"I have returned, my lord."

Lately arrived from her errand and still Bellatrix's husky timbre verged on breathless. Two sets of footsteps crinkled softly atop lush Albanian foliage, the one nearly indistinct from the other until they slipped into view between towering boles of beech and fir. The servant's eyes, dark and dark-ringed, secured those of her master and didn't flinch or falter—their lidless disregard for propriety, for preservation of self, was at times cause for a faint stir of endearment. Then that edge of Voldemort's mind would turn over and still with a last death rattle letting fall the quirk of his lipless mouth.

"So I see," Voldemort said, his high, cold voice the more conspicuous for the sunlit, twittering glade that sheltered it. He glided around the servant and her burden, hooded robes rustling in the breeze fluting through the foliage. "So I would have seen, even had you not declared yourself." He turned and waved his wand sinuously, there and about, cloaking their clearing in charmwork that shimmered and waved as it settled into place. "Was it your intention to give insult?"

"Of course not, my lord—"

"And there again you imply that the obvious has eluded me."

Bellatrix's breathing hitched. "I—I meant no such—"

"Calm yourself, child. You among all my followers should recognize a cat at play, so to speak." Voldemort lowered his wand but did not withdraw it, sweeping back around to stand before the muggle thrall.

A little hiss of relief escaped through her teeth. "Forgive me. I was bred for decorum."

"It is to my benefit, then, that your parents were profuse in their failure. You, however . . ." The muggle stared blankly through Voldemort's chest as he was perused; though his measure mattered not at all, he would become noteworthy by proxy of the evening to come. ". . . You have done well."

"Thank you, my lord." Bellatrix seemed to swell with pride; it was not a reaction he could abide for long. The task had been juvenile in its simplicity, after all.

"You will dispense with the pleasantries today; we will keep company quite longer than I would otherwise care to. Such is necessary for what I have elected to teach you."

The downturn of her mouth was barely there below the light in her eyes. "I'm eager to learn all you would impart."

"Yet something troubles you." Voldemort folded his spindly hands together, suspending her discomfort a moment. "Speak."

Bellatrix's hollow ashen features found traces of color, and she averted her eyes for the first time, only briefly. "You find my company . . . disagreeable?"

Ah. That tiresome infatuation, resurfacing like a stubborn roach no matter how many times Voldemort crushed it. He withheld the irritation from the alien planes of his face.

"Yes," he rasped, though he forced himself to elaborate, "but it is through little fault of your own . . . The sundering of the soul inflicts a lifelong debt of pain that cannot ever be balanced—only avoided. To interact with another, to express oneself through a spoken word, a gesture, even an expression . . . it is akin to exercising a ruined limb. A limb which had, in my own case, long since atrophied. It is but one of many consequences for indulging in this darkest of magics. I will think no less of you if you choose to let my knowledge lie dormant."

With one gesture Voldemort wrested control from Bellatrix and directed the thrall toward the center of the glade. His apparel was dirty and careworn; the image of the muggle sitting slouched in the dirt was a fitting one.

"Can nothing be done to ease your pain?"

Voldemort turned to regard her, and she flinched at the sudden attention. She was a pitiful base creature beneath it all, driven by self-gratification, and he knew her fervent loyalty was only another aspect of that—a vicarious indulgence in his power—even though she did not. Ignorance made for wieldy tools.

"Only prove an apt student," Voldemort said, "that I need not repeat myself. Are you ready to begin?"

Bellatrix gave an unblinking nod, hefting breaths in her breast as if she'd hauled their victim here in her arms. A flush of heat stained her corded porcelain neck.

"Very well . . ."

The furtive sussurations of the wind through the limbs of the trees slid along and beneath the Dark Lord's murmurings like one cool dry palm against another, interlinked with a precarious frailty that ached to be broken by the harsh snap of a branch or a sharp-spoken word. But nothing could disturb the oasis he had spun out of air and thought. He clasped his black cloak around narrow bones and bowed his hooded skull under the sunlight, beaming rays streaming down to gild the grass and bronze the dirt, to make glossed obsidian of the servant's fixed stare. Every notion of hers became his in turn.

It was of the horcrux he gave instruction. Foremost among priorities was mastery of the spell involved, and indeed only the one there was; though charms and curses in all their permutations had been wound about horcruxes from the first, like uncounted strands woven into a hermetic cocoon, those safeguard arts marked what came before and after. For the creation itself there was but one curse, one requisite. To master one's own death called first for the mastery of another.

"I've perfected the spell as you bade me." Bellatrix offered her due contribution in the wake of his recitation. He could feel the details rising up in her mind like gurgling froth in a mire. From one image to the next sound her attention flitted; the writhing fox falling limp; the squealing girl's cries cut short; the matron's burning hate snuffed out. Dead upon dead.

Still it was necessary for each of them to hear it spoken. With his wand Voldemort drew thoughtful patterns around his long, pale fingers. "You were able to withhold their souls' departure?"

She shivered. "Yes."

"For a time," Voldemort amended, and Bellatrix nodded stiffly. "That is as it should be. You had only initiated the process; today I will teach you to see it through. But listen now for the second step in the preparation."

A soul cannot persist without bounds, lest it fly apart and be lost in obscurity. It is therefore necessary to provide sanctuary for what is cast off. The form such housing must take cannot be chosen for the sake of convenience; what in a found stone, a stick, a grain of sand would call out to the soul of a great wizard and be called for in turn? Nothing. The body of the horcrux demands a quality that, to the reeling soul, distinguishes it from the world entire as a safe haven. Connection, familiarity. An indelible mark.

From within his robes Voldemort produced a silver tiara. He turned the modest band in his hands to run the sunlight along its surface in a ghostly glimmer nearly unnatural, the thin metal almost trembling for the magics interlaced in its construction. He caught the faint intake of breath as the light flashed across elegant etching around the inner circumference: Wit beyond measure is man's greatest treasure.

"Hogwarts." Voldemort considered his next words for a time. "There could be no clearer impression made upon my soul than that of Hogwarts School. It was there I learned what I was, what I would become, and how I may bridge the two. It was there I found knowledge, security, and those of like mind . . . there I grew and changed and became all I am."

"The castle's history is equally enriched for your passing." Moved to words out of admiration, not obsequity, Bellatrix's black eyes shined like beetle shells in the declining glow of afternoon.

"Undoubtedly," Voldemort murmured. "Thusly bound, the diadem of Ravenclaw will summon my soul's unsettled fragment like a beacon, and the two shall enfold into one . . . Tell me now, Bellatrix . . . have I made clear the criteria by which you must choose a receptacle?"

Her gaze had settled again on the diadem perched between the Dark Lord's fingertips, eyes glazed with quiet wonder. She tore her attention away and returned it to him, and whispered, "Sentiment?"

"A crude summation," Voldemort said, "but superficially accurate. The object in question must, in some manner, possess claim to the character of your soul. Anything which connects you to what you have fundamentally moulded or been moulded by. Tell me what worldly thing you would submit—it need not be your final decision—and I will determine if I am truly understood."

A wellspring of anxiety rose up in Bellatrix and set her rigid. Voldemort observed the course of her thoughts racing through her past from one memory to the next, beheld and discarded in a frantic scouring, each passing hiss of breath marking a dozen experiences that made no matter. When she blinked long and hard she seemed to master herself; her mind settled, no longer quite legible, and her hand drifted toward the opposite arm. Toward the Dark Mark.

Bellatrix raked fine nails down her sheer sleeve, posture uncoiling in tandem with the pain. She peeled the cloth back at the wrist and drew it up to unveil a simple iron bracelet forged with chain links just wide enough to thread a quill through. It was a rude piece of craftsmanship, more suited to linking a set of muggle restraints than to adorning her wrist below his writhing emblem.

Silence and more. The Dark Lord watched her and she met his scrutiny undaunted, her bearing proud and drawn-up, her mind a distant foggy isle with only the suggestion of shapes to its landscape. The iron chain clinked gently in the whispering gusts skirting around them.

Lord Voldemort barely inclined his head toward the bauble. "Show me."

A sibilant exhale, and her inward being fell open to his perception again. The recollection realized itself in his head, though he had not known or even seen Narcissa Black as a child. It had not been he who felt an irked sort of bewilderment upon ripping away the careful wrappings to find a dull iron chain resting in the box. Even so, in that moment he felt the memory as his own, felt the press of his sister's hesitant expression intent on her gesture's reception.

"Happy birthday, Bella."

"Thank you, I suppose." Bellatrix dangled the chain between two fingertips, like handling a dirty tissue. "Why this thing?"

"Well . . . it's cold. It's tough, and it's pretty. I've never seen another like it. It reminded me of you."

The glade reasserted itself around them, wafting away perfumes and candle wax for the saccharine scent of sun-touched sap and the subtle burn of ozone radiating from the diadem. Beneath the shifting of the leaves the wind coaxed ghostly creaks from the trees.

"As long as I have known you," Voldemort said, idly turning over the diadem, "and longer, I suspect, you have worn that talisman around your arm." The servant let her sleeve fall over it and nodded slowly. "Why, then, was it nowhere among your initial inspirations?"

"It's as you said, my lord; I've always worn it." Bellatrix stared past everything. "And I always knew why . . . but I'd forgotten."

Something had spoiled in her. The softening about her features marked her, exposed tender flesh to sight where it might invite picking and peeling away to bare the affective animal lurking inside. The feeling was sour in the Dark Lord's mouth, but she had fulfilled expectations, as was her wont. He only said, "That will suffice . . . Shall we transition to the third and final preliminary?"

"I'm ready." Her bearing slipped free of all but a narrowed focus that lit her eyes like those of a predator.

And so Voldemort spoke of the third aspect. The victim. The sacrifice. From the lowliest dirt-grubbing muggle to the grandest wizarding figurehead, all were equal in death, possessed of the selfsame human soul which the sacrifice demanded. No goblin nor house elf nor ingenuous animal could penetrate the nepotism innate in humanity; those losses a soul could withstand.

The identity of the death elect mattered greatly or not at all. To those incongruous would-be immortals given to timid half measures, the capacity to regret was instrumental in reversing the process and achieving a full afterlife. It was then essential for the intended casualty to hold profound sway over their murderer; a brother, a friend, a lover. Only a deep and heartfelt loss could inspire the spiritual retrograde in one so far removed from all connection.

They turned to watch the dominated muggle picking absently at blades of grass where he sat. The loss of a nameless stain upon the earth would not occupy the Dark Lord's thoughts longer than it took him to wipe it away. He would stand apart for all time. Without equal.

As if nature itself held an apprehensive breath, the winds had trailed off and the waving greenery had stilled. A wide gauzy strip of cloud drifted in scattered scraps, scraping indelicately across the sky; the clouds gagged the falling sun and cast a grey pall over the glade speckled with spectral flickers of light. Voldemort lowered his hood and drank in the sudden cool in the air.

"I feel your inquisitive ache, Bellatrix. Ask."

"How is it done?" Her voice wavered under the conflict of her emotions, resolving into a dark thrill as she spoke. "How is the soul divided? What act is so much further from thetical humanity than torture and murder?"

"Ah . . . can you not speculate? The murder of another person controverts what is innate in our condition, and so causes harm to a soul in conflict, yet whole it remains. What is more dreadfully absolute than ending a life? What final escalation would resonate so deeply as to repulse a human soul from itself?"

Dark and wild imaginings writhed and twisted in the servant's head like a boggart in flux. She came closer and further from the answer from one shift to the next, thoughts never settling, ever changing, rearranging scattered pieces to bring coherence to the very last idea that should strike a natural soul.

"Esteemed of my inner circle . . . my Death Eaters." Voldemort floated the diadem just above his open hand. Sunset fire burned and winked in glimmering strips along the band as it perpetuated a glacial turn. "I did not land upon that appellation lightly. Direct enough to inspire dread in the common host of wizardkind . . . and indirectly, to those few possessed of recondite knowledge, it is a warning dressed in deceit."

Bellatrix's hand trembled and she stilled it with the other, chain jingling. The air abandoned her chest with a deathly rattle. "Then . . ." She trailed off to pant and rallied again. "Then the soul of the victim is eaten, my lord?"

"Consumed," Voldemort said. "Figuratively; not for sustenance, as a dementor. The soul is withheld from the next step in its journey and snuffed out, diminished into nonbeing. In place of afterlife . . . endless absence. It is this act from which the practicioner's soul must divorce itself, if it is to survive." The Dark Lord cradled the diadem and turned away to approach the senseless muggle drawing shapes in the dirt. The air thrummed with the rising keen of countless insects rousing in the falling light. "There is a certain undeniable beauty in enacting such a fate . . ." Stars glittered far inside the eternal emptiness over the glade. ". . . Unbecoming."

An exquisite sickness licked within the Dark Lord, up from the pit of his withered stomach to needle his palpitating heart. The time had arrived again. He wondered then if he might not diffuse himself indefinitely if only for the thrill coursing through him at the impending disunion. A long, silent breath drawn through slitted nostrils, and composure was his. He turned his attention to the servant at his shoulder, and gestured ahead.

"The bracelet will serve. Proceed if you wish, and I will guide you." Voldemort studied her stoic facade, seeking what was there to seek and gathering little. "Do not worry for a failure. Billions of attempts wait to be made."

"I . . . can't."

Bellatrix's eyes weren't on the muggle, but on the hand pressed over her midriff. Concern stiffened the set of her shoulders. It brought a stab of amusement that she would conceptualize her soul as residing somewhere within her abdomen, rather than her heart, as would otherwise prove typical, instinctual. Gluttony ruled her. She would not relinquish her life's gratification, her ravenous appetite for another's pain at her hands.

"No matter," Voldemort said. "There are other ways . . . the horcrux is not the only end to which a soul may be manipulated. But tonight, our business is concluded. Leave me." He waved a hand at her, attention now fixed on the muggle. "Await my call."

He could feel the affront, the regret, but it would never confront him. "Yes, Master. Thank you . . . I look forward to further learning."

Bellatrix disappeared without a sound.

The diadem was cold in his fingers. Voldemort drew his wand with the other hand and considered facing the muggle. Watching the life leave his eyes. Every trace of feeling, thought, initiative stripped away to bare a blank mask worn for no one. Nothing inside to reach for. Empty.

The glade barricaded them from the stare of the setting sun; shadows stretched from the forest to twine and slither over the grass, fading with the day into darker ink splotches and pools staining the vellum ground. The muggle craned his head up toward the yawning sky and mumbled something Voldemort did not hear over the rushing in his ears. He aimed at the man's back.

"Avada Kedavra!"

Bright green light flared in the clearing and died along with the muggle. Voldemort cast again and withheld the soul, felt the soul, bewildered and afraid. Then a final echo of desperate panic as to it a terrible immutable nothing claimed what was once everything.

What came over the Dark Lord wasn't otherworldly pain or ecstatic pleasure, but only a wider absence, a depressing of the hollowness which some scrap of his nature still couldn't comprehend. The diadem burned and throbbed in his fist like a beating heart. Keeled over, the body lay as a new ruin, a last vestige of what no longer existed.

Voldemort laughed up at the forever void for the further step he'd taken apart from it, and from humanity itself.