Chapter 27 : The End of All Things
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"Toby, wait! Don't be an idiot!"
Tanith's voice echoed down the corridors of the Cole estate even as Tobias disappeared around the corner, ineffective and unanswered. She leaned heavily on the doorway for a few long moments, waiting and hoping and trying to gather tired strength, before finally her shoulders slumped.
He's gone. Like a fool. To face Death Eaters. She drew a deep, shaking breath, still willing steadiness to her shaking limbs. And they'll kill him.
The thought sent a jolt through her, a charge which surged away any fatigue - though the price was a thump in her heart and the far-too-familiar taste of fear in her mouth. She straightened up, jaw clenching.
Not if I have anything to say about it.
She marched back into the study, peering briefly at the communication orb. But it hummed only with reports of Auror movement back to London, the gathering before a scramble to Surrey. That would take minutes; if Tobias was already gone, he might not have that long. So she strode past it, to the fireplace, and grabbed a fistful of Floo powder to throw in.
"Jacob Van Roden's office, MLE Department." And shoved her head in the green flames.
Though she had only the narrow band of vision available to her by Floo, and even that only really revealed the walls of Van Roden's cubicle, she could see hurrying figures flickering by the doorway and the sound of worry enough to suggest the Aurors were in something of a panic.
Then Van Roden appeared in front of her, crouching and looking rather confused. "Tanith? This really isn't the best time..." He ran a hand through his messy hair, and had she cared she'd have seen the bags under his eyes.
"This hit in Surrey. It's Tobias' girlfriend's house. Muggle-born. Tobias has gone there." The words tumbled out in a rush, and the fear faded a little once they were out. The Aurors. They would know what to do. They would make it better.
Van Roden raised an eyebrow. "How did you know about the..."
"I'll explain later, Jacob, but please, you have to send people in there to..."
"I don't send anyone! I'm barely qualified!" Van Roden sputtered briefly, and the taste of fear at the back of her throat resurfaced marginally. "They think it's Brynmor and Robb; they want to gather as much of a force as they can before going in!"
Brynmor and Robb. Fear the Dark Lord for his power, fear Lestrange for her viciousness. But they showed their faces rarely. For your common, everyday brutality and sheer efficiency in mayhem? Brynmor and Robb. The world feared Voldemort, but the foot soldiers feared them.
Her stomach clawed at her insides, making a valiant effort at joining the fear in her mouth. "Then he's as good as dead if you don't go soon!"
"It's not policy to send Aurors to their deaths!"
"But it's policy to leave people to die?"
Van Roden took a deep breath, looking like he was trying to calm himself. "Tobias ran into a hot zone on his own. I can't save him from his own foolishness."
"And everyone else the Death Eaters are targeting?" Tanith challenged. For the first time, she thought of Annie MacKenzie, of what had become of her. Of her family.
Then she stopped thinking about it. Quite determinedly.
"We save nobody by charging in and getting killed. Now, Tanith, best thing I can do to help is join in the..."
"Wait." Tanith closed her eyes briefly, drawing a deep breath. "Is the Displacement Aura in place?"
Van Roden frowned. "Of course."
"And the house disconnected from Floo?"
"We do follow policy. Look, I should..."
Another deep breath. "Can you reconnect it?"
He froze. "Are you insane? They'll get away!"
Tanith shook her head. "Not if it's policy to switch the Floo off. They won't even think to try. They know your tricks too well."
"Then what are you going to do?" Van Roden exclaimed. "Appear in front of Death Eaters in a confined space? You'll die before you can get your first spell off!"
"That's not my way in. It's my way out. I don't intend to go toe-to-toe with Brynmor and Robb." She leaned forwards a little, the image of the Auror cubicle becoming a bit clearer. "Please, Jacob. Or Tobias is as good as dead, and you know it."
Van Roden scowled, and she knew she had him. He never had any qualms about denying someone permission to do stupid things so long as the risk was only to themselves. It was a Darwinist approach to teaching. "If you die," he muttered, "then it'll be my neck."
"I'll just have to not die. Have you got a map of the area?"
He fished a piece of paper off his desk and passed it to her, mindful of the actual flames in the Floo'd fireplace. "X marks the spot. Don't try to apparate inside the ring." Van Roden lowered his head briefly, then sighed and met her gaze. "Good luck. And kick his arse for me for being so stupid."
"I'll make sure you can do it yourself." She gave him a wan smile, then pulled back - and suddenly she was in her living room again, clutching a road map of Redditch, Surrey. Blinking away the disconcertion that came from a Floo communication, she peered at the map, hand itching for her wand.
Not yet. Or you're as foolish as Tobias. Prepare. The mental reminder somehow took on Ritter's voice, and she quietly cursed that he had already left the house. He'd know what to do.
...but so did she. He'd taught her so she'd know what to do.
Unhesitatingly she bolted for the door, but this time her path took her upstairs, further into the house, and she made her way to Ritter's room. Just praying he'd left it behind.
His door was unlocked, and had matters been less dire as she burst in she'd have wanted to have taken more of a look around. Take more note of the spartan decoration, the utterly simplistic living habits. But all she cared about was the large, familiar trunk which was, indeed, nestled in a corner.
With a sigh of relief, Tanith hurried towards it, unconcerned by the heavy padlock keeping the lid down and pulling her wand out. "Alohomora."
But even as the flash of magic darted from her wand, it washed over and bounced off the padlock, glimmering in the way only magical defences could.
"...when did you enchant the bloody thing? And how?" she howled in frustration, looking around wildly. The wardrobe was shut, but looked small and probably held only clothes; the only other furniture was the bed and a small table holding papers and an envelope...
...an envelope with her name on it.
She lunged for it, aware of a small jingle of metal on contact and ripped the envelope open, expecting keys to fall in her hands.
What she instead got was a piece of paper folded over two thin lengths of bent metal. Peering at them in confusion, she opened the paper. "...learn a new trick," she read slowly, reality dawning.
Then she swore. Loudly. "Damn it, Altair, this is no time for a sodding lesson!" The two lock picks were hurled at the wall, hard, and her fists clenched, glaring at the padlocked trunk.
I need those devices. I can’t win this on my own. We'll both die. Think, Tanith. You don't know how to open it with lock picks. No keys. You can't force the lock with magic...
...force the lock...
Her wand struck out with a blasting curse, but not at the trunk. Instead it was carefully aimed at the table, and her aim was indeed accurate enough to rip the table leg away. She snatched up the length of wood as long as her arm and, grinning darkly to herself, muttered an incantation.
The lock would reject all direct magic. But she bet it wouldn't stand up to a crowbar. Even a Transfigured one. It was - she prayed - the kind of alternative thinking Ritter would have approved of.
Or - no, he wouldn't, she thought as she wedged the crowbar between padlock and trunk. He would want her to solve it with no magic at all. In that way of thinking, was he just as limited as the narrow-minded wizards he abhorred? Trapped within one way of thinking? Then again, she reasoned, bracing herself, he didn't have a choice. They did.
Then she yanked on the crowbar, hard. There was a moment of being frozen in exertion, of the tool straining against metal - and it gave way, sending her staggering back against the wall as the now broken padlock went rattling across the floor.
She didn't waste time celebrating her victory, just lunged to the trunk and opened it, pulling out all trays to display a veritable arsenal of magical toys and tricks. Toys and tricks which might just save her neck and, more importantly, Tobias'.
I'll need that. And one of those, and definitely one of those...
By the time she'd gathered all she needed, all that was left was to peer down at the map. Halfway down Granary Street was indeed a large 'X', at the epicentre of a circle across the local area. No guarantee where she'd end up if she tried apparating in. The Aurors would use Portkeys.
A park. Three streets down. "That will do," she mumbled, reaching for her wand.
The cool winter air hit her the moment she arrived, and she opened her eyes to a swing, a roundabout, and an abandoned park in the late hours of the evening. The frozen grass crunched underfoot as she looked around, breaking the silence of this utterly still, abandoned little corner of southern suburbia.
Then she turned around to see the Dark Mark hovering ominously in the sky some three streets down. There was no hesitation as she broke into a run.
Unbeknownst to her, she was finding the local area much the same as Tobias had only minutes before, if approaching from a different direction. The immediate neighbourhood seemed almost wilfully oblivious of what had to be taking place on Granary Street, enough that Tanith dimly wondered if the Dark Mark was masked from Muggle eyes. It would not surprise her.
When she turned a corner, she tripped over a body.
The pavement scraped skin off her hands as she caught herself landing heavily, and training kicked in for her to turn her momentum into a roll. Not as smooth as Ritter might approve of, it was something of a tumble to turn around, wand in hand, and see what had sent her sprawling.
The young man couldn't have been much older than her. He wore a t-shirt of some Muggle sports team, and so was obviously not dressed to be outdoors in this time of winter. That and his eyes were probably not meant to be wide open and still like that, head was probably not to be that shape, blood probably not meant to be seeping from where injury had been presumably done by the large chunk of masonry next to him.
Bile rose in Tanith's throat, and she rolled on to her front, fighting the urge to retch. This just brought her face to face with the remains of the house it looked like he had been blown free from. Sticking out the edge of the remains of a wall was a motionless hand. She didn't want to see what it was attached to.
Tobias. Before this happens to him.
Her legs shook for a second as she struggled to stand, drawing deep, uncertain breaths, and the next few steps were weak and stumbling. She swore quietly. "This won't do."
She fought, and won the battle, to steady her breathing, and with it came stability of her legs, letting her break in to a run again, down towards the end of the cul-de-sac. Now she could hear screaming, and the crackling of fires, and the tell-tale glow of flames mingling with the sky's green shimmer.
It was a circus of mayhem. Houses had been hit with blasting curses, set ablaze, seen the ground under them rise up. Some of the Muggles who had poured into the street from the devastation were running or helping the injured, but just as many were milling in absolute panic. A panic sustained by the dark robed figure in the centre of it all, the ringmaster of death.
No genius needed to figure this out. Robes. Mask. Death Eater. And not of a size to be the bulky Brynmor or the tall Robb. No, this was someone else.
Tanith kept to the side, difficult to notice in the chaos, and looked about sharply. The Dark Mark shimmered over one house in particular, a house mostly intact save broken windows and darkened interior. Number 21. Annie's house. Tobias must have gone there, must have slunk by the Death Eater. If the Dark Mark's locating was no coincidence, there were probably more inside. Probably Brynmor and Robb.
He'll die. Her mouth went dry and she took a step forward, though she stopped as a piercing shriek came lancing from behind her. Looking over quickly, she saw the Death Eater give a short laugh as he flicked a wand at a teenaged girl, sending her sprawling onto her front as she tried to run. And as she flailed desperately, dozens of cuts began to open on her skin, the screaming turning from purely terrified to also agonised.
Without thinking, Tanith was moving again, hurtling towards the Death Eater with wand outstretched. "Expelliarmus!"
He had to have been watching his surroundings for a magical interloper. And he was fast. Faster than he had any right to be when she'd appeared out of nowhere. Most importantly, faster than her.
A wordless protection spell deflected hers harmlessly, though it broke his concentration and the girl fell limp, the rending spell ceasing. The Death Eater straightened up, and turned to face her, expression unreadable beneath the mask.
Tanith managed to fight the shake in her hand, though her gaze did flicker briefly to the girl. "Run," she instructed curtly. "Now." She was only dimly aware of her crawling off as her attention then turned fully back on the Death Eater.
The silence seemed endless, though it could have only lasted a few seconds. And when they acted, it was almost as one. "Stupef-"
Again a wordless casting from him, again a quicker reaction, a more conservative wave of the wand. And the spell he got off first was more than enough to interrupt as sharp pain seared across her chest as if an invisible knife had just slashed her.
With a yelp of pain she staggered back, clutching at her front and feeling a slow trickle of warm blood from the shallow but agonising wound. When the Death Eater waved his wand again, she didn't bother reacting with magic, and his next spell zipped harmlessly overhead as she threw herself behind a nearby overturned car.
Now she had scrapes along her elbows to match her hands, but that hardly seemed important as she still clutched at her chest. Her breathing was ragged as she fought to control the pain, stop it from overwhelming her thoughts and her physical control, but though Ritter had told her the theory of such issues, the practice was quite different.
She didn't have time to writhe. The Death Eater would be expecting one of two things - for her to emerge out and try again, or to cower. He was faster than her. He'd proven it twice. There was no way she could beat him in a quick-draw. She even doubted she would win if she took him by surprise when he came around the side of the car - which he would probably approach in the next five seconds if she didn't emerge.
"Do what he expects, you die," she mumbled under her breath, before nodding to herself and making a decision. "Then don't do what he expects."
She looked around wildly. There was no way she could fit under or inside the car, crushed by its impact against the ground as it was. No guarantee Aurors would be here soon enough to save her. The Death Eater had deflected every spell, every application of direct magic, and there was no way she could get close enough to try, for the first time ever, to physically disarm someone in earnest.
So she focused on the most obvious option, willed herself to not close her eyes in anticipation as she wanted to, and waved her wand.
The Death Eater's reflexes were as good as she'd anticipated, and he reacted with astonishing speed as the entire body of the car was magically catapulted at him. His spell to deflect it just about got off in time, sending the car flying through the air and into the remains of one of the ruined houses, the desperate wave of his wand and shout of his incantation showing how close he had been to failing.
And showing how he wasn't prepared for the immediate follow-up of a stunning spell to the chest from Tanith, her path clear with the car gone, her target distracted. The Death Eater was knocked back several paces at the arcane impact then fell to the floor stiffly. With a speed Tanith didn't know she had, the wand was kicked away from his hand and a muttered "Incarcero!" had the Death Eater bound hand and foot.
Only then did she stop. Only then did she realise just how ragged and desperate her breathing was, how much the slice across her midriff stung from the exertion. How much those of the crowd with the presence of mind to notice the fight had stopped what they were doing, and were staring at them both.
Her gaze scanned the assembled. The blind terror had subsided, but it had not been replaced with the gratitude she'd dimly expected. They stared at her, eyes wide, most displaying nothing more than sheer shock - but beneath it, and in the gaze of the quicker-witted, there lingered the slightest, smouldering hint of mistrust
So this is why we're isolated, she thought distantly. They're saved by magic and still they suspect it. Her attention landed on a group of young men who had been digging people out from under rubble. One still saw to an elderly man who had been injured; the other three were carefully picking up bricks and sticks and visibly arming themselves. She wasn't sure if their attention was on her, or on the prone Death Eater.
"Leave him alone. He's restrained. He's not a threat." She prayed she was right, though her voice miraculously held out, and didn't betray her fear. "And... and leave me alone."
They moved away quickly as she broke into a jog, heading towards Annie's house, heart in her mouth. The chaos out here had quietened down. If she was unlucky, they'd know in there that something had happened, be alerted to her arrival...
The front door was open, and she crept in ever so slowly, footsteps ever so light on the mercifully plush carpet. Not that she needed to be quiet, she realised once she was over the threshold. Not with all of the screaming.
There was something of an explosion of pain of realisation as it sank in that it was Tobias screaming, and she flattened herself against the hallway wall, next to the archway leading to the living room - and the Death Eaters. And Toby. Carefully, she lowered herself down to the floor and, from this less conspicuous spot, peered around the corner for just a fraction of a second.
Big, burly Brynmor by the window. Two bodies on the sofa. Two bodies on the floor - her breath caught as she realised one was Annie. And tall, willowy Idaeus Robb standing over the screaming, writhing form of Tobias Grey.
She had to stop her legs from catapulting her forward on instinct, throwing herself at Robb and allowing the dull, thudding anger in her bones to grow to a red, blinding rage. It would not help. Brynmor would stop her even if Robb didn't. These two were the best - better even than the Death Eater out there.
At least, she noticed with some relief as her head came back under cover, Tobias was next to the fireplace. On the down side, while he was on the floor she wasn't sure she had the strength to carry him the final few feet inside. That was dead weight.
Bad choice of words there, Cole.
And the screaming continued as she tried, desperately, to think of a tactic. Tobias' screams of pain, of absolute agony as the Cruciatus racked every inch of his body. She would have shoved her fingers in her ears if being unable to hear wouldn't have been so ardently stupid of her.
So she fought to remain level-headed as her best friend in the world suffered the worst agony in the world.
Distraction. Cover. Run for it.
Then she was aware of Brynmor talking, and of Tobias' screaming diminishing slowly. "It's gone quiet outside. I can't see Sneddon. They've got to be close. We should go."
Damn it. Damn it, damn it, why did I have to stop that Death Eater... The short, sharp memory of the girl he'd been torturing shone before her mind, and with a curl of the lip, Tanith clutched her wand and lifted her hand to the clasp of the cloak wrapped around her.
Robb and Brynmor exchanged a few low words she couldn't hear, then came the much louder instruction to Tobias. "Stand. I would have you die on your feet."
Feet. Floo. I can do this. She tapped three times on the cloak's clasp, then carefully drew three objects from the belt of devices she had pilfered from Ritter's trunk. I'm going to die. Back around the corner she was dimly aware of Tobias speaking, his voice hoarse and absolutely empty. Even if she got him out of here, was all of him going to come with them? How much of the man she knew and... the man she knew was going to be trapped, forever, in this house?
"Better to know than not," she whispered under her breath. Then her hands tightened on the objects she held, and she leapt around the corner to hurl two of them in quick succession into the living room.
The first tumbled overhead with a whistling sound getting Brynmor, at least, to look up sharply at the Decoy Detonator, wand coming to follow what he had to look at as a possible threat. The second hit the ground in the middle of the living room.
Then everything went black as Ritter's old favourite, Peruvian Instant Darkness Powder, kicked in. By then, she was already moving.
Five steps diagonally forwards and right... She'd closed her eyes before throwing the devices, painted a picture in her mind of the scene before her, so she knew where all three standing in the room were when darkness fell. Hopefully, she would have a split second of confusion where nobody would move and her knowledge would remain accurate.
As expected, she smashed into Tobias on the sixth step. One arm wrapped around him, still clutching her wand; the other flew forwards to hurl the Floo powder in her grasp at where she was confident the fireplace sat. She heard him grunt at the impact but fold under it, allowing her momentum to carry them along; felt something smashing into her back with astonishing pain; heard Brynmor let out one magnificent curse.
Then they hit the fireplace, and her breath burned in her lungs as she hissed, "Cole estate!"
Green light flared around them, fading for pale yellow as they tumbled through the fireplace in the study back in her home. Neither of them kept their balance, falling heavily on the floor in a desperate, panting heap of pain and exhaustion. The room swam around her through blurred vision, dulled by the ache in her chest and the new sharpness in her back. Full circle, she thought, distantly.
They both lay on the floor for a long moment, Tobias' breath even more ragged than hers, and when he stirred it was tremendously weak. She didn't even bother to move, lying on her side and clutching her wounded ribs, idly wondering what the burning in her back was.
It was Tobias who reacted first, sitting up with a dazed and detached expression. He looked over at her, and the first thing he noticed was the charred and shredded remains of her cloak. "...he hit you with a slashing curse," he mumbled.
So that was the pain in her back. A Shield Charm on a cloak would only protect against so much, and though it had clearly absorbed the bulk of the dark magic in Robb's curse, it hadn't taken it all. Though, dully, Tanith realised she hadn't cared much for what Robb would throw at her - so long as it didn't stop her from getting Tobias into the fireplace. Even if he'd had the presence of mind to cast Avada Kedavra, the floo powder was already in the air, Tobias had been falling... maybe he'd have been sharp enough to say a location...
She sat up instead with a grimace, then looked down at her front. Her hands were bloody, and her clothes stained with red across where they were slit. "...Oh," was all she managed to say, eloquently.
Tobias seemed to be gathering his wits a little faster than her as his head darted back towards the fireplace. "Annie. You left..."
"She was dead, Toby." The words seemed empty, and her mouth didn't feel like her own as she formed them. "When I got there she was already dead."
He struggled to get to his feet, leaning heavily on the mantelpiece to do so. "You shouldn't have got me out of there," he said at last, voice shaking but holding a certain dark thread of anger which made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up.
"Shouldn't have...?" She stared at him in confusion as she, too, tried to stand.
"You had... you..." He shook his head, then straightened up, and it was almost as if he hadn't just been through hell, such was the strength of his voice. "You had no right!"
Anger and absolute resentment boiled in her stomach to lend her some force of her own. "No right?" she spat, now standing on her own two feet to face him. The burning in her spine and ribs only served to incense this fury, though without adrenaline she was quite confident she wouldn’t be able to stand. "So I should have just left you there? Let you run off on your own? Watched you die?"
Her voice broke on the last, and she knew the sound of his screams would be with her the rest of her days.
He, too, seemed to crumple at this, swaying on his feet and leaning on the mantelpiece. "Die... oh, God, Annie..."
Then he would have fallen if she hadn't stepped forward to grab him, wrap her arms around him, and they crumpled to the floor together as the hot, pained tears finally came. He clutched at her desperately, sobbing into her shoulder, and somehow she managed to find the presence of mind to mumble pointless soothing words in his ear, and hold on to him tightly.
Would that, in his pain, and in the coming days of darkness, she never had to let him go.
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