The flames clawed at the night, flicking lurid splashes of light across the surrounding foliage, across the half-giant hanging in his bonds to one side, and across the faces of the encircling Death Eaters. Lord Voldemort could hear behind him the sibilant movements of the snake in her magical prison and her muted, sullen objections to being so held. “Soon, Nagini. Very soon now,” he promised her in the icy cauldron of his own mind.
His gaze flicked back around the glade, but no bespectacled teenager appeared between the trunks. The Elder Wand tapped impatiently against his robed thigh. There was a corresponding restless movement among the massed ranks spread in a wide semicircle either side of him, and the red eyes moved from face to face. The masks were worn now by very few, and their master saw no sense in enforcing the charade any longer; they merely got in the way when duelling. In any case, they now had no need to fear the law, for they were the law. The velvet gloves were to come off. Those Ministry fools who were so happy to do his bidding through his puppet minister would discover now what it really meant to serve the greatest wielder of power the earth had yet seen, or would ever see. He had no intention either of dying or of allowing some other wizard to attain to his own level of knowledge and skill.
For that reason, if for no other, the Potter boy must die. So far he had shown little real skill or subtlety, but he had betrayed depths of power…
Voldemort felt uneasy about Potter’s power; power that he was unable to subvert for his own ends; power that had burned his soul like Fiendfyre on the one occasion he had entered fully into the boy’s being in his attempt to force Dumbledore to either destroy the child or submit. Such power must be eliminated.
Would he come? Always he had come, before, to rescue his friends. And this time, the trap was baited with everyone the loving idiot held dear. All Potter’s friends together and all he’d had to do was to appear here to make it happen. Their loyalty did all his work for him, and now Potter would surely come to sacrifice himself just as his father had tried to stand before him in his first incarnation. He would come…
Voldemort became aware that he had lowered his head in thought over his clasped hands, the Elder Wand an extension of his own pale fingers. A part of his mind had been flitting about the edges of the circle, savouring the despair of Hagrid, basking in the awe and anticipation that his more faithful followers projected (Bellatrix, as close as she dared to come), noting the surly pools of resentment and confusion among the tired and wounded – especially the Malfoys. Now he detected a new arrival and his heart quickened briefly before he recognised the sharpness of Dolohov’s thought and the dull slickness of Yaxley’s. He lifted his head and gazed at them as they took their places in the circle.
“No sign of him, my Lord,” said Dolohov.
Voldemort drew his hands apart, allowing the cool, slim length of the wand to slide between his fingers. It rested inert, powerful and more so since the slaying of Severus – for so long a two-edged blade in his arsenal – but it did not warm to his touch. It was passive. Another obedient vessel for his power, but nothing very remarkable after all. Perhaps it was better this way, better not to have to rely on the external object…
“My Lord…” Bellatrix began, but a single motion cut her off. Her presumption was becoming unbearable. To be obeyed was his due. To be feared was only right. To be adored… it was too close an attachment, and must soon end.
“I thought he would come,” he began, gazing into the flames before him. “I expected him to come.” A falling log created a flume of ash and smoke, and for a moment Voldemort saw therein the shape of the tall, long-bearded wizard who had haunted his every step in the wizarding world – now gone. And with him, it seemed, that impulse to noble action on which he had been able to rely for so long in his enemies. “I was, it seems, mistaken.”
“You weren’t,” came the answer. Not from Bellatrix, but in the tones of young manhood. There was a flicker of something in the darkness, as though a veil fell, and Harry Potter stepped into the light, wandless, uncloaked. The surrounding Death Eaters roared as their long-fugitive foe stepped between the outstretched arms of the wide circle. He kept his eyes fixed on Voldemort as he came forward, then was distracted by a cry from Hagrid, swiftly silenced. He stood there, waiting, empty hands at his side.
Voldemort felt almost contented. Yes, the circle had turned fully, and now the son would die like the father, and there was no-one to save him. There was a rightness, a fit to this defencelessness. He truly believed that he could save his friends by thus offering himself. Fool! How easily are those who love gulled.
Tilting his head to one side, he blocked Bella’s obscene panting from his mind, and grazed the surface of Potter’s. There was fear there, though dampened, and brief images of their meeting in the little Hangleton graveyard. Yes, this was definitely Potter, no Polyjuiced hero. “Harry Potter,” he hissed, and neither he nor the boy before him could tell whether he spoke English or Parseltongue. “The boy who lived.”
The images now turned to memories of the youngest Weasley child. She should be singled out for special attention. But the accompanying emotions suddenly sickened him, and almost without volition he raised the most powerful wand in the world and screamed those final, wonderful words. He felt the joy of the dark fire erupting greenly from his arm, saw it, as though for a space of many seconds, speeding away from him, enveloping his foe, impacting, stealing away the vital spark, and then he felt himself falling, falling as though it were he enveloped by green, falling into hard, cold nothing.
He did not come to consciousness as he was used to it. He recognised the physical sensation of the weak, snake-like body he had inhabited as his first step back towards corporeal existence, and he was terrified by his helplessness. He saw almost nothing beyond a dull surface beneath him. He heard nothing he could understand; there was something like voices, but he no longer had the faculty of comprehending speech, and the noise merely added to his terror. Worst, however, was his awareness of the Mind. He felt it approach, felt its pity and felt its horror for his unformed being. Felt its desire to help him! And this last, this possibility of attachment, of obligation, of need for another, determined him on flight. With every ounce of will remaining in such a narrow, trammelled psyche, he fled from the Mind and rejected it in its entirety, his agitation finding expression in whimpers and trembling, in weak thumps of the too-large head on its fragile neck against the floor below.
The pain became a barrier to more thought, more understanding, more attachment. He entered it gladly, making of it a shield against the horror that still hovered nearby. From some unknown well he drew upon memories of pain; of being struck by a rebounding curse; of being grabbed by an eleven-year-old boy whose touch was fire; of entering into that mind as though into a seething cauldron, and the pain of these memories became a pure, solid thing that prevented any possibility of communication with another. All his will became fixed, rigid forever, in this final act of sovereign power. He would not be touched. He would be alone.
Consciousness returned. He lifted his head from the ground, his hands pressed against the cob-webbed dirt, the Elder Wand still clutched tightly in his fist, his arms shaky as they took his weight. “My Lord … my Lord,” and a hand dared to steady him as he rocked upright. “My Lord…”
“That will do.” Curse Bella for her damned attentiveness. All she did was underline his weakness! With a final push he rose to his feet, and gazed across the dying fire at his fallen enemy. As his focus shifted, he felt himself sway, and nausea threatened to overwhelm him.
“My Lord, let me…”
“I do not require assistance.” He fought down the vertigo, and glared at the crumpled heap of robes and untidy black hair that was Harry Potter. So! There had been some trick after all, some attempt to deflect the spell once again. But it had failed. He lived! Nagini, after all, was safe. But… “The boy…is he dead?” Even if he really was dead, this time, there could yet be some trap hidden about his body. Who could be spared to discover this truth? His mind settled for a moment on Bella, but then shifted to her sister, and his wand lifted her from her sullen seat. “You. Examine him. Tell me whether he is dead.”
As the bedraggled blond woman reached out and touched Potter’s face, slid a hand beneath his robes and bent over him, Voldemort’s mind returned to those impressions he retained of that fleeting unconsciousness; an impression of final rejection and final pain, pain that was the end of it all. For no reason that he could understand, he burned in anger towards his demonstrably pathetic enemy. That he should have been knocked from his feet by such a weakling!
Narcissa rocked back on her heels, and called over her shoulder, “He is dead!”
At once the air was filled again with cat-calls, shouts, laughter and jeering, but Voldemort’s voice cut through them all. “You see? Harry Potter is dead by my hand, and no man alive can threaten me now! Watch!” And all the terror and all the hatred and all the rigidity of will that was all he had become became that final triumphant shriek: “Crucio!”