Song Suggestion: Shawn James– "The Thief and the Moon" AND A Perfect Circle—"Counting Bodies Like Sheep to the Rhythm of the War Drum" (Is there a more perfect song for the Butcher?)

Thank you to my wonderful beta, MyPrivateInsanity, and wonderful alpha team for their work on this chapter!

Trigger Warning: Graphic Depictions of Violence, Death

The Butcher of Manchester

Hermione stretched, snuggling into her mattress.

And then she lurched upright, dragging the sheets to her chest, glancing around in panicked confusion. A bird trilled softly outside her window, and the first rays of morning sunshine filtered through the leaded panes, illuminating the pastel colours of her childhood bedroom.

Nothing had changed during her time at Malfoy manor. Sumptuous fabrics framed the windows, and flowered wallpaper decorated the walls. The vanity still rested in the corner, with her favoured comb on top. The closet was cracked slightly open to expose rows of old dresses— along with a few new ones— hanging next to the red cloak.

Feeling disoriented, Hermione sorted through the previous day's events.

When Titus had brought her back to the manor through the floo, she'd still been in a trance, gutted by the unexpected loss, unable to shake away her shock to fight the journey.

"Welcome home," he whispered, entering the sitting room. She looked vacantly at the familiar decor as he led her to a nearby couch, and then she collapsed onto it, legs unstable from the whiplash of the day.

"Do you need anything? Tea, perhaps?" Titus studied her carefully, as if she was a volcano about to explode.

She didn't answer, eyes fixed forward.

A muscle in his jaw clenched, and he shifted on his feet. "I don't wish to leave you so soon, but I really do have to finish the paperwork for transfer tonight."

Again, she didn't respond.

"I see you need some space to process what's happened," he continued. "I'll be back later. Don't wait up."

He hesitated a moment, as if bracing for something. Maybe her anger. Or a fight. But she stayed silent and didn't turn to look as he returned to the floo, disappearing before she could find her voice.

Frozen in her stupor, Hermione had wandered around her old cage for hours as if attempting to find a way out, already returning to her ghostly form. She checked the floorboard in her closet first, needing to confirm the missing wands and books, and then fell into her old bed, eyes burning with unshed tears, blinking at the coffered ceiling. Bitty had begged her to drink her favourite Earl Grey to calm her nerves, and she'd relented in desperation for comfort.

Titus must have ordered Bitty to spike it with dreamless sleep, because after that, she remembered nothing else.

Fully awake now, Hermione scrunched the coverlet tight in her fists. Untethered from her shock, her rage returned, coalescing into increasingly stronger waves, crashing against her chest with each breath.

She needed to move. Go somewhere. Do something.

Unable to sit still, Hermione threw off the covers, flung her legs off the bed, quickly dressed for the day, and began her search through all of Titus' usual haunts, braving a peek into his room and the study, finding them both empty.


The elf appeared, tugging on her ears, sensing her displeasure.

"Yes, Mistress?"

"Where's Titus?"

"The master is busy. He said to tell Mistress Hermione to make herself comfortable."

"I'm sure that backstabbing human toaddoes wish I'd just make myself comfortable."

The elf tugged on her floppy ears again in discomfort. "Bitty can get you anything you want. Eddy is making breakfast."

Hermione pinched the bridge of her nose. "No, I'm—" she took in a sharp breath, reminding herself that the elves didn't deserve her anger. Only one person in this household warranted her ire. "Thank you, Bitty. Tell Eddy that I'd love to have breakfast."

There was no use in draining her strength by not eating.

Relieved to be given a task, Bitty disappeared.

Hermione began to pace in the corridor, feeling like a tiger she'd seen in a muggle movie, trapped behind bars, tail flicking in irritation as it prowled its enclosure.

Despite never wanting to see him again, Hermione also wished to spit on him. Curse him. Claw at him. Strangle him. And that would be hard to do without him present.

She knew Titus wasn't "busy." He was avoiding her, attempting to outwait her anger like he'd done in their past conflicts, as if the embers of hatred would magically cool with time.

As the day went on, Hermione suppressed her emotions, trapped in mind-numbing solitude, eating breakfast and then lunch. The discomfort didn't let her rest anywhere, heart sick with worry for Draco, already going mad with anxiety.

Perhaps she would've tempered herself a year ago, but now she was a flame left unattended, growing into a wildfire, scorching the earth.

She ended her wandering in the library. A new stack of books rested in an organised pile next to her old reading chair, as if an offering from Titus for absolution. She spied several interesting titles, but she didn't want them. The only ones she desired would be warded against her. The gifted books represented a distraction, and she loathed them for that. If she could, she'd destroy the whole manor, library included.

In fact— that sounded like a grand idea.

On a mission, Hermione marched her way to the kitchen. When she slammed open the doors, Eddy jumped in surprise and tried to protest her entrance, but he quickly yelped and scurried away to hide after seeing her ferocious expression. She rummaged through the drawers, shoving items out of the way, until she found what she wanted— a long butcher knife. The blade glinted in the sunlight, and she liked the weight of it in her hands.

Hermione returned to the library with determination. She picked up a gifted book, only hesitating a moment. Destroying literature would normally turn her stomach, an unforgivable sin, but Titus needed to physically see what she felt inside. The tip of the knife dug into the spine; she both hated and enjoyed the sight as she carved it into pieces. A fire lit inside her, and she slashed and demolished everything in her path. The chairs splintered when smacked against the walls, the pages shredded, the ancient fabrics ripped in half, the relics splintered into fragments.

After finishing her rampage, she viewed the carnage, trying to capture a fragment of peace.

But the ruination didn't satisfy her, and she lifted her weapon back up.

Hermione continued her frenzied destruction throughout the day, going room to room— everywhere she was allowed— leaving nothing unscathed. She spilled ink along his treasured desk, stabbed portraits, aiming for the screaming ancestors as they leaped from frame to frame to escape her. She tipped the suit of armour over, metal crashing to the checkmark tile, only letting herself feel a second of guilt before aiming her knife for the weft threads of the ancient troll tapestry.

When she finally entered Titus' mother's sitting room, her rage had reached a boiling point. She shattered the delicate vases, tore the curtains, littering the room with shards of glass and cushion stuffing. Splintered wood soon added to the rubbish on the floor, centuries of accumulated wealth cast into piles of meaningless mangled luxury.

By nighttime, the only untouched item in the manor was the painting of the ballerina, forever twirling in practised pirouettes.

Hermione gently carved out the woman, allowing the oil cloth to flutter to the floor, eyes still burning. "You're free now."

A scream followed, ripped from the raw wound in her soul.

But it didn't matter. Nothing mattered. Who was there to hear her?

Exhausted, Hermione finally slumped on the half-destroyed red settee. She grasped the knife to her chest, intending to use it on Titus when he returned.

But she fell asleep instead. Waking suddenly in the middle of the night, she discovered her knife missing, a blanket covering her, a pillow under her head, along with a short note from Titus written on crisp parchment.

I knew you'd be angry, but your outburst exceeded my expectations.

Until you can control yourself, you're banned from any sharp objects. I also expect you to apologise to Eddy after giving him such a fright.

Please stop forcing me to add to your restrictions. I want to give you things. Not take them away. Tomorrow, I wish to have dinner with you, and we can discuss ideas to help fill your days with—

Hermione threw the note to the side with a frustrated huff.

Midnight darkened the room, the unicorn statue barely visible, but even with only the moonlight filtering through the giant window she could see that everything had been returned to its original state, and she suspected the other rooms would be repaired as well. The glass vases were reformed. The curtains re-hung. The wood had been returned to its unfractured form.

And the ballerina was once again trapped in the painting.

Titus forced her to dinner for two days in a row, but she ignored any attempts at conversation, focused only on eating. After the second agonising dinner, he gave up begging her to acknowledge him and left her alone with the warning that he wouldn't allow her to wallow in silence forever.

Since the dinners, a full week had passed her by in a horrible blur, and she spent most of her time outside. Titus communicated with her exclusively through notes, and as the days continued, he sounded more and more desperate for her to reply.

At the moment, Hermione examined the bugs crawling around the insides of the terrariums, knees pulled to her chest by the faux fireplace in the treehouse. Though the terrariums were charmed to keep them alive, only a few survived her year away, due to natural life expectancy. Earlier that morning, she'd surprised Bitty by asking for a net and jar, followed by several hours of stomping around the south pond in search of different insects.

A rock struck against the window, pulling her out of her thoughts. And then two more followed.

"I know you're there," a familiar voice called out. "Your elves told me so. Let me up."

Hermione tensed. How dare Katie show her face! For days, her logical side had tried to rationalise everything that happened.

But the emotional side of Hermione burned at such high temperatures she was surprised there wasn't a real fire raging in her chest.

"Go away!" she shouted.

"Please, Hermione. Let me explain."

"Why are you even here? Who invited you?"

Hermione closed her eyes, clenching her teeth tightly enough she began to form a headache.

"I've wanted to see you for days, but Titus asked me— he's concerned. He told Marcus you barely come inside besides to eat or sleep."

Good. She hoped he was concerned. She wanted to hurt them all. Lash back until they were wounded just as severely.

But the cloud hovering over her head was hard to keep darkened. She feared one day she'd let it dissipate like Titus counted on, just so she didn't have to weather the storm by herself. But for now, she revelled in the sharp strikes of lightning.

If Katie wanted to see her so badly, she'd let her, but it would be on Hermione's terms.

She groaned while standing, finding her knees ached from her sitting position. The red bucket creaked on the way down. As she descended, she saw Katie standing under a grey sky, overgrown grass swallowing her ankles. The air was wet with unshed rain. Katie looked pretty with her bangs curling from standing in the damp elements. She wore a blue coat, along with men's trousers, hair in a long braid, showing she'd flown recently.

But her face exposed her agonised guilt: puffy eyes from crying, face absent of warmth, mouth tilted down into a frown.

Hermione glared as she stomped forward. "You're uninvited from the manor."

"Hermione–" she sobbed, and the sound stabbed her soul.

"Don't you dare—"


"They would have had to torture me for me to turn on you and lie, and even then, I would've spit in their faces. My only real crime was saving Julie— that's why I was really there— and you were hesitant to really help with that! And I did save her, with little help from you!"

"Don't talk to me that way. I had no choice."

"We all have a choice, and you've made yours."

Her mind and heart warred. The organ beating under her ribcage ached with pain, controlling her tongue.

When was survival more important than love? At what point would she have been okay with it? It was all too painful and fresh to detangle, and Hermione resented Titus for making her face it so soon when he'd caused it.

"I'm so sorry." Katie began to cry. "I just want to explain. Please, let's go inside and have some tea and talk. I'm worried about you. I'm worried about us."

"Worried?" A spark of magic erupted under the shackles. "Only friends get to worry about each other, and you're not that anymore."

Katie took a step back, hand to her mouth. Hermione resisted the desire to soothe her.

"Of course, I'm your friend. We're a coven!"

"There's nothing for us to talk about." She shut her eyes to find balance before opening them. "Look, I get why you did it. Titus must have threatened to take you from Marcus and given that you— so I get it. And I forgive you for it, if that's what you're seeking. Go be happy in your life. Truly, I want that for you. I'll always love you. But I can't be your friend anymore after what you did, because I'm not sure I could ever trust you again."

Hermione turned her back on Katie before she combusted and returned to her only haven of safety.

When she entered the treehouse, she curled her knees back to her chest, listening to Katie's pleas as the rain pelted the window. Unable to bear the sound, she covered her ears to resist the temptation to soften her heart, until Katie finally gave up.

From the window, she watched as her oldest friend stumbled back to the manor. The sight of her leaving almost had Hermione chasing after her.

Hermione lay on the ground, eyes on the enchanted ceiling, palms pressed to her burning eyes, regretting being so harsh.

Come back, she wanted to say. Don't leave me. I understand.

She smacked her forehead repeatedly with frustration, wishing she had a guidebook to lead her through the complications of both loving and hating her friend. Of both understanding why she'd done it and knowing she'd never have done the same.

Much later, Bitty arrived with a note from Titus.

Katie had few options for her future, given that she might not be able to carry a pregnancy to term. If you want to blame anyone, then blame me, but don't shut out someone who loves you. At some point, you're going to have to learn to forgive.

Learn to fucking forgive. Of course, he'd want that. Wouldn't that be convenient?

For once, Hermione broke her vow of silence. "Get me parchment and ink, Bitty."

The elf arrived shortly after, juggling the items she asked for, and Hermione scribbled away.

Did you ask Dean or Finch to testify?

She needed to know.

Bitty took her question, and Hermione waited in an agitated state, until she returned holding the reply. She could tell by the blotchiness of the first letter that he'd hesitated, as if considering what to say.

I went to Dean first, since he might possibly have the most to lose. I planned to threaten Finch after Katie.

Hermione tore the answer into shreds, feeling worse than before.

If you threatened Dean first, then why wasn't he there instead?

Another long wait as Bitty left and returned with a simple sentence.

He called my bluff and told me no— in more colourful terms.

Titus said that as if he'd never planned to follow through on the threats that he'd given them.

And what would you have done if they'd all said no?

The answer took a long time to arrive: I'm not sure.

Hermione didn't want to get out of bed the next morning. What would be the point? She'd already exhausted all of her activities in the manor. Instead, she let her eyes stay closed and pretended Draco lay beside her, giving one of his wicked grins. Perhaps he'd just told her a joke. Or maybe he was telling her about all the clever adventures he'd planned for her.

"Good morning, Draco," she whispered, imagining his finger stroking her cheek tenderly. "I miss you."

Of course you do, Granger. I'd miss me too.

"Arrogant arse."

She stopped the daydream, finding it too painful to participate. The daily ritual of imagining waking in Draco's arms was quite possibly the most pitiful thing she'd ever done.

Loud voices distracted her from her pathetic state.

In curiosity, she got up and wandered over to the window. When she peeked through the leaded panes, she saw Theo standing across from Titus with his wand raised.

"Let me in to see her!" The voices were warbled from the distance, but after cracking the window open, she heard them better.

"I've told you that it's too soon, which is why I banned you from the floo. Need I remind you that you helped her escape Flint castle? It would be generous of me if I let you see her at all. You can come back in a few weeks when you've cooled down."

Theo glowered, holding his body in a duelling stance.

"Of course I helped her! It's much more than you've ever done, you selfish git." He swallowed hard, wand hand now shaking. "Have you forced her to your bed yet?"

"What the fuck, Theo? How could you even ask that? I haven't touched her, of course. You're overreacting to the situation. Both of you are always so dramatic. I love—"

Theo threw a yellow curse, but Titus flicked it away without even trying.

"Curse me back!" Theo screamed. "Fight me!"

"I won't, but if you keep going, I'll immobilise you until you can gain some sense."

Theo threw several curses in a row in frustration, each darker as they went, but it was useless against his older brother, who blocked them like child's play. "Bloody hell, you're only going to hurt yourself."

Theo seemed to realise the same, because he got out of his duelling stance and rubbed his wrist under his nose. "I know you planned this. The only thing you care about is keeping her to yourself. She was happy with Mal—"

"I think you need to go back to your flat and calm down."

"I wish I could curse you."

"If I thought it would repair our relationship, I'd let you." Titus' expression softened. "But it wouldn't change anything. Hermione is back home where she should have been all along, safe beside me." He hesitated, lowering his wand. "I just want us to be a family again, Theo. Like how we were—"

"Fuck you."

"Stop this—"

Theo apparated away before Titus could finish, leaving him standing there, staring at the space his brother had vanished. He glanced to the sky, attempting to blink back his emotion, and as if he felt her glare, he turned toward her window.

Hermione quickly ducked out of sight and retreated to her bed, deciding to go back to sleep.

Three days later, she accidentally ran into Titus near the dining room on her way to breakfast. He was adjusting his auror armour, buttoning and tightening things into place, showing a flash of skin along his abdomen with each movement.

"Where are you going?" she asked without thinking. It looked more formal than his work attire, black mask hanging from his belt, extra wands in separate holsters, along with his knife sheathed on his leg.

Titus paused mid-snap, looking up in surprise. It was the first she'd spoken to him since the ministry, and the first time she'd used her voice in days.

He finished his adjustments, eyeing her carefully. "It's execution day."

Her mind went cold. Once a month, the ministry publicly punished or executed any captured Order members, traitors, or dissenters in muggle London.

Titus had never hidden the fact he oversaw the process, and it had never bothered her before, but that had been when she used to believe all of the people were criminals, deserving of death.

Who was he going to kill today? What was the crime, exactly?

Titus pulled on his leather gloves. "I wish you'd let me hug you goodbye."

It was intolerable. Both her loneliness that had become its own insidious poison and his desire to capitalise on it, orchestrating her fall.

She crossed her arms, showing him all of her loathing, and he rolled his eyes in response.

"How long will you insist on being bitter? A month? Two? A full year? Tell me so that I can adjust my expectations."

"However long it takes for you to realise your mistake and fix it."

He gave a noncommittal hum under his breath, straightening his crisp collar, and then he walked into the sitting room, giving a muffled goodbye.

As Titus disappeared into the embers, a sudden idea sparked in her mind— remembering something from her past— clearing the fog she'd been trapped inside.

Hermione patted Astria's neck, hands tangling in the horse's coarse mane. The gentle clop of hooves was the only sound as they travelled around the brush toward the property boundary. Hermione swayed on the powerful back, carefully scanning the air until she detected the shimmer.

The ward hole.

She hadn't thought of it since her childhood.

Three trees over, the second shimmer caught her eye— the one she'd never told anyone about, not even Theo. It enticed her closer, but she ignored its siren call, keeping her mission forefront in her mind.

There were two ward holes.

She was certain Titus had secured the original one with a boundary spell since her initial escape as a child.

The other remained unknown.

Hermione suspected the universe necklace had been retrofitted with a tracker, and it was likely Titus had tampered with the bracelet again. She'd attempted to rip off both the necklace and her leather bracelet several times without success, showing he'd created a loophole to the charms broken by the Goblins.

It left her in a precarious position, ignorant of his plans and what actions he'd already taken. If she hoped to escape Nott manor for good, Hermione needed to know all the precautions that Titus had set up to prevent her from doing that first.

Today would be a test— one Titus probably anticipated. A push at the edges of her cage to study what gave and what didn't. Every instinct inside her wished to flee through the unprotected ward hole and find Draco or the Order. But if she obeyed the compulsion and got caught, he'd know there was a second route out of the manor, and then he'd find it and shut off the potential forever.

For once, Hermione smashed down her impulsive nature, knowing she needed to be smart, patient, and careful while crafting her next move. She only had six months to find a way out, and she doubted there'd be any wiggle room for mistakes.

Hermione clicked her tongue and sent Astria forward, walking through the original shimmering ward hole.

Once outside the property boundary, she leaned over her horse, coat smelling of hay and sunshine, and whispered into her ear.

"Fly, Astria, fly!"

Astria galloped across open fields, and Hermione came alive for the first time since her capture, tilting her face toward the sun. It was a false freedom, but she allowed a moment of joy to burst through her dark countenance.

Soon enough, Hermione slowed the horse to a trot, realising she'd seen the same creek and copse of trees multiple times. No matter how hard she tried to steer Astria forward, her horse kept leading her in circles.

Titus must have set up failsafe charms outside the property boundary as well, to keep her within a certain distance from the manor. Perhaps a confusion spell, or maybe a rerouting one.

It was good information to know, but it did add another complication to think through.

Near the creek, Hermione slid out of her saddle, tying the reins around a nearby branch. She watered the horse first, then allowed Astria to graze while Hermione took out bread and cheese she'd nicked from the kitchen. Sitting on the muddy edge of the creekbed, she stuck her feet in the cool water while waiting in comfortable silence, trying to make it look as if she was just taking a temporary break.

Fifteen minutes later, a crack of apparition rent the air, and Titus appeared across the creek like she'd predicted. He crossed his arms over his auror uniform, absent of any visible blood splatters.

Titus seemed amused. "Are you finished wandering? Or do you need to complete a few more circles before returning home?"

He'd known she'd exited the grounds a long time ago and had decided to let her roam before collecting her.

"Kill anyone yet?" she snapped back.

He didn't react. "Punishments have been dealt, but the executions have now been delayed. I needed to handle a personal issue."

"What a shame your scheduled murders won't get finished on time. How inconvenient." She took another bite of cheese.

"It doesn't matter. The cameras malfunctioned and delayed it anyway." Titus reached into his vest pocket, extracting a box, pulling out a cigarette. "These things are much harder to quit than I anticipated."

"How did you find me?" She suspected the answer, but she needed to prove it.

"You didn't think I'd let you just walk off the property? I've had it charmed for years."

The glance to her neck betrayed his secondary thoughts, and she touched the universe strangling her throat. "You also tracked me?"

He shrugged, briefly pressing the cigarette to his lips before pulling it away. "For your own safety."

"I want the ability to take them off at times. They bother me."

"That's a lie. You barely feel them. I added so many cushioning charms to your jewellery and shackles they must feel like clouds."

"That's not the point."

Titus broke the unlit cigarette in half, throwing it aside. "They aren't decoration, Sprite. The necklace keeps track of your location, and the bracelet monitors your heart rate, telling me when you're in mortal peril. I will not capitulate to your whims when it comes to your safety, and I refuse to take them off until I feel I can trust you, which at this rate, won't ever happen."

So both the necklace and the bracelet could be taken off, but only by Titus, possibly activated by his touch.

She'd gotten the information she needed. "I'm ready to return, I guess."

"Will you be eating the bread? I need something to chew on or I'll smoke."

Hermione flung the sack of food over the creek, hoping it would hit his head, but he caught it easily as she made her way over to Astria. The mare placed her velvet nose in the center of her palm and huffed with affection.

"I'll accompany you back," Titus said, walking over to take the reins as Hermione vaulted back into the saddle.

Hermione reverted to silence as she swayed on horseback, dissecting their conversation, extracting all of the things he'd confirmed.

Number one: the original ward hole was charmed to inform Titus of her exit.

Number two: the necklace and bracelet were also charmed— both tracking her location and heartbeat— and could only be taken off by Titus.

Number three: even if she managed to exit the second ward hole without detection, she might only be taken in circles regardless.

All three facts presented different complications to her ultimate escape. Her only advantage was the secret of the potentially uncharmed ward hole.

Halfway to the manor, Titus pulled Astria to a stop, eyes on the horizon. Smoke could be seen twisting to the sky over a small hill, filled with trees displaying autumn leaves.

"Is there a wildfire?" Hermione asked.

"I doubt it. It's too small, and we're rather close."

He tugged on the reins, leaving their path, pulling them toward the line of smoke. Astria clopped along, and a deep unease overcame Hermione.

"Perhaps we should leave it alone."

"If it's what I'm suspecting, then I have a duty to check it out. And if it is the start of a wildfire, I'll need to smother it before it spreads. I don't have time to return you and deal with it separately either. I only have an hour before I need to be back in London."

That was a good point. Muggle fires were rather easy to contain by wizards, but if they didn't intervene early, it might devastate the wildlife.

The countryside proved to be only an illusion. As a child, she believed they lived in the center of fae land, but in reality, the space around the manor had been populated by several villages and homes just out of sight, the majority of them now abandoned.

The horse's hooves struck on pavement following a road, and she could see the smoke originated from a makeshift campfire right outside a muggle home identical to the others beside it— the third in a row of six. A cooking pot hung above low flames that had recently been put out. Many of the abandoned homes they passed had roofs that sagged, doors opened, showing the disrepair.

"Let's go back to the manor," she begged, but Titus only tightened his hold on the reins.

"Muggles aren't allowed to live here anymore."

Her stomach soured. "Why does it matter?"

"Order will always matter."

"What will you do to them?"

"Remind them that muggles have to live in sanctioned locations. I don't have time for anything today except to put a temporary trace on them. If they fail to register themselves within a certain amount of time, then a low-ranking auror or a bounty hunter will be sent to collect them."

There was nothing she could do or say to sway him away when they stopped in front of the house near the campfire. She noticed clothes pinned to a line, drying in the sun— little signs of life that betrayed a current inhabitant.

"Stay here," he commanded. The horse adjusted its weight under her as Titus raised his wand, whispered an alohomora, and entered the front door.

She waited in silence, hoping the situation didn't last long.

Within seconds, she heard muffled voices. Loud shouts. A crack like thunder.

Astria spooked under her, almost bolting. It took all of her limited skill to control the horse, but when she did, Hermione didn't waste time, knowing something dreadful had just happened. Ignoring his order to stay, she leapt out of the saddle, rushing inside.

The first thing she saw was a dead woman sprawled along rotten brown carpet in front of the entry to a kitchen, a gun near her fingertips. He'd used a desiccation spell, leaving her a shrivelled skin-wrapped skeleton. All the fluid in her body had been extracted within seconds, creating a crimson puddle around her body. The air reeked with the terrible stench of death, and she swallowed an instinct to retch.

Titus had collapsed in an old chair, pulling up the side of his armour with a hiss to examine a pink splotch near his ribs, already forming a bruise, and then healed himself with a few taps of his wand. "Stupid fucking muggle."

"What happened?" Hermione asked in shock.

"She shot me."

Hermione managed to gain the courage to enter the dark, dingy home further. "I thought your armour repels muggle bullets."

"The charms along my side must have needed to be renewed, and now they're disabled completely. I'm fine Sprite, it just hurt like fuck."

Did he think she cared for his well being? Her eyes stuck to the dead muggle, trying not to look too closely. Even deformed, she seemed much too young. "You still could have just disarmed her."

Titus pulled his shirt and armour back down, glaring at her. "It's illegal to own guns. She would've been executed for that alone, even if she hadn't attacked me. This just saved time."

Saved time. A latent surge of adrenaline spiked through her and quickly dissipated, leaving her empty. She went to a nearby chair and sat, eyes still on the muggle.

He'd killed her so easily, without thought or regret.

"Stay there while I check the rest of the house for others," he ordered.

Hermione tensed in her chair as Titus stood with his wand out, stalking through the others dark corridors and back rooms. He exited after only a minute, shaking his head.

"She was alone from what I can tell."

A horrible thought struck her.

"What if there had been other people?"

Once again, Titus collapsed in the rickety chair, creaking under his weight. He ran a hand along his face as if tired.

"If it had been another adult, I'd have considered mercy as long as they surrendered without a fight. If it was a child— well, I've founded a home for situations like these."

She blinked a few times, trying to comprehend what he'd told her. "You've founded your own orphanage?"

"Would you rather I abandoned them to fend for themselves?" He curled his upper lip in anger. "You can accuse me of many terrible things, but I always take responsibility for the children that fall into my path. They receive three meals a day, have planned activities, and even learn the basics of maths and reading. I make sure the staff are treating them fairly, and after they age out, I provide them with better jobs than most muggles. It's the safest home in the country. Some muggles even attack me on purpose in the hopes their children can get a spot."

He'd always been great at justifying his crimes. Always had a reason and a plan for everything. She couldn't wrap her mind around it.

"Do the children know you murdered their parents?"

"Some of them."

He didn't even seem ashamed.

Hermione stood up abruptly, feeling like bugs crawled along her skin, staring at the dead woman, wondering who she was. Wondering about her hopes and dreams. Her only crime had been scrounging out a place to live in a hellscape, and then protecting it from invaders.

"So you create the orphans," she said slowly, trying to understand. "And then you soothe your tortured conscience by taking care of them? I bet you also convince yourself that you're some type of hero by doing that. But that doesn't make you a hero. The opposite, in fact. You're absolutely deranged. What the fuck is wrong with you?"

Titus calmly got out of the chair, wand still out, and stalked toward her, just daring her to continue. Other people would've been intimidated by his darkened expression, towering height, and muscle mass, but she'd faced his fury before and tilted her chin up.

"Deranged?" His nostrils flared, and he grabbed her jaw with one large hand, tugging her closer, mouth tilted down. "If I am, it's you who's made me insane."

She slapped him before he could get closer, but he didn't react and only tightened his grasp, lips close to hers, forcing her to twist and walk backward, just barely missing stepping on the woman's shrivelled hand, carpet spongy with thick blood and other fluids she didn't want to think about. Hermione would have tripped over her feet if it wasn't for Titus holding her steady as he brought her into the kitchen, shoes leaving a trail of sticky crimson footprints along the tile, leading her to the table.

"You're going to sit here, Sprite, and listen to me with no interruptions." He lifted her to the wooden edge, and as he did, she noticed something glinting at her side.

She didn't second guess her decision. Grabbing the discarded paring knife, she aimed for the weak section of his armour— the spot with the disabled charms. The small knife pierced through the leather into his side with effort.

Titus gave a guttural gasp, gripping her hand as tightly as a vice, ripping it away.

"You're lucky I'm merciful, and that I love you, because that would've been a death sentence for anyone else."

He shoved her down flat along the table, legs dangling off the side, caged into place by his hips. With his free hand, he tugged out the knife from his side, only allowing himself a single grunt of pain. The bloody blade clattered to the ground as he quickly patched the shallow wound with magic. Muggle blades rarely did permanent damage to wizards, and they were easy to heal.

But that hadn't been the point.

"I can't believe you just stabbed me," he said in shock.

"My only regret is that it didn't puncture something important."

"I've done nothing but protect you." He grit his teeth, having the audacity to look betrayed. "My whole life has been dedicated to keeping you safe and—"

"Stop protecting me!" she managed to shout, even with the tight clamp of his hand along her jaw. "I never asked you to. Stop hiding things from me and making decisions for me. I don't want anything from you."

"Stop protecting you— so you want to see what would've happened if I hadn't intervened? Is that it?" In the dark of the kitchen, his bright blue eyes almost looked black. "You want to see the usual fate of people found supporting the Order?" Titus dragged his thumb roughly over her bottom lip, careful not to get close to her teeth, knowing she'd bite him. "Perhaps I should, because nothing else has worked."

Hermione breathed hard, trapped against the table. She was finished with him playing pretend hero, keeping her at home as if a delicate object that needed to be kept behind glass while the world continued to turn without her knowing what occurred. Hiding from the atrocities didn't make them cease to exist. That protective glass had shattered long ago.

She was no longer his oblivious little Sprite, and she didn't want to be.

"We're both going to regret this." Titus' eyes stuck to her lips, and it looked as if he wished to try to kiss her, but instead he released his hold on her only for a second, tugging her up, and grasping the back of her neck as if she was a naughty puppy being corrected. "However, if it forces you to stop pointlessly fighting me at every turn, then I'll go ahead and demonstrate how privileged you are to have my affection."

After dropping Astria off at the stables, Titus grabbed her arm and apparated them to the Leaky. The auror on guard snapped to attention and didn't dare ask Titus for papers as they marched past him into muggle London.

Once outside, he pulled out a broom. "I don't want to hear a single protest about flying."

She straddled the broom in front of him, ignoring the way he cradled her tightly to his chest as they zoomed along the streets.

Dusk had already started to darken the edges of the sky, and the evening chill raised the hair along her arms.

"Prepare yourself," he said when they entered Trafalgar square. "You might see things you don't like."

They hurtled past video cameras attached to tall poles, similar to the camps. In the distance, she recognized a big black box television already showcasing the awaiting prisoners. Based on what Harry had told her about Titus experimenting with mass communication, the execution would probably be broadcast across Great Britain.

A large granite column rose into the sky near them with the statue of a man proudly perched on top. Four regal lions rested at its feet. The remnants of fountains were nearby, the water shut off long ago. She used to enjoy finding all of the hidden artwork the muggles had left behind, enjoying their clever use of various media, wondering how they achieved it without magic.

But unlike the days she'd lazily explored London in near solitude, hundreds of people packed the old square; mostly muggles, eerily silent and morose for such a large crowd. The majority kept their eyes down, as if to avoid attention.

Aurors in dark capes prowled around the edges, herding them closer to a makeshift platform where a row of masked Death Eaters stood like an impenetrable wall at the base.

On the long rectangular wooden scaffold, twenty men and women hung suspended in the air. Nothing supported them but magic, hands secured together above their heads. The "criminals" looked bedraggled, clothes ripped and stained with blood. Some displayed remnants of torture. A crimson X slashed across each forehead— a death mark.

"Do you recognize any of them?" Titus asked as they flew close to the crowd, landing smoothly near the base of the scaffold.

Hermione examined the condemned faces, and then she stumbled. He yanked her upright before she could hit the ground.

She noticed Ollivander first. He appeared more feeble than ever, arms held together above his head, thinned from age, the sparkle absent from his expression, though his prison outfit seemed clean, and it didn't look as if they'd beaten him.

Beside him were both the newlyweds— the couple she'd witnessed getting married. They kept their gazes on each other, as if the last image they wanted on this Earth was their spouse's face. The man's left eye was missing, probably extracted during torture.

And Luna— oh, Luna.

She floated the closest to Hermione, pale hair gleaming in the dying light, eyes shut with an unnatural grin on her face, possibly humming under her breath. Beyond a few minor cuts on her hands, she appeared free of wounds.

Hermione searched the other faces frantically, but didn't recognize any of the others.

"You can't do this!" Hermione struggled against his hold, intending to fight, but he held her firmly.

"I will do this, and you're going to sit and watch what happens to traitors. For your sake, I'll hasten the deaths and limit the blood, though it's usually much worse."

He conjured a chair near the edge of the platform, dragged her up the creaking steps, and forced her to sit on it, adding a spell to keep her stuck in place. Panic engulfed her, viewing the rows of floating people.

She'd never been to an execution, but she assumed many had far less people in the lineup. How did they arrest the newlyweds and—

When understanding struck, she placed a finger to her lips, stomach roiling.

"They were captured because of my memories. This is what you meant by an infestation."

Titus tugged off the mask near his belt and secured it over his face. "As Weasley said, the wards were failing at a base in the west. It didn't take long to figure out which one he referenced, given our other intelligence. The faulty wards cracked under surprisingly little pressure, and I… interrupted the evacuation process. The residents were either arrested or killed, along with any other Order members there to help."

"Did Charlie—"

"Weasley got away, unfortunately. His dragon ate one of my aurors and burned another in the process." Titus grinned, seeming oddly amused by that, as if playing cat and mouse with Charlie Weasley excited him. "Chapman," he addressed a nearby auror who scrambled to attention. "Have we discovered what caused the cameras to malfunction?"

"Not yet," the man answered. "But everything is fixed now like you ordered. We're not entirely sure if it was a person, because the muggle tech is still sometimes sensitive to magic, despite our precautions."

Titus considered that, calculating what to do. "It's almost dark. Will we need to postpone it until tomorrow?"

"No sir. When the sun goes down, a few well-positioned lumos should illuminate the area enough."

Hermione studied the prisoners again. Ollivander kept giving her horrid pitying glances. And Luna—

Titus was still staring at the cameras, puzzling something out. "Perhaps, we should also—"

"You told me you'd never kill an innocent person!" Hermione infused the accusation with all of her vitriol.

Titus gave away his irritation at the interruption with a slow curl of his fist. "I don't see anyone who fits that description."

"Luna— something's wrong with her mind. She'd never hurt anything."

Wizards occasionally went mad. Some had curses attached to their bloodlines. Hermione didn't think Luna was insane, but her father's death warped her. She lived halfway between reality and dreamland.

"The Lovegood girl?" Titus drummed his fingers along his thigh.

"Didn't you interrogate her?"

"I didn't question everyone myself. I don't have the time."

She saw his hesitation and capitalised on it. "Then question her now, and you'll see I'm telling you the truth."

The mask impeded her ability to read him, but he gave a small nod, walking closer to Luna. She wore a white dress, free of rips or stains, that tangled around her legs with the wind, looking serene and too calm for the situation. Her eyes were open now, stuck on a dark grey cloud above her, whispering something unintelligible under her breath.

Titus examined her for a long time with his wand hanging by his side. "Who are you talking to?"

"A Blibbering Humdinger."

He froze as if struck with a petrifying curse. "What the fuck are Blibbering Humdingers?"

As with the nargles, Hermione had never heard of them. And neither had Titus. Even masked, she sensed his bewilderment.

"You can only see them if you believe in them. My father always said it's because they're shy. They usually like to create mischief, but today—" She didn't finish, gasping on the next word, giving away her fear.

Titus stayed frozen, besides his drumming fingers. The crowd behind then began to murmur, punctuated by shouts from the prowling aurors to stay silent.

"Goyle?" Titus twisted around to focus on the giant in the row of Death Eaters. His son, Gregory, towered beside him without a mask. Goyle Sr. had a meaty hand on his son's large shoulder, as if to prevent him from moving. "This girl is Xenophilius' daughter, correct?"

Greg's wide eyes kept darting to Luna, his bottom lip quivering. Pink splotches erupted down his neck, as if overheated even with the chilly air.

"She's the last of the Lovegoods," Goyle Sr. confirmed. "A pureblood. Xenophilius disappeared with his daughter before her fifth year at Hogwarts."

"I remember now. He'd been printing an underground newspaper in support of the Order." Once again, Titus rubbed his gloved fingers together. "Your son went to school with her. Can he tell me if she's of sound mind?"

Greg's face leeched of colour as his father patted his shoulder to speak. "We called her Loony Lovegood."

With the confirmation, Titus dropped his wand further, examining Luna again. "Knowing she's mentally compromised, I'm not sure I'm comfortable with executing her, and I'll be questioning the auror in charge of her interrogation. I want to know why this wasn't brought to my attention sooner. There's also the issue of what to do with—"

"We'll house her," Goyle Sr. interrupted. "Her mother, Pandora, was a childhood friend of my wife's. We always thought Xenophilius was a bad match."

"The girl was a part of the Order," Titus warned. "She might be rebellious. This might all be a ruse. Are you sure you want to deal with that?"

"By the looks of her, I hardly think she'll give us much trouble. Her father chose to be in the Order. She had little choice in the matter. Like you said, I don't think she's capable of making those decisions. My wife will ensure the girl is reeducated, if possible."

Hermione believed Luna was capable of rational thought. She just used her imagination as a refuge, a way to disassociate from the horrors, or maybe she even had a dash of seer blood that interfered with her perception of reality. Perhaps in another world, she would've just been considered eccentric, but the trauma she'd endured made it worse.

Though Hermione would let Titus believe whatever he wanted if it saved Luna's life.

Titus contemplated what he'd learned in silence, and then he snapped his fingers at a low-ranking auror. "Get her down."

The man jumped into action at the command. Luna thanked the guard in a sweet voice as he floated her to the platform, released the invisible constraints, and led her trembling form down the wooden stairs. The red X on her forehead disappeared when her bare feet stepped on the ground.

Her bright blonde hair still shone under the dying sun as she stood in front of the Goyles, looking far too small and vulnerable. "Why, hello, Gregory."

His face blanched again, eyes widening with the simple greeting, looking like he might be ill.

Luna managed a small smile, and then she glanced at the platform, filled with people she knew. For just a second, Hermione watched reality snap into place, horror replacing the calm.

"Do you think—"

"Quiet, girl," Goyle Sr. Said in an oddly soft voice.

Luna didn't fight Greg as he gently pulled her behind his large frame, as if shielding her from what was about to happen. His father stepped in front of them both.

"It's getting far too late, and I don't want any more distractions. I'd like to get home in time for dinner," Titus said while studying the Goyles, expression hidden by his mask before slowly marching to the center of the platform, waiting for the aurors to settle the mass of people. In his black Death Eater mask, sharp uniform, and intimidating armour, he looked every bit the monster she'd first met as a child, except even larger now— a god of war, unsatisfied with the amount of corpses already under his boots.

When assured that he'd gained control of the crowd, Titus placed the tip of his wand to his throat, amplifying his voice, echoing around the old buildings.

"Wizarding kind has done a great deal for muggles." He paused, body tense, always ready for a surprise attack. "We've created jobs, stabilised the economy, and managed the production of foods and goods, pulling you from the depths of depravity. We've employed rations, making sure everyone is fed, from the oldest down to the youngest. And recently, we've—"

A man began shouting expletives from the crowd. Within seconds, an auror silenced him, bound him, and dragged him from the crowd out of sight.

Titus waited for the commotion to die down, a silent dare in his unmoving stance for anyone else to give their opinion.

No one did. Once again, it was eerily silent.

"Behind me hang traitors to our great and enduring nation. Tonight, when you're eating your rationed meal, remember that it is the Order who is stealing your resources for themselves, allowing your children to starve." He pointed his finger to the nearest floating prisoner. "The Order who is sowing disunity and disruption. In their insatiable quest for power, they are willing to allow the dark days to return, no matter the cost to the average citizen — but I refuse to watch as society descends into criminality."

Titus stalked along the row of people, twirling his wand in a deceptive easy manner, stopping in front of a young man in the center. He looked to be in his early twenties with brown hair and freckles, and he tried and failed to spit on Titus as he neared.

"Tonight I volunteer to be your shield from the encroaching dark." His voice twisted into something unforgiving. "My wand will be a conduit of justice, and I give my solemn promise that I will not rest until every terrorist in this country is routed out and exterminated like the invasive rodents they are."

"You sick bast—"

Titus slashed his wand. "Diffindo."

A red line sliced along the pale throat, choking off any words. The man seized against his bonds, blood pouring from the deep wound.

Hermione felt woozy, as if she'd faint at the sight.

Over the course of two more curses, Titus deepened the wound, severing through flesh and tendons, until the man's head completely detached, landing with a sickening thud on the scaffold below. As the decapitated corpse remained suspended in the air, blood sprayed and dripped everywhere, and the Butcher once again prowled along the platform for his next victim.

In response to the violent death, the crowd gave deafening shouts, so loud it hurt her ears. While most were screams of horror, a few of the people seemed to cheer at the carnage— as if this was some form of sick entertainment.

Hermione wished to spit on them. He'd kill you too, she wanted to shout. He'd kill you all without a second thought.

The butcher slaughtered out of order, stalking along the row of bodies, until he paused in front of one at random. Some of the condemned wept or cried or screamed or begged for mercy. Some shouted obscenities or glared or spit— but they all died the same. A red line carved along the throat, legs jerking, blood splashing across the platform, the head landing against the wood below.

It happened again and again and again, until Hermione's voice was hoarse from screaming along with the crowd, watching as a small river of blood trickled closer to her feet.

The sky darkened with each dead prisoner, the sun extinguishing its light in grief. After the tenth execution, the sun disappeared completely under the horizon, the brilliant colours muting to grey.

Hermione had always known Titus was ruthless. She'd known that he found little muggleborns and brought them back to the ministry. And she'd also known he'd overseen executions and punishments for Order members and muggle rebels.

But she'd never had to confront the cold, brutal reality of Titus Nott— the merciless Butcher. Not in this callous way. He didn't prolong his victim's suffering, nor did he listen to their dying pleas. He moved along the platform, becoming something inhuman, neither enjoying it nor regretting it.

Another veil ripped in half in her mind, exposing the ugly truth behind it. Her childhood had been mostly a lie. The person she thought Titus to be didn't truly exist. Before this, all of his violence, besides Krum, had been abstract to her. What was the reality of the victims when she couldn't see their deaths or their faces? They'd transformed into numbers, numbing the truth. Even the camps felt removed from Titus, becoming just a product of pureblood superiority.

But there was no way to hide from reality now.

When Titus stopped in front of the married couple, Hermione closed her eyes, acid burning her mouth, unable to stomach the woman's terror as Titus pointed his wand at her, selecting his next fatality.

The sight of the woman suspended in the air, trying to use her limited range of motion to move away from Titus' wand, was a stark dichotomy to her soft smile as she walked down the aisle in her homespun dress with such palpable happiness and love.

"Mercy," Hermione cried. "Give them mercy. Don't kill them—"

He ignored her pleas and didn't hesitate. "Diffindo."

The woman choked on her scream, the sound garbled with blood. Her husband wailed with grief— deep wrenching noises— begging to be next.

Titus granted him the request mercifully fast, waiting patiently for both of their heads to detach before walking toward his last victim, the only living person left on the scaffold.

Ollivander seemed accepting of his fate, refusing to show any emotion. No cries or begging or spitting.

"It would be a shame to kill you," Titus admitted, speaking for the first time since the execution had begun. "Renounce what you've done, make a vow to never give a muggleborn a wand again, and I'll allow you to continue to work at your shop."

Take the deal, Hermione whispered under her breath. She couldn't live with his death on her conscience.

Ollivander raised his chin, appearing regal, even while thin and haggard in his prisoner's uniform. "For too long I've stepped aside and watched atrocities happen, many by your wand, and I'm ashamed of myself for my silence. Helping the young muggleborns was the greatest thing that I've done in this horrible world, and I will not renounce it."

"As you wish." Titus' knuckles whitened as he placed the wand against his jugular.

Determined to prevent his death, Hermione purposely tipped over her chair. It clattered to the side, trapping her fingers under the wood. Smashing her fingers, she shouted with true pain.

The distraction worked. Titus' wand lifted away from Ollivander's throat and pointed at the auror attempting to help her up.

"Don't fucking touch her," he threatened. The man backed away, hands up, as Titus marched his way toward her. He lifted her chair with a swish of his wand, and then examined her hands, moving each finger carefully to see if any were broken. "Your pinky is injured. What were you trying to do?"

She barely felt it compared to her emotional distress. "Don't kill Ollivander."

Titus glared at her through the mask, the blue highlighted by the stark black. "I gave him the option to save his life, but he wants to be as noble and foolish as you."

"It was my fault that he's—"

"Do I need to silencio you for this as well?"

She must look like a mess: face red from screaming, lips injured from biting them, eyes wild with panic.

He rubbed his bloody thumb across her cheek, and she flinched at the touch, knowing he'd transferred the remnants of death to her face. He reeked of slaughter, his robes too dark to see the splatters, but scarlet droplets rolled off his mask like dripping tears. The same hand that held her gently had just murdered eighteen people, their blood congealing on the wood, their severed heads in various positions, mouths still open in their final screams. She refused to stare too long at their distorted faces.

Her mind plummeted into darkness, heart beating erratically, and her chest ached.

The horror of it all proved to be too much.

"Breathe, Sprite," Titus whispered. "Just breathe." His gloved hands kept stroking her face. "There we go," he said when she finally got herself under control enough to grab the hand on her cheek.

"If you kill Ollivander, you'll be eliminating centuries' worth of wandmaking knowledge. It's a rare skill. It would be a travesty to—think about the consequences to the wizarding world. Who would even replace him? Please, I'll do anything if you let him live."

"Anything?" Titus paused, eyes flashing. "Will you cease attempting to escape?"

"Yes," she lied.

He searched her expression for potential betrayal, but her desperation must have hidden her tells.

"For your soft heart, I'll allow a rare mercy." He pointed his wand at Ollivander, releasing the magical bindings. The venerated wandmaker tumbled to the platform, landing in a puddle of gore. He raised his hands that had caught his fall and stared at the blood that had originated from the hanging corpses beside him. Two aurors collected him, lifting him by his armpits to standing.

"Kill me," Ollivander shouted. "I don't want to live!"

"I might someday still kill you," Titus answered. "But Hermione makes a fair point. Before you die, you'll need to pass on your knowledge. We'll find you an appropriate apprentice soon. Take him away."

She didn't know if she'd made the right choice as Ollivander resisted the men who carried him down the staircase with more respect than they afforded the other prisoners, disappearing into the crowd.

Titus grabbed the back of her neck, forcing her to pay attention to him. She kept trembling from adrenaline.

"That will be the last life I save for you. Do you understand?" His voice resembled a sharp sword to her throat.

She agreed with a nod, still finding it difficult to take in a breath.

He rested his forehead against hers, the mask ice cold against her skin, closing his eyes. "This will also be the last time I let you see an execution. Your heart is too tender for it, and I think you understand now what could have been, if it weren't for me. After today, there will be no more rebellion. I won't allow it. You have as much time as you need to sort through your emotions, but it will be within my boundaries of safety. With me, you'll never be in danger, and you'll always be cherished and loved. I promise it."

Each word felt like another golden lock on her prison. Since her imprisonment, she'd kept a secret hope lit inside her heart, clinging to Draco's promise. But how could she escape? How could she fight? It seemed impossible against such power and violence, the stakes far too high to scale.

What if one day they suspended Draco in the air, the crowd jeering, as Titus pointed his wand at him—

Her eyes snapped to the floating dead bodies. "You really are a monster."

"Both our hands are stained, my love. I'm no more or less a monster than you. In that way, we're equal."

He was unable to see the difference between their killings, because he equated both acts to self defence. He truly believed he was a shield for the wizarding world, his wand a conduit of justice, and everything he did was necessary.

She was tired, deep in her bones. A type that rest wouldn't solve.

"I want to go—"

Shouts from the crowd interrupted her.

Titus snapped his head up at the disturbance, watching as Daphne Greengrass' father marched toward them, a Death Eater leading them forward, shoving aside any person in the way. The crowd parted, unwilling to get so close to a pureblood. Greengrass held a chain like a leash, tugging his prisoner along.

Even with the bruises on his face, she recognized Finch by his messy sandy hair and long skinny body, a metal collar locked on his throat with a chain attached to it. They led her friend through the heckling crowd toward the platform.

"What are they doing?" Hermione gasped.

Titus narrowed his eyes. "I'm not sure, but whatever they plan isn't allowed."

Hermione grabbed the top of his uniform over his armour near his collar bone and tugged him roughly down to her eye level again. Her panic had subsided, replaced by a cold determination, realising that despite the multiple deaths that occurred, she'd somehow managed to save both Luna and Ollivander.

And she'd save Finch too, even if it cost her everything.

"I don't care if you said Ollivander was the last man you'd save for me. If a single hair on Finch's head is misplaced, I'll make you regret it for the rest of your life. Do you understand?"

Hermione's voice was as cold as winter, as intentional as an unforgivable. Titus reached out and grabbed a curl.

"I promise he won't be harmed, Sprite. I'm not sure what's happening, but I'm going to find out."

The grey of dusk relented to the dark, as Titus straightened, letting her go. A few lumos lit up the edges of the awaiting crowd, though visibility grew limited. Even though the execution was over, the people still hadn't dispersed.

When Greengrass reached the stairs of the platform, Finch dug in his feet, seeing the blood and gore awaiting him. The leash roughly tugged on his neck, forcing him forward and up.

"What's the meaning of this?" Titus demanded, standing in the center of the platform, waiting for Finch and Greengrass to reach him.

"I'm punishing this ungrateful mudblood," he answered while dragging his ward, stumbling up the stairs.

"Punishments are finished for the day and so are executions."

Daphne's father again yanked on the chain, and Finch tumbled closer, almost tripping on a severed head. "Then allow an exception. This ungrateful vermin attempted to run away, just as we were finalising his sale to another family in need of his service. After all we've done. After all we've given him—"

"Punishment won't be necessary. I'll take him off your hands. What's his price?"

Greengrass shook his head. "I promised the scum I'd drag him to execution day and beat him in front of everyone. We can settle on a price after— if you'd even still want him."

"I said punishments are over." Titus' tone allowed no argument. He took off his bloody mask, attaching it to his belt, exposing an equally unforgiving expression. "Go home, and we'll settle this privately. I'll pay double what any family would offer you."

The Greengrass patriarch cowed under the stare, losing his bluster. "But you don't have any use for him."

"Our elves are in desperate need of a competent groundskeeper for the gardens. He partially grew up at the manor, so he'd already be familiar with his task. And I could always loan him out if—"

A bloodcurdling scream erupted from the crowd. And then another. And another. Mayhem ensued as people shoved and trampled each other to escape past the aurors. The darkness made it hard to see the cause, despite the floating balls of lumos.

"What now?" Titus visibly displayed his annoyance at the continued interruptions.

A screech echoed above the screams— an unnatural sound that raised all the hair along her body. An old instinct that warned of danger zapped down her legs, urging her to stand, but she remained seated, trapped against the chair.

The pandemonium spread. Hermione didn't realise how serious it might be until the aurors abandoned their posts at the edges of the crowd, running away with the muggles.

Titus searched for the source, and then he went pale, seeing something terrible within the mass of people—the origin of panic.

"What is th— fuck, run Sprite!"

"I can't."

Titus flicked his wand at her, releasing the sticking charm attaching her to the chair. However, by that time, he'd already reached her, scooping her up with one arm and shoving her over his shoulder. Hermione frantically studied the crowd from her higher vantage point on his shoulder as he sprinted toward the edge of the platform.

"What's happening?"

Another high-pitched screech answered her question, and the crowd parted enough to expose an odd human that lumbered toward them with an uneven gait and a blood-stained mouth, filled with sharpened teeth.

No— not a human.

It was an animated corpse, freshly dead. Long bedraggled hair framed its face, offsetting opaque eyes that glowed in the dark and skin already beginning to rot, though it retained enough identifying features to recognize a man from her nightmares.

The inferi of Rabastan Lestrange ripped into people in his way, biting their flesh, shoving them aside, but it didn't pursue the muggles running past him; instead, it focused on the scaffold, tilting its rotting head to the side. As if finally zeroing in on its target, it made the inhuman screech again. The sound slicked down her spine into every nerve of her body.

The creature bolted toward them at incredible speed, leaping onto the platform with more athleticism than a corpse should possess. Titus dodged the inferi, jumping into the crowd, barreling into stragglers while still clutching Hermione close.

People still fled in the distance, but the dispersed crowd left a large clearing close to the old shops. Many of the aurors had fled too in terror, but many more stayed behind, sending curses at the inferi, but nothing stuck.

"I have to fight it," he said, sliding her off his shoulder. "Find somewhere safe and hide!" She tumbled to the side, landing hard against concrete, scraping her elbows with the fall.

They both realised at the same time that the inferi wasn't interested in her.

It was hunting Titus.

He sprinted down the old street away from her, stopping in front of an abandoned red bus. Rabastan Lestrange followed close behind, and Titus scrambled away, moving the creature toward the other aurors. He flung a multitude of dark curses. Lacerating ones. Exploding ones. Some she couldn't recognize. The red and green lashed against Rabastan's corpse to no avail. The inferi kept lunging, and Titus tripped and rolled away from the snapping teeth and the unnaturally strong hands.

"Fire," someone bellowed. "They're killed by fire!"

But an incendio did nothing–– and neither did any stronger spells.

Years of training benefitted Titus, his reflexes sharp as he rolled and dodged and fought, until at last he raised his wand.

"Fiendfyre!" he roared. A magnificent dragon made of enchanted flames rose up. With an open mouth, it swooped down, and grabbed the inferi in its fiery jaws. The corpse disintegrated on contact, and the scorching dragon made a few swooping circles as Titus struggled to control the curse. Sweat dripped down his skin from both the heat and concentration.

Not since the memory of Dumbledore and Voldemort's battle had Hermione seen such an impressive mastery of dark magic. The ability to control Fiendfyre showed Titus' natural power as he kept it firmly contained to a circle around him. The leftover energy crackled in the air as the flames slowly sucked back into his wand over the span of a minute, finally subduing the curse, leaving the ashes of the inferi behind.

"Bloody fuck." Titus collapsed on the ground, head resting against the concrete as if he struggled to raise it. He was panting, hyperventilating. In all her years, she'd never seen him behave like this, as if he'd just experienced mortality for the first time. "Where the fuck did that come from, and why was it coming for me? And why did an incendio have no effect?"

No one answered, because no one seemed to have any idea.

Average inferi were sensitive to fire, but this one must have been altered to withstand typical spells.

From what little she'd studied about inferi, they required complex dark magic to create them, much more malevolent than she'd ever attempted. Some of the creatures could speak or make noises, though they were like puppets, with no will of their own. Their base form would kill indiscriminately, but some followed orders to target specific people.

Most of all, they needed the dark.

Titus regained his equilibrium and stood up. "Spread out," he demanded. "Secure the perimeter. We need to make sure it was the only one. The wizard who controlled it might still be close— and cut the fucking cameras."

Hermione remained in the middle of the organised chaos, unsure where to go, while the men in dark capes set up boundary spells and searched the nooks and crevices of the square. Having nothing else to do, she made her way to the concrete steps, suppressing her shivers, barely blinking.

Forgotten by his master, Finch walked over and sat beside her, rolling the heavy chain around his wrist to hold it better. Greengrass had joined the aurors in their search, so her friend sat by her silently, and they held hands, both shocked and traumatised by their experiences.

"I won't let him hurt you," she whispered after several minutes. "I'm going to save you."

"I know you'll try." Finch gave a sad grin and brought her hand to his mouth, kissing her knuckles.

The wait didn't last too long.

"We found something," an auror shouted in alarm.

Hermione didn't think Titus would have allowed her to wander closer if he hadn't been so distracted and busy, but no one paid attention as both Finch and she walked the length of the square to the side of a muggle building where the mass of black cloaked aurors gathered.

Titus was there already, standing in front. He raised his wand with a lumos, illuminating the old brick to reveal a decapitated corpse of a man magically stuck spread eagle to the side of the building. His missing head had been placed on the ground between his feet with a death eater mask covering the face.

Hermione stared at the remnants of slaughter with unflinching focus as Goyle Sr. kicked off the mask with the toe of his boot. It clattered to the side, unveiling a face disfigured from torture. Eyes drooping, tongue ripped out, and a red X slashed across the forehead.

But she recognized him and so did everyone else.

"Roldolphus," Titus confirmed, voice lowered in rage. "Someone murdered both the Lestrange brothers, managed to turn one into an inferi with an order to kill me, and left the other here as a final threat." His hand tightened on his wand. "There's a wizard out there that just signed his own death sentence."

Titus raised his wand higher, brightening the crime scene even more, displaying a note left behind on the brick, scrawled in intimately familiar handwriting above the empty neck.

Hermione's heart began to beat again while reading the warning written in dripping blood: