With one firm tug, he replaced Tura's head onto his shoulder. She harrumphed, but settled back down for a few more seconds. "Lazy," she noted. "Time to get moving."
Harry stretched, yawning enormously. "In a hurry?"
She smirked and kissed his collarbone. "Come on. We can't just snuggle all day--gotta save the world, remember?" Tura sat up but Harry quickly rolled against her back and wrapped his arms tightly about her waist before she could stand. She made a frustrated sigh that fooled no one and began playing with his hair. "You slug," she sneered.
He chuckled. "Mm-hmm. And you're a poor, helpless captive of the giant slug, forced against your will to loaf all day." That earned him a rather hard slap on the side of his rump, followed by an unconvincing struggle which ended with both of them coccooned once more in the covers. A bird settled outside the entrance to the cave and regaled them with a long, rambling song.
"I'm so scared, Harry," Tura whispered.
He continued quietly nuzzling the top of her head. "I guess I can't really believe it. My whole life has led up to this day, yet the birds are out there singing just like always. And you're here," he added. "How can this possibly be the worst day of my life?"
A cool teardrop landed on his chest, then another, but she made no sound or other sign of crying. There was nothing he could say to comfort her, and somehow he knew there was no need to try. He just held on to her, marveling once again at how pale his own hand looked against her brown skin.
After a while, the tears stopped sprinkling onto him, then she spoke. "No matter what happens, I'll be with you to the end." She pushed up on her elbow to gaze into his eyes. "No matter what. Hear me?"
He smiled. "Then I can't be afraid."
Leaving behind what little camping gear they'd carried, Harry and Tura crept cautiously through the forest. The surroundings began to look familiar to Harry; he noticed a particular gnarled tree that Draco had observed when he'd passed this way. They were very close to the encampment, and eyed each other apprehensively as they paused beneath the cover of evergreen branches. Where were the Dementors supposedly guarding the place?
"Not even the chill of them," muttered Tura, frowning.
"You don't suppose he's moved since Bellatrix was captured?"
She frowned. "Anything's possible. Though it's hard to imagine a better spot to defend! Better to make a stand here than run."
The trees came abruptly to an end at a marsh of tall grasses and shallow, stagnant water. A year earlier, as Draco had stared at a cloud of insects, Snape had chanted an incantation to raise a dry path through the muck, but such luxury could not be afforded for this passage. Tura groaned. "Man, I'd give anything to snake out for this part. We're about to become bug chow, Harry."
"Hooray," he grumbled.
"And watch your step," she added before setting off into the teeming water. "This is where he keeps his Inferi, though they don't seem to be around either."
A rush of memories: the black lake in the cave beside the sea, the Atrium of the Ministry of Magic after Voldemort's assault, Draco recoiling from the edge of the bridge after glimpsing a face in the water. Harry tried to yank Tura back to terra firmer, but she had already waded out of reach. "They'll be under the water!" he hissed.
"Ya think?" Tura hissed back, waving frantically at the flies already swarming hungrily about her face. "It's only a few inches deep, you goofbutt. If something does reach up and pull you under, all you gotta do is roll over." She gave him a final smirk and trudged on through the grasses. What else could he do? Harry glowered one last time at the water with pure loathing, then plodded in after her.
The water itself never grew much deeper than his ankles, it was true, but the muck beneath it went considerably further down. They made slow progress slogging through the marsh, sinking knee deep in mud with every step. "Oh, sure, it's all slick and slippery when you put your foot IN," Harry observed sullenly, "but pull up and it hangs on for dear life. I feel like a nail walking through magnets."
"Nice image," panted Tura, whose shorter legs routinely disappeared to mid-thigh. She halted with a squelchy sound, and tiny bubbles pipped on the surface of the sludge. "Have I mentioned how much I hate seaweed?" She pulled a stringy mass of algae from around her knee and tossed it with an unskilled flail, eager to get it off her hand. "Yeurgh."
"The sea's hundreds of miles from here," Harry noted brightly, earning The Hairy Eyeball.
After an interminable walk, the reeds thinned, and Tura signalled for a halt with a wave of her hand. "There," she said as both of them took a few involuntary steps backward. Voldemort's keep stood not a hundred yards away, a scabby, colorless building in the center of the green meadow. They exchanged a glance and a thought: Too quiet. Harry uneasily reminded himself that real monsters didn't lurk in stealth as people crossed their swamps, in order to jump out and devour them only inches from safety. Real monsters were far too impatient for that sort of thing, and didn't truck with abstractions like irony when supper was at stake.
Lunatics, however... Harry lurched remarkably quickly through the silt and pressed protectively against Tura's back, wand in hand. "I'm thinking this is all the 'take him by surprise' we're going to get," he whispered.
Tura shook her head impatiently. "Oh, for Pete's sake, Harry, even Voldie isn't trite enough for some stupid "you shall not leave the swamp" trick. That only happens in bad Muggle movies--"
Harry cut her off in mid-pontification by squeezing her hard around the waist, then tossed a tangle of algae toward the bank. The lump disintegrated with a red flash as it crossed what passed for the "shore." He peered down his nose at the girl.
"Huh," she said, then after a pause, "I stand corrected."
Now what? Harry was once again reminded of the events one year prior, in which he and Dumbledore stood in a hidden cave at the seaside and solved riddles to get inside. Riddles. "Talking of triteness," he said aloud. To Tura's questioning gaze, he shook his head, righteously annoyed. "Okay, think about it," he continued. "If I was a dark lord and wanted to be left alone, I'd just set up the deadliest sorts of wards around everything. Step too close and pffft.." Harry made a slashing motion across his throat for emphasis.
"But that's not how he does it at all. He's always showing you how terribly clever he is. He doesn't just hide away his treasures, he anticipates that you'll find it someday. That's why he has all these little traps ready for you. He wants you to find his Cave of Mysteries, so you can fail his challenge and leave empty-handed--and go back to all your friends and tell them how he beat you. How you got so close, but just couldn't get past the hidden door, or the lake of Inferi."
"Or the force field in the swamp," Tura added, nodding. "You're right, Harry; he's the ultimate drama queen. If I was serious about my Horcrux, I'd rig things up so anyone who got within half a mile of it would go up in smoke, plain and simple. If they were good enough to get that close, they wouldn't live to tell about it."
"Exactly!" said Harry. "Same here! But if you don't let them survive to tell the tales, then how will everyone know how 'great' you are? Pathetic," he spat.
"Word," said Tura absently, peering intently at the bog's edge. "But setting aside the insights for the moment, how are we gonna get out of this godawful swamp?"
Harry flicked his wand meaningfully. "Time for magic, I'd say."
She whapped him smartly on the wrist in disagreement (conveniently killing several mosquitoes in the process). "Typical. Can we maybe try brains first? Hmm? I think between the two of us, we might be able to outsmart him."
Harry rolled his eyes, but grinned. "As long as we do it before these mosquitos bleed us to death."
"Working on it," Tura said, frowning thoughtfully. She waded in a little circle for a few minutes, then piped up. "I didn't really go over the end of Draco's hike. Do you remember whether he or Snape said any sort of password to get past this ward when they were here?"
Harry closed his eyes and searched Draco's memories... that is, his memories of Draco's memories. He shuddered internally; this was exactly the sort of convoluted reasoning he used to find spooky about Tura. "No. But the spell to raise the land bridge was pretty long; maybe that was part of the incantation."
"Maybe," she said. "But I wonder. Because wards generally have to be raised by the one who made them, not by someone who wants to get through. That's sorta the whole point." She took a hard look at the keep, then glanced at the nondescript reeds nearby. "I'm thinking that unless he wanted to constantly answer the doorbell, he'd have to leave a little entrance."
Harry recalled once again that fateful night his sixth year, as he rode a broom with Dumbledore while the old man opened his wards around Hogwarts as fast as he could say the Charms. He too, began to scan the surroundings, looking for familiar angles and landmarks. "He could have set someone else up as the doorman."
"True," Tura sighed. "But that would mean giving someone else control over who gets in. And THAT would mean trusting someone. I'm thinking hidden doorway, myself. A gateway--just without the actual gate."
This was a real head-scratcher, and not just because of the midges attacking his scalp. Harry finally said, "I suppose at this point, the wards are mostly symbolic anyway. It's not like he expects anyone to get this close. Leaving a little doorway makes sense--he could always shut it later, if he needed to." He began to wade purposefully toward the north; Snape and Draco had "come ashore" further behind the keep.
They reached a point that looked vaguely familiar and tried the "seaweed test" again, with another flash of red. "Don't do that anymore, if you can help it," said Tura. "If anyone notices a bunch of flashes closing in on the doorway, that whole surprise thing will go bye-bye."
"Better it than me," Harry grumbled. A blazing magical entrance through the wards was looking better and better with each mosquito bite.
They ended up ascribing a wide arc along the northern edge of the swamp and doubling back again before the sun glinted in a familiar way off an upper-floor wall of the barracks. "It's got to be right around here," Harry said, scooping up a glob of bog scum. Before he could test the wards, however, Tura simply scrambled onto the sloping bank. "What are you doing?" he hissed in fury.
"You were right," she said infuriatingly, beckoning him to follow.
"And if I wasn't?"
She pointed smugly at the ground. "Footprints, Sherlock." Sure enough, now that she mentioned it, it was quite obvious that the grass had been trampled down all along this part of the bank, and a weak trail led up the slope toward the keep.
"Almost looks like an evacuation route," she muttered, glancing around at the extent of the flattened grass. "Geez, Harry, maybe you're right--maybe he split when Bella didn't come home. I hope this hasn't all been for nothing!" They began creeping up the bank.
Laying prone just below the top of the bank, and peeking cautiously through the meadow, what remained of their bravado quickly turned to raw anxiety. They were far too close to miss any activity around the keep, yet it was still as a tomb. "Ambush?" hissed Tura.
"Feels that way," he whispered back. He set his hand on her arm. Somebody has to blink, Tura. Might as well be us.
"All right," she said aloud, though softly. "I'm out front." Tightening her jaw, she leapt to her feet and promptly marched toward the barracks. Harry nearly dashed after her; he'd meant to at least say some sort of proper goodbye, but as usual, she was too bloody impulsive to let him. Instead, Harry swore briefly under his breath.
"Be careful, love," he whispered plaintively a minute later.
She was halfway to the barracks, striding quickly and purposefully, an easy target from any angle. Three-quarters of the way. Harry scanned the grounds ahead of her, around her, even flipping onto his back to check the bog behind them. Nothing! Impossible! If this was an ambush, it was being perfectly executed; they weren't taking the bait, and instead they were using Tura to force him out in the open. She reached the building itself, following the trail to the eastern side. In a few seconds she would round the corner and disappear.
"Enough of this," Harry muttered, bolting after her.
There was no point in trying to be stealthy. The meadow grasses, though thick, were far too short to provide any sort of cover, even if he were to crawl. Harry raced along the matted trail, wishing he had his Invisibility Cloak. A few seconds later he realized he might as well have Disillusioned himself--whether Voldemort detected his use of magic or simply looked out a window and saw him was immaterial at this point.
Tura disappeared smartly around the corner, unaware that he was trying to catch up. She hadn't looked back at him once. Of course not, mused Harry, she wanted to look like she'd come here alone. Undoubtedly planning on spewing the same lame story about coming back to Daddy that she used on ME last night. Harry snorted at the very thought. As if there's any point in stalling for time now. We're at the end of the road.
He stopped at the edge of the barracks, listening briefly for any sounds of struggle. Peeking around the corner, he saw Tura peer suspiciously through the main door, already open. Before he could call out to her, however, she stomped inside.
This was insane. How could she POSSIBLY have opened the front door and flounced right into Voldemort's fortress? It MUST be a trap--there was simply no other explanation! Harry pressed his back against the stone wall and thought furiously about what to do. If he followed her, he might also be trapped, but if he stayed behind... Merlin only knew what danger she was facing. Alone.
Straightening to his full height, he pushed off the wall and sprinted all the way to the entrance, plunging through it into darkness without slowing.
After the bright sunlight, he was as good as blind inside. Harry skidded to an abrupt halt, and though he whipped his head wildly about, he could see nothing beyond the patch of light at the doorway. "Lum--" he began, but caught himself. Lighting his wand would make it even easier for his enemies to see him in the dark, but he didn't need light to find them. No more stealth, he reminded himself, and dropped the shields of Occlumency, letting his magic reach every corner of the room.
He was completely alone.
Harry swore and lit his wand after all. What was going ON? He'd prepared himself mentally for any sort of assault or attack, but not NOTHING. He began to shiver, more out of anger than fear, but it was uncomfortable nonetheless. As soon as his eyes adjusted to the weak wandlight, Harry spotted an even darker hallway on the far wall. She must've gone there, he reckoned, and darted after Tura without further delay.
Charging down the hall and through the first door he encountered, Harry found himself face to face with Severus Snape.
Tura and Snape were both there, staring at each other with their mouths open. For an instant he thought they must have Stunned one another, they were so still. That alone was enough to flood him with rage, but when Tura blinked and shook her head, the realization that she was unhurt and unhexed didn't calm him in the slightest. This was SNAPE! Dumbledore's murderer, standing right there in Voldemort's lair, protecting his precious Dark Lord.
Harry now understood why there was no defense against the Killing Curse; it was set into motion before the words were spoken. He peered into Snape's eyes, feeling the spell build between them, knowing with pure certainty that this time, it would work. Snape was a dead man. Out of habit rather than necessity, Harry raised his wand.
A blinding flash of green light erupted from his wand, his hand, his scar; the rebound slammed him backwards into the stone wall. He heard Horace Slughorn's words as clearly as if the man were standing beside him: "Killing rips the soul apart. Splitting it is an act of violation, it is against nature." There was nothing natural about what was happening within him now. Slughorn couldn't have described it more accurately.
It was not physically painful. There was no blood, no insult to his flesh, but Harry screamed in agony at the terrible despair. It was worse than a hundred dementors, for though they tried to pull away hope and cheer, he could defend himself with his Patronus. But now Harry himself was rending his soul and casting it away, a deliberate act of his own will. His hands were black, heavy, fumbling; he was helpless to stop the loss. An unbearable wrenching, a flash of green light, and it was done. Harry was maimed, broken, beyond repair. He was a murderer.
Blinded, limp, he slid down the damp stone wall behind him. Harry remained conscious, but barely so. His body and mind were reeling at finding themselves incomplete, and he felt the remainder of his essence spreading, thinning, filling the vacuum left by the lost portion. He realized he had stopped breathing, and willed himself to cough, to force his shattered soul to carry on the business of life.
As his senses returned, Harry became aware of a strange sound. Laughter? It seemed like laughter, then more like choking. It was an ugly sound, but not malicious--on the contrary, it sounded sincere and heartfelt. Harry found the strength to raise his head in the direction of the sound.
Snape knelt on the stone floor, cradling Tura's lifeless body in his arms, violent sobs racking his thin frame. A brilliant red mark shaped like a bolt of lightning stretched from the crown of his head to the end of his nose, where it forked and continued down both sides of his face.
Harry's head fell back to the floor. He lacked either the strength or will to move again. That couldn't be true. It was a trick, some sort of hallucination left by his departing soul as punishment for his deed. He opened his eyes. The scene had not changed. But it couldn't be real. I'm dreaming, he tried to shout, but only a croak escaped his lips: "I..."
Snape raised his head. "Why?" he said, misunderstanding Harry's mangled voice. "Why do I live? Why is she dead? Or, why are you not writhing under my Cruciatus curse, Potter?"
Harry would not have phrased it quite that way, but Snape had covered most of the questions budding in his mind at the moment. He nodded feebly. Snape looked down at Tura's forehead, then up again with an expression that Harry had never seen on him before, one Harry would typically call horror, but he could not fathom what it meant on Snape.
"It's because we're soldiers, Potter," he said quietly. "Pawns. Ants. We exist to carry out a plan. We do things we don't understand. But we have faith in the plan. We believe in the great minds that laid it out, because we know we don't grasp all the nuances, only our narrow view. We can't predict what... sacrifices--" Snape choked back a sob, "--must be made." He broke down in tears again, pulling Tura tightly to his chest.
Harry thought one of them must have gone mad, but he wasn't sure if it was Snape or himself. He realized he must hold himself together--he could not afford to yeild to shock or grief. Not now, not yet. He needed to keep his wits about him to complete what he'd set out to do. As he'd done many times at Hogwarts, he Occluded the part of himself that wanted to scream at the sight before his eyes, and settled into a dispassionate, if temporary, calm.
He watched in disbelief as Snape rocked her, keening, as though he could somehow bring her back to life by comforting the empty shell of her body. It dawned on Harry that Voldemort would be enraged to learn that his daughter was dead, that yet another prize was now beyond his grasp, that Snape had allowed this to happen. That must be it. Snape couldn't possibly be grieving, he's crying in fear for his own skin. Harry struggled to move, to find his wand, perhaps Conjure some ropes. He wasn't sure exactly what had preserved Snape or what his strange new mark meant, but he didn't dare try the Killing Curse on him again.
Snape finally set the body down, gently closing her eyes and placing her hands by her sides. He staggered over to Harry and flopped roughly beside him. Harry mentally braced for the worst, still far too drained to fight. Snape wrenched Harry's hands behind his back and bound them, then seized Harry's wand from the ground and tucked it inside his robe. "Get up," he snarled. "The Dark Lord awaits you."
As he struggled to find his feet, Snape yanked him up unceremoniously by the scruff of his neck. To his surprise, Harry found that he could walk once he got his balance. He was shoved wordlessly down the dark hallway, then through an archway on the left. Green torches flickered on the walls, reminding him of the blue candles in the Department of Mysteries. This room, like the rest of the keep, was empty.
"Where is everyone?" Harry asked in a gravelly voice, which prompted him to cough rather hard. It seemed his broken soul was still having trouble remembering to breathe properly. Snape glared at him with contempt but did not answer. Reckoning that he had little to gain by being courteous, Harry pressed on. "Don't tell me Voldemort's great Dark Army is just you and him!"
Snape suddenly grabbed his bound wrists and flung him toward the center of the room. Harry had no hope of keeping his balance, but he arched his neck upward to keep from landing face-first on the cobblestone floor. It helped, though he still smacked his chin hard against the stones. Thankful that he hadn't bitten his tongue, he took a deep breath and raised his head for a look around.
He had landed at the edge of what was obviously the "hot seat," a circle of glassy stones like rose quartz in the middle of the otherwise bland floor. Ignoring the ache in his jaw, he commented, "Pink! Nice. Very girly."
"On your knees," said Snape in a low hiss, pulling him up by the hair this time and dragging him into the middle of the circle.
"Snape!" squeaked an unpleasant voice from the doorway. "The master thought you'd be playing with his toy. You're to hand him over."
Snape regarded the speaker with disbelief, then said fiercely, "He would not deny me the right to watch Potter die."
"I never said you had to leave," said Peter Pettigrew sourly as he stepped into Harry's line of sight. "But I'm guarding him. The Dark Lord wants to torture him by himself; you can stand back and watch, as you say."
Snape narrowed his eyes. "You're bluffing."
Pettigrew straightened up haughtily. "Fine! See what he says when he arrives."
Snape looked back and forth nervously between Harry and Pettigrew, clearly unwilling to give up his prize but unable to risk that Wormtail might be telling the truth. He finally set his jaw and leaned down to whisper in Harry's ear. "I'm not going anywhere, Potter. Remember that."
Snape stepped back and gave Wormtail a withering glare, but the little man only wrinkled his sharp nose smugly. He stepped into the circle and Conjured some black ropes, which wound of their own accord all around Harry, squeezing him far tighter than the leather straps Snape had used to bind him. Harry had been bound by Wormtail's magic before, in the graveyard after the Third Task in the Triwizard Tournament. He knew there was no use wasting his energy on the coils, but working at the straps at least gave him something else to think about.
"So, Wormtail," Harry began, but before he could finish the insult, Wormtail clamped his silver hand over Harry's mouth, forcing a metallic finger between his lips.
"Open, or I'll knock them down your throat," said Wormtail, tapping Harry's front teeth meaningfully. Harry jerked his head back in alarm, instantly wishing he'd kept quiet. The thought of having his teeth broken out here, miles from any Healer, made his skin break out in goosebumps. Very hesitatingly, Harry dropped his jaw. Pettigrew immediately thrust a metal finger as far into Harry's mouth as it would go, choking him.
"I've been told to keep you silent, boy," said Wormtail viciously, wriggling his finger to make Harry gag harder. "I can't let you drown in your own vomit, but I can certainly get close. Now breathe." He pulled his finger back and just this once, Harry did as he was told, drawing in fresh air through his nose, willing his throat to relax, settle. Having his breath stolen like that was almost worse than the Cruciatus Curse. Though not nearly as painful, it had a deadly primal terror all its own.
"Do not make a sound without the Master's permission," Wormtail said, sweeping the finger across Harry's tongue one more time to make his point. Not that there was much danger of him speaking until the spasms in his throat calmed down.
At that point, a cold white light flicked on overhead, illuminating the pink circle in which he knelt. Harry realized for the first time that the mortar between the smooth stones was brownish-red with old, dried blood. Probably Draco Malfoy's, he mused flatly. The light within the circle was so bright that he could no longer see the rest of the room. Harry scoffed, or would have if Wormtail's hand hadn't been over his mouth; this was exactly the sort of melodramatic entrance he expected of Voldemort.
On impulse, Harry bit down hard on Wormtail's metal finger to brace himself. Pulling up with his neck, back, and shoulders, he managed to bring his feet under his body. Wormtail was too surprised to push him down, but he did not lift his hand to follow Harry's motion, either. Harry ended up stuck in an awkward crouch, balanced against Pettigrew's hand, but at least he would not meet Voldemort on his knees. Well, I gave it a good shot, he thought, waiting for his feet to be kicked out from under him.
Voldemort's robes rustled as he walked about the room. He was moving slowly, perhaps wary of some trick. Take your time, old man, Harry projected, hoping that Voldemort would hear it even though they had not yet made eye contact.
There was a scoffing sound somewhere to the right. Score, Harry thought, but he kept that Occluded.
It sounded like Voldemort settled into a chair, and Harry imagined (and projected) the popping crackle of arthritic knees. This was almost better than talking out loud; his insults could include visuals and sound effects.
"What news of the front?" Voldemort inquired coldly. Of course, thought Harry, I'm far too unimportant to be first thing on the agenda.
Wormtail, his arm growing weary from bearing Harry's weight, piped up immediately. "Excellent, my lord; the Dementors are returning, and the Order is all but wiped out--"
"Severus, the truth," said Voldemort dismissively. Can't lie to a liar, thought Harry wryly.
Wormtail was taken aback; he had assumed the Dark Lord wanted to demoralize the prisoner. Snape spoke up right away. "We hold our own, though not without losses. The Order have been fighting relentlessly, presumably to distract you so this one could approach."
So THAT was Plan B. Harry's belly felt as though a lead weight had just dropped through it from top to bottom, but he steeled himself and flicked his brow as casually as he could manage. Worked, too, didn't it? he projected.
"There are losses on both sides, of course?"
"Of course, my lord."
"Any names that will be meaningful to the prisoner?"
Snape cleared his throat. "Yes, my lord. Bill Weasley. Charlie Weasley. Fred Weasley." Harry felt as though the blood was draining from him. "Rubeus Hagrid. Alastor Moody. Nymphadora Tonks."
"What of the girl he's so fond of?"
"Ginevra Weasley lives, though just barely. She was burned alive. Her arms were so charred, they broke off when they attempted to move her."
It took all of Harry's strength to keep his emotions clamped in.
"Encouraging," said Voldemort lazily. "However, we ought to try not to kill the ladies just yet. Men who lose their lovers fight harder, both for vengeance and because they feel they've lost everything worth living for."
Snape coughed. "Indeed," he said in a raspy voice.
"That reminds me, Severus," said Voldemort with cold curiosity, "did I just hear you weeping?"
"My lord, there has been a... tragic loss."
"Really? On the eve of victory? Do tell."
There was a long pause before Snape said shakily, "Miss Ondossi was with Potter. She is dead."
Feet slammed onto the floor. "How?"
"I don't know."
I killed her. Under your roof.
"Wormtail," said Voldemort, his voice deepening with menace, "you may as well let Potter speak, he is bent on screeching with his mind." Pettigrew reluctantly dropped his hand and Harry, to his great relief, could finally stand up straight. The red eyes drew closer. "You seem eager to explain what happened," said Voldemort.
Harry glared defiantly at the glowing eyes and said nothing. He braced himself for the Cruciatus curse, leaning ever so slightly toward Wormtail in the hopes of cushioning the inevitable fall.
"Potter... I am asking you about my daughter. Do not play games." Voldemort stated it so simply that Harry was taken aback; the absence of menace in his tone felt more threatening than ever.
Harry suddenly recalled the way Dumbledore had once criticized Sirius for his callous disregard of Kreacher. Is it possible Voldemort honestly cared about her? Harry realized that it didn't matter what Voldemort felt, because he didn't want to belittle Tura's death by speaking of it with disrespect. Not even to the monster that fathered her.
Harry raised himself to his full height. "I was trying to kill Snape," he said quietly. "He diverted the curse onto her somehow, probably something like my own mother did. Look at him, he's marked now, like me."
The glowing eyes turn toward Snape, but apparently it was too dark for Voldemort to confirm Harry's claim. The torches flared suddenly, filling the room with warm, yellow light. Snape touched his face tentatively with his fingertips, clearly uncertain whether to believe Harry, but when he looked up at Voldemort, he saw that it must be true.
Voldemort walked over to him, studying the mark with intense curiosity. "Interesting," was all he said.
He eyed Harry thoughtfully, then paced a few more steps. "Interesting," he repeated. Harry shook his head in disgust. So much for the idea of breaking him with the painful news, he thought. Voldemort's appeal for decency had been just another ploy.
"My beloved daughter," mused Voldemort, in a tone that was neither mournful nor affectionate. "She was an experiment that failed rather miserably, I'm afraid. Though she did prove useful up until now." He sneered angrily and shot a vicious look at Snape.
He finally fixed his gaze upon Harry. "I think she should join us." He pointed his wand to the stone archway and said, disdainfully, "Accio Strumpet!"
Harry put on quite a show of disbelief. "'Strumpet?' Did you really just say 'strumpet?' You date yourself, old man."
Voldemort threw Harry a hateful glare just as Tura's corpse hurtled into the room, pointing headfirst like an arrow and stopping in front of his wand. He regarded her coldly for a few seconds, then flicked his wand upward. She dropped like a stone, twisting into a grotesque heap at his feet. Voldemort spun to face Harry.
"Yes, strumpet! I see she's filthy with your seed, Mudblood, though obviously it will never bloom--and for that I am genuinely grateful."
That went through him like a sledgehammer, but Harry refused to let the pain show. Voldemort wrinkled what was left of his forehead, obviously searching for his reaction. Harry stared at him defiantly, very nearly blurting out a biting comment about the Horcrux he'd displaced. He held his tongue, though, knowing full well that Voldemort was trying even now to decide if the Horcrux still inhabited her body. That was comforting--now Voldemort had something to sweat over. Harry raised his chin insolently.
When his gaze passed over Snape, the bravado slipped.
There was no mistaking the mixture of hatred and jealousy in Snape's expression. Harry bristled with indignant rage--how dare Snape even imagine himself with her? As though she was some sort of chattel, a prize he could own by currying her father's favor!
Voldemort gazed between them with a surprised expression, then threw his head back with laughter. "What's this? Severus! Have you been colluding with my daughter behind my back?" His laughter actually sounded genuine, and it lasted for some time. He finally glanced disdainfully at Pettigrew. "Wormtail, pay attention."
"Ah, Severus," he continued, strolling to Snape's side, his voice surprisingly congenial. "You're so treacherous! Tell me, did you somehow contrive to make her fall in love with you? Did you plot with her to steal her father's throne, like the miserable Muggle kings of old?" Snape didn't answer, staring straight ahead as though his eyes were boring through the opposite wall. Voldemort laughed again. "And you kept it from me... for how long, I wonder? Never mind, I must hear this tale in full, later, when I have time to appreciate it."
"Do you see, Wormtail--" he threw Pettigrew another withering glare, making sure he was watching, "--what sort of man rises to the top of my ranks? Exemplary service, coupled with audacious deceit. It can be so frustrating! Yet it is a necessary product of cunning. A leader must be ambitious, unafraid to take initiative." He gently stroked Snape's cheek. "But sadly, those same traits inevitably lead each and every one of them to test me." With that, Voldemort raked open the new, raw mark on Snape's face from top to bottom with clawed fingers. Snape shuddered but stood his ground.
Voldemort sighed. "And as usual, I must let it pass. I can hardly kill you for acting precisely the way you are meant to."
Now he cast his gaze on Harry. "You, on the other hand..." He returned silently to his seat. "You will die today, Potter, of that there is no question. But I've been giving this a great deal of thought."
He appraised Harry through narrow eyes. "I must adopt a unique approach with you. Our last tete-a-tete proved that my choice of wands has put me at a disadvantage. You see, I have spoken at length with a fellow named Ollivander, whom I believe you knew. He was an expert on wands and the Priori Incantatem effect. I have learned that this effect is both powerful and unpredictable. It would be foolish to attempt to kill you in an arena where mere chance could foil me. Particularly since you have managed to stack the deck in your favor."
Harry rolled his eyes and sniffed derisively. "Now that's funny, that you would suggest I'm a cheater."
"Idiot!" snapped Voldemort, with equal derision. He stared quizzically at Harry, then spoke very softly. "I never guessed you were too dim to grasp the plans that your betters designed for you." He closed his eyes and turned his head briefly, his face screwed up in disgust. "I don't pity my enemies, but I join their shame in their pathetic champion."
Every hair on his body tingled. He had no idea what Voldemort was going on about, but he knew that this was not mere goading. Harry had missed something very important, something that could give him an advantage, that would have given it, but instead, the advantage was all Voldemort's. For the first time since he entered the compound, Harry was genuinely afraid.
Voldemort knew it. He regarded Harry evenly, reappraising him. Harry suddenly needed to vomit, but forced himself to breathe deeply through his nose as he had earlier. His mind began to race, spurred by adrenaline into keen focus, bent on survival. Okay, he got me there, he told himself. But it's all right, he'll be cocky, less cautious. Voldemort was speaking again but Harry blocked him out, forcing himself to focus on what Voldemort had said earlier, to find that advantage he'd missed.
He had mentioned the Priori effect. That was after the Triwizard Cup, Harry thought. We duelled, and our wands locked, and then those ghost things came out of them. A new surge of adrenaline went through him. The ghosts came out, and fought him, and they can do it again! Harry knew he was on to something, but he didn't have it all yet. He spared one brief, longing thought for Hermione and her ironclad reasoning, but he had no time to waste wishing for her to be there.
He closed his eyes for a moment and forced himself to recall the next thing Voldemort had said. "...an arena where mere chance could foil me." He vividly remembered the bizarre golden web that had encased them during the battle in the graveyard, the beads of light that passed between their wands. I don't know exactly how I pushed them back into his wand, Harry thought. Maybe it was just chance. I got lucky that time; he might this time, but so could I again. Harry's chest began to ache, he was taking too much time, but again, he forced himself to breathe, to hold back the panic.
What did it mean, "stacking the deck?" Harry knew that was the linchpin, yet had no idea what it referred to. He had to go slower, think through the implications, line them up until they made sense. He says I've stacked the deck, Harry thought. Literally, that means I've taken the good cards and set them aside. I can deal them to myself if I need a better hand. What good cards? At that point, the analogy fell apart--the "good cards" could be anything. No! Not anything. He was talking about the arena, the ghosts. He means that I've stacked the deck with... good ghosts. All the people he's killed since then, they'd fight on my side, all the people I've killed--
Tura had tried so hard to incite him to kill her. She'd been furious when he spared her in the cave. Up until now, he had assumed she wanted him to kill the Horcrux within her, even though it meant that she would die too. Once she was free of the Horcrux, there was no need for her to die, yet she had hurled herself before the Kedavra curse. I'll be with you to the end, she had said. No matter what.
Suddenly it all made sense. Love was the only thing that could defeat the Killing Curse, not any of Snape's treachery. She'd intended all along to die by Harry's wand. She made sure that, if luck failed Harry in the final battle, if beads of light slid into his wand and forced out a smoky spectre, it would be hers. She had thrown away her life, on a 50-50 chance that he would need her helping hand when he was beyond all others' reach.
Harry looked down at her crumpled body and burst into tears.
Voldemort stopped short, regarding him in the cool, calculating way of a spider examining a fly in its web. He clearly believed the battle was already over, that Harry had broken in terror and would be begging for mercy as soon as he caught his breath. He even tossed Snape an arrogant smirk, as if to affirm that the real entertainment was about to begin. He swaggered back to stand before Harry, and spoke in a voice like poisoned silk.
"It hurts, dear boy, doesn't it? You can finally see it. Your friends have made you a sacrificial lamb, hoping desperately to barter a few more hours of life for their own selfish skins. Oh, how they encouraged you, professed their faith, their love... but they sent you to me on a fool's errand. They never even told you the plan, did they? Because they knew you would refuse them when you saw how flimsy it was!
"So much betrayal, discovered far too late, a lifetime of deceit... Tell me, Harry, would you renounce them if you could? Would you trade them for your own life, now that you understand?" The red eyes gleamed.
Harry allowed Voldemort to ramble on, registering his words automatically, but caring nothing about their meaning. Tura died to make sure he would not be alone in the final battle. His mother died to make sure he would reach it. His father and Dumbledore: They didn't fall, they laid themselves down willingly. They believed in him, they knew he would not fail them. There was no greater love than what they had given him, and Harry wept with the realization that he had been so very lucky to receive it. It was time to show his worth.
Harry shook the last tears from his eyes, and when he spoke, his voice was free of rancor or bitterness, the voice of hope itself. "I do understand. I understand that in your fear of the Prophecy, you set this all in motion. You came after me because you thought you could crush me like a fly. How could a child, a baby, overpower you? It was impossible! But it happened; it happened again and again. Do you know why, Tom?"
Voldemort's eyes widened; Harry had said his name in a calm, sure voice reminiscent of Dumbledore's. "It's because I was never, ever fighting you alone."
Harry turned to Wormtail. He cast his meaning effortlessly into his captor's mind, not wasting time with words. I spared your life once, Peter Pettigrew. That is a debt of mercy you will now repay. Aloud, he said, "Release me."
Pettigrew's eyes were fixed on Voldemort, and though his face twisted in horror, his limbs moved of their own accord, dropping the ropes and flicking his wand to Vanish them as neatly as he'd Conjured them earlier. A terrified moan shriveled into a squeal as Pettigrew transformed into a rat, his silver hand dropping to the floor with a clank. The rat scurried madly away along the base of the wall, jerking and tripping over the stump of its front paw.
Harry wasn't concerned if Wormtail escaped or not. He returned his attention to Voldemort, gazing at him for a moment, his face serene. "It's over, Tom."
Voldemort took a step backward. Harry could see fear mounting behind his eyes, but no hint of surrender. Voldemort took a measured breath, glowering at Harry. "You guessed the plan, then, Potter? That when I engaged you, the golems from either of our wands would side with you against me. But as I said, I recognized that problem long ago. I've had a long time to plan a novel solution."
He slowly circled Harry, who turned on his heel carefully to face Voldemort straight on. "It wouldn't do," Voldemort said, "to duel with you in the time-honored way, wand to wand. And yet I have a reputation to maintain, Potter. I can simply destroy insignificant pests--like that one you brought to the graveyard, for example--but not you.
"You've seen my captains, how they secretly scheme against me." Voldemort glared at Snape. "I cannot let them imagine that I have any weakness. They've studied you, Potter, and many believe that you hold the key to their own ascent to power. Thus it isn't enough for you to fall, you see. They must know you were defeated. When my prophesied nemesis succumbs to me, it will extinguish any hope that they could best me themselves.
"Do you see my dilemma, Potter? Duelling is impossible, thanks to a freakish fluke of our wands. But I can't simply strip you defenseless and kill you in cold blood. I must make you an example! I must prove definitively that I can't be defeated, or I'll never know a minute's peace again. I can't duel with you, yet I must duel with you. There seems to be no solution... but I finally found one. Not particularly elegant, but it will serve.
"I used only my hands for my first kill, you know. It was before I'd even heard of sorcery. And you will be my last, Potter, I'll make sure of it, just for the sake of symmetry." To Harry's great suprise, Voldemort cast his wand across the room and raised his right hand in a dramatic sweep.
He brought it down hard, like a hammer to the anvil, toward Harry's throat. Though Harry could only see a blur of movement, he detected a flash of silver. There was a dagger in Voldemort's hand.
Seven years of Quidditch had honed Harry's reflexes. He was fast enough to block the thrust. He hoped to catch Voldemort's wrist, but there was no time for finesse. The blade struck the palm of Harry's left hand and plunged through it up to the hilt, passing vertically between the bones and emerging from the back covered in a thin sheen of blood. It was so sharp that Harry couldn't feel it right away, just a deep ache as though he'd caught a rock thrown at great speed.
Voldemort was stunned by the parry for less than a heartbeat, but it was enough. Closing his fingers around the hilt of the dagger, Harry ripped the knife from Voldemort's grasp. He whirled himself around, pirouetting away from Voldemort's other side, certain there would be blade in that hand as well. Countless scuffles with Dudley had also trained his reflexes--Harry knew how to avoid a second blow.
He was correct; Voldemort flicked his left arm and a dagger dropped out of that sleeve as well. However, Voldemort was no fighter, at least with non-magical weaponry. He followed Harry clumsily, swinging his arm in a wide arc without shifting his weight. Harry knew his enemy had lost his balance, that the blow no longer had any strength behind it. He permitted the knife to flail at his sleeve as he concentrated on his own footing, then slashed Voldemort's face in a backhand blow with his impaled hand.
Now Harry felt the knife. It torqued violently as it struck Voldemort. But it was well spent; the blow cut Voldemort soundly, splitting one eye, then gashing upwards across his forehead so the other eye was blinded with blood. Harry had to cry out in pain as his hand was pried apart, but he had bought plenty of time to leap clear and plan his next move.
For a moment, Harry considered ripping the knife from his palm, but he didn't have the stomach for it. Although it looked gruesome where it was, it also had an unreal quality that made it somewhat bearable. Taking hold of the hilt and pulling it out, however, was just a little too graphically realistic to accept. He glanced at Voldemort, then back at the knife, and gave up on the idea. He'd have to improvise for the moment.
Voldemort was mopping his brow frantically, backing away. He undoubtedly wanted his wand, but it was somewhere safely behind Harry. Can I use it? he thought, taking a few steps backward and glancing around for it. Harry's own wand was the brother of Voldemort's, but it was harder to imagine a more evil twin. For now, Harry thought, it wasn't worth the risk.
Harry jolted straight upright. He didn't need a wand! He could perform the Killing Curse without it, couldn't he? Elias Ravenclaw was proof that conventional magic could be wielded without wands, and now that he'd used the Kedavra on another sorcerer, he knew it stemmed from the mind, not the wand. He drew in a measured breath, and fixed his eyes on Voldemort to form the curse.
Voldemort, gripping his brow tightly with both hands to clear the blood from his remaining eye, was already doing the same thing.
Both combatants were thrown backwards in a brilliant flash of light, as their curses collided between them, the green bolts of energy annihilating each other into yellow flame. Harry landed hard, but he found his feet quickly. Finding himself alive, he calmly noted how much easier this second murder had been compared to his first. But as the flames began to clear, Harry saw that Voldemort still lived, leaning against the opposite wall as he caught his breath.
"It appears... I was right... the first time," panted Voldemort. "Our magic is... hopelessly entwined." He pushed himself away from the wall and began to lumber slowly toward Harry. "It will have to be done in the Muggle way, like savages. But that suits me, Potter," he said. "We face each other evenly matched. Except that my weapon rests comfortably in my hand, while yours..." He smiled viciously.
Harry regarded his left hand again, fearfully. There was no way around it, he had to pull out the knife or he would face Voldemort weaponless. He steeled himself and reached for the handle, then screamed; the nerves in his hand seemed to have woken up at last, and the jostling from simply taking hold of the grip caused a pain so sharp that Harry nearly fainted. Voldemort was coming closer. If I pull it now, and pass out, I may have time to wake up before he reaches me. He had to do it. He backed up quickly to the far wall, thinking that if he slid down, at least he wouldn't crack his head on the stone floor. He steeled himself, mentally preparing for the pain...
... and in the meantime, he flipped his hand over, palm downward, and the knife slid cleanly out of his hand of its own accord and fell clattering to the ground.
As the wound throbbed anew, a surprisingly fresh and calm part of his mind reckoned gravity was part of the Earth's magic. Harry snatched up the knife, holding it flat against his chest, and leapt back to his feet.
Voldemort was only a few meters away, wiping at the blood still spilling from his forehead. His teeth were bared in fury. "Don't you DARE you run now! Look at me, you filthy Mudblood coward--look what you've done! I shall pluck out your eye to replace this one you've spoiled." He curled his hand into a fist and pulled it from his face, revealing the gruesome injury.
Vitreous humour, projected Harry, though he knew not where he'd picked up that particular factoid.
"Indeed," spat Voldemort. "Clever boy, aren't you? But your time is up, Potter..." He went on talking, circling Harry just beyond arm's length.
Harry ignored him. There was no point in listening to his blustering. Despite all their magic, all their mental battles, it had come at last to steel versus steel. Harry's main experience with fisticuffs consisted of getting the snot beaten out of him by Dudley and his gang years ago, while Voldemort had exclusively relied on magical methods for decades. Harry could see it in the way he wove and feinted with the dagger. Like Harry, the old man had no idea what he was doing.
And he's a big yammering braggart, wasting his breath taunting me when he ought to...
Draco Malfoy, on his knees in this very room, quaking in terror. "Strike quickly!"
Harry thrust his arm forward and launched his body toward Voldemort with a feral scream, the tip of the dagger leading his course like a ship's prow. Harry cared nothing for the knife in his enemy's hand, only that his own knife would hit home. He kept his arm strong, his fist clamped shut, moving forward through sheer will. He smashed into Voldemort, knocking him backwards and toppling him to the floor. Harry threw his weight on top of the dagger, not knowing exactly where it had landed in the rush, but driving it in wherever it was.
His hands and chest became suddenly, unexpectedly warm as the scream in his throat finally tapered off to silence.
* * * * * * *
Woof. OK, I've had that written for over a year now, so glad to finally have it out there. Whaddya think? Convincing? Too creepy? Needs more? Needs less?
Finally, bonus karma if you can name the poet who penned the line "The old lie: dulce et decorum est pro patria mori." It was the perfect chapter title. I read it in high school and can't remember the author.
Write a Review Harry Potter and the Heirs of Slytherin: 45: Pro Patria Mori