Disclaimer: None of those associated with Hogwarts and its environs are my property (beyond paying for the books, of course). I am merely playing with JKR's toys and promise to return them unharmed. Well, maybe a little singed, but that can't be helped.
Warning: This story contains gigantic, humungous spoilers of HBP. If you haven't read it, what are you waiting for? Go and read something by a real author.
Thanks to Persephone Lupin for giving encouragement. And the Gods of Caffeine who made me sleepless last Friday night and insisted I begin this (usually I just curse them, but this time they had something useful to give). It was meant to be a short one-shot thing, but it's probably going to be posted in three chapters. (No, I haven't abandoned Horse, but I was a little, erm, unhappy at the ending of Book6 so decided to be proactive. Three cheers for good mental health, everybody!)
Burnt Down to the Soul – part I
When he'd started out in the early evening Harry had been surrounded by friends and members of the Order. Now, with only one star flickering intermittently through the thick building clouds that rumbled overhead and the last warmth of the day long since faded, he was alone.
Or almost alone.
His only company was a shadow slipping ahead of him between the rocks and boulders on this rugged excuse for a beach; a shadow that was quickly fading into the other shadows as the last light lingering after a sunset that bruised the sky drained out of the world. The shadow he was chasing.
It seemed to be a recurring theme in his life, this having and then not-having. Well, at least this way no-one he loved would be hurt.
And, Harry knew, catching sight of that tall shadow as it ducked into a darker shadow in the base of the cliff, at least he wouldn't have to worry about Hermione's voice high with horror as she said Crucio? You used the cruciatis? I don't care that it was on Snape, Harry; you used the cruciatis on someone!
No. At least he wouldn't have to worry about that. Because Hermione would never know.
He shivered as dry thunder rolled overhead. Given the low ceiling of those clouds over the cliffs and matt grey sea and the way his nose hurt from the low pressure, it couldn't be long until the rain came. Out of the corner of his eye, Harry caught a flicker of light. He counted twelve Mississippis before the thunder. It had been fifteen when he'd pursued the dark figure down the cliff. So. The storm was getting closer.
Slipping on one of the rocks slick from low tide, Harry crouched, catching his balance and his breath. He waited for a precious few seconds until he was sure the Snape really had gone into the cave, then covered the ground between there and the cave in a fast, crouching run, hoping that the wind buffeting against the shore provided enough noise to cover the crunch-crunch of his feet in the pebbles. Halfway there, something scuttled out and around the rock he was passing and Harry had to force himself not to leap up and expose himself to any watching Death Eater.
Its mottled grey and apricot shell was as broad as his hand. Pincers held out and up aggressively at Harry, the crab ran sideways and under another rock.
Despite the raised claws, it looked as frightened as Harry refused to let himself be.
It wasn't a threat, though. He went on.
The wind curled and snarled, ruffling his already messy hair and beginning to bite hard into his shoulder through the hole Nagini had left in his cloak as he slunk along the edge of the cliff; he had chosen to approach the cave in a curve to keep him out of sight of Snape, who had merged into the shadows. He ignored the ache with the ease of practice.
Cautiously, knowing Snape wouldn't hesitate to cast the Killing Curse, Harry peered into the darkness. A flicker of lightning cast just enough light to show that it wasn't a cave – it was more like a tunnel. The cave Dumbledore had taken Harry to burrowed deep into the land, giving Harry no reason to expect he should be lucky and find Snape at the end of a short tunnel (and God, but it still hurt; hurt like swallowing acid to know that the cave they'd found Regulus' replacement locket was just along the coast… it probably had their footsteps inside even after Albus had been buried these long eight months…). It was a shame his Invisibility Cloak had just been lost in the fire that erupted in the huge cave Voldemort was meeting with his Death Eaters, but Harry couldn't waste time on regrets. Not when he had so much hate to drive focus him on the near future. The near future: with a little luck he'd be able to tighten his hands around Snape's throat as the traitor died.
Harry had to pause to breathe. The hate was a fire, hotter than the one that had consumed Nagini, but cold as well, and sometimes when it got too much it hit his stomach like he'd swallowed his own vomit.
If he let it swell over his common sense he'd be dead. Snape would see to that. Harry breathed deep until the cold air ached in his lungs, making himself stop and think rather than react. Ironically, reacting rather than thinking was something Snape had always sneered at him for. Harry hoped he remembered to thank him for teaching him that before he killed the greasy traitor.
He squatted down in the lee of a boulder and carefully tucked the hem of his robe up before it could get wet in water left by the tide as he considered the options. Maybe the cave opened out somewhere else and Snape had escaped. Harry sincerely hoped not, but he also refused to let himself rush in just in case Snape was taking the opportunity to get to ground where he could Apparate. It was more likely, though, that Snape was waiting for Harry in the cave, having found a nice dark niche in which to secret himself away like a spider waiting to pounce.
Well, Harry was expecting an ambush anyway. And Harry had learned a lot about fighting this year – much of it dirty. He'd learned from Aurors rather than McGregor, that over-confident, sorry excuse for a DADA professor who'd triggered Riddle's curse after only three and a half months by trying to summon Death to deal with the Death Eaters. He'd ended up a greasy pile of ash.
The DADA classroom was still cordoned off (Flitwick had tried to explain the dimensional impossibility of the magic but given up midway, shaking his head). And from time to time the house elves still found bits of McGregor in the ceiling of the room on the floor below. Usually when someone complained about the stink starting up again.
Harry took a deep breath, hoping this cold, iron-black sea wasn't going to be the last glimpse he had of the living world, and adjusted his grip on his wand, closing his eyes for a brief second just to check that his personal wards he'd put back up after that fiasco in Voldemort's cave were still strong.
They hummed with crystalline perfection.
He had to wade through thigh-high water to get into the mouth of the cave. Inside was even colder than outside, but at least he didn't have the wind biting through the tear in his cloak. You didn't need magic to die; the cold wind combined with his wet robes could kill with hypothermia.
Harry dared a quick drying spell. Nice of Snape to help him learn non-verbal magic – he'd have to thank him for that, too. Harry grinned like a wolf.
It didn't take long for his eyes to adjust, and his night-vision was enhanced by the spell Neville had found while doing research for the Order – Hermione had been the one to overcome its obvious negative (it tended to dissolve the cornea) by casting it on Harry's glasses.
Looking through them showed the cave coloured in soft pastel blues that ranged into indigo over corners and edges; the sharper the edges were, the more purple the appeared.
Biological material that had come into contact with magic (including the linen favoured by wizards, especially the more traditional ones) would flare yellow.
There was no sudden sunflower Dark Wizard, although the streaks of pulsing orange down the walls and curving where the water had left its touches made Harry's heartbeat quicken. But it was only algae and seaweed and the oblong orange buttons of molluscs. It was a little surprising they should be so bright, but then it could be explained by proximity to the cave where -
Harry refused to think of that. It only made the hate cloud his mind.
Outside, the wind howled. But for some reason it didn't penetrate the cave. Inside was the silence of a tomb. He stepped forward and froze as something popped loudly under his foot.
When he didn't die or fall to the ground writhing in agony, he braved another breath and looked down.
Seaweed. Neptune's Necklace. Useful for potions where gillyweed was contra-indicated.
The floor was covered in it; little strands of water- and air-filled capsules, ready to pop and crackle when he stood on them.
Harry took another, deeper breath and began the slow job of picking his way over the floor without falling or being hexed. At least the paleness of the seaweed gave him some security that it hadn't been spelled to attack him or something, and he found that if he walked slowly, carefully putting his feet flat, he didn't pop any more of the seaweed's leathery bubbles.
He made it across to a small beach of coarse sand. It was the best beach he'd seen here – ironic that it should be in a cave inaccessible except at low tide. Above the beach (pale sand glowing like ground amethyst) was the dark opening he'd caught a glimpse of by lightning. As if on cue, lightning lit up the sky behind him.
Harry cursed himself for his stupidity at setting himself up like that as he threw himself down on the beach.
Moody would have his hide for something so stupid – make sure you don't show your opponent where you are unless you want him to know.
And Harry didn't want Snape to know. Not yet. Maybe he'd use himself as bait later, but it shouldn't come to that. In a face-to-face duel with Snape, Harry didn't like the odds. This wasn't about fighting Gryffindor-fair. It was about achieving his goal.
Tell the Order it was "a matter of him or me" to justify the killing before information could be extracted. Harry suspected Snape could lie through Veritaserum – he'd convinced Albus he was loyal, hadn't he? – so why bring the poisonous snake in close enough to loose his venom? Harry expected the Order to kill Snape, either a direct execution or through interrogation, but he had enough respect for the sheer vindictiveness of the man to expect that Snape could lace his information with just enough lies to lead them all to ruin.
Better to kill him now.
Harry didn't pretend that he wouldn't feel satisfaction. He'd tell Hermione, Ron and Ginny he didn't, of course, but he refused to lie to himself.
He lay there on the cold sand, waiting, then realised that no curse had whistled over his head. Or blasted his skull apart.
He'd been lucky.
Luck couldn't be trusted. Harry punched himself on the thigh as a reminder that the next time he mucked it up things could be painful. Or not painful – simply very short, ending in a flash of green light.
Voldemort had ordered his Death
Eaters to leave Harry alone. Snape would have been obedient to that.
But since Voldemort had come to see Harry in the rusting cage,
smiled his cold smile, reached through the bars and – and Harry was
a little hazy about the next part. It had involved pain. And when
he'd come back to consciousness, Voldemort had still been there,
smiling as something tickled Harry's cheek. Harry had lifted a
hand to itch it and his fingers had come back red. When he'd
reached up to the dull pain at his scar, he'd winced. As he
held up a fistful of something that glittered at tore at the eyes
with its suggestion of too many dimensions, Voldemort said, "I
didn't make that one quite right…. But then I And chuckled as he walked off with Harry's scar
still shimmering in his hand. Harry used the sleeve of his
robes to wipe his face clean. Surprisingly, it didn't hurt. And
it left him feeling free – light-headed but clear of focus.
Voldemort had, almost literally, taken a weight off his mind. Part
of him ached from the news of Colin's death. They'd thought his
parents had taken him and his brother to America to be safe… Poor
Colin. But Harry was becoming used to people dying. It
happened on average once every four days, after all. He'd sat down
and calculated it one rainy afternoon. But knowing that Colin had
been used to make another Horcrux bit deep, and not just because it
meant another Horcrux Harry had to find and destroy. But it
was nothing short of a miracle that Voldemort hadn't found the cup
and the brooch on Harry… He'd thought it was Voldemort's idea
to lure him out into the open with the bait of a way to destroy the
metal-based Horcruxes. Apparently not. Thinner and even less
sane-seeming than the last time Harry had encountered him, he was
still a powerful wizard; but the power that rolled off him like smoke
wasn't enough to break through Harry's anger and into the secrets
in Harry's mind – like the secret of where he was hiding Helga
Hufflepuff's cup and Gryffindor's brooch. Voldemort could have
plucked it out of his pocket, but for some reason the dark wizard
didn't even bother. Harry wasn't sure if Voldemort was playing
some sort of game or if he was planning on doing something later.
Neither option appealed: Voldemort looked even more devoid of the
barest of humanities each time he divvied up the remnant of his
soul. It wouldn't make so much as a snack for a Dementor
now. But whatever Voldemort was planning, he'd left Harry in
peace for a time – maybe it would be time enough for Harry to hatch
a plan or be rescued or – That brief relief was squashed
when Nagini coiled herself around his cage. Since Voldemort
had taken his scar, Harry expected he was now classified as fair
Harry shook his head at the memory – the susurration of scales sounded a little like his footsteps as he walked through the sand and into the tunnel, forcing himself to concentrate on the here and now.
As he held up a fistful of something that glittered at tore at the eyes with its suggestion of too many dimensions, Voldemort said, "I didn't make that one quite right…. But then Iwas interrupted, wasn't I?" He smiled, or his thin lips curved in the attempt. "But never mind – with your death I will be able to reforge it into a much better Horcrux. It will be an adequate replacement for the locket. As for the diary – tush, Harry; I compensated for that one three months ago with the help of your young Mudblood friend… Creevy, was it? I'll try to find another of your little playmates for the ring I lost. I think that would be fair, seeing as how it was a friend of yours who destroyed the ring."
And chuckled as he walked off with Harry's scar still shimmering in his hand.
Harry used the sleeve of his robes to wipe his face clean. Surprisingly, it didn't hurt. And it left him feeling free – light-headed but clear of focus. Voldemort had, almost literally, taken a weight off his mind. Part of him ached from the news of Colin's death. They'd thought his parents had taken him and his brother to America to be safe…
But Harry was becoming used to people dying. It happened on average once every four days, after all. He'd sat down and calculated it one rainy afternoon. But knowing that Colin had been used to make another Horcrux bit deep, and not just because it meant another Horcrux Harry had to find and destroy.
But it was nothing short of a miracle that Voldemort hadn't found the cup and the brooch on Harry… He'd thought it was Voldemort's idea to lure him out into the open with the bait of a way to destroy the metal-based Horcruxes. Apparently not. Thinner and even less sane-seeming than the last time Harry had encountered him, he was still a powerful wizard; but the power that rolled off him like smoke wasn't enough to break through Harry's anger and into the secrets in Harry's mind – like the secret of where he was hiding Helga Hufflepuff's cup and Gryffindor's brooch. Voldemort could have plucked it out of his pocket, but for some reason the dark wizard didn't even bother. Harry wasn't sure if Voldemort was playing some sort of game or if he was planning on doing something later. Neither option appealed: Voldemort looked even more devoid of the barest of humanities each time he divvied up the remnant of his soul.
It wouldn't make so much as a snack for a Dementor now.
But whatever Voldemort was planning, he'd left Harry in peace for a time – maybe it would be time enough for Harry to hatch a plan or be rescued or –
That brief relief was squashed when Nagini coiled herself around his cage.
had taken his scar, Harry expected he was now classified as fair
Especially because the spell on his glasses was strong enough to have made out the footprint in the sand.
Harry smiled grimly to himself.
It was slow-going, picking his way through the darkness. The tunnel wound like a corkscrew and sometimes Harry had the feeling he was crawling along the ceiling like a fly. He'd squeeze through another crevice, once finding a scrap of cloth. It glowed yellow. However, Harry fully expected the original colour was black.
He decided against tucking it into his pocket. Who knew what purpose its owner had spelled it with?
It seemed like an eternity before Harry came to the exit. The draughts on his cold, damp face let him know where he was before he heard the howling wind.
Very, very carefully, knowing that this would be a good place for that ambush, Harry poked his head out and looked around.
Some rocks and sea-grass almost flattened by the wind. The wind was so strong now that when Harry opened his mouth it tried to blow down his throat.
Damn. Snape had probably scarpered. The anti-Apparation wards Voldemort had set up around the area had their limits nearby – Harry could sense them.
Furious, Harry climbed up and out of the hole, brushing himself off as he looked around. Nothing. Even his glasses, spelled for the darkness, couldn't see anything out of the ordinary. Just pale orange grass and blue rocks.
He turned just in time to see a blazing line of yellow rise up from behind one of the rocks.
Harry was too slow to block the curse. It ripped through his personal wards like they were paper and blasted apart behind his eyes in a galaxy of red stars.
When he woke he was surprised to find himself glued to a large boulder. On reflection, he was especially surprised to find that he was alive and able to wake again.
He blinked muzzily in the thin light provided by a small globe of magic secured against the wind in the lee of the tallest rock. The scene didn't look promising: the area was perhaps twenty feet at the widest point; it was roughly triangular, framed by rocks. Harry suspected the ground had subsided at some point, perhaps collapsing on a cave as the sea (which he could hear pounding on the rocks as the tide returned with a wind-whipped vengeance). As he was finding it difficult to make out details and the bluish quality the rocks once had was now faded to grey, Harry guessed the spell had worn off his glasses. Either that or it had been shattered along with his wards and – it felt – the back of his skull. Harry stifled a groan as he tried to see what else was here. There was a pile of rocks in the -
A flash of lightening followed by thunder that rocked Harry to his teeth showed the pile of rocks to be a little more sinister – a small dolmen. At one time – thousands of years ago, perhaps – it would have stood taller than Harry's head and been covered in earth. It would have contained the body of a powerful wizard or clan-chief. But now the earth had been washed away by several ages of rain and wind and the bones must have scattered into the tides. All that was left were the three massive stones. While the capstone was had remained remarkably level on the two uprights, those supporting stones had sunk beneath the combined weight down into the earth so that the capstone was a little shorter than waist-height… or the waist-height of the black-robed figure that stood over it, spreading things out on it like it was a table. Or as if the dolmen would serve for the more modern Dark Magic purpose of sacrificial altar.
Perhaps he should have pretended to stay unconscious, but by the time his sluggish brain tabled that as an option, Snape had already seen him open his eyes. Harry shuddered as those cold blank eyes rested on him and then moved on. Now that he'd seen Harry was still stuck to that rock, arms and legs akimbo, Snape seemed to lose interest in favour of what was on the small dolmen in front of him.
Harry squinted. His glasses were speckled from the first flecks of rain, although the wind seemed to miss this small pocket in the hill, surrounded as it was by tall stones of the same lichen-covered grey of the dolmen. The wind barely stirred Snape's lank hair. The hood of Snape's Death Eater robes was back and the mask wasn't in immediate evidence – oh, that's right: Harry had broken it in the commotion when Nagini went berserk.
Funny that – the time spent as a Horcrux must have sent the snake mad. That was the only explanation Harry could think of for her susceptibility to his parseltongue commands – certainly she shouldn't have confused him for her master and Voldemort for Harry. But so it had been.
gave her the first command as she threatened to crush him in his
cage… "Sstop!" he hissed. It was an accident made in panic and
he suspected a trap when she obeyed. Voldemort making him think he
might get out of this alive; setting Harry up to destroy him by
breaking all hope. Out of some morbid need to find out how far
Voldemort thought Harry would believe he had a chance, Harry hissed
to the gigantic snake. She'd hissed back, convinced that he was
The Enemy. With a whimsy he tended towards in the face of death,
Harry told her that The Enemy had put a spell on her, making her
think that her master was The Enemy and The Enemy was out there in
Master's chair, fooling the Death Eaters into taking his
orders. Couldn't Nagini sense the pieces of her master's
soul on the one she was talking to? Harry argued, gripping the cup of
Helga Hufflepuff and Gryffindor's bronze brooch. Nagini
could. First, she returned him his wand. It had been left
within sight, of course – evil was pretty damn predictable
sometimes. Then, her black tourmaline eyes still glittering
strangely, she broke the lock on Harry's cage with a blow of her
tail, glided away at full, silent speed, and dived into the
gathering. Harry managed to escape in the uproar. Sheer luck
gave him the chance of thumping Snape on the way out and breaking his
mask. Before Harry'd lifted his wand, someone had been thrown into
them by Nagini's lashing tail and Snape disappeared into the melee.
Shame Snape wasn't one of the ones killed by Nagini, but Harry was
gripped with a savage pleasure when he saw Snape slip through the
magically screened door. Voldemort was too busy cremating his
own snake and Horcrux to see his prisoner escaping. Harry
took advantage of his distraction to leg it out the door after Snape.
Once outside, he'd sent up the flare he'd been prevented from
lighting when the Death Eaters had caught him sneaking around the
And now Snape had caught him sneaking around another cave.
Couldn't Nagini sense the pieces of her master's soul on the one she was talking to? Harry argued, gripping the cup of Helga Hufflepuff and Gryffindor's bronze brooch.
First, she returned him his wand. It had been left within sight, of course – evil was pretty damn predictable sometimes. Then, her black tourmaline eyes still glittering strangely, she broke the lock on Harry's cage with a blow of her tail, glided away at full, silent speed, and dived into the gathering.
Harry managed to escape in the uproar. Sheer luck gave him the chance of thumping Snape on the way out and breaking his mask. Before Harry'd lifted his wand, someone had been thrown into them by Nagini's lashing tail and Snape disappeared into the melee. Shame Snape wasn't one of the ones killed by Nagini, but Harry was gripped with a savage pleasure when he saw Snape slip through the magically screened door.
Voldemort was too busy cremating his own snake and Horcrux to see his prisoner escaping.
took advantage of his distraction to leg it out the door after Snape.
Once outside, he'd sent up the flare he'd been prevented from
lighting when the Death Eaters had caught him sneaking around the
Snape. Now ignoring Harry as if Harry had less importance than the items in front of him. Which, Harry realised, going cold, might just be true. There was the bisected circle of the Celtic-style cloak brooch, glowing sullen with its own light. Helga's cup sat primly next to it. Snape dipped into a pocket and withdrew something pale and slender. It looked a little like a short knitting needle made out of ivory, but the button on the end was ornate and finished in copper or gold.
"So what's that?" Harry asked, surprised by how conversational his voice sounded. Not a bit like his true intentions, which involved tearing and rending and not a little use of Unforgivables.
He was equally surprised that Snape answered. "It's a hairpin. Rowena Ravenclaw's, to be precise." Snape's voice wasn't quite as smooth as Harry remembered – there was a rough burr to the edge of it.
"Bone. From her own shin, according to the story."
Ugh. But little truly shocked Harry these days. "And it's a Horcrux?"
"What do you think?"
Harry considered this for a minute then shrugged. "You look like shit. Are you a heroin addict now or something?"
Snape ignored him. But it was true: even on a good day, Snape had never looked healthy. Now, with his greasy hair thinning so much that only a few strands straggled over his face, which was almost skeletal. That nose looked even more like something left over after the invention of the vulture as it jutted out from sickly skin and sunken cheeks. Snape's eyes looked even more dead than Harry remembered. They were sunken into dark hollows, and reminded him uncomfortably of the reason Harry had stopped looking in mirrors: something about the expression in them said that they belonged to a person who had spent too long living in despair. It was a look he'd seen strongest on two separate people who'd committed suicide not long after Harry had noted that look.
The day he'd seen himself with that look, Harry had stopped looking into mirrors.
Snape had that look in spades.
Well, he'd chosen Voldemort; Harry expected Snape got what he deserved in that camp. If not, Harry would be glad to offer assistance to rectify this.
"It suits you," Harry continued in a friendly way. "Sort of, I don't know, expressing the inner you. So… starting an antique collection, are you?"
For the first time, Snape met his eye. Harry flinched, surprising himself that Snape could still make him feel horror.
"The last one is for you," Snape rasped, then coughed, skinny shoulders juddering under the robes that looked too big for his scrawny frame. He bent over and gripped the edge of the stone slab and spat a glob of phlegm into the shadows. Harry curled his lip in disgust, ignoring the last comment. He was used to death threats.
"Don't have much of a health plan, these Death Eaters, do they."
A mirthless grin stretched parchment skin over cheekbones so sharp they cut the next lightning into shadows. "No. Your last lesson from me, Potter – don't cast Unforgivables unless you mean them." The thunder rolled so loud the stone Harry was stuck to shuddered.
"Finally kill your Granny, did you?" Harry sneered, cheeks burning. What, did Snape suddenly want Harry to think he'd killed Albus against his own will? Harry was there. He knew the truth. And he wasn't stupid.
But Snape had turned away, staring down at the three objects arranged in a line on the stone slab. He sighed, raising one arm.
Lightning tore the world apart.
A/N: I have no idea of the seashore flora around the British Isles and it's been longer than I care to think between now and 7th Form Bio. Excuse any biological discrepancies.