Thank you again for all the reviews!
Chapter One Hundred and Twenty-Four-The Earthquake
"It's simply set up on a number of contingencies, isn't it?"
Harry smiled at Ellen as she floated in front of him in the middle of the lake. Draco stood behind his boyfriend and studied the set of his shoulders thoughtfully. It was amazing how Harry could go from careful and unsure to being confident in front of his allies like this.
"Yes, it is," Harry said. "What we're going to do if they decide to attack openly is different from what we're going to do if they try and sneak into the castle."
"And different again from what you'll do if they come over the lake."
"What we'll do, right, Ellen?"
There was a little pause. Draco was impressed. He hadn't even needed to coach Harry on noticing the ambiguities in her words.
"Well, of course." Ellen dipped her head. "I didn't mean to make it sound as if I'm not one of your allies, or I won't help you. But I have the impression that this is your plan. Not one you came up with by consulting with Susana."
"She didn't come up with the exact movements, but she did send me a message that it was all right to ask for your help. Because I asked her."
"I see." Ellen looked a little more relaxed now, the things on her throat that Draco thought were hidden gill slits fluttering more rhythmically. "Then I'll ask the merfolk to help me. There should be almost nothing left of them if they come in over the lake."
Draco shuddered, but no one was paying attention to him. Ellen was looking at Harry, and Harry was looking around as if he was imagining Death Eaters getting dragged under the water. "Good," he muttered. "Thank you. Then I'll go need to speak with the werewolves that we'll have on guard duty near the Forest."
"Werewolves can't help you much on the night of the full moon, can they?"
"These are from Whitepaw's pack. They have a mental discipline that means they have their human minds even when they're in their wolf bodies. It's very useful for having them serve as guards."
"I see. Then I wish you good luck and good hunting, Harry."
Draco moved a little to the side so he could see Ellen's face as she sank under the lake again. She looked utterly impressed. Draco had the strong intuition that Harry wouldn't be the only one writing to Susana, and it wouldn't be with complaints on Ellen's part. Harry had handled that interaction well.
Draco had hoped, as he stomped his feet and recast a Warming Charm on himself with fingers that trembled, that he and Harry could go back inside once he'd spoken with Ellen. But Harry kept scanning the ground and air around them with a frown. Draco finally asked, "Do you think they're going to come some way you don't have anything planned for?"
"No," Harry said. He turned around and started walking back towards Hogwarts, and Draco hastened to keep up with him. His legs were already longer than they'd been over the summer, although Harry hadn't commented on noticing his own growth yet. "I'm worried about Dash. He still won't speak to me down the bond, and he's doing this ritual or whatever it is all by himself."
"Why do you think it's a ritual?"
"He made a few comments about how much easier things would be with hands."
Thinking about that, Draco could see it. Dash had shown that he could perform most magic that wizards had to have a wand for, and he didn't seem to mind having others brew potions for him. But a ritual would be a hard task for a snake. Especially one that he doesn't want to show anyone. "Do you have any idea what it does?"
"Makes it easier for him to protect me. I got that much before he shut me out of his mind." Harry stomped one foot hard on a bare patch of mud. "He probably thinks that's protecting me, too."
"Do you want me or Professor Snape to find him and tell him it's not?"
"No. I don't know where he is."
That made Draco pause, at least until he realized Harry hadn't and was still stomping back to the school. He promptly hurried after him once more. "That's dangerous, isn't it? If he's doing a ritual you don't know about, in a place you don't know about?"
"I know. But I can't even ask down the bond now if he's safe, because he's blocking me. And Severus says it would be dangerous to interrupt him even if I could. It might interrupt the ritual and have terrible consequences."
Draco had to nod, reluctantly. He had once almost interrupted a ritual Father was performing, without knowing what the closed door had meant, and both his parents had been far angrier about that than anything else he'd ever done. "All right. But when you want me to look for him, then tell me."
"You said when, not if."
"I know what I said."
Harry only met his eyes for a moment before he averted his gaze, his cheeks far redder than the sharp wind could account for. His thanks were too soft to hear, but Draco saw the little puff of his breath in the cold.
He gripped Harry's hand, and then they both entered the castle and went to tell Professor Snape about the progress with Ellen and Susana's people.
Harry shivered a little as he watched Erica Kelleth walk among the werewolves from Whitepaw's pack, positioning them. She hadn't transformed herself, since she hadn't actually been turned, but her eyes were brighter than Harry had known human eyes could be, and held a gleam of yellow when she turned and looked at him.
"We are ready," she breathed. Her hair was crackling and lifted around her as if on waves of electricity, and she tossed back her head and glared at the full moon hovering behind the branches as if she wanted to rise up there and hunt it.
"All right," Harry said, and nodded to her. When he looked at the werewolves around her—ten of them, all of them at least as tall as his chest and black- or grey-furred—he saw none of the terrifying madness that been in Remus's eyes when he'd almost bitten Harry. Their eyes shone like Kelleth's, but they kept silent, and they made no aggressive movement towards him or each other. They sat on their haunches or sprawled at the edge of the Forbidden Forest instead, their ears tilted to every small sound, their nostrils wrinkled.
"I want you to be a strike force," Harry told them, and cast a Warming Charm on himself when he felt his hands trembling. He prayed it was only the cold on this night, and not fear. If all went well, he wouldn't even be fighting himself. "Keep watch on the Forest if they try to come that way, but also hit them if they come in on a different angle. I know how fast you can run. If—"
"We know all this," Kelleth interrupted, and her voice held a hint of laughter. "Why are you telling us again, my lord?"
Harry stared at her. She hadn't called him that before. "Don't call me that!"
Kelleth cocked her head and laughed openly this time. It had a hint of a howl to it. "Really? Why not, my lord?"
"I just wanted to review the battle plans," Harry said, deciding that he was going to answer the less difficult question, and then sighed. "I'll see you at sunrise." And I hope you're all still alive. The hardest thing about the plan had been knowing that he might cost some of these people their lives.
Kelleth nodded to him, her face gone quiet now, her lips closed over her teeth. "You don't need to worry about us. Pity our enemies."
Harry smiled a little, and walked back through the forest to the edge of the lake. He could see the shapes of Ellen and the merfolk swirling beneath the surface, but only because he knew what to look for. If Nott and the others tried to make a water crossing, it was doubtful they'd be looking down
Harry still wished Dash was with him. But they had done all they could to prepare.
He stepped inside the castle and walked briskly towards Severus's warded quarters. The wards extended out into the corridor, and lapped briefly against his skin as if they were trying to taste his intentions. Then they burned away, and Harry stepped up to the door to knock.
Severus opened it at once, and cast a Diagnostic Charm. At first Harry thought it was a spell that was meant to make sure he wasn't Polyjuiced or glamoured as someone else, and then he recognized the searching outer edges. He scowled at Severus. "All I did was go and talk to Kelleth and her people."
"Talk to werewolves on the night of the full moon."
"They're not dangerous."
"They do not mean to be."
Harry rolled his eyes a little as Severus escorted him all the way inside and cast some more spells that would function as personal shields for Harry. He could understand why Severus distrusted werewolves and Harry would never ask him to deal with them, even the mentally disciplined ones from Whitepaw's pack, but he didn't know what Severus had expected to find. A hidden bite?
"You would protect them even if they had bitten you."
Harry winced. Whether that was a result of Legilimency or just guessing too close for comfort, Severus was right. "Fine. So you're going to cast the spell that'll let us see into the grounds, right?"
Severus turned and aimed his wand at the wall. His eyes narrowed, and he chanted the long Latin incantation that he hadn't time to teach Harry in their lessons before this battle was due to happen. Harry held his breath as he watched the wall seem to soften and collapse inwards in a round hole, whirling down into black-purple space streaked with stars. It reminded him of the deep bond he shared with Dash.
Don't think about Dash right now.
As if Severus had heard that thought, too, the color of the night sky changed, and then it was simply the ordinary one above them, black and pale with the light of the full moon. Harry leaned forwards, and Severus touched his arm for a second as though he thought Harry would fall through. Then he let go.
Harry watched as the viewing portal plunged, and steadied itself at the last moment like a Seeker chasing the Snitch. Now there was a view of the lake, from what looked like the shore. Ellen and her cousins were swimming back and forth still, but Harry could only make out small dark flickers of motion. He glanced up and saw Hagrid's hut from the corner of the portal, and a glimpse of the gates.
"You think they'll come that way?" he asked. "Not through the Forest?"
Severus was silent, frowning. His wand tapped against his leg. Harry glanced at it, and then up again.
"Something is wrong," Severus breathed. "The magic of the night has changed…there's a Dark feeling there—"
Harry wasn't nearly as sensitive to Dark Arts as Severus was, but when he concentrated, he thought he could feel it, too: a heavy, brooding feeling that hadn't been there before. "There isn't supposed to be a storm tonight, is there?" he asked, and wiped a trace of sweat away from his forehead.
"Do not be stupid," Severus said, but without heat behind it. "There are—this is something Voldemort has done many times before."
And then the night swarmed and seemed to crack open, and dark shapes started marching up from the gates, from the very last point they could have Apparated in. Or been Apparated, Harry thought, staring. These shapes lurched. For a wild minute, he wondered if the Death Eaters had come up with Muggle machines.
"Inferi!" Severus spat.
Harry immediately tensed. He was sure the werewolves could attack them, and if they waded through the lake, Ellen and her people would do the same. But they hadn't been prepared for this many enemies. And there was no telling what would happen if those creatures disintegrated in the water or burst apart in a werewolf's mouth.
"I have to—"
Severus's arm shot out and got in front of his chest. "You most certainly do not have to."
"But I can't leave them to fight by themselves!"
"They aren't by themselves. They have each other, and the traps we set up. And the thestrals in the Forbidden Forest, which will defend themselves if the threat is extreme enough. Even the centaurs might join in."
"You don't know that for certain," Harry said. He could feel the urgency pounding through him like a second heartbeat, and it wouldn't stop. He hadn't been happy about the plan in the first place when it made him stay inside, but that had been Severus's price for helping to set up the traps. And now—
He made a dart for the door. Severus caught his arm and held him still. "You'll distract them," he said, all cool logic with the bite behind it that had been missing from his earlier accusation of Harry's stupidity. "You don't have Dash to protect you right now. And Draco is keeping watch over Bellatrix. Slow down, Harry, and watch."
With reluctance, Harry turned his head back, even as he reached for the vial of Felix Felicis that hung around his neck in the pendant Hermione had given him. If he could swallow a few drops of it and sneak out into the battle, then he shouldn't be harmed. It would probably even help him sneak.
But then he saw what was happening in Severus's viewing portal, and found himself staring with his mouth open.
The werewolves had charged out of the Forest with a massed howl, or so Harry assumed because he saw their heads flung back, but he really couldn't hear anything. They crashed into the Inferi and wrenched them apart with their jaws, trampled them with their paws, caught them with the side of their fangs and sliced off arms. The body parts flopped and writhed on the ground, but the Inferi didn't appear capable of healing themselves or reattaching themselves. And when the werewolves smashed their skulls like eggs, they stopped functioning altogether. Kelleth was among them, striking out with a knife Harry thought must be enchanted, from the sparks of explosive light that happened every time her blows landed. The Inferi she touched burned up, the flames crawling up their bodies in an instant and consuming them.
The Inferi had tried to go straight through the lake, but none of them were making it. Ellen and the merfolk surfaced and dragged them down, and some were attacking with weapons Harry had never seen before, blades and tridents of gleaming iron streaked with what looked like salt. Those simply dissolved the Inferi they touched.
It was working.
But new waves of Inferi kept coming out of the darkness, and Harry hadn't seen the Death Eaters yet. That made him worry they were just edging around the battle, using the Inferi as a distraction, or maybe flying over the castle on brooms. They hadn't coordinated any massed defense in the air.
"If I could just—"
This time, Severus's voice barely sounded human. Harry spun around and stared at him again, but Severus was gazing intently at the viewing portal. He held up his hand. "Can you not feel it? Something else, something Dark beneath the surface of the earth. If they have begun an Earthquake spell…"
Harry swallowed. He knew Hogwarts as a building had wards that would let it resist such a thing, but no one else out in the midst of the battle would be safe from it. Those particular wards didn't extend over ground that wasn't built on.
He tried to edge towards the door again. Severus shifted to block him without once looking away from the viewing portal.
Harry reluctantly looked back just as the Death Eaters came soaring across the lake on their brooms. Ellen and her people leaped like dolphins, but they couldn't reach them. Besides, they were still dealing with the Inferi, who formed almost a solid carpet as they moved across the water. Harry swallowed.
Another tremor seemed to ripple through the image, and Severus made a raw sound. "They may come here. They may find us—find you. I want you to go to the Room of Requirement and hide right now with the other children—"
"Could the Headmistress be using some defense that we don't know about?" Harry asked as hurriedly as he could. For Severus to want to send him away out of sight instead of keeping him right there meant he no longer thought they could win.
"There is no such defense." Severus's voice sounded as if it were clad in iron, and Harry supposed he had to believe him. Even if Dumbledore hadn't told Severus everything, McGonagall didn't have any reason to hide it from him.
Harry swallowed and nodded. Then he made for the door, and this time he really did intend to go hide in the Room of Requirement. He only knew a few fire spells that might work against Inferi, and going out there wouldn't save anyone. It would only hurt Severus if he had to watch Harry die.
Harry froze as though the stone floor was gripping his feet. He'd never heard Severus sound like that.
Harry edged back to the portal, one hand on his own wand. It sounded almost as though Voldemort had managed to break in and possess Severus, or something. Harry had never heard him sound like that.
Severus was staring into the viewing portal, and he glanced at Harry. "Look at that."
Harry looked. There was a long crack through the earth of the grounds, running from the edge of the Forbidden Forest to almost the lakeshore. It made Harry feel sick to look at. Why hadn't he known there were Death Eaters capable of doing things like this? Why hadn't he prepared some kind of counter to the tactic?
Then he saw the gleaming, heaving, roiling things in the middle of the crack. That must have been what Severus called him over here to see. Harry blinked. Are they raising some creature with tentacles that was sleeping down there?
The roiling things seemed to condense, and then they plunged upwards. And there rose, too, the thing that made them make sense.
Dash shrugged off great rolls of earth, his scales gleaming with the newness that meant he had just shed his skin. And no wonder Harry hadn't understood what those roiling things were. They were his coils. Dash was at least twelve meters long now.
Dash shook himself free of the clinging rock and stretched out his neck. That was all he needed to do to capture the broom bristles of the last Death Eater, who'd lingered behind the others to gape. He snapped his neck to the side and opened his mouth.
Another snap, and the broom and the Death Eater tumbled into his mouth, simply swallowed. Then Dash turned his neck and plunged into the lake, crushing Inferi into paste with simple movements of his tail and the middle of his body.
Out of the earth after him came a swarm of serpents, all of them grey with glowing red eyes. For a hysterical moment, Harry thought they were Ashwinders. But then one of them rammed into an Inferius and crushed its legs to splinters, and Harry understood. They were made of stone.
"The ritual was to give him this power," Harry whispered, as he watched Dash lazily take down the rest of the Death Eaters. He swallowed another one, and then whipped his head and a coil up at the same time and crushed the broom and legs of another.
"And to increase his size." Severus's eyes were narrow and shrewd, and he kept them fixed on the viewing portal as if he thought that he'd never be able to look away again. "I wonder if he kept you out of his head for fear of embarrassing himself if he failed to pull this off."
"I would still have loved him. It doesn't matter what he looks like or what powers he has."
"But you can't deny that he's making a vast difference in the battle and sparing our allies casualties that they would have taken otherwise."
"Yeah." Harry swallowed as he watched another wave of Inferi smash apart under the stone snakes. Their own attacks in return were utterly ineffective, with sloppy and bony hands alike simply breaking or sliding off the stone the serpents were made of.
Severus's hand landed on his shoulder. "And I suspect that part of his love for you is making sure that you don't have to take any risk in the battle at all."
"But he wasn't in contact with my mind for a while. He couldn't know that I planned to go out and fight."
Dry silence from Severus.
"Fine, maybe he could make a good guess," Harry muttered as he watched Ellen and the merfolk push Inferi who fell into the lake to the shore so the stone snakes could smash them apart. "That doesn't mean he knew."
More dry silence. Harry decided to ignore Severus so that he could concentrate on the rest of the battle, his head still light with relief.
It looked as though two of the werewolves were limping. Kelleth directed them off to the side with a pointing gesture of a wand Harry knew she'd "borrowed," and then called down fire on several Inferi who'd managed to get around the side of the lake. Harry studied the grass and trees intently in the light of the flames, but he couldn't see any dead bodies from their own side. Although he wouldn't be sure until he went and asked Ellen, because he couldn't see under the surface of the lake now, he hoped none of the merfolk had died, either.
Dash looked around a few minutes later, stretched along the side of the lakeshore like a glowing dark river of lava. But the Death Eaters were dead, and Severus canceled the viewing portal just after Dash began to turn towards the school.
"Go meet him."
Harry glanced up. Severus was giving him a fond look, and only twitched his head to the side when Harry met his eyes.
"I know well enough that the battle is over, and he won't thank me for holding you apart from him anyway," Severus said, with only a small edge in his voice.
Harry grinned at him and then ran out of the rooms and up through the corridors. He spared a thought for the students and professors hiding in the Room of Requirement, but he was sure Severus would let them know that the battle was over.
Harry could check on them later. He could check on the werewolves and the merfolk later. What mattered right now was…
He crashed through the front doors and straight into Dash, who'd slithered most of the way up to the castle. Dash at once lowered his head. His fangs were as long as Harry's arm now, and his snout big enough to make Harry think of his Firebolt. Harry still leaned against him and closed his eyes.
Why did you shut me out of our bond?
The reason that Severus already surmised. I was afraid that I would fail, or that something might happen to interrupt the ritual.
You know you didn't have to do this, right? I'm always going to love you no matter what. Harry ran a hand down the dazzling dark green scales on the side of Dash's neck.
I know that. I don't care. I wanted to save you, and I wanted to accelerate my growth and gain one of the magical powers that otherwise wouldn't have been mine for years. Dash hesitated. This is the only time I can do it, though. I'll have to grow naturally from now on, and there won't be any new magic for a long time.
I don't love you because of the kind of snakes you can conjure, you idiot.
Dash leaned harder against him, just on the verge of knocking Harry from his feet. Harry hugged him back as hard as he could, and finally whispered, What are we going to do about you fitting into Gryffindor Tower?
I have plans for that.
Harry let it go. He could ask about them later, just like he could do everything else later. Right now, there was only Dash's enveloping coils, and love, and the sense of a battle won.