Chapter Twenty-Two – Going to War
Harry could not sleep.
It had been nearly a year since he had had to go a night without the Dream-Injecter, the misty glass ball that enabled him to get a few hours' rest, or without Daphne's presence. And even before that, his chronic insomnia had been nothing like most people's: it had been vicious, unhealthy, almost a living thing in itself, a twisting insect that stung and stabbed and stimulated his exhausted brain into painful alertness.
But he had forgotten how it felt to simply toss and turn for hours, kept awake by invading thoughts.
The double-faced sword buzzed quietly on the faded carpet by his bed. That sword was the reason why Harry knew his insomnia wasn't, this time, resulting from the damage to his brain: the ugly thing did more to make him feel normal than Daphne, Eunice, the Forest or the Isiame City had ever done. He had noticed a few hours earlier that he had all his senses back again. The sword fit him better than the Isiames did, it fit him because it was like him: a mongrel of a sword, wizard-made, but infused by Isiame power out of a mistake — an accident — a curse.
The curse that had made Lily trip over Rosalyn's sword in the lake, all those years ago.
The curse that had made her fall in love with the one person that a millennium of hatred pointed out as her archenemy.
Harry gritted his teeth over a sudden reflux of bile. His parents; two kids deciding to overthrow the crushing weight of the curse that threw them at each others' throats. And how had they decided to go about it? By making this weapon—
The sword lay, still humming, in a rectangle of moonlight.
Harry swallowed. And by making him. The wielder.
Their story was written on the blade, but even if it had been decipherable, he would not have tried to read it. He knew what he had to do, what he was born for. Somehow, he had to end the war that had been rampant for centuries, and that was now threatening to blow their world into dust.
He kicked off his sheets and reached down. The heady buzzing stopped as soon as his fingers had closed over the hilt of the two-faced sword; half the blade was drowned in the shadows carved by moonlight, and Harry had the chilling impression that it was dipping in a pool of black blood.
He shook off the thought, rose, and mechanically tried to hang the sword to his belt. But he could find nothing to tie it up in a way that would not hamper him when he would try to draw it; the blade was too wide and there was no proper hold on the hilt. He found himself having to use the sword like an old man's cane — for it was so long and so heavy he could not even carry it around easily.
Stifling his mounting impatience at the thing, Harry dragged it over to the window, propped it up against the wall, and leant his forehead against the glass. Snow lay a thick blanket over the grounds, over part of the frozen lake and the roof of Hagrid' hut. The Forest, immobile in frozen death, detached brittle white branches in the air — and it looked as though a single expelled breath would shatter all these pale trees into twigs.
The moon was declining at the west. It could be around four or five in the morning.
There was a rustle in the trees. Harry's eyes were drawn to the place where he knew the core of the Forest was. The trees were bending this way and that, as though caught in a tornado; the source of the disturbance moved, and trees closer and closer to the castle rustled and bent. Harry's unnaturally sharp hearing caught the snapping of twigs and branches, the indignant cawing of ravens, and the panting sound made by a thousand breaths escaping a thousand beasts at a run—
The line of sycamore trees at the edge of the Forest parted, and dozens upon dozens of huge wolves bounded out in the open space. Harry's right hand flew to his wand; his left gripped the hilt of the sword.
They had made no sound at all on the snow-capped ground. Under the frozen sky, on the dead earth, in almost complete silence, war had broken out.
For a heartbeat Harry remained rooted to the floor in front of the narrow window. Then he turned about and ran for the door, shouting as he went, "Wake up, Ron, Hagrid's in trouble!"
As he careened through Hogwarts's corridors, making armours and portraits cower at his passing, he could feel a current running through the old walls of the castle, a rumour following his steps, as though his call had awaken Hogwarts itself — and there it was, growling and shaking itself like a stone giant, preparing for war.
He dimly recorded McGonagall's voice barking brief orders, her footsteps as she started running behind him; Ron swearing, Tonks and Romilda calling after him, Luna wishing him luck... But they would all die, they would all be broken to pieces by the wave crashing down upon them if he stepped back — if he fell in line with them — if he stopped believing, for one second, that he was not cursed to end it all...
The large oak doors screeched and he sprung out; when he hit the ground again, he had Transformed.
The look he threw at the moon was reflexive: he knew it was not completely full, he had seen it before he had left the Isiame City, a few hours before. The pack was not to run until the following night. To find them out and attacking regardless of the moon's phase meant two things: first, they had stopped trusting him. Second, Daphne's game had either blown up in her face, or it was still on — and she was among the Wolves he was charging.
Harry was almost at Hagrid's hut, which the Isiames seemed to have taken as their primary target, when he realised another Wolf had been either bypassed or taken by force.
Where was Eunice?
His run slowed to a trot, and he stopped, hidden from the advancing Wolves by a slab of rocks upon which clung an obstinate copse of evergreens.
There was a shrill sound of shattering glass. Hagrid had broken a tiny window that opened up in his roof; the point of his huge crossbow emerged, aiming at the howling Isiames.
"Clear off, you Beasts!" hollered Hagrid's voice, swollen with anger. "Go back to your Forest! I don't come near your place, you take your paws off mine. You break the agreement, I shoot every sodding one of you and sell your pelts on the market!"
Harry peeked from behind the copse just in time to see one of the taller Wolves skitter back, take a few steps to gather speed and bound — higher than he would have thought possible — level with Hagrid's window. As though in slow motion he saw the jaws part, the fangs glint in the moonlight, a hair's breadth from Hagrid's hand. The crossbow released its arrow.
The Wolf landed supply on its four feet on the ground, growling in rage. Hagrid had missed, but the shot had made the Wolf instinctively whip its head around, abandoning its prey.
Its fur bristled up at the shoulders. It was mad with anger and bloodlust. Despite himself Harry felt the rage of the Wolf calling to him, urging him to join the pack, join the feast. He recognised Sao's simple mental connections; it had always been her way to keep the pack under control. She knew every mind of the pack. She knew who answered, and who stood within her reach and resisted.
She would sense him. Tearing his eyes away from the spectacle of the pack circling Hagrid's hut, Harry crouched on the ground and crawled away in the snow, inching further and further from her reach while her mind was busy with the assault, until he found the shelter of the Forest and broke into a run.
He hated himself at every stride that put more distance between him and Hagrid. He knew he could not make much of a difference there — not with the entire pack turning against him — but the idea of leaving his allies to the wrath of Sao, whom they didn't know, whose strength they could not suspect, made him utterly sick. But he had to find Eunice. She alone stood a chance against Sao...
Deeper and deeper into the Forbidden Forest he sank, gliding, ghost-like and white, in a white and spectral world, expecting at every turn to find the core of the Forest where reigned an eternal summer.
But the summer was gone. The heart of the Forest no longer shimmered in greens and golds, it was turning red and brown and a cold breeze ripped the leaves off the trees. The spirit-trees looked slimmer, more vulnerable, and ill. A horrible foreboding closed like an iron fist on Harry's heart, shortening his breath; it seemed to him that autumn had sunk its teeth in the trees' barks, leaving them to huddle together, bending their balding heads before this second, unexpected death.
After a few seconds' hesitation Harry stirred and started crawling over the leaves-covered ground, his fur bristling over his shoulders and back, as though expecting an obscure enemy to leap at his throat. The slow death pervading the core of the Forest struck him as wrong, terribly wrong — the spirit-trees were deeply involved in the fragile balance between the wizarding and Isiame worlds. Was their death announcing the annihilation of Isiames, when all he had been fearing was danger to wizards?...
He had been defending wizards all this time, Unspeakables excepted. Yet did he want Isiames to die?
Daphne's face flashed before his eyes. His heart twisted in his chest and before he knew it, he had broken into a run, ignoring the cold autumn pressing against his skin and the sinister murmur of the trees. When he reached the river he used his momentum to cross it in one powerful leap; as he landed on the opposite bank, he saw something on the ground that glistened black. The tepid smell of blood hit his nose a split-second later.
Blood was running in a slow trickle down the slope that climbed before him to Rosalyn's tree. Harry looked back: at the end of its course the blood mingled with the river, and although there wasn't much of it, it had tinted the waters already; the river ran red.
He looked further back. There was more than this tiny rivulet of blood; red also seeped from the roots dipping in the water, and dripped slowly from their lower branches. The trees bled into the river.
The chill of the magical autumn reached his bones. With effort, he tore his gaze from the red river and followed the trickle of blood that flowed, not from a tree, but — somehow he was sure of it — from a human body.
He was partially right. The blood led him to the clearing, and to Rosalyn's tree, where Eunice was crucified by a broad sword buried deep into her belly.
She stood there pinned to the tree, perfectly still, her head bent, her grey hair falling about her face in an impenetrable curtain. Both her long slender hands were curled around the hilt of the sword. Blood flowed freely from the wound. There was a lot of it, and part of it, Harry realised, came from Rosalyn's tree itself, behind Eunice's back. And almost as though it were a living thing, all that blood ran across the barely sloping ground into the rivulet that had led Harry back to his ally.
Harry shivered violently and Transformed back. His head was empty and the tips of his fingers tingled. He walked up to the tree without thinking, without effort, as though in a dream. He could see now the painful expansions of the old woman's chest, he could hear the repugnant gurgling noise that came with every expelled breath. She could not free herself despite all her power. He wondered if she had tried accelerating her death to end her own suffering, and failed. Sao, in the end, had overpowered her mistress.
He reached out and laid his hand over hers, on the hilt of the sword that went through her skinny body.
"Is there any hope left?" he asked roughly.
Her breath quickened, but her face was still hidden behind a curtain of hair.
Was there any hope left? Despair kept him rooted to the spot, waiting, and at the same time not daring to pull the hair aside for fear of what he would see on the old Isiame's face. War had broken out despite his efforts, despite all his careful research. His best ally was dying. Under Sao's guidance the Isiames would be after him as ferociously as the Unspeakables were.
"The child," said Eunice unexpectedly, in a voice that was absurdly tranquil and composed — as though she were sitting in her small cell-like bedroom, and not dying pinned to a tree.
Harry finally parted the hanging curtain of hair with his other hand. Eunice's deep-blue eyes were planted in his. A film of sweat shone on her forehead; otherwise serenity smoothed over her lined features, leaving her looking disturbingly like the powerful Isiame Harry had known her to be.
"The child," he repeated, his voice going hoarse.
"Clio," breathed Eunice. "Find her. Find Clio."
One of her hand detached itself from the hilt of the sword and closed, like a vulture's talon, on Harry's wrist.
"Hide her," she hissed. "Stop her. Destroy her if you must!"
"Stop... You mean Sao?" Harry asked, confused. "Hide Sao?"
Eunice's eyes widened slightly. "The child, Harry. The child!"
Harry's mouth fell open in mute horror. He thought, for a second, that her nearing death had disturbed the mind of the former Isiame leader — but there was no madness in the stony gaze she planted on his face. For an instant they were locked in a silent but expressive conversation, Harry hesitating, and she commanding, almost begging at times, never wavering. Finally her eyes became misty and vague, and they wandered away from Harry's to fall at his feet. Harry looked down as well, and found that the double-faced sword had somehow followed him through two Transformations; it was now lying in the trampled grass next to him.
"Rosalyn," Eunice whispered.
Harry frowned. The deformity of the sword was plain, even in the Forest's dying light, but somehow Eunice seemed to see only the Isiame side of the sword. Rosalyn's sword. Lying by Rosalyn's tree.
Harry spoke up calmly.
"Yes, I found Rosalyn's sword. I brought it back."
He searched Eunice's gaze again. "I am the new Isiame guardian, Eunice," he lied.
"You will save us all, Harry Potter," she said in her usual pleasant voice.
Then she choked, her hollow chest started heaving in ample inefficient motions, blood dribbled down her chin, her white face turned grey. Her lips were the colour of blueberries between the trickles of blood that filled her mouth. Within ten seconds she was dead.
The Forest shivered around him. The wind picked up, biting and cold, a hint of violence in its edge. The air smelt metallic as the grounds of the great battle of Hogwarts were soaked with Isiame blood again. Eunice hung from the tree, her bony form held in place by Sao's sword, like a tragic and piteous scarecrow. When the flesh would have rotten entirely there would be nothing to prevent her old bones from crumpling to the ground.
Harry stepped back, the scenery whirling around him as the fresco in the old Isiame's room had, days ago.
He took a few more steps from the tree and the corpse pinned to it.
He whirled about and started running, following the growing stream of blood coursing down the hillside to the river.
The river was now all blood, and the penetrating smell of it infected the air. Harry fought back the impulse to retch.
His feet hit the muddy ground with dull sounds — the mud, he couldn't help but notice, was turning red as well, and blood splattered under his shoes at every stride he took — as he ran as fast as he had ever run to the Elemental Gate of the Isiame city.
Destroy her if you must.
He had to step in the bloody waters that mingled with the lake, in order to get to the gate. He did so with a shiver of repulsion. The gate felt thicker, slower to open than usual, and he wondered if all that blood wasn't damaging it — and, in a moment of fluttering fear, if it would hold on long enough for him to come back out of it.
He Transformed as soon as he emerged on the other side and left at a dead run for the Isiame city. The houses were empty, the tiny streets deserted. All of Sao's fighting force hadn't been at Hogwarts, so where were the others? Where were those who could not fight, the old and the children?
He passed the tiny, one-story house he shared with Daphne and slowed, turned around, and stuck his nose to the door. Her smell lingered on the threshold but it was cold and dead. She was not there. He let out a small whine of worry — where was she?
Find her. Hide her.
Harry tore himself from the contemplation of their home and started for Eunice's house again. The child. Why ought he find the child? She was the Queen, she was more powerful and gifted than Eunice and Sao reunited, but Eunice had said something once — that she was not supposed to use her power, because it was dangerous. The only time when Eunice had allowed it was when the Queen had cured Harry's friends. Did that mean that Eunice had a way of shutting down the little girl's power?
And now Eunice was dead.
The greatest source of Isiame power was up for the taking. The child was in danger. And should she use her strength… Eunice had said it was dangerous. She had not said how or why.
The image of a delighted little face holding out hands that were drenched up to the elbow in Ron's and Luna's blood sprang at the forefront of Harry's mind. He lengthened his stride.
The coloured lights hovering in the staircase that led down to the Queen's bedroom were dead. Harry Transformed again with a pained grimace; he was starting to ache with these repeated changes, as though his body had more trouble adjusting to the new shapes each time he did it. He lit his wand with a word and hurtled down the stairs. The sword bounced behind him, tied to his belt by the hilt, the tip clanging on the stone steps. A smell of rot drifted up to him as he sank deeper into the mountain.
He finally jumped over the last five steps and landed supply in the corridor that led up to the child's bedroom. Something crunched under his soles — the floor was littered with the cadavers of thousands of insects. He glanced upwards; the vegetation that had covered the walls and ceiling, forming a green and living tunnel, was now brown and decaying. Dead.
He looked on. The bedroom door was open. A blond-haired form was sprawled, unmoving, on the floor.
He was kneeling beside her an instant later. He had trouble realising what was happening at first; it seemed to him his heart was locked in a block of ice. But the derisory hope he clung to was crushed when he turned the body over, and found Daphne's face staring up at him with unseeing eyes.
She was not dead, however. She mumbled feebly, inaudibly, the sound reminding him of Ron and Luna when they had been found with the arrows stuck in their backs — only much less distinctive, much weaker, as though it was just a reflexive thing while the soul was already gone.
Harry pulled her to him, holding the limp form of Daphne Greengrass to his chest as he ripped the back of her shirt, straining to ignore the high voice in his head that said no, no, no, no—
No arrows stuck out of her spine. They had not been so civilised this time: instead, they had left three wounds in her back, one high just below the base of her neck, another between the tips of her slender shoulder blades, and the third in the soft hollow at the small of her back. The wounds were messy, bloody, and already half-closed.
No, no, no, no, no…
Harry dug his nails in the topmost wound and tried to widen it, to prevent it from closing over the arrowhead. Frost numbed the tips of his fingers. A cold, rotten sensation oozed from the injuries and made his moves clumsy, his fingernails tore the flesh uselessly, he made no progress at all and Daphne's breathing had got thready and fast.
Sweat beaded on his forehead and rolled on his temples and along the bridge of his nose. Keeping the fingers of his left hand inside the injury, he reached blindly behind him with his right, and felt the hilt of the sword under his palm.
The sword was not easy to handle at such close range. He gripped it by the blade and directed the tip at Daphne's spine. The frosty aura of the enchanted arrow wrapped around the two-faced blade, and Harry felt the air tightening around him, getting rare, until his breath became as laboured as Daphne's. The sword appeared to be making progress though. After a time that seemed to stretch into hours, Harry felt metal hitting metal at last. He discarded the sword at once and plunged both hands in the horribly enlarged hole gaping at the base of Daphne's neck.
Pain exploded in his hands as soon as they closed on the arrowhead. It rushed up his arms and set his brain on fire. It was worse than anything he had ever known, worse than the Cruciatus Curses, worse than the years-long insomnia, worse—
You can't save her. How could you? You're just a wizard. You're not even worthy of touching her, let alone break the will of She who decided her life would end.
The whispers filled his agonising brain. He could not remember what he was doing here, or who was the warm body under his fingers. He could not remember his own name. All that was left in his head was the pain and the whispers. He wished he would die.
Yes, you should die. You brought an impure blade in Her sanctuary. You tried to use it against Her spells. You should die, but you will suffer instead. Your agony will last for centuries, until She is tired of you and casts you back into shadows.
Harry blacked out.
He opened his eyes to find himself standing on grassy ground, in the middle of the Forbidden Forest. He knew that place. It was a spot near the lake, where several moss-covered rocks jutted out from the tree shade and sloped gently towards the still water. Some students liked to dive there; Harry himself wasn't enough of a swimmer to enjoy venturing into these icy-cold and deep waters.
Night had just fallen; a pleasant spring night, just chilly enough to make Harry long for a warm coat, but full of fresh and clean scents. The earth and lake had been swallowed up by shadows but the sky was still clear. The mountains were neatly outlined at the west.
There was movement behind him. He jumped and turned around — and realised he wasn't standing on a rock at the edge of the Forest, after all. He was just staring out of the eyes of the girl who did.
Long red hair fluttered about her face. She wore Hogwarts robes with the red-and-gold of Gryffindor emblazoned on the left side of her chest, a Headgirl badge pinned to the breast pocket just under it. Her pale, thin hands gripped the hilt of a broadsword; a golden hilt set with an emerald that peaked out from between the girl's fingers.
And she was watching a copse of trees before her, keeping her back to the black lake.
The trees rustled again and a seventeen-year-old James Potter stepped out, also dressed in his Hogwarts robes, the sleeves rolled past his elbows. He held Pallas's sword in his right hand; his wand was tucked in his belt. A Headboy badge shone on his chest.
He stilled at the sight of the girl.
"All right, Evans?" he said in a soft voice.
Harry felt his heart — no, the girl's heart — tightening with sorrow.
"Potter," she said, her voice hoarse. "Don't make it worse."
"Can it get any worse?" said the boy dryly. "I had no idea."
"Stop that. Let's get it over with."
"What do you mean, why?" spat Lily Evans. "Because all day something tried to drive the pair of us to kill each other, just like yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that, and just like all these times, the best we could come up with was to wait until everyone had gone to bed so we couldn't hurt anyone else."
She drew in a shuddering breath. "And here you are," she said, her voice thick with anger, "asking why, as if you needed reminding — as if you didn't find me here when I didn't even tell you where I'd wait. As if you couldn't feel it yourself."
Silence fell, broken only by the deep breaths Lily was taking. It sounded as if she was trying very hard not to burst into tears. For the first time Harry noticed how much pain she was in: there was a stinging cut on one of her calves, another on her right flank, her left arm sported a bruise that throbbed every time she moved, and a bone-deep tiredness settled over the muscles of her shoulders and thighs.
James, he realised, looked just as bad. His jaw sported an ugly red gash that looked as though it was barely starting to heal, and he held himself with a stiffness that betrayed other hidden wounds.
He shook his head in a slow, determined motion. "I won't hurt you. Not today."
"You have no choice. We have no choice. D'you think I like hitting you with that thing?"
She spat the last word with loathing; her fingers tightened on the sword as though she was trying to crush the hilt.
But James Potter laughed, a spontaneous, hearty, adolescent sound that took Harry by surprise. "There's always a choice, Evans," he said. "And yes, I always suspected you enjoyed it, deep down."
"Don't," she whispered. "Don't make it worse. Please."
James's smile vanished. He moved so fast neither Harry nor Lily had time to react; a second later he was close to touching her. Lily let out a strangled cry and raised the sword in an instinctive move. It rang against James's blade which met it in mid-air, then James did something strange — he moved his right hand so his sword was hilt to hilt with Lily's, and with his other hand, he grabbed the two blades and held them together.
Blood spurted from his closed fist instantly and he sucked in a breath.
"What are you—"
"Hold my hand. On the hilts! Fast!"
Startled by the urgency in his voice, Lily did as she was told; without releasing her grip on the hilt of her sword she threaded her fingers with James's. Harry noticed she was left-handed, while James held his weapon with his right hand. As soon as their hands were linked together he released the blades with a hiss of pain. The palm was deeply cut and there was something wrong in the way his fingers moved — maybe he had hurt nerves or tendons.
"What are you doing?" Lily said tensely.
James gave a shaky laugh. The pain of his new injury had drained all colour from his face.
"Try to move against me now," he ground out through clenched teeth.
Lily glanced at their swords, aligned together, Rosalyn's sword broader and longer than Pallas's, blade against blade and hilt against hilt. Their hands, locked together, did not allow for a single move against each other.
"I can still try to hit you with my other hand. Or take out your eyes. Or strangle you," she said coldly. "I don't think the swords care how we hurt each other, as long as we do it."
"Then come here."
Understanding dawned on Lily. She only had one brief moment of hesitation before stepping closer to him and wrapping an arm around James's waist. He gripped her shoulders, smearing blood over her neck and hair.
"I could still bite," she whispered in his ear.
James shivered, and Harry wasn't sure it was the cold that bothered him.
"It would get out of hand," he said roughly.
Lily snorted. "And you're joking again. As soon as I release you we'll be trying to hack each other to pieces again, and here you are, joking."
"I'm serious, Evans."
The swords were lowered, held together by the two teenagers, the tips resting between their feet in the soft ground of the lakeside. James's eyes were half-closed and he breathed deeply in Lily's scent. Lily's heart was pounding against her ribs, and tears prickled her eyes.
"Keep your friends close and your enemies closer?" she murmured. "Is that it?"
"An idea that occurred to me in Transfiguration," James said in dream-like tones. "Two antagonistic spells must not be cast in immediate succession at the same object — you have to wait a few seconds at least between each, otherwise neither spell work. It's the same with potions, I think?"
"I suppose. There are ingredients that cancel each other if thrown in the cauldron at the same time." She snorted again. "You plan to have us glued to each other until we die of thirst and hunger? Is that it?"
"My sword's calling to yours. They're seeking contact, didn't you notice? The… pressure is relieved when they hit each other."
"Or when they hit us."
"Exactly." James's voice was sharp as broken glass. "So we can either throw ourselves on our swords, or make them keep a permanent contact. Annihilate their effect by stimulating it nonstop."
"It won't be enough, James," Lily whispered. "It can't be that simple."
"It won't be simple. For Merlin's sake, Lily — I'm telling you about meddling with two swords older than we can imagine, and forcing them to merge together when all they're trying to do is destroy each other — and you're worrying it'll be too simple? Besides, the two… wackos who made these things probably never expected we wouldn't want to fight."
"We have to tell Dumbledore. He—"
"Dumbledore's busy fighting Voldemort. We can't distract him with that. We don't even know what we're talking about half the time. And — Lily…"
He stopped talking abruptly. There was a waiting quality to the silence that ensued, and Harry, startled, realised the waiting did not come from Lily — she did not prompt him to keep talking. On the contrary, she had squeezed her eyes shut against that expecting silence as though striving to go unnoticed.
The waiting came from the Forest. From the trees.
"…and I don't want to tell him," James finished in a barely audible whisper. "I don't want to tell anyone, ever."
Lily sighed. The silence thickened around them. They looked lost in that sea of quiet, an island of shivering humanity in the century-long, still, vegetal wait.
"Then how do we do it?" Lily finally asked, leaning her forehead against James's shoulder.
James pulled back his head to look at her. Then he grinned.
"We'll figure something out," he said. "I won't let anything force me to fight someone I'd rather…"
"Shut up," said Lily roughly; and she kissed him.
Harry opened his eyes. He was sprawled on the floor of the Queen's bedroom, the two-faced sword lying across his hips. Every inch of skin throbbed as though he had been boiled alive. He dropped his eyes to his hands and found them drenched in Daphne's blood; his fingers gripped tightly the metal triangle of an arrowhead.
Daphne lay crumpled beside him. He could still hear her breathing, but it did not sound any stronger than before.
There were two more wounds.
Harry clenched his teeth over the thought of the atrocious pain that was to come, and reached for the sword.
When it was over, he hurt so much he could barely form a coherent thought. Daphne's back looked like a slab of raw meat; he had opened her from neck to loins. The white tips of her vertebrae had been visible, for a few seconds, before the blood started flowing. It pooled under both their bodies, drowning the arrowheads, which had lost all power as soon as they had been ripped from Daphne's spine.
Harry moved and almost screamed in pain. Small pitiful sounds escaped his mouth as he crawled across the floor, tore a soft pink blanket from the child's bed that sat in a corner, and made his way back to Daphne's body on his hands and knees. With clumsy fingers he pressed the blanket to the horrible wound in her back, then wrapped her in her cloak, trying to keep the cloth firmly applied to the torn-up flesh. Finally he turned her so she lay on her back, hoping her own weight would contribute to stem the bleeding.
He had to stop moving for a while afterwards; stars danced in his vision, and he didn't think he could stand using any of his muscles except for breathing.
He had probably blacked out again, for when he opened his eyes again the pool of blood was half-congealed. He stared blankly in front of him, trying to remember what he ought to do, why it was not a good thing for him to remain shrunk on the floor of the Queen's bedroom next to Daphne.
Something changed. His body stilled and shivered, and all of sudden, he felt the need to breathe some fresh air. He had to get out — he must get out.
He rolled into a kneeling position and dragged himself across the floor. A thought nagged at him and he glanced aside at Daphne. Something told him he should drag her outside, too, that she would die if he didn't get her out. But getting out required that he walk across the corridor littered with dead bugs, climb up the stairs drowned in obscurity, fight his way through the forest of stone pillars of the Hall. He realised it was impossible. He could not make it that far — he would die miserably if he tried, his corpse would end up sprawled in the rotting corridor and add to the dreadful smell of decay. He could even less take Daphne with him.
Revolt suddenly made the blood rush to his head. He fumbled until he found his wand tucked inside his belt, and while his left hand closed on the hilt of his parents' sword, he raised his right and yelled in a hoarse voice, "Reducto!"
A thick beam of red light shot from his wand and hit the high stone wall.
Somewhere in the distance, there was a soft rumble. Then thunder broke out as rocks started raining hard and fast over them; without thinking Harry flung himself over Daphne. He clenched his teeth, expecting any minute to have his back or skull crushed by a boulder; yet seconds passed and they were not hit. Dust made him cough but rocks piled up on either side of them without touching them.
And then, at long last, a gust of cold wind hit the back of Harry's neck.
He looked over his shoulder. His spell had ripped a deep hole in the side of the mountain, and a patch of sky was visible between the fallen boulders. The rock collapsing still thundered in the distance, as Harry's overpowered spell broke the delicate balance that held the Isiame city on the mountainside.
A ray of moonlight touched them both. Harry and Daphne shuddered at the same time. And at the same time, they Transformed.
The grey wolf that was Daphne got to her feet, trembling all over, her back still largely open; however the bleeding had subsided. She took a few steps from Harry before she started shaking violently again and sank to the ground, panting. A soft whine made its way out of her throat as she set grey-green eyes on Harry — then she dropped her big grey head on her front paws. Her eyes fluttered shut and she appeared to focus all her strength on her breathing.
Harry approached her cautiously. He felt better; functional, at the very least. The pain was still there but it did not cripple him, and he could think again. If a touch of moonlight had caused him to Transform it meant that the moon was full, and that he had spent at least twenty hours in the Isiame city, while the battle raged in the outside world. He had again the sudden, acute sensation that time was running out; that things were rushing to meet their end. And Daphne… Daphne was alive but barely conscious, her spine exposed, her tongue rolling out from between her fangs as she gasped for breath.
He licked her face once, gently, hoping she would understand how sorry he was — sorry that she had got hurt, that he had to leave her behind, that he did not know if in the end, they would find themselves friends or enemies. Then he turned and bounded over the fallen rocks to reach the open space.
He was able to use the Elemental Gate, but the way back through the core of the Forest was impracticable: the blood river was too fast and hard. And the Forbidden Forest was on fire.
The lake flickered with the reflections of the blaze. Huge clouds of dark smoke hung over the tortured trees, blackened branches trembled in unearthly, nightmarish waves in the heat, and he caught a glimpse of the last wild animals fleeing before the furnace. The castle still stood atop the cliffs. He could not see if people still fought there.
Harry swam in his wolf form until he found a shore covered in inhospitable brambles; he scrambled out of the water and slid in the thorny bushes until he was at the gates. They stood open, which he found ominous.
He slipped out and willed himself away from there. The wind came to wrap around him and took him away.
His resolve to do whatever was within his power to prevent or stop the war felt grandiloquent and weak all at once, now, as the destruction of Hogwarts unrolled before his eyes, as each step he took made every muscle scream. He no longer knew if there was anything he could do; but Eunice had set him a task. He would concentrate on it.
Find the child.
Somehow, the old Isiame had known the Queen had been taken. It had been Isiame work, if the arrowheads stuck in Daphne's back were any indication. The motive for taking her was obvious: she was the most powerful individual among Isiames, and Eunice, her guardian, was now dead. Anyone could use her. Maybe they could directly tap in her power — Harry suspected he had not seen the full extent of the mind-magic Isiames used.
So, considering the worst possibility, anyone who knew how to do it could help themselves with the little girl's energy. Harry had no idea if it was truly possible — but it had to be, why would an Isiame take the child away from safety, if not to use her power? — and, if it was, who could pull it off.
Was it Sao the soldier? Sao the traitor, Harry thought savagely, the picture of Eunice's skewered body flickering at the forefront of his mind… Yet somehow Sao didn't feel right for the part. It wasn't that it would be beneath her; but despite her manipulations, she had never displayed the kind of power Eunice could wield.
And yet she had killed Eunice in the end.
Even if it was Sao though — even if she had managed to hide the child away as she stormed on Hogwarts with the other wolves — where would she had taken her? It would be hard to keep an Isiame child safe and concealed in a wizard-dominated world.
Harry had landed in a deserted London street. His nails clicked on the pavement as he wandered, keeping close to the walls and the dark places, his steps automatically taking him to his old apartment through solitary ways he had walked a hundred times. His head still hurt but his thoughts cleared gradually, as he followed one conclusion to the next. A place safe from wizards. There were two places where Harry had seen little Clio being kept: the Isiame city and the core of the Forbidden Forest. Both places were dead or dying.
The Isiame city and the core of the Forest… The child was safe there because… because those places belonged to Isiames? But even in the city, the little girl was kept to her underground bedroom, beyond the greenery-filled corridor that canalised her power. And in the Forest, she had been watched over by Daphne.
Harry stopped abruptly in the shelter of a huge bin. Sao would have had to find another place like that, a place where the child's magic was both accessible — would she have been able to treat Harry's friends if she had not been surrounded by the trees' power? — and manageable. The city and the Forest had in common the fact that they were both… Isiame places. Occupied for centuries by Isiames or Isiame spirits, filled with Isiame magic.
He had felt that kind of magic in another place once; but where was it…?
Harry gave his head a shake. The ache that wrapped around his limbs made it difficult to think. He was too tired, in too much pain. He needed to rest. Just for a minute. To gather his thoughts.
He felt the need to look at the double-faced sword once again. It had saved him once already… Maybe he would find a hint of another Isiame stronghold in Lily's trapped memories? A place Sao could have used?
His old apartment was quite close now, and it was as good a place as any to Transform back. The courtyard was just shadowy enough; he had used it plenty of times when he and Remus gathered at every full moon to Transform together, only a few months earlier.
The cold made him shiver violently when he stood up, human again. The sword emitted that soft buzzing sound again in his left hand. Daphne's blood ran in black tracks across its blade; he bent over to pick up fresh snow to wipe it clean, and froze.
There was a square of light cut out neatly on the snow, cast from above. Right from the spot where his apartment windows were.
Harry looked up: his windows were lit. He could not think of the last time he had set foot in that place; last he had heard, Lance was living there in his stead…
Lance. That was it. The last time he'd been at home, he had fought with Lance Colman over the secrets he had let slip to his girlfriend of the time, Chloe Greengrass — Daphne's elder sister. Chloe, who had gone missing, just like Lance, after Sao had finished using her as spy.
Harry took out his wand and started silently for the door at the foot of the building.
The staircase beyond was pitch-black and mute as a grave. It seemed all inhabitants had fled. Harry's feet made no sound on the stairs as he made his way to the third floor; his head pounded and there was a metallic taste in his mouth.
A thin golden beam filtered from under his door, across the threadbare carpet covering the landing. Harry closed his eyes.
Someone inside was breathing heavily.
Harry set his left hand flat against the door, searching for a Locking Spell that would be triggered by his attempt to break in; what he found made his heart skip a beat.
A spell was, indeed, softly humming against his palm. It wasn't Lance's Locking Spell—not that Harry had expected it to be; the Unspeakables could not have taken Lance without overcoming his spell. But it was no Ministry-made spell, either.
As a matter of fact, the magic currently electrifying his door was Harry's very own Locking Spell, very functional, carefully set in place, exactly as he had designed it.
It made no sense.
Harry had cancelled his Locking Spell when he had lent his apartment to his old partner. He would have been the only person able to re-activate it. And he had not been anywhere near the place since his fight with Lance.
The only person…
A voice echoed in his head, a distant memory he did not know he still had. Oh, come on, Harry, your Locking Spell was so easy to break it was laughable. I thought I had taught you better.
Behind the door, someone was holding their breath.
Harry touched the tip of his wand to the keyhole and deactivated the Locking Spell with a murmured word. There was a loud metallic click. He grabbed the doorknob and turned it, and as the door opened without haste, without the slightest dramatic creak, he said aloud to the person waiting inside: