By the time that the new term should have started, the wizarding society found themselves without a school. Hogwarts stood in ruins, silent and hollow and crumbling, and far too many children required the far too few tutors. So with a heavy heart and hovering parents, prospective students arrived at Gorre-on-Avon and filled the street in front of the cathedral of the First's Academy.
The grand front doors remained shut, a bright red banner unfurled in front of them politely announcing "Welcome students," and a sign beneath of "start time: 12 noon sharp." Beside the sign, with red streamers waving in thee wind, the headmaster had placed a list of all supplies required for the school year, along with a notice that supplies could be purchased at all shops with red streamers by their doors.
Hermione had been up the night before, setting out signs and lists and making sure all the shops were ready for the barrage of students and parents she hoped would attend. As she'd pointed out many times, more to reassure herself than anyone listening, the dark school was England's only option. Unless parents wanted to try sending their children to Beaubatons or Durmstrang, both of which had declared that they were full up and accepting no further students, magical society could either see their children go uneducated or send them to the town of dark wizards that had sprung up seemingly overnight.
And unseen at the top of the academy's tallest spire, curled like a serpent around the grand crucifix, Draco watched the the crowds move beneath him. He didn't want to try going unnoticed in that kind of crowd. He didn't have his husband's invisibility cloak, and anyone would recognize him if he tried to hide under a hood-no other dark wizard used them in Gorre and even if they did, he was easily one of the shortest-but very few people would notice a little white wyvern watching from the nooks and niches of the town.
He couldn't count the darting children, all of them recklessly hunting school supplies like a mad scavenger hunt despite their parents' frantic warnings that they must be careful while-well, how could the light wizards say be careful of dark wizards when they were surrounded? Draco couldn't think too uncharitably of them, though. These parents, shying away from touching the dark store clerks, were the brave ones. There'd be enough students to fill up all of Slytherin, but no more than that. With late arrivals and reluctant parents persuaded by braver families, the Academy might reach a hundred students. Maybe.
Hermione would be disappointed. She'd stocked each Academy classroom and laboratory with enough resources to serve half of Hogwarts. Now the desks and equipment would have to be reduced so the classes didn't seem empty on the first day.
Large classrooms could be explained, Draco thought, with practical learning, a phrase Hermione had emphasized to him over and over. Small classes of a handful of students would be able to practice real world applications and create their own solutions, innovating new magic...
He hissed and stretched out his wings. Stupid phrases. Hermione had spouted them every time they discussed the school, to the point that Draco could recite her own jargon back at her. Damn her muggle influences anyhow. Wizarding children experiencing magic and spellcraft less from a book and more from experience-wasn't that what it all boiled down to?
The school bell chimed, and everyone looked up. Normally the clock would only ring the hour, but today the stone face showed the minute hand resting on the nine. Only a fifteen minutes before the school officially opened its doors.
Hissing as a cool breeze chilled his scales, Draco slithered down the cross and spire, heading through a weathered hole in the stones and creeping through the support struts and buttresses until he came to the windows of the high ceiling. Light from the stained glass colored his wings like a translucent kaleidoscope, and then he dropped from the rafters with wings outstretched, gliding to the altar to land on the scroll in front of Severus.
"About time," his mentor said, not deigning to even glance sideways at him. "You can rest assured that you avoided all the preparations."
Wyvern faces showed no emotion, but Draco puffed up with unrepentant pride. What was the point of being in charge of an entire city if he had to help with boring social functions? Severus had wanted the headmaster position so badly, let him do the work that went with it.
But some responsibilities could not be shirked. Closing his eyes, he gave in to the sensation of his skin creeping, sliding off the altar as his tail became legs and his scales stretched to become human skin. He had no clothes for only a second-a thought, and the dark magic in the air coalesced into black robes that didn't fall around his feet so much as the tattered edges blurred and wisped with each step.
"Will someone find that lazy—oh, there he is."
Across the nave, Hermione held a handful of the opening ceremony's programs. Behind her, Luna walked around, oblivious to Hermione's deepening frown as she set down her own programs, one on each chair. Hermione pushed her batch into Luna's hands and gave Draco a look.
"About time you showed up," she said. "I was about to send Harry after you."
"I'd be impressed if he answered since he's asleep on the couch," Draco said. He looked around at the windows and stone walls as their voices echoed and died down. "Bloody great acoustics in here, hm?"
"Lazy snake," she huffed and went to the doors, pacing back and forth as she waited the last few minutes. "Be lucky if the town doesn't fall apart by Christmas..."
"She should learn to get Luna to do everything," Draco said softly. "Be a lot less cross that way."
"She has to deal with you, so I doubt it." Severus said, scratching out a line on the scroll and adding something in the margin. "You know what you will say?"
Draco nodded, watching as his master worked. The scroll was the more detailed program of the ceremony, and he skimmed the list quickly, ignoring the majority of anything scribbled on the side.
"Students enter," he murmured, "all seated...the bell strikes twelve. Curriculum Head-oh, Granger, just had to give herself a fancy title-lays out the expectations."
"Behave yourself," Severus said softly, "or I'll boot you from the ceremony altogether."
"So I can go home and nap? Tempting," Draco muttered, but he went back to reading. "Then you give the headmaster welcoming speech, more like bloody reassurances that we won't skin them alive. Then-"
Draco paused at the brief section with his name—Dark Lord Draco Malfoy, Reeve of Gorre.
Severus raised an eyebrow. "Then you."
"'Dark Lord'?" Draco whispered. "Severus, I'm not a-"
"It is true," Severus sighed, still not looking at him. "That you're hardly imposing and rather short for the title, and heaven knows you haven't any sense of responsibility or gravitas."
Severus glanced at Draco, a growing sardonic smile at his son's ruffled feathers. "But you are a dark lord."
"Mordred was a dark lord," Draco argued. "Voldemort was a dark lord. Get Harry to be the dark lord-"
"I couldn't even stand up when Harry was fighting him," Draco insisted.
"You destroyed the Ministry," Severus said.
"No, I got the centaurs to do that."
"You built Gorre on top of a muggle town that you washed off the map."
"Ah, technically that was the Order of the Phoenix and the First Sacrifice."
"You revealed the slaughter going on under Hogwarts."
"That was Voldemort, in a strange, roundabout way."
"And defeated Voldemort."
"That was all Harry and you know it."
Severus stood up straight, as if he'd proven his point. "Exactly."
Draco frowned. He recognized this feeling, that Severus had once again outwitted him and he didn't know how. "...what?"
"You manipulated others into doing your dirty work, conspired both with and against the First Sacrifice, and created the first dark city in centuries. You won back what Mordred and Morgan lost." Severus snorted and finished the notes on his copy of the program. "There is more than one kind of dark lord."
Draco's argument was swallowed up as the school bell rang, sending deep notes through the main chamber. The doors opened wide, sending a burst of fresh air and sunlight in from the street. A handful of parents came in, curiously looking around with their children safely tucked behind them, craning their heads for a glimpse.
"Now sit," Severus said, motioning him toward the seats facing the pews. "Third one from the center on this side. Try to look serious but don't make them think you want to drink their blood."
"I don't look that bad," Draco muttered, crossing the stage and plopping into the chair with crossed arms. "And I guess we're not telling them everything about the teachers then, are we? Bloody idiots, the lot of them, thinking I'm so scary, just look what's teaching here..."
His mutters dwindled to nothing. Behind him, the academy's hall doors opened and the teachers came in, taking their places in the two rows. Draco nodded at a few of the older teachers he recognized, Miss Bathsheba Babbling for Runes, Septima Vector on Arithmancy. But there was also Amycus Carrow to teach Dark Arts and Ylir Damiana, May's mother, to teach some of Dark history. And Morsugur Harp, a vampire, who would teach a course on all manner of night creatures. Considering the smile he'd aimed at Miss Patterson, the muggle studies course wouldn't have a muggle teacher very longer.
Draco smiled softly. Let Hermione try to make her school as muggle friendly as she could. Magic would end up swallowing any muggles she hired, one way or another. What muggle could resist?
As he looked back toward the crowd, however, Draco eyed the white basin between the school officials and the parents. He grimaced. As necessary as it was, he was not entirely comfortable with it being there. He didn't care to think of the huge stone hidden several feet beneath, the First Sacrifice's self-selected altar that Draco hoped was no longer haunted. Again, he wished that Harry was here to hold his hand under the table, but his husband's presence would have been too distracting for everyone. Instead he put his hood up, retreating from being stared at.
More and more people came in, seating themselves in the long pews. At the very front, the first pew had been roped off with a sign designating it for invited VIPs, and once it was obvious that Hermione had the crowd well in hand, Luna left the her stack of programs on a table by the door and took her seat directly in front of Draco. And directly next to Rita Skeeter, who barely smiled at the empty space beside them and refused to acknowledge Luna's presence.
At last the talking quieted, then died altogether. The room felt heavy, as if weighed with lead, and Draco fixed his gaze firmly on the podium so he didn't have to look at anyone. The final bell rang, a deep note that reverberted through the academy and left silence after. This was the worst part—the waiting.
From the back, Hermione shut the doors with a soft click that easily carried in the still air, and her steps on the stone floor were so soft that they shouldn't have been heard at all. Up onto the raised stage, around the simple baptismal font and behind the podium...she took a deep breath and looked out over the crowd.
She realizes she should've just let Luna close up the doors, Draco thought. So she could be up here the whole time. She won't make that mistake again.
No matter. It was hardly important and no one cared. What she said next was the important bit. He knew she had rehearsed this speech a dozen times. He hadn't heard her, but he knew her well enough to know she had. She seemed calm enough, but she gripped the sides of the podium with enough force that her fingertips had gone white.
"Good afternoon," she started. "Welcome to the inaugural class of the First's Academy of the Magical Arts. We thank you for coming."
For a moment, she fidgeted with her hands, tapping them on the desk as if she were tapping notecards in order. She'd memorized her speech, but she wasn't used to addressing crowds and it showed.
"We know how difficult this choice was for you." She took a long breath and faced them, faced the wide eyes of the children and the suspicious glares of the adults. "Hogwarts is gone and so the Academy remains the only school in England. But this dark school is also allowing in wizards once aligned with the Ministry. Two sides of a conflict spanning hundreds of years, and the muggle borns caught in the middle, absolutely bewildered.
"I understand your fears," she said. "I shared them myself for a long time. I have had dark magic explained to me in detail, both by its practitioners and by pureblood light wizards trying to keep me from studying it. And while there is no way we can heal a millenia of war, here at the First's Academy of the Magical Arts, we can begin to truly bridge our differences.
"Our curriculum will span both light and dark," she continued. "Charms, potions, herbology—the classes you're familiar with. We will also instruct our students in several dark classes, with an introduction in their first and second years, more advanced classes of ancient linguistics following."
Grumbles of discontent murmured through the crowd, and several of them visibly shifted in their seats. The parents had known that dark magic would be taught at a dark school, but to hear it out loud made it feel all the more concrete. And how much worse that it would be taught to little first years.
Hermione lifted her head. Mention the dark arts, then shift the subject quickly to something even more groundbreaking. This speech had been carefully planned, and she exhaled in relief as she came to something more familiar to her. This next bit would startle the whole crowd, both light and dark.
"More importantly, however," she said, "we are committed to preparing our students to live not only in a world of both light and dark wizards, but also in a world of muggles. As we welcome more and more muggle born to the community, we at this Academy believe that our children must become conversant in muggle technology and culture. Not a simple muggle studies course, but a third of the overall curriculum will be devoted to learning about the world outside our community.
"And so," she plowed on over the gasps and louder mutters, "our focus will be to ready our students for the entire world, not just one bit of it. The creed of the First's Academy for the Magical Arts...alswa se woruld chaungen, ic thrifan. As the world changes, we thrive."
With a beatific smile, she put one hand out to indicate Severus seated beside her. "That's the overview. To better explain our academics in detail, I present our Headmaster Severus Snape."
She sat down swiftly, masterfully ducking the furor she'd just caused. Draco choked back a snicker—not well enough, as Severus shot him a quick glare before rising and taking the podium. Such was his severe presence practiced over long years of teaching that the audience quieted again, waiting to hear what he'd say before protesting.
"Yes," he said, grasping the podium and drumming his fingers once as he grumbled. "This academy is built up from the ruins of three cultures. We have all felt the loss of the Ministry and Hogwarts. There is not one person in this room that has not been personally struck by the war, losing friends, family, our places of work. The dark community is accustomed to loss, but that does not lessen the pain that our colleagues in the light feel now in this time of change and transition.
"However, we must also remember the muggle town under our feet, surrounding our walls, destroyed by our war. For their sake as well as ours, we cannot afford to ignore muggle society any longer. We cannot let our students grow up without an understanding of the world around them. It has proven fatal to muggles, and it has in the past proven fatal to wizarding society on both sides."
He paused. No one countered him or spoke out, which he counted as a success. Handling a crowd was no different than managing a class. Confidence and stern authority went a long way, along with past experience of cracking heads together.
"Our classes will include introductions on light magic, dark magic and muggle culture. Students will study Latin and Aenglisc, the old dark tongue. They will also study muggle mathematics and sciences. History will be taught as one, both magic and muggle."
He took a breath. So far no mutiny. The purebloods looked bewildered, but they took some reassurance from Draco's presence on the stage. Although he hadn't spoken, having a Malfoy there lent the school some much needed legitimacy. After the establishment of Gorre and the destruction of the Ministry, the dark community would follow Draco, and even purebloods from the light community would respond to that impied respect of tradition.
The next few minutes was filled with Severus introducing the witches and wizards that would teach and their various disciplines. Nevertheless, he tried to put their names to memory, failing miserably as he felt his time to speak approaching. A muggleborn history teacher, a muggleborn science teacher, a muggle mathematics teacher...Draco hid a grimace behind his sleeve. Leave it to Granger to hire so many muggles. He took some consolation in that most of the teachers were wizards.
"And finally," Severus said, breathing a sigh of relief that he'd finished without incident and that his son would explain the most incendiary part. "To explain some of the foundations of this academy, our Reeve of Gorre, the Dark Lord Draco Malfoy."
There was no applause. The whispers of parents and children hushed to silence. Even the nervous rustling of clothing stopped as every gaze turned to Draco. Severus left the podium and sat down again, and another moment passed as Draco slowly sat straight, then stood. He walked past the podium and instead came down a step to stand by the white stone basin in front of the stage.
He'd seen it once before when Hermione selected it and helped the Children of Samhain set it into place. Waist high, the stone was simple with several small holes sunk into the very center. He lightly ran his fingertips along its lip.
"Before I begin," he murmured, and his voice carried through the cathedral in an echo. "Let us take a moment to quietly remember all those we have lost, both in these latest battles and in the entirety of our war—our friends, our family, and our comrades."
Most of them didn't, staring openly at him. No matter. Draco cast his mind back to the beginning—nearly losing his parents, Pansy and Theo and his friends hiding in the woods, the Battle of Hogwarts where McGonagall, Flitwick and so many others died. To the nightmares of his ancestors and the painful near-deaths he'd suffered himself. To Morgan le Fey and her war against Merlin. To his guide in the distant past, a shivering, determined dark witch with a knife.
"Magic is built on blood." He lifted his head and looked over all of them, these prospective students and their parents. "Hogwarts demanded a sacrifice that the founders were very careful to hide. Thousands of skeletons were discovered beneath the ruins. It is impossible to tell who each of them was. Lost muggles, perhaps students who wandered down the wrong hall. Hogwarts educated Britain's wizards, but at a terrible price."
He leaned against the edge of the stone basin. "The First's Academy seeks to avoid that price. We refuse to sacrifice anyone's life again, not dark, not light. Not even muggle."
There was a visible release from the audience. Draco had not put his hood down to talk, and there was something just a little off about his clothing, the way his robes seemed to blend too easily with the shadows on the floor. It was easy to believe that Draco would see nothing wrong in killing a few muggles or demanding tribute from the light wizards who so desperately needed a school.
"However," Draco said, "we cannot avoid this basic fact that a school requires blood. There are charms and incantations laid into the bricks and mortar. Candles and lanterns that light and never need changing, library books that demand a price to be read, warmth in the winter and safeguards to protect students. All of this requires power, and unlike muggles, we simply cannot plug a cord in somewhere."
The muggleborns chuckled, if uneasily. Draco glanced at Severus, who gave a slight nod. Yes, Draco had used the term correctly.
"We have solved this dilemma," Draco said, "with our tuition. The First's Academy does not cost any galleons, that is true. But a price must be paid nonetheless."
He conjured the knife, a shard of black stone flaked off from the altar several feet beneath them. The altar itself was not magical, but it seemed appropriate to use a piece of it for this purpose. Its sharp edge gleamed in the candle light.
"A measure of blood from each student," he said.
Nothing. Were they in shock? To openly demand blood from children... Draco wished Harry was here at his side to at least soften the blow. People trusted Harry. If Harry had been there, they might have thought he considered it no more than needed, a stoic demand from one who had already shed so much of his own blood for them. From Draco, it was the necromantic sacrifice of a dark wizard.
"The knife is charmed not to hurt," he said. "No one will hold it except the offerant. And the amount given is no more than a few spoonfuls."
Still no one spoke. Draco began to feel a bit awkward. Should he explain why this was such a small demand? Should he explain how easy this was compared to what the First had nearly torn from him?
"We are named after the First sacrifice for this reason," he said. "To remember how she and so many after her gave up their lives. For the chance at new life, a peaceful life...is it so much to ask?"
He pushed up his sleeve to bare his arm over the basin. He touched the knife to his skin and blood welled up around the blade, splashing the white stone. Then the letting was done and the skin healed as soon as he lifted the knife. Not a drop remained.
With a ruffle of his sleeve, he set the knife on the basin and took a step back. The crowd followed him, and then gazes flicked amongst themselves. And Draco finally understood. It wasn't that they were horrified or disgusted. Of course some of them were. But no one had argued because he'd explained it so matter of factly, so certain that blood must be spilled that there was no other option. And that was the crux—there really was no other option for so many of the people in the audience, no other place to send their children.
But no one wanted to do so. No one could bring themselves to order their children to take the knife. Parents looked at one another for some clue of what they should do, and no one had an answer.
Expectation weighted the air. If one person bolted, then no doubt several more would flee simply out of fear, nevermind that there was no place to run to. He waited, determined not to show his worry that this would fall apart.
God, he thought. And these were the brave ones who'd come at all.
From the back seats, one little witch stood up, edged in front of her mother to the aisle, and then walked by herself to the basin. Clad in a robe a size too large so that she would grow into it, she stopped in front of him and fidgeted with the wand in her pocket. She glanced aside, feeling the weight of everyone's stare, but she dutifully pulled back her sleeve and held out her hand for the knife.
"Tell it your name," Draco said as he gave her the blade. "So it knows you."
She nodded and pressed the knife to her arm just as he had done.
"Jillian Tavisham," she said as her blood colored the stone. Then she lifted the knife, the cut healed, and she looked up at Draco. "Is that it?"
"That's it," he said. "Welcome to the Academy. I hope you aren't the only one."
Frowning because that thought had not occurred to her, she turned and waved at one of the boys in the crowd. She gave him a look and a more impatient gesture, and then the youngster that Draco recognized from the Grinset family huffed and got up.
Behind him, a dozen children suddenly stood and slid past their parents, intent on not being last in line. And then the older students came to their feet, giving their parents nervous looks as they came, knowing they had to finish their schooling somehow. Draco watched all of them make the cut. Even the dark children grimaced when they had to offer their blood. Only the potions apprentices didn't flinch, and Draco shared a knowing glance with those few.
When the last one had done and all the offerings were made, spilling down onto the altar stone out of sight, Draco took the knife and—in a flash of dramatics—offered it to Hermione.
"Every offering is paid," he said, and he again took his seat.
She took it and walked quickly to the podium, almost knocking against it. Watching dozens of children spill their blood left her feeling ill.
"Then we can officially begin the school year. Headmaster, this school is yours."
"Finally," Severus snorted under his breath. Louder, he spoke in the same formal tone. "The First's Academy of the Magical Arts opens its doors to its first class. Students, please follow the lit candles to your room. You will find your names and schedules already left upon each bed—"
More was said, rules and expectations to be explained by the teachers escorting the children along the way, further announcements to be made at dinner. Draco ignored it all, slipping by the parents hugging their children and promises of letters to be written. His robes made him appear to be no more than a shadow on the wall, and when he came to the door, he took to the air, a white wyvern flashing out of the darkness and winging his way up over Gorre.
Harry sat on the railing ringing their rooftop patio. With a warning cry, Draco swooped in close and circled Harry's outstretched hand, then transformed and landed on his feet safely behind the railing. He put his arms around his husband's waist, hugging him tight.
"Are you insane?" Draco grumbled. "What are you doing on the edge?"
"Liked the view," Harry said. "Don't worry, I'm not going to fall."
"Special Daily Prophet Inset: Boy Who Lived," Draco muttered against Harry's unkempt hair, "slayer of Voldemort, plunges to death in stupid patio accident."
"I've been told that I'd bounce." Harry chuckled, putting his hands over Draco's. "How'd the ceremony go?"
"Without a hitch," Draco said, shrugging. "School is officially open."
"When do classes start?"
"No idea." Draco lifted his head, resting on Harry's shoulder as he spoke. "That's all Sev's problem. Just like there's a town council meeting at six that's all father's problem, and the repatriation committee meeting the ships from Roanoke tomorrow that's all mother's problem."
"And what's Draco Malfoy's problem?" Harry asked.
"A husband sitting on a railing far too high off the ground?" Draco grumbled. But then he sighed and closed his eyes to the world, snuggling his face against Harry's neck. "Tomorrow I start making us a child."
"Really?" Harry straightened, turning so that Draco had to meet his look. "Tomorrow? How long will it start? Should we get anything? And how come just one—?"
"I already have everything," Draco said, letting Harry manhandle him so that he had to lean a little over the railing to keep holding him. "And I already told you, I'm not a Weasley. No mountains of children."
"But just one?" Harry asked. "Is that why there's only one of you? How come?"
Draco looked into his husband's eyes, and he bit his lip in disappointment. Harry was so open, so eager to surround himself with a family that could love and trust and nurture each other. Draco often nursed a secret worry that Harry would have been happier with the Weasleys after all, with a dozen brats and laughter around the dinner table. Not the cold politics and sarcastic jibes of the Malfoys.
"Twins happen sometimes," he said as a weak offering. "Rarely. I don't know why two children doesn't work. Sev' would only tell me that I'd understand afterward. I think it takes more out of us than we realize. That so much of us goes into it and if we try again, it wouldn't...it wouldn't come out right."
Draco couldn't elaborate. He didn't understand what Severus had meant, but his master never lied about a potion. If Sev' said that the potion was for one child, then there would be one child. Perhaps it was because parents rarely lived long enough to try twice, or that the attempt was so delicate in itself. Or that dark magic had a price, and that some rules couldn't be bent for fear of bringing down a curse on themselves or the child.
It stung. Not that he couldn't create two children—the thought of one was more than enough for Draco. But that he couldn't create two children for Harry. His husband had longed for a proper family, one that loved and supported each other and had big dinners around big tables. And instead Draco's family snapped and bit at each other and occasionally threw food at each other.
Harry no longer complained, finally grown accustomed to the Malfoys. Or he finally gave up any hope of a something better.
"Do you regret marrying me?" Draco said, unable to stop himself. "Do you regret—?"
Harry kissed him, silencing him for long seconds. Draco jerked once, a half-hearted attempt to get loose, and Harry's arm around him tightened, pinning him close to his side. Then a smaller kiss, lighter on his lips in a tiny apology for cutting him off. Draco smiled, resting his forehead against Harry's.
"My viper," Harry whispered. "My Malfoy."
From far below, the bell tower struck the half hour. Draco tilted his head to look out over his city. Gorre-on-Avon looked like a proper city, all narrow streets and a river in the middle that brought dark wizards back from the colonies and the rest of the world. The park in the middle was young with saplings but they would soon grow into a fine copse. And the cemetery, still just an unassuming plot of land, a potter's field.
The light wizards were so wrapped up in their loss and pain—rebuilding their Ministry, mourning Hogwarts and studying ways to try to revive it. Draco wished them well as far as Hogwarts went, but how reassuring that they were so focused on their own efforts that they did not guess as to Draco's plans.
"You're plotting again," Harry said. "I think I can hear the gears turning."
"I'm always plotting," Draco said. "For when things go to hell."
"But not today, right?" Harry asked. "Nothing is going to hell today?"
It will in a few hundred years, Draco wanted to say. When all of this falls apart and they try to kill us and the same sad drama plays out again.
Nothing changed. Nothing really had changed. He'd restored Gorre and given the dark wizards a place of safety. If anything, he was simply playing the part of Morgan le Fey, but this time he'd managed to keep his Mordred safe with him.
"No," Draco said, giving in to Harry's grin. "Nothing is going to hell today."
He let Harry wrap him up, kiss his throat, begin to undo the buttons he'd created in his robes expressly for Harry to undo.
Tomorrow could take care of itself.
Thunder and rain. A hunched figure scurried across the broken cobblestones and squelching mud, pressing close to what remained of the storefronts, all scorched and worn down by time. The great bell tower lay across the flooded road, still intact enough that Melusina used it for a hiding spot, darting inside, pulling back her hood to see over her shoulder.
She couldn't see the dogs but she heard them baying and howling, whining as they strained their leashes. And the men...she couldn't see them but she saw the light of their wands and their torches behind the crumbled city gates. She had little time left, only minutes before the dogs caught her scent again.
Melusina slipped through the long tower, allowing herself to feel the thrill of vindication. Lost, everyone had said. Gorre-on-Avon had swallowed itself up in dark magics so no one could ever find it again, but here she was. Here she was, walking through the bell tower that had been part of the First's Academy. She put her hand on the bell as she went by, spotting the engraving along the brass edge—alswa se woruld chaungen, ic thrifan.
Moving out the side where the bricks lay smashed open, she chanced standing up and running down a road now only hinted at by glimpses of cobblestones. Under a bridge miraculously still standing, she saw the ruined towers that had once housed the great dark lords of ages past. Vines and bushes had claimed most of them, growing over broken pipes and torn windows.
What she might have learned if she could have explored them!
But no time, no time, and she cursed herself again for waiting so long, for trusting in the words of the magistrates and the Order of Merlin. All the light wizards swore that of course they wanted to return to the golden era when light and dark lived side by side and went to the same school and governed themselves, guided by heroes on both sides. A lie, all of it. The light wanted to return to their own golden era, their utopia when dark wizards were hunted down like animals.
She may very well die here. The legendary city had long since returned to the wild. A forest had risen up here in the center, the deep roots in the pavement the only thing holding back the Avon river from washing the ruins away. Anything of value had been stripped down when the inhabitants fled during the last battle, scattering into the shadows as the Order of Merlin sought to root them all out.
The dogs were closer. If only she could turn into a rabbit or hare and outrun them, but her wyvern shape was useless in the heavy rain. Even if she could take flight, their bullets would find her and bring her down as they had her mother.
And this was a fool's errand. She had only a slip of a memory, a nightmare burned into her brain, the touch of a hand on a gravestone and the feeling that her salvation lay buried beneath that stone, in the lost city of dark magic.
She gasped when she saw the rusted, ruined fence around the crooked tombstones.
Breaking into a dead sprint, she drew close and flung wide the gate, slashing her hand on the ancient metal. She didn't need to search the names. Against the far wall, partly hidden by dead vines, her own name glared out at her in a flash of lightning.
Melusina d'le Malfoi – our beloved daughter has returned home
She fell to her knees in the mud. Somehow they had known. How old was this stone? Somehow the dark lords of the past had known. This grave was her gift.
She heard the dogs running up the street towards her, saw the light of the torches beginning to color the gravestones around her. There was no fear. She dug her hands into the soil and drew out a box hardly large enough to store a loaf of bread. It opened at her touch, revealing a heavy book, a wand and a bottle of something dark and indistinct.
With no time left, she uncorked the bottle and drank. Thick, coagulated blood hit her mouth and ran down the back of her throat like ice. Picking up the book with one hand and the wand in her other, she stood and turned to face the mob before her. They halted, these men and women in the deep blue robes of Merlin with their gleaming gold badges, a dozen wizards and witches and their hounds with bewitched eyes too wise for normal dogs. Their gaze meeting hers, they stared at her in the moment before their hands would unleash their hounds and see her torn apart.
She was no longer alone. Could they see the other wizards behind her? No, the Order of Merlin couldn't see the nameless thousands standing around her, her ancient lineage stretching back to even the founding of the great city. Briefly, she thought she felt her mother's hand on her shoulder, heard a voice whisper to send them to hell.
The book fell open. How had the Malfoy grimoire been buried here so long ago? Hidden during the battle? Put down for safe-keeping? It didn't matter. It was hers again, and the cover fell open as the pages flashed. She lifted the wand. A dozen spells flickered through her brain, things she'd never been taught but now remembered, and the power of the entire city filled her hand, power enough to save herself, power to turn this war from a fight for survival to a fight for victory.
Oh yes. She had come home.