The chilly evening breeze swept over the moors, bringing with it the smells of early spring to this remote corner of Scotland. The only sound that punctuated the night was the occasional hoot of an owl. In the hafllight of the moon, the shadows cast appeared as ghostly forms. But there was another, little more than a ghost himself, disturbing the peace of this otherwise quiet night. His labored breathing broke the silence in fits and starts that always ended with agonized coughing. His purple Auror’s robes were drenched in crimson, which even obscured the insignia that denoted him as Head Auror.
Harry had managed to get back on his feet and stumble slowly down the dirt road that led, hopefully, back to Hogsmeade. Never should’ve Apparated here using a photograph. Gods, still not even sure where I am.
The voice was quick with an answer: THIS IS THE ENDING PLACE, HARRY. THAT’S WHERE YOU ARE.
Harry shook his head. Not yet. He forced his eyes to focus as he made himself walk. Right foot, left foot, right foot, left foot. Gotta keep moving. He was pure concentration, trying desperately to ignore the pain that shot through him every time he took another step.
Not much farther. Can’t be too long before…
“…all the renegade Death Eaters are in Azkaban,” Ron finished. He was peering at Harry over a mountain of inter-departmental memos, purchase orders and other bureaucratic waste paper that had occupied most of their time during the relative quiet of the last three weeks. “I’m telling you mate, we’re about as close to done with this guerilla war as we can get.”
Harry didn’t look up from his work. “Horseshoes and hand grenades,” he muttered back.
The two shared a large conference table in the anteroom that led to the Aurors’ Ready Room; it doubled as their workspace. Kingsley had repeatedly suggested he and Ron use the Head’s office, but Harry was adamantly opposed. While King was still Head Auror, he wouldn’t dare lay claim to it. Although everyone who counted knew that Harry was running the show, he’d agreed with Kingsley’s assessment that naming Harry Head Auror while he was still so young would create too much backlash, Order of Merlin First Class or no. Even two years after Voldemort’s death at the Battle of Hogwarts, politics still ruled the Ministry, despite the new Minister’s best efforts to keep it at bay.
It really didn’t matter to Harry; the important thing was to round up the renegade Death Eaters and finish the task that he had begun nine years ago when he first got his Hogwarts letter. As de facto Head of the Auror Corps, he was doing just that, with a lot of help from his best mate: Auror Ronald Bilius Weasley, OMFC.
“Horseshoes and hand grenades?” Ron asked.
“Yeah,” Harry looked up briefly to see Ron’s befuddled look. Then he smirked, exasperated. “You’re kidding me right? I got the bloody phrase out of that Yank army manual you’ve had us all reading for this week’s strategy assignment!”
“Mate, you’re supposed to pay attention to the tactical stuff in there, not dwell on the prose and poetry.” Ron shook his head. “No wonder you’re so far behind. It’s setting a bad example for the troops.”
Harry sat back in his chair. “Weasley? Tell me again why I dragged you along with me into the Auror Corps.”
“My tactical brilliance. And, of course my boyish good looks. Don’t forget those. Now, what were you saying about hand grenades? They’re Muggle explosives. What does that have to do with anything?” Ever since Ron had assumed the role of tactician for the Auror Corps, a job that perfectly complemented his chess skills, he’d become a voracious reader of anything that dealt with strategy, whether written by Muggles or Magi. Hermione’s help and influence was all he’d needed to get moving in the right direction, much to everyone’s surprise. Now, he was quickly becoming something of an expert on all manner of military matters, but not on American idioms.
Harry shook his head and tossed his quill onto the pile of paperwork. “‘Horseshoes and hand grenades.’ It means ‘close isn’t good enough.’ ” Then he muttered, “Took me an hour of bloody research to try and figure that out.”
Ron started laughing. “Thought it was that important, did you? Next time, focus on phrases like ‘suppressing fire’ and ‘double envelopment.’ Trust me.”
“With my life. But nothing else.” Harry turned back to his work.
“Ah, a wise wizard. But, seriously, mate. It’s been quiet since the last batch of arrests.” Ron cocked an eyebrow at Harry and shot him a wry smile.
Harry looked up at Ron absently. Then, taking in his expression, he let out a sigh and took off his glasses, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “Ron, it’s still too soon. This war isn’t over yet and Gin and I only just moved in together.”
“Yeah, a year ago,” Ron retorted with a snort. “That really seem like the blink of an eye to you?”
“Well, no. But…”
Ron let his patience slip. “C’mon, Harry. You really think she’ll wait around forever for you? Or Hermione for me?”
Harry locked his eyes on his best mate. “The deal was you and I would wait until the war was over. No widows, Ron. I won’t do that to her. And, as I recall, that made sense to you, too. Unless your memory’s gotten jumbled?”
“Memory’s fine, thanks for asking. And it did make sense. But, that was then. How much more ‘over’ does it have to be?” Ron replied, which made Harry’s eyebrows shoot up, condescendingly. Ron had to backtrack. “Ok, so we’ve still got some renegade Death Eaters to deal with, but…”
Ron was cut off by a door slamming. They both looked up to see a very red-faced Hermione descending upon them. They could almost hear the crackling of angry magic coming off of the new Undersecretary in waves. “Oh, bugger.”
Harry was on his feet in a tick, concern etched on his face. “Madame Undersecretary? What is it?”
“Yaxley!” she spat.
“Love, calm down. What about him?” Ron asked.
“No time to calm down. He escaped. And took nine Death Eaters with him.”
“Bloody hell! Ron lets go. ‘Mione?”
“I should stay here. Protocol requires…”
“Bugger protocol. I’m gonna need you.” Harry grabbed his cloak and shouted for Seamus.
“Aye,” the Irishman said, poking his head out of the Ready Room.
“Mass escape at Azkaban. Bring your team and meet us there in five minutes. Use the DMLE Squads to set up a perimeter and start a search. You know the drill. And get word to Angelina. She’s in charge while we’re gone.”
“On it.” The Irishman dashed back into the Ready Room just as Harry shot out the door at a dead run, with Ron and Hermione hot on his heels. The trio sped to the atrium, their purple Auror’s robes flapping behind them.
Apparation within the Ministry was impossible, now. A year earlier, Ron had suggested improving the wards as a security measure. Harry and the Minister had both thought it wise, but it did tend to slow them down at times like this.
“What’s today’s password to Floo to the Warden’s Office at Azkaban?” Harry asked.
“Horntail,” Hermione answered as she disappeared in a whoosh of green flames inside the first open fireplace. Harry and Ron quickly followed.
Harry emerged from the flames to see Warden Richard Campbell-Shaw, frantically pacing the room. He’d stopped as the trio stepped out of his fireplace.
“Madame Undersecretary, Aurors Potter and Weasley, I’m glad to see you, but I wish it was under better circumstances.” Campbell-Shaw was a Kinsgley loyalist; the trio had met him on several occasions at Ministry functions. King had always spoken well of him. But now, the aging wizard with thinning hair and pince nez glasses looked exceptionally harried. “You’ll want to see the cells?”
“Yes, please,” Harry answered.
“This way.” He quickly showed them out the door and down a winding stone staircase that was dimly lit by torches. Just the same, they took them two at a time. “Careful. Still a bit gloomy, even without the Dementors here.”
Ron spoke before he could stop himself. “Surprised more Death Eaters haven’t escaped since the Minister ordered them out.”
Harry glared at him; seeing that, Hermione mouthed to her boyfriend Not now! Ron was no fan of Dementors, but he saw the efficacy of keeping them as guards at the hated prison. Harry, on the other hand, thought even the likes of Death Eaters should be spared the horrors of the dreaded creatures. He supported Kingsley’s policy, unpopular though it was with most of Wizarding Britain, including his able partner.
“Auror Weasley, I’ll have you know we’ve had no problems,” the Warden retorted.
“Until today,” Ron shot back.
“No time for this,” Harry said, ending the debate. “How’d it happen?”
“It looks like a forced break out, just like with LeStrange.”
Hermione shook her head. “That’s impossible after the extra protective wards that were put in place. Besides, none of the Death Eaters still at large could muster that kind of power.”
“That’s what we thought, until this disaster.” As they reached a landing, Campbell-Shaw hefted his wand and with a flourish and a nonverbal spell, the wall parted, revealing a dank cellblock. Instantly, they were engulfed in a stiff, cold breeze; the salty tang of sea air was on everyone’s lips. “I don’t think you’ll have any trouble finding the cells in question. If you could excuse me for a moment?” The Warden stepped back on to the landing, where a guard was waiting with an urgent message in his hands.
The trio continued down the dank corridor, steeling themselves against the chilled air. The thick stone walls gave way to cells on either side of the hallway. Even without the breach that had let in the sea air, Harry assumed it was always as unpleasantly damp as it was now. Ron grimaced and pulled his robes around him. Seeing that, Harry couldn’t help but comment. “As horrible as this place is, you think it still needs Dementors?”
“That’s not what I meant and you know it,” Ron shot back.
“Enough. Bicker later,” Hermione chastised. They had just approached the end of the corridor. The Warden was right. It was hard to miss the cavernous hole that had been blown in the out-wall, freeing ten cells to the open air.
Hermione hefted Bellatrix’s wand as she began to murmur incantations. Ron tried to stifle his frown. Although he’d never brought it up, it always surprised him that Hermione continued to use it. Must have her reasons; seems to work as well as her old one. Then, aloud, he asked, “Did we get here quick enough?” Their haste was due in part to the fear that the residual magic that would point them toward the escapees and their method of escape would dissipate if they took too long getting there.
“Not sure,” Hermione answered, distractedly.
Harry and Ron took Hermione’s cue as they began the regimen of secret Auror-Class Revelio spells that they’d been taught by Kingsley since joining the Corps. Naturally, they’d shared this new knowledge with an exceptionally curious Hermione once Kingsley approved.
“Hermione? Are you getting the same reveals I am?” Harry asked.
She shot him a nervous look. “I thought my wand-work was off…”
Ron grunted. “Not a chance, love. I’m getting the same, Harry.”
Hermione shook her head. “How’s that possible?”
“That’s why I needed you here. I had a feeling it would be something inexplicable. That is, to anyone but you,” Harry said.
Hermione couldn’t hide a quick smile. Then she turned back to the breach and flourished Bellatrix’s wand again.
The Warden returned and was about to speak before Harry waved him off. He didn’t want Hermione’s concentration broken. Pulling the Warden to the side Harry leaned in so he could hear him whisper. “I have a list of the escapees.” He handed Harry a parchment that the young Auror read intently. Maybe he won’t be on it, Harry thought to himself, with a quick glance to make sure Hermione didn’t see what he was reading. Bollocks! Harry tried to hide his dismay when he found the name on the list. He sighed, I’ll tell them later. Harry looked up when he realized the Warden was speaking. “Also, Finnigan is one of yours?”
“Message from his team; too much to say with a Patronus apparently. They’ve found two guards, both dead, floating not far from here.” He handed Harry another parchment.
Hermione spoke without turning around. “One’s wand is missing and the other’s is broken?”
The Warden turned to Hermione, with a look of amazement. “How did you know?”
Hermione just shook her head and let her Otter-Patronus slip from her wand. Then she returned to her examination of the cells as it sped out of the breach.
Ron approached the Warden. “Just let her work. It’s really a pretty amazing thing to watch.”
Over the course of the next hour, Harry and Ron concluded a sweep of the corridor for residual magic, leaving Hermione to her new puzzle, which they were sure she’d solve.
“Well?” Hermione asked her friends.
With a look to Ron, who confirmed Harry’s examinations, he answered for them both. “One was Imperiused; the other wasn’t.”
Just then, Seamus’ Fox-Patronus sailed through the wall and spoke three words before it vanished: “Yes, it was.” Hermione nodded, knowingly.
“What did you ask him?” The Warden had heard of Hermione’s magical prowess, but actually seeing it was something else entirely.
Hermione answered, “Whether the last spell cast from the broken wand was Expulso.”
Ron sensed Hermione was about to launch into lecture mode; while this was usually something he found rather trying, when it came to unraveling a crime scene, he always sat back and beamed pure pride.
She cleared her throat. “At least one of your guards was compromised, likely blackmailed, into aiding the escape. The blast that opened this wall came from inside the corridor.”
“But that’s not possible; a simple Expulso wouldn’t have been strong enough and the blast radius would’ve been too narrow,” Campbell-Shaw said.
Harry looked to Hermione, who nodded. Harry answered, “Not a simple Expulso…Broken-wand Expulso.”
“Very good,” Hermione almost cooed. Harry was waiting for her to finish the thought by saying: Ten points for Gryffindor.
Hermione continued, “The Imperiused guard cast Expulso just as the other cast a severing charm on his wand. The effect was an explosion strong enough to pierce the wards and force a breach from within all along the length of this wall; it would’ve been nearly lethal to the caster. Not that it would’ve mattered to the Death Eaters,” Hermione spat. “Those guards were dead as soon as they were unlucky enough to be targeted. After that it was just a matter of having other wizards waiting on broomstick outside the walls.”
Ron interjected, “A blast of that breadth would’ve had to at least wound some of the Death Eaters in these cells. Some of them might not be in the best of shape.” He turned to Harry. “It’ll slow them down, if we’re lucky.”
Harry nodded. “Good point. Get word to Finnigan to adjust the perimeter search.” Ron sent his Terrier-Patronus off to Seamus. Turning to the Warden, Harry said, “I’ll need the personnel files of the two guards in question, although I fear we won’t learn more than we already do.”
Campbell-Shaw nodded. “They were both new; I thought they’d been properly vetted…” He shook his head.
Hermione was about to speak, stopped herself and turned back to one of the cells. As she hefted her wand again, her face contorted in concentration. Then she swore under her breath.
Harry frowned. “What is it?”
Hermione shook her head in frustration. “Their trail’s been covered, somehow.”
The trio fell silent, until Ron asked, “Anymore we can do here, then?”
Harry wasn’t pleased with the answer that question begged. “No,” he sighed. “I think not.” Then he turned to Campbell-Shaw. “Warden, I’m afraid we’re done here. The squads will help you secure this level.”
“Thank you, Auror Potter.”
“I’m sorry there isn’t more we can do now. Auror Finnigan will continue the search. All we can do is wait.”
With a grim nod, Campbell-Shaw was about to lead them back to his office so they could Floo back to the Ministry. But, Hermione was hesitating.
Ron asked, “What is it?”
Hermione bit her lip. “Something isn’t right. I got this strange reading in Yaxley’s cell just when I realized the trail was masked…” She shook her head, clearly puzzled.
Harry turned to the Warden. “We’ll meet you in your office, if you could just give us a few more minutes?”
“Of course.” With a slight bow, Campbell-Shaw left the cellblock.
Hermione returned to the cell, her face contorted in concentration as she focused all of her magic at a fragment of the wall. “There’s something here. I can feel it but it won’t…”
The wall began to glow. Harry realized the danger a beat before Ron. “Hermione! DON’T!”
But Ron was closest. With a flying tackle, he took his girlfriend to the ground as a massive burst of energy sailed by her head.
Harry had his shield spell up a second later, containing the blast before it could consume his friends.
“Love?” Ron asked, his voice filled with concern.
Hermione motioned that she was fine.
Through gritted teeth, Harry grunted, “I can’t stop it alone. Bugger, that curse is strong.”
As the two regained their feet, they raised their wands to help Harry contain and, finally, disperse the massive flux of dark magic that was pulsating from the wall.
They were all winded by the effort.
“Cursed…parchment?” Ron asked between breaths.
Harry nodded, his hands on his knees as he tried to catch his breath. “Crematius curse. I’ll explain later. ‘Mione? It should be safe to levitate off the wall now, but step back.”
She nodded. Very carefully, Harry hefted his wand after shooting a look to Ron to make sure his partner was ready to help if the parchment gave them any more grief.
With a flourish, the parchment came free; it had been charmed to blend into the stone, but now was clearly visible for what it was.
Gently, it floated toward him. As the writing came into focus, Harry looked to Hermione. “Runes.”
Hermione peered over Harry’s shoulder and began to read. “It’s…some kind of Pureblood Manifesto. But it’s not very long.” As the moments slipped by, the look of concern on her face only grew more grave.
Ron and Harry traded nervous glances, but kept their silence as Hermione continued to read. When she was done, she’d gone pale. She cleared her throat. “We were supposed to find this. It’s a promise…a threat…a warning.”
“Of?” Ron asked, nervously.
“Terror,” Hermione choked out. “That blast…” she trailed off.
“What about it?” Harry asked.
Hermione turned to the wizard she’d always thought of as the brother she never had. “It was meant for you, Harry,” she said, breathlessly. “It was meant for you.”
In silence, the trio returned to the Ministry and huddled at Ron and Harry’s table. Hermione had taken up residence in Ron’s chair as he stood behind her, gently massaging her shoulders.
Harry ultimately broke the silence as he leaned on his chair and let out a breath. “The war’s not over.” He couched the words carefully; neither Hermione nor Ginny knew that Ron and Harry had agreed not to propose until they were sure that they had a secure peace.
“I was afraid you’d say that,” Ron said to his partner, surrendering to the reality that Harry had gotten the last word on their earlier engagement debate. He was about to say more, but stopped himself.
Harry sighed. “Yaxley was one of the smarter ones, as Death Eaters go. And he’s had two years to stew in Azkaban. We may be looking at a whole new war, now.”
“Let’s see the list.” Ron reached out for it; Harry hesitantly handed it over.
“Okay,” Ron said as he began to read. “Well, none of these are exceptionally brilliant; but there are some fine duelers in here,” Ron added as he looked to Harry. Then he smirked. “But none as good as you, mate.”
Harry smiled sheepishly. Harry’s dueling skills were legendary throughout the Ministry; he’d improved by leaps and bounds since the Battle of Hogwarts. Ron’s strength had always been tactics, which is why he taught it to his fellow Aurors. But when it came to dueling, Harry had no equal.
Then Ron’s hand started to shake as he resumed reading the list.
“Mate,” Harry said, “go easy.”
“Easy my arse!” Ron hissed.
“What is it?” Hermione asked worriedly.
Harry raised his hands, urging them both to calm down. Then he looked to Ron, who nodded grimly. Harry knew instantly that his best mate wanted to be the one to break the news to Hermione.
Ron took a breath as he turned his girlfriend to face him. “Love, I don’t want you to worry. I beat him once before and I’ll be only too happy to do it again.”
Despite his words of comfort, she couldn’t hide the quick flash of panic that shot across her face. “Greyback?”
Ron nodded as Harry watched them both with a worried frown. The werewolf was the last of the Death Eaters still under penalty of death. His execution was scheduled for the following month.
Alone of all Voldemort’s minions, Fenrir Greyback was the most brutal and he always had an eye for Hermione. In the months after the Battle of Hogwarts, Hermione’s worst nightmare was of being given to the werewolf as a reward after enduring Crucio upon Crucio from Bellatrix, her rescue by Ron and Harry never materializing. During those dark nights, Ron spent hours holding a sobbing Hermione, trying to comfort her and drive away the terror.
With an effort of pure will, Hermione forced her fear to the back of her mind. “This doesn’t change anything.” Then she rose from Ron’s chair. “That’s enough for one day; let’s get into this tomorrow. I’ve cast some spells on the parchment that need several hours before they’ll reveal anything useful.”
“Well, I guess the new boss is gonna let us go home early,” Ron chortled, trying to lighten the mood, but his arms never left his girlfriend. To Harry, it looked like he wouldn’t be letting her out of his sight anytime in the near future.
Hermione shot him a frown; then she turned to Harry. “Come back to our flat for dinner?”
Harry shook his head. “Thanks, but no. Gin’s back early from Holyhead. She’ll…”
“…be waiting for me.” Harry said to the night air as he struggled to keep moving.
WILL SHE, NOW? SHE MAY BE WAITING LONGER THAN YOU THINK, HARRY. A LOT LONGER.
Harry didn’t have a retort. He simply forced himself to keep moving, trying to ignore the persistent burning in his side as well as the voice that had become his new companion. He just hoped it wouldn’t be the last thing he ever heard.
AN: Sorry for the wait. Had to get my banner in place first. Chapter 3 will post this weekend as a peace offering for your patience. Promise! Nonetheless, remember, if you want to skip to the end, you can always read "Children's Crusade." All questions are answered within. Well, not quite all...
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