December 2, 1998, 3:52 am, The Danube River, Budapest, Hungary


It was a cold December morning.

Antonin Gregorovich Dolohov stood on the grotesquely modern dock, awaiting the barge.

He had been contemplating all that had happened since that dreadful June evening in 1996.

He could remember that night, and his fateful mistake, with the clarity of a pensieve projection.

He could not recall how he had managed to escape to Budapest. The paths were too convoluted - too numerous to keep track of the million decisions it had taken him to get here.

"How could I have been so stupid?" he thought. He'd cast the spell on dozens of half-bloods and mudbloods. This was the first, and last, time it would kill him.

The Danube looked like an empty field of blackness as the lights from the smoking factories and container cranes sparkled like diamonds in the wind-driven undulations of the water.

He looked up in surprise, his wand suddenly in his hand, as the round bumpers of the barge gently squeaked against the concrete of the dock.

No expensive gangplanks for the dead, it seemed.

The flat scow was covered with stacks of plain, wooden coffins. It was nothing more than a vessel for unfinished sentences, unrealised dreams, incomplete errands, and unresolved regrets.

He nodded to the boatman as he hopped down to what passed as decking on the barge and quickly turned his gaze upwards. The cracked, scarred timbers reminded him too much of the safe house in Minsk where his last few remaining NKVD comrades had held up - he had been there less than a day when his hunter found them and incinerated them to fine, white ash.

He ducked between the stacked crates and hoped he had gone unnoticed. He had checked himself several times, using different methods, to ensure he had no trace or monitoring charms on himself, his belongings, and his wand. He could find no hint of foreign magics.

He sat heavily upon the deck, still masked by coffins, just to take a moment of rest while the crew did their grisly work.

After what seemed an eternity, the barge slipped away from the pier almost silently; only a slight sound of worn rubber against concrete gave away its departure. He may have slept a few moments, but he was not certain.

His liaison for the Slavic Brotherhood had told him the Brotherhood contact would meet him on the barge. Now that it had slipped its moorings, he stood and became more alert. Other than the lights of the harbor, the only illumination was the boatman's lantern and the dim navigation lights - blood red and killing-curse green.

He tensed, or would have, at the sound. He knew the sound well. He'd done it himself a small number of times to others - when he had slid his knife between the first and second vertebrae and pithed a guard to prevent them from crying out while the mess was kept to a minimum.

He found himself in a full body bind. The only thing he could move were his eyes. He presumed whomever had caught him also placed a sticking charm so he would not fall over due to the gentle swaying of the deck.

"Antonin, it has been far too long," the voice of his hunter silkily washed over him like a gentle breeze.

He felt a hand glide up over his back to rest upon his shoulder.

"I missed you by just a few minutes in Cairo and only by a few moments in Minsk," he heard from just behind his right ear.

"I do like the location you've chosen for our final meeting, however," the hunter whispered breathily. "It's so appropriate."

Finally coming into his line of sight, he looked into his killer's ethereal grey eyes. He would have mewled in panic and fear, were he able, as she withdrew a short, sharp knife.

"And now, we dance..." were the last words he would ever hear.