Summary: Harry Potter is no pushover. He's no hero, and he is definitely no one's pawn. What he is is a nullifier, thankyouverymuch, and he'd like to be left alone. Unfortunately, when he starts caring again, this bitter, messed up wizard will have to play the one role he never wanted to have, that of a champion. But whose champion will he be? No one betrays Harry Potter and gets away with it. Not even Albus Dumbledore. Now Dumbledore needs to convince the man whose trust he lost long ago to save the world…and his greatest ally in that endeavour may be Salazar Slytherin?
Disclaimer: Harry Potter belongs to J.K. Rowling. No profit is being made by the author of this fanfic.
This chapter: Harry and Godric fail to out-run trouble this time, Salazar races to find them, opportunity knocks at Remus and Sirius' chamber door, and vibrations stir the spider in his web. And I was this close to naming the chapter "Seeing Double," but I managed, somehow, to resist.
Note: It is helpful to have read "The Founders: Pieces of Life" for the background it provides on a few things in this chapter, but not necessary.
Thanks to: Skatha, for giving me the motive and incentives to finish the chapter sometime this century. Japonica, for Brit-picking the chapter. Everyone else, for waiting.
Chapter Twelve: Centre of the Storm
"And the dancing has begun now,
And the dancers whirl round gaily
In the waltz's giddy mazes,
And the ground beneath them trembles."
Patrick was dreaming.
It was unusually pleasant for one of his dreams, wfarm and comfortable. His awareness drifted in and out hazily, more in than out as the minutes passed. He opened his eyes slowly and found himself in a spacious, well-lit room that smelled faintly of bitter herbs...the hospital wing? Why did that feel familiar? And he was staring up into the blurry face of—no, it was the nightmare again.
Salazar Slytherin. Enough that Patrick had to devote nearly every waking hour to ensuring his safety, could he not be left the refuge of sleep at the very least?
His limbs still felt heavy with sleep, as did his eyelids. Tired. He was too tired to deal with this. Tired, even when he was dreaming. When his eyes began to drift shut again, he didn't fight.
A sharp impact jerked his head to one side, leaving his left cheek stinging. He was vaguely aware that this was not supposed to be possible in the dreamscape, but maybe if he just stayed still...
"Wake up," Salazar Slytherin snapped, shattering the last of his peace.
The events of his last few hours of consciousness flooded his memory, filling him with something that was part horror, part resignation. It was a bad sign when nightmares were preferable to reality.
"I am awake," Patrick said glumly, sitting up slowly in the bed and shaking off the last of the lingering fuzziness from the sleeping draught. He stretched, ignoring the protests that nearly every muscle in his body voiced loudly and all at once. He had still not recovered from that last stunner? Strange. And why was it still dark outside?
"Has it been twelve hours already?" he asked, stifling a yawn.
Apparently convinced that he was sufficiently awake, Salazar stepped back from the bed. "No."
"Oh." Then the unspoken implication sunk in, and leaden dreafd filled his stomach as he clutched at the covers. "No? Oh, no. No. We are not going to disobey a direc—"
"We are." The other wizard tossed him his wand and moved to the potions cupboard, searching through the shelves for a moment before pulling out two phials filled with a thick, brown liquid and slipping them into his robes, followed by two other potions that he shielded from Patrick's view. "Get up."
Resistance would be almost less than useless, he knew, but he had to try. "Your father is—"
"Away." Salazar turned away from the cupboard and studied the door, his narrowed eyes seeming to gaze beyond the thick wood.
"Lady Helga and Rowena are—"
"Gone." He motioned Patrick over with thinly concealed impatience.
Warily, Patrick disentangled himself from the bed, clutching his wand tightly by his side, ineffective though it would be should Salazar deem him more an obstruction than aid. With clearly telegraphed reluctance, he staggered over. The wizard nodded at the door in what was unmistakably an order, his eyes flashing a pre-emptive warning that he would tolerate no protests. He could be unnervingly like his father sometimes.
Patrick hesitated, but when Salazar's mouth twitched downward ever so slightly in what threatened to become a frown, he hastened to obey. He stepped over to the door, pulled it open, and stepped out, right into a bright red light that faded instantly into blackness, taking him with it.
As Sirius announced, for the fortieth time, his emphatic desire to kill Salazar Slytherin, Remus found himself not entirely opposed to that course of action, though he was a rather mild man by nature—discounting full moons. While he didn't have the deeply ingrained dislike of confined spaces that Sirius did after being incarcerated for over a decade in Azkaban, he was equally susceptible to boredom...and to worry, something that an overabundance in free time bred in alarming quantities.
"...bloody untrustworthy snake..."
Even if Slytherin wasn't quite as villainous as the history books portrayed him—"Not yet," Sirius had muttered darkly as he probed at the walls for any hint of weakness—he did appear to possess a sinister hold over Harry. And it did not speak well of his intentions that he felt it necessary to separate them from Harry.
What was he planning? Remus wished he knew more about what Dumbledore had hoped to accomplish by sending them here. He had gone off at length about Harry learning how to control his nullifying magic, as well as some cryptic nonsense about returning something, but that was all rather unhelpfully vague.
"...murderous, cold-blooded bastard."
Even in the best case, that Slytherin meant Harry no ill, things looked grim. Voldemort knew that Harry was here, and Harry was running round, sans protection, with Bellatrix and Mulciber at large. Worse, Harry had no idea they were hunting him. Remus had been so relieved to see that Harry was safe at first—and then so distracted by the threats and the puzzling mystery of Slytherin's resemblance to the Potters—that Harry had passed out before Remus thought to share their news about the Death Eaters that had followed him back.
Reflecting upon it now, however, he wondered if that was such a bad thing. Harry hated no one as fiercely as he did Bellatrix, and though Remus had confidence in Harry's ability to take care of himself most of the time, he knew how willingly reason surrendered to rage.
"What do you think he's doing to Harry now? I know he's doing something. He was anxious enough to get rid of us. I swear, the minute I get out of here, I'm going to bloody tear his heart out and feed it to the Giant Squid. Raw!"
Also lurking about was this mysterious Morass, the wizard who had the founders and Harry spooked, and Harry didn't spook easily. Something was bound to go horribly wrong; Harry didn't just stir up trouble: he dived into it, splashed it about, tipped the cauldron and spilt the contents over anyone unfortunate enough to be nearby. The odds of Harry finding trouble, or the reverse, as the case often was, grew with every minute that passed.
"'This is for your own protection.' Yeah? I'll bloody show him whose protection it's for!"
Meanwhile, they were trapped in this cold, stone chamber, helpless to do anything but worry.
"If he lays one finger on my godson, I'll carve out his spleen. With a wooden spoon. A dull wooden spoon!"
...and, in Sirius' case, plot revenge.
At least they were being fed. For now. And there was no basilisk. Yet.
He opened his eyes. There was an unconscious wizard lying on the floor next to him. Henry. He turned his head to the other side and saw another wizard sprawled out, unconscious. No one he knew, but the man wore the formal robes of a battle wizard. Finally, Patrick looked up to see Salazar Slytherin peering down at him yet again, frowning impatiently.
"Stand up. These fools have already cost us more time than we can afford to spare."
Ominous though that sounded, the frown was more than enough motivation for Patrick to struggle to his feet. By the time the castle walls had stopped twisting quite so nauseatingly, Salazar was already nearing the end of the corridor. He jogged to catch up.
"You knew those wizards were there," he said, marvelling that he'd managed to muster any surprise at that thought. "You might have warned me."
"That would have defeated the purpose of sending you out. My father is not a fool. They would have had orders to prevent anyone from leaving, whether through magical or, in my case, physical means." Salazar looked back at the two distant bodies. "They were likely the most he could spare in the way of 'protection.'" His short, sudden bark of nearly humourless laughter startled Patrick. "How frustrating that must have been for him."
That wasn't entirely true, Patrick thought with no small amount of guilt. There was one wizard left, and his was the responsibility of being Salazar's sole protector, now that everyone else had failed. Hardly a comforting thought. He had proved to be quite abysmal at it so far.
But it wasn't all his fault. The Slytherins—the Gryffindors—they were just too much. Too much energy, too much drive, too much of everything. Even when life was at its most peaceful, he had to push himself to keep up with them. Walk, and they ran. Match speed, and they sprouted wings. Now, with everything falling into chaos, he felt himself falling with it, further and further behind in his duty.
"You sent me out there to be a distraction," he clarified.
The answer was so calm and matter of fact that it felt unreasonable, even petty, to take offence.
"We're going after Senegal as well?" he queried, wondering at his own optimism to even ask, as though there was a possibility of the answer being no.
"If that is where I will find Godric and Harry, then yes." He glanced behind at Patrick. "Do you know where Rowena's chambers are?"
The unexpected change of subject startled him into answering truthfully. "Yes, of course."
"Good. The password, however—that might pose a problem."
Patrick considered saying nothing, but the darkly contemplative silence that followed the statement inspired a number of worrisome thoughts about the lengths Salazar might go to in order to remove any and all such "problems" from his path.
"No," he said reluctantly. "I know what it is."
Something that was almost curiosity passed over Salazar's face but it was very fleeting and soon replaced by his usual impassivity. "Good. I need a hair from her comb. Meet me at the statue of the old crone." His voice became more casual and he pulled a violet potion from his robes, lifting the phial up so that it caught the torchlight and sparkled. "And if you consider attempting to betray me to my father, even in passing, be advised that the number of painful ends I could devise for you borders upon the infinite. This is one. If you are interested in the details, simply give me cause for suspicion."
"Do you know," Patrick said as he watched Salazar put the potion away, "somehow I doubt it could possibly be worse than what your father would do to me."
"I will go, with or without your aid," Salazar said, walking away. "But if you choose not to help me...I will remember."
Patrick stared at his sole remaining charge for a moment before accepting the ultimate futility of denying it any longer: Salazar was set upon getting himself killed and trying to prevent him from leaving would be tantamount to suicide. The only choice he was left with was to cooperate. Cooperate, and hope that Salazar proved as unstoppable a force to the enemy as he did to his allies.
And even were it not his only choice—
I will remember.
He shuddered. The alternative didn't bear thinking about.
Remus started, and scrambled to his feet as he looked about for the source of the shout. Sirius recovered from his surprise to transform into his animagus form and trot towards the closed entrance to the Chamber, head cocked to one side, listening. Remus followed. Sirius stopped just in front of it, sniffed, and sneezed. He was still sneezing when he morphed back into human shape.
"Students," he muttered quietly to Remus, after he'd recovered. "And a metric tonne of dust." He raised his voice to address the large doors. "Hello! Who's there?"
Remus leaned closer and with his own slightly enhanced senses, could hear anxious whispering, though it was too soft for him to make out individual words. He picked up the faintest scent of nervous sweat.
"We're—it doesn't matter who we are. Who are you? Are you prisoners of Slytherin?"
"No, of course not," Sirius snarled, face turning murderous at the founder's name. "He just gave us the grand tour of the castle and we thought this room looked so sodding cosy we absolutely had to have it, and by the way, would he mind just sealing it off and locking us i—"
"Yes," Remus clarified, casting a pointed look at his friend to remind him that venting through sarcasm, however therapeutical, was not the best method for reassuring nervous students who could quite literally hold the key to their freedom. "I'm afraid we are indeed prisoners."
"See?" Remus heard a voice hiss quietly. "I told you!"
The answering whisper, though vehement, was even softer. "Do you really think Slytherin just let you follow him to this place? That he didn't notice? This is a trap!"
"He's never spotted me before. Just because you were careless enough to be seen—"
"Let's just see what they have to say. If they sound like Council plants, then we can just, um."
"Leave? Hardly. We'd have to go in there and kill them ourselves."
"Do we? Have to?"
A disgusted snort.
"Let's just get this over with!"
Silence again, presumably filled by unseen nods. Finally, a tremulous voice addressed Remus and Sirius. "You were sent by...him?"
"Him?" Sirius mouthed to him.
Him. Morass? Remus thought furiously and decided that given what he'd heard, the gamble was necessary. This could be a trick of Slytherin's, but it sounded more like— "Yes, we were sent by Morass on a...a vital mission."
More hushed whispering. Then, another voice spoke, with audible scepticism. "A vital mission to be caught at the front gates?"
"Don't be ridiculous," Remus chided gently. "I'm sure you are familiar with the legend of the Trojan Horse. Obviously, we were meant to be caught, so that we could later be freed to attack from within. We were told to expect someone to release us when the time came. Am I correct in assuming that this is why you are here?"
Hesitation. They were starting to crumble. "We heard rumours that a pair of intruders had been imprisoned here. But we've received no word from anyone to indicate that we are supposed to help you..."
"It's possible that the message was intercepted," Sirius said, joining the act with considerable enthusiasm now that their prospects for escape seemed to be rapidly improving. "In which case your initiative will be highly rewarded."
Silence. Then, someone uttered a handful of syllables, and the door began to creak open. Five young wizards, four male and one female, stood warily. Remus opened his hands to show that he had no wand, and saw Sirius do the same out of the corner of his eye. They stepped into the long underground pipe leading up into the school.
"These were hanging near the door," the young witch said, pulling two familiar wands out of her robes and holding them out.
Remus took his with a grateful smile that seemed to put her at ease. "Thank you."
"Is Professor Evans one of ours too? One of you?" she asked, colouring slightly when Sirius gave her a look.
At first the connection didn't occur to him, but then he caught the shudder one of the students gave at the name. Professor Evans...Harry? Harry, teaching? Strange. The school still seemed to be intact.
"Of course," Remus said, trying not to sound to eager for information. "I hope he hasn't...ah, he hasn't been too obvious about his loyalties?"
"He argued with Slytherin," she replied, with something very like awe. "The younger Slytherin, I mean. Not that it would be less impressive to argue with the elder one, of course. But. He argued with him. About Muggleborns. With Slytherin."
Remus allowed himself an internal sigh of relief. That sounded more like their Harry. "He will receive a reprimand, of course, for risking his cover."
The girl shook her head, looking abashed. "Oh, no. I didn't mean to—Oh, but he was brilliant, really. He—"
"I'm sure he was," Remus interrupted, looking over at Sirius, whose state of alert readiness was belied by his casual stance. "What is the situation? I assume you had reason to wait until now to free us."
"The school masters are gone," one of the boys explained, tapping his wand against his thigh with nervous excitement. Remus, who had seen a young Auror once lose a leg that way, winced. "Lady Rowena and Lady Helga—even Gryffindor and Slytherin. Lord Morass must have made his strike. Now is the ideal time to bring down the wards."
The founders gone? Remus did his best to hide his dismay behind an encouraging smile.
"H—Professor Evans?" Sirius demanded.
"Evans? I haven't seen him either." The boy shot a querying glance at his peers, who shook their heads. "He must still be making preparations."
Gone, then. Splendid. Remus gave a Sirius a subtle kick before he finished the first syllable of whatever oath he'd been ready to spit.
"What are your plans now?" Remus probed. "We should coordinate our actions."
"We were about to gather the rest. We can advance to the gates and weaken the wards while you alert Lord Morass."
Weaken the wards? Alert the much-alluded-to Morass? And where had Harry gone? What was going on?
"How many strong are y—we?" Sirius asked. The question was met with renewed suspicion, and he added, "Timing is crucial. We need to know how long it will take for you to weaken the wards."
"We've fifty," the witch said, turning to glance nervously down the length of the long pipe. "We should hurry. There's no telling when the school masters will return."
The dark-haired boy who seemed to be the leader nodded and gestured at his now-armed rescuees to follow behind, betraying his inexperience and quite probably his house, which Remus suspected now to be Gryffindor. He stayed close to the girl, who was the least taciturn of the conspirators.
"How did you find us?" he whispered, remembering Harry's account of his adventure in the Chamber, which had featured a girl's toilet, Parseltongue, a basilisk, and Tom Riddle.
"Oh, there is always supposed to be one of us following Slytherin," she whispered back. "Orders from Lord Morass himself. I'm the best at it, so I'm usually the one doing it. I followed him here this evening, when he brought you supper. I heard him speak the password, and I waited until he was gone before trying it myself. When I saw that door back there, sealed off, I figured you must be the two prisoners we'd heard about."
No Parseltongue. Lucky for them, but Remus had the feeling that was a mistake that Slytherin wouldn't be repeating. He glanced at Sirius, who gave a subtle nod indicating his readiness to act. Remus followed the students for a moment in silent reflection.
To his admittedly limited knowledge, this student uprising was not part of whatever Dumbledore had had in mind sending them here. And while the enemy of their enemy was traditionally a friend, Harry seemed to trust Slytherin, and the other founders supported his actions for now, which meant...
He nodded back at Sirius, and the two of them drew their wands, each stunning the student nearest him. The leader, who'd had the presence of mind at least to keep his hand on his wand the entire time, whirled with a curse, but Sirius dropped him with another stunner. Remus blocked the spell of one wizard and shrugged off the other with the resistance lent to him by his lycanthropy. Petrificus Totalus. He grimaced and shook his limbs out to rid himself of the partial stiffness his condition had been unable to ignore.
"Stupefy." Another student fell, and Sirius took care of the last, who was distracted with trying to hexing Remus again.
Remus studied the five unconscious students while Sirius gathered up their wands. What to do with them? He didn't want to risk them waking and carrying through with their plan. If only there was a way to change the password to the Chamber—or did it work from the inside?
"We might be able to—" he began, only to stop when Sirius pointed at something in front of them.
Hanging down into the pipe from the entrance in the girl's toilet was a tall rope ladder. Sirius held up the captured wands with a fierce grin. Shaking his head and smiling, Remus followed Sirius up the ladder and into the loo, helping him pull it up. Sparing the students trapped below a final glance, Remus transfigured the ladder into an inobtrusive comb and left it on the sink.
"We need to find Harry," Sirius said impatiently as they strode out into the corridor.
"You heard the girl. He isn't here."
Sirius was quiet for several minutes as they passed unfamiliar portraits that had likely been replaced several times over by the time they'd attended Hogwarts. "They've already lost him, and they only had him, what? Two days? I thought the founders were supposed to be..." He broke off with a frustrated gesture.
"We'll find him," Remus said quietly, half to reassure himself. "But first we need to get out of Hogwarts. Getting ourselves locked up again won't help anyone."
He nodded slowly. "As good a place as any. We may find some of the others there. It's strange that Ron hasn't tried to gain entry to the castle. Moody I could understand, but—it seems increasingly likely that the others have been replaced with Death Eaters as well."
"We'll find out soon enough, I'm sure. I'd like to know how they breached our security," Sirius replied, staring moodily down the corridor. "Well, let's go visit our old, ugly friend."
For the first time in his life, Patrick looked down at Salazar Slytherin, and he savoured the moment.
"I never realised how short Rowena was," the wizard—witch, now—remarked once he had recovered from the Polyjuice transformation. "It must be quite inconvenient."
Salazar glanced at him, and Patrick hastily composed himself, wiping any trace of his amusement from his voice. "What now?"
"We leave. My father likely has the front gates guarded, so we will follow a path Harry has used before to evade us." Salazar pointed at the weathered statue of a grinning, gap-toothed crone. "Dissendium."
A passageway opened up. It was discouragingly long and dark. Patrick lit his wand and entered first, determined to carry out at least this basic aspect of his duty. He scanned the immediate length of tunnel and beckoned Salazar in. That explained why Salazar and Rowena had been so cross the other day; he wasn't the only one who'd lost Evans before. It was oddly comforting to know that even a nullifier couldn't restrain the slippery bastard.
"Wait!" a voice called from the entrance. "Lady Ravenclaw!"
Patrick whirled, a spell ready on his lips. Salazar made a quelling motion with one hand, and he reluctantly lowered his wand to study the newcomers. There were two—he recognised them from yesterday, when Salazar had escorted them into the castle. He hadn't seen them since, so he'd assumed they were turned over to Lord Slytherin. Clearly, he'd been mistaken.
From the brief flash of surprise on Salazar's face, he hadn't expected to see them either. "Yes?"
"There are a group of students plotting to weaken the wards," the lighter-haired one reported. "We managed to convince them that we were allies—" at Salazar's delicately raised brow, the wizard continued hastily, "though of course we aren't. After they freed us, we subdued them, and left them in the Chamber. You, ah, do know about the Chamber?"
Chamber? Patrick glanced at Salazar to see if the term was familiar to him, but his expression betrayed no recognition. Not, he thought ruefully, that this meant anything.
"And—" the dark-haired one said, glaring at Salazar, who was making no move to reveal his true identity. "Harry. Where is he?"
"Missing," Salazar replied stiffly.
The wizard levelled an accusing finger at them. "I knew it. You—"
"Are leaving just now to retrieve him," Salazar interrupted. Then he frowned, though the expression translated on Rowena's face as more of a petulant pout. "We have no time to suppress a student rebellion."
The black-haired one, who was clearly the more excitable of the two, opened his mouth to speak, but Salazar cut it off with an imperious wave. Too curt, Patrick noted. The motion lacked Rowena's grace.
"I possess the means to locate him, but I cannot leave the castle if there is a chance it may be taken from within." He moved towards the entrance to the passageway, borrowing a distressed expression Rowena sometimes wore when interacting with someone who didn't know her well enough to recognise the baited trap.
The reproduction was so accurate that the disturbing suspicion began to form in Patrick's mind that this was not the first time Salazar had impersonated Rowena.
"They are in grave danger, but my first duty is to Hogwarts," Salazar said, his tone softer now. "There is no one left to keep order, save Osric, and he is yet unaware of the situation."
"But we—" The brown-haired wizard stopped, nostrils flaring with visible frustration. "Very well. We will tell this Osric and make sure nothing happens to the school. You're certain you can find Harry?"
"We'll do no such thing," the other wizard snapped, and he couldn't seem to decide who to direct the words at, his friend or Salazar. "We are not going to stay and fix their mess when we could be out searching for Harry!"
"Sirius," the first wizard said patiently. "She can find him. We can't. We're not going to help Harry by wandering all over the countryside for him."
"Tell us where he is!" Sirius ignored his friend to focus a hard-eyed stare at Salazar. Patrick felt his hand tighten around his wand. "You can fix your own problem. We'll get him."
"We are wasting time," Salazar stated, addressing the calmer wizard. "There is a ritual I must perform. It is complicated and I cannot afford distractions."
The wizard nodded slowly. "Sirius, this is the best we can do to help Harry for now. And you know how he feels about Hogwarts." He turned to Salazar. "Where can we find this Osric?"
"Try the hospital wing."
As soon as the pair—the light-haired wizard dragging his scowling companion behind him—were out of sight, Salazar leapt into the passageway and took off at a run that was no less swift for his Polyjuice-shortened stride. Patrick was forced yet again to sprint to catch up. "Why would Osric be at the hospital wing?"
"He wouldn't. But that is the first place Rowena will go when she returns."
"Oh." Patrick winced at the thought of her reaction, and changed the subject before he could dwell on it for too long. "Do you really know where to find them? Godric, and...Harry?"
"Not yet. But I will."
"Then where are we going?" he asked, wincing at how laboured his breathing sounded already. Too much sentry duty, not enough field action.
"To visit a prisoner."
I feigned grogginess, opening my eyes slowly. Two rough pairs of hands forced me to my feet. I tried to shake them off, but their grip remained firm. I lifted my head and looked straight ahead at the wizard I assumed was Delis Senegal. He was taller than I'd expected, given Wilham's description, though I'd called the fancy robes: a deep, rich blue with silver trim I was certain he'd selected precisely because it complemented his eyes. His hair was dark brown with streaks of premature grey. Premature, I assumed, because he looked only slightly older than Salazar, in his early to mid thirties. He met my scrutiny with a smug, self-satisfied smile.
And the theme for this evening's villain is...stylishly evil!
"Godric Gryffindor," he said with obvious relish, holding his wand casually, pointed down and to the right. Oh so deliberately not at me. "You came."
"You called," I replied flippantly, studying the room for anything of potential use.
It was roughly the size of my quarters at Hogwarts, but entirely without windows. On the bright side, this meant I had only one exit to watch. Two large tapestries hung from two walls, one depicting a knight preparing to strike a killing blow to a roaring lion. Were lions associated with the Gryffindor family? If so, it was a disconcerting piece of possible foreshadowing, if you believed in that sort of thing. Which I didn't.
It was also flammable. As was the other. I made note.
Four wooden chairs arrayed around a table off in one corner of the room. Three more and another, smaller table, in the opposite corner. All very flammable, excellent. The carpet beneath my feet was thick, though not quite as thick as the one back at Hogwarts. Better and better.
As for the opposition—one wizard to go with each chair. Two holding me. Plus Senegal. And four sword-wielding men in armour who almost had to be Muggles. All of them stony-faced, seemingly indifferent to my lamentable fate. No allies, not that I'd expected any. Fourteen against one in a small room...not exactly the odds that I would prefer, but Godric plus the element of surprise has to count for at least ten, so I'd be fine once I found a way to signal him.
Noticing my scrutiny of the room, Senegal shook his head. "Godric, you insult my competence. There is no escape from this room. Look around—you would be stunned before you took a single step."
I smiled and produced an unconcerned shrug. "You would be surprised how many times I've heard the phrase 'there is no escape.' And yet here I am."
Senegal ignored the comment and held up a large blue stone that looked heavy enough to nearly qualify as a weapon. "This is a Portkey. I do not need to tell you where it leads."
"Ah, but you want to," I said, trying to mask my surprise. Portkey? Bugger, that wasn't part of the plan.
He closed his hand over the stone and narrowed his eyes at me. "The famous Gryffindor bravery. Bravado." The angry crease in his forehead smoothed out and he smiled at me. "How like your brother. He knew he was going to die, of course, so perhaps it was easier. But it was quickly replaced, by that Gryffindor temper."
Somebody had a grudge. I raised an eyebrow, giving him a taste of Slytherin disdain to broaden his palate. "Be honest with yourself. In a fair fight, you would have been a bloodstain to clean out of the carpet."
Sheathing his wand, he lifted his hand and formed a fist, moving it in a strange wobbling motion. The air thickened with nearly tangible magic as the wall to my right began to ripple. The magic built, and my skin began to tingle in response, the way it sometimes did when my body was preparing to nullify something without my permission. His fist stilled, and the wall slowly ceased its heaving motion. My nullifying hackles relaxed, and I focussed my attention back on Senegal, refusing to look intimidated.
"And that is how your brother died. Trapped beneath the stone walls of his very home." He paused, watching for the slightest reaction. "Do you wish to know how his wife died?"
"Not particularly," I said, trying to decide if I should try to act more like Godric, lest I begin rousing suspicion. Then again, given the mood I'd left him in, Godric would probably have strangled him by now, so maybe that wasn't the best of plans. "But I'm sure you will tell me anyway."
The air shuddered then, almost imperceptively, and by the fearful blanches on the faces of the wizards I could see, I probably wasn't going to like what I saw when I turned around. Senegal bowed deeply, and then I knew for certain that I wasn't. Damn it. The rest of my plan was officially bollocksed.
"Delis. I see you are incapable as ever of restraining yourself in the presence of a...helpless victim."
I struggled against the wizards holding me, and they relented, letting me face our new arrival, probably hoping it would intimidate me. Well, if that was their intent, it worked. I forced down my rising panic. It wouldn't help me.
He looked slightly different, though it could have been the lighting. Less pale, more human. Eye colour closer to brown than red. Whatever he'd been doing the last few days must have agreed with him, I thought a bit irrelevantly. When I met his eyes I could tell that he knew. He could see beyond the glamour. How could you hide from someone who could see magic? Damn it.
"How fortunate that I arrived just in time to save you from your own arrogance," Morass continued, speaking to Senegal but watching me. "Your helpless victim is neither helpless nor a victim. My guess is that this role was intended for you."
"Arrogance, my lord?" Senegal protested. "There are fifteen men in this room, and I have his wand. It doesn't matter how powerful his wandless magic is, it would be impossible for him to fight his way out."
"Oh, I wouldn't be so certain about that." Morass smiled at me, a very natural, very genuine smile. It was damned creepy. "However, it's not his wandless magic that you should be wary of. This is not Godric Gryffindor."
Shit. I remained frozen, trying desperately to think of some way to warn Godric away. Morass tilted his head very slightly, closing his eyes for a moment. He opened them. "Godric is on the third level of the fortress, near the southeast tower, finishing off the last man of one of your patrols with a rather enthusiastic blasting spell."
Senegal looked torn between indignation and self-preservation as he struggled to decide if he should argue with Morass. "If that isn't Godric, then who—"
"His identity is of no concern to you."
His expression suggesting otherwise, the now extremely unnerved Senegal fought to regain his lordly cool. "I will, of course, send patrols to capture the real—"
"I think not." Morass looked almost amused. "Outside of this room, a mere seven men of yours remain standing. Out of how many? A gross?"
Senegal paled. After a very brief glow of triumph at the plan's success—discounting Morass—I began to wish I weren't right between the two of them, so I could take advantage of their exchange to try something. Anything would be better than just waiting.
"Even if that were not so, you have already proven yourself perilously incompetent." Morass moved to the door, and the wizards in his way hastily scrambled to get out of it. He paused in the doorframe and addressed me, his voice soft. "You may be tempted to struggle. I suggest you restrain all such impulses." He turned back to Senegal. "If he attempts to escape, destroy the keep."
Destroy the keep? That didn't sound too bad actually. Not much different than what Godric probably had planned.
Senegal hesitated. "My lord? But what of—?"
"Your other orders still stand, should he offer no struggle."
I stiffened when his gaze fell on me again and swallowed the urge to say something defiant, however better it might have made me feel. I couldn't shake the feeling that this was some kind of test, that I was only still in the keep by his sufferance, and he was waiting for something. And I wasn't about to give it to him.
When it became apparent I wasn't going to speak, Morass continued. "If these walls crumble, I can teleport away. Senegal and his men have Portkeys. Godric, however...it would be a pity for him to share his brother's fate."
He laughed quietly at my expression. "How useful he has proven to be. Instant leverage over any Slytherin."
"What am I to do with him?" Senegal asked.
"Take him to the camp. My nullifiers will prevent him from doing any further harm."
Surely, he didn't really expect Senegal to turn magical wrecking ball on the keep while we were still in it? But Senegal nodded earnestly, looking like protest was the furthest thing from his mind, and Morass disappeared into the corridor, satisfied that his point had been unequivocally made. Which I could only assume was that I was trapped in a fortress full of dangerous lunatics.
The hands holding me tightened their grip. I hastily recalculated the odds. They'd gained a distressing number of zeroes, forcing me to conclude that for now, at least, we were at Luck's mercy. And I had the sinking suspicion that as far as patience towards me was concerned, Luck's cup did not so much runneth over as it runneth close to fucking empty.
"Who administered Veritaserum to the prisoner?"
The warden on duty shrank back at the cold fury bottled into that simple question, and Helga gave him an encouraging smile, trying not to sigh. For all their famed subtlety, Slytherins seemed oblivious to the concept of coaxing answers out of a person with something other than intimidation or brute force. True, Lord Slytherin hadn't raised his voice at all, and his expression had been quite mild, in fact, but there was no mistaking that the wrong answer would find the warden serving out the rest of his short days in the wild, dragon-infested eastern outskirts of the Council's domain.
"Champion Sarvald insisted that he interrogate him personally, sir."
"Sarvald." Lord Slytherin repeated the name with a revulsion usually reserved for the darkest of curses, and the warden relaxed fractionally now that the focus of his anger had shifted. "Naturally, intending to take credit for whatever useful intelligence the prisoner possessed. The greedy fool."
The gathered wardens, and even some of Slytherin's own battle wizards, looked uncomfortable to be hearing one Champion castigate another, even if not present, with such vitriol. Helga, who had heard many an unflattering tale about Sarvald from Alviva during her brief apprenticeship to the witch, could not disagree with Lord Slytherin's assessment of the man.
Helga studied the bound prisoner, whose lack of awareness was caused by more than Veritaserum's inhibition-lowering properties. Not soon after Thaddeus had risen as Morass' chief lieutenant and spymaster, the Council had found that some prisoners reacted undesirably to the serum most commonly used for interrogation: the potion would render them senseless, or violent, or simply kill them. That didn't preclude cruder methods of interrogation, but these were generally less reliable and thorough.
The Order of Healers had been unable to determine how Thaddeus had induced the reaction in his men, much less how to counter it. The Council had then tasked Helga with researching the problem, and she had spent half a year searching for answers, only to find that the prisoners' very magic had been altered to react with hostility towards that one potion, with no way to reverse the damage until they'd discovered just how this was done. And without a nullifier or two dedicated full time to studying the magic to determine the nature of the alteration, this was all but impossible.
The effects induced by Veritaserum lasted anywhere from a day to a week, and subsequent doses resulted in progressively worse recovery times. Lord Slytherin moved closer to the prisoner and peered into his eyes. Helga knew what Lord Slytherin's next question would be before he spoke the words.
"When did Sarvald begin his interrogation?"
The warden tensed again. "This morning, my Lord Champion."
Helga stepped between the warden and Lord Slytherin, hearing a relieved exhalation from several of the battle wizards as she did so. "Warin, we still have—"
"Nothing," Lord Slytherin gritted out, stepping back from the vacant-eyed wizard with a disgusted snarl. "A Portkey trail that ends midair, a mindless prisoner who doesn't know his own name..."
The assembled battle wizards shifted nervously, and Helga has to suppress the urge to do the same as a gust of wind buffeted her robes and set the torchlight flickering. "A tracking spell—" she suggested.
The prisoner threw himself against the ropes holding him to the chair in an unexpected surge of violence, and Helga gasped involuntarily. One of Slytherin's men lunged to hold him back, but he rocked the chair so forcefully that it toppled to the side, breaking off an arm. The ropes slackened and the prisoner launched himself at the man with a crazed burble of laughter, managing to swipe the gaping wizard with a hand curled into a stiff claw.
Before he could do more than superficial damage, however, a screeching jet of wind threw him into an open cell and slammed the door closed after him with an echoing clang. Another battle wizard quickly trotted over to the cell and locked it.
"Does nothing, if blocked by wards," Lord Slytherin said crossly, as if the interruption hadn't occurred. "He has the trap baited now, but what is the point if prey cannot— " The injured wizard wiped blood from where the prisoner's nails had torn his skin, and Slytherin broke off, staring at the wizard for a moment with a startled frown that quickly settled into non-expression. "Always a game to him. Let us win the obvious battles so we don't notice when we're losing the rest."
"My lord?" Helga prompted, who had seen enough of that look on Salazar's face to know to worry. She glanced between him and the injured wizard, unable to decide who needed her attention more.
"There is someone I must speak to," he said, turning away from them. Despite the grim set to his shoulders, his men looked encouraged by the prospect of a plan, so Helga tried to summon the same enthusiasm. "I will return shortly."
He shook his head at the men who started to follow. Helga hesitated, and then touched his arm lightly, and he allowed her to lead him out of the interrogation chamber, into the hall. "I feel that I must ask what you intend to do."
"I answer to the Council, Lady Hufflepuff, not you." Highly alarmed now, she opened her mouth to protest, but he was already shaking his head. "Your concern is noted, but I request that you remain behind with the battle wizards. I do not wish to force you to choose between your personal loyalties, which I know you value greatly, and the Oath you have given to the Council."
She tried not to choke. "Treason, my lord?"
Lord Slytherin's smile was bone dry. "I will consider it heartening that this is the worst crime you think me capable of." Ignoring her silent shock, he reached into his robe and pulled out a signalling stone. He tapped his wand to it, his white-knuckled grip the only visible sign of tension. "Tower of Melander."
He disappeared, leaving Helga to wonder who at the Tower of Melander—the fortress-like prison used by the Council for criminals whose families were influential enough to spare them the unpleasant Windham dungeons or who were sufficiently powerful that the Council feared to imprison within their own stronghold—could possibly hold the solution to their problem. And what it was going to cost.
Counter, block, curse, slice. Parry, curse, slice. Counter, pivot. Dodge. Slice. Godric Gryffindor's duelling tactics were highly unorthodox—even Aethrin had advised him to keep to the traditional. That is, you had a wand, the opponent had a wand. He would attack, you would counter, and slip in an attack if you could. He'd counter, then counterattack. Repeat until someone fell, preferably the enemy.
There were variations, of course. Magical brute force could overwhelm an opponent quickly—Godric had relied on that often when he was younger. Cleverness, too, could swing the balance in one's favour. Terrain could sometimes be used to advantage. Surprise was excellent, when available, for quickly ending a conflict. After all, there was a reason it was tradition: it worked—if your opponent was content with keeping his distance.
Godric parried the desperate slash of the last Muggle guard with his sabre. He threw his weight behind the motion to force the man into the path of an incoming curse. A flash of light lit the dim corridor, and he fell to the ground.
Freed of the Muggle threats, Godric could have chosen to stay back and keep this a conventional magical duel, but the tried and true wasn't quite so effective when the odds were five against one.
Two stunning spells came at him at once, with the other three wizards finishing their incantations a scant second behind. Godric dodged to one side and blocked the other with a shield charm. He raised and angled his blade to catch the next onslaught, wincing at the sudden pain as the hilt heated. This time it didn't cool immediately, and he had to grit his teeth as he fought not to let go.
Pain could be as much a weapon as clenched fist or a booted foot, so he gripped the hilt still tighter, made himself hyperaware of every burning inch of his palm, and channelled the pain into his blasting spell, releasing the curse as he charged. Three of the wizards' five hastily erected shields fell under the violent force, and those unlucky three were hurled backwards into the wall. By the time the two remaining wizards were able to bring their wands up for another attack, Godric was within melee distance.
A vicious kick dropped one wizard to his knees, and Godric brought the hilt of his sabre down on his head while the other scrambled backwards, wide-eyed, extending his wand arm shakily. Last one standing.
Godric hated these moments, at the end of the skirmishes, when there was nothing to distract him anymore and he had time to think. His thoughts always ended up in the same place. He stared at the cowering wizard for a moment, wondering if this wizard had been one of those at his brother's home. He lifted his sabre, wishing the wizard would try something, give him an excuse to release the anguish and rage he didn't dare let loose, lest it draw too much attention and cost them the advantage of surprise Harry's plan so heavily depended upon.
But there was nothing. Just the torchlight, flames captured by the dark, trailing red on his blade, flickering and glinting. He tilted the blade to catch the reflection of the man sobbing at his feet, the noise was harsh against the hushed backdrop of nearly complete silence. Slowly, he lowered the blade and released a stunning spell. Though he hadn't consciously poured extra power into the spell, it was violent enough that it knocked the wizard back, and he impacted the wall with a sickening crack.
No signal from Harry yet, he thought somewhat distractedly as he knelt by one of the fallen wizards to wipe the blade on his robes. That probably was not a good sign. It had been too long.
"Really, Godric, what does it take to curb that lamentable tendency of yours towards mercy? You only have a finite number of relatives for me to have killed, I fear, and they are a hardy lot."
Stifling a startled gasp, Godric sprang to his feet and swept his sabre into blocking position as he whirled in the direction of that too-familiar voice. Morass watched him calmly from not two metres away, seemingly unconcerned by the sabre's presence. Then again, he'd woven in mfany of the enchantments into the blade himself, and no matter how thoroughly Salazar had combed through them and rooted out the dangerous ones, they had never been certain if he'd found them all.
"I've always regretted missing your assault of Julian's keep, but this?" Morass sighed, turning one of Godric's fallen opponents over onto his back with a foot. "Where is the terrifying Gryffindor vengeance?"
"Waiting for the wizard responsible for my brother's death," he snapped. Then he let out a controlled breath, almost able to hear Salazar's reprimand: "He will attack with words first, as easily for personal amusement as a tactical manoeuvre. Whatever his purpose, don't encourage him."
Letting battle calm settle over him once more, he took a slow, cautious step back, reassessing the situation. Harry, could he still be—? Unlikely. Morass would have gone after him first. But there was still a small chance he hadn't. If so, and if he could delay Morass long enough, it might give Harry time to realise that something was amiss, promise be damned. As someone had once told him, the hardest part of making a promise was knowing when to break it.
"A Gryffindor failing, I think, believing that there is af separation between villains and the weapons they wield. If you disarm a wizard, do you throw the wand back at his feet so that he may pick it up again?"
Godric didn't respond, despite the peculiar feeling that the words were intended almost as friendly advice. He stood, every muscle tensed in anticipation of an attack, but moments passed in muted silence, an apprehensive waiting that was somehow worse than if Morass had launched an unstoppable offence.
Then Morass disappeared, and Godric watched the empty corridor apprehensively, ready to dodge out of the way at the first sign of attack. A hazy black shape shimmered on his left. It had wrenched the wand out of his hand and disappeared by the time his sabre sliced through the space it had occupied.
Godric took another step back, waiting for Morass to reappear, which he finally did, exactly where he'd first teleported in. He pocketed Godric's wand with a smile, and then waited again, in that terrible silence that stretched his nerves taut. He tried to figure out what the game was, knew it had to be one. Morass could just as easily have grabbed Godric's arm instead of his wand and teleported them away.
The second strike was slower, and he had enough time to dodge to the side and thrust a directed shield at the blurred figure, knocking him back and giving Godric time to stand. He met a jet of molten orange-red with his blade, and gasped as pain exploded in the hand gripping the hilt, but he didn't have time to look at the damage. The fire swirled round the blade for another second before dissipating.
His gaze swept the room, halting when it fell upon two tall windows at the far end of the corridor. Godric summoned them with all his might and they shattered into thousands of sharp, glittering fragments that he surrounded himself with, investing a sliver of his attention in keeping them spinning in a dense, lethal shield capable of shredding anything that entered the space.
"Care to try again?" he challenged, sweeping his sabre in a welcoming flourish.
Morass reappeared across the room and let out a delighted laugh. "I forgot. You did duel your uncle for over ten minutes." The laugh transitioned into a slow sigh. "I quite miss duelling with him."
Godric knew that this battle would not be won by cleverness. He harboured no illusions that he could outwit Morass, decades his elder in magical combat, in a duel. His only hope was to overwhelm him with magic, until his nullifying gave to exhaustion. That was fine with Godric; his unusual magical stamina made him uniquely suited for the task. He could continue casting powerful spells long after any opponents trying to match the magical outpour had collapsed with fatigue.
He loosed the most potent spell he could think of that wouldn't kill them both in the confined space. White-blue flame left his hand in a rapidly expanding cone that reflected in the swirling glass shards, a blinding dance of light that would be beautiful in another situation, but merely distracting now.
As expected, the flames disappeared into Morass' outstretched hand, as though swallowed up, and Godric was reminded of the catch-and-throw games he and Salazar played when younger, when they would see how long they could keep one spell alive in the air. Melted glass dripped from where the fire had passed through his swirling shield, and he cursed himself for a fool.
He threw the spell's icy twin to spare the glass and followed it with an entangling charm that tore stone from the ground in rope-like tendrils that would harden into place once they gained purchase on their target. But they died under a blast of nullifying, and the ice blast suffered the same fate as the fire.
A thick cord of vines shot from Morass' wand, unusually dark, and he caught it with his sword. The vines began wrapping round it, small leaves shiny and wet with some substance Godric didn't dare let close. The glass was suffering more than the extraordinarily tough vines, unable to do more than inflict a few minute scratches. The vines crept down the blade, twisting, keeping his defence pinned down while Morass loosed another spell, a spidery-thin web that shifted between shining like the glass and disappearing into the shadows between the torches as it flew towards him.
Godric gave the sabre a great wrench, slicing against the vines, and with a sudden give, they crumbled into a fine grey powder that joined the swirling glass. The effort threw him off-balance, and he had just enough time to throw up a weave shield. The web, instead of bouncing off the shield, clung tightly to it and began pressing inwards, and he hurriedly broadened the radius of the spinning glass cyclone to shred it.
He reprimanded himself for falling into a defensive position. Summoning another cone of ice and pairing it with a wind blast to propel it more quickly, he allowed himself a moment of gratification when he saw Morass teleport away from the deadly combination rather than nullify it. The half of the room where he'd been standing was coated now in ice, and two frozen torches shattered when they fell to the ground.
Godric, who was starting to sense a pattern in his teleportation, didn't wait for Morass to reappear. He aimed his focus at a portion of the wall, and pulled, stretched the stone into dozens of lethal, fine-tipped spikes. Then he aimed a blast of wind at the area he expected Morass to appear, not bothering to delimit the area, and let fly just as a shimmer appeared in the air.
Morass toppled back under the violent force, and hastily thrust a hand behind him at the spiked wall. The stone immediately began to smooth and was flat again by the time his back impacted, but when he took his hand away from the wall, it left a small streak of red. He inclined his head to Godric, acknowledging that he'd drawn first blood.
Then Morass murmured an incantation that summoned a great, inky mass to the tip of his wand, which he flipped towards Godric with a sharp flick of his wrist.
Godric's reaction was nearly automatic, ingrained from years of success. He angled the sabre to catch the spell and cast a blasting spell with his free hand. But when the black material hit the blade, it didn't vanish, instead wrapping itself round the metal before slowly sinking into the blade, as though absorbed into the material. It left his hand slightly numb, and this would probably have been an excellent time for Morass to finish his game, but he kept watching—waiting for something.
Godric waited too, sabre ready, glass still circling him. Then the hilt heated so painfully he released it with a yelp of pain. As the sabre clattered to the ground, it started to glow, more brightly than the glass shards earlier, and he had to shield his eyes to avoid being blinded. The air near him grew warm for a moment, and then the light disappeared, and the sword lay quietly on the ground, exhibiting no more odd behaviour. The only lingering trace of the spell was a humming that seemed to hover in a layer just a finger's width from his skin.
"I win," Morass said softly.
It seemed a premature announcement, since Godric was yet standing and—as long as he was conscious—armed with wandless magic, but the certainty in those words gave him pause.
"Not a glamour," the narrow-faced wizard in front of me announced when his finite incantatem produced no change in my appearance.
I wished they'd stop casting spells on me. I had enough of a headache already, and the only reason I continued nullifying their spells was that I suspected it was all that kept Senegal from hauling me off to Morass' hideaway. Watching Senegal's jaw clench harder with each failed attempt to identify me was just a bonus. Really.
"Polyjuice," Senegal seethed. "It must be Polyjuice."
"Could be," I offered, flashing a smile that was two parts smug, one part inscrutable. Or so I guessed, judging by the bulging vein in Senegal's temple. Maybe I'd luck out after all, and he'd explode from sheer frustration.
The wizard testing me nodded slowly. "Possibly. We have a vial of Ysilf's Tears in the potions cupboard."
I didn't know what Ysilf's Tears was, but merely the thought of having to nullify a potion right now made the smile disappear from my face and reappear on Senegal's when he misinterpreted the source of my displeasure. Fine, I thought sourly. Let him gain a bit of confidence. The inevitable bout of apoplexy could be his downfall. Nearly every known case of spontaneous combustion was attributed to accidental magic triggered by severely agitated wizards. Hey, it could happen.
"Go. Be quick."
As the door opened, I couldn't prevent myself from tensing slightly at the hint of a chance to bolt. Senegal, whose attention was rarely directed anywhere but at me, caught the motion, and he shook his head. "Thinking of struggling? Please, do." He looked unsettlingly eager. "Let me bring these walls down upon your rash, young friend."
I let my muscles slacken and unclenched my fists. What was a villain, after all, without a small garnishing of insanity?
"My lord?" one of the wizards in the far corner ventured. "Perhaps we should just deliver the prisoner to the camp? You heard what Lord Morass said, he might still be dangerous."
"The prisoner isn't leaving until I know exactly who he—"
"Or she," I interjected. I was awarded with another jaw clench. "You can't be sure, right?"
"—is," Senegal continued, pretending to ignore my comment. His mouth twisted into an unpleasant smile as he spoke to me. "Your own demise is assured, of course. Prisoners Lord Morass takes a personal interest in rarely last more than a week. But I will know your family, and Marcus Gryffindor's death will look a mercy next to what I do to them."
His words again failed to have their intended effect, as instead of losing heart, I imagined Senegal meeting Salazar in a dark alley and almost regretted nullifying the last spell. Salazar would make sure Senegal met a fittingly painful end.
With great reluctance, I dismissed the fantasy. That was for Godric. Senegal had shared few details of Marcus and Lavina's last moments since learning I was no Gryffindor, but his earlier eagerness to share led me to believe that those moments were as torturous as Senegal could devise. I knew what I would want, in Godric's position. And I wouldn't want anyone else taking that away from me.
But that didn't mean I couldn't take a few digs of my own at him. Vengeance was equally a Gryffindor and a Slytherin pursuit.
"Terrifying," I informed Senegal. I pursed my lips in mock thought. "So, why doesn't Morass trust you? Do you usually bollocks things up this splendidly?"
Instead of being irritated by the jibe, Senegal smirked, and it was my turn to be taken aback. "Do you truly think your interference has disrupted any of my lord's plans?"
"How do you define disruption?" I asked, recovering quickly. "You still haven't got Godric."
"You assume that he was the objective to begin with."
What? Then what was the point of all it, the carefully-placed ambushes, the guards ready for and alert to our intrusion? "So your objective all along was to be humiliated in front of your illustrious leader?" I won't pretend that my usual attempts at sneering make me look anything but mildly constipated, but this once, I think I carried it off pretty well. No one laughed at me, anyway. "In that case, I'm pleased I was of some assistance."
Senegal looked properly annoyed now, and I wondered idly just when pissing off enemies had become not just one more method of surviving a little longer, but a game to me as well. He mastered himself before replying. "We were aware, of course, that Godric's...visit was a possibility. But this trap was not intended for him."
Speaking of whom—yet again, I tentatively reached out with my senses, trying to locate his magical presence, but all I could tell was that he was still in the castle. After some hesitation, I searched for Morass. He was still here too. How close to Godric, I didn't know. Why he hadn't done his teleportation trick and whisked Godric back to his camp yet, I didn't know either. Then again, Morass seemed fond of toying with his prey. Perhaps that would work in our favour again, as it had in my first encounter with him. Of course, we were now down to three founders for a rescue attempt.
Senegal was waiting for my reply. Fine, I'd play the game, since he was dying to crow over his impending victory. When life offers you free information on a silver platter...well, Moody would say "test for poison," but I had trouble seeing how poisoned information could make things much worse than they already were.
"Who was the trap for?" I asked obediently.
"Come now, think." Senegal's reply was insufferably smug, and judging by the twitch one of my captors gave, I wasn't the only person to have been on the receiving end of that tone before. "Where did you get the Portkey?"
"The Council? You set a trap for a bunch of miscellaneous Lords and battle wizards?" I raised an eyebrow. "Bravo. It's a wonder you haven't won the war already."
"Surely you are aware of a certain Champion who is fond of leading offensive strikes on the Council's more...difficult opponents?"
Did he mean Lord Slytherin? I didn't know any other Champions. If so—it was certainly an ambitious plan. If your ambition was to die. "You can't expect me to believe that you qualify as 'difficult.' Certainly not to him. Come to think of it," I said slowly, as if the thought had just occurred to me, "if it weren't for Morass, you and all your men would have been trounced by two wizards."
Senegal couldn't manage a response, and I laughed openly. "Two. How exactly did you plan to survive any attack led by Lord Slytherin, let alone defeat him?"
"Not so clever, are you?" he snarled.
"Clever enough to fool you. Though I realise that isn't saying much."
"More bravado, I see. Perhaps I have snagged myself a Gryffindor." He watched my face for any betraying expression. I merely smiled. "I have no desire to face Slytherin in battle. I am well aware of what the outcome would be. But my strength has never been fighting on the front lines."
With dawning comprehension, I glanced at the stone walls, and my amusement promptly vanished. Senegal nodded sharply. "I would like to see Champion Slytherin shield himself against a thousand tonnes of rock."
Okay, going quietly was definitely out of the question now. On the bright side, Senegal could only collapse the keep once, so he'd have to choose between Godric or Lord Slytherin. On the not so bright side, that still meant one of them would die.
I was spared coming up with a rejoinder by the return of Senegal's investigative lackey. "My lord, the potion."
Senegal nodded and gestured him forward. The pair of wizards restraining me tightened their grip to the point where I could barely feel my arms. I considered cooperating when the wizard brought the phial to my lips because I had nothing to fear from the potion aside from my headache worsening—which, come to think of it, was something to fear. Besides, thwar—erm, delaying Senegal seemed to be a winning plan so far, and I saw no reason to abandon it now.
I jerked my head away and sank my teeth into the wizard's hand. He recoiled with a startled yelp, and one of my human handcuffs twisted my arm viciously. As I gritted my jaw against the wrenching pain, I couldn't help casting Senegal's investigator a look of savage satisfaction, viciously hoping the wound would get infected.
Their second attempt was more cautious. One of the Muggle guards grabbed a fistful of my hair and used it as leverage to pry my jaw open while a different wizard poured the potion down my throat and forced me to swallow. Once finished, they stepped hastily back out of range to join their colleague, who was still nursing his injured hand. I prepared myself to nullify the potion, and was pleasantly surprised when it failed to find whatever it was searching for in my bloodstream and the magic faded away without my intervention.
I could feel the weight of everyone's intent stare as they waited for the potion to produce a reaction.
"A bit salty," I offered finally, when the silence became too much.
Senegal didn't seem to be breathing, but just when I began to nurse a cautious optimism that I'd managed to accomplish the impossible and frustrate a man to death, he took in a harsh, ragged breath. The walls shook slightly, as though in an earthquake, and there was the slight pit-pattering as miniscule pebbles fell from the ceiling onto the floor. The tables and chairs hopped up and down in an unsteady tapping while the assembled wizards and Muggles glanced nervously at their leader.
It took several seconds for the room to stop shaking, the same number of seconds Senegal used to close the distance between us and jab a trembling finger at my chest. "You! What c—Who are you?"
There are many kinds of victory, though perhaps not as many as defeat. There's the victory of battle, sure, and that can be exhilarating, the thrill of living tempered by the loss of less fortunate comrades. There's the victory of escape, which is not nearly so glorious, but still victory by virtue of your enemy not defeating you. There's moral victory, the incomparable satisfaction of being able to utter those four triumphant words, "I told you so."
And there's another victory that comes when the first is out of the question, the second is slipping quickly out of your grasp, and the third is irrelevant: the savage pleasure of so greatly infuriating the enemy who has you outmanoeuvred that he loses all semblance of composure, and you know that though you may not be free, you are in control.
"Surely you can see," I said gently. "I am Godric Gryffindor."
I used to ponder the origin of the phrase "hopping mad." No longer. Senegal was nearly dancing with fury. "That's impossible! The potion—it must have been defective. Edgar, did you use the correct counterspells? Did you test for every glamour?"
"My lord, if one might consider an alternative explana—"
"I am not interested in alternative explanations!" Senegal shrieked. "I want to know who that wizard is!"
"A metamorphmagus," Edgar said quickly, not relaxing until the intensity of Senegal's glare faded somewhat. "He must be. Ysilf's Tears wouldn't work on a metamorphmagus, and neither would finite incantatem, as the magic invested in the self-transfiguration only lasts while the features are being alt—" He seemed to realise he was babbling and stopped. "He is a metamorphmagus, my lord. I am certain of it."
Senegal stroked the tip of his wand while considering me. "Yes, it does make sense." He levelled a nasty smile at me. "Of course, that is enough to give me your family. A Black, are you?"
The association was so unexpected, I couldn't keep my surprise from showing, and that seemed to confirm it for Senegal.
"So you see? I win, after all."
Senegal's perceived triumph restored his careful composure. Good for him. Me, I was left with the sobering realisation that my little game may have just jeopardised Sirius' existence.
Council security needed to be revised. Yet another thing to add to his eventual (and quite possibly his final) report to Lord Slytherin. Currently, a password was required to be admitted past the wards of a Lord's dwelling, after the visitor was thoroughly checked for glamours and Polyjuice. Glamours were easy to detect—there were a number of spells to penetrate them.
Polyjuice was more difficult. When time wasn't a pressing issue, the Council preferred that its members wait a full hour before permitting a wizard entrance. If it was a matter of urgency, the visitor could choose to drink one of the many potions that produced nasty side-effects if the drinker was Polyjuiced, thereby alerting the administrator of the potion to the deception.
Salazar, wearing Rowena's form, had calmly accepted one such potion from Lord Calumbri and drained it in one smooth, unconcerned gulp. An aghast Patrick found himself torn between hope that Salazar would be revealed, thus prematurely ending this misguided rescue mission, and worry about what would happen if Salazar wasn't willing to let himself be stopped. He braced himself for the reaction.
But nothing happened. No convulsions, no nausea, no state fluctuations. Either the potion was sabotaged, or nullifiers could work their magic on potions as well and had neglected to tell anyone else about that particular skill. Now that he thought about it, It would certainly explain how Salazar had woken them both from an extremely potent sleep draught.
"My apologies, Lady Ravenclaw, but Champion Cailleach took charge of the prisoner as soon as she arrived. The first thing she did was transfer him to a more secure location."
Salazar nodded with remarkably convincing patience, stepping back to avoid collision with two swiftly moving green-robed Guild healers and the unconscious wizard they were levitating between them. "I see. Where might she have taken him?"
"I couldn't say for certain," Lord Calumbri admitted, face stoic as a Council healer peeled back the blackened scraps of what remained of his sleeve to examine his red, blistered arm. Patrick didn't want to imagine how powerful the fire spell must have been to bypass the fire-resistant fabric of a Council Lord's battle robes. "My guess would be Windham, but it's possible that she decided upon one of the lesser-known dungeons. Thaddeus has been known to send assassins after captured agents who possess highly sensitive information, and Windham is large enough that it's not impenetrable."
Salazar was quiet for a moment, and Patrick tried not to feel relieved just yet. Windham was probably one of the safest places outside of Hogwarts for them to be, though he'd heard rumours of an attack on the castle. He'd dismissed it as yet more over-excited gossip from the students, but Calumbri's injury and Lord Slytherin's worn, fatigued appearance earlier—to say nothing of the disturbing number of wounded being ferried across the room—suggested strongly that Morass was on the move.
He'd been hesitant to ask Salazar earlier, afraid to provoke him. He still wasn't quite sure just what constituted an "obstruction" to him. Given his current state, that of tension coiled upon tension with a few knots thrown in for good measure, it truly could be something as mild as a question. Slytherins could read interpretations into your words that you hadn't even realized you'd put there. Or meant to.
"Where else might she have taken him? Solaria's keep? Tremaine's?"
The healer began rubbing burn salve on Calumbri's arm, and Patrick withheld a sympathetic wince. He knew how that stung. When the Council Lord spoke, however, his voice was impressively void of any indication of discomfort. "Tremaine's stronghold is a possibility, considering its inaccessibility. Or Champion Slytherin's fortress." Patrick marvelled that Salazar could actually tense further. "Even Morass respects those wards."
"Hardly surprising," Salazar muttered, relaxing slightly. "He had a hand in constructing them."
Calumbri's face registered the same surprise Patrick knew had to visible on his own. "Did he really? By the gods, why hasn't Champion Slytherin changed them?"
Salazar's faint, satisfied smile more than answered the question. "He has since made...modifications. You can be certain that if Morass were ever to try deconstructing them based on what he recalls from building them, the wards would accomplish in a few seconds what the Council has failed to do for nearly a decade."
"Well." Calumbri, looking like he wasn't sure if he should leap to the Council's defence or not, finally settled for changing the subject. "It's unlikely you will find either right now. Tremaine was part of the group sent to reinforce the defences at Wighton. And Champion Slytherin, last I knew, was occupied with repelling a second attack on the Order of Healers long enough to evacuate the survivors." He nodded at a green-garbed Healer hurrying past with an armful of potions, bandages, and salves. "They've stationed themselves here for now to care for the wounded."
"The Order of Healers again?" Salazar asked, frowning. Then he shook his head. "We have no choice but to beg luck's favour. Do you have a Portkey to Tremaine's stronghold?"
Patrick tried not to let his disappointment show. After all, he consoled himself, Lord Tremaine's couldn't be much unsafer. And if they couldn't find this prisoner Salazar was so intent on interrogating, well, then it was terrible bad luck, that, and they'd have to wait for Lord Slytherin to accomplish what Patrick knew was well within his capabilities. Salazar acted as though this were the first time Godric had found himself in trouble! Or was he more concerned about the—as far as he knew—untested Harry Evans?
Yet again, he found his thoughts wandering to Hogwarts' newest (and highly irritating) addition. Just how could Evans be related to the Slytherin family, and why he was so bloody important? Other than the obvious reason that unsupervised, he was likely as not to reduce the whole of Hogwarts to a heap of charred rubble with his antics.
"Yes, but I would advise that you remain at the school. I know that with Slytherin's son there, there is little possibility of an attack, but many a Lord has confessed himself relieved to know that his children are safe at Hogwarts." He flexed his burnt arm, watching as the split skin began to heal. "I will freely admit to being one of them."
"Unfortunately, that is not a possibility at this time."
The Council Lord's brow furrowed. "This mission of yours—it has something to do with Senegal?"
Salazar nodded. "I would gladly explain, had we time to spare."
"I understand. Let me find that Portkey for you." He hurried out of the greeting chamber, returning half a minute later with a small, silver brooch. "Here. The incantation is the same as the name of the destination."
A subtle test. Council Lords were very fond of those.
"Thank you, Cerres," Salazar murmured, accepting the Portkey with one of Rowena's sweet smiles. It made dread pool in Patrick's stomach. "We will activate the Portkey outside of the wards. We wouldn't want to introduce any unnecessary vulnerabilities."
"I am glad to have been of use." Calumbri studied them soberly. "Be careful. Senegal is a very capable wizard."
"No," Salazar stated, hand resting lightly on his wand's sheath. "A foolish one."
The ice-covered portion of the hall was already beginning to melt. Godric glanced down at the sword lying on ground with deceptive innocence, unable to help but feel like an old, trusted friend had turned against him, even if under the influence of a spell. He flexed his hand cautiously and gave it a cursory examination. Though tender, the skin was blistered rather than burnt, which was one small mercy. Morass was watching him still, infuriatingly calm and patient, but for what?
"It won't burn you again," Morass commented. "You may as well take it up."
Godric wasn't in the mood to guess whether he spoke the truth, nor was he feeling inclined to test the theory, so he backed up a little more, felt the wall press against his robes, and leaned against it to rest as he tried to decide upon his next move. The last of the rotating glass collapsed to the floor with a rain of musical clinks, and suddenly he longed to join it.
Morass put away his wand, but Godric wasn't fool enough to think it would hinder his defence significantly should he decide to attack then. "I will offer you two choices. You may continue to fight me. If so, I caution that you will swiftly find this to be an unpleasant undertaking."
He said nothing, catching his breath, trying to decide which spell would be powerful enough to throw Morass off-balance. There were still several he could use from the spatial-distortion class of magic, which, Salazar has confided to him, nullifiers had trouble handling. True, such spells required more time and concentration to cast and maintain, and would leave him especially vulnerable to attack without the sword to act as a shield, but he could feel his options narrowing the longer he waited.
As if guessing the direction of his thoughts, Morass smiled. "Though I certainly do not doubt your enthusiasm, I strongly advise you to choose the second option."
That alone was enough to tell Godric that probably he wouldn't much care for it, but playing along would give him time to gather the necessary focus to cast a directional warping charm. "And what would that be?"
"Pick up the sword," Morass said, and Godric felt his gaze drawn unwillingly to the fallen weapon. "And call your cousin to you."
"Call him..." Godric tore his eyes from it and narrowed them at Morass. "What do you mean?"
"Ah, I thought he might have been reluctant to share that capability with you." Morass walked over to the sabre and picked it up, examining the blade. "The blood magic does more than allow the two of you to communicate through the sword and locket—Salazar thought it prudent that we incorporate the ability to turn the sword into a temporary Portkey, given your propensity for seeking out danger."
Morass paused briefly, with a startled expression, to look up at the ceiling—past it, his stare growing unfocussed like Salazar's when he was sweeping an area with his nullifying senses. Godric took a deep breath and held it, trying to recover from the nasty surprise of Morass' revelation. After all, Salazar had never actually used the sword in such a manner. He shouldn't really feel so irritated by what was simply Salazar's paranoid way of expressing his love.
An aggrieved sigh escaped Morass as his focus snapped back to his present surroundings. "If the stone-working talent weren't so rare... Well." Shaking his head, he granted Godric the full weight of his attention once more. "It was too tempting for me not to provide myself with a backdoor connection of my own, but I soon discovered that wasn't sufficient." Morass smiled ruefully at him, but the intensity of his stare was such that Godric found himself tensing again. "The foundation of the magic is the blood connection between you, so I require your cooperation to persuade the magic to obey me."
His reply was immediate. "No."
"No? I'm certain I could convince you otherwise, given the proper...incentives. But I fear that Senegal's keep is ill-equipped for that." Morass' careless shrug reminded him of Harry, and despair made him slump for a moment. "Unless you are willing to trade for Senegal's death? I will even grant your sister's safe return."
The offer had a cruel edge that made it more like a taunt, a barbed reminder that Godric had failed not only in his purpose for coming here, but had failed Salazar too, and Hogwarts. He thought of his brother, and the injustice of allowing his murderer to live filled him with a bitter anger that lodged in his chest. And his sister, her life nothing but a bartering coin in Morass' hands, one he could choose to toss aside at any time if he judged that she was of no further use.
"Then strike," Morass said.
It took every ounce of his training, but Godric pushed his fears and regrets down where they were only small whispers in the background of his thoughts, and began gathering the power for the warping charm. When he felt his concentration narrowed to a fine enough point, he raised his hand and lashed out with magic—
And an agony such that he had never dreamed could exist stole his breath, leaving him unable to even scream. It dropped him to his knees, the needle-sharp pricks of the glass piercing his skin through the worn material of his robes so minor in comparison that they went unnoticed. He was burning, flames of pain raging on the outside and sinking inwards, and the worst was perhaps that his awareness of every screaming nerve didn't dull under the onslaught, remained just as crystalline-hard as his focus before—
Something took hold of his arm, and then a hand was moving up and down his back in gentle strokes. As the pain receded, in agonisingly slow increments, Godric became aware that it was Morass soothing him, sending waves of nullifying magic to fight the magic twisting inside of him, but he was too dazed to struggle.
"Very good," Morass murmured. "I think he'll hear you now."
Salazar studied the looming Windham Castle with the wary intent of a dueller facing an unfamiliar opponent, and Patrick no longer fooled himself that their journey would end safely there. Tremaine's fortress had proved a waste of time that they could ill afford, and the setback hadn't sweetened Salazar's disposition, a feat Patrick was beginning to suspect was impossible. Tremaine should count himself lucky to have been called away to battle, he thought with something like envy. Salazar had been forced to content himself with terrorising the household staff, who hastily informed them that Cailleach's last prisoner transfer had been over a fortnight ago.
"Helga is there," he said finally. "I can't detect my father, which must be the first time tonight aught has gone in our favour. We can use the Lords' entrance; the sentries should know Rowena by sight."
"Actually—" Patrick stopped, uncertain if his input would be welcome. When Salazar didn't snap, he continued. "We could use the guards' entrance. It's not as closely watched. I mean, battle wizards are a fairly tight lot, and we monitor our own comings and goings, with none of the fuss you get at the main gate, or even the Lords' entrance."
Salazar frowned somewhat distractedly as he drew a series of arcane symbols in the air with his wand that made the castle wards light up briefly, but the expression didn't seem overly critical. "Rowena's passage will still draw unwelcome attention, perhaps even more so if she is seen attempting to cloak her arrival."
"Um. Well, it isn't that unusual for me to—escort Rowena. Through this the entrance."
That was enough to break his concentration. "At night?"
He was spared replying, because Salazar froze suddenly and whirled away from the castle with a hiss of surprise. Patrick squinted at the south-east horizon to see what was so startling, but there was nothing that way except yet more darkness and starlight. Then he looked at Salazar, and the question died on his tongue. He was staring into the dark with an intensity that creased his brow, and even in the dim light from the castle's distant torches, Patrick could tell that the colour had gone from his face.
"Give me your arm," he said, his voice greatly strained by something. "Now!"
Patrick extended his arm and winced at the strength of the hand that gripped it. "You've found them?"
"Godric, at least. He just lit up like a damned heliopath." Salazar took a ragged breath, and Patrick braced himself for a jolting shift of disapparation that didn't come. "No." Salazar exhaled slowly, letting go of his arm. "No, the trap is baited now. He'll be waiting."
He reached into his robes and withdrew the remaining murky brown phial. Polyjuice, Patrick now knew. Salazar closed his eyes for a moment, and Rowena's face twisted and melted away in a manner that he found profoundly disturbing. Removing the stopper and tossing it aside, Salazar pulled a hair from his head and dropped it into the potion, swirling the phial as its contents burbled in frantic reaction.
The phial was thrust in his face, and Salazar favoured him with a darkly ironic smile. "Drink this."
It was unpleasant, from the taste to the way he could feel bones and sinew stretching, hair growing, skin shifting. When the change was finished, he transfigured his robes to match Salazar's, and then looked to him for further direction.
"Hold still," Salazar commanded, pointing his wand at Patrick's chest, its tip just barely touching the fabric of his robes. The tip began to glow with a pale silvery light that flowed into Patrick, the sensation cold and vaguely intrusive. "I apologise. Polyjuice is better for fooling a nullifier than a glamourie, but Morass will not be fooled by appearance alone. This should help."
"Am I the distraction again?" he asked.
"A limited one, at best. All Morass need do is cast one spell... Well. Better than nothing. We shall remain together for now, but be prepared to move quickly. I doubt Morass will have kept Godric and Harry together." Salazar seemed genuinely calm now that he had a direction. "Are you ready?"
Patrick stared at him for a moment, wondering if it would come to that, that he would be able to protect only one of his charges, and how he could possibly decide when that time came. "Yes," he said wearily.
He was still on the floor, the glass fragments were still digging into his legs, and Morass was still well within stabbing distance. The sword was beyond his physical reach, however, and after his most recent experience with wandless magic, he was reluctant to attempt summoning it to him. His hand gave an involuntary twitch, and he clenched it with a shudder. He could feel the same humming force from earlier vibrating the air surrounding him, and every time he merely thought about calling upon his wandless magic, it closed in and started dancing across his skin, and it took half a minute for the field to retract.
That left his dagger, but shifting his legs to get at the ankle sheath would almost certainly betray his intentions. Once he'd recovered enough to do more than concentrate solely on breathing, he'd noticed that Morass' attention frequently wandered to the upper north section of the keep, where he assumed Harry was doing his absolute best to stall the inevitable.
He waited until one such moment, and moved his legs so that they were no longer pressed against the glass, scooting back as far as Morass' hold on his arm would allow him. This earned him a piercing stare, but he kept his gaze lowered to floor, trying to look defeated and submissive, which shouldn't be this hard, with his back all but literally to the wall and himself literally in the enemy's grasp...
"Godric, I sometimes must wonder if you enjoy pain." Morass sounded amused, exasperated, and genuinely curious, leaving him to marvel that Salazar had survived his apprenticeship as relatively sane as he had.
Godric brushed back a strand of hair with his free hand, letting it then fall casually to rest on his knee. "That would depend on whose it is."
"I was so certain the magic backlash would incapacitate you for at least another five minutes." There was a calculating edge to his stare now that raised Godric's hackles. "Perhaps it would be better to stun you until Salazar arrives."
He didn't need to feign dismay at the reminder that Salazar was almost surely on his way. Bad enough that revenge had turned to defeat, it was worse to know he would be the lure that drew Salazar into Morass' net. He gritted his teeth against helpless anger, knew he couldn't afford a wandless incident, but despite his best attempts to calm himself, a shock jolted him and travelled up and down his body.
"Careful," Morass chided him. "If you trigger another backlash, I won't be recovered enough to force it back." Godric shuddered again and felt Morass chuckle in response, but he fell silent suddenly, and this time his attention wasn't on the upper north side of the keep, but below. "Two...? Magical doubles are quite popular today."
While his attention was so thoroughly focussed elsewhere, Godric let his hand drop down, brushing against the back of his shin, encountering a few glass shards that had pierced the fabric of his robes and lodged in tightly. His fingers found the hilt of his dagger.
Salazar rounded the corridor and stopped to take in the scene. Godric was afraid to imagine how he must look to have prompted the deadly expression on Salazar's face. Or—he thought it was Salazar. That was a difficult look to reproduce.
"How delightful to see you again, Salazar. It's been too long," Morass said, appearing rather unconcerned that only one Salazar had shown and very certain that he was the right one. "I believe I have something of yours." He touched the tip of his wand lightly against Godric's throat.
"You wouldn't dare," Salazar said quietly.
"I wouldn't need to," Morass replied. "I will teleport him away from here the instant I suspect you intend to do anything other than cooperate."
"Not for trade."
Godric slowly drew the dagger from the sheath, keeping the motion as minimal as possible.
"What are your terms?"
"You will surrender and accompany me back to my camp. In return, I will free Godric. I may even, if I am feeling generous, remove the curse that is interfering with his wandless magic." Morass could afford to be generous, Godric thought soberly. He still had Cassandra.
"You are willing to risk the chance that I am the double?" Salazar asked.
"I doubt you would send anyone else to face me. That would be excessively cruel, even for you. But there is a simple way to be certain." Morass pulled Godric to his feet, and he swayed for moment as weakness overwhelmed him, but he kept his grip on the dagger tight. "Nullify the next spell I cast, or we leave now, and I indulge my curiosity about the nature of Gryffindor wandless magic for a full day before I make you this offer again, and Salazar," Morass lowered his voice, "the last time I wished to examine a Gryffindor's magic, I had Senegal collapse a building on top of him. It was very instructive."
He removed his wand from Godric's throat and aimed a stunning spell at Salazar, which he caught in his off hand and threw at a wall. Morass repositioned his wand. "Now I know."
Salazar loosened his grip on his wand, his arm relaxing, tension draining. He was going to take the offer, Godric thought with a dizzying horror, and he narrowed his eyes at his cousin. No. He tilted the dagger so that it briefly caught the torchlight and flashed. No.
Salazar stared at him, and Godric realised that his cousin was trembling now, so slightly that he'd almost missed it, his hands the only part of his body that betrayed him. His eyes were eerily calm, and lingered on his face, as though committing it to memory.
It was a gesture of trust. And goodbye, if it came to that. A threat: don't you dare fail. And a promise: if you do, I will find you.
Godric gripped the dagger and smiled fiercely in response.
Curiosity and pride satisfied, Senegal seemed to recall that I was not, in fact, here solely as an object of frustration. He tossed the stone Portkey up into the air and caught it smoothly. It was such a pitiful attempt at appearing suavely competent I felt embarrassed for him. And mildly insulted that I'd actually been captured by someone who was, in all probability, Gilderoy Lockhart's distant ancestor. Sirius would laugh his arse off if he could see me right now.
"Bring him here."
And that was the sound of the last grain of sand hitting the bottom of the hourglass. Bugger. The two wizards holding me dragged me over to Senegal, while I fought my growing panic to come with a new plan. Struggling wasn't an option, not until I'd got rid of Senegal. Could I take him out quickly enough? I had no wand, and my wandless magic was weak. At most, I could maybe set his robes on fire, and that was only if I didn't distract myself and accidentally target mine instead.
Senegal seized my arm the instant I was close enough, smug now that he could afford to be. "Give my regards to Thaddeus. I'm certain the two of you will have become quite well-acquainted by the time someone takes pity and ends your torment."
His posturing barely even registered as my thoughts raced. There was only one thing I could try. The instant I considered it, I nearly dismissed it because it was so insane, so bloody suicidal that I'd have to be half mad to try it. But I thought about Godric, how even with my fuzzy, unfocused nullifying senses, I could now see him as clearly as if he were in the room with me. I thought about what that meant, and about Salazar, fuming back at the castle or already chasing after us. I didn't dare look to see if he was already here.
I thought about what would happen when Morass had both Godric and me.
When Senegal activated the Portkey, I was ready. I lashed out with a wave of nullifying magic. As the blast reached the flashing blue stone, time began to slow and then, as if suddenly recognising my handiwork, stopped entirely.
I could see the magic now in full detail, the threads I'd always assumed were purely metaphorical: hair-fine and rope-thick, pale silver and charcoal black, everything in between. Could see the thread tying me to Senegal, glowing a faint green, leading far off. If I could just detach it...but it was hopelessly entangled with the other threads, and yanking at it would bring all the surrounding networks of thread down with me.
Sod it. I grabbed a fistful of threads and yanked.
The green glow dissipated and the nearby strands went dark. Time reasserted itself, and for a second, it felt like I was shifting between two planes, reality and the strange shadow-weave. Then there was a harsh snap that I felt more than heard, and I was back in the room with the hideous tapestries and uncomfortable-looking chairs, except it felt like every bone in my body had been broken five different ways and then hastily glued back together by someone with only a passing familiarity with how the human body was organised, and then they'd finally decided to set the whole thing on fire to remove evidence of the horrible error and—just—Merlin's balls. On a roasting spit.
It hurt. It hurt, so badly I couldn't register anything beyond that. I could hear someone screaming, and realised somewhere deep within the recesses of my subconscious that it must be me.
While Morass' attention was on Salazar, Godric twisted against the grip on his arm. He struck at Morass with the dagger in his free hand, who reacted with unanticipated swiftness and jerked aside. The dagger only grazed his side, though deeply enough draw blood. Godric didn't waste breath swearing and prepared to swing the weapon again, but Morass responded first, hitting him with a spell that tore the dagger violently from his hand and left him stunned for a moment.
Before he could recover, Morass yanked his arm and placed him in the path of any spell Salazar might think to cast. Godric locked eyes with his cousin but there was no time for apologies or goodbyes, because then the room around him flickered and began to fade out of sight as Morass teleported them away.
But there was an elastic snap, and they reappeared back in the keep, a meter above the ground. As they fell to the floor, a scream swept through the castle, inhumanly loud, and he saw Salazar recoil as though struck. The fall dislodged Morass' hold on him, and Godric rolled away while Salazar gathered himself and attacked.
Morass nullified the curse and flickered as though trying to teleport again, but he rematerialised only a little further down the corridor, though his offset from the ground was only a few centimetres this time. He stumbled, regaining his footing, and nullified another spell. Violet light, Godric realised. The obliterating curse. Salazar was not playing.
"I would attend to the child," Morass advised Salazar, his breathing slightly winded. He was forced to nullify a rapid series of strikes, and spoke between flashes of purple light. "While there is still a chance of saving him."
Salazar faltered for a second, and Morass seized the opportunity to disappear again, but this time it was with the crack of apparation and he did not reappear. Godric looked to Salazar. "Is he...?"
"The wards are in tatters. He tore a hole and—" Salazar froze then and began sprinting for the stairs. "He's still here. He's gone to Harry."
Patrick stepped over another unconscious wizard, kicked one who was stirring, and hopped over another as he navigated his way through the room to Harry. He wasn't screaming anymore, because Patrick had stunned him, afraid that whatever unseen torment had torn that terrible sound from him would do permanent damage to—something. Other than Patrick's frazzled nerves.
He spotted a blue-robed figure lying face-up near Harry, and identified him as Delis Senegal, the bastard who had set into motion the chain of events that had brought them to this. Patrick had to resist the urge to kick him just for the satisfaction it would bring. Instead, he knelt down by Harry, trying to figure out how to help. His hands were his own again, leaving him to guess that whatever had preceded his arrival must have stripped the effects of the Polyjuice from him.
A pop sounded behind him and the last person he wanted it to be was Lord Morass himself, so naturally, that was who it turned out to be. He felt Morass examine him, weigh the threat he posed, and dismiss him in the space of a second. Patrick recognised this just in time to erect a hasty shield to absorb the curse that flew at him.
Morass considered him a bit longer this time. "Ah. I remember you now. One of Warin's personal picks."
Patrick grabbed Harry's limp arm, unsure how he meant to escape from a wizard even the Circle of Champions feared. He put up another shield, and the curse that smashed against it knocked Harry and him back several metres. His wand hand shaking, he cast another shield charm, and this time, the impacting spell only threw him back, away from Harry.
He struggled to his feet, saw that Morass was within reach of Harry, and cast a desperate summoning charm. Harry sailed across the room, colliding with him, and he spared a brief moment to consider how ridiculous this would look had anyone been watching.
No curses followed immediately, and he realised that Morass was reluctant to injure Harry, so he put up another shield charm from his position on the floor, using Harry as a secondary shield though it went against every fibre of his being to do so.
The sound of pounding footsteps saved him. He straightened to sitting position, and froze under Morass' glare, saw his death written in those eyes, and then the door disintegrated. Salazar burst through, Godric in tow, and Morass reached down to grab Senegal and disapparated with him before Salazar could do more than raise his wand.
More footsteps sounded, and Salazar turned his focus to the door while Godric nicked a sword from one of the armoured Muggles lying on the floor, though how a Muggle weapon could be a greater aid than his absurdly powerful battle magic Patrick couldn't figure out.
The person who appeared in the doorway next, however, caused Salazar to lower his wand with a muffled oath and Godric to stare. "Helga?"
Then another figure stepped into view, his black battle robes torn and charred in places, hair windblown to a wild mess, bandaged hand aiming his wand at the floor, coincidentally not that far from where Patrick sat with Harry. Taking Patrick's cue, Godric inched slightly to the left to put Salazar between himself and the preternaturally calm Lord Slytherin.
"The rest of Senegal's men?" he asked mildly.
Salazar studied his father curiously, his stare dropping to the bandaged hand and lingering there for a moment before he replied. "Godric took care of them."
An unreadable expression crossed Lord Slytherin's face. "Then we are finished here." He turned to a wizard waiting out in the hall. "Tell Orval to begin transporting Senegal's men to Windham. Contact Cailleach to let her know to expect a large influx of new prisoners. I will be personally escorting my son and his...entourage to Hogwarts." The man nodded and left quickly. Patrick didn't blame him. "Helga, see to Harry."
Patrick surrendered the unconscious Harry to her and she immediately began sweeping her wand over him and studying the colors lighting up under its tip.
Lord Slytherin's attention turned back to his son and nephew. "You will explain to me, in full detail and omitting nothing, exactly what happened and what pale imitation of thought led you to believe that it was necessary, much less permitted, for either of you to knowingly and willingly step into what you must have known or strongly expected to be a trap fashioned by Morass himself."
Godric looked fixedly at the ground. Salazar wrinkled his brow, as though trying to decide which filter to apply to the truth to best make it palatable to his father.
It was, Patrick thought with mixed relief and trepidation, going to be a long trip back to Hogwarts.
Remind me never again to say "the next chapter shouldn't take as long," because that's just inviting trouble. I apologize to everyone who had to suffer through the long wait.