Chapter 60: Worthy (Year 7)
And so, forward we go. Some scary images in this chapter, so be warned. Life, and war, can sometimes be rough…
"So they're actually—wow." Ron whistled long and low. "I know Alex said it'd surprise us if we ever found out where his mum and the rest were from, but Merlin's blood!"
"No," said Fox from his perch in a niche on the den room wall. "Merlin's mother. And Merlin, too, come to think. "
"You really like having him around?" Ron asked Hermione, who only laughed. "Can't understand it myself." He craned his neck to look up at Fox. "I thought we were doing just fine without you, personally. Missed Luna a bit, but we could've worked around that…"
Fox swept his fingers through a mild piece of Pride-sign rudeness and turned his attention back to Harry, who was relating the tale of his bargaining session with the Founders. "So Danger will be healed as soon as we pay the first part of the price," he said. "Is that just a repudiation thing? Somebody uses the right language to say they'll never be an Heir again, and poof, they won't?"
"Could be." Harry shrugged. "But they've been pretty good about telling us if things need to be done a certain way. My guess is that since they didn't, whatever needs to happen will come up anyway, or the chance for it will. Our job is to recognize it and take that path, where maybe if things were different that's not the way we'd go."
"I don't like that whoever gives up their powers gives them up forever and ever, and won't even be able to give them to their children." Meghan scowled. "That's not fair at all!"
"We're asking for something awfully big, Pearl," said Hermione. "A Healing from a poison that was made specifically to fight back against Healing. Besides, the Founders need it to be clear that they're not there to fix every little problem we might have." She smiled, letting her pendant chain run through her fingers. "Instead they give us the tools, and let us fix them ourselves."
"And when we can't anymore, that's when they step in, if they're asked. And if we can pay." Ginny leaned back against Harry. "Did you have to choose me?" she murmured low enough that no one else would hear her.
"Who else?" Harry laid the side of his face against the top of her head, letting the soft scent of her hair drift around him. "You'd be offended if I'd chosen anyone else. And rightly so."
"That doesn't stop it from being terrifying." Ginny sighed. "Harry, what if I pick wrong?"
"I've been asking that question since I was old enough to understand what a prophecy was." Harry slid an arm around Ginny's waist. "Sorry to dump it on you like this, but I did promise you everything of me."
"I didn't think you meant it this way." Ginny's tone was biting, but her body language and scent both told Harry she was, if not content, resigned to the situation. Her grouchiness was just her way of working off her nerves before the event, so that she could make her decision in the moment with as clear a mind as possible.
Maybe I should try that. Snap and snarl at the Pride for the next day and a half, and then I might be able to laugh my way through getting rid of Voldemort…
"Harry," Hermione's voice called him back from his momentary daydream of getting into a sulking match with Meghan. "What did Lady Rowena call the Deathly Hallows again?"
"Sacra Leti-something." Harry cast his mind back. "Letifera? I think that's right."
"Letifera." Hermione rubbed the knuckle of her right thumb against her lips. "Letifera. I've seen that word before…"
Drawing her wand, she revealed the hidden shelf of Horcrux books, and Summoned one from near the bottom of the stack, opening it near the beginning, then quickly flipping through the pages.
"Which part is that?" asked Ron, scooting away so as to be out of range of flying elbows and hands. Hermione in a book-mood was not to be trifled with. "Letifera, I mean. Deathly, or Hallows?"
"Well, look at the other one." Neville tapped off his points on his fingers. "Sacra sounds like sacred, which means holy, or hallowed. So Sacra must mean Hallows. And then Letifera would mean Deathly—"
"And here it is." Hermione held up the book triumphantly. "Only it's not talking about the Hallows. It's talking about Horcruxes."
"What?" said most of the rest of the Pride, their voices overlapping.
"Listen." Hermione laid her finger on the page and began to read aloud. "'But he who wishes to safeguard his soul from death for all time, instead of merely extending the span of his mortal life, must seek his answer in death itself, in the form of an object called by the ancients the Horcrux Letifera, but known in these latter days simply as the Horcrux…'"
"So it was originally called a Deathly Horcrux." Ron eyed the yellowed and dust-imbued book dubiously. "Bit redundant, isn't it?" He paused, frowning. "But magic isn't," he said slowly. "Or it shouldn't be. Remember in Professor Jones's class, how we studied the way spell incantations get figured out, and how they're never in their final form until they only say exactly what you want them to?"
"Maybe people were trying to take away some of its power, so they took away one of its names?" Meghan hazarded. "It could happen. Names matter."
Or maybe it means something else. Harry glanced over towards Luna, and saw her tiny, triumphant smile. Maybe it means—
Quickly, he censored that thought before it could go too far. Living in dreams of a happy future wouldn't do him much good if he didn't get the work done to ensure that happy future could come to pass.
But I'm thinking more and more it really could…
"Going back to what we started on," said Fox, breaking into the good-natured banter between Ron and Meghan on the subject of what people were called and what they answered to. "Why would you get to meet the people the Founders were married to, Harry? They aren't part of the crew at the Castle upstairs. We've never met them there. I don't even know where they do spend most of their time—though I could take a guess, now that I know where they came from," he added with a grin to Hermione, flattening his hands as though they held a book. "But why bring them into this, instead of Paul and Maura and Adam and the Fates? The Founders don't do anything without a reason…"
"They've given us our prophecy, which means they can't tell us anything else about how we ought to handle the Final Battle." Harry drew his own wand and summoned from a pocket on the Horcrux shelf the scroll containing said prophecy. "But that doesn't mean they can't hint. And look here." Unrolling the scroll near the bottom, he pointed to a line. "The queens shall ride the lion bold. If that's not a big red flag—"
Luna started coughing, but waved her hand to indicate she was all right when the rest of the Pride looked her way. "I swallowed wrong," she said weakly. "Don't mind me. Go on, Harry. I think you've got something."
"Seers," Harry muttered without any real annoyance. "Right. So we're all familiar with this stuff. We've read about it, we know it's powerful, and now we know it's real. But Voldemort doesn't. And all the while he's so busy being proud of the way he's the Heir of Slytherin, working as hard as he can to live up to that part of his blood, what's mixed right into it?" He tapped the line of prophecy in Danger's half-neat handwriting. "This. He's got exactly as much of this blood as he does of Slytherin's. And I think the Founders are trying to tell us we should use that. Use its ideas, its images, to hit Voldemort in a weak spot he doesn't even realize he has."
"How?" asked Neville, his voice inquisitive rather than challenging. "We can't exactly make him lie down with his cuddly snake and listen to a bedtime story. Though I might ask you to draw that for me, when this is all over," he said to Luna, who nodded, beaming. "Maybe even have him sucking his thumb…"
"But what if we could?" said Hermione when the snickering had settled down enough that she could be heard. "What if we could find a place which had so much magic, magic he's uniquely vulnerable to, that we could make him believe whatever he saw? Make him not think, not question, not do anything except watch and accept? Especially if what he was seeing also resonated with him, but in a way he's never felt before, a way he wouldn't know how to handle? It would throw him off his balance, and give you a better chance at him, Harry."
"I can't say I'd mind that." Harry laid down the prophecy scroll. "But where do you mean?"
Ginny rapped her knuckles lightly against Harry's skull. "Sounds hollow. Must be ripe. Hogwarts, Harry. She's talking about Hogwarts."
"Are you mad?" Harry stared wide-eyed from his sister to his wife. "You want to—to let him just walk onto the grounds—"
"Onto the grounds, yes, but not into the castle or Sanctuary!" Hermione held up her hands. "Listen, just listen to me for a minute! Voldemort's ancestors were banished from Hogwarts. Salazar tried to take the castle back by force, and instead he got himself killed by Godric's Champion. And Matthias never dared to try it at all. Don't you think the castle remembers that?"
"That's what Dadfoot said Professor Snape said, that one time when he was talking to the Bloody Baron." Meghan's eyes were half-shut, the better to remember. "Talking to Salazar Slytherin's ghost. 'The castle remembers, my lord. The castle remembers.' And we've got Heirs of all the Founders who were faithful. Even Slytherin's good line, now that it's not cursed anymore." She reached over to squeeze fingers with Luna. "And we know how to talk with Hogwarts, how to wake up its magic and get it to help us!"
"Plus, think about this." Ginny held the tips of her fingers together, then let them crumple inwards. "If they believe they've won an easy victory at the boundaries, that they've fought their way onto the school grounds without the kind of resistance they were expecting, they'll be all cocky and stupid coming towards the castle. At which point we show them what we can really do. They'll pull back, won't they, to regroup and make new plans? And where would they be more likely to go than the Forest?"
"And nowhere could be better for working the kind of magic we need than a forest." Luna sketched with her wand's tip in the air, creating a dark, moody scene of a tiny clearing among massive trees, lit by an inadequate fire, around which robed figures huddled nervously. "What waits out there beyond the light? No one can say. And the marvelous Lord Voldemort, for all his magic and all his greatness, has never outgrown the terrible fear of his childhood. Fear of the dark, which is also fear of the unknown."
Alone and helpless, in the dark. Harry nodded slowly, as the ease with which Voldemort's unprotected mind had been caught up in his own baby memories now made sense to him. Not knowing if anyone can hear you crying, if anyone will ever open the door again.
Except I do know. And they did.
Maybe no one ever has, for him.
He took an instant to pity the little boy named Tom Marvolo Riddle, then put that feeling firmly away. Whatever had happened to Voldemort when he was younger didn't excuse what he wanted to do now, or change the fact that he had to be stopped.
"So let's play this through, then," he said, signing a quick thank-you to Ron as his friend conjured a large map of Hogwarts into being, and the Pride leaned in (or down, in Fox's case) to study it. "We'll need to find some way to let them onto the grounds without them figuring out we're letting them onto the grounds, and keep from taking too much damage in the meantime—I'm not getting people killed for a diversion if I can help it…"
"Why did you laugh earlier?" Meghan asked Luna as the Pride's lionesses settled into the den which was now their sole possession. Harry, Ron, and Neville had taken Fox off to do secret and manly things, about which the ladies felt no need to inquire. "When Harry said something about a big red flag."
"Because." Luna stretched her arms against each other, twisting her back to work out the kinks. "Did any of the spies ever send you reports on what it looked like while Fox and I were undercover? What I would do to make the Death Eaters think I couldn't be paying any attention to them even if I had my mind still?"
"Some kind of sewing, I think," said Hermione. "On your cloak, wasn't it? Putting decorations on it? Only they weren't visible, because it was black on black."
"It was, while I was stitching it. But it won't always be." Luna lifted her wand and sketched a black rectangle in midair, the long edge parallel to the ground. "I made it black to begin with, both to keep anyone from seeing it, and because ambition and cunning all by themselves almost always turn the person who has them Dark. But that's not all I have, especially not when I'm with you." She traded smiles with her friends. "Together, we have wisdom, and loyalty, and courage. And when all those things come together, what I made will look more like…" A flick of her wand sent illusory fire across the rectangle. "This."
Meghan cracked first, but Ginny and Hermione weren't far behind. "And Harry said…" Ginny managed to get out before another wave of laughter overtook her. "Oh, that's too funny!"
"And is that really what it is?" asked Meghan when she had her breath back.
"That's exactly what it is." Luna sketched in the towers of Hogwarts beneath her original picture. "But only the right people can put it in its place. And they'll come when we're ready for them." Her wand whisked through a spiral, vanishing the entirety of the picture. "So how have things been working out at Sanctuary?"
The conversation wound its way through the current state of Muggle/magical relations, the varying roles of Order, Red Shepherds, and DA in the ongoing battles against Death Eaters, and the sightings of Fox and Luna at the Founders' Castle ("I am an Heir now," Luna pointed out, "and Fox has sworn the Oath, so he could come as my guest"), before delving into the possible meanings of several prophetic phrases the Pride had studied, at which point Hermione and Meghan were made privy to Luna's revelation from earlier. Meghan looked awed, but Hermione's forehead furrowed as she thought it over.
"I don't quite understand how it can happen so soon," she said. "I mean, there's hardly anything for the soul to catch hold of yet. There certainly isn't a brain, so the baby won't be able to think…"
"But thinking and feeling are different, and feeling is what comes from the soul. Most especially, love." Luna laid a hand against her chest. "Did your parents wait to love you until you were a certain size or shape? Or did they love you from the very first moment they knew you were there?"
"My Dadfoot had to stop staring at Mama first." Meghan snickered. "Silly Dadfoot."
"And I remember when Harry saw Marcus's soul, at the Department of Mysteries." Ginny shaped an archway with her hands. "He didn't look the way his body would have looked at that point. He looked like an ordinary baby, one who'd been born and was a few months old. Is that because a soul doesn't really have an age, not the way a body does?"
Luna nodded. "And because even in that very first moment, the code that says how the baby will look when she's born has already been written. So the soul knows what its body will look like, and that's how it shapes itself."
"Her mother's hair, and her father's eyes." Ginny wove her fingers into her own hair. "Like you, Meghan. Or like Harry, only backwards."
"A lot of things about Harry are backwards," murmured Hermione, sending the female Warriors into gales of giggles once again.
In a little while, they would think again of war. This moment was filled with the friendship and silliness and laughter the war was being waged to preserve.
"Well then." Fox looked up from the plans for the Manor Den, attempting to scowl but not quite managing. "Just make yourselves right at home in my house, why don't you."
"We didn't know it was your house." Ron was lying on his back on his bed, doodling something in the air with his wand that only he could see. "Matter of fact, you went to a good bit of trouble so we wouldn't know it was your house. We thought it was going to be Hermione's house, after we got the Death Eaters out of it."
"Which they've now done all by themselves, courtesy of your scaring Bellatrix," added Neville. "So that's handy."
"And we've got this lovely little wing here we were intending for guests." Harry pointed his wand at one of the farther areas of the Manor, lighting it up. "Same basic size as the bits we were all claiming for ourselves, same kind of amenities, and enough out of the way that you can hole up in there for a while if you need to. Unless you don't like the whole idea, I mean." He glanced over at Fox, trying to see the expression on his brother's face. "If you'd rather we settled down somewhere else, as a Pride, or if you and Luna wanted a house of your own instead—"
"No! No, God, not that." Fox shook his head hard. "I'd flash straight back to 'her and me against the world' if we were anywhere alone. And being proud of the Manor was one of the things I could always tell the truth about while I was undercover. It's a gorgeous old place, and it deserves so much better than it's had, these last few hundred years." He laid his fingers against the lettering in the corner of the diagram. "I can't think of any better way to chase out all the old bad memories than by making a whole load of good ones."
"Like late-night Quidditch on our own private pitch." Ron whisked his wand back and forth across his invisible drawing, revealing stick figures on brooms tossing a familiar-looking ball among them. "Or hauling Hermione away from the library long enough to make her eat. Maybe going out to see if there's any magical creatures in the woods—a wizarding family's home helps hold magic together where Muggle stuff would chase it off, so most of the purebloods have really thickly inhabited forests around their houses, even if the ones who live there tend to stay out of sight because a lot of purebloods are also bloody murderous idiots…"
"No one's done anything with the gardens in years, have they?" Neville asked Fox, who shook his head again. "Good. I like a challenge. And we can have music every night if we want it, and anyone who doesn't can just go to bed. The rooms are so far apart we'll never even know."
"Have to wonder what's going to happen to number twelve, though." Harry laid a hand on the windowsill on which he was perched. "Pearl always said she wanted to live here someday, but if we're out at the Manor Den, she won't. Unless we keep it on as a second house, maybe."
"Or there could be someone else who'd want it." Fox had his head bent over the plans again, his wand in his hand, altering a few details of the wing newly assigned to him and Luna. "And we'd even be keeping it in the family that way."
"All right, what do you know that we don't?" Harry slid off the windowsill. "And is it knowing, or is it…" He waggled his fingers around his face when Fox looked up. "You know. Knowing." A tap against his wedding ring. "Thinking about what the shiny thing means."
"Honestly, Harry." Fox looked hurt. "Do you think I'd ask Luna to Look into the future for no better reason than vulgar curiosity?"
"Yes," said all three other male Warriors in unison.
"Ow." Fox winced. "All right, all right. Maybe she Looked a couple times. There were a few nights when things got really bad, and we needed something, anything, that was cheerful and alive, and not about Pack or Pride, because that would just make us miss you too damn much." He sat back in his chair, sealing off his alterations to the plans with his wand. "I wasn't expecting what she found, and remember none of it is set in stone, but if it does happen, I can't wait to see how it goes…"
Aletha looked up from her book at the sound of light footsteps on the stairs. "There you are," she said, standing as Ginny came into view. "How are you feeling?"
"Terrified." Ginny smiled wanly. "Not of Harry, but just of everything. When the war could be won or lost by things we can't control or change…"
"I thought that might be the case." Aletha extracted two small bottles from her pocket. "Here. The red one is for you, the blue one for Harry."
"Thank you." Ginny accepted the two bottles and weighed them in her palm. "What are they?"
"A calming potion, for both of you. Just enough for an hour, to let you set aside your troubles and concentrate on each other. And to yours, I've added a stabilizer. To keep certain systems working correctly, despite the stress you'll be under." Aletha held out her arms, and Ginny folded herself promptly into them.
"You've been so brave," she whispered to the younger witch, holding her close. "I'm so proud of you. Of all of you, but you especially."
"Why?" Ginny drew back within the embrace to look up at Aletha. "Why especially me?"
"Because out of all the Pride, you had the most opportunities to choose a different path, and many people might say you should have. Should have said that you didn't want any part of getting married and having your first child so young, or that it wasn't fair to burden you with alpha status in the Pride, or even that you weren't of age to fight and you ought to be protected instead. There's a seed of truth in all of that, and some part of my heart would be easier if you'd taken any one of those paths. But." Aletha laid her hand against the side of Ginny's face. "I wouldn't have you as a daughter-in-law if you had, and I'm very glad I do. And we might not be this close to winning the war. Which I do believe we are, and we will."
"I believe it too." Ginny's second smile was stronger. "But it's always good to hear it from someone else. The red one for me, you said?"
"Yes, that's right." Aletha accepted the blue-bottled potion back so that Ginny had a hand free to remove the cork from the red bottle and drink its contents down in three long swallows. "And here's your opportunity," she added as the door of the bedroom opened, allowing Neville to step out with a roll of parchment under his arm, followed by Ron and Fox, who were eyeing one another warily. "You two," she called out, attracting their attention and Neville's, and incidentally giving Ginny a chance to take back the blue bottle, slip into the room, and shut the door behind her. "Whatever you're thinking of doing to each other, don't."
"But if he deserves it," Ron began.
"Not even once?" said Fox at the same moment.
"If you're really set on it, I can't stop you." Aletha traded small, smug smiles with Neville. "But it won't be very easy to make your battle plans if Hermione isn't speaking to either of you."
"Damn war," Fox grumbled. "Ruins all our fun."
"Should be over by day after tomorrow." Ron started for the top of the stairs. "And then you're going down, Beauvoi."
Fox only smirked at the back of Ron's robes, which bore the words "I am a ginger lummox" spelled out in maroon.
"Going to be glad when we have a place of our own?" Neville asked quietly.
"More than I can say." Aletha sighed. "Which, having said that, of course means I'll start missing you all within the first week you're gone…"
In the early afternoon of the day, the Pride gathered once again, this time in the tapestry room, where Fox took his place on one of the couches, his fellow Warriors gathered around him. Padfoot sat by the door, wand in hand, equally ready to defend them against threats from without or within, and Letha stood behind the couch in case anyone should need emergency Healing.
"What we have to do here is very, very dangerous," said Luna as Fox rolled back his left sleeve, revealing the magical shield over his Mark, which had begun to fray a bit at the edges. "There are so many ways it could come out that I can't possibly See all of them. But one thing is very clear to my Sight. Voldemort knows we will want to try this, and he's hoping the snake's Portkey-venom will bring him a hostage. Someone he can use to tempt the rest of us to come out and attempt a rescue."
"At which point he can pick us off like a kneazle at a gnomehole." Ron glowered. "Not interested, thanks."
"Does that mean we shouldn't try a rescue, if someone is bitten?" asked Neville. "Just abandon them?"
"It isn't abandoning them if we all agree to it." Hermione perched on the arm of the couch closest to Fox's head. "And besides, if we do this right, no one will be bitten."
"And we're the Pride." Meghan nodded firmly. "When things matter, we do them right."
"But if anyone is bitten, they're on their own." Ginny's lips twisted as though she were chewing an orange peel, but her voice was strong and clear. "Because to try to help them would only make things worse, and endanger the rest of us for no reason."
Luna held up a finger. "They will have help, if it does happen," she said. "Not from Pack or Pride, but they will have help. That much I can See, but the rest…" She shook her head fretfully. "It clouds over and tangles. There are too many paths."
"But we're all agreed, yes?" Harry raised his right hand, palm out. "No mad rescue attempts."
"Agreed," the rest of the Pride chorused, raising their own hands in reply.
"Here's hoping we won't need them," muttered Fox. "All right, you lot, time to put on your other faces."
By prior consent, Padfoot did the illusion spells for the younger wizards, and Letha for the witches. They finished almost at the same moment, and as the Pride resumed their seats around Fox's couch, only someone closely acquainted with them would have noticed the tiny differences in movement and carriage which betrayed the disguises they wore. A few moments of breathing together brought their magic into harmony, flowing in and around them freely, with the two Pack-adults standing guardian a short ways away.
"Ready, Fox?" asked Meghan, tucking Hermione's light-brown curls out of the way behind her ears.
"When you are." Fox swallowed once as she laid her hands on his arm, just above the Mark. "Going to hurt a bit, I'm guessing?"
"I'll do what I can," Meghan promised. "But I have to keep you alive first."
"Fair enough." Fox flipped up the collar of his robes, then took a firm grasp on a handful of couch cushion with his other hand. "On your mark, then." His grin came and went like lightning. "Or rather, on mine."
"Maybe we can extract some of the bad puns while we're at it," muttered Ron, pushing the prop glasses Padfoot had conjured for him up his nose.
"I rather like his sense of humor the way it is," said Luna serenely, her calm smile looking decidedly strange on Ginny's freckled face. "Is everyone ready? In three, two, one—"
Her wand sprang into her hand, and she breathed a three-word spell in Parseltongue, tracing a circle around Fox's shielded Mark. The shield vanished, and the skull-and-snake became visible once more, the snake beginning to twist and squirm beneath Fox's skin. Fox clamped his teeth around his upturned collar, as Meghan's small hands tightened on his arm and the rest of the Pride battled to maintain their magical unity.
"Come out and play, little snake," Luna crooned in English. "Come and see who is meddling with your Master's spell."
"Don't listen to her," objected Ginny from the other end of the Pride-oval, leaning forward so that her dark blonde hair could spill easily into sight. "I'm the one your Master wants! I tricked him for months in his very own lair!"
"Don't listen to her," Ron took over, waving a dismissive hand at Ginny. "I'm the one your Master's wanted for years! You ought to bite me!"
"Don't listen to him," Harry cut in on the heels of this, hoping his invisible glasses wouldn't slip from Neville's broader-bridged nose. "He's an impostor! I'm the one your Master really wants! Can't you tell?" he added in Parseltongue.
Fox's skin split, drawing a hiss of pain from behind his clenched teeth, and the snake's head ascended majestically from within his arm. Higher it rose and higher, its eyes fixed on Harry—
"But why can't I be the one you want?" breathed Luna, also in Parseltongue, and the snake whipped around to stare at her, its body language conveying a decided degree of bafflement.
"Or what about me?" Hermione put in, managing a fair imitation of Meghan's huffy-spoiled-brat tone. "I'm the Healer around here! No one will have a chance without me!"
"Yes, we will." Neville looked down his nose at her, which was more impressive on Ron's face than on his own. "You're just a whiny little kid. Nobody will get very far without me there to fix things."
"You're all wrong! It's me he wants!" Ron thumped a hand against his chest. "Harry Potter, the Chosen One!"
"No, it's me!" Ginny shoved at her brother's arm. "The Heir of Slytherin!"
"No, me!" "Why not me?" "It should be me!" The Pride's voices flew thick and fast, and the snake rose further and further from its resting place, its head turning back and forth uneasily. Harry watched closely, since to be sure of killing the snake cleanly without harming Fox, he had to catch it when the majority of its body had emerged from its spell-cocoon.
Which should be right—about—
A tiny, serpentine sigh of satisfaction was all the warning he had. The snake's tail slid free of its flesh-bound resting place, and in the same instant it whipped around and struck.
Meghan had no chance to dodge before its fangs sank deep into her right hand.
Kill! snarled Wolf in the back of Harry's mind, snapping his horrified second of paralysis. His flash of fire burned the spell-snake to ashes even as Meghan vanished from the spot where she'd been standing. Fox's back arched and a howl tore from him, but the rest of the Pride lunged forward almost as one, using their weight to hold him still, and then Letha leaned down to clamp her own hands over the place where her daughter's had been, her own magic flooding a cleansing blue over the dark and dingy green where the skull of the Mark was dissolving into a noxious cloud under Fox's skin. "Finish it," she said in a voice like iron. "Seal the spell, before we lose them both."
"You have no more power here," Harry said, barely recognizing his own voice as Padfoot, his face looking old for the first time Harry could recall, waved his wand in a broad arc, removing all the disguising spells at once. "By my right as brother, as alpha, as Heir, begone."
The cloud of green swirled in a furious dance, but Letha's magic and Harry's command, backed by the combined strength of the Pride, caged it ever tighter, until with a soundless pop it vanished. Fox let out a shuddering sigh, slumping back against the cushions of the couch, as his Pridemates moved back one by one, releasing him.
"Please," he said in a hoarse whisper of a voice when he was free, turning onto his side and laying his arm across his face. "Just…leave me alone."
Luna seated herself on the floor beside the couch, and nodded once to confirm her husband's words. Her eyes held depths of sorrow Harry had never seen from her before, but understood perfectly. Only the worst of his nightmares had ever shown him his baby sister thrown onto Voldemort's nonexistent mercies.
And Fox is going to blame himself for it, because if we'd never tried to take the Mark off him, Pearl would still be safe at home where she belongs…
"I never knew success could feel so awful," Ginny murmured to him as the rest of the Pride left the room in slow procession. "And the pendants—what's wrong with them?"
"Nothing's wrong." Harry stepped to one side and drew his chain out of his robes, splaying out the medallions and pressing them against the inside of his wrist to better feel the faint, fitful flickers of chill. "She's in trouble, all right, but there's nothing we can do about it. So—"
"Wait." Ginny's finger darted in to touch the third pendant, the one which held the carvings representing the Pack-friends. "Harry, look!"
"At what?" Harry asked, and then could have kicked himself, as Ginny slid his first two pendants gently aside.
The carving of the raven was alight, giving off a strong and steady glow.
"Luna did say she would have help," Ginny began, then stopped as Neville came to stand beside them. The very stillness with which he held himself, the care with which he moved, set off warning bells inside Harry's mind, and Wolf whined uneasily at the undercurrents in his beta's scent.
"I could have been the Chosen One," said Neville softly. "If he hurts her, I might forget I'm not."
"I can live with that." Harry held out his hand, and Neville shook it, sealing the bargain. "Let's pack up. We'll need to get to Sanctuary and start briefing the DA as soon as Fox is back on his feet."
Sirius held his wife tightly against him, but for once could find no comfort in her presence, as he could feel her shoulders shaking in her own fear and grief. Their baby, their little girl, whom he'd loved since that first breathless moment of revelation, had been snatched from them by the whirlwind of the war, and their enemy's glee would know no bounds.
He'll hurt her. His storytelling mind and his experience as an Auror melded effortlessly to present him with images, sounds, even scents, fleshing out the barren, simplistic words. He'll tear her apart, body, mind, and soul, not because she's ever done anything to him herself but just because of who she is, and who else he can hurt by hurting her…
"Her fate is not yet out of our hands."
Startled, Sirius turned towards the source of the sound. Luna sat on the floor with her eyes half-shut, her head tipped back, her hands laid flat against the carpet. Fox, on the couch beside her, was pushing himself slowly into a sitting position, moving with care so as not to touch his lady. His eyes were fixed on her with the same desperate hope Sirius could feel rushing through his own blood, humming through Aletha where her arms wrapped around him.
"If we make the first move, our enemy must make the second," Luna continued in a flat tone, devoid of emotion. "He will rush to capture the greater prize without making sure of the lesser, and his carelessness will give her back her chance. But we must hurry, and be certain to send him a challenge he cannot refuse…"
"Merlin's bones," Sirius breathed as a plan burst into being behind his eyes. "That's it."
Embracing Aletha tightly once more, he released her, and strode to the door, yanking it open. "Harry!" he bellowed. "War Room! Now!"
Should've been thinking like a Marauder all along. He Disapparated, aiming for the small study on the floor below where the Order's plans and supplies were kept. Play to your target's weaknesses, not his strengths, and get him into position while making him think this was all his own idea…
Meghan thought she might have screamed with the pain of the snakebite, but couldn't be sure. The whirlwind of colors and sounds that was a Portkey journey drowned out everything else.
Hermione, she found one scrap of sense with which to remember. I have to be Hermione…
Then the world snapped back into focus around her, and she collapsed onto an uneven stone floor, bruising knee, hip, and shoulder as she fell. Startled shouts all around her proved her entrance hadn't gone unseen, and she flicked her wand into her hand, intending to put up a Shield Spell just as soon as she had enough breath to speak the words—
A red spell struck the center of her chest, stealing the few whiffs of air she'd been able to regain, and her wand tore painfully loose from her grasp.
"I see we have a visitor." Lord Voldemort lounged in his throne, his own wand pointing lazily in her direction, as Bellatrix reached up to snatch Meghan's out of its flight. "Miss Granger-Lupin, is it not? What a pity you could not have come to see us yesterday. You would have met your father here." He laughed softly, filling what Meghan could now see was a rough-walled cavern with breathy echoes. "Briefly, but you would have met him. Now, whatever can have brought you here so abruptly? Is it possible you have a traitor from my ranks among you, and were trying to meddle with my Mark?"
Meghan sucked in half a painful breath, and bared her teeth rather than answer in words. From a long-ago conversation, she recalled her choice of rosebushes to keep her mind safeguarded from intrusion, and began summoning up and weaving together her thorny barricade. Only a prince may enter here, she thought as strongly and clearly as she could, while all around the borders of her mind the rose vines grew and twined and climbed. Only a prince, which definitely doesn't mean you…
Severus Snape frowned, slipping from one shadow to the next inside the cavern the Dark Lord had claimed as his temporary headquarters while the richer Death Eaters debated over who should next have the honor of hosting their Master. The child now levering herself onto her knees, glaring with hatred at Lord Voldemort, looked more like a bad copy of Hermione Granger-Lupin than she resembled that young witch herself.
She is not nearly tall enough, for one thing, and her body language is all wrong for another. If I could see no colors or lines, only shape and movement, I would almost think—
"If you will not speak, I suppose I must employ other methods." The Dark Lord rose and fixed his red eyes on the girl's hazel ones, only to break off a moment later with a growling hiss, one which roused the Inferius of Nagini from her usual semi-sleep. "Such a clever little girl," he said softly. "Now who has been teaching you Occlumency, I wonder?"
"None of your business," the girl snapped back.
In the shadows, Severus tightened his fists in lieu of cursing. The voice, even shrill with fear as it was, had confirmed his worst suspicions. The witch before him was indeed a cub of the Pack, if not the one she had at first appeared to be.
And what Black and his wife can have been thinking, to allow their daughter anywhere near such a dangerous operation as the attempted removal of a Dark Mark—
Meghan cried out, twisting herself away from Lord Voldemort's eye contact and throwing up an arm to block her face, as the Dark Lord exhaled in triumph. "So," he said, beginning to smile. "Dumbledore had the Elder Wand all along. Would it not have been easier simply to tell me that, pretty Hermione, rather than put me to the trouble of prying it loose?" His voice, caressing, derisive, scraped along Severus's nerves. "For I will have everything I want to know from you. In time. Whether that time is long or short, painful or pleasant, and how whole your mind remains at the end of it, lies entirely in your hands, my dear…"
Severus's control snapped. His wand was in his hand, the Summoning Charm forming in his thoughts, before he had quite realized what he was doing, and belatedly he prepared himself to catch the girl now hurtling towards him, to use her momentum to begin his Apparition—back to Malfoy Manor, he thought, as its current owners surely felt far more friendly towards the two of them than towards any pursuers who might follow—Meghan slammed into his side, curling herself instinctively around him, and Severus twisted his shoulder back, concentrating on being somewhere else—
A pebble slipped under his foot, and he lost his balance, falling heavily to the floor.
An instant later, his Mark exploded with pain, and angry, outraged shouts filled his ears as his fellow Death Eaters flung themselves at him, snatching his wand from him, wrenching Meghan away, pinning them both to the ground. Severus managed to get his head up long enough to look the girl in the eye, hoping she would have enough sense to drop her Occlumency for him—
Thank you for trying, he thought he heard her whisper, as a breath of magic like sweet flowers brushed past him, driving back the pain. Then her eyes widened, as though she had just recalled something, and she huddled into herself, hunching her shoulders forward—
A long-fingered hand closed crushingly around his wrist. "Et tu, Severus?" said the Dark Lord, looking down at him with a pretended sorrow in his parchment-pale face. "From Wormtail I could understand it, or even from a certain…absent friend of ours." The flare deep inside the red eyes told Severus his suspicions about Lucius Malfoy had, all but impossibly, been true. "Their connections to our enemies were real, if misguided. But what could you have in common with those who champion the unmagical herd?" The words, calm and pleasant as they seemed, heralded a ruthless thrust of Legilimency, battering at Severus's defenses. "Those who would give them a place beside us at the table, rather than kicking them beneath it to gnaw bones with the dogs?"
You wish to know, my Lord? Then I will tell you…
Releasing all his hard-won restraint, Severus flung into the Dark Lord's mind the memories he had hidden for the past sixteen years. He felt again his baffled, frustrated love for the joy-filled creature who was Lily Evans, the panic which had overwhelmed him at the realization that his tale-bearing had planted the seed of her peril, the deathly grief and loathing for himself when that peril bore fruit in her death. He watched her child grow towards manhood, surrounded by those whom he once had hated, and resented but could not stop the slow withering of that hatred, as he came to understand them better, and even, against his will, to trust and admire them.
They bring life wherever they go, life in a thousand forms. We bring death, and a thousand empty mockeries of life. The image of Nagini, caught forever in her half-decaying shape, hovered for an instant between them. As long as one of them lives, you can never win. And if you try to kill them all, you will also destroy the power you seek, and find yourself, in the end, ruling nothing but a kingdom of the dead…
"Brave words, Severus," said the Dark Lord cuttingly, snapping the connection between them and stepping back. "Brave thoughts, perhaps I should say. But words cost nothing, and thoughts even less." He drew his wand. "It is actions which give a life its worth, and your actions are those of a fool and a traitor to your cause. And I know only one punishment for such actions."
Everything slowed and sharpened, until Severus could see the green light beginning to gather at the tip of the Dark Lord's wand, sense Meghan readying herself for a lunge forward out of her captors' hands—perhaps she can escape while their attention is diverted—hear a faint yelling in the distance, growing stronger by the second—
A flicker of darkness caught his eye in the center of the cave, a bit of matter flexing and warping in the manner of a Portkey arrival, as others among the Death Eaters shouted in alarm and backed away from the spot or covered their ears against the hoarse and angry yells emanating from it—
Time regained its normal speed as the Dark Lord lowered his wand and turned away from Severus to face Amycus Carrow, now flat on his back on the floor of the cave, gasping for air as he clutched his arms against his belly. "I never," he gabbled out, his eyes wheeling in his head. "I never meddled with the Mark, never touched it—he did it, said I might as well be his owl since he's throwing me out—it's him, I tell you, he did this to me—"
"Who?" the Dark Lord demanded, snapping his wand to lift Amycus to a sitting position. "Who did this?"
Amycus opened his arms, letting the red envelope held between them fall to the floor. "Harry Potter, m'lord," he said.
A long sigh, like a breath of wind, ran through the gathered Death Eaters and fell still.
"A Howler." Lord Voldemort regarded the envelope as he might an unwelcome insect. "How juvenile. Still, we must make allowances. He is very young. Bellatrix?"
"My lord." Bella quickly levitated the Howler off the floor, and Voldemort stretched out his hand to lift the flap with one long finger.
"Good evening," said a familiar voice from the interior of the envelope. "My name is Harry Potter. I understand you've been looking for me. Why don't you come and pay me a call? Bring along some friends, if you like. We're very hospitable here at Hogwarts. Only you might have to knock a little extra loud if it's too late when you get here, so do me a favor and hurry along." An ostentatious yawn. "I always prefer to get to bed before midnight."
Under the tumult of shouting which greeted this proclamation, Severus thought he heard a quiet, female snicker. He glanced at Meghan, and saw the matching laughter sparkling in her Hermione-hazel eyes.
A challenge, bold and direct, as brash as a seventeen-year-old boy might be expected to send. And the Dark Lord will take it at face value, underestimating his enemies as he has always done. Ordinarily, I might take it upon myself to play the voice of reason, but today I find myself somehow disinclined…
"You are sure Harry Potter is at Hogwarts?" Voldemort demanded of Amycus, staring into his eyes. "There could be no mistake?"
"No, m'lord. He wasn't alone, had all his usual crowd with him, and…" Amycus winced as he exposed his Dark Mark, which looked decidedly red and raw around the edges. "He talked to the snake, m'lord, the same way you do. When he stirred up the Mark and brought it to life, he talked to it, all hissing-like. And it bit me." He pouted, looking momentarily as stupid as the Imprimatus potion had rendered his sister. "I didn't do anything."
"So Harry moves into the open at last." Voldemort sighed, a long and satisfied sound. "What a pity for him he has chosen to do it on ground which belongs to me. Bellatrix, my darling, will you begin the preparations while I attend to the unfinished business here?"
"Of course, my lord." Bellatrix genuflected, her eyes burning bright with madness, and began to snap out commands to the gathered Death Eaters, as Voldemort turned and motioned away those who had been guarding Severus and Meghan. They scurried off to both sides, and Severus pushed himself more upright, wishing he had some way to communicate with the girl—
I can hear you, whispered her voice faintly into his mind. Only when you think towards me, or about me, but I can hear you—can you hear me? Tap your left hand twice if you can.
Stifling a very inappropriate fit of laughter, Severus did so.
Oh good. A mental sigh of relief. I wasn't sure if the magic would work on you, we've only ever tried it with Pack or Pride, but I suppose since you're a Pack-friend—
Hush, Severus interrupted, and Meghan hushed with a promptness he would have found gratifying if he hadn't been able to see the other reason for it.
Lord Voldemort conjuring a stone wall between us and the rest of the world is scarcely a reason to cheer.
"I could kill you here and now." The Dark Lord regarded them both coolly, his quiet, even tones more terrifying than any snarl of fury. "But the Killing Curse is fast and painless, and you, in particular, Severus, deserve neither. So I think I shall leave you with a small token of my esteem, and allow you to provide a fitting honor guard for her, until I return in my triumph to bring her home."
He turned and pointed his wand at a spot beside him. A moment later, the small, four-legged stool which had sat beside his throne materialized there.
Atop the stool, as always, was curled the Inferius of Nagini the serpent.
"Goodbye, Severus," said Lord Voldemort, and Disapparated.
"Stay back," Professor Snape ordered, as curtly as he ever had in class, as the undead snake slithered off its stool, raising its head and flicking its tongue to taste the air. "Stay away."
"No." Meghan sketched the sign on her forehead with her thumb that she knew would dissolve the disguise spell on her, then drew her dagger. "I have a weapon. Something that can hurt it."
"It is already dead." Snape undid his robes, revealing a surprisingly Muggle-looking shirt and pair of trousers underneath, and slowly slid them off, backing away from Nagini one cautious step at a time. "A blade will hardly break the spells that bind an Inferius."
"This isn't just a dagger. There's phoenix tears inside it, for healing." Meghan tightened her grip, looking for a likely spot along Nagini's sinuous length of back. "And the best healing an Inferius could have is to be properly dead. Right?"
Snape's eyes flicked over to her and sized her up. Then he nodded once. "Wait until she strikes," he said, shaking the robes towards Nagini, who turned her head to investigate the movement. "Not yet—not yet—"
Nagini lunged, burying her fangs in the fabric of the robes. Snape flung himself on top of her, wrapping his arms around her head. "Now!" he shouted, but Meghan was already diving at the spot she'd selected, a shriek of fury coming naturally to her lips.
This is for everyone you ever, ever hurt, she growled internally, and drove the dagger home through the brittle scales. Her own magic pulsed as the tears Fawkes had given her flooded out into Nagini's convulsing body—one, two, three, four—
A hissing snarl burst from the serpent's mouth as Nagini reared up out of the swathing robes and sank her fangs into Snape's shoulder. He, too, hissed, but made no other sound, and Meghan gasped in horror, but did not release the dagger. Five, six, seven, she counted silently, pushing now with her own magic so that the tears would flow more quickly to their work of "healing" the Dark magic which held Nagini in her half-life. Eight, nine, ten. The snake was already weakening, her struggles slowing, her scales becoming dim and lusterless. Eleven, twelve—thirteen!
Triumphantly, she yanked the dagger free and bolted to Snape's side, clamping her hands down onto his arm. His face was already paper-white, his clothing below the point of the bite soaked with blood, but Nagini's venom had been designed to kill slowly and painfully, not with any eye towards stopping Healers. Her power washed through him, wiping the venom out of existence and repairing the damage it had done, and slowly his color returned, his breathing slowed and eased. Your father will hardly thank you for this, he said silently, through the channel Meghan's last blue jewel had opened for them.
He doesn't really hate you. Meghan grinned a little, as Nagini's tail gave a last few feeble twitches. He just thinks he'd look silly admitting you're not that bad after all these years, so he has to go on pretending, and you have to go on pretending, and you probably both always will, unless something else happens—
Look out! Snape shouted, and tried to push her aside, but his arms were still weak.
For the second time that day, Meghan felt the sting of a snakebite on her hand.
"Idiot child." Severus kicked the snake's head away from the girl, snarling under his breath when it fell to the floor with the limp lifelessness of the corpse it should long ago have been. Of course, now, now it dies, now that it has completed what I am sure was its Master's last command, to bite us both. But there may still be hope…
"Meghan," he said in his best tone of command, reaching down to roll her onto her back from where she had crumpled onto the floor. "Meghan, listen to me."
"'Kay," came the whispered answer, spoken with a great effort.
"You must heal yourself." Severus reached out to take the girl's hand into his. "Do you understand me? It is your only chance. You must heal yourself."
"Can't." The small head shook weakly back and forth. "Doesn't work…"
Explain, Severus demanded, returning to the silent speech of thought so as not to overtax the girl. Why not?
I don't think I'm strong enough to make it work. Meghan's eyes were closing. And even if I was, if I Heal myself with the Ravenclaw power, I'll burn it out and never have it again—
"You stupid girl!" Anger lending him new strength, Severus caught Meghan by the shoulders and shook her roughly. "Listen to yourself! Will you value your power more than your very life? More than the people who love you, who are terrified for you, who would give anything to see you return to them safely, with or without the precious power you so treasure? If you let this happen for no better reason than pride, then you are forever unworthy of the name you bear, Meghan Lily Black!"
With a great effort, Meghan opened her silver eyes, and looked searchingly up into his face.
Then her breath shuddered out of her, and she sank limply against Severus's arms.
"No." Severus gathered the girl against him, cradling her as once he had cradled her namesake, shaking in grief at this second failure to save something brilliant and bright and beautiful. "No. No, please, no…"
Then, through the blurring of tears, he saw it, and scrubbed his eyes roughly to stare in disbelief.
Pulsing at the level of Meghan's heart, growing stronger every second, a blue light had begun to shine.
Far away, in a deserted house in London, a sluggishly bleeding wound silently knit itself together. The person whose arm had been healed drew a long, slow breath, and smiled to feel the warmth of the hand in which the formerly injured one was cradled.
A prophecy of long ago had finally come to pass.
And that prophecy is referenced in the title of the next chapter, "The Place of Honor", which will be up next week around this time.
Sorry for the brief author's note, but I need to eat and run as it's a Holy Day and I haven't yet been to Mass. Thanks as always for reading, please don't forget to review, and see you next time! Ten chapters to go!
And no, I haven't forgotten about Corona and Brian, or about Elladora. You'll find out more about them next chapter. Promise.
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