights and nobles were given temporary housing. Death had, indeed, sought out the help of both Heaven and Hell: it was announced that in two weeks’ time, a coalition force of angels and demons would march out, to restore peace to a world experiencing total upheaval—rumor has it that the scolding Death received was enough to cause earthquakes. In the meantime, we were on standby, though the near-constant balls and galas was beginning to drive me mad. Taun stepped out, eyes averted, to remind me of a dinner appointment I’d made, which conveniently got me out of the night’s festivities. Once dressed, minus my armor, I joined him and Rithondriel in a small parlor, nestled in the wine cellar behind a fake cask.

“Received clandestine orders, from the very top. This isn’t going to be a standard invasion; you’re going to go undercover as an angel, sent to “save” humanity by uniting them under a common flag. Think messiah, but not really. Since the majority of our strike forces are human-appearing, the armies that come to assist us won’t attract too much attention; we just need to get a group of them on our side to conquer the rest.” I sipped my wine, other hand lighting a cigarette.

“Why me? Isn’t there some other angel they could use?” Rithondriel snorted, and Taun shook his head.

“That’s the thing, they’re literally too pure to attempt subterfuge. You’ve got the look of one, without being one.” Frowning, I examined the notice from Abaddon, signed by both God and Death.

“Fine. Who’re my options for factions?” Over the course of the night, I compared the multitude of fiefdoms that had sprung up once everything had shut down, judging everything from population to inherent goodness or evil, before pointing my finger at one in France.

“There’s… a girl, went missing in the initial chaos. Parents dead, no siblings or relations. You’ll need to pose as her, can you change shape?” Focusing, using an ink drawing he gave as a reference, I felt my features morph, body altering slightly until he was pleased with the result.

“It shouldn’t take much, just show up ringed by a halo or something. Worked for Joan.” Ignoring that, I then left the parlor, heading to the nearest stable and attempting to transmute one of the mounts into something approximating a regular horse. It took six tries, but the sixth turned out right, if the eyes were slightly forward-facing and the tail seemed to think independently, and I turned to the pair proudly as they joined me.

“Meet Six. I’ve got it down, so I can do the same to yours before we go back.” Both men counted the five dead mounts, and the sixth, before nodding in unison and spectating in silence. After two more had been transformed, I announced that our plan of action was to emerge from the portal in Arthur’s backyard, then teleport to France, as I’d sent a polite letter asking God to let me teleport—nothing in response, but it had been possible since. I didn’t have very many things to pack, hefting the staff and mounting up, armored with a slightly nicer looking helmet, though I kept the plume. With a farewell wave, the three of us rode out of the city, to the broken down cathedral where the portal to Earth stood.

I noted that despite their equine appearances, the monsters were still monsters; upon exiting the portal, one began eating the fence in large chunks, another vomiting blood onto the ground calmly. It was much quieter than a suburb should be, but I wasted no time, teleporting across the world and appearing at the top of a hill, overlooking the town I was supposedly from. To my surprise, it was under attack, a mob of poorly-organized men with all sorts of improvised weapons like shovels and hoes charging another line of men, while a series of wooden stakes lined the outside of the town served as a defensive bulwark. Mounting up, I raised my sword, coating it in regular fire and using magic to sound a loud horn, which echoed down into the valley and caused both sides to pause. Our horses broke into a run, charging down at the attacking line, and just as my first strike killed six people they broke, scattering out with screams of terror and begs for help as the friendly side watched in slack-jawed awe. After they’d been driven back, running out of the valley in all directions, I dismounted, walking over to an older guy who looked like he was in charge.

“You—You saved us! What was that?” Flipping my visor up, a faint glimmer of recognition crossed his face, and I smiled serenely, doing the halo trick.

“Lydia? But I saw you fall…” Still smiling, I revealed my wings, gently unfurling them to another chorus of gasps.

“I was saved, by holy providence. Born anew, sanctified, chosen. I have been sent to deliver our people.” At the sight, as well as the radiant light around me, he fell to his knees, weeping. The assembled soldiers either fainted or knelt at the sight of my wings, and after he’d composed himself, the man embraced me.

“Oh, thank God.” I was led through the town, which was slightly burned and broken-down, using healing magic on everyone who needed it. Taun directed me to the clinic, where I saved at least six lives; after that, I was brought up to the old man’s house. Before we went in to chat, I excused myself to “pray,” heading up a small hill and drawing my staff, kneeling. In a whisper, even though I still felt a tad bit stupid, I spoke to the staff.

“Er, hello. Can you hear me?” Nothing happened at first, before I felt a slight knocking, as if someone was knocking on the outside of my head, asking to come in. Allowing them, a voice suddenly emanated from the staff, loud and clear.

“I’ve been able to hear you this whole time, for the love of—Well, nevermind. Can you hear me?” It was a silky-smooth, suave voice, like a Bond or some other dashing hero, and I wondered whether Poppy or Morgana had set it up like that, snorting slightly.

“Yes, I can hear you. Sorry about that. Do you like the name I gave you? Wasn’t sure if it was good.” The staff vibrated in my hands, before smugly replying.

“Why, I couldn’t think of a more fitting name. Blade of the World Eater, Necroth! Necroth. Has a good feel to it. Did you just wish to chat about names, or was there something else on your mind?” Squinting slightly, I explained what I wanted as tenderly as I could.

“I need you to disguise yourself as a knight’s sword. Or, some good-guy weapon, I need these people to like me. Don’t get me wrong, I love your regular look, but… it can be intimidating.” The sword broke through the wood indignantly, scoffing at me.

“Says the one who regularly covers me in sacred fire, refused to listen until you were nearly dead. You’re so much like her it’s almost funny.” At that, an involuntary growl escaped me, slight rumble sinking into the ground as I tried to reign myself in.

“Leave it. This needs to work, alright? Believe me, there will still be plenty of killing, just… “righteous” killing?” Both of us noticed the invisible air quotes around the word, and after a long moment the sword shifted, changing into a polished silver greatsword, double-bladed with a fancy hilt and gem implanted in the pommel which, as I looked at it, seemed to take the shape of an eye if the light caught it right.

“Brilliant. You’re a lifesaver. But this doesn’t mean I don’t like your normal look.” I stood, both of us insecure, and with my permission the sword made the link between our consciousnesses permanent, though reminding me that only I could hear it talking. Rejoining the others, I was given a bowl of vegetable stew, eating as politely as I could—I was starving—and discussing Heaven with John, the old man and “Duke of Montgeron,” wherever that was. I’d never personally been, but used all of my skill at improvising to paint as good a picture as I could, while still keeping an underpinning on the whole “conquer everyone” thing. Just being in the presence of an angel, even a fallen one, seemed to have an effect on the humans near me. They were readier to help, happier to listen, and if I talked with them for awhile they’d agree with anything I said.

Once the Duke was on my side, I raised a castle from the broken buildings and wood spikes, using magic; it was mostly the walls and citadel I paid attention to, though I did make sure everyone had some sort of place to stay. It was in a good position to begin with, on top of a short rise in terrain and afforded an incredible view of the surrounding area. Two more demons had come to join us, under the guise of being fellow angels: one to teach them blacksmithing, for weapons and armor, and the other to help them save a failing attempt at agriculture, soon producing enough horses for cavalry. Rithondriel drilled the militia into a fighting force over several weeks, training almost nonstop when they were awake, leaving Taun and I to devise the royal court. Using my apparent authority, I crowned John the King of Arcadia. The man wasn’t particularly clever or strong, really; he was ambivalent, mostly glad to have the title and luxury, leaving the rest of the affairs to myself and Taun and enjoying the feasts. One morning, as I was taking a walk near the training field with a newly-made noblewoman, Rithondriel called out to me, mid-training. After bidding the woman farewell, I bowed and trotted out to meet the demon, giving him a dignified nod in front of the trainees.

“If milady would be as gracious as to demonstrate her skill with the blade, and spar against myself?” I nodded again, stepping back a few steps and drawing the “holy” blade, which was currently discussing which brand of Muggle cereal was best with skim milk. He readied his halberd, before turning to look at the onlooking humans.

“Keep some distance, men. Though we aim not to kill, both Saint Jude and myself are quite formidable.” I settled into a readied stance, waiting for him to move, and flashed forward when he hesitated. The blade clashed off of his, and I spun, pulling it back under and towards his stomach. Before it contacted, he’d moved backwards, butt of the halberd whipping around and catching my temple, snapping my head sideways to several sympathetic groans. Using the force of the blow, I spun again, whirling into the air and raining six blows onto the haft of his halberd in under two seconds; he was pushed back, and I landed with a leg out, hooking my ankle behind his and tripping him. Applause kicked up as I helped him up, brushing some of the dirt from his back and apologizing quietly, to which he smiled.

“No need, my lady. It was a good match, though.. if you ever wish for a real match, I would be happy to oblige you. Your highness.” I smirked, sword changing back into a staff as I walked away, giving a bow to the crowd before Rithondriel yelled at them for slacking off. Catching the eye of the Tuma Dia, hiding inside a fallen-over barrel, I smiled before also spying Taun, peering at me from around the corner of a building, eyebrow raised.

“Oh, come on. It was good for morale.” He rolled his eyes, walking out to meet me in the street.

“King John is currently declaring a crusade, by the way. The runner said he couldn’t find you.” Shrugging, I fell into step beside him and led the way up towards the citadel, which had grown out from John’s old house near one of the walls.

“I was exchanging pleasantries with the nobility. He was probably too scared to approach us.” Taun snorted, saying nothing as we entered the keep, already beginning to see the results of the blacksmithing instruction on a few of the guards inside.

“Should “kingdom building” be on my resume? Could you walk me to my bed, I believe I’m feeling a little faint.” He rolled his eyes, putting a hand on my elbow and guiding me upstairs to my rooms, a palatial top-floor accommodation with a commanding view of the city, as my quarter of the top held a wide balcony (another quarter was John’s family, and the other half was his). Once the doors were shut, magically or otherwise, I pulled off my armor, falling facefirst onto a plush sofa, flicking my wand to light a fire in the fireplace, waving it to start tea. The sword, propped against the sofa, was commentating on my design choices.

“Where are the drapes? The mysticism? The magic, the groove, girl. I feel like I’m in an office building, not the lodgings of the court magician.” I scowled down into the sofa, threatening to drop it into a puddle of stagnant water—gasping, the sword agreed to a temporary truce—and rolled off of the couch, closer to the fire. Taun was making something in the small kitchenette I’d included, bringing me a cup of tea when it was ready and returning as though he was on a divine mission. I lay there, sipping tea sideways, until Rithondriel returned for lunch, having decided to give the men the afternoon off.

“They’re definitely willing to work hard. Humans are tenacious things, really—no offense, your majesty.” I waved him off, still on the floor, as Taun announced our meal—roast pig, wine, and an improved version of the stew we’d been served on our first day—slowly rising with my teacup and refilling it from the stove.

“This looks fantastic. I’m already starved, too.” We divided it up into thirds with a cleaver, each taking a part and eating it, along with bread for the soup and plenty of extra wine. I’d gotten into the habit of setting aside a small portion of my plate for Iris, who gladly fluttered down to the table, withdrawing a metal toothpick it used to stab food items (and Taun) and digging in. Rithondriel gushed about the meal from the moment it was set out—I couldn’t blame him, it was delicious—and Taun was unable to get a slight smile out of his expression for the rest of the night, the four of us singing Calorum sea shanties on the balcony until the sun rose, drinking wine and preparing for the first expansion of the Kingdom of Arcadia, a neighboring territory that had actually been the ones responsible for the attack we’d stopped. Spirits were high, especially between the five demons present, and I received a message from God, asking me to “pray for aid,” to give an excuse for the angels and demons that were traveling there to help us. Deciding to do it as publicly as I could, I knelt in the center of the training field, bowing my head and clasping my hands together, not sure if I actually needed to pray to signal them. Before I could ask Taun, a series of thunderclaps shook the town, a blinding white light growing into a vertical line in front of me, opening outward to admit a company of demons, all human enough to be believable—I noted that they’d been smart enough to find or make Earth horses, too—and greeted them as formally as I could, since we had spectators. The leader, a grizzled demon with a scarred, milky-white eye and a shining axe, knelt in front of me, causing the rest to follow suit.

“Lady Jude; truly, it is an honor. Myself and my men are at your disposal, for the foreseeable future. We number one-hundred and fifty-one, and are all trained in the ways of war.” I bid him rise, introducing himself as Captain Galthior, of Boreas, the demon of the north wind. After John, Taun, and Rithondriel were introduced, I placed his company under Rithondriel’s command, returning to my rooms with a map and Taun to formulate a plan of attack.

Ellie

Tea with Napoleon was a bit of a bummer. It went on far too long, contained nothing but bragging, and the period-appropriate dress I wore seemed like it was actively trying to suffocate me. Thankfully, the Doctor was the only alien that made an appearance, resulting in a fairly calm break after the Cyberman prison-break. When we returned to the TARDIS, some of the bravado had gone out of her, fiddling with the dials and levers to set our next location.

“I’d like to show you something, if that’s alright.” After a longer jump, we both walked to the doors, which swung outward to reveal a vast expanse of nothingness, no planets or even stars; sheer void gazed back at us. As I watched, a pinprick of light began to form, far off in the distance, quickly expanding in a series of massive explosions that scattered light, particles, and a vast array of colors as the Doctor explained what we were seeing; this dimension’s Big Bang. A vast nebula shot out past us, waves of radiation and energy buffeting the TARDIS and dazzling my eyes with purples, blues, and reds—I’d never seen anything like this before, even in my wildest dreams. She smiled at my gasp, patting me on the shoulder as we watched the nebula expand, pushing out the boundaries of the universe in the first great expansion.

“It’s… incredible.” Behind us, the console let out a series of beeps and whistles, Doctor’s face screwing up into confusion as a slight chill settled over me. There was something out there, other than the newborn stars; something, like in the Sontaran facility, that seemed to be staring directly at me.

“Doctor, it’s happening again. Feels like someone is staring straight at me.” Withdrawing her sonic, she scanned both me and the universe outside, staring intently at the readout and frowning.

“Catching it in the moment was what we needed. Unfortunately, you are being watched. From there.” She pointed, a bit to the left of where the bang had originated, and I caught the slightest flicker of an amorphous shadow before it vanished. In the same moment, the doors to the TARDIS slammed shut, alarms beginning to blare as the entire console room was cast in shades of red.

“No—it can’t be…” She was already dashing back over, a quick jump causing the alarms to cease as we escaped whatever was happening. When the Doctor looked up at me, her face was grim.

“The TARDIS has an array of protective technology, designed to prevent paradoxes or unwanted intrusions. Something outside the boundary of time just attempted to enter her. Rather, something that can stop time. I imagine it’s been following us since the facility.” I shuddered, drawing my coat around myself at the thought of being observed, throughout time, by some strange entity neither of us could quite see.

“We need to alert the others. This dimension-crossing being might already be here.”

Jude

The attack was fairly simple, as the opposing fief sat in the middle of a forest, providing us ample cover to approach (a few spells to hide our advance didn’t hurt), peering through the treeline to see a similar collection of ramshackle fortifications and burnt-out buildings as what Montgeron looked like when we arrived. In addition to the demon company, a hundred human cavalry joined us, following me as I walked my mount through a thicket. It was early, just before dawn, the remaining dusk giving us the illusion of emerging from the very shadows themselves as we exited the trees, cavalry mounting up and securing their armor. Leaving my mount with Taun, I strode towards the gate, arms held out peacefully.

“Surrender now, and the grace of God shall spare you all.” A disorganized group of soldiers was hurriedly rushing out, readying their tools to fight, but stopped in amazement as they saw the army in front of them.

“There is no need for violence, if it can be avoided. Surrender.” Those closest to me seemed more willing, glancing at their comrades in confusion and a bit of fear; they only needed another, small push.

“I am the chosen of the Lord, sent to unite the lands either through love or the sword. I pray that you choose the former.” That seemed to do it, enemy soldiers throwing down their weapons and kneeling—I didn’t see a nicer-looking armor anywhere, figuring they’d been working with a sort of democracy—and left Galthior to supervise the town as the rest of the army returned, demons a little put out at not getting to fight. Inwardly, I was relieved; the fire in my chest had burned bright, almost begging to whet my blade, but it had been avoided, and now our armies would grow once more. On the ride back, we encountered several workers beginning the process of building a road between the two towns, which would allow the second conquest easier access for both trade and troop movement. As we rode back in through the gate, I spied a familiar blue police box, sitting out on the balcony of my rooms. Rithondriel stayed with the troops, while Taun and I hurried upstairs, entering to find the Doctor and her friend seated on the couch, drinking tea.

“What a delight, Doctor. How’s the universe?” Her face was grim, pulled taught as she exchanged a look with the girl—Ellie Jones, I thought—and looking up at me.

“Can you protect this room from scrying? Ellie’s book mentions it as a spell, and we need to talk privately.” After erecting as many privacy spells as I could think of, wondering slightly what book she was referring to, I sat on the ground in front of them, back to the fire.

“That’s as secure as I can make it. What’s going on?” Sipping her tea, the Doctor looked me square in the eye, a little uncertain.

“Are you aware of any entity that can control or alter the flow of time, either in this universe or yours?” I frowned, casting my thoughts back through my memories. The frown deepened when I realized I only had one answer.

"Well, Siobhan. Goddess of time.” Both of their faces darkened, and the Doctor’s voice dropped to a whisper.

“We met her, in Europe, over two-hundred years after the Titanoid Crisis. Something felt off about her, but I couldn’t place my finger on it.” Her eyes lit up, and she jumped to her feet, pacing back and forth in front of me.

“The only power source big enough to allow someone to jump dimensions, other than a TARDIS, would likely be something on par with the Big Bang. Something was there, watching Ellie, and it stopped time to try and enter the TARDIS. I think it might be your goddess of time.” It was my turn to jump up, a little indignant.

“How can that be possible? She’s one of the good guys, saving the world and all that. What would her angle even be, and how would she know to come here? To get here, even. I was sucked through a magic mirror, allegedly made by Santa Claus himself.” The Doctor spat into the fire, scowl deepening as shadows crossed her face.

“I’m not sure what her goal is, but a time traveler is quite possibly the most formidable adversary imaginable; even moreso, a deity.” I remembered what she’d said, having watched the history of the universe from start to finish—walking the steps of everyone around her, learning as much as she possibly could—and a pit began to open in my stomach, slowly filling with dread. She could be anywhere, anytime. That was why the Doctor had asked to ward the room against scrying.

“Well… What do we do? She couldn’t get into your TARDIS, so there must be some way to shield ourselves.” Taun spoke, in the midst of making sandwiches for everyone.

“Are there any food allergies I should know?” Surprisingly, the Doctor raised her hand.

“Pears. Regardless, the only truly safe place in this universe is inside that blue box. She’s like… It’s almost like if a person became a TARDIS. If Siobhan can move through time and space indiscriminately, then there’s no telling what could happen.” I frowned, crossing my arms in thought.

“Can’t you go back, and change the past? In my dimension, I mean. Stop her somehow.” Gratefully accepting a cucumber sandwich, she shook her head dourly.

“If she’s present at every moment of that universe’s history—and we have to assume this one, too—anything I attempt to change would merely be fixed before it ever was changed. Not even Time Lords have figured out how to stop time, only how to travel across it.” The fire was back in my chest, a low growl causing the panes to rattle in the windows.

“At best, in a direct confrontation, it would take another god on her level to defeat her.” Cursing, as I’d killed both Poppy and Annabel—the two strongest gods in that pantheon—I sat back down, morosely eating a sandwich.

“I killed both of them. Poppy and Annabel, gods of death and the abyss. Annabel—” an epiphany occurred to me, and I jumped to my feet, locking eyes with her. “She can’t see inflection points, and if we can--well, we could call God for a bit of a 'Lazarus' retelling, s'pose. The choice to do so would certainly be strong enough to block her.” Taun, now sitting next to me, scratched his chin in thought.

“The power required to raise the dead… Only one being in this dimension is strong enough.”

After praying (genuinely, this time) God arrived on the balcony, causing all of the plants and flowers to grow even more vibrant than before. Explaining the situation to them caused a thunderstorm to roll in, God summoning Death and having me explain it all again.

“If we can use this machine to go back to your dimension, and find Poppy’s body, it would be possible to kill Siobhan. The only foil to deities is Death, or the goddess of that regard. It’s never been done with a god, however; it may not work.” I scowled, finishing my sandwich and crossing my arms.

“We don’t know what her plan is. It obviously isn’t on our side, given her spying and forcing her way into this dimension—likely chasing the Doctor. The strength of her soul, coupled with your divine energy, Poppy has to be able to be brought back. I don’t know where gods go when they die, though.”

As the gravity of the situation spiraled out of control, I made Rithondriel the emergency leader, explaining it away as needing to return to Heaven and piling myself, God, Death, and Ellie into the Doctor’s TARDIS. It was bigger on the inside, likely a technological version of an Undetectable Expansion Charm, chock-full with electronics and gears that served to operate within the “Time Vortex,” something with a description so complicated I tuned it out. Finding a seat near the console, I crossed my arms and watched as the Doctor began pressing buttons, switches, and pulling levers feverishly.

“I’ve got the signal for the first dimension, it's just a matter of getting there. I should really invest in seatbelts.” With the pull of a final lever, the entire room shook, lights bursting and nearly knocking me from my chair, rattling back and forth as flames burst out on a few sections of the console. Ellie looked close to vomiting, while God and Death had decided to levitate, in order to avoid the rocking, haphazard shaking that was striking the ship. Several pops and bangs later, the room was full of smoke, Doctor announcing we’d arrived through coughs as I Vanished the smoke.

“We’re back, before the detonation. Where do we need to go to find Poppy?” After explaining what a Fidelius Charm was, and how to access Seabed, another jump put us behind a sand dune, near the crack in the earth.

“Now, you’ll be out there with her, right?” A tremendous screech rattled the TARDIS, coupled by a sudden clashing that I recognized as myself sealing the break in the planet.

“I should be gone… Now.” The Doctor and I ducked out, climbing over the dune just as my younger self Disapparated to the shoreline, hurrying over to the pile of ooze and metal as the Doctor withdrew some sort of scanning device.

“Collect this, and the metal. It’s got traces of DNA woven into it, could be useful.” While she searched the surrounding area, I waved my wand, coalescing the ooze and metal into a single ball, which hovered behind me as I joined her.

“So, you’re the one who split the planet in half?” I rolled my eyes, Iris back on the TARDIS, leaving us totally alone.

“Surgery, more like. Had a tumor from beyond the stars.” She didn’t laugh at the joke, instead turning to face me, face serious.

“To do all of what I saw would take enough energy to tear a hole in the fabric of reality, twice. Not even a god holds that much strength.” Crossing my arms, I was a little surprised that the anger in my chest hadn’t kicked up; rather, I was feeling a sensation similar to a rabbit looking at a fox.

“That wasn’t the first dimension I traveled to. The one before, I… gained the strength to save our world.” Her eyes narrowed, and she stepped forward, poking me in the chestplate.

“I know that look. I’ve seen it on myself. There will never be another circ*mstance where you make the choice you did, understand? I will not allow it.” Bristling a little, I poked her back, growing into my big size and scowling down at her.

“You don’t know half of what’s happened. I had to, or else I wouldn’t have had the strength to save Earth.” For the first time, she raised her voice, unaffected by my sudden change.

“You always have a choice. How many? How many died, screaming, wailing, how many burning? How many dead?!” Sickened—mostly at myself—I turned away, staring down at the freshly mended crack.

“It makes sense, really. Siobhan granted me strength, in exchange for killing Annabel and Poppy. Removing competition.” I was dragged back around to face her, the turbulent emotions on her face making me feel like I was the small one.

“I’m sure you’re a wonderful pawn. Should we even bring her back? If it’s possible, what would the consequences be? Or have you only thought about fixing the problem.” Above us, the sea began to roil, coupled with a strange bolt of light flying off into the sky.

“All of you humans are the same. Shortsighted, rash, foolish. I don’t know why I keep doing it.” After a last scan, she marched back to the TARDIS without a word, leaving me and the orb to follow behind, fuming. Inside, Death was reading a book, while God and Ellie were talking quietly.

“Found her. Do whatever it is you’re going to do, then get the hell out of my TARDIS. I’m done solving your problems for you.” At God’s direction, I reshaped the ooze and metal into a roughly human shape, laid out on the ground. Taking a finger, they lightly blew on it before pressing it to the ooze’s head, a sudden gust of wind tearing at my cloak as light suffused the ooze, grating sound like nails on a chalkboard making me wince as the light faded. There, laying on the ground, was my dead sister Poppy, naked and unconscious.

Ellie

After dropping the four of them back into the other dimension, the Doctor paused, expression grim.

“I’m sending you back, to your time. This can’t keep going, it’ll tear the universe apart.” Immediately, I began to protest, another jump returning us to the spot the Doctor had landed, doors opening on their own.

“What do you mean? What’s going on, Doctor?” A vein bulged out on her forehead, and to my surprise, she started yelling at me as she pushed me to the door.

Get out! I’m not helping you people slaughter this entire galaxy just for some grudge or revenge. Fight your own wars, I’ll have no part of this lunacy.” With a final push, I was outside, doors shutting behind me as the ship prepared to launch. Desperately not wanting to go back to the wastes, back to scavenging and killing to survive, I turned and jumped, latching onto the outside of the TARDIS just as another, taller person did the same behind me, smashing me into the handle and knocking the wind out of me.

“Who the hell—” A clean-shaved, strong jaw peeked over my shoulder, having to shout as the TARDIS jumped, entering a strange, flashing tunnel of smoke and clouds.

“Hang on tight, I’ve done this before. Don’t move much, I’ll absorb as much of the radiation as I can.” Squeezing my head sideways, I locked eyes with a fairly handsome man, wearing a military coat and grinning down at me.

“Captain Jack Harkness. I’d shake your hand, but we’ll have to save it for later.” As we flew through the void, having nothing to do but hold on, I shouted back at him.

“Ellie Jones. Former bounty hunter. Pleasure’s mine.” His smile widened, promptly shooting backward as we landed on what looked like Earth, but the pre-war buildings and streets were still whole, people walking back and forth on a street near where we’d landed, a run-down junkyard. Both of us collapsed into a pile, Jack turning over and spitting up a mouthful of blood. I’d landed on top of him, and his grin returned as he wiped his mouth, holding out a hand to shake.

“Oh, not you. No, no, no, no not you.” Jack perked up, peering under my arm at the Doctor, who was still incensed but clearly surprised; I rolled off of Jack and stood, hauling him up and dusting my coat off.

“And you are supposed to be back in Nevada, two-hundred years from now. Why can’t any of you listen?” I shrugged, Jack shooting me a look before stepping forward to give a mock salute.

“Both of you just… Ugh.” With a deep sigh, she turned on her heel, walking out of the junkyard and towards the street.

“Are we… supposed to follow?” Jack shrugged, slinging an arm around me and strolling towards the Doctor’s slowly diminishing form.

“Might get a free lunch out of it. So, Ellie Jones, got any good scars from the Mojave? I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.”

Jude

We’d been dropped back onto the balcony, Poppy gasping and sitting up ten minutes after arriving, in my bed.

“What the hell is going on here?” Scrambling around, she took the clothes I’d held out to her, eyeing me warily.

“What did you do?” Using my wand, I summoned a chair and sat on it backwards.

“Siobhan has gone rogue. Majorly. You’re the only one who can stop whatever she’s trying to do.” She reddened, suddenly growing furious and shooting me a venomous look.

“You took me away from her just to kill someone. You violated one of the oldest laws of magic in existence, took me away from the woman that I love. I was finally done.” Wanting nothing more than to fly away, as far as I possibly could, I scowled back at her.

“Forgetting something? The Titanoids nuked our planet to sh*t after you died, not going “offline” like you so gracefully put it. Siobhan tricked me into killing you for whatever reason, and now she’s out there at every moment and every place, doing who knows what.” Poppy, confused, lost some of the anger—mine remained.

“You are dense, aren’t you? She lied, just like Annabel. The day you all became gods, she chose time instead of the sea. She told me she watched your entire life three times over.” Surprised, Poppy looked down at her hands, which were snarled up in the sheets, clenched tightly.

“That… no, it’s not possible. The day Hermione died, Siobhan was the one who notified me about the attack. She never said much about herself, even when we were in school, either. No!” A vase nearby shattered, spilling water and a few petunias across the ground, which I quickly cleaned magically.

“I don’t know how you did this, and I don’t want to know. You should know, even though I’m back, I feel more… human, than before. This place doesn’t look very decimated, where are we?” My head sank down a little bit, realizing she wasn’t up to speed on everything that had happened.

“Long story short, we’re in a different dimension, fighting to unify the humans to build a citadel, but she’s already here. Used the energy of the Big Bang to force her way in.” Poppy’s expression darkened, flipping back the covers and rising shakily.

“Can you get me back to our dimension? All I need is a way in. She knows about the five kings.” I paled, thinking back to the meetings I’d had with Morgana, and the ominous declaration she’d given in New York, just before Lacuna was unveiled to the world.

“If she’s been following us all this time, assume she must know everything we talked about up until I erected the scrying barriers. Did SHIELD have anything to do with the other two kings?” For the first time I’d seen, a look of horror crossed her face, and she nodded.

“Sun King. Was a kid, we saved him together from one of the bombed towns in America. Merlin’s taint…” She began to pace, checking to make sure the door was shut (Taun was doing the dishes, based on my hearing) and rounding on me.

“A few things are going to have to happen. Firstly, I’ll need a disguise, so if she comes to check up on you she won’t realize what’s happened. Second, we’re going to need a way to communicate that can’t be traced.” I frowned, scratching my chin carefully.

“Legilimency? I don’t have much skill with it, sadly.” Abruptly, she stopped, a grim smile growing across her face, eyes looking off into space.

“It won’t be pleasant, but there is a way.”

After returning her wand (she let me keep Necroth, admitting that the name was “pretty badass”), she began carefully enchanting a set of gold rings, flowery runes beginning to appear on the bands as she murmured. I was always impressed by her skill with spellworking, the improvisations and creative uses that for me required hours of calculations coming almost naturally to her.

“It’s a bit simpler, I suppose, if the intention is to link our minds on purpose.” At my confusion, she merely shook her head, holding out a ring to me.

“Put it on. We’ll both twist clockwise twice, then counterclockwise once, while picturing a message to send to each other. It should create a bridge between our minds, allowing us to communicate nonverbally across almost any distance. Shouldn’t hurt.” Following her instructions, I envisioned a bouquet of flowers, wincing slightly as light emanated from the rings, gold bands shattering as my brain also seemed to, mind enveloped by a positively massive force that I only recognized as Poppy due to her nod to signal it had worked. Thousands of memories, emotions, knowledge, and secrets poured into me, coupled with one of the strongest mental barriers I’d ever felt pushing itself across to my mind, encapsulating the two of us in a mental fortress of solid lead. I saw every moment in Poppy’s life, through her own eyes; I wasn’t able to hold back tears as I relived her childhood, looking up at her mother—my grandmother, technically—watching through all of the pain, suffering, and loss she’d experienced even before creating me. Where a pit had been, once learning of Hermione’s death, there now burned a flame far stronger and hotter than even my demon-heart could produce, an unquantifiable amount of hatred aimed at Siobhan, the betrayer. Before I could react, she slapped me three times, knocking one of my teeth out and breaking my nose; I knew she’d seen what I’d done in Calorum.

“What was that… thing, that you saw when you shifted worlds? That fractured your mind.” From our link, I could see her replaying the memory, scrutinizing as many details as she could.

“Dunno. It contacted me again, though, shortly before… That. When I was—considering, it simply told me “shall we?” She was already watching the memory, frowning intensely at the handwriting.

“None I’ve ever seen. I don’t like it, whatever it is.” I shivered involuntarily, nodding as she quickly scanned through the rest of my memories, not commenting on the other atrocities I’d committed, the sense of disappointment that radiated into my mind punishment enough.

“I guess we really are sisters, now. I like the new name, too. Suits you.” She headed for the door, exiting as I rose to join her.

“Jude? It’s alright, I s’pose.” Snorting dryly, she flicked her wand at Morgana’s cloak, pipe flying from my pocket and into her hand.

“Angel of Death. Runs in the family, I guess.”

After conjuring a mirror, she spent approximately thirty minutes Transfiguring herself into a completely different person; her hair went ramrod straight, and blonde, coupled with a very painful skeletal reconstruction that ended with work on her face bones so disgusting she blocked her mind from me, at my request. Taun was enraptured, watching one of the most horrifying sights I’d ever seen, and I sat on the couch next to Rithondriel as she finished.

“The way I got here was a mirror, at the house of the Queen of Hell, on Earth. From, uh, Santa Klaus. Might work two ways, can Apparate you there.” She nodded, before pausing and turning to Taun.

“I need a weapon. Something to kill a god.” Perhaps understanding that he was talking to the true heir, the demon scurried off, likely hurrying to the forges to request a mighty blade. Flicking her wand, she redid her wardrobe as well, moving from the Prott mainstay—black—to a crimson red cloak, complete with a hood. Before I could jab at her for looking like Little Red Riding Hood, she flicked my ear, causing me to hiss in pain.

“If she wants to play god, I’ll show her what a real goddess of death can do.”

Poppy

It took some time to get back on my feet, running through a quick exercise session with Rithondriel, one of Jude’s demon friends. I was still fast, and strong, though entirely human, the forging of my blade taking an entire week. During that time, Jude led her demon-human army on several strikes in the surrounding area, bringing more and more regions under the control of her fledgling empire. I couldn’t care less for what was going on in this realm, only thing motivating me to keep living was to kill the witch who killed my wife. I took to sitting in at the forge in my free time, watching a demon blacksmith through the entire process of crafting the blade. At first, neither of us had spoken, me merely smoking and drinking as he worked, but on the fifth day, as the shape of the sword was beginning to take form, he spoke.

“Blade to kill a god is quite the request.” I scowled, flicking my hair out of my face.

“’Tis revenge I seek.” He nodded, back bent low as he dug around in the coals, likely immune to burns.

“Even riskier proposition, that. What did they do? Turn your son into a goat, cause a famine?” I scowled deeper.

“She was one of my friends. Then, she killed my wife and orchestrated my own death.” The demon nodded.

“Fair a reason as any. Need your blood.” Rising, I walked over to join him, heat of the coals baking me as I neared them.

“Hand out, over the metal. Infuses it with your soul.” Doing as he directed, I watched as a cut opened on my palm, slightly disorienting to see red blood after so long being composed of black ooze.

“Two days. How long a handle?” After specifying three-hands in length, I left, heading back to Jude’s rooms to sleep.

Sleeping again after so long was… interesting. Waves of black sand, convalescing into a desert of obsidian choked by a blood-red sky; bones littered the dunes, human, demon, horse, all manner of living creatures razed to nothing. A ways down a dune, a cloaked figure was squatted over a semi-recent skeleton, scraping as much flesh from the bones they could before cramming it all into their mouth, ravenous. With a gasp, I sat up, sunlight streaming in through the window in my room, within Jude’s palatial penthouse. I was sweating, shrugging it off to stand and grab my wand, Scourgifying myself to start the day (never a good sign, as Witch Weekly deemed) and exiting to the main area, where the thinner demon, Taun, was pouring tea for a beleaguered Jude.

“Morning, sunshine. Tea?” I nodded wearily, not fully waking up until the third cup (and a Pepper-Up Potion), digging into a plate of bacon with gusto.

“Need a rifle, sis.” Frowning, she understood once I began digging through the cloak pockets, making a small pile of “useful” items for my trip: Snape’s satchel, which still had a liter of Felix in storage, not to mention a few other choice tonics; the journals Annabel had stuck into a pocket--which would die with me--by Slytherin himself; my SHIELD keycard, hopefully not cut off from top-level access; the battered copy of Mali Sanguinis; King Bastard, who was polite for once and merely sat watching me; and four cracked, magically-mended gold rings, which I slipped onto my left hand delicately. After spending a few minutes magically expanding and reinforcing pockets in my own clothes, I sorted everything into (labelled, Morgana) pockets, also snagging a barrel of Butterbeer for morale. Jude was bemused, having essentially just been patted down, while Taun gasped as progressively improbable things were pulled out—I found it slightly endearing, really. Ignoring the mental poke from Jude, I finished my fourth cup of tea and rose.

“Heading down to train. Be back tonight, eh?” Jude rolled her eyes, smirking at Taun as I walked to the door.

“There’s a curfew, young lady.” Stopping, I turned, eyebrows already raised incredulously.

“’Young lady’? You did not just say that to me.” She was already standing, hands on her hips.

“While you spent your childhood piddling away I’ve already bested you before age eleven!” I gasped, a smirk curling at my lip even as I pressed the offensive.

“How many times did you beat the worst Dark Wizard in a century? How many times did you kill him? Oh, that’s right—none.” Her arms now crossed, Jude snorted derisively.

I helped end a civil war. In Hell!” I crossed my arms as well, chewing on the end of my pipe—thunder cracked overhead.

I grabbed the sun and used it to kill Raziel.” She took a step towards me, eyes narrowing.

I won the bloody Quidditch World Cup!” I stepped in, rain starting to fall on the balcony outside.

I killed God.” She flinched involuntarily, as did Taun, before retorting viciously.

I split the planet in half and killed a Galaxy Eater.” Scoffing, I turned to leave, shooting one last response over my shoulder as I did.

I’m your mother. Now, be a dear and do the dishes for me.” From the shocked gasps, I chortled, Iris already in a heap on my shoulder, guffawing.

After a mostly-boring two days of training (when I got back the first night, I smirked at the neat row of pristine cookware on the counter), I was finishing up with Rithondriel, about to go to the blacksmith and collect my blade. Parrying a thrust, I darted forward and slashed a thin line into his arm, demon dancing back quickly and muttering a curse.

“I find myself increasingly wounded by you, Lady Eliot. I may die before we are finished, if that displeases you.” I smiled up at him at his remembrance of my alias, reflexively blocking a feint and ducking under a grab.

“Oh, don’t worry. It’s more fun to play when you’re still moving. You’re no fun dead.” He paled, hesitating, and I lunged forward, putting a shoulder into his stomach and knocking him flat on his back, halberd sliding from his hand. Moving forward, I had pinned his arms and held my blade to his throat before he could even react.

“C’mon, Rithondriel. We’re just sparring, after all.” He nodded once, quickly, and after a moment I stood, offering him a hand. While the demon was stronger, for a good portion of my life I’d only been punching above my weight class, and was used to overcoming odds; a one-on-one with anything short of a deity just took a little elbow grease. It felt good to duel, flex my muscles instead of my mind. I started to understand the wizards of old who would bind their wands to a greatsword, and after brushing myself off I planted my blade into the ground, informing him I was headed to the forge once he was upright. His jaw worked for a second, wanting to say something, but he stopped himself and bowed.

“Good evening, Lady Eliot.” I did a slight curtsey, before heading up to the road. A group of onlookers had begun to spectate my sparring matches, much like they did Jude’s—I found some pride in the fact that my crowds were bigger, a wave of mental indignation making me chortle to myself.

Chapter 17: VENGEANCE

Chapter Text

Poppy

The smithy was darker, forge cooling, and I found the demon leaning over the blade, cloaked in shadows.

“A blade to kill a god. For any human, an impossible task. It should intrigue you to know I have crafted one other, long ago.” I nodded, puff of smoke emitting from my mouth.

“For the Devil?” He nodded, running a cloth along the blade.

“Though, that was a blade of revenge. This is, by far, a blade with which you may avenge your wife.” The demon blew on the blade, faint light kicking up as a series of intricate runes glowed red—then, he very carefully lifted it, before turning and holding it out to me gently. It was a long greatsword, longer than Morgana’s blade and far thicker, and I noticed that the tip had been cut off, leaving a flat top with a wedge-like point on one side. The pommel was a gold-silver weaving, almost like silky strands of the metals had been braided together; at the base of the hilt, an onyx stone was embedded, along with a small spike extending from the bottom.

“It is made in the traditional manner for a sword accustomed to executions.” After nodding, I wrapped my hand around the hilt, pleased I could lift it one-handed even before my planned improvements.

“How much gold?” The demon snorted, exuding a puff of smoke himself, and shook his head.

“The blade of a queen requires no payment.” Able to suppress an instinctive eye-roll, I instead dug around in my pockets, withdrawing King Bastard and holding him out to the demon.

“Fireproof, could help you heat the forge. He’s a biter.” Curiosity sparked in his eyes, and with my permission he grabbed the skrewt gently, inspecting it even as it spat a ball of fire into his face, which he ignored.

“Spirited! I thank you for this gift, your majesty.” I wasn’t exactly used to the whole nobility thing, having avoided it for most of my first life, but curtseyed again, accepting a sheath and harness before belting it to my back and stepping outside. The sun was going down, and I returned to Jude’s rooms, finding her there, alone.

“Figured you could do with a quiet night. Rithondriel gets rowdy playing cards.” I snorted softly, undoing the harness and withdrawing the blade for her to inspect.

“Brutal. I like the runes, they suit you.” As I was a human, any ability to understand languages was now lost, a brief bribe of Firewhiskey getting me the translation.

Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair. Shelley, right?” I rolled my eyes, inspecting the demonic runes ruefully.

“Gets the message across, s’pose.” We lapsed into silence, only sound the two of us smoking and the occasional sloshes of our drinks.

“Gonna name it?” I spat into the fire, causing the log to hiss at me.

“I never got that sort of connection, like you or Thor. Dunno.” A wry grin crossed my face, Jude turning red as the idea popped into my head.

“You’re not seriously going to—” My wand was already out, and using a bit of magical know-how I began to fuse it with the blade, giving it one last polish before it began to meld into the metal, sending spiraling branches of equally strong wood out along the blade and hilt as the sword hummed with energy.

“Thought you might like some more room, old girl. Sword, I name thee Popelia!” Lightning struck the hill in the distance, coupled with a shock of electricity snaking along the blade, making me wince.

“You’re completely mad. At least nothing’s changed, then.” Arching an eyebrow, I leaned the sword up against the couch and took a swig of my warm Butterbeer.

“Ah, I’ll have to commission new paintings, won’t I? The castle won’t feel right otherwise.” Jude snorted, shaking her head at the fire.

“Stark, raving, any other synonyms?” Choosing to ignore her, I finished my mug and sighed. Iris had a silver thimble, had finished one drink, and promptly passed out on the armrest, so I collected both the faerie and the thimble before rising.

“Off to bed. I’ll head out tomorrow, just send me a memory of the house. Go be a queen for me, eh?” A cookie-cutter suburban house floated into my head, and I winked, sword levitating to follow me as I kicked the door shut.

Despite Iris’ protests, we Disapparated from Montgeron at sunrise, arriving inside the living room of one Queen Arthur’s—this dimension’s new Devil—house. Propped against a wall sat a shattered mirror, a quick tap with my sword revealing a now-defunct transportation spell that I’d never seen before. Despite my incredulity at the prospect, I cast a Summoning spell on the entity Jude had identified as Santa Klaus, carpet floor catching alight as he appeared in an explosion, devoid of the red coat in favor of a tank-top and suspenders. Coughing wildly until I vanished the smoke, his eyes instantly recognized me.

“Poppy Prott. Got some work done, I see. Mind taking a look at a wart on my back?” Scowling, I crossed my arms.

“I don’t know what you are, but I need this mirror to be two-way. How much gold?” Affronted, his beard seemed to droop sadly.

“Why, I’m Santa Klaus! Jolly Saint Nick, you know. You’ve been on the naughty list for a very long time, Poppy.” He was saying my name an awful lot, but Siobhan wouldn’t know to follow a blonde swordfighter, especially as I’d Disapparated directly from one room to another, out of surveillance.

“Fine, send the coal to my address. This is a time-sensitive mission, Kringle.” He scowled, looking distinctly not jolly.

“You will not use that tone with me. I’m far older and powerful—not to mention good—than you can ever be.” Tamping down my anger, I controlled my voice to the best of my ability.

“You know everything about everyone, right? The real Santa Klaus would understand.” At that, his shoulders slumped, and sadness replaced the growing anger.

“It’s not that, child. I am hesitant to… unleash you, upon that world once more. Very few have cheated death like you. And I don’t just mean in that card game.” I didn’t comment on either, merely nodding.

“Fair point. However, I think any of my own attempts to go back would prove much more destructive than this mirror.” Then, after a moment, I continued in a much wearier voice.

“Please don’t make me.” A single tear rolled down his cheek, and he crossed his arms sternly.

“I will grant you passage—if only to protect this dimension. I do have a present for you, aside from coal. It was to be for your seventh year, but it was… lost in the mail, so to speak.” A memory pushed into my mind, the meeting with Siobhan and Jude on the cliff in Antarctica, except I now had a fragment of her thoughts, right when she had Jude’s agreeance to kill me. –Have to stop Morgana— which made my eyes widen, Klaus looking morose as the mirror rumbled into a swirling vortex of smoke behind me.

“I banish thee from this world, and name you for what you are, so that you may never return. Destroyer!” Before the shock could fill me, I was pulled into the mirror, falling into a seemingly endless void of smoke for what felt like hours before I burst out of a dingy mirror behind a bartop, in a place I didn’t recognize. Iris tumbled off my shoulder, coughing at the dust, and I dug around for any bottles of liquor behind the dusty counter. Checking the windows, Iris identified our general location to be somewhere in Louisiana—Just my luck, as there was a SHIELD facility nearby, if my memory served. Finding a label-less bottle of some liquid, I took a swig, tucking it into my cloak as I joined Iris at the door.

“What’s the plan, boss?” Stepping out, I surveyed the sandy, post-apocalyptic wasteland I’d had a hand in creating.

“I need blood. Last chance to leave.” The faerie shook it’s head, floating in front of me, face serious.

“To the end. Both times.” Oddly touched, I blinked away a few tears from the dust and set out, Iris securely back in my hair.

It took three Apparations, as well as a day’s walk, before I came in view of what had once been a sprawling fortification atop a hill, now a small, decrepit-looking outpost building—almost like a radio station. Sharing a look with Iris, I walked up, noting that I still had to cut through (and restitch) some seriously tough wards to pass the chain-link fence. As I stepped in, two automated turrets descended from the ceiling, scanned my card, and shut down; I released a breath I didn’t know I was holding and began searching for any information I could. None of the terminals were online, but I figured that if the planet had really been nuked, and they hadn’t moved anywhere else, they must be underground. It’s what I would do. I could hear whisps of music, from below, and a Tracking Charm revealed a brightly glowing button, hidden behind a removable outlet. When pressed, the spot in front of it began to sink into the earth, acting as an elevator that bore me deeper, towards whatever lay below. I needed to be quick, as using my card would likely ping something, drawing my sword-wand and grimly steeling myself for what I was going to do, cutting Jude off from my mind after a moment. Iris was silent, and I took one last puff of my pipe before stowing it in my cloak, holding a lungful of smoke as the doors slid open, revealing a thunderstruck guard who frowned at my appearance. Before they could react, I breathed out a cloud of fire, filling the entire security booth and charring both who’d been inside. In a second, I was through the opposite doors, emerging into a system of glass tubes built into and across a massive cavern—we had to be at least a mile down—with bulbous offshoots signifying buildings, some as large as the entire width of the cavern. I cast a simple spell (Follow), blood and bodies beginning to float in the air slowly behind me as I slashed anyone I saw to pieces. I made it to another junction, about a hundred yards away, before alarm sirens began to ring, doors pneumatically sealing along the corridors—they still didn’t know it was a witch. I’d collected an impressive count already, though for what I was planning I would need much, much more blood. Explosive spells proved exceedingly effective, blasting doors apart and even killing more in their destructon; I didn’t care who it was, all of them were going to die. As I passed along another corridor, I glanced down to see a massive warehouse below me, where a large number of mixed-species troops were amassing; reaching into the satchel, I withdrew a liter of Potion No. 86, shattering the glass and tossing the bottle, casting an experimental spell on it as it fell. Breaking through the roof, the bottle shattered against the floor, releasing an explosion of gas that had the entire room dead in less than two seconds; potions might not last well on the shelf, but poisons only get deadlier with age. I resumed dismantling any living being I could reach, making a wide arc around all of the rooms and hallways on that level before finding a staircase, making my way down to the next. Six cafeterias were rendered lifeless, laser rifles bouncing off of my cloak while the few that had guns with bullets were bounced back into their heads with magic. Streaks of fire and lightning erupted from my blade, scorching the machinery and glass around us and shutting more and more of their systems off, something I was trying to do to prevent as much information on me getting out. My hood was up, hopefully only a streak of red on most cameras, and as I hacked my way through one of the infirmaries, I felt a presence appear behind me, music strikingly familiar. Turning, I leveled my sword at Thor, though I’d been desperately hoping to avoid any deities, yet.

“Warrior, whence do you come, and why are you doing this?” Not speaking, I lunged, sword dancing off of his hammer and pushing him back out into the hallway, bouncing off a line of floating bodies that stretched all the way back up to the first floor. With a shout, he brought the hammer straight down, a quick sidestep and slash slicing off the fingers that had been holding the hammer, sending it clunking to the ground. As it rose to his other hand, that arm was separated, coupled with a final horizontal blow, removing his head from his shoulders. As it fell, I shattered it magically, preventing him from immediately reforming himself and (hopefully) killing him for good. I resumed the massacre, clearing another infirmary and three research labs before descending to the third, and final floor. This was where the majority of the soldiers were, trapped behind their own pneumatic doors—poor design choice, really—and after warding myself against the poison I’d thrown, downing a vial of antidote, I stepped into the warehouse-sized room, now full of floating corpses. They’d been clustered at my doorway, and parted around me, a quick shield flicked out of my wand protecting me from the hail of bullets and lasers that struck me as I stepped out. At the other end, clad in tactical hazmat gear, complete with attached oxygen, a mass of soldiers and agents had fortified the opposing side, firing from barricades and knocked-over tables; the sirens had gone quiet when I torched the server room, but the red lights were still flashing, giving the entire room a horrific feel to it. Running forward, corpses began throwing themselves in front of me, chewing up the gunfire and exploding into mist one after the other until I cut through both a table and the soldier behind it, bodies cutting off the two halves and giving me time to butcher the first, exploding from the wall of corpses along the rest. Past that, a final corridor of screaming and fleeing soon-to-be magical components was dispatched, ending in a sort-of train station, except everything was super futuristic (well, it had been two centuries), collapsing the exit tunnels on one train as it tried to depart and incinerating the other with a wave of Fiend Fyre. Anyone on the platform was handled accordingly, finally leaving me in silence, red light flashing across the floating forest of bodies I’d gathered. Heading back to the big warehouse, I swirled the bodies around me with my sword, ones closest to me slowly disintegrating into a puree of blood and viscera that spiraled around me, growing more and more with each added body. I didn’t know much about the being Jude had encountered, but I surmised that it would respond to a sacrifice like this, a tornado of liquefied remains forming around me as an entire underground city was blended together. As the last bodies disintegrated, a truly tremendous amount of magical power gathered around me, all of the blood vanished, leaving the white floor and glass walls pristine. A split-second later, words began to form on the floor around me, written in the same hand as the one in Jude’s memories.

What will you take?

Thinking, I spoke as plainly as I could.

“The same abilities as Siobhan Ollivander.” The writing disappeared slowly, replaced by another sentence.

What will you give?

My final bargaining chip, quite possibly the rarest and most powerful thing I’d ever come to have.

“My soul.” A hot wind blasted my face, words dissipating as a strange sensation settled over me, almost like a bump at the back of my mind that I could reach into, if I wanted to. Testing it, I flicked my sword up into the air, nodding to myself as it froze in place, before grabbing it and restarting time itself. Now holding this power, I realized just how much Siobhan could have wrought, if the memories she’d shared with Jude were anything to go from.

“This power dies with me. And her.”

Despite the gift of time, I was still human, meaning this would likely come down to a melee with a god; not my first time, but hopefully my last. My mind drifted back, to a hazy, half-present memory of my time in the afterlife, a place called the Astral Plane, where gods go when they die. It was nice, like a posh resort complete with grape clusters and wine, an afternoon spent reading with Hermione tugging a smile at the corner of my mouth. Apparating to the Sahara, which still had a few lakes and ponds made by the fake goddess of the sea, I flipped my hood back, lighting my pipe and undoing the Transfiguration spells to my body and hair. Two seconds later, a dull crack sounded behind me, turning from my view of the water to meet the horrified, disbelieving eyes of Siobhan Ollivander.

“Thought it was an appropriate spot. The site of the First Great Wool-Pulling.” She didn’t speak for a long moment, stopping time twice to do nothing but stare at me (I did my best to pretend I’d been frozen as well, wondering just how many times she’d done this to me, throughout my entire life three times).

“What is this? Some sort of trick? Poppy wouldn’t butcher an entire SHIELD base, and besides, she’s dead. Who are you?” Puffing my pipe, I scowled down it at her.

“You killed Hermione. I’m here to reap one last soul.” Shock exploded across her face, time stopping again as she dropped to a knee, hyperventilating.

“No, no, no this can’t be happening, it can’t. She’s dead, she’s dead!” taking a moment to compose herself before resuming her former expression and restarting time.

“I’m not falling for some half-baked lie like that. You’re going to die, now.” Time stopped again, this time she deigned to walk up to me, staff shifting into a glaive. Inspecting my face curiously, she muttered to herself quietly, though close enough that I could hear.

“Damn good Polyjuice, though.” It was at that moment that I chose to reveal my hand, looking straight down at her with all of the hate and anger in my heart. She fell back, screaming, and I turned fully, drawing my sword.

“All of this, to stop some half-baked prophecy? All of this?” Though she was scrambling back, she spat out a retort, glaive clattering out behind her as she tried to snatch it.

That’s Poppy. Always blaming others, even though the only redeemable thing about you is how good you take a beating.” I stalked over, towering over her as clouds began to form overhead, blotting out the sun and casting both of us into shadow.

“W-Wait, Annabel lied, too! She was never the goddess of the sun—What about the Decepticons, the war? It’s still going, we can stop it—please, Poppy…” Cold fury suffused my features, and I kicked her glaive over to her, making her flinch.

“You’ve lived far too long, Siobhan. Seen too much. Should’ve taken my lead, gotten out early and let the kids have their turn. Either you die on your knees, or with a weapon in hand. Doesn’t matter which you choose.” Her hand found the glaive, and she stood, eying me fearfully.

“Why won’t you just talk, we can figure this out!” Spitting onto the ground, I narrowed my eyes at her.

“Did you kill her? What about the kid, the Lord of the Sun? Where’s he at?” At her silence, rain began to fall, wetting down my hair and the ground around us.

“It suited your goals perfectly, I bet, that taking care of the thing in the pit would cure you of your “poppy problem,” too. I’ll burn your screaming soul onto the deepest walls of hell just to remind everyone else how good they’ve got it.” Lunging, we began to exchange blows. The strength of a god was nothing to be scoffed at, both of us unable to land a hit through feints, trips, shoves, kicks, and any tricks either of us could think up. Sand exploded with lightning, pillars of glass shooting out from around us as she deflected arcs of it from my sword, turning the heat into a dagger that nearly pierced my chest before puffing into smoke that formed two walls beside her that attempted to crush her; Apparating outside of it, she whirled a spike of sand at me, which I split along the flat of my blade, charging forward and slamming the pommel into her face, knocking her concentration and breaking her nose. Silvery-white ichor began to drip, and she ducked a sweeping strike, shoving the butt of her glaive into my stomach and knocking me back several steps, both of us panting. Shrapnel was beginning to open cuts up across my body, Siobhan gasping at the red, human blood.

“You’re… human, again?” Roaring, I charged into an overhead strike, bashing at her over and over—each was blocked or dodged, final strike parried and a gash opened up on my left arm, pouring out blood onto my clothes and the ground, which was slowly turning into a sand slurry.

“Talking time is over.” During the next series of attacks, I managed to feint past her guard, scoring a hit into the side of her shoulder, causing her to snarl in pain and jump back several feet. A shadow rose over me, glancing to see a roiling wave of boiling water and Apparating above it, forcing it down towards her and riding it downward, narrowly missing a strike that would’ve cleaved her in half. A meteor shower began pouring out of silvery-grey portals above us, raining down on me and forcing me on the defense, having to shield myself with the sword under a storm of fire and brimstone. It hurt, but some of the memory of my time as a demon remained, and I grinned savagely at her through the bursts of flame and stone. The ground split beneath my feet, a geyser of stone slamming into me and knocking me down, sending me surging up into the clouds and subsequently fried by my own lighting. Bathed in electrical fire, I screamed, shattering the rock and sending me tumbling out of the sky, smoking and out of control. I managed to land upright, slamming down to one knee as all of the bones in my legs shattered, vomiting up blood and repairing them as I forced myself to my feet.

“I have to stop the Plutonic Emperor. And you, it seems. Pity you can’t last as long as you used to, though I guess it is the little death for a reason.” The ground shook, sand all around me mulching itself up as every single particle of precious metal in the surrounding mile began to accumulate at my feet.

“Though this sack of meat is all I am now, I am still the goddess of Death. Don’t think to stand over me.” Shards of metal began shooting into my flesh, tearing out meat and blood as an ever-moving sacrifice that slowly replaced my entire body with metal, magically-designed organs and vessels keeping me alive, now completely metallic down to my bones.

“While you watched the turning of ages, I wrote the pages of history in my own hand. I failed them, yes, all of them, and that’s why it ends here. Neither of us are walking away, not this time. Our kind is a blight on existence itself.” With metal instead of meat, my blows struck heavier, giving another edge against her and pushing her back to the edge of the water as she recovered from her surprise.

“While we both fell, you certainly fell the furthest.” Finally, my sword broke through her glaive, shattering it along the handle and scattering her with shards of enchanted metal; in another horizontal slash, I split her head in half at the temple, bisecting her brain and sending the top of her head flying off into the air. She choked, eyes clouding over even as she took a hesitating, blind step, croaking out unintelligible words that were swept away by the wind. Two more steps, she staggered, slumped, and fell down to her knees, blood pouring out of her head. Stepping beside her, I decapitated the rest of her in one stroke, storm beginning to clear as her body fell, limp. Not hesitating, I took one last puff of my pipe before flicking my hand, sword rising into the air behind me, aimed at my neck. Time to go home, after a hard day’s work.

Chapter 18: Seven Slytherins

Chapter Text

Arc 3: Absolution

Ellie

With a crash, the TARDIS landed in a junkyard, open gate revealing old-world buildings in their prime, no explosions or sandstorms reducing them to rubble—yet. In a flash, Jack and I caught up to the Doctor, who’d found a corner booth in a diner. She didn’t so much as look at either of us, waiter coming by to pick up our orders as well.

“I came back here to remind myself why I care for you humans so much.” Jack nodded, while I was still gaping at the clean counters, unbroken windows, and just how clean everyone was—no permanent dirt, scars, broken teeth—as Jack replied.

“It wouldn’t be because of little old me, Doctor?” She rolled her eyes, thanking the waiter as he returned with a tea and two coffees—Jack clinked his mug against mine with a wink.

“Funny. Whatever dimension we’ve found ourselves in, it seems that both magic and gods are commonplace. Jack, what were you doing in the Mojave?” Sheepishly, the man took a long drink of coffee to stall.

“Vortex manipulator wasn’t repaired right, I guess. Lucky I ran into Ellie here when I did, otherwise she would’ve been irradiated on arrival.” The Doctor scowled.

“Trying to repair something expressly forbidden by a Time Lord never ends well. Time Lady, now, I suppose.” I’d never heard the word, and my confusion was evident to both.

“Must be new, eh? The Doctor is an alien, from outer space.” Snorting at Jack, who was wiggling his fingers at me ominously, I turned to the Doctor.

“I knew that much, from the time machine. What planet are you from, then?” She scowled into her tea, glancing out to watch a dog walker pass the window, leading at least six dogs past us with some effort.

“Gallifrey. Distinctly not “outer space,” whatever that means.”

Jude

After another successful battle, I rode back with Taun and Rithondriel in the carriage along the brand-new cobblestone road. This one had been a fight, ending (as always) with a field of dead enemies and a new outpost for the empire. A cloud of smoke emitted from my cigarette, and I scowled at Taun.

“Could you stop staring out the window? Feels like we’re going to be ambushed.” He shook his head, pointing out the window in confusion.

“There’s… a bird. Flying towards us. Has been for a few miles now.” I leaned forward, intrigued, and spotted a tawny owl, winging it’s way closer. Sticking my head out the window, I held out an arm, waiting patiently as the bird fluttered down into a landing, wary of the demons around it. The letter it held was remarkably thick, bearing a wax stamp that I ignored after slipping the owl a few gold pieces (not Galleons, but they worked the same) and sitting back into the carriage, frowning.

“A letter?” I nodded, tearing the envelope open carefully.

“Magic users use owls to communicate. Or used to, before the turn of the century. What’s…” My jaw dropped in incredulity as I scanned the page, looking up in alarm at Taun.

“What year is it? This is quite possibly the most important question I have ever asked you.” Going pale, the demon glanced back and forth several times, trying to remember.

“Er, uh, 1991, I think? Sometime in the summer.” My cigarette fell from my lips, hands shaking as I stared down at the letter.

“This has to be a joke. There’s no…” Staring down at it, I was struck by an epiphany. Of course it was, all of the puzzle pieces fit perfectly.

“Merlin’s foreskin.” At both their urging, I read the letter aloud, covering the windows with my wings for privacy.

HOGWARTS SCHOOL of WITCHCRAFT and WIZARDRY

Headmaster: Albus Dumbledore

(Order of Merlin, First Class, Grand Sorc., Chf. Warlock,

Supreme Mugwump, International Confed. of Wizards)

Dear Ms. Prott,

We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Please find enclosed a list of all necessary books and equipment.

Term begins on 1 September. We await your owl by no later than 31 July.

Yours sincerely,

Minerva McGonagall

Deputy Headmistress

HOGWARTS SCHOOL of WITCHCRAFT and WIZARDRY

UNIFORM

First-year students will require:

1. Three sets of plain work robes (black)

2. One plain pointed hat (black) for day wear

3. One pair of protective gloves (dragon hide or similar)

4. One winter cloak (black, with silver fastenings)

Please note that all pupil's clothes should carry name tags.

COURSE BOOKS

All students should have a copy of each of the following:

The Standard Book of Spells (Grade 1)

by Miranda Goshawk

A History of Magic

by Bathilda Bagshot

Magical Theory

by Adalbert Waffling

A Beginner's Guide to Transfiguration

by Emeric Switch

One Thousand Magical Herbs and Fungi

by Phyllida Spore

Magical Drafts and Potions

by Arsenius Jigger

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

by Newt Scamander

The Dark Forces: A Guide to Self-Protection

by Quentin Trimble

OTHER EQUIPMENT

1 wand

1 cauldron (pewter, standard size 2)

1 set glass or crystal phials

1 telescope

1 set brass scales

Students may also bring, if they desire, an owl OR a cat OR a toad.

PARENTS ARE REMINDED THAT FIRST YEARS

ARE NOT ALLOWED THEIR OWN BROOMSTICK

Yours sincerely,

Lucinda Thomsonicle-Pocus

Chief Attendant of Witchcraft Provisions

Both demons were confused, so I explained it as best I could through my reeling brain.

“So, magic users in Britain get sent invites into Hogwarts once they’re eleven, basically their school system. I guess, as a magic user on this plane, once I turned eleven…” Rithondriel was staring at the ground, numb, while Taun’s eyes seemed to keep getting wider.

“But… milady, you’ve seen countless battles and studied far beyond such things, already.” I shook my head, realizing what Poppy had done before dying: by linking our brains, I knew everything she knew, essentially having a mental copy of her entire life at my disposal. Hogwarts faced one of the deadliest threats of magical existence, starting this bloody year with Harry Potter’s arrival at Hogwarts.

“In every timeline I know of about the school—five, including this one—the future of the planet is decided in the next seven years. Either the worst Dark Wizard to ever rise conquers the world, or Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, Hermione Granger, and… an aberration of time. It always got worse, too. sh*t!” I lit another cigarette, rereading the letter a few times to make sure it was real.

"Well, what are we to do? Conquering the mortal realm, and all.” I frowned down, searching Poppy’s memories for every scrap of information I could.

“Rithondriel, would you be willing to manage the campaign in my stead? If this spirals out of control it’ll be worse than anything the Muggles can come up with. I had to split the world in half last time.” He gulped, then sank into a kneel, head bowed.

“Of course, my lady. If the danger is as present as you say, I trust you in the matter.” Taun leaned forward, and I put up a finger to his mouth.

“You’ll be coming with me. I’ll bet my left kidney I’ve got the family ancestry to Morgana, as well. Think you can cast magic with a wand?”

After leaving a detailed letter for God—still a bit strange—I Disapparated with Taun directly into Diagon Alley, outside of Gringotts. Taking a moment, I ducked into Fortescue’s, snagging a free sample and rejoining Taun, walking to the massive doors.

“Follow my lead, and whatever you do don’t be a demon.” He rolled his eyes, and I pushed inside, marching confidently up to one of the counters, where an aged goblin with a finely-groomed head of white hair leaned over to look at me.

“Good morning. I’d like to claim an heirship test.” He held out a hand, and I gave him my wand, digging through Poppy’s memories of various dealings with her accountant, Grinnuk.

“And, to what family line?” Unable to completely hide a grin, I leaned forward, speaking quietly.

“The Most Ancient and Most Noble House le Fay.” The two goblins on either side of him stopped, glancing over at me in awe, and I really hoped my glamor over my horrific alterations was working.

“And how will you be proving this claim?” I held out a hand.

“By blood.” After conferring with several other associates, I was led back into a modest office, complete with a fireplace, small shelf of liquor, and a wide oak desk, behind which sat a relatively young goblin woman, with a pince-nez.

“Good to meet you. My name is Vaxi Itekford. I handle the majority of the… older accounts at our facility.” I shook her hand, sitting and accepting a cup of tea gratefully.

“I have procured the lineage records for your line; can you name your mother?” I did so, using Poppy’s mother, and allowed her to make a fine cut in my palm, not batting an eye at the silver ichor that dripped out into a small vial. As I healed my hand, she flipped through a stack of documents, muttering to herself and building a separate, smaller one beside it.

“I see… Morgana’s hag-daughter. It has been many centuries since one of her line held a wand, which is a requirement for access. Would you like to follow me to the vault, to confirm your relation?” I nodded, Taun and I enjoying a breakneck ride on a cart down craggy tunnels, past rows and rows of torches, stops, and waterfalls, before the cart hit a second track, rolling through an illusory rock face and coming to a stop at the end of a corridor of gilded doors, with one waiting at the end.

“Your blood, if truly that of Morgana, will work as a key to unlock the door.” I followed her, slightly unsure as to whether it would work myself, and watched as she flung it from the bottle, silver blood splattering onto the door. Where it touched, the gold seemed to hiss, eroding away and causing the entire door to melt, revealing a truly massive room, stretching far off into the distance and filled with books, paintings, weapons, all sorts of ancient magical artifacts and—naturally—piles upon piles of riches.

“Welcome to Gringotts officially, Lady le Fay. Would you like to make a withdrawal?” After retrieving the house ring, and a magically-expanded coin purse, I stopped at the entrance, frowning.

“Do you have a cart I could borrow? I’d like to look at the book section. Oh, and I do know of a castle, in the family. I’d love to have it refurbished.” She summoned several trolleys, which Taun pushed behind me as I dug into the miniature library inside the vault. I was trying to plan for every possible thing I could, selecting books on every single subject at Hogwarts, intricate theoretical books and anthologies of spellcasting history; a much more in-depth selection of magical history than Binns could even dream of, alongside thirty different books on Dark magic, ranging from beginner-level hexes and curses to things like solstice rituals, rune-casting, and anything I could get my hands on about Horcruxes; finally, as I was moving to leave, I spied a dusty book in a shadowy alcove, inside a glass case. Inspecting it by wandlight, I immediately added it, a light softly emanating from it as a metal ring grew from the spine, attaching to a magical hook on my belt.

“Morgana’s grimoire. Her own collections of spells, theory, you name it. Taun, I’m starting to have an idea.” Returning to the front, I dug around in the artifacts until I found a trunk, casting an Undetectable Expansion Charm on it and tilting it upright, the trunk large enough for me to crouch into. Using some more Transfiguration, I filled out a cozy study, walls lined with bookshelves that Taun and Vaxi helped me stock, including a (nonmoving, apparently) painting of Morgana, looking out regally from a parapet and looking strikingly like Poppy (and me, I guess), as well as a few sheafs of parchment, quills, and ink. After reinforcing it so that the books wouldn’t fly out when I tilted it, I shut the trunk, hefting it and nodding to the pair. After a short ride up, and a pitstop in her office for a celebratory Butterbeer, I promised to write her from Hogwarts and made my exit, keen on getting the rest of my supplies, plus a few… additions. After each store, Taun would keep watch from an alleyway while I moved everything into the trunk, pausing once we only had two places left: the bestiary, for an owl and potentially a pet, and Ollivander’s. My wand was second-hand, from some old mage back a few centuries, and I wondered whether or not I should get my own. I certainly had the money for it, the high-quality, stylish robes from Twilfitt and Tatting’s two-hundred Galleon price tag not even a blip, but still.

“Nervous, milady?” I scowled at him, angry at having to look up at him (the very first thing I’d done was shrink myself into a size matching my real age—thank someone, angels could shapeshift).

“Bit daunting, given the name. Same as the time-walker my sister is hopefully killing. Or has killed.” He shrugged, and leaned down conspiratorially.

“Shall I become your guardian? Or bodyguard, as my actual title is?” Scowling, knowing it would be surreal for an eleven-year-old to start stress-smoking in the middle of the street, I scratched my neck.

“Until you’re up to speed, be a little stealthy about it. I can’t have you blundering through magical culture and making me look bad, I’m technically holding the power of a third of the government in my name now.” His eyebrows rose, and I stomped into the wandshop, rusty bell tinkling as the door swung open. A brief ruckus went up from the back, before a wizened old man in a vest, white shirt, and tweed pants emerged, balancing glasses on the tip of his nose.

“Ah, yes, hello! Welcome, welcome. Here to purchase your first wand, I presume?” I curtseyed, before glancing up at Taun.

“This is my… guardian, Taun. I was actually wondering if you would be interested in a trade?” His wispy eyebrows rose, and he leaned onto the counter curiously.

“Is that so, young lady. What would you offer?” Ollivander wasn’t taking me very seriously, and I held out the wand to him.

“My name is Jude le Fay, and I would like to trade the wand of Matilda of Tuscany for one suited for me.” Incredulity turned to shock as he examined the wand, hands quivering as his pupils shrunk to tiny pinpricks—I was worried he would have a heart attack, but instead he took a few deep breaths, steadying himself.

“My word… My sincerest welcome, Lady le Fay. If I may ask, how did you come to find this?” The easiest explanation usually worked, and I shrugged.

“It was in the possession of Morgana’s vault. I assure you, it’s genuine.” He was already nodding, and I watched as he darted off into the back, returning quickly with a measuring tape that began independently measuring me with a tap of his wand. As it did, he rambled through the shelves, muttering to himself as Taun shot me a worried look, which I waved off. To my surprise, the door behind me opened, revealing someone I’d not been expecting to encounter yet, but was actually planning on meeting.

“And who might you be, girl?” Raising myself to my full (child) height, I scowled at Lucius Malfoy.

“The just-proclaimed Lady of the Most Ancient and Most Noble House le Fay, here to acquire my wand for my studies. And you are?” His eyes widened, as did the two other blonds, Narcissa and Draco, who eyed me curiously.

“My-My lady, sincerest apologies… I didn’t know that…” I held out my house ring, and awe crossed his face at the sight.

“Congratulations, then. Isn’t that right, Draco? She may be in your classes, so best pay attention. Legends come from the likes of Morgana.” He nodded quickly, and we shook hands, Draco stepping up beside me as Ollivander returned, toting a box with a gold filigree.

“My dear, you are quite in luck. I acquired this wand in rather… remarkable circ*mstances, and I believe it may suit you precisely.” Opening it, I gasped at a delicate, thin wand made from some kind of wood, none I’d ever seen and which shimmered with an imperceptible light, two colors of wood swirling in and out each other from the beveled base to a tapered, elegant tip. At his urging, I grasped it, fingers fitting almost perfectly onto the handle, a gentle trickle of cool sensation pulsing into my hand, and I noticed that the wand was emitting almost a cloud of frost, which lessened as Ollivander set the box down.

“I could not see a finer match than that, my lady. In return for such a valuable artifact, it is only fair. This wand, according to speculation and rumor, was one of three crafted by Nicholas Flamel himself.” I inspected it, amazed, as Draco craned his neck to peer at it too, letting out a noise of admiration.

“Thank you, sir. Are you sure you don’t want gold, as well? This is priceless.” To my surprise, he let out a weak chuckle, waving a hand at me.

“In exchange for the wand of Matilda? It is very equitable, my dear. I wish you the best of luck at Hogwarts, Lady le Fay.” After bidding farewell to him, I did the same to the Malfoys, mentioning it’d be nice to have a familiar face on the train, which Draco was immediately nodding to, even without prodding from his father. Back on the street, still craving a smoke, I exchanged a look with Taun as we headed into the last shop, stuffing my wand into my cloak carefully and resolving to buy the most expensive polishing kit in Diagon, or mail order it. I got an owl regardless, but when it came to an additional pet, I was a little stuck. I was angling to get into Slytherin, and roamed the various cages of cats, rats, toads, mice, and all sorts of other creatures, looking for something specific. After pressing a few Galleons into the shop owner’s hand, I was led into the back, where several more dangerous creatures lived, examining each carefully. Runespoors, ashwinders, snarling erklings, and a host of other questionably-legal animals greeted me, and I stopped in front of a cage holding a medium-sized, dull green snake that viewed me suspiciously, forking a tongue out in apprehension.

“Boomslang, eh? I’ll need you to sign a waiver for that one.” As I was essentially a demigod, I doubted it was able to kill me, Taun signing as I opened the cage. Quick as a flash, it struck, but my hand reached it first, redirecting the strike into a curl around my arm, turning slightly to hide my eyes and dropping the glamor. This snake was intelligent, I could tell in it’s eyes, and at my true form it very quickly backed down, and I sorely wished I spoke Parseltongue, before trying a novel method and quickly using Legilimency on it, as Poppy had done to the Graphorn in the battle for heaven (which was still knocking around in my cloak, I realized). A strange presence met my probe, slightly less intelligent than myself, and I very politely introduced myself, explaining that I was a demon and that I would grant it freedom from the cage if it promised to behave and stay with me, in exchange for adventures, plenty of food, and freedom to bask in the sunlight. It contemplated this, and nodded it’s snake-head—strange to see a snake do—and slithered up my arm, curling several times around my shoulders and nudging my chin before settling.

With Diagon Alley sorted, I checked a calendar, groaning as I realized we still had a day before we had to go to the station, even though I’d wanted to get my plan into action as soon as possible. I stopped in at Borgin and Burke’s, a little saddened as I crossed the street where my grandmother had been killed, and bought a self-writing hand, two bags of Peruvian Instant Darkness Powder, and an onyx knife that melted into darkness in shadow. Borgin was a little confused at me, and Taun, but after subtly flashing my ring his attitude perked up, festooning me with gifts and trinkets like Sneakscopes and an enchanted dreamcatcher, as well as an amulet that served to hide me from people seeking me with malicious intent, as a good-will present. Tipping handsomely, I held in a cringe as the greasy man kissed my hand, nodding to Lucius as we passed in the doorway, who shot me a curious look as he stepped in. Returning to the Leaky Cauldron, I rented a room for the night, as it was close to King’s Cross and we had no other place, running into the next step of my plan downstairs that night. As I’d hoped, the Gamekeeper of Hogwarts was sitting with Harry, eating dinner, and I excused myself from Taun before moving to sit with them, with permission.

“Evenin’! Gettin’ ready for school too, are yeh?” I smiled, nodding as I shook hands with Harry. “Jude. Nice to meet another first-year, I’m quite nervous about the whole thing.” Despite having lived a relatively full life already (I was Minister of Magic at five, for crying out loud), I did feel some anxiety at the prospect of actually going to Hogwarts, actually living out the same thing the other four had, in their own timelines. Harry shook, smiling slightly.

“Harry. Good to meet you, too.” We spent a bit chatting about the castle, most of the information I had explained by a thorough reading of Hogwarts, a History until the meal was over, and we headed to bed with a promise to meet on the train. If Poppy’s memories held true, we’d meet Ron at the station, and Hermione on the train, meaning that the last piece of the puzzle would have to be somewhere before the sorting, if I was lucky enough. I spent half the night reading, other half smoking and playing cards with Taun, educating him as best I could on magical culture and law, as he’d take over control of the family castle while I was at Hogwarts. The next morning, after downing several cups of coffee and meeting up with Harry, we departed from Diagon Alley, Hagrid leading us to the station as I kept my eyes peeled for a series of redheads. The Gamekeeper departed quite inconveniently, and I took over, leading the three of us to the entrance to Platform Nine and Three Quarters, heaving a sigh of relief as I spied Molly Weasley, darting over with my best confused expression.

“Excuse me, ma’am, but my friend and I are having trouble finding our platform. Could you help us?” At the sight of our robes, and our trunks, her face brightened, and she nodded eagerly, marshalling the five kids around us quickly.

“Of course, dearie. First-year, I see—what’s your name?” I shook her hand, smiling politely—a bit tired of introducing myself.

“Jude le Fay. It’s so nice to meet you!” She blinked, said nothing, and instead explained the process of entering to Harry and I, Taun not-so-secretly listening in as Percy and Ginny went through first. After a quick introduction to Ron, whose eyes bugged out at the sight of Harry’s scar, we entered the smoking train station, red-and-gold train gleaming in the sunlight, windows reflecting it like fire through stained-glass windows. Before we headed to the train, I darted off into the crowd, scanning the faces quickly. Being a kid, I was mostly ignored, and found the last person I was looking for, the only one that was just as out-of-place as I was; the fifth aberration. She was short, with curly black hair and round glasses, glancing around nervously, alone. I sidled up, smiling genially.

“First-year, too? I could barely sleep an hour last night.” Nodding nervously, she stuck out a hand.

“Arabella Swift.” I took it, nodding to her.

“Jude le Fay. Want to sit with me on the train?” A hopeful expression crossed her face, and another nod had her following me back over to the rest, introducing her and finally saying goodbye to Taun, who was watching nervously, unsure of travelling by Floo to Gringotts.

“Chin up, Major. Think of it as a test of your capabilities, if that helps.” He nodded, leaning down to embrace me.

“Be careful, my lady. I shall be an… owl, away.” I snickered, poking his shoulder before darting onto the train, finding Ron, Harry, and Arabella already in a cabin. Presently, Draco joined us in the doorway, flanked by two other Slytherins, Daphne Greengrass and either Crabbe or Goyle.

“Are the remaining seats taken?” Ron looked mutinous, and I squeezed over next to him, Crabbe-or-Goyle leaving as Draco and Daphne joined us.

“Ron, please. I believe in being kind to everyone, regardless of the gossip around them. Besides, the Malfoys have a strong understanding and knowledge of magic, even if it is occasionally angled towards… darker pursuits. Most potions at Hogwarts are made with it.” Draco nodded smartly, Ron turning to me, curious.

“Really? I didn’t know that.” I shrugged, tapping the book at my side.

“Dark magic usually requires a sacrifice, which is what the ingredients serve as. There’s a balance to magic, too. Need the dark to be able to see the light, don’t you?” He nodded wisely, rest of the cabin looking at me strangely as the train pulled out of the station.

“Smart, aren’t you?” Draco scowled at Ron.

“Of course she is, Weasley. She’s descended from Morgana, after all.” Slightly incensed, Ron still gaped at me, digging through his pockets and withdrawing a Chocolate Frog card of the same witch.

“Bloody hell. Why are you sitting over here, anyway? There’s an empty seat on that side.” Winking mysteriously, I flicked my wand at the door, opening it just as Hermione Granger was going to knock.

“I—oh!” I stood, and held out a hand.

“Looking for a toad? Jude le Fay.” She shook, introducing herself and confirming that she was, indeed, looking for Neville Longbottom’s toad. A quick “Point me,” later, it was discovered in one of the lavatories, and returned, Hermione joining us in the cabin and taking the final spot.

“Bloody strange, you are. Can you see into the future, or something?” I wiggled my fingers at Ron, who snorted, Harry speaking up once the door was shut.

“Anyone thought much about what house they’ll be in?” It was pretty open-ended, though I knew what most of their answers would be, volunteering myself first and hoping my angel charisma was working.

“Slytherin. The study of magic should be a balance of light and dark, not one or the other.” Draco and Daphne nodded, Harry and Hermione shrugged, while Ron frowned.

“Isn’t that where all the bad wizards go? Death Eaters, y’know.” Draco bristled, stopping as I raised a hand.

“There were plenty of Death Eaters from other houses, too. It doesn’t automatically turn you into a bad person if you go to Slytherin.” He hummed, still slightly unconvinced, while Arabella spoke up.

“My da was in Slytherin. Says he made some good friends in his day.” Daphne nodded, as both of her parents had been Slytherins; I made up a cover that my mother was “magical”—how the hell was I going to explain the wings?—while my dad was a Slytherin as the trolley witch stopped by, several of us buying sweets as the countryside flew by outside. I took the opportunity to start building the meager collection I had (four rare cards and ten ‘Barnabas the Barmy’s), glancing up at Ron as he spoke around a Sugar Quill.

“S’pose it would be cool to see what the Slytherin common room looks like, from what Fred and George told me they’re pretty secretive about it. ‘Ave either of your parents talked about it?” Daphne described what her mother had told her, while I happily dug into a box of Every Flavour Beans, glancing up at Draco briefly.

“Happen to have a spare deck on you, Malfoy? Left all but my good ones at home, like a prat.” Smirking, the blond withdrew a thick stack, sorting them quickly and efficiently in his hands.

“I have enough duplicates to make it worth your while, I suppose. Pray tell, what are these ‘good ones’ you speak of?” Smirking right back, I withdrew one, a card I’d snagged from Poppy’s cloak when digging through it before.

“Herpo the Foul, three-eyed defect that blinks and all. Only one of it’s kind.” Gasping, he (and anyone else big into trading cards) crowded around, a chorus of swears erupting as they confirmed it to be true.

“Merlin’s pants, Jude. Where did you get this?” I waved him off, gratefully accepting a deck of still-decent second hands and replying.

“Someone gave it to my mum as a joke-gift when I was born. Good omens, eh?” Both Ron and Draco nodded in amazement, while Harry watched on in some curiosity—I blinked and flicked out another, the one-of-ten Gellert Grindelwald cards made before he turned ultra-bad, and cleared my throat.

“And for Harry, too. So we can all be on equal footing, yeah?” Draco and Ron collaborated on his, drawing Daphne into it, and Hermione marked a page in her book as the sun began to set.

“Shouldn’t be too much further to the castle, now. I was just reading up, did you all know that Merlin was in Slytherin? Er—no offense, Jude.” I shrugged, watching the rest finish the transaction as Arabella returned from the lavatory.

“None taken. I think Morgana was a Ravenclaw, anyways. Maybe we’ll reinvent the legend!” She rolled her eyes, Arabella opening a copy of the Daily Prophet as the card-traders returned to their seats, Harry set up with an impressive deck already.

“Well, I’d hate it terribly if our ‘group’ were split up, to be frank.” Several of us nodded along with Draco, and I noticed Arabella did as well. The train halted, and after marshalling all of the sweets in a few of my expanded pockets, I led the way off the train, immediately split up into two boats, one of which was accompanied by Hagrid. Draco, Ron, Daphne, and I were in one, and I sat towards the back, with Draco, who lowered his voice after the boats began to pull away from the dock.

“Father saw you, in Knockturn Alley. At Borgin and Burke’s?” Rolling my eyes skyward, I clasped my arms behind my head.

“Purchasing supplies for school, of course. While I spent a good hour in the vault, there were a few… necessities it didn’t have. Are you averse to snakes, by the by? I made him promise not to bite.” Draco shot a dubious look around us, as if it was going to burst out of the water and attack (I’d been contemplating Bruce or Chubs, to name a couple).

“No, unless they are aggressive to me. As long as it behaves, I’m sure it’ll fit right in.” Pausing, we both looked up at the castle, a grin splitting my face at the sight of Hogwarts. A castle built high onto a cliff, overlooking the wide lake and chock-full of towers, spires, aeries, and a very different range of buildings, including a massive observatory in place of the top of the Astronomy Tower, hundreds of additional parapets and bridges; the Herbology greenhouses were an entire expanse on the grounds, instead of the three smaller buildings from my time; thick, sturdy-yet-ornate walls surrounded it, giving it a regal, yet defensive cast. Thousands of windows, some stained glass, full of candlelight, dancing cheerily above us as we passed below the rock, rejoining the other three on the docks after landing. This was my turn, an almost unspeakable joy filling me and making it impossible to wipe the beaming smile off my face, Hermione and Harry sharing similar ones as we mounted the steps up to the castle. Draco and Ron were whispering quickly to each other, likely about my snake, but I ignored them as Minerva McGonagall herself—who had served as mediator in my first debate on the Minister campaign—bid us wait outside the Great Hall. The group of seven was near-ish the front, and after a quick tally, I realized that Hermione would be sorted first, alphabetically, unless the school didn’t count the “le” in le Fay, in which case I could set a strong front by convincing the Hat to put me in Slytherin. Hermione had reached the same conclusion, sharing a nervous nod with me as the doors opened, revealing the massive vaulted ceilings, rows of tables, and on a stool in front of the staff table, a worn, ratty hat. I was too busy strategizing to listen to the song, only paying attention to anything externally once the names reached “F.”

“le Fay, Jude!” Silence swept the entire room, all eyes scanning the herd of first-years until I stepped forward, latching onto me and nearly causing a physical sensation in their intensity. All of the teachers—including Quirrell, I grimly noted—were staring, none harder and sharper than Albus Dumbledore, who had an inside-out fez and beige dress robes on. Avoiding the eyes of anyone I knew was skilled in Legilimency, I stepped up to the stool, McGonagall giving me a brief look of disbelief, catching the ring on my hand as I climbed up, and gulped.

Well, well, well. What do we have here? The hat slipped over my eyes, hiding some of my anxious expression, and I whispered as quietly as I could, unsure if it could just read my thoughts.

“Slytherin, please. You can see into my head, my memories, right?” I was shielding the worst ones with all my strength, and the Hat lapsed into silence, humming a tune to itself. I began to feel certain memories being raised to prominence, like the Hat was picking them up to examine closer, occasionally muttering in a language I didn’t understand.

Are you sure about this, girl? I sighed.

“Right now I’m the only one that can help. All the others are dead, or… elsewhere. Planewise.” It hummed again, scanning several more memories before speaking again.

Your plan is—unique, to say the least. Regardless, if this begins to occur again, I wish you the best of luck. Another tense beat later—I didn’t know how long I’d been up there, hushed whispers beginning to rise—the Hat shouted out, nearly deafening me.

SLYTHERIN!” Approximately a fourth of the houses broke out in thunderous applause, entire Slytherin house practically screaming that “We got Morgana! We got Morgana!” while the Ravenclaws all looked like their appetites had vanished. Hopping down from the stool, I skipped over, flashing a smile at the others as the next name was called, sliding in near a few empty spots and nodding to a prefect that sat nearby. Several people walked by to clap my back, including an older boy, Cassius Warrington, who flicked me a Morgana trading card with a grin. The next up was Hermione, and after a full minute of what looked like a very quiet, yet vehement argument, she was sorted into Slytherin, my enthusiasm causing the rest to go wild. Face flush with excitement, she found a spot next to me, grinning before turning back, seeing Daphne (predictably) sorted into Slytherin as well. Three down, four to go. The next up was Malfoy, another ringer, and he took the spot on my other side, shooting me a significant look.

“Starting off strong, I see.” Frowning, I glanced back as a few more students went to Hufflepuff and Gryffindor.

“I simply asked it, Draco. What do you mean?” Arching an eyebrow imperiously, he leaned in.

“I counted. You’re the longest Hatstall in the history of Hogwarts. McGonagall had the record at five minutes and a bit; you just cracked the ten-minute mark.” My jaw dropped—it had taken the Hat that long to look at my memories?—and I quickly shut it as the next one to go caused another tidal wave of silence.

“Potter, Harry!” I began counting as well, Draco muttering the seconds under his breath and nearly breaking my concentration; at just under six minutes, the Hat shouted an answer that even I hadn’t been certain of.

SLYTHERIN!” More silence, this time from everyone in the hall, except Hermione, Daphne, Draco, and I, the four of us whistling and clapping as hard as we could to make up for the rest; Dumbledore was drilling his eyes into my forehead, already having sent a feeler out at me that found surface-level memories of Poppy’s childhood. With Harry, only two were left; predictably, Arabella joined us, sliding in next to Harry and grinning sheepishly—all eyes turned to Ron. Draco informed me that the Weasley attraction to Gryffindor was almost genetic, and yet, against all odds, I started to see Ron go red. If the argument between Hermione and the Hat was fierce, this one seemed brutal, Sorting Hat scowling for the first time I’d ever seen as Ron very nearly stopped whispering at certain points. Four minutes later, his eyes opened, and he grinned right over at me.

SLYTHERIN!” Amid the applause, all seven of us united, I began to feel several notes slipping into my pockets from older students, likely trying to bribe or gain favor with me; I squinted at Draco upon catching him doing the same. Noticing that Hermione was transcribing the speech, I instead began plotting my next move. With the reconstructed timelines of the four from my world, I had a multitude of information ranging from Herbology to Arithmancy to Potions, though some of the concepts and ways Poppy reached the conclusions were so foreign to me that I still needed to study, sadly. With the arrival of the food, I was immediately side-tracked, digging into a truly massive feast, totaling thirteen plates including an entire side of ribs, two steaks, six baked potatoes, a pitcher of Pumpkin Juice, and a serving bowl of salad. Hogwarts was the dining location for demons; I resolved to brag about it to Taun in my first letter, rolling my eyes at the looks I got.

“Need a lot of calories for all the thinking I’m doing, y’know?” Ron shook his head, all of us revitalized by the arrival of desserts and charging back into the fray. After a school song, during which I felt the fullest and most content I’d had in a long time, I herded everyone into line behind the prefect, earning two points for helping out (?) as the first-year Slytherins marched off. I met the others in our year, Pansy Parkinson, Millicent Bulstrode, and Blaise Zabini, exchanging pleasantries as the various houses disseminated. The trip to the dungeons was interesting, as I’d never been there myself, and after learning the first password (Abraxus) we entered into the common room—our common room. Dark, green flames burned in sconces set into the stony, dappled walls that shimmered and bounced in unearthly light from the lake, which dominated one section of the room, a glass wall providing a stunning view of the bottom of the lake, complete with an entire coral reef nearby teeming with magical life. The furniture was sparse, gothic, centered around a massive obsidian fireplace and a series of tables along one wall, opposite of which stood dusty, ancient-looking bookcases crammed with moldy tomes; there weren’t any paintings, I noticed, but a series of tapestries, some bearing crests and filigree while others depicted famous wizards of old (Merlin and Herpo featured prominently, as well as Salazar himself). After showing us where our dorms were, we were left to our own devices, Ron, Draco, and Harry moving to play Wizard’s Chess while Arabella and Hermione got settled in. Daphne and I found a seat by the windows, peering out at a group of fish clustered under a piece of coral.

“I don’t know how you managed to get the Boy-Who-Lived into the house of his archnemesis, but congratulations. Are you really the descendant of Morgana?” She was more astute than I’d first expected, but I nodded regardless.

“I am. Passed a blood test.” Squinting, she shook her head.

“I believe that, I’m no fool. I know this isn’t exactly something for polite conversation, but… are you fully human?” Scratch that, Daphne Greengrass was on par with Hermione. Thankfully, I’d anticipated this, going red on command and lowering my voice.

“I really don’t want to talk about it, so I’ll tell you it once. It’s kind of… embarrassing, for me. My father was an adventurer, and on an expedition to study some burial ground he… met a… thunderbird.” Her eyes went wide, and appeared to be working through a series of very complicated theories.

“Thunderbirds are dead smart, like a phoenix, and—ugh, sorry—after a few months, they made it official. I’m not saying the rest.” Daphne’s eyes were practically on fire with excitement, and she spoke rapidly.

“Do-Do you-doyouhavewings?” Glancing back and forth (the nearest person was well out of earshot) I covertly nodded, causing her to squeal excitedly, grabbing my arms and dragging me into the dorm, all the way to the bathroom after shutting both doors.

“This is incredible! Something like this has only happened once, and that’s just a myth! You’re really…?” A bit nonplussed, I unfurled my wings, carefully angling them not to break anything in the cramped space.

“Please don’t tell anyone. I’ll pay you.”

Chapter 19: Dragons, Quidditch, and a Cursed Violin

Chapter Text

Jude

The next morning, after spending the night feverishly studying, partially with Hermione, I was sitting in the Great Hall with Arabella and Draco, getting breakfast. The pair were debating the forecast, and between cups of coffee I was approached by a distinctly oily presence. “Miss le Fay, if we could speak for a moment?” Both the others froze, and I stood, smiling at Snape and following him out, back towards the dungeons. Getting called into the office of my Head of House before term had even started wasn’t exactly optimal, but I hoped it was for something benign, taking in the racks of pickled ingredients, powders, vials, and all sorts of other potionmaking ingredients; in one corner, a small cauldron bubbled mysteriously.

“Good morning, Jude. How has your arrival been?” I sat across from him, folding my hands in my lap primly.

“Enjoyable. The castle is gorgeous, in person.” He nodded, leaning back in his seat slightly.

“It likely does not surprise you that your family name caused a bit of a… stir, among the faculty. And the rest of the school, for that matter.” A slightly more genuine smile crossed my face, and I shook my head.

“Indeed. As the first wand-bearer in her line in centuries, it is little surprise the shock that occurred.” He nodded, processing the piece of information I’d given him. I had to be careful what I said, especially as I wasn’t sure if he was hostile or friendly, yet.

“Congratulations, then. I must ask, given the nature of your ancestor’s time in these walls, if you have any inclination as to why the Sorting Hat placed you within my house? The fated enemy of Morgana wore the very same robes as you, long ago. And, a True Hatstall.” Though I knew exactly why, I frowned, shaking my head.

“Aside from the consideration of my ‘cunning and ambition,’ it said little. Though…” Trying very hard not to snicker, I conceded to his silent urging to continue. “It did give me a warning, or admonishment? That I was destined for greatness, but it could not see whether those feats were good or evil. Went on about potential for a bit, too.” His eyes imperceptibly widened, though he nodded as if that was a normal thing to hear.

“I would be inclined to agree, at least toward your potential. Magic runs strong in the ancient blood, Jude le Fay. I trust you will live up to the myths of Morgana’s potionmaking?” Suddenly nervous, I nodded quickly, dismissed shortly after and returning to find the others had arrived.

“Still alive, eh? Not many get off that good.” Settling for rolling my eyes, I resumed breakfast, receiving the paper after it’d circulated and scanning for anything interesting. I hadn’t written to Taun yet, so my owl was likely up in the Owlry, meaning I’d have to set up mail service for the paper myself—Hermione had done the backwards crossword in this copy already—scratching out a list of things to order on a corner of the page.

“Does anyone want a magazine subscription? I’m going to set up one for Witch Weekly and Quidditch Weekly as well as the Prophet.” To my surprise, almost everyone had a different request: Hermione asked for an archeological journal called Crypts, Masoleums, and Necropoli and a daily chapbook of wizard-poetry, like an almanac; Harry asked for three, Quidditch Times, Scuppers Weekly, and the Magical Inquiry, a tabloid—type mag for magic celebrities; Ron picked four different Quidditch magazines, including one dedicated to the Chudley Cannons, who he was already trying to convert all of us to; Arabella chose two, the Quibbler and Evening Prophet; Draco went with a variant of Ron’s fan-magazine, for the Appleby Arrows, as well as a weekly paper that served as the Ministry’s political journalist reports, Marquee Weekly; Daphne settled for two fashion magazines and an extra copy of Witch Weekly for the puzzles. Once the list was complete, I rose, heading off towards the Owlry after making sure I had some gold on me. The nice thing about Poppy being my mother was that I had the accrued resources (plus interest) of a millennia-old bank vault, making the process of manipulating the entire timeline through direct action significantly more… comfortable. Bribe money and seats on the Wizengamot didn’t hurt, either. After reaching the Owlry, I pet my owl, explaining what I needed and feeding it copious amounts of treats, causing it to hoot merrily and nuzzle against my face. Laden down with Galleons, it struggled to get up in the air for a moment, several strong flaps propelling it up into the sky, winging off towards wherever it had to go for subscriptions.

“Miss le Fay, is it?” Turning, hand on my wand, I held my face neutral as I spotted Professor Quirrell, standing in the doorway.

“Yes. How may I help you, Professor?” Any private conversation with faculty could end disastrously, but this one had the most danger associated with it, at the moment. Knowing You-Know-Who could hear me as well, I tried to keep my movements calm and non-threatening.

“Q-Quite an impressive family. Mortal enemy of Merlin, isn’t that right?” I nodded again, viewing him serenely.

“She was, I s’pose. Can’t be safe to be out that long, can it?” I was trying to disguise myself as an eccentric witch, betting that You-Know-Who would pick up on any double meanings I tried.

“P-Presume not, no. I wonder if you shall t-t-take the same skill at dueling?” I shrugged, not entirely sure myself; previously, I was better at both rifles and swords.

“If it is in blood, it can be conquered. I’m excited for your class, Professor.” Leaving him slightly confused, I stepped past, speaking lowly as I drew even with him.

“Take care with unicorns; I recommend a strong peppermint tea.” Leaving hopefully both of them dumbfounded, and not laughing at my inability to hold two cryptic conversations at once, I returned to the castle, grabbing a comfortable chair by the fire in the common room, cracking open a book and digging out the auto-writing hand from my bag. Time to hit the books.

After an entire day and night reading at demon-speed, I’d collated extensive notes on all of the first-year books, and was mentally drafting a review guide for our first midterms on the way to Transfiguration, our first class. Hermione was arguing with Daphne over wand movement, while Arabella had her nose in the Transfiguration textbook on my other side. Ron, Harry, and Draco were behind us, acting “cool,” and the seven of us cut an impressive figure through the castle, two children of nobility, the Chosen One, three geniuses, and a Quidditch legend in the making traipsing through the halls confidently, even though it was our second day at the castle. Lining up first at the door, I leaned against the wall, chewing a stick of Everlasting Bubblegum and tuning back into the debate.

“There has to be fluidity in the fingers, otherwise the wrist can’t compensate for the stiffness.” Daphne scowled, looking ready to draw and show her the difference, but an eyebrow from me made her roll her eyes.

“Truce, please. I’d rather not have you two break out into a duel in the middle of class.” Draco’s drawl reached my ears from where he and Ron were trying to draw a better version of the Nimbus 2000 than each other.

“As long as I’m allowed to spectate, I’ll support it.” Before I could retort, the door opened, allowing us to sweep in and grab prime seats at the back, six of us filling the back row and leaving me to sit in front of Ron and Harry, the former of whom immediately poked me and dissolved into quiet snigg*rs with the latter. Looking over, I nodded to Blaise, digging out my notes and eagerly watching as McGonagall began her first lecture. Despite the fact that I was hanging off of every word, taking the same amount of notes on the lecture as I did on the book, time flew by, and quickly I had to roll up another sheet of parchment, searching my bag for a fresh one on the way to Charms.

“Could we compare notes, Jude? You write faster than I do.” Nodding absentmindedly at Daphne, I found a blank roll and stuck my quill between my teeth. I couldn’t use my undead hand in class, so I’d spent part of the previous night practicing my writing until I was able to write in time with spoken word, ducking into Flitwick’s classroom after Millicent and Pansy, ending up sitting between Ron and Arabella. The class was a blast, mostly lecturing but with a bit at the end where the professor caused several books to zoom around the room, flashing various colors merrily. After that was Herbology, consisting of a tour of the massive greenhouses, then lunch. It was then that the horde of owls descended onto the seven of us, depositing nineteen different magazines, journals, and newspapers in front of us. After a rough Potions class, and an easier Defense class that mostly covered history, I was the only one that managed to stay awake for the entirety of Professor Binns’ History of Magic class, quite literally because I was physically unable to fall asleep. Stopping by the common room, we built out an impressive spread on the coffee table by the fire, before hurrying back upstairs to the lawns, where our first flying lesson would take place. It was a warm, breezy day, sun starting to descend from the sky, and I eagerly waited for Madam Hooch to finish her speech, giddy at the prospect of being unleashed onto a Quidditch pitch again. There was the second game, Scuppers, which must be an alteration in this timeline, and while both interested me, I was far and away devoted to my first love, rising immediately on her permission and soaring up into the sky, laughing gleefully. Ignoring her admonishments, I executed several loops, hairpin turns, and even one Wronski Feint, causing Draco, Ron, Harry, and Arabella to whoop, mounting up and joining me as the rest of the class slowly gained height. Draco floated over to me, a mischievous look in his eyes.

“Want to make a bet?” Seeing as I was technically the granddaughter of Lucifer, I had no qualms, grinning wider as he explained.

“We take turns flying full-speed at the wall. Whoever gets closest wins.” Glancing at Hooch, who was still on the ground, enraptured in a discussion on broom enchantments with Hermione and Daphne, he winked.

“Only one try each, though. You in?” As if I was going to say no. Knowing we had to do this quickly, we lined up next to each other as inconspicuously as possible, even with the flat, unforgiving stone wall of the castle. Blaise drifted over, and with a final glance at Madam Hooch, counted us down. The school brooms were the same model, meaning neither of us had an unfair advantage, and we streaked towards the wall, shouts reaching us as we neared twenty feet. Fifteen, still even. Ten. Draco flinched, and pulled up at five feet, but I wrenched myself up, stomping on the tail end of the broom and hooking my right foot under the front, yanking it up as hard as I could with a ferocious grunt. With a screech, my velocity suddenly rotated ninety degrees, twigs of the tail end scraping the wall and sending out sparks, but I’d done it. By my estimate, I’d gotten to about two inches before pulling up, Draco hovering nearby, hands on his head.

Legendary!” I was still standing on the broom, and rode it down like that, bumping my fist to Draco’s and Ron’s as I passed. Madam Hooch was in awe, staring blankly at the scratches my broom had left in the wall, and didn’t even take any points from me, though I was subjected to a fierce scolding by both Daphne and Hermione. Having had enough excitement for the day, I flopped onto the grass, watching the others pass a chestnut around in the air for “practice,” Hermione giving an impromptu lecture on the history of Quidditch.

“Hermione, d’you think they’d make an exception for the ‘no first-years’ rule? I’d quite like to play Quidditch, I think.”

That night, after a triumphant dinner, I was tucking into a slice of apple pie when a burly, older Slytherin dropped into the seat next to me.

“Jude. Heard you put on a show in your first flying lesson—didn’t even lose points.” I nodded, turning and shaking hands with Marcus Flint, the team Captain.

“I’ve always wanted to play Quidditch. When I get older I’d like to try for the Montrose Magpies, if I’m good enough.” He nodded approvingly, clapping me on the shoulder.

“Well, got some good news for you then. I’ve just asked Snape for special permission, given that stunt you just pulled—not to mention the Wronski Feint, Madam Hooch nearly fainted recalling it—so if you’d like to join the team, just say the word. We’ve got a spot open for Chaser, and for Seeker. Tryouts are this weekend, nine o’clock.” At my nod, he grinned, patting my back again before moving down the table to rapidly converse with what I assumed was the rest of the team. Ron materialized out of thin air at my shoulder, Harry thudding down into the seat across from us, grinning.

“Jude—you’ll never believe—Harry—” holding out a note, I scanned it quickly, beaming at a similar invitation to try out from Flint, as apparently he’d won sixty points in a mock-game of Quidditch towards the end of class.

“Alright then, Harry? Now we just need Ron, Draco, and Arabella. Doubt Hermione would be game for it.” Ron snorted, reddening a little at his inclusion, and I quickly set about writing letters to order brooms, as I would have nothing but the absolute best, for the whole team. An idea came to me, and I divided the sheet in half, scribbling out a series of complex Arithmancy calculations while simultaneously making a list of probable locations. Arabella, on my other side, read it curiously.

“What’s ‘the Room’? Bit ominous.” Shrugging, I quietly explained my plan to her, which, at her growing enthusiasm, I took as good feedback. Roping Draco in was even easier, the blond practically going feral at the prospect, and I spent the rest of dinner doing careful calculations, before sneaking off into the dungeons on the way back to the room, parchment in hand. A castle as old and intricate as this one had a veritable labyrinth of corridors, tunnels, and crannies throughout the dark, shadowy basem*nt, and I roamed around thoughtfully for a bit before finding a good alcove, drawing my wand, and getting to work.

Saturday morning, Harry and I were in the common room, marveling at the brooms we’d just gotten in the mail, two pristine, sleek Nimbus 2000s. Everyone else in the room was clustered around us, oohing and aahing at the right times, until Flint shouldered his way through the crowd, clutching one of his own.

“le Fay?” At my knowing smile, the certified jock choked up, inspecting the silver engraving of his name along the handle. I’d bought top-of-the-line brooms for both the Quidditch and Scuppers teams, as both Arabella and Draco had shown interest—Draco had wanted to try for Seeker, but at Harry’s decision to do so immediately dropped out of the running—each personalized with a calligraphy etching of their names. He put a massive hand on my shoulder, not saying a word and merely nodding several times, eyes scrunched up for a long time.

“It’s our year. It’s happening. I believe. Get your sorry arses to the pitch, you lot. Double tryouts, northern half Scuppers, southern half Quidditch.” As our crowd made it’s way out of the castle, the rest of the Slytherin house other than fervently studying fifth- and seventh-years joined us, marching down to a similar pitch as the one I’d known, with slightly more polished buildings and additional markings on the ground and area around—presumably for Scuppers. Not very many people aside from members of our group were trying out, most filing into the stands to watch us test out the newest brooms on the market. Flint and the other Beater lugged out a crate near us, while Draco and Arabella wished us luck before heading to the north end of the pitch. Harry and I were by far the youngest, the closest to us being a fourth-year Keeper who’d obviously hit a growth spurt early, or was half-giant. Flint explained our tests to us, Harry’s simply to catch the Snitch, while I joined a mock-game with the other two Chasers, a pair of sixth-years named Gemma Farley and Hugo Fennicaster who both looked me up and down once, nodded, and took off. Being an angel, it wasn’t really a question of being strong enough, rather if I was precise enough to either get past the Keeper or not knock Pucey off of his broom and through the hoop from the force of my throw. Outscoring both Gemma and Hugo, I was called down after clearing one-hundred points in five minutes, eagerly shaking Flint’s hand as well as my other two (official) teammates. Pucey didn’t hold it against me, especially after I apologized (I hadn’t meant to throw it that hard), and we watched either Bole practicing or Harry, high above the ground. At that point, I covertly informed Marcus of the bit of magic I’d done the night previous, earning a look of respect that nearly made me think he was going to propose to me, punctuated by a cheer as Harry shot by, upside down, snagging the Snitch in his hand not two feet above our heads. Glancing over at the other tryout, I had no idea how the sport worked, though hoping that they were both still in the air meant something good, exchanging a high-five with Harry once he’d landed.

“Bloody brilliant, both of you. Bole, get down here!” The team huddled up, and at Flint’s nod I spoke.

“I found a hidden room, in the dungeons. Tried some cleaning charms on it, and I think we could turn it into a clubroom for the two teams. ‘s got showers and everything.” That wasn’t entirely true, I’d actually spent four hours constructing the entire two separate team meeting rooms, main lounge, lockers, and showers from pure magic and calculations, but I was trying to be a somewhat plausible first-year, here.

“We waiting for the others to get done? I want to track mud across the castle just to try ‘em out.” I snorted at Lucian Bole, while Flint turned to the other team, scratching his chin.

“They can catch up. I’ll tell someone to leave a message.” With that, all seven of us darted off, Flint stopping by the stands to relay the message to Hermione before catching up at the staircase to the dungeons. I had to light my wand to show the way, several turns putting us in a secluded section of the castle, but still close enough to the common room for comfort.

“This is a dead end, Jude.” Shooting Pucey a look over my shoulder, I tapped my wand on the wall, causing thick oak door to grow from the stone, making him gasp as Gemma elbowed him.

“Should be keyed to team members, just tap the wall and it’ll appear. And yes, I was hitting my wand against a lot of walls before anything interesting happened.” Inside was a cozy, wide den-study hybrid, dim lighting and plush sofas, overstuffed chairs, and a crackling fire; bookcases, chalkboards, and even a snooker table in a corner made up the main room, floor mostly covered with thick, squishy carpets aside from a path on the stone to the (private) showers, which everyone availed themselves to after inspecting the room and our adjoining meeting room, which was essentially a room with a table and chairs, as well as a chalkboard and a window looking into the main room. After a quick rinse, I wrote my name in magic on the locker nearest the door, exiting to find the Scuppers team, entering the room in awe. Draco and Arabella were among them, us exchanging covert thumbs-ups as I entered the Quidditch meeting room, Flint wanting a word with everyone. Bole and Pucey arrived last, shoving each other and laughing until Marcus cleared his throat, having written out our names and positions on the chalkboard.

“Cracking find, by our newest Chaser. Couple this with the brooms, and the new playbook I’ve spent the summer writing, and those bastards aren’t going to know what hit them. Practice three times a week; Tuesday and Thursday nights after class, and a long run on Saturday, in the afternoon.” At a groan from a few older students, he rolled his eyes.

“I know, I know, ‘the first match isn’t until, like, November,’ but we’ve got two rookies and an entirely new strategy. I also want to focus on physical fitness this year, too. Not just flying skill, Farley.” She held up a rude gesture, to which he smirked at.

“I’m going to get to work figuring out our first non-practice meeting, to go over strategy. Just to keep in mind, our first match is Hufflepuff.” Dark looks crossed between the others, Harry and I slightly confused.

“Stole the Cup from us, last year. Diggory.” He spat out the name, scowling, and I understood we had to do good, not only as a matter of winning, but also pride—a preeminent part of the Slytherin world. Dully, just within my hearing, I heard coins clinking onto the table behind me.

“Ten on Jude eating a Bludger first match.” Ah, the next most important part of being a Slytherin. Gambling.

“You’re on. We keeping this in-house? I’d put forty on Draco eating turf the first Scuppers match.” After a long look, Flint shrugged and dug some coins out as well, entire room descending into gambling and, once one of the older students pulled out a pipe, smoking. No one so much as batted an eye at my cigarettes, though I was starting to see the benefit to status that both Poppy and I had formerly avoided; while it didn’t compare to a hellish feast, it was cozy. After a five-hundred Galleon max was put into place, everything wrapped up quickly, turning into a game of cards while we chatted about anything and everything Quidditch. I intended to make good on my promise to join the Montrose Magpies, as I’d only ever played for the Hellions, a team that didn’t even exist. After a few rounds of poker, a few of the Scuppers players unaverse to smoke joined us, having smuggled out a few trays of food from the Great Hall. Draco slid into the seat next to me, eying my pack until I gave him one, for a Knut; Arabella pulled out her own pipe, and once someone broke out the Firewhiskey, it turned into an impromptu party—Flint justified it as an inauguration of the first of the ‘Slytherin Era’ of Hogwarts athletics. The man was good at bringing a team together, I’ll give him that. Deep into the game, a pot of over twenty-thousand Galleons on the line, the next hand came out, half the table immediately folding, while I fought my face straight, holding a pair of aces that became a three of a kind with the first card. Ron had joined a bit back, on ‘write my essays for me’ credit to at least half the people present, and was sweating bullets, still in the game. Draco had a king and a seven, decent, and with the next card two more folded, leaving him, Ron, Gemma, and myself. Gemma shot me a look, calling and raising it further, and I gathered from her expression the idea she had in mind. Subtly kicking Draco, he folded, while Gemma dramatically raised by another fifty thousand Galleons, bloody hell—everyone at the table went white—raising an eyebrow at me. If I’d understood her subtle gesture, it was in reference to Ron. It was widely known that the Weasleys were not exactly the best off financially, and with Ron joining Slytherin apparently some of the older kids had begun to reevaluate their stance towards ‘blood traitors,’ or whatever. Another rule in Slytherin: take care of your own. Digging into Morgana’s cloak, I withdrew a solid bar of platinum, plonking it between the stacks of coins, eyes still locked on her. Ron whimpered, and I smiled.

“I’ll raise for Ron, in exchange for… carrying my bag for the rest of the year. Even to the library.” Ever courageous, he stayed in, and I hoped to Morgana he had nothing, using the moment when all eyes turned to him to very discretely prestidigitate a bit of sleight-of-hand, winking at Gemma. The third card fell, and she folded, leaving me and Ron, neither of us looking at our cards. He locked eyes with me, more than a little anxious, which only worsened when I withdrew a special jewel, this one even more valuable (I’d pilfered it from a different dimension, specifically during a stop in a certain museum in Russia; I don’t know how they’d gotten their hands on it, but I was glad I’d inherited a grey moral compass, even then) withdrawing the Black Orlov diamond, a priceless artifact that the Russians had stolen from India in the 19th century (originally, it was known as the Eye of Brahma). Worth well over a million Muggle dollars, even if he gave it back to the India, if my exchange calculation was up-to-date, he'd get about two-hundred and eighty thousand Galleons. Only a few people recognized it as other than a jewel, Gemma, Cassius (who’d joined from the Scuppers crew), and Draco gasping.

“In exchange, you sit my exams in Polyjuice Potion.” I checked my cards, noting that my spell had worked, just as a much-less subdued reaction sounded from his spot (he would learn subtly one day, damnit), and with a flushed face and a nod he stayed in. Finally, we both flipped our cards, revealing his two aces and my two and three. Nobody so much as moved, only sound the faintly burning pipes and cigarettes, my face carefully moving through initial surprise to a wide grin.

“Good on ya, Ron. Fooled me, eh?” I started up applause, which ended in chants of “Weasley! Weasley! Weasley!” as he was mobbed by the others, using my wand to move the winnings over to him and nodding slightly to Gemma, who returned it. Draco was aghast, hand still on his chest, and he turned to me, lowering his voice.

“Not to assume, but, such a bet…” Arching an eyebrow, I held open an inner pocket of the cloak, revealing the Wizarding equivalent of Fort Knox, inside my robes.

“I believe they call this ‘pocket-change,’ right?” Dumbfounded, he nodded, while I carefully shut it.

“And don’t let your fingers get too sticky, either. One of these pockets has a graphorn in it.” Not knowing whether to take me seriously, he took a long gulp of Butterbeer, making me snort half of my Firewhiskey, laughing out bursts of flame and sending everyone else into laughter, as well. If there was a better way to properly start my time at Hogwarts, I couldn’t imagine anything else.

That night, a little tipsy, I snuck up to the Astronomy observatory, finding it empty. The dome itself was open, revealing a vast blanket of lights, stars shining far off in the sky above. I could see the constellations, swaying a bit on the spot, steadying myself with a bit of Poppy’s flask, before withdrawing one of the items I’d taken from the vault, having secured it in my cloak once I was sure it wouldn’t radiantly kill me. To my surprise, it sprang to life in my hands, bow fluttering in an imaginary hand and string creaking slightly, slowly beginning to resemble words.

“Well, hello there, darling. How’d you come upon little old me?” A sultry, lounge-singer voice emanated from the cursed violin, and I blushed a little despite myself.

“Inherited you, from Morgana. Got a name, stranger?” If wood could blush, this violin did, a muffled voice from within the cloak growing clearer as my staff forced itself out, in wicked-evil mode and giving the full charisma.

“My, what a dame. Are you vintage? Because they sure don’t make ‘em like they used to.” The violin giggled, and I interceded before the horrifying events in front of me could unfold any further.

“Sorry, but… Who are you?” The violin scoffed, bow flapping at me.

“Why, hasn’t everyone heard of me? Dear me, how long have I been on vacation? Do the names Agrippina, Claudius, Nero, mean anything to you?” Slightly, a bit of Muggle history rising to my mind, as well as a half-remembered snoozing memory of Poppy’s in History of Magic.

“Wait, the emperor of Rome, like two-thousand years ago?” I was met with silence for a moment, before the violin responded.

“Yes. A rather magnificent mage, and friend. We… spent the evening intimately, as Rome burned.” Trying very hard not to picture anything in my head that would scar me further, I nodded, stone-faced.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you…” The knobs at the top turned downward bashfully.

“Oh, my apologies! Camena, either song or fire, depending on the occasion.” I shook the bow, which had stuck itself at me, and allowed the sword to (carefully) do the same.

“This is Necroth, my blade and staff. My name is Jude. If I may ask, do you have any magical properties aside from your enchanting personality?” A sentient violin had no eyelashes to bat coyly, yet—

“Why, such a charmer. I am a little… cursed, sadly. Though it’s not as bad as you’d think. Ever wanted to channel magic through song? Weave spells through the notes and wind and your hands? For a sliver of your soul, you can gain the skill of a master, as well as a little loan of some of my own charisma, per se. Haven’t you ever heard of bards, child?” I had, in fact, an ardent fan of Warbeck no matter what dimension I was in, and thought it over for a moment.

“I’m not exactly… fully human. Is that an issue?” Camena giggled, bow swishing back and forth.

“Of course not. My last partner before dear Nero was the god of music. What hands…” Shaking my head reflexively, I sighed.

“How much of my soul? And what exactly would I get in return? This is sounding awfully a lot like a contract.” The bow tapped me on the nose.

“Instead of casting spells with a wand, you could use me! Plus, I can teach you all sorts of bardic magic, things witches and wizards couldn’t dream up in a million years. Apollo once conducted such a symphony with me that it raised the dead. Oh, mathematically, one percent of your soul. It’s how I imbue you with the talent, and all. Think of me as a patron, helping you out along the way. I was Apollo’s first muse, after all.” Looking down at the violin, and my wand, I had an idea.

“Is sweetening the pot allowed?” At that, the violin laughed, a melodic rhythm that bounced off the open walls and into the night sky above.

Always.” I held up my wand.

“If you really can cast magic like a wand, and I can do it wandless in emergencies, I would give you… five percent of my soul, plus infusion with a wand created by a man who discovered immortality.” Almost before I was done talking, the violin agreed, sword shooting me a worried flick of the blade.

“Don’t worry, I’ve got the lion’s share. And don’t get any funny ideas, alright? Deals should be respected.” After confirming, I was instructed to pick it—her—up, setting the base onto my shoulder, bow finding my other hand and guiding my fingers into the proper positions. With her instruction, I leaned my cheek slightly, holding the violin to my shoulder, and prepared myself. In one move, I placed the bow on the strings, and my left fingers on the neck, wincing as all four fingers were magically sliced open, spilling my blood onto the strings and neck, which was quickly sucked into the wood. After a moment, violin still up, I committed to a new avenue of magical study, placing my wand to the violin just as I’d seen Poppy do to her sword, in her memories, watching the silvery gold substance melt into the violin, spreading across it and encasing it in the same material, strings now closer to polished moonbeams than actual materials, frets demarcated in silver and gold lines. At the same moment, as she’d said, I suddenly innately understood that, if I wanted to, I could play anything. Any song, old or invented, could flow from my fingers with the force of spellcasting, with just a few movements. Alongside this came a burst of confidence, washing away at some of the nagging worries as a reassuring tone in the back of my head told me that it was alright, I was enough, and I could handle it.

“Would you like to play, Lady le Fay?” Taking a breath, I looked up at the moon, and drew the bow across the strings again. The notes that emanated out started slow, muscle still adapting to the magically-gained skill, and as I grew more and more comfortable, I settled into it, eyes drifting half-shut as a gentle, rising melody spread out, over the castle. I didn’t have anything in mind, brain picking up on the song I was playing and beginning to fill in the notes as I went. The wind tugged at my cloak, almost as though it was pulling at me to dance, and I relented, swaying back and forth across the floor, dancing slowly to my own music, a smile forming at the crescendos, truly feeling joy, not just at being able to perform it, but knowing that this new, innovative way to interact with the wonder that is magic provided an entire world for me to discover. The song grew more complex, pitch rising and falling in rolling waves as the intensity rose, some sections verging on frenetic before lulling down into gentleness; some time later, I noticed another set of notes, quietly stepping in to the solo dance I’d been performing. During a twirl, I spied Dumbledore, ancient fingers effortlessly flowing across his own, black-stained violin, bow appearing to be threaded with unicorn hair. Acknowledging him, but not stopping, he moved to join me, pulling a chair over wandlessly to sit as I spun across the room, sometimes around the chair. He’d recognized the song, finding harmony quickly in a long, chorus-like section during which I slowed down, smiling at him, which he returned. Neither of us broke the music, as I knew there was more to play, emotion palpable in the air as the sound rose, sorrow from both violin and myself flowing into the notes. Another fast section, darting across the floor, fingers flying across the strings fast enough to bring smoke off of them, Dumbledore keeping time leading into a rolling tide, wavering notes pulling at the very air around us, magic now almost visible in it’s intensity. Edges blurred, hazy, and my hair started to have a similar reaction that it would to static, rising gently in the air as tendrils of pure magic passed through it, like wind. Picking up tempo again, I pushed myself further, flying across the violin in elation, laughing as exhilaration filled me, spinning faster and faster with each measure until a final crescendo, ending in a gentle finish similar to the opening. Once we’d both finished both of us burst into applause for the other, laughing slightly.

“That is quite possibly the finest violin-playing I have ever heard, Miss le Fay. I had wondered if I’d find you here, after hearing the music.” The violin, rather unnervingly, floated next to me once I let go, to which he nodded.

“Do you seek to undertake a more… bardic-centered approach, to learning at Hogwarts?” I shrugged, summoning a chair with a snap of my fingers.

“I’ve been… practicing since a young age. I knew about my family since I was little, and was prepared for the position once I started showing signs.” As he was a master Legilimens, I had spent some of my free time carefully constructing a few memories, sheepishly looking down.

“I, uh, also have a bit of a confession. My dad was… an adventurer. Bit, eccentric? I’d prefer if this was kept somewhat of a secret, for now, but my mum was—is, a thunderbird.” A twinkle appeared in his eyes, and he leaned forward, fingers steepled.

“Is that so. I had an acquaintance who claimed similar things pertaining to a phoenix, many years ago. A natural proclivity to magic, ease in affecting the weather, and I believe…” My wings emerged, Camena gasping along with Dumbledore, who couldn’t contain himself.

“Incredible. I, of course, will maintain discretion. With your ability for wandless magic, it shouldn’t be much of a problem, but we do actually have a music program. Professor Veht rarely takes first-years, but I imagine an exception can be made.” After a moment, his face sobered up somewhat.

“I would ask one thing of you, if you would.” At my nod, he continued gravely.

“Please keep an eye on young Harry. His defeat of Lord Voldemort may serve to make him a target within your house, and I believe you are wise and brave enough to stand up for him, should the need arise.” I nodded, suppressing a smirk at the thought that Harry was probably in the common room right now, already rising as a popular kid, fleecing anyone stupid enough to play him in Wizard’s Chess.

“I will, Headmaster. And, thank you. If I ever make a song, I’ll name it after you.” He chuckled, beard twitching in the moonlight.

“I await the day I hear it. Now, not to be a ‘curmudgeon,’ but it is rather late…” Taking his implication, I thanked him once more and scurried off, not wanting to get caught out by Filch, violin in tow.

Life at Hogwarts as an apprenticing bard was… strange. I received looks from everyone, mostly because of the violin orbiting me at all times (she would sometimes play herself while I did homework, which was nice) and my sudden explosion of wit and humor—in a month, I’d managed to get an inside joke with everyone in my house, except Snape and the Baron—convincing Peeves to tap dance to a jaunty tune in the Great Hall one evening, to much amusem*nt. Classes with Veht were… interesting. The first time I met him, at dusk on the next Monday, the class was quite literally only me, in a tiny, dusty broom closet of a classroom, with no windows. The man himself melted from a shadow, looming tall and hidden in a straight, black cloak. As his eyes met mine, I was intrigued: he was a vampire. After playing for a good five minutes, he stopped me, accepted me into the program, and bid me resume; that was the only thing we did the entire two-hour class, leaving with a stack of books on both music and bard theory, and a four-foot assignment on the history of music for Friday. I was no stranger to quick turnarounds, having ran a country, and dug into the additional work, drawing the interest of Hermione and Arabella, both of whom borrowed the books as I finished them. Bardic magic was similar to conventional magic, though much more primal, connected to deep emotional roots expressed through sound, producing magical effect directly from the heart and soul instead of the mind and wand—equally viable, equally unique. Spells were formulated a little differently, where the grammatical structure of spoken magic was replaced by meter and octave, forming an entire language in of itself. After a trip to quite possibly the least-used section of the library, I checked out another ten books, intending to inundate myself with information in the hopes that some of it stuck. Much of September and October passed like this, punctuated by practicing for Quidditch and fervently studying, trying my utmost to stay at the top of our classes and research as much as I could in this world’s history books. The first match was on Halloween, meaning our preparations came to a head two days before, Flint quizzing the other six of us regularly with flash cards of plays and rules even mid-flight, pausing occasionally for me to play a warming charm, as it was more enjoyable than just casting it. The Scuppers season started in the last third of the Quidditch season, lasting through to the week before final exams, which meant the other teams hadn’t quite started practicing yet, though Draco was always bragging about ‘tactical genius’ and ‘backups for backups,’ whatever that meant. The morning of, two distinctly different emotions presented themselves on Harry and I’s faces; I bounced into the Great Hall eagerly, Camena playing a tune I’d skipped through the castle to, already in my uniform, while Harry walked in looking like he was heading to the gallows. Flint nodded at my enthusiasm, and sat a bit away from the team with Harry, likely giving him a (hopefully uplifting) speech. My exuberant mood soon infected the others, Ron demonstrating insane techniques he’d dreamed up with bits of celery and lots of jam when it crashed horribly; Draco was scanning every copy of a Quidditch magazine we’d gotten for any tips or tricks that could be useful, helped by Hermione; while Arabella and Daphne interrupted Ron’s demonstration of “The Weasley Maneuver,” a move involving swinging around the broom in a way I didn’t think was physically possible for human anatomy to ask for six more magazines on Scuppers.

“Sure, sure, just get me a list. I donated a bit of gold to the team for supplies as well, I think. Dunno what exactly you need, though.” They both nodded, dissolving into further discussion and eventually roping in Draco, while I contemplated the feasibility of what Ron was showing now, where the bit of toast representing me was standing upside down on the broom, hooking my feet around it to stay steady. After two more cups of coffee, Harry and Flint joined us, former barely having time to wish everyone good morning before we were being hustled off to the pitch, morning crowd of students blearily making their way inside. A few Slytherins and Ravenclaws gave us pats or well-wishes on the way out, while the Gryffindors seemed to be doing much the same for the Hufflepuffs—I spied Cedric, a slightly-familiar looking guy with brownish-red hair and an easygoing smile among their ranks—hurrying down through the morning chill across the fog-coated grounds separating the castle from the pitch. A few teachers were already in the stands, and all seven of us checked in at the entrance to the locker rooms with Madam Hooch, who raised an eyebrow sternly at me as I passed—oops. Since I didn’t need to change, I checked over everyone’s equipment, making sure the brooms hadn’t taken any weathering or water damage out in the night—they hadn’t—and passing each one out to the owner as they emerged.

“Alright, team. Circle up.” Using the small stools scattered around the room, we did so, Flint rubbing his hands together eagerly, a bit of a feral look crossing his face.

“First game of the season. Time to get the jitters out, break in the rookies—but we’re up against the Hufflepuff Horde. No replacements from last year, most of ‘em spent the summer training at Diggory’s place; his dad took him to last year’s World Cup just to learn by seeing.” We all shared dark looks, myself resolving to go to the World Cup for every year it existed in this dimension, before focusing back in.

“But you know what? We’ve got two of the meanest, fiercest Beaters that ever stepped foot on the pitch, any house. Our Keeper took a direct hit from the Willow during a match last year and kept playing, Gemma and Hugo literally gave Ravenclaw’s Seeker nightmares after the Easter tourney. Not to mention, the flashiest Seeker this school has seen in over a century, and a Chaser with finesse to rival Akilina Picasso herself. Let’s set this pitch on fire, snakes!” Inspired, I joined the cheers, marching out onto the pitch after a final fist-bump with Harry, who looked like he was in a flow state already. The sun was peeking through the clouds, and we went through a few warmup exercises before students starting filling out the stands, Daphne whistling from the stands as I did a close pass. Once the crowds started to grow, we returned inside for a bit of water and a much shorter “Go get ‘em,” from Flint. At our re-emergence, coinciding with Hufflepuff stepping out, the stands exploded into cheers, green-and-silver banners flashing across half the stands, while black-and-yellow ones stood opposed, people wearing hats, throwing streamers, and I saw one with a paper mâché snake head, complete with working eyes. The two teams met in the middle, Flint deliberately attempting to break Cedric’s fingers in the handshake—Madam Hooch had to clear her throat pretty loudly—and we rose up into the air. I was paired off against Malcom Preece, a third-year with short brown hair and a suspicious look in his eye. The opening play was mostly just, get the Quaffle and score to get momentum going, so when the whistle blew I shot straight down, smacking into the ball and using one arm to cup it to my stomach, Gemma and Hugo swerving over me to block the Hufflepuff Chasers.

FAY GAINS THE QUAFFLE—Ooh, nasty hit on Bole right out the gate—looks like O’Flaherty didn’t forget last year’s incident—” Tuning out the commentary as much as I could, I jerked back upwards, performing a tall vertical loop over the mix of players and rocketing into the Hufflepuff side of the field, upside down. A Bludger caused me to roll upright, clipping my shoulder and tearing part of my uniform.

Good hit on Fay, first-year Chaser, by McManus. McManus is lining up another shot!” Deciding to possibly listen to the bird’s-eye view, I ducked under his second attempt, having to shoot over the Keeper and swing around right, meaning I was likely going to get pancaked by one of their Chasers. Indeed, as I turned, I spied Macavoy, a fifth-year, who was suddenly knocked out of the way by a Bludger, Bole slapping my back as he passed, giving me an angle to slip back in front, rocketing the Quaffle through the rightmost hoop.

FAY SCORES! 10-nil Slytherin, no sign of the Snitch from either Seeker—keep an eye on Potter, his dad went 9-3 his rookie season—” I narrowly avoided a Hufflepuff Beater who ‘didn’t see me,’ rejoining Gemma and flashing her a smile.

“Keep it up!” I streaked off in pursuit of Macavoy, who shouted swears at me, Quaffle under her arm. I had full faith in Pucey, but that didn’t mean I was going to leave him to his own devices, flattening myself against the broom and deciding to try one of Ron’s maneuvers. Drawing up alongside her, opposite the Quaffle-arm, I lunged out, kicking a foot carefully through her arms while the other snaked under her broom, dislodging the ball and rolling it onto my right foot. Then, using the momentum, I swung backwards on the broom like a gymnast, kicking the Quaffle up to my hand as I jerked right—having seamlessly stripped her of the ball in less than a second. The stands erupted as I tossed it to Hugo, who had a swollen cheek and a murderous glare for the other Hufflepuff Chaser, Tamsin Applebee. I bobbed and weaved through the pitch, using my size and inhuman reflexes to dart through a pile-up, dodge two Bludgers at once, and even knock their Keeper, Fleet, back through a hoop, ball in hand. After just ten minutes, we had a solid lead of 70-30, a lucky score and two penalties their only points. Harry and Cedric were still high above the pitch, circling each other in large movements, and both teams pulled back from the opening scrum, settling into their strategies and slowing the game down somewhat. I was glad for this, the breakneck-to-slow tactics always intricate, and used a series of gymnastics to evade the hands of all three Chasers, flipping it behind my back and over my head to Gemma, who darted off quickly. Another time, during a penalty shot, I laid back on my broom, leisurely spectating as Hugo scored twenty points on Fleet, putting us at 110-60 at around the thirty minute mark. The longest match I’d ever played in was the last semi-final of the World Cup, against the Australians; it’d lasted a full week, not counting timeouts. The shortest was the Hellions’ first game, against Tutshill; Harry caught the Snitch in under thirty seconds, on a bet. As I recalled that, shoving at Preece to try and get to O’Flaherty, this version of Harry entered a sudden, completely vertical dive from almost four-hundred feet in the air. The top speed of a 2000 on flat-flying was roughly fifty feet-per-second, but it reached terminal velocity at one-ten, meaning that if Harry expected to pull out of it within ten feet of the ground he’d be pulling at least thirteen ‘g’s, a Muggle science term to describe gravity and velocity; it was also three higher than what professional Muggle plane-racers endured in hairpin turns. Keeping my eyes glued to him even as I feinted past Preece, all other plays stopped in shock—it was both Harry and Cedric in the dive, neck and neck. Diggory was using his weight in a vertical dive to keep pace, but he had to know that his window to pull out was exponentially smaller than Harry’s. They shot towards the ground, dropping almost three-hundred feet in five seconds, showing no signs of stopping as I prepared to magically halt their fall, knowing teachers had to be doing the same. Even Flint was starry-eyed, unmoving with the Quaffle in his hands as Cedric wrenched himself up into a steep angle nearing forty feet, Harry almost a blur that turned ninety degrees on a dime, right hand having—unbelievably—snatched something out of the air. His jaw was clenched, eyes slightly vacant; but he was still flying, holding up the Snitch to thunderous cheers and applause from the stands, my broom reaching Harry first, subtly grabbing his arm and casting a diagnostic spell. Slight concussion, developing case of vertigo, hormone levels consistent with euphoria. Figures.

“You did it, Harry!”

“Blimey, mate. Just…”

“Holy sh*t, Potter! I thought they’d be scraping you out of the ground after.” As the team clustered up, I was still as dumbfounded as Flint, two of us landing a bit separately and sharing a look.

“Nearly fell of my broom.” He nodded, brow furrowed as Harry was carried back to the locker rooms on the shoulders of the others.

“We won, though. I bet—wait, get out of here, firstie. Hit the showers, good game. Consider your position with tenure.” I snorted, shouldering my broom and marching off with a jaunty salute.

That night, we were received at the Slytherin table as heroes, earning the coveted seats furthest from the staff table and eagerly digging into the spread, which was even more filled for the feast.

“Damn good work. Need to get that bruise looked at, Fennicaster?” Hugo scowled, holding a cold bottle of Pumpkin Juice to his face, which had taken on a nasty yellow-green mottle.

“Not yet. McManus ‘missed’ the Bludger and clipped me instead.” Dark expressions erupted from the rest of the team, Gemma leaning forward.

“You’re his year, right, Bole? Think you could wipe a few of his notes next week?” Lucian nodded, busy buttering six different rolls. Harry still had the Snitch, absentmindedly playing with it, and I had another massive meal, actually getting to the point that more dishes started to appear—Flint, Gemma, and Harry were the only ones to come close to the titanic feast—and I sat back, full and tired, Camena floating beside me.

“A most rousing match, Lady le Fay. I daresay—” The doors to the Great Hall crashed open, revealing a bit of déjà vu by proxy; Quirrell, panicked, ran inside, screaming his head off. However, what he actually said sent terror into even my heart.

Dragon!” The madman had lured a dragon to a school?! I leapt out of my seat, clearing the stairs before anyone else had time to process his words, vaulting his falling, faint body and tearing into the castle as screams erupted behind me. Camena was beside me, and I darted out onto the lawn, scanning the cloudy sky as best I could. The doors behind me swung open, an oily voice reaching me with sternness on par with McGonagall.

“Miss Fay, you will return to the dungeons, as is protocol in the event of a dragon attack—” Fully ignoring Snape, having spotted a shadow in a crack of lightning, I drew Necroth, lighting it with Fiend Fyre and casting a pillar of flame into the sky, at the shadow. The clouds around it vaporized as it traveled, whatever Snape was going to say dying in his throat as a truly massive dragon was silhouetted in cursed fire, roar reaching us at least a mile away as it dove, using the wind to choke the fires.

“Get down!” A bolt of lightning struck me, doing nothing but really make me mad, snarling as my wings shot me straight up into the sky, tearing off for this magic-wielding dragon. How You-Know-Who had managed to do this, or why, I didn’t know or care; I would not have my turn at Hogwarts go this poorly. The dragon was not expecting something to fly up and challenge it, pausing it’s descent and hovering until I drew near. As I did, I was amazed to see not only a saddle, but a rider, wearing ornate armor and bearing a sword unlike any I’d ever seen—it practically bled magic, overflowed to the point where a mishap could level a city—the rider obscured by a heavy plate helmet.

“Leave, or die.” The dragon snarled, lunging impossibly fast and slashing at me with a set of massive claws—the paw was cut off, making it roar in pain, and I lunged, jamming Necroth into it’s chest and splitting it’s underside open. A wave of mental energy nearly knocked me out of the sky, hard-pressed even with Poppy’s experience to shut down my mind—it was the rider doing this, it had to be—and I swept up the other side, flinging my sword through their neck in a fluid motion. I wanted the body of at least the rider intact, levitating it out of the saddle as the now-dead dragon began to fall, my own descent much more gentle, landing near the crater a few hundred yards from the wall. The armor was unique, bearing runes and enchantments I’d never seen before, pocketing the sword quickly as well as a thick, leatherbound journal.

“Are you alright, Miss Jude?” I nodded, Scourgifying myself of blood and turning to Dumbledore, wings still out.

“Yes. Er, how many people saw that?” A twinkle lit in his eyes, and he shrugged.

“Myself, Professor Snape, and I believe Professor Quirrell.” Over his shoulder, Quirrell was halfway across the lawn, facedown while Snape crouched over him, looking at me in awe.

“I would humbly request an appointment, in my office. I’m very curious about several things, not the least how you cast a pillar of Fiend Fyre almost a full mile long.” Well, only three people had seen it—Voldemort too, so four—and while I wasn’t exactly thrilled at the conversation I was about to have, it was better than the whole school knowing. After Vanishing the carcass, Dumbledore kept pace with me as we headed back.

“As to your—speed, in leaving the Hall, only the teaching staff was able to track your movements. I believe a Ronald Weasley has lost twenty points from your house in attempts to go find you.” Groaning, I promptly shut up as Quirrell awoke, sitting as we drew near.

“Are you alright, Quirinus? Severus, please help him back inside.” Snape was already lifting the man up, both professors doing the “we’re going to have a talk” face at me in addition to the Headmaster.

After a stealthy trip to Dumbledore’s office, Snape and Quirrell both waiting outside—great—I was poured a steaming cup of tea by an aged house elf, who also set out a tray of biscuits before disappearing. Dumbledore’s office matched most of Poppy’s memory, save a few different whirring gadgets and a balcony full of shelves in the rear area.

“Firstly, I should thank you for defending the castle. Dragon attacks, while common, are almost always harrowing.” It took effort to conceal my own shock. Dragons were a thing? I’d been assuming this was a one-off, one of You-Know-Who’s opening moves, but… maybe it was lucky coincidence.

“Of course. I wanted to protect my friends, is all.” And, if I ever saw her again, Poppy could not top killing a dragon.

“Ah, a wonderful opportunity to segue. You are a young witch, though you hum with magical energy far beyond most masters—are you truly eleven years old? Or even Jude le Fay?” A little bemused, I nodded.

"Yes, to both. I don’t… know how much I should tell you, to be honest. Let’s say that I’ve met a you, who was one of the smartest wizards I’d ever met. I’ve inherited Morgana’s ability at Divination, though I shall say that I—began—fully formed.” It was quite possibly the most cryptic answer I could give, but he mulled it over, stroking his beard absentmindedly for a full minute.

“I see. I must ask you this, as well: have you come seeking harm against the Wizarding World? What plane are you from, if not the Mortal?” He was throwing around some words I hazily remembered from a land of food, and I re-oriented myself: I was in a different system of magic, not as different as Calorum but still somewhat. Multiple planes…

“Never, to the first. I am from the Mortal Plane, but it’s… complicated. Theoretically, let’s say, a god performs a spell to create a flesh golem of itself.” His eyes lit up, staring through me as what was surely a series of incredibly complicated equations crossed his mind.

“I see. This does not explain your ‘thunderbird’ heritage, however.” Making a pained expression, I took a drink of tea.

“My… mother, was the daughter of Lucifer. Long story.” Dumbledore’s eyebrows vanished into his hair, while Camena was quietly floating next to me, also absorbed.

“And the family name is le Fay, by blood. My grandmother married a Muggle, and changed it.” He nodded, and leaned back, peering at me over his half-moon spectacles.

“A rather unique origin, I shall say. I will permit you to remain for your tutelage in the castle, though if you ever pose a threat to the Wizarding World or fellow students I will not allow you to continue doing so.” I nodded rapidly, some of the steel leaving his voice after a moment.

“I must wonder, if you truly can See?” Several memories of Poppy’s bone-casting, as well as some from the future here, came to mind. There was one, however, that I would not tell him, simply folding my hands in my lap.

“Will knowing who it was change anything, Headmaster?” The man was unquestionably thrown off, gaping at me with wide eyes for several seconds.

“I… I suppose not, Miss Jude. You’ve given me much to think about, and if you are amenable to further meetings…?” I was already nodding, standing to shake his hand.

“Thank you for tea. Good evening, Headmaster!” Not wasting any time, as soon as I stepped outside both Snape and Quirrell tried to grab me, latter succeeding first and pulling me away to the Defense office roughly. Snape trailed behind, likely to harangue me after Quirrell, and once the door was locked and magically sealed, Quirrell spoke.

“Quite a feat, Miss le Fay. Professor Snape would be remiss not to award you points.” I snorted, leaning back warily—Camena was nearby, and Necroth was ready to fly out of my cloak—and clearing my throat.

“Just doing my part, sir.” He nodded, wand sitting horizontally on his desk between us.

“And your wings?” Voldemort was certainly more direct than Dumbledore.

“Part-thunderbird. Quite the tale.” Quirrell leaned forward, face furious.

“You lie. Explain your words in the Owlry.” My eyebrows furrowed, and I leaned closer, scowling.

“Pot and kettle. And what, scared of a little fortune telling?” I was kind of trying to rile him up, just for the hell of it, a vein emerging on the professor’s forehead, though he managed to calm his voice.

“You know things you should not, girl. Why shouldn’t I erase your mind? Kill you?” The heat kicked up in my chest, room around us also rising a few degrees. I managed to prevent the growl, though.

“A simple answer: I’m a puzzle. Long answer: I know, Quirrell. How could I? What else might I know?” The attack was predictable, and my anger let me bat aside the probing thought just after it saw the lead lining. Quirrell paled.

“Wh-What are you?” I rolled my eyes, lighting a cigarette with a sharp note for dramatic effect.

“That isn’t your concern. You’d best tread carefully, here. What is your goal?” I had to be certain, had to know for sure before I took action. Quirrell blinked, a little surprised.

“Same as last time. Governmental reform, but this time—er—hopefully they don’t declare war.” My head began to hurt, contemplating what he’d just implied. I needed to read the book on history as soon as possible.

“I do hope you hold to that. Good evening.” Standing, not wanting to divulge nearly as much information to him as Dumbledore, I was reminded of my third meeting when a hand grabbed my arm, resolutely marching me down to the dungeons.

“I can walk on my own, alright? Professor.” Scowling, he let go, walking the rest of the way slightly behind me until we were seated in his office, two more cups of tea poured—I merely raised an eyebrow.

“I may not be wise, but that does not make me a fool.” His face soured, and I crossed my arms.

“Do not perform such an act again, Miss le Fay. There are wards and enchantments around this school for that exact occurrence—there is no need for flashy theatrics, understand? That sort of behavior is not becoming of your house or status.” Raising my hands in defeat, I leaned forward.

“My mistake. It won’t happen again; was a little caught up in the panic, I s’pose.” Watching me for a long moment, Snape finally relented, nodding and sighing quietly.

“I shall award you fifty points for defending the school, with the understanding being that in the future you shall leave such matters to faculty?” I nodded, sorely wishing I was already in the common room, pouring over the journal I’d found.

“Yes, professor.” After a sip of his own cup, Snape spoke carefully, looking down.

“A congratulations, for your performance in the first match. Continue to exceed expectations and I would not be surprised if you are afforded the opportunity to play professionally.” At that, I smiled genuinely, regarding the cup in front of me for a moment.

“I shall make a deal with you, professor. Three questions, then I will leave.” His eyebrows rose, making no motion to stop me as I took a sip, viscosity difference signaling Veritaserum (thank Morgana Poppy was a master potioneer). It didn’t have any effects unless actually asked a question, Snape pondering me carefully as I returned the cup.

“The tea was by far the better than Dumbledore’s, by the by. Bitter tea isn’t my cup of tea, eh?” He rolled his eyes.

“Do you serve the Dark Lord?” The answer came out unprompted, though I didn’t actually mind this question.

“No.” Another beat, him steepling his fingers, elbows on the desk.

“Are you the descendant of Morgan le Fay?” Another easy one.

“Yes.” Several minutes passed, during which time I felt the small sip I’d taken begin to wear off. Raising an eyebrow, I made a gesture of checking an imaginary watch.

“Have you ever taken a life beyond today?” It had worn off by then, but I regarded him curiously, even as he regarded me.

“Yes. Good evening, professor.” I swept out of the room without a second glance, not exactly wanting to know how it’d registered on his face, hurrying back to the dorm and hunkering in bed. Everyone else was asleep, meaning that the debrief would occur in the morning; I dug out a book on 20th century magical history, and erected some privacy charms around my bed, to keep the noise down. The journal was leather-bound, scarred and very worn, opening it to find pages of cramped script in a language I’d never seen before—another Prott gene: we love a good puzzle.

Chapter 20: Bird-Snake Brawl and the Rogue Professor

Chapter Text

After twenty minutes of what felt like a press conference in the girls’ dorm, I decided to spend the Sunday holed up, not wanting to confront the rest of the house to explain my disappearance—lost on the Vanishing Staircase—having to be dragged out by Millicent for brunch. By that point, the story had mostly spread, so I was only given a few questioning looks in the halls, being marched through by Millicent like I was under arrest. Arriving to the Great Hall fairly bemused, I tucked into breakfast, still ignoring looks. I’d made abysmal progress deciphering the journal, though all consideration of that mystery stopped when I paused to read history. Unable to find anything on Voldemort’s agenda this time around (as was in my world; victors write history), I noticed several interesting points: the inciting moment of the war was a riot where Ministry employees opened fire on a crowd of demonstrators, leading to a nationwide conflict between dark and light; even more incredibly, only one of Harry’s parents had died that night, Lily—the aftershocks of changes like that could completely alter the future of this world. Most things seemed constant, though: light beat dark, Voldemort died, and was now trying to come back. I had a lot to think about during the day, splitting my focus writing an essay for McGonagall and contemplating this information, which wasn’t lost on Arabella, who was working next to me.

“You spelled “transmutate” wrong. And “Anterior.” Scowling, I revised the words, scratching out one last sentence and concluding it quickly.

“Bit distracted, sorry. Thinking about Quidditch.” She nodded, Camena moving from a gentle, easy-listening tune to a more upbeat, mellow vibe.

“I liked when you laid down during the penalty shot. Was quite funny.” Snickering, I bumped her shoulder.

“How’s scuppers going?” She grimaced, holding up a flat hand.

“Getting the hang of it. The exercise regimen is killer.” I made a sympathetic noise and dug back into my notes, keen on finishing another essay before lunch.

Towards the end of November, a sudden, quiet snowfall coated the entire castle, shimmering fluff-white snow giving it an extra layer of magic in the cheery, snow-capped rooves and spires. Hagrid had built a massive snowman on the lawn, complete with a magically-enlarged carrot for the nose, and after a rousing snowball fight (heavy losses on both sides; Draco turned traitor in the middle of the Slytherin high command) our group headed back into the castle, where a thick bundle of parchment was waiting, from Rithondriel. They’d managed to make steady progress, capital now several miles from the Arcadian border on all sides, and he was presenting the results for my approval. As time had passed, detachments of angels had begun to arrive, further bolstering our ranks and maintaining a near-zero rate of casualties per engagement, which I was glad for. I’d be seeing them over break, but I spent the better part of an hour sequestered in the library, drafting a response. The way I saw it, we needed a defensive line stretching north-south, on the eastern border, reaching from the Channel to the Mediterranean to safeguard a westward push—writing as much and enclosing a magically-lightened bar of gold, as a reward. Running a war in one culture while trying to prevent one in another was no easy task, and I found that most of my free time (when not dictating essays or studying with the girls) was spent researching, plotting, and observing the people around us. Friday night found the Quidditch team in the team room, discussing strategy for Saturday’s game, against Ravenclaw. The room was dim, a cloud of smoke hanging near the ceiling as Flint drew increasingly-complicated Arithmancy equations overlayed onto a map of the pitch; apparently he was one of the best magical mathematicians at Hogwarts.

“Chang likes to play mind games, Potter, so keep your eyes on the prize. I wouldn’t put it past her to try at least three different feints to get you to crash.” Some of the nerves from Harry’s first match had left, the weeks of grueling training occasionally putting me into a state of mental exhaustion.

“Davies and Stretton are dirty, too; Stretton has a mean kick when in clumps, so don’t get bogged down if you can. Try to keep the Quaffle moving every four seconds or so, eh?” The three of us Chasers nodded, Gemma sharing her pipe with me while Hugo was dourly examining a stats sheet for Ravenclaw’s team.

“Another thing, and this goes for everyone, not just Bole and I: Inglebee is a powerful stealth caster; be prepared to dodge jinxes and hexes mid-match.” I nodded, reorganizing a few tactics to fit a potential duel. The closest I’d seen to mid-match jinxing was a banshee that played for the Harpies, but in that game the first thing Dugan had done was cast a Silencing Charm on her, which wouldn’t exactly work for mages. Blowing smoke in the shape of a broom, I leaned forward.

“Could go after him with the Bludgers first. Try to knock him out of the game.” Flint stroked his chin, glancing at Bole briefly, who seemed on board.

“Could do. Their reserve, Chambers, trains for Chaser. Might be the wrench in their gears we need. Alright, get some sleep; supposed to snow during the match, so I want everyone in prime flying condition. Breakfast at eight o’clock sharp.” After a night revising several essays (mine for Potions, Harry’s for Herbology, and Ron’s for Transfiguration and Charms), I walked down to the Great Hall alone, joining the team at the tables. The rider’s journal still mystified me, sitting stubbornly undecipherable on my nightstand, but I tried to push it from my mind over a plate of eggs and bacon, grinning at Harry.

“Bet you a Galleon I can score sitting backwards.” Raising an eyebrow, the boy merely dug out a coin and flipped it at me.

“You’re on. Two Galleons says I catch the Snitch in under ten minutes.” Grinning wider, I met his challenge, stopped by a stern look from Flint as Snape walked up to us.

“Miss le Fay, if I might have a word?” Finishing my tea, I followed him out of the Hall and into an unused classroom on the first floor, sitting at one of the desks expectantly.

“It has come to my attention, via one of your house prefects, that several members of Ravenclaw’s team are planning to target you during this match, as you are the highest scoring member of the team, so far.” I nodded, recalling Flint’s warning the night previous.

“If that is the case, I’ll need to beef up the protective enchantments on my broom. Nimbus models are notoriously flimsy aside from speed and wear protection.” He nodded decisively, eying me carefully for a moment.

“Are you not afraid for yourself? A broom is merely an object, child.” I raised an eyebrow, Camena doing a violin’s approximation of a scowl beside me.

“Firstly, a broom is a tool, a dancing partner in the sky. Secondly, I have much by way of experience in Healing.” His eyebrows drew together, still not fully believing me, but dropped it.

“And, how does one of your age come into the knowledge of intricate broom-enchanting spellwork?” Turning my nose up, I scoffed quietly.

“I am informed. Quidditch is a passion of mine.” Snape chortled, to my surprise, subtly nodding to Morgana’s grimoire.

“Suppose that helps, as well. Just… be careful, Miss le Fay. Magic beyond one’s strength is often fatal.” A shiver ran through me, memory of skin cracking and golden light—power—glazing my eyes over for a moment.

“Of course, professor. I wasn’t even planning on consulting the spellbook; haven’t had the chance to read it yet, either.” His eyebrows rose, leaning forward slightly in his seat.

“Then I am quite curious where your mastery of the Fiend Fyre spell came from.” On the back foot, I cleared my throat quietly to stall.

“That is neither here nor there. You know that I will not bring harm to anyone here, with certainty. I merely wish to learn magic, professor.” Snape looked at me for a long while, probably waiting to see how long I could last under his withering gaze; at a minute and a half, he sighed.

“You are dismissed; I expect a similar performance as the last today.” I nodded, up and out of the door almost before he’d finished his sentence.

It was already snowing as the team trekked down to the pitch, thick flakes that quickly recoated the ground around us, though I noticed the grass inside the pitch must’ve had some sort of Warming Charm put onto it, a slog of grass and mud that was steadily turning to muck. After a quick warmup—no one wanted to accidentally fall into the swamp below—we huddled up around Flint.

“Keep an eye out. Snow’s gonna make it harder to spot a hex in time, and if you see anyone else getting roughed up lend a hand; we’re a team, and we stick up for each other. Hands in.” We did so, a quick “Slytherin!” preceding our entrance to the pitch. After a squishy walk into the middle, Flint once again trying to break the hand of Ravenclaw’s captain, Davies, and I noticed I was paired up with Davies himself, dwarfed by the older student in blue and silver. At the whistle, I didn’t dive down, feinting above Davies as Hugo muscled his way to the Quaffle, six elbows thrown within the opening seconds of the match; Burrow, the third Ravenclaw Chaser, was knocked sideways as Hugo reared his arm back, flicking it straight up to me as I swooped over, snagging the Quaffle and tearing off towards the hoops. I dodged a Bludger, Stretton’s leg, and their Keeper, Page, sneaking the ball into the hoop opposite my side to a roar of cheers.

Fay SCORES! 10-nil Slytherin, 10-nil Slytherin…” As I wheeled back around, Davies fully slammed into me, head down and cracking my jaw across his shoulder—the sheer speed coupled with the surprise snapped my head sideways, only thing keeping me on my broom my half-frozen legs. The snow had truly turned into a blizzard, sheets of fluttering ice pelting all of the players and reducing visibility to maybe fifteen feet; Gemma swooped in, righting me as I tried to catch back up to Davies, jaw re-setting into a snarl. Pucey snatched the Quaffle wildly, blocking the shot and tossing it to Hugo just as two Bludgers struck me, one on my left ribs and other on my right temple. That was spotted, both by the commentator and Madam Hooch, who quickly blew her whistle and began scolding Inglebee and Samuels, neither of whom looked very remorseful. If I’d been a human, the best outcome of that would be leaving on a stretcher; as a fallen angel, I was winded and dizzy for several seconds, Flint and Bole shooting me worried looks as Gemma scored the penalty, bringing it to 20-0. By the time play resumed, I was focused, very aware that the entire team was targeting me as I was crunched between Stretton and Davies near their hoop, managing to duck forward and flip the Quaffle up to Hugo, who scored. Before Davies separated, I heard him snarl a spell, wand emerging from his sleeve and breaking all of my fingers, snapping backward one after the other to a disgusting angle. The snow in a five-foot sphere around me melted, and I clenched my fists, fingers snapping back into place at my command and surging back forward to punch the Quaffle from Burrow, dropping down until Gemma caught it about fifteen feet below. Neither Cho nor Harry had been visible since they both flew upward, another penalty shot affording us time to wonder if they were even over the pitch anymore, score sluggishly rising on both sides of the field. As the forty-minute mark approached, Gemma was struck off her broom by a vicious Bludger from Inglebee, falling forty feet before anyone could see her and knocked unconscious by the roughness of the quick Impedimenta Hooch cast; in addition to the medical pause, Flint called a timeout, leading us back to the locker rooms after delivering Gemma to Madam Pomfrey.

“Warrington’s changing, gonna use Farley’s broom for this match. Anyone catch the score?” I hadn’t for some time, mostly focused on staying alive and passing the Quaffle as fast as possible; neither had the Beaters, or Harry, who’d swooped down along with Cho, both confused until they spotted Gemma. Hugo responded, with a somber note in his voice.

“Sixty-forty. They’re trying to kill us up there, mate.” I nodded darkly, throbs still shooting up my fingers.

“Inglebee snapped my fingers with a hex at around ten. Then this, with Gemma. Merlin…” At that moment, Cassius burst in, haphazardly dressed in the uniform and with a slight dusting of snow on his black curls.

“Gemma alright?” He nodded, grimly accepting her broom.

“Pomfrey says a few broken ribs, arm, and concussion. Should be fine.” Flint nodded, clapping my shoulder as we all rose.

“Keep up the pressure, firstie. All we need to do is stay ahead until Harry snags the Snitch.” I nodded, Cassius shooting me a reassuring look as we returned to the pitch, cheers kicking up once more.

An hour had passed, during which time Flint had managed to score a hit on Samuels, knocking him from his broom and into the commentator’s box, requiring Chambers to swap in half an hour after the timeout. Both Cho and Harry had near misses on the Snitch at least thrice; the snow made it nearly impossible to spot the tiny, jittery gold ball—I couldn’t blame them either, I had just as much trouble with the Quaffle—Cassius muscling through scrums and shouldering past Bludgers like a tank beside Hugo, who was more like a rhinoceros. By my shoddy count, at an hour and fifty we were up 130-90, another penalty shot closing the gap slightly before Cho raced through the hoops, Harry hot on her tail as the Snitch desperately tore across the pitch. They made a large, downward spiral around the stands, weaving in and out among the towers and support beams until Harry abruptly switched directions, flying across the pitch as Cho rounded it and snatching the Snitch, which had still been circling in front of her. Ignoring anything else except getting out of this blasted snowstorm, I converged with the others by the exit and congratulated Harry, who’s hands were blue and teeth chattering. After a long and brutal match, none of us were really in the mood for partying, going as one to the Hospital Wing and checking on Gemma, who’d been put into a dreamless sleep while her bones mended. After a slightly gloomy post-match meeting, I ate a quick dinner before hurrying down to the dorm; feeding day. Quickly ducking into my trunk, I transfigured a cup into a large rat, tossing it into the air for Chubs to snap up greedily. Debating scanning back through the journal, and deciding against it, I instead offered a quick message to the being I’d beseeched for the spear I’d immediately lost.

Where is my spear?

My face grew hot, and I spoke sheepishly.

“Lost it. In Hell. I’m sorry.” A sigh that sounded more like the rustling of pages in the wind crossed my mind momentarily.

Honesty is good. As is the loss of that artifact. What will you take?

Eying the journal, having made zero progress across several months, I cleared my throat gently.

“To understand the magic of this world.” Silence, for a few moments.

What will you give?

My chin sank down to my chest, thinking hard. This entity was driven by barter, or seemingly equal trade; I needed a book on warlocks the first chance I got.

“My fear of darkness.” Dry, crackly chuckles washed over me, causing an involuntary shiver as the entity laughed.

As you wish.

My vision went white, splotches of ink and half-scribbled words assailing my mind as an absurd amount of information hit me all at once. Magical theory, axioms, theories of mechanics and more flooded into my brain, taking several minutes of twitching on my bed before I could even think clearly again. Magic formed several unique variations in this world, a vast array of spellwork, laws, and theories completely foreign to mine cramming themselves along the mental shelving of Goshawk and other familiar magic users; instead of being the only magical school in the continent, there were several aside Hogwarts—itself being a specialized school for wand-using wizards and sorcerers, though it did offer other tracks—and the vast increase in flora and fauna would’ve made both Hagrid and Neville cry if they saw it. The wide-arching rules of magic were much the same, which was good, though there were a multitude of by-laws so long that my brain couldn’t parse it without my full attention, for at least a week. I learned what Charlus’ Axiom was as well—“the thickness of a mixture is inversely proportional to the temperature of the cauldron”—and headed to the shower, needing to think. There was a meeting for tonight, probably after dinner, which meant I had a few hours to fit together all of the new pieces into this puzzle. Obviously, the world I was in was different than mine; magic worked similarly, but with a myriad of different types of magic, methods of spellcasting—even from just saying words, no wand or material required—and even biological life that towered over what I’d seen before. Spells were still proportional to the strength of the caster; certain precious gems could be infused with magic, either to enchant or store, though it wasn’t certain if there was a limit per gem. Humans weren’t limited to magic either; whereas dragons had once been classed as beasts, they were supremely intelligent and capable of casting—similarly, several Muggle animals were capable of magic and intelligent communication, like bears and most fish—and miracles like reviving the dead were far more common (there existed a spell to do so. Wicked). It also appeared that the secrecy surrounding magic wasn’t as close-guarded, either; Muggles can learn magic through deals with deities, gifts or bets, or even become so through intense study. The technological advancement had persisted, until Death’s intervention—killing all of the electronics—which likely meant a further degradation of any magical boundaries, now that the Muggles were returning to the age of kingdoms. Experimenting with one of the spells, a simpler one (it was a similar situation to learning from Poppy’s memories, but the simple stuff was easy), marveling at a sphere of water that emitted from my palm, wandlessly created with a mutter and drop of water. Wicked. The magical system related to the unreadable language was quite possibly the most interesting, using a maintained, ancient language imbued with magic itself to formulate spellwork through spoken sentences, leaving a truly infinite amount of possibilities when casting or crafting spells. It was too late to go to the Library, and I resigned myself to dinner, intent on letting the swirling vortex of knowledge that had been drilled into my head settle into something—hopefully—legible.

“Tough one. Proud of what I saw today.” I was still slightly sore from the Bludgers, half-slumped in my seat as Flint stood before the team—Gemma would be in the Hospital Wing for the rest of the weekend. Harry had needed to be treated for frostbite, biting cold wind several hundred feet up far colder than what we experienced, while Hugo had escaped with a bruised rib and ugly bruise on his leg; Derrick had broken his wrist, and Flint’s nose was still slightly swollen. Cassius only had scrapes and bruises.

“Never giving up on our goals is one of the most important parts of being a Slytherin. Having the ambition and drive to succeed even if it costs some blood or blue fingers. If I could award you lot points I would—now get some rest, check in with Pomfrey if you need. No practice till next Saturday.” He wasn’t one for super lengthy speeches, which I liked, spotting his look and waiting behind, fiddling with my wand.

“Normally never would’ve brought on a first-year as a Chaser—woulda been crushed flat, I thought—but you’re tough as nails, firstie. He broke your fingers?” I nodded darkly, recalling as much of the spell as I could discern.

Merlin. Don’t get yourself killed out there, alright? You might be the Chaser our team needed, and I’m not having you die before I win the tournament and Cup, hear?” Amused, I nodded again, departing once he turned back to the board, flicking his wand to draw more plays. As I limped towards the common room, I paused, Camena stopping her “traveling music” (very ambient and relaxed notes, done whenever I was going anywhere) as I had an idea. Not entirely sure on who to go to, I decided on my head of house, hurrying to Snape’s office in the hopes he’d be there, still. Thankfully, he was, reading a copy of the Evening Prophet and drinking tea; the neutral expression was replaced by disdain as our eyes met.

“Good evening, Miss le Fay. Is something amiss?” Shaking my head, I sat roughly in the chair across him.

“I had a question concerning academics, if you have a moment. Professor.” Glancing longingly at the paper, he folded it and steepled his fingers, removing a small black pair of reading glasses.

“I’m currently learning both sorcery and bardic magic as a first year; I was wondering if there was a limit to the varied classes I can take, during my time at Hogwarts? Say, a year of self-study in a specific school of magic, for example.” Snape’s expression shifted again, this time to muted interest as he dug through the drawers of his desk, withdrawing a dusty sheet of parchment and handing it to me.

“At most, students are allowed to fully study three schools of magic, or “adventuring expertise,” as the Ministry so eloquently puts it, during their seven years at Hogwarts. As a fully accredited institution, the school offers all branches of “AE,” however is primarily intended for wizardry and sorcery, as well as druidic and bardic magic, to an extent. As for self-study,” he then glanced around, as if afraid someone was lurking in his lurking territory, “generally, students are able to self-study on a year-by-year basis, with the expectation that all seven years would be devoted to the same area of study; testing exists for all disciplines through the Ministry. In more unique cases, as the tests are available with no prerequisite, students have realized the need for a specific skillset in their final years at Hogwarts—during the last war, for example, many sixth- and seventh-years also studied cleric magic and fighting—it is thought that it only takes one year of intensive study to accomplish a passed examination.” Unique cases, eh? Snape was certainly trying to curry favor with who he probably saw as the next generation’s influential figure. I moved the paper over, scanning the list of different schools of learning quietly.

“Do you have any specific interests in mind? As you mentioned, you are already occupying two full slots with sorcery and bardic magic.” I nodded absently, weighing odds in my head.

“The School of Shadows, as my third slot. And, for this year, I would like to self-study the School of Fighting. Do I need to fill out paperwork for that?” He nodded dryly, withdrawing several pre-formatted sheets of parchment with glowing portions where I needed to sign.

“That is a wide array of disciplines, Miss le Fay. Forgive me, but are you sure it will not be too much? I also would give a strong recommendation in any request for a Time-Turner that you may make—keep in mind that they are only allowable to third-years and above for scholarly pursuits.” I hadn’t contemplated that, still shaking my head as I signed.

“No, it’ll be alright. I want to learn as much as I can, about as much as I can. These examinations are at the Ministry, right?” He nodded, growing slightly confused as I handed all of the sheets back, signed.

“They are only given in late June, after the standard Hogwarts examinations. You don’t really think that in a year…?” Smiling sunnily, I stood and marched to the door, calling out over my shoulder as I left.

“Just watch me!”

I was given a new schedule the next morning, consisting of my entire day from seven in the morning to eight at night now being fully occupied by Quidditch and classes; I had to expand my trunk study several times just to accommodate all of the textbooks I needed, and that was before my own bookstore order was sent out. Interestingly, the first assignment of the “school of shadows” was to find the classroom, and a quick scan of bardic revealed another mammoth of reading and response essays—sorcery was the same as usual—while my recommended readings and essays were listed for the school of fighting, as well as the professor I’d need to turn them into—and fight? I guess?—scribbling down the gargantuan list of homework and sorely wishing I had a Time-Turner already. Even Hermione was aghast at my workload, others in the group suddenly much more exuberant about their light loads—Harry, Daphne, and Draco all gained the same mischievous glimmer, and I worried for Snape’s heart when that trio showed up on his doorstep—any further fun swiftly brushed aside by the torrent of classes. Seemingly to spite the Slytherin Quidditch team, almost all of our professors assigned brutal essays and papers—one was three feet, for first years—Snape looming like a ghoul through clouds of smoke and steaming cauldrons of antidotes we were toiling over. The first nonstandard class, aside from bard—I was learning how to play notes with the intention of a specific spell, almost like wand movements but much more precise—was shadows, and I searched fruitlessly through the castle, checking hidden rooms and secret passageways, scouring the castle from top to bottom in the first hour of the two-hour block. I began pacing, castle blurring together as I contemplated just where in the hell the classroom was—

Khrrrrr.

Directly beside me, a door slowly grew from the stone wall, disbelief filling me as I saw the tapestry of Barnabas the Barmy opposite. It was here? I contemplated barging in, before figuring that being sneaky was the right way to go; casting a quick Disillusionment charm, I eased the door open, still hearing the muffled sounds of lecture and darting in, easing it shut behind me. The room itself wasn’t very large, only hosting four rows of desks, with tables lining the walls under shelves of books toting such titles as One With Night and Shadowmarks For Dummies, tables themselves littered with various gadgets and half-assembled contraptions, knives, poison-dipped arrows, and all other manner of roguish tools. The professor was still turned towards the board, and I slid into the empty back row, quietly ending the charm and beginning to take notes. It appeared to be a class on intermediate lockpicking, diagrams of various simple-to-complex locks drawn magically in chalk as the professor gave various anecdotes and descriptions of lock-encounters, finally turning back to the class about ten minutes after I’d entered. Blue eyes immediately landed on me, and I merely raised an eyebrow, other students beginning to notice me as well.

“Ah, congratulations and full marks! Finding the rogue class only two days after signing up for it is a new record, I think.” Disregarding the fact that I’d found it out of sheer luck, I shrugged eloquently, trying to act cool.

“Cleverness is one of my primary traits, I’m afraid.” She laughed, orange hair shaking slightly.

“You have my condolences. Welcome to my class, Miss le Fay. I shall forgive the tardiness this once.” Without a further word, she turned back to the board, resuming the lecture and leaving me scrambling to catch up in note-taking. After class was over, I was called up to the front, nervously waiting as the rest drained out of the classroom as stealthily as possible—with eyes of an angel it was hilarious to see in real time—turning to face her as she spoke.

“I’m rather honored to have the descendant of Morgana choose my class above the multitude offered here. Are you certain of this? Stealth and skullduggery don’t really mesh with the rest of your courseload.” I nodded, getting a little tired of being asked if I was sure about it.

“Yes. I intend to study as much as possible, and this class is perfectly in my interest. I am also self-studying fighting—I’m certain some things I learn there will be applicable here.” She nodded, looking down at my permission form curiously. A ripple struck the air around me, but I couldn’t quite tell what it was.

“My name is Professor Telemoor. Extra points are given for arriving and exiting class silently, as well as turning in essays without my notice. I trust you won’t have trouble finding the classroom again?” After that, I was afforded a two-hour window for my self-study, deciding to head out to the lawn instead of searching out another professor that would likely want to fight me. An owl arrived as I was drawing my staff, bearing news of further progress from Taun; they’d begun constructing massive aqueducts and civil infrastructure across the territory, Heaven sending down architects and building with stone dug from Hell. After another gold bar, and a quick report on what I’d discovered so far in the castle, I fully drew my blade, wood cracking off to reveal the wicked, black edge which gleamed in the light of the sun.

“Afternoon, milady. How doth thee fare?” I rolled my eyes, Camena floating over and flustering Necroth before it could get too into the bit.

“I’d like to practice swordplay, and a bit of fighting. I know you’re good for it, but I’d like to get the muscle memory down too.” It seemed to contemplate this, slight vibration rattling the blade as it hummed.

“With nothing to kill? What’s the point in that?” Fully scowling now, I held it out in front of me.

“We’re practicing killing things, so that when we must kill things, we can do so much more efficiently. Unless, perhaps, the Blade of the World Eater doesn’t want to achieve even more glory?” The entire sword shook, a distinct hint of indignation entering it’s voice.

“Of course not! Come, follow my motions. We will become the most efficient killing duo in the universe.” I was jerked forward, yelping before finding my feet and following the sword’s moves, running commentary on form and foot placement helpful as well. As I warmed up, confidence re-entered my moves, fluidly striking and blocking, tripping and dueling invisible enemies while Necroth painted the picture.

“Watch for that ogre! Nice dodge, now that guy missed his javelin, get him!” I was obviously alone in the patch of grass, but as we practiced it began to feel more and more real, and I contemplated summoning illusions for us to fight as footsteps approached. Stopping, breathing hard and grinning, I turned to meet eyes with a massive mace that nearly took my head off—the fighting professor. Ducking, I darted forward, Camena striking up a frenzied concerto as I was kicked back, rolling to my feet and meeting eyes with my final professor. He was muscly, clad in a short tunic and trousers, holding the mace in one hand while the other was twirling his bushy brown beard, which almost reached to his belt.

“Thought you could hide from me, eh? Have at ya!” I blocked, rolling to one side and smacking his wrist with the butt of my blade, causing him to drop the mace.

“I wasn’t keen on a fight for my first class—” He’d punched me in the face faster than I could track, cracking my jaw and even lifting me up from the ground for a second. Before I could think, my fist drove into his shoulder, shattering the bones and knocking it out of place as I felt my jaw healing, immediate worry filling me as I realized what I’d done.

“Oh, bloody—sorry, Professor—Episkey!” A few moments later, his shoulder was fixed, and he massaged it gently, squinting.

“Strong arm. Good. Some skill with a blade, too. Ever fought hand-to-hand?” I shook my head.

“Only ever magic or sword.” He nodded, and spat.

“Got a few books, or fists. Your pick, as long as you pass.” I had this slot twice a week, and after explaining my idea (one day of reading, other of fighting), the dwarf nodded again.

“Name’s Erik. Call me Professor Stonehammer on your papers‘r they’ll get on my ass.” I nodded in return, holding out a hand to shake. When he (predictably) tried to break my hand, I simply maintained calm eye contact as he crushed each bone, some of his macho gone as he healed it meekly, walking off with a few glances back.

“What a rude man. I see that proper manners have died out of the modern world, as well.” Before my sword could jump into the conversation, I refocused with an upward slash, resuming practice with determination.

Chapter 21: Let's Make A Deal!

Chapter Text

Jude

December was a whirlwind of homework, practice, and a brutal match against Gryffindor—if low-scoring, on their part—even my angel brain nearing exhaustion as I shambled into the Great Hall for the final feast before break. I was having a tough time wrapping my head around Muggle locksmithing, sitting and immediately reopening a stolen—naturally—Muggle textbook on the subject that I was annotating.

“I don’t know how you do it, le Fay. I’m barely swimming with two focuses, let alone four.” Dryly, I marked my page and looked up at Draco, who’d joined me.

“Oh, don’t worry Draco. I intend to study cleric magic either next year or the one after; maybe I could do two self-studies with a Time-Turner.” He paled, filling his plate to avoid encouraging me further and nodding to Harry and Ron as they arrived. Harry had decided on artificing, a magical-mechanics discipline that most often resulted in technological progress for the magical word—Daphne had chosen the sibling-school to fighting, a more barbaric sort that I’d contemplated but wasn’t willing to lose myself to rage in the manner it required—and he looked marginally more haggard than usual.

“Who all is staying, for break?” Both Harry and Ron, as well as Arabella and Hermione, who’d joined us, Daphne arriving last by a few minutes.

“Will you be terribly busy on Christmas, Jude? If you’d like to visit Malfoy Manor for the festivities, we’d be honored to have you.” I’d received an offer from Ron, as well, mostly at the urging of Mrs. Weasley—“need to make sure I’m not a bad influence, ‘spect”—and Daphne, as the Greengrasses were hosting their own celebrations.

“I do have some business to attend to over the holiday, but would the three gracious inviters be amenable to a day spent, at each?” After some discussion, it was agreed that I’d spend Christmas Eve with the Malfoys, Christmas with the Weasleys, before finally spending New Years with the Greengrasses. All of this also reduced the time I was able to make a direct appearance in Europe, but until I got my hands on a Time-Turner I’d have to make it work. After a night spent feverishly packing everything I owned into my trunk, I anxiously rode the train back, trading small talk and cards with Draco and Daphne until we reached King’s Cross, where I promptly Floo’d to the castle to get Taun. It was almost the same as the old one, a different fountain in the main courtyard the only real difference, and I sorely wished I had time to dig into the library here before grabbing Taun mid-meal and Disapparating to France.

Six battles, all bloody and filled with carnage, took up the duration of the week before I traveled to Malfoy Manor. One had lasted a full day, rumors of a coalition banding together in truly massive numbers reaching us from both west and east. A defensive line along the Italian peninsula was secured in the final fight, demonic horses traversing hills and mountains like it was nothing. Our army struck fear into the hearts of many merely upon sighting the cavalry, though I did notice that enemy armies were beginning to have better and better equipment; Necroth cut through them all. After the last fight, I realized that the sun was rising on the morning I was supposed to arrive at Malfoy Manor, quickly bidding farewell to the captains and returning to the castle, Taun needing to figure out Apparation to return. A quick shower and change of clothes later, I Floo’d from the castle to a cozy, well-adorned den, entire Malfoy family there to greet me.

“Good morning, Madam le Fay. Welcome to Malfoy Manor.” I inclined my head, a house elf appearing to take my trunk as Lucius shook my hand.

“It’s a privilege to be here, ma’am. I must admit, I’m quite eager to see the home of such an illustrious family.” Draco preened silently behind them, the two adults equally flattered by my words.

“Have you eaten breakfast yet? It shall be put out in the dining hall in about ten minutes, if you wish to see your rooms.” Nodding eagerly, Narcissa smiled at me before glancing at Draco.

“Dear, please show our guest to her lodgings; despite only staying a night, I believe you’ll find your rooms quite comfortable.” I curtseyed slightly, before quickly following Draco out into a wide, carpeted hallway, vaguely Malfoy-ish portraits lining the walls with tables set at varying intervals, each bearing an antique or magical artifact; the blond ignored it all as we walked.

“You’ve the older family, don’t get me wrong, but the Malfoys are quite… established. Have a bit of an insider tip on something near and dear to your heart, Jude.” Piquing my interest, he smugly waited until Camena threateningly hovered beside me.

“The newest broom model, set to be announced in February. You’ll never guess who’s making it.” We entered a set of black double doors, revealing a truly huge, likely magically expanded bedchamber, with three attached doors and a galaxy-sized mattress that looked softer than clouds themselves; once the door was shut, he rounded on me, grinning.

Cleansweep Twelve. The fated, prodigal son, fifteen years since the last.” My jaw dropped, having expected anything other than that.

“You’re bloody joking. Specs?” Snagging the chair at a massive, varnished desk, he leaned back, still smug.

“Flat-flying, seventy. Corners five degrees beyond the 2000, and handles like a dream.” I was scandalized, a flat note summoning a chair for me to collapse daintily into.

“Don’t tell me you’ve already ridden it. Don’t, Draco.” At his shrug, and ensuing silence, I swore.

“You prat. I don’t want another word about it—don’t you dare!” Draco was laughing, after a moment infecting me as well, until we were both struggling to remain upright, occasional attacks of giggles starting the whole process over again.

“I’ll be re-fitting both teams, of course. Maybe the birds would like our old brooms.” He snorted, glancing out of a window, into which sun was now streaming magnificently.

“Could hex them first. Nobody should play that rough, even with a grudge.” A grim nod surmised both our feelings on the matter, and after a few minutes of predictions for next term, we were summoned to eat. The dining hall was just as ornate as the rest of the house, a hand-sewn tablecloth adorning a long, black stone table ringed with high-backed chairs and bearing a truly impressive spread of breakfast foods, from sandwiches to bacon to waffles, omelets, tea, and coffee, all of which I happily dug into once I sensed it was socially acceptable to do so. Conversation was light, mostly focused on schooling and a few probing questions about politics. They were likely trying to feel out my character, or win favors in the Wizengamot, though they were nice enough about it that I didn’t mind sharing some. My reticence to immediately claim a side was viewed as prudent, since I was a kid, though I did manage to get a few surprised looks when discussing light and dark magic, as I wasn’t particularly averse to either. Upon processing that, a house elf was sent to retrieve a stack of books from the Malfoy personal library, as a gift, covering some of the most obscure magics in remarkably well-preserved texts dating as far back as 100 BC. I didn’t know all of the languages involved—there was a spell for that, thank Merlin—but as books are precious to me, I was very touched at the gift, which was my present from the Malfoys. After breakfast, I was toured around the grounds by Draco, during which he showed me the best hiding spots and guided me through the hedge maze in their backyard, the pair of us taking lunch on a wide, cobblestone patio.

“I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like, going from Malfoy Manor to the Weasley lean-to. You might die of shock.” Primly sipping my tea, I frowned across the table at him.

“There is just as much benefit in coziness as there is in austerity, Malfoy. I’ve actually been thinking of having my castle remodeled; I own the entire island, anyways.” His eyes bugged out at the mention of Avalon, the magically-shielded island where Castle le Fay resided, to which I smirked.

“I shall have to invite you, once it is refurbished. Perhaps next Christmas?” Draco nodded, unsuccessfully masking his excitement behind a bite of sandwich. I glanced out over the gardens, where carefully cultivated plants—both magical and not—stretched around meandering pathways, sections demarcated by family so that the Venemous Tentacula didn’t kill the assortment of petunias, lilies, and roses; I even spied a few Mandrakes, leaves popping up from mounds in the ground.

“I would be overjoyed.” After another moment, I reached into my cloak and withdrew Draco’s gift.

“I read ahead in our textbooks, and drafted a few study guides for the second half of term. Might be useful.” The thick roll of parchment was handled like the Holy Grail, Draco looking up at me with reverence.

“You’re an angel, le Fay.” Snorting, sorely wishing for a cigarette, I leaned back in my chair.

“Dead on, Malfoy.”

The afternoon was spent flying, Draco refusing to let me ride the prototype Cleansweep and even having the indecency to relegate me to an old Comet 90, making me sorely want to light the damn thing on fire by the time we’d landed. Dinner was vast, again, though the light from the windows at breakfast had been replaced by twilight, dusky moonbeams filtering down through the glass and casting curious shadows across the floor. I was enjoying a cup of coffee, having eaten my (polite) fill alongside easy conversation; I wasn’t entirely surprised when Lucius leaned forward.

“I’ve heard, in addition to your… expansive range of magical study, that you’ve enrolled in the school of shadows?” At my nod, he smiled slightly.

“A most wise decision, Madam le Fay. The art of silence, blades in the dark and, indeed, shadows, is a quite useful discipline. The same remains to be seen for cleric magic,” he ended with a pointed look at Draco, who was stubbornly fascinated by his plate.

“I believe both have their merits, sir. Cleric magic, from what I’ve heard, requires intense regimen and devotion, not to mention willpower and self-discipline. The latter of which, I admit, Draco has more of than me in spades.” Both parents nearly glowed at the compliment—Draco did too, if you count blushing—Narcissa smiling as Lucius continued.

“That is a fair point; you are wise beyond your years, it seems. Ah, but onto lighter subjects: have you heard of the war in Muggle Europe? It seems several kingdoms are beginning to emerge, like the olden days.” I, in fact, had intimate knowledge of the war, but played dumb to hear an outside look at it.

“Their electricity and inventions failed, as one, and now they have resorted to castles and warfare; there is a kingdom in France, as well as one further east, that have begun to make great strides in acquisition, landwise. Many members of the Ministry wonder if it will spill over into our world.” It wouldn’t, not if I could help it.

“Worrying, nonetheless. I do hope they sort it out, soon.” All three Malfoys nodded in agreement.

“I as well. It is a terrible damper on travel, even between magical realms.” As I lay in bed, awake, I contemplated everything that was happening, using Camena’s bow to draw words in the air, assembling my notes before me like I had before. According to the word of Quirrell, Voldemort had been more a social revolutionary than a blood purist, though no history book mentioned much of his motives; magic was infinitely more complex than it had once been, as were the worlds of magic and Muggle, if there was much of a separation between them to begin with. By getting the four crucial people into Slytherin, I had forced a massive change to the plans of any schemers involved, namely Voldemort and Dumbledore, as well as kicked off what I hoped was the gradual understanding that dark magic wasn’t some soul-eating evil within the group; the war was progressing, meaning my task from above was also proceeding well. Finally, was the journal and dragon. I didn’t know the spell to comprehend languages yet, and after organizing a tentative itinerary once I was back at Hogwarts, I wondered what exactly the funny woman and bounty hunter were up to, wherever—whenever—they were.

Ellie

In a shiny diner—I was having difficulty comprehending how clean everything was—Jack and I found a booth where the Doctor was sitting, scowling into a cup of tea. She made no reaction when we sat, waiting until our drinks had arrived to speak.

“What exactly are you two planning on doing? I have to take you back, it messes with the flow of events.” Jack shrugged, slinging an arm around me chummily.

“Right now, I’m enjoying coffee with an old friend—and a new one,” punctuated with a wink I only deigned to respond to with an eye roll.

“Impossible, you are. Ellie Jones, how can you just sit there, knowing what we know? It was Poppy’s fault that all of this happened, and now her sister is going to do it all over again, in another world, probably even worse—” she paused as the waitress returned to refill Jack and I’s coffees.

“I’m not so sure. Jude seems like she knows that just as well as you do—and doesn’t seem too keen on repeating the same mistakes. We can’t change things, what with past versions of Siobhan still watching over history. I have faith Jude’ll find a way back, to help the future towards a better place.” Shooting a dubious look around us, I flicked the deathclaw finger under the table, grinning as my coffee began to stir itself.

“Ah, you’ve forgotten one of the Doctor’s fatal flaws: she can’t stand not knowing.” The woman in question glowered across the table, saying nothing but muttered swears into her teacup.

“If you two aren’t going to leave, make yourselves useful and locate a newspaper. Please.”

Jude

Emerging from another fireplace, I was a little thrown off by the room I was greeted by; a tight, hodge podge dining room slash living room with a long table extending out from the fire, with sofas and couches ringing it and the Weasley matriarch waiting for me.

“I hope the travel wasn’t too difficult on you, dear. Tea?” Nodding eagerly, I found a spot at the table as she bustled around in the kitchen, two familiar, identical redheads appearing at the table opposite me, scowling slightly.

“Welcome to our house—”

“—snake-skin, you’re only allowed—”

“because you’re friends with Ronnie.” I rolled my eyes, distinctly remembering one of them nearly taking my head off in our last match.

“As long as we’re not on the pitch, we can be friends too. You’re both really good Beaters—not as good as Bole and Flint, though.” They smirked in unison, Mrs. Weasley returning with the kettle and summoning a few cups for each of us.

“Thanks, Mrs. Weasley. Anyways, if you’d aimed that Bludger an inch lower I would’ve been out for a bit, I think.” One of them was busy slurping tea, other rolling his eyes theatrically.

“We’re used to taller Chasers.” I snorted, both at the comment and subsequent chiding, waving to an older Weasley who’d joined us—Percy?

“We were thinking—”

“of testing some inventions—”

“—if you’d be interested?” I was already nodding, gulping down the tea and hurriedly thanking Mrs. Weasley, who only smiled and shook her head as the three of us hurried up to the twins’ room. It was less of a bedroom and more like a laboratory, both desks crammed with sloppy notes, half-built toys, and even a simmering cauldron disguised behind an illusory bookshelf. A chair was kicked over to me, one of the twins collapsing onto a bed while the other dug through the various scattered items of interest.

“Joke Sneakscope that only goes off when Snape is nearby? Maybe the Backwards-Writing Quill?” The twin laying down shrugged, somehow helping the other decide, handing a seemingly ordinary feather quill to me.

“No matter how hard you try to write, all your words come out backwards. Managed to sneak one to Perce at the start of term—”

“Had a right panic trying to write his first essays.” I inspected the magic woven into the quill, delicately running my fingers over it and frowning a little at the thrum of magic I received in return.

“Where did you find the spellwork to do this? It’s rather impressive, regardless.” At that, both of them sheepishly looked away, the one standing speaking quietly.

“Er, stole a book from the Restricted Section on enchantments. Not exactly the lightest reading.” Perhaps Fred and George were cleverer than I’d previously given them credit—or this version of them was.

“Wicked. How much do you want for it? Bet I could slip it to Snape.” Both snickered, one on the bed shaking his head slightly.

“Working prototype, we’re afraid. Not cleared for market use, yet.” I shrugged, handing it back and inspecting the next thing I was given, an inconspicuous chunk of what looked like Honeydukes chocolate.

“Go ahead. We’ve got the countermeasures, don’t worry.” Not reassured in the slightest, I bit into the chocolate—there was a slight tang that wasn’t there in regular chocolate—and began to feel a strange wetness in my nose, nearly falling over as blood gushed out of my nose in a fountain—silver blood.

“sh*t! Uh, er—” I frantically tried casting healing spells, none of which worked, while another piece of chocolate was rapidly thrust into my hands; eating it stymied the flow of blood, though both twins were now staring at me in awe.

“Your blood—”

“—isn’t red?” Of all the spells I’d neglected to study, perhaps memory charms should have precedence next term.

“Er… No, it isn’t. I, uh—” In a moment, both of their wands were out, though no spells were cast. The room darkened, cauldron frothing and spitting as heat slowly rose, to the point they both began to sweat in a matter of seconds.

“Neither of you will tell a soul what you saw. Understand?” My tone was calm, though the underlying threat was enough to make both of them flinch—they must have realized that, to some degree, I wasn’t an ordinary spellcaster—wands lowering in unison after a long moment. Neither spoke, both still staring as I Scourgified myself and smoothed my robes, room returning to it’s previous state as I calmed down.

“I think your prank stuff is a good idea, though. Could do a lot of good for students out there—and make money.” The distraction worked, pair of them immediately turning towards each other and beginning to scheme in low, almost identical voices as I quietly made my exit, keen on being anywhere but that room. Nobody was downstairs, and after drinking a glass of water, I stepped outside—I’d never been here before, and was curious about the place. The strange internal architecture was explained in that moment, staring up at a misshapen, magically-reinforced tower of wooden supports, amorphous growths off of the main staircase structuring various rooms and landings reaching at least fifty feet into the air, swaying slightly in the wind. It was unique, distinctly magical, and I peeked at the overgrown garden that filled one side of the yard. As I stood there, the wind kicked up, a bolt of pain striking my mind that sent me to my knees—I was being attacked mentally, by two different people, feeling two positively massive spikes of energy stabbing at the barriers around my mind. I couldn’t discern who was doing it through the pain, managing to rise to one knee, snarling as I fought off both attacks. One was a fine, silvery needle that tried to poke through the shields, while the other was more like a sledgehammer trying to crush the walls around my mind—pushing my skill at Occlumency to it’s limit in a fraction of a second. Whoever it was wasn’t nearby, meaning this was some form of scrying spell, and I managed to fully rise, stumbling into the garden and collapsing against a yew tree, turning my full focus inward. It felt like dueling two people at the same time, but they weren’t working together—if they had I doubted I’d’ve been able to hold them back—and I managed to cast the sledgehammer out of my mind, only able to catch a fleeting memory of Quidditch before it was fully rebuffed. Sadly, focusing on one meant ignoring the other, fire erupting along my nerves as the needle pierced directly into the heart of my mind, a weak hiss escaping me as it found the memory it was looking for. Legilimency and Occlumency are perhaps the most intimate form of fighting, intention stripped bare of the costume of fists and spells, and even as I felt the attacker view the memory of Project Lacuna, I understood what they had been looking for: the reason, why I was doing what I was doing. A rather vague question, but they had indeed found the crux of why I was involving myself so fiercely in this world of magic—to prevent what had already occurred in my world. I was able to stop the probe then, pushing it back out with a growl that wilted the flowerbed around me and collapsing back into the tree, already drained.

“Are you alright?” Glancing up, head finally beginning to clear, I spied Ginny Weasley, who—at this time—was a year out from starting at Hogwarts.

“Yeah, just a migraine. My name’s Jude.” She flopped onto the grass nearby, nodding in greeting.

“Ginny. You’re friends with Ron, right? In Slytherin?” I nodded back, pushing myself further upright, still on guard for mental attacks.

“Yep. He’s brilliant at Wizard’s Chess—and poker, honestly. Fleeced the entire house Quidditch team, once.” Her eyebrows rose, absentmindedly flicking a bug that was flying close to her face.

“Never heard that before. Um…” A little sheepishly, she dug a Chocolate Frog card out of her pocket, dropping eye contact.

“You’re, like, the descendant of Morgana, right? The one on the card?” She flashed it—a slightly worn Morgana—and I nodded again.

“The very same. Though, mum married a Muggle and dropped the name—technically, my last name is Prott.” Impressed, she tucked the card away and sat up.

“Can you call lightning, like her? According to the myth, she invented lightning magic.” Poppy had certainly been able to, going as far as devising a spell to prestidigitate a thundercrack when she spoke her name, and I frowned up at the sky, which was mostly sunny.

“Maybe. Never tried it before. I am a first-year, still.” She nodded, also looking up as if expecting to be struck by lightning in that moment—at the mere mention, a painful memory of being smote out of vampirism surfaced, making me wince.

“Is… Is Ron okay, in Slytherin? It’s where all the bad people go.” Dismantling preconceived notions about good and evil was a recurring problem, I was finding.

“Pfft, bad guys just go there for the aesthetic. It’s not all bad, I mean, Harry Potter got sorted into Slytherin. Besides, even good magic used for evil is still evil. Same can be said about evil magic used for good.” Ginny reddened a little, seeming to think for a few minutes, during which time I stealthily dug a strip of jerky from a pocket full of preserved supplies—either Morgana or Poppy had a wonderful ability to season meat—quickly scarfing it down as I waited. To my surprise, she dropped the subject, instead withdrawing a book-shaped present, wrapped in paper.

“From Ron, said Malfoy’s dad sent it as a “welcome to Slytherin” gift. He said it’s a broken joke book, or something. Bet you can get it to work.” I thanked her, having to contain my shock as a very familiar book was revealed from the blue, snow-flake coated wrapping paper. It was a worn, almost-tattered journal, a faded etching on the spine illegible even to my sight. It was, I thought, the same book Poppy had encountered on the train to her second year, and blinked several times as I made a connection she somehow hadn’t.

“Thanks, Ginny. I’ll see what I can do, and maybe prank him with it.” She giggled, moving further into the garden and leaving me with one of the darkest pieces of magic in the entirety of the field. On the first page, penned in precise, neat handwriting, stood the words Property of Tom Riddle. Flipping it to the first page, I dug a quill from my robes, pricked it on my finger, and scratched out a simple, yet hopefully effective message:

I know what you are.

Fiend Fyre, Basilisk venom, Killing Curse.

No response came immediately—likely because I’d listed three methods of destroying the Horcrux living inside the pages, as well as knowing it’s nature—the same neat handwriting emerging in my blood, my message sucking into the pages for it to use as ink.

I know your kind, as well.

Holy fire, sacred text, crucifix.

I was tempted to burn it immediately, though summoning cursed fire wasn’t exactly something I was keen on doing in the Weasley’s garden, instead carefully writing out a response after a moment. What I said next could very well determine the course of the next few months, and needed to be worded perfectly.

I propose a truce.

It took even longer to get a reply, as the journal was likely dumbfounded at the prospect, but the answer I received made my hellish blood run cold.

The first Friday of term, meet me in the Defense office.

That meant that, instead of the hypothesis on Horcruxes borne from my world—where each sliver of soul broken off remained in a sort of stasis, reflecting the soul of the caster from the moment it was broken—that Voldemort was very much still connected to his soul vessels; I hadn’t been talking to a shadow of his past, rather, the man himself.

“Merlin’s saggy pants.”

After a meal that made both the Malfoys and Hogwarts look like a half-empty bag of crisps, I was given Ron’s room to crash in, helping Mrs. Weasley clean up afterwards despite her kind protests. I was a bit put out that Lucius hadn’t gotten me a present, then remembering Draco’s gift of books and scowling at a stubborn bit of grease on a plate. Why had Lucius tried to give Ron a Horcrux? Did he not know it was one? It would be preposterous to let go of what was probably an important piece of his former master, so perhaps he’d only known it was cursed, and wanted to trip Ron up if possible—he’d be receiving an anonymous Howler in the coming days, I decided. Once I was securely behind a privacy charm, I set the journal a bit in front of me on the cot—I didn’t know if physical contact was dangerous over time—and withdrew Morgana’s grimoire. If the journal was old, this book was ancient, though the magical reinforcement of it had kept it in far better shape than Voldemort’s. It began almost like a first-year’s notes, and after reading a few annotations I realized that it was; Morgana had started this book when starting at Hogwarts, first few pages scrawled notes on levitation charms, stunning spells, and other first-year spells. The curriculum at the castle had changed quite a lot over the centuries, finding with some surprise that first-year students were taught jinxes and hexes alongside lighter spells; potionmaking included sections on poisons, though her Potions professor seemed much more enthusiastic in class than mine. Flipping through the pages, I passed over experimental spells, margin notes on magical creatures and magic theory, coming across a section near the middle, during her seventh year, that I could not believe. It made sense logically, as the inventor of the magic had lived a little over three hundred years before, meaning the knowledge was likely still fresh in most circles, but it completely recontextualized my understanding of the witch. She had, at all ends, been in academic competition with Merlin—before the bloody violence of King Arthur, who began to rise a few years after their studies—and had achieved a feat that, at the time, was only held by one other known person: she’d made a Horcrux. Just like Voldemort, she’d broken off a shard of her soul, at the price of—according to her notes—her mother’s life, granting her immortality at a truly terrible cost. The Morgana I’d met, back in the home dimension, had likely done the same thing, that being how she was still around to talk to Poppy and I; not to mention her immense magical strength (I shuddered to imagine how powerful Voldemort could’ve become with over a thousand years to study and practice). She never said what artifact she’d used, but I hadn’t felt anything close to the dripping aura of foul magic that rolled off of the journal in front of me, meaning she likely kept it warded on her person or secured away somewhere. None of the notes answered why, though. Why had she done it? Partly from competition with Merlin, likely, but that couldn’t be a suitable reason to split her soul and choose to remain, undying. With this information, I also highly doubted the legend that Merlin had killed her during their final battle, instead something closer to what had happened to Harry and Voldemort being more likely; if any witch could come back from the dead, it would be her. Merlin was mentioned in the grimoire, mostly in marginalia and frequently the subject of jokes and potential hexes, but as I scanned more thoroughly through the later years at Hogwarts, I was floored by what I found. They’d been lovers?

Greengrass Estate was similarly gaudy and austere as Malfoy Manor, though a higher proliferation of plants and magical creatures filled the grounds; Daphne informed me that her family was steeped in druidic magic, dating all the way back to the 13th century, when Fortuna Greengrass had built the estate as a wildlife sanctuary during one of the goblin wars. Pixies, gnomes, snakes, Acromantula, all manner of magical and nonmagical creatures lived within the carefully tended patches of plants, though no distinctions were drawn by species or danger; a Whipping Vine also functioned as a small table for six pixies eating berries, who shot me suspicious looks as we passed. Only a finely attuned mage could detect the energy of the Horcrux that sat in my cloak, but the closer to magic in nature a being was, the easier it was to pick up on the aura the thing emitted. As we re-entered, I even spied a pair of centaurs, watching us from the treeline.

“As you can see, the estate is quite beautiful, in it’s wildness.” I nodded, not even glancing up at the various portraits and fineries scattered through the house.

“Are you sure you don’t wish to remain here until the start of term? I can’t imagine it would be very enjoyable to spend it alone in Castle le Fay.” Shrugging, I shushed Camena, who’d gotten a little rowdy with the orchestral backing.

“I have business to attend to, sadly. I also need to look through the family library; I imagine there are a few books I could bring back with me.” She nodded, glancing back and forth before leading me down a set of stone stairs, away from the main rooms and towards a heavily-enchanted door, bearing a crucifix that nearly blinded me, sweat breaking out on my forehead before she hauled it out of the way, revealing a rather plush interior. Inside, at an ornate writing desk, sat a horned, red-skinned man, who looked up in a bit of confusion at our entrance, before his eyes met mine. He was a demon, one I’d never met, but he recognized me, standing abruptly and kneeling, head down.

“This is—er, are you alright? What’s going on, Azzie?” Not looking up, “Azzie” spoke a single sentence that completely ruined my façade.

“Kneel, child! The Butcher of Dormantia can kill at a glance for insubordination.” During the days between the Weasleys and Greengrasses, I’d won three more engagements, and oversaw the torturing of two different dukes for information; we were nearing the old border between France and Spain, meaning I needed logistical and military intelligence. This demon had likely heard rumor of such, or maybe even been present, Daphne’s jaw dropping as she rounded on me. Before she could speak, I was in front of the demon, glaring down with fury.

“Say a word further—say it and I’ll open you like a roast pig.” I hadn’t been as quiet as I’d hoped, a shocked gasp reaching me as the demon shook, not daring to look up at me.

“I—I’m sorry, your unholiness, I—” A low growl rumbled from my chest, stopping him again and turning to Daphne, who was watching with a mixture of shock and terror.

“Could you shut the door? I’m not going to Obliviate you if you can keep a secret.” For a long moment, I could tell she was debating running, instead meekly shutting the door behind us as I cast a privacy charm, turning back to the demon.

“Up. Sit back down.” As though magically compelled, he was back in his chair, still looking down as I summoned a chair, Daphne taking the free one warily.

“Why are you here, in some basem*nt?” Azzie shrugged.

“I’d made a deal with a Greengrass a few generations back, and was… moved by the kindness I was shown. I’ve served as an advisor to the family since. I’ve never said a word of anything otherwise, milady, I swear it to the pit below and stars above.” Still in a foul mood, I glanced at Daphne.

“What you hear will follow you to your grave.” She nodded once, also now avoiding eye contact, which made me scowl.

“I am not part thunderbird—which is likely obvious given your advisor’s loose lips. I was human once, but… times changed, and I had to change with them. I became a fallen angel. I can’t tell you much else, and I expect absolutely no questions or discussion with others. I’m here for a specific reason, one of vital importance. That’s all you need to know.” Incensed, she looked up, not faltering at the dangerous look in my eyes.

“You can’t, or won’t?” Azzie the demon paled, reaching out a hand across the desk to her.

“Please, Madam Greengrass—Hold your tongue. She is quite possibly the most powerful devil in all hell, second only to the—ruler.” With an arpeggio, his tongue was removed from his mouth, floating out to levitate in the space above the desk.

“You will have it returned when you understand how to hold it. He speaks the truth. Technically, I’m the fallen angel Judith. And it is truly that I cannot tell you; knowing what I know could drive you mad.” Her jaw was agape again, Azzie’s muffled sounds of pain punctuated by spitting black blood into a spittoon nearby.

“You’re a devil? A full archdevil, I mean. At eleven?!” I didn’t know the term well, as it was from this world, but it was accurate, my nod making her even more amazed.

“And this specific reason? Does it have anything to do with pulling the beacon of light magic into a house traditionally associated with dark?” Damn them all for being so bloody clever.

“Yes. No more questions. I will not have innocent blood on my hands again.” Both her and the demon were silent for a long time, during which I finally was able to smoke, going through a full pack in less than five minutes out of stress and filling the air around us with a cloud of smoke. If I’d been human, I would have coughed on it at Daphne’s next words.

“Do you offer deals?” Azzie’s face was horrified, and I returned him his tongue, which he immediately used to try and dissuade her.

“Daphne, please don’t. You’re meddling with things far beyond what—”

“Was I speaking to you?” He shut up immediately, nervously glancing at me as I turned slightly to face her. I’d been subject to plenty of deals myself, but never as the patron, a bit intrigued by the prospect—I could use it to ensure her silence, as well.

“Your demon speaks the truth. There are powers at play that most cannot even comprehend, let alone bargain with.” She was already shaking her head, peering at me through wavy black locks.

“So I want to be strong enough. I want to be the greatest witch of this age, Jude. What would you give me for… forty percent of my soul?” Azzie put his head down, while a sudden burst of exhilaration similar to battle struck me; apparently, my demonic soul was very excited at the prospect. I smoked two cigarettes, thinking, before sighing and leaning forward.

“The majority of my strength comes from the Proportional Axiom. The stronger an entity one becomes, the more powerful magic they can summon forth. Any deal or contract with me would effectively make me your patron, thus increasing the strength of both of us while simultaneously linking our souls, to an extent. Souls are not things to be bandied about like Galleons, Daphne. I, for example, currently own seventy percent of my own soul; the remaining thirty is from deals I have made.” I debated telling her about the Law of Levels, the rule about making deals with beings of varying power, but decided against it, as it’d likely land her in even more trouble than it would with me.

“I would also include a clause magically reinforcing your vow of silence concerning my nature. I cannot fail, for the sake of this universe.” Azzie likely knew what I was talking about, expression grim as Daphne thought it over.

“I also don’t know what it would be like to have such proximity to your patron, to that extent. Camena is one of mine,” she played a trilling, slightly somber chord, “but having a patron such as I may have magical complications; it’s not something I have ever done before.” At that, even Azzie was a little surprised.

“But, if you are set on this course, I merely have two questions for you, before a contract is written up. What will you give?” A crack of thunder shook the building, making Azzie flinch; Daphne didn’t, eyes practically shining as she looked back up at me.

“Forty percent of my soul is yours, as is my heart.” Even my eyes widened at that; I’d traded twenty of my own to become the patron of the entity beyond words, and I’d considered even that much to be dangerous. The inclusion of her heart made the memory of my deal with Lucifer sting with fresh pain.

“What will you take?” Her answer was quick, which I hadn’t been expecting.

“If you are a fallen angel, thusly a prince of Hell, I wish to become a fallen seraphim. Would I still be able to cast magic?” From my shoddy knowledge of demonic taxonomy, I understood that to be the rank directly below a prince—Rithondriel was one, for example—and while they wielded immense power, it was a far cry from what I’d been expecting, either “make me like you” or “can you make me a god.” I frowned.

“Thirty percent, and your heart. You do realize that once you no longer hold the majority of your own soul, the risk of possession becomes almost foregone?” She hadn’t considered that, evidenced by a sudden flinch, but she stood her ground.

“Deal.” A verbal agreement was technically enough, but I still drew out a contract on parchment, including several pertinent rules concerning keeping secrets, not killing people needlessly, and other important strictures, sliding it over to her to examine as I lit another cigarette, glancing at the demon, who was watching both of us fearfully.

“How did—” The parchment was placed back in front of me, signed, meaning that she absolutely hadn’t read it entirely.

“I skimmed it. No fine print.” Looking down at it, as I still needed to sign it to make it magically take hold, I sighed twin plumes of smoke from my nose.

“I will ask you one final time: are you certain of this?” She nodded, waving some of the smoke from her face.

“With the Muggle war, it’s only a matter of time before magical fighting starts. I need to be prepared, both for myself and for the Greengrass family, as heir.” With that, I understood more of why she was so eager, and took the quill, scrawling my name in the space beside hers. The page erupted in fire, a rush of magical energy surging into me as our souls were bound together, and I turned to her.

“The full transformation will take place after term, as it’s a bit… involved, so to say. It’ll be done at Castle le Fay. For now, your flesh is still human, but your innate magical power has begun to increase already. Avoid holy sites, north-flowing water, and above all else sanctified fire. I can teach you some magic, as well.” Her eyes were actually shining now, hair floating half-suspended in the air as a blip popped into my mind; accessing it, I realized that I was viewing her train of thought, linking the new warlock with her equally new patron. Thankfully, it wasn’t as invasive as Poppy’s method, able to be ignored at will, and I gained a sudden sense of certainty, as I’d know exactly where she was at all times through our bond. Separate from her thoughts, I heard her voice drift into my mind, realizing that she was praying to me.

Thank you.

Chapter 22: Silly Alchemist, Snakes Are For Kids!

Chapter Text

Jude

Instead of spending my final week roaming the shelves of Castle le Fay, I led a massive army to pierce the ramshackle defensive line to the west; the fighting on such a large scale took three full days, but with demons, angels, and magic on our side, it was an inevitability. Draco and Daphne linked up with me on the train, former still dropping infuriating hints about the broom while the latter sprawled into the seat next to me, reading a copy of the Prophet.

“If another word is spoken about brooms, I’m buying every single broom making company on the isles. I don’t care how much it costs, Draco, just to shut you up.” He snickered, conversation briefly halting as the trolley witch—Esmerelda Fitch, according to a new, silver embossed nametag—stopped by, each of us snagging a few necessities for the first day back. As I chomped through a pack of Sugar Quills, my appetite soured slightly at the thought of my appointment, which now was only six days away. He’d agreed to a truce, and was willing to meet and talk, meaning that the amount of knowledge Voldemort knew I was hiding had succeeded in buying civility, for the moment. Despite my hope of a peaceful meeting, I wasn’t foolish enough to think I could walk in completely unwarily, as he was still the most dangerous wizard in existence, at least in this dimension. The money and influence of the le Fay family was likely another tempting benefit—according to Poppy’s life, he was the descendant of Merlin, and likely confused at both my house sorting and that I was extending an olive branch—which would hopefully start the meeting with him on the back foot. My sudden shift from easy chatter to grimly staring out of the window wasn’t lost on either, though the only acknowledgement I received was Daphne’s hand cautiously taking mine and squeezing it supportively; she knew more than most, if even so little, but it was still nice to be reassured.

“In little over a month, we shall see if Malfoy’s bragging holds up to his performance. I imagine his father would enjoy a written report of the match, as well.” He paled, dropping the Chocolate Cauldron in his hand before he could collect himself, sniffing disdainfully at me.

“It is not bragging when I am merely predicting a foregone conclusion. I’m not surprised you can’t understand the intricacies of scuppers, however; you Quidditch louts are far less refined than we.” The banter resumed, appetite returning as I nearly fell out of my seat laughing at Daphne’s mimed version of Draco practicing—a lot of falling and threats of paternal vengeance—the mood holding all the way to the Great Hall, where the three of us were promptly cornered at one end of the Slytherin table by the other four, all of whom were far twitchier and noticeably more paranoid, Ron frequently glancing at the staff table in worry. Harry, of course, explained the situation.

“Over break, the four of us were doing a bit of exploring—we didn’t lose any points, Malfoy—and we figured out why the corridor on the third floor is barred.” At my expectant face, he smiled smugly, clearly glad to have one over me.

“Potter, would you like me to jinx your broom? Or your glasses?” He rolled his eyes, primly sipping a cup of tea before replying.

“A three-headed dog the size of a truck.” My eyebrow arched at the severe lack of details, Arabella supplying the information I was looking for.

“It’s a Grecian creature, called a Cerberus—like the myth about the dog that guards the underworld—and it was guarding something, which both Ron and Harry conveniently weren’t paying attention to.” My interest was further piqued, though I passed over the squabbling about “priorities” to eat more, refocusing as Hermione chimed in from beside her.

“It’s standing over a trapdoor. We’re planning on visiting Hagrid this Friday, if you’d like to join.” I actually would have liked to, not knowing very much about the half-giant Gamekeeper, but my day was occupied both by classwork and the tense negotiations I had scheduled. Thankfully, I wasn’t alone in that sentiment, both Draco and Arabella not exactly enthused at the prospect—Daphne, being from druidic roots, had jumped on the discussion immediately and was already whispering frantically with Hermione, both of their heads together and notes already being taken.

“I suppose the three of us could spend the evening together.” Wincing slightly, I shook my head.

“I have a meeting with Professor Quirrell that evening. Maybe after?” Draco put a hand to his chest, yelping as Arabella struck him with a sneaky Stinging Hex under the table.

“If it’s any consolation, I’d much rather go see Hagrid or spend the evening playing cards. Maybe next week?” Plans were being drawn up, and while I sorely wished to stay up with them and harmlessly plot, I had homework; downing a few plates and goblets, I departed as politely and early as possible to head to the dungeons. As I’d been mostly killing or torturing for the majority of winter break, I was a little worried I was going to fall behind academically—I wondered if Stonehammer would give me extra credit for it—returning to the common room and promptly assembling a massive pile of books, parchment, and any other supplies I would need for the night. Among it all, as it always did, the rider’s journal sat, silently mocking me; the Horcrux was still tucked into my cloak, some sort of enchantment on the fabric preventing it from tripping any wards—or maybe Dumbledore hadn’t thought to set sensors for it—noting that I had at least one bargaining chip on Voldemort, and making a mental note to find one on Dumbledore before mentally facepalming; Poppy knew “who cast it,” and his reaction to my refusal to answer spoke volumes even without context. Before I could get dragged into scheming and plotting again, I bore down on the needlessly long assignment from McGonagall on weather Transfiguration, as I doubted either man I was trying to gain intel on would be powerful enough to avert her wrath.

After having to find a new practicing spot, as Erik seemed able to sniff me out wherever I went, the week passed with little issue. Rogue classes were wrapping up the section on picking locks nonmagically, moving now to a section on gymnastics and dexterity, which I had much more fun with—being able to innately shapeshift has it’s perks, explained as being a Metamorphmagus, like Dugan from my world—I forewent dinner, knowing Quirrell was doing the same. As I neared his office, the increased proximity caused the Horcrux to grow warm in my pocket, not removing it until the door was shut and warded behind me, journal growing uncomfortably hot.

“Good evening, Miss le Fay.” I nodded to the Defense professor, sitting and holding the journal in my lap.

“No middleman. I don’t care if you hear, but I will not have you mangling his words.” A little affronted, Quirrell nonetheless began unwrapping his turban, dropping the fabric onto the desk and turning his chair, so that the back of his head was facing me. On it, almost like it was pushing the skin out into the shape of a horrific, serpentine face, was Voldemort. He still had the red eyes, and slits for a nose, and he regarded me in silence for a long moment.

“A truce between Merlin and Morgana is… unheard of. Tell me, child, what do you know? How did you know about my artifacts? And,” a distinctly smug look entered his face, “how does one become a fallen angel?” I was reminded, in that moment, that in my timeline he had become the angel of death, suppressing a shudder at the thought of it happening again.

“It requires an unbroken soul, I’m afraid. You’ve chosen your path to walk; to divert now is pointless.” Digging through my cloak, I withdrew a small vial of Veritaserum I’d snagged from class when Snape had given a lecture on the potion, setting it on the desk.

“There is enough for both of us if you so choose. Regardless, I shall ask you once more, as my research of history has produced little: what is your goal?” At that, the man smirked, not touching the truth serum.

“Social revolution, of course. I should hope that one proclaiming such knowledge would have known that.” Reminding myself that he also knew what I was, and was likely trying to get under my skin, I shrugged off the growing heat in my chest airily.

“How trite. I will give a… display of trust, so to speak. I am not from this dimension.” His eyes went wide, Quirrell jumping in shock and causing a funny sort of jiggling of Voldemort’s face.

“I know not how many Horcruxes you’ve made this time, aside from the journal, and Harry.” For the first time, he was completely thrown off, gaping at me in surprise, and I realized that he might not have known that, until now.

Fool. The rebounding curse was caused by a complete bodily sacrifice, when you struck down his mother in front of him. I am here, extending a truce, because I need to know—you’ve seen the reason why.” He shuddered, doing a strange half-nod where his face moved independently of the head it was attached to.

“This… Lacuna. The apex of magic, the prophesied Crucible of Stars.” I scowled, lighting a cigarette and waving the window open.

“Not quite. At the center of my Earth, the collision with another planet that was hypothesized in Earth’s early history was not, in fact. It was the impact of a Galaxy Eater, that would infest the heart of the planet and birth the first life. I killed it, to prevent the Crucible—at a cost I will not pay again.” I dropped the glamor, noting that while interested, he wasn’t particularly horrified. He also seemed to know what I was alluding to with Galaxy Eaters, fear entering his expression for the first time.

“Do you surmise that there is another, at the heart of this world?” I shrugged.

“If there is, it’s not why I’m here. Lacuna was born from using soulless vessel-flesh to create a magic-Muggle technology hybrid, meaning that if it had gone on too long, the Great Old One would have possessed all twenty of them. Unfortunately, the titanoids did not go quietly. Earth is in the midst of a terrible galactic war, nearly a tomb world, with magic users, magical creatures, meta humans, and a splinter sect of the aliens they’re combating on their side. I am here to win the war in Europe, and to prevent the same madness from descending here.” Again, Voldemort was shocked, looking at me in disbelief.

You’re the one who started the war? The Arcadian Empire?” I was a little glad that he was still gathering some intelligence, making my job a bit easier.

“I am the fallen angel Judith le Fay, daughter of the goddess of death and descendant of Morgana. The only reason the war isn’t over by now is my presence watching over the magical world. Now, I’ve answered enough questions. If your plan is not to engage in bloody conflict, then what is it? I cannot imagine the Dark Lord would be averse to killing after losing to an infant.” It was his turn to control his anger, baring a row of fang-like, sharp teeth.

“I was only fighting in defense, child. The day of the Ministry riot, I’d been planning on announcing my campaign for Minister of Magic; Dumbledore’s ‘Order’ saw to the removal of that hope. Of course, once the first blow was struck, I saw no reason to remain civil while my people were being slaughtered, arrested, and imprisoned without trial or evidence. I was only at the Potter house because of—”

“Because of the prophecy, I know. Did you know that there were, in fact, two families you could have chosen from? Both the Potters and Longbottoms met the criteria presented. Fate, I suppose, is fickle.” Again, he was taken aback at my knowledge, narrowing his eyes suspiciously.

“You seem quite informed, even from a different world.” Having the memories of my sister, and also being from the future didn’t hurt.

I am from the year 2007, when the Titanoid Crisis began. Due to… external factors that have been dealt with, the entirety of that dimensional timeline is temporally locked up until the year 2278. I’ve lived this time before; my mother killed you twice in my dimension.” He wasn’t particularly enthused about hearing that, and I continued after a moment.

“However, you were a much more bloodthirsty type than now. Blood purity at any costs, I believe. I pray for your life that you don’t make the same mistake again, for your sake.” He scowled, glancing down at the bottle of Veritaserum briefly.

“Would it interest you to know that I am a half-blood? I hold no love for the ideals of the greedy and old.” Voldemort then eyed the journal, which was still in my lap.

“What will it require for you to return that to my possession? We both understand the value it has.” To him, it was priceless, an actual piece of his soul, and I leaned forward slightly.

“Is Quirrell involved in your cause, or merely a vessel?” He pulled a face at that, a slightly muffled huff of indignance coming from the professor himself.

“He is “involved.” What do you plan, devil?” Thinking, I dug through Morgana’s grimoire, having spotted the word somewhere during my skimming.

“I have a boomslang as an unbound familiar; would you be willing to occupy it, instead of the professor? It lives in a magically reinforced trunk that is possibly the safest extradimensional space in the castle, aside the Room. This would be in return for your Horcrux, which would also be kept there—I would feed you as well, naturally.” The idea of occupying a snake seemed to appeal more than a teacher, as well as being able to move independently, and after a few minutes of contemplation, he nodded.

“I agree to these terms. If you truly are not to kill me.” Picking up the vial, I put one drop onto my tongue, enough to answer one question, which he repeated.

“Are you going to kill me?” Like Snape before, my mouth moved on it’s own, giving him the truth of my thought:

“Only if you stand in my way.”

It was strange to watch a human soul float in the air, a misty, dusty whirling ball of flickering light and an almost-face, Voldemort hanging in the space between us after disengaging from Quirrell, who promptly passed out. Reaching up, I cupped my hands delicately around the wispy form, slicing the palm of my right hand open and holding it up to him. Like a Muggle vacuum, the soul seemed to suck into my wound, which promptly healed, palm growing a mouth and red eyes that stared at me, slightly disdainfully. It wasn’t a full possession, meaning he didn’t have access to my mind, but it was a… unique experience, to have the soul of Lord Voldemort in my hand.

“Do not tarry; this is not pleasant for either of us.” Nodding, I collected the vial and journal, moving quickly through the gloomy twilight to hopefully avoid being caught out. Of course, the one person neither of us wanted to run into happened to be making rounds beside the door to Quirrell’s office, and I hastily stuck my hand into my pocket, nodding to Dumbledore, who was walking along the hall in a meandering line.

“Evening, Headmaster. Professor Quirrell is tutoring me on a few bits of theory I’m struggling with in class.” He smiled kindly, and nodded slowly, likely in the middle of pondering something.

“No worry, Miss Jude. Would you like an escort to the dungeons, to avoid being caught out past curfew?” I couldn’t really say no, despite how much I desperately wanted to, nodding and falling into step beside him as he changed course.

“How have your studies been progressing? Taking four tracks at once is no easy feat.” The grimace was entirely genuine, and I shrugged slightly as the mental weariness made itself known.

“I’m maintaining good marks—understanding it, as well, which is often more important. Professor Stonehammer is a little… enthusiastic about even a self-study.” Dumbledore chortled, pausing to inspect a stair in the Grand Staircase that was flickering in and out of reality.

“The Fighting Professor is rather blunt, it should be said. He had nothing but praise for your encounter on the lawn, as well.” A little embarrassed, I avoided eye contact for an additional reason beyond Legilimency, peering at the paintings as we passed lower into the school.

“My blade is that of Morgana’s; I cannot take the full credit for my performance.” The aged Headmaster smiled down at me—every time he looked at me I was made painfully aware of the fact that I was carrying a Horcrux and the most recent Dark Lord himself.

“Still, to wield such potent magical and physical prowess. It is no wonder you have gained such popularity in so short a time, within your house. I imagine your proficiency at Quidditch has aided that.” I beamed up at him, passing Snape on his rounds in the dungeons, who merely sent me a suspicious look before sweeping away into the shadows.

“Thank you. Hopefully we’ll win the House Cup this year—er, no offense.” Dumbledore chuckled, piercing blue eyes peering at me over his spectacles as we came to a stop at the entrance to the common room.

“And… how is Harry?” Smiling still, I nodded.

“Doing quite well. Being a part of my friend group has offered him a lot of protection from meaningless squabbles.” Satisfied, he smiled, speaking the password for me and bidding me goodnight, meandering back up towards the main castle as I hurried to the dorms, finding Daphne alone in bed, reading.

“Evening. Gonna hop into my trunk for a mo.” She jumped upright, head bowed and hands clasped in front of her reverently.

“Yes, my Lady.” This thoroughly confused me, Volde-hand still in my pocket, and I frowned at her.

“Daph, you don’t have to address me like I’m some god. We’re friends.” A little uncertain, she peeked up at me—realizing I was serious (Slytherins were so weird about power dynamics) as my face was genuinely confused—and winced.

“Sorry. Respect is a vital part of the system of aristocracy.” I wasn’t offended, having used my family line for that exact reason already (and did I have plans for it with the experience I’d gained in politics from my world), shrugging it off with a smile.

“No worries. Though, at formal gatherings I suppose it would be alright to do so.” She nodded, flopping back down as I crouched into my trunk, letting out a sigh of relief once the lid had shut behind me—and a fire had been lit. Chubs was curled up on the desk, lazily flicking his tongue out in greeting as I sat and pulled my hand out of my pocket.

“I’m not sure exactly how to do this; possession is not something I’ve had need to study.” The eyes rolled, mouth parting my skin and giving a horrifically strange sensation as my muscles worked at the will of another.

“Place your hand on the head of the snake. I am assuming that you are not able to speak Parseltongue?” I shook my head, gently grasping Chubs by the neck and placing Voldemort to it’s head. A sensation akin to placing my hand against my mouth and inhaling struck it, flickering green light emitting from my hand as Voldemort moved from it, Chubs flailing slightly as the soul of the Dark Lord took control. It took a good thirty seconds for the snake to move again, and I was afraid that both had somehow died before it reared it’s head back, looking at me with now-red, far more intelligent eyes.

“Did it work? Can you understand me?” Watching a snake nod like a human was never going to be normal, and I stood, beginning to pace after placing the journal on a shelf, by itself.

“Er, forgive me for not exactly jumping at the prospect of communicating through Legilimency, but is there a way for you to speak? Or, can Parseltongue be taught?” Voldemort was already slithering over to the shelves, inspecting the books I’d brought and fully ignoring me, until a puff of smoke began to form words over his head—a simple thaumaturgy.

I do not have the magical energy necessary to do so, but with a proper Transfiguration you could fashion a human mouth and vocal chords for me to speak with. Parsel can be taught, but only one non-descendant of Slytherin has ever learned it, taking several years of intense study. A little grossed out at the thought of giving a snake a human mouth, I nevertheless grabbed a piece of parchment and began writing out ideas for the spellwork itself. Interestingly, as this wasn’t technically human Transfiguration, the process itself wasn’t unheard of—the specific circ*mstance was rather unique, but it could be done with a few reworked spells and some theory.

“It may take me a bit to figure the spell, but I’ll work on it. Are you going to be alright, in here? It can’t be a very interesting prospect to live here for the next few months.” I glanced back, noting that snake-Voldemort had pulled a book from the shelf with his jaws, and flipped it open using his head to read.

I have lived as a snake before. I would request live food; it is far more enjoyable than consuming a corpse. Great. My pet snake, now possessed by Lord Voldemort, wanted me to smuggle non-Transfigured rats into the dorms for him to “hunt.”

“I’ll see what I can do. Now, I need you to tell me everything that Bagshot didn’t put in the history books.”

After another defeat of Hufflepuff in Quidditch that Saturday—they’d lost some of their swagger, having lost to Ravenclaw after we trounced them—I was in the showers, contemplating what Voldemort had told me. He was raised in a Muggle orphanage, until turning eleven, and had grown up reading voraciously about both Muggle and Magical worlds; his first year at Hogwarts started in 1936, and I was surprised to learn that he’d taken to theories of socialism put forward in the Muggle world. That was what he had been trying to put into place this time, to dismantle the authoritarian nature of the Ministry—seems he’d run afoul of the magical world for political reasons, as opposed to mass slaughter—and while he freely admitted to many of the same cruelties as I’d heard before, it was only after being provoked, ‘like a true serpent.’ While the man did gleefully enjoy killing and bloodshed, he was still wise enough to know when to do so or not; another difference from the Voldemort I knew, who was a rather one-dimensional force of evil.

“Jude?” I jumped, having thought everyone else had finished showering, and stood on my toes to make eye contact with Gemma over the stall wall.

“Yeah?” She was visibly conflicted, though about what I wasn’t sure, continuing with a sigh.

“I know you’re a bit young for this sort of thing, but I’ve not had… well, with the team, y’know—er… can you keep a secret?” Eyebrows quirked, I nodded.

“Luc asked me on a date to Hogsmeade, after the match.” I was a little thrown off by the topic, nevertheless nodding in encouragement.

“And, you said…?” Looking at me like I was an idiot, Gemma rolled her eyes.

“Of course I said yes, how could I not? We spent the whole walk back talking about the most insignificant things—Should I have kept talking about it?” I shrugged, turning off the water and grabbing a towel.

“Unless it’s a business transaction, I don’t see the problem in small talk. You want to get to know him, right?” She shrugged, despondent, remaining in the shower as I stepped out to get dressed.

“Certainly. I… My family has been pressing me to announce a marriage contract. Is he a good choice, or am I being blinded by my emotion?” Marriage contract? These damn aristocrats.

“You both come from good families, have good career prospects from what I know. Why not let love be an additional benefit to the matter?” Not replying further, I hoped my advice had been helpful as I stepped into the main area, where both teams were scattered around the room. Flint was playing snooker with Pucey, and I slid up beside them, using the vantage point to glance over Lucian. He was by the fire, playing Wizard’s Chess with one of the scuppers players—Ismelda Murk, I thought—and rolled my eyes as he frantically mussed his hair and fixed his collar at Gemma’s appearance.

“Thanks for knocking Macavoy out of the way, Cap’n. Was nearly about to take my head off after that penalty shot.” Flint nodded once, studying the game before him carefully.

“’Course. You’re our best Chaser, and daughter of Morgana to boot—even if you’re still a first-year.” I snorted, earning a clap on the back as I moved over to where Harry sat, working on an essay with Draco and Arabella.

“—and if you add Ashwinder scales, it can help stabilize the emulsification. Oh, hello Jude. Sugar Quill?” I took the offered sweet from Arabella, thumping down onto the floor and digging out a half-finished essay on sword forms for Erik.

“Thanks. Enjoyed the match?” All three nodded, Draco giving a disdainful sniff as Arabella lowered her voice.

“Got some information from Hagrid, by the way. Apparently, the thing’s name is ‘Fluffy,’ and it can be put to sleep with music.” I was going to criticize the Gamekeeper on naming a three-headed dog Fluffy, before recalling that Lord Voldemort was currently occupying the body of a snake named Chubs in our dorm.

“Useful. Think it likes violin?” Camena trilled beside me for affect, Harry’s eyebrows jumping up in realization.

“That’s perfect! Whatever it’s guarding shouldn’t be much trouble getting to at all. He also mentioned someone named Nicholas Flamel, have you heard of him before?” Hilariously, Poppy had met the alchemist, though I merely gave a confused look at the ceiling.

“Name’s familiar… alchemist, I think? I’d imagine there’s a book on him in the library.” Arabella nodded, scratching out a line on Harry’s essay.

“Hermione and Daphne are looking right now. What could Dumbledore be hiding here that’s so important to require a class five monster?” I could reasonably guess, as aside from the three wands he’d made, the stone was the only other thing I knew him to be famed for, remaining quiet as I scribbled an illustration of a parry onto one side of my parchment.

“Whatever it is, it must be powerful. But, why put it in a school?” Draco frowned, reading my essay upside down.

“Better question: why guard it with the mythical gatekeeper of the underworld, in a school?” I shrugged, Harry nodding in agreement with the blond.

“Seems awfully reckless, even if it’s contained. Did you hear what happened after the dragon attack? Apparently Professor Sinistra got her leg torn up by something; I saw it when I had detention with Snape.” I hadn’t known that, not knowing much about the Astronomy professor beyond the first Draco’s strange fear of her.

“D’you think she was trying to get past it?” The four of us exchanged dark looks, Ron joining with a plate of food he’d managed to sneak from the Hall.

“Weasley nearly fainted at the sight of it, from what I hear.” He scowled, face mirroring the color of his hair as he angrily bit into a piece of toast.

“I can’t imagine you would’ve been heroic in the face of that thing, Malfoy. It didn’t seem very keen on respecting status.” Before they could start arguing, I raised a hand, other snatching half a sandwich off of the platter.

“I don’t think it’d appreciate the two of you squabbling, either. Camena, think we could play a Cerberus to sleep?” Slightly affronted, the violin drifted into the center of our loose circle.

"I was used to play the god Pan into a sleep that has lasted almost three thousand years; a dog is a trifle in comparison with me in your hands.” Wondering further about her past, I simply nodded.

“Great. We’re not just going to run off and investigate, though. Whatever Sinistra is up to can’t be good, if she wants whatever Flamel hid down there. Sucks that Astronomy isn’t a first-year class, either.” All four nodded, Harry finishing his Potions essay and digging out another one for artificing, a subject I’d probably never be able to understand.

“Oh, I was curious, Draco: if you are studying cleric magic, have you negotiated a deal with a deity? I’m afraid I don’t know much of the mechanics involved.” He shrugged, pulling out a textbook and tossing it to me for inspection.

“For things like raising the dead and miracle-working, one needs the support of a deity. Clerical study is a bit different, and not as reliant on an actual connection; most declare faith later on in their schooling.” That made sense to me, and I added a few more lines to my essay before calling it good and setting it up to dry.

During one of the fighting classes, towards the end of January, I saw Erik walking up mid-swing. It was toward the end of the time slot, and I paused, not sure if he wanted a short fight or not.

“Afternoon, professor.” He nodded gruffly, holding a sheet of parchment in his hands.

“Impressive theory, here. Where’d you learn some of this stuff? It isn’t in most textbooks.” Arching an eyebrow, I lowered Necroth and caught my breath.

“Experiential learning. It’s often easier to defeat an opponent when they’ve lost a few fingers.” Erik snorted, eyeing my sword cautiously.

“Is it named?” Both it and I glowed with pride, nodding as I stepped forward to hold it up for inspection.

“Necroth, Blade of the World Eater.” One of his eyes screwed up, looking at me in slight disbelief before leaning over to peer at the blade itself.

“Killing blade, this is. Not for dueling.” I jerked it away from him, scowling slightly.

“It was Morgana’s. I can hardly imagine she was one for pacifism.” His arms crossed, still peering at me—now with some curiosity.

“Makes sense. Want a go, or are you wrapping up?” I was a bit worn out, also needing to steal one of Hagrid’s chickens for Voldemort—greedy bastard—and said as much, using the convenient excuse of my mountain of weekly homework. Erik shrugged, muttered something in dwarvish and headed back, leaving me to wait for the sun to sink lower. It was simple with a Disillusionment charm, and a silencing charm, confidently striding down to the dorms with a chicken securely hidden in my cloak. I found the snake-guy curled up on the table, reading through a book I was surprised he’d pick to read.

“Didn’t think you liked Muggles enough to read their work. Especially from a different country.” His snake-eyes filled with contempt, a puff of words appearing above him.

You may find it hard to imagine, but I identified with Candide as a child. The blooming embarrassment was masked by tossing the chicken into the air, which didn’t even have time to squawk before it was swallowed in one snapping lunge.

“I haven’t read many Muggle books, even less fiction. Mostly to make small talk with the Muggle Minister easier—the one I worked with was a big fan of Shakespeare. Oh, and poetry.” Voldemort squinted, and I groaned as I realized what I’d said.

“Incredibly long story. I’ll have to read that, when you’re done. I threw in some books that looked interesting, aside from academic works.” He nodded, before pausing, still looking at me.

If you explain what you just said, I’ll share one of my secrets—I also may need… help with it. It physically pained him to admit it, but I was more than happy to trade secrets—he knew I was from another dimension, anyway.

“Back home, I was Minister of Magic from 1999-2006. Beat out both Fudge and Scrimgeour.” He nodded, impressed, before more words began to appear above him.

There are five, in addition to the journal and the boy. Reclaiming them is of utmost importance. I suppressed an involuntary shudder, reminded of the coldly clinical way Morgana had described the process in her notes.

“Where does that lie in priority with reconstituting your body? Can’t imagine the People’s Republic of Britannia is going to be willing to follow a snake.” For a brief moment, it looked like he was going to attack me, merely shaking his head a few times.

Below, obviously. You are lucky I have neither corporeal form, nor a wand. Disrespect does not go unpunished. A ball of Fiend Fyre popped into existence in my hand, and I contemplated it for a few seconds, not willing to immediately snark back.

“I shall propose this solution once, and expect serious consideration. You are, by blood, Lord of House Wyllt; I am, by blood, Lady of House le Fay. This is not going to be a subordinate cooperation, we are equal. I have killed gods, and worlds entirely. Don’t think to test my mettle.” In the flames, which had grown as I’d talked, shadowy images began to appear, flickering moments of slaughter, screaming bread soldiers and the height of my madness; Voldemort didn’t respond. I stared for a little, before sighing and putting the flames out.

“If we are to ally, we will do so as equals. I don’t mind showing respect; it must be earned. I think you can understand that; I’ll help, but it’ll have to be during the summer.” He watched me for a while, calculatingly, before nodding again.

I accept. Once I am corporeal, we shall formalize the agreement. I nodded in return, before exchanging a few books and heading back out. Just as I’d settled onto my bed, the door slammed open, revealing a wild-eyed Hermione toting a book the size of my face.

“Found it.”

Chapter 23: The Heist

Chapter Text

Jude

After rallying everyone at breakfast the next morning, and managing to prevent an immediate attempt to storm the third floor, I was digging into a scheming session on the way to Charms.

“This is all a failsafe, naturally, but would it not be prudent…?” I nodded to Draco, scratching out a few Arithmancy calculations (Harry’s artificing classes were a godsend) and handing it back.

“Logically, there will be several layers of defense. If Fluffy is anything to go off, there’ll be a mix of magic and magical creatures.” Ron spoke up, strategizing silently alongside us as we entered the classroom.

“Bit odd not to just use magic. I doubt anything Sprout’s got would be able to stop You-Know-Who or Sinistra.” Finding seats, I split my focus between class and contemplating plans. Poppy had been put into a coma by Voldemort, and thusly hadn’t been privy to anything the others had been up to during that time, meaning I was playing Quidditch with a blindfold—not that that had stopped me before. Flitwick’s classes were always interesting, and I tended to win a lot of points answering questions—Hermione, Arabella, and I would make bets before class to see who got the most—and this one was no exception, ending with me on top.

“Ah, I think that’s about all for today—But!” The class paused, collectively half-out of their seats; Ron was comedically frozen halfway to the door.

“I am proud to announce that Headmaster Dumbledore has officially approved my request to reinstitute the Dueling Club! The first meeting will be held on the main lawn, next Saturday. Your house prefects will also be posting flyers in the common room, as a reminder. Dismissed!” A muttering crowd of Slytherins and Ravenclaws swept the news through the castle like a physical entity, or an ill omen, and by lunch the entire castle was talking about it.

“Professor Flitwick is a dueling champion! This’ll be so incredible, imagine learning from someone who’s an expert in the field, at eleven.” I grinned at Hermione, also a bit curious as I’d never seen him duel—I knew he was back home, and an incredible composer, having formally been named Maestro in the early eighties—and swigged a goblet of Pumpkin Juice.

“Think he’ll take on Snape? I’d pay to watch that.” I nodded in agreement with Ron, glancing up at the staff table first to spot the oily head of house, then Sinistra, who was calmly reading a magazine.

“Antioch Peverell that he flattens whatever professor goes up against him.” Draco raised an eyebrow, Daphne flicking out one to go with mine.

“You’re on. McGonagall is probably the best dueler here, other than Dumbledore. Doubt they’d let Snape cast curses, though.” I snorted, a few others settling into card bets about which professors would battle whom; Harry put four Merlins on Madam Pince trouncing Dumbledore, which I found hilarious. My laughter was interrupted, sadly, by Quirrell, who was without a turban and smiling nervously.

“A word, Miss le Fay?” Finishing my goblet, I rose, following him out of the Hall and into a classroom on the first floor, still chuckling somewhat.

“Is… is our Lord safe?” My eyes narrowed, and I didn’t stop the growl that rattled the desks around us.

“We have made an equal alliance, but yes. Your Lord is quite safe, and healthy.” He stumbled back, cowed, and nodded quickly, eyes down.

“M-My utmost apologies, my Lady. Of course. I’m sorry to question you, naturally he is in the best hands.” To compound my shock, he bowed, scurrying out of the room when I didn’t speak like I was going to hex him. I needed to have a serious talk about employee dynamics with Voldemort; first, more cereal. A vaguely indignant eye-roll explained the brief absence, betting having wrapped up at the first whiff of a professor. After lunch, for me, was rogue class, sneaking in without the use of a spell for the first time. It was more of a practical class that day, involving climbing ropes, impromptu walls, and the walls of the classroom itself, all attempted without detection from Telemoor’s watchful eye. I managed the rope and the first two fake walls, before getting caught three-quarters of the way up the wall—by my estimate, about an E for the day. After the lone student that actually made it—a seventh-year Ravenclaw I only saw for the first time ever because Telemoor pointed him out—I was called up to her desk.

“Tea? I’ve discussed with Professor Stonehammer to give you his period off.” Very grateful to avoid a two-hour sparring session the week of our final game before the Easter tourney—Ravenclaw, our primary enemies rankwise—I summoned a chair and flopped into it, Camena giving us soothing background music.

“I prefer my tea sweeter, if that’s alright, Jude?” I nodded, also a fan, and sipped my cup—after sniffing it, of course—sighing as I set it back down.

“It’s quite impressive to watch a student balance four courseloads without some way of manipulating time.” I scowled, nodding as the subtle, ever-present stress headache made itself known.

“I’ll be applying for one on my thirteenth birthday, trust me. Honestly, I studied magic as soon as I could read. The additional classes, like yours and Professor Stonehammer’s, are where I’m finding a lot of fun in school.” She smiled knowingly, withdrawing and lighting a stubby, curled-purple glass pipe.

“Good. If a thief doesn’t enjoy stealing, what’s the point in doing it?” Nodding sagely, I drank more tea.

“Not to say I consider you a thief, though. Maybe in a few years?” I snorted, having stolen six books from the class already, and stirred my tea.

“A proper heist takes time to plan. That’s the first line of the chapter on heists, and one I live by.” Her eyebrows rose, intrigued, and she leaned forward.

“Depending on the target, extra credit can be dispensed…” I was already smirking behind a finger held to my lips.

“I can’t just tell you about it before it happens; that’s bad luck. Hm, how about, for my Rogue mastery, I burgle Gringotts? That’ll be a heist worth the mark.” Telemoor snorted, shaking her head slightly in disbelief.

“Impossible. Very well, keep your secrets. Don’t put yourself into something deeper than you’re comfortable swimming, all the usual advice.” A glint had entered my eyes, and I finished my tea, rising to leave with a confident nod. Having the better part of an hour, I wandered out onto the lawn, where Flitwick was constructing various dueling platforms with a series of squeaked incantations.

“Good afternoon, Miss le Fay! I’m terribly sorry to occupy your training area.” I shook my head, watching the wooden platforms slowly be covered in blue-and-silver cloth, lines and borders demarcated in gold.

“No worries. I’m quite interested in the Dueling Club; I only really have experience with books.” He smiled, finishing the construction with a flourish and walking over to me.

“I’m glad to hear it. I’m also interested in seeing how you go about dueling with a violin.” Only audible to me, Camena scoffed.

A violin? Darling, I am the violin.” Ignoring her, I shrugged.

“Professor Veht has covered it a little. Something like, the simpler the spell, the faster it can be played in song. I’m probably going to practice down by the lake for this hour.” He nodded, and we parted, my path taking me down to the shore of the lake, sun still in the sky as I threaded my way partially around the lake. Camena had been mostly silent on the matter, waiting until we were out of earshot though only I could hear her, as if embarrassed.

“Jude, I’m not exactly a… Do you think—” She lapsed into silence, and I found a decently sized rock to sit on, water lapping against it gently.

“You’re used to big acts of magic, or bard-type stuff, right?” She floated over, regarding me as I lit a cigarette.

“Precisely, dear. This sort of thing seems much more… sorcerer-y. Not exactly a scene I’ve frequented.” I nodded, looking out over the water and thinking. I’d cast spells with relative ease through her before, such as removing Azzie’s tongue, but the concept of rapid-fire dueling was difficult to process through the lens of a violin.

“What if we worked through a specific song? I’ve got enough magical strength to sustain a barrage, and if we can force a spell into each note, it could work.” Her strings tightened, uncertain.

“What song?” With the entirety of violin sheet music uploaded in my mind, I dug through it for a while to find something that suited my needs.

“Hm, I don’t speak the language, but let’s try this. La Ronde des Lutins?” It was an incredibly fast and complex piece, requiring ten tries before my fingers synched with my brain, mere act of playing it sending ripples out into the water around us. I stood up on the rock, focusing at a passing cloud overhead and restarting, trying to channel a stunner into each note. It required my brain to parse each individual sound, then assign the spell to it and subsequently cast it, several measures of sparks and occasional spells signifying progress. I was so focused on the task that I didn’t notice any time had passed until the moon had crested the horizon, a steady flow of various jinxes and hexes pushing the limit of my ability. Camena, as well, floated a little limply as we returned to the castle, sweaty and almost late for the team meeting.

“This is it, team. We win this, we not only preserve our perfect record, but also get top seed in the tournament. Weather’s supposed to be sunny, but I heard that Ravenclaw just received a donation in the form of seven Cleansweeps. Equal footing, now.” It had been relatively easy to outstrip the other teams, causing a sharp increase in the roughness of all four teams to the point Madam Hooch was regularly giving warning speeches before matches; Inglebee was a wanted man by all three other teams, now. I’d even heard rumors that there was a betting pool among seventh years that he’d die before the season ended, sharing a dark look with Harry.

“All six of you have been outstanding athletes, and teammates; we’re going to flatten them, and that’s final.” The team exchanged dignified nods, a bit of a pallor taking some of the energy out of it. Without a word, we emerged onto the pitch as one, to thunderous roars and applause; of all things, Gryffindor were cheering us on. I was paired against Inglebee this time—he’d rotated with Stretton from Beater to Chaser—who shot me a venomous look as both Flint and Davies managed to break a finger before Madam Hooch could step in. At the whistle, I was immediately clocked straight in the jaw by Inglebee, rolling into it and breaking his in return as I dove for the Quaffle, Preece reaching it first amid an outright brawl in the air.

Nasty hits to open up, Preece takes the Quaffle, headed to the goalposts—” Hugo and I were in hot pursuit, my light weight getting me there first and swerving in front of Preece’s broom, causing him to jerk right and directly into Hugo, who crushed the Chaser between us as we soared over the hoops, Quaffle flying up to Gemma after a tugging match. I dodged a hex, Ingelbee shooting past me and kicking my broom out of the way. As the game progressed, it became less and less about the points and more about beating the absolute snot out of the other team, a six-person fistfight occurring wherever the Quaffle was until Davies called a timeout, near twenty minutes. I had several broken fingers, swollen nose, cracked jaw, and at least six broken ribs, which I used healing magic to mend—I also took care of the others, who were much worse off; I didn’t think Flint would ever heal the scar on his eye, even at St. Mungo’s—and huddling up together, faces grim.

“90-80. All we need to do is stay ahead and catch the Snitch.” I was carefully mending a shattered wrist, received by Bole when he’d missed a block, and scowled over at the Ravenclaw team.

“At this rate, they may as well start scoring knockouts.” Pucey and Hugo chuckled darkly, warning whistle by Hooch causing us to mount up again. I was dreading the rest of the match, as it wasn’t particularly fun to be continuously injured—even if it couldn’t kill me—and breathed a sigh of relief when Harry caught the Snitch a mere twenty seconds after the whistle, as if he’d been waiting for permission. Even in that short span, both of my wrists were broken by a nasty curse Inglebee slipped under an elbow, clenching my teeth and wandlessly healing it in the locker room.

“Bastards. I’ll bury that damn Chaser.” After seeing the state of both teams at the timeout, Snape had “lost” a few Numbing Tonics, letting the seven of us stave off the soreness for at least the next hour; the first Dueling Club meeting was immediately after the match. A bit excited, even after the game, I hurried up to the castle to find an already-sizeable crowd, claiming a spot at the front of the crowd and waiting for the others. Flitwick was atop one of the platforms, alongside a few other professors: Professor Eidelia, the druid teacher; McGonagall, and surprisingly, Professor Telemoor, who shot me a sly wink. Draco and Ron arrived first, congratulating me eagerly (seeing my slightly ashen face, Draco slipped me a Pumpkin Pasty to regain some strength) as Flitwick cleared his throat.

“I think that’s the majority… Welcome to the first official meeting of the Dueling Club! I’m the faculty advisor, and for the first session my fellow professors and I thought it would be engaging for the students to see us toe-to-toe! In an academic sense, of course.” So, curses were off the table.

“But first, to explain the basics of dueling, I require two volunteers!” His eyes bored directly into mine, and I couldn’t help a slight blush as I raised a hand, called up immediately after to polite applause. To my surprise, no one seemed very willing to challenge me, until a lazy hand shot up, from the back of the crowd.

“Ah, perfect! Inglebee, you can help Miss Jude through direct dueling. Up here, please. About twenty paces apart.” With great trepidation, I watched as the Ravenclaw Chaser climbed up opposite me, sneering down a freshly broken nose.

“For the purpose of demonstration, please limit yourselves to Stunning Spells, disarms, and gentle hexes.” We faced each other, Camena floating over to my hand and whispering.

“Dear, you never told me we’d have an audience. I do love putting on a show.” Keeping my eyes on Inglebee, we both bowed, professors stepping off the platform as a dangerously quick Cutting Charm flashed across, towards me. Even as I ducked, the first notes of the song began, several sparks shooting out before a positively massive barrage of stunners, Stinging Hexes, disarms, and all other “appropriate” spells I could think of, even if I really wanted to break the rules. It only lasted for ten seconds, but by the end of it, Inglebee was levitating upside down, with a wedgie, wand in my bow hand, and had his hair dyed green.

“Magnificent! Twenty points to Slytherin, Miss le Fay.” The crowd erupted into cheers, Slytherins clapping my back proudly as I sheepishly returned to the others, Camena giddily still playing.

Wicked, Jude. Maybe taking extra classes isn’t so bad, eh?” At Ron’s words, Daphne and I exchanged incredulous looks, tuning back in to watch McGonagall and Telemoor duel. Within three seconds, I saw what Daphne had in the Transfiguration teacher; the stern professor became a whirling dervish of spells, using the environment around her in grand Transfiguration attacks that Telemoor always seemed to be able to dodge, sidestep, or jump over. Blinking several times—why was the Tuma Dia here?—I watched as a disarm shot past McGonagall’s guard, wand flicking up into Telemoor’s hand like a practiced Seeker and the Snitch. Obviously, no one in the rogue class wanted to reveal their presence, so she received polite applause, crossing to shake hands and return the wand as the druid teacher and Flitwick rejoined them. Next were two sixth-years, a Hufflepuff and a Gryffindor, who I didn’t pay much attention to as I felt the presence of someone, hiding incredibly well, at my shoulder.

“Nice match, le Fay.” I didn’t look back, simply nodding once to incline I’d heard.

“Thanks.” The presence vanished, just as the Hufflepuff was encased in a block of ice. Flitwick remained true to his title of dueling champion, finishing Eidelia in less than a minute with precise, devastating spellcasting. Back in the Great Hall, I blocked out everyone chattering about dueling—once again, Dumbledore vs. Pince was resurrected—and ate a gargantuan meal. The match, then dueling in such a taxing way, had left me almost dead on my feet and starving; I only came back to reality towards the end of the meal, polishing off my third pie with a contented sigh. As we exited, I was at the back of the group, and spied the flash of a cloak as it curled around the entrance to the third hall corridor. I couldn’t tell whose it was, aside from the fact that it wasn’t a student, stealthily disengaging from the group and peering around the corner. Darting from shadow to shadow, almost imperceptible to my sight, Professor Telemoor was making her way down the dusty, unused hall—presumably towards the spot the dog guarded. Why she was doing it, I had no idea; it did give me the opportunity to try one of Morgana’s experimental spells. Quickly, I flicked my fingers against the back of my hand, rune carving itself into scar tissue immediately and, once I Apparated to a shadow near the furthest door, bearing a heavy padlock, made no sound doing it. It was quite possibly the most useful spell I’d discovered yet, lighting a cigarette as she glanced behind her, then freezing as I puffed a cloud of smoke.

“Evening, Professor.” Unruffled, she smoothed her robes, half out of shadow and peering down at me, eyes narrowed.

“Third floor corridor is off limits. Painful death and all.” I snorted out smoke in the shape of a dragon.

“Wouldn’t be the first time. Got Dittany on you? Would hope Sinistra warned you before your turn.” My shot in the dark turned out to be dead on, eyes widening in surprise before the cool exterior regained control.

“Bad luck. Thieves’ honor?” With another snort, I put out my cigarette and walked back to the staircase with her.

“See you in class, Jude.” I shot a smirk over my shoulder as I descended towards the dungeons.

“Will you?”

Once everyone was safely ensconced by the lake windows, I related what had happened—mostly to a chorus of groans at my rule-breaking—and watched a pair of eels playing in the rocks as the others theorized.

“They’re working together? S’pose it makes sense, immortality and all.” I nodded, Arabella frowning down at a Charms textbook.

“Well, if Dumbledore wants it guarded, maybe it’s not just from You-Know-Who. I can see Telemoor going after it, but Sinistra? Doesn’t fit.” Draco chimed in next, sipping a cup of aromatic tea.

“All things considered, it’s good that le Fay was there to head her off. Who knows when they’ll go for it again.” Various murmured assents sounded, and after the eels had snaked off into the darkness, I turned back.

“What if… D’you think we should get it, first? If only to prove to Dumbledore how shoddy his safeguarding it is. Something seems off about the whole affair, not just them working together.” We shared dark looks, Daphne jutting her chin out imperiously.

“I’m Jude’s second. If you go, I go.” Scowling, I made to deny her, before seeing that the five others were also holding the same determined expressions.

“Look, it’s probably dangerous. Not to mention technically illegal.” Ron rolled his eyes, Draco also scoffing primly. Harry, however, was next to speak.

“My dad always says that, sometimes doing the right thing means breaking the rules. Whoever is after it probably doesn’t want it for good reasons, so we need to stop them from getting it. I’m not saying go right now, but soon.” I nodded in agreement.

“Two weeks? We already know a way past the first obstacle; I’d reckon studying up on defensive magic is a good idea, too.”

With the formal end of the main Quidditch season, and blistering start for Scuppers—Slytherin, true to Draco’s word, was as skilled on that team as ours—we were given a few weeks to rest, meaning more time to prepare the heist. I had no idea what we were going up against, and as such spent several long nights hypothesizing with Voldemort, who was quick to point out the usefulness of the Stone.

That was my initial purpose in coming here. With it, I could easily become corporeal again. I hadn’t considered that, changing course from presenting it to Dumbledore and doubling down on any defense spells Morgana had scribbled down in the days leading up to our attempt. Hermione had managed to lift a few potions from Snape’s classroom—a gutsy feat—while Arabella had learned a few rudimentary enchantments that she applied to our robes. Draco spent every free moment feverishly practicing healing spells, and the rest began joining my sparring sessions for a bit of exercise. Finally, over dinner before our heist, I thought everyone was reasonably ready. Finishing a third pot of coffee, I glanced inconspicuously at the staff table, noting that both Sinistra and Telemoor were present. A slight nod signaled the others, who quickly finished up and stood, as one. We were leaving a bit early, meaning the Grand Staircase was mostly empty, but I still took a roundabout route—just to be safe. Again, I made my way down the corridor, stopping at the padlocked door and shouldering Camena.

“Plan is, go in, I put it to sleep, open the trapdoor and jump. Nice and easy.” All of them nodded, Harry stepping forward to unlock the door and leading the way in, soft notes already wafting from Camena’s strings. The room inside was dim, clearly magically expanded, and housed a twenty-foot tall dog—a bit like a mastiff—with three slobbering, collared heads, all of which snapped to me as it heard the music. I kept my eyes trained on it, hearing the lock click behind us as simultaneously wood scraped on stone; the dog laid down, eyelids drooping as it watched my gentle movements, muffled thuds beginning to sound as the others jumped in. Someone tapped my shoulder, followed by the sixth thump, so I took my eyes off of the now-sleeping dog, locating the trapdoor and jumping in, flicking my hand to shut it behind me. After falling for a few seconds, I thumped down into a bed of wriggling, slimy vines; before I could warn them, three different wands lit up, Devil’s Snare squirming away from where we’d landed.

“Quick thinking. Maybe it’s themed after different professors?” Draco nodded, taking point and entering a small crevice in the wall, wandlight casting strange, refracted shadows ahead.

“How deep does this go? And how were they able to build all of this in the school, d'you think?” Hermione spoke up, voice wavering slightly.

“Extra-dimensional Transfiguration. It’s N.E.W.T. level, used to make things bigger on the inside.” Ron grunted, and we finally emerged into a large antechamber, bearing a table with five potions, and a note. There weren’t any other doors upon first glance, and I stopped everyone before they could touch anything.

“Remember, this is a heist. Ideally we make it look like no one has been here until they get to the missing stone. Touch as little as possible.” Various nods, some dubious, and I peered down at the paper, identifying Snape’s spiky script immediately.

Of here lay potions, number five

Of naught but one you shan’t survive

Of two there lives a chance to revive

Of two, as well, none drink alive.

“A riddle. Figures.” I was still peering down at it, Hermione joining me at one shoulder and Arabella at the other.

“Five potions,”

“four are lethal.” I nodded, stepping closer to examine the row of bottles, demarcated with numbers one through five. Each was a different color, ranging from orange, to blue, to oily black, glowing red, to sickly green, and a scowl began to form on my face.

“This complicates things. Whoever drinks it—I volunteer, don’t worry, Draco—may have to drink all of it, as duplicating a potion isn’t exactly easy, or fast. Not to mention it’ll reek of my magical signature. Unless…” A set of paired notes warbled into being, though I wasn’t willing to test the Replenishment Charm willy-nilly.

“That should replace whatever I drink. Now, which would it be?” I was fully stumped, finding that a countercharm against identifying them was woven into the table.

“Of two there lives… It doesn’t have the colors at all, how is that supposed to make sense?” I began pacing, Ron perking his head up from where he stood, in a corner.

“Not supposed to, innit? If they’re guarding something, I bet he’d come up with a puzzle only he knew the answer to, to feel all smart about himself.” Several of us snorted, while Arabella was frozen in place, staring at the paper. What she said next floored everyone in the room as she dug through her schoolbag frantically.

“Ron, you’re a genius. Where’s my copy of Tuesday’s notes? I knew I kept it in here…” In a flash, Hermione produced hers, Arabella unrolling it and scanning the stenographer’s report of Potions, pointing at a few lines copied down verbatim from the blackboard triumphantly.

“There! It’s how he writes those blasted word riddles he calls instructions. Ingredients are always at the end of the first and last lines, with the same sort-of “Add” or “Mince” the way “Of” is being used here. So if we take those words from here,” she began scribbling with a Self-Inking Quill Daphne passed her, “reverse them, ‘cause Snape’s a git, we get, ‘Drink alive of number five.’” All of us were thunderstruck, blinking owlishly at the paper and the table for several seconds.

Brilliant, ‘bell. You’re the bloody genius here, not me.” She rolled her eyes, while I picked up the fifth potion, a moderately sized vial of blue liquid.

“There’s likely only enough for one or two, and I doubt it’d replenish immediately, even with the spellwork. I don’t mind going alone.” Several people began to protest, and I raised my hands in surrender. To my surprise, after several muttered, vicious arguments, Ron stepped forward, clutching his wand in determination.

“No offense to anyone else, but I’ve got a pretty good head for strategy, even if I’m not the brightest—you’re handling that, eh?” Smirking, I nodded, fist-bumping him and taking a swig of the potion. It was close to water, almost lighter than it, and reeked of blueberries to the point of making me gag as I handed it to Ron. Before my eyes, as the potion hit my stomach, a door faded into existence, opposite the table.

“Woah.” After a moment, Ron set the potion back down, blinking rapidly as his vision focused.

“Wicked.” After a second, Hermione’s wand prodded me in the back.

“We don’t know how long the potion will last. Hurry up and be safe.” Jolting into action, I stepped forward, opening the door and stepping through into darkness. After Ron had come through, it snapped shut, a few feet of careful steps in darkness stopping as magical sconces flickered to life, bright orange flames puffing up and bathing the room in light, revealing a… chessboard? It was massive, pieces magically sized-up as well as the board, pair of us coming to a stop at the edge of it in confusion.

“I don’t get it. Is this an art installation?” Ron rolled his eyes, peering carefully at the pieces around us before putting one foot on the board. Opposite, the white pawns all drew their swords, crossing them and putting up a stone-sword barricade in the same moment.

“Figured. We’ll have to play our way across. Er, do we replace two of you?” At the unmoving statue beside him, which didn’t acknowledge him, Ron scowled.

“I’ll be a rook. You’re the king, Jude.” As he spoke, the two pieces mentioned shuffled off the board, king dropping a massive stone crown onto my shoulders as he passed, leaving me feeling incredibly short next to the stone statues. Ron’s rook was a full castle tower that popped out a small ladder, which he climbed up into and peered out at the board authoritatively; the first white piece, a pawn, slid forward with it’s sword out.

I realized in that moment that, while I’d played Wizard’s Chess with Ron—and watched him play against others—I had never seen Ron truly play Wizard’s Chess. He barked out orders from the tower, sacrificed pieces left and right (I was castled towards the final bit, spectating from behind a row of pawns as in an incredible move, he himself checkmated the white king in only thirty-three total moves. I didn’t know which professor had designed this obstacle, but I hoped they got a full report of the match whenever someone played, just so they’d see how badly they’d just been trounced. After that move, the pieces all shuffled aside, and I darted over to him—throwing the crown off as I went.

“Incredible, Ron. Don’t ever think you’re not a genius, that was… you just beat a professor, y’know?” His ears turned red, and he soldiered forward, stopping as the door he tried didn’t open. There was a pool of shadows around the alcove, and as he felt around momentarily, he snorted.

“There’s a lock. One second, Daph taught me it last month.” With a wand-wave, he tried again, frown deepening. “Er, it’s still locked.” As he went to try again, I stopped him.

“Must be warded against the Alohom*ora Charm. Hold on, I might be able to pick it.” Flicking my wand, a ball of light appeared at the tip and revealed… no lock.

“What?!” It still wouldn’t open, and I extinguished the light, feeling the door again and swearing under my breath.

“The lock only shows up in shadow, so I’ll have to pick it without seeing it.” Kneeling down, I dug around in my robes, pulling out the rudimentary kit of thieves’ tools I’d swiped from class. After having trouble with Muggle locks in class, I’d spent a few nights reading additional materials and practicing with a variety of Transfigured locks, settling my hands around the keyhole and steadying myself.

“D’you think—” I jumped, frowning up at Ron, who flattened himself against the wall, mortified.

“May I have a moment to concentrate?” A silent nod later, I set to work. I couldn’t fully see in the dark, but the flickering of semi-distant torches provided enough illumination to see some, carefully feeling out pins, exchanging tools, and humming a Muggle tune to myself (one of the books, 1001 Tips for No-Goods and Scoundrels, advised it for focus) until, with a click and a bit of pressure, the bolt turned with a soft snick. Rising, I winked at Ron, and opened the door. On the other side, a strange warding effect was happening in the doorway; the side we entered from was still bathed in shadow, but the room on the other side was fully illuminated—even so, light didn’t enter the shadows, nor did shadow enter light. The room we walked into was a tiered, circular amphitheater, leading down in six rows to a raised dais, atop which sat a gold-framed, ornate mirror. It rose almost eight feet tall, decorated with runes and flowers, massive lettering at the top reading ‘Erised’ as we walked down to it.

“Doesn’t seem like a stone.” I shook my head, Ron stepping into the focus of the glass first and pausing.

“What, what is it? Are you alright?” He nodded slowly, staring at his reflection in surprise.

“I’m… this is showing me a bit older—I’m Head Boy! And, I’ve got a Quidditch Cup.” Intensely curious, I strode forward, halting as I stepped past him and the mirror changed. A rocky cliff, overlooking a deep blue sea, stretched out before me; tall grass grew around a pair of women, looking out at the water—one stretched, white wings spreading out into the air behind her—

“What do you see? Does it show the future?” I blinked, having gone deathly pale, and wrench my eyes away from it.

“I-I just won the World Cup. No, surely it can’t see the future, how would that be possible? What does Erised mean, it’s on the mirror.” He glanced up, frowned, and scoffed.

“Well, it's a mirror, right? Erised backwards is desire. Ah, shows what we desire, I bet.” I scratched my chin, brow furrowing considerably.

“Well, how does that help us? We need to stop Telemoor and Sinistra from getting the stone, but all this is showing us is award ceremonies.” As I spoke those words, the reflection of Ron in the mirror moved independently from him, causing both of us to swear. It held up a hand, revealing a fist-sized, gold-encrusted ruby gem, before winking and sliding it into the pocket of his robes. Ron, a split-second later, withdrew the stone, gaping at me as my jaw dropped.

No way. Merlin’s saggy… Here, can you check it or something?” He tossed it to me, and I cast a wandless Identify spell, one I’d picked up in a book from this world. As I caught it, my hand lit up, several facets of information about the stone entering my mind as I looked at it. It was indeed the Sorcerer’s Stone, made by Nicholas Flamel several centuries ago; it could be used in various ways alchemically, such as turning non-organic matter into gold and crafting a potion of immortality, known as the Elixir of Life. It even had a quote from the alchemist himself included, “L'éternité avec toi,” a dedication to his wife of (now) over six-hundred years, Perenelle—“Eternity with you.”

“It’s real. Merlin, we did it! Alright, we need to get out of here.” I stuck it into the gold pocket reverently, intent on spending as much time as I could analyzing it in the safety of the dorm; Ron marched back to the door, still open, and once it was shut the pins clicked back into place, bolt sliding as the door re-locked itself. Even as we crossed the chessboard, the pieces were reassembling, and exiting the door we found only Hermione and Draco, idly chatting.

“Where’re the others?” Draco jerked his chin at the exit.

“Making a ladder. Arabella is using some Muggle thing called a ‘kazoo’ to keep the beast asleep. Remarkably—despite the ‘music’—it has done so.” Hermione rolled her eyes, falling into step behind us as I led the way back.

“We got it. Will spend the rest of my life studying it, if possible.” A whispered ‘yes!’ and a poorly concealed fist pump from Draco made me chuckle, reaching Harry and Daphne at the base of the ladder, both wands lit.

“Debrief in the dorm. Quick and quiet until then, but we did it.” Both flushed with exhilaration, staying at the bottom as we all climbed out, one by one. Harry was last, Vanishing the ladder as I took over playing for Arabella, backing out of the room slowly with Ron’s hand on my back as a guide. Arabella relocked the padlock, and none of us spoke a word, moving like ghosts through the gloomy castle. With another stroke of luck, we didn’t even encounter the Baron, making it to the common room and marching as one into the girls’ dorm. It was unoccupied save our group, and I unveiled our prize as the others clustered around me.

“Now that is what I call a successful mission. We snatched it from everyone’s noses, and they won’t even know until they try to steal it for themselves.” We erupted into very quiet celebration, passing sweets and warm Butterbeer around my bed and Hermione’s. Inevitably, the conversation focused on the stone itself.

“So… what are we going to do with it?” I shrugged, peering down at where it sat, on my sheet.

“Well, I’m going to spend the entire night studying it, then send it back to Flamel with a note about better storage alternatives.” My voice was strong enough to end the matter then and there—I did not want anyone to get any ideas about stealing it—and managed to steer the conversation away from it until people began to grow tired. Finally, all but Hermione and Arabella decided to turn in, latter two dead-set on joining me for my examination, meaning I’d have to catch Voldemort up very quickly. Gently, I led the way into the trunk, stone in hand, and cast my thoughts at him as quickly as I could.

They know I have a snake, wouldn’t let me look at it alone. Play it cool, please, I got the stone. Thankfully, he merely stuck his tongue out, curled into a small pile in front of the fire—approvingly snakelike. I set the stone on the table, stoked the fire with a snap of my fingers, and grasped Camena.

“I’m going to need another room for this; don’t have a good alchemy lab setup.” Hermione was inspecting my books, while Arabella was staring straight at Voldemort, hissing. A thought touch my mind, from him, filled with a not insignificant amount of panic.

She can speak Parseltongue! Digesting that information for later, I reminded him that he was pretending to be a boomslang and moved to a corner of the room, drawing the bow across the strings gently. With a series of melodies, a room grew from the first, wood cracking and multiplying as it expanded into a wide, low-roofed hut complete with six different spots for cauldrons, workbenches, and a wall of ingredient racks, shelves, and cupboards. Returning to the study after magically reinforcing it, I retrieved the stone, leading the others into the new addition and digging through Morgana’s cloak. After several checks, during which I scratched the head of the graphorn my sister had adopted, I withdrew several bars of precious metals, resuming playing to weave a cauldron out of gold, silver, and iron; behind the platform, ingredients began to float out of my pockets—mostly potential combinations for testing properties—and several stacks of parchment, quills, and a box of tea and kettle.

“Shall we?”

We didn’t finish a near complete (if rudimentary) alchemical study until the next morning, Daphne crawling in with a pot of tea, still in pajamas. All three of us were fried—Hermione’s hair was frazzled beyond belief, Arabella had fallen asleep facefirst into a stack of notes, and I was frantically scribbling notes with the very last Self-Inking Quill I had, having used the rest already. The stone was truly fascinating: any potion or poison, when adding a few shavings of the stone, almost tripled in potency; after experimenting with intention-based spellcasting, I was able to turn things to gold at will just by touching the stone to it, and I even managed to brew a single batch of the Elixir of Life, a translucent red liquid with an almost blood-like consistency, which sat on the almost-shrine we’d been collectively building through the night.

You did it. That’s incredible, there’s enough notes here for at least three books.” As everyone dragged themselves out of the trunk, Daphne already listening to Hermione—she was drafting a collated outline of our findings—Voldemort slithered up to me, peering at the vial.

With your research, and a few alterations, I believe it can be done. This summer, then? I nodded, checking my pocket one last time to make sure the other, much larger bottle of the stuff I’d hidden was secure. “Yep. And, it regrows if you shave parts off. I’ve got a sizeable amount, just in case. And the notes to make another.” It was a quick walk to the Great Hall, where breakfast was slowly rumbling to life; thankfully, Dumbledore was already there working on a crossword. Unfortunately, Telemoor was sitting next to him, chatting and occasionally helping with the answers. With the Sorcerer’s Stone sitting in my pocket, I stepped up to the table, smiling cheerily.

“Headmaster, could we have a word, please?” He looked up, peering at me through his spectacles.

“Ah, good morning, Miss le Fay. What is on your mind?” My glance at Telemoor did not go unnoticed by either, but I kept my poker face confidently.

“Its… about the Wizengamot. You’re the Mugwump, right?” His eyes lit up, and he nodded, folding the paper and turning to Telemoor.

“You must forgive me, Dahlia. An aspiring mind is in search of answers.” She rolled her eyes, Dumbledore striding around the table—when he briefly was out of earshot, rounding the far edge, I whispered to her.

“Expect a paper on that extra credit within the week.” Her eyes narrowed, more confusion than anger, as Dumbledore and I exited the Great Hall, heading towards his office.

“Sorry, but I’m not actually interested in the Wizengamot, at the moment. Maybe in the future, but I needed to talk in private.” Disappointment was quickly replaced by curiosity, and once the door to his office was shut behind us I pulled out the stone, setting it on his desk.

“Both Professors Sinistra and Telemoor tried to get to it, so w—I stole it first. Nobody knows it’s gone, except you and I.” His eyebrows skyrocketed, and he cast a spell on it, sighed, and crumpled back into his chair.

“I had hoped the obstacles would prevent even the likes of Lord Voldemort from stealing it. If what you say is true about Professor Sinistra and Professor Telemoor, I may need to have a word with them about leaving past lives behind.” His face darkened slightly, clearing after a moment.

“But, I hate to say, I cannot only credit you for retrieving this stone. You see, at around eleven fifteen last night, Professor McGonagall received a parchment reporting the results of a match played on her Transfiguration Chessboard by a one Ronald B. Weasley.” I paled, mischievous glimmer entering Dumbledore’s eyes as he chuckled merrily.

“Do not worry. I was aware of Professor Sinistra’s run-in with Fluffy, but not Dahlia’s. Thank you for bringing this to my attention; I will confer with your head of house for an appropriate reward for services to the school—or, a brilliantly executed heist, if you will.” He smiled, and I returned it, hopping up and nodding before taking my leave, tearing back down to the Great Hall to inform the others. The general reaction was shock that I hadn’t been expelled, and towards the end of breakfast Snape rose from the staff table, sweeping silently down the rows of tables and coming to a stop by us. In one sentence, he awarded Harry, Hermione, Arabella, and Draco forty points, Daphne fifty, Ron a hundred, and one hundred and fifty points, to me. A wave of silence swept up the Slytherin table as he returned to his seat, just as quiet as before; in less than ten seconds we’d just earned four-hundred and sixty points for our house, all but cementing our lead on the House Cup with only the easter tournament and scuppers season left. Harry grinned across the table at me as Blaise relayed the news that we’d officially moved up the social hierarchy in our house, from ‘peons’ to ‘scions,’ whatever that meant, and I plotted the best way to write a paper on robbing the school.

The next Thursday, as Telemoor wrapped up a discussion on poisonmaking, I sidled up to her desk, thick roll of parchment in hand. I’d written a “theoretical” plan for a heist of a vault, basically a beat-for-beat retelling of how we’d gone through the whole thing without explicitly mentioning where we’d done it or what, if anything, had been stolen (this was part of the obscure, shadowy system rogues ages past had developed for writing academic essays about thievery; RSA format, or ‘Rogue Scholars Association’). Once we were alone, and seated, I presented it to her.

“There’s my report. Er, hypothesis.” Raising an eyebrow dryly, she unrolled it, face quickly losing the muted interest that was her norm and becoming increasingly incredulous. By the middle of the second foot (an aside that explained the spellweaving involved in making a chessboard play remotely), she was fuming, failing miserably at covering it with forced laughter.

“Why, what a remarkable plan,” was quickly supplanted by a few swears as she read through to the end, realizing just how far we’d gotten.

“Skilled rogue, then. Very skilled… tea?” I shrugged, not even needing to cast a spell to know it was going to be poisoned.

“Gave it back to Dumbledore with an admonishment to build better defenses. I mean, the lock on that door only took me two minutes, and most of how I got past it I learned in your class.” She’d managed to compose herself, icily scrawling an “O” at the top of my paper and presenting my tea, which was, after a small sniff, laced with a poison native to this world known as “Midnight Tears”; nothing would happen until midnight, as a timed release, before the poison would take effect. It was faint, a very pricey and nearly-undetectable poison, but I pulled a face and set the cup down, undrank.

“Not a fan of that type, I think. Too teary. So, see you next Tuesday?” Not waiting for her to reply, I left, able to suppress my smirk until after I was out of sight.

Chapter 24: From Raziel, With Love

Chapter Text

Jude

The first day of the Easter tournament was a flurry of activity from the moment I stepped out. Flint and the rest of the team were waiting, most protesting—it was five in the morning, Saturday—and hustling us straight down to the pitch. The Prophet had commented on the undefeated Slytherin team several times, and a few reporters were loitering outside of the pitch when we arrived, probably hoping to get good seats; before they could descend on us like vultures, all of us managed to make it into the locker room. As everyone got changed, Flint spoke commandingly.

“Keep in mind, since it’s a bracket whoever catches the Snitch or gets 150 points wins, whichever happens first. Match one is against Hufflepuff, so don’t expect anything too crazy, just keep your guard up. No sandbagging for the next round, either; we’d damn well better end this season with zero losses.” I nodded seriously, lacing up my boots before giving my broom a quick once-over with my polishing kit.

“Good weather, let’s make it a game to see whether Potter can catch the Snitch before Farley, Fennicaster, and Fay manage to get the points.” Us three Chasers shared grins, Harry ominously cracking his knuckles before snorting. Again, both snakes and lions cheered for us, an almost-as-loud chorus of boos and jeers resonating from Ravenclaw’s section—weren’t even bothering to cheer for the badgers, it seemed—Flint not even trying to squeeze Diggory’s hand, instead giving a respectful nod. I was paired with Macavoy, who shot me a dirty look as the whistle blew. Hufflepuff didn’t have the newest brooms, but still gave us a run for our money; most of the roughness had been dropped for the cameras, resulting in a game that bordered on recreational, even with the speed and skill involved. It took roughly an hour in total, most of the time spent in the center of the pitch, passing and stealing between the six Chasers. During one of the penalty shots, for a slightly overzealous swing by McManus, I chatted with the blonde Chaser about Quidditch—she was an Arrows fan—and when Harry caught the Snitch (140-120), everyone shook hands amicably. It was honestly a better start than what I’d been expecting, all dignified nods and machismo, earning cheers from both houses even though we’d won. Both teams assembled in a line on the ground to shake hands, and once Cedric and I met, towards the end, he stopped the line.

“Incredible match, le Fay. Brilliant to watch you on a broom, even if you’re flattening us.” I smiled, dipping my head politely.

“Glad you enjoyed the view. Y’know, if you ever want a few flying tips, I’d be happy to show you some. Got a few Ron came up with, he’s brilliant.” His eyebrow rose, grinning back and nodding a few times.

“I’ll plan for it. Good luck this afternoon, we’ll be cheering for you.” After separating, we returned to the lockers, some of us taking a quick shower before heading up to watch Ravenclaw vs. Gryffindor. It would still be an interesting match, second seed versus third, and as I cleaned some leaves from my hair I debated who would win.

“Saw you had a word with Diggory, after the match.” I glanced at the wall of the stall, where Gemma stood on the other side.

“He’s polite. Complimented my flying.” She snorted softly, and my face began to heat up, finishing my shower and grabbing a towel to dry off.

“It’s nothing, really. Banter. Now, I’d wager fifty Galeons Inglebee gets thrown out of the match in the opening scrum.” Gemma accepted the bet, snickering a few choice insults about him as I left the locker room, climbing the stairs to the heart of the Slytherin section. On arrival, I was greeted like a queen, practically carried on the hands of my housemates over to where the rest of the team sat, front row, and was immediately festooned with things like ice-cold bottles of Pumpkin Juice, Numbing Tonics, and Pepper-Up Potions for recovery. Hermione and Arabella had been developing a hybrid Muggle-Magic field of “sports arcano-medicine,” a fusion of things like chiropractics and magic potions serving to boost recovery, muscle retention, and stamina; after only a few minutes, I felt like a new person. I was reporting the effects to Hermione, as this was the test-run of the science, and after twenty minutes, as the two teams took to the field, the rest of the team was included in the regimen; I’d shown no irregular results. Davies, like a madman, dislocated Wood’s wrist during the shake, Flint and Hugo exchanging worried looks as they lifted off of the ground. Indeed, play was halted only a minute afterwards, but not for Inglebee—Samuels, the other Beater, had brained Alicia Spinnet with no pretense or even attempt to hide it; the entire stadium erupted into shouts, ending with a medical timeout, Samuels’ ejection—he was replaced by Chambers, Spinnet being levitated to an impromptu medical tent by Madam Hooch before play could resume. With a stern warning, and forty points in successful penalty shots, play was restarted, only barely less bloodthirsty than before. Scratches, elbows, punches, and kicks were so omnipresent that it almost seemed like they’d forgotten they could cast magic—there was a tangled mass of limbs and brooms near the center of the pitch, from which a Chaser would occasionally emerge with the Quaffle and try for a score, which remained steadily increasing for either side. Cho Chang and Gryffindor’s Seeker, second-year Demelza Robins, were far less subdued, flashes of magic high up in the clouds signifying what the pair likely thought was a secret duel; at fifteen minutes, Gryffindor called a timeout, up 100-70. It was a vastly different game than ours with the badgers, and I shared a worried look with the other two Chasers, a bit wary at walking into a match with either team after this display.

“Gryffindor can win this. If that damn second year would keep Cho out of her head, they’d be home free.” I nodded grimly, accepting a short piece of parchment from Hermione that explained readouts of the diagnostic spells she’d been performing on me—further evidence of their work together bearing fruit.

“They’ll be down Samuels, but Chambers is still a good Beater.” Bole’s lips were pulled back into a half-snarl, watching the two teams as they prepared to mount up again.

“They’re doing everything they can to win. Probably feel even bolder since we played nice, think they can stomp us for the cup.” Hugo spat, surly, while Flint glanced at me with a reassuring—if slightly shaky—smirk.

“No problem for this team. Clean or dirty, Slytherin’s gonna come out on top.” It became harder to share his enthusiasm as play restarted, another two-Bludger impact sending one of the Weasley Beaters off his broom, subsequently to the Hospital Wing—as soon as it happened, Ron was out of his chair and down the stairs before even I could see him—no fouls called. The Ravenclaws had fallen further, only three scores left until Gryffindor would claim the match when Chang shot by the press box from a low-hanging cloud, snatching the Snitch upside-down and righting herself with a victorious whoop. Finally, the game ended, both teams limping off to their locker rooms—Robins had a nasty bruise on her face, swelling an eye shut—and the Slytherin team headed down like our destination was a seven-man gallows. Nobody spoke until we were assembled in front of Flint, by the door. The stands had been deathly quiet as well, hushed mutters and odious predictions muffled, thankfully, by the walls.

“This is our shot. For the Cup. For glory, and a headline, if glory is too vague. They’ve proven they’re not going to play nice, and I don’t see any problem reminding them who the nastiest house in this castle is. Normal dueling rules, no Unforgivables, if you can make it look accidental it’s fair game.” Then, he turned to Harry, getting down on one knee and almost pleading to him.

“You catch that Snitch, Harry Potter. Chang just got a moneyshot in front of the press box, and I want your face to be on the cover of the Prophet after we go out there and slaughter them. Metaphorically, Hugo.” The sixth-year scowled, wand half-drawn, and I bumped his shoulder affectionately.

“We’ll knock some heads, don’t worry, eh? Bet I score more points than you.” He snorted, looking down on me with some amusem*nt; everyone seemed to be moderately inspired, Flint turning and flinging the doors open like a lord announcing his arrival. As one, we marched out in a flying V formation, Flint at the head, Harry and I next, then Hugo and Gemma, then Bole and Pucey at the rear. Cheers still started up, from all three houses other than Ravenclaw, who all stonily regarded their team as they entered—I would not want to be in that common room, regardless of the outcome—Davies and Flint equally matched in the handshake, neither breaking anything but leaving both palms cherry-red from strain. Burrow scowled at me, and at the whistle I dove straight down, snatching the Quaffle similarly to how I’d done in the first match and shooting off towards their goalposts. A fist snaked in between my arm and thigh, turning and uppercutting me directly in the jaw, out of sight, as Stretton reached me first, jerking my head upward and rattling my teeth, stars crossing my vision as he stripped the Quaffle from me. My vision cleared quickly, in time to dodge Burrow and block for Hugo, who’d stolen it back with equal brutality and shoved his way past Davies to throw it straight through McManus’ outstretched hands, over his shoulder, and through the hoop. The crowd exploded, game turning into flashes of moments punctuated by pain and fists, elbows, hexes, and curses. In total, both teams were awarded ten penalty shots in the first hour, score at 90-90 as Flint soared by, bleeding from several shattered teeth and shouting swears—Harry streaked by, Chang hot on his tail, nearly hitting me midair as a Bludger missed me, my sudden correction causing it to strike the front of Hugo’s broom and flip him into the air. Both of my hands were free, and I lunged, legs wrapped around the broom as I twisted sideways, catching him in mid-fall and Summoning his broom. We were about ninety feet up, another Bludger narrowly missing my hands as I swung him back onto his broom and dove; Davies had a clear line to the goals. As I streaked down, I pulled the same trick I had with Draco, stomping my back foot down and pulling with my front, coming out of the dive upright and reaching up, from below him, to hit the Quaffle out. Due to how my feet were placed, an impossibly narrow triangle of space existed between my legs and the broom, a rush of air from behind me accompanied by a flash of green and silver exploding out in front of me, Gemma catching the Quaffle as the crowd went truly ballistic; Harry had caught the Snitch, flying through me to do so. I was in shock, disbelieving, forgetting entirely about the other team and racing to catch up with him, eyes wide.

“Did… Did you just…?” He was beaming, promptly shoved out of the way as I spied a last ditch attempt at revenge, both Bludgers slamming directly into my chest and knocking me off of my broom, thankfully only a few feet above the ground. I felt my collarbone crack, growling and wrapping an arm around each of the damn things as Madam Hooch raced over, worry turning to a relieved amusem*nt as she took in the wrestling match on the ground.

“Alright, le Fay?” I rolled my eyes, teeth clenched.

“Yeah, fancied a mud wrestle. Is the box nearby?” She snorted, Pucey and Flint rushing over with it carried between them; as the Bludgers were secured, I watched Hugo having to be physically restrained by Gemma and Bole, screaming insults and threats at Inglebee and Chambers, who were ignoring him and walking off. To my surprise, Harry was beside him, also shouting insults (but not any threats), Flint going over to calm things down after both Bludgers were secured. A quick healing spell later, I rubbed my neck with a bit of discomfort. Flint was beckoning us, over by a few reporters, Dumbledore, and Snape. Everyone shot me a worried look as I joined them, Pucey shadowing me like a frowning, luridly dressed security guard with his arms crossed and wand out. Both Dumbledore and Snape said a few words, mostly congratulating us—Slytherin won an additional two-hundred points, making our position almost impossible to overcome—and presenting Flint with the Quidditch Cup, all of us coming together to hold it for several photos. Gemma and Flint stayed to give statements for the paper, while I healed whatever I could before leading the way to the Hospital Wing. Hugo’s brush with death had also shattered several of his fingers, which I wasn’t skilled enough to heal correctly, and once he was set up in a bed with some numbing potions, I politely inquired about the two injured Gryffindors, Spinnet and Robins. The Seeker had a hexed injury, which needed time for the magic to wear off before treatment, while Spinnet was being prepared for transportation to St. Mungo’s. Samuels’ bat had fractured her skull, diagnostic spells revealing shards dangerously close to her brain, leaving her on death’s door. I was gutted that I didn’t know enough to help her, leaving a note on a scrap of parchment with well wishes and a pack of Sugar Quills before rejoining the five uninjured players, bidding goodnight to Hugo, and heading to the team room. Harry still had the Snitch, limping holding it with little joy as we found our seats; I stared off into space, smoking, not really paying attention to anything in particular.

“I’ve already told Snape I want a formal inquiry, some sort of consequences. She could actually die, over some school grudge.” I nodded, digging out a still-cold bottle of Pumpkin Juice and swigging it.

“Season’s over. She’ll get healed, I’m sure of it. Mungo’s is the best in the world.” Nobody said much else, Flint collecting some money for a gift basket, congratulating us, and announcing a party date would be set once the scuppers season finished, near the end of term. That night, I was mindlessly checking a few calculations, not fully understanding the theory behind Voldemort’s Arithmancy but able to effectively balance them, something that was difficult to do mentally. I was a bit distracted, mind drifting back to the events of the day with some horror; it was cruel, unnecessary, and if she died, Samuels could end up in Azkaban for it. Why had they done it? Even later, as I read in bed by wandlight, a faint, almost inaudible shout reached my ears. Frowning, I listened intently, managing to make out a very vehement frustration before casting a privacy spell and resuming Tales of Beedle the Bard.

Without a Quidditch season, classes became much more easier to keep track of. Telemoor was frosty and aloof, barely giving me extra credit for stealth attempts, while surprisingly Snape backed off of us in Potions almost entirely, simply spectating, hawklike, from beside the blackboard each class. Alicia Spinnet was in St. Mungo's for two full weeks—first to repair the damage, second to recover full motor function—returning to a greeting by her house, team, and the Hufflepuff and Slytherin teams when she returned to finish out the term. I went to a few scuppers matches, not even Daphne’s running explanation illuminating just what the hell was going on in the air—I teased Draco to no end with claims of “disgracing the Quidditch air” until I was hexed, several times—and spent my nights building a pile of parchment on resurrection rituals that was nearly taller than me by late May; exam week. All of them were a breeze, even rogue class—Telemoor waived my need to sit a test, citing my extra-credit “theoretical heist”—and I beat Erik in a fight four times, earning begrudging respect and an Exceeds Expectations on Fighting, qualifying me for the official mastery test at the Ministry. I also discovered that once the grade was achieved, the mastery test could be taken at any time, deciding to push off the tests until after Hogwarts and selecting druidic magic to study my second year. True to his word, the Slytherin scuppers team won their tournament (with an overall record of 10-2, two losses to Gryffindor early in the season), claiming the Scuppers Cup and officially clinching the House Cup by over four hundred points; the common room was a raucous party the entire afternoon that Saturday and most of Sunday. The train back was on Monday, meaning everyone was partying their hearts out before having to go back home to strict parents and ‘summer reading assignments,’ common room already a madhouse when I arrived from dinner around six. I—and I suspected every other team member for either team—was greeted like a returning hero, swarmed by my housemates and high-fived, hugged, slipped boxes of sweets and drinks before thudding down in a free seat next to Hugo, at a table scattered with cards, cups, and bottles.

“Want to play? It’s called Hogsmeade Express.” As he explained the rules to me, I was more and more intrigued, eventually agreeing and snagging a frosted bottle of Butterbeer to join. The game involved a deck of cards, going around the table in four rounds where players would guess color, above or below, inside-outside, and suit; correct guesses meant the dealer drank, incorrect the player. After that, there was a pyramid of face-down cards; starting from the bottom row of four, each card was flipped, and whoever had a matching card could give out a drink to anyone at the table—each level of four, three, two, then one cards was worth an increasing number of drinks, as well. I played a few rounds, including a memorable one dealing in which Gemma managed to guess all four of her cards right, migrating to the poker table with a light buzz and three Butterbeers down. A dusty radio had been magically enhanced, thudding out a somber, goth-rock style band similar to a Muggle group my Hermione had been into—some sort of merciful sisters or something—Harry and Ron playing Exploding Snap duos with Draco and Blaise, while across the room by the drinks Pansy, Hermione, Daphne, and a third-year Slytherin, Hestia Carrow, were trying to bounce Sickles into a glass of spiked Pumpkin Juice. I was decent at cards, not cheating despite clocking almost every other person doing so, Bole acting like a professional dealer and smoking a two-foot long, pure silver pipe that emitted green smoke.

“Little bird told me you were getting friendly with the Hufflepuff Seeker after the tournament, le Fay.” I raised an eyebrow at Flora Carrow, Hestia’s cousin, and called.

“Nothing wrong with being polite. Who might this little bird be?” It was likely Gemma, but Flora didn’t give, smugly calling and going on to win the hand, and a few Galleons. A fourth year, Terence Higgs, lost thirty Galleons in a single hand, storming from the table in frustration and magically levitating himself upside down over a keg of Butterbeer, sticking the hose into his mouth and beginning to drink straight from the tap; a crowd formed, cheers growing louder as he cleared thirty seconds, ending with a loss of concentration before forty, collapsing into a coughing puddle while the crowd roared in excitement. Soon, people were lining up to compete against each other, Hugo taking a swig of Firewhiskey and lighting his wand, spewing out a jet of flame that signed the cobwebs from one of the iron chandeliers, to thundering applause. Ismelda Murk downed a goblet of Firewhiskey, spun herself in a circle several times, and managed to jump over six chairs in a row, landing atop the poker table and scattering both cards and gold—attention was quickly moved between insane feats of revelry occurring seemingly simultaneously across the room, Camena playing jaunty tunes, sea shanties, and all sorts of upbeat music in time with the radio—asking Gemma, she shouted over the noise that they were called Witching Hour—as Flint, shirtless and soaking wet, tore a stuffed bear head off the wall and slow-danced with it in front of the fire, a pair of fifth years, Bletchley and Vaisey, took turns smoking as long as they could from an extremely complex, magically reinforced bong one of them had brought out of their dorm; it was about two feet tall, consisting of a labyrinthine layering of glass pipes, water reservoirs, even places to insert varying magical ingredients or potions for the optimal high. I overheard from Pansy that they were smoking Gillyweed, which in addition to giving the consumer the ability to breath underwater when eaten raw, was highly hallucinogenic when boiled and extremely “dank” when smoked. In a bit of a haze, at around five the next morning (the party was still going) I ducked into my dorm, intent on at least taking a breather. I was looking down the barrel of an interesting summer, including turning Daphne into a seraphim, resurrecting Voldemort, and hopefully conquering Spain, all before going back to Hogwarts for my second year. The business with Sinistra and Telemoor made me wary, as it was unfamiliar territory yet reeked of the same sinister undertones as other villains I or Poppy had opposed; I mean, after finding out I’d beaten her to the stone, Telemoor had tried to poison me. As to why she was working with Sinistra, I had no idea, except for the offhanded comment Dumbledore had made—“have a word with them about leaving past lives behind”—meaning this may not have been a new occurrence, but rather a resurgence. Both Draco and Daphne were going to look into it family-wise, Arabella planning to spend most of the summer at the Weasleys, as did Harry. Hermione was going back to her Muggle family, dentists, and after a cheery (if a little rowdy) ride on the train back, everyone separated. Daphne stuck by me, going to spend a few days at the newly refurbished castle, officially as a sleepover. I’d scarcely been in Castle le Fay before, and with the lights and heating charms back in place it was significantly cozier; Voldemort immediately slithered off into the library, which I gave a preliminary glance over as I passed, showing Daphne to a guest room.

“We’ll do it tonight, if you don’t mind. Will give you time to acclimate before going back to your parents.” I wasn’t entirely sure how to turn someone into a seraphim, leaving her to get settled with an appointment in the dungeons, at dusk. Arriving there early, I cautiously reached out, praying to Lucifer again.

“Er, hey grandpa. How do I turn someone into a seraphim? It’s for a soul contract.” Vague annoyance seeped into me, alongside clinical instructions to crack open their chest, magically desecrate the heart, saw the skull off and kiss the brain, before sealing the wounds in my blood that nearly made me vomit. All this, while chanting a series of Latin phrases backwards, in alternated pairs. I spent roughly two hours practicing the wording, jerking out of my head when the heavy wooden door scraped open behind me, revealing a slightly trepidatious Daphne.

“Er, hey. Nice dungeons.” I glanced at the rusty shackles, flickering candlelight, and dripping pipes in the ceiling, and snorted.

“Mine has a demon in it too, if that’s worth anything. Going to be two, in a bit.” I’d summoned a squat, wide wooden table, and explained the process as delicately as I could.

“So, you’ll lay down, and—it's going to hurt, I’m going to be up front about it, I’m a great Healer and I wouldn’t let you die—I’ll pull apart your ribcage, cast a ritual spell on your heart. Er, let me finish before you react. After that, I saw the top of your head off, then kiss your brain, before sealing the wounds in my blood. All while chanting a rather complex spell.” Her eyes had sort of glazed over, and after a long while they refocused, still very worried.

“And… I won’t die? It’ll look normal after it heals?” Of all the concerns to have.

“No, and you’ll be able to modify your form at will afterwards. I’m technically,” I rose to my full, eight-foot height, having to bow over slightly to avoid hitting my head, “this tall. It’s the ‘default,’ so to say, but I can’t imagine a regular eleven year old this tall being even magically.” As I shrank back down, changing my hair a few times for effect, Daphne’s jaw clenched, resolve settling into a mask over her features.

“Alright. I signed, I’m in. Just… could you cast some sort of numbing spell or something? Better yet, put me to sleep.”

She regained consciousness as I was standing over a drain, washing my hands with a stream of water Camena was creating. A series of racking coughs, wheezes, and a final, hefty spit signified her awakening, weakly falling off the table and eliciting a gasp as three pairs of black wings, just like the first Voldemort’s, jostled listlessly around.

“I already modified your robes, just in case. You can retract ‘em when you need to, like mine. Numbing spell should wear off in a second, then you can move again.” Finishing, I stepped over and helped her up, shivering despite the heavy robes (and blanket).

“Is—am I—did it work?” Grinning, I pointed at her wings, causing her to perk up and practically burst my eardrums with an exhilarated scream.

“Can we fly? Is it safe to here?” Avalon was a dimensionally-warded, unplottable, potentially time dilated island, and as such I promptly led the way outside, unfurling my own wings and flapping up a decent height.

“C’mon. Race you to the shore?” After a couple faltering, struggling attempts, she managed to coordinate the three pairs of wings, steadily rising up to me—beaming the entire way.

Look at how far we can see! Alright, are you ready?” She counted us down, promptly shooting off early and gaining ten feet in an instant; six wings made acceleration a steadier movement, but my pure strength and size made one pair of wings far superior, catching her and streaking ahead, reaching the shore several seconds before she did.

“Unfair—you’re stronger than I am by default.” I rolled my eyes, kicking off my boots and wading out into the water—it was chilly, steam curling up from where my demonic body met it—and looked smugly over my shoulder.

“I’ve been punching above my weight class since the day I was born. Never underestimate yourself, Daph. You managed to talk me into a deal for a power very few ever wield, to the point I was haggling down for you. Proper Slytherin, eh?” She glowed with pride, joining me after a moment and looking out at the ocean; the boundary lay a few miles out, where a wall of fog perpetually swirled around the island, creating a strange elemental fortification as far as the eye could see.

“I suppose it’s only natural, then. Thank you, Jude. This is… incredible.” I smiled, watching as she waded further out.

“Remember the rules, though. No churches, north-flowing water, so on. The dining table will give you the food you ask it for, so don’t worry about that. I’m going to have a scan through the library quickly—don’t have too much fun.” I caught her snicker as I made to lift off, returning to find Voldemort with a carefully piled stack of books, forked tongue tasting the air.

“She’s still by the water. Enjoying pilfering my family collection?” He rolled an eye—wasn’t sure if snakes could even do that—words appearing above him momentarily.

There are many useful books here, for the both of us. I am considering the ’Professor Problem,’ as you so aptly put it. I nodded, withdrawing the bottle of Elixir.

“Once Daph is back home, we can do this. I will have to be in Europe, though, if you don’t mind not burning my castle down when I’m away?” The snake mouth contorted strangely, and I realized he was attempting to frown.

I could join you, once my body is restorted. I am formidable on the field of battle. I was already shaking my head, sitting and lighting a cigarette.

“No, I’m having to pretend to be an angel and you're supposed to be dead—you wouldn’t fit in very well, no offense. I’d much rather take care of the bigger game in Europe, while you handle Britannia. Of course, I’m personally invested in Hogwarts, but aside from that.” He nodded, Daphne entering after a while with a copy of the Prophet, grinning.

“Final sports article is out. Guess who’s headlining?” I caught it, scanning the front page with a grin.

The Potter Maneuver: How Slytherin Seized Success. Bloody brilliant. And look, Cho’s grab isn’t until the third page.” She nodded eagerly, and I scanned through the article, reading the good bits aloud for both Daphne’s and Voldemort’s benefit.

“Looks like scuppers broke a few school records, good on them—oh, look, here’s a picture of Hugo’s shot over my shoulder—when did Harry give an interview?” She shrugged, and I flipped further, snorting at Draco’s predictably obnoxious comments and Arabella’s scientific breakdown of the season. Flint occupied much of the fifth page, a formal photo and brief biography honoring the Captain. It also contained several sections on the Ravenclaw team, mostly the disparaging comments and moments from throughout the tournament—I bet Davies was fuming reading this—until an idea came into my head that I quite liked.

“Say, Daphne, how much do you think it would cost to buy a newspaper?” Her jaw dropped, sitting in a chair opposite me and scribbling on the crossword.

“I don’t… Er, a lot?” In a burst of soot and flames, I arrived at the office of my accountant, Vaxi.

“Ah, good afternoon. To what do I owe the visit, Lady le Fay?” I smiled politely, brushing myself off before sitting.

“What is the approximate net worth of the Daily Prophet?” Her eyebrows jumped into the air, sifting through half of her bookshelf before finding what she was looking for, a massive book bound in black leather, with a title written in Goblin.

“Well, if you are looking to purchase, I believe… it would be well within your capabilities, if a sizable expense. It would certainly pay for itself over the course of your life. My cautious estimate as to a price would be around eight hundred thousand Galleons.” I managed to avoid choking on air, a slip of paper landing in front of me with the total value of the Morgana vault (two billion Galleons).

“Hardly even a percent of your accumulated wealth would be withdrawn. I can begin formally submitting paperwork to the Ministry if you would like; the paper is currently endowed with a fund from a wizard ages past, so it shouldn’t be too much trouble.” I nodded, before frowning as a question struck me.

“Why are you so eager about this? I assumed spending that much of my money in one go would give you a heart attack.” At that, a razor-sharp smile emerged.

“Why, Lady le Fay, I get commission from such purchases. Who am I to stand in the way of a trailblazer such as yourself?” Snorting, I leaned forward to shake her hand, departing with well wishes and a bottle of Butterbeer. When I returned, Daphne was down in the dining room, and I took a satisfied sip from the bottle.

“You know, I may come into ownership of a newspaper in the near future. Got an eye for journalism?” Even as a snake, I could detect the wicked glee that settled over Voldemort, nod a tad feverish for my liking.

“Just remember that it is my paper. Not a soapbox.”

After a final dinner, Daphne was returned to Greengrass Estate, leaving Voldemort and I the sole occupants. Taun was back in Europe, preparing for my arrival, and I used the dungeons to begin setting up the necessary components. It required a trip to dig up a grave, twenty pounds of carefully collected shavings from the Sorcerer’s Stone, and a week’s worth of potionmaking under his watchful eye—I was strongly reminded of Snape—and thirty feathers, all plucked from different, dead birds. The process itself was a cauldron ritual, done in a sized-up, embolized tungsten pot that could contain all of the ingredients, as well as Voldemort’s soul once it was time for the transfer. Feathers were added every sixty seconds, requiring a half-hour of careful stirring, murmured chants, and prayers not to mess anything up, until the bones from the grave were added. Next, I sliced open my palm, speaking lowly as Voldemort watched from a raised table to see into the cauldron.

“Blood of ancestral enemy, willingly given.” As the blood struck the liquid, the surface crackled with electricity, ground rumbling around us as almost all of my magical energy surged forward, nearly causing me to fall over in exhaustion. The last step was to remove his soul from Chubs—using Camena, I played a bridge to manifest one from the snake to the cauldron, strange apparition of a face sucking out of the snake and drifting gently towards the pot. After Voldemort’s soul left, Chubs passed out—still alive—and with a final repetition of the incantation, “Ramener ce qui restait autrefois,” the soul dropped into the liquid. At once, the metal cauldron superheated, coalescing into a molten sphere of glowing metal around the potion and Voldemort’s soul. All the candles in the room were blown out with a gust of wind that tore the door open, nearly knocking me over as puffs of fire and smoke emanated out of the ball. As I watched, it grew smaller and smaller, until a roughly pumpkin-sized ball exploded in light, scattering sizzling metal across the floor and, in a blast of smoke, leaving behind a form. Lord Voldemort, now restored to a physical body, lay curled in a fetal position, covered in burns and scars; quickly, I began casting Healing spells, summoning a set of robes as the worst injuries began to mend. He was quiet for a long time, rising and inspecting his new body with academic interest. Contrary to how he had looked in my world, the snakelike features were gone, replaced by a middle-aged, rail-thin man with slightly wavy, mussed hair and stubble. His eyes were dark brown, and as he rose to his full height the glee returned.

“I have returned. Conquered death itself.” Glancing at me, he inclined his head genially, though the snakelike behavior still stuck with him.

“You’ve done more for me than even my most trusted follower, Jude le Fay. Consider our bond of alliance solidified beyond bedrock.” I inclined my head slightly, growing to standard human-height and shaking his hand.

“Glad to hear it. I’m not sure where your wand is, but there are a ton in Morgana’s vault. Oh, I bet if you did a blood heirship test you could get into Merlin’s.” His eyes lit up, and after eating a truly massive meal—he had been subsisting off of various live animals for over a decade, so I forgave him—we went to Diagon Alley. No one seemed to recognize him, and as we stood in the center of the street, he took a deep breath in, gazing out at the bustling crowds with a bit of happiness.

“I truly have missed this.” As we resumed walking to the bank, he muttered a surprisingly well-planned cover story.

“My uncle, Morfin, was framed for the murder of my family. I’ll use a cover as being his son, here to see if any family vaults are under the old name.” I nodded, getting to watch as the eleven-year-old heir to House le Fay accompanied the “thirty-two” year-old heir to House Wyllt for an heirship test caused every goblin and patron in the room to stop and look at us. Voldemort clearly thrived off of the attention, introducing himself as Alistair Gaunt, the ill-made son of Morfin Gaunt, heir to Merlin. Hilariously, when taken down to perform the blood test, Merlin’s was vault No. 2, directly to the left of Morgana’s, No. 1. Apparently, as Vaxi described, Merlin and Morgana were the first two magic users to open an account at Gringotts, Merlin’s vault hosting an equally incredible plethora of treasure, artifacts, and a much more sizeable collection of won wands—apparently he’d had more of a penchant for duels. Once he'd snagged a wand (incredibly, the first wand of Uric the Oddball, which was made from coral), I left for Europe, stopping in my vault to take a standard cavalry shield with me. When I arrived at our forward camp, which Taun had enclosed a sketch of, I was truly awed at the army that greeted me. It would be a long series of marches and battles through Spain, and Portugal, and from the top of a hill, by the command tent, I spied at least a hundred thousand humans, demons, and angels milling about a city-sized war camp, thousands of cookfires pushing plumes of smoke into the air as the bubbling, distant sounds of soldiers going about their days reached me. When I turned, Rithondriel, Taun, and Galthior were all kneeling, and King John ‘the Blessed’ stood beside them. I didn’t need to kneel, bidding the three demons rise and curtseying to John, back in my disguise.

“I am glad to see the business above has not kept you too terribly, or roughly, Saint Jude.” I bowed my head, wings comfortably rising to block the sun from his eyes.

“Providence has returned me to your side, your majesty. With the guidance of the Almighty, we shall see this through.” He nodded magnanimously, turning to a human near us.

“Prepare a feast, in my royal quarters. Expect both my retinue and that of Holy Saint Jude.” The guy darted off, neck ruffle bobbing in the wind—the second these people got the opportunity to dress up Victorian full time, they were all in—and John wandered off as well, leaving the three demons. Taun leaned in and quietly reported our number (roughly 101,000), as well as the date of our departure, in two days. Entering the command tent, I refamiliarized myself with the maps of the area, nodding along to Rithondriel’s proposed plan for the first few engagements and offering slight changes here and there. Our camp was northwest of Barcelona, and the plan was to march west in a straight line, sending divisions off to capture targets of interest to the north and south intermittently. Once reaching the coast, the landmass would be cut in half, reserve soldiers moving in to press a double-fronted move into north and south. It was risky, but with our numbers and supernatural advantages, it was doable. I spent the afternoon in the command tent, smoking and drawing hypothetical siege plans, until the same page as before returned to invite us to the dinner. Galthior stayed behind with a few captains, to discuss finer details, and the three of us walked further up the hill, where a palatial assortment of canvas had been erected into a royal tent. Directly inside, a long table sat, King John at one end with Queen Amelia, his wife, at the opposite end. I sat to John’s right, then their eldest son, Matthew, two daughters Julia and Mary, before the opposite side held Taun, at the Queen’s right, Rithondriel, and two human generals, Brockhew and Harrison. The table was piled high with roast pigs, sides of ribs, salad assortments with local and foreign plants, fruits, nuts, and hefty amounts of wine and mead, all of which was consumed after an opening prayer by John. It was an interesting thing, to be at a private royal dinner. Seating was arranged, formalities observed, and I wondered at the fact that, despite their vast differences, both Muggle and Magic, at heart, have quite similar natures. I was polite in my consumption, watching impressed as King John put away an entire chicken and half a pig on his own, sipping a glass of wine leisurely.

“I must say, I am quite delighted at the prospect of beholding your prowess in battle again, Jude.” I smiled, inclining my head to Matthew.

“Thank you, your majesty. The might of divine judgement flows with my blade, and is a beauty, as all of the Almighty’s creations are.” He nodded, several cups of wine deep, as I settled back comfortably into my seat.

“Perhaps, as well, we shall see you alight to the skies again?” I’d flown with my wings in combat once before, during the siege of Barcelona, and had cowed the defending force to the point that several dozen surrendered at the sight of me, flying through their lines like a bolt from on high.

“If the need requires it. I place equal importance on the soldiers beside me, Prince Matthew. Without the unity and camaraderie in their ranks we would all be lost.” Queen Amelia nodded wisely, wiping her mouth before speaking.

“You have proved yourself above and beyond any expectations, Saint Jude. You have my sincerest admiration, both in your benevolence and prowess.” I bowed in my seat, and spent the rest of the dinner trying to stay under the radar—the attention of these humans made me feel like a wild animal in a cage—retiring to my tent with Taun for whiskey and cigarettes.

“They’ve certainly settled into their roles, eh?” He snorted, stoking the fire with his boot.

“Humans are all the same. The second they get a chance to be important, no matter how sketchy it looks, they take it. Before Death blew the technology, John was a mailman.” I frowned, unfamiliar, and it took him a second to realize.

“Er, a Muggle person who does what owls do for your letters. Delivers them to the recipient, there’s a whole system for it.” I nodded, intrigued, and took a swig of whiskey (it wasn’t as good as Ogdens, but that’s neither here nor there).

“So, is—do they work for one family, or sort of a general area? I can’t imagine it’s a speedy delivery if the mailman has to go the entire way from me to the recipient.” Confused, Taun squinted at me for a long moment.

“No, not like—Okay, so a Muggle drops a letter in a little box affixed by their door, with a stamp like you use Galleons. Then, a mailman collects it and takes it to a… well, imagine a warehouse where all the letters from the area end up. Then, they get transported by other people, through a variety of Muggle transportation systems to another big warehouse close to where the destination is, then another mailman there delivers it.” I was incredibly mystified, having never encountered this facet of Muggle culture before, and lit another cigarette as he refilled our drinks.

“A big warehouse full of letters seems like a pretty big security risk. Why don’t they just build a big system of tubes, or just use owls?” Taun looked like a migraine was coming over him, but nevertheless pressed forward like it was the heat of battle.

“It’s guarded, ‘course. I guess they didn’t think to somehow domesticate owls and teach them about both delivering messages and the concept of currency. Would be pretty hard to do without magic.” Nodding slowly, I settled back in my chair.

“I suppose that makes sense. What kind of guards do Muggle banks have? Gringotts supposedly has dragons in deeper sections.” The conversation seemed to almost cause him physical pain, downing the whiskey and pouring another.

“They use cameras and a few people to monitor them and call police. Please don’t tell me you’re planning on robbing a bank.” I frowned, shaking my head rapidly.

“No, I was just curious. Well, not a Muggle bank. That’s not something you need to worry about,” I added the last bit as his eyebrows shot up, hastily waving him off.

“It’s actually for school. You won’t believe what happened at Hogwarts.” After spending the night informing him about my various escapades, we ended with a discussion on Sinistra and Telemoor, ranging from why they’d want the Stone to whether they’ll try anything else, now that it was back with Flamel. I was planning on keeping a much closer eye on them during my second year, even though I wouldn’t be able to take more than the Astronomy lecture until my third year. In my eyes, Telemoor was the far more dangerous of the two—not to say that Sinistra wasn’t formidable, having achieved a double mastery in Defense and Transfiguration alongside Astronomy—but the rogue professor was clearly more willing to be brutal in search of their goal. I also sorely hoped, after adjourning for the night, that Voldemort would be at least somewhat intelligent about the newspaper position I was planning on installing him in, before taking a bath and trying to forget about magic for a while.

“Greetings, Lady Jude. How fares the battle, for you?” I dipped my head to Rithondriel, who sat astride his badly-wounded mount. We were in the midst of pushing through a flatter, plain-like region towards the center of the country, and entering the dawn of the second day of battle. Spies behind enemy lines had brought back reports of bolstering movements from Gibraltar, mentioning a kingdom to the east that was sailing reinforcements in through the Mediterranean—we hadn’t invested fully into naval warfare, yet, and were caught in an endless slaughter.

“Well enough. And yourself?” We were a few dozen yards from the center of the fighting, lone skirmishes breaking off and extending for almost a mile in either direction as thousands of troops clashed. I’d just lost my horse, a javelin impaling it directly between the eyes, and was catching my bearing for a moment, focusing back on him as he replied.

“It is a fine day for killing, milady. I am never without joy in times like this.” I smiled grimly, wiping Necroth off a little and pushing back in, Rithondriel charging ahead of me. With a burst of razor-sharp feathers, my wings popped out, curling around me protectively while also mincing anyone stupid enough to get close as I hurled myself into their lines. Shrugging off two axes and a mace behind my shield, I brought my blade down in a deadly arc, cutting two men in half and sending a line of white light out, killing six more behind them. Rumbling earthquakes, burning meteors, and all other manner of biblical magic was being unleashed, angels and demons dancing a macabre display of combat prowess through fields of dead and soon-to-be dead soldiers around me—it looked like a moving painting of Muggle Renaissance art—vision quickly subsumed with the red tinge of battle again. I noted that, nearing noon on the second day, I was still able to outfly the winged angels present, likely meaning that there weren’t any archangels among our ranks, fallen or otherwise; thankfully, I was in the air when a truly massive earthquake split the earth, swallowing hundreds of soldiers from either side, a chorus of screams kicking up as the opposing side, low on soldiers and morale, finally surrendered. Landing roughly near a guy in nicer-looking armor, I yanked several broken arrows out of my wings, and two from my chest, scowling down at him. His armor was sturdy, thick bronze, bearing an insignia of a ram on his shield in gold and green, and I kicked his sword away from his faltering grasp.

“What is the kingdom in the east?” He spat, and I knelt down beside him, pulverizing his hands in mine with a melancholic look.

“You’re going to tell me, one way or another.” I’d never used Legilimency in a combat situation, figuring this was as good a time as any, and placing a finger to his forehead whilst reaching out with my mind. This man was clearly a Muggle, mind an open book before I’d even fully perceived it with the exact name at the front of his mind. The Empire of the Storm. Scowling, I snapped his neck, Taun walking up next to me and wiping some blood from his face.

“Empire of the Storm. That’s who’s waiting for us in the east. C’mon, we’ve not much time to stand and gawk.” After a truly massive battle, during which Arcadia proved itself militarily—crippling the coalition that had sprung up to oppose us, as well as sweeping aside the Storm Empire’s reinforcements—our journey to bisect the country moved quickly, splinters of troops breaking off as we gained more and more confidence. Indeed, a truly massive navy of ships was spied fleeing Gibraltar when we arrived, heading deeper into the Mediterranean before we could seize any—one of my first requests to Hell afterwards was for a shipbuilder. John moved the capital to Paris (because of course he did), claiming an opulent, sprawling estate in the Parisian countryside as his royal lodgings and commanding construction and fortification around the entire city of Paris. Even with magic, that was a hefty task, though thankfully I wasn’t brought in to advise, enjoying a leisurely—if a bit long—carriage ride to the capital, where it had been heavily implied that I was going to be knighted and granted lodgings of my own. Taun had been re-promoted, Rithondriel now Field Marshall of the western division of the military; the eastern was a demon named Mithria. As we had seen when arriving in Hell, the citizens of Arcadia were already flocking to reclaim Paris, flowers and wreaths cluttering the streets as my carriage rolled into the city, behind the King’s family and third in importance. Spirits were high, as securing the west meant a lull in fighting before John turned his gaze to the Urals—as we were rounding a corner, a courier hopped up next to the driver, murmuring quickly before sliding around to the window and passing me a note, that I immediately dropped in surprise upon reading.

“I’ve been requested to attend a meeting with… the Pope.” Both Taun and Rithondriel were thunderstruck, Tuma Dia peering from within the latter’s cloak with some incredulity.

“To discuss officially becoming a saint. Well, should I go by Saint Jude or Dame Jude? Suppose I’ll decide by occasion.” Taun snorted, Rithondriel’s congratulations taking the entire ride through the city until we reached a large cathedral, throngs of people cheering and reaching out for me as I exited, wings tucked away. Thankfully, I wasn’t mobbed, able to smile pleasantly and wave my way inside, fighting a severe headache the moment I crossed the threshold, alone. By the altar, surrounded by a contingent of full-on Roman-style soldiers, stood King John, conversing with an elderly man in all white. Hiding a wince, I marched up, kneeling with my head bowed once I was close.

“Ah, Jude. I am glad that you’ve arrived—your Benevolence, this is Saint Jude, of Montgeron.” I was bid to rise, doing so and realizing the second I got a look at his face up close that the Pope was, in fact, a disguised angel.

“My child… for the Lord loves justice, and does not forsake his saints. You are safe here, Saint Jude.” Reaching out, the angel placed a finger to my forehead, an actual halo appearing above my head as, with a gust of wind and flashing, fiery light, a strange sensation came over me. I couldn’t quite figure out what it was, too busy refocusing on John as he drew a jewel-encrusted sword. Once I’d knelt again, I was officially knighted, named Dame Jude, duch*ess of Normandy, and Holy Knight of the Holy Arcadian Empire, a bit of euphoria settling in my stomach as I stood again, bowing deeply.

“It is an honor and gift, your excellencies. Holy Father, it is truly a privilege to meet you.” The angel bowed his head, and after John congratulated me again, the ”Pope” and I took a stroll through the connected, fenced-in cemetery attached to the cathedral.

“What was that feeling, when you touched my forehead? I feel… weird, all of a sudden.” The elderly man chuckled weakly, sitting to rest underneath the swaying leaves of a willow tree.

“It is one of the simplest abilities of an angel. I witnessed all of the sin in your life, found it wanting, and imparted the knowledge that I forgive you.” Surprisingly touched, I sat on the grass, leaning on a nearby tombstone.

“Also, I restored your soul to it’s proper configuration. I did not interact with any of the enchantments woven around it, do not be afraid.” I sighed, strange sensation still present even if it made sense.

“Strange, still. Why forgive me?” The angel frowned, peering down at me from milky, yet sharp eyes.

“I am the archangel Raziel.” One of my eyes twitched involuntarily, hastily wiping it before looking back up, slightly sheepish.

“Er, I’m sorry on her behalf. It was a different timeline, and for completely different reasons—” I stopped as a wrinkled hand lifted up.

“I am aware. That you are attempting—and succeeding, as of yet—to atone for the past mistakes of yourself and your mother through the saving of this world is a step towards redemption even the Almighty cannot deny a devil.” I smiled a little, looking down at the grass between us.

“Never thought I’d end up in a situation like this. Surreal.” He nodded wisely, leaning forward to pat my shoulder.

“Have faith, child. ‘The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.’” I wasn’t buying what he was selling, but the sentiment still counted, and after a dignified nod I rose, keen on getting the hell off of holy ground as fast as I possibly could.

Chapter 25: Dame-Saint Jude, Spymaster of Arcadia

Chapter Text

Jude

A week after our arrival in Paris, I was called to the quarters of King John, who was involving himself in the intrigue of the court and war in an ever-impressive way and pouring over a series of logistical supply reports by firelight in his study. It was full of paintings and shelves, maps, and a silver broadsword his son had taken off of an enemy general during a fight—Matthew was beginning to distinguish himself among members of the footmen, earning himself the nickname “Matthew the Bloody”—and I bowed respectfully.

“I have need to fill a member of my royal court—You shall be re-appointed from the position of court magician to spymaster.” I nodded once, a little conflicted internally but knowing not to question him, even in private. I might’ve been the driving force behind this empire, but that didn’t mean I could start ordering around just-proclaimed Holy Arcadian Emperor Tiberius (John’s name after being formally recognized by the Pope, who also formally joined Arcadia and practically gave us Italy).

“Thank you, your majesty. I will begin preparations at once; shall I search for a replacement for my current position?” He shook his head, lifting a formal-looking sheet of paper.

“I have found suitable replacement for you, from your home country as well. Perhaps you have met?” My face was a calm mask as I turned, spying a witch who’d been standing so stealthily in a corner I hadn’t even known she was there; clearly seeing through my disguise—I should’ve done more than just shrink the Lydia face down for Hogwarts—Professor Telemoor stepped forward, face neutral.

“Dame-Saint Jude, Spymaster of Arcadia, this is the new Court Magician, Dahlia Telemoor.” A tension that was so thick as to almost be visible hung in the room, and I calmly held a hand out as nonthreateningly as I possibly could, Telemoor taking it after a long look.

“It is a pleasure to meet you, my Lady. I do hope I can meet the expectations you have set for the position.” So, she wasn’t immediately blowing my cover or trying to kill both John and I—the way that Telemoor and I were tangling together was not enjoyable—and I inclined my head respectfully.

“I am quite certain you shall, Madam Telemoor. Would you be partial to tea, once I am settled in to my new lodgings? To discuss the flow of court, choice of magical influence, and so on?” She agreed, eyes never leaving me, and after a few more strained pleasantries, I was dismissed, managing to remain composed until I was out of sight. The seat of the government, a palace in the city, was a maze of rooms, corridors, side-hallways and inter-connected bathrooms, for some reason, and I ended up in a dusty, boarded-up room on the sixth floor. It had a decent view of the city, and after a moment I began cleaning it, summoning furniture and magically expanding it a bit, adding on a few smaller rooms, fireplace, and balcony; digging out some Muggle books and maps, I populated the desk and various walls, digging out a still painting of several sailing ships, with a storm on the horizon. Once cleaned and cozy, I sent for Telemoor, brewing a pot of tea that began whistling just as she was announced. Retrieving the pot, I poured two cups, unspiked, taking a drink from mine as she warily sat across the desk.

“Bit of a reversed perspective, eh?” She nodded slowly, sniffing the tea before taking a sip.

“Good tea. What are you doing here? What’s your plan?” Raising an eyebrow, I snorted and dug out a cigarette.

“You think I’m just going to tell you everything? What are you doing here? I know you and Sinistra wanted the stone, is this some sort of assassination attempt?” She shook her head quickly, coughing for a moment.

“Not at all. I had no idea you were here until you were in the room. Did you really ride out with a host of angels and found this empire? You have wings?!” Damn Matthew and his boasting. Some truth, then.

“Yes, and yes. I am not going to tell you any more than that if you aren’t going to tell me why you’re here.” She scowled, drank more tea, and scowled deeper.

“Afraid not. Shall we… agree to a policy of mutual assistance?” Grumpy, I downed my tea in one larger gulp, rattling the plate as I set it down.

“Seems like the best option. I won’t try to kill you, you don’t try to kill me?” She shook my hand again, this time with more confidence, and I slumped in my seat once she’d gone. Now one of my professors knew that not only did I have wings, I was also orchestrating the Arcadian expansion—and it was one of the two I knew was up to no good. I didn’t know why she was meddling with the Muggle world, though it couldn’t be for a positive reason, and took as much solace as I could in the fact that I could keep an eye on at least one of them year-round. As I had a quiet moment, I dug through Morgana’s grimoire, finding a spell and calling Camena over to me. Explaining the process, I cut a line in the back of my left pointer finger, from nail to knuckle, wound and blood sealing into a white line as I used blood magic to weave a permanent Comprehend Languages enchantment into my mind, infusing it with my own essence and blinking several times as I adjusted.

“Er, Camena, can you say something in a different language?” She hummed for a moment.

“What would you like me to say?” I shrugged, glancing at the fireplace.

“Dunno, just something different from English.” She snorted softly, bow tapping me on the nose.

“I asked you in French, silly.” Mind reeling, I shook my head several times and grinned.

“Wicked. This should work for pretty much any language, I think. I wonder if I could do the same with speaking to animals.”

My first move was to appoint Taun as my first spy, instructing him to put out feelers in the west for an information network while I went undercover, traveling as a wandering holy woman beyond our borders, to the east. Most towns and villages would let me stay for a few days, especially after I performed healing magic and, during a two-week stay in a town a few miles south of Vienna, was able to develop a system of potionmaking that wasn’t fatal to Muggles. This got me passage pretty much anywhere, most of the territory east of our line scattered and lone communities that were barely surviving after adapting to the new way of life. Most places had a sizeable cemetery, and I even presided over a funeral in northern Poland, before running into my first spot of trouble when, in eastern Belarus, I first spotted a familiar flag. A ram, in gold and green, adorned the shield of a journeying knight in a tavern I’d found myself in, and—disguised as an elderly hermit—I found a seat nearby, using my enhanced senses to get a read on him. He was tall and lean, wearing armor closer to a scout or more dexterous fighter, but the medals and epaulets gave away his rank; he had a shortsword and bow, both sheathed. I ate a bit of soup, cheap ale nearly making me lose track of eavesdropping in how bitter it was—he was talking to the owner quietly, having come to town to scout a potential treaty for expansion with the ‘Empire of Storm,’ bingo. I calmly finished my meal, and exited the tavern, moving behind it and summoning a Patronus using the same memory I always did—Shade placing her hand on top of mine, on the deck of the Popelia—and sent a message to alert Taun, wherever he was. Then, once the swordfish had swam off into the dusky sky, I crossed the street, leaning up in the shadow of an alley and watching the entrance. It took a solid hour before the man emerged, a little tipsy, and began to trot off towards the eastern edge of the city. I needed to slow down any plans for expansion as soon as I could, and I moved, shadowing him through the town and looking for an opportunity. Thankfully, he turned off at the edge of town, stumbling into an alley that was perfectly entombed in shadows. Scaling the single-floor building on one side, I carefully peered over the edge of the roof, finding him standing several feet in, fumbling with his armor. At my request, Necroth shrunk down, morphing into the single-edged blade as I dropped down, landing silently behind the man with my sword now at dagger-size. Not bothering with pretense, I reached up and slit his throat, burying the dagger into the back of his neck for good measure before removing it and darting back over the roof, finding a spot to hide and Apparate, first to an alleyway in Berlin, then my study, collapsing into a chair as Taun arrived from the fireplace in a burst of smoke.

“Milady, I just received the news.” I nodded, a bit breathless, and recounted what I’d done after alerting him, to which he nodded sagely.

“That’ll slow them down. I’ve managed to find several promising sources throughout our territory, and will notify you if any become fully-fledged operatives.” Nodding again, I downed a Pepper-Up Potion and stood, intent on reporting my latest finding to the King—now, Emperor.

The majority of my summer was spent politicking, journeying through the Muggle world in disguise, or performing silent assassinations—I had better not get anything below an E in rogue class just from ‘extracurricular work’—I received my supply letter for the second year. Along with it came a polite letter from Professor Juniper Eidelia, the druid teacher, as she’d be the one I turned this years’ papers into. While in Diagon, I ran into Draco and Ron, going with them to pick up robes and books. With the winnings in the card game his first year, the Weasley family was now doing quite well, Ron buying his own wand and a brand-new set of robes while Draco and I had ice cream at Fortescue’s. When stopping in at Knockturn Alley, I ran into “Alistair” Wyllt, new chief editor of the Daily Prophet exiting the Devil’s End.

“Ah, Lady le Fay. Wonderful to see you.” I curtseyed, every magic user in the vicinity turning to behold the descendants of two mortal enemies speaking politely—nicely—to each other.

“As it is to see you, Lord Wyllt. I quite enjoyed your latest revisions to the format of the Prophet.” When he’d assumed control, the entire newspaper had been reformatted, organized, and featured a variety of new sections, balancing a mix of current events, legislature, and sports alongside a few guest columns—a recurring writer, surprisingly, was Madam Pince, who would give book reviews with the air of a vicious theater critic (she was becoming the main reason I read the paper; her diatribe against the worldbuilding of a magical adult fantasy series, Society of the Crossed Wands, was legendary)—and Voldemort smiled at the compliment, reaching out and shaking my hand.

“Would you be available for a late lunch? I know that you are preparing for your second year, but…?” I nodded, and we promptly entered Borgin and Burke’s, Voldemort barely able to suppress a noise of contempt as he reserved the upstairs lounge for a luncheon. Borgin wasn’t exactly going to deny two of the most powerful nobles of the magical world—gold didn’t hurt either—and once we were settled with tea, we had a moment of privacy.

“I did mean it, by the way. Who knew Madam Pince was so vocal about books?” He shrugged, peering out of the large glass window that adorned one wall; it was raining in the Alley. His eyes were far away, and it took him a minute to speak, as though he was overcoming something internally.

“I used to work here. In the summers of my later time at Hogwarts, I would rent out a small side room and stock inventory, scout antiques.” I nodded, sipping my tea quietly while he reminisced. Borgin returned with food, leaving us with a plate of cucumber-cheese sandwiches and four whole turkey legs.

“It’s strange, to look someone in the eye and have them not recognize you. The last time I saw Borgin before today was a week before my death at the hands of Harry Potter. And now, I’m served food by him and am chatting with my ancestor’s fated foe.” A dark look overtook my face, twinges of pain rising back up from the first moments meeting the others; it was the first time for them, but I’d already known a version of their future selves before.

“Indeed. For the better, though. It certainly would complicate things if I told Ron that I’m the godmother of his future child.” Voldemort snorted half a cup of tea, dissolving into a coughing fit of laughter that rattled the thin glass windowpanes.

“That it would, Jude. I am considering purchasing an estate in the highlands, and would include you in the Fidelius Charm, as you have with Avalon. When… when the time comes to call my faithful, I would also request your presence. As a show of strength.” I nodded slowly, finishing a sandwich as he refilled his tea.

“I should also remind you of our mission to locate my vessels. One is in Hogwarts.” At my surprise, he raised an eyebrow.

“The diadem of Ravenclaw, stored in the Room of Hidden Things.” A little confused, I first explained that the rogue classroom was in the Room of Requirement, him shaking his head rapidly.

“The Room of Requirement can become that which the user needs; the specific iteration known as the Room of Hidden Things is quite possibly the oldest, or first use of it, and houses a collection of hidden, forgotten items ranging from the inception of the room in around 1002, until the present day. A Locating Charm should be able to direct you. I will spend my time retrieving the others.” A little glad I wasn’t going to have to do the majority of the legwork—being an old lady wandering the wilderness over the summer wasn’t exactly fun on the joints—I agreed, conversation drifting to less important topics, like Quidditch.

Everyone crammed back into one cabin, excitedly talking about their summers as if we hadn’t been exchanging a storm of owls the entire time. Ron had gotten a broom, and was dead set on trying for the Quidditch team—after the brutal season, Bole had retired to focus on classes—and the scuppers players were already excitedly talking about the upcoming season. Slytherin was going in as the undefeated champions, which gave us all a bit of a confidence boost while also painting a positively massive target on our backs; Inglebee was now a sixth year, and rumor had it he practiced using a Bludger charmed to look like my head for the entire summer break. That killed some of my appetite for candy, though I was cheered up by a fairly rowdy exchange of Chocolate Frog cards and the subsequent game of poker Ron started up. The back of my mind was swirling with half-baked speculations, theories, potential battle and espionage plans, already having a solid two feet of notes to send back to Taun when we arrived; I considered building an intelligence network within the castle, as Voldemort was essentially doing so in greater Britannia, and broached the idea as the seven of us piled into a thestral-drawn carriage.

“Could be useful to keep tabs on Sinistra and Telemoor. It’d be wicked to be a spy, y’know.” I rolled my eyes, distinctly recalling the silent assassinations of about six Storm Empire scouts I’d done over the break.

“It’s just in the school, anyways. Just think, we might be able to get ahold of Ravenclaw’s playbook, or find out where Sprout keeps the candies she gives out in class.” His and Harry’s eyes lit up, heads swiveling together to Draco, who was reading the Marquee dryly.

“Why, you aren’t possibly considering creating an actual thieves’ guild in Hogwarts, are you? Though, I suppose it’s right that a Slytherin would be the one to think of it.” All of my focus was immediately caught in the idea, and I spent the entire ride and entrance to the Great Hall agonizing mentally over a name, to the point that Daphne prayed just to ask me if I was okay.

“Yes, sorry. How does… the Circle of Secrets? Like Zone of Truth, but spooky.” Draco, who was the only one able to hear my whisper, nodded eagerly as he counted the sorting of a few notable people. I couldn’t exactly start jotting down ideas for a secret organization, but I did mentally catalogue what I knew about both Hogwarts clubs and the castle itself. I’d already gone looking for Salazar’s Grotto, not being able to find it despite hours of magical searching and surmising it didn’t exist; the next best location was either making another extra-dimensional space, or finding a different one; the Chamber of Secrets came up in Poppy’s memory, mentioned by one of the other aberrations, but I didn’t speak Parseltongue, and doubted anyone would want to regularly enter a space supposedly housing a monster. Finally, after spending a night dodging patrolling professors and head students, I found a dusty, unused attic at the top of the Clock Tower, directly above the actual clockworks and shrouded in an appropriate level of mystique. After weaving a few enchantments into it—I couldn’t cast a Fidelius inside another preexisting one, as the school had one on it as a whole—instead using a few Notice-Me-Not charms and binding the wards to a specific riddle. The next night, after finishing the first essay of the year—a foot-and-a-half on medium-sized Transfiguration—I began selecting the first group of inductees in to the Circle of Secrets. Like a ghost, I crept into the second-year dormitories, standing on the edge of Ron’s bed, protected by privacy spells, and waking him ominously. After he stopped screaming, I told him the riddle, doing the same to Harry and Draco before moving to my dorm, where Daphne and Arabella were also chosen. This was only the first step, stopping at the beds of Ismelda Murk, Cassius Warrington, both Carrows, Theodore Nott, and Merula Snyde, just within Slytherin. The other houses were infiltrated in the following nights, and from Gryffindor I chose Kenneth Towler, Lee Jordan, Zakir Akram, Sally Birchgrove, Allison Barnes, Eloise Midgen, and Carl Hopkins. Next was Hufflepuff, where I spoke to Beatrice Haywood, Tamsin Applebee (Chaser for Hufflepuff), Craig Dunn, Gwendoline Hedgeflower, and Hecate Oakham—I contemplated inviting Cedric, but as this was shaping up to be a society of rogues, he wouldn’t exactly fit. Finally, Ravenclaw, which was a risky proposition just to break into: Eddie Carmicheal, Talbott Winger, Terry Boot, Elizabeth Mkapa, Kim Sheringham, and a first-year, Hazel Stickney. The first meeting was set for the second Saturday of term, at midnight, which wasn’t hampered by anything other than the usual start-of-term panic. Astronomy was interesting, though from the dirty looks Sinistra shot me I was certain Dumbledore hadn’t kept my accusation confidential, skating through rogue class as unnoticeably as possible (both for the grade and to avoid the strange dynamic that was building between Telemoor and I), and I found a lot more joy meeting with Eidelia than I did Stonehammer. Her “office” was adjoining greenhouse six, and was built out of a massive rosebush that was hollowed out, furniture growing from collections of roots and vines that complimented the professor herself. From Daphne, I had learned that she was part-dryad, with a slightly greenish complexion, amber eyes, and a very fae-like quality to her features that were, at all times, dissociative yet mellow.

“Welcome, initiate. You seek to study the life force of existence itself, Gaia?” I nodded, growing more and more interested by the second.

“I’ve read several books already, but was wondering if I could spend my study periods in the forest? It doesn’t seem right to connect with my inner druid inside stony walls and castles.” That point struck home for her, casting a long look at the forest, which was a ways from where her office stood.

“That is quite understandable. I do hope you will plan to take your studies seriously; Professor Stonehammer mentioned your aptitude for learning in his recommendation.” I hadn’t even known he wrote one, simply smiling and taking the compliment.

“The world of magic is both wonderful and myriad; I wish to study it in as much detail as I possibly can, from every angle.” She smiled, reaching behind her to pull a book from a bark and twig shelf.

“Here. Consider it a welcoming gift. Many seasons ago, I once began my own journey with druidic study using that book.” It was predictably bound in sturdy leaves, wafer-thin pages with a title reading Fascinating Flora, by Amadeus Firmroot.

“Thank you, professor. I can’t wait to deepen my study further, it’s already a fascinating discipline from what I’ve read.” Chuckling, she waved me out, dreamily calling over my shoulder as she did.

“Miss Jude, druidic magic is much more than a discipline.” I forewent dinner, returning to the Clock Tower to do a few final touch-ups—lighting a fire, smuggling some snacks and drinks from the kitchens—altering the protective enchantments slightly and killing the rest of the time reading the introduction to Fascinating Flora. Like many of the fighting books assigned by Stonehammer (Killing Before You’re Killed, Night Falls on Sentinel, and The Rear Guard, for example) it was completely absorbed in the craft, writer crafting an elegant love-letter to their discipline. Firmroot had clearly been a visionary of his time, defining the parameters and known rules of druidism and laying a foundation of historical context from which he built a practical discussion—through a muffling charm, the clock struck twelve, floor shaking slightly as I marked my place, moving over to the darkest corner in the magically expanded room. Slowly, over the next half hour, people began to trickle in, alone or in pairs, and I fought down a smile as none of the thirty people present noticed my hiding spot. With a bit of wandless magic, the door shut behind the last entrant, Hopkins, and I lit a torch on the wall nearby me.

“Good evening.” Every single person jumped in terror; six people screamed, while ten reflexively drew their wands.

“Oh, do relax. With a name like the Circle of Secrets, were you imagining anything else? Glad you all got the riddle sorted, as well.” Scattered mutters, stowed wands, and a collective sigh of relief preceded people making themselves comfortable in the chairs, sofas, and hammocks I’d scattered around the room, with a desk near the center.

“Now, you’ve all stepped into a Secrecy Charm, meaning that members can only physically mention anything related to this club to other members, alone; any newly inducted members will, once inducted, also be put under this spell. We will be crafting not only a club, but a guild, the first ever to exist in these walls. Student-made and led, this club will grow and develop your skills at rogue pursuits, political mannering, and most importantly, perhaps, pranking. Those not interested may, at any point, approach me to be Obliviated and removed from the club without any judgement.” Nobody spoke, or moved, which after a few minutes had passed I took to mean they were all game. Striding over to a chalkboard, I flicked my hand, chalk rising to begin writing out a series of notes.

“As founder, I operate as guild master, and will use the things I and other rogues—aspiring or otherwise—among us have learned to give everyone a basic foundation from which to craft themselves from. Each month, a list of “targets,” things such as exam copies, proposed rule changes, even team playbooks—and don’t get mad at me, no team members are allowed to assist, including myself, so it’s among your house only—all for a bit of gold and respect in return. There are also going to be a series of achievable ranks, calculated by the amount and degree of success from combined heists and other missions that may come up. As of today,” I glanced around the room, noting the interest in everyone’s expressions, “Everyone begins as a footpad, then operative, apprentice, shadowfoot, journeyman, night walker, and finally master thief. As well, as guild master I, and my successors starting after me, will select seven promising burglars from shadowfoots and above to serve as the seven Talons of the Circle. Questions so far? I’m near the end of the speech.” A few people snorted, and a Ravenclaw, Eddie Carmichael, raised his hand.

“What’s the first set of targets for this month?” Laughter broke out, managing to crack my teacher-voice into a chuckle.

“In a minute. Finally, are the rules of the Circle of Secrets: first, honor among thieves, no matter the house. Second, never get caught if you can help it, and if not, practice running or Apparition. Thirdly, and most importantly, have fun. We’re going to be nicking exam sheets from professors and pranking bullies, for Merlin’s sake. I’m not even going to have you write more than a pre-formatted report on jobs you pull off.” At that, another collective sigh of relief swept through the room, all eyes following me as I erased the notes, replacing them with a series of spell-o-taped on pieces of parchment.

“For the first month, since it’s halfway through, I’ll count the next two weeks as part of the next month, for extra time. Along with each option you’ll find a recommended team size, and I do suggest you adhere to it—I also expect everyone to at least read Beginner’s Guide to Multiclassing and Rogue Ruminations before our next meeting, which will be in two weeks. Do as thou wilt.” With a half-bow, I returned to my chair, resuming reading while pondering the club. The structure and system of goals would draw most people, and the opportunity to be in a secret club would draw the rest—I bet I could write to the shadowy rogue organization that served as college for thieves to see if they’d accept membership as an elective credit, but I had to figure out where they were first—Daphne sidling over to me quietly.

“How’d I do? Got some mixed reactions.” She shrugged, dragging over a chair and cracking open one of the various copies of Rogue Ruminations I’d scattered around.

“Good, I thought. Harry, Ron, and Draco have already come up with a name for their “spy supergroup.”” At my raised eyebrow, she rolled her eyes dramatically.

“The ‘Treacherous Trio.’ Everyone is picking out code names as we speak.” My interest piqued, I began considering one for myself as I asked her if she had one.

“I was thinking something mysterious, but in a ‘come into my parlor’ sort of way. Arabella suggested ‘Augury,’ ‘cause of family stuff.” I nodded, glancing over to find the ‘Treacherous Trio’ huddled in a corner, whispering maniacally. Arabella was examining the wall of targets, and I turned back to Daphne once I’d had an idea.

“How about ‘Black Lotus,’ for mine? Sounds pretty cool.” She nodded quickly, and we talked through some of the basics of rogue-ing until Allison Barnes came over, with a scrap of parchment.

“Collating everyone’s codenames—don’t worry, it's unreadable to non-members and is going to stay in here.” I nodded, scanning through to familiarize myself—notable entries included Harry as Thunderbolt, Cassius as Boa, Lee Jordan as Nox (a twinge rose in my chest briefly at the memory of my vulture), and Gwendoline Hedgeflower as Tentacula—and scribbled my own down, before passing it to Daphne.

“Smart work, from a lion.” She rolled her eyes, and took the parchment once Daphne had written hers down.

“You showed up at the foot of my bed for a reason, I assume?” Leaving us snickering, she continued through the room, several pairs or groups already slipping back out into the castle. There were ten different targets to choose from, ranging in difficulty from the easy—lifting an intact bobotuber from Potions—to the nigh-impossible—sneaking into Sinistra’s office and taking one of the planets from her model solar system—and before I left, I added a year-long bounty on anyone who managed to get Dumbledore’s spectacles, with a thousand-Galleon prize and automatic promotion to shadowfoot for all involved crooks, causing a chorus of snickers and even more frantic plotting. By this time, it was easy to sneak back to the dungeons, knowing the lower levels of the castle almost by hand, and once I was safely in bed, behind curtains and a privacy spell, I allowed myself to relax. It was stressful, inventing an entire club that served to fill several needs at once: eyes and ears throughout the castle, practice of espionage in a microcosm compared to what was shaping up in Europe, and the chance to hone my—and several of my classmates—skills in sneakery and mayhem, if the need should rise. My biggest concern, and the main driver behind the Secrecy Charm, was preventing Telemoor from finding out—I had picked a few members of the rogue class, but this way there would be no way for her to know unless she was somehow inducted or told by myself, neither of which I planned on allowing. My primary concern aside from Quidditch was finding out more information about the professors, at least until I went back to war for winter break.

It had been a wise choice to ask to study druidic magic in the forest. Not only was the view of the castle from the lake shore magnificent, I was much better at weaving the spells described in Fascinating Flora, growing bushes, healing trees that had lost bark from practicing duelers, and even befriending a small sparrow that sat on my shoulder during my weekly sessions in the forest. Eidelia was a much more removed teacher, preferring to simply stand a bit down the shore and observe me when she did stop by. I hoped my genuine effort was doing enough, consistently achieving Es on my essays and, the day before the first Quidditch match of the year, against Gryffindor, I was complaining about it to Hermione in the Great Hall.

“I mean, it’s not like I’m upset at only getting Exceeds Expectations, but that last essay was practically N.E.W.T. level. I should have gotten an O for that one, at least.” She nodded supportively, annotating a textbook for her second track, an audit of warlock classes—she had no patron, so couldn’t really get into the full courseload—and shrugging.

“Some teachers just expect N.E.W.T. level. Honestly, Professor McGonagall started scoring me higher after I switched from SSE to WGS.” Two more track-specific formatting styles (Sorcerer Stylized Edition and Wizard Grammatical Series), one of which I already used, SSE, meaning I’d have to learn WGS in addition to RSA. Thankfully, most professors were fine with any, as I’d learned after mistakenly writing a Potions essay in Thieves’ Cant, which Snape had graded an ‘Outstanding.’

“Don’t even get me started on formatting styles, ‘Mione, Veht makes me write all my essays in iambic pentameter.” She pulled a sympathetic face, patting my back as Ron and Harry thudded down into the seats across from us, sans Draco. It was interesting to see how the three boys had bonded, becoming thick as—well, as thieves—over the past year through Quidditch and Scuppers, now as one of the “crews” of thieves seeking to distinguish themselves with their tomfoolery.

“Joining us for dinner?” Ron nodded, filling his plate, and Daphne sat on my other side, all of us settling into easy conversation. At one point, Hermione queried where the two missing members were, Draco and Arabella, and by the look in the other three’s eyes I knew they were up to business, snorting and brushing it aside as probably memorizing this year’s playbook. I had a very specific reason why I had kept Hermione out of contention, and until I was certain of a few things I was going to keep it that way. To my absolute astonishment, fully interrupting both dinner and my entire train of thought, Dumbledore cleared his throat from the entrance of the Great Hall.

“I believe that someone has found a use for my spectacles; might I have them returned, once whatever prank that requires them is completed?” The entire Hall went silent, a quick scan revealing Daphne barely containing a knowing look; a quick peak at her surface thoughts revealed that Arabella had mentioned a plan to get them, student body erupting into whispers and speculation as the Headmaster, wearing what was presumably a backup pair—a stylish set of horn-rimmed glasses—swept over to the staff table, smiling merrily. Once it wouldn’t be suspicious to do so, I excused myself, taking a roundabout way to the Clock Tower. Everyone else was at dinner, and as I entered I spied Arabella, carefully setting a pair of half-moon spectacles on my impromptu desk.

“I admit, I didn’t actually think anyone would get it.” She paused, relaxing as she recognized my voice and turning.

“Do I lose points getting caught turning it in?” I rolled my eyes, crossing to give her a fist-bump.

“Nope. Congratulations, ‘bell.” I dug out a sack of gold, and retrieved the member list, a few octaves changing the rank beside her codename, Olive, from footpad to shadowfoot.

“Just wanted to make sure. Draco would be insufferable if he’d managed to do it.” She giggled, and I left first, heading back to the dorm to start getting ready for the game tomorrow, where I would play with the new Slytherin Beater, Ron Weasley. Not for the first time, I contemplated putting myself into a timed magical coma, just to chase the feeling, before deciding against it, as timing a spell duration was more difficult than controlling time itself, and reading until the sun rose. Directly after the match—a polite, non-aggressive game, as both captains had agreed to set a precedent for the year—in which Slytherin had won, I met with Telemoor to explain a few parts of a hypothetical essay on a bank heist (actually theoretical, this time). We met up in the classroom, and she handed me a list of questions and piece of chalk—it took a solid hour to explain parts of the essay, as several aspects hinged on interactions between spells, not just spells themselves—and I drew several illustrations needing a total of three blackboards to contain, ending with a slightly out-of-breath conclusion. To my surprise, she gave polite applause, stepping closer to inspect some of my work.

“Very well-reasoned. Fifteen points to Slytherin, Miss le Fay.” With that, I was awarded an O, leaving with a smile on my face that lasted until the guild meeting. Several of the targets were sitting on my desk, not the least of which was Dumbledore’s glasses—I’d be taking the mission to get them back, another high-level one partially meant to boost my own standing—and I awarded various prizes to those who pulled off successful missions, the duo of Lee Jordan and Flora Carrow (Nox and Dagger, respectively) having pulled off the most daring heist and moving up to operative; each successive rank required an additional successful mission, going from one at footpad to seven for master thief, totaling twenty-eight. I also allotted some wall space for targets for each rank, as it wouldn’t make much sense for someone to earn the title ‘master thief’ by stealing Pomfrey’s hat. Several likely candidates for the Talon were beginning to emerge, from Arabella, who in one job had proved she had a gift for infiltration; Eloise Midgen, a sorcerer-bard who had mastered the Disguise Self spell to a level approaching Metamorphmagi, codenamed Blackthorn; Lee Jordan, who was a brilliant safecracker; Allison Barnes, an expert conversationalist with a honed ear for gossip, codenamed Waterfowl; and Cassius, who revealed himself to be one of the best potioneers I’d ever seen, and a deadly sleight-of-hand ability with poisons. A society of blossoming rogues was certain to be unique, and I ended the meeting with what was soon becoming ritual, “Good luck, and do as you will.” I was the last out, sealing and hiding the door before making my way down towards the common room. As the clock struck one, I rounded a corner near the entrance, stopping dead in my tracks as I spotted a shadowy figure ahead.

“Out late, Jude.” Sinistra?

“I’ll take the points, professor, I wanted to work on the Astronomy essay tonight—”

“Twenty points. Don’t try to fool me, either, I know for a fact you’d be able to list the stars blindfolded. Run along, now, and practice growing flowers.” As I drew closer, I could see the visible sneer on her face. We were alone, and I pulled my lips back a bit, baring my teeth up at her.

“How’d it feel to work so hard, only to get beat by a first-year?” Her sneer turned into a snarl, and after I’d passed her a Stinging Hex struck the back of my neck, edge of a cloak flapping around a corner before I could turn fully. Prats.

One afternoon, during Defense Against the Dark Arts, I was scribbling down a description of a Hinkypunk, Quirrell leading a pretty interesting discussion with a few personal anecdotes. Most everyone was paying attention, and I scratched out a misspelled word before a muffled scream reached my ears. I stiffened, Daphne a few seats over—our enhanced senses must’ve alerted us sooner—as another scream was audible to the rest of class, causing everyone to pause. Frowning, Quirrell ordered us to stay where we were, drawing his wand and exiting from a rising chorus of mutters. Daphne and I exchanged mystified looks, Milicent peering at the door from the desk with me curiously. Five minutes later, we were informed that all classes for the day were cancelled, and to report to our common rooms as soon as possible; I had no idea what was going on, making eye contact with several members of the Circle as our class filtered through the halls; during a brief meshing through Hufflepuff, a note was slipped into my pocket, and us second-years made quick tracks for the dungeons, knowing when to turn tail and run. Speculation abounded, a sixth-year who was walking with us grimly theorizing that someone had died, making everyone panic as we shuffled into the common room, where most of the house waited. After doing a count for all of my friends, I sidled over to the Quidditch team, noticing a disheveled Draco and out-of-breath Arabella doing the same with the Scuppers team. Ron shot me a worried look, face pale and sickly green in the light from the lake.

“What’s going on? Are we being attacked?” I shrugged, brow furrowed, and watched as the remaining members of Slytherin filtered in, usually a class or year at a time. Finally, an hour after I’d first heard the scream, Snape stepped into the room, face tight.

“Thank you for behaving in an orderly manner and waiting patiently. There has been an… attack. Carl Hopkins, a Gryffindor sixth-year, was found critically injured in the third-floor corridor during fifth period. He is in the Hospital Wing, pending transfer to St. Mungo’s. If I find that a single one among you is involved in any way, I will personally hand a recommendation of expulsion to the Headmaster. Is that clear?” Everyone nodded, cowed, and when no one stepped forward to turn themselves in, he nodded brusquely.

“I shall take that as your honesty. Remain here; food will be delivered while the castle is searched.” He swept back out, room erupting into arguments and shouting matches as the entire house started yelling, all at once. Scowling, I found a seat by the lake windows, trying and failing to tune out the noise around me in order to think. Something had attacked a student, but it wasn’t like anything I or Poppy had encountered before; another unique variable. He was critically wounded, but the way Snape had said it, he had a good chance at survival. Then, an ugly thought popped into my head, one I didn’t really want to think about—it was incredibly unlikely, but… still—Carl had been a member of the Circle. It was too early to draw a pattern, but if it did show up, that meant somehow, someone knew, and was targeting members specifically. It didn’t fit the motive for Telemoor or Sinistra, either; I could hardly imagine them unleashing some sort of monster or just attacking someone (then again, Telemoor had tried to poison me in my first year). Draco was sat across me, frowning out of the window.

“Sickle for your thoughts.” He shrugged, eyes flicking over to me briefly.

“Tricky business. Either a revenge hex gone wrong, or something more serious. Think it’s the duo?” I shrugged back, paused, then shook my head.

“Doesn’t fit any motive I knew about. Though, the rogue professor did try to poison me when I handed in an extra-credit essay on how to hypothetically burgle the stone.” He raised an eyebrow, nonplussed.

“Even then, why Hopkins? He’s just some Gryffindor.” Again, the idea surfaced, and my expression soured.

“Keep a secret?” Affronted, Draco nodded imperiously and leaned in.

“Was a member. If, Merlin forbid, another attack happens, I’ll be watching to see if it’s another of ours. That would be a motive.” He paled, nodding shakily before quickly excusing himself, leaving me alone, and frustratingly uninformed.

At around three in the morning, I crept out of the common room, invisible, and headed for the third floor. I needed to see the scene of the crime, irony not lost on me that it was the same hallway that had been used to hide the stone last year. The stone was cracked and, in places, charred; blood scattered across the floor, walls, and ceiling, while six paintings on either wall were burnt, broken, or slashed to pieces. As I drew closer, a shadow separated from the wall, bowing slightly and revealing Quirrell.

“Professor.” He nodded.

“Lady le Fay. You are quite lucky that I was on guard duty, tonight.” I smiled mirthlessly, casting a few spells to identify what, if anything, had happened magically. Surprisingly, it was staggeringly overflowing with a dark, nebulous magic that reeked like the darkest of the dark, on par with Horcruxes and Fiend Fyre.

“Powerful aura, isn’t it? Leaves very few options for what could have done it.” I nodded absentmindedly, pacing in a slow circle around the epicenter to join him.

“Unfortunately, it only really leaves the option of an Obscurus. Given the magical warding around the school, most—if not all—other options aside a powerful spellcaster are out of the window.” I frowned, examining the scratches into the walls and carpet.

“Seems unlikely. See the pattern of slashes? It’s almost like some sort of spinning object was traveling up the hallway, slashing everything around it as it went. Obscurus, is more likely—” I was stopped in my tracks as three professors materialized out of the darkness, opposite us and blocking the closest exit. Two I recognized immediately, while the third was familiar, but vague. Telemoor, predictably, stepped forward.

“Wandering the halls again, le Fay? Seems you have a habit of breaking curfew—and during a lockdown, no less.” I scowled, Quirrell trying to give an excuse before a raised hand from Sinistra cut him off.

“Consider yourself lucky to have an… ally present. It’d be in the interest of your health to drop your little games and guilds while you’ve still got friends breathing to go cry to.” Despite any angelic forgiveness, the flare of fire that welled up in my chest was decidedly not kind, room chilling by almost thirty degrees in a second as I rose to my full, eight-foot height. They wanted to act like this was the big leagues, then I would start swinging for the fences. Hunched slightly, with my wings extending into the shadows of the ceiling, I truly saw the reaction to seeing a demon for the first time; all the blood drained from their faces, Quirrell fainted, and the third professor crossed herself, only making me angrier.

“In the interest of my health, you say? You threaten my friends? Are you too cowardly to strike me directly, Dahlia?” The rogue professor, likely having bought my story of being an angel, looked near tears, gaping wide eyed with her wand trembling, but still trained on my face.

“I am going to stop whatever plans you are cooking up; hurting innocents is senseless and cruel—I’m sure I’ll find a suiting punishment for whoever I find that Obscurus in the hands of.” After a long, tense moment—no spells were cast—I shrunk back down, reviving Quirrell and brusquely sweeping out of the corridor, making tracks for the dungeons and safety. As I turned onto the corridor holding the entrance to the common room, a kindly old voice spoke from behind me.

“Hate, Miss Jude, is a place one goes when one cannot stand to feel sadness.” Pausing, I shot a watery glare over my shoulder at Dumbledore, who was watching me sadly.

“I am no stranger to tragedy. No loss of innocent life should be acceptable.” A sad smile receded into the shadows, having caught the half-moon spectacles I tossed to him, and I waited until I was securely behind a curtain and privacy charm to curl up and cry.

Chapter 26: Death

Chapter Text

Jude

The first club meeting after the attack was deadly quiet. Patrols had increased in the castle, mostly only meaning it took people a bit longer to arrive, expressions somber. Walking over to where the Gryffindors were clustered, I first gave my condolences before trying to figure out what he was up to. Lee Jordan was his friend, apparently, and told me he’d planned to go after the alchemy professor, Upiorzyca Medlar, as a bounty was put out on her specific brand of chalk (some professors liked to have specific brands for whatever reason). Not entirely knowing which professor she was, I then moved to talk to a Ravenclaw, Sheringham, who described Medlar as a cobalt genasi, a rather rare kind of earth genasi, and with further details my heart sank; she’d been the third professor to confront Quirrell and I. Quickly, I motioned Daphne over to a corner, putting up a privacy charm and explaining what had happened. Her expression darkened, shooting glances at the rest of the room with a bit of suspicion.

“Think they know?” I shrugged.

“It wouldn’t make sense to loose a pure magical force on a student just for trying to steal chalk. I need to read up on Obscurus, only know the basics. If it’s one of them, or even just her using it, this castle is in incredible danger. That sort of magical energy is far too unstable.” She scowled, glancing again. Pausing, I broke the barrier and raised my voice, addressing the crowd.

“Barnes, Midgen, Warrington, Jordan, Oakham, Swift, Carmichael, and Greengrass, stay. Everyone else, meetings are voluntary until the threat in the castle has been dealt with. Be safe, and remember the code.” No one argued, majority filtering out with well wishes and a few nervous glances. Gathering the seven thieves around me, I surveyed each face. If someone had infiltrated the club, there was a chance I’d just picked them for the Talon, meaning I had to simultaneously solve the problem while solving another problem internally, lighting a cigarette by the fire dourly.

“You seven have been chosen for the Talons of the Circle. Minimum ranks have been bumped up to operative, if you aren’t there already. Cloak, Boa, and Waterfowl will work on information gathering; eavesdrop on professors, break into other common rooms, I don’t care—we need to know what exactly did this, how, why, and who is behind it. Willow and Augury will be on library duty—I know, Oakham, it’s not as ‘glorious’ but it’s absolutely necessary to know our enemy—you’ll work in tandem with the information that the first three will find. Olive and Blackthorn will be focusing on watching out for our members; ideally, always two to a grouping, in-house or otherwise. I know our guild is just starting out, but this isn’t the time to roll over and die. We need to close rank.” The assembled seven nodded, Barnes giving a supportive nod as she led Lee Jordan and Cassius to the door. Eddie Carmichael dug out a pipe, puffed it furiously several times, and gave a salute before sauntering over, followed by Oakham and Daphne after they made plans to meet in the library. Finally, Eloise Midgen raised a hand, stopping everyone in their tracks.

“How will we communicate? It’d be hard to move information quickly otherwise.” I frowned, filtering through the magical spells I knew. Forging a telepathic link in the way Poppy had was out of the question, especially as one of them could be a spy, and crossed to a shelf, flipping through several older books.

“Here. Everyone circle up.” Bringing the book over with me, I stood in the circle as well, Camena floating over for spellcasting.

“Rary’s Telepathic Bond, plus a permanency enchantment. We’ll only be able to communicate with each other, not see into others’ brains, and this’ll allow us to stay in contact anywhere on this plane. Prick your finger,” I did so using a fingernail, drop of silver blood welling up to quiet surprise, though no one reacted suspiciously, and Camena began playing soft notes, infused with magical energy. Transfiguration as a discipline was one of the most useful, for crafting material components, and I summoned two broken eggshells—one from an Occamy and the other from an Ashwinder—instructing everyone to drip blood into both, before crushing them between my hands, murmuring a spell that caused them to vanish into nothingness as seven dots of light popped into my mind; one for each other member of the link. By binding the permanency spell to myself, it allowed me to cancel the bond whenever I chose, as well as setting myself as the focal point, or Muggle switchboard, dots of light flashing brighter as each person tested the link.

“Alright. For the Circle.” They all bowed their heads, ducking out in their assigned groups and leaving me alone. I didn’t spend a ton of time in the clubroom after, mostly doing a bit of tidying up and trying to distract myself from the train of thought in my head—who next, which member, student—and exited at around one-thirty, Disillusioning myself as a precaution and, for once, making it back to the dorms uninterrupted. The entire castle was grim, rumors traveling like wildfire about a possible cancellation of sports seasons, exams, and even shutting down the school. My newly inaugurated Talons filtered out into the castle silently, Daphne and Oakham digging up at least a book a week that had promising information—frustratingly, Obscurus and Obscurials were so rare that not very much information was known about them—while the eavesdroppers reported the same worries from the professors; notably, the trio of professors I knew to be somehow involved stayed damningly quiet during the meetings. Thankfully, no more attacks happened for several weeks, the third week of October passing in a quiet, mournful leadup to our next Quidditch match, against Ravenclaw. Inglebee had been suspended for six matches in the aftermath of the tournament, putting them down their most dangerous spellcaster, but no team seemed very eager about roughhousing on the pitch; Hopkins had recovered, and subsequently been withdrawn for the fall term, bringing our number down to twenty-nine. I kept a careful watch on the teachers’ booth during the game, spotting all three suspects throughout the match; we won handily, 110-90 before Harry caught the Snitch, but my eyes would regularly be locked onto Telemoor’s, who stared at me for the entire game. Seconds after catching the Snitch, a muffled rumble shook the ground, all windows in the Great Hall shattering in the distance. I didn’t even land, instead darting on my broom across the hills, lawn flying in a blurred green below me until I shot through the main window, jumping from my broom and landing in a three-point pose just in front of the staff table. Ten feet away, in a puddle of blood and broken chairs, lay Blaise Zabini, gasping weakly. Twenty feet past him, I saw the Obscurus, for the first time: a rapidly spinning, crackling ball of pure magical energy, dark as night, was floating stationary, digging slashes into the stone below it and tables near it seemingly just from proximity. I had no clue how to stop one, Camena drifting over and playing a melody that slowly began to stitch Zabini’s wounds together as I drew Necroth, black blade gleaming in the sunlight streaming through now-broken windows.

“Leave this place. You have no right to hunt children.” The ball of energy made no indication that it had heard me, still unmoving as Zabini was stabilized, doors to the Great Hall slamming open to reveal Dumbledore, wand out. The experienced mage processed the situation almost instantly, magic humming in the air around him just from the sheer presence of his aura, and he spoke calmly to me.

“Miss le Fay, please fly your housemate to the Hospital Wing; I will attempt to drive this creature out.” I nodded—he would know more about the creature between us than I—and pulled Blaise onto my broom, eyes never leaving the still-stationary Obscurus. A quick, frantic flight later (during which I saw the majority of the student body hurrying up to the castle under the watchful eye of the professors) I magically opened a window, flying through to meet an already-ready Madam Pomfrey.

“The Headmaster notified me of the situation. Set him down there.” I carried Blaise over to a bed, which promptly became stained with blood as several of his still-mending wounds tore back open.

Merlin—In my office, second shelf on the left. Two bottles of dittany, a Numbing Tonic, and a Dreamless Sleep.” I was already in motion, the sound of Healing Spells reaching my ears as I stepped into the cramped, low-ceilinged office. Poppy had been in here, for a cursed book, but I wasted no time reminiscing, locating the right potions and carrying them back out in a half-run.

“These wounds are cursed; the same as Hopkins. If you truly are the child of Morgana, help me with the healing magic.” I nodded rapidly, altering my diagnosis of the situation even as I began to restitch his wounds. There are two types of curse damage that can occur to a being: stagnant, things that leave a chronic effect—such as Harry’s scar, for example—and active, things such as cursed wounds or spells that actively damage the target—such as dehydration or Fiend Fyre. Blaise’s injuries, unless treated for curse-wounds, would never stay closed, eventually ending in exsanguination or complications from the curse itself. Camena began playing a rousing tune, pouring as much energy as I could into keeping him stabilized as I flipped through Morgana’s grimoire, pages marked more and more by the Slytherin’s blood as I kept having to lay my hands on him to stop re-opening wounds. As I did that, Pomfrey darted off, returning with a cart of emergency potions, and began to feed him Blood Replenishing Potions as I found the page I was looking for, scanning rapidly through the entry for a third-year spell, Remove Curse. I’d never cast it before, but didn’t have time to worry about inexperience, making a complicated series of gestures with my hands before placing one on his chest, and the other on his forehead.

Be cleansed.” A flash of blinding light emanated from my hands, seeping into his skin and racing along it, casting out shadows and sickly black oil as the cursed damage was purified, wounds finally beginning to stay shut as I finished. Drained from maintaining him and subsequently curing him, I toppled backwards, pair of oily hands steadying me before I could fall. In my focus, I’d completely missed the arrival of Snape and McGonagall, both of whom were watching grimly, faces drawn.

“She needs to sit. Expending that much energy is a dangerous feat for anyone; I can handle it from here.” I was led over to a chair in the office, arms still slick with blood up to my elbows—why had they gone after him? He wasn’t a member, had nothing really to do with me other than being in my year; the pattern didn’t make sense. McGonagall informed me that Dumbledore had managed to banish the Obscurus, defeating it for the moment, but I was too busy planning and updating those I was linked to, instructing them to hunker down with their houses and weakly lighting a cigarette.

Miss le Fay.” Scowling up at her, I made no move to put it out, simply casting an enchantment that would vanish the smoke.

“Sorry, professor, but that’s never a pretty sight. Just the one, eh?” She scowled, sitting at Pomfrey’s desk, and glanced at the door before withdrawing a thin, silvery pipe.

“Are you alright? Headmaster Dumbledore described the moment he entered the Great Hall.” I looked down at my shoes, counting droplets of blood silently.

“I’ll live. And by removing the curse from the wounds, hopefully Blaise will too.” She nodded, puffing a few times before quickly stowing it as Snape entered, pale.

“He has been put into a magical coma, to heal the rest of the damage in some comfort. Thirty points to Slytherin for assisting your housemate in dire need.” The points almost felt mocking, though I knew they weren’t, merely bowing my head and puffing a cloud of smoke.

“I’m glad he’s going to be okay. I’d never cast Remove Curse before—bit of a sh*t way to learn.” I lost five points for language, though McGonagall’s heart wasn’t really in it, McGonagall left to secure her house, while Snape took her seat and peered at me curiously.

“From what Madam Pomfrey described, you cast a continuous Mending Charm while simultaneously casting the spell to remove the curse. A future in Healing wouldn’t be surprising to me, if you so choose. Blaise Zabini will live because of your actions today.” Standing abruptly enough to knock the chair over, I managed to keep the tears in my eyes from falling as I thanked him, and left, passing Dumbledore at the entrance and darting through the castle mindlessly. No one was about, likely hiding in the common rooms, and I found myself at the top of the Astronomy tower, in the small storage level below the observatory. Squeezing between two dusty cabinets towards the back of the room, I found a small spot to sit on the ground, near-completely enclosed by miscellaneous junk and cast-aside school supplies. Of all the questions, the why was what couldn’t get out of my head. There was no reason to attack students; if it was for revenge, why not go after me? Even with my revelation as a demon, there were almost more ways to kill me than a human, from poisons brewed in holy water to Holy Fyre itself—why? Not to mention Telemoor’s sudden involvement in Europe, where she’d claimed to not have expected me there; a much bigger game was afoot, beyond the castle or even Britannia, and I let out a frustrated whine at not knowing. I didn’t know how they’d gotten an Obscurus, or how they were using it; I didn’t know what the point was in infiltrating Arcadia, or why the rogue, astronomy, and alchemy professors were in cahoots; I didn’t know how or why they were selecting targets. If the windows hadn’t exploded in the Hall, Blaise likely would have bled out on the floor during the walk-back from the match. It was so blatant, but I also didn’t have proof of their involvement beyond a gut feeling and a veiled threat; not enough to bring to Dumbledore, or the Ministry. The feeling of helplessness I’d felt, many times before—trapped under Stan in the fountain, slammed into the ground while a horde of vampires tore into my flesh, and worse, far worse; the feeling of helplessness as I detonated Saprophus, knowing there had always been a choice but too focused on saving the world that I took the easy, bloody route. Had this penchant for blood, the aching fire in my heart begging to maim and slaughter, really been a result of my transformation? Looking back at the twelve years since my creation, I came to the disgusted conclusion that I had always been this way, the increases in magical strength only serving to make the consequences progressively more catastrophic. What was the point?

Some time later, when my eyes had seemingly run out of tears, I was still curled into a ball, staring at the splintered leg of a cabinet a few inches in front of my face.

“J-Jude?” Reflexively, I struck, punching a hole straight through the cabinet and revealing Daphne, nervously standing by the door.

“You’re supposed to stay in groups. Why aren’t you in the common room?” I noticed tearstains down her cheeks, as well, carefully navigating the junk in the room to sit down near me.

“My…” She looked down, jaw working, before staring at me, eyes swimming with tears.

“My god was crying.” I scooted back, sitting up against the wall and regarding her sadly.

“That doesn’t matter. I’ll be fine. And, I am no god, more than you can ever know.” She reached out, and I pressed myself back, stone groaning in complaint against my involuntarily strength.

“You want to know the truth? Have a divine revelation? When I started out I wasn’t even human. I’m a flesh golem that was brought to life and told to figure it out. Lesser.” Daphne was fully crying, my own eyes beginning to water as she scooted closer.

“So what? Look at what you’ve become—an archdevil, powerful mage, athlete, and friend. Sometimes, when you’re not around, we predict your future for laughs, but it’s always ‘discovers the cure for lycanthropy’ or ‘saves the world.’ You’ve been chosen by fate, somehow, and even we can recognize that.” I pulled my knees up to my chest, flashes of blood and bones and sinews and death, bisected body of a young demon rising and make me clench my teeth hard enough to break several.

“Fate has a cost. More people have died by my hand than I can count, all for a world I’m not even from. I raised my mother from the dead, took from her wife, just to get revenge on the goddess who tricked me into killing her. There is no further pit for me to crawl into.” Instead of souring, or leaving, pity welled up in Daphne’s eyes, and she crossed the remaining distance to wrap me in a hug.

I forgive you.” Then, in her arms, I cried once more.

The Quidditch season was cancelled, though classes still continued, and a week after the attack on Blaise, I was by the shore, working on druidic magic. I’d withdrawn further into the forest, not wanting to be visible more than I absolutely had to, and had taken to talking to the Tuma Dia, who was popping up almost daily at this point, red eyes always on me, unblinking. My studies were about the only thing that was working out well, practicing the Grasping Vine spell on various trees around me to get a feel for the whipping motion. As I worked, sweat working up from the repeated casting, a sudden wind blew in, falling from the west and sliding between the trees, driving in a low carpet of fog that coated the ground of the small hollow I stood in, up to my knees. The Tuma Dia had vanished from the small chair I’d grown from roots and flowers, and I paused as a magical aura began to draw near. It didn’t come from a specific direction, almost emanating from the fog, a pillar of the stuff slowly rising across from me as the magic coalesced. From the pillar stepped a cloaked, hooded figure, with a sword on their back holding a black gem that twinkled in the sunlight, which filtered down in bars through the canopy of trees.

“Who are you? Identify yourself or be considered a threat.” Shoulders shook, figure nearly doubling over as rough, scraping chuckles erupted into a chorus of reverberating, grating laughter before it composed itself.

“Bold. I like that about you and your kin, le Fay.” The figure stepped forward, into a pane of sunlight, which revealed a charred-black face, half of the jaw missing; it looked to be a djinn, or something similar, skin leeching heat from the air as it closed within ten feet. My hand was in my cloak, grasping Necroth, a tingle running up my spine like someone had just walked over my grave.

“I’ll ask you once more: who are you?” A grin revealed far too many, polished white yet jagged and mismatched teeth.

“Why, you’ve met beings like me, before. Two, in fact. I, Penelope Prott, am Death.” I scoffed, grip on my blade relaxing somewhat.

“No, you’re not. I’ve met the real death, both in my home and this world. Last chance.” Towering over me, the djinn leered down at me, light catching the blade on it’s back and casting a reflection of a tombstone across the trees behind it.

“Impudent and uninformed. I am no mere deity or being of the cosmos; I am the death of the story—and yours nears the final page.” All of the hair on my body stood on end, bravado dashed with a shaking stutter as I stumbled back a step.

“My work isn’t finished yet, monster. If you know my kin so well, you should know that Protts die on their own terms.” Almost faster than I could track, the blade was drawn and pointed at me; it was Poppy’s.

“You have a flawed understanding of the world, golem. Did you really think the prophecy your mother gave Riddle was about him? Life, story or not, has balance; your kind have subverted and upended destiny for long enough.” Scowling, I finally drew Necroth, wicked blade silent and pointed straight at the djinn’s chest.

“I’ve killed gods before. You’re just a bigger god.” It laughed again, throwing it’s head back and scattering birds from the trees above with each heave of it’s chest, ending in a rasping, rattling cough not unlike a dementor.

“I am no god. I am a force of nature, the conclusion, epilogue; I am the end.” Staring down at me, my sword beginning to tremble, the djinn raised a smoky eyebrow.

“But… not yet. Consider this a professional courtesy—you are among the last of Morgana’s line, the misbegotten arbiters of fate that have meddled for far too long—but your time is not fated yet. When the sun falls, and all is finally, utterly lost, I will return. Run, little golem. Run as fast as your wings can take you.” Taking it’s advice, I tore off towards the castle, mind swirling in fear as the words of Poppy’s prophecy, all those years and worlds ago, rang in my head. A subversion of undeath, born from the rising sun. Retrospectively, with the prodding of this entity, I began to reexamine several memories, both my own and Poppy’s. It did apply to Voldemort, and as I found a seat alone in the Great Hall, I hunched over my tea, trying to turn invisible. It also applied to every known member of Morgana’s family; she had subverted death with a Horcrux, Poppy had by becoming death, and later being resurrected; but as I thought about further, not eating, I realized how accurate it was to me. Three incidents in particular, though there were more, fit the boundaries of the prophecy: being smote out of vampirism by the hand of a god, being attacked and turned into a vampire in the rising sun at Highburn, and finally, most damningly, the rising Bulb on the first day of my mission to kill Poppy. Was the prophecy she had given about the fates of both Merlin and Morgana’s blood, effectively meaning she’d read the prophecy for all of us? Returning to the dorm, appetite nonexistent, I left the curtains open, needing a view of the entire room to feel safe. The Tuma Dia peeked at me from under a bed, but I paid it no mind, wrapping myself in my blanket and spending the rest of druid class huddled, Camena floating protectively beside me. After that, my last class of the day was Potions, moving through the castle like a wraith and joining the others silently outside of the classroom. At my face, most simply didn’t ask, Daphne moving over and putting an arm around me as we found our seats. The brew for the day wasn’t too difficult, Antidote to Uncommon Poisons, but my mind was elsewhere, Daphne taking over and doing most of the work when I would periodically stare off into space, haunted by the words of both prophecy and djinn. I couldn’t die, I had a mission to finish. Would… would saving this world kill me?

“Can you grab the jar of owlbear fat, please? This isn’t as cohesive as it needs to be.” Nodding, I drifted over to the supply cabinets, scanning labels for a few seconds before finding the right jar and bringing it back over.

“Is… are you thinking about the Astronomy Tower?” I shook my head, watching with muted interest as she measured out the correct amount.

“Something else. Nothing to worry about, just trying to figure the mystery. Don’t worry about me, I’ll live.” Neither of us missed the break in my voice at the word ‘live,’ but she said nothing, tending to the cauldron as my eyes roamed around the classroom. Most people were progressing pretty well, a few second-year Gryffindors struggling under Snape’s ever-vigilant stares and snide comments, and I caught several members of the group glancing at me with a bit of worry. The fugue carried through the rest of class, not even reacting as Snape awarded us an E and simply walking out, alone. Problems and doubts swirled in my head, clouds in the sky above the castle beginning to darken and roil—what a crummy way to learn I’d inherited the same connection with weather—and didn’t even notice running to someone until they called my name.

“Miss le Fay?!” Turning, I managed to focus my eyes on a professor’s face, clearly elven and holding a dusky purple, shocked stare.

“Sorry. Wasn’t paying attention.” The strange look remained, but the brow softened, and she stepped forward gently.

“Are you a warlock, child?” The complete non sequitur completely knocked me out of my head, and I blinked rapidly, face morphing into confusion.

“How’d you know?” A gleaming smile broke out across her face, and she crossed the remaining distance gracefully, leaning down and placing her hands on my shoulders.

“Would you like a strong cup of tea, and a few parcels of advice?” I’d never encountered an elf before that moment, the ethereal, graceful nature like they were moving through water—plus the breathy, lyrical way this professor was talking—unsettling me to a surprising degree. Elves were some of the most attuned to the flow of magic, and I could almost see the magical aura around her, like a silhouetting effect.

“Er, sure. Who are you?” Keeping a hand on my shoulder, she guided me a bit through the castle, ironically only two floors below the Circle’s hidden room, into an office that reminded me of McGonagall’s or Flitwick’s: stacks of parchment, shelves overflowing with books and various material components scattered on every available surface, all within reach of the desk—which had a veritable fortress of books lining the edges, stacked—that the professor sat behind, smiling. I summoned a chair, and repeated my question.

“I am Professor Cariadelothriel, the warlock professor. Please, call me Professor Caria.” Glancing around the office, I nodded, still not entirely sure what this had to do with anything. A fragile-looking, ornamental cup floated over to me, accompanied by my response.

“Nice to meet you, then. What does me having a patron have to do with anything?” The tea was very strong, and sour, making my mouth fold in on itself and almost making me spit it out, but I downed it to be polite.

“You have had a recent revelation, I believe, and it is causing you some difficulty.” I carefully set the cup on the desk, frowning up at her.

“I may have. Did you cast a spell on me?” Her brow creased slightly, waves of copper hair flowing almost in slow motion around her as she shook her head.

“I shall let you in on a secret: I am also a warlock, yes, but my pact was crafted for a very specific purpose, in ages and lands long past.” Caria’s eyes grew distant, held for a second, then refocused.

“I am contracted to the god of warlocks. It may sound rather farcical, but such a being does exist; I could not determine which one you are contracted to, and wished to ease your turmoil with any explanation that I may be able to give.” Was someone blowing gillyweed smoke into the room?

“Well… First, will you keep this a secret?” She nodded decisively.

“I am magically bound to do so, as many contracts are secret and without compulsive measures they would have none to turn to for advice.” Reassured, I took another tentative sip of tea before continuing.

“This isn’t trying to be mean, but you… might not have even known that my patron exists. I—er, don’t have a name, either.” Intrigued, Professor Caria withdrew an eagle-feather quill, snatching a piece of parchment and placing it in front of me.

“It is a part of every contract that the warlock’s hand will always be able to identify the patron, for this exact reason. Please, focus on attempting to write the name, and let your hand react on memory.” Unable to prevent a dubious look, I picked up the quill and placed it against the parchment, trying to will it to write. After a second, to my surprise, my hand moved, writing a name I’d never seen before.

“Hm. Let me consult my archives.” She retrieved several books, flipping through them one after another as I watched with some interest; they were compendiums, lists of gods sorted in as many different ways as alignment, region of origin, values, on and on through sixteen volumes that were all combed by the elven professor’s graceful movements. I was a little bemused, having no idea what was going on and still caught up in the surrealness of the situation until she stopped, closed the sixteenth book, and sighed.

“I regret to inform you that, within the compendium of known divinities, Laelia does not exist. Do not fret, however; there are things beyond divinity.” Digging through her desk, she withdrew two books. I recognized the binding of one, the slimy, dripping black oil and stapled-together, wriggling black tentacles almost as horrifying as the single, beady eye that glared out at me; the other was a small, pocket-sized book that paled in comparison to the thing sewn from the flesh of a Galaxy Eater beside it. Tilting the book up, so I couldn’t see the contents (probably for the best), she skimmed through it, slight frustration slowly replaced by mounting dread the closer she got to the end. The first book was placed back in her desk, leaving the smaller one, which she did not open.

“I had hoped… There is only one that can surpass the magical compulsion to identify truthfully. This book may only be read thrice in the lifetime of the reader, and as such I shall also read this one away from you.” Before I could protest, Caria altered the wall of books, building it into a wall between us. For several minutes, no sound was heard, until the books moved again, revealing the book having been stowed into her desk, and her expression somber.

“I am aware to whom you have pledged your soul. There are two aspects, or faces, of the entity: creation and destruction. The most probable deduction is that you very recently encountered the aspect of destruction, without knowing it had existed before that moment. From a being of this magnitude, such an event can never be received well. I would strongly recommend you consider studying the school of warlocks, in the near future.” Looking down at my hands, which were face-up, I sighed.

“Suppose it makes sense. It just… got to me. Foretold my doom, the usual. With everything going on in the castle right now, too, it’s been a little stressful.” Caria nodded sagely, stirring her tea with a spell and smiling.

“But, you are still going. Each day is a new adventure, a new chance to discover and learn. Laelia, as I advise you to continue referring to your patron as, is a being that holds the infinite potentiality for both good and evil; it is to you to decide which words are written.” Truly inspired, I returned the smile, taking another grudging sip of tea.

“Thank you, professor. That means a lot.” After setting the mostly-full tea back, I was dismissed, promising to read several books and consider studying warlock next year before seeking out the others, pinging Daphne through our mental link and following her directions to a tree that was on the shore of the lake, near the edge of the lawn. It was shady, stubborn leaves potentially magically stuck to it, and I thumped down next to Ron, who was playing Exploding Snap with Arabella.

“—Fat chance, Swift, I’ve got faster eyes than you—”

“You wish, Weasley, you’re losing for a reason—” I glanced over at Draco, who, after raising an eyebrow, tossed the Prophet at me.

“Enjoyed skiving off dinner to go wander the castle, then?” Scanning the headline, I was delighted to find a front-page issue bearing news of the newest broom, the Firebolt.

“Pretty Sickle for it. Sure the le Fay family can afford for the team? The Malfoy line would be oh so eager to assist.” Rolling my eyes, I shook the paper at him, Daphne taking the current evens section as I did.

“This is my newspaper, Draco. In three months it’s already made back half of what it cost to buy the bloody thing.” His, Daphne’s, Hermione’s, and Harry’s jaws all dropped, Ron and Arabella too into the game to notice.

“You’re joking. You bought the Daily Prophet?” Dryly, I indicated the subscript beside the logo, which read, ‘Owned and operated through the philanthropy of the le Fay family,’ and tossed it back at him with a snort.

“Honestly, it was a bit pricey, but the investment is going to be well worth it. The articles actually maintain column borders and have clearly demarcated sections; I’m surprised no one saw the difference.” Draco scoffed, inspecting the subscript dourly as Daphne read a few juicy bits aloud from her section.

“If you desperately want to spend fourteen thousand Galleons of your family’s gold to outfit the team, you are more than free to do so.” Reminded of the price, his smug expression drained away, Hermione shushing us as Daphne read a specific point.

“’In light of the two students attacked by what has now been identified as an Obscurus, the Ministry is officially decreeing that activities such as Dueling Club and other combat-focused extracurriculars be made mandatory, to increase student preparedness in the event of subsequent attacks. A joint investigation by the Hogwarts Academy board and Ministry is likely soon to be announced.’ How exactly are we supposed to fight an Obscurus? I can’t imagine Stonehammer or Earth-Heaver would take it seriously.” I scanned the article before passing it to Arabella, frowning out at the lake.

“It’s good that they’re trying to do something, s’pose. Reassure everyone that steps are being taken.” Ron, as usual, made a lot of sense, Harry kicking a rock down into the water grimly.

“First they take Quidditch, now we’ve got to learn how to fight. Er, no offense.” Those of us in combat-based study waved him off, Daphne soon discarding the paper while Ron and Harry went down to skip rocks; the sun was high in the sky, and I breathed a sigh of relief, thankful for a peaceful moment.

Chapter 27: Demon, Familiar

Chapter Text

Jude

I didn’t need to try very hard for the fighting lessons, and Stonehammer let me teach my friends for most of the sessions. Everyone in the cast had grown much more withdrawn, clusters of friends moving in herds through the castle; Circle meetings usually only consisted of myself and the Talon, none of whom had made any progress in tracking down the Obscurus. It had to be somewhere in the castle, and as winter break drew near I set my sights on crafting a tool that might be able to help us track down the magical signature; the Oculus. It was an idea put forward privately by Arabella, who, in her nighttime snooping around the castle, had contrived to find a map of it for an easier method of understanding the passages. Apparently, the castle had been woven entirely from magic by the four founders, and as such had no building schematics or design plans anywhere, leading her to the natural conclusion of making a map. Doing it on parchment didn’t make sense, as the sheer size and interwoven, magical expansion would have made a two-dimensional representation impractical; I had the novel idea to enchant a pair of glasses to act as a looking glass, of sorts, but infusing a magically navigable map secretly into the glass of the glasses was already a nonstarter. After a week of muttered curses and twenty broken pairs of glasses, I gave and had a pair custom-made with diamond for lenses, as precious gems could store magical energy and thusly, theoretically, be suitable for our purposes. The three pairs that arrived were also significantly more durable than the cheap or Transfigured ones we’d been testing with before, with plenty of room on the rims for runework if necessary. Most of our free time was spent huddled in the library, scanning through books on everything from abjurative magic to scrying, and cartography magic—we pilfered an absurd amount of books using Morgana’s cloak, entire trunk-study becoming filled with obscure theory, sheafs of messy parchment, and scattered inkbottles. I was a bit glad I’d picked a stationary painting, as a moving one would likely be staring down at the mess in disdain nonstop as we worked—not having a Quidditch season quickly began to pay off as, in late December, we figured out the first big hurdle. The room had been expanded, several blackboards and tables now strewn with notes, empty bottles of Butterbeer, and flat pieces of jewels. I was sitting in a rolling chair, arms crossed and smoking a cigarette as Arabella filled the fifth blackboard with calculations.

“It isn’t as much the cut or quality that interacts with the enchantment, but rather the way the enchantment functions in metaphysical space. By weaving a lattice of magical energy through the spell itself, and binding it to the jewel, it can be ‘assigned’ a format by the boundaries of the lattice.” I’d known Arabella was smart before, at least on par with Hermione and Daphne, but now I knew that she was this world’s magical equivalent to Hermione Granger post-Tree of Knowledge, who could invent entire branches of magic within a twenty-minute press junket, watching in disguised awe.

“Could information be stored along the actual format of the lattice?” She shook her head, glancing back and forth from me to the board.

“No, the magic and intent of the spell does. Any sort of additional enchantment would either have to be in a different lattice—a dangerous thing to do when dealing with so much energy—or, by using a hexagonal lattice, held in the actual gaps of it. Even I don’t know how to do that, as it’s theoretical.” Finishing my cigarette and lighting another, I took a sip of coffee.

“And, how dangerous would layering the lattices be?” Her eyebrows rose, eyes darting off into space momentarily.

“Very. Trying to cram multiple formats into a single gem can cause it to overheat and shatter, at the very least.” My frown returned, and I looked down at a flattened sapphire I’d been turning over in my hand.

“How thick does a single gem need to be to store a lattice that’s viable? Instead of trying to force multiple different enchantments into the same one, could we layer several thin ones together to achieve a unified effect?” A twinkle sparked in her eyes, and she moved over to the sixth board, beginning in a different color chalk, likely for effect.

“Potentially. The thinnest that can be achieved with transmutation or transfiguration is about half a millimeter; once bound into a specific configuration, they shouldn’t be very fragile. What are you suggesting, an inch-thick lens or something?” I shook my head, rising and grabbing a piece of chalk, scratching out a few notes of my own.

“Seven layers—It’s the most magical number. Each lens has a specific lattice and enchantment attached, with an underlying bond to use all seven in conjunction to sustain the map. Each layer would also need to be carefully engraved with runes to prevent cross-over when moving from different enchantments—can you handle the Arithmancy?” She was already writing it out, and after another sleepless night, we knew what the next step of the puzzle was. Throughout all of it, none of the suspect professors acted out of character; Telemoor was infuriatingly smug in class, Sinistra would focus questions at me for as much of class as was reasonable, but nothing untoward. Any leads I’d managed to scrape together were long cold by the time I stepped off of the train in London, moving from one storm to another.

Ellie

“You know, it’s not just a slight aberration in time for you to be here. Thank you.” She flipped open the paper, Jack and I sharing a confused look as I sipped my coffee.

“You’re linked to something temporally, likely the Mojave—your actual native habitat.” I scowled into my cup.

“Not likely. I still haven’t turned in my first bounty.” The Doctor arched her eyebrow, and my scowl deepened.

“Sure, we’re in the past, whatever. How much am I really going to do going around hunting down bad guys for money?” At that, neither had an answer, waiter coming by to refill our drinks; when Jack asked for menus, I got the idea that we might be here for a while.

“You’d be surprised. Fate is fickle, but usually gets what it wants in the end. Each and every person, say, passing by this window—all of them are potential. Entire worlds and lives, hidden away in their minds like a unique, comfortably appointed apartment from which to peek out at the universe around them. You might not even realize how varied the trajectory of your existence is until you look back on it.” It made sense, in a very confusing sort of way. If I’d been asked what I thought I was going to be doing as an adult when I was growing up in the West, I’d probably have said an MP or a teacher, not anywhere near being a frontline courier or bounty hunter. Through circ*mstance, and a mix of luck and—I guess—fate, I’d ended up there.

“True. Seems a little dangerous to rely on things like luck and fate, though.” Her grin was decidedly sharp, primly ordering a bowl of soup before responding.

“Where’s the fun in being safe? Ellie Jones, bounty hunter.”

Jude

“Could I have a head of cabbage, two carrots, and an apple? Thanks.” Handing over a few gold pieces, I filled the rest of my basket with groceries and ambled over to a less bustling corner of the market. Undercover again, spying on a border town that we didn’t want to attack unless necessary. Rithondriel had been given the reigns of the eastern front, but the push wasn’t starting yet; neither had the Storm Empire tried much after the string of assassinations along their border Taun had been maintaining. Back sore from being magically hunched, I sat on a stoop, sweeping long, gray braids from my face and grimacing. There was a light dusting of snow, mostly melted by the various people filtering in and out of the different stalls, tables, and stands that formed an intricate maze through a paved courtyard, at the opposite end of me sat a modest cathedral. I was waiting, as I had for several days, for the governess to leave the church—I had no idea what she was doing in there, but I didn’t want to put up with the migraine while concentrating on my disguise, scowling at a mouse before rising again and making my way to an empty alleyway. Around an s-bend in the houses, I de-aged myself, keeping a different look but not wizened and sore, dropping my basket of groceries and moving to the next spot to survey, the tavern. I’d been rotating between the market, tavern, and governess’ manor throughout my stay, and sat at the end of the bar, hood up. Once I had a mug of mead down, I managed to shake some of the discomfort, snow starting to turn to rain outside. I didn’t know how to fully control the effect I had on the weather yet, as such not really being able to do anything about it and drinking more. This was one of the more remote towns, and after changing shape I’d belted Necroth to my back, single-edged and scary, as a safety measure, ordering another mead as a trapdoor opened up in the floor behind me, near one of the corners. Several people climbed out to laughter and applause, revealed to be a few notable people dressed in “drinking clothes,” spying the bishop of the church, two soldiers, and by sheer luck my target, the governess. This complicated things significantly, while also explaining something that had been confusing me; I couldn’t just sneak up and kill her, as I was the only stranger in the tavern, and I’d not been able to track her movements due to this tunnel, and likely others. Lighting my cigarette, I finished my drink and left, stepping out into a modest rainstorm. From the awning, I peeked around the corner of the building, finding a good route to the manor and taking off as silently as I could. If she was drinking here, that likely meant