A little vial of glowing blue liquid sat on the antique dark wooden side-table beside the silk-sheeted bed, casting faint light over the room and throwing thin shadows upon the pale walls.
Bella poked the vial to the far side of the table. ‘Urgh. Yucky potions.’
But they help us get better after Azkaban. She picked it up and cupped it in her hands, then closed her fingers ‘round the vial and shook it until it was full of bright, swirling bubbles. And we need to drink them to go find Andi.
She tugged the cork out with a soft pop, then pinched her nose and gulped it down. A thick taste of seaweed swamped her mouth. ‘Blurgh.’
Bella clawed back through the fog of her mind. The thick wall of grey faded to a thin, tattered veil. Countless faces swirled in it and bright, beautiful colours flashed back and forth between dancing shadows. Don’t go too far, Bella. Cards slid back and forth across a table and pieces clicked across a board. Cissy and Andi’s smiling faces flitted through her thoughts. So many games, Bell. Just us having fun forever.
The mark on her arm erupted and searing heat writhed beneath her skin. ‘He’s angry, Bell.’
Something must’ve happened, Bella. She let the fire wash through her, enjoying the soft burn beneath her skin and the prickle sliding down her spine. We’d better go see what it was, Bell.
Bella shoved the cork back in the vial and tossed it onto the bed. She touched a finger to the Dark Mark, the oculus and marble floor of the main hall flashing through her mind, then disapparated with a loud crack.
The Dark Lord paced a small circle beneath the oculus. Faint starlight shone in the night sky above the gleam of his crimson eyes and the soft whisper of his silk robe’s hem. A dry, oppressive heat flooded off him like searing storm winds.
He’s very angry.
A volley of snaps rang through the hall. A circle of cloaks and white masks shrunk back to the walls. Silver masks cowered among them.
The Dark Lord fell still. ‘Did I not say we were to remain hidden,’ he hissed. ‘Did I not command discretion.’
A shiver rippled round the room.
Someone messed up. Bella stifled a giggle. That’s game over.
‘Whoever was foolish enough to disobey me. Whoever cast the Dark Mark above Rita Skeeter’s house. I will discover you.’ The Dark Lord’s red eyes swept round the room, pausing on each of the silver masks. ‘You will beg me to end the punishment you deserve. And I will not end it.’
A silver-masked, dark-robed figure edged forward, then prostrated itself upon the cold marble floor. ‘I can assure you it was not me, my lord.’ Lucius’ voice echoed from beneath the mask. ‘You have my word.’
The Dark Lord stared down at Lucius’s grovelling and his lip curled. ‘Lucius. Severus. Augustus. Bella. Stay. The rest of you. Begone.’
A loud crack echoed off the walls and down the dark corridors. Two others shuffled closer to the light of the oculus.
‘My lord,’ Lucius whispered.
‘Get up.’ The Dark Lord’s tone dropped as low and soft as the rustle of his robes. ‘I haven’t ordered you to remain because I wished to listen to you beg, Lucius. You are either blameless or damned.’
Lucius scrambled to his feet. ‘Yes, my lord.’
Pathetic, Bell. She felt a little heat bubble through her blood. He’s completely pathetic, Bella. Cissy deserved better. He’s so disgustingly weak.
‘I have inspected the door to the Department of Mysteries myself and removed one of Dumbledore’s pawns in the process,’ the Dark Lord said. ‘There is one ward that will need circumventing before you will be able to enter. A strong, simple one. Augustus, you will do this.’
Rookwood trembled and wiped his palms on his robes. ‘My lord?’
‘It’s an obscure sealing ward.’ The Dark Lord slid his wand from his sleeve and drew a circle of red flame in the air. It twisted into countless, flowing shapes. ‘It requires an interlocking pattern of magic such as this to be drawn by the right person, else it will not allow anything to pass through it without forcing a direct confrontation of power.’
‘What must I do, my lord?’ Rookwood asked.
‘The wizard or witch who casts it is the weakness of this ward.’ The Dark Lord spun his wand upon his palm, then vanished the shimmering red flames with a wave of it. ‘It is powerful magic and will require frequent reinforcement. You will observe the department. Discover whoever is meant to be doing it and prevent them every time they try. Use the mind arts to make them believe they have reinforced it each time. Once the ward has degraded, Bella and Lucius may proceed.’
Rookwood bowed. ‘Yes, my lord.’
‘Go, Augustus.’ The Dark Lord turned to Snape. ‘You have done well, Severus. I am pleased to learn that Dumbledore’s pawns are stretched thin.’ He crooked a long, pale finger at Bella. ‘Your potions haven’t undone fifteen years of Azkaban, but they have restored my followers to lucidity and fighting shape. I am pleased.’
Snape bowed. ‘Thank you, my lord.’
‘Return to Dumbledore. Tell him nothing of my plans for the Department of Mysteries. Or, if you must give him something, tell him only the date.’
‘Yes, my lord.’ Snape vanished with a quiet snap.
Lucius edged forward. ‘My lord? I–’
The Dark Lord raised his hand. ‘Are you ready, Lucius? I will not accept failure from you in this. You have gorged yourself in my absence and betrayed the promise you made to me over and over for your own gain. Another offence, another failure, and there will be no mercy. You and yours will pay dearly.’
Lucius quivered. ‘I am ready, my lord.’
‘Bella.’ The Dark Lord put his wand away. ‘There are many new faces among us. Weed out those not true to the cause and dispose of them. If they are not followers of mine, then you may play with them as you please.’
Bella beamed. ‘Yes!’
‘And Bella…’ Dark, slitted pupils and crimson irises bored into her. ‘Only my inner circle can cast the Dark Mark. Only the ones who promised they would be different. The ones who swore they would do more than chase my wake in the hope of realising their own fleeting dreams of power. One of them has betrayed me. One of them has sided with the muggles.’
The muggles. Flames boiled through Bella’s blood and a faint ripple of magic shivered across the floor, stirring the Dark Lord’s robes. Useless, boring sheep. They force us to hide and drag us down! A handicap! Deadweight
The Dark Lord’s lips curved. ‘We will purge them, Bella. First, we must unite the magical, the powerful, then we will cleanse the weak from our world. They are useless to me and repulsive to endure.’