- Discussion-Child Abuse
- Canon Divergent
- Established Relationship
- Time Travel
“Superficially, she’s a death adder,” Banner said roughly.
Ragnok raised an eyebrow and walked around the magical field Banner was using to hold Nagini. Banner had returned to the bank and immediately requested that Carter Meyers come in. Meyers had dual masteries in curse-breaking and creature management. Meyers was leaning against the wall in the back of the high-security vault, stone-faced.
“There are no irregularities in her appearance,” Ragnok said. The snake was watching him, which was off-putting, to say the least. “Her vision appears to be abnormal.”
“That was my first clue,” Banner admitted. “She sees and far more than just shapes like a snake of her species should. Even magical snakes normally have poor eyesight.” He glanced toward Meyers.
“She has superior eyesight for a serpent,” Meyers said roughly. “But this is no snake.”
Ragnok accepted that with a nod. “Cursed animagus?”
“Maledictus,” Banner murmured. “She’s probably close to a hundred years old. The curse is fulfilled, and it can’t be reversed. How she allowed herself to be reduced to this, I don’t know. I’ve never known a maledictus to accept the permanent transformation. Normally, they make arrangements to end their life before accepting such an existence.”
“Someone broke her,” Meyers said. “Emotionally or mentally, perhaps both. I could do some research into her origin, but in the end, the only humane thing to do is kill her. She’s living a hellish existence and doesn’t deserve to exist as that foul bastard’s pet.”
“We’ll prepare her for the ritual,” Ragnok said finally. “If she survives the petition, then her life will be ended as painlessly as possible. There is no need to torture her with the removal of the horcrux only to kill her later.”
“Granted,” Meyers said. “I’d like to put her in stasis then—so she’ll not have to suffer this condition a single moment more.”
“Agreed,” Banner said roughly. “Seeing her like this—knowing her humanity has been permanently stripped from her is galling.”
Ragnok nodded. “Very well, I leave her in your capable hands, Master Meyers. Banner will retain the key to this vault until it’s time for the ritual. I trust your stasis spells, but for her own safety, one of you should check on her every day to ensure she’s not fought free of it. I wouldn’t want her to starve to death while we prepare for the ritual.”
“We’ll take care of her, sir,” Banner said. “It’s the least we can do.”
“And clearly more than anyone else ever did,” Ragnok said with a grimace and left the vault. He paused out on the platform and focused on Nagini once more. “Do your research, Master Meyers, so we can honor her culture at the time of her death. If she has family left in the world, they should have her remains at the end, and if not, we will memorialize her ourselves.”
“Will you tell Harry?” Banner questioned.
Ragnok couldn’t tell what the wizard’s preference was, but he saw nothing to be gained from keeping secrets from Potter when it came to matters involving Riddle and his horcruxes. “I will. There is no telling how things will shake out during the petition, and it wouldn’t do for him to be taken by surprise in such a situation.”
“Do you think Zirnitra will actually respond?” Meyers questioned. “It’s been many hundreds of years since he was visibly amongst us. Some even begin to question whether or not he’s still with us.”
“Those that would question the continued existence of the Black Dragon know nothing of magic,” Ragnok said roughly. “And, yes, I’m certain that will Zirnitra will respond personally to the petition.” He paused. “My real concern is that he won’t be the only one.” He just shrugged when Meyers’ mouth dropped open. “Potter’s magical legacy is fraught with matters I’m not at liberty to discuss.”
“Of course,” Carter said and nodded. “If he wants to see her…should we allow it?”
“Yes, for both of their sakes,” Ragnok said and left.
– – – –
They landed on the outskirts of the Forbidden forest near Hagrid’s hut. Harry pulled his cloak closer and took a deep breath as the warming charms settled closer to his skin. He hadn’t worn the cloak since Ragnok had revealed it to be a Deathly Hallow, but even knowing that it had once graced Death’s own back didn’t really put him off. He felt safe in the cloak. He always had.
The map showed the school to be almost empty. The house-elves remained, and Minerva McGonagall was in her quarters. There were a handful of students, but it was late at night, so they were all asleep. Harry wondered where Dumbledore was and why McGonagall had been left to manage the whole castle by herself. Even Filch was gone. Ragnok shifted closer to him.
“Call your elf,” the dverger instructed.
The elf appeared in front of them and leaned forward a little. “Is Master Harry playing a game?”
“In a way, yes,” Harry agreed. “Dobby, can you see my companions?”
“No, but I be feeling them,” Dobby said. “One dverger and two wizards.” He rocked on his heels. “What kind of game you be playing?”
“We have to sneak into the castle and find something,” Harry said. “Why is Professor McGonagall the only professor here?”
“Dumbles or Professor Kitty must stay at all times with the big wards activated. Other professors leave, so wards settle and get strong.”
“Big wards,” Harry murmured. “Do you mean war wards? Did Dumbledore activate the defensive wards to protect the school?”
“Oh, yes, keep out bad wizards,” he paused. “And…others he think be dark.”
“Like the dverger,” Harry surmised. “Will the wards allow me to enter?”
“Wards not hurt students,” Dobby assured.
“But not my companions?” Harry questioned.
“Big wards hurt your friends, Harry Potter.” Dobby shook his head. “Dobby sorry.”
“It’s not your fault, Dobby,” Harry said. “Thank you for your help. I’ll be going to the Room of Requirement tonight. Can you help me if I get in trouble?”
“Dobby always help Harry Potter,” the elf exclaimed then popped away.
“No way in hell am I sending you into that school alone,” Ragnok said huffily. “My life wouldn’t be worth living if Lenore found out.”
“You can’t enter, and I’m not sure Master Banner or Meyers can either without significant injury,” Harry pointed out. “Or their entry would alert Dumbledore. I don’t think Professor McGonagall would attempt to hold me hostage if she catches me.”
“You don’t know how that old bastard has spelled her,” Thaddeus interjected. “Going in alone is a mistake.”
Harry unfolded the map and activated it with a murmur. He shifted it until he could see the Gryffindor tower. It wasn’t much of a surprise to find it almost empty. “There isn’t a Weasley in the place, so that’s something.”
“Your prior experience with an horcrux doesn’t equal the ability to withstand whatever magic might be on the diadem,” Ragnok said. “Lenore’s visions of it are unclear. We don’t know how it’s cursed.”
“I imagine it’s cursed to be used,” Harry said. “Like all the others—cursed to be used as they’re intended to be used so the horcrux within can gain power and knowledge. Wear the ring, write in the diary, wear the locket, wear the diadem…” He trailed off with a frown. “Except for Nagini, whose very magical existence seems to be fueling the one she carries. This is the best time to try for this one, and you know it.”
“I do know it,” Ragnok said. “For fuck’s sake. Banner return to the bank and bring Hermione to us.”
“Sir?” Thaddeus asked in surprise.
“She’s a student, too. The heart of Dumbledore’s complaints to the ICW is that both Potter and Granger are currently enrolled at Hogwarts and can’t be removed as students because of the freeze on most of the ministry’s departments. Besides, she’s done more to keep him alive since she met him than I ever will,” Ragnok muttered. “He needs someone to watch his back in this, and she’s the only choice we have due to the warding situation.”
Banner apparated with a faint pop.
Harry closed the map with trembling hands. “I didn’t want her to more involved than she already is.”
“Give me another choice,” Ragnok ordered because he really wanted one.
“I don’t have one,” Harry admitted. “We’ve seen what a horcrux will do to a house-elf, so I don’t want to risk him. He doesn’t deserve to be used that way.” He sighed when there was another faint pop.
It wasn’t too much of a surprise when Hermione’s hand slipped into his despite his use of the cloak. She’d always been able to find him when he wore it. He squeezed her fingers gently.
“We might have to fight our way out,” he said roughly. “Can you handle that?”
“We’ve got some save-the-world stuff going on, Harry, so yeah, I can handle it,” Hermione said. “We can fly up to one of the towers using your broom. The less we have to move around the school, the better. There could be alarms on the gates and front doors.”
“Yeah,” Harry murmured and prodded his bracelet to remove his broom. “We should avoid doing magic inside the school, so end your disillusionment charm.” He pulled off his cloak and let his broom hover beside them. “Dobby.”
The elf popped back in front of him.
“Hermione and I are going into the school. I want you to stay here with Chieftain Ragnok so he can let me know if anything happens out here that’s a problem. I’ll call for you if we get captured.”
“Dobby stay,” the house-elf agreed and happily sat down in a patch of moonlight.
Harry passed the cloak to Hermione and swung a leg over the broom then offered her his hand. She slid on behind him, hooked her feet over his, and whipped the cloak in the air around them. It settled over them both and clung gently. There was a tap to his broom, and it disappeared with a shimmer of magic.
“A simple finite will restore it,” Ragnok murmured. “Don’t hesitate to stun anyone who gets in your way, Harry. You can’t afford to be gentle about it. I think you both know that Dumbledore would do a lot to gain custody of you. The ICW would have to lay siege to this place to get you back.” He took in a noisy breath. “Don’t touch the diadem if you can avoid it. The highly magical circumstances of the Room of Requirement should hide any magic you do from the wards.” A moleskin pouch appeared in the air in front of him. “It’s currently empty.”
Harry took the pouch and flicked it into his bracelet. “We can handle this, sir.”
“Take no chances with Dumbledore, lad, you know exactly what you stand to lose if you fall victim to his machinations.”
Hermione’s arms tightened around his waist.
“I’ll remember.” He used his free hand to cover hers briefly then lifted the broom up into the air. “Hold on, Mi.”
“I will.” She pressed against his back and her hands clenched against his stomach.
He was glad, suddenly, that they’d spent so much time flying around Agharti. She moved with him easily as he flew high above the forest. There was a little brush of warmth against his cheeks despite the outside temperature as they passed over the ward boundary.
“Okay?” he asked.
“Yeah, no weird feelings,” she said against his hair. “You?”
“Just got a little warm. I think it was an environmental ward. They use them Agharti over the community fields. Though it felt a little simple compared.”
“Dverger warding magic is very complicated compared to what witches and wizards can lay on their own without resorting to blood magic, which most are loathe to do,” Hermione explained and huffed. “Sorry, you know that.”
He laughed a little. “I did know, but it comforts you to share information when you’re nervous, so it’s fine.”
She pulled the cloak closer to their bodies, and it seemed to clutch to his clothes. “Thanks.”
He made a loop around the tower he’d chosen, which was fairly close to the stairs they could take to get to the third floor without using the main staircase. Harry flew away from the tower and stopped the broom as he turned to face the school. He pulled the map from his bracelet and passed it to her.
“Check to make sure the way is clear.”
She pressed the map against his back and whispered the activation phrase. After a few moments, she whispered, “It looks clear.”
“I’m worried that Ron might have told Dumbledore about the map. What if he figured out how to hide from it?”
“He has no reason to think we’d return to the school,” Harry pointed out.
“But he has plenty of reasons for not wanting to be tracked in his own school by an artifact not in his control.” Hermione huffed a little. “I don’t think we have a choice, but we need to be very careful once we get into the school.”
Harry moved forward and hesitated only briefly to lower the broom, so his feet touched the floor. They dismounted the broom together, her grip tightened briefly as the cloak moved around him. He shifted her to his side and pulled the hood over their heads more securely.
“Stay close to me,” he murmured as he stored the broom and pulled his wand then took her hand. “Anything moving?”
“No,” she murmured and frowned at the map. “I hate that I’m not sure we can trust it. Plus, Dumbledore found you while you were wearing this cloak,” Hermione pointed out.
“Because he had tracking charms on me,” Harry reminded. “If I can hide from Death with this thing, then what hope does Dumbledore actually have without his little tricks?”
“True,” Hermione said.
They moved down the stairs quickly and quietly then paused at the entrance to the hallway. Hermione checked the map again and gave him a silent nod. He tightened his hold on her hand briefly, and they turned down the hall to head for the troll tapestry. Thankfully, it was exactly where he remembered it to be, which was honestly kind of weird since the castle had a habit of rearranging herself on some unknown schedule.
“You do it,” she whispered.
I need a place to hide something, he thought repeatedly, and together they moved back and forth in front of the tapestry three times. A door was revealed, and Harry released her hand to grab the knob. They slipped into the room quickly, and he let himself relax a little. The door disappeared behind them.
“Right.” He pulled the cloak off of them and stored it in his bracelet. “Any movement?”
“Nothing that I can see,” she said with a huff. “If Ron did tell Dumbledore about this bloody map, I’m going to…do far more than I already have planned.”
Harry grinned at her. “I did take note of the whole series of columns you wrote about emotional and verbal abuse. Practically every girl in Gryffindor has to know you’re talking about him in those examples.”
“Yes, well, he is a verbally abusive git, and that’s probably the sort of thing that would escalate if he was allowed a single bit of leeway,” Hermione said and folded the map. She tucked it into the pocket of her jeans and looked around the room. “Right, the journal said it was down the middle row hanging on some statue.”
“Remind me to take the vanishing cabinet on our way out,” Harry said. “The chieftain said it was instrumental in Death Eaters getting into the school during our original sixth year. He’s still trying to track down the other end of it—it hasn’t shown up in the shop Malfoy bought it from yet.”
“They probably won’t even try to buy it if the partner isn’t here at Hogwarts,” Hermione said. “Though they might try to import a pair, but they’re stupidly rare and very expensive. The Malfoy’s don’t have as much money as they would like, and Narcissa no longer has access to the Black family trust.” She slipped her hand back into his. “This room is fascinating, I wish my other self had written more about it.”
“The journal was pretty focused on the war and the horcruxes,” Harry said. “So give her a break.”
Hermione laughed. “Right.”
Within a few moments, they were standing in front of the statue holding the diadem. They might have overlooked it if they weren’t looking for it, which was probably what Riddle had intended. Harry pulled the pouch and his athame from his bracelet and offered Hermione the bag. She gamely opened it wide enough to accommodate the diadem.
“He’s a real arrogant arsehole,” Harry muttered as he hooked the ritual knife under the diadem and very carefully lifted it off the statue. “Just leaving this here out in the open like it’s no big deal at all.”
“The horcruxes are a means to an end,” Hermione said and averted her gaze. “It’s very tempting.”
Harry focused on her. “What?”
“I mean, even if it wasn’t swamped in compelling magic, I’d probably want to put it on because it belonged to Rowena Ravenclaw.” She bit down on her lip. “Don’t you want to wear it?”
“No, it looks hideous to me,” Harry admitted roughly. “I feel like putting it on would be agonizing.” He dropped it into the pouch then took it from her. He closed the bag then stored it and the athame in his bracelet. “Are you okay?”
“It’s better now,” Hermione admitted. “I mean, I could ignore the compulsion, but it was stronger than I expected it to be considering the experience we had with the diary. In retrospect, do you think it made you write in it?”
“No,” Harry said. “But, I do wonder if Ginny had to be cajoled into doing what she did or if she was on board with trying to kill you with the basilisk.”
Hermione made a face. “Don’t give me another reason to curse her, Harry. My list is already extremely long.” She pulled the map out of her pocket and unfolded it. “Oh.”
“Oh?” Harry questioned.
“Dumbledore is at the bottom of the tower we used to enter the school.” She huffed. “I guess he couldn’t figure out how the map worked without having it in hand. The wards must have told him someone entered the school via broom.”
“Well, he knows a student used a broom to enter the school,” Harry said. “Maybe he knows it’s me. We should work under the assumption that he’s waiting on me to try to leave that way.” He shifted around to look at the map. Dumbledore started to move down the hall toward them.
“Put on the cloak,” she said.
“Put on the cloak, and I’ll act as a distraction,” she decided and folded the map up.
“No way,” he protested hotly. “He could hurt you!”
“At most, he’ll take me hostage to try to manipulate you,” Hermione said. “But he won’t have a hope of keeping custody of me, the International Brouhaha is still going on, and the ministry can’t protect him.”
“No,” Harry said firmly. “Being in his custody for even a bloody minute could ruin your fucking life.” Her cheeks flushed.
“No, buts,” Harry said firmly. “I’d count myself no sort of wizard at all if I allowed you to do this. That old arsehole out there has no idea what either of us is capable of, and maybe it’s time he got a lesson. He won’t expect us to attack first, so that’s what we’ll do.” He took her hand and pulled her toward the door.
“He knows we’re here,” Harry said. “I don’t want to risk him taking the cloak from me. The last thing that arsehole needs is two Deathly Hallows.”
“This is the most Gryffindor thing you’ve ever done,” Hermione complained. “When we get out of this—I’m going to lecture you for hours, Harry Potter. I’m going to take turns with Mistress Omis!”
Harry grinned at her. “We’ll both need room to move, so when I let go of your hand, that’s your sign to draw your wand and treat Dumbledore like the worst enemy you’ve ever known.” He grew serious. “His survival may not be an option.”
Her eyes widened. “Harry.” She wet her lips.
“Save-the-world stuff, yeah?”
She smiled briefly, but tears were welling in her eyes. “You’re right—our only hope of beating him is to take him unaware.”
He pulled his wand and gently tapped her head. She disappeared with a shimmer of magic, he did the same to himself. “He might be able to detect that we’re here, but if he can’t see who he’s facing, he might hesitate further. The wards should’ve told him that he’s dealing with students.”
“He can’t afford to outright kill you,” Hermione murmured.
Which worked to his advantage, and Harry knew he needed all the advantages he could get. “If you have any opportunity to take his wand—do it,” Harry said roughly.
“Right.” Hermione took a deep audible breath, and her fingers clenched against his. “Let’s go.”
“I love you,” he blurted out and felt his face heat despite the fact that she couldn’t actually see him. “You’re the truest and most amazing part of my life, Hermione. Don’t ever doubt it.”
“Harry Potter, who told you that right before a fight is the proper time to tell a witch such a thing?” she demanded. “You’re the worst.”
He laughed and opened the door. The hall was quiet, and the portraits were empty. As the door closed and disappeared, Harry noted that the trolls were no longer dancing. The silence was disturbing, it was as if the whole school had been put into some kind of stasis. Dumbledore’s impact on the wards had never been more evident.
They rounded the corner and saw him. Dumbledore was standing in the center of the hallway in front of them, near the entrance to the tower they’d used. Harry wondered if they could enter one of the empty classrooms and push past the safety charms on a window. The older wizard drew his wand in a dramatic fashion, and Harry rolled his eyes. He really bloody hated drama.
“I’m surprised you’ve made this so easy for me, Harry,” Dumbledore said. “What could’ve possibly caused you to leave your little goblin nest?”
Harry let go of Hermione’s hand and moved away from her. He stepped forward several steps, and Dumbledore’s gaze stayed on him. “Tracking charm?”
“The wards marked your magical signature the moment you crossed the boundary,” Dumbledore said. “Impressed?”
“That you knowingly violated an underage wizard’s privacy?” Harry questioned. “Not at all. More and more, I’ve come to realize that you’re utterly corrupt. Some days, I wonder if I’m meant to defeat Riddle or you.”
“I’m the leader of the light,” Dumbledore said as he moved closer. “Everything would’ve been easier for all involved if you’d just done as you were told, Harry. You’ve caused a lot of good people to lose their jobs at the ministry. The ICW is intruding on matters that are none of their business, and that is your fault as well. In the end, many could very well die, and you’ll be to blame.”
“For a war that started decades before I was born?” Harry laughed. “Stop trying to gaslight me, you disgusting old bastard. Who Riddle kills is on him, and those that die because of your machinations and secrets is on you. It would do your mental health a world of good if you recognized that. All these years later, you’re still blaming Gellert Grindelwald for Arianna’s death when it was your fault he was anywhere near her, to begin with.”
“What do you know about my sister?” Dumbledore demanded. “What lies have those little beasts told you?”
Harry laughed. “I got an advanced copy of a book my good friend Rita is writing. She’s going to make money hand over fist, making your golden years a misery. I honestly look forward to it. Maybe you’ll suffer enough before you die to make up for the life I had with the Dursleys.”
Dumbledore glared openly at him and flicked his wand. A silent spell sailed toward Harry, and he drew his staff. “Expelliarmus!” He dodged the spell just as Dumbledore crumpled to the ground, and the Elder Wand flip through the air. He caught it with a shocked huff.
Minerva McGonagall appeared in a flash of magic and casually hit Dumbledore with three different silent spells. The last one caused ropes to whip around the old wizard roughly. “Potter?”
He ended his disillusionment spell. “Professor…you…” He wet his lips as Hermione appeared beside him and glanced her way.
“I was trying to work my way behind him, so I could stun him,” Hermione admitted with a flush and glanced toward their head of house who was glaring at him. “Ma’am.”
“You bloody reckless little cubs,” she hissed. “What could possibly make you come here?”
“I can’t say,” Harry said. “I wish we could tell you truly.”
“He’s locked down the wards, and I don’t have the power to overrule him, not magically or within the warding scheme,” Minerva said. “No one is leaving without his permission. He probably has reinforcements coming, so we have to get you out of here. Neither Snape nor Moody is to be trifled with.” She took Hermione’s hand as she passed between them and tugged her along. “Come, Potter, put away that ridiculous staff and show me the entrance to the Chamber of Secrets.”
“It’s in Myrtle’s bathroom,” Harry replied. He stored his staff and the Elder Wand before drawing his own wand. “Are you going to get in trouble?”
“My time here at Hogwarts is over for the time being,” Minerva said. “But I knew that was coming when I refused to rejoin the Order of the Phoenix.”
Harry considered that. Part of him wanted her to be safe from Dumbledore, but he realized there were students in the school who needed her. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s not your fault, lad, he’s been trying to find a reason to fire me since he realized I wouldn’t allow him to use me to persuade the two of to return to Hogwarts,” Minerva said. “I have a safe place to land with my man.”
“Your man?” Hermione questioned with a smile.
“Yes, Potter met him earlier in the year.”
Harry was really certainly he’d remember that. He scowled as he followed after them. “Which one of those old wizards are you dating? Bertrand? He’s French, and he has a foul mouth. Ito? He’s thousands of years old, and I think he’s a womanizer, Professor.” He huffed when she just shot him a look as they entered the bathroom. “Is it High Warlock Sarr? I’m torn between being shocked and proud. He’s half your age.”
“Harry! Mind your own business.” Hermione glared at him, then looked around the bathroom. “Well, where is it?”
“The sinks move,” Harry said with a frown toward his head of house.
“You kicked him out of a meeting just as the International Brouhaha started, lad. Don’t worry, he was quite impressed with your operational security,” McGonagall said as she closed the door to the bathroom and threw several charms at it.
“Croaker?” Harry frowned. “You’re dating someone who works for the ministry? Have you met Chief Justice Bertrand? I mean, his mouth is foul, but he heads the world court, so he has a great job and isn’t corrupt.”
“Unspeakables work for the Crown,” Hermione retorted and shook her head. “Stay out of her love life.”
“I’m just concerned,” Harry protested. “I haven’t even properly met this wizard! I don’t even know his name. He could be a Death Eater.”
“I hardly need your protection, Potter,” Minerva said sharply. “Open this entryway so we can get the hell out of here before I have to pick a fight with someone.”
“His name is Jonah McGregor,” Hermione said. “It was in the paper. High Warlock Sarr insisted that the heads of each department be publicly accountable, and McGregor removed his hood in an open session of the World Court.”
Harry found the little snake and hissed, “Open.” He winced at the slide. “Let me go down first so I can make sure neither of you gets hurt with the landing.” He jumped before they could actively protest.
He landed on a pile of debris which hurt, honestly, because it was mostly rubble from the cave-in. He banished as much of it away as he could and called up, “Okay.”
A few moments passed, and he caught Hermione easily. She sent him a sour look at that told him he was going to get a lecture about her abilities and his sexism at the next available opportunity. She joined him on the other side of the exit, and they caught their professor together.
McGonagall huffed a little and smoothed out her dress. “Bloody Slytherin couldn’t make a proper set of steps, could he?” She brushed dirt from her robe. “Thank you for your chivalry, Potter. It’s practically a lost art in the world today.”
Hermione rolled her eyes at him when he smirked at her.
“Okay, the chamber is this way,” Harry pointed ahead. “The snake had a nesting area hidden behind the statue.”
“Yes, this is outside the wards, and Albus repeatedly complained about not being able to find the entrance to the chamber or a parselmouth that would help him. The last one he tried to hire told him that he’d rather not put himself at odds with the future Patron of the Horde.” She shot Harry a knowing look. “Apparently, killing a basilisk down here made the chamber your domain as far as other parselmouths are concerned.”
Harry figured it might be more about the Glain Neidr than anything else, but he just nodded. “Honestly, Professor, the headmaster isn’t exactly making friends left and right with his politics and racism.”
“He used to be much better at hiding it,” Minerva admitted. “Filius put in his notice with the school governors. He said he cannot work for a wizard of Dumbledore’s low moral fiber and still maintain any level of self-respect.”
“Maybe they should just fire him and Snape before the whole staff leaves,” Hermione muttered.
Harry couldn’t agree more, but he focused on the door and hissed for it to open. He’d expected the smell of decay to be overwhelming. The chamber torches lit as he entered highlighting the looming body of the snake.
“Oh my fucking god,” Hermione whispered in a horrified tone.
“Miss Granger,” Minerva said faintly. “Your language.”
“Look at it,” Hermione said, and her voice broke a little.
“It’s fine,” Harry said and took her hand. “I promise. It can’t hurt you ever again.”
“I barely saw it in the mirror,” Hermione whispered. “I had no idea it was this big, Harry. God, you were just twelve.”
“It’s worth a lot of money,” McGonagall said shortly and pointed her wand at it. It shrank dramatically, and she threw a few spells at it. “Put that in your dimensional store, Potter, and sell it for yourself. It’s your kill, after all.”
Harry summoned it with a grimace, caught it, and tossed it in his bracelet. “How much money?”
“More than enough for a very comfortable life,” Minerva said. She looked around the chamber. “How did the snake get out here? You said she had a nest? She had to have been hunting in the Forbidden Forest since Riddle woke her while he was a student.”
Harry focused on the statue of Salazar Slytherin. “Speak to me, Slytherin, greatest of the Hogwarts Four!” The door opened, revealing a tunnel.
Hermione drew her wand, and the tip lit with a lumos charm.
“Nice silent spell work, Miss Granger,” McGonagall praised. “500 points to Gryffindor.” She smirked and stalked off ahead of them.
“I think she just took one final chance to stick it to Snape,” Harry said in wonder.
Hermione giggled. “I’ve never earned so many points at once before.”
Harry just tugged her down the tunnel. “Wait for me, Professor, there could be traps or whatnot.”
“I’m a grown witch, Potter,” McGonagall snapped over her shoulder.
“Yeah, of course, but you don’t speak parseltongue at all,” he exclaimed with a huff as they picked up their pace and drew even with her. “Honestly.”
“If this is how you are all the time now, I don’t know how Miss Granger puts up with you,” McGonagall said tartly.
Shortly, they were at a large iron gate. The forest spread out on the other side of it.
“I wonder how close we are to the acromantula colony,” McGonagall said with a frown.
“Very far,” Harry assured. “Chieftain Ragnok approached Hagrid in October about moving the colony into Agharti for their own safety. I’m kind of surprised Hagrid hasn’t let that little secret out.”
“Hagrid stopped coming into the castle after the first few articles about Dumbledore,” Minerva admitted. “He’s quite hurt by the whole thing. He thought Albus was a good man but to be slapped in the face with how he really feels about other magical creatures…it’s been very difficult for many of us. The centaur threatened to murder him if he sets foot on their land again. The merfolk in the lake presented a petition to the ICW to be migrated to another location.”
“Again,” Harry began, “It would be easier to fire him.”
“You aren’t the only thinking it,” Minerva assured, she pointed her wand at the iron gate, and a spell shot out which made the whole thing swing open with a loud whine. “Did you two come here alone?”
“No, we had a whole team, but my house-elf warned me that the wards would keep them out.” Harry pulled out his still-invisible broom as they left the tunnel, and McGonagall closed the gate behind them. “I’ll have to fly high above the forest to find their location. Where will you go, Professor?”
“I have a safe house,” Minerva said and glanced back toward Hogwarts. “Dumbledore has probably worked his way free of those stunning spells and the incarceration spell I used. Do you have your cloak? Where’s your broom?”
He pulled out the cloak and passed it to Hermione. “My broom is in my hand. Chieftain Ragnok spelled it invisible.” He slid astride the broom, and Hermione clamored on board behind him. She threw the cloak on but didn’t put up the hood. “You’re sure you’ll be safe, ma’am? I can arrange for you to have quarters in the bank for a while.”
“Don’t worry about me,” Minerva instructed. “Off with you now—I’ll write the two of you a letter when I’m settled.”
Hermione pulled the hood up over them, and Harry turned his broom back toward the forest near Hagrid’s hut as McGonagall apparated away with a faint snap. He settled for a flight path just above the trees to lower a chance of anyone seeing anything, and shortly, he was landing just shy of the spot where Dobby still sat.
“Are either of you hurt,” Ragnok demanded as he appeared.
Banner and Meyers ended their disillusion charms as well.
“No, sir, we’re fine,” Harry said. “Mission accomplished.” Hermione left the broom first and took the cloak with her, so Harry flicked the pouch out of his bracelet and offered it to the chieftain. “We had a run-in with Dumbledore, though.” He glanced around. “But we can talk about that later.”
“Is he dead?” Banner questioned.
“Didn’t get a chance,” Harry admitted and smiled when Hermione huffed.
Ragnok offered his hand. “Time to go.”
Hermione took Banner’s arm as Harry took the dverger chieftain’s hand without a second thought.
“Thank you for your help tonight, Dobby. Stay safe, okay?”
“Dobby keep watching Dumbles,” the elf declared at popped away.
“That is one chatty, bizarre house-elf,” Meyers said, and Harry felt the gentle squeeze of Ragnok’s apparition spell before he could say anything about that.
– – – –
“It doesn’t look like much,” Razel muttered.
Ragnok glanced briefly at his son, then focused on Potter, who was slouched down in a chair in front of his desk. When the boy had unceremoniously drawn the Elder Wand and put it on his desk, he’d felt his sense of reality briefly shift. Banner’s hand curled around the top of Potter’s chair, and he cleared his throat.
“Is that…” Banner trailed off.
“The Elder Wand,” Harry said, then waved a hand at himself. “Master of Death, apparently, at your service.” He blew air out between his lips. “Whatever the hell that means.”
“I have to admit that I have no idea what it means, exactly, as it pertains to your duty in this life or for the state of your magic,” Ragnok said. “But Lenore was clear that the role was yours to inhabit until your death.” He steepled his hands under his chin and stilled the urge to pull on his beard in frustration. “Tell me what happened?”
“Dumbledore had the wards arranged so he’d know specifically if I entered them, a tracking charm on my magical signature,” Harry explained. “He stationed himself between us and the tower. I didn’t want to risk the cloak being out and about in his presence for obvious reasons. I don’t know why he gave it up originally, but I didn’t want to give him a chance to take it back. We used disillusionment charms. He didn’t know about Hermione, so he clearly was relying solely on the tracking charm to keep track of me.
“He fired a silent spell at me. I dodged it and used a disarming charm on him. He didn’t have a chance to fight it because Minerva McGonagall stunned him in the back.”
Ragnok raised an eyebrow. “Is that so?”
“She’s really upset with him. He had the whole school locked down so she couldn’t help us leave. We used the Chamber of Secret’s exit, and I have the basilisk carcass in my bracelet. It hadn’t decayed at all since I killed it.”
“It would probably remain unchanged for a decade or more due to age and magical circumstances,” Banner said.
Razel pulled a trunk from his own bracelet and opened it on the desk in front of Harry. “Let me have that, and I’ll take it Sharprock for rendering.”
Harry gratefully removed the snake from his bracelet and dropped it in the trunk. “Thanks.”
Razel closed the trunk and stored it.
“What happened after she stunned him?” Ragnok questioned.
“She stunned him a few more times then used an incarceration charm on him for good measure. Then we left Hogwarts. She told me that she wasn’t planning on returning until Dumbledore left and that Professor Flitwick has tendered his resignation as well. The school governors are going to have a hard time getting people to teach there because of Dumbledore and Riddle. We both know that he’ll target the school.”
“Hopefully, we can neutralize Riddle before he gets the chance to launch any sort of attack on a school full of children,” Banner said
Ragnok nodded and inclined his head toward the wand. “Good job, Harry.”
Harry smiled. “Thanks, I find I’m quite lucky with that spell.”
Ragnok laughed and shook his head. More relieved than ever that he’d never gone into all that much detail with Potter and Granger regarding the final fight between Potter and Riddle. “More than you know.”
“Should I…” Harry pulled out his staff and placed it on the desk between them. The Elder Wand responded by glowing. “Okay.” He wet his lips. “I really don’t want to put the cloak in the staff, too. Do I have to?”
“No, it’s purpose is on your back,” Ragnok said. “But the wand and the stone will be safer housed in your staff. No enemy will know that they are there and the wand clearly isn’t opposed.”
“The intelligence of it is disturbing,” Banner muttered. “Was the stone similar?”
“It was eager,” Ragnok allowed. “Harry offered it protection. These artificats have been a part of the magical fabric of our world for a very long time. The fact that they’ve gained sentience isn’t much of a surprise to me.”
“The cloak clings to me,” Harry admitted. “Sometimes it almost feels like armor rather than just an invisibility cloak. Since the moment I touched it, I’ve felt safe in its embrace. It felt like an old friend being returned to me.”
Ragnok refrained from gaping but noted that Banner’s mouth dropped open, at least briefly, in shock. “I see.”
“It’s hard to explain,” the boy said and flushed. He picked up the Elder Wand and very carefully laid it along the shaft of his staff near where he’d placed the Resurrection Stone. “The wand wants to rest, I think. It served too very selfish and dark-minded wizards back to back. It was taxing as it was created to be neutral.”
“Neutral?” Ragnok questioned.
Harry’s eyes had a faint glow when he looked up. Banner and Razel both flinched. Ragnook inclined his head. “Harry?”
“To hold a mastery over death on Earth is a position of neutrality,” Harry said. “Death comes to us all and no one should be immune to it—dying is the most natural thing we do.” He trailed one finger along the Elder Wand. “The Hallows are merely instruments attuned to the wishes of the entity we know as Death. The Master of Death is not…what I thought it was.”
“What is it?” Razel asked hoarsely.
Harry stopped touching the wand and it sank with a flash into his staff. “I don’t know, yet, but I can tell you with all due certainty that absolutely no one tells Death what to do.” He picked up the staff and stored it. “Perhaps I will find out the answer to that question in the future or maybe that answer is for someone else to know.”
“I should take him home, sir,” Banner said quietly.
He waved a hand at the two wizards. “Go. Tomorrow, our study of ritual magic will begin in earnest.”
Harry figured he’s spent entirely too much time dressing, considering he’d spend most of his day in a ritual robe. He checked his reflection one more time, smoothing down the tie first, then verifying all the buttons of his waistcoat were right. There was a knock on his bedroom door and he cleared his throat.
Hermione poked her head in. “Hey, they’re ready for us.” She opened the door a little wider and tilted her head. “Are you ready?”
“As I’ll ever be,” he admitted. “I’ve memorized what I have to say, and Master Deering says it probably won’t hurt…” He exhaled sharply. “I mean what else is there?”
“Did you put your new robe in your bracelet?”
“Yeah,” Harry said and flushed. “Honestly, who needs a ritual robe made out of spun mithril?”
“A wizard who’s about to ask the Black Dragon for a favor?” She asked with a grin and leaned on the door frame. “It’ll be fine, Harry. You’ve practiced this for weeks. Neither the chieftain nor Master Armand would have scheduled the ritual if they didn’t think you could handle it. We should go so we can meet Sirius and Isobel for breakfast.”
Harry nodded and retrieved his winter cloak from his closet. “Thaddeus is already in the Hall of Mages. Has Piper left as well?”
“She wanted to take Jamie to her mother’s house in Aberdeen before the ritual. She’ll be back in time to watch,” Hermione reported. “She said to tell you that you’ve nothing to worry about.”
He grinned. “You’d think being married to someone as dour as Thaddeus would’ve solved that optimism problem she’s got.”
Hermione rolled her eyes and left the doorway, so he followed her through the house, pulling on his own cloak. She picked up hers from the back of the sofa and put it on. “We have about twenty minutes until we’re really due for breakfast, so we could take your broom if you like.”
“Trying to manage me, Granger?” Harry asked wryly and caught her hand. He pulled gently, and she moved willingly into his space.
“Someone’s gotta, Potter,” Hermione murmured and took his other hand as well. She pressed her mouth against his in a soft and sweet.
Harry resisted the urge to deepen the kiss because they really didn’t have the time, and he didn’t want to go into the Hall of Mages thinking about anything but the ritual. Too much was at stake for him to get it wrong. He pulled his mouth free and let his forehead rest on hers. “Mi.”
“It’ll be fine.”
He took a deep breath and nodded. “It always is, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” she agreed with a smile. “It’ll be great. Professor McGonagall accepted her invitation.”
“I saw her on the list,” Harry murmured. “She should already be in our private box when you’re escorted to your seat. Thanks for tolerating that, by the way.”
“There’s no need for you to be distracted worrying about me. Besides, Captain Blackaxe is one of my favorite people. She offered to give me axe lessons next year.”
“Cool,” Harry said. “I’m sure you’ll excel.”
“You’re barely keeping the horror off your face,” she said with amusement and laughed when he frowned at her. “Master Gildhard offered me his personal forge for the weapon.”
“Now I’m horrified,” Harry admitted and grinned when she huffed dramatically. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes briefly. “Today, I stand for our house.”
“For all the world,” Hermione corrected gently.
He exhaled. “But no pressure.”
“None at all because you’re a great wizard, just like I said all those years ago,” she murmured. “Let’s go and try to eat, so Sirius won’t worry.”
“Let’s skip the broom ride,” Harry said. “I want to spend as much time with Sirius and Isobel as I can before the ritual.” He pulled her closer and side-apparated them to the mountain when she nodded her agreement.
“You’re getting great with that,” she said as they appeared in front of the lift. “I get to do it next.”
– – – –
Ragnok walked the perimeter of the circle slowly, reviewing each rune carefully before he moved to the inner layer. The Glain Neidr had worked in shifts twenty-four hours a day for five weeks to complete the series of circles. The outer circle was one of the most robust wards he’d ever seen constructed within a ritual space, but it was exactly what he’d requested.
“Concerns?” Deering questioned.
“Many,” Ragnok said roughly. “But none regarding the space—you and your conclave have done a superior job as I knew you would.”
“High Priestess Lenore came in last night and touched each rune individually with her magic,” Deering said roughly. “I have to admit that it was a disconcerting experience. I’ve never seen a more magical being in my life.”
“Neither have I,” Ragnok said. “She practically put me on my knees the day we met. It was easy to see, then, why her parents sheltered her so much in their mountain. Had they had a say, she’d have never left their care. Fortunately, for me, Lenore has never allowed anyone to shape the path she walks in this world.” He focused on the wizard. “She, alone, knows the most of about Potter’s fate in this world, Armand. So please take no insult that she chose to add her power to your circle.”
“No insult, Chieftain, we’re honored by her trust. Precious few would touch such magic cast by parselmouths,” Armand said. “Mistress Omis has made it clear to me that she will apprentice Potter regarding healing.”
“Then she shall unless Potter would prefer differently,” Ragnok said with a shrug and focused on Deering, who was making a face. “The education of the future Patron of the Horde is important, Armand, but his free will is equally important. At the age of fifteen, he’ll have done more for this world than wizards a hundred years older than him. I won’t allow anyone, not even myself, to pressure him to live a life where every choice is made for him.”
“Healing,” Armand said and rolled his eyes.
Ragnok laughed. “Stop being a snot, old man, it could be worse. What if he wanted to be some sort of enchanter?”
“I’d stick his little arse in bloody mind healing,” Armand declared. “Magical power like his would be wasted with such a thing.”
“Perhaps,” Thaddeus agreed from the sidelines. “But isn’t his happiness more important than how he spends his magical potential?”
Armand grimaced at him. “Fatherhood has made you a ghastly human being, Thaddeus. I don’t know how your wife stands you.”
Banner just offered them both a wry grin then flicked out a black forked tongue that made Ragnok snort with laughter. He checked his watch and looked around the room. The audience had been building steadily as soon as they’d opened the bank for business. The ministry box was currently empty because they were all in a conference room waiting for a meeting he’d rather not have. Ito, Bertrand, and Sarr were also missing as they were chaperoning Dumbledore.
In the two months following Harry’s successful retreat from Hogwarts, Dumbledore had thrown several public tantrums, one of which had gotten him permanently banned from being a customer at Gringotts. He was only allowed in the bank on ministry business and even then could not personally request to speak with Ragnok or any of the high-level administrative staff.
“I have to meet with the ministry people,” Ragnok said roughly. “And they want Harry there for the meeting. Thaddeus, I’ll need you unless you’ve some pressing task for the Glain Neidr.”
“His only task is wrangling Potter free of his little witch and bringing him here,” Armand said roughly. “We need him in his place in the circle within the next ninety minutes, or the power of the circle will wane and we’ll have to start all over.”
“Understood,” Ragnok said and inclined his head toward Banner. “Let’s get this over with. I’m sure Dumbledore is about to lay down some nonsense that I have no intention of picking up.”
Banner’s mouth quirked briefly, but he just nodded. He glanced around the room and his gaze settled on the box Harry had requested for his own guests. Piper Banner was there. Ragnok noted that Minerva McGonagall had, indeed, shown up. She’d come to the bank just once she’d left Hogwarts to have tea with Harry and Hermione. He didn’t know how that conversation had gone but neither of them had been out of sorts afterward. Augusta Longbottom and her grandson were also in the box. He knew why Harry had invited his godbrother to the event—he wanted to make sure Neville Longbottom had no doubts concerning the outcome of the fate that could’ve fallen on either of them.
Ragnok wasn’t all that surprised to find Harry and Hermione waiting with Fyre Blackaxe just outside the conference room when he and Banner arrived.
“Did you have a good breakfast?” he questioned. “The ritual could be quite taxing physically.”
“I ate everything I was given, sir,” Harry promised. “And took the potions Mistress Omis sent me last night.” He glanced toward the door and made a face. “More and more, I’m wondering why I should even entertain Dumbledore’s interference.”
“After today, there will be nothing left for him to interfere with,” Hermione said.
“Oh, love,” Harry said and focused on her. “Please don’t let yourself think that for another moment. Dumbledore will be genuinely obsessed with controlling me as long as he lives. His investment in the prophecy and Tom Riddle will morph in the months to come, and he will start to tailor his goals for me to suit himself and his vision of the greater good. Politically, I’m an asset he will be desperate to control and shape both locally and on an international level. He’s probably already trying to figure out how he can oust Ito and become the Supreme Mugwomp again.”
Hermione’s mouth pressed into a thin line and turned to Ragnok. “In theory, if I dragged Dumbledore’s unconscious carcass into the lift and took him down to the mountain to murder him, could I be charged with any crime in Britain?”
Ragnok grinned at her even as Blackaxe muttered her agreement. “You’ve got the heart of a dragon, lass.”
Harry laughed. “It’ll be fine, Mi. Dumbledore has no idea what I’m capable of, and by the time he truly realizes it, it will be too late to save himself.”
“For the record, you’re both standing on my land,” Ragnok said as he opened the doors. “And only I can determine what is and what is not a crime in this bank.”
He noted the wards dividing the room were glowing. Ragnok shot Blackaxe a knowing look as he motioned Potter and Granger into the room. Clearly, his Captain of the Guard was put out with the humans from the ministry.
“Drama for drama,” Fyre said with a shrug and smiled as he released the doors. She grabbed the handles. “I have active listening charms, as well.” She shot Dumbledore a look before she pulled the doors shut.
“Why is this room warded this way?” Dumbledore demanded.
“It’s always warded this way,” Harry said evenly as he took a seat. “Because we don’t trust you, and I most certainly never will again.”
“One day, you’ll regret all the choices these beasts have encouraged you to make,” Dumbledore said. “Today is a very big mistake and there is no telling what sort of price you’ll pay for invoking the wrath of the Black Dragon. He’s not a light creature by any means, Harry, and I’m surprised that Miss Granger hasn’t educated herself on the subject enough to tell you that.”
“Zirnitra is neutral,” Harry said. “And I have no reason, whatsoever, to fear his wrath. I’ve lived my magical life with the best of intentions. I’ve never misused the gift given to me by Hekate any single way, so if he graces me with his attention this day, I won’t be the one he sits in judgment of. My heart and my craft are pure. You and I both know you can’t say the same.”
“Precious few could make such a claim, Mr. Potter,” Bertrand interjected. “Unlike Dumbledore, I don’t think you’ll be punished if you fail this day. Chieftain Ragnok has assured us that you’ve been prepared for the ritual and that you’re aware of the consequences if the event doesn’t go in your favor.”
“And it won’t,” Dumbledore protested. “As I already explained to you, Chief Justice, the ritual will fail because Riddle cannot be judged in his current state!”
“You mean because he split his soul?” Harry asked with the most innocent expression Ragnok had ever seen a human put on. The boy turned to Hermione. “It’s fascinating to be in the same room with someone who thinks he knows better than everyone around him. He has a wizard who is thousands of years old sitting next to him, and Dumbledore still has the utter audacity to assume his knowledge is superior.”
“Arrogance is its own form of mania, and we both know that Dumbledore is five stone of crazy in a one stone sack,” Hermione said, and Banner exhaled noisily.
Harry huffed and rummaged through one of his robe pockets. He pulled out a galleon and passed it to Hermione then focused on Bertrand, who was watching the exchange curiously. “Thaddeus’ stoic reserve is quite robust, sir. I really didn’t think she’d get him to make a single noise much less actually almost laugh.”
“I don’t know what I did to earn so much disrespect from you, Miss Granger,” Dumbledore said stiffly.
Ragnok was sure he’d spend the next decade sharing this meeting with various people who hate Dumbledore.
“You don’t know?” Hermione questioned. “Really? Beyond the fact that you’re a virulent racist, Headmaster, you are responsible for every single tragedy in Harry’s life. His parents are dead because you let Snape walk away with half the prophecy.” Dumbledore reared back in shock as she stood. “You had a spy in the Death Eaters, so don’t bloody tell me you didn’t know Pettigrew was one of them, and you still let the Potters use him as the Secret Keeper for the damned Fidelius Charm that you fucking cast!
“Then you left an eighteen-month-old baby on a bloody doorstep in November! You’re lucky he survived it! You’re lucky he didn’t get up and bloody walk into traffic or fall into someone’s pond and drown! You knew he’d suffer in Petunia Dursley’s house. You knew, and you left him there to be abused, half-starved, and unloved because you seem to be under the bloody impression that Fate needed your help!” Magic started to stir around the girl and her hair shifted as her aura surfaced. “You play games with people—like when you let a possessed teacher stay at Hogwarts. I don’t believe for a minute that you didn’t know that Quirrell was hosting Riddle’s disembodied spirit. In fact, I’d wager you encouraged that ridiculous wizard to go to Albania!
“Do you want to talk about the Chamber of Secrets? Should I even bother to guess why you didn’t confiscate the diary from Ginny the night she was sorted? I’ve learned enough about warding to know that you had to be aware she was carrying a dark object around the school. You did nothing and just sat back the same way you did first year and let Harry solve your problems for you.
“How about we talk about Sirius Black and the fact that as the Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot, you could’ve ordered a trial. Or maybe we could talk about Barty Crouch, Jr, whom you let Fudge murder the night of the third task. You could’ve prevented that as Chief Warlock. You had the power to do it and you did nothing. I’m honestly disgusted by you.”
Umbridge cleared her throat noisily.
Hermione turned on the woman with a furious hiss. “You! You aren’t allowed to speak in this bank for a whole year as part of your settlement for having dark objects in your vault! How would you like to be banned for life, Madam Umbridge? Go ahead—open your mouth and say a single bloody word. I dare you.” She huffed and sat down when Umbridge visibly shrunk back from her. “Coward.”
“You won’t always be so protected,” Fudge said stiffly. “So, you should learn to watch your mouth, girly.”
“Hermione can say anything she likes to any of you,” Harry interjected. “And if you don’t like it, leave. And she will always be protected. She’s a member of the Blacklock clan just like me. Dverger in magic or in blood, attacking any of us is the prelude to a rebellion.” He flicked a hand. “Not that it’s really a concern for you, Fudge. You’ll probably spend decades in jail once Bertrand can wrestle you free of the ministry freeze. I mean, you realize that’s the only reason you still have a job, right? They literally can’t oust you as minister and arrest you. I’m surprised you can walk considering how many tracking charms they’ve got on you.”
Zayd Sarr nodded. “It’s a real bloody trial.”
“I bet,” Harry said idly and focused on Dumbledore, who was glaring at Hermione. “If you ever try to harm Hermione in any single fashion, old man, I will bathe in your blood.” Dumbledore’s gaze jerked to meet his. “Do not doubt it. After all, you weren’t the one prophesied to stand against Riddle as an equal and the best you ever did was fight him to a standstill.”
Ragnok cleared his throat in the long silence that followed. He’d rarely seen a group of wizards looked more flummoxed in his life. Even Sayd appeared startled, and that was a rare occurrence. Precious few things ruffled that wizard’s feathers.
“The matter of Tom Riddle will be settled today,” Ragnok declared as he checked his watch.
Dumbledore sent him a disbelieving look. “There is no way you have the information you need to be certain of that. Tom did split his soul, and you don’t have the knowledge of him to gather the pieces.”
“We already gathered the pieces of Riddle’s soul,” Harry interjected, and Ragnok wondered if the kid was trying to protect him. He’d be insulted if he weren’t so amused by it. “We also know exactly what horcrux process he went through to create them. You are unnecessary and you have been since you took a moment out of your day to defeat Grindelwald. Though Hermione’s fairly certain Gellert merely surrendered to you because he couldn’t kill you any more than you could kill him. It’s almost romantic if one overlooks the megalomania, which Hermione assures me I’m never allowed to overlook.”
“I don’t believe that you’ve gathered all the horcruxes. This is an exercise in futility.” Dumbledore sat back in his chair and stared pointedly at Harry. “It could be the end of you. The Black Dragon is nothing to be trifled with.”
“I don’t care what you believe,” Harry said and checked his own watch. “Honestly, I can’t imagine anything I care less about than your opinion about anything. You’re a cruel old man, Dumbledore, and the world would be better off if you retired and lived the rest of your life in seclusion. Maybe you could go stay in Nurmengard and keep Grindelwald company. That yearly conjugal visit can’t be enough for either of you.”
Ragnok’s mouth dropped open as Louis Bertrand burst out laughing. Everyone else, including Dumbledore, was staring at Potter in mute horror.
Hermione stood abruptly. “Well.” Harry left his seat and took the hand she offered. She cleared her throat and smoothed her robe as Bertrand stopped laughing. “Harry has things to do before the ritual, and this meeting is a waste of our time.” She focused on Banner. “Thaddeus?”
“You’re quite right,” Banner agreed and beckoned them to leave the table. “Chieftain Ragnok?”
“Of course, he needs plenty of time to lament the lack of ritual pants.” Ragnok blew air out between his lips as Banner prodded the two children past him and out of the conference room. Though he was loathed to do it, he walked across the room and took the seat Potter had abandoned. “Master Ito, do you have any questions about today?”
“None,” Ito said and flicked a hand when Dumbledore started to speak. “It’s clear you have the situation well in hand though I do have a concern about Potter.”
Ito shook his head. “Is it really wise to allow him to continue to associate with your sister? If he wishes to be a healer, I can make myself available to mentor him.”
Ragnok grinned and shrugged. “You’re welcome to discuss it with her.”
“Not on a bet,” Ito said sourly. “The last time I had a disagreement with Omis, I walked with a psychosomatic limp for a month.”
“You brought that shite on yourself,” Sayd muttered. “And you know it.”
– – – –
Harry lingered on the edge of the containment circle and watched as Hermione was escorted by Blackaxe and three other guards all the way to the box reserved for his guests. Blackaxe stationed herself at the entrance of a box and focused on him. She offered him a firm nod, so he relaxed a bit. Piper Banner was already in the box with Sirius, Isobel, Minerva McGonagall, Neville and his grandmother. He was glad that Neville had accepted the invitation. He didn’t want the other boy to ever doubt that the prophecy was finished since it could’ve been either of them as far as many were concerned.
The entire Glain Neidr was in attendance though only the inner circle were within the main ritual circle. The rest were spread out in a pattern of Armand’s design that Harry had reviewed earlier in the week. He hadn’t met them all and honestly wasn’t sure he ever would. The conclave was attractive, in a way, but he personally believed such an endeavor might take too much from him both in time and magic. By the time he had time to give such circumstances, many in the current conclave would be long dead.
He took a deep breath and stepped up onto the main platform. The moment his bare foot touched the stone, runes started to glow. There were over a thousand—each hand-drawn by Armand Deering. The older wizard had guarded the integrity of the circle zealously since he’d started building it and had even slept in the Hall of Mages since he’d started constructing it.
The entire ICW was in attendance and made up the bulk of the human part of the audience. The rest of the hall was full of dverger. Razel had told him that it had been generations since so many of his kind had gathered in the same place outside of Agharti. He stepped into his place and drew his staff. Just once, he let his gaze drift to where Ragnok and Lenore sat. Ragnok gave him a firm nod while Lenore merely smiled.
Harry took a deep breath, exhaled slowly, and wet his lips. “Guardian of the West, I invoke thee, let air give me life, and the strength to meet my fate.” Magic stirred gently in the circle and the air around him grew warm.
He turned by a quarter and tightened his grip on his staff, which had started to vibrate gently in his hand. “Guardian of the North, I invoke thee, let water nourish me until my duty is met and my burdens are no more.”
The warm grew heavy and started to mist. A murmur of shock ran through the human part of the crow, but Harry dismissed that noise after a brief glance toward Ragnok.
Harry made another quarter turn to face the east. “Guardian of the East, I invoke thee, let earth guide me in my duty in this life and the next.” Magic swirled in ribbons of blue and green around him, bringing with it a gentle flowery scent that he couldn’t place.
He assumed his final position, facing south and spoke, “Guardian of the South, I invoke thee, let fire warm my heart and soul for eternity.” The runes along the outer circle lit with fire. “On behalf of all Earth’s creatures, be they magical or not, I beseech the Lord of Magic to hear my plea.”
A distant rumbling filled the air around him with four thunderous booms they appeared. Part of him had wondered if Zir would actually appear in the circle or if he’d speak his entire petition to nothing but air. He hadn’t been prepared to have four highly magical beings appear. Harry swallowed hard and blinked back tears of shock. He turned once more and focused on the man who had appeared as the Guardian of the West.
Dark hair, pale skin, dark eyes. Magic seemed to seep out of his very skin. “My Lord.” He inclined his head and placed his closed fist over his heart. “You honor me.”
Zirnitra stared at him in silence for several moments before he focused on one of the women in the circle. “Yavanna, he’s just a boy.”
“The one he was meant to meet in combat preyed upon him when he was infant—it was monstrous,” she said in a soft, sweet voice. She was small, shorter even than the smallest of the dverger, and had flowers in her hair. “I did all I could to protect the heart of him.”
“His heart is pure,” the dverger male said gruffly. “As my wife says.”
“So it is,” Zirnitra agreed as he refocused his attention on Harry. “My wife is fond of you. Were our current circumstances different, she’d have come down herself to make quite a few people bitterly regret their treatment of you.” He stepped forward and cupped Harry’s cheek with one warm hand. “She kept your soul close for a very long time as she believed this world did not deserve you. Though it will be a bittersweet comfort, she guards the souls of your parents zealously as a favor to you.”
Harry took a deep breath and blinked when a tear slid down his cheek. “Thank you, sir.” He looked down and away as the elder god released him, he wiped his cheek with a trembling hand.
Zirnitra hummed under his breath and released him. He walked the entire circle with a deliberateness that made Harry’s heart race. “Nice rune work, Armand Deering. I’ve rarely felt more welcome on Earth.”
“I am honored, my Lord,” Deering said and bowed deeply.
“It might interest you to know, Harry,” Zirnitra began as he walked, “that you’ve been at the heart of a bit of conspiracy.”
“Oh, now, brother don’t put on airs,” the woman who stood as Guardian of the North said with a little smile. “You’ve not cared at all what we’ve done on this plane since the last of your favored sailed.”
“Except for that time he stole my hobbits,” Yavanna interjected hotly. “Remember?”
“One can hardly forget,” Zirnitra said dryly. “You’ve been complaining for a thousand years, but look.” He waved a hand. “Would you really want your little darlings scraping by on what magical humans leave behind? They elevate themselves above the people your husband shaped with his own magic. The dverger were magical when humans barely understood the difference between day and night.” He scoffed. “Imagine how they’d treat your sweet little flowers. I’d have had to come down here and destroy them ages ago.” He inclined his head as he walked. “Not that I haven’t been tempted quite a few times to do it.” He focused on Harry. “Something troubles you, lad?”
“I don’t think he’s getting what he expected,” the woman in the north said and grinned when Harry glanced toward her.
“My time is yours, sir,” Harry said for the lack of a proper response. None of them had prepared them for this, but then he didn’t imagine anyone had ever been in his exact circumstances before.
“Before you were born, it was decided that the course of the magical creature you know as Tom Riddle was far too dangerous to be allowed to continue,” Zirnitra said. “Decided by these three, at least, and I made the decision to merely watch the events unfold. As you already know, it didn’t work out all that well.”
“Some mistakes were made,” Harry agreed.
“Yes, certainly, and some wizards don’t know how to mind their own business,” Zirnitra said.
“Dumbledore’s been a real pain in the arse,” Yavanna interjected and waved cheerfully when Harry looked her way. “Hi.”
He smiled at her before he could help himself. “Hi.” He cleared his throat. “Are you a hobbit?”
She considered that and shook her head. “Not really—I’m a Valar. This is my form on this plane, but I did make hobbits in my image.”
“I see.” Harry bit down on his lip when he found Zirnitra had come to a stop in front of him. “Sorry.”
“Your curiosity is charming,” the elder god said. “And unusual, to be honest, the last time more than one of us appeared in a ritual circle, the caster fainted.”
Mahal snorted. “He was the excitable sort.”
“Truly,” Zirnitra said. “But Salazar always was prone to histrionics.” He leaned forward slightly and stared pointedly at Harry. “We’re here to talk about one of his half-arsed descendants, aren’t we?”
Harry flushed. “Yes, but it’s probably not appropriate to blame him for Riddle’s behavior. Salazar Slytherin has been dead for an age.”
“True, but drama lives on in his bloodline,” Mahal said roughly.
“Yavanna had a plan for you, Harry Potter, and your reward would’ve been a long, deeply magical life full of love and children to make up for what she asked of you,” Zirnitra said. “But unfortunately, someone was allowed a glimpse of the future through the benefit of prophecy and his interference destroyed that path.”
“I know,” Harry said. “That’s why I’m here today—I cannot allow the world to suffer until I’m old enough to face Tom Riddle as I was meant to. No one else should suffer or die for his mindless ambition.”
“Life on this world is fleeting for most,” Zirnitra said. “Why should I care for the shortness of mortal lives? Many of you will merely be born again.” He moved away from Harry. “You’re born, you live, you die.”
“Tom Riddle destroys—free will means nothing to him. His crimes against others are unforgivable and can’t be allowed to continue,” Harry said. “Had I the ability, I would leave this bank, find him and shove my sword right through his chest.” He huffed when Zirnitra laughed. “And we do more than just live.”
Zirnitra raised an eyebrow. “Make each other miserable? Desecrate the gift of magic? Destroy the habitats of other magical creatures under the mistaken belief you’re superior? Many of the people you’d seek to protect from Riddle would stab you in the back, given the opportunity, Potter.”
“The only thing I can do, my Lord, is attend to my own duty to magic and life,” Harry responded. “Our lives are short, but if we’re lucky, those lives are full of love.”
“Do you find beauty in magic?” Yavanna questioned. “Despite what you’ve lost in your young life?”
“How could I not?” Harry questioned. “It isn’t like tragedy is a singular experience only available to magical creatures. Anything that can be done with magic can be done without it if one works hard enough and is cruel enough in some cases.”
“True,” Zirnitra agreed, and he turned toward his sister. “Varda?”
The woman inclined her head. “Yavanna’s choice remains the correct one, Zir. Harry Potter is pure of heart.”
“I see your magic on him,” Zir said roughly. “You’ve allowed him to gain possession of all your Hallows.”
Harry took in a ragged breath, and his gaze snapped to Ragnok’s. The chieftain was standing, shock and horror building on his face. He wasn’t the only one. No one believed that Death would show up in the circle and also he’d never met anyone who would’ve said Death was female.
“Hekate held his soul close to her heart from the moment of his creation until she allowed him to be born to James and Lily Potter. This is his first life, and she wouldn’t have let him go at all if his magic hadn’t reacted so strongly to the girl’s magic when she was born. They are as close to being soulmates as two creatures can be on this plane can be in this age,” Varda said. “They’re One as Mahal’s people would say.”
Harry’s gaze snapped immediately to Hermione, who was standing at the railing of their private box.
“Even now, she’s using every single ounce of self-restraint she’s got to keep from coming down here and defending him from you,” Varda said in amusement.
Zirnitra focused on Hermione then, and he smiled. “Rarely is there anything more dangerous than a vexed witch, so I shall endeavor to behave myself.”
Hermione blushed furiously and allowed Sirius to prod her back into her seat.
“Very well,” Zirnitra said after a long moment of silence. “Tom Riddle must be present for this process to go any further.” He focused on Harry. “Neither of you will be allowed to perform a single act of magic in my presence, Potter. Remember that.”
Harry hesitated briefly but then stored his wand. Ragnok had told him there was a chance that Zirnitra would summon Riddle to the circle, but he’d really hoped that wasn’t going to be the case. Though Armand had designed a space in the ritual circle for Riddle to stand and Harry wasn’t at all surprised when the older wizard appeared there with a bang of forced apparition.
Riddle tried to step forward and was jerked back magically into place. “What is the bloody meaning of this, Potter!”
“If I could force you to apparate into the spot of my choosing, Tom, it would’ve been in the middle of an active volcano,” Harry said. “And you honestly wouldn’t be alone.”
Riddle reared back in shock, and he hissed as he pressed against the magic that contained him. The magic darkened, and Harry realized the older wizard had been silenced.
“Speak your piece, Potter,” Zirnitra said and resumed his place in the west.
“Tom Marvolo Riddle is a danger to himself and to others. In what can only be determined to be an act of madness, he split his soul six times through ritual murder of other magical people. While he did not directly seek to thwart Death,” Harry began and paused to glance at Varda, “he did so through his desire to artificially increase his magical power. He used a horcrux ritual exclusively used in coatl worship in an effort to obtain parselmagic, a gift long gone from his maternal bloodline due to a history of consanguineous marriage.
“Due to his insanity, Tom Riddle’s horcruxes are a corruption like no other on this Earth currently. We’ve gathered them so they wouldn’t be improperly destroyed and left loose to corrupt the very fabric of magic on this world.” Harry looked toward Riddle and found the wizard raging silently. It was horrific to look at, so he focused once more on Zirnitra. “Left unchecked, his madness will do nothing but spread and endanger not just magicals but Muggles as well. There are circumstances where he could essentially destroy life as we know it on this world due to his unnatural state.”
He did a quick mental check to make sure he had the finer points of the argument Hermione had helped him create.
“I would see the horcruxes,” Mahal said.
Harry glanced at Armand, who gave him a sharp nod then turned to face Mahal. “Of course, sir. I have five of them in my dimensional store and the sixth is contained in a cage of magic. Master Armand is arranging her transport to the circle.”
He pulled a moleskin pouch from his bracelet and loosened it as he knelt. The placed them on the floor one by one. “The locket of Salazar Slytherin. The cup of Helga Hufflepuff. The diadem of Rowena Ravenclaw.” He put an athame on the floor next. “This one once resided in a diary that belonged to Tom when he attended Hogwarts. I destroyed that by mistake when I was twelve, and the soul fragment latched onto me. Fortunately, the dverger was able to remove it and place it in this ritual knife.” He drew out the final horcrux he had in the bag—a simple copper bowl. “And this one was originally placed in the ancestral ring of the House of Gaunt. Though he did not know it, Tom desecrated the Resurrection Stone with that particular ritual. The dverger transferred that horcrux to this bowl and I was given the stone.”
At that point, Armand Deering carefully pushed the magical cage containing Nagini into the center of the dais. Harry stood as he focused on the snake. She was subdued in her confinement but awake as they’d taken her out of stasis the night before.
“This is Nagini. I do not know her true origin, but she was once a witch—born with a blood curse. Her circumstances are doubly tragic as Riddle turned her into a horcrux shortly before he was resurrected.” Harry frowned as he stared at her. “I don’t know if he knew or merely didn’t care that she was once a woman but his misuse of her is a nightmare.”
“Agreed,” Mahal said roughly and stepped from his place for the first time. He circled the cage, frowning and clearly furious. “Zir, this is an abomination.”
“Truly,” Zirnitra admitted roughly. “As if her circumstances were not grotesque enough.” He focused on Riddle. “Do you have a single thing to say for yourself, Tom Riddle?”
Tom glared at him. “You won’t find worship here, false god. I owe you no explanation.”
“I have no need for worship, Tom Riddle,” Zir said. “Nor are you required to acknowledge my power over you to be at my mercy. You are nothing but a lump of borrowed flesh and stolen bone.” He grimaced. “You made war on a child, and for that, there is no excuse. Though his alliances, that child has gathered your horcruxes and requested I stand in judgment of you. He’s on the cusp of fulfilling the first fate he was born to meet.”
Harry nearly protested that first fate business.
“He can’t defeat me!” Riddle shouted.
“Oh, he can,” Yavanna interjected. “You made a choice in 1981, and as luck would have it, you made the right one.”
Harry stared at Riddle as he seethed. “Would you like to know the whole prophecy, Tom?”
Riddle’s dark red eyes centered on him. “Yes, I have every right to know it.”
“I agree,” Harry said. “It was never anyone’s business but ours.” He paused and cleared his throat. “The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches… born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies… and the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, but he will have power the Dark Lord knows not… and either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives… the one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord will be born as the seventh month dies….” He touched his scar briefly then shrugged while Riddle stared at him in horror.
“What is this power?” Riddle demanded. “Tell me, boy!”
“Dumbledore thinks it’s love,” Harry confided, and Riddle scoffed. “I know, right? High Priestess Lenore laughed her arse off when she had that vision. You’d not believe some of the shite that old git gets up to.”
Riddle stared him at narrow-eyed. “What is the power I know not, Potter? I deserve to know.”
“No, you don’t,” Harry said evenly and focused on Zirnitra, who was regarding them with a curious expression. “I thought, in the beginning, that I would ask that you destroy Tom Riddle for his crimes against magic. But as I stand here, my lord, all I can ask for is mercy on his behalf. I don’t know, for certain, that his insanity is rooted in his family line, in his conception, or in his exposure to Albus Dumbledore at such a young age. More and more, I think Dumbledore saw Tom Riddle as nothing more than an experiment. Maybe he wanted to know and understand the heart of a dark wizard for his own personal reasons. Or maybe he wanted to know if he could’ve saved Gellert Grindelwald from himself. I don’t know if it’s worth knowing at this point.” He glanced around the circle. “In the end, Tom Riddle’s life is to be pitied. He doesn’t understand it, nor would he accept it—but he’s suffered enough in this life.”
Zir held out a hand, and all the horcruxes, save Nagini, lifted off the floor. “Sister?”
Varda stepped forward and touched them one by one—the objects fell to the floor as she released them. She walked across the circle to Nagini, stepped straight through the ward-cage, and knelt. Nagini burst into action, wrapping herself around Death without a single ounce of self-preservation, and Harry shuddered as the snake screamed. He glanced toward Riddle and found that he’d been silenced again. When he focused on the cage again, Varda was holding a beautiful woman dressed in little more than rags. Magic flowed over her body and the tattered dress was placed with a simple dark red one.
As Varda stood the cage dissipated, and she returned to her place in the circle. Harry didn’t know what possessed him, but he stepped from his place, walked to Nagini, and offered her his hand. She stared at him, startled, but slowly took it. He helped her to her feet and she slumped against him immediately. Harry took a deep breath and carefully picked her up. He walked to the edge of the dais and carefully put Nagini in the arms of Armand Deering, who took her with a look so reverent in his direction that it took Harry’s breath.
He slowly walked back to his place in the circle and offered Varda a smile. She inclined her head in return.
“Thank you, my lady.”
“It’s time,” Varda murmured.
Harry nodded. “I know.” He focused on Zirnitra and found the elder god glowing. “My lord.”
“Harry James Potter, Master of the Death and Patron to the Dverger, your petition is granted, and though it is contrary to my nature, Tom Riddle will know nothing but genuine mercy in my hands. If his soul is beyond healing, he will be confined to eternal sleep. Does this please you?”
“It’s justice,” Harry said. “And I must be content with that.”
“My wife was right about you,” Zir said thoughtfully then nodded as he inclined his head toward his sister. “Varda.”
Varda walked around to stand in front of Riddle. She smirked. “Flight of death, huh?”
Harry snorted then covered his mouth. “Sorry.”
“No, it’s funny,” she said with a grin. “Who are you, Tom Riddle, to declare yourself such a thing?”
“I don’t fear you,” Riddle hissed, but his gaze drifted to the now empty space where Nagini’s cage had been.
“You shouldn’t,” Varda said. “Death is the final embrace of all of Hekate’s creatures.”
“You can’t kill me,” Riddle said with a laugh. “None of your kind can—I know that much.”
“I can’t harm you physically,” Varda agreed. “That’s why I have a hand on this world—one imbued with death magic from his birth to act on my behalf.” She focused on Harry and inclined her head. “That’s the power you know not, Tom Marvolo Riddle. It is a power beyond all but one wizard as it was deemed by the most magical of us all worthy of it.”
Harry took a deep breath and drew his staff. The crystal on the top started to glow with his magic. He stepped forward, grasped the staff with both hands as the containment magic on Riddle faded away. The older wizard drew his wand and pointed it at him.
Harry shook his head. “You can’t perform magic in Zirnitra’s presence without his permission, Tom.”
“This not a fair fight,” Riddle shouted.
“Like you care about fair,” Harry chided. “And this is no fight at all.” He stepped forward, lifted his staff, and unceremoniously shoved the spear-like end cap straight into Riddle’s chest. He pushed the older wizard to the ground and held him there with more strength than he would’ve thought possible. “This is judgment.” He shoved the spear point in deep and up slightly to pierce Riddle’s heart. “May Death bring you nothing but peace, Tom Marvolo Riddle.”
Riddle’s body disintegrated between one ragged breath and the next, and his spirit rose from the ashes with a primal scream. Varda held out a hand, and though the specter fought her, the moment she touched him, the final part of Tom Riddle’s soul was claimed.
Harry took a ragged breath then another. Overwhelmed, he stowed his staff and avoided looking at anyone as he returned to his place in the circle. His mind wouldn’t settle suddenly, and his magic felt chaotic inside him. Warm hands cupped his face and he opened his eyes to find Zirnitra standing with him.
“I’m to tell you that you should study harder,” Zir murmured. “And your father is especially proud of your broom talent. They both think Hermione is amazing, and your mother’s engagement ring is in the ancestral vault in a red velvet box in her glory box. Lily would like you to use it when you propose though not until you both have your masteries because you’re much too young right now.”
Harry laughed, and his magic started to calm down. “Okay.”
“Be well, Harry Potter,” the elder god said as he released him and took a step back. “We’ll be watching.”
“’Cause that’s not weird at all,” Harry muttered.
“Everyone’s right,” Zir declared. “Omis is a terrible influence on you.”
“I like it,” Mahal interjected cheerfully and tapped his chest with a closed fist. “At your service, Harry Potter.”
Harry returned the gesture, and Mahal disappeared. He focused on Yavanna as she started to glow. “First fate?”
She shrugged. “You’re pretty good at this save-the-world stuff, Harry. You’ll be fine.” Yavanna offered him a grin and popped away.
“Fantastic,” Harry said with a huff, and after a brief glance at Zirnitra, who was standing silently, turned to Varda. “I don’t have to run around killing people, right? There are laws about that in most circumstances.”
She laughed. “I’ll let you know.”
Harry exhaled nosily as she faded away without a sound and turned his attention back to Zir. “Can’t you rein them in?”
“We each have our own duties,” Zir said.
Harry nodded. “About the hobbits? Chieftain Ragnok wanted them to know that they’re welcome in Agharti. Their lands remain ready for them if they want to come, that is. They’ll be safe there and it’ll probably be pretty fun.”
“They could probably use some fun,” Zir acknowledged. “I’ll ask.” He gave Harry a nod and disappeared with a loud boom.
“Drama king,” Harry muttered and glanced up briefly when he was rewarded with a booming laugh that sounded a lot like Mahal. He drew his staff and swallowed hard before saying, “May the circle be open but forever unbroken. So mote it be.”
Silence settled over the hall as the magic of the circle faded. Harry let the spear point of his staff rest on the floor and closed his eyes as he tried to gather himself. A part of him had been certain that he would fail to even call upon Zirnitra for the ritual despite the work the Glain Neidr had done for him. He blew out a breath then another because it felt pretty good.
“Gentlemen of the Glain Neidr, thank you for your service to magic.” He turned and offered Armand Deering a bow and got one in return.
“Outstanding job, lad,” Deering said and grinned as everyone around them started to laugh with relief.
“Harry!” Hermione pushed through the wizards who had started to move toward him and glomped onto him tightly. “You!”
He buried his face against her hair and smiled. “You.”
“I love you,” she said against his throat and gripped his robe as she lifted her face to stare at him. “I told you it would be fine.”
“It always is,” Harry murmured and let his forehead rest against hers. “When I’m with you.”
Fifteen Years Later
“Daddy! Daddy!” Harry opened one eye as his son tried to climb up the side of the bed. After he slipped off the duvet for the third time, Kaiden huffed dramatically. “Daddy!”
Harry reached out, plucked the five-year-old up, and pulled him onto the bed. “Why are you awake?”
Kaiden stared at him. “Daddy! Today is a very important day!”
“Is it?” Harry questioned. “Are you sure?”
“Today is the day you’re both going to get kicked out of this house and sent back to Rome,” Hermione groused as she sat up and pushed her hair from her face. “Honestly.”
“Mummy,” Kaiden exclaimed cheerfully and crawled over Harry to reach her. “Today is the day! The best day of the whole year!”
“Really?” She asked and pulled him into a hug. “Your jumper is on backward and your socks don’t match.”
“Dobby says it doesn’t matter if socks match,” Kaiden declared. “And today is the Annual Garden Gnome Rebellion! We have to be prepared to defend our garden, Mum. This is serious business. It’s already started in the Shire. The Thain sent out an alert a whole hour ago!”
Harry grinned when Hermione sent him a knowing look. The Annual Garden Gnome Rebellion was probably the most fun that could be had in Agharti that didn’t involve a copious amount of dragonfire whiskey. “I regret nothing.”
“I know you don’t, you terrible wizard,” she said tartly.
The listening charm in the nursery activated, and they both turned to listen as their daughter started to scream her head off. Harry pushed back the covers. “I’ll get her.”
“Thanks,” Hermione said and slouched back on the pillows.
“Mum, why can’t Ava walk, yet? It’s been months since she got here. She’s being awful lazy.”
Harry laughed as he left the bedroom and crossed the hall to the nursery. He picked up Ava, who was throwing a fit involving all of her limbs. “Ah, lass, this is not the best way to start your first Garden Gnome Rebellion.”
He changed her quickly and took her back to the bedroom, where Kaiden was doing his best to listen to his mother to explain why his three-month-old sister couldn’t walk. Harry handed her the baby and snatched Kaiden from the bed. “Let’s fix your jumper, lad.”
“We should teach Ava to walk, Daddy,” Kaiden decided. “So she can be an independent witch, like Mum.”
“Oh, I have no doubts that your sister will be a very independent witch,” Harry said as he knelt and pulled the jumper over his son’s head. He snorted when he realized that the boy was still wearing his pajama top. “Kaiden, this is not how you get dressed.”
“Clothes aren’t important,” Kaiden declared. “The gnomes are going to destroy the garden, Daddy. It’s war out there already!”
Hermione laughed. “Go on, then, we’ll hold down the fort from here.”
Harry met her gaze and put the jumper back on his son. “Very well, my lad, go get some boots on, and it will be nothing but war until lunchtime.”
Kaiden gasped. “What about my porridge? I can’t make war without porridge!” He pulled down his jumper and stomped off. “Dobby! I need my war porridge!”
Harry laughed and saw down on the edge of the bed. “Did you ever think that Zirnitra went around and found the most contrary soul he could to put in our son?”
“Yes,” Hermione admitted with a grin. “Here’s hoping Ava doesn’t develop a deep-seated desire to fight garden gnomes and eat war porridge.”
Harry leaned forward and pressed a kiss to his daughter’s head then another on Hermione’s mouth. “You haven’t mentioned when you plan to go back to work.”
“I thought I wouldn’t,” she admitted. “Justice Bertrand isn’t thrilled but I agreed to do freelance research. I missed too much of Kaiden’s first year and I don’t want to make that mistake again.” She sighed. “Besides, the next year is full of parole hearings and trials that I won’t be able to participate in due to conflict of interest. Cornelius Fudge and Dolores Umbridge both are due to appear for parole though it probably won’t be granted. And Dumbledore’s fourth trial is to commense if he’s deemed physically capable of handling the process.”
“Totally your call, of course,” Harry said. “Dumbledore is already serving a life sentence so the trial…” He shrugged. “I get the fact that the newly discovered victims deserve closure but at this point I’m not sure the security risk of moving is worth it. Every time we remove from him Appolumi we give him a chance to escape.” He winced when Kaiden shouted for him. “Right, I think my own war porridge is ready.” He leaned forward and kissed her again. “Saving the world isn’t a bad gig when I have you and our babies to come home to. It’s like the world weighs nothing, you know.”
“Daddy! The gnomes are advancing!”
Hermione shook her head. “Go on then, if those little arseholes trample my rose bush again this year—I’m going to take it out of your hide.”
Harry hopped up and rushed toward the closet. “Love you!”
“Love you back!” she called out with a laugh.
– – – –
Ragnok landed on the balcony leading into his bedroom and transformed. He strode into the bedroom he shared with his wife. Lenore was at her dressing table, braiding her hair.
“How goes the rebellion?” Lenore asked in amusement.
“I nearly got taken out by a flung garden gnome,” he said with a huff. “I lost two feathers.” He ran his hand through his hair to check for bald spots but found none. “I think there are twice as many of those bloody little monsters than last year. It’s like they’re breeding to increase their numbers for the rebellion.”
Lenore grinned. “I promised Kaiden I’d help him defend his garden patch this afternoon.”
“For fuck’s sake,” Ragnok muttered. “Razel and Tyr are already in the village helping the children defend the community garden. I’m pretty sure the gnomes have some kind of siege engine.” He huffed when Lenore burst out laughing. “If those little bastards come for this mountain, it’ll be on Potter’s head.”
He sighed as she continued to laugh. Honestly, he’d fight a whole army of crazy garden gnomes if it would make his wife laugh as she was now.
He sat down on the bench beside her. “You’re happy.”
“Immensely,” Lenore said softly and leaned against him. “Razel said that he and Tyr will start trying for a child next year.” She bit down on her lip. “I took a peek or two into the palantír with that in mind.”
“A girl first—a visionary. She’ll carry on my legacy, Ragnok, and guide our people into the brightest of futures. His first son will be strong, brave, and true to his duty.” She hummed under her breath. “And his second…will revive an ancient legacy in the line of Durin thought lost.”
Ragnok blinked and huffed a little. “Are you telling me that Durin the bloody Deathless is coming back?”
Lenore just shrugged and grinned.