AN: Big thanks to Lindsiria for beta work
Chapter Fifteen: Tenure's End
He was standing on what appeared to be a long, stony balcony. The ceiling was high, and the walls held rows of unlit torches. To his right, an immense forest extended below the pillars and parapets, hid by a curtain of water that poured down from heavy, grey clouds filled. The wind pushed the rain against Harry, threatening to soak his robes - he ran forward to escape it.
A set of doors were open at the remote corner of the balcony, and he hurried inside without thought. A chamber greeted him, just as large as the Great Hall, with a long table set in the middle. The few torches alight on the walls provided little light, so it took Harry a moment to notice the occupants of the room.
Eight people with flaming red hair sat next to each other, facing the table: an older man and woman, who Harry recognized from the King's Cross; three younger males, two who he had not yet met and Percy; Fred and George; and a little girl, he had seen before. They were dressed in dark clothes, as if in mourning, and as he approached, their eyes did not find him.
"Come on, Harry," a voice called, and Harry jumped. It was Ron, standing on the dueling platform, wearing his duelling outfit, and Harry wondered how he had not noticed him before. "Let's finish this already."
"What are you talking about? Our match is over."
"No, it isn't," Ron said, and Harry, somehow knew he was right. He climbed the platform and went for his wand. It was missing.
"I can't find my wand," he said panicking.
"Are you lying?"
"No, I'm not!"
"Stop trying to make excuses, Harry. You know we have to fight."
"I don't want to fight you." Ron's eyes flashed to his family then back to Harry. He raised his wand.
"Fine," Harry said, "I yield then. You win."
"You can't yield, we fight to the death, remember?"
A spell flew from the end of Ron's wand and hit Harry on the chest, pushing him down to the platform. Pain erupted at the place, and he hugged himself, rubbing the spot. He rose to his feet, anger flaring up inside him.
"What's your problem, Ron?!"
"What's your problem?! Just take your wand out already!" Ron shot another spell, this one catching Harry in the leg.
Harry knelt, hugging his knee. "Stop that!"
"I can't, Harry, you know I can't," Ron said. Harry felt the unblinking eyes of his family on them. "If you don't fight back… I will do it!"
Harry held his eyes on his friend as Ron aimed his wand at him, a green light flashing on its tip. They remained like that for the longest time, before the light faded out and Ron dropped his arm. Starting with the father, one by one, Ron's family member rose from their chairs and left the room, until even the little sister was gone.
Ron crumpled. "I'm a failure," he whispered. "I can't even beat you wandless."
Harry crossed the table to where the other boy stood. "Don't say that Ron. You're not a failure. You don't need to curse me to prove it."
Ron looked away. He remained silent as his eyes wandered. After a moment, he spoke: "Anyway, where are we?"
Harry looked around. "Looks like the Great Hall, but doesn't feel like it."
"What do you mean?"
"I don't know, I remember being somewhere else—" Harry paused, wracking his brain. What was he forgetting? "I think I was going to the third floor."
"Why would you go there?" Ron asked, raising his eyebrows.
"Professor Quirrell… needed my help." The memories flooded back into him. "That's it! You all fell asleep, so I came here."
"If I'm sleeping then you're sleeping too. Mate, you're not making any sense."
"I remember now. I'm sleeping on the third floor."
"So, we're in some sort of dream?" Harry nodded. "I don't know, Harry. If you know you're in a dream then you should wake up, right? That always happens to me."
"Trust me, Ron. We're dreaming right now. But I'm not sure what to do. I don't think I can just wake up."
"Maybe there's another way to leave," Ron said.
"Like an exit?" Harry said. He inspected the Great Hall once more. And there, behind the high table of the professors was a door he hasn't seen before. "Look!."
"Was that always there?" Ron said. "I guess that must be it."
"Let's go, Ron," Harry said and began walking towards but stopped when Ron didn't follow. "Ron?"
"I need to think for a bit. Sorry, Harry," he said. Harry wanted to yell at him to move, but it didn't feel like the right thing to do.
"Okay. I'll see you when we're both awake."
"...I wonder if I'll wake up now," he heard his friend say as he crossed through the door.
He stepped into a crowded room. People in tuxedos with butterfly ties and old-fashioned gowns walked about talking in loud voices. Their faces were hidden by colourful and elaborate masks. Music came from somewhere in the room, and at the centre, couples waltzed to the tune. Harry himself was in a white, buttoned-up suit with a towel hanging on his arm. His hand was holding a silver tray of crystal goblets.
Harry searched the corners of the room, looking for obvious exits. The attendees of the party did not make it easy for him as they busied the tables of the salon and stopped him to fetch drinks from his platter. The music died, and a loud voice spoke:
"Ladies and gentlemen, my dear guests, thank you for coming to this spectacular night of beauty and glamour." It came from a man with a monkey mask at the top of a stair Harry hadn't noticed. He addressed the room with a brilliant smile. "Let us invite in our most gracious and esteemed host. The President."
The room erupted in applause.
The President, dressed in a red velvet walked up the stairs, her blue eyes sparkling behind a beautifully crafted fox mask. She greeted the monkey-mask man with a kiss on his cheek before turning to the still cheering crowd.
"Thank you, thank you," she said with an even brighter smile. "We gather here tonight to welcome someone we have ignored for far too long. As she ascends to heights only dreamed about by wizards and witches in the world, it's only right that we finally acknowledge that greatness. My dears, let me introduce you to my dear friend, the most famous witch in the world, Hermione Granger."
She didn't look like Hermione at all. Her hair was no longer a brown mane of hair, but cascading ringlets. She was wearing elaborate robes made of a silky, lavender material, a cat-themed mask that matched and she was holding herself differently. She was smiling at the crowd as they cheered her name. She hugged the President while they kissed the air in front of each other's cheeks then came down to greet the other faceless guests.
Harry wobbled to her side, dodging the other people and trying to balance the tray above his head. She was laughing at her partner's joke as he neared.
Harry took her by the arm. "Hermione, it's me, Harry."
"Harry!" she exclaimed. "What are you doing here?"
"Hermione, listen, I don't have time to explain," he said. "I need you to tell me if you saw any doors or exit, anything that might lead out of here."
She frowned. "Exit? What? Why are you acting so strange, Harry?" Her eyes fixated on the tray. "Why are you serving drinks?"
"Hermione, look, you gotta pay atten-"
"Hermione, dear, who are you talking to?" A voice cut him off. It was the President, accompanied by a set of women on each side. With cold eyes, she looked him down head to toe. "Is this… servant a friend of yours or is he bothering you?"
"I - I -" Hermione stammered, eyes darting from Harry to The President.
"Come, dear, you don't want to be seen talking to someone so below your station," The President said, looking down at Harry from above her nose. "Go back to serving drinks, boy."
She turned and walked away, Hermione following with dainty footsteps.
How could Hermione just walk away from him? Harry ran a hand over his face. This was a dream, he told himself. He didn't know what Hermione was dreaming of, but like the last one with Ron, there must be a way out - at least he hoped so. He searched for it behind the curtains, in the shadowy nooks and crannies, atop the stairs that led nowhere, and under the tables too. As far as he could tell, the room had neither doors nor windows.
At one point, the music rose to drown the noise of chatter. As if on cue, the guests arranged themselves around the dancing floor. From among the crowd came Hermione, arms wattled with a male guest in a bat mask; they began swirling, waltzing to the sourceless ballad. The melody changed, and Hermione changed partners with a seamless whirl. The party continued, other couples joining her on the floor.
A thought struck Harry. He had met Ron in the Great Hall, and now Hermione in a masquerade ball, where she was the guest of honour. It couldn't be a coincidence. What if he needed their help to leave.
He needed to talk to Hermione again. Watching her dance around, exchanging partners now and then. He put on the stag's mask that was suddenly in his hand and, without thinking, took a woman that had been standing to his side to the floor. In perfect steps, they danced among the other guests, until it came the time to exchange partners again; that way he moved closer to his friend until, minutes later, she swirled into his arms.
She smiled at him with perfect teeth. "Lovely evening, isn't it?" she said.
Harry raised his mask. "Hermione, it's me."
"Oh - Harry," she said, quickly glancing left and right.. "I thought you left."
"Hermione, listen to me," he said, whirling the girl on her feet, "I'm on the third floor right now. I need your help."
"What are you talking about? You're not making any sense, Harry."
"We're in a dream right now, you and me - all of this, it's not real."
"Of course it's real! This is my night, Harry! Why are you trying to ruin it? Do you know how hard I worked to be recognized? I've earned this!"
"I'm trying to rui - Hermione, wake up! You're dreaming!" he almost shouted. In a lower voice, he added, "Hermione, someone is going after the Grail right now - there's some sorta spell that made everyone sleep, except me," he said, bending her over backwards, holding her back with one arm. "The thief - you remember, right?"
Hermione shook her head, and Harry groaned under his breath.
"Alright, let me find a door, okay?" he said. Hermione bit her lower lip but nodded.
Harry broke their dancing and pulled her by her gloved hand. The music stopped almost at once, and everybody turned to them. Suits and goons parted, and forth came the figure of The President. She strolled towards them, steps echoing.
"What do you think you're doing?!" she spat from behind the mask. "This party is for Hermione. I told you to stay away from her. A little nobody like you daring to interrupt our celebration. And you, Hermione - " The President turned to the girl "- should know better than to associate with such riff-raff. We are above them. If you want to be one of us you must forsake whatever bonds you shared."
Hermione's eyes darted from the President to Harry and back again. Harry took a step forward.
She looked at him with unreadable eyes, then stepped back. The President turned to him, and even with a mask on he could tell she wore a triumphant smile.
"Do you see, boy?" she gloated. "In the face of all this, who could be bothered to cohort with you? A pathetic, insignificant little no one. Know your place and stay in the gully where you belo - OH!"
Wine splashed onto The President's face, and the crowd gasped. To the side, Hermione had an outstretched arm and an empty goblet in her hand.
"Will you shut up?! Don't ever talk like that to my friends!" Hermione shouted. She took her mask off and threw it on the ground. Grasping Harry's hand, she dashed across the room. "Come on, Harry!"
He followed, dodging the chairs and bodies, and at the top of the grand staircase, he finally saw a door. A shout of "AFTER THEM!" came from behind, and, as the faceless guests moved as one to grab them, he and Hermione broke into a run.
They darted across the room, jumping over tables, pushing others out of their way; they raced up the stairs, two steps at the time. At last, Hermione clutched the handle of the door and pulled it open, only to be yanked back by her heel. She fell, releasing Harry's hand as she did, and in a moment she was half-way down the stairs again, as the attacking guests held to her limbs.
"Go, Harry, go!" she screamed. "This is a dream, I remember now! You have to go and stop the thief! I'll be fine!"
Harry gave her one last look, before turning and making for the open door.
He stepped into an unlit corridor. A series of lined-up windows from which moonlight passed through. On the wall hung portraits with no discernable painting, and at the end a door stood ajar, waiting for him.
Beyond it was a bedroom. In the very centre stood a double bed, complete with headboard and nightstands on both sides. Someone was lying on it. A woman, he saw as he got closer, with a blanket pulled up to her shoulders. She had a bony face, with gaunt cheeks and sunken eyes, and her hair was a greying black, frizzled and without lustre. She appeared to be sleeping.
There was someone else in the room: a blond girl wearing an outdated frilly dress, seated by the bed. She had a book in her hand and did not appear to have noticed Harry yet.
"Daphne?" Harry whispered, afraid of waking the woman.
"Potter," Daphne acknowledged him without taking her gaze from the book.
"Where are we?"
"My house," she said, turning a page.
"Is she your mother?" he asked.
"Yes, that is my mother," she said, looking up at him. "Very observant, aren't you? Big brain you got there. Are you surprised? Not what you imagined, is it, my life? A girl stuck with a sick old woman, day after day."
"I didn't - I imagined nothing," he said. "What's wrong with her?"
"They left her like this," Daphne said, "after killing my father. My sister hadn't been born yet. she survived by luck, but then they came and took her too. I'm all she has left."
"Aren't we all?" she said, before returning to her book. "I don't know what you're doing here, but I want you to leave."
"I can't," he replied. "Not without your help. I need you to open the exit for me."
She looked back up again. "Help? Like you helped me?" she said. "I only needed you to show up at the bloody dungeon. You humiliated me. I should've known you're just another idiot who wants to be my friend only when it's convenient for you."
"That's not true!" Harry replied, raising his voice. "I wanted to go, but Professor Quirrell needs my help, I'm on the third floor right now because of her - see, you remember it, don't you? You know we're not in the actual world."
Daphne strained her eyes, but before she replied they heard noises coming from the bed. Daphne's mother was awake and was facing them with unfocused eyes. She had pushed down the blanket, and a thin arm was hanging from the edge of the bed.
"Daphne..." she whispered, her voice as dry as paper. Daphne arose, took her hand and moved her arm back onto the mattress. Her mother didn't let go. "...where is she? Where is my baby?"
"She hasn't come back yet," Daphne said. The lack of emotion in her voice caught Harry's attention. She seemed used to answering that question.
"I need her… more than anything… get her, Daphne, please… bring her back to me..." the woman said, head rolling to the side. Daphne tucked her in a practised movement. He wondered how many times she had done so while awake.
"I will, mother, I will." Daphne's mother closed her eyes and, in a moment, fell asleep. Daphne watched her for a moment in silence. Harry didn't know where to look.
"Daphne, I need to go." He said.
Daphne had a sorrowful smile when she turned to him. "Not the best dream to visit today, was it?"
From the corner of his vision, he saw a door spring in a corner of the bedroom. Harry remembered Ron's words and understood. In a dream, you wake up when you realize you're dreaming - as long as they knew, he could move on.
"Just go," Daphne said, returning to her chair.
Harry wanted to say he was sorry again but knew he would do the girl no good. He wished he could stay and help her in some form.
"I'll find you when we wake up," he said.
"Don't. You don't owe me anything."
Harry wanted to say something more but didn't find the words. He left.
In the next dream, he found himself at the front of the same cottage he saw in October, the last time he was on the third floor. This must be my dream, Harry thought. The gate was still open, the door hung ajar, and the lights were on.
Harry steeled himself. This was the moment of truth, the moment he had been waiting for. He entered the house, taking in the sight now that he knew that this was his own house. Everything was more vivid: the fireplace, burning bright; the small two-places couch; the stag and dog toys laying on the floor. This time, there were no picture-frames atop the shelves and drawers, no smell coming from the kitchen. But Harry didn't pay them attention; he knew where to go.
He expected to find the cowled figure on the second floor, and he was not disappointed. Standing before the door to his bedroom, so tall it buckled under the ceiling and with frightening, white bony hands like claws illuminated by moonlight. It did not move, and neither did Harry.
It's only a dream, Harry told himself. As long as I know it's a dream, I will wake up.
He took a step forward, penetrating the gloom of the corridor, then another one and another. The figure watched him from behind the darkness of its hood, but as Harry came closer, it shrank. Step by step, it lost its monstrous shape, and when at last Harry stopped before it, it stood no taller than any other adult.
Slowly, it crouched to his level, and small, delicate hands reached for the hood that hid its face. Bloody red strands fell as the hood was pulled back. A beautiful, pale face smiled back at Harry.
"Mum?" he murmured. It was the woman he saw in the Mirror of Erised; the same he saw in the book at the Restricted Section all those months ago.
She brought a hand to cup his face. It wasn't cold anymore, but warm and soft. "My Harry," she said as she stroked his face. "My love."
He had a thousand and one questions for her, but at that moment he could not find his voice. There was something wrong about her, and it took a moment for Harry to notice. Her eyes - green like his own in the mirror - were red then.
"Who are you?" he asked. She smiled in response. Harry took a step back.
A cry broke out from beyond them, behind the closed door. The woman with his mother's face pushed it open - 'Harry' was written on it -, beckoning him forward as she opened the door. Harry followed.
Baby's cries came from a crib at the back of the bedroom; a bundle of sheets piling up at its bottom trembled with each wail. A man laid sprawled at its feet. Hair untidy and ruffled, glasses askew on his nose, looking very much like a grown-up Harry. It was his father. He was dead, Harry knew at once.
The woman stepped over his father's body, stopping by the crib. Harry walked behind her. She pulled at the sheets, uncovering the pink, round face below.
Baby Harry was a mop of black hair and bulging green eyes, even as he cried with all the strength of his little lungs. On his forehead, a blacked scar in the shape of a lighting bolt pulsed in purple colour, the skin around it red and raw.
From the entrails of her robes, the red-headed woman produced a wand. She pointed it at the boy's face. Harry knew what would happen and opened his mouth to shout, to stop what was coming, but then green light overcame his vision. Green, then white, then black, then he was falling…
And then he was on his feet, the floor once again solid beneath him. He was back in the room on the forbidden corridor where he started.
The oppressive darkness was gone, and light came in from outside the open door, illuminating the room for the first time. Harry saw then he stood at the edge of the oval chamber. As he travelled the dreams, so he did in life, until he arrived at the end.
He beat the challenge.
It wasn't over; he reminded himself, he still had to find his master. He stepped forward, arm outstretched, ready to open the — mirror?
An enormous mirror rested at the back of the room. Golden frame, clawed feet, and an inscription at the top; Harry knew it well: The Mirror of Erised. What was the mirror doing here? Had professor Quirrell brought it with her?
Harry moved closer, expecting to see his family again. The mirror remained unchanged, showing his reflection alone as if it had never been enchanted. The other Harry looked back at him with confusion. Was there another trick in place? Searching, he ran his fingers through the surface. At once the glass gave way, unmaking itself into a fine mist, and Harry had to shield his eyes.
Strong and bright sunlight shone through. An earthy, fresh breeze assaulted him, and Harry saw plains of green expanding over a horizon of cloudless, cerulean skies. An unfamiliar place was there, beyond the mirror's arc, away from Hogwarts. Unafraid, Harry crossed the gate, stepping onto soft, humid sand. Behind him - behind the floating window of the mirror - a calm, still body of water spread as far as he could see. He was lost for a moment, unsure of where to go, until he saw it.
Farther into the land and at the base of a low hill there was an entrance. Carved into the ground itself, two walls of fitted stones converged on a wooden door. It was immense - Harry saw as he got closer - and every singular rock embedded into it was taller and many times wider than himself. The statues of two knights guarded each side of the entry, brandishing their swords in a warning.
Harry inspected the door. It looked shut, but no handle, no lock, only rusty hinges that appeared to have never been used. It was magical; he was sure of it. But how to open it? Was Voldemort already inside?
He was considering the Unlocking Charm when he heard footsteps coming up behind him.
Dark robes flapped against the wind, looking out of place under such bright sunlight. It was Snape. He strolled towards Harry as he did the corridors of the castle, uncaring of the surrounding scenery. Harry wouldn't have been fazed if not for the fact that Snape wasn't alone. His master, Cecilia Quirrell, walked with him.
"See, Severus? I told you my Harry could do it..." Quirrell said, smiling. The pride in her face was unmistakable.
"Indeed," said Snape.
"P-professor Snape? Master? What are you doing here? Where's Voldemort?" Harry asked. Quirrell watched him with warm, kind eyes. Snape sneered.
"Though I would say the slowness in his head remains the same," Snape said. With great satisfaction, he added, "Let me offer you my thanks, Potter, for taking care of Hagrid's monster for us. You've made stealing the Holy Grail a considerably easier task."
Harry's heart sunk into his stomach at his words. He wondered if he might have still been dreaming.
"Don't be mean, Severus... Harry did everything I expected of him," Quirrell said before lowering to Harry's height and enveloping him with her arms. Despite her warmth, the coldest inside him did not recede. "He is everything I hoped for and more..."
"But - but I thought..."
"You thought, Potter? You thought, perhaps, that a grown witch needed your help to catch another wizard, was it?" Snape said. "Did you think yourself clever as you snooped about finding just enough clues to keep you wondering?"
"That is enough," Quirrell said, rising. "I'm sorry I couldn't be more honest with you, Harry."
"It was you all this time," Harry said, voice growing weak. "...on Halloween - you weren't there to catch Snape, you were together."
"Yes," Quirrell said, looking even more pleased at his deduction. "The Defense professor tailing the Potions master - or vice versa, from another point of view... It gives you a certain leeway when it's assumed you have no one to turn to..."
Harry was at a loss for words. His thoughts were sluggish, and a knot was forming in his throat.
"Why?" He asked. "What do you even want it for? It's not yours."
"You're wrong on that account," she said, moving past him to stare at the doors. "But do you believe Dumbledore has the right to the Grail? Or the prince and princess? Did you learn nothing from me, after all?"
Quirrell waved her wand about the gate, and the great wood planks moved. The haul of their weight over the ground of cobblestones and the creak of rusty pivots drowned out all sounds around them. Quirrell waited before continuing.
"As to why - can't you imagine what use someone could have of a miracle?" She said, turning to face him once again.
Harry didn't have to imagine; a proper look at Quirrell told him what she might want it for. He hadn't noticed at first, but watching, he saw something was not right with his master. Her olive-coloured skin, that before seemed a beautiful, youthful tan, looked dry and leathery. Her raven locks had lost its lustre, and he saw grey threads mingling with the others. The eyes had become veiny, and a yellow had replaced the white in them. She even breathed with difficulty.
"Even you -" she continued before he could voice his concerns "-has something you would trade a miracle for, don't you, Harry? A desire most desperate to your heart?"
The faces of his parents, the man and the woman in the mirror - the woman in the black cloak - flashed before him.
"Yes, your family..." Quirrell said as if picking the thoughts from his head. "We can bring them back, Harry... together... once we have the Holy Grail."
Harry hadn't dared to hope before, not really. A passing thought, a slippery dream, no more. To have his parents back was a wish too big for him. Before he could delve too much into such thoughts, Snape spoke up.
"We should not delay," he said, still watching Harry, "It's not known what other defences Dumbledore might have set inside."
"Yes," Quirrell said. "You shall come with me, Harry, we must leave the school quickly once we're done..." Snape came up behind Harry, prompting him to follow Quirrell as she strode down the tunnel revealed by the door.
The air was heavy inside and so dusty Harry had trouble breathing, and sunlight accompanied them only a few feet; from her wand, Quirrell brought forth a bird made of flames to fly ahead of them. The walls were not altogether bare. There were pictures on them, painted over the stone - of marching soldiers and knights, their armies in a campaign, but also their enemies: giants, spiders, and monsters alike. It told the story of their adventures, Harry thought.
Soon they were spiralling down a set of stairs, and Harry - feeling less sick now - found it opportune to ask:
"What happened to the others?"
"I've put them to sleep," said Quirrell. "A Dreaming Stone tied to one of Hogwarts' magic wards - such a simple solution, but… tricky to accomplish."
Despite everything, Harry could not contain his curiosity. "Solution to what?"
Quirrell glanced back at him, "To the creature you've so bravely defeated, " she said. "Only the strongest heart, with the right motivation, could hope to best it - you showed me that, Harry."
"On Halloween. You dove so deeply into your dreams, seeking your past, to the point you would either succumb to the creature… or break free from its power. You only needed a little help. A full stomach on the creature, to slow the uptake..."
The praise left a sour taste in Harry's mouth, knowing that they had played him from the start.
"Since when were you planning it?"
"I had devised a strategy by the holidays," Quirrell answered as if she explained a complicated spell. "To feed it as many dreams as possible at once and weaken it enough for you... It took time, but with Severus' help, we could have you in the right place, at the right moment..."
Suddenly, Quirrell halted their progress, leaning on one arm against the wall. She started coughing, wet and guttural, her delicate frame shaking under the large robes. Snape stepped in front of Harry, pushing him aside and reaching into his robes for a vial containing a pearly liquid. She extended her other hand to stop him.
"No, it will all be over soon…" she said, cleaning her blood-stained lips on a sleeve. "I don't need it anymore."
"What's - what's wrong with you?" Harry asked. The professor was a half-dead woman walking with them, and Harry wondered if that was the reason she disappeared from classes. He couldn't stop the pang of worry in his heart.
"Simply running of time - but you needn't concern yourself… as I said, it will be over soon."
They continued down the steps for a while longer until they arrived at a semi-circular antechamber. Again a pair of statue knights guarded a closed entrance.
"Strange," Snape spoke, "that there has not been a trace of magic since we entered this tomb - it's almost… muggle. "
"Dumbledore is certain to have a last card to play; don't get complacent now," Quirrell said, "Now, near the end, I can feel it… the Grail is here."
Like the first one, the gate moved, inviting them into an enormous circular room. At the centre, raised onto an altar, was a stony container, shaped into the form of a man. A coffin, Harry thought. Bedecked on the walls, suits of armour surrounded them, swords in hand, forever paying their respects to the deceased.
Quirrell didn't lose any time climbing the short set of steps to the coffin.
"Inside…?" She mused to herself. She ran her finger over the lid as if her touch alone could reveal its secrets.
"Is that it?" Snape asked, moving closer to her. There was an edge in his voice Harry hadn't heard before.
"Perhaps..." Quirrell said, eyes focused on the coffin. "It seems… inoffensive… defenceless."
"Are you certain…?" Snape said, and Quirrell nodded.
Harry didn't see Snape draw his wand; there was a flash of red, and the next moment Quirrell was flying through the room and landing at the feet of a knight.
"Stay where you are, Potter!" Snape shouted, and Harry saw he had taken an involuntary step towards his fallen master. Snape had Quirrell's wand in one hand, while he aimed his own at him.
He didn't know what was happening anymore - he could only stare at the limp form of Quirrell.
"You couldn't help yourself, couldn't you?" Snape said, sending him his most loathsome glare yet. "Couldn't resist chasing the glory around, hoping some might spatter on you."
"What - what did you do to her?"
"Nothing more than what she deserved. That woman serves the Dark Lord, Potter."
Hearing it made Harry's heart sink again; he had tried not to think about it - clung to a hope it was all a big misunderstanding, but it seemed there was none to be had after all.
"You mean Voldemort?" he said. "Serve him just like you?"
"Be quiet - don't speak of what you don't understand," Snape said, turning away from him. He regarded the stone coffin. "But I won't have to suffer you for much longer - I will do what Dumbledore lacks the courage to do; I will make everything right."
Before Harry could question what he meant by that, Snape hurled the coffin's lid away with his wand. It landed many feet away with a deafening racket, but Harry didn't bother to look at it - even at that dire situation, he could not look away, as the Holy Grail was finally about to be revealed.
Curved over the casket, Snape stared inside for a long moment, his head moving as if his eyes scanned the contents inside. He moved aside and, twirling his wand, turned the coffin over. It rolled twice over the steps before stopping in front of Harry, its opening facing him, and he saw: it was empty.
Snape rushed to where Quirrell lay, picking her up by the collar of her robes. A bright red spell left his wand to wash over her body; Quirrell opened her eyes and took a deep breath.
"Where is it?!" Snape hissed. "You said you got something to track it at the mansion - where is the Grail?!"
Quirrell glanced at the collapsed coffin, then back at Snape.
"You are foolish, Severus Snape," Quirrell said, too calmly for someone at the endpoint of a wand. "Betraying me was the last mistake you'll ever make..."
Snape threw her to the floor. "Get up," he said. Quirrell did so, slapping the dirt off her robes. "Do whatever you have to and find out where this damned thing is. I will not ask again."
Quirrell glared at Snape one last time before closing her eyes. "It's still here..." she said. "Concealed… entrapped in a way… waiting..."
Harry felt something twitch inside his robes and for a crazy thought crossed his mind that it might be the Grail itself, but it was just his wand. It occurred to him then that no one, Quirrell or Snape, had bothered to disarm him on the way there. A firstie could never be enough of a threat. As quietly as he could, Harry closed his fingers around it.
When he looked back up, Harry saw Quirrell had been watching, but then walked away, wandering up the steps of the coffin's altar. Snape followed her with his wand arm, turning slightly from Harry.
"It wants its true master, Severus," Quirrell said. "It won't be satisfied in your unworthy hands..."
Harry was sweating. Could he do it? Snape was a professor, with years of experience over him. If he tried and failed, Snape was sure to take revenge on the spot. If he didn't… he didn't know what would happen. If they failed to find the Grail, he doubted Snape would let him walk free.
"I don't need your commentary; prove yourself useless and I'll finish -"
"Expelliarmus!" Harry yelled. A blast of red flashed towards Snape, but the man was faster and met Harry's attack with a block of his own. Quirrell was on him like a hawk - the two fell backwards with a thud, Snape's wand rolling from his grasp as she clutched his wrist. She grabbed his head, knocking it one, two, three times against the floor. He stopped fighting, his body slouched as he passed out.
Between heavy breaths, Harry watched Quirrell rise and take back her wand from inside Snape's robes. The sudden display of violence brought the bile up from his stomach again, but Harry pushed it down. Quirrell was staring at him as she stepped over Snape, coming his way.
"Thank you, Harry... I knew you'd be -" Quirrell began but halted on her feet when Harry didn't drop his arm, his wand trained at her. "Oh? What do you think you're doing?"
"Is - is it true what he said? Did Voldemort send you here?" He asked, because he had to. He had to be certain; no shadow of doubt could stay in his heart.
Quirrell smiled, infinitely amused.
"Oh, no, Harry, you see..." she said. "I am Lord Voldemort."
He almost dropped his wand.
"You… Voldemort.. what…?"
"Don't act so surprised," Quirrell said. "It crossed your mind, once or twice - I saw it in your head. Such a suspicious person, always looking over your shoulder, aren't you? It's alright, Harry, I would never hurt you… you're my precious apprentice..."
"But it can't be… you're lying…"
"I'm not lying," Quirrell said. "I can prove it to you once we have my Grail back… why don't you lower that wand so we can focus on what's important?"
The mention of the Grail sharpened his mind, and Harry raised his arm higher to aim at Quirrell's heart.
"No, I can't let you take it - you being Voldemort or not!"
"What will you do? Fight your master? I'm not unarmed if I desired you would be sprawled on the ground already, like dear Severus… Please, Harry, think for a moment."
Harry didn't know what he would do - he was well aware that there was no chance of fighting Quirrell and winning - but it had been a very long time since he had come to the third floor, and perhaps the sleeping spell had worn off by now. Or someone outside the castle might have noticed the situation and called for help. Anything that could stop the Holy Grail from falling into Voldemort's hands. As long as Harry bought enough time… He watched Quirrell's smile melt off her face.
"All this time I took to teach you, to educate you..." Quirrell said, her eyes dropping with disappointment. "You're clinging to foolish ideas of good and evil… your parents were smarter than you, they joined me happily… your mother was a true believer… I still remember Lily's face when she had you, so happy, so… complete… you were a beautiful baby, I told her."
"Shut up!" Harry shouted. "Liar! Voldemort killed them! They weren't evil!"
"Yes, I killed them, I confess. James after a long, long chase… Lily, much earlier… this isn't my first body, Harry, I'm sure you've noticed… my first one, the body I was born with, is long gone, lost in the pursuit of higher magic… Cecilia Quirrell's body is not the second either - she was a lucky strike, a widow trying her hand at the dark arts, looking for a way to bring back her loved ones… my second was special, powerful, willing… your mother's body fitted me well."
The scene back in the dream flooded him. The hooded figure in the cabin, in front of his bedroom - his mother. The woman with red hair and red eyes. So that's what it meant. If all this was true, Voldemort had gone in Harry's own mother's body to kill him.
The sheer horror of the thought was nauseating. Harry felt his legs weaken beneath him.
"I shared her memories and feelings - the love she felt for you was enough to consume Lily's whole being. I felt that too. You understand, Harry… in a way, you are also my son."
Harry couldn't speak. His lungs had deserted him, his tongue had rebelled. Warmth ran down his cheeks.
"My cause is just, Harry, otherwise your parents would have not followed me alongside hundred, thousand of others… but what you know is history told from the mouth of the winners… lies upon lies meant cloud reality, to obscure the truth… and now that you know who I am I want to tell you everything...
"Sadly," Voldemort continued walking closer to him. "The means of which I acquired this form were not ideal. It's languished since its original owner left… it's dying. Unless I retrieve my Grail, my time in this world is short. We are meant to be together, you and I, but I can't afford to waste any more time at this moment. Listen to your master, or I'll be forced to deal with you..."
It was like a heavy weight was pressing down on his chest. A feeling of emptiness settled in his stomach. All this time believing in his parents, thinking there was some mistake, a way in which all this could make sense. His parents had served Voldemort until he didn't need them anymore.
"I don't want to do it. Please, I care for you, Harry… I love you."
Her eyes were as soft as he had ever seen, full of warmth as never before, but Harry could not be swayed, even if his vision was blurry with tears and his arm was heavy. Even then, he could not betray himself.
Quirrell's kindly demeanour disappeared from her face like the sun during a storm, replaced by a cold and merciless face.
"Pity. For you, my dear child, I'll make it quick," she said and raised her wand. "Avada Kedavra."
Before he could react Harry's world exploded in green and noise. The room spun around him, and he felt a hard blow against his back. For a moment he didn't know which was up or down. And seconds passed when his ears rang so loudly he thought they might have exploded. The smell of charcoal and fire filled his nostrils, but the ground was cold against his cheek.
His body ached from head to toe, and all Harry wanted was to remain lying down. With some difficulty, he rose to his feet. He tried opening his eyes, and everything was a blur of red and black. Harry felt the metallic texture of the knight. It seemed that the knight had tried to protect him and caught his fall.e tried a couple of steps, and fell to his knees. He was so weak. Why was he so weak? On the floor, something glistened gold: his glasses.
When he could see, the chamber had changed. There was a burnt crater where he had stood not a minute before. Small aggregations of fire slithered across the floor, and immense cracks ran from that point up to the walls, where most of the iron suits had dismantled and laid scattered. He recognized a bundle of black robes on the other side of the room as Snape. At the centre, leaning on the fractured coffin, the shaking form of Voldemort struggled to stand.
Harry hurried for his wand, but it was gone. I must have dropped it. He searched the floor desperately, and found it lying some five feet away, though he wished he hadn't. His beautiful holly and phoenix feather partner was now a charred stub, surviving just enough of the handle so he could recognize it.
From the corner of his vision, he saw Voldemort stand, facing him, and even she was not unscathed. Her right arm was gone, and only a black stump remained. Her rich purple robes were in tatters, and Harry saw blood running down from a pool of red on her stomach. Burns ran from her bosom to her head, covering the right side of her once pretty face in a gruesome and weeping pattern.
"Impossible..." she mumbled in a hoarse, wet voice. She limped towards him, step by step - the most terrible sight he had ever seen. He wanted to scream, shout her away from him, but even for that he lacked the strength; his voice came out a whisper to his ears.
His legs refused to work, and his eyes felt heavier than he could soon, she loomed above him, bringing the foul smell of burnt flesh and blood. Her good hand flashed to his neck, catching his throat and squeezing with strength he could not believe she still possessed. He struggled with all he had left - pushing and punching, trying to yank her fingers away from his flesh. She stumbled forward, pinning him down with her weight, long curtain of hair over his face.
"Stop struggling!" Voldermort shrieked, crimson eyes bulging, alive with madness. Harry couldn't even feel the pain anymore - the air missing from his lungs wiped out all other concerns. Light dimmed - Quirrell's face darkened with each passing second. He felt his hand fall to his side and fumble away aimlessly. If he could only breathe again...
His hand found something, hard and long. He closed his fingers around it, and not caring what it was, not caring about its heavy weight, brought it up against Voldemort.
At once, her grip on him loosed, and the air - the precious air - filled his lungs again, so quickly it made him choke. Voldemort's mouth was open in a silent gasp as blood began to spill from it, droplets falling onto Harry's face. She looked downwards to her body, and Harry followed her sight: the blade of a sword had stuck halfway through her belly.
She looked into his eyes one last time before, before falling onto him, face next to his own. There, he heard her take the last breath.
Harry didn't have the strength to push her off him, he just laid there. The flaming birds that had been flying circles above them perished with its creator, and only darkness remained. There, in complete darkness, he noticed how silent the place was. Fitting for a tomb, Harry thought, then he too closed his eyes.