"You curl the wand handle back around like this, under your wrist. If you rotate the point instead, it doesn't come out right." Harry explained this while standing close behind Ginny, close enough that her back brushed his front.
She reached out and rehearsed the motion once again without speaking. "This spell seems dark," she complained.
"What . . . because combined with a Cutting Curse it will strangle someone with their own entrails?" Harry quipped.
"Well, yes!" she burst out, laughing nervously.
"Look at it this way," Harry gently said, "nothing will demoralize the enemy more than watching that happen to one of their own."
"Uh, I suppose," Ginny said. The tip of her wand trembled as she went through the motion again.
"You do know a Cutting Curse, right?"
"Yeah. Professor Snape taught it to me so I'd know how to block it. Some others too. You're not talking about knowing them just for Countering though . . ."
Harry slid over to her other side, still pressing close. He lifted her wand hand by the elbow and said, "People die accidentally in the heat of battle all the time, right?" She did not reply, but her eyes searched outward toward the brush bordering the old orchard. He dropped his voice. "Sometimes your friends even. You must have lost a few old schoolmates in the fighting."
She swallowed. "That doesn't seem like a good enough reason to use a spell like this." She stepped away from him, wand still held out. "I don't mind learning them so I know what they look like, what they do. I don't want to get surprised." After a breath, she whispered the spell accompanied by an abbreviated copy of the motion. A section of shrubs whipped as if in a typhoon and braided themselves together. The motion ceased and the bark-stripped branches toppled over.
"I didn't even put much behind that," she said.
"It's a Dark Magic spell," Harry said, coming up close again. "They always work well if you are angry enough."
Still staring at the brush, she said, "But I'm not angry."
"Yes, you are," Harry said, mouth close to her ear.
"I don't think so, really," she said, not arguing despite her words. She waved a Chain Hex at an abused apple tree then canceled it. She canted her head toward him and said, "Any chance you were, I don't know, wishing things hadn't stopped abruptly the way they did . . . last time?"
Harry assumed she was discussing their time at the Shrieking Shack. "Definitely."
Ginny's brothers noisily burst through the brush just then and Harry, lacking a real disguise, found his persona inconvenient in front of them.
"I have to get home," Harry said. Then while bending to tie his shoe, whispered to Ginny, "I'll be back later. Think of somewhere we can go to be alone."
She blushed and nodded and stepped away from him with an air of casual dismissal.
"Say hello to your mum and dad for us," Bill said. "Make sure they let us know if they need anything. Anything at all."
Harry bit his lip, struggling against the way this open charity battered his poise. He felt hotly jealous and touched, back and forth in rapid succession. "Right," he managed before Disapparating.
Harry had other things he wanted to do. Thinking ahead with twisted anticipation to later, and how nicely he could pass the time until then, he took himself to the open fields northwest of Shrewsthorpe, to the place where he had encountered the coven trapping a vampire, the place where the membrane dividing this world from the Dark Plane felt thinner.
The cloud cover skirted by, churning wispy fingers over the treetops. The feathery mist chilled his robes. He closed his eyes and rocked on this feet. He did not send out a song, just basked in the tendrils of the shadows, letting them buoy him. He could do anything, touch anything.
One shadow seeped in close, and then another. Hooded figures stood facing him, wavering. Harry could feel their uncertainty tugging against his mind, which was new and unwelcome. Angered, he grasped at the other nearby shadows, drawing each of them in with a low gravely song.
Another figure arrived, fixed in the same startled posture as the others, then two figures arrived together. One of these stumbled as he appeared and raised his wand, lowered it, then raised it again.
"It's Potter!" his voice growled, tongue muted by having to travel over sharp teeth.
Harry dropped Greyback to the dry field. He yelped and curled around his arm.
"Anyone else want to argue?" Harry asked, turning to take in the group. He was relishing the confusion caused by posing as himself, gleeful at corrupting by proxy this place's weak Harry Potter.
Two more arrived, shuffling into position. The wide gaps made it clear many were missing, but Harry cut off the song, needing to pay attention, given how antsy they were behaving. Rather than standing straight and patient, they turned to each other questioningly.
"What?" Harry demanded.
A small voice Harry did not recognize said, "Begging the glorious grace of your wisdom, my Lord, we don't understand why we are called. Or . . . or how. We were Summoned and we have assembled, but . . . you . . . we do not understand. You are not our master."
Harry stepped closer to him, paining him. The Death Eater sucked a whistling breath through his teeth.
Harry, propelled by this unexpected insolence, said, "You are mine; that's all you need to understand."
Lacking enough breath to speak, the wizard puffed through his mask, "We were Summoned and after seeking everywhere, found our new master, but it is not you, and we are bewildered." The man fell to his knees when Harry lost the rest of his control for an instant. Harry let go of the Mark and in a voice full of relief the wizard said, "He will kill us if we disobey . . . if he finds out we are absent from our posts."
"Grindelwald," Harry said.
The small wizard nodded rapidly. "Yes, Master. The one. He conquers all. I come upon your Summons but I must return, Master. Must not disobey. You may kill me, Master, you own my soul, but I cannot disobey him; he is all powerful."
The small wizard Disapparated and a ripple passed around the circle before the robed forms went rigid, fixed again into antsy postures. Even the wind fell still, letting the misty rain settle like a veil. With every set of masked eyes fixed upon him, Harry paced in a circle. "Where is he?"
"Where. Is. He?" Harry shouted this time.
"In London," a familiar, younger voice replied.
Harry stepped over to Marcus Flint and stared at his pink-veined eyes through the holes of his mask. "Where exactly?"
"He is tormenting the Muggle leaders by muddling the computers the Muggles use for money."
Resentment roused Harry's mind and limbs, fighting against the instinct to slow down and plot carefully. "Take me to him."
"He will destroy you, Master," the figure beside Flint pleaded. Harry recognized the bulky form and voice of the Death Eater from Honeydukes. "Do not go. Please, Master. I am loyal, Master. Please don't go."
"Take me," Harry insisted to Flint, pressing on the young man's Mark to forestall any other arguments. He clenched Harry's arm, showing less effect from the pain than the others had.
They arrived in a steel and glass building overlooking the city skyline at eye level. The open floor was strewn with broken office partitions, and wire bundles dangled where the ceiling's framework had burst open, shedding the foam ceiling tiles in orderly, suspended columns.
Flint jerked his hand back from Harry's arm. "I have to ask some friends where he is right now. Stay here." He strode off like one annoyed and inconvenienced.
Harry stepped over unstable debris to stand at the window. Cars crawled through streets packed full with people walking. They walked in all directions, so despite resembling an evacuation, it was most likely just the daily traffic.
Harry spun with his wand when Flint returned. The Death Eater laid spells behind him before closing the door. "He is on the top floor. You have to be my prisoner if you wish me to take you to him. My life and the lives of everyone I know are not worth it." As if answering Harry's unspoken threat, he added gruffly. "Punish me all you want, I don't care."
Harry stepped over and shrugged in agreement.
"I need your wand," Flint said.
"You can't have it."
Flint stood hulking over Harry. "Then I won't take you. Kill me if you want. You don't know where my family are hiding and he does."
"Have you been on the top floor?"
Harry held out his wand, but his hand kicked back when something inside him balked with fear. In one forceful movement, Harry pushed the wand into Flint's hand, just to get even with that pathetic instinct. He would not need it right away anyway; he could repel any attacks without it.
"Hold it loosely in your left hand so I can steal it back," Harry said.
"I'll be just as dead if that happens."
"Then set it somewhere in the room. Or hand it someone you don't like as long as it's not Grindelwald."
Flint stood staring at Harry. "You have no idea what you are getting into," he spat. "You destroyed He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named, but you don't even know how you did it."
"Yes I do, actually. And I'm tired of waiting."
Flint sounded tired too as he turned to the door. "You have no idea what he is like. He could level this building with a single wave of his wand. And he will eventually. He wants the Muggles reduced to Mediaeval times so he is free to do as he pleases."
"Do you want him destroyed?" Harry asked quietly, because Flint had cracked the door open.
"I want to survive."
The instinct inside Harry gave a leap in commiseration. Harry sneered at both of them.
"Everyone dies sometime," Harry said, but it came out forced.
As they marched toward the elevators, Harry methodically placed one foot before the other. The shadows were his. He would not give them up. No one was going to get in the way of Harry's communing with his servants at his will. But as they made their way through the hollowed out building, ignoring doors and stepping through broken walls, fear began trickling through his chest and up into his throat.
When the magically powered elevator stopped at the top floor, Flint shoved Harry out before him, wand jabbing into his back. The guards lining the corridor straightened and pulled their wands to level, gazing curiously as the two of them passed. Only two were Death Eaters, disappointing Harry, who reminded himself that he could slip away any time, but that only calmed his heart marginally. His nerves screamed about his lack of allies, and urged him to run, to back off and assess, find a weakness and pry at it in secret. His instincts even had the temerity to point out how well the last operation worked because of doing exactly that. Harry, sick of lacking his own purpose, stepped resolutely along the row of guards, stepping out of reach of the wand poking him.
The hunched guard standing before a sleek set of blonde wooden doors went inside for a moment before holding one open to let the two of them inside.
Grindelwald sat in the pose of a guru on a half moon desk near the windows of a sweeping office, extravagant robes draped neatly down to the floor. Behind him the clouds ballooned heavy and grey with glaring edges. Halfway along the smooth wooden wall, cowering on the floor, were four Muggles in nice suits, three men and a woman. They flinched back as Harry and Flint walked by.
"What is this?" Grindelwald asked, eyes flashing in child-like anticipation. "Harry Potter! And I thought this lovely day could not get any lovelier." He held out his hand to Flint. "Give me his wand."
Flint, lip trapped between his teeth, reached into his robe pocket. Harry watched him move and could not draw air into his chest. He could escape at any time, but he needed his wand to fight, to prove who owned what. Clammy alarm took over Harry, and straining against a breathless instinct to simply slip away to safety, Harry leapt at Flint, grabbing his arm.
Spells shot out. Harry squelched them, sending guards flying backwards. Flint, knocked off-balance, turned his wand on Harry and took the force his own Blasting Curse. Harry scooped up his wand where it fell and raised it just as an Ivy Charm flew out of Grindelwald's wand.
Harry Countered it while jumping to a spot closer to the wall where he could get the guards all on one side of him. One of the Muggles ran for the door, and a guard hit him with a Jelly Legs. He sent forth a sob as he fell, and clawed at the floor with his hands to pull himself toward the door.
More spells flew at Harry from the remaining guards. Harry bent over with the effort at Squelching them all. Shouts of pain and surprise went up.
"Don't curse him, you idiots!" Grindelwald shouted as something fingery, rippling with thorns, curled out from his wand.
Harry put up a Chrysanthemum Block, but the charm tore through it and jerked him up by his shoulder, puncturing and tearing at his arm. As Harry's toes left the floor, he tried to slip into the Dark Plane, and made it halfway. The room contorted, half grey and still, half a flurry of spells and dark figures. His arm, aflame with needles of pain and stretched until it would tear free, hauled him bodily back into the overworld. Harry craned his neck and swung his free arm in a broad loop to strike back with a Strangling Hex, then a Cutting Curse, but some unknown Counter leapt from Grindelwald's wand even as the attacks exited Harry's wand, dousing them. The tentacled spell quivered tight then uncoiled with a snap, flopping Harry hard onto the carpeting and pinning him there. His wand jerked free of his hand, burning his skin with the motion.
Harry's midsection spasmed desperately as he gasped air into windless lungs. The tiled ceiling rocked as his vision warped. Harry heard himself make a desperate wheezing noise and then bit back the next attempt at gulping air as Grindelwald stepped up beside him, wand aimed steadily down at Harry's heart.
"I have been waiting for this chance," the old wizard said, pocketing Harry's wand as he spoke. "I have been preparing for this chance. My only regret is Albus isn't here to see this."
Through his swimming vision, Harry watched the radiant blue-eyed face stretch into a luxurious smile. Grindelwald's arm swung in a complicated arc, preparing a strike. Everything slowed and grew watery. Grindelwald's robes flowed lazily behind his limbs as he moved. His face fastened into a gleeful rictus.
Harry was going to die. The Wand of Destiny would complete its circling and some charm would emerge that would snuff, suck, or tear the life from him.
Harry's limbs ignited into straining panic. His body, seared by horror, arched and thrashed, desperate to escape the spell holding his limbs, to escape certain death. The sinew in his arms trembled with hopeless effort as he wrenched against the bonds, sweat made his robes grab at his flesh.
The spell struck. It coated Harry's ribs in acid and lit his skin on fire. The floor tilted beneath him, threatening to roll him off the earth. Harry screamed, made himself stop, then choked on the liquid filling his throat.
"Oh, I do wish dear Albus were here," Grindelwald lamented with comic sadness.
The spell faded. Harry coughed and sucked desperate gulps of air, finally drawing in a full lungful of air in relief tinged with ongoing panic. The thorny coils bit more with each breath and blood trickled along his skin, soaking his robes. But the floor held firm as a steady plane of beige beneath him. His eyes danced around at the guards, at the Muggles, but Grindelwald's wand was repeating the same gesture. Harry's overwrought mind watched it, traced every last detail of its motion, traced the blue stain of the veins showing through Grindelwald's waxy skin.
NO! Again Harry thrashed helplessly, even before the spell arrived, forcing piteous gargling cries out of his throat.
Something flew across Harry's vision, something so mundane his mind initially rejected recognizing it as a chair. But the acid pain cooled as Grindelwald stumbled backward. The chair and the wizard tumbled to the floor. Harry heard the crack of a bone snapping and Grindelwald made a throaty sound of pain and clutched his arm.
Harry jerked against the charm, but was only able to raise his left shoulder and his head. One of the Muggles stood defiant, weighty paunch heaving, face red with hot anger. No one moved. Grindelwald grunted weakly and rocked with groaning effort to sit up. His spine bent like a shepherd's crook and his beard dragged on the floor, making him appear exceedingly old, like a corpse or a dummy at a carnival. Clutching his arm, he painfully transferred his wand to his other spotted hand and raised it.
"I hate Muggles," he growled. "Every last one of you can die miserably like the useless vermin you are!"
Eyes slitted, mouth sneering, he flicked his wrist, tossing off a Disemboweling Hex. Harry Squelched it. But the blowback did not strike Grindelwald. The Wand of Destiny jumped from Grindelwald's hand and hovered as the spell scattered, bursting open the carpeting, the ceiling tiles, and across one guard's body. The charm trapping Harry snapped off just as the wand burst like a firework of magic, and Harry rolled and scrabbled away in panic, and slipped through the floor and away.
Harry knelt in the grey dust, bent over his knees, hands on his head, gasping nearly as fast as his racing heart. Creatures scuttled toward him, rummy eyes gleaming, jaws snapping. Harry threw himself backward, hands contacting slimy teeth and spike-haired leathery bodies. Claws tore at his fingers and arm.
Harry Disapparated for another part of the Dark Plane and began to jog on numb limbs, glancing backward frequently. The creatures gathered again, chattering and clicking as they followed along, closing in, hundreds of them. The ground disappeared beneath a carpet of their glistening bodies. Harry turned, trying to face them down, but residual panic over nearly dying ruled him, made his limbs mushy and his feet clumsy.
Harry Disapparated again and remembered that he had lost his wand back in the Muggle office tower. He came to a stop and stood hunched, letting the creatures catch up with him. He should return for his wand, but he could not work up the courage. The knowledge of this weakness darkened his mind to such a degree that he remained there in that spot while the demons writhed over one another, two deep, then three in a mad scramble to get closer.
Finally, when the claws reached his robes, Harry shook himself and Disapparated for just opposite his house. There, before the creatures could re-congregate, he fell away for home, for the promised warm hearthstone. Harry drew in one glimpse of the back of the drawing room desk and Snape's worn and faded robe hem before the cold and stress closed down his mind.
Harry woke to a noxious spell and a stark burning on his hand. Confused and instantly snapping back to fearful, he yelped and yanked his limbs away, restrained from moving far by his tangled robes and a smothering wrap. Harry opened his eyes. He was installed on the couch. Snape sat beside him still holding out a rag and a brush stained violet with Halogen Tincture.
Harry swung his bundled legs to the floor and sat up, chest heaving with a new bout of useless alarm. He held up his hand, which had been cut in jagged rows across his palm. Teeth had torn part of the flesh off his little finger. The sting from the treated wounds rendered him frantically miserable.
"Do you want me to finish healing that?" Snape asked. "Your other wounds were clean, but these were not and I thought it best to disinfect them before sealing them."
Despite Snape's snide tone, Harry held out his hand. The air in the room chilled his bare back. The tincture made him flinch, but he waited through the healing spells before jerking his hand away and clumsily shrugging into his bloodied robes. Only after he angrily tore himself free of the blanket and stood up did he notice Candide sitting nearby.
"What happened, Harry?" she asked. "You were bleeding all over."
Arcadius lay in the bouncing chair, face soft and round in sleep.
Harry's lip twitched. He did not reply and instead marched off to his room.
Snape followed behind and remained in the doorway while Harry threw himself down on his bed and stared at the ceiling. It was not tiled, and his room was not in the Muggle office building in London, but Harry nevertheless had to roll to the side to shut down the relentless memory.
"Are you quite all right? I am quite curious what happened to you."
"Leave me be," Harry said, glad his voice came out in a steady flat menace. That alone calmed him.
Snape's voice fell quieter as he said, "I am at your service if you need me." And then he was gone.
Harry stalked over to close the door. Back on the bed, he pounded his head on the mattress in a bid to rid himself of the endless replay of memories from just minutes before.
"That bloody wand," Harry snarled, happy to fix on an excuse for losing, but the ego soothing elation of this was short lived.
His limbs ached and his head pounded. His instincts were berating him for putting everything at risk. The room closed in on him. Anything could happen to him. Death, bearing Grindelwald's visage, stalked him even here in his quiet room. Harry threw himself off the bed and stepped to the window to look out over the perfectly ordinary walled gardens beyond. His hand ached for his lost wand.
Harry breathed in and out, fogging the window. He was powerful. He had battled at least a dozen out there just the other day. Somehow, he could not recapture that feeling of easy power. If he could die, he was weak.
"It's only that bloody wand," Harry muttered. "He's old and weak without it. He's just a cheater."
But that wasn't entirely true. Grindelwald had methodically figured Harry out since their last meeting. And Harry had underestimated him. And the wand, the wand made him impervious to Harry.
Harry crossed to the door and stepped out onto the balcony. Candide glanced up, eyes full of real concern.
"Severus," Harry said.
In a smooth motion, Snape stood from the couch opposite and looked up at him, pose taut.
Harry stood with his hands at his sides, body trembling. "The Ministry must have got my old wand from Percy. I need it."
Snape's only response was to step to the dining room, and a moment later, the flare of the Floo Network sounded.
Harry avoided Candide's eyes and withdrew to throw himself back down on the bed. This time he felt empty instead of restless as he stared up at the cracks like bare tree branches running along the plaster.
- 888 -
- 888 -
"Ginny, someone is here for you!" Mrs. Weasley shouted.
Ginny skipped to the door, ignoring the twins who slithered along behind her, necks elongated to better observe.
"Oh, Professor Snape." Ginny held open the door with her hand, neither going out, nor inviting him in.
"Ginny thought you were Harry," George said, grinning broadly.
"Imagine the disappointment," Fred chimed in.
Snape glared at one then the other of them.
"If looks could curse . . ." George said, putting his hand over his heart and falling back a step.
Fred leaned closer to his brother and said, plenty loud, "If looks could curse, his would be the first to do so successfully. . . ."
"Go. Away." Ginny said.
Mrs. Weasley shooed them off. "Would you like a spot of tea, Professor?"
Snape turned his glare upon her a moment and did not reply. "You were expecting Potter, were you? A word with you, Ms. Weasley."
Ginny followed him outside. The wind had picked up. She wrapped her arms around herself and ducked into it as they walked.
They did not go far. Upon reaching the tracks of the drive, Snape spun around and leaned close. "We are talking about the Other Harry, correct?" His words snapped out into the air, overcoming the wind.
Ginny paused, then nodded, eyes searching Snape's face.
Snape paced away and came back, leaning in closer yet. "How many times have you seen him?"
Ginny crossed her arms tighter, trying for defiant in the face of Snape's high strung mood. "Three times."
It was Snape's turn to search her eyes. Ginny tried to remember her Occlumency, but it probably failed.
"We have a problem. We have a most serious problem." He paced away and stopped, facing the back of the property. The wind tossed his robes behind him as he stared off beyond the trees. He stalked back to Ginny, eyes unsteady, rounding on everything: the house, the lawn, Ginny, then back again.
"What's going on?" Ginny asked. She was used to his moods, but this one seemed an extreme example.
Stress elongated his face, drew his sallow cheeks inward. He shook his head faintly.
Ginny huffed and dropped her arms. "What? You're not going to tell me?"
"He is playing games with us."
Ginny could not really argue with that. She stood hunched, waiting.
Snape added, "He is the second coming of the Dark Lord."
Ginny's face pinched, then a laugh burst out of her lips. "Oh, please."
Snape grabbed her by the front of her robes and Disapparated the two of them to a rubbish strewn walled-in field. The sun was shining here in patches, and out of the wind it was almost warm. She tried to step back, but he had too firm a hold of her.
"Listen to me," he said, directly into her face, so close she could count the stray hairs trying to connect his brows into one. "The Death Eaters, the ones helping Grindelwald, you remember them, correct?"
"Yes," she said, sarcastically patient.
"That other Potter just Summoned them, or a handful of them, using their Marks." He let go of her robes and stepped back, calming himself with obvious effort. "Including myself." He gestured at his chest. "I saw him. He was the same clueless outsider as before, only this time he was punishing the Dark Lord's old servants."
Ginny wrapped her arms around herself again, not because of the cold. "Well, what's wrong with that?"
This gave him pause. "In theory, nothing. In practice he could just as well be the Dark Lord's second coming."
Her face contorted. "I'm not certain I believe you." She leaned back, expecting retribution.
But Snape did not react, merely stared off at nothing. "If he returns, have as little to do with him as you can. For your own sake. He does not seem to remain here long, fortunately."
"Really, professor, I-
Snape swung his face in close again. "He is exceedingly dangerous. Do. Not. Trust. Him." Snape relented, exhaling hard. "When did you see him? What did he say?"
"He came and did drills with me. That's what he usually does . . . I've told you that. He said he'd come back to visit . . . though . . . later today." Her voice fell, reluctant to add the last.
"You should be elsewhere then. Visit an obscure friend for two days. Do not tell your family where you are going."
"If you are going to be my protégé, you are going to do as I say." When her mind flickered to thoughts of packing a bag at home, he snarled, "You will go from here. Right now. I will tell your family enough to ease their minds. GO."
Ginny stepped back, wavering, trying to take it all in.
"You still fail to understand the gravity of your situation. Fortunately for your sake, I do. If you do not leave now, I will use a Mummification Curse on you and stash you in a safe house for two days. The choice is yours."
"All right. All right." Ginny thought of an old school chum she had owled back and forth often in the past, but not in the last year, and Disapparated for her place, already concocting a story about a fight with her brothers to excuse her sudden arrival.
- 888 -
- 888 -
Harry did not feel hungry, precisely, but his limbs quivered from a lack of food, so he made his weary way downstairs for breakfast. He stopped in the doorway, grabbing the edge of it, upon spotting Tonks at the table.
"Morning, Harry. It's Friday and Arthur sent me yet again."
"Harry is in a bit of a mood," Candide informed her with factual casualness.
"Ah," Tonks said, sounding glad somehow, as if that concluded her task.
Harry sat down on the end beside Snape instead of beside Tonks. A plate brimming with bacon and toast appeared before him. Harry's body forced him to eat, unaware of the strange looks his famished devouring drew from Tonks.
Snape said, "Harry was under the weather yesterday, so he ate little."
"Feeling better now?" Tonks asked.
Harry nodded only because it was easier to do that than challenge all of them.
Breakfast consumed, Harry stared at his grease-streaked plate, filling up with jealousy of Grindelwald, of his ability to inspire his servants, of his easy rise to power. The jealousy spread like a stain through his chest. His instincts insisted that he could have all that. He just had to want it enough.
Sounding conversational, Tonks said, "Arthur mentioned that you asked for your old wand from the evidence cupboard."
Harry patted his pocket to reassure himself it held his wand, although it was too short to reach easily. He resisted pulling it out just to hold it and clasped his hands in his lap. He needed something to do. He needed to shake this fear and self-loathing with action, any kind of action.
Tonks pushed back her chair and tossed her napkin on the table. "You're a stubborn one, Harry." She stood, put her hands on her hips, and twisted her face in thought. "I need to talk to you, alone."
In the library, Tonks said, "Well, it's against my better sense, but Arthur wants you to come along on an operation tomorrow. You can't breathe a word of it, not to Ginny especially."
"I won't say anything," Harry snipped, trying to read behind her gaze.
"Arthur thinks you'll be useful." She paused to frown. "Piecing together truth serum interviews with the lot we captured here at your house, we think we found the Boss' HQ, and we've planned a raid, with everyone we trust that we can muster up."
"It won't stop what's happening," Harry pointed out.
"It will help," she argued. "The head blokes have connections the underlings don't. We just have to hit them again before they get as big again. Infiltrate them while they are rebuilding." Her fierce tone eased as she added, "Rodgers suggested that you might want to do that if you decide to wait longer on returning, but Arthur would rather just have you back."
The ice encasing Harry's heart melted a little at thoughts of a power vacuum waiting to be filled. He just had to give in, and he could have as much as he wanted, of anything. He gave her a vague nod.
"All right then, I'll come by to get you. Be here and be ready. We're keeping most everything secret until the very last minute to help with leaks."
Harry nodded again, more firmly. A raid surrounded by allies around would give him a chance for action. He hungered to prove that incapacitating fear could be beaten back.
After Tonks departed Harry sat on the divan in the library, staring at the wall of shelves, at the cracked leather and aged paper, the eroded gold leaf titles. Half of the authors were dead, at least. These paper and ink whimpers sent forward into the future were all that was left of them. Harry let his eyes unfocus and the wall became an abstract blur smelling of lost time.
The tiny quivers still running along the periphery of Harry's limbs stilled and calm flowed treacly though his midsection. The books he wanted would not be here in the library. But if Snape had been doing the research Harry suspected he had been doing, he would certainly have what Harry wanted.
Harry slipped silently away for Snape's office at Hogwarts.
Muted light seeped through the tall windows, rendering the mullions into gothic crosses. Files sat in a neat stack on the desk, along with the grade book, which prickled with a mild protective curse. The area smelled of Lupin's vaguely animal muskiness. Harry found the books he wanted wedged in the corner between two tall shelves, under a decorative drop cloth, with the heaviest lead bindings on the bottom. They were protected by overlapping spells, which Harry systematically neutralized. He hovered the middle book to the desk, intending to work his way from there to the top and bottom equally, under the assumption that Snape would not leave the most dangerous on top, and that the bottom was too obvious a storage place.
Harry ran his hand over his wand before slipping it back into his pocket, reinforcing the old familiarity of it. It did not feel as powerful as his newer one, but it felt more alive and friendly. Dumbledore had intended this wand for him and Harry felt a scornful amusement at what Dumbledore would think of how he was using it.
The first book had a shiny tag on the cover announcing it was on loan from the Magical Library of Cashel. Harry flipped to the middle of the book and scanned the dense handwritten text while flipping slowly through the pages. He stopped at: I imployed the studie of the sowl woambe to the silver cayce. Historie has beene silent acordinge to the noates of my master and he fownde owtt these spells himselfe. Tonight especely I feele my master is not gone. Not dead. He battels yet to returnne to this hoame.
Harry settled into the desk to read the notes of an apprentice left to recreate the last spells of his absent master.
Long after midnight, with half formed spells swimming circles in his mind, Harry slipped back to his room. The bedside lamp had been lit, but otherwise the room was as he had left it. He slipped out of his robe and sat against his pillows in his t-shirt and jeans. An inner voice was chastising him in a low relentless hum. He was wasting his time. If he gave in, he did not need to research how to escape death.
Harry rubbed his shoulder where the thorny spell had bitten him. The memory of the battle still sucked the strength from his limbs. He pulled his wand out, but there was nothing to use it on. Tomorrow he could hit something and that would make him feel better.
The knock on the door did not surprise Harry. He waved the door open without moving his eyes from the phoenix carvings on the wardrobe door in the corner of the room.
"Is your shoulder bothering you?" Snape asked.
Harry slipped his hand to his side and shook his head.
"It was mysterious wound, which may very well have required more than a simple healing spell."
"It's fine," Harry replied.
They both fell silent. Harry wanted to ask something, but couldn't give voice to the yawning gap churning in him. He needed something and suspected Snape had it, or could get it. But he did not know what to ask for, or how, so he said nothing.
Snape eventually said, "It is two o'clock and you do not appear tired. Do you want something to make you sleep?"
"Do I need to sleep?"
"Not always, certainly at your age, but lack of it will eventually diminish your skills."
Harry turned his gaze to Snape there in the doorway. His face—framed by hair gaining a sprinkling of grey—looked back at Harry with an easy neutrality. His eyes held flat thoughts without significant meaning. The lamplight caught the yellows and oranges in his crisply edged plaid dressing gown, a gift from Candide. It seemed so unlikely a thing for Snape to wear, that Harry laughed aloud.
Snape ignored this. "You have no responsibilities tomorrow, I assume, so it is no matter," he said, moving to turn away. "If you do want some potion, knock-"
"I'll take some," Harry commanded, drawing Snape back from departing.
Snape appeared to consider this before saying. "As you wish."
Harry stared into the glass of slippery blue liquid Snape returned with. His instincts refused to put it to his lips. They refused with the added force of having been correct about not flying into a hopeless battle against Grindelwald.
"What is this?" Harry asked.
"It is called Night Sky. It is a potion I found in the childcare manual under the chapter of things not to give to children under ten. It is a rather mild concoction." They stared at each other before Snape went on. "If you wish to brew it yourself, the ingredients are downstairs in the bathroom. I can walk you through it, or if you prefer, simply give you the manual with the brewing instructions."
Harry stared at him. He could not read a single thing behind his dark eyes. His instincts said of course you can't.
Harry handed the potion back. "I don't need anything." He curled up on the bed in his clothes and stuffed a pillow under his head. "I want time to think," he said, but this was a stark lie. He wanted just about anything but. His head was full of fear and failure and unremitting berating from his better instincts.
"I'll leave it here. I'll set the manual out for you also."
Snape departed, failing for the first time ever to douse the lamp before doing so. Harry stared at the darkened window for a while, thinking about nothing as much as possible. Without forethought, he sat up suddenly, layered the floor around the bed with every alarm spell he could think of, then drank the potion.
- 888 -
"I need to hear you reiterate that your loyalty is to Harry," Snape said. He stood just inside the door to Tonks' flat, cloak bundled tightly around him.
Tonks blinked her tired eyes in the glaring lamplight. The sun gave not even a hint yet about rising. She brushed her brown hair around with her hand. It spasmed straight up and then down again. "What, I have to pick a side now?"
"Knowing what side one is on, as early as possible, is critical to one's well being in most situations. So yes, I am insisting you pick a side."
"Yes, I am on Harry's side." She held up a hand. "Up to a point."
Snape clasped his hands before him and leaned toward her. "State your criteria."
"The point at which the personal cost to me of being blackmailed by you . . . and him, exceeds any damage he causes. I'm finished at that point."
"Very well," Snape acknowledged. "The reason I am here is Harry tells me you have invited him along tomorrow on a mission to raid the mob boss' headquarters."
"He wasn't supposed to tell anyone that."
"He did not tell me by choice." Snape could see her draw a breath and hold it in. He added, "If you believe you are unable to hide that fact from him, I will need to make you forget it, for both of our safety."
She stared at him, breathing only shallowly. She asked, "Who's your loyalty to?"
"The Harry I remember, and am resolved to recover."
She put her lean hands on her hips. "You should have said that before. My loyalty to him goes a very long way."
Snape nodded crookedly. "Well, good to know."
She shook her head. "I don't know what's going on with him. He's more than stubborn and disdainful now."
"I have a hunch what is happening to him, but I will spare you my guesses until a later date, and only if necessary. For now, what I need from you is a promise that you will keep close watch on him tomorrow. I am at a loss why he was invited. He should not be going along."
"Why not? We want to keep him involved. We want to make things up to him."
"His self control is not what it should be."
"His self control has never been what it should be," Tonks pointed out.
Snape closed his eyes briefly. "The range of his possible actions has broadened. Have you forgotten the clean up around my house already?"
She stepped away and stretched her neck. "That outcome did seem a bit bloody, even considering it was self defense against so many opponents. He didn't kill anyone though."
"I fear he would have had he not changed into his Animagus form which, while violent, works only on simple instincts, not real anger, or worse." He stepped around to make her face him again. "I need you to promise you will keep an eye on him tomorrow."
"Severus, it's going to be mad. We don't have enough staff as it is—"
His shift in tone to desperate caught her up. "I don't think I've ever heard you sound like that. All right. I promise. Why don't you just come along? I'm certain I could get Reggie and Arthur to agree."
"Since you came to only talk to him and swore him to secrecy, such an invitation would raise more suspicion than I can afford. And given whom you are attacking, I would like to be guarding my house so Harry has someplace to return to."
She scratched her face and rubbed one eye thoroughly. "Maybe you should make it hard for me to remember that part about how he didn't tell you the plans intentionally. One less thing to worry about."
Snape's wand appeared in his hand and as he raised the point near her , she turned her head to the side and bit her lip. "You're careful with this spell, right?"
"Always," he softly replied.
- 888 -
Harry woke groggily to the sunlight streaming straight in his window. He could not remember falling asleep. His empty wand hand clutched at the sheets as he recalled the day before, recalled the helpless agony. But he was home now. He was safe, mostly safe. Grindelwald and the Wand of Destiny could not reach him here, but that thought, and taking up his wand from under his pillow, did not console him entirely.
Harry sat up. The wrinkles in his jeans and shirt chafed at his oily, damp skin. Prickly anger flowed out his arms and into his fingertips, numbing them.
Loathe to face anyone, Harry remained on his bed watching the dust motes tumbling in the sunlight. He wished Tonks would come so he would have an excuse to leave his room. He wished she would come so he could distract his mind by sending the seething tendrils of memory outward to burn upon something other than his own spirit.
He leaned over the bed and tugged out the strange book. He paged forward in it, looking for a border that appealed to him. He paused at one showing cheery winter snows swelling then melting, spindly branches budding, ivy climbing around driftwood. The buds burgeoned, heaved open, blackened and burst forth with maggots and slick centipedes. The ivy withered, grew sinewy and brittle then, with a rustle, shattered into dust and fragments.
Failure seeds from within and concludes in obscurity. Weakness over self leads to failure. Weakness becomes Obscurity. Obscurity becomes Death.
Harry lifted the heavy cover off the crumpled duvet and dropped it closed. He could go anywhere, he reminded himself, trying for pride.
But he was not strong enough to survive just anywhere and that thought ate at him.
A knock came on the door, sending sparks of alarm through Harry, followed by greedy anticipation.
"You look like you slept in your clothes," Tonks said. "You didn't need to stay that ready all night."
Harry brushed his hair with his fingers and went to his wardrobe for a set of robes to toss over his clothes.
"You're assigned to me," Tonks said stiffly. "This is like field work, you understand."
Harry decided he was supposed to nod and did so.
"Grab your invisibility cloak and come on, then."
They landed in a Floo node at the back of a disused boat works. Grass grew through the floor, sustained by light leaching through the collapsing roof and the gaping boards hanging out over the water. Rusted chains dangled from seized pulleys. A weathered canal boat hull rested half off its blocks at the top of a long ramp with fetid water lapping at the bottom of it.
Mr. Weasley, Vineet and Rogan were standing beside the bow of the boat, leaning together. They looked up as Harry and Tonks picked their way over boards and fallen roof tiles.
"Good to see you, Harry," Mr. Weasley greeted him. To Tonks he said, "We secured this area without attracting any attention, so we're just waiting for the rest to assemble."
Rodgers arrived, followed by the other apprentices except Tridant, as well as five members of Reversal and two from Games. Kerry Ann diverted from joining the rest to pat Harry on the arm. She did not speak, for which Harry was glad.
Rodgers unrolled a parchment with a diagram of an old factory on it. "This is what it looks like on the outside. They've done a bang up job of masking it, but there's a great deal of magical spatial distortion at play on the inside of it. This road here was cut off by the motorway, and there's a steep hillside just behind, so there's little Muggle access. The end wall near the motorway will be the side where we post Reversal. Inside, the building has been cut into magical zones with a no-man's-land between them. If you fail to move between each zone exactly as proscribed by whoever put the spells down, then you will fall into a generalized trap applied to the entire building. We don't actually know where it leads, so don't expect to get rescued quickly, should that fate befall you."
Rodgers went on: "According to descriptions of the place, the Boss makes use of black cloth as an aid to remaining clear of the edges of each zone. The Boss' office is probably here." He pointed at the diagram. "But that's just a hunch based on relative spell strength. We did not want to give them any warning we were poking around."
Mr. Weasley said, "Games and Sports assures us these zones are not unlike those used in Halloween mazes they have sometimes set up in the Ministry Atrium, so we have Buford and Flanner here from Games to help with canceling the interior spells." He turned the diagram toward himself. "We're going to run a double distraction. Appear to enter here, run a feinted attempt to enter on this other side here, then actually enter at the original point of weakness."
"How are we actually getting in?" Tonks asked as Mr. Weasley moved to roll up the diagram.
"Buford and Flanner insist the zone just inside this wall can be expanded upon. We're going to make a zone of our own that connects to it and enter that way, avoiding the building's main trap."
"What if that zone is a trap?" Aaron asked.
"Well, we won't all go in at once, just in case," Mr. Weasley pleasantly informed him.
Rodgers patted Buford on the shoulder and said, "Stay with your assigned Aurors, you two; these blokes play for keeps, not for foil cauldrons of chocolate Sickles."
Harry approached the long factory building following behind ovals of collapsing weeds that indicated Tonks' footsteps. At the sound of a croaking frog, Tonks stopped. To the right behind an Obfucation Charm, Vineet and Rodgers worked at negating another barrier. Under his cloak, Harry scratched his nose where the fabric rubbed on it.
This cloak was a cousin to that wand. Maybe it could protect him from it, somehow. The thought made eager heat pour in around his heart.
Tonks' voice came close to Harry's ear. "They are going to trigger this barrier as the first feint, so get ready."
Harry held his wand downward, ready to pull the cloak up to avoid casting through it. He felt a ripple of something like a curse in the nearby grass, then nothing. Inside the building ahead, he could feel many curses layered upon one another. The Boss' office sported the most curses, Harry knew, which meant it was on the left end of the building, not in the middle where Rodgers thought. Harry imagined finding the Boss himself, so this pleased him.
A minute ticked by, then a barrage of spells emanated from the backside of the building. Dust rose up in a golden cloud.
"Let's go," Tonks whispered.
Harry followed close behind, heart thrumming in anticipation.
Buford slipped out from under the cloak he was sharing with Mr. Weasley to cast a complicated spell at the ivy-covered wall before them. A temporary door, complete with arched stained glass window at the top of it, appeared in the crumbling wall. The door opened and closed. Tonks tugged Harry to the side to wait, standing back to back, on guard to wait for a signal from Rogan and Rodgers.
The area remained quiet, even the upper windows. The Boss may have lost too many associates to mount a proper defense. The magical door opened from the inside, and Tonks tugged Harry that way.
They stood just inside the door, wands held at ready, in an area partitioned off with black cloth. The ceiling rose up high above them, much higher than the roof outside. They waited while Mr. Weasley set a wind up toy to walk through the only break in the curtain into the next space. When the toy wheezed to a halt, he waved two disembodied fingers to indicate that Tonks and Harry should lead the way.
Harry flicked his invisibility cloak back over his feet and slipped up behind Tonks, then around her, moving on light feet. She could not break silence to call for him to stop.
Harry paused after passing a paneled wall, recognizing where he was. Nearby, there was a way up to the overhead catwalks which led to the Boss' office. He turned to trace his way back and ran into Tonks, who found his arm by feel and grabbed him through his cloak firmly enough to hurt.
Tonks dragged Harry around the paneled wall and let go of him to get into a defensive stance. They were in the barroom. An elf wearing a tight-fitting scarlet lace placemat sat on the bar with her stick-like legs crossed. Her oversized bare foot bounced as she pouring out a straight shot of something for someone who lay across the bar, clinging to it with one hand while the other reached for the drink.
Tonks lifted her cloak in his direction and whispered, "Mr. McCurdy?"
"I won't go back; I tell you!" He snarled at them, tapping his glass on the bar and sloshing out the liquid. "I won't!"
Tonks slipped closer. "Your wife has been very worried about you."
"Ha!" the man snorted, and swigged down what was left in the glass before holding it out for the elf again.
"Is there anyone else around?" Tonks asked McCurdy.
As if in response, Spells sizzled somewhere in the building and a great crash shook the floor. Footsteps approached at a run, too loud to be anyone from the Ministry. Tonks tugged on McCurdy's arm. "Come with us, quickly," she whispered.
McCurdy tossed his arm free and, the next moment, Tonks, tangled in her invisibility cloak, was knocked away to skid into the card table, scattering hundreds of colored plastic chips. Back atop the bar, the elf lowered her hand and calmly poured another drink.
Ursie stepped through a seam in the black cloth, wand extended toward the smashed table where Tonks had just disappeared under her cloak. He took in the scene, wand picking out a few last chips that still rolled across the floor. An invisible foot kicked a chip and Ursie tossed a Binding Hex at that spot.
Harry stepped into the spell's path and deflected it. But he had to pull his cloak aside to do this. Ursie struck out at him with a Blasting Curse, which Harry made him swallow. Ursie struggled on all four limbs and crabbed back through the black cloth. Harry let him go, obeying the rules of some larger idea that made him draw back his wand. Two breaths later, after Tonks wrapped up McCurdy in a magical straightjacket and started to hover him out, the larger idea urged Harry to give chase.
Harry charged along curtained walls, lifting them with the breeze of his passing. He dodged this way and that through a maze of cloth, just keeping Ursie in view, following the trail of swaying cloth. Harry used a whip charm to snag his target's feet as he tried to clamber up a spindly ladder that appeared to connect to open air. The large man slid back to the floor with a thud and a groan.
Harry advanced cautiously, checking behind himself for anyone else approaching, putting down a Silencing Charm and additional barriers. Anticipation rose up through his midsection as he circled around to where Ursie would have to look straight at him when he lifted his head.
Ursie patted the floor with his empty hand, then gaped up at Harry, who had his invisibility cloak draped around his shoulders and must be half floating. Ursie tugged his wand out from under his belly and raised it.
"Go ahead," Harry said. "Same thing will happen as last time." His voice sneered to better overcome the pain of recent memory.
Ursie lowered the wand and pushed to sit up with a long groan. "Potter. Whose side are you on?"
"My own. Care to get out of here and away from the ministry? You can if you join my side."
Spells sizzled across the ceiling, emanating from high up. The Ministry may be approaching the Boss' office and Harry was not there to see. But he could not abandon this chance.
Ursie held silent until Harry looked down at him again. "What side is that?" Ursie asked, unable to mask his contempt.
Harry did not think; his wand moved and a moment later Ursie was tearing at something invisible clutching his neck. Shocked as much as his victim, Harry jerked his wand back and Ursie fell back flat, gulping air. Harry's lips tried to form the word "sorry" but better senses took over. Instead, he quietly said, "I am very nice to my friends and not so nice to my enemies. Which would you like to be?"
Ursie was fumbling with his sleeve while rubbing his neck. He did not look at Harry, but stared straight up at the ceiling with wide, popping eyes. He tapped his wristwatch with his wand during his fumbling, then tapped it again. Harry pounced, landing hard on his knees and wrapping a hand around the silver watch. Ursie's wand whacked the watch and Harry's fingers and the black-clothed world jerked away.
Off balance when the Portkey engaged, Harry tumbled when they landed. He rolled into the partly demolished wall in his own back garden.
Harry twisted around to aim his wand while gaining his feet. "You were here that night," he snarled.
Ursie had landed better and was already kneeling, wand aimed steadily back at Harry. The light shifted around them as the clouds moved.
Angry about too many things at once, Harry struck out with a Chop Hex, which Ursie Countered, then a Blasting Curse, which he had to duck under. A stone fell off the top of the wall and rolled to a stop.
"Harry?" Snape's voice came from the back door. He stepped out to stand before the wall of the house that had been patched with yellow brick.
"He helped attack the house," Harry explained.
"Very well, put him in a chain binding and take him to the ministry."
Harry's wand did not waver. "I don't want to."
"Harry," Snape corrected.
Harry canted his head downward to look backward at Snape, to glare at him. Ursie scrambled to run through the hole in the garden wall. Harry leapt at him, catching his sleeve and then his wrist, just as the other Disapparated.
Again, they fell and tumbled as they landed. The air smelled of dusty rot. The light was low, and what little there was slanted in narrow beams through clouds of dust. A sizzling arc sent chunks of white wash scattering off the vaulted ceiling behind Harry's head. He should have Squelched that; it had been a curse.
Harry scrambled to a narrow-walled staircase and used it for cover. Wand out, he squinted into the shadows to find a target. Nothing moved.
This wizard was nothing compared to Grindelwald, and Harry would prove that. He lowered his wand and drew a complicated shape just above the uneven floor. He had never tried this spell, but it was perfect for this situation. Snape would disapprove of it, he thought with a smirk.
As the spell looped back on itself and coalesced it drew the air in the room inward with a sensual whisper.
The wand kept moving, following the path as laid out in one of Snape's least savory books. The spell left a glowing trail, lighting the letters and dates carved into the blocks on the floor. With an exaggerated movement like one lifting a marionette, Harry lured one purplish tentacle from the floor, then another. The spell flowed through Harry's arm, through his feet; it seeped into the unfulfilled corners of his spirit, leaving him lightheaded and elated. He could touch the world beneath him without entering it. A channel had opened through him and he could breathe deeply for the first time ever. His failure did not matter. The fate of those he had abandoned did not matter; they existed only at his whim.
The tentacles snaked away, hunting with determination, but Harry barely cared. He stepped forward into the room, abandoning the protection of the stairwell. Shoes scuffing like a caress on the floor, Harry turned in a rocking circle, alert, mind clear as crystal, and seeing the vault now for what it was: a family crypt. Harry tossed his head back as the spell sought the corners of each room, working their way out of sight.
Harry was not going to die like these fools here. Only the weak suffered death. He had become a conduit of something too large to die.
A shout and a burst of cursing echoed through the connected chambers. With a lazy tug of his wand, a coarse sound drifted through the cellar of something heavy being dragged. Harry lowered his head and watched the silky scales ripple as the spell's arms converged in the dark distance beyond a vaulted archway.