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Severus walked over to the lifeless body of the sphinx, sighing down at the three teary-eyed kids. He kneeled before the great cat of Africa, reaching down, and stroking the slight mane she had. The wolves stood in a half circle around the group, keeping a few yards distance between the group and themselves. Alpha whined and moved up next to Severus, her ears lowered as she gently nudged the cat, then glanced up at Severus with another whine.
Severus rose and moved around the cat to the three kids. He rested a hand on Hermione's shoulder, who was still crying into her hands, although much softer than she was earlier.
"We should start moving back to Hogwarts," Severus said. "Maybe find somewhere safe to rest for the night."
Hermione nodded as she hiccoughed and rubbed her face, trying hard to pull herself together. Ron offered his hand to help her stand up and Harry offered a handkerchief from his bag before pulling out another one to dry his own eyes as discreetly as he could. The three threw their bags over their shoulders and walked closer to Severus.
Moony nuzzled Alpha as he walked past her, thanking her in the canine way. Before he could run to catch up to Severus and the kids, Alpha grabbed his ear, effectively stopping him. Moony winced but looked at her. She gruffed and stared down at the sphinx.
Moony's eyes widened, and he barked, "Severus, kids, wait!"
Severus spun and the three kids looked back over their shoulders. Hermione smiled at the sight.
A strange, small orb glowed over the middle of the sphinx. It swirled and grew, morphing in shape, growing four legs and a feline shaped head. In a few seconds, the shape took on more definitive features, the short mane, tufted tail, and almond shaped eyes of the dead sphinx. It was another few seconds before a ghostly sphinx sat before the body, its tail curled around her and a small smile on her face.
Severus took a step back hesitantly, before he lowered himself in a deep bow, the wolves already assuming that position. The kids followed everyone else's lead and bowed as well. The sphinx nodded her head and blinked her eyes slowly.
"You all may rise, brave warriors," she said.
The wolves sat and Severus rose to full height. The sphinx met his eyes.
"I'm afraid I do not have very long," she said. "I stand between worlds now. I feel we have some unfinished business."
Severus sighed and shortly shook his head.
"I'm sorry I could not save you," he said, his ears dropping.
"My time was near," the sphinx said, "there was nothing you could have done more. I asked you to save the young over the old, and you did as I asked of you."
"And yet I could not fulfill the curse's prophesy."
"Could not?" the sphinx tilted her head and gave an amused flick of her tail. "You fought to protect a dying sphinx, save the life of werewolf offspring, befriended not only the werewolf, but another centaur, a shadow wizard, and a unicorn who came to your aid once more." The sphinx looked around with a smirk at the wolves wagging their tails. "And let's not forget an entire pack of wolves."
"I suppose I have," Severus said.
"And more importantly," the sphinx continued, "you have accepted who you are as all you are. Can you answer me honestly, are you truly okay with that?"
"Okay with being a centaur?" Severus looked down at the three kids in front of him, who grinned up at him, and the glanced around at Moony and the wolves. He smiled at the sphinx. "I am."
The sphinx shuddered with an eerie glow.
"Prejudice does not thrive," she said.
"But," Hermione interluded, "he still had to save you to break the curse."
"He never had to save me," the sphinx said.
"But the curse said . . ."
"When met again, his fate will depend on who he helps revive. That has nothing to do with me."
"Really?" Hermione frowned.
"The first Prince all those years ago, young Edward Mathias, was cursed for being a monster hunter trying to cleanse the world of all things monstrous, blind to what a monster truly was in this world. It is not the looks on the outside that define a monster, but what haunts us on the inside. When he, or any anyone in the Prince line after him, finds himself again, faced with an inner dilemma as Severus was here, would he unleash the monster inside? Fear it; hide it; isolate it; believe it? Or would he accept himself as who he is and for all the world to see, not a monster, but an individual?"
Hermione's frown grew into a look of understanding, while Harry stared up at Severus with a small smile, earning a smile back from the centaur.
"No Prince yet," the sphinx continued, "has embraced being a centaur as you have, nor have they allowed strangers into their life, learning friendship, and finding family. You, Severus Snape, have broken the Prince Family Curse. May this be the last night of your transformation."
The sphinx bowed her head to Severus.
Severus felt a heavy weight lift off his shoulders and he nearly collapsed under the weightless gravity of it all. His hooves stumbled just slightly at the revelation and his heart picked up pace. Could it truly be? This was finally it? No more pain every night with the transformations—no more hunts—no more hiding away—no more fear. Just like that. Severus nearly smiled in relief.
Harry suddenly rushed forward and wrapped his arms around what he could reach of Severus's waist. Severus looked down at Harry's sad look, and the boy buried his face in Severus's hair. Severus sighed and rested a hand on the top of Harry's head.
Then, Hermione and Ron ran forward and wrapped their arms around Severus as well. Moony smiled at them before he left Alpha's side and moved over to Severus, sitting at the centaur's side. Moony cranked his head up to rest it against Severus's withers, a paw lifting off the ground as he did so. Severus sighed once more as he closed his eyes as he patted Ron's and Hermione's backs.
No more chasing the kids around in the edges of the woods. No more secret nightly meetings. No more small talk in the forest with Moony. No more . . . Ajax.
Severus's eyes opened and he looked down at the kids clinging to him. He reached down and lifted Harry, holding the boy against his waist where the horse half began. Hermione and Ron held on to a leg as they looked up at him.
"You know," he told Harry softly, "I think I'll miss this as well."
Harry smiled and hugged Severus while Hermione and Ron smiled and leaned against him. Moony nuzzled against his side.
"I could," the sphinx interrupted in a cheeky, knowing voice, "make a compromise."
Severus frowned at the fading sphinx. He shared a look with Harry, and they both smiled.
Moony leaped ahead of the group as Hogwarts came into view ahead of them. Alpha and her pack, who had followed the group to assist in escorting them safely out of the forest, stopped at the sight of the castle, and with one last howl that Moony shared, the pack ran off.
The three kids cheered at the sight of Hogwarts, glad to be back at the castle and more than ready to sleep in comfy beds again.
Severus walked slower behind them, a smile playing on his lips. While he felt that he should discipline the kids for attempting to run off to Egypt and starting this whole crazy adventure, he did not have it in him to do so now. He watched as they played fetch with Moony and a large stick they had found, tossing it between themselves, forcing Moony to run back and forth between the kids. When Hermione dropped the stick by accident, Moony snatched it and broke it to many pieces while the trio tried to get it back.
Their trip to Hogwarts halted while the kids and Moony played, which was fine with Severus. They were close enough to the tree line in the forest and Hogwarts was in plain view just through the trees, so Severus allowed the games for now. It was still the weekend after all. And their exams would begin tomorrow. A break from all the studying would help refresh their brains and prepare them for the exhausting exam hours.
The soft fall of hooves caught Severus's ears and his head snapped in its direction. It took him a moment, but he finally spotted the dark colored centaurs against the trees. There were three of them, and they were murmuring among each other, their eyes trained on Severus.
Shushing the kids, Severus motioned for everyone to move closer to him. Moony saw they threat and stood in front of Severus and the trio, snarling softly at the centaurs as they moved closer, his hackles raised.
Hermione and Ron gaped in awe and moved slightly away from Severus as the centaurs paused a yard away from them. Harry leaned closer to Severus, having witnessed the centaurs' wrath one too many times before. Moony growled softly at them, but his hackles lowered.
Severus recognized these centaurs as ones from Firenze's herd, and he put an arm around Harry protectively, his eyes glancing at Hermione and Ron briefly before meeting the lead centaur's eyes. Bane. His hands itched to grab the bow strapped to his back, and for a split moment, he missed his wand that he had had since he was eleven years old.
"You found a sphinx," Bane stated plainly, cutting right to the point.
"I did," Severus answered.
"Your curse has been vanquished," the centaur said. He glared down at Severus. "Yet, a sphinx's magic still lingers."
"Yes," Severus said, but he went no further in that detail.
"What have you done?" Bane questioned with bared teeth; his ears flattened.
"I did nothing," Severus said, pulling Harry more against his side. "If you have a problem with what happened between the sphinx and I, take it up with the high heavens."
"We watched the way the stars of Leo realigned themselves." Bane shook out his mane and stomped the earth. "They tell a strange story of impurity and mockery that we did not enjoy."
The other two centaurs ground their hooves into the dirt as they glared at Severus. Moony felt his hackles raise as the centaurs took an intimidating step closer.
"That's a shame," Severus said, his hand reaching for his bow. "I rather enjoyed it."
"We merely ask for peace," he said. "At Firenze's insistence, of course, but also at the start of a new era. The end of a perpetual curse. But for peace, we ask that you never bear our resemblance again."
Severus almost agreed instantly. It would have been so easy, too. But he held his tongue for a minute and thought it over. He frowned at the centaur, glancing at the two he was with. He recognized the reddish centaur, Korath, but the third he did not know by name.
"I've learned an awful lot about pride and prejudice," Severus said. "And in a single year as well. Acceptance is a hard thing to achieve, but I think I can live with it now. If you cannot find peace no matter what shape I bear, then there is no peace. Until you can come to me with a true peace offering, I respectfully decline your offer."
"You dare reject a Centaur's Honor?" Band stomped both front hooves and snarled at Severus at that. Hermione and Ron jumped back and leaned against Severus once more. Bane quickly shook himself however, his fists clenched at his side, and he seemed to reign himself in again, as if he was truly trying on someone else's behalf. He let out a breath and said, "I wish you would reconsider. We do not grant peace offerings to just anyone. This would extend to all the herds of the forest, and you shall be the hunted outcast no more."
"I will not let a curse define me anymore," Severus said. "I will accept peace when there is peace for all that I am. Ajax and all."
"We cannot grant peace to what degrades us," Bane tried to reason.
"It should not degrade you when there is understanding. And there was always understanding. You all knew all along what I was yet turned on me the moment I was no longer a foal. Understand now that there is no curse but will and a greater sense of acceptance and pride. I wish only for the same from you and your herd."
"You will not have it," Bane decided. "We cannot allow impure blood representing our kind."
"I don't represent your kind," Severus said, pushing the kids behind him. "I represent a family once shackled now free. I represent the family I have now. And I represent a strength for freedom that cannot be broken."
"That can be fixed," Bane growled, the two centaurs behind him trotting up to his side.
Severus's hand gripped the bow behind him. He was really hoping the centaurs wouldn't learn of what happened with the sphinx, but it seemed they had ways of reading the stars that he did not. A fight now with the kids so close by was not something he wanted to engage in.
Bane reared and gave a loud trumpet, a command to charge.
Suddenly, the shadows from every tree and rock around them shivered and rose, rising in a thick fog like substance that charged the centaurs, forcing them to back up. But more black fog came from behind them, engulfing the frightened beasts, who reared and turned, galloping back into the forests.
When they were long gone, the fog dissipated, and shadows returned to the inanimate objects they belonged to. Leaning against a tree where the centaurs once were, was Dougal Campbell, and he adjusted the fedora on his head as he pushed off the tree.
"Well, well," he said, "Dougal Campbell is here to save the day again. What would you two do without me?"
Moony barked and charged forward, jumping around the shadow wizard playfully.
Severus rolled his eyes but also breathed a sigh of relief.
"Thank you," he said.
"I remember you," Harry smiled. "You're like that wizard that kidnapped me."
"Don't sound so excited about it," Severus said.
"I am," Dougal agreed, "but ten times better. Shouldn't you kids be in school?"
"We're on a school project," Hermione said rather boastfully. "You know, solving curses, saving wolves, and all that."
"What kind of school is this?" Dougal shook his head. "I suppose hands on is this best way to learn, even if it risks the kids' lives, I mean you'll cull the dumb genes from the smart genes, I guess it works out all in the end."
"Children don't die at this school," Severus said.
"I heard something about a twelve-year-old murdered here nearly four decades ago," Dougal countered, stroking his short beard thoughtfully. "Is there something you're trying to hide from the general public or do parents like the near-death situations Hogwarts has to offer? Is that in your mission statement or something? If your kid survives here, he's a genius."
All three kids turned to look up at Severus with curious faces. Moony was panting happily with a smug look as he waited for Severus's reaction.
"We'll . . ." Severus started to say as he met everyone's eyes, "talk about this later. What brings you back to Hogwarts?"
Dougal smirked and pulled his fedora off. He reached into his hat.
"I looked into every research article Ruse had about his animagi rituals and found the missing ingredient that kept one's humanity. He knew what it was all along and purposely kept it out. It was written in a few of his books. I managed to find a collection and brought some for little pony and Wolfie here."
Moony jumped around Dougal with excited barks while Harry stepped forward.
"You really did?" Harry asked.
Moony held a bow pose as he stared up at Dougal, his tail wagging.
"I did," Dougal said. "Unicorn horn dust."
With that, Dougal pulled out his hand and blew a heavy breath. Unicorn horn dust flew into the air and sprinkled down over Harry and Moony. Harry awed, feeling a warm sensation cover him while Moony jumped around and barked happily, snapping his jaws at the dust.
Suddenly, Moony halted with a yelp, and he groaned and whined as he felt his muscles twitch and pull in ways he had not felt in weeks. Hair receded and his face shrunk up. In a few seconds, Moony turned back into Remus, and he grinned and pumped his fists into the air.
"Yes, I'm back," he shouted. And then he realized: "What happened to my clothes!"
The three kids had clapped their hands over their eyes while Severus pulled off his cloak and transfigured it into a robe for Remus, who accepted it red faced as he used his hands to try and cover himself. Dougal chuckled.
"I'm taking a wild guess," Dougal said, "but the magic that usually retains ones clothing while they are an animagus must have deteriorated your clothes away after your long stay in wolf form, deeming your clothes unnecessary since you weren't turning back."
"Yeah," Remus agreed, adjusting the robe around himself. "Err, thanks for the cure."
"How did you know blowing it on them would work?" Severus asked curiously.
"I didn't," Dougal said with a shrug. "I was being dramatic. I have a whole bag. Thought they might need a potion, or a spell, or something."
Dougal pulled out a small pouch from his fedora and handed it to Severus.
"Where did you get all of this?" Severus asked.
"I have connections," Dougal said. "I did not forget you guys, trust me on that."
"We didn't think you did," Remus said with a small smile.
"Thank you," Severus said, pocketing the unicorn horn dust. It was a valuable ingredient that could be used in certain potions that were hard to come across.
"If you don't mind me asking," Dougal said, "I'm getting a new aura off you. It's very similar to your old aura but there's something stronger and happier about it. Care to enlighten me?"
"We found a sphinx!" Harry said excitedly.
"At first we used the hunting compass," Hermione added, stepping closer to the shadow wizard, "my idea, by the way. But then a unicorn helped show us the rest of the way to where a sphinx lay dying—"
"It was so wicked!" Ron jumped in, reenacting some scenes. "First these manticores were threatening to eat us, then this awesome battle broke out and there were wolves jumping in to help us and Ajax was swinging his wand like a sword and slicing off a manticore's tail. Oh, and Hermione took off on a wolf to go find the forest flower thing."
"Forest lotus!" Hermione corrected. "Alpha and I went to get the flower for the dying sphinx. We were chased by a manticore on the way, but the unicorn saved us, oh it was amazing! But then when we got back, one of the manticore's bit Alpha—she was protecting the flower and I, and then she was dying!"
"So Ajax had to give the flower to Alpha because the sphinx refused to eat it," Harry said. "We thought Ajax wouldn't be able to free himself from the curse—"
"But the sphinx's ghost showed up," Ron said, "and she was all cryptic and like, all he had to do was love himself and the curse would break. I mean really, it took generations for the Prince line to figure that out?"
Severus cuffed Ron upside the head, earning a soft "ow" from the boy, but a smug smile remained.
Dougal looked amused, and he raised his brows at Severus as he gestured to the trio.
"Did you like gain two more wards since I last saw you?" he asked.
"It feels like it," Severus said with a sigh. "Are you following the story?"
"I think so. But that doesn't explain what I'm picking up from you."
"The sphinx took the curse in exchange for a gift."
"A gift?" Dougal adjusted his fedora on his head. "In my experience, I find that sometimes what the sphinx curses us with is something we really wanted all along anyway. We just don't realize it until it's far too late."
"And you're right. I've gained so much as Ajax I feel I never would have had as myself. Friendship, family, a home. I couldn't give that up."
"And you gave me an idea for transport," Dougal said, waving his hands at some tree shadows. The shadows morphed into a horse that rose off the ground and became half corporeal. It galloped around the group before nuzzling against Dougal's shoulder. Dougal wrapped an arm around the horse's neck. "Learned something new in Ruse's office."
"It's friendlier right?" Harry asked, rubbing his hand unconsciously.
"He's much nicer, just like me," Dougal said, rubbing the horse's neck. Dougal jumped up on the horse's back, grabbing reins that morphed for him. "It was nice seeing you all again. I'm sure we'll meet again."
Everyone waved Dougal off as the shadow wizard charged into the shadow world, disappearing in the forest.
"Okay, everyone," Severus said. "We've been away from Hogwarts long enough. We should head inside and get you guys some real food that's not ham sandwiches."
"I like my sandwiches," Ron said.
"Can't we stay out a little longer?" Harry asked. "One more time, please?"
"Yeah," Hermione agreed, fluttering her eyes at him in her pleading manner. "While we're still young and small."
All three kids smiled up innocently at Severus while Remus laughed and gave Severus a why not look. Severus sighed, outnumbered as he was, and nodded his head.
"Fine," he said. "One more time. And then it's straight to the castle. You three have studying to do for your finals."
"Yes, sir!" the kids chorused.
Severus took a deep, gratifying breath before willing his muscles to change. In pain-free transitions, he morphed into his centaur form of his own free will, like an animagus would, and he lowered himself down so the three kids could clamor on his back. His tail flicked as he stood back up.
Remus had dropped down into Moony, then changed back into Remus to be safe, then back into Moony again with a bark.
Severus pawed the ground and charged forward at a trot, Moony leaping at his side. As Ajax, Severus no longer felt the constraints of the curse. He felt free, especially with the wind in his face and the laughter in his ears. He didn't care what the other centaurs thought of him. He didn't care what Hogwarts thought of him. He was Ajax, and he had a pack herd that he had grown to care for very much. He still worried for Harry, and how the child might persist on staying with him for the summer, but for now, he would enjoy these moments with the children and the wolf howling at his side.