Chapter 27: Lies Within Truth, Truth Within Lies
Harry stared at Inquisitor Amelon for a moment, his expression blank. Then he tilted his head to the side and shrugged.
"It looks vaguely familiar."
Amelon chuckled, the cut of his beard making his grin appear to stretch across the width of his face.
"And the curse? Do you recognize that?"
"I know it," he admitted as if it didn't mean a thing.
There was still a chance it wouldn't. Voldemort already knew about the curse. Sort of. Harry had told the Dark Lord there was a curse on Malfoy and had never been asked to go into detail. No one had, except for Snape, who kept the secret for reasons of his own. "How do you?"
He asked it both out of genuine curiosity and as a distraction.
"A pair of mutual acquaintances mentioned it in passing," Amelon explained.
"Ah... you interrogated the Weasley twins then."
Ron had told him about them being arrested for potentially hiding Hermione, so it was only natural that Amelon would have asked them questions about Harry. How had it come around to the matter of the stolen book? Was it happenstance or had the book they had previously questioned in their last letter still left them suspicious, particularly after the death of a known and formidable foe not long after?
"They were very reticent to discuss anything about you at first. A couple of my boys wanted to have a go at them to see who could make them talk first, but I've always preferred a good Truth Potion. More efficient. More humane."
"You've obviously never studied how a truth potion is made, sir," he snapped irritably. The truth was he didn't really care about the rather unpleasant methodology involved in brewing that particular potion, but he felt indignant on the Weasley twins' behalf. The thought of anyone dosing him with Veritaserum and interrogating him was too horrifying to contemplate for a variety of reasons. If he didn't handle this situation properly, however, he had a feeling that was exactly what Amelon would try to do to him.
"We removed the memory of the interrogation itself," Amelon continued as if he hadn't been interrupted. "Couldn't have them running off to warn you of the secrets they spilled. Not that it would have made a difference. I doubt they would have been able to find you or get to you even if they had. Not even I could do that, and I have to tell you that's a first for me."
Harry rolled his eyes and clapped.
"Bravo! Well done! You've caught your man at last. I had Fred and George steal the book from the library. I cast that curse on Lucius Malfoy. I'm sure a clever man like you can guess why."
Amelon did not seem the least bit put off by the mockery.
"To blackmail General Malfoy into calling off Miss Granger's betrothal, I assume."
"Exactly. You've figured it all out. The only problem is that it has absolutely nothing to do with your case. I broke that curse weeks before the Christmas ball, as soon as I got what I wanted. I even told the Dark Lord what I intended to do. And Snape. And Draco Malfoy found out about it later. Merlin, I can't even call it a secret given how many people know about it. General Malfoy knew about it, even if he couldn't prove it. It was all just a game. A dangerous, twisted game. Lord Voldemort would be so proud."
The Inquisitor shook his head and wagged his finger at Harry as if he were a naughty child.
"Mmm... no, I don't think so. I talked to the Dark Lord already about this. He knew you intended to blackmail Malfoy and break the spell, but he didn't say anything about knowing you cast the curse."
Harry turned away and started to pace the room in agitation.
"Do you think he would ever admit to such a thing? It would have been admitting he helped to nearly destroy Malfoy, his right hand. Not the sort of gossip you want floating around the office. It makes the employees nervous about pursuing a promotion."
"True, but whatever the level of the Dark Lord's involvement, I seriously doubt he would have allowed you to cast a curse that deteriorated Malfoy's mind as well as his body. His good judgment was rather essential, given his position."
"And you think I would? You think I forgot what it was precisely he did for a living? I despised the man, but I knew the importance of what he did. The spell... it was supposed to make him sick in the body, not the head. I... It was an unexpected side effect. Lord Voldemort didn't know either... at least, I don't think so. You can go back and ask him yourself, if you dare. I'll do it for you if you like."
He would too. Not because he cared about the answer, but because the numbing despair that had plagued him was receding with this newest battle. It was battle of wits, true, not his specialty, but it was a dangerous game just the same. One that might cost him dearly. Might cost others dear to him even more, and while it didn't make him feel happy precisely, he felt distinctly alive. Alive and angry and reckless and wanting a fight, a battle, a target to unleash those barbed emotions that had been tearing him up inside the longer he kept them to himself. Amelon was a start, but he couldn't be the final triumph. Even if somehow he managed to walk away having convinced the Inquisitor of his lies and that his current line of investigation was fruitless, he couldn't imagine it as any sort of victory. This little verbal spar was nothing more than the beating of war drums, something to stir the blood in preparation for something more. Something dangerous. Something worse.
Amelon's eyes stared at him, wide and unblinking, but it was not fear Harry saw there. It was anticipation. It suddenly occurred to him this man wanted the same thing Harry did, only as an observer rather than a participant. He wondered what it was the man hoped he would see. Was it a sadistic need to watch curses inflicted and pain dealt out or was it something else? A need to see the veneer of societal tranquility and politeness fall away to reveal... what? Harry didn't know the name of it or the words to describe it. Perhaps it was simply 'insanity'.
He resented it being reduced to a sideshow for a gawker, whatever it was.
"I may take you up on that, Lord Potter, but I would like to ask you a few more questions before involving a third party."
Harry sighed in frustration and started to pace again.
"Where is the original book?"
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"The book you used originally to cast the curse, of course. This book here is the second copy you used to break the curse."
Harry's steps slowed.
"I don't know what you mean."
"There's no point in being evasive now, young man. You've been proudly open about your roguish behavior up to this point."
The younger wizard said nothing. Amelon sighed.
"I know this was not the original book you used. You already admitted that you cast the curse as a means of manipulating General Malfoy into breaking off Miss Granger's betrothal, which you could not have been made aware of until this previous summer. At that time, London was still being occupied by the Italians. Despite your reputation, I still find it highly unlikely that you planned a trip to the library in the middle of a war zone, broke through the building's defenses, and navigated your way to the archives to browse through several hundred thousand volumes in search of a spell you had no prior knowledge of existing."
Harry thought to argue, but quickly realized how easily his own explanations would fail. He could not say he had gone himself. Amelon would question how he had done it, and Harry couldn't bluff something that required so much detail. If he said he sent someone else, he would have to say who and explain again why he hadn't sent the same person a second time instead of enlisting Fred and George. And how would he explain knowing about the book in the first place?
"It was destroyed," Harry said instead.
"I figured as much. It was an accident, I assume, rather than an attempt to destroy evidence. You did intend to end the curse, after all, so it would have been more practical to keep it than attempt to find another copy. It is very rare. Only three known copies, in fact."
Harry knew that. He had been incredibly lucky to find even one intact, and that one had been something of a nightmare to obtain. It made Amelon's next question rather obvious, but still uncomfortable.
"Which begs the question of where you found the first copy. I'm having some of my people track down the other two, but perhaps you might spare them the tedium by just telling me? Was it amongst one of the Dark Lord's private libraries, perhaps? A curious piece of literature brought to you by a classmate familiar with your studies in the Old Magics?"
Harry stopped pacing. Amelon waited. Harry waited. Amelon broke first.
"Ah, you have no benign explanation to give me, do you? It was not something you merely stumbled upon. Someone showed it to you. Someone with very bad intentions."
Harry shook his head and started to pace again.
"This is pointless. Whatever or whoever was involved with that book, it had nothing to do with Lucius' death."
"You don't think so? Or you don't want it to? After all, most of my suspects are friends and close associates of yours. Headmaster Snape, your guardian and mentor. A former Death Eater and with a complex relationship with the general, he certainly has the capability and the cunning. Your missing friend, Hermione Granger, a known bibliophile and scholar, she may have stumbled upon the book any number of places, and she certainly has plenty of reasons to see her foster father dead. Lord Draco Malfoy, also a friend, who stands to inherit his father's wealth and titles and simultaneously relieve himself of his father's overbearing supervision and censure regarding his... affections... for his muggleborn foster sister."
"None of them showed me the book in the first place. They never even knew of the spell's existence. If you keep following this it's going to lead you absolutely nowhere, and if you waste Lord Voldemort's time with it, he'll kill you."
"Hhmm..." Amelon looked speculative but not convinced. "That's very gentlemanly of you to warn me, under the circumstances. Expelliarmus."
Harry's arm jerked sharply as his wand flew from his sleeve and into the Inquisitor's hand. He sprung after it but had to pull back when Amelon's wand pointed itself squarely at his chest.
"What are you doing?!" he demanded.
"No worries, Lord Potter," the elder wizard said amicably. "I have every intention of returning it to you. I imagine at the end of things you'll walk away from all this one murderous friend fewer, but otherwise unscathed. It is only that I intend to lock you in this tower- I know it's a terrible cliché- while I go to the Dark Lord to get my warrant."
"You're arresting me?"
"No, but I am going to interrogate you. Unfortunately, for someone of your rank and association with the Dark Lord, his permission is required before I can administer Veritaserum."
Harry recoiled as if Amelon had suddenly burst into oozing pustules.
"Yes, that tends to be most people's reactions. Hence, I am borrowing your wand. It wouldn't do for you to run away or attempt to warn one of your little conspirators or something equally inconvenient. Sentinel Burrows! Sentinel Underhill!"
The door to the tower swung open, and two wizards marched into the room. They were both tall and rangy, and if not for the last names Harry would have thought they were brothers. Though it was Amelon who had summoned them, their eyes remained fixed on the unarmed wizard in the tower instead, looking him over from head to toe without giving away what they had concluded.
"Sentinel Burrows and Sentinel Underhill will remain here to make sure you're comfortable," Amelon said. "I might be gone for a while. Try to keep out of trouble."
Harry made a rude gesture in response, which only made the Inquisitor smile as he ambled out of the room. Once the man was gone, he started to pace again, his fingers twitching at his side for want of a wand, a weapon, a broom, anything that would get him out of his current predicament. His guards did not move or speak, but their eyes followed his every movement and gesture. Harry found he hated them for no reason at all.
"I don't suppose either of you would mind if I pop off to the loo for a minute?"
In an eerie synchronization, both men crossed their arms. Neither said a word.
Harry let out a sigh and stalked out onto the balcony. He intentionally stood in view of the doorway, not wanting them to follow him outside. Leaning over the side of the balcony, he took a deep breath and tried to think. He was hours, maybe only minutes away from being interrogated under Veritaserum which would not only reveal Ron's involvement with the curse, but also Snape's complicity, the knowledge that Hermione was somewhere in France, and any number of other secrets that might slip out. He had no wand and was surrounded by guards. Competent guards at that.
He was just contemplating the chances of successfully achieving an animagus transformation now that his exhaustion seemed to have been replaced with anger and whether he could achieve it quickly enough to escape his guards before they stopped him, when he spotted Bobby fluttering up and down trying to catch his attention. Harry glanced back behind him quickly to see if the guards had noticed him, but their attention seemed firmly planted on him so that when he turned back around he made it a point to only look at the raven out of the corner of his eye.
He whispered a name, and no sooner was it said than Bobby disappeared, his inky black body fading into the shadows of the castle.
Predictably, the Headmaster Office's windows were locked, and even a magical practitioner of Bobby's skill would have been hard pressed to open them. So he went down the chimney. This was not in any way ideal, since in addition to having to put out the fire burning in the hearth, there was also an unfortunate amount of soot and ash that followed him as he burst into the little room.
His unexpected entrance was greeted with the expected results. Snape, previously working diligently at his desk, jumped to his feet in surprise and started tossing out curses and colorful invectives every which way, half blinded by the black cloud that had enveloped him. Bobby dipped and dived to avoid being blasted to pieces, until he found the opportunity to speak.
"Stop, stop, you madman! It's just me!" he cawed indignantly and swooped to avoid a spell that melted one of the frames on the wall into purplish goo. The portrait previously occupying the frame had luckily ducked into his neighbor's frame but had a few invectives of his own to share with Snape.
"What do you think you're doing bursting in here like that? Look what you did to my office!" Snape snarled.
"It was just a little soot! I'm not the one who started flinging around curses."
Snape raised his wand, this time with perfect aim, and Bobby knew he would be in trouble if he didn't talk fast.
"Amelon locked Harry in the tower!"
The headmaster paused, blinked, scowled, and lowered his wand.
Bobby hurriedly told him what he had overheard in the Astronomy tower and that Amelon would be returning shortly with a warrant. The more the raven said the less expression Snape seemed to have until the messenger might as well have been speaking to a wall. When Bobby was done, the headmaster moved to sit back in his chair and tap the ends of his fingertips together thoughtfully. Bobby hopped about anxiously on his desk, waiting for the man to do something. When Snape's thoughts finally seemed to reach their conclusion, he set his hands on the armrests and let out a shout that nearly startled him out of his feathers.
A moment later, a house elf 'popped' into existence in the middle of the room. She was a dainty little thing with exceptionally long hands and feet so that she rather resembled a tailless wallaby. Her large eyes scanned the room with the nervous quickness of a bird.
"Oh, Headmaster, sir, your office! It's in such a state! Oh! A bird's gotten in! Poor thing, poor thing! Hinky will set it out, sir, right away!"
"Never mind the bird, Hinky!" Snape said sharply, derailing her from her helpful intentions. "I need you to find Ronald Weasley and bring him here immediately. Then get my potions case from my quarters. The black and silver one in the linen closet. It's imperative it be done quickly."
"Yes, Headmaster, sir. Hinky will get it done, sir. Might I just-"
She made vague gesture towards the raven on his desk, which puffed indignantly. Snape's bland expression hardened.
"I have given you your task, Hinky. Don't make me repeat myself."
"Yes, sir! I mean no, sir! Hinky goes, sir!"
She disappeared as quickly as she appeared. Bobby asked Snape what he had planned and how he was going to help Harry, but the headmaster ignored him in favor of thinking silently to himself. Minutes seemed to crawl by as Bobby waited for Snape to speak, for Ronald Weasley to appear, for Amelon and his warrant, for anything to happen. He thought about Snape's possible plan, as he clearly had one, if it would save Harry or doom him, and what sort of scenario might unfold for either to occur. He wondered if Harry was waiting as anxiously as he was or if he had done something rash. He hadn't missed the speculative look the young wizard had given the distance between the tower balcony and the ground.
Finally, finally, there was a knock on the door and Snape bid entrance. Ronald Weasley shuffled in with a sulky, cautious look that only worsened when he took in the state of the headmaster's office.
"I had absolutely nothing to do with it," he said defensively.
"If you are referring to the soot, then I assure you there is no need to convince me of your innocence, but as for the reason I summoned you, I am afraid you are unquestionably complicit. Unfortunately for you, the latyer is a graver matter than the former. Sit down, Mr. Weasley."
Ron did so and found himself staring face-to-face with the raven. He inched his chair away from it.
"Potter's familiar," Snape explained.
"I thought he had the snake."
"And an owl. And a raven as well now. But I did not call you here to discuss Potter's growing menagerie. Inquisitor Amelon has become aware of the curse you cast on Lucius Malfoy."
Ron went rigid in his chair. His eyes darted around the room, as if expecting the man to suddenly appear from a shadowy corner.
"He is not yet aware it is you who cast it, but he has deduced that Mr. Potter was in some way involved. He has gone to retrieve a warrant to interrogate him under Veritaserum. I suspect he will have his warrant and that the Dark Lord will come to witness the interrogation himself. Do I need to tell you how badly this could turn out for you?"
Ron said nothing, but the suddenly vivid contrast of his freckles against white skin made an answer redundant.
"What are you going to do?" the boy asked instead.
Snape steepled his fingers and looked at him steadily for a moment.
"I am going to save you, Mr. Weasley, and then you are going to owe me a life debt. Something I have always found useful to have."
Ron stared back at him for a long time, then seemed to realize how stupid that was to do with a Legilimens and looked down. He nodded. What other choice did he have?
A sudden pop made everyone flinch, but it was only Hinky with Snape's potion case. Once she had deposited it on Snape's desk as instructed, she looked once more to the raven still perched there. He cawed at her in annoyance.
"You may return in ten minutes to clean the room, Hinky," the Headmaster said.
"And, er... the bird, sir?"
"Ten minutes, Hinky, and if it is still here you may fry it up and eat it for all I care."
"Oh, sir, yes! I mean, not that I would eat it, sir. I mean... ten minutes!"
She disappeared yet again.
Snape wasted no time and opened the case. Neither Ron nor Bobby was in any position to see what was inside, but they could hear the distinct sound of glass clinking together. Finally, the elder wizard pulled out a vial of transparent blue liquid and another, smaller vial that appeared to be empty. He poured some of the blue liquid into the smaller vial, then capped it.
"Come here," he said, holding out an empty hand to the raven. Reluctantly, Bobby climbed onto it, and Snape took him to the nearest window. Softly, so that Ron wouldn't hear, he whispered his instructions to the raven and handed it a vial, which it clutched tightly to its own body so that it was left to stand on only one leg. Snape opened the window, letting in a gust of cold winter air and letting out his avian messenger.
He shut the window again and turned to Ron.
"This is what we're going to do."
Viktor found himself at the newsstand once again, where he often seemed to find himself these days, looking for some glimmer of a feeling he had once held for humanity. Most nights he felt little more than disappointment. Goethe had told him this apathy was to be expected. Eventually, he would cease to identify himself with humans at all, muggle or wizard, and then life... un-life would finally feel like it was moving forward again.
The idea made him uneasy. It made him feel disloyal, but to what or whom he couldn't say.
Tonight, however, he was not feeling his usual apathy. In fact, he thought he might have just fallen in love.
"Hhhmm, she is a pretty little thing, isn't she?" Goethe chuckled in his ear, his chin coming to rest on his shoulder. "With a taste for blood it would seem. We should invite her around for a cup of tea."
Viktor shoved him off and approached the stand. The crowd of customers parted for him like a school of fish from a shark. The owner of the stand merely looked at him curiously, having long become used to his brooding visitor.
"How old is this paper?" he asked in French roughened by his native accent.
"It is six days since it was published in England, Monsieur. That is the soonest we can get them through customs," the owner said.
"Do you have any others?"
"Other English papers?"
"I have the Daily Prophet as well, but it always arrives eight days after print. Customs always hacks it to pieces before they send it through."
Krum gave a disappointed sigh, but the owner spoke again.
"You are following the investigation of that double murder in England? I have French articles too!"
There were indeed several newspapers carrying articles similar to the British paper, but none of them carried a photograph of the girl that had caught his attention in the first place. Nevertheless, he bought them along with the Wizards Weekly.
Goethe needled and teased him for the rest of the night, but Viktor tolerated it. He deserved to be taunted after all. It was foolish to still love her. Foolish and a little bit wonderful too to realize he was still capable of it.
It was after eight by the time Amelon reached the military headquarters in Bristol, but the offices were still full and chaotic. No one had kept banking hours since Malfoy and Crouch's deaths had led to a major reorganization across several departments and a major counter offensive strike by the Germans was expected at any moment. Amelon kept that in mind as he was shuffled from department to department, office to office, bureaucratic peon to officious idiot over the course of an hour and a half in pursuit of his warrant. It could have been worse, he reminded himself. The Dark Lord might have been gone for the night, and he would have had to wait until morning.
Eventually, he was brought to the Dark Lord's office and only had to wait another thirty minutes in the reception area before he was shown inside. Voldemort greeted him with a blood-red glare that gave him pause, but he decided it was fortuitous to have his attention so quickly. Normally, he had to work much harder.
"Lord Potter just confessed to casting dark magic against General Malfoy and blackmail."
"Oh, really? A confession makes the need for a Truth Potion seem rather redundant," the Dark Lord said, tapping the request for the warrant with his finger. Amelon was momentarily taken back then delighted.
"He said you knew he had cast the curse."
"He lied. He denied ever knowing the curse's origin, and I believed him. He's typically more direct about his intentions. Gryffindor, you know. Is that the curse?"
His red eyes flickered to the red book tucked beneath the Inquisitor's arm. Amelon looked for recognition but saw only curiosity. He handed it to the Dark Lord to see if he would open it to the correct page, but he checked the index first and thumbed through it until he found a likely selection.
"This one, yes?" he said, not bothering to look up. "Oh, this is lovely. Very artful, even for the Old Magics."
"Lord Potter lied about the book as well. There was another copy, but it was destroyed. I believe someone else cast the spell or else tricked him into casting it for them."
"I doubt Harry could have been tricked into casting this. It is in every way a curse requiring will. He would have had to will Lucius dead. To be honest I don't think he had it in him to cast this spell at all. To break it certainly, just as he said he did, but to cast it? He didn't like Lucius, but he didn't know him well enough to hate him."
"Not even for Miss Granger's sake?"
"If Lucius had actually harmed her rather than simply threatened her, then maybe. But he didn't... An accomplice is highly likely. Hhhmm... have you read this?"
"I have. I am afraid it didn't make much sense to me."
"It's just very curious. Lucius was diagnosed with a sort of wasting sickness caused by excessive exposure to dark magic. It is what caused his deterioration both physically and mentally months previously, but this spell doesn't cause these things. Not directly, in any event."
"Then how does it work?"
"I am not entirely sure. Let's go ask Harry."
Although it had taken nearly two hours to reach the Dark Lord, it had barely taken two minutes for the man to secure his office, inform his secretary to rearrange his schedule, and secure a private floo into Hogsmeade. When Amelon pointed out that they hadn't retrieved any Veritaserum, the Dark Lord pointed out that the school always had a supply on hand.
"For educational purposes," he clarified. "Although I suppose the headmasters have found use for it from time to time. I am not certain it will be necessary to use it."
Amelon actually hesitated for a moment. Voldemort rolled his eyes.
"I'm not going to torture the boy."
"I would never imply such a thing, my Lord."
"Why not? I've done it plenty of times before."
The Inquisitor had no response to that and Voldemort felt no need to tease him. In truth, he was hoping that neither Veritaserum nor torture would be necessary. He was well aware his relationship with Harry had suffered upon Malfoy and Crouch's death. While he maintained the certainty that sacrificing Miss Granger to the press was still the right decision, he also understood Harry's anger regarding the matter.
Harry's anger was a formidable thing. Not something he was afraid of, per se, but it could make things difficult in the future, especially since he still had plans for Harry that required cooperation. Then there was of course the number of his secrets his protégé currently possessed. Civic duty might stay his tongue for a while, but Voldemort knew if he didn't curb some of his resentment there was no telling what Harry would say eventually and to whom.
Amelon may have just provided the opportunity he needed to push Harry back to his side. If the boy's accomplice turned out to be someone close to the boy, then Voldemort thought he would be sufficiently motivated to negotiate their pardon. There would be a punishment, for both Harry and his accomplice, there was no way either could walk away from this unscathed, but it needn't be devastating. The accomplice would know he owed Voldemort his life and his freedom. Harry would be understandably conflicted between gratitude, resentment, and admiration... which was pretty much how things had been before. If he were lucky, Harry might come to understand Granger's sacrifice wasn't meant as a punishment against Harry and take a moment to look at the bigger picture.
He didn't hold out much hope for that, but there would always be other opportunities.
If all of this eventually revealed Lucius and Bartemius' killer, than so much the better. If Harry's accomplice turned out to be the killer, then Harry would have some other party to feel betrayed by and to blame the Granger girl's disgrace on. If it wasn't the accomplice, then perhaps there was still the possibility of tracking down the true killer. If it led to the girl's pardon, then so be it. If it didn't, the Dark Lord would still have his own revenge to look forward to.
Hagrid's cabin was sweltering even on the coldest winter nights, courtesy of an oversized furnace that doubled as a dragon egg incubator. For once Charlie was thankful for this as he tramped through the door, frozen stiff from traveling between his mother and aunt's house to the remote wilds of the dragon reserve. Hot air enveloped him like a blanket as he entered, and he stripped off his coat and gloves quickly to enjoy it.
"Charlie," Hagrid boomed in greeting. "Welcome back! 'Ow was the visit with the family?"
"Mum only cried once and no one was seriously injured, so I count it a success," he said with a laugh. "Something smells good."
"I'm making lamb stew," McGunny said, bent over the stove in concentration. Their amnesic guest had been with them half a year now, and if Charlie had any misgivings about taking him in they had disappeared completely by now. McGunny had greatly improved under Hagrid's gentle, patient, and somewhat bumbling care. His memory was still spotty, but he now had some sense of who he had been, and as long as he wasn't distracted he could complete tasks given to him, although he often forgot he had done them later in the day. He had even taken to cooking regularly, without prompting, from whatever Hagrid had available.
Charlie thought it was unfortunate that McGunny couldn't have spent the holidays with his family. By now they must have thought him dead, and if learning he was alive wouldn't have been a blessing enough then learning he was so much improved from the condition he had been found in certainly would have. However, no one was certain revealing his survival and location was a good idea, so they hadn't gone looking for his kin. Charlie consoled himself by remembering that Hagrid was McGunny's closest friend and family these days, and Hagrid didn't deserve to spend his holidays alone.
"Sounds wonderful. So how was your holiday?" Charlie asked them both.
"Much like any oth'r day, which lately 'ave all been pretty good," Hagrid answered. He grinned and tilted his head towards McGunny. "Horace got some good news though."
"Oh? What sort of good news?" he asked.
McGunny continued to stare intently at the stew pot, making sure it wasn't about ready to burn on the old wood stove. They waited a minute to see if he would stop to pick up the conversation, but he refused to be distracted. They shared a look and Hagrid just smiled.
"Gotta lett'r back from a publishing company down in Oxford. They're interested in 'Orace's book."
And it was. The Dragon Sanctuary was small and funded by government tax dollars, tax dollars that had become harder and harder to justify with the war with Germany draining so much of their resources for their military and national security. There was a lot of competition nowadays with other organizations for the funds that remained, and Charlie could certainly benefit from having two 'scholars' on staff contributing to the scientific and educational communities with published work. Charlie had a few papers of his own published from time to time, but no books and certainly nothing as comprehensive as McGunny had been working on.
"I'm so proud of you both. You've been working so hard at the sanctuary and then to write the book on top of it. It's really a wonder."
Hagrid tried to hide his proud grin, but it was plain enough to see even beneath his mad beard.
"Thanks, Charlie. Tha' means the world com'n from ya. I was wonder'n if you'd be will'n to do us a fav'r."
"Certainly, what is it?"
"Well, the publishers want to meet. Negotiate, I think. I ain't got the 'ead for that sort of thing, and 'Orace... well, I wouldn'a send 'im out alone. Do you suppose you could go with 'im?"
While it was true Hagrid had no experience with negotiating, Charlie thought, sadly, that wasn't the real reason he didn't want to go. Despite the half-giant's tendency towards obliviousness of social decorum, he was very aware that he didn't fit in most circles and certainly not with a bunch of professional eggheads. He thought if he went to meet the publishers they would change their minds about printing anything contributed by him, and the sad truth of the matter was that he was probably right.
"Sure, I can do that for you," he said pleasantly, not even hinting that he knew the real reason. Hagrid had his pride, after all, and Charlie wasn't going to prick it.
"Great! I'll let ya write'm back with a date an' time. 'Ow do ya like tha' 'Orace?"
McGunny, who hadn't said a word through any of this, suddenly looked up in confusion.
"Meet'n the publishers? In Oxford?"
"Oh... Do you still need to get some Christmas shopping done?"
Hagrid sighed affectionately and shook his head, not bothering to mention Christmas had passed over a week ago.
"'E's excited to go, as ya can see."
"Did I already add lamb?"
"Yes, Horace, you added the lamb," Charlie confirmed, although he had no way of knowing. It didn't matter, because McGunny was already concentrating on dinner again and didn't appear to have heard him anyway. Or rather, it appeared that McGunny was concentrating on dinner. While it was true he was not what one might call a multi-tasker, and even routine tasks up a great deal of his concentration, he had improved enough over the last couple of months that he was now able to hold two thoughts in his head rather than one, and the one he was most preoccupied with had nothing to do with the stew and only a very little to do with the Oxford publishers. His primary thought was that there was probably an owlery in Oxford and that he should write a letter.
He wasn't precisely sure who that letter should be addressed to, but he thought it was probably Harry Potter. What it should say, he hadn't even that slight notion. Merry Christmas, maybe? That sounded daft even to him. Wasn't Potter a pagan? Or was that the Dark Lord? At least he knew he wasn't supposed to send a letter to the Dark Lord.
For the time being, his questions weren't urgent. Most things at the sanctuary very rarely were. Eventually, he would figure it out. He had been figuring out so many things these days. An overwhelming number of things, even if at the end of the day he still felt like he knew very little. Hagrid didn't mind though, and Charlie didn't either (at least not now that he could remember the man's name was Charlie, although he still had no idea what the man actually did at the sanctuary except visit Hagrid occasionally), so that was fine too.
Tomorrow he would concentrate on his letter. Tonight, he would concentrate on stew.
Hogwarts was silent as Voldemort and Amelon entered. Curfew was about to start, and after a long day of travel and a heavy meal at dinner, no one was lingering in the halls to challenge it. The doors to the Great Hall were closed, the lanterns in the hall burned low, and their footsteps echoed loudly in the corridors. Sentinels posted at various points around the castle stood at attention as they passed, saluted, and offered a muted 'My Lord'. That had not been nearly so welcoming when Amelon had visited alone, and a part of the Inquisitor was reassured by that. It wouldn't do for the guardians of the nation's most talented and valuable children to be lax in their duties. It was why he wasn't surprised that within five minutes of their arrival, the headmaster made an appearance.
He appeared at the end of a corridor, slipping through a secret passageway, coming into being like a shadow cast by the sudden movement of a candle. He was dressed as austerely elegant as usual, no hint that he had been in the process of retiring for the evening when the news arrived. He spared Amelon an irritated glare before settling his attention on Voldemort.
"Severus," Voldemort greeted, as unsurprised to see the headmaster as the headmaster appeared to be to see them. "Do you know why I am here?"
"I imagine it has something to do with why Mr. Potter is currently under guard in the Astronomy Tower."
Amelon felt slightly disappointed. He had known it was unlikely that Snape wouldn't have discovered Harry's confinement before they returned, but he had hoped to catch the man off guard. Still, they had a few more opportunities left to surprise the man.
"Yes, he has just confessed to cursing Lucius," the Inquisitor said.
For a moment, the hall was so silent Amelon fancied someone cast a Silencing Charm. Voldemort stared at Snape. Snape stared back. The Dark Lord refused to ask something so obvious as 'you knew?', but for a moment not even he was certain what he should say. Finally, however, he spoke.
"You will explain yourself."
"Of course, My Lord. Perhaps it would be best to take this conversation to the privacy of my office?"
That was precisely what they did. Amelon would have preferred to retrieve Lord Potter first, but no one was asking his opinion. From this point on, he knew he was little more than an observer to what happened next. When they reached the office, Voldemort moved to the headmaster's chair and took a seat, while the other two wizards were left to take the chairs across the desk. The significance was lost on no one.
"When did you discover that Harry had cast a curse on General Malfoy?" Voldemort asked without preamble. The headmaster settled himself in the chair and steepled his fingers so that the tips of his fingers tapped lightly against his mouth as he considered the question.
"I was aware of it from the beginning. It was my idea."
"This seems to be a night of quick confessions. For someone who seems so unaffected by the truth, you were not so bold to admit it prior to this," the Inquisitor said.
Snape gave him a contemptuous glance out of the corner of his eye before turning back to the Dark Lord, who was waiting for an elaboration.
"It was never my intention to have my involvement in the curse known, for the sake of my relationship with the Malfoy family. After his death, I saw no reason to bring it up."
"Why, Severus? Tell me why," Voldemort demanded.
"For the same reason as Mr. Potter. I wished to protect Miss Granger. Nothing more. Nothing less."
Amelon leaned towards him, eying his expressions intently.
"But why curse General Malfoy? Weren't you two friends? He was the best man at your wedding. You are the godfather to his children."
"If you have to ask," Snape said without looking away from Voldemort, "then you haven't been as thorough in your investigations as you seem to believe. We were always as much enemies as we were friends. Ever since we went to Hogwarts together, Lucius has worked to make me dependent upon him. He sabotaged relationships, experiments, employment opportunities, civil ventures, anything and everything that would have allowed me to regain my rights and titles as the last living descendent of the Prince family and establish a professional reputation separate from him."
"Really, Severus, are you still bitter about all of that?" Voldemort asked with a touch of mocking. "He protected you, as well. You were never well liked amongst the other Death Eaters, Bella in particular, and you never would have come this far without his support. I rather thought he had stopped being so overbearing in the last two or three years."
"I acknowledge this. I no more intended him true harm than he ever intended it for me. The curse was just a means to an end."
Amelon didn't believe him, or at least he didn't believe that was the whole story. His answers felt strangely rehearsed, his demeanor too relaxed to be natural.
"And how did you discover the curse? Or even the book for that matter?"
"In point of fact, I did not discover it myself. Nor did Mr. Potter. Neither of us could afford to have it known we were in possession of such a book when Lucius' symptoms first started to appear. I sent Mr. Ronald Weasley, a student here, to search for a book of Old Magic curses. He has some familiarity with the Old Magics through his association with Mr. Potter, so he knew what to look for."
"And why, precisely, would Mr. Weasley have done this errand for you? And how could you be certain he would keep his task a secret?" Amelon asked.
Snape smiled, but there was nothing pleasant about it.
"Mr. Weasley could not afford to do anything else. He is currently the leader of a smuggling ring within the school, importing and exporting materials that haven't gone through the proper security checks. I could have expelled him, but I decided to make use of him instead."
"And why Old Magics? Why not something more... conventional?"
"Old Magics are harder to recognize, harder still to trace, and impossible to counteract unless one knows what they're doing. I wanted Lucius to suspect both Harry and the Dark Lord, but unable to prove anything either way, and likewise he would need to be dependent on Harry for a cure. He had to be willing to negotiate."
Amelon asked him where the book had come from and Snape gave him an address in Coventry. He would double check to make sure that Snape's story checked out and the time lines matched, but he suspected that at least that part of the man's story was true. And yet, still, he couldn't help but think that Snape was hiding something. Voldemort seemed to sense it as well.
"Why didn't you tell me this part of your plan?" Voldemort asked, a touch of warning in his voice. "I would have been particularly interested in the part where the general of my armies became suspicious that I meant to kill him."
"Forgive me, my Lord, if either I or Mr. Potter has overstepped our bounds, but you had given us the impression that you suspected this already and simply weren't interested in having it confirmed."
"I had also made it clear that neither Lucius nor Harry could seriously harm the other in their rivalry. This curse was designed to kill, Severus. Not hurt, not itch, not bother, not embarrass. Kill. Not to mention that rather unpleasant side-effect of driving him insane. Don't tell me you misunderstood?"
"My Lord, we did not misunderstand, nor did we intend to overstep our boundaries. According to the book, the curse was intended to wear down the cursed through a series of circumstances over a long period of time, which gave us the breathing room necessary to complete the negotiations and negate the curse before permanent harm was done. There was no mention of insanity. When we became aware of the... miscalculation, I urged Lucius to take up herbal remedies, burning sage to be precise, which seemed particularly effective. Eventually, our plans played out. Lucius called off Hermione's betrothal. Harry called off the curse. All of this being rather a moot point, given what happened shortly thereafter."
"So you do not believe the two events are related?" Amelon asked.
"Is that the polite way of asking whether I killed Lucius and Bartemius? I did not kill them."
"You said before that the curse killed by setting off a series of events that would weaken and destroy the victim. Is it possible that Harry had not removed the curse like he said he did, and the curse did in fact eventually kill General Malfoy?"
For the first time, Snape looked caught off guard and actually turned away from the Dark Lord to stare at the Inquisitor.
"I... I do not believe that was the case. Lucius was making a strong recovery rather than deteriorating like he had been previously. And that wouldn't explain Crouch's death."
"But you don't truly understand the curse, do you? You are not a practitioner of the Old Magics yourself. The curse surprised you more than once. Isn't it possible that it may have gone dormant briefly to throw off suspicion or simply been delayed rather than canceled completely?"
Snape said nothing, his expression hardening into a blank mask.
"I believe the curse was canceled completely prior to Lucius Malfoy's death. I do not believe the curse caused his death in any way, except indirectly by the series of events that followed it."
"Are you willing to verify all of this under Veritaserum?"
"If necessary," he said without inflection.
"And Mr. Potter?"
"Mr. Potter is perfectly capable of answering for himself."
Amelon turned to Voldemort, who was staring at Snape with an expression that could have been surprise and could have been disgust, but was most likely something else completely. Snape stared back stoically. It seemed dangerously defiant to the Inquisitor, but it was difficult to say for sure. The man had surprised him several times already, and Death Eaters had always seemed to have a dangerous and somewhat insane methodology for dealing with confrontation. He supposed they had to given the way Lord Voldemort had run the War.
"Severus," Voldemort said finally, "you have betrayed me."
"My Lord, I-"
Amelon jumped up and out of his chair, stumbling back as the headmaster stiffened in his chair before falling to the floor and writhing in unconstrained agony. This was not the first time Amelon had seen the Pain Cursed used, it was considered a necessary skill in his profession in fact, but that made it no less terrible to witness. Most people lacked the ability to focus enough to resist the curse once it had been cast, but Amelon could tell Snape was resisting it now. He was screaming, but it was a half-strangled sound like he was trying to swallow the noise so no one else could hear it. He was writhing on the floor, but his hands had found the legs of a chair and were gripping them tightly so that he didn't flop around gracelessly.
The curse lasted for over a minute. Amelon didn't blink until it was over. He didn't dare.
When it finally stopped, Snape sagged on the ground and gasped for breath, his entire body trembling in the aftereffects of the curse. Voldemort walked from around the desk to stand over his disobedient servant.
"You've deceived me, Severus. You deceived me repeatedly. I suspect even now you are deceiving me."
He knelt down, crouching over Snape, who managed to squint open one eye to look up at him. The headmaster still hadn't caught his breath enough to speak.
"Amelon is right, you have no real concept of this spell, and you are not so much of a fool that you would use magic that you did not fully understand. Who cast the curse, Severus? It wasn't Harry. I doubt it was you. Why lie? Who are you protecting? Crucio."
Snape let out another strangled cry, but it only lasted a few seconds before it stopped. Nevertheless, he started to shake even more violently than before.
"Have you forgotten, Severus?" the Dark Lord continued. He seized Snape's arm and thrust up the sleeve, revealing the Dark Mark beneath. "Your first loyalty is always to me. Not to Harry, not to your mudblood goddaughter, not anyone else but me. And yet, here you are. Lying to my face. As if I wouldn't know. As if I didn't know you enough to tell."
He dropped Snape's arm and let out a long-suffering sigh.
"I suppose I only have myself to blame. I forgot how willful you could be. I suppose I thought you had grown out of it. We'll just have to fall back on the old ways, won't we? Back to your Death Eater days."
Snape made a muffled sound and tried to push himself up, but Voldemort stood and kicked him over again before he could manage.
"It used to be, when one of you lied to me, I took something from you as compensation. An eye. A tongue. Something you didn't really need but would certainly miss. I think I'll take your fingers, Severus. One for every lie. But no, you need your fingers to write. It's an important part of your job. Ah, I know. I'll take your wife's fingers, but don't worry. I'll let her keep the ring finger."
Snape began struggling in earnest, shoving himself upright even as he winced from the residual pain of the forced movement. Voldemort let him this time.
"NO! My Lord, please-"
"The time for platitudes has passed, Severus. I have invested great faith in you. Entrusted you with those things I value most in this world, and this is how you repay me?"
"Please, my Lord, Ira is innocent. She has no idea-"
Snape fell to the floor yet again, smashing his head against the side of the desk as he went, so that when he landed, blood splattered across the floor and smeared along his face. This time the curse lasted for nearly two minutes, and when the Dark Lord finally stopped, Snape rolled over and vomited on floor before collapsing back.
"You've gone soft, Severus," Voldemort said coldly. "There was a time nothing could have moved you, nothing could-"
The Dark Lord looked up and around, looking for the source of the noise that had startled him.
Amelon tensed, recognizing the sound immediately.
Snape took a gasping breath, "That's... that's the alarm. The school... it's under attack."
Harry waited as patiently as he was able out on the tower balcony, his legs dangling between the slates. It was strangely reminiscent of the night Hermione had come up to apologize to him, and he wasn't entirely sure it was his mind playing tricks on him when his watch grew warm in the hand she had reached for. Thinking of her helped to keep him calm and focused, preventing a panic attack from sneaking up on him or from revealing his agitation to the guards watching him. Bobby helped too by huddling in his lap, keeping him company while he kept himself warm. The raven had appeared hours ago, whispering Snape's plan and delivering the vial of anti-Veritaserum. Now there was nothing left to do but wait and hope his guardian's plan worked.
It was straightforward enough. Snape would take responsibility for giving Harry the original book and the idea to blackmail Lucius after Harry came to the man looking for advice on how to help Hermione. Snape would then explain it was never his intention to harm Lucius permanently, nor to drive him crazy, and they had been quick to help relieve the symptoms once they became dangerous. There had been some unexpected hiccups in the plan, but ultimately it had worked. It had nothing to do with Lucius and Bartemius dying, and the events were entirely unrelated. Which was true. They were to swear to it all under the Veritaserum Amelon intended to bring along to their interrogation... Neither the Inquisitor nor Voldemort would be aware that Snape, Harry, and even Ron had dosed themselves with anti-Veritaserum in advance, rendering the potion useless. Voldemort would likely be irritated but satisfied, and Amelon would have to move his investigation elsewhere.
All nice and tidy.
Harry had a bad feeling about it. Snape was an accomplished liar, but it would be easy enough to poke holes in his story if he were interrogated thoroughly, particularly if Harry were questioned afterward. There had been no way to match up their stories in advance, and Harry wasn't sure he could manage to lie convincingly if any inconsistencies were spotted. Then there was Ron. That he was part of the story was a necessity, since it was doubtless someone of Amelon's tenacity would double check everything they said and finding the purchase records of the original book would be the obvious first step. There was no telling how well Ron could lie or if he would buckle under the pressure of both the Dark Lord and an Inquisitor questioning him. There was no guarantee that Snape wouldn't throw the boy to the wolves to save his own skin if it became necessary.
As time went on, Harry started to wonder if that wasn't Snape's intention to begin with. The man had very little sympathy for Weasley or much fondness for his numerous kin, and even if he had he was hardly the self-sacrificing sort. It was possible that the plan Snape had passed on to Bobby was a ruse to keep Harry from doing something reckless until he had settled things to his own satisfaction.
He had spared Ron in the first place. Why had he done that? He had said turning in Ron wouldn't have benefited anyone, and that keeping the secret put the boy firmly in their debt. This was probably at least partly true, but not entirely true. He could very easily have turned Ron over and had Lucius in his debt, a far more valuable prize to be sure. A prize he could use to make Lucius call off Hermione's betrothal.
He had to believe there was something more going on. Whether it was something selfish or selfless he couldn't begin to guess, but he would have to keep a little faith and hoped whatever it was that stayed his hand in the first place had carried over to tonight. It wasn't like he had any better plan himself.
A sharp wind drew him from his thoughts, and he tightened his robes around himself. He didn't normally mind the cold, but tonight it was particularly harsh. Still, he made no move to go inside. The only thing waiting for him there was the cool, suspicious stares of his guards and a lot of pacing. At least outside, he had a beautiful view and Bobby warmly nestled up against him.
Below him he could see the lights and shadows that formed an approximate shape and character of Hogwarts, beautiful and mysterious in ways it couldn't be in the daylight. Aside from the sconces lighting the outside, he could see several windows still aglow, the shadows of the occupants passing by though there were fewer and fewer of these with every passing hour. Still further down he could see the black, glittering waters of the moat, stretching into the lake, and beside those the dark rolling hills surrounding the castle until both lake and hills suddenly fell to a wall of such utter blackness Harry could not have defined as forest if he hadn't known what it was previously. Above him the sky was a blanket of gray, black, and deep purple clouds floating over the obscure, distant light of the quarter moon. The wind that bit so deeply into him now had begun to drive the clouds away so that with every passing minute the moon seemed to glow just a little bit brighter, the shape just slightly more distinct.
It made him think of Sirius and Remus and Luna and wonder if they could see the moon clearly from wherever they were. He wondered if Hermione saw the same thing from France and was wondering about him in return.
Transfixed as he was upon the moon, he was immediately made aware when a small spot in the distance passed over it, only to disappear a moment later. Harry blinked and wondered for a moment if it had been an owl. Then another shadow and another and still another passed over it, and Harry suddenly sat up straight. Bobby lifted his head to look at him.
"What is it?" Bobby whispered.
"I saw something."
"Was it Amelon coming back?"
"No. They were flying."
Harry suddenly realized the heat he was feeling in his hand wasn't from his watch, but from the scars left by the Sword of Gryffindor.
"You have to go now, Bobby. Sorry."
He climbed to his feet, pitching the raven off his lap and over the side of the balcony. Bobby flapped gracelessly for a moment before catching the air in his open wings and righting himself. Harry didn't stay to watch but moved inside. The guards tensed as he entered, but he ignored them in favor of moving to one of the Astronomy Tower's smaller telescopes. He aimed it haphazardly to a spot just beneath the moon and adjusted the knobs at the side for focus and light sensitivity.
He looked through the eyepiece.
The little dots stood out clearly now, revealing a shape he would recognize anywhere and in numbers that made his heart begin pounding in his chest.
"No," he breathed. "Oh, please, no."
He stood up straight and turned to the guards.
"Sound the alarm. We have visitors."
The guards did not move to sound the alarm or do anything other than stare at him skeptically. They didn't believe him.
"Look for yourself, if you don't believe me! There's hundreds of them! Maybe a thousand!" he snapped at them.
"A thousand?" Burrows said blandly. "Why not just say a million?"
Underhill just snorted.
For a moment, Harry could only stand there and stare at them in horror. They weren't going to do anything. Bearing down on them at that moment was a force ten times what Hogwarts had faced before, when it had been fully intact. Now the castle still hadn't completed its repairs, the stone guardians were half their usual number, the great ward around the castle could not withstand a force of that number, and the students were exhausted from traveling from London and mostly asleep. They needed as much forewarning as they could get, but the guards wouldn't do it. They wouldn't believe him. They wouldn't even look.
He mentally revised his estimation of them as competent.
Taking a deep breath, he turned and walked back outside to the balcony. If they wouldn't do anything, he would have to find a way to warn them himself. He climbed onto the railing of the balcony and spread his arms.
"You can do this, Harry," he told himself and took two deep calming breathes. He closed his eyes and flinched as he felt himself start to lose his balance. Not yet. He couldn't fall yet until he...
Animancy did not require a wand. It was a sort of magic that had existed before wands, before there was even a word for what it was. It was the sort of magic Harry loved best, raw and pure in a way wand magic and spoken magic never could be. It was something that had to be understood and mastered at the very core of one's magic.
He searched for that core now, feeling out those pathways of energy that flowed through his body like blood in his veins and searched out the source of it. It was familiar to him now. He had felt it the first time he had held his wand, but had only truly understood what it was when Voldemort had showed it to him that Solstice day in the garden. It was not a power he liked to focus on directly. It scared him in some ways, knowing how powerful it was and how badly he could hurt himself if he handled it carelessly.
But his need was urgent. The castle needed him. He needed to fly.
The core of his magic surged as he focused on it, not increasing in power so much as extending what it had outward, feeling out what it was he needed and wanted from it. He took two more deep breaths and brought up the image of the falcon, recalled the feeling of that form Gulandri had first forced upon him, and urging his magic to take that form once again willingly.
His fingers started to tingle and felt himself growing warm. Excitement swelled in him. It was working! He was going to fly! He was going to-
The Stunning Hex caught him square in the back, shattering his concentration and his magic. The only sensation he was aware of was a sudden moment of panic as he felt himself fall forward, but then there was nothing but a swirling mass of sensory confusion that left him unable to regain control of his body or his magic. He didn't even feel it when the Levicorpus spell caught him and pulled him back into the safety of the tower, and he didn't understand the curious mix of sounds hovering above him was voices and the odd prodding feeling was the Sentinels checking him over for injuries and possible weapons.
"Merlin, what was that?" Burrows said, his voice raised in alarm. "What was he trying to do?"
"You don't think he's suicidal, do you?" Underhill asked uncertainly.
"I wouldn't have thought it, but you know, if he's guilty... He might have seen it as the only way out."
"Maybe he can fly."
Burrows gave him a look that stated clearly how stupid he thought that statement was.
"You never know! He probably can do some wandless magic."
They looked down at the limp form splayed out between them. Unfortunately, Harry had nothing to contribute to this conversation except to groan and loll his head slightly to the left. They gave each other a worried look.
"Do you think we'll get in trouble for this?" Underhill asked.
"Let's wake him up and see what-"
A high-pitched whistling sound cut him off, like the sound of a firework lifting off. Instinct and training had them both throwing up blocking spells without thought, covering the three of them in a cocoon of magic. Above them the roof suddenly exploded, raining down stone and wood and more trouble than any of them were prepared to face.