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Chapter One Hundred and Twenty-Two—Umbridge's Mysterious Disappearance
Elena sat sipping from the goblet of mulled Awakening Potion that she had the house-elves mix with clear water every morning, and watched the Aurors stalking among the students.
They had appeared yesterday, with orders to search the school for a trace of Professor Umbridge. So far, they'd mostly looked under tables and blustered. And when they tried to find the students who would have a "motive," they had to confront the fact that there were few students who didn't.
Elena wrinkled her nose as she watched another Auror face the blood quill carving on the back of another hand. She never had to resort to such crude methods of punishment. A smile, a glance, an inflection in words, was enough for her.
"Your research proceeds well?"
"It depends on what research," Elena said, and smiled a little at Severus as he sat down beside her. She thought she might know at least part of the answer to the Umbridge mystery. The lingering scent of strong acid clung to him. "Do you mean the device I am attempting to create for Harry that will ensure an ally's loyalty?"
"Of course that is what I mean," Severus grumbled, and knocked back a cup of clear water of his own in one gulp. Elena hid her wince. One swallowed delicately, even when one didn't have a volatile potion like the one she was drinking to ensure a clear head. Perhaps it was just as well that Severus did not depend on manners to score the points he did. "What else would you be doing?"
"I'm sure that you have more than one project in hand at any time one might care to name."
It was a true comment, but the idler for that. Elena treated lies with care, the truth casually, the way one should be. But the words still made Severus stiffen in place and glance over his shoulder at her. Elena shook her head slightly.
"I mean you no threat."
Severus smiled with his teeth only. "Then I suppose you'll take no offense by my saying that I wouldn't take food from your hand," he muttered, and turned to the selection of delicacies that had appeared next to his plate.
Of course not. I would hardly cook the food that I poisoned, would I? But it wasn't worth arguing about, especially now that Elena thought she might know how Umbridge had met her death, so she turned back to face the Great Hall.
She was in time to see Harry walk through the doors and meet Severus's eyes. Severus nodded back the slightest bit. Harry seemed to relax and let his hand fall on Dash's head, as if for reassurance, before he went to his seat. Of course he caught her eye and nodded at her as well, but the nod wasn't filled with silent significance the way his gesture to Severus was.
Elena leaned back with a slight smile. Not the way Umbridge died, then. It's much more likely that the basilisk killed her to protect Harry. But the way they disposed of her body. What a fascinating secret to know.
"And you're certain that you know nothing about what happened to Madam Umbridge, Mr. Potter?"
They can't sense anything from you, Dash said from next to the corridor wall, where he was apparently examining a tapestry. It was to avoid making the Aurors even more nervous than they were already, but really, it was also a prime position to swing around and stab someone through the chest with his fangs. They're just asking because they know that you were enemies.
Harry nodded to both question and statement. "I didn't like her much. I know the Ministry knows about that. But I didn't wish her any harm."
That's even true. Not that they would appreciate the layers of irony involved.
"One of the people she spoke to at the Ministry the evening before she disappeared said that she was going to visit Gryffindor Tower. Would you know anything about that?"
Harry shook his head again. "Sorry, no. I didn't see her that evening before I went to bed or anything like that."
Masterfully done! We'll make you into a good liar yet.
I don't want to be—
Dash cut him off with laughter, and Harry turned back to the Auror in front of him, whose strained expression was getting worse and worse. Harry would have thought he needed the loo if he didn't know better.
"All right, Mr. Potter. If you do remember any time when you interacted with Madam Umbridge that would make it easier for us to find her…"
Harry wished he could come up with a convincing lie that would make them think Umbridge had run off into the Forbidden Forest or something, but Dash and Severus had both warned him that some Aurors could practice Legilimency, so he wasn't going to try. "Sorry. But I'll let you know."
They stepped back, finally, and nodded, and Harry was free to go to the Defense club. He did wonder if that was going to continue, assuming they got a decent Defense teacher, but the Ministry would probably just send someone incompetent and boring again, and they might still be using Slinkhard's book. So Harry was happy to have a competent alternative.
"Today," Professor McGonagall was saying when Harry slipped into the classroom, almost the last one to arrive, "we are going to learn how to counter a specific spell that the Death Eaters often used during the first war, the Infestation Curse."
Dash hissed approvingly down the bond. Harry glanced at him and lifted his eyebrows in invitation to explain, but Dash only coiled himself on his tail and looked at Harry patiently, as if asking whether Harry thought he would really yield the secret like that.
"You fought in the first war, Professor McGonagall?"
Harry blinked. He had forgotten that some people didn't know that. The speaker was a fourth-year Hufflepuff girl with blonde hair. Harry thought her name might be Hilda or something like that.
"I did indeed, Miss Jackson." Professor McGonagall gave the girl a faint smile. "And the Infestation Curse looks like this." She spun around and aimed her wand at the far wall, casting nonverbally. Harry wondered if she didn't want her students to know what the incantation was, in case they started using it on each other.
I can tell you what the incantation is if you really want to learn it. I approve of this spell!
It didn't take long for Harry to see why. The curse hit the wall of the classroom, or maybe the air right in front of the wall, and created a wavering, dark mist that immediately solidified. In seconds, a horde of squeaking rats was scampering about, their tails trailing across the floor and their noses twitching. Several students screamed. Not all of them were girls or Slytherins, either.
"The countercurse!" McGonagall said, raising her voice so that everyone could hear her above the sounds of humans and rats alike. "Contra vermes!"
The air seemed to sparkle. Then it turned into silver strips of cloth ahead of the rats, and billowed forwards, wrapping each individual rat in a cocoon. There was squirming and struggling for a few minutes, but in the end, the cocoons dissolved and took the rats with them—minus a few that Dash snapped up, Harry noticed. He swatted the basilisk on the back of the plume.
It's a public service, Dash said, and began working his throat to get the lumps of the rats down. The one problem with that countercurse is that it almost always misses a few.
"The Infestation Curse doesn't always call rats," McGonagall was saying when Harry listened again. "It can conjure worms, almost any kind of insects, mice, and others—it sometimes depends on what the caster thinks is the worst fear of the person he's facing."
Ron was looking green. Harry knew he was thinking about a variation that could call spiders without even needing to ask. And Ron wouldn't ask himself, in case someone figured out his fear.
"The incantation to counter it is the one you just heard me speak." McGonagall looked around at everyone in the room in a way that made them straighten up. Harry wished he could learn to do that.
It's what you did in the clearing in front of your allies.
Harry flushed hard and tried to ignore Dash. The thing was, he wanted to know how to do it, but at the same time, the thought of imagining himself that way was almost repugnant.
"Contra vermes," McGonagall said, and performed the wand movement with an easy sweep of her hand. For a moment, the air sparkled and then stopped, as if the spell had realized there were no more rats for it to catch. "I want you to practice for twenty minutes, until you're sure that you have the wand movement and the incantation right. I'll help you if you need help." She smiled a little and walked away from the wall, her gaze fastening on Ron. "You want to learn, Mr. Weasley?"
Ron bobbed his head frantically, and Dash snickered. Harry stepped back to give Professor McGonagall room to get to Ron, and shook his head a little at Dash. Just because you could eat the vermin doesn't mean that you need to make fun of Ron's fear.
And it would be one thing if he was only afraid of poisonous spiders, or Acromantula. But no, instead he fears the common spiders that ran around the floor of your cupboard as much as all the rest of them.
Harry felt himself flush again when he thought about the cupboard. He promptly practiced the countercurse for a few minutes, until McGonagall nodded at him and went over to the other side of the room to see about the Slytherins. Do you have to bring that up?
I didn't realize it was a forbidden subject.
Harry sighed and dropped it. He watched McGonagall instead. He didn't think it was twenty minutes yet when she came up to the front of the room and said, "All right. I am going to call rats again this time, for the ease of giving you the same target as the one I first used."
"What's easy about that?" Ron muttered next to Harry. Harry had to hide a smile.
"Ready?" McGonagall looked around, catching eye after eye, and although it didn't seem to Harry that a lot of the students were looking at her with confidence, she must have seen something that she determined made it okay, because she nodded and cast the Infestation Curse again.
Voices started yelling the countercurse from all sides, and Harry saw wands waved in all sorts of directions, not all of them right. He concentrated as hard as he could on his own magic and made his wand flick through the motions.
He had the satisfaction of seeing two rats that had scuttled towards him caught by the cocoons and dissolved. He was sure it was his spell. He turned to see how his friends were getting on.
Ron had dissolved a few rats and then jumped back from another one. Dash had snatched that one and was already working its fuzzy body down his throat. It looked as though Draco had done incredibly well, since there was a big area of clear floor in front of him and rats still running among some of the other Slytherins. Two Hufflepuffs and one Ravenclaw had cleared their portions of the floor, too, but McGonagall was calmly taking care of some rats who were running for their lives. Other students were trying to magic themselves into part of the walls.
Harry paused when he noticed something he hadn't consciously noticed before. Where's Hermione? It's not like her to miss the chance to learn new magic.
It was almost right this time. It was almost perfect. She almost had it.
And the problem was, she couldn't be sure that she didn't until she actually made the test, which would destroy at least part of the delicate structure in front of her if she was wrong. Then she would have to study the broken pieces and build it up again.
Hermione scowled and chewed on the end of her quill. The structure in front of her kept its own council, silent and rustling in a clatter of beads and black stones with holes drilled through them and the silver wire that was holding the whole thing up.
Someone coming into the room might have thought the structure was a beehive of wire and black stones, but there was a reason Hermione had chosen the Room of Requirement to shelter her while she worked through the last little twitches of the Arithmantic equations for this, and it was to keep people from entering and making inane comments. Even Ron and Harry, as much as she enjoyed their company, would probably disrupt her concentration right at the precise moment it couldn't be disrupted, or reach out and touch the structure, or do God knows what.
And she was making little excuses in her head as to why she could put this off. She couldn't put it off any longer once she knew that was what she was doing.
Hermione stood up, drew her wand, and backed away from the little table where the spiral stood. Then she backed up further. Then she stopped to the side so that the chair she'd been sitting in was out of her line of sight and out of the direct path of the spell she was about to cast.
Then she accused herself of making more excuses, and braced herself for the casting.
The words weren't Latin. They weren't any incantation found in any book Hermione had ever looked up. They were words made of the letters dictated by the numbers in the equations, certain letters corresponding to certain numbers. The problem was that each number corresponded to three or more letters, so figuring out the actual words she had to speak was a challenge.
And figuring out how to pronounce them...
It occurred to Hermione, suddenly, that she hadn't heard the usual rending crash that would mean the spiral had fallen apart because she hadn't pronounced the spell correctly and the magic had broken its delicate balance. Hermione could feel herself trembling, fine tremors through the bones of her wrist, as she slowly lifted her eyes.
The spiral was intact. More than that, it was turning slowly in its cage of beads and black stones, the silver wires spinning to create a continuous flowing motion that made sparkles of light flash into Hermione's eyes. Light, or water, flowing down from the top of the spiral, trickling like actual water, or seeming to because of the places that the wires went among the stones out of sight, and then showed themselves, and then hid again.
Hermione laughed aloud, and then clapped her hands over her mouth. She'd honestly never heard herself sound like that: free, and triumphant, and as if she had solved all the problems of the universe at once.
But you never achieved something like this before, either.
Hermione stepped back and grinned at the slow-turning spiral, then reached out one hand to pat the side of the machine affectionately. It sparked at her, and the spiral turned a little more slowly, but it still kept moving. And as Hermione watched, the grinding of the silver wire against the black stones started to produce a small shower of fine dust, much faster than it would have if the motion was purely natural. The dust showered down on the huge parchment the spiral stood on, a copy of the "map" that would let Hermione identify the location of the Horcruxes.
And where the dust accumulated most heavily, it would map out the rivers and mountains and other landmarks near the Horcruxes. It would be much easier to find them than it had ever been.
Hermione pushed her hair out of her eyes and sat down in the chair next to the table, trembling, feeling her magical exhaustion for the first time. She would let a few hours pass before she found Ron and Harry—and Professor Snape—and told them about what she'd achieved.
For now, she wanted to exult alone.
"I have a message for Potter."
Draco stiffened. He'd been about to leave the Slytherin common room to meet Harry near Gryffindor Tower. He turned around now, making sure that one hand rested on one of his knives, to see Nott standing behind him.
"Do you?" Draco shaded his voice with coolness. Harry had told Draco about Nott approaching him, but Draco still distrusted him, and would until he proved himself in some way.
Nott nodded. His face was pale, and there was a little sweat on his brow. But that could just mean that he was thinking about betraying them. Draco stared at him passively and waited.
"Tell him that a few Death Eaters think you're—we—whatever—are holding Bellatrix Lestrange in Professor Snape's quarters at Hogwarts."
Draco blinked. Bellatrix's Petrified body was actually in the Chamber of Secrets, tucked in an alcove and covered with a powerful Disillusionment Charm. But it was a good guess, without being so right that Draco would immediately suspect they had another traitor in the ranks.
Which made him wonder where Nott had got the information.
"Which Death Eaters?" he asked, his eyes fastened on Nott. "And why Professor Snape's quarters?"
"They think he would be the only one powerful enough to keep her under control. And—" Nott swallowed convulsively. "Apparently it's Yaxley, one of the Averys, and—my father."
Draco understood the sweat better now. Nott was choosing his side. If this plan got foiled, his father would at least suspect him. Neither the Yaxley family nor the Avery family had children in Hogwarts right now, and no easy way of passing the information on even if one of them had wanted to betray the Dark Lord.
"I see," Draco said, and didn't make his voice mocking. Nott was being brave to pass along even this much information. "Do you have any more details you can give me?"
"None except that the raid to get her back is supposed to take place on the night of the next full moon."
And will probably, therefore, involve werewolves, Draco thought, and withheld a shudder of distaste. He only nodded. "All right. I'll pass along the message to Harry and Professor Snape."
Nott nodded, and it seemed to Draco that his shoulders relaxed a little from their tense state. "Thank you, Malfoy." He turned and walked away to another corner of the Slytherin common room, apparently the perfectly respectable pure-blood once again.
Some of the others glanced curiously at him, but Draco sneered, and they looked away again. Some of these people hadn't chosen their sides, and might not before the war arrived and forced them to scurry in circles. Draco owed them no explanation.
He went to his meeting with Harry, but he must have been visibly preoccupied, because after kissing him once, Harry leaned back and looked at him in concern, his hands resting on Draco's shoulders. "What's the matter, Draco?"
Draco swallowed and stroked Harry's arm. "They're planning a raid to try and recover Bellatrix. They think Professor Snape's holding her. Nott told me. Apparently his father is one of the people who'll be on the raid."
Harry's eyes darkened at once, but that never seemed to mean ordinary fear the way it would in another person, so Draco waited. Then he nodded and said, "When?"
"The next full moon."
"Then there's a neat trap we can use to catch them," said Harry, and half-smiled. "There's no sign that they know where we really put her or what condition she's in?"
"Nott didn't say so. But he might not have heard all the information that they were discussing."
"We just need to act on what we know, then. Come on."
Harry led him down towards the dungeons and Professor Snape's quarters at a dizzying pace. Dash followed them with almost utter silence, as far as Draco could tell, except that his scales scraped against the stone wall sometimes. He glanced over his shoulder as Harry knocked on Professor Snape's door, and Dash looked back at him and fluttered one of his eyelids in his closest equivalent to a wink.
Draco smiled a little as he faced forwards. He didn't know what Harry's idea was, but if his basilisk trusted it, then Draco was willing to wait to learn.
Severus listened intently to what Harry said, to what Draco said, and then, with Draco's permission, watched his memory of the encounter with Nott. It did seem as though Nott was telling the truth—or thought he was. If he had been permitted to overhear that conversation deliberately and then spread the news, it was more than Severus could determine from simply hearing his words.
When he said as much to Harry, Harry only shook his head. "No. I think it's real. And if we prepare our defenses properly, then it won't matter much if they don't show up. We'll still accomplish something."
"Not if this is a distraction, and the real raid is happening somewhere else."
"If we can't get news of it in time and this is all a distraction, then we don't know that for certain, either. Lucius hasn't reported anything, has he?"
Severus shook his head in silence. Draco's eyes were wide and wondering, but it was Harry he answered the question for. "I do think that he would if he found something. He was humiliated by how his questions and his loose-lipped allies in the Ministry brought Bellatrix to our meeting in the first place."
"Good. Then we can ask some of Josephine Whitepaw's pack to be on the Hogwarts grounds and transformed. And there's that one who came to our meeting, Erica Kelleth. She said she doesn't actually transform, but she can direct the others. And she seems sufficiently impressed by us to agree to do it."
Severus stared at him. "You would bring war to Hogwarts?"
"I hope not on the grounds," Harry said, holding his eyes. "I hope we can stop the attack in Hogsmeade. They'll need to Apparate in no closer than the gates, anyway, and I'm betting that they won't come that close, not when they have to know that there are Aurors in the school looking for Umbridge and McGonagall is on the alert. They'll probably appear in Hogsmeade and then try to approach through the Forbidden Forest."
"How can you know this?" Severus asked, feeling a little helpless.
"Some of it is those books on strategy Ron has been trying to get me to read forever, and discussing it with him. Some of it is discussing things with Dash. But the rest…" Harry paused, and there was a thoughtful look on his face. "Some of it just feels right."
Instinct. Leadership instinct. Well, Severus had been telling Harry that he had that, and he had seen how Harry handled himself at the full moon meeting. It was simply disconcerting to see it emerge this way.
Just like Draco was doing, Severus found himself looking at Dash. Dash eyed him and then bobbed his head slowly, once.
Severus swallowed slowly and said, "All right. Then let's talk about what we're going to do."