Frost crept up the walls. A thin, clear film curled past Bella’s toes, shining in the light of the half moon. Her breath misted and goosebumps rose along her arms.
A shadow drifted past the bars of her cell and the chill seeped into her blood.
‘Cissy’s going to scream,’ Bella muttered. A deep, soft despair crept up inside, closing over her like high, dark waves. She blew a long pale cloud out across her room and let her sister’s shriek ring in her ears. ‘Poor Cissy.’ She giggled. ‘Poor us, Bell.’
Definitely poor us, Bella. Bella swiped frost of the polished wall and stared into the blurred violet glow of her eyes. Cissy’s out there having fun without us. Andi, too.
The door shivered, then melted away like candle wax; it pooled on the floor like spilt water, dark as ink in the moonlight from the window.
Like blood. Bella bounced across and crouched down, poking a finger into it. Pain flashed up her arm, sweet as honey melting on her tongue.
‘Ow.’ She pouted. ‘Hot.’
‘Bella.’ A soft, cool whisper drifted to her ears. ‘Aren’t you bored of being in here?’
She giggled. ‘Yes, my lord.’
Crimson eyes opened in the doorway, dark robes gathered beneath the slitted pupils, swirling together like thick, black smoke caught on the breeze. A long-fingered, pale-skinned hand reached out of the shadows. ‘Time to go, then.’
‘Time to play,’ Bella sang. She extended her arm.
The tip of the Dark Lord’s wand traced the ink serpent beneath her skin; it writhed and stung, then there was a soft snap and the walls of her room vanished.
A huddle of ragged-robed, limb-haired, dirt-crusted people stumbled and staggered across a polished marble floor. Moonlight spilt through the circular, domed window at the centre of the frescoed ceiling, bathing them all in cold, clear light.
They all need a bath. She raised an arm and sniffed her armpit. We need a bath, too, Bell.
A thick-bearded, gaunt man twisted round. ‘Lestrange.’ His eyes swept over her, small, hot, and beady. ‘You’re looking surprisingly good. I see what Rookwood meant. Fancy spending some time?’
Heat bubbled beneath Bella’s skin. A ripple of magic flashed out from her; it smashed the man away across the floor. He skidded into the wall and curled into a ball.
‘Bella,’ the Dark Lord murmured. ‘We don’t throw our own pieces off the board, do we?’
‘No.’ She pouted and stuck her finger out at the crumpled figure. ‘But they weren’t looking at me very nicely, so it’s their fault.’
Silk whispered across the floor behind her. A faint heat curled over her skin. Purple silk so dark it was near black swept round her.
‘A new dress.’ The Dark Lord stepped past her into the centre of the beam of moonlight and slid his wand back into his sleeve. ‘To prevent any further mistakes from your comrades.’
The huddle staggered away into a ragged circle. Trembling limbs and dull, glazed eyes ringed the Dark Lord’s crimson gaze and tall, slim, pale figure.
There’re no comrades here, Bell. Only other players. One better, the rest worse.
‘Thank you, my lord.’ Bella admired the cut and fit of the sleeves. ‘It’s pretty.’
The Dark Lord paused and extended one open palm out. ‘Not so beautiful as these must seem to you all.’
Wands spun into existence in the air over his fingers. Sparks of silver, green, blue, red, and yellow fountained off them as they drifted back to their owners. Low cries, gasps, and sobs filled the air beneath the frescoed ceiling. A familiar curved, dark wand slapped back into Bella’s palm. Faint heat met the skin of her hand.
Now we’re ready to play, Bell. She slipped the wand through the waist of her dress. Nearly ready, Bella. We’ve got weaker stuck in there. Not our magic, or our vessel, but our touch has rusted.
‘Severus has made you all a number of restorative potions,’ the Dark Lord said. ‘But you all deserve far more than that. Unlike other, weaker, wizards and witches, you remained true. You failed me, yes, but you stood by me as you promised you would.’ He spun, his thin lips curling back into a cold grin. ‘And now I am returned, you are free, and we can begin anew.’
Whispers washed round the circle. A low murmur swelled into a gentle roar.
Bella giggled beneath her breath. ‘The game begins.’
The Dark Lord raised his hand. ‘Go, all of you save Augustus, Rabastan, Rodolphus, and Bella. There are empty rooms aplenty here. Rest. Regain your strength, my loyal followers, and wash the chill of Azkaban from yourselves.’
The circle shuffled away into the shadows. Three figures stumbled forward.
The Dark Lord’s crimson gaze passed over them. ‘I am disappointed in the three of you.’
Strange boy and his brother quailed.
The other grimaced. ‘What about Bella, my lord? She failed too!’
‘Bella’s instructions were clear. She was meant to cause distraction and death enough to hide the importance of the child’s end.’ The Dark Lord’s tone sharpened. ‘You were simply meant to kill the Longbottom child, not dally and torment his family instead. The boy still lives, though it matters not now. I care not for your means, my followers, but if they forfeit me my ends, then you will face my wrath.’
‘Apologies, my lord.’ Strange boy bowed from the waist. ‘We lost ourselves in victory.’
‘And how did the last thirteen years of victory taste, Rodolphus?’ The Dark Lord’s wand slipped from his sleeve. ‘Was it sweet?’
Strange boy shook his head so hard the bones of his neck cracked. ‘No, my lord. We won’t fail again.’
‘See that you do not.’ The Dark Lord drew his wand through the air, shining metal streamed from the end like ink from a quill’s tip, hovering, then coalescing into three rune-engraved silver masks. ‘Rabastan and Rodolphus, take your masks and go. You failed, but remained loyal and did not denounce me under any threat or torment. Your place at my side and all I promised is still yours to claim.’ The masks wavered like a distant mirage upon desert heat haze. ‘Provided you don’t fail again.’
Strange boy and his brother snatched the silver masks from the air and hurried away into the dark of a corridor.
‘My lord?’ The final figure’s voice shook. ‘I have not betrayed you, my lord.’
‘No, Augustus. I seek answers from you. Answers I ought to have sought from you before.’ The Dark Lord’s wand tip drifted up to hover before the figure’s forehead. ‘Answers you ought to have brought to me before.’
‘I have no secrets from you, my lord,’ Augustus mumbled.
The Dark Lord’s wand vanished into his sleeve. The silver mask hung in the air, like a butterfly pinned to white parchment. ‘Tell me, then, Augustus. The Department of Mysteries and the Hall of Prophecies within, how are they protected?’
‘To my knowledge, there’s relatively little.’ Rookwood edged forward into the moonlight. His adam’s apple bobbed like a fishing lure upon river ripples. ‘You can reach the department so long as you can enter the ministry, an easy feat for anyone with inside contacts. Malfoy must have some.’
The Dark Lord’s eyes narrowed. ‘I did not ask for a plan, Augustus, merely the magical defences surrounding my prize.’
‘Sorry, my lord.’ Rookwood shivered. ‘My mind. That place…’
‘Focus.’ The Dark Lord’s eyes glowed a soft, hypnotic red.
‘The door is heavily warded, but deactivating a few key wards renders it vulnerable to potent destructive magics like fiendfyre. There’s an enchantment on the corridor beyond it, I don’t know its exact nature, something to do with the torches, but it keeps you walking in circles forever if you don’t break it.’ Rookwood shuddered. ‘They’re more worried about keeping people from getting in, my lord. The artefacts within are considered so dangerous they need little defence, but no doubt there are wards to guard against tampering.’ His gaze flicked from side to side and he licked his lips. ‘Prophecies can only be taken by the hand of the one whom they’re about, my lord. And I fear it would be beyond any but you to break that piece of magic.’
Bella huffed. ‘I could.’
We definitely could, Bella.
Rookwood’s lip curled. ‘A mad bitch like you? You’ve no understanding of the subtleties of the Department of Mysteries.’
Heat boiled in Bella’s blood. A shimmer of air slammed into a shining silver shield formed of countless slithering serpents.
‘Bella,’ the Dark Lord chided. ‘Behave.’
The shield faded.
Awwwww. It was pretty.
‘And Augustus.’ The Dark Lord raised a long, pale finger. ‘Don’t be so foolish as to underestimate Bella. I have no other follower so useful as she is. It will be her honour to find the prophecy for me. Take your mask, Augustus. You have three days to rest, then you will seek out Lucius and aid him in infiltrating the department. Ensure you tell Lucius he will be accompanied by Bella when he goes. I will take a look at the wards upon the doorway myself and tell you how best to dismantle them.’
Rookwood swallowed. ‘Yes, my lord.’ He bowed low, grabbed his silver mask from the air, and scurried away.
The Dark Lord reached out to cup her cheek with his long fingers. His red eyes swept over her, a glint of curiosity in them. ‘Bella. You’ve fared well. I feared Azakaban’s wards and the lack of magic might do you harm.’
Bella pouted. ‘I don’t lose to old walls and silly wards, my lord.’
‘It would seem not.’ The corner of Dark Lord’s mouth curved up. ‘Go and rest, Bella. No mask for you, you’ve made me no promises, after all.’
So long as you’re better than me, you get to make the rules. Bella bounded away through the moonlight into the corridor, peering into the shadowed alcoves for an empty room. But if he slips, if he loses, we’ll go on playing without him, Bell. She paused and stared into a marble-floored room with a broad bed and tall, dark cupboards. Which will be a shame, it’s fun to watch him win.
‘But whomever beats him will be fun to watch, too, Bell.’ She smoothed down her dress and poked the duvet with her finger. ‘Nope, I’m not sleepy.’
We could go see Cissy and Andi, Bella. Butterflies fluttered in her belly. She pinned them down with deep breaths, picturing getting them one at a time. But we ought to tidy ourselves up, first. Andi will tease me if she sees me all mucky like this.
Bella pulled her wand out and stripped the dirt from her skin and hair with a flick. A second charm restored the white to her teeth. ‘I’m a – I’m a – I’m a… weird sister. I’m a – I’m a – I’m a… weird sister.’ She conjured a small mirror and smiled at her dark hair’s restored lustre, then waved her wand again, shearing her curls off at her shoulder blades. Faint crow’s feet lined her eyes. ‘I’m a – I’m a – I’m a… weird sister.’
That’ll do. She paused, wand halfway back to her waist. Boots, Bella. We need boots, can’t go about barefoot. We might slip. A balustrade drifted away just beyond the reach of small fingers in the eye of her mind. And fall, Bell. We might fall. The fog of memory closed back over the balustrade with Cissy’s scream. Forget that, Bella.
She transfigured an ornate vase into knee-high leather boots and slid her feet into them. ‘It’s a perfect fit, Bell!’ Bella giggled and stuffed her wand back through her dress’ girdle. ‘Let’s go see Cissy!’
She pictured the polished wood beams of Cissy’s bedroom, the delicate silver sculptures of flowers upon the shelves, and the huge bed with its mountain of pillows. Her magic wrenched her away.
Bella twirled across the polished wood. ‘Huh, it looks just the same, Bell!’
‘Bellatrix…’ Cissy stared at her with wide eyes from the door. ‘You look almost the same.’
She cocked her head. ‘No we don’t, this is a new dress. The Dark Lord gifted it to us.’
Cissy swept forward, shutting the door behind her and casting a quick ward. ‘Why’re you here, Bellatrix?’
A faint heat trickled through Bella’s veins. ‘Bella. We’re Bella.’ She huffed and stamped her foot. ‘We wanted to see our sister. We wanted play together. It’s been ages!’
Cissy pinched the bridge of her nose and sidled another step forward. Beneath the faint shimmer of fading charms, bruises hung under her eyes and deep lines marred her brow. ‘I don’t want to be involved in any of that, Bella. And I don’t want Draco caught up in it either. It’s not worth it.’
Pretty little Cissy’s a beautiful butterfly in a gilded silver cage, Bella. A sadness welled up from the pit of her stomach; it melted into faint, liquid heat beneath her ribs. She’s grown all old and boring, Bell. She used to be so happy and bright and fun. We’ll have to make her fun again.
Bella pouted. ‘Fine. We’ll go find Andi. Andi always plays with us.’
Cissy stared at her with big, blue eyes. ‘Andi’s gone, Bella.’ Her slim, small nose wrinkled. ‘She ran off with some muggleborn, remember? Mother and father were very upset. Very.’
Bella clawed through fogged thoughts but found nothing. Heat bubbled through her blood. ‘A mudblood!’ She balled her fingers into fists. ‘But they’re so boring! They can’t do anything, they’re just sticks and clay, no bright lights or pretty colours, just bleating lumps of blood and flesh.’
‘Well she did.’ Cissy’s limp trembled. ‘And she didn’t want to see either of us again.’
Bella forced the heat down. ‘She’s being silly. I’ll find her and get her to come back and be with us. We’re her sisters. She’s meant to be here, not wasting time on some useless mudblood. What could it even do? They know nothing about anything and they’re helpless as tadpoles in a dried puddle.’
Cissy sighed. ‘I suppose if I told you not to, you’d just ignore me.’
Bella giggled. ‘Of course, itty bitty baby Cissy. Andi’s got to come back to us.’ Her fingers crept to her wand, trembling with the heat coursing through her blood. The soft glow of her violet eyes grew bright, glinting off Cissy’s silver sculptures. ‘I’ll just get rid of the stupid mudblood, then Andi has to come back and play with us.’