“As the shape becomes agitated, it loses clarity. All structure becomes obscured. Return to the metaphor of the loom: We see that the shape, in abrupt and terrible motion, becomes like that of a loosely woven tapestry shaken briskly. The eye cannot discern individual threads now that they are in motion relative to the observer. They become indistinct and therefore appear as one unbroken entity. All apparent patterns, real or misconstructed, vanish.
One might imagine that if one were able to move in concordance with the shape’s ostensible motion — despite that this motion is an illusion of perspective — then coherence might be restored. Of course, we must then contemplate if one might be capable of surviving that terrifying momentum at all, or if these forces should prove to be one’s undoing through an internal cataclysm; that the shape might reach forward and with uncaring fingers extinguish the light of sanity.”
They were charging into what seemed to be certain death, after all. But he found that he was so afraid for Hermione that there wasn’t room for anyone else. He refused to entertain the notion that she was anything but alive and well. He’d go mad, otherwise. Well, more mad.
It wasn’t exactly sane, what he was up to.
The large wrought iron gate which led to the Manor grounds lay just ahead. He could see part of it from his position in the shrubs nearby. The Death Eater who had been their ticket to the place was snoring softly on the ground nearby, having placidly consumed a large dose of Sleeping Potion. Behind Ron, Lila was supposedly working on the protections around the Manor, though she looked like she was doing nothing at all. Ron knew better. It was just frustrating. He needed to move.
They were all arrayed around Lila, waiting whilst she did her work. Ginny and Harry were huddled together behind the trunk of a large tree and Neville and Luna lay in a snowdrift against the fence. In the cold, clear night they looked almost as tightly wound as Ron felt.
Fortunately, it wasn’t too long before Lila spoke again.
“Go,” she said, hurrying them up and over the fence. Ron stepped forward, only to be arrested when Lila grabbed the back of his shirt. “Stop!” she said sharply. “I lost it. I lost it. Hold on.” A bead of sweat rolled down her neck. “…Okay, I’ve got it. Go.”
Ron shut his eyes briefly as he hoisted himself up, fervently hoping she really had got it.
There was a small copse of trees before the ground flattened and gave way to meticulously trimmed hedges and sculpted flower beds. The Manor itself was still a distance away, the foreboding structure looming large and austere in the pale moonlight. There were people out there, too, pockets of winter-garbed figures around fires and a few lone sentries patrolling closer to where Ron and the others were hidden.
To make matters worse, conditions were pretty much as bad as they could be for stealth. With the moon shining almost blindingly down through the utterly cloudless sky, it was the closest thing to broad daylight the night offered.
Harry crouched next to Lila. “How do we do this?” he asked.
“By steps. We get closer and we go from there,” she said.
“If I got under the Cloak—”
“We can’t support you from here. I need a better firing position. Then we can talk about the Cloak.”
Ron felt like he was a few seconds away from grabbing the Cloak and going to get Hermione himself. She was somewhere in that poncy rich monstrosity. Scott had better be keeping her safe. It was his bloody job, wasn’t it?
“Low and fast,” Lila was saying. “Stay with me, but stay loose. Give me a head start.”
“That guard’s coming back,” Ginny whispered. She pointed out the patroller.
Lila shot forward, close to the ground and below the top edge of the hedges. There was a decorative pedestal set in the middle of the next line of hedges; she stepped around it and rushed straight into the sentry. They fell out of sight, though Ron could guess what happened next.
A moment later Lila’s head reappeared, and she beckoned them forward.
They advanced by cautious steps from hedge to hedge, always mindful of how easily they might be seen. Ron kept a nervous eye on the upper-storey windows of the Manor, but they remained dark. Of course, that didn’t guarantee no one was looking out of them.
Eventually they came to a point where it seemed like going any farther was impossible. Ahead, the garden was a flat expanse of grass, in the centre of which stood an elaborate fountain. Snatchers stood arrayed around several bonfires, the flickering light winking off the frozen water. Ron reckoned they were waiting for some poor sod to let a ‘Voldemort’ slip.
Lila silently assessed the situation and then knelt behind a large decorative planter. They all gathered near.
“We need another entrance,” she said. “A side door or an approachable window. Harry, get under the Cloak and go right. Keep your distance.”
“I’ll go with,” Ginny volunteered.
“Not this time, Gin,” Harry said, unfolding the Cloak. “I’ve got to be fast.”
“The map says there’s a servant’s quarters somewhere on that side, so look for that,” Lila told him. “Remember your footsteps will be visible. Try to stay in any other tracks you find.”
Ron wasn’t fond of having to sit and do nothing whilst Harry was out there alone. He didn’t voice any objections because he didn’t have an alternative besides taking the Cloak himself. But it was Harry’s Cloak, always had been, and Ron knew how things worked. Harry and Ginny had been giving him sidelong glances, obviously worried over his state of mind. He ignored them. He wasn’t the one they should be worried about.
He’d be no help to Hermione if he got himself killed, though. He clenched his jaw and thought about her and not about how he wanted to do something, anything.
“If we have to shoot, I’m the only one who can see Harry and I’m going to direct your fire,” Lila instructed. “You shoot at what I tell you to shoot at and nothing else.”
“Yeah, just… be careful,” Harry said, looking concerned. Then he disappeared beneath the Cloak.
Ron watched Harry’s footprints go off towards the Manor. “Can you tell where Hermione is?” he asked Lila
“Somewhere in or near the house. Scott, too. I think they’re together,” Lila answered.
Ginny was lying in the snow on her stomach. She pushed her face closer to the hedgerow, peering through as best she could. “Won’t Scott know we’re here?”
“He might, if he’s not distracted.”
“This place is huge… Could be hard to find him,” Ginny observed.
A sudden clap of thunder tore through the night, shockingly close. It took Ron a second to realise it wasn’t thunder at all, but an explosion. Shattered timbers flew up into the night sky as great gouts of brilliant flame billowed from the far side of the Manor. Within moments the stables were engulfed in fire and smoke began to roil off the adjacent side of the Manor, as well.
“That’s him,” Lila said.
Neville gaped at the destruction. “What’s going on?”
“Scott and Hermione are already loose,” Lila said. “Hold your fire and let the distraction work.”
“Come on, Harry,” Ron muttered as he watched the Manor begin to burn. “Find them.”
Hermione couldn’t see the explosion from this side of the Manor, but she still felt it. The deep thump reverberated in her chest.
“I thought you were setting a fire!” she exclaimed.
“Satchel charges. For effect,” Scott said blasely.
She couldn’t argue with results. The enemies in the front garden were rushing towards the commotion. Cries of alarm spread through the night.
“We have to tell Harry what’s happened. I hope everyone is still at…” Hermione’s face went momentarily blank and then filled with outrage. “Did you do something to my threads?!” she hissed into Scott’s ear.
“It was a precaution.”
“Then where am I supposed to go?”
“Anywhere but here.” Scott suddenly went still. “Son of a bitch.”
“Looks like they weren’t content to wait,” Scott said. Hermione suddenly found herself pulled off Scott’s back and dangling from his arms. “Take her!”
She had no idea what was going on until the air shimmered in front of them and Harry appeared.
“Should’ve known you’d get free,” he said, smile wide and relieved. “Hermione, are you all right?”
“Broken ankle,” she breathed, almost rendered speechless with relief at seeing him alive and well and knowing Ron and Ginny must be close by.
“Be careful, be quick,” Scott said as he deposited Hermione into Harry’s arms. “Don’t wait up.”
“Right,” Harry said. He stood still whilst Scott tugged the Cloak into place. “I can get her back to the others and then—”
Harry went. Hermione did her best to keep her legs tight to avoid kicking out the Cloak, but the pain was getting to her again.
She tried to distract herself. “Harry, there’s something I’ve got to tell you,” she whispered to him.
“Can’t it wait?” he panted, leaning forward to peek around another row of hedges.
“It’s important, I need to say I’m so—”
“Hermione, I am so glad to see you again but please just shut it,” Harry said in one strained breath.
He carried her about halfway out into the garden and then rounded the corner of a hedgerow. There, Hermione saw Ron, Ginny, Neville, Luna and Lila all crowded in the shadows. The tightness in Hermione’s chest eased slightly at seeing Ron; he looked worried but unharmed.
“They’re back,” Lila said. Harry approached her and bent forward slightly; understanding, she pulled the Cloak off.
Ron’s face lit up. “Hermione!” he exclaimed, rushing to her side. Harry handed her off as gently as he was able.
“Careful! Ouch,” she said, accepting Ron’s short but fierce kiss. “I’ve broken my ankle. I’m so glad you’re all right!”
“Me? Bloody hell, we couldn’t find you. I didn’t know what happened.”
“I’m honestly not sure.” Hermione clung to Ron’s arms as he lowered her into a sitting position. “I must have fallen into a cellar or the like. Scott got himself captured looking for me.”
“Was he behind you?” Neville asked. From his position on the right flank, he could see around the hedge in the direction Harry had carried her from.
“Yes, he shouldn’t be far behind,” Hermione assumed. Seeing Luna again, she remembered what had just happened and her heart plummeted. “Luna… what are you doing here?”
“Helping you,” Luna said.
Scott burst out between two of the hedges and crawled across a short open space until he was next to Lila. “Hello,” he said.
“Time to go,” Lila informed them. “Ron, you carry Hermione. Harry, you’re out front with the Cloak.”
“Well, it seems like you have it under control,” Scott noted. “I’ll screen with Harry.”
Then, everyone’s attention was caught by an eruption of light and sound. At the other side of the gardens, behind the Manor, the grounds were suddenly alive with spells. Destruction and panic resounded as what sounded like a small war broke out. Spells were flying out from the other side of the burning stables, cutting through the night. The Death Eaters grouped around the fountain all stood facing the commotion, shifting uncertainly and shouting questions to others running ahead.
“Or, maybe not,” Scott said.
“The Order.” Lila flipped the fire select on her weapon with an ominous click. “Call Strauss.”
Hermione clapped her hands over her ears as Lila began to fire.
Tonks took another deep, calming breath of the bitter night air. The cold made her throat stick, and she swallowed to dispel the sensation. Overhead, the moon shone down like a pale star. It was dark beneath the trees, but not nearly as dark as she would have liked. The snow glowed white and blue in patches where the shadows of the pines didn’t fall.
Getting to the edge of the Malfoy property had been simple enough. Getting inside would be the real trick. Bill could probably bring down the wards given enough time and resources, neither of which were available. The Order was fully relying on Sophie, a woman who was practically a stranger. But she had cured Remus and could, according to her, get them onto the grounds the same way Lila must have for Harry. So that had to be possible, or the Order’s would-be incursion would go no farther.
That was assuming they were going at all. They couldn’t get in without Sophie’s help, but she’d made it very clear she wouldn’t be granting access unless there was a sign Harry required Order intervention. Tonks didn’t know what sort of sign would suffice; however, Sophie was continually checking her Muggle whatsit, so that was one possibility. From their position in the woods at the rim of the Manor’s protections they were too far away to see the house itself. A wrought iron fence, seething with spells, marked the property edge.
Arrayed about Tonks was every Order member capable of fighting. It wasn’t a very large group — a fact that escaped no one — but it was larger than it had been a few months ago. They’d be no match for the full force of the Death Eaters. They weren’t supposed to be, though; not tonight. They were a distraction, nothing more.
Tonks blew on her hands, joints aching in the cold. Whatever was happening, she hoped it happened soon.
“Here,” Remus said, taking her hands in his larger ones.
“Bloody cold out,” Tonks complained. She looked upwards. “Not even cloudy, ‘course not. That’d be easier.”
Remus nodded tiredly. “If things go well for Harry, it may not matter.” He looked around Tonks and sighed. “I’d better intercede before Alastor offends our only way in.”
Tonks looked the same way to see Moody questioning Sophie yet again. The expression on Sophie’s face remained polite, which said more about her people skills than Mad-Eye’s. As much as Tonks liked and respected him, she knew it was just a matter of time before he wiped that polite smile off Sophie’s face.
Tonks returned to watching the empty woods, trying not to shiver. She was just about to settle down in the snow when the sharp report of an explosion ripped through the night like a thunderclap. Seconds later, the flickering orange light of a roaring fire filled the night sky.
“Bloody hell,” Tonks breathed, eyes wide with surprise.
That was a sign if she’d ever heard one.
The other Order members were stirring, rising from their bored stupor at the sudden commotion.
“Good enough for you?” Moody growled at Sophie.
Sophie looked at her Muggle device one last time before acceding. “That’s probably Scott,” she said. She went over to the fence, stood there for a moment, and then leaned in to grip the bars. “Right here,” she said.
Tonks didn’t know what the other woman was doing, but if she was touching the fence at all then the wards must have been broken. Tonks started to approach her own section of fence when Sophie spoke again, stopping her.
“No! Here, where I am,” Sophie said sharply. “Climb right here and don’t touch anything else.”
It took a moment to get everyone over the fence (Doge especially had a bit of trouble with it). Tonks waited impatiently, watching the light of the unseen fire grow as distant shouts filtered through the trees.
“Spread out! Wands up, eyes open,” Moody barked as they all assembled.
Tonks eagerly pushed ahead at the fore, Remus at her side. The roar of the fire and the crash of collapsing timbers was more than enough ambient noise to cover the sound of their advance. The snow crunched beneath her feet, deep where it had gathered around the brush and trunks of trees. Then it began to shallow, and where the treeline ended the snow turned into a blank white expanse that stretched to the first of the hedgerows marking the garden proper.
The trees were the best cover available, but staying within their protective shroud also left the Order too far from the action to be accurate. Briefly, Tonks thought of Lila’s Muggle weapon with its steely length, solid stock and convenient sights. If only Tonks’ wand could be similarly outfitted. But, she had to wave her wand around to make it work, which was fine. She didn’t mind getting up close and personal, anyway, especially with the lousy lot of opportunists and bigots frantically trying to douse the fire.
The Order rushed across the open space, committing to the fray. Sprinting forward, Tonks spotted a lone Snatcher just ahead, a straggler. The Snatcher saw the Order immediately and turned to flee. He made it a yard or two at the most before he collapsed into the snow; sharp, mechanical snaps rang out at the same time. Tonks glanced back over her shoulder and saw Sophie kneeling in the snow, her compact Muggle wand pulled tight against her shoulder.
Just as Tonks reached the first line of hedges, what looked to be about ten Death Eaters rounded the left corner of the Manor and ran along its side towards the flaming stables. She ducked beneath the hedgerow and waited until they reached the halfway point before standing and casting the first spell of the fight. Other Order members moved farther up the line, closer to the burning building. Arrayed in a loose half circle they began to fire, and a barrage of spells streaked at the enemy.
The Death Eaters could not have been caught any more off-guard. Almost a dozen of them were on the ground before the rest realised what was happening. Caught in the open with the roaring flames behind them, those that stood and fought were quickly cut down; those that chose to flee fared little better. Within moments, the shattered remnants of Voldemort’s forces were huddled behind whatever scant cover they could find, blindly returning ineffective fire.
Tonks knew it wouldn’t last. There were still an unknown number of Death Eaters on the other side of the Manor and within it. But until they mustered a response, the Order controlled the field.
She only hoped that Harry, wherever he was, could make use of the moment.
Harry had no idea what was happening.
He was about sixty-percent deaf and getting deafer every second Lila continued to fire. That wasn’t the direct cause of his confusion, but it certainly wasn’t helping.
One moment, he’d been quietly infiltrating the Manor grounds. The next, the place was exploding, and Hermione and Scott were already free, so Harry carried Hermione to safety and they’d all met up, nice and neat. But then the moment after that — just when it seemed like they’d got away with it — there were spells and bullets all over the place. Now he found himself countering spells coming Lila’s way and wondering if they would all live long enough for any of it to be explained.
Harry wasn’t a stranger to Muggle firearms. Not anymore. He’d seen them used a time or two and seen the results, as well: he remembered watching Death Eaters tumble to the floor as they had tried to enter the bank. But the sheer, brutal, just plain fucking unfair power of the things had never struck him as it did while he watched the Death Eaters clustered about the fountain just… melt away. Lila’s SAW was spitting death at an incredible clip, and at this range and target density it wasn’t so much a fight as it was a mass execution.
He didn’t want to see it. He just couldn’t look away, not when there were spells to block. It was over soon enough, and then Lila was shooting at targets far enough away that they were hard to make out. But in the back of Harry’s mind, a numb part of himself wondered if this was really the road to righteous victory, or the road to anything at all. Maybe none of this was about who was right and who was wrong — or at least, who was more right and who was more wrong — just who was dead and who would soon be dead and who could stay alive long enough for it to matter.
The piercing clamour of Lila’s weapon suddenly ceased. “Reloading,” she said.
Scott had pulled a rifle with a folding stock out of Lila’s black bag and was firing single, precise shots back at anyone who cast in their direction. As soon as Lila slapped the top of her gun back down, pulled the bolt and began to fire again, he turned to Harry.
“We can’t get stuck,” he shouted over the roar of the machinegun. “We got a call to make, right now.”
“What do you mean?” Harry yelled back.
Scott pushed Harry’s head down as several spells flashed overhead, fired several rounds back, then said, “He knows! Riddle jacked Hermione’s mind, he’s out there poking around right now!”
Harry was besieged by a multitude of strong emotions that he simply did not have the time to feel. The shock of the bullets breaking over his skin somehow made it easier to focus; the physical numbness seemed to translate at least partially to his mental state.
This was it.
He wasn’t ready, but he never would be.
He ducked down and crawled over to where Hermione was huddled with Ron against the hedge. Whatever happened next, it was clear she wouldn’t be able to fight. But there was something equally important that had to be seen to.
Harry pulled the sword from his pack and pressed it into Hermione’s arms. “You’ve got to get rid of the cup,” he told her as spells and bullets cut through the air around them.
The years they had spent together had given them both many reasons to be afraid. But Harry had rarely seen so much fear in his friend’s eyes, and he knew it wasn’t for herself.
“Please be careful, Harry,” she told him, tears glistening in the corners of her eyes. “Please.”
He knew better than to try and promise that. He turned and put a hand on Ron’s shoulder. “Get her out of here.”
Ron’s expression was a mess of conflicting emotions and instincts. “I…”
“You have to go.”
For a moment, Ron looked like he was about to refuse. Then his jaw set, and he nodded tightly. “I’ll catch up,” he said fiercely. “Hogwarts, right?”
“Where else?” Harry said.
He turned away from his closest friends, the two people who had stood by him from the beginning to the end, and he said nothing else because he couldn’t bring himself to get any closer to a goodbye.
“You gotta take me,” Scott told him, firing off another round as they began their retreat. “I can’t get myself out of this mess.”
Lila’s gunfire beat at their backs and then slowly diminished, turning higher pitched as the roar dwindled to sharp cracking and echoing report.
What happened next was a blur of fleeting impressions: flashing colours in the bitter night air, white snow crunching beneath their feet, the ice-wreathed trunks of trees and then a snap as the world twisted.
And there was Hogwarts on top of the cliffs, windows glittering against a starry night sky, ramparts gleaming under the pale moon.
“Harry?” someone said.
He turned, blinking, coming back to himself. It was Neville, his face stiff in the cold.
“What’s our plan?” Neville asked.
A plan. Right. It was all falling apart; or coming together, Harry couldn’t tell. They needed a plan.
“Riddle will be here,” he said. “We’ve got to get on the grounds and into the castle. We’re going to set a trap for him in the Room of Requirement.”
“What sort of trap?”
“Whatever we can come up with,” Harry told him. “If you’ve got an idea, let’s hear it.”
“Could we drop something on him?” Ginny said. “Fred and George used to stick food to the ceiling over my bed so it’d drop on me. We could use something a lot heavier.”
Harry stared at her. “Gin, that’s brilliant.”
“It might work,” she said with a modest shrug.
“Sometimes the simple things work best,” Scott said. “You guys go set up. I’ll clear the school.”
Harry understood what he meant. “What are you going to do about Snape?”
“Don’t know. I’ll figure it out when I find him.”
That was a conundrum Harry decided he just didn’t have time for. “All right, get us over the wall.”
Scott bypassed Hogwarts’ protections faster than ever, no doubt perfecting the task through practise. The snow on the grounds was crisp and untouched. Their path of entry would be extremely obvious, though Harry supposed it didn’t matter at this point. There wouldn’t be any clever escape, not this time. One way or another, he’d never be sneaking into his home with his heart in his mouth again.
With most of the student body either on the run, incarcerated, or home for the holiday, making their way up to the Room was a simple matter. They ran into the Fat Friar at one point; his eyes widened comically, and then he turned and floated casually away as if he hadn’t seen them at all.
Outside the tapestry that hid the Room, Scott briefly knelt to the floor and began checking his magazines. He looked up at Harry. “See you when I see you,” he said.
Harry wasn’t saying goodbye to him, either. “Yeah.”
As Scott disappeared into the dark halls to see to his work, Harry and the others entered the Room.
Harry surveyed the mountains of rubbish, then looked to his friends. “Let’s have at it.”
It was not the first time Scott had skulked through the pitch-black halls of Hogwarts. Previously, though, his skulking had been intended to avoid conflict. Now, he was hunting.
Without the Map at his disposal, finding the Carrows would be difficult. They might be asleep in the professors’ quarters, or they might be roaming the school along with Filch, looking for someone to punish. Scott might be lucky enough to run across them, but he couldn’t count on it. Hogwarts was a big place. And the longer he spent in the halls, the more likely he was to come across someone he wasn’t looking for. Given the task at hand, he needed to keep the regular staff and the students unaware. Especially since the Slytherins ran the joint now, and he knew which side of things they’d come down on.
Dumbledore’s portrait might know where to find the Carrows. Problem was, Snape would be up there. And Snape was a wildcard. The seemingly-traitorous Headmaster might be willing to blow his cover for the Chosen One (maybe). But for Scott? Doubtful.
There was a way for Snape to stay uninvolved while not revealing his true loyalties, just in case he would still be needed in his undercover role. He wouldn’t care for the nature of the option. Which was fine, as Scott didn’t plan on asking.
Scott’s first obstacle was the gargoyle. He figured he’d have to disable it manually and then try to move the damn thing, but was surprised to find that listing various candies provided results. Snape was more sentimental than Scott would have guessed. At the top of the escalator he was confronted by the familiar double doors. He listened for a moment but couldn’t hear anything. Snape seemed something of a night owl and Scott didn’t think he could count on him being in bed. There was no point in subterfuge, though, when he wasn’t expected.
He knocked sharply on the door.
There was a short delay and then Snape opened the door, appearing irritable and tired. “What is—”
To Snape’s credit, he did try to fight back. But the second his wand clattered to the floor, released by his newly broken hand and wrist, was the second he lost whatever slim chance he might have had. Scott was in close quarters and in his element. Snape’s head bounced off the edge of the door and then he was reeling back and Scott was right there with him, delivering sharp blows to the throat, groin and joints, clinically breaking bones, tearing ligaments and smashing cartilage.
Scott let off for a second, judging how close Snape was to passing out from sheer trauma. When the battered Headmaster began to sink towards the floor, Scott caught him and wrapped his arms around Snape’s neck and head in a choke hold.
“You know, it really would be easier for everyone involved if you just didn’t survive this thing,” Scott mused as Snape’s broken fingers scraped ineffectually at his arms, growing weaker by the second. “Thing is, I think it would be easier for you, too.”
Snape’s eyes rolled back, and he went limp. Scott lowered him to the floor and then used Snape’s wand to construct and cast a Stunner. Snape’s body shook slightly with the impact, and Scott judged his former professor would down for the count for at least a couple hours.
Only then did he turned to acknowledge Dumbledore’s portrait.
“He’s alive, stop yelling,” Scott told Dumbledore, along with all the other portraits that were aghast. “He’s got an airtight excuse for staying out of it.”
Dumbledore’s eyes were flashing. “Scott, I had hoped—”
“You can be angry about it later. Where are the Carrows?”
Dumbledore was less than pleased, but at least he was still quick on the uptake. “Either in Severus’ old office or patrolling the halls. I—”
“Thanks.” Scott turned to leave. “This is ending tonight, just FYI. If it doesn’t, Snape can write me a thank-you note or something, I don’t know. Do wizards have those edible arrangements things? I like those.”
Scott hurried through the halls, every passing moment pressing on him with increasing urgency. He didn’t think Riddle would show up with a whole unit in tow, not with the secrecy he had to maintain, but there was no guarantee he wouldn’t call for help once the trap was sprung. Scott’s job was to ensure that any response would come from outside the school and stay there. Which could be problematic, given he was only one person. He would be counting on backup from Lil, and the sooner the better.
Snape’s office was deep in the dungeons. Scott went swiftly down endless stone staircases until he was in the chilly depths of the school. The door to Snape’s office was ajar and there was a faint light coming from inside.
Scott peered through the opening and saw a woman sleeping in the chair behind Snape’s old desk. He leaned inside and rapped his knuckles against the doorpost.
Alecto Carrow started slightly and sat up, blinking heavily. “Huh? Who’s that?”
“Snape sent me,” Scott said. “He’s looking for your brother.”
“He said he’d be late at the library,” Alecto yawned. She blinked again and looked at Scott more closely. “Who’d you say you were?”
Scott shot her twice in the head. She slumped forward onto the desk, her blood beginning to soak through several layers of what looked like student essays. Maybe they’d all get an Outstanding.
Back up he went, headed for the library. He found it smelling like it had gone largely unused. Books sat uneven on the shelves, their rows ragged and dusty. There were piles of texts on various tables, chairs carelessly askew. As much as Scott had his differences with Pince, he knew the militant librarian would never have allowed the place to fall into such a state if she had it her way. Obviously, Pince was no longer as in charge as she used to be.
Scott remembered Amycus from the top of the tower, but the man sitting in front of a pile of books had his head down as he read something. Scott didn’t normally judge a book by its cover, but the ones on the table were so clearly Dark in nature that it was obvious the man was doing a little personal research. It was probably Amycus. Still, Scott needed visual confirmation.
He let his right hand hang back behind his leg, concealing the handgun. “Amycus?”
The man jumped, startled. “Huh?”
“Been awhile,” Scott said, recognizing him immediately.
Amycus squinted at Scott. “Do I know you?”
Scott spent the next few minutes getting back to the Entrance Hall. The school remained quiet, which was a good sign. He’d know when Riddle showed up; the Dark Lord was impossible to miss in the shape once he was close enough, no matter how turbulent things became. Scott slipped out a side door and then stood in the snow for a moment, assessing the grounds.
Enemies on approach would probably use the front gate. They owned the place, after all, and didn’t have any reason to hide. Riddle would likely march right through the front door on his way to the Room. The school remained impervious to most forms of magical travel, so anyone he brought with him would logically remain at either the gate or the main doors. The question was whether Riddle would bring anyone to prevent another intrusion by the Order, or if he was too worried about someone else discovering the Horcruxes to allow his minions to assist, even indirectly.
The Order’s surprise attack at the Manor had served quite well as a distraction so far, but Scott figured they had already withdrawn; they didn’t have the legs for a protracted fight. Whatever was left of Riddle’s forces at the Manor wouldn’t be in any shape to respond to another firefight. Plus, Scott was counting on Rahvalod’s forces to be withdrawn for at least forty-eight hours. The crafty mercenary would let the dust settle before he poked his head out. With the Manor burning to the ground and Riddle in no state to give orders, the opposing force was directionless and without a centralized chain of command for the time being. The inside of the school was clear, or at least as clear as it was going to get. Which meant any direct threat to Hogwarts would come locally.
Scott had his eye on Hogsmeade, in fact.
Hogsmeade was more of a trap than a town. The small village had been in Death Eater hands almost as soon as the Ministry had fallen. It was the only destination that a lot of Muggle-born students were familiar with, outside of the Alley, and there was little doubt that the rail station had played host to a political purge at the start of the school year.
Scott didn’t know if there was a dedicated garrison there. All he knew was that a fight in Hogsmeade would draw the attention of every Death Eater in the area, and probably a few beyond. Any enemy tied up in Hogsmeade was an enemy who wouldn’t be able to go after Harry, should the encounter at Hogwarts become loud enough to draw attention.
Unfortunately, the black bag he had slung around his shoulders was his only ammo supply. He still had a bunch of handgun magazines taken from Hermione’s handbag, but a sidearm was a poor choice for extended combat. Lila had packed a good amount of magazines for her SG 551 but they had been sharing bag space with the bulky box magazines of the M249. Scott would be about as well equipped as he could have hoped for considering the circumstances, but he was limited in how long he could engage at range. This was, in his estimation, the biggest advantage of the wand, even beyond its versatility.
Maybe he’d get some backup before too long. Or maybe he’d be fighting Death Eaters until they overwhelmed him again. Either way, the important thing was buying enough time for Harry. It didn’t really matter how the fight went for Scott, so long as it kept going.
The moon was as bright over Hogwarts as it had been over the Manor. Scott stood at the edge of the road to Hogsmeade, looking out at the lights glittering far across the field. There was no cover on approach and no chance of not being seen if anyone was looking.
Scott slung his rifle onto his back and began to walk up the road, his tread quick but casual.
Tonks had been waiting for the moment to arrive, and now here it was. The tide was finally turning as the Death Eaters reformed on the opposite side of the Manor and began to give some real opposition.
There had been a serious amount of gunfire coming from somewhere on the other side of the gardens and for a little bit it had seemed like the Death Eaters might never regroup enough to put up an actual fight. Tonks didn’t know what was happening over there, but she could guess. Lila and Scott were probably shooting a whole lot of people. Or had, anyway, before the shooting suddenly stopped.
Tonks would have guessed that they shot some people, not necessarily a whole lot, but as the minutes ticked by and the Death Eaters failed to overwhelm the Order it became clear that the enemy force was badly wounded. Perhaps even mortally wounded. The Order held their ground for far, far longer than even Tonks’ most optimistic appraisal would have allowed. Even now, when the Death Eaters were finally putting some effort in countering the Order’s assault, the pushback wasn’t enough to dislodge the Order’s position. It was just getting to the point that the Order had to start thinking about the possibility of getting bogged down and locked in place, not fully overrun.
Hell, Tonks reckoned they had a fighting chance of storming what was left of the Manor. But the Death Eaters could be reinforced at any time, whereas everyone who could fight for the Order was fighting for the Order. And they hadn’t survived this long by pushing their luck.
Tonks dropped back down behind the mostly destroyed marble column that was serving as her increasingly poor cover. “I think it’s about time to scarper!” she shouted to Remus as a Blasting Curse tore a deep furrow in the grass nearby.
“Agreed,” Remus said.
His face was smudged with dirt and flecks of blood. They’d both sustained a few minor hits that hadn’t disabled them, but the small injuries were starting to pile up. Duelling at a distance like this was a far slower and less deadly affair than the close-range combat wizards generally favoured, given the extra time to react and the relative ease of dodging. Unless you were Sophie; her Muggle wand had been doing a disturbing amount of damage.
“Alastor!” Remus shouted towards Moody. “Let’s not allow them to trap us!”
Moody whipped a few more spells towards the Death Eaters, his normal eye alight with a vicious fire. “All right, you lot, we’re retreating!” he roared. “You know what to do!”
As one, the Order reached into their pouches and tossed handfuls of Peruvian Instant Darkness Powder towards the Manor. The powder hit the ground and immediately dispersed, creating a wall of absolute blackness between the Order and the enemy.
Tonks jumped up to her feet. There was a lull in the incoming spells as the Death Eaters stopped in confusion. Sophie, for some reason, was still clicking away with her Muggle tool, apparently undeterred by the barrier of blackness.
Tonks gestured to her. “Come on, we’re going!”
Sophie blinked. “Oh, that’s why they’re just standing there. That’s very clever, okay! I’m disengaging.”
They were halfway back to the woods before spells began flying through the Darkness Powder. None of them came close to hitting, and then the Order was cloaked even further by the trunks of the trees.
Out of the corner of her eye, Tonks saw Sophie split off from the group and veer right. She turned to look and was surprised to see Lila not too far off, along with — bloody hell, was that Ron carrying Hermione? Tonks quickly turned around to look back the way she’d come, but there was no sign of Harry or any of his other friends. She hoped that was a good thing, and not an indication of something gone wrong.
Whatever was going on, Sophie needed to rejoin the group soon because they couldn’t get past the fence without her.
A few seconds later, Sophie was running back to the Order and Lila, Ron and Hermione disappeared farther out in the woods.
Any questions Tonks had were forestalled as Sophie helped everyone through the invisible barrier and over the fence. Mad-Eye did a quick headcount and then the clearing began to the fill with the sounds of Disapparating Order members.
“Was that Lila with Ron and Hermione?” Tonks asked as the Order popped away to safety.
“Yes,” Sophie said distractedly. She was digging through her coat; after a second, she held out a small paper bag. “Give this to Kylie for me, and tell her I’ll be back as soon as I can, okay?”
Tonks took the bag, confused. “Aren’t you coming back with us? What is this?”
“It’s candy. Don’t let her eat it right before bed, okay, tell her I said that. Or make sure she gets it after dinner.” Sophie patted her other pockets. “I think that’s all. I told her I’d get her some Muggle candy. I think I squished it a little… Or maybe Lil squished it.” She hoisted her compact Muggle weapon. “Don’t let her keep the whole bag or she’ll probably eat it when she’s not supposed to. And don’t let her let Trevor eat all of it, she won’t say anything even if he is.”
Tonks was no less confused. “I thought you were coming back with us?”
Sophie glanced towards the trees. “Sorry, there’s no time. Go, please!”
If she’d had a few more moments, Tonks probably would have tried to get more answers. But there was no telling when the Death Eaters would give pursuit and decide to prevent Apparition. She tucked the bag of sweets into her coat. “Well, good luck, then.”
“You, too,” Sophie said.
Tonks turned on the spot and disappeared, leaving Sophie behind.
“Ow! Ouch, just a moment—”
“Sorry. Sorry, I’m trying not to—”
“No, I know. It’s all right.”
Hermione was undergoing the most curious sensation. She felt like she was sleepwalking, despite being fully awake; nothing felt real for reasons she couldn’t describe. Her world was utter darkness that seemed to shift around her. She knew that she was still in Ron’s arms, she could feel them.
“I have to go. You can catch up,” Lila said from somewhere nearby.
“Wait! We might need you for the Horcrux,” Ron said. “They fight back, remember?”
“Fine, I have to go downstairs anyway. Hurry,” Lila said tersely.
Footsteps, fast enough that Lila had to be running. Hermione had no idea where they were, but it smelled familiar.
“Ron, I can’t see. Scott had to break my thread, I don’t know where I am,” she told him as calmly as she was able.
“Really? What’s that like?”
“Very unpleasant. Can we please—”
Ron was still a Secret Keeper, so that was easy enough to address. A minute later and they were in the kitchen of Grimmauld. The calm of the place was bizarre, a sudden scene of normalcy. Well, mostly normalcy. Lila was digging through the bags of Muggle equipment behind the table. Hermione had been eating at that table what felt like a lifetime ago.
“We’ll do it all at once, quick as we can,” she panted, gripping the edge of the table as Ron slid her into a chair. “I’ll drop it out of the strongbox and you chop it straight away.”
Ron pulled the sword out of its bag and held it at the ready. “Got it.”
Another set of footsteps came from behind. “I’m here! I’m here now,” Sophie said, speeding into the kitchen. “Lil?”
“I’m ready,” Lila said, standing and facing the table.
Hermione saw no need to delay any further. She took the strongbox from her handbag and in one smooth motion, flipped open the lid and dumped the cup onto the table.
Ron swung immediately and struck true. The blade cut clean through the cup and bit deep into the table. There was a bright flash and then a bang that knocked Hermione’s head into the back of her chair and sent the sword flying from Ron’s hands, where it clattered loudly against the oven.
“Fuck. Ugh. Fuck.” Ron flexed his hands, jaw clenched with pain.
Hermione could relate. “At least it’s done,” she said, rubbing at the rapidly growing contusion on the back of her head.
Lila had quickly returned to the black bags. “Sophie, load up.”
Ron shook his hands briskly a few more times and then stepped around the table. “You’re going to Hogwarts, right?”
“Yes,” Lila said as she rearranged several box magazines. “Do what you need to do for Hermione. We’re out of here in five.”
Hermione’s heart sank. She had taken the proper medicine, but her mangled ankle was a complicated injury. No doubt Madame Pomfrey could have sped things up; Hermione’s magical acumen was nothing to sneeze at, but she was not a Healer. None of them were, at least in the magical sense. Whatever splint or cast Sophie could offer would not be particularly helpful in the short term.
Ron’s hand fell on her shoulder. The look on his face was one of guilt. “Hermione…”
“I know,” she said quickly. She felt like she was on the edge of a breakdown, spread thin by her capture and the invasion of her mind and all the violence that followed. She was held together by outside pressure, sheer momentum, and if she let herself be still for too long she’d just fall apart. “Go help Harry and I won’t be long.”
They kissed, and then all too soon Lila was headed for the stairs with Sophie and Ron following. And just like that, Hermione was left alone in the kitchen.
Her ankle was feeling a bit numb, which was an improvement over the pain. She sat in the chair while the potion did its prickly work, and every second felt like the longest hour of her life.
Scott was spotted on the road about a hundred yards out. In truth, he was probably spotted long before that, but at such a distance he could have been anybody. It wasn’t until he got closer that he saw movement in response to his approach. He was strolling up the road that would turn into Hogsmeade’s main street when what looked like a couple members of the town watch turned out to greet him. The two men weren’t dressed like Death Eaters, though Hogsmeade wouldn’t be much of a trap if they were.
Scott waved in greeting.
The men didn’t seem to know what to make of Scott’s arrival from the school. “Evening, friend,” the man on the left said absurdly, considering it was getting close to midnight. “You come from Hogwarts?”
Scott walked right up to them. “The Dark Lord has business there tonight,” he said, coming to a halt. “We’re to stay away, for the time being.”
The two watchmen shifted nervously at the news. The man on the left nodded and began to turn away.
The man on the right was more observant. He was eyeing Scott’s gear suspiciously. “Where’s Amycus, then?”
Scott now knew everything he needed to. He drew his pistol unhurriedly and shot them before they could react.
He stood there for a moment, waiting for the outcry. The two men must have been the only sentries on this side of town, though, because there was no alarm. No one was close enough to hear his suppressed handgun. That gave him time to create a more dramatic distraction.
Not too long, of course. Riddle had a date with a trap, but not a reservation. He could arrive at any moment.
Scott traced the men’s footsteps back to their point of origin. They’d been inside a nearby two-storey building. The upper windows were dark, likely where they’d been watching from. There were some lights on downstairs. He peered through a window but didn’t see anyone. It was possible, given the hour, that the sentries had been the only ones awake. Or perhaps much of the enemy had responded to the attack on the Manor.
Scott returned to the dead men. He picked them up and then trudged out into the nearby field, the moon high and bright above.
I know any apology of mine concerning the lateness of the chapter would be insufficient. I can offer a variety of reasons, including a recent move and a new job, but while all the things that have been clamouring for my attention in my life have definitely had an impact, they can’t solely take all the blame. I’ve been suffering from writer’s block of a severe and persistent sort. And the truth is that I arrived at the near-end of this story with only a few guiding ideas and no concrete plan. Normally, a few ideas will suffice. But the more I tried to build an ending, the more it seemed impossible to create anything big enough to cap off over a decade of writing.
This impulse was self-destructive from a creative standpoint, but it was also wrong from a thematic standpoint. To craft some kind of super twisty, complex, deus ex machina ending from whole cloth would not only be difficult, it would be a direct repudiation of basically every point this story has ever tried to make. I conflated a culmination for me with a culmination for the characters and that was stupid.
I don’t have as much time to work on this story as I used to. And I’m not going to make promises about when new chapters will appear because we all know I have no idea when the next chapter will be finished. So I hope it’s enough to know that this story is not abandoned and goddammit I will finish this thing or I will die in the attempt. I mean, it probably won’t come to that. I’m having difficulty envisioning how it could come to that. But the sentiment stands.