Chapter 35 : Impossible Choices
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The early morning quiet of Hogsmeade Village was shattered by the sounds of witches and wizards apparating. The loud pops echoed off of the windows of the empty shops as Harry, Ron and Neville gathered their family and friends for final instructions. Harry had a familiar sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. He looked at the faces surrounding him and he couldn’t help but remember the last time that he saw Fred, Tonks and Remus alive as they rushed off to defend the castle from Voldemort’s army. How many of the eyes that stared at him expectantly would be closed forever by the time the day was done? How many funerals would the family be forced to endure this time?
“Stop it,” Ron said quietly, not looking directly at him.
“What?” Harry replied, a bit too defensively.
“Looking at them like they’re already dead. It’s the surest way to make it happen.”
Harry forced the paralyzing apprehension from his mind and focused on their plan. Maybe things inside the castle weren’t as bad as Hermys had been led to believe. Maybe he could get the situation under control before anyone else was put in harm’s way. Maybe if anybody had to die, it would be him.
When everyone was gathered in front of the Hog’s Head, Harry began to speak. “Professor Dumbledore’s portrait was able to confirm that the castle doors are locked, so that’s the first thing we need to deal with. He also told us that the Headmaster’s office is empty, but the Ministry is still monitoring the floo network so we can’t get in that way. Hermys will take Ron, Neville and I directly there and we’ll completely disable the floo so they can’t escape with any hostages. Then we’ll make our way to the Entrance Hall and figure out a way to get the doors open. The rest of you wait here for our signal and then apparate to the front gates. We don’t want to raise their alarm until we’re ready to strike. The students have all been herded into the Great Hall, so don’t throw any curses until you’re sure of where you’re aiming. Does everyone understand?”
Eighteen heads nodded in agreement. The count was lower than it might have been, and Harry was still caught between the panicked feeling that they would be outnumbered and the relief he felt for those who had chosen to stay behind and help protect the Burrow. His thoughts briefly turned to Hermione. In a rare victory, Ron had persuaded her to rest her injured body and watch over Rose and Susan. All too quickly, however, the lives that were about to be cast into mortal danger returned to the forefront of his mind. He wasn’t the only one thinking about it. “I’m a sentimental man,” Seamus suddenly blurted out, “and I don’ wanna be cryin’ over none of you today. So be careful!”
Even Harry was unable to suppress a faint grin. “Off we go, then. We’ll see you on the inside.” He laid his hand on top of Ron’s and Neville’s and then Hermys reached up and grasped Harry’s sleeve and the world spun out of existence.
Neville noticed it as soon as the spacious confines of his office came into focus. “The sword, Harry! It’s gone!”
Before they left the Burrow, Ron and Harry had quietly pulled Neville and Luna aside and shared their suspicions about Herodonthus’s book. After the war, Neville, Luna and Ginny were among the select few that the trio had taken into confidence regarding the horcruxes. In spite of the multiple threats they were facing, everyone agreed that destroying the book was a priority. There was no way to tell how far its corrupting influence had spread. Now it appeared that the best implement for the job had been stolen.
“It was right here when I left,” Neville grumbled, looking around the office.
“Did you leave this door open?” Ron asked, gesturing toward the clearly visible stairs.
Neville’s forehead fell into his hand. “Bloody hell.”
“Language, Headmaster, language,” Phineas Nigellus Black tutted from overhead. “I believe I can shed some light on your quandary.” He waited until all eyes in the room came to rest on him before continuing. “Late last night, Professor Tennant took the sword and left with it.”
Neville felt dumbstruck as he turned to face Ron and Harry. “How did he get in? I changed the password.”
“I think the more important question is how did he know about the sword?” Harry asked, looking back and forth between Ron and Neville.
Ron chewed on his lip for a moment. “He’s probably getting his orders from Tenabra, right? And for all we know, the book has been influencing her, kind of like how it screwed Hermione up. Maybe it told her to dispose of the sword? To protect itself?”
Neville slowly shook his head. “I’m liking this book less and less, the more I hear about it.”
“We’ll have to find another way, then,” Harry sighed. “Disable the floo and let’s get to the Entrance Hall and get the doors open.”
“Oh, and Headmaster,” Black interjected, “you’ll probably want to retrieve Professor Astor from the cabinet beneath Dilys. She’s been in there for rather a long time. Can’t be comfortable.”
Neville looked alarmed and gestured at the cabinet door with his wand. As soon as it opened, Professor Astor tumbled out, straining against the invisible bonds that held her. As he released her from the Bodybind Curse, Professor Dumbledore suddenly reappeared in his portrait. “I have news from the Great Hall. The majority of the student body is sitting on the floor in the space between the house tables. The children from your family have been taken into a separate line near the entrance and,” the old headmaster paused, looking deeply troubled, “they are also in the process of identifying all of the muggle-born children and pulling them out, as well. I’m afraid some members of Slytherin House are participating enthusiastically in the process.”
“This just gets better and better,” Ron fumed.
Harry turned his attention to Neville, who had managed to get Professor Astor into a chair near his desk. “Is she in any condition to fight?”
Neville cast a couple of diagnostic spells and shook his head. “She has a mild concussion.”
“Hermys,” Harry directed, “please take her to the Hospital Wing.” Before she could protest, the elf took the Potions teacher’s hand and they both disappeared with a crack.
“Alright, then,” Neville sighed, waving his arm toward the door. “No time like the present!”
The three wizards turned and started to walk toward the door when they heard Dumbledore clear his throat. They turned and looked at him quizzically. “Aren’t you forgetting something, Harry?”
Neville looked back and forth between Dumbledore and Harry in confusion as Harry scanned the office. Realization suddenly sparked in Harry’s eyes and he hurried around the great, wooden desk to where a tattered, old leather hat sat on a shelf in the corner.
Dennis Northway felt a mix of amusement and frustration as he peeked around the corner and watched Peeves the Poltergeist launch another volley of cranberry sauce at the two wizards who were attempting to secure the entrance to the Headmaster’s office. “The secret door is already open,” he muttered quietly. “If they’d just leave, we could go right in.
The Blood Order wizards continued to stand their ground, however, firing ineffective curses that passed harmlessly through Peeves while trying to shield their faces from the barrage of flying foodstuffs.
“He needs better projectiles,” observed the Bloody Baron, whose face was poking through the wall next to Dennis’s vantage point. “One cannot slay a man with fresh produce and kippers.”
“Although you can make him smell awfully bad,” Sir Nicholas added optimistically.
“This is taking too long!” Artie fumed, leaning over Dennis’s back to try to get a look at the action. “If we don’t hurry, the ones in the Great Hall might start killing people or taking them out of the castle. I think we have to attack them. Use the element of surprise.”
Portia placed her hand on Artie’s back, trying to calm him. “We have to be patient and let Peeves do all he can. They’re fully qualified adults, using dark curses. We’d be injured or killed in no time.”
“There is much wisdom in her words, Mr. Potter,” the Grey Lady added somberly. “Take it from one who knows, you won’t be much help to your family if you’re dead.”
“Well we have to do something else,” Artie replied angrily. “This isn’t working. Can’t one of you try to draw them away while Peeves has them all riled up?”
The Bloody Baron started to explain the irrationality of Artie’s plan when Sir Nicholas suddenly passed through the wall with a look of grim determination on his translucent face. “I say, you sons of a tragically over-bred dog! Over here! Yes, you heard me correctly, I am challenging your manhood! Furthermore, you’re both men of sadly limited intellect and your fathers cleaned the dung pits behind a hippogriff stable!”
One of the wizards turned and fired a nasty curse at Sir Nicholas, which passed harmlessly through his ethereal form and shattered the stone lining the corner that the three young wizards here hiding behind. Dennis yelped loudly in spite of himself.
“Oh, bollocks!” Artie hissed, yanking Dennis back by his robes as he raised his wand to the ready position.
“Who’s there?” shouted one of the Blood Order wizards.
“Some meddling brat who was sneaking around the castle, no doubt,” snarled his partner. They could hear footsteps rapidly approaching. “Come out here now and we won’t hurt you. If you try to run, we won’t be so nice,” the man yelled, swatting aside a blob of fig jam that Peeves had just directed at his face.
“We have to run!” Portia insisted, pulling on Artie’s elbow. “Maybe they’ll follow us and we can loop back around.”
“This corridor is fifty yards long!” Dennis pointed out, gesturing over Portia’s shoulder. “We can’t outrun curses.”
The argument instantly became moot as one of the Blood Order wizards skidded to a stop in front of them, struggling slightly due to the smashed fruit stuck to the bottom of his boots. “None of you move!” he demanded, pointing his wand at them. “All of you little whelps are supposed to be in the Great Hall. Now give me those wands and march!”
Dennis lowered his shoulders in resignation. He held his wand out and just as the wizard reached to take it, he was startled to hear somebody behind him shout “Stupefy!” The man in front of him stumbled backward and fell.
“Artie, what the hell are you doing?” Dennis yelped, looking terrified. The Blood Order wizard was dazed, but not completely incapacitated and he was struggling to pull himself to his feet.
“Protego!” Artie managed to cast a shield charm in front of them just in time to deflect an angry blast of red light from the wizard’s wand. “Stun him, Dennis!”
Dennis stared at the wand in his shaky hand. It felt like lead and for the life of him he couldn’t remember how to use it. Another spell crashed into Artie’s shield and it buckled. An instant later, Dennis felt a jinx slam into his chest and he was knocked backward, crashing into Artie and Portia. He felt the prickly cold on his skin as they passed through the Grey Lady, who flew forward in a rage, attempting to frighten the wizard in front of her. He looked startled for a second, but then simply stepped through her, still pointing his wand at the three of them.
“You’ve done it now, boy,” he snarled, aiming his wand directly at Artie. “We’re gonna play a little game before I drag you three down to where the rest of them are. I’m gonna use the Cruciatus Curse on you, and you let me know when you’d rather I used it on her, instead.”
For some reason, Dennis couldn’t look away as a cruel sneer spread across the face of the man in front of him. Something about his expression made Dennis think of his Uncle Leland and the attack on the Magical Records Office. Had his uncle felt the same kind of fear? The same sense of being powerless and overwhelmed? In an instant, it all clicked for Dennis Northway. He was tired of being frightened. Tired of being pushed around. Tired of seeing people get hurt. The wizard raised his wand and suddenly Dennis acted on instinct, lashing out with his foot and catching the man just above the knee. Their assailant stumbled back a step and cursed loudly.
Dennis yelled at the top of his lungs and launched all one hundred and fifty pounds of himself at the wizard’s midsection. The contact felt immensely satisfying, and the man in front of him was knocked onto his heels. A second later, however, Dennis felt the man’s knee strike him in the solar plexus and he tumbled backward to the floor. He looked up and saw a wand pointed at his face and behind it a pair of eyes filled with malice. Just as the man was about to shout the curse that Dennis was sure would be the last words he’d ever hear, a loud crack rang out. The wizard’s body was suddenly flung backwards, crashing into the opposite wall and landing on the floor in a heap. Dennis scrambled onto his hands and knees and crawled to the corner. He peeked around it just in time to see Professor Longbottom take down the other Blood Order wizard as Harry Potter jogged toward him.
“Ickle Potter is back! Ickle Potter is back! Fun, fun, fun!” Peeves chanted merrily, launching his remaining fruit around the corridor. The Bloody Baron floated through the wall and shot Peeves a glare which at least stopped him from singing, even if he did continue to spin around and hum happily to himself.
“Bind them and tuck them away in that classroom,” Harry called out. Then he turned to the three students. “What are you three doing here? Are you alright?”
“Yes, grandpa,” Artie replied, pulling Portia forward as he rushed to embrace the old man. Dennis found himself silently wishing that he had somebody to hug.
Harry bowed his head slightly to the three house ghosts. “Thank you all for looking after them.” The Grey Lady and the Bloody Baron nodded their acknowledgment while Sir Nicholas looked rather bashful and mumbled something about it being no trouble. “I want all three of you in the Headmaster’s office, now,” Harry said in a voice that was calm but brooked no dissent.
“Grandpa, we want to go with you!” Artie insisted. Dennis was surprised to discover that he felt the same way. The Blood Order had invaded his school. They were threatening his friends. And Tennant was helping them. The shock had faded from his mind and never in his life could Dennis remember feeling quite so angry.
“Out of the question,” Harry snapped. “Now into the office with all of you. We don’t have much time.”
The three students marched over to the door behind the gargoyle, with Artie occasionally turning to glare at his grandfather. Dennis started to blurt out everything that came to his mind, feeling a desperate need to be helpful somehow. “The ghosts told us that they’ve rounded up everyone in the Great Hall and put the teachers in the Staff Room, except for Tennant. He let them into the castle. I saw him receive an owl late last night. He was so happy he could hardly stand it.”
Harry’s look softened somewhat as they boarded the moving stairs. “Thank you Dennis. I know all three of you want to help, and I appreciate it. But it’s just too dangerous. You’re not ready for this yet.”
A question popped into Dennis’s head. For some reason, it seemed important, even though he didn’t know why. “How did the three of you get into the castle?”
“My elf brought us,” Harry replied absently, paying more attention to his companions and their preparations for further conflict. “Now up to the office with you.” As the stairs began to move, Dennis heard Professor Longbottom mumble something under his breath and the door below them closed with a heavy thump.
Harry silently made his way through the deserted hallway under his invisibility cloak, past the Muggle Studies classroom and toward the stairs that led to the Entrance Hall. He paused at the top of the stairs, studying the two wizards who guarded the locked front doors. They wore hooded robes with grim, metallic masks over their faces. Harry sighed in disgust. This lot was even beginning to style themselves like Death Eaters. The symbolism made him want to vomit.
He checked his watch as he waited. He had made good progress, and was running a couple of minutes early. Much to his relief, it didn’t appear that the Blood Order had removed any students from the castle. They were probably still attempting to sort out all of the muggle-borns. Assuming the Slytherins still kept the same sorts of petty, vindictive grudges he remembered from his school days, they were probably making the process slower rather than faster. He mentally corrected himself. Some of the Slytherins, family and friends excluded, of course.
Suddenly, a great roar of surprise and disgust arose from the Great Hall. Over the cacophony of voices, he could just make out the shrill cackle of Peeves. The poltergeist had obeyed the Bloody Baron’s orders and visited the kitchens to rearm himself before raining chaos on the Blood Order’s attempt to sort and organize the student body. That was the first phase of the plan and Harry noted with satisfaction that the two guards had taken a couple of steps towards the Great Hall, craning their necks to try to see what was happening.
Harry heard a man’s voice shouting from inside the hall. “It’s the bloody, sodding poltergeist! Everybody shut up and keep going!” But to Peeves’s credit, the undercurrent of frustration and amusement continued to grow louder. Above it all, Peeves was chanting, “Listen to the tosser as he raves and rants! Smells like the Dark Lord’s underpants!” Harry slowly made his way down the stairs, keeping a careful eye out.
A loud crack echoed inside the Great Hall, followed by a new chorus of screams and shouts. “Somebody’s attacking us,” the loud man’s voice shouted over the din. “Spread out and find them. One of the teachers must have slipped away.” That was the second phase of the plan. Ron and Neville had made their way into the antechamber at the front of the Great Hall via a secret passage and now they were holed up behind the Staff Table, firing spells at the Blood Order.
Harry hurried the rest of the way down the steps to where the two guards had mostly abandoned their posts and moved to the entrance to the Great Hall. They were apparently itching to join the fight. Confundo. Harry swept his wand over the two men, then amplified his whisper towards them. “They need your help. Hurry along now.” A second later, both men wandered somewhat shakily into the Great Hall with their wands drawn.
Harry flicked his wand and quietly closed the doors of the Great Hall behind them. Pulling off the invisibility cloak, he began to magically undo the various locks and latches that held the massive, oaken doors securely closed. One by one, wheels spun, bars retracted, catches unfastened and the magic they embodied released its hold. He was just over halfway done when the curse hit him in the back and dropped his body to the floor.
“Well, well, well,” came the thick Scottish brogue from the corner near the stairs. A figure emerged, gradually appearing as a disillusionment charm fell away. Rory Tennant strode across the floor to where Harry lay, trapped in the invisible grip of a Bodybind Curse. “I knew ye’d come, Harry. Ye just couldnae stay away. Sooner or later, ye were boun’ tae come sneakin’ aroun’ here under that bloody cloak o’ yers. Yer predictable, ye know that? I daresay ye dinnae see that comin’, did ye?” With a swipe of his foot, he kicked Harry’s wand away into the corner, then bent down.
“I’ve been lookin’ forward tae this for a long time, Harry. Ever since you an’ Weasley drummed me outta the department. Ever since bloody Shacklebolt made ye Head Auror instead of me. Ever since I first laid eyes on ye. There isnae gonna be no hero story this time. I’m gonna open those doors over there an’ the men inside are gonna kill ye, Harry. Then I’m off tae London, an’ the life ye stole from me all those years ago. Goodbye, Potter. An’ good riddance.”
Artie threw himself listlessly into one of the chairs in the headmaster’s office for what Dennis guessed was the fifth time. “Typical. Bloody typical. The castle is under siege, they need all the help they can get, and what do they do? Lock us in a room where we won’t get in the way.”
“Artie, he’s just trying to keep us all safe,” Portia replied softly, resting her hand on his knee. They had all tried to find some way to occupy themselves after arriving in the cavernous office. Portia had selected a book at random from the shelves opposite the great, wooden desk and started to read it. Dennis was studying a plant sitting on a small end table which made odd, cooing noises when he stroked its leaves. And Artie was sulking, grumbling and generally driving Dennis spare with his relentless pacing.
He pushed her hand off of his leg and stood up again. “You guys don’t understand. My brother, all of my cousins... they’re all gonna get hurt or killed if we don’t do something.”
“But your grandfather and great uncle and Professor Longbottom are here now,” Portia persisted. “I’m sure the rest of your family isn’t far behind. They’ll do something to stop this.”
Artie was looking out the window with his back turned toward them. His shoulders slumped a bit and his voice changed from aggravated to anxious. “What if it isn’t enough?”
Artie resumed his maniacal pacing while Dennis and Portia tried their best to ignore him. Just as Dennis felt like the plant was really beginning to take a liking to him, the three teens were startled by a loud pop. An elf had suddenly appeared in the middle of the office, and he scanned the room with his bulbous eyes.
“Master Artie!” the elf said happily, rushing to bow in front of him. “Hermys is very, very happy to see you safe and in one piece. Hermys was very worried.” The elf stopped talking for a moment and looked around the office. “Is any of you knowing where Master and his friends have gone?”
Artie’s expression suddenly changed. There was a devious and somewhat dark glint in his eyes. “We’re not sure, Hermys. Can you tell us what’s going on in the rest of the castle?”
The elf shook his head, looking embarrassed. “Hermys has just returned from the Hospital Wing. Ms. Astor was in need of a healer and Master sent her there. Does Master Artie wish for Hermys to survey the castle and report back?”
“No, Hermys, wait.” Artie gave Dennis and Portia a purposeful look. After a couple of seconds, it dawned on Dennis what he was planning to do, and it sent a chill down his spine. But there was a distinct note of excitement mixed with the fear he was feeling. Try as he might, he couldn’t stop thinking about Tennant and how the Defense teacher had betrayed them all. He nodded slowly to Artie, while Portia seemed to not understand what was going on.
“Hermys, I want you to take Dennis and I to the hallway by the Ground Floor classrooms.”
The elf recoiled from Artie as though he’d been struck. “No, Master Artie must not go! The castle is not safe. Dark wizards is everywhere. Master Artie must not put himself in danger!”
“Hermys,” Artie said reproachfully, “you are bound to our family, correct?”
The elf stared mournfully at the floor. “Yes.”
“So you have to do what I say?”
The elf sighed deeply and looked up through sad, damp eyes. “Hermys will obey. But please, Master Artie, do not ask this! If any harm were to come to Master Artie and his friends, Master would never forgive Hermys.”
Artie fell to one knee and put his hand on the elf’s trembling shoulder. “Hermys, this is my decision. I promise you that nobody will blame you. But I have to do this. Everyone is in danger and they need my help.” The elf looked completely unconvinced, and Artie seemed to scramble for something else to say. “You remember the story of how Dobby the elf helped Grandpa and his friends, right?”
“Dobby was very brave,” Hermys replied shakily, “His name is honored among the elves. But Dobby never took Master and his friends into any danger.”
“But Hermys, we’re not the only ones in danger! Victor, Oliver, Ronald, Lilian... they’re all in danger, right?”
“But Master is going to save them,” Hermys replied, looking more confident as he pleaded. “Master is a great and powerful wizard-”
“Even great and powerful wizards need help sometimes,” Dennis interjected. “Somebody to watch their backs for them.”
“Yeah,” Artie said, jumping onto Dennis’s train of thought. “What if somebody sneaks up behind Grandpa while he’s not looking? He needs somebody there to look out for him.” Artie looked straight into the elf’s large, quivering eyes. “We promise we’ll stay out of sight. Take us now, please.”
The elf nodded miserably and held out his bony fingers. Dennis was starting to move to Artie’s side when he heard a snap and realized that Portia had closed the book she was reading and stood up.
“No, wait a second,” Artie said, turning to face her. “I didn’t mean for you to-”
“Artie,” she cut him off, smiling brightly. “Stop being a pig before I hex you somewhere that will make you wish you were a girl, too.” Dennis felt his jaw clench and he noticed that Artie had subconsciously crossed his knees a bit. “Besides,” she added, “who’s supposed to be watching your back while you’re watching your grandfather’s?”
She reached out and took the elf’s hand and then nodded impatiently at the two boys.
Harry watched helplessly as Tennant stood up and turned toward the doors of the Great Hall, struggling in vain against the invisible bonds. There was no way out. No second chances and no time. He was about to die, along with Ron and Neville and likely many other members of his family. It felt wrong, seeing it all come to an end like this. No matter how many times Harry had put his life at risk, it never felt as though he was leaving anything incomplete. There was always a sense that some purpose was being fulfilled. Now there was nothing to cushion the blow, not a single, redeeming thing about the certain death that awaited him as soon as Tennant opened those doors.
“Expelliarmus!” The disarming charm rang out and Tennant’s wand suddenly flew out of his hand and spun gracefully through the air. From his position on the floor, Harry couldn’t see where it went, but the look on Tennant’s face didn’t suggest anyone that frightened him. He looked annoyed, angry.
“Why you little... how dare ye?” Tennant roared. He turned and started to storm across the entrance hall, but his path was cut short. Very short.
“STUPEFY!” The spell rang out with an intensity born of barely contained rage. Tennant was knocked off of his feet and landed in a heap several yards away.
“Merlin, Northway, are you trying to kill him?” Harry recognized the voice immediately, and couldn’t decide whether to celebrate or shout in frustration. At the moment, he could do neither, so he continued to wait as his heart pounded in his chest.
“Finite.” The airy, female voice added one more concern to Harry’s list as he felt his limbs move freely again. He rolled over and found a pair of hands extended toward him.
The point of no return, he thought as he reached out and accepted their help to haul himself back to his feet. “I don’t know how you kids got out, but as long as you’re here, help me unlock the doors. Accio.” Harry’s wand flew back into his hand and he joined Artie, Dennis and Portia in releasing the remaining locks. Several moments later, the front doors of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry swung open to the cold morning air.
Harry immediately cast a patronus and sent a one-word message to his assembled family and friends. Now. Then he turned to the three students who stood eagerly around him. “I guess I should start by saying thanks. I owe all three of you. That said, how the hell did you get out of the Headmaster’s office?”
“M-m-m-master?” A small, terrified voice called out from the side hallway. Harry looked at the cowering elf and shook his head, unable to suppress a small grin. “Get yourself to safety, Hermys. We’ll discuss this another time.” The elf bowed his head and disappeared with a crack.
Outside the school boundaries, Harry heard the distinctive pops of apparition. At the same moment, the doors of the Great Hall parted and one of the Blood Order wizards poked his head out. With a sweep of his hand, Harry forced Dennis, Artie and Portia behind him and fired a stunner, knocking the man back inside. “The others are coming,” he said urgently, without taking his eyes off of the door. “Run to them. Make sure they find their way into the Great Hall. I have to go help Ron and Neville.” With that, Harry strode toward the large, wooden doors and the three teens bolted outside to take his message to the reinforcements advancing from the castle gates.
Neville focused hard on keeping his spells simple and defensively oriented. Peering over the table, he saw a handful of the roughly two dozen Blood Order wizards advancing on their position. He and Ron were walking a tricky line. If they fought too hard, their attackers would quickly suspect that they weren’t just a pair of errant teachers. If they didn’t fight hard enough, they would be overrun, removing all doubt. They both tried to pace their counter-attacks very deliberately, buying Harry as much time as possible.
“Where is he?” Ron grumbled as he parried a nasty cutting hex and forced a pair of wizards on the right to take cover under the Ravenclaw house table. “We can’t keep playing this game for much longer.”
“Maybe there were more guards at the front entrance than he expected,” Neville replied, casting a shield charm to repel a barrage of incoming curses. “Nick, can you check and see what’s taking so long?”
Sir Nicholas dutifully floated toward the front of the hall, attracting a brief burst of cursefire before the attackers realized that he was a ghost. Overhead, Peeves was still throwing whatever he could find at the Blood Order wizards and cackling like mad. “He hasn’t enjoyed himself this much since Professor Umbridge was dismissed from the school,” the Bloody Baron observed.
Neville shielded his face as an errant curse blasted a chunk out of the table he was hiding behind. “I’m glad one of us feels that way.”
“Cease fire! Cease fire!” Neville peeked over the table and saw one of the Blood Order wizards near the entrance to the hall shouting and waving his wand arm. With his free hand, he held a terrified-looking Lillian Potter by the back of her neck. Ron sighed and lowered his wand. Al’s youngest child was one of only two of Harry’s grandchildren to inherit her grandmother’s bright, auburn locks. It made her an obvious target. The gig was up. Neville hoped that whatever was keeping Harry, he resolved it quickly.
“Both of you, throw your wands out here and show yourselves, or the little Weasley brat is dead!”
Neville could see that Lillian was too terrified to even correct the man, and it made him want to hex somebody into next week. But it was too difficult a shot from all the way across the Great Hall, and there were plenty more Blood Order wizards to step into his place.
“Alright,” Ron shouted, “we’re going to stand up on the count of three, so nobody panic and start throwing curses.” Neville nodded approvingly. They would buy Harry every last second they could. Ron took a deep breath and paused for as long as he dared. “One.” Another deep breath. “Two.”
He never made it to three. The wizard holding Lillian was suddenly launched into the air. His body slammed into the stone wall near the ceiling, then he tumbled down and crashed onto one of the house tables. Chaos erupted in the hall as the Blood Order wizards rushed to find cover while they tried to figure out where the spell was cast from. The students who had been sitting in the middle of the floor were also scrambling to find places to hide. Neville noted with grim satisfaction that any of the Blood Order wizards who tried to seize one of the Potter or Weasley children were meeting a similar fate to the first one.
“He must be under the cloak somewhere!” Ron shouted over the cacophony. Neville followed his lead as he took advantage of the distraction to hurry around the end of the Staff table and rejoin the fight. On his right, Neville saw a group of Hufflepuff Third Years running for cover behind a stack of benches, and he conjured a wall of blue flames that forced two Blood Order wizards to abandon their pursuit. He started to duel the men two-on-one, turning aside a steady stream of curses as he probed for weaknesses in their defenses. They weren’t especially gifted duelists, but they were persistent and the students cowering nearby were front and center in Neville’s mind. If the attackers decided to make pawns of them, he would be in a difficult position indeed. So he maintained his defenses and waited for a chance at a knockout blow.
Across the room, Ron had already cut through the first wave of opponents like a scythe. Neville found himself wishing that his old friend would be less methodical and ruthless. The trick to managing the situation was allowing the Blood Order to believe that they were still in control. Once that was taken from them, Neville feared that they would fall back on less honorable tactics. Tactics like threatening the students with harm.
Near the front windows of the hall, a man shouted, “He’s hiding behind those benches! Cut him down!” Neville shuddered as a hail of cursefire tore into a stack of benches, sending smoking chunks of wood flying through the air in all directions. Even the two wizards he was dueling were distracted by the furious barrage, enough so that he was able to knock one of them out with a powerful stunner to the head. As he fought on, Neville couldn’t help but feel a bit sick at the possibility that Harry had been discovered. The sickness quickly passed as his remaining opponent was struck by a knockback jinx of undetermined origin and sent flying through the air.
“Start working your way toward the doors,” came a low, familiar voice from somewhere nearby. “The others should be storming through the front entrance any second now. We’re going to need to get the kids out of here so we can take on the rest of the Blood Order without endangering them.”
Neville began to slide sideways, placing himself in front of the wall filled with cowering students and focusing his defenses on the large group of Blood Order wizards amassed near the rear of the hall. Across the room, the wizards Ron was dueling were suddenly struck by a whip of blue-white magical energy. They weren’t knocked out, but it was enough of a distraction for Harry to toss the invisibility cloak to Ron and take up the battle personally. Ron quickly disappeared and seconds later Neville saw a wizard with an ugly scar across his face collapse to the flagstones in a Bodybind curse just as he was about to seize a fleeing Slytherin boy by the neck.
“It’s Potter!” shouted one of the attackers. “Five hundred galleons to the man who takes him down!” Neville felt a grim appreciation for the genius of Harry’s tactics. All eyes were on him while the panicked, scurrying students went largely unnoticed. Somewhere in the thick of things, Ron was picking off any of the Blood Order wizards who tried to accost the children. It seemed like there was a slim chance that everybody would make it out alive.
Neville felt a wave of relief as the doors of the Great Hall flew open. Arthur, Bill and George Weasley burst in, flanked by Fleur and Angelina. Behind them came Draco Malfoy, Seamus Finnigan, Dean Thomas and Justin Finch-Fletchley. Their wands slashed through the air as they launched a broadside at the Blood Order wizards grouped near the back of the Great Hall. Taking advantage of the element of surprise, they drove their opponents away from the doors, creating a narrow path for the students to escape.
“Move toward the door!” Neville shouted over his shoulder as he shielded his young charges from the barrage of cursefire that filled the cavernous room. The students scrambled to get out, keeping their heads down as they ran. Several of them appeared to be nursing injuries and one or two were being carried by their classmates. Outside, Neville could hear Molly Weasley and Luna shouting instructions to the fleeing children, directing them to safety.
Across the hall, he could see Harry taking on three wizards in dark robes. With no more need to give them a false sense of security, he was mounting an intense counterattack, firing at least two spells at them for every one he was forced to defend against. The three eventually broke ranks and scrambled in various directions. Harry was able to hit one of them square in the back as he tried to make his way to his mates who were fighting with Bill and George. The other two were heading toward Neville, forcing him to mix a few curses into his defensive spellwork to keep them at bay.
Sensing that they were on the verge of being hemmed in, the group of Blood Order Wizards at the rear of the hall began to drift outward. Harry was forced to fall back toward the Staff table as he worked to keep any of them from getting behind him. Ron had finally abandoned the invisibility cloak, apparently judging it to be more of a danger to himself than a benefit in a room where curses were flying everywhere. He stood four paces from Harry’s position, trying to keep their opponents contained in the crossfire being laid down from the doors of the Great Hall. Unfortunately, the task proved too much even for Ron and Harry as several of the attackers broke ranks and spilled past them, forcing Neville to spread his defenses as the fight fanned out across the hall.
Neville felt like he was keeping track of a hundred things at once as his eyes scanned the room, trying to follow their opponents and predict their next move. Several seemed to be heading back toward the Staff table, which was an odd choice, considering that there was no escape from that part of the room. He chanced a look down the length of the wall and suddenly felt his breath catch in his throat. Huddled behind one of the house tables was a small group of terrified First Years. Two of the kids appeared to have shut down completely, holding their knees to their chests and burying their faces in their arms. Two others were doing their best to coax their friends into moving, but having no luck.
Neville motioned to Fleur and Seamus to protect the older students who had almost reached the doors and then broke into a trot toward the First Years. He had to stop and drop into a crouch before he got anywhere near them, however, as several of the Blood Order wizards saw him and fired a barrage of curses to block his path. Across the hall, Ron and Harry were still struggling to contain the larger group of attackers and unaware of the youngsters’ predicament.
“Grab those little brats!” came a voice from the cluster of remaining Blood Order wizards near the back of the hall. “We’ll bargain our way out!” The gauntlet had clearly been thrown down. To assist their mates, the attackers who were farther away launched an intense barrage of curses at Neville, hampering his efforts to get to the terrified children. He managed to hit one of the wizards in the side with a spell and then crouched behind a shield charm that was immediately pummeled with a barrage of curses. That left one attacker still bearing down on the First Years with unmistakable malice in his eyes.
Neville realized that he was attracting the majority of the cursefire coming from the far corner. The blasts of red, blue and purple light crashing into his shield charms were nearly blinding him and his back was being showered with bits of shattered stone from the errant curses striking the wall. He poured all of his energy into his defenses as he watched the sole remaining attacker make his way toward the cowering youngsters. Neville realized that he was going to have to make a choice that would likely prove fatal for somebody. He cast the most powerful shield charm he could manage in front of himself and turned his focus toward the wizard stalking his students.
At that instant, the man stumbled and collapsed to the floor. Neville’s head spun back toward the door and he cast another shield charm just as the previous one was buckling under the onslaught. He spied Fleur Weasley crouched on one knee with her wand pointed toward the attacker. In spite of the blackened slash across her shoulder, she had managed to hit him with a curse from well over thirty paces, and Neville would have sprinted across the room and hugged her if he hadn’t been fighting to stay alive. With the crisis averted, Neville stole a look at Harry and Ron, who were directing a withering counterattack toward the cadre of wizards in the far corner. With a little luck, they might be able to keep their opponents occupied long enough for Neville to rescue the youngsters.
Turning his attention back to the hail of cursefire still pummeling his defenses, Neville wasn’t sure why they were still so focused on him. With their last chance of seizing the group of First Years eliminated, he felt certain that they would have redirected their attack toward the defenders guarding the doors that led out of the hall. It was their last, best chance to escape. What was he missing?
He stole another look behind himself and to his horror, he realized that the wizard going after the First Years wasn’t knocked out after all. His legs were immobilized, but his upper body continued to drag his useless lower half across the flagstones. He had a crazed look in his eyes, one that suggested survival was no longer his paramount consideration. When he was scarcely ten feet from the children, he propped himself up on one elbow and raised his wand arm high above his head. The vicious sneer on his face made it clear that he was out for blood.
“HARRY!” Neville shouted. The name echoed through the hall, seemingly amplified by the panic he felt. The din of spells cracking and people shouting faded into the background and he locked eyes with the man he first met on the Hogwarts Express as he searched for his pet toad. He knew in an instant that it was no good. Harry was too far away. Too consumed with fighting the men in front of him. The beseeching look he was directing toward his old friend melted into a sad smile. He shrugged his shoulders slightly, hoping against all reasonable expectations that Harry would understand this was his choice and his alone.
“Protego Maxima!” Neville turned as he shouted the incantation and cast a wall of shimmering, translucent energy in front of the terrified children. A fraction of a second later, a blasting curse that would have reduced them to cinders erupted against it. The curse mushroomed outward, rebounding off of Neville’s shield and killing the wizard who cast it instantly. As the explosion echoed through the Great Hall, Neville felt the shield charm protecting his body buckle and collapse. Before he could even shift his wand, he was struck by half a dozen lethal curses. As he landed on the cold stone floor, he could feel the heat of battle giving way to an icy chill.
Harry’s anguished yell sounded muted to Neville, as though it was coming from very far away. Peering through the hazy air, he wondered whether he was imagining things when the Ravenclaw house table at Harry’s side suddenly rose into the air and hurled itself into the remaining Blood Order wizards with the force of a locomotive. The world began to grow dim. Neville didn’t hear the shouts of alarm or the screams of the injured and dying. Everything collapsed to a single face hovering in front of his eyes. A familiar, friendly face with round glasses and a lightning-shaped scar on its forehead.
“Neville,” the distant voice called out. “Can you hear me?” Panic. Guilt. Anguish. The voice was saturated with emotion, but Neville could only think of a single concern.
“Harry. Promise me you’ll take care of her.”
His own voice was like a whisper from the shore of a vast sea as he felt himself starting to drift away.
“Who? Take care of who, Neville?”
He was drifting farther and farther. Peace. Serenity. A calm like he had never known.
“Hogwarts, Harry. Promise me you’ll take care of her.”
The voice was impossibly far away. More like a memory than anything else.
“I promise. Just stick with us, Neville. Dammit, don’t die!”
And then it was gone, and Neville Longbottom smiled as his spirit slowly melted into the sea of the great beyond.
Thank you to everyone who has been a part of Conspiracy of Blood by reading and reviewing. After almost 20,000 chapter-reads and over 550 reviews, I am in awe of the reception my story has received and humbled by the kindness of my reviewers. This chapter once again ended with a very difficult choice for me. I know it will upset many of you. I only ask that you let me finish the story before you pass final judgment. Everything happens for a reason.
Thanks, as always, to my amazing beta reader, sophie_hatter. Just so you know, she tried to talk me out of killing Neville. Show her some love by checking out her story, Evolution (M), which is getting really, really good right about now.
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