“You don’t know what the devil looks like until he catches you.” —Kharadjai adage
Hartley considered himself a good soldier.
He’d never aspired to such. He’d been part of a Diagon Alley group for the first few months of what he’d come to think of as ‘this Business’. It had been his intention to return to accounting once he and the men he was stationed with finished removing the Undesirables from his home area. But his efficiency must have caught someone’s eye, because he’d been shifted from post to post, doing his duty and impatiently waiting for this bloody Business to be over with. There couldn’t be that many lowlifes in Britain, could there? Well, not counting the Muggles.
He had even tagged along with that Rahvalod’s crew for a bit, which hadn’t suited him. Too similar to what he imagined being in an actual army would be like. Rules and practise; constant practise. It wasn’t the rules Hartley minded. No, he primarily objected to all the bloody exercise. That, and the distinctly unpleasant whiff of Muggle-doings that had hung over the whole proceedings. He’d left at the first opportunity and landed at Hogsmeade, his first command.
It wasn’t much of a command, but he liked to think he ran a tight ship. Why, he’d even caught a traitor or two hiding in town. Children, sure, but small traitors would eventually grow into larger ones. It was only prudent.
He even made his men wear the same robes, like a proper commander (he’d had a couple women initially, but wisely sent them back to headquarters). He had been in charge for nearly two months and there hadn’t been a single disaster. Once this Business was over with, perhaps they’d give him a medal.
He was lying in bed mentally designing such a medal when there was a rap at the door of his room. He sighed heavily and took his time putting on his robe. He opened the door to see Roberts, which was slightly concerning. Roberts was one of the more reliable people Hartley had, not as prone as some of his fellows to spot threats everywhere.
“Yes?” Hartley said, rubbing at one eye.
“I think you should see this,” Roberts told him.
Hartley went out to the hall window. He and his men were sequestered in a building on the edge of town overlooking the north field. There wasn’t much in the way of landscape features around Hogsmeade, save for a sparse scattering of scrubby trees. One such tree, Hartley saw, was burning. It flickered out in the snow like the wick of a vast white candle.
Hartley might have been imagining it, but he thought someone was sitting in front of the tree.
He sighed, deeply unhappy at the prospect of going out into the cold instead of back to bed. But it was his job to investigate every disturbance, and if some lunatic was running about burning trees then they’d need to be shipped off with the rest of the Undesirables.
“Go wake everyone,” Hartley yawned, and turned to get dressed.
He met Roberts outside. It was cold out; damn cold. The moon shone down from a cloudless sky like a dead, pale sun. He looked around at his assembled men and thought someone was missing. Ah, yes: two were missing.
“Where are Durlent and Togner?” he asked Roberts.
“They were supposed to be on watch, but they haven’t showed,” Roberts said.
Hartley huffed irritably. Dereliction of duty across the board, was it. If he had to be awake, then everyone else should have to be, too. “All right. Let’s see who’s burning trees.”
They trod out into the field, snow crunching beneath a parade of boots. Hartley didn’t see anyone else’s trail, so whomever had lit the tree on fire must have approached from a different angle. The closer he got, the more he was convinced that there was someone sitting there. It wasn’t until they were much closer that he could see clearly through the glare from the fire, and his blood ran as cold as the night air.
There was someone sitting in front of the tree, all right. Togner was slumped forward with his hands at either side of his knees. His face was as blank and cold as the expanse of snow that surrounded him. The body hanging from the tree behind him was badly burned, but Hartley presumed it was Durlent. In the snow near Togner’s feet a message had been crudely scrawled with a dark substance that Hartley knew instinctively was blood. It read:
DOESNT LOOK THAT PURE TO ME
For a long moment, no one spoke. The fire crackled away; the column of smoke lifting above was silver-bright beneath the moon.
Hartley licked his lips, trying to find his voice. “Roberts, take half the men and find the trail of whoever did this,” he said, his words absurdly calm to his own ears. “The rest of you, put out the fire and get Durlent down.”
Hartley prided himself on what he considered to be keen investigative skills. Right away he spotted something odd: a shrivelled string protruding from the leg of Durlent’s trousers. He traced it down to the snow and found its end not far from the bloody letters. It was a sodden strand of thick thread, possibly from a clothing seam; the portion nearest to the fire was beginning to shrivel. Hartley squeezed it and was rewarded with a pulse of blood spreading between his fingers. He dropped it, sickened. Whoever had suspended Durlent from the tree had used the poor man like a quill.
He turned away, peering towards the town. He gestured to a couple of his men who weren’t doing much but watching with ghoulish interest as some of the others cut Durlent from his perch. “You, go check over that way. Look for any single tracks.”
Roberts came jogging back over a moment later. “I think we’ve got something. Looks like it was just one person.”
Hartley felt a flare of satisfaction. The hunt was on. “Good. Let’s—”
The most curious sensation came over Hartley, then. He found himself lying on his back in the snow, quite unable to breathe. The edges of his vision were going black, and soon he could see nothing but his own hand where it sat upon the snow to his right. Someone trod upon it, but Hartley didn’t feel a thing. It was as if he had been disconnected from himself, all his tethers cut in an instant. And it occurred to him that he was his body; and if he could not connect with his body, then what was he?
This was his last thought.
The waiting really was the worst part.
Harry supposed that, really, the dying would probably be the worst part, if it came to that. But whatever pain might be involved, at least at the end of it all was a sort of relief. The only thing at the end of the waiting was a chance to die. So, no: death or not, waiting was the worst part. Full stop.
As he had concluded some time ago, the waiting was an unfortunate side-effect of the new way of doing things. Previously, he’d had the good fortune to stumble into his life-or-death situations with all the grace and foresight of a drunkard. Death had little sting when the reality of it was confronted so suddenly and then just as suddenly whisked away. It was always in the space after, in the ashes of that year’s conflagration, that he took the time to assess the costs, internal and external. Easier to accept things when it was too late to change them.
Now it was all planning. Planning, planning, and traps, apparently. It was a good idea, Harry wasn’t disputing that. All the time and effort that had been spent in the planning stages had paid off, again and again. It was an entirely different game once one was prepared to play it. He just wished that this part, the waiting, wasn’t a necessary gap in their tightly plotted functions. But that had always been his problem, hadn’t it? He couldn’t switch off.
He thought about the way Scott and Lila always looked in moments like this. Like… Well, Harry could remember at the zoo, they’d had several large crocodiles. And there was a big, noisy, chattering crowd around the crocodile pen, all these kids and parents making a fuss, poking at the glass, yelling at the crocodiles. Like they thought the animals were entertainers, not just animals who happened to be behind glass. But the crocodiles floated in their shallow green water, utterly indifferent to it all. They didn’t care how much the people wanted to see them move. The only thing they cared about was the moment when someone would open the door in the back of the pen and toss in something to eat. Nothing else was relevant.
That, Harry thought, was how Scott and Lila looked before a fight: like crocodiles awaiting the arrival of meat; patient, but ready. Problem was, he was pretty sure they were like that because they’d been through this shite a million times before. Even sheer terror could lose its edge, apparently.
Harry was nothing but edges right now.
A small hand gripped his jaw, turning his head. His eyes met Ginny’s. She was looking at him gravely, and yet there was such empathy in her gaze that his breath caught in his throat.
“I’m right here,” she told him. “I’m not going anywhere.”
That was, perversely, exactly what he was afraid of.
Her eyes suddenly widened, and she looked past him.
He followed her eyeline and froze. There stood Voldemort, in the doorway. Nagini was draped over his shoulders and his red eyes were narrow with concentration as he surveyed the Room.
Harry didn’t know what he’d been expecting. A blast of ominous organ music, maybe, or a dark cloud descending. But Riddle was just a man. A powerful, twisted man, but a man nonetheless. A man who was probably a second away from seeing the enormous pile of rubble suspended about his head.
Harry found his voice. “NOW!”
Riddle barely had enough time to look in the direction of Harry’s shout when spells from all four teens hit the precariously hanging pile above the door and the whole thing came crashing down in a shattering cacophony. Shelves and wardrobes cracked and tumbled, desks bounced across the floor and several bocce balls which Ginny had strategically placed went careening into the rubbish.
Harry had seen Riddle fight before, and knew he was fast. Harry was prepared; or so he thought. It seemed no sooner had the dust begun to settle when the pile exploded outward in a deadly hail of debris. Harry was forced to duck down into cover, but not before he saw the way one of Riddle’s arms hung at an odd angle, and the blood which streamed down his bone-white face.
With an animal-like snarl, Riddle swept his wand wide, kicking up a storm of books. Blasting Curses indiscriminately tore into the surrounds, kicking up so many paper scraps that it became hard to see.
And yet, Harry was in his element. Freed from the burden of waiting, of circuitous thought, of endless aching fear. Violence made room for nothing but its own terrifying momentum. When each single shaking moment held life at one end and death at the other, then no moment was special for it. Death was just the other side of the coin which never stopped flipping.
It was this, Harry realised in the back of his mind, that Scott had always known.
He dodged to the right. Splinters cut across his neck as Ginny disappeared behind a row of collapsing book shelves, but there was nothing he could do about it. Neville and Luna’s cover on the other side of the room was exploding and Harry could only hope they weren’t exploding with it. He emerged from behind a lopsided stack of crystal balls but immediately knew, instinctively, that he was still too slow. He abandoned his attack and kept moving. A spell sliced through the air where he had been a second before. He juked back behind a falling shelf, cut to the left again, disappeared from Riddle’s sight and then emerged slightly closer. Now he had a fraction of a second more; it was time.
He raised his wand, mouth just beginning to form the words, and something incredibly strange happened. His wand lit in his hand before he could finish his spell. A ball of light that was so dense and bright it was like a solid thing shot from his wand, and when it hit Riddle’s wand, the instrument exploded with the force of a small bomb. The Dark Lord reeled backwards as fragments flayed his fingers and cut into his face.
For a silent, dumbstruck moment, Harry and Riddle stared at each other across a jagged floor of wreckage as paper scraps rained down like smouldering snow.
Harry had no idea what had just happened, but he wasn’t going to turn down an advantage. He raised his wand.
Riddle turned and fled back into the halls of Hogwarts.
Harry stood there for a second, senses beginning to return as his adrenaline slightly ebbed. His ears were ringing, and he was bleeding a fair amount, though most of it seemed superficial. He stumbled back the way he’d come and helped Ginny dig her way out of the rubble. She was bruised and there was a deep cut on her chin that sent a rivulet of blood down her neck, but otherwise seemed all right.
Her face was flushed, and her eyes were bright. Harry read in her expression the same combination of rage and panic that was racing through his veins; something close to ecstasy, though even that wasn’t the right word.
“How’d you do that?!” she asked as they fought their way through the literary morass.
“I didn’t,” Harry replied as he kicked some more books out of his path. “It was my wand.”
“How was that your wand?”
“I have no idea.”
Harry kicked a few broken trinkets aside and picked his bag of borrowed Muggle weapons back up, slinging it over his shoulder. He and Ginny made it about halfway over to where Neville and Luna were last seen when they spotted Luna crawling out from beneath a smoking clutter of newspapers. “Neville!” she called out.
“I’m here,” came his muffled reply. He was trapped beneath a stack of bookcases. “I can’t find my wand, have you seen it?”
Luna looked down at a floor covered in wooden pieces. “I might have,” she said.
“Hang on, Nev, we’ll get you out,” Harry told him.
“I’m all right,” Neville said stoutly. “Go on, I’ll catch up.”
He was right. Riddle couldn’t be allowed to get away. “Come on,” Harry said to Ginny, leaving Luna to dig Neville out the mess.
As they approached the door, Harry was encouraged by the amount of blood on the floor. Riddle must have been even more injured than he’d appeared. It wasn’t until they were right before the exit that he saw the white flesh that oozed out from beneath half of a solid oak desk. Nagini had been crushed to a pulp.
Harry felt the slightest tinge of relief, but that was all he allowed himself.
He and Ginny climbed over the remains of their trap and pursued their quarry into the school.
Dumbledore was dead. However, this hadn’t stopped him from keeping up with current matters.
He had set many plans in motion before his unfortunate demise and saw no reason his death should halt their progress. The threads of change he had woven continued to unspool. People, once understood, were largely predictable. Not that he was blind to chance or the vicissitudes of humanity. But, for the most part, things proceeded as he had foreseen.
Except, confoundingly, events surrounding Harry. The shape and speed of those events had spiralled far outside Dumbledore’s original design.
This was, oddly enough, exactly his plan.
In the first months following Scott Kharan’s arrival, Dumbledore had believed the man might be retrofitted into the existing framework. Harry had several key advantages in the coming conflict, but a Muggle (or Muggle-adjacent) bodyguard was a wildcard, something Tom would never account for. But as time had passed, it had become apparent that Kharan was just as much a random element for Dumbledore as he would be for Riddle. Even more of one, perhaps. Kharan was clearly making his own plans. More than that, his tutelage was changing Harry’s perceptions. Slowly, Dumbledore’s expectations for how Harry would react in any given situation became shakier, even obsolete.
Scott was crafty, manipulative. Smart. Far smarter, in fact, than Dumbledore’s initial assessment had allowed for. Scott had seemed like a boy at war with himself, sharp intelligence battling childish whims, deadly knowledge juxtaposed with teenage impulsiveness. Eventually, Dumbledore had realised that this was not the nature of the boy, or of the man, but instead a compromised version of both. He knew then that he could not account for an adult Kharan, a person he had met only briefly. Ergo, when it came to Scott Kharan, he could account for very little, indeed.
Clearly, his plans had required alteration.
If Dumbledore had remained alive and well, perhaps he might have used his influence to guide Harry and by extension, Scott. That had not come to pass, for obvious reasons. Instead, he recognised that his role was to put the right tools in the right hands. He would have to trust that they would be used effectively, and in the meantime ensure the Order did not collapse and leave Harry without even a distraction to count on.
He had wondered, from time to time, if Scott was merely a harbinger, the first swell of a greater wave. Even lacking details, the picture of Scott’s origins that had been intimated implied a vast power. A nation not of provinces, but of planets. Dumbledore could only speculate on the nature of the military leviathan which could have bred such a man.
And yet, an army had never materialised. The reasons were unknown, but obviously there were restrictions at work. He only hoped those reasons were rational and not bureaucratic. He would hate to think Harry was denied further support for budgetary reasons.
Overall, Dumbledore couldn’t honestly say he was all that enamoured with his laissez faire approach. But given his circumstances, it was the best he could do. Harry had gone dark after the Weasley wedding and Dumbledore had been left to piece together events thereafter through inference and what little Severus and the Order could tell him. Harry’s whereabout were frequently unclear and Dumbledore knew he couldn’t assume that Scott was always present. In fact, he suspected that Scott and his sister were frequently deployed as a distraction.
Still, Harry’s path across the UK was painted in corpses, a trail of violence ranging from mysterious disappearances to mass homicide to outright battles raging in the streets of wizarding Britain. Killing was not Harry’s way, an aspect of him that Dumbledore had respected and nurtured. However, Dumbledore understood that Scott was a soldier, and lethal. Regardless, it had been a bit shocking to discover just how lethal. A few dead Death Eaters had been expected; a brutal guerrilla war had not been.
Dumbledore took some satisfaction in knowing Tom had not expected it, either.
It had been frustrating being so much in the dark. He had not anticipated so much of what had happened. He had certainly not expected Scott to suddenly appear in the school and beat Severus to a pulp.
Or for Tom Riddle to come limping through the door, face and hands lacerated, one arm clearly broken, and bruises beginning to blossom on his pale flesh.
“Rough night, Tom?” Dumbledore said mildly.
Riddle looked at Severus’s unconscious form, lip curling in contempt. Then he bent down and began rifling through the other man’s robes, extracting Severus’s wand.
Interesting. Quite interesting.
“Not an ideal workaround, is it?” Dumbledore said conversationally. “Did poor Ollivander ever give you a definitive answer? I am curious.”
Riddle’s red eyes focused on the portrait with burning malevolence. “Curiosity is for the living,” he hissed.
“And yet you’ve exercised it so rarely. You only interrogate the world when it impedes you, and you always seek the wrong solutions.”
“Yes, use this opportunity to lecture me. You won’t have another.” Tom tucked Severus’s wand into his sleeve. “Your creation dies tonight.”
“My creation?” Dumbledore shook his head with a disbelieving smile. “Come now, Tom. Modesty does not suit you.”
“Nothing you can say will save him.”
“That’s true… if one assumes he needs saving. Harry hasn’t needed that from me in a long time. Perhaps he never did,” Dumbledore mused.
“It’s over. Wand or no, he can’t match me.”
“Of course he can. You’ve made sure of it.” Dumbledore observed his foe with a wry gaze. “You chose your enemy; you gave him his weapons, his experience, his motivation. Few people in this world could have been so efficient in engineering their own destruction. It’s honestly quite impressive. You’ve made almost an art of it.” Dumbledore tilted his head slightly in acknowledgement. “Not that much of a surprise, perhaps. You were always my best student. And my least perceptive, when it mattered.”
“The second such words from a dead man.”
“Another of yours, the Muggle soldier. Such depths I’ve driven you to… I must admit, I never believed you would stoop to hire a Muggle to murder my followers. You must be desperate…”
“One of us is, certainly. As for the soldier, he’s his own man.”
“Was. I killed him and that supposedly brilliant Mudblood that Potter is so fond of.”
Dumbledore’s eyes twinkled. “Perhaps. But if you’ll forgive me, you’ve been known to make mistakes.”
At last, the rage lurking behind Riddle’s icy mask came to the forefront. He raised his pilfered wand and held it out towards Dumbledore’s portrait, teeth bared. For several long seconds he stayed that way, until his arm slowly lowered as he mastered his emotions.
“No…” Riddle said almost absently as he tucked the wand back into his sleeve. “No. You’re already dead.”
“Well, Tom,” Dumbledore said as he adjusted his glasses, “that would make two of us.”
The snow crunched beneath Ron’s feet as he ran at the edge of the Forbidden Forest. It was still damn cold out, cold enough to bite at his throat and fingers. He barely felt it.
Hogwarts looked calm and still in the moonlight. It meant nothing. Anything could be happening in there. But at least it wasn’t burning to the ground, which he thought made it safe to assume the majority of people inside weren’t currently fighting.
He couldn’t say the same about Hogsmeade. There was smoke above the town, draped like gossamer silver in front of the moon. The tinny crack of distant gunfire echoed across the wide field. No question where Scott was at.
Ron needed to find Harry.
Sophie was at the perimeter, opening the way. Ron climbed over the wall and waited, but she and Lila didn’t follow. His heart sank a little at knowing he’d be going it alone, but he understood. Their business was elsewhere. He wished them luck.
The school loomed just ahead. Voldemort might already be inside, which… fuck. The only silver lining here was that Hermione was nowhere near this bloody mess. He assumed the usual ways into the school were open. If Harry and the others were still in the Room of Requirement, his best bet would be to take the stairs by the Entrance Hall straight into the upper levels and go from there.
He crossed the open grounds, hoping no one was looking out the windows. There shouldn’t be anyone evil about save for You-Know-Who himself, but he knew better than to count on everything going according to plan. For all he knew there was another bloody Death Eater army awaiting his arrival.
As he ran up the stairs to a side door he heard what sounded like a long, distant string of firecrackers pulse hollowly across the plain. He knew Lila was opening up on some poor sod. He’d been around a few loud Muggle whatsits thanks to some overly violent Kharadjai, but that beast of Lila’s took the cake.
More gunfire, an extended staccato cadence of pops. Ron wasn’t homicidal by nature, but it had been one long night in a long fucking year. He hoped Scott’s crew killed all those bastards.
The halls of Hogwarts were quiet, at least where he was. He wasn’t sure if that was a good or bad sign. Every step upwards without someone trying to curse him set his jaw a little tighter. Was it a trap? That would be just his sodding luck.
When he finally reached the Room, the hall was as still as all the others. He reckoned he was early until his saw the red streaks on the flagstones. Blood. Shit.
He readied his wand, took a deep, shaky breath, thought, I need a place to hide something, and charged inside.
He almost immediately tripped on a pile of rubbish. He skidded to a halt, barking his shins on half a desk. His trainers were in something mushy and horrible; it took him a moment to realise it was a crushed snake. So that was something, at least. But the Room looked like a tornado had hit it, and that couldn’t be a good sign. Noise emanated from his right, and he pointed his wand that way.
“Ron!” It was Neville, looking battered. He and Luna were clambering out of another pile of wreckage.
Ron let out his breath. “Bloody hell, I nearly cursed you. Where’s Harry and Gin?”
“Going after him.” Neville finally freed his legs from a smashed bookcase and staggered to the door with Luna’s help. “Come on, we can still catch up.”
So they were about to chase after Riddle, then. Probably the worst idea he’d ever been party to; and that was a long and prestigious list. “All right,” he heard himself say.
Damn. Well, here went nothing.
Scott set the barrel of his rifle against the edge of the wall, aimed, and squeezed. His shot shattered the brick at the corner of the house down the alleyway and the Death Eater behind it fell back. It might have been a miss, but he didn’t think so. The reaction was too fast to have been in the wake of a close call.
“Reloading,” he said, hitting the magazine release.
A long burst of fire came from Lila’s side of their position. Then another as she raked the spot she had herded her contact into. Scott couldn’t see what was happening; he just knew the drill.
“Get him?” he asked as he chambered a new round.
“Not sure.” Lila picked up her M249 and sat back against the wall. “Strauss?”
Sophie was in an observation position on the roof behind them. “…No. I see him at the green house, first floor.” Two loud clacks as she fired her suppressed MP5. “Moving east, seventy-five.”
Lila popped back up and fired again, shredding the side of the green house at seventy-five meters. Scott leaned back out around his side, scanning for movement.
They were in a decent position on the far end of town, opposite the train station. There were two houses connected by a stone wall with the last house on the west side of Hogsmeade to their backs, the two-storey on which Sophie was perched. To the north and south was the blank white field, making any flanking attempts an exercise in futility. Of course, that worked both ways.
Scott initially had an advantage after he ambushed the Death Eaters and killed at least some of their leadership. He’d been picking them off as they panicked out by the burning tree, but it hadn’t taken too long for them to flee back into town regardless of the losses they were taking, instinctually understanding that their only hope was to reach the cover of the houses. After that he had fought a slow retreat to his current position (he’d set off some kind of town-wide alarm in the process, which had actually aided him with the additional confusion); he’d killed a few more of them but their numbers had made it necessary to continually fall back or risk being surrounded. He had just run out of room to run when Sophie and Lila had come barrelling across the field in a flanking charge. The fighting had been fierce for about five minutes as the Kharadjai women forced their way to Scott’s position through sheer firepower and surprise.
Things had since calmed into a steady back and forth, something close to a stalemate. The Death Eaters had the numbers, but clearly no idea how to take a fixed position covered by Muggle guns. The Kharadjai couldn’t push without being enveloped. Neither side could flank. Scott figured that, eventually, the enemy would decide to just level everything on the Kharadjai end of town. All bets were off in that case.
He was concerned about his own ability to keep fighting. He was weak. He could feel his connection to the shape wavering, threatening to tinge his vision. Between getting the shit kicked, punched and blown out of him at the Dursleys’ and Riddle damn near killing him, he felt like his bones were turning to lead. He’d been awake and intermittently fighting for almost twenty-four hours and every injury had been adding up. He didn’t have much left to give. The adrenaline could only carry him so far.
He could keep going. He knew he could because he’d done it before and done it in even worse shape. But he also knew that if he was pushed too much further, his body was liable to quit on him. He could heal another bad hit; maybe two. After that, he couldn’t count on it.
Lila and Sophie hadn’t said anything, but he was sure they’d noticed.
His attention was caught by a glint around the edge of a building about thirty meters down the alley. Someone was using a mirror to look around the corner at his position.
“We got a regular fuckin’ MacGyver out there,” Scott said. He put a bullet through the mirror out of sheer spite, relishing the howl of pain that followed.
Another deadly rattle from Lila cut through the night air. A few spells flew overhead in a feeble response, one clipping the wall with a bang. “Target is struck,” Lila reported, sinking back down.
“Still moving, though,” Sophie replied. Three more sharp clicks from the roof.
Scott took a moment to lean against the cold stone, pressing his forehead to it. The cold bit at his head, a slight shock to his system. It helped a little.
“Movement, east,” Sophie said.
Scott blinked hard and set himself back at the edge. “I’m clear.”
“Same,” Lila replied.
“Mass movement. They’re shifting, east two hundred.” Sophie paused. “Oh no, Scott, I think they’re sending people to the school.”
He’d been afraid of that. The Death Eaters were without leadership thanks to Scott’s ambush, and no doubt any queries sent Malfoy Manor’s way were going unanswered. By this point anyone who could reinforce probably already had. But they knew that Snape was nearby, along with (as far as they knew) the Carrows. They couldn’t Apparate into Hogwarts and the school was only on the Floo network sporadically. It looked like someone had decided the best course of action was to kick the ball up the chain of command.
“How many?” he asked.
“I count at least five,” she said. “They’re gathering by the road out of town. I don’t know if all of them are leaving, though.”
Even one would be too many. Harry had enough on his plate with Riddle to face, he didn’t need Death Eaters trying to hex him in the back.
Scott was on the wrong side of the town. He’d known that when he’d been falling back, but the Death Eaters had all flooded into the east side of the village and Scott had been alone. There hadn’t been much choice.
“What’s the play?” Lila said quietly.
If Hogsmeade hadn’t been situated in the middle of a field as flat as a damn pancake, there would have been a lot of possible moves. Scott could still think of a few, but he could only think of one that wasn’t likely to end with all of them either dead, captured, or pinned down.
There was always a cold logic to war. People were resources, and resources had to be used efficiently. In this case, he had two intact resources and one damaged resource. Therefore, the smart move was to sacrifice the damaged resource to preserve the other two, then use them against the enemy elsewhere. Strategy 101. Delay, distract, escape.
Scott began to root through one of the duffel bags, stuffing munitions into his pockets. “Sophie, which side of town are they shifting from?”
“South, mostly. There’s still sentries in the two-storey brick at south-east forty,” she said.
“I’m going to hit it. We flash and smoke the road, north and south alleyways. You two run the south field, fast as you can make it. Cut them off at the gate.”
The grim expression on Lila’s face made it clear she had anticipated the orders. She changed the box magazine on her weapon, not meeting Scott’s eyes.
Sophie leapt down from the roof. Her emerald gaze was laden with worry. “You be careful,” she said thickly.
Scott smiled. “Who, me?”
His eyes widened in surprise when she grabbed him by the lapels and kissed him on the cheek, right at the corner of his mouth. “You be careful,” she reiterated, backing away. She hurried over to a position at the edge of the southern house, tensing to run with a smoke grenade in one hand.
Lila stood up and chambered a round with a pull of the heavy bolt. “Love you, Scott,” she said.
“Love you too, Lil.” Scott peered over the wall. “Move in ten.”
The grenades went over the wall, filling the night with thunderous bangs, blinding flashes and thick clouds of smoke. Lila and Sophie shot off into the night, running full tilt across the moonlit field.
Scott vaulted the wall. Forty meters, straight ahead. He sped through the smoke and then crashed through a door, latch splintering inward. Time seemed to crawl.
First target: Man, turning from the window. Two shots to the chest. Second target: man in the kitchen doorway. First shot to the throat, too high. Three more, descending: chest, belly, groin. Third target: Woman walking down stairwell. Block Killing Curse, return fire: left knee, she fell on the floor. Two shots, left temple. Fourth target: unseen assailant, outside window. Return fire, effect unknown. Fifth and sixth targets: men entering back door. Five shots, traversed left to right. Shoulder, chest, jaw, front man — left eye, forehead, rear man. Seventh target: unseen assailant, second-story window, fifteen meters across street. Return fire, effect unknown. Eighth target: man in alley behind house, through kitchen window. Three rounds, blocked by Shield Charm. Six more, charm broken on fourth, two rounds impact chest. Ninth target: man in alley, through back door. Three shots. Target staggered out of line of sight, effect unknown. Tenth target: man entering front door. Magazine empty. Charge him, block indeterminate curse. Rotate wand arm, break elbow inward. Kick to left knee, leg collapsed; stomp joint, shatter patella, femur. Target incapacitated. Knock over, collapse skull against— no, eleventh target, twelfth, spells through door—
Something slammed into his chest and knocked him into the wall. He hit the floor and rolled away, staggering to his feet and scrambling up the stairs as Blasting Curses tore the lower level of the house apart around him. He was struggling to breathe. The upper floor was thankfully empty, and he took a moment to catch his breath.
Whoever knocked him one might have done him a favour. He’d been in a bad zone, unthinking, acting on instinct. He hadn’t realised how fatigued he really was until he had to think in the fractions of a second available in a firefight. He pressed his fingers to his eyes, hard. He was lucky to not already be dead, running on autopilot like that.
He couldn’t feel all of the damage, but the biggest problems were apparent enough: his collarbone was broken, his right arm was so full of jagged splinters that it was more wood than flesh and something had gouged a good chunk out of his left calf. The impact burns and bruises on his chest he’d leave, along with a deep cut across his right thigh. He’d taken so much shrapnel damage that trying to fix it all would be an exercise in futility, not that he had the time or the effort to spare.
He shunted the energy to his arm first and clenched his teeth as the pain built and exploded. When the healing was finished, he felt lightheaded to a dangerous degree. Sweat poured down his face and back despite the cold. He was only a third of the way done. He could hear voices outside. The collarbone was faster and not too bad, but when he finished repairing his calf there was a darkness at the edges of his vision that was threatening to take over.
Reluctantly, he admitted to himself that he probably didn’t have another heal left in him.
Focus. Deep breath, and focus. Push down the pain. As long as they were still trying to kill him, Lila and Sophie weren’t taking heavy fire.
Something creaked in the next room, like a loose floorboard being stepped on.
…He was not alone.
He whirled around, reaching for a handgun as he felt the vibrations of an approach. It wasn’t everyday someone got the drop on him and— well, goddammit, this dude was already in arm’s reach. How about that.
Someone huge barrelled into Scott. He was carried backwards and felt a window break beneath his back. A short fall — then, he crashed into another roof, skidding across slate tiles as they broke and slid with him. He tried to grab hold of something and stay on the high ground, but there wasn’t anything to grab and his attacker was still wrapped around him. They fell again. Scott had the brief impression of snow and shingles and then they hurtled to the ground.
He was back on his feet almost immediately, but it still wasn’t fast enough. He took a hard punch to the ribs and something sharp nearly slashed his throat, cutting a thin red line as he leaned away. He struck back: solar plexus, kneecap, jab at the groin. His opponent was just taking it, which was highly unusual outside of fighting another Kharadjai. It meant two unfortunate things: he was very weak, and his opponent was very tough.
He ducked beneath another blow and backpedalled, trying to create some space with a handful of snow thrown in his assailant’s face. He needed to shoot this fucker but was being pressed so hard that he couldn’t spare a hand to do it. He caught a brief glimpse of ragged hair and sharpened teeth and immediately recognized his attacker. It was Greyback, that odd goon who had been at the tower. It looked like he knew a thing or two about fighting. He lacked finesse, though it didn’t really matter when Scott was already reeling.
Less than fifteen seconds. Scott figured he had less than fifteen seconds to turn this around before Greyback did too much damage for Scott to come back from. There were still an unknown number of Death Eaters in Hogsmeade and he was never going to escape if he couldn’t move. He tried to hook a finger through Greyback’s eye and only managed to scratch it, not blind the bastard.
He was pretty sure he’d dislocated Greyback’s knee, broken a couple ribs and snapped at least four of the werewolf’s fingers, but it just didn’t seem to matter. Scott was losing. His muscles were slackening, the pain was getting worse and sapping what was left of his strength. Twenty-four hours ago, he would have taken this asshole apart. He felt a dim frustration somewhere beneath all the pain as Greyback absorbed all the punishment he could deliver and dealt plenty of his own.
The end came a little sooner than he’d expected.
He felt the hit, felt the nails constrict and sink into his heart. Felt it a lot more than he wanted to. He groaned with the agony of it, not quite able to summon a scream. Then the cold began to set in, and he welcomed the icy numbness of shock. All the vigour which flowed from the organ faded and his body surrendered, kept striving only by the electric hum of the shape.
Too many hours, too much damage. He was burning out, he was flaring. Twice as bright, half as long.
Greyback smiled, revealing sharpened yellow teeth, and twisted his grip. Scott paled further and almost collapsed. “That's the end, there, boy,” he growled. “Feel it? You're finished.”
Scott reached out and wrapped his hands around Greyback's wrist.
Greyback laughed, releasing a burst of fetid breath. “Still got a good grip! I don't say this often, but I'm impressed. You're a wild one, you are, a real terror. Don't feel bad, though; you just met the bigger beast.”
Scott pushed himself forward the slightest bit on Greyback's arm, impaling himself further as he clamped his hands on the other man's shoulders.
The werewolf shook his head in admiring disbelief. “Fuckin’ hell, look at you go! Never seen a man take that much punishment and still move… Fine by me, though, I like my meat lively. Can you talk?”
“You can eat my dick first,” Scott rasped.
“Bloody hell, that’s something. Wish my lads could see this. Too bad you killed 'em.” Greyback leaned in a little closer. “So, I've always wanted to know: are you afraid to get eaten? Or are you just afraid to die?”
“Nah,” Scott coughed.
He surged forward and clasped his right arm around Greyback, pulling him into an embrace. Greyback started to struggle, but it wasn't any use. Scott had him in a hold like steel. The werewolf howled and bit Scott's ear, nearly chewing it off. Scott barely felt it.
Greyback's efforts to free himself stopped when there came a metallic clack, followed by the pinging of an undone spring. A circular pin dropped to the ground, ringing tinny across the floor. Scott slid the black cylinder between their chests.
He dropped his head and pressed his cheek to the werewolf's straining shoulder, holding the other man like he would a loved one. “Are you?”
The halls of Hogwarts were as gloomy as ever deep within the windowless interior. Not the easiest place to track someone, but Harry had advantages. The Map, for one. And the school was on his side.
“He went that way!” a painting of a nun told him, pointing in right the direction.
“You get that rotter, lad!” a corpulent laird roared as Harry and Ginny sped past.
Other instructions and words of encouragement followed wherever he went. Sir Cadogan charged alongside Harry and Ginny for an entire hallway, bellowing about blood and honour. News, as always, travelled fast along the walls of Hogwarts.
Harry didn’t have much time to think about what exactly had happened back in the Room. He was wondering, though, if his wand had another of those balls of light in it. He had the suspicion that Riddle was off looking for another wand and reckoned the Dark Lord was likely enough to find one in a school for magic. Whatever Harry’s wand had done back there, he needed more of it.
They reached an intersection and paused, unsure of their next move. Harry looked to a large painting of Venetian waterways, where a gondolier perched on the back of his boat. The gondolier was looking directly at Harry. Then, slowly, his eyes slid over to the corner to the left, and then back to Harry.
Harry immediately pressed himself to the wall, quieting his breathing.
Ginny hadn’t seen. “W—”
He pressed a hand over her mouth and jerked his head towards the corner. Her eyes widened with understanding. Harry silently counted to five.
Together they leapt around the corner. Riddle was there, emerging from the entrance to the Headmaster’s office. The second Harry raised his wand another solid ball of light emerged from it and shot down the hall.
“NO!” Riddle snarled. A suit of armour came to life and threw itself in the way, exploding on impact.
The next thing Harry knew five other suits of armour were charging him. “REDUCTO!” he shouted, blasting them to bits. Ginny did the same and soon there were smoking pieces of metal bouncing off the walls and clattering across the floor.
Riddle was limping away, reaching back briefly to almost lazily counter a hex that Ginny sent at his retreating form. A second later, lights exploded at that end of the hall. Harry realised that his other friends had caught up. He ran towards them, knowing that whatever his wand was doing could very well be the difference between life and death for all involved.
Neville, Luna and Ron were all casting furiously. Riddle was shaking off the assault like a dog shaking off water, blocking and countering. He whipped his wand in a lateral motion and the floor seemed to come undone beneath them. They fell into the hall below; Harry barely caught himself on the edge of the wall and grabbed Ginny’s sleeve to keep her from tumbling.
Riddle flew upwards and then floated down the nearby staircase into the bottom levels.
“Is everyone alive?” Harry shouted into the cloud of dust choking the hall.
“For now,” Ron retorted from somewhere in the rubble below. “We’re alright, we’ll meet you downstairs!”
Ginny grabbed Harry’s arm. “The other stair will be faster, come on!”
As they ran it occurred to Harry that despite being badly injured and using a wand that wasn’t his, Riddle was still seemingly impossible to beat. If Harry could destroy his wand again, then maybe they’d have a chance. Through numbers alone, if nothing else.
Though Harry still wasn’t sure if anyone but him could actually kill Riddle. The others might easily be risking their lives against someone they could never beat. And yet, without them, Harry would have no real chance at all.
He and Ginny sped down the stairs and came out near the clocktower courtyard. Riddle would be somewhere by Great Hall, assuming he was still moving at the same hobbled speed. As they ran past the unbroken snow Harry thought he could hear distant gunshots in the night air.
They stacked up against the door to the interior, just like Scott had taught them. Harry grabbed the handle and opened it as Ginny covered. It was clear, and they ran inside.
Someone came around the next corner. Harry nearly blasted them before his brain caught up and he realised it was McGonagall, hurrying along with Flitwick.
“Harry!” Professor McGonagall gasped, shocked to see him. “What are you doing here? We heard—”
“Sorry, Professor, no time,” Harry said briskly, stepping around her. “Riddle is in the school. Keep everyone in their rooms!” he shouted over his shoulder as he and Ginny kept running.
Hermione knew she was being reckless. She knew that. She wasn’t Harry. But she could only sit by herself in Grimmauld Place with a hundred million horrible scenarios flashing through her mind for so long. Really, how much of that was she supposed to take?
Her ankle was now numb more than anything, but it still didn’t work quite right. She limped her way through the snow, the edge of Hogwarts just ahead. She couldn’t sneak into the school the usual way, not without one of the Kharadjai to handle the barrier. Instead, she was hoping the gate was open and unguarded. If not… well, she’d think of something.
Gunfire was emanating sporadically from Hogsmeade. She had considered sending her Patronus out that way to ask for help, but from the sound of it the Kharadjai were in the middle of fight. She paused, hidden in the shadows at the rim of the forest. She could reinforce them, use one of the brooms in her handbag along with a Disillusionment Charm. If course, given her mobility she might be more of a hindrance than a help…
The question became moot a handful of seconds later when the town suddenly erupted in a firestorm of gunshots, cutting through the clear night. Moments later Hermione spotted two figures sprinting across the field, moving too fast to be Death Eaters. A few spells flew out in their direction, but the sounds of battle continued to emanate from the village.
Hermione quickly considered how to draw their attention without also drawing their fire. Deciding her Patronus was the best way to avoid getting shot, she sent it shooting out across the field as she hunkered down in the snow. Watching the two people dashing towards her, she also saw a group leaving the village, heading along the road towards the castle. The enemy, no doubt.
Lila arrived first, halting her momentum with a sideways skid through the snow, kicking up an impressive plume. “You shouldn’t be out here,” were her terse first words.
Probably not, but Hermione was determined to be of use. “Leave me behind if you have to, but I can still cast.”
Lila looked no happier to have a crippled Prime present but said nothing further. Sophie came streaking in a couple seconds later, her stride much shorter than Lila’s. “Oh, Hermione,” she sighed.
Hermione bristled slightly. “I can’t just sit around whilst—”
“Disillusion us,” Lila ordered.
Hermione quickly complied, rapping both of them on the head and then herself. Lila bent forward and motioned for Hermione to climb on her back; nothing Hermione wasn’t used to at this point, though she still wasn’t looking forward to another extended piggyback ride.
“We’re ambushing them at the gate,” Lila said as they started running that way.
Hermione understood the importance of keeping the school as clear as possible. When they reached the gate, she settled into the snow next to Lila and prepared to block any incoming spells. Lila and Sophie wouldn’t need any assistance when it came to the attacking.
The group of Death Eaters came hurrying up the road. They kept looking towards the edge of the forest, having no doubt seen Lila and Sophie’s flight across the field. It seemed as if they had lost the two women in the shadow of the forest, though, and hadn’t been able to spot them repositioning.
Lila put the stock of her weapon to her shoulder, bipod sinking two neat holes into the snow. “…Fire.”
As the first line of bullets cut down the leading Death Eaters, Hermione held her wand at the ready and ignored the building ache in her ears, despite her urge to cover them.
There was no time for weakness. Not tonight.
Harry was breathing hard by the time they were close to the Hall. He’d underestimated the sapping weight of the weapons he had in his purloined black duffel bag. Not that he was going to leave them behind.
Just ahead, Sir Cadogan came rampaging into a still life, sending pears and apples everywhere. “WHAT HO!” he bellowed, gaining their attention. “The blackguard flees for the Front Hall! Onward, stalwart soldiers! Excelsior!!!”
Harry found himself running headfirst into yet another brief encounter. Ron and the others had taken the quicker stairwell down to the Entrance Hall and the room was already alight with spells. Riddle was countering the barrage without much effort; he was seconds away from gaining the full advantage when Harry’s wand lit yet again and once more Riddle was driven away, red eyes glaring with hatred as he dodged the mysterious spell and retreated up another staircase, filling the Hall behind him with choking black smoke.
Harry could see where Riddle was going from his position above the smoke, still at the edge of the stairs. “Ron?” he shouted. “Anyone?”
“Here,” Ron said, coughing somewhere to the left. “Can’t see! And my fucking leg’s shot, after that last— just go, go on!”
The lack of response from Neville and Luna was worrying, but there wasn’t any time to think about it. Harry and Ginny raced through the miasma with their eyes watering, emerging from the smoke with rasping coughs echoing in unison.
“He’s got to be tiring,” Ginny choked out, her voice carrying a desperate edge.
Harry knew how she felt. Because if Riddle wasn’t tiring, they certainly were. One party was badly wounded and the other was badly inexperienced, at least by comparison. Their chase was slowly turning into a battle of attrition.
They followed Riddle through the maze of Hogwarts. Every time they tried to get closer, he held them off with deadly wandwork; every time he tried to limp away, they were faster. They had lost Ron and the others back in the smoke and had yet to encounter them again.
Harry pressed himself to the wall, Ginny at his side. They had doubled back and were above the Entrance Hall, the air noticeably colder near the big double doors. Just down the hall were the stairs to the front entrance. Riddle was somewhere near them, possibly in the small antechamber off to the right. Harry blindly stuck his wand out around the edge of the wall, hoping it would do whatever it was it had been doing. It did, but farther up ahead he heard the crash as it collided with something.
Riddle must have decided to take a breather. His words drifted down the darkened hall. “Can’t you see this is useless, Potter?” he sneered. His voice, however, was weaker than usual, short of breath and reedy with pain.
“You’re not getting away,” Harry told him. “You might as well stay and fight.”
“Careful what you ask for, boy. I may yet decide that killing you is worth the trouble.”
“Yeah? So why don’t you?” Harry’s fatigue was slowly washed away by fury. “They’re all gone. You’ve got no Horcruxes left. It’s just you and me.”
A short silence followed. Harry smiled grimly in the dim light, knowing his opponent was shaken to the core.
Riddle rallied quickly enough. “If it’s a fair fight you want, then you can have it. No more tricks. Wand against wand. I’ll grant you the death you deserve.”
Harry thought, then, about the truth. About choices and destiny, about cold snow below colder words. The truth: that he, Harry, was one light in an ocean that had no beginning and no end. It was perpetual. Wheels within wheels, strings all tied in strange, spacious harmony. He thought of that wide bright dark above and the ceaseless turning of a shape that he could not see or touch but that he believed — truly believed — was real, the engine of reality pushing him along the path.
None of it had anything to do with ‘fair’. Nothing was about what anyone deserved.
“There’s no such thing as a fair fight.” Harry dug down into the black bag and pulled out a flashbang. “So just get over yourself.”
He threw the flashbang around the corner. The detonation was so loud in the confines of the stone walls that it made his teeth ache. Ginny had seen the throw and was right behind him when he charged around the corner.
It was dark in the hall, but through the light from the windows he could see Riddle on the ground. He raised his wand and the light shot out for the last time. Still blind on the floor, Riddle managed to cast a spell just before the light hit. The wall to Harry’s left exploded and everything went black.
He regained his senses with his ears ringing. Something hot streaked down his face and he knew instinctively that it was blood. He blinked, refocussing. The hallway was a mess of debris, dust filling the air.
Riddle was no more than four feet away, still on the floor. Blood was streaming from his flat, snakelike nostrils and from his ears. He was trying to stagger to his feet, rocking back and forth with all the balance of a toddler. Harry could see blood soaking the front of Riddle’s robes: the tyrant’s wand hand was cradled to his chest, mangled after Snape’s wand exploded.
Harry raised his own wand, only to discover that it had been snapped in two. He stared as it fell from his broken fingers.
Riddle saw. His teeth bared in vicious triumph. “You’re—”
Harry threw himself forward and sank the jagged end of his wand into Riddle’s neck. It didn’t penetrate far but Riddle howled in agony. A second later, Harry felt himself flying backwards. He landed hard on the jagged pieces of the wall with a shout as his back was lacerated through his clothes.
Wandless magic. Harry never had managed to master it.
“I’ve never done this before,” Riddle said with the thick-tongued speech of the deafened. He looked barely able to stay upright. “I’m glad you’re the first.” He couldn’t raise his hand; his arm was broken. He held it at his waist and opened his palm towards Harry. “AVADA KEDAVRA—”
I tried, Harry thought.
Something rammed into his shoulder, knocking him aside. There was a flash of green light, and then silence.
Harry sat up, heart pounding.
Ginny lay still where he had sat a moment before.
His heart stopped. His mind was consumed by an endless, soundless scream.
Riddle stood over them, his entire body shaking with helpless rage. “Again. How could this… How many women do you have ready to die for you, Potter? A dozen? A hundred?”
Ginny was dead. Harry died with her, by inches.
Riddle was still talking. “This changesnothing.I will find a way.” A long, shuddering breath. “I’ll kill everyone else you love, if I must. You should have faced me alone. You…” He trailed off, swaying forward, long strings of blood and mucus wiggling from his mouth.
Was it possible to keep breathing when your heart had turned to stone?
Riddle leaned back upright, his eyes glassy. His tongue pushed a bloody wad of phlegm past his lips; it fell and smacked wetly against the flagstones. “This is not goodbye, Harry Potter,” he mumbled thickly. “I won’t be long.” He turned and began to limp towards the stairs.
Harry reached into the duffel bag, withdrew Sirius’s shotgun, and fired.
The first shot caught Riddle in the left shoulder, knocking him forward. The second shot tore through his lower back. He fell down the stairs, out of sight.
Harry let the gun drop into his lap. Numbly, he tried to snap it open using his wrist. His broken hand wasn’t cooperating.
Two shells went tumbling to the floor, instantly forgotten. “Gin?”
She sat up, still coughing. “That was weird,” she said vaguely. Her eyes widened as she regained her bearings. “Shit, where is he?”
Harry pulled her into tight, one-armed hug, burying his face in her hair. The relief that flooded him was so intense he could barely breathe. “Ginny… Ginny, how, I saw—”
“In a minute,” she said impatiently, trying to pull out of his death grip. “Harry, he can’t get away!”
He was trembling. Shock, maybe. He vaguely recalled Sophie or someone using that word before. But Ginny was right. “I hit him. I swear I did.”
Seeing his broken wand, she snatched the shells off the floor and slotted them into the chambers for him. “Then let’s finish it.”
When they peered down the stairs, Riddle wasn’t there. Blood was splashed all over the steps, a considerable amount. The spatters continued across the empty Hall and out the doors, one of which was opened slightly.
They followed. Ginny was limping now, shrapnel imbedded in her leg. Harry’s ears were still ringing, and his hand was beginning to ache abominably. Luckily, Riddle was in even worse shape than they were.
They stepped out into the freezing night with their weapons up and at the ready, expecting a counterattack. None came. Harry’s breath fogged in white billows as he scanned the grounds, searching for his enemy.
Only a few yards ahead was the black outline of a body, lying prone in the snow.
Together, they approached.
Tom Marvolo Riddle lay peacefully in the frost, eyes closed beneath the clear night sky. One hand, ruined, lay at his side. The other was fisted in his robes over his stomach. His clothing and the snow beneath him were stained deep red in the moonlight, almost black. They steamed gently as the last remnants of his life released their fading warmth.
Harry hadn’t even realised that he’d sunk to his knees until he felt Ginny do the same behind him, her arms encircling his shoulders. The great weight upon him began to lift and he could not comprehend its absence.
Ginny’s cold little hand brushed through his hair as she held him.