The shiny and hot summer morning contrasted heavily with the mood of each and every pupil of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, for this was a sad day. A very sad day. The day on which the greatest hope of Light had been buried forever.
Trapped in a crowded, yet tiny railway station, Harry Potter was no exception to the rule. He was in a very foul mood indeed, a mix of the sadness and the despair that overwhelmed them all, and he was positively suffocating under the merciless sun. He wondered if things could get much worse from there.
He imagined he wouldn't be very comfortable inside the train, anyway. Due to the large number of deserters, the student population had been reduced to only one hundred and fifteen students, and the number of carriages had been shortened to five, despite the numerous complaints.
The security measures weren't helping anyone either. Standing at every door into the Hogwarts Express was an Auror, holding a list of the people who should go into each carriage. Why they bothered, no one knew. Perhaps it was because they feared someone would go missing, or perhaps it was because they wanted to know exactly who had boarded the train, to make sure there would be no foul surprises whilst the journey to London occurred, for the Minister of Magic couldn't allow his precious Aurors to ride with the students for fear of leaving himself vulnerable to an attack.
Finally, among the crowd of students, Harry heard his name being called:
"Potter, Harry James, section four!" shouted the all too familiar voice of Kingsley Shacklebolt. Harry immediately proceeded to push past the mass of heads and shoulders around him in order to reach the carriage in question as soon as humanly possible. His task was, of course, made heavily difficult by the simple fact that there were too many people in the station for everyone to keep their toes untouched and, therefore, a lot of complaints ensued.
Once inside, he started looking for a friendly compartment, hoping that he would be able to find at least one of his friends. Honestly, who had come up with the brilliant idea of directing the students to random compartments? Considering his luck, he would probably end up sharing a compartment with some groupies or something. Or worse, a bunch of pure-blood supremacists – he did not feel like having a fight at the moment.
Sighing, he finally found an empty compartment and started praying his ride companions would not be as bad as he dreaded. However, his hopes were shattered when none other than Colin Creevey entered the compartment, his cheeks flushing and his eyes lighting up with undisguised happiness at the sight of his hero.
"Oh, hullo, Harry!" he exclaimed. "Here, I was hoping you'd let me get a signed photo, just you this time…" he trailed off at the icy glare Harry shot him and fell silent at once, taking a seat at the opposite end of the compartment and adopting a solemn posture fitting for a funeral.
Harry's luck was not to be improved with the passing time. Joining Colin came Ernie Macmillan and his inseparable rumoured-to-be-girlfriend Susan Bones, a third-year girl he learned was called Orla Quirke and, surprise of the surprises, Vincent Crabbe, in a murderous mood that didn't make him any more appealing to talk to than usual.
The witch who usually sold sweets was now making sure that everyone was settled and no compartment held more than six passengers before the inter-carriage doors were closed and the train sped off for London.
Harry looked out of the window and sighed. This was going to be a tough journey.
Ginny Weasley couldn't believe her luck. The fates had to be having a seriously loud laugh about her at that moment.
The last week of the school year had been like hell for the youngest Weasley. First Bill's injury, then Dumbledore's death, and now she and Harry had parted too. The only thing that could possibly make her week worse was being trapped in a train compartment with Romilda Vane, Michael Corner and Blaise Zabini at once. Which she incidentally was.
The train hadn't even started moving yet and she was already being nagged to death by the stupid Vane groupie, who was extremely satisfied to hear about Harry being "single" again and seemed to take a sort of sadistic pleasure out of seeing Ginny sad.
"Now, I never thought it would last, to be honest about it… Harry is just not the kind of guy to be trapped with an uninteresting, poor girl for long. He needs to be challenged," she was saying, an eager expression on her face. Ginny's blood boiled, but she didn't do anything, pretending she hadn't heard what the younger girl had said. Unfortunately, while Vane was disgruntled that her commentary had seemingly had no effect on Ginny, her mood lightened up considerably when Michael Corner rushed to come to what he supposed was his former girlfriend's help.
"Well, and who do you suggest he should be with, Romilda? You?" he asked in an impertinent tone.
Romilda smirked. "I'm not arrogant, Mike; one can't choose who one falls for… but if they have someone to open their eyes… well, let's just say Harry doesn't know what he's missing – yet," she stressed the last word to give emphasis to her hope that Harry would "open his eyes" soon enough. Ginny couldn't keep from rolling her eyes in exasperation. Zabini smiled broadly at the perspective of a good fight. Meanwhile, Corner struck back.
"And you'll be the one to do it, Vane? Come on, I thought you were more intelligent than that," he spat. "How would you approach him in the first place?"
Romilda's smile widened as she got up and opened her trunk, revealing a shiny silver cloak Ginny recognised at once. Harry's Invisibility Cloak. "I think giving him his cloak back is a good excuse, don't you?"
"You slutty thief!" Ginny roared, standing. "Give me that!"
Still smirking, Zabini stood up himself. "Are you so desperate to find an excuse to see Potty that you need a stupid cloak, Weasel? Perhaps you think giving it to him will make him want you back?" The disdainful words had barely escaped his mouth and he was on the ground, screaming as his bogeys started attacking his face. Ginny then turned to Vane. Forgetting her wand, she punched her in the face, throwing the other girl off balance. Romilda stared.
"You great-!" she screamed and threw herself at Ginny, sending them both towards the floor. The cloak lay forgotten on the floor. Meanwhile, the other two occupants of the compartment, Natalie McDougal and Mariah Montgomery, were speechless.
"Mr Potter, please… Mr Potter!"
Harry awoke from his slumber to see the plump witch usually in charge of the sweets trolley leaning over him, calling him out of his deep sleep. Barely suppressing a yawn, he took a moment to look at her more intently. She looked fatter than usual, but what worried him was her expression of… was it fear?
"What happened?" he demanded, straightening up and steeling himself for whatever she had come here to tell him. The witch, however, looked at him nervously.
"Mr Potter, would you mind coming with me outside?"
Harry eyed her with grim curiosity. Her expression was not a good sign. What did she want from him? His compartment mates' expressions didn't bode well either.
Nevertheless, he stood up and followed her out of the door and into the corridor. Outside, she motioned him to the toilets, at the front of the carriage. Harry just stared at her, speechless. What the hell do you want me in the toilet for, woman?
Seeming to realise his thoughts, the witch looked startled, a small blush appearing on her face, and settled for the corridor instead, casting a Silencing charm around them.
"Mr Potter, I need to ask you a favour." Harry eyed her suspiciously and waited for the rest to come. "A passenger of this train has been found…" she cringed visibly, "…dead… in one of the compartments."
Harry's eyes wanted to bulge out of their sockets, causing him to feel no small amount of pain.
"The thing is… I don't know why he was here in the first place," the witch added hesitantly.
Harry recovered his voice. "Who was it? Who was the student?"
She frowned at him. "That's the thing… I'm not so sure it was a student… Come with me, please." And, taking out her wand and muttering something unrecognizable as she tapped the door, she opened it and motioned for him to follow her into the third carriage.
Harry was greeted by the sight of complete pandemonium. Romilda Vane was teasing a little crying girl, trying to push her into one of the front compartments against her will and that of what had to be Mariah Montgomery, with her dark blue hair, who was presently trying to both prevent Romilda from doing whatever she was attempting to do and keep Michael Corner and Gregory Goyle from fighting each other. Against the wall, Cho Chang and Marietta Edgecombe were whispering urgently, while trying to avoid looking into the furthest compartment on the left side. Harry could have sworn Cho had made a loud gurgling noise when their eyes met, but he soon dismissed the thought. His eyes came, then, to rest on Ginny, who seemed to be putting all her efforts into keeping her face straight and not vomiting – whether it was from the sick stuff Pansy was yelling at her or from something she might have seen, he could not tell.
Meanwhile, the witch had stopped to take in the havoc that had begun when she had left the place, not more than ten minutes ago. Brandishing her wand once more, she sent sparks of several colours into the air and made a loud noise that distracted everyone from their activities. Most people looked around for the source, realising Harry was there for the first time, but before they could even speak the witch ordered them to their compartments and darkened the windows in order to prevent curious students from looking at what was bound to be an unpleasant sight. She then beckoned Harry to follow her and entered the furthest compartment.
Harry's first reaction was shock. He certainly hadn't been expecting to see blood at all, mind you the large quantity of it present in that compartment. The figure lay on the floor by the window, and the bloody distorted shape on the wall made it clear the victim had collapsed against it before falling to the floor. But that wasn't all.
With all the courage he could muster, Harry reached for the corpse (the witch hissed and turned her back on him with an affected yelp) and turned it over. What he saw almost made him throw up. There were slashes all over it, to the point where gender wasn't recognizable, forget the identity of the victim. There was something curious, though. A portion of its bare left arm remained untouched. Leaning in and trying his best to hold his composure at both the sight in front of his eyes and the reek of blood, Harry gasped. There was a form there, a form Harry was bound to recognise at once: the Dark Mark.
Harry looked up at the witch. "So that's why you said you weren't certain it was a student…" he muttered, standing up. He frowned. "Why was there only one person in this compartment? I thought there had to be six," he mused, looking at her. He was liking this less and less with every passing moment and he could sense her discomfort when he looked at her.
"I don't know…" she said with an unconvincing frown of perplexity at the bloodstained wall. "In fact−" She looked at him. "I don't remember checking this compartment at all."
Harry sighed. "How did you know this was a Death Eater?" he demanded. "And why in Merlin's name did you call me? I can't do anything about it! The guy's dead!"
The witch cringed at the verbal attack. "Mr Potter, I thought it would be best to call you just because you're the person in here that has dealt most with Death Eaters… In fact, I was hoping you could try and find out who did this… the monster who did this…" And she looked at him with something akin to fierceness, which surprised Harry more even than the fact that a Death Eater had been found dead in a train full of students. Could it possibly be that this woman knew the murdered Death Eater?
"Do you know this person?" he asked brutally. She winced.
"No… no, I don't! I mean, even if I did, how would I be able to recognise him in this… state…?" Her voice faltered and Harry shot her a glare. Oh, I wish I were a Legilimens now…
Harry eyed her suspiciously. "You sure?"
"Yes, sir, yes. I don't know who he is, I swear… Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go back…" She indicated the door. With an irritated wave, Harry dismissed her. Turning to take the sight in front of him, he reconsidered. A trip to the toilet didn't seem such a bad idea, after all.