"Twenty-nine of age students! Nine teachers! Eight Order! Eight from the first D.A.! That's fifty-four! Fifty-four against more than three hundred…fifty-seven if you want to throw in Harry, Ron, and Hermione. That's suicide!" Neville slammed his hand down hard on the table, his voice shaking with rage as he looked across into McGonagall's implacably stony face. He spun towards Shacklebolt, pleading now. "I could double that, sir! I can give you another fifty trained wands! We'd still be tight, but there'd be a chance at least! Let me call my soldiers back from Hogsmeade, please!"
"Mr. Longbottom, they are not yours, and they are not soldiers." McGonagall's voice was icy, and any other time, he would have heeded the note of warning there, but right now, Neville couldn't have cared less. "They are my students," she continued, "and while I am aware that you have taken your little rebellion very seriously this year, and I am not disrespectful of the effort and sacrifices – "
"We are soldiers! It's only been a little rebellion on the surface," his voice choked with bitter frustration, and to his own fury, he realized he was on the edge of tears. "We've trained so hard, they're ready, I swear to you…Romilda took me down in our last meeting before I had to run! Colin held his own with Terry for almost twenty minutes hard dueling! Orla…."
He trailed off as Mr. Weasley put one hand on his shoulder, his voice kind but his eyes hard. "We've listened to your arguments twice now, Neville. We've been more than fair, but the answer is no. We're allowing you and the other seventeen and eighteen year-olds to stay, but that is the final word, and if you continue wasting the very little time we have with these kinds of tantrums, we're going to have to reconsider whether the rest of you are level-headed enough to stay."
"I don't like the idea of any of the children staying," Mrs. Weasley shook her head, frowning deeply. "They're going to be dueling to kill."
"Those children," Professor Sprout shook her head, "have been through hell this year, Molly. You haven't seen what we've been forced to sit by and watch done to them. The Cruciatus Curse a dozen times a week, torture, floggings that peeled those boy's backs like daisy roots. I understand why they believe that they have the ability – even the right – to fight tonight, for revenge if nothing else, but if I'm correct, Minerva, you also feel that this is the one chance we have had all year to actually protect our charges. To not watch helplessly while the Death Eaters spill young blood all over this castle."
"Precisely, Pomona, I could not have put it better," McGonagall agreed, and there was an awful compassion in her eyes as she looked at Neville. "We have no doubts about your bravery or your toughness, Mr. Longbottom, nor that of your friends, but this is going to be a suicide stand, and basic ethical obligation means that we must demand that this be a choice made by adults, even if barely defined as such."
"I have seen what Neville has done with the older students," Shacklebolt said slowly, steepling his fingers under his chin as he leaned back in his chair at the Staff Table in the now-deserted Great Hall. "I am willing to agree that they are at least on the level of our younger Aurors such as Nymphadora. However, I also cannot accept the idea of children as young as fourteen in open combat the way he would propose. The decision stands. You may inform your officers, Mr. Longbottom."
The conciliatory use of the term 'officers' did not escape Neville, and he bit back the retort that had been on the tip of his tongue, recognizing at the last moment that it was not only useless, but that he was about to seriously jeopardize the rest of their ability to stay in it as well. His shoulders slumped, and he forced his tone to be one of respectful obedience as he nodded. "Yes, sir."
"Now," McGonagall tapped the tabletop with her wand, and thin strands of black ink began to spread from the spot, lacing like a spiderweb to form a diagram of the school. "With that little matter resolved, let us address the matter of distribution. "We will be splitting into eight divisions. Three to the towers, three on the grounds, one divided among the secret passages, and one at the front doors. Pomona, you will –"
"Ten." Neville interrupted, crossing his arms as he sat back down.
"Ten?" McGonagall's lips pressed together thinly, her voice tight.
"The big ground-floor windows in the Great Hall…those are serious weaknesses in our defenses. And we need another team as a swing division, put them on broomsticks for speed; they go wherever they're needed most desperately at the moment, wherever the attacks are coming hardest, and they act as runners for messages when needed." He nodded at the diagram, then raised his chin almost belligerently. "We've been preparing this for months."
There was an awkward silence, then McGonagall nodded calmly. "Nine, then, but we'll enlarge your swing division and meld it with the one for the passages so that we aren't wasting fighters on tunnels that aren't being used. Have we found Miss Granger and your son, Arthur?"
"Not yet," Mr. Weasley admitted with a worried glance at his wife. "Let's cut their numbers for now…we can take them from the tower positions, since those will be the easiest to hold with the least."
"Arthur, Remus, and I will need the strongest duelers you have, Neville," Shacklebolt said. There's the least cover on the grounds, and that's where they'll be breaking through first at the wall. We'll want to keep them back from the castle as long as we can, and also hold them where the teams on the tower can snipe spells at them from above."
"I'll go myself, then," he replied quickly, then counted off on his fingers. "You should take Parvati, Anthony, Stewart, Wayne, and Seamus for the grounds, too. Hannah, Michael, Lavender, and Terry for swing. Ernie's strength is defense – he won't budge from a post no matter what. Put him on the front doors, and he'll hold them shut if he has to. Perseus, Derek and Chris with him too. Li, Luna, Demelza, Gwen, Andrew, Padma, and Jack on towers…Lisa, Morag, Sally-Anne, Hal, Stephen, Mandy, Ryan, and Megan are versatile enough to go wherever you want. I don't really know with Dean, but don't put him with Seamus, it'll be too much distraction."
"All right." Mr. Weasley stood, pushing his spectacles back up on his nose as he nodded his head towards the doors. "We have twenty minutes to get into position. Remus, you take the edge by the forest…I hate to do it to you, but –"
"If he really does have the werewolves, they'll be coming that way, and I know more what we're up against with them, of course." There was no offense in his eyes, and he drew his wand, pulling out a small handkerchief and making absolutely sure that the smooth wood was clean and free from splinters or little snags that could throw a spell off-course. "Neville, of the ones you said –?"
"Seamus, Wayne, and Morag for raw guts. They won't blink at werewolves or anything else you throw at them." He stood, shaking Lupin's hand with a dark smile. "Before we die, though, I never really thanked you properly for saving my life. You make a good double-agent, Professor Lupin, I really thought you were going to eat us."
He laughed, and it was still a rather harsh, barking sound, but there was nothing frightening about it now. "Why, Neville, I told all of you the first day that I've never eaten a student!"
"Yeah," Neville nodded, "We just didn't know that was something that took deliberate action on your part…though if you've ever wanted to try it off-moon…."
Lupin's face darkened, and something of the wolf shimmered through the golden brown eyes. "I won't be watching the calendar if Greyback and I cross paths tonight, if that's what you mean." He nodded once more. "Good luck, Neville. I'll tell your people you've sent them with me."
Neville glanced at his watch as Lupin left, then turned back to the others, who were quickly going over details with one another, marking down names on scraps of parchment, and discussing means of protection that were really more intimidatingly complex spellwork than Neville had ever even heard of. Even Sprout, whom he had never thought of as a fighter, was planning to put a line of vicious plants at the western edge of the grounds to reduce the area they had to defend, and there was a vindictive hunger in her eyes as she explained exactly what a patch of East Indian Garroting Grass could do to a Death Eater.
He hung back a moment, uncertain, then Shacklebolt shook hands with McGonagall and stepped away from the table, jabbing one thick finger towards the younger wizard as he strode towards the doors with a long, surprisingly graceful stride reminiscent of a panther stalking its prey. "Longbottom…you wanted to come with me."
"But my –" he protested, and Shacklebolt shook his head.
"You gave us what we needed. We have minutes only. The others will take the students you assigned them, we will take ours, and our post will be the front gates," he glanced back over his shoulder with a smile that flashed brilliant white. "Which means we shall be seeing action first."
The others were waiting outside the double doors, and Neville called out to his remaining Lieutenants – Seamus had already gone with Lupin – while Shacklebolt separated Parvati, Ryan, and Stewart to go with them. "I couldn't win it," he said bitterly, "so we're on our own."
Terry took a deep breath and closed his eyes. "So few…."
"More glory to go around, and our names can be in bigger letters on the monument." Neville smiled thinly. "Just last as long as you can, guys. We're not trying to win this any more, we're just buying Harry time, and he's got his own way to win it. Ernie, you hold those doors whatever comes…and I mean whatever, because they've got at least three giants. Terry, I'm going to be counting on that fast brain of yours to get your people where they're really needed, not just where it looks hot. This is it, ten minutes 'til. Any questions?"
Ernie shook his head, but Terry raised his hand with a look of great concern. "I have one."
"What does it all mean?"
Neville frowned, baffled. "All what?"
Terry's face had taken on a beatific smile, and he waved a hand around the entry hall. "Oh, all of it. Life, the greater plan, the universe…what is the meaning of being? What is the purpose of existence?" The smile quirked deeper to a mischievous smirk that dimpled his cheeks. "You wanted a question…."
Shacklebolt was leaving now, and Neville ran after him, relieved to find that his ankle seemed to have settled on its own since he hadn't had time to have it tended. He shot a look back over his shoulder at Terry as he drew his wand. "I hate a smart-ass, Boot!"
The Ravenclaw Lieutenant snapped him a cheeky salute, "Good luck to you too, Commander!" Then the heavy double doors had closed behind them, and he followed Shacklebolt and the others as they ran across the grounds towards the tall iron gates with their winged guardians.
Already, he could see the black-robed and silver-masked figures massed on the other side, and his heart was racing, his breath tight in his throat as his fingers gripped the wand. There were so many of them! It seemed impossible that their little handful of defenders could have any chance at all, and he felt sick thinking about the number of friends and comrades he knew were less than a mile away. He nodded in response to Shacklebolt's silent gestures, pressing himself against the stone wall on the far side of the gate, his eyes closing as he waited for the last few minutes of You-Know-Who's ultimatum to tick by.
Why couldn't they understand? It was all well and good to want to protect the younger ones – if he had the option, he certainly wouldn't want to see kids who were barely past puberty dying either – but if they really wanted to buy Harry time, they needed to be willing to pay that price. And they were losing such strong fighters! Rowan, with her amazing reflexes and strength as great as most of the wizards. Colin, with the incredible bravery and surprising gift for leadership that had manifested over the year. Ginny, with her firebrand spirit and whip-sharp spellwork. Camellia's cool, almost heartless precision. Euan's speed. Fritz' toughness. What he wouldn't give….
"Commander!" The shout snapped his eyes open, and he sucked in a sharp breath as he saw Michael shooting across the grounds at breakneck speed directly towards him. The young wizard braked his broom harshly mere inches away, sweeping his dark hair out of his eyes with a wild look. "News from Wood! The reinforcements…he says if we can hold until four or five, he thinks he can gather over a thousand!"
Neville shook his head fiercely. "That's four hours, Mike! Have you looked out there?! Tell him there's no way with the numbers we've got. He'll just have to get here fa –" He cut off as the watch in his pocket buzzed, and he saw Michael's eyes widen in simultaneous realization.
It was midnight.
There was a single breath of utter silence, then the night burst into a thousand bangs and flashes as the Death Eaters mounted their assault. Light was flaring through the bars of the gates, warping and melting them, and it was all Neville could do just to counter, blocking and deflecting the spells as fast as he could, feeling them singe his hair and skim past his face in tingling streaks of far-too-close.
A giant, at least twenty feet tall, slammed through the stones as easily as a stack of children's building blocks, and Neville barely dodged a chunk the size of an anvil that went flying past him to imbed itself several inches into the soft earth of the lawn. He hit his knees, rolling beneath a streak of livid green and coming up again to fire his own Killing Curse directly into the back of a Death Eater that had Parvati pinned. The black-robed figure dropped, and she spun away, her wand a blur as she dueled three more who had just climbed over the breach in the wall.
"Mike! Get some of the swing down here! We need –" The words cut off in a harsh gasp as the corner of his eye found the blue satin trim on what he had thought was the body of a fallen Death Eater.
A jagged chunk of stone had caught the Ravenclaw on the side of the head, smashing it completely away, and the remaining side of his handsome face was frozen in a look of uncomprehending shock as white fragments of shattered skull and pearly pink brain gleamed unnaturally in the moonlight and the multicolored flicker of hexes and curses.
Neville felt nothing, and he spared not so much as a second for the soldier who was so obviously beyond help. His wand snapped towards the castle, and a silver bulldog exploded away to deliver the message Michael never could, and he was back to dueling the never-ending stream of faceless, remorseless silver masks and black hoods. Somewhere from among the Death Eaters, a witch's voice raised in a high, keening shriek of joy, and Neville felt a surge of power that blasted two more away as his own shout of rage joined the battle cry that he knew had to be, could only be Bellatrix LeStrange.
It was one minute past twelve. The Battle of Hogwarts had begun.
The gates were gone, and they had breached the wall in two more places now, the giants lumbering past the defenders towards the castle, all attempts to stop them bouncing uselessly off their thick, toughened skins. Death Eaters poured into the grounds like a black river, and Neville found himself back-to-back with Ryan Vance, no longer even consciously aware of the spells he cast, but dueling on pure instinct alone as his wand snapped and swung, switching from one hand to the other as they came at him relentlessly.
He felt the other young wizard stiffen behind him, and he knew instantly that Ryan had been hit. Before he could yell above the din of combat to ask how bad it was, he heard a hideous splattering sound, and the comforting pressure at his back fell away, leaving him open to attack from behind. Neville spun, then recoiled in horror.
Ryan was on the ground, twitching in a last, feeble spasm. The man had turned inside out. His jaw hung bizarrely, completely dislocated, and his mouth had torn open at the corners in a fatal parody of a grin as every organ in his body had vomited out to lie in a pile of dark, livid reds and pale, wet loops of intestine beneath him.
A curse brushed the edge of Neville's sleeve, setting it smoldering, and he forgot the carnage at his feet, spinning to deflect the next attack as he refused to look down again at whatever it was that squished beneath his shoes. His arm was starting to really hurt now, the cotton cloth of his sleeve charring as the skin beneath blistered, and he slashed at his shoulder with his wand as he brought it up into the face of the next Death-Eater, grabbing the slit fabric again on the downstroke and tearing it away.
"Neville!" It was Shacklebolt, and the imposing Auror was at his side, a deep gash dripping blood down the side of his neck from the smoothly shaven scalp. The heavy acacia wand never stopped moving as he cast the briefest of glances at the younger wizard. "There's no more use trying to hold the gate…too many of them are through already. We're pulling in closer to the castle…come on!"
He didn't bother to acknowledge the order with anything more than the briefest of nods, but backed slowly across the lawn, keeping his back to Shacklebolt as Parvati joined their tight knot. Then Stewart was with them, limping badly and white-faced from a curse that had left his right knee a shredded and swollen mass that no longer resembled any kind of functional joint, and they made their way slowly back towards the castle, every step a fight for their lives.
Parvati screamed as a hex set her long hair on fire, but the stench of burning had barely risen into the night air before Shacklebolt severed it with a flick of his wand, the glossy black strands falling forward around her face in a suddenly chin-length bob as the thick plait flared harmlessly on the grass. The scream had struck something in Neville, however, and he jerked his head towards Shacklebolt. "Tighten in!" he shouted, "I'm going to get us something that'll cut their numbers some!"
Pointing his wand at the pile of rubble where Michael had fallen, he summoned the broom, kicking off hard into the air the instant it was in his hand, still struggling to find his seat as it rocketed up over the battle below. He wavered, nearly falling before he had his balance properly, then turned, aiming straight towards the tallest tower of the castle where a steady strobe of flashes and bangs told him the snipers were taking full advantage of their lofty view.
He hovered an instant, searching for the flyaway gray hair and plump figure he needed, then dove sharply, "Professor Sprout!"
She looked up, stepping back from her position at the battlements to face him as he landed. "Neville?! We saw them break through the gates, are you –"
"Mandrakes!" He reached out, grabbing her arm urgently. "Professor, are the Mandrakes full grown yet? There's still a lot of them clustered together out there; if we fling them over the walls, smash the pots –"
"Not fully mature yet, but old enough to kill, oh yes!" Her wand shot out, summoning her own broomstick from the corner by the door leading to the castle below. She mounted it, nodding at Luna, who had never left her own post, firing spells one after the other down into the knots of Death Eaters as if it were merely target practice. "Miss Lovegood, you hold the tower!"
"Yes, Professor," Luna replied calmly, not even looking up as the others took off and swept down towards the greenhouses on the other side of the school.
They passed Professor Hooch in mid-air, and Sprout wheeled as Neville continued, exchanging a brief word with her fellow teacher before joining him again. "Boot, Bell, and Summers will be joining us," she informed him. "We'll need more than four hands to carry enough of them, and we won't be able to fly without risking dropping them where we don't want to. They hate heights, and they're too prone to squirm."
"We'll cut through the castle, then." The glass sides of the greenhouses had been shattered in a dozen places, and the plants within writhed and thrashed in ignorant outrage of the shards of glass, hexes, and chill night air that had violated their sanctuary. They abandoned their brooms, running inside and ducking the waving leaves and vines enroute to the long table that held the innocent-looking pots that he hoped would wreak such havoc among their enemies.
He grabbed up an armload, then hesitated. If he sacrificed his wand hand, he would be able to carry twice as many, but he would be helpless, having to rely on speed and agility alone in a mad dash through the battle. But if they didn't do something to drastically even the odds, they were all as good as dead anyway. His decision made, he scooped up as many as he could carry, then turned, only to have Sprout shove a pair of fuzzy earmuffs over his head with an admonishing glare. Neville nodded his thanks, grateful that she had thought of it, as he would have been an extremely embarrassed ex-star Herbology ghost in a few minutes had she not.
The other three had arrived now, taking piles of their own and being likewise quickly fitted with protective earmuffs, and Neville felt a moment's pang of guilt as his eyes met for an instant with Terry's. The terrified exhilaration of the smile said all too well that he didn't know about Michael, and he couldn't be told. Not now. There was no time for grief.
"WE'RE GOING TO HAVE TO RUN LIKE HELL," Neville shouted to make himself heard through the muffling shields, "STRAIGHT THROUGH THE CASTLE AND JUST HOPE WE DON'T GET HIT, THEN WE THROW THESE OVER THE WALLS INTO THE DENSEST KNOTS OF DEATH EATERS WE CAN FIND!"
There were nods all around, and they set off at a flat sprint, the broken glass of the greenhouse crunching underfoot before being replaced with an obstacle course of larger and more worrisome pieces of stone that had been blasted from the gargoyles, gutters, and window-ledges of the castle itself. For a moment, he wasn't sure how they were going to get past their own defenses, but the kitchen doors seemed to recognize Sprout's approach, and they flew open, slamming and bolting behind them again the moment the five of them had passed.
House-elves were cowering beneath the tables and counters, their hands clenched over their heads and their huge eyes bulging with terror at the sounds of the battle outside, but Neville paid them no mind as he shouldered through the door beside the entrance to the Hufflepuff common room and ran towards the stairs. He took them three at a time, skidding slightly and barely managing to cling to his volatile cargo as he turned a sharp corner towards the corridor that would lead him to the entry hall.
He nearly slammed headlong into Harry, twisting quickly to the side and just brushing the other wizard with his shoulder as he passed. Part of him wanted to stop, to get an update, to find out if Harry had the diadem or whatever else it was that he needed yet to stop the bloodshed before it could all get any worse, but there was no time. They just had to keep fighting.
Harry looked confused at the sight of a half-dozen earmuff-clad fighters who seemed to have decided to start transplanting things in the middle of a battle, and Neville shouted back a hasty explanation over his shoulder. "Mandrakes! Going to lob them over the walls – they won't like this!"
Then Harry had been left far behind, and the heavy double doors were ahead of them. They paused barely a moment, and Neville kicked the door twice, hesitated, and then twice more before yelling through to the Lieutenant guarding the entrance outside. "ERNIE, LET US OUT! IT'S NEVILLE!"
"Prove it!" came the voice from the other side, strained but thankfully not seeming to be injured or fading.
The doors opened just enough to let them pass, and Neville nodded hastily to Ernie as he sprinted by, Sprout and the others close on his heels. He was starting to breathe harder now, his side beginning to ache with the warning shots of a wicked stitch, but he did not allow his pace to slacken in the slightest. All around him, the grounds seemed to have come alive with their enemies, and he recognized Greyback's tribe scattered among the black robes of the death eaters, as savage in their human forms as the wolves they transformed into once a month, their hands crooked into claws and their teeth glistening as they slashed and tore at the defenders.
Katie Bell screamed beside him, and he ducked away from the blast of heat as she went up in a sudden bonfire. The plants in her arms were reduced to ash before they could issue their own cries, and he caught a moment's glance of the former Chaser's face contorted in indescribable pain as the blackening flesh bubbled and melted like wax under the cursed heat. Then she was down, her body blazing a flickering pattern of light and shadow across the grass, but the wall wasn't far now, and he lowered his head, pushing his legs to drive him all the faster before more of them could be struck.
The outer defenses had fallen, but the breaches were narrow, and the Death Eaters were still being met with resistance as they came through, and Neville was relieved to see that at least a hundred of them were still clustered tightly together outside, seeking their chance to break through. He skidded to a halt, lowering the plants to the ground with incongruous care, then grabbing the first and heaving it into the air. His wand was out before it had even hit the top of its arc, shooting a spell that flung it up and over the high stone wall to land among the waiting Death Eaters.
Even through the earmuffs, the howl of the Mandrake was terrible, and it was joined at once by more and more of the eerie shrieks as Terry, Hal, and Professor Sprout began to send their own unconventional missiles over the wall. He felt sick, dizzy, his head was pounding with a headache so strong that it threatened to fell him from the layered cries of the deadly plants, but he continued to heave them up and over until they were gone, only then allowing himself a moment to drop to his knees, clutching at his head as he fought to keep from vomiting from the pain.
Looking around, he saw that Terry and Professor Sprout were sagged against the wall, their own arsenals exhausted as they too struggled with the side-effects of their attack, but Hal was sprawled on the grass in a twisted rictus, the sides of his face still oozing blood where he had clawed at his own ears in agony. Neville felt a stab of anguish as he saw that one of the Hufflepuff's fluffy purple earmuffs had been grazed by a hex he must not have noticed, the protective padding stripped away, leaving him just as vulnerable as their intended targets.
Gathering a deep breath past the headache that still throbbed, but had abated at least to the point where he could move again, he turned and jumped, grateful for his height as his hands barely caught the upper edge of the wall. For a moment, his feet scrabbled against the stone, then he found a toe-hold, and he heaved, pulling himself up enough to see across. If they had been wrong, he knew, his head would make a lovely target, but the sight in front of him made him smile even through the horrors that had already mounted.
No less than eighty bodies lay across the ground, their limbs as grossly contorted as his comrade's, the leaves and shattered bits of pottery the only innocent-looking remains that spoke of the satisfyingly hideous way they had died. Neville turned back, dropping lightly to the ground as he grinned at the two other surviving members of his little mission. "We got –"
The rest of the sentence was drowned in a deafening crack, and everywhere, combatants froze, the battle poised in a single held breath as Ravenclaw tower shuddered. Dust puffed from the mortared stones as a trickling rain of glass sparkled down from the tall, airy windows that had once lit the intellectual haven of the common room and dormitories there, and he could just make out a mad scramble among the fighters atop the groaning tower.
Three figures took off at almost the exact moment the tower finally gave way. The massive stones split apart like eggshell, and the entire structure tipped, snapping away from the castle itself to tumble to earth with a staggering impact. As it canted, Neville saw a fourth body launched into the air, but this one had no benefit of broom. Whether she had been injured or stunned or simply unable to get to her escape in time, there was no mistaking the only witch on the battlefield who had been wearing scarlet robes as Cho Chang fell in a graceful flutter of red cloth and long black hair, finally disappearing into the dust cloud rising from the shattered tower.
"Back to the castle!" Sprout shouted, puffing for air, her round face beet red as she hurried back across the battlefield. He understood immediately. The tower's fall had given them a moment of distraction, and they would have a better chance to get to cover again before the fighting resumed properly.
The reason for the tower's collapse became apparent as they ran. Hagrid's brother Grawp came lumbering around the edge of the castle, bellowing in outrage as he swiped and stomped at the Death Eaters with a large one-winged gargoyle he had snapped from the rooftop, but behind him almost immediately were two other giants, no less than six feet taller than the massive Grawp, and they were crashing their fists into the sides of the stone walls as they approached him, leaving deep, spider-cracked dents in the masonry.
Grawp turned, brandishing the gargoyle at the nearer of the two giants, and there was a brief, guttural exchange that barely even resembled language before the two mammoths had barreled into one another, grappling and slamming into the building as they wrestled. The blows they shook off could have crushed a wizard into formless pulp, but they continued to pummel one another as if the impacts were nothing more than love-taps.
For a moment, it looked like the third was about to join in, but then a movement through one of the upper windows caught his eye, and he jammed his hand inside. When it emerged, it was to a gleeful roar of success, and he opened the vast palm, letting something that had once been someone fall to the ground as he licked his scarlet fingers happily, like a child finishing a jam sandwich.
Neville shook his head harshly. He had allowed himself to become distracted by the awesome brutality, and now he re-doubled his speed as he followed the others who had almost reached the extremely questionable safety of the school now turned fortress. A familiar voice cried out in pain, and he turned, his wand ready, and it was Ernie at the top of the entrance steps.
The werewolves had gone for the front door en masse. Chris and Perseus were down, their bodies mutilated almost beyond recognition as human by teeth and claws, washes of red coating the stairs all the way down to the path from where they had fallen, and Derek was on his knees, clutching uselessly at a torn throat that was spurting through his fingers in increasingly shallow arcs. A dozen primitively-clad bodies also littered the area, proof that they had gone down hard, but there were many more where Greyback's monsters came from.
Only Ernie and Dean remained standing, backs to the doors, and there were at least ten of the animals surrounding them. Dean had gotten a wand from somewhere, and his dark face was shining with sweat as it flashed and cracked, shooting jets of light in every direction as he fought desperately to keep them at bay. Ernie had not been so lucky. They had hold of him now, driving him to the ground with sheer force of numbers, and it was hand-to-hand, five of them piling onto the Lieutenant in their efforts to keep him from being able to aim his wand at any of them.
Another scream tore the air, and one of the werewolves lifted his head from where he had pinned Ernie's wrist under the full weight of his body, his long, shaggy beard dark with blood as he spat something over the edge of the stairs and howled in victory. Two more werewolves piled on – women by the very vaguest definition – and Neville changed course, running as hadn't since the last time he was facing those creatures, but this time not away from them, but towards them to save his friend.
He was less than thirty feet from the bottom of the stairs when the mass of leather-clad backs gave a great heave, and Ernie pushed himself to his feet from under them, sending two of them flying backwards off the steps to land with the sick crack of shattering necks and skulls before rolling limply to the ground. The moment's freedom allowed him to aim his wand, and he dispatched three rapid green jets, his efforts united again with Dean's. The werewolves hesitated a moment, then in a single motion of frightening unison, they turned and retreated.
Ernie caught sight of Neville and laughed, pushing the blonde curls back from his forehead with the back of his wrist. As his hand raised, the wand still held firmly, Neville saw to his shock that three of the fingers were gone: two of them ripped away entirely while the third had been gnawed to bare, bloody bone. Yet impossibly, Ernie's voice was cheerful as he called out. "Persistent bastards! That's the fourth wave of them! I do imagine they're trying to crash our party, even though I've tried to tell them very firmly they're not invited!"
"Do you need – ?"
"Dean and I've got it, thanks! Just don't let those fellows over here…I'm a touch arachnophobic, to tell you the truth, dear chum!" Neville turned, looking where Ernie had pointed, and his blood chilled. The Forbidden Forest was disgorging all of its nightmares tonight.
Morag, Wayne and Lupin had come sprinting from the edge of the dark woods, and close behind them, their hundreds of tiny eyes shining with hunger, were fifty of the car-sized spiders. The trees bent and shivered beneath their weight as they crawled along trunks and branches as rapidly as they scampered through the heavy brush, and they were closing fast.
Wayne was staggering, falling behind, his left arm hanging uselessly from a shoulder that was visibly dislocated even from this distance. The spiders were mere feet away. Lupin fell back to help him, but a streak of green from one of the Death Eaters caught him in the neck, and the young Professor dropped, dead before he ever knew what struck him.
One of the spiders snatched up the body, the thick mandibles clattering, but Wayne dropped to the ground and rolled beneath the monster, shoving his wand up like a dagger directly into the soft underbelly. The creature's body lit from within, its hideous outline cast in brilliant blue for a split second, then the fat body bulged and burst, splattering ichor over twenty feet and drenching the young wizard beneath before it collapsed atop him.
Neville was there now, Morag holding the other spiders back with a barrage of curses as he grabbed the disgusting corpse and heaved, tossing it over in a crumple of hairy legs as he reached down to take Wayne's good arm and haul him to his feet again. He was gagging, spitting out mouthfuls of the thick, greenish-gray substance, wiping furiously at his eyes, but he was alive, and the three of them closed ranks, firing spells one after the other at spiders and Death Eaters alike as they began to cross the field of death once more.
The spiders scattered suddenly, and the three teenagers exchanged a look of trepidation before they felt it too. The ground was shaking, trembling with the force of an earthquake, and they were thrown to their knees along with every other fighter on the field as the scorched and bloodstained grass in front of the castle began to heave like a living thing. Then it exploded. Chunks of sod and a heavy rain of dirt spread widely, and Neville had to turn away, shielding his eyes from the flying grit as he spat out pieces of grass.
A deep pit, ten feet wide, had opened in the ground. The edges were still caving in, a fog of dust and dirt still lingering in the air, but there was motion from within. Neville jerked his head towards Wayne and Morag, and they followed him towards it, wands outstretched, waiting to see what You-Know-Who had in store for them now. Slowly, a figure began to emerge from the dust, shaking his head and coughing, and Neville's jaw dropped as he recognized the slightly-built silhouette. "COLIN!"
More heads and shoulders were emerging now, and as the dust settled, he could see that dozens of faces were looking up at him from the hole, some climbing out on their own as Jennifer Lindsey and Arthur Chambers took advantage of their height to boost the smaller ones up to the edge. Neville shook his head in disbelief at the young officer. "What – how – ?"
"We couldn't take it any more, Commander!" Colin's face was streaked with dirt and something that looked almost like soot, but he was beaming. "Reports have been saying you guys were getting slaughtered up here, and then we saw the tower go down, and…well…I'm not an Auror, but I can stun and bind a Squib and a Healer just fine!"
Neville crouched, reaching down to grab Orla's wrists and pull her up. The new arrivals were forming a loose perimeter around their dramatic entrance point, their wands out and ready, but as yet, none of the Death Eaters seemed to have been able to decide what was going on enough to leave the battles they already faced with the existing defenders. Morag was staring at Colin as if she had never seen him before, and she shook her dark auburn head in disbelief. "But ye didnae need ta tunnel in like Nifflers, Creevey! We'da let ye in t' front!"
"We tried to come back in the way we went out," Colin explained, pausing to shoot a hex over her head that dropped a Death Eater who had decided to become curious. "But when we got close, it was hotter than hell, and even with a Freezing Charm, we couldn't touch the door. It was glowing…so we decided to backtrack until we figured we weren't under the castle any more, then make our own door."
"CREEVEY!" Professor McGonagall's shout was so furious that even Neville cringed, turning to see her jogging towards them, her stern face set in an expression of astonished outrage to a degree he had never seen before. Her tartan dressing gown was torn, her hair had come loose, a few pins still sticking out oddly, and a painful-looking slice crossed one sharp cheekbone. "I explicitly forbid you, Longbottom! I can't believe that after I allowed you the privileges of a grown –"
"It wasn't Neville, Professor – look out!" Colin ducked around her, and McGonagall turned at the same time. The Professor's arrival had signaled the allegiance of the new fighters clearly enough, and the Death Eaters were attacking now. All around them, the younger members of the D.A. were clustering in pairs and trios as they had been taught, holding one another's backs as they faced the newest assault with an almost giddy exhilaration.
Neville found himself back to back with McGonagall and Colin, who was still trying to explain. "I came – Stupify! – completely on my – Incendio! Impedimenta! – own and – Protego! Levicorpus! – so did everyone I brought – Petrificus Totalus! Reducto! – with me!"
"And how many is that, Mr. Creevey?"
"Um… Relashio! All of them."
"All of whom, Mr. Creevey?"
"The D – Expelliarmus! – The D.A. Some of the D.C. tried, but it's okay, they're all tied to – Diffendo! Desanguium! – things, so they're not going anywhere."
"You're going to have to leave. We cannot allow –" McGonagall's voice was firm, but Colin shook his head as calmly as if he were declining a second cup of tea.
"With all due respect, Professor – Incarcerus! – you're getting your butts handed to you, if you don't mind me using a Muggle term – Confundus! – and you don't have enough fighters to – Tarantallegra! – spare to force us out. Go ahead and expel me if we're all alive tomorrow."
There was a pause as they continued to duel, and then McGonagall sighed, and her voice had a tight air of what seemed almost like the faint edge of tears when she spoke again. "Just be careful, Creevey, we're losing too many tonight."
"WE'RE PUSHING THEM BACK, COMMANDER!" Natalie came running over, her hair singed and one side of her face blistered, but her eyes shining as she shouted the news. "Look!" She pointed enthusiastically behind them, and Neville glanced over, realizing to his amazement that the girl was right. Everywhere, Death Eaters were drawing back, still dueling, but only defensively, their lines vanishing back into the darkness as the flashes came further and further apart.
Neville grabbed the little witch by both shoulders and kissed her hard on the forehead. "You guys are brilliant! Let's get inside, regroup. Professor, we've got a lot more people to distribute. We'll see if we can get reports on who we've lost – Peakes, do you have a broom?"
The young Beater nodded enthusiastically as he shouted back. "Yes, sir! And it's a Nimbus 2003!"
"I want you to take reports from the two towers that are still standing, as well as Arthur's – Mr. Weasley's – group and anyone else you can find. See who we've lost, who needs the most help, and report back. I'm going to take Sinead, Camellia, and Fritz to the greenhouses, and we'll get a few more nasty surprises for them…I saw a lot of things in there that you don't want thrown at your head. Professor, where do you want to –"
Colin swore. It was a single word, emotionless and even rather gently spoken, but the blue eyes were suddenly wide, and he looked down at his chest as though inexplicably betrayed. Neville's own eyes followed, and he gasped.
The boy reached to finger the charred hole that had appeared over his breast pocket, then looked up again, and his mouth opened, but all that emerged was a heavy gush of blood that soaked his shirt to the waist as his knees buckled beneath him. For a moment, he seemed to hang gracefully, suspended in mid-air, then his back bowed loosely and he fell into the hole he still had barely taken a step away from.
"COLIN!!" Dennis had not spoken since December, but the sound that tore from the young boy's throat now could barely be called speech. It was a howl, a keen, a shriek of raw agony and the pure, blind rage that only the very young are truly capable of. He shot forward, breaking ranks and driving towards the masked Death Eater who had struck down his older brother, closing the distance between them faster than seemed possible.
With another scream, Dennis had jumped him, tearing away the mask to reveal the bearded face of his own uncle, Rudolphus LeStrange. The Death Eater grinned, bringing up his wand to shove it against the child's throat, but Dennis moved inhumanly fast, grabbing the older wizard's wand with both hands and driving it down like a spike. It sunk directly into one dark eye, burying itself to the handle as he drove it through with all his strength and pain, but it was not enough. The cherub's face had become a demon's guise, and his voice was achingly high and clear, a yet-unbroken treble screaming a curse far beyond his own understanding or ability to control. "AVADA KEDAVRA, YOU SON OF A BITCH!"
The green flash blazed through the night, but it was no well-aimed jet, and the wand had cracked with the force Dennis had driven it into the Death Eater's skull. The curse exploded, catching both figures in a lurid outline before it faded, leaving the boy slumped limp and unseeing over his final revenge against the people who had destroyed his family.
Neville felt stunned, numb, staring incredulously at what had only seconds before seemed like the edge of hope, but McGonagall's voice came through sharply. "They've broken into the castle! I'll take the other children – you'll have your way after all, there's no turning back now with the passage caved in – and you get your plants. Now hurry, Longbottom!"
Nodding quickly, he forced what he had just seen out of his mind and turned to the cluster of young soldiers behind him. "Parkinson, Bagman, Whelan…you're with me. Let's go!"
They encountered only a handful of Death Eaters on their way to the greenhouses, and the scarcity worried him. It didn't seem possible that they had whittled them down that far, and that meant that the majority were inside the castle now, and that's where Harry – their one hope of true success – was trying to complete his mysterious mission. If he were killed…. No. He couldn't allow himself to think that way. He couldn't allow himself to think at all, really. Just act.
Act. Fight. Lead. Survive.
The greenhouses had taken several more hits since he had been there last, and large sections of the plants were lying in limp, withered piles, but there were still more than enough for his purposes. He passed out armfuls of Devil's Snare and Snargaluff pods, keeping several vicious specimens of Venomous Tentacula for himself, then they hurried to join the others in their retreat to the castle.
It was impossible not to see how they had gotten in. Several huge holes had been blasted in the stone walls, a dozen different points of possible entry, and he gripped his wand tightly as he lead his little band towards the closest one. The room beyond seemed dark and forbidding, the shattered desks and cracked, hanging blackboard barely recognizable as having once been McGonagall's Transfiguration classroom.
Neville entered first, but it was deserted, and he nodded the others in after him. "Sinead, pass those around. Give some to Hannah if you see her, and Peeves if you can get him to cooperate. He's been throwing dung bombs so long, let's see what he can do that's useful. Camellia, you've got a free hand…cast a Patronus to Ernie, tell him to get the hell away from the doors if he's still alive, and Dean too. There's no point when they've got so many other ways in. Then come with Fritz and I. We're going to the entry hall, that's where most of the noise seems to be coming from."
The young witch nodded, adjusting her grip on the pot as she thrust her wand towards the door. A silver crow burst into the air and soared through the heavy oak as though it were nothing more than mist. Neville made a sound of approval as he braced his back against the door, then pushed, ready to fling the toxic stems at any enemy that presented itself.
But the hall seemed empty. He frowned, clearly able to hear the sounds of a violent battle somewhere very close by, and then there was another sound; a low, hollow moan of pain. Neville looked down, and Jack Sloper was sitting slumped against the wall in an immense pool of blood, his face ashen as he used his teeth to cinch his belt tightly around the jagged stump of his left thigh. There was no sign of the missing limb, but both hands were burned black, and he looked up with an expression of dazed shock in the gray eyes. "They took my wand, Commander, I'm…I'm sorry…"
"It's all right," he said automatically, though it was anything but all right, and he knew that it would be about four different kinds of miracle if he ever saw the young wizard alive again. But it didn't matter. Jack could still speak, and he still had enough consciousness to give information. "Where's the fight?"
"Down…down the hall, next left. They're in the castle, Commander…but the kids are back, too. Good thing. We've lost…a lot of people." His head nodded, his eyes losing focus. The belt hadn't been enough to do much through the heavy muscles of the young man's thigh, and he was bleeding out rapidly.
"Sinead, go right. Get those pods out. We'll take the left, hit the fight properly." They split up, and he broke into a jog as the shouts and bangs of dueling became louder.
When he finally emerged around the corner into the broad hallway that lead into the entry hall, it was like stepping into chaos itself. At least thirty pairs of duelers were spinning and ducking through the confined space, Death Eaters and defenders – both the motionless dead and the crawling, moaning, writhing wounded – scattered across the floor everywhere, and the thick dust raised by all the careening spells that had struck the already-shaken stones choked the air with a dense fog that rendered the scene all the more impossible.
Lowering his head and roaring out a challenge towards the first unmasked Death Eater he saw, Neville charged into the middle of the fray. A scarlet Stunner shot by his head so close he felt the warmth of it against his ear, striking the wall just beside another Death Eater who had kept his gleaming anonymity. He ignored it, flinging the Venomous Tentacula into the lumpish, heavy-browed face of Crabbe's father.
There was no time to watch the hungry plant reel in its victim. His wand was already in his hand, and he turned, dueling the second Death Eater who had been intended for the Stunner that had come so close to him. A huge crash of shattering glass filled the air as the fight spilled into the entry hall properly, and the floor was suddenly a treachery of emeralds as the last of the giant hourglasses burst. Another crack, a splintering of wood, and Neville barely dodged the two bodies that fell from above as the railing shattered in a cloud of flying, razor-sharp splinters.
One figure was small, a boy who could be no older than fourth year, but the other was a woman's body, and despite the shroud of chalky dust that covered everyone in a uniform pallor, there was no mistaking those purple eyes. Lavender moaned, struggling to rise again with an ominous grating of broken bones that refused to obey her will.
There was a blur of movement, too low for a human being, and then someone – something – else was on her. He could not abandon his own opponent, but Neville saw out of the corner of his eye that it was Greyback, and the werewolf cast a brief, mocking glance up at him as he licked his lips. "Dessert delivered again, I see…."
The grotesque face ducked, and Neville screamed in hate and fury and horror as Lavender stiffened, her back arching as her fingers scrabbled the floor weakly. The Stunner burst from his wand with such power that it plowed through the Death Eater's protections as though they didn't exist, and he wheeled, wand whipping back to strike out with a Killing Curse, but just then, something else flashed through the air, striking the werewolf with a crack and flinging him hard across the melee to smash against the carved marble banister. Greyback began to rise, but something else large and heavy flew down at him, striking precisely between the narrow eyes and knocking him out cold.
Above them, Professor Trelawney crowed in triumph. "I have more! More for any who want them! Here –" She flung another of the heavy crystal orbs, but Neville did not look to see nor did he care who her victim was this time. He dropped to his knees, grabbing Lavender's shoulder and rolling her towards him.
"Lavender! Lave –" But it was too late. His words choked away as he looked down into the mangled crush of her once-creamy throat and the eyes she had been named for that now turned cloudy with falling dust as they stared unseeing at the broken balcony above.
A loud, splintering crash echoed through the air, yanking his attention away from his friend's body, and he jumped to his feet, wand poised as the doors Ernie had so bravely defended for so long were torn off their hinges. Screams rang out, high and thin with panic, and duels were forgotten as the fighters on both sides fled a new and greater fear. The spiders had returned.
Five of the monstrous arachnids were crowded into the doorway in a tangle of crawling limbs and clicking mandibles, and Neville was among the handful who stayed, who tried to return the attack, to hold them off, keep them out…but nothing worked. Even the Killing Curse bounced off their thick carapaces, doing nothing more than enraging them to rear up on their hind legs, showing of their size to its truest and most terrifying extent. Neville did not run, but it was not lack of fear. His legs simply would not move, rooted to the spot as he continued to fire at them, too panicked to panic properly.
"Don't hurt 'em, don't hurt 'em!" Hagrid had appeared at the top of the stairs, brandishing the frilly pink umbrella that he must have rescued from Snape's confiscation as he charged directly at the monsters, admonishing them like disobedient dogs.
Harry's shout came from nowhere, and then Harry himself quite literally, manifesting from thin air in a way that could only mean he had been there all along beneath his Invisibility Cloak. Hagrid had been pulled in among the spiders now, vanishing in a tangle of writhing, hairy legs as thick as saplings, but whether they considered themselves cowed by a master or satisfied with prey, they retreated, pulling the half-giant with them back towards the forest.
Harry followed at a run, still screaming Hagrid's name, and the sight of their last chance throwing himself away like that snapped Neville out of it. He began to charge forward, but his attempt at calling after Harry was struck short by a groaning, creaking rumble.
There was less than a second for him to even guess what it was or where it was coming from, and then he was knocked to the floor, the remainder of the balcony above smashing down around him as a high, shrill, horrible laugh filled the air. Neville tried to get to his feet again, sweat breaking out cold across his face as he recognized it, oh, he recognized it, and he knew the collapse had been no accident.
He was pinned, his wand hand trapped beneath him uselessly, held under a hundred times more weight than the strongest of them could hope to budge. He struggled, but the beams only held him tighter, yet they did not fall in on themselves, never crushing, just holding, confirming his darkest suspicions that they had been cursed. Then the laugh again, and the woman who stepped out of the cloud of dust was the woman who had set him on this path all those years ago, and he screamed her name in raw, throat-grating hate. "BELLATRIX!"
She was there clearly now, her heavy-lidded eyes glittering with the bloodlust that the night's carnage hadn't even begun to sate, and he thrashed even harder, no longer caring if it was futile. "Let me up! Or are you afraid to fight me now that I'm older and have a wand?!"
"Oooh…" she leaned in closely, staring at him like a fascinating, exotic insect she was about to step on. "Iddle Longbottom's aw gwown up, id he? Thinks he can pway now?" She giggled, and it was the sickest sound he had ever heard, then she tapped him lightly on the nose with her wand. "Crucio."
It had been spoken almost off-handedly, but the skill and practice and profound sadistic love behind it were more than enough to elevate the curse to its highest art form. As the blinding, obliterating, all-consuming agony swept him, his last coherent thought was that really, none of them had been Cruciated at all this year. Because this wasn't something you could ever brag about.
This was an Unforgivable, and it was worse than it had been in the Department of Mysteries, because that time she had been holding back, it had been 'just a taster' to frighten Harry, because this time he couldn't scream, he couldn't writhe, he could do nothing but exist in a state of purest torment and feel his mind slowly begin to come apart at the seams, because she wasn't lifting it, she wasn't going to lift it and oh god oh god oh god this was hell hellmakeitstopsorrymothersorryharryohgodohgod…..
"GET AWAY FROM HIM!"
Like the rope snapping on a hangman's noose, the curse lifted. His body begged to release him into unconsciousness, blackness closing on the edges of his vision as he saw, through eyes that suddenly only offered the world in black and white and a very small tunnel, Romilda Vane holding Bellatrix at wandpoint, her chin thrust out, her own black curls tossed back, and something about that seemed wrong for a reason he couldn't quite put his finger on.
Then Bellatrix laughed again, and Romilda was thrown back against the remains of the broken doors, deliberately impaled like a pinned butterfly on a splinter as thick as the young witch's arm that protruded horribly from her stomach. She looked down, both hands gripping it in shock as her wand clattered to the floor, then Bellatrix's own wand came down in a vicious, swiping backhand stroke. "Sectumsempra!"
Romilda screamed as a deep slash appeared across her face, opening her cheek to bone and slicing off the end of her nose. Again and again the wand came down, slashing his would-be rescuer to unrecognizable shreds, pausing only to strike down Ritchie Coote in an almost unthinking flick and flash when he tried to stop her, tried to save the girl who's screams had now become gurgles, sobs, and finally a thin, bubbling rattle.
Neville could do nothing. His body was still reeling, he was still pinned, his mind refusing to accept what his eyes were telling him was happening, and before the darkness finally closed over him in blessed release, the last thing he saw was Bellatrix LeStrange blowing him a kiss.
Yet strangely, his last thought was not of her. Instead, it was of the young wizard he had last seen running after Hagrid towards a tangle of monsters.
Please, Harry…make this all worth it.