Chapter 34

Surprises and Unexpected Gifts

A hurried breakfast was followed by a hurried meeting in the Room of Counsel. Exultant though they were about the Blessing's return, the timing could not have been more awkward. Questions would be asked. The Ministry would no doubt send investigators. The headmaster sat in his usual chair lost in thought.

"Where's Minerva?" asked Professor Sprout. "I didn't see her at breakfast, either."

The headmaster began. "Like many of you, we were both up quite late watching the Blessing reassert itself once more. She's ... she's -"

"I, ah, told her to have a lie in, Cera," Poppy explained. "She was starting to have a cold. You know how she is. She won't rest properly unless I force her to. We certainly don't need her sick, not now."

The last comment elicited some chuckles from the assembled people who knew the deputy well.

"We must prevent any more Ministry inspections. The storage rooms are close to bursting. The grounds have been dug up, changed and re-landscaped," said Professor Sprout. "They are bound to notice something is going on."

"What about the new interior passageways? We haven't had time to disguise 'em yet," put in Filch. "The castle's a right mess an' we only have today to put things right 'fore the student come back tomorrow night."

"Did the Blessing affect the wards? The Ministry monitors those and they'll know if something's happened?" Professor Flitwick sat fidgeting in his chair. Weak as he was, he had insisted on attending the meeting instead of staying in the infirmary.

"Calm yourself, Filius," Nicholas Flamel soothed. "Severus and I have inspected the wards. There is no change to them. We can safely assume that the Ministry knows nothing about what happened last night."

"Unless someone tells them." The words were quietly said, almost whispered. "And I intend to."

"Albus, the other side knows the Blessing is deteriorating. Why not lull them into a false sense of security?" Flitwick remarked. "We must use this ... this disinformation to our advantage."

"It will be to our advantage. As you say the other side knows and they have devised their strategy to take advantage of our weakness. By letting them know the Blessing has returned, they will be forced to rethink their plans."

"I suppose there is the psychological advantage of a good shock to consider," Flitwick rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "He will come against us even stronger, harder, Albus. What other heinous surprises will he have for us besides those ... those fearsome creatures?"

"You're probably right, Filius, but we will have some surprises for him, too." Albus rose and crossed to the main table. He looked directly at his tiny general. "We need to unbalance him. Too long we have waited, played a defensive game. No more. We must make him react. Filius, think of this piece of news as our revenge for that incident in the alley."

Flitwick grinned back. "I wonder who shall deliver the news to him."

All eyes turned to Professor Snape who shrugged. "That would be me, in person."

Surprised exclamations traveled through the table. Serjanus and Calliandra shook their heads. Serjanus spoke his mind. "Severus, there is no telling Voldemort's reaction. He may kill you. Now that the Blessing is returned at full strength, he cannot touch you here. Consider that this may be the sign that you should reveal your true nature and retire from his service."

"You would make me a virtual prisoner of these walls, father?"

"You would be safe!" Calliandra pounded her fist on the table. "You have far more value to us than wasting your time playing spymaster."

"I do not consider his years here as wasted, Calliandra," Albus retorted.

"The battle with Voldemort will come and soon. It is inevitable. But what about afterwards, Albus, when my son's usefulness in your plans has ended? All things come to an end. Do not bother contradicting me. We know each other too well." Serjanus glanced at Calliandra then regarded his son across the table. "Calliandra and I have not interfered as you have involved yourself more and more but we cannot keep silent now. Think of your future, Severus. You will have one, you know you will."

Calliandra said earnestly, "Why does it have to be you? Inform Malfoy obliquely and let him deliver the news."

Snape clasped his hands together in front of him. "I am thinking of my life, believe me. The attack on the headmaster and Filius made me realize that there are other plans I am unaware of. For all our sakes, I must find a way to prove myself more loyal to the dark lord than ever. What better way than to tell him of this? He will expect me to know it because of my position here. What excuse could I make to defend my ignorance? Nothing! So, you see, I have no choice. It must be me."

"Then send a post, Severus, surely that is sufficient."

"Mother, if you were me, would you deliver such news by owl?" There was no response. "I will send a post first asking for a private meeting."

"Fine, take one of us with you," Calliandra insisted. "In animal form as before."

Serjanus drummed his fingers on the table. "No, take Demos with you, Severus."

"He did not react well the last time, father. I had to forcibly suppress him." Snape said.

"He was a child then. He reacted as a child." Serjanus answered. "He's not a child any more. He has applied himself to his lessons diligently. He is in almost all respects a young adult and a powerful one. And he aches to help in any way he can."

"Serjanus, I'm not sure about this," Calliandra interjected.

"I am sure, Calliandra, he will do well." Serjanus smiled softly at his wife.

Calliandra kept silent but her eyes implied a discussion with her husband after the meeting. Professor Snape looked at his father curiously.

Albus clapped his hands and all attention shifted to him. "Good. That's settled. Now. we all have many things to do. I suggest we get started. I will be informing the Ministry tomorrow. The timing should coincide well with your own Severus."

"Will you be going to the Ministry in person?" Mr. Ollivander asked.

"No, I believe I will owl Cornelius. I am sure that he will be very receptive." Albus stood up and let the way out of the Room of Counsel.

Unbeknownst to the pretender, the real Dumbledore was stirring in his sleep. The isolation room was dark save for the lone candle light and the companion hovering above his bed. Were anyone in the room, one would have seen the hint of a small smile playing upon the headmaster's lips. The face once so drawn and gaunt was filling out and the frown lines were disappearing. Muscles once flacid with great age were reforming stronger, more taut. No, Albus Dumbledore would not awaken a youth or even middle-aged. When the time came, his glossy beard and mane would be as long as they had been before. His mind, body and memories intact. But he would be strong and able altogether ready to fight and win.

Inside a small cage, talons scraping weakly against metal bars, the smallest of Voldemort's pets lay panting and squeaking with fright. It was alone. Its fellows lay dead on long tables arranged about the room. The creature huddled in a corner of its prison most of the day. Madam Pince filled the small water bowl inside. She dangled pieces of fresh meat in front of the captive. Unable to ignore its hunger, the bat snagged the morsel with its talons and began to feed.

"At least it's eating something." Pince murmurred. She placed several more morsels on a small dish and slid it into the cage. Pince looked at the sample carcasses brought back by Sinistra and Snape. They had been studying the animals all day. By sheer chance, they found a live one. They were all in agreement that these creatures were transmuted from their natural form and enhanced using dark magic. She walked over to another table where Sinistra was bent double making measurements. "Anything new?"

"Unnatural six meter wingspans, razor sharp, slashing claws, dense muscularity and incredible maneuverability and speed, I'm hoping not to find out anything else," Sinistra replied. "How's the little one?"

"Still weak. It eats but it's not getting stronger." Pince answered. "It needs something else but what. Hagrid came by with milk - goat milk, cow's milk even bat milk. It spat them all out."

Sinistra crossed her arms across her chest. "Is it true, it spat all over Hagrid?"

Pince laughed softly. "Yes. It kept banging itself against the bars, rather violently I thought, when Hagrid was around. The closer he was, the more it wailed and crept off into the corner. Hagrid doesn't like it much either. He says that he can feel his blood curdling because of all that dark magic imbued in the creature. I suppose we're stuck taking care of it."

A loud yell came from the opposite end of the room. "I found it! You won't believe this one!"

"What is it, Hooch?" Sinistra asked as she and Pince made their way over.

"The two bats that tried to carry Filius off. It was buried under a pile of bodies over here," Hooch moved some dead carcasses to fully uncover the remains of two giant bats. A quick wave of her wand and the bat's statistics appeared in glowing letters above the table. "Wingspan twelve meters. Infrared sight. Thicker skin than normal almost rubbery. Oh, merlin, it even has fangs!"

Pince bent down to take a closer look. "Look here. The brain cavity, the very head, is enlarged, and the eyes, too."

"At this wingspan, they must reach a cruising speed of, ah, 35 kilometers per hour, maybe more if sustained," Hooch surmised.

The glitter of metal caught Sinistra's eye. Around the ankle of the specimen was a small metal tag with an inscription. "What's this?" Ever curious she read the inscription. "Ladies, it has a name. Galerius."

"After everything that's happened nothing surprises me anymore," said Hooch briskly.

Sinistra investigated the second bat and found its tag. "This one is called ... Aurelius."

Pince ran a hand across one of the giants' back and its wings. "Pets are given names aren't they?"

Hooch and Sinistra silently pondered the implications of that possibility.

"Look at the numbers by size of these bats. It's proportional. The smallest have the highest numbers while these ... special ones ... well, we have two here. Filius didn't indicate that he saw too many of these fellows." Pince continued. "It reminds me of an army. The small ones are the infantry. These larger ones are the officers. The pampered pets of the field marshall."

"Army! Pets! Did I hear you correctly? Pets!" inquired Professor Flitwick as he entered the room and walked towards them.

"Yes, I said pets, Filus. They have nametags as pets would." Pince replied.

"Does Poppy know you're here?" Hooch asked while retrieving a tall stool for Flitwick to sit on. "I thought you were to return to the infirmary after lunch."

"I am allowed thirty minutes, Hooch, and then I am confined to quarters." Flitwick clambered on to the stool. "Really, I don't see why. Albus was more injured than I was and he was let out before me."

"If it makes you feel any better, Filius, we haven't seen the headmaster much. He's been taking his meals in his rooms. No doubt he is under Poppy's instruction as well." said Sinistra. "Since you're here, can we ask you a few questions?"

At Flitwick's nod, Pince began. "You've said before how fast and agile they were, even this big one here. When they attacked you and the headmaster, did you sense any pattern or technique?"

Flitwick nodded. "They came in waves, one after the other. Very orderly. And each wave targeted a specific area - face, body, legs. There was training. That was obvious. I would attribute intelligence to the bigger ones. I looked into the eyes of that one there and that was no dumb animal. I could see intent and, yes, thought."

"I don't relish facing one of these at close quarters. It has all the advantages," Hooch put in. "Can't outfly them and shooting Unforgivables will drain the flyers too quickly. There aren't enough companions to go around either."

"Why do you have to fight them at all?" Sinistra asked. "Wouldn't it be better to avoid them altogether?"

"I doubt He-WhoMust-Not-Be-Named would go to the trouble of making these monsters and not use them against us in the field." Hooch laid her hands flat on the table. "We can't very well hide. They sense body heat!"

"I mean why have them come to us when they don't have to," Sinistra grinned. "We know one thing. These bats don't like Hagrid."

"The little one doesn't like Hagrid, but what about this big one here?"

"I think it would apply to this one as well. Aside from size and intelligence, there's no difference between them."

"I am not having Hagrid ride behind me," Hooch warned.

Pince after following the exchange carefully said, "Sinistra's right. Something about Hagrid puts these creatures off. Hair? Scent? Pheromone? Cologne? Blood?"

The door opened again and the Headmaster, Professor Snape, Professor Sprout, Calliandra Snape and Demos walked in. Sprout held a plateful of fruit slices of various colors - pink, green, deep red and yellow. "The Trees of Blessing are groaning under the weight of fruit. I had a massive harvest this morning. Here, everyone, have some. It comes in house flavors."

Everyone made their choices. Flitwick picked a tangy yellow slice for Ravenclaw, lemony with a hint of sweetness. Pink had the texture and flavor of a grapefruit. It was deemed the Hufflepuff flavor. The Gryffindor slices were deep red and sweet like an apple. Slytherin's choice was green and slightly sour.

Dumbledore popped a pink piece into his mouth. "Tangy with some bite to it. Delicious."

"I would think you would favor the sweetest ones, Albus," Flitwick commented.

"Oh, I do, Filius, but I do like some variety, too." Albus replied. "Lenore, you're not taking any?"

"Headmaster, I believed I overdosed on them yesterday. I haven't slept since," Pince informed him. "If I take anymore I may not sleep for a week."

"They're fantastic!" Hooch enthused. "I haven't felt this good in years."

"I did some tests on them. They're actually natural rejuvenators. Poppy is on fire to find some medicinal uses for them." Sprout said. "Filius, take as many as you like. It will speed your recovery I'm sure."

High pitched squeals came from the cage and they all turned their heads. Near the cage stood the Snapes and Demos. Demos was backing slowly away one step at a time. As he got further away, the squeals grew quieter. On her knees, Calliandra watched the creature intently. With one hand she motioned for Demos to take another step back. The creature calmed once Demos was a good ten meters away. Calliandra held out a finger to the creature as if tempting it to bite. The creature lunged after her finger. It's tiny teeth snapped helplessly in to thin air. Calliandra motioned Severus over and instructed him to dangle his fingers in the cage. Her eyebrows rose in surprise when the creature rubbed itself against Severus' hand and began to make some unlikely sounds.

"Bats don't purr but this one does," Calliandra said. "It fears Demos, attacks me and loves you."

"It seems rather fitting. The students do refer to me as 'that bat' on occasion." Severus rubbed the tiny head and the creature mewled.

"Severus, hang your right hand over the cage, please," Calliandra asked. A quick look at her son communicated her suspicions instantly. Severus stroked the beast with his right hand but the animal ignored it. It continued to lean against his left. Severus cradled the animal in his right hand and removed his left hand from the cage. The bat's mood immediately changed. It tried to spread its wings to fly but Severus held it firm. It began to pant and mewl. He brought his left hand back to stroke the creature's head and once more it became docile and tame.

"It's attracted to the Dark Mark." Calliandra observed.

"Perhaps," Severus added. In his heart he knew it was not the mark alone that the creature recognized. The poor creature recognized its master in him. With each passing day, he was becoming Slytherin's heir more and more. He glanced at his mother studying the creature with scientific detachment. He remembered his parents' words about his future. He had to tell them about the mark, the stone, everything, before they left Hogwarts. He really didn't much choice in the matter.

At Longbottom House, Mr. Ollivander regaled Neville and his grandmother with stories of his adventures with Dumbledore and Flitwick over dinner. Throughout dinner Neville wondered just how much of the wishbringer story Mr. Ollivander knew. The secret weighed heavily on his mind and heart. He had nixed the idea of asking for Hermione's help. He could not do much in one day in a huge city like London. Perhaps, he thought, after we get back on a free weekend, she could accompany me into the city and teach me how muggle transportation worked. Throughout the day, he had pestered the mirror on any way, spell or charm that he could use to find her. The mirror had told him all it knew. The rest was up to him.

His thoughts were interrupted by a small, muted chime indicating that someone or something had crossed the property's wards. Ollivander was on the alert but Genevieve Longbottom motioned for him to remain seated. "It's not hostile or unknown, Flavius, otherwise it would be trumpets sounding."

"Let's greet our guests shall we?" Madam Longbottom rose gracefully while making sure her wand was accessible inside her pocket. Neville and Mr. Ollivander followed her into the living room. Mr. Ollivander took a strategic post by the window. He could see a tiny figure walking up to the front door.

A few minutes later, an elderly, dignified house elf announced Griphook's arrival. Griphook cleared his throat and bowed to Madam Longbottom. If Genevieve was surprised, she hid it well. Griphook began to speak. "Madam, I am here on behalf of the Elder Council to fulfill an agreement made long ago. I come seeking the male heir of Rhys Longas. Is he here?"

Genevieve was now thoroughly surprised and gaped at the goblin. She motioned in Neville's direction. "That would be my grandson, Neville."

Griphook turned towards the now petrified Neville and bowed. "Mr. Neville Longbottom, as the heir of Rhys Longas, it is to you that my message is intended."

Griphook took a deep breath. It had suddenly dawned on him the historical importance of the moment and he fought off an attack of nerves. "We, the Goblin hold of Gringotts, need to inform you that the guard of Vault Number One has notified us that the vault has a new owner. You are Guardian. It falls to you to find her."

"The Wishbringer," Neville whispered.

Griphook smiled and he began to relax. The Guardian knew his purpose. Perhaps this matter would be solved quickly and he could return to the bank tomorrow. "Yes, Guardian, the Wishbringer."

By the window, Mr. Ollivander gasped. His eyes darted to Neville then the goblin and back again. "My word!"

"Wishbringer?" asked a thoroughly confused Genevieve. "Like the coins? What does it have to do with Neville?"

"It's a woman, gran. Someone I'm supposed to find." Neville frowned in concentration. "Is there more to the message, Mr. Griphook?"

"As part of the covenant with your ancestor, one of our number is to be assigned to aid you in whatever capacity you choose. I am that aid. The elders have informed our brethren and we are making our preparations of welcome."

"More importantly, when ... when were you informed?" Ollivander leaned on the back of the sofa focusing all his attention on the young goblin.

"The manticore began to roar at half past eleven last night. By midnight it was very agitated. The council at half past midnight."

"Witching hour," Ollivander murmurred. "The Blessing. The Wishbringer. I wonder."

Griphook drew himself as straight and tall as he could. "What tasks do you have for me, Guardian?"

Neville stood up and bagan to pace. "Nothing yet. I don't even know where to start. London is enormous."

"London? We have brethren there who can look for her," Griphook informed.

Ollivander looked at Neville through narrowed eyes. "How do you know, Neville?"

"My mirror woke me last night. It sensed her ... her awakening. That it was powerful and it came from London."

"That cursed mirror! What foolishness has it been telling you now?" Genevieve shrieked.

"Gran, please. It's true. A pact was made a long time ago between Rhys Longas and the last Wishbringer, Phaedre. The pact said that we would preserve the Wishbringer's treasures and knowledge until it was time for the next one. And ... and only a descendant of Rhys would be able to find her."

"I've never heard of such a thing!"

"Few know but ..." Mr. Ollivander's voice broke. "It's true, Genevieve, I swear it is. Rhys confided in my ancestor, Pieros. For whatever reason, the tale was told to the Mirror. I never thought I would see ... not in my lifetime. She will bring light and hope to our world. My word."

"I feel that I am lacking some vital information." Genevieve summoned a house elf and asked for tea. "Neville, I want to know everything. Griphook, you have delivered your message and you have our gratitude. You may depart."

"I cannot leave yet, Madam. I am at your service until the Wishbringer is found."

"I see." Genevieve pursed her lips. "Very well. I hope you'll be comfortable in one of the guest rooms. Now, Neville, I believe you have a story for me."

Neville faced his grandmother. She blinked a few times. Was it her eyes or did her grandson suddenly seem so much older? "I have some rules. First, nothing we discuss goes past this room and this group. No one knows, gran, not Uncle Algie, Aunt Clementine, Professor McGonagall,no one. Second, Mr. Ollivander, you have to tell everything me you know, that was handed down to you. Third, this is my task. You can't do it for me or help too much."

"But, Neville -"

"No, gran, those are the rules. The mirror says that I must do this and I will. Are you going follow the rules or not?"

"You're not giving me much choice, dear." Genevieve sniffed. "I promise I shall follow the rules."

Mr. Ollivander nodded his assent as did Griphook. Then Neville began to tell the story as the mirror had told him. Ollivander added what he knew wherever he could. After an hour, they were no closer to discovering the Wishbringer's identity.

"Tomorrow I have to be back at Hogwarts, Griphook, but I need to go to Gringotts too." Neville said.

"Flavius, can you bring Neville's trunk and things with you back to Hogwarts tonight?" asked Genevieve.

"Of course."

"Then tomorrow I'll go with him to Diagon Alley." Seeing that Neville was about to protest she said, "I will do some shopping while you're at Gringotts. You can use your wishbringer coin to get you to Hogwarts afterwards."

Neville nodded. "Griphook, you can stay at the bank. If I need you I'll contact you there."

"Are you sure, sir?" Griphook could not believe his good fortune. He could stay at the bank. No more adventuring.

"Yeah. We won't be doing any looking until the weekends anyway."

Griphook's hopes plummeted. The adventure wasn't over. "I see. Very well, sir."

Mr. Ollivander approached the gates of Hogwarts in a very light mood. He wanted to dance. He wanted to sing. He wanted to embrace the world and feel it embrace him in return. War or no war, hope was alive again in the world.

Author's Notes: I am continuing the story. I underestimated the recovery time of chemo treatments hence the drought of updates. As I did with Of Secret Vices, I am in the home stretch and updates will be more frequent. The plots are converging, some of you may be able to see it happening or guess, some may not but that'spart of the fun.. I've kept Demos under wraps, I know. He's grown up sort ofand I hope you like his character.

Thank you for keeping up with the story. I am fixing grammar, typos and what not in the earlier chapters. As always, comments are welcome.