The Phoenix and the Serpent
Note to the Reader: (Jan 1, 2008)
This is an Alternate Universe tale. I began it 6 years ago, post-"Goblet of Fire." After the death of Cedric Diggory, a year follows wherein Voldemort takes no direct action against the wizarding world and Harry's life is at a relative, if uneasy, peace. Things change on his 6th Year, however, and this is where our story begins.
Chapter I: Choices and Changes
The second war against the Dark Lord Voldemort, commonly known as the Phoenix War, lasted only a year and a month. However, the devastation caused by this conflict was proportionally greater than any war in wizarding history…Economists and historians agree that, had the war lasted one more season, it is likely there would not have been enough left upon which to rebuild.
-- Excerpts from "The Phoenix War," Encyclopedia Arcana
The year prior to the Phoenix War was a grand exercise in self-delusion. Despite all the signs, despite the Dark Mark appearing during the Quidditch World Cup, we had successfully convinced ourselves that the Dark Lord's return was just a yarn to scare children with; his Death Eaters a mere rabble we occasionally read about in the Daily Prophet. We never imagined he would come back, like a recurring nightmare, to darken our peaceful, orderly world.
And we never dreamed that our champion, the boy-hero who would rise to challenge the Dark Lord, would not restore that world, but split it asunder. Perhaps forever.
This is their tale. I tell it now as history, but with another turn of the season, it will be told as legend.
--Excerpts from Ciaran McCallow's Seasons in Shadow: Essays on the War Against The Dark Lord
It was early morning of September 2nd. After finishing a light breakfast, Albus Dumbledore seated himself behind the oak desk in his quarters. There was much work to be done. His guest would be arriving soon, and important decisions had to be made before then.
And of course, there was the matter of Harry Potter. Today he would meet with the boy and tell him the plan he had been working on for more than a year. Today, he would ask Harry to perform a task for him. He did not want to ask him this, because he knew the boy would say yes.
"Which is why I'm here procrastinating," Dumbledore muttered, leaning back and shutting his eyes, "instead of calling him first thing in the morning."
Dumbledore let his gaze wander about the room he had lived in for more than fifty years as Headmaster of Hogwarts. The portraits of former Headmasters of Hogwarts slept placidly in their frames. History books and grimoires from all over sat on his shelves, dog-eared and carelessly cataloged. An ancient globe sat in the corner, marking all the nations existing in the world, as well as some that didn't. A tall, unoccupied perch stood by the window—Fawkes, his pet phoenix, was likely flying about the grounds for some exercise. In a little while, the rest of the studentry would be assembling in their classrooms to begin another year.
It was a wonderful school, and every year of his life here was a year well-spent. He had been happy to be around so many young people. Their very presence lent him youth and energy. He did not wish for things to change now, to have the balance he'd worked so hard for shift once more.
But that is the child in me complaining, he thought with a rueful smile.
He had a duty to perform. He owed it to the children entrusted to his care. He owed it to the people who looked to him for security in these dark times. He owed it to those who had given their lives in the previous war to preserve this way of life. As he had told the Order of the Phoenix, we all have a role to fulfill, and no one suffers alone.
Dumbledore's reverie was interrupted by the glow of a crystal ball on his desk. The light flared brightly for a moment to catch his attention, then faded to reveal the face of Minerva McGonagall. "Professor Dumbledore," she said, "Alastor Moody has arrived and is here to see you."
Dumbledore leaned forward and said, "He's arrived too early, as usual. Please show him in. I will meet with him presently."
"Of course, Professor," responded McGonagall. When Dumbledore did not move away from the crystal, she said, "Is there…something else?"
Dumbledore said, "I would also appreciate it if you ask Mr. Potter to come to my office as soon as possible."
"He is at the Great Hall right now, having breakfast with the rest of Gryffindor."
"Then I'm afraid we must interrupt him. Please apologize for me, as this cannot wait."
With a courteous nod, McGonagall's face vanished from the surface of the crystal.
"So it must be," Dumbledore whispered. He stood up to pour himself some sweet wine, then stopped. Later, after the meeting. He sighed again, leaned back on his chair once more.
He let his thoughts dwell for a few moments on the boy who would soon walk into his office. Harry was a brave and strong, but he was still only a boy. It was hardly fair that he suffer any more than he already had. Harry had been forced to carry a heavy burden since he was just a baby, having to live with cruel Muggles for his own protection after Voldemort murdered his parents. In the years that followed he had faced Voldemort three more times, and the last encounter was a very near thing, too near. On top of it all, he had witnessed the death of Cedric Diggory, and doubtless he held himself in some way responsible.
It had been a year since the last time Dumbledore had talked to Harry in this very office. School had just begun, and one of the first things that Harry did was come talk to him. Dumbledore could still remember exactly what was said.
"I've decided not to play for Gryffindor this year, sir."
He remembered feeling regret the moment he heard those words, regret that he had not seen to Harry's peace of mind as well as he had to his security.
"They already found a substitute Seeker from the Fourth years. Wallace, I think."
Harry did not answer. He seemed to have found something interesting to look at in his hands.
"Does this have something to do with Cedric's death?"
After a time, Harry nodded.
"I understand. I do not think it is a good idea, Harry, and I'm sure your friends have given you all the reasons why it isn't. Still, it is your decision, and I understand. I take it…your captain was less than pleased?"
Harry gave a small, bitter smile.
"Angelina was a good sport about it. I knew she was fuming, though; she must've wanted to make waves this year as captain, and I let her down. Professor McGonagall hasn't said a word to me since—I suppose that would be a good thing. Oliver would've taken it worse. I bet he'd have half of Gryffindor lynching me for abandoning them against the Slytherins. As for Ron…"
A short knock on his door interrupted his thoughts. "Come in, Harry," said Dumbledore.
The door opened, almost hesitantly, and the boy entered.
"Good morning, Headmaster."
Dumbledore smiled and motioned for him to sit down. "And good morning to you. Please, make yourself comfortable."
Dumbledore studied him as he made his way to the chair and sat down. They'd had little time to talk over the past year—he could count with one hand the number of times they greeted each other in passing. Physically, the boy had changed little. Perhaps just a wee bit taller, but still that messy dark hair and lean frame. Perhaps the girls still sigh and giggle over him whenever he walked past. The difference lay in his eyes. Instead of the spirited, carefree look they had when he first came to Hogwarts, there was now a subtle guardedness. Dumbledore sighed. If there had been a way for him to give Harry a little more guidance, a little more sympathy, he would have done it. But some demons had to be faced alone.
Dumbledore reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a jar. "Would you care for some sweets? Perhaps some butterbeer…?"
"No, thank you, Professor. I'm rather full."
Dumbledore nodded. He opened the jar and retrieved a Chocolate Frog for himself.
"Tell me, Harry," he said. "How do you like your new teachers?"
"They're alright, sir."
"I understand that the Defense Against the Dark Arts class was popular last year. How goes it this year?"
Harry smiled a bit. "Professor Summershield's okay, though the lessons are a bit tame. Nobody else seems to think so, though. They're all rather attentive when she talks. At least the boys are."
"And what about your Potions Professor?"
At this, Harry seemed uncomfortable. "Sir…I don't mean to be rude, but do you think Professor Cowl will ever teach us an actual potion? All he ever talks about is how the potions are used. We never do anything hands-on."
The Headmaster merely smiled. "I'll look into that, Harry, but it seems you'll just have to be patient with Professor Cowl. He studied to be a historian, not a Potions Master. I'm afraid there's been a lack of them nowadays, and not anyone can be like Severus Snape."
"It seems so, sir."
Dumbledore nodded, then changed subjects. "Let me ask you something," he said, unwrapping the Chocolate Frog, "It's not my business, but do you think you'll be playing Quidditch this year?"
Harry was quiet for a minute, then just shrugged. "I'm not sure yet, sir. I still have to think about it."
Dumbledore sat silently for another moment. Perhaps asking him was not a good idea, after all. The boy had enough problems. There were other plans, other ways.
But Harry was looking at him curiously now. "Professor Dumbledore, is that what you wanted to talk to me about? If I'm going to play Quidditch?"
Well, thought Dumbledore, should I lie to him, just say that I wanted to find out how he was, and send him back to breakfast? No, that was right out. He had never lied to Harry, and now was not a time to start.
So he said, "I called you here because I wanted to share something with you, something I've been considering all year now."
Harry nodded. "It's about Voldemort, isn't it?"
Dumbledore looked at him somberly. "Yes, I'm afraid it is." He stood up, retrieved his wand from his pocket, muttered a few words. The room crackled with power, as if a current of electricity had passed through the air. All the windows snapped shut. The lights in the room grew dim. Sounds from outside died away. Even the sunlight coming in from the slits of the window became weak and faded.
The headmaster looked right at Harry. His thin frame radiated power, and his kindly gaze turned sharp. "What I will tell you must not leave this room. People's lives are riding on the things we say and the decisions we make. For your sake and safety, you must not tell anyone what I am about to tell you now. Do you understand?"
Harry did not move, transfixed by his gaze. "Yes."
Dumbledore relaxed and the dweomer left him. "First I will tell you my plan," he said, sitting down. "Then I will make a request of you, to which you will be free to say yes or no, given what you have heard. Alright?"
He looked into Harry's eyes and was surprised to see that the guarded look there had disappeared—instead their was only grim determination. As it well should be, thought the headmaster. He is, after all, a Gryffindor.
"Very well," said Dumbledore. "Let us assess the situation."
"We know, firstly, that Voldemort is alive and hiding with his followers in a place somewhere in the south. Where exactly we are not certain, but we will be. Our concern now is that he is consolidating his power. Some of his old allies have vanished from the public. Muggle news say that people have been disappearing as of late. Also, Hagrid tells me that the giants have been cool to our offers of friendship. I am certain, more than ever, that Voldemort is raising an army. When he is ready, he will invade.
"To counter his plans, I have gathered together some people to help fight him."
"The Order of the Phoe—" Harry stopped, realizing what he had just done.
Dumbledore smiled. "It's alright, Harry. As I have said before, in Hogwarts, secrets are hard to keep. Still, we shall keep this discussion to ourselves, right?"
Harry nodded, and the headmaster continued, "As you know, the Ministry is reluctant to help. We must help ourselves. Thus the Order. Our members are able-bodied and strong. Still, should there be war the damage to both sides would be most grievous, and the conflict would spread beyond the wizarding world. The outcome will be bleak whether we win or lose. So it is with most wars. Do you understand, Harry?"
"Yes, I see your point, sir."
"Would you agree, then, that it is in our best interest to keep the conflict as short as possible?"
"I agree. But how can that be done?"
Dumbledore's eyes turned sad. Now came the hard part. "I hate to bring back bad memories, Harry, but as I said before, all we speak of here is important. Tell me, do you remember what happened at the end of the Tri-Wizard Tournament? Do you remember when you told me that the Dark Lord had risen?"
If Harry felt anything—grief, anger, fear—it did not show on his face. "Yes, Professor."
"Do you remember the spell Pettigrew cast to create Voldemort's body?"
Harry flinched at remembered pain. "Yes."
Dumbledore's brows furrowed. "The Dark Arts give many rewards to its followers, Harry. They can even give life, after a fashion. But the ways of Darkness are steeped in suffering and death. There is always a dreadful price."
Harry looked down at this forearm, as if he could still see the scar through the sleeves of his robes. "He took my blood."
"And in doing so," said Dumbledore as he leaned back on his chair, "he now shares the protection bestowed upon you when you were just a baby. He has made sure that he will not be beaten the same way again."
Harry raised his eyes to meet Dumbledore's. "Is it true then, Professor? Is it true what he said, that he can't die?"
Dumbledore did not answer immediately. "I can't think of a way to kill him, if that's what you're asking," he said.
Harry slumped back on his chair. "Then there is no way to defeat him. Voldemort would just keep coming back, wouldn't he?"
"There is a way, Harry. One way." Dumbledore took his wand once more and traced patterns in the air. The space before Harry shimmered and he found himself staring at the largest, most delicately cut jewel he had ever seen. Even the wan sunlight sparkled on its blood-red surface. Every facet perfectly reflected Harry's awed expression.
Dumbledore leaned with his elbows on the desk. "Let me tell you a story."
Though he did not need to, Harry leaned closer as well. Dumbledore spent a moment gathering his thoughts. When he spoke again, his voice had grown soft and aged, his eyes looking at somewhere far away.
"Many centuries ago," he said, "before the Four had even dreamed of founding Hogwarts and the Celts still roamed this land, there lived a great witch named Dahlia. Her knowledge of magic was both wide and deep, but so was her thirst for power. Thus she was corrupted, and walked the way of Nightgaunt, Halvan and Grindelwald into the Dark Arts. She held council with vampires and other fell beings, and disappeared from the people's sight. When she returned, she had become something else. She became known as the Cimmerian Sorceress. Her power was staggering, incomparable. Many challenged her and died horribly, for like Voldemort, she too had conquered death. Within a year it seemed the land would fall into her grasp.
"But there was one who rose to challenge her and succeeded. This man was her own kin, her cousin Volarius. Volarius was wise and gifted with farsight. Since he could not hope to kill Dahlia, he decided he had to imprison her. After much research, he discovered how to do it.
"From meteorite ore he crafted a gemstone. He charmed it with sap from a Sylvan tree to make it unbreakable. He crafted its facets with fire, and polished its surface with ice. When he had finished, the gem was a pale, clear crystal, the size of a human heart.
"But he needed other things to complete his Crystal Cage. To control it, he had to infuse it with something that belonged to him. And to capture the Cimmerian Sorceress, he also had to infuse it with something that belonged to her. But though he schemed and plotted, he could not near enough to steal something from Dahlia. So he used the next best thing, the one thing that he shared with her—his own blood.
"He cut his wrist and fused his blood with the Crystal, turning it into a crimson gem. Then he confronted Dahlia and the two fought a terrible battle at Stonehenge. When he used the Crystal, it pulsed with power and drew Dahlia into itself. The Cimmerian Sorceress was no more, trapped forever in Volarius's cage."
Dumbledore paused for a moment. Harry, who had been hanging on to his every word, asked, "Then what happened, Professor?"
"Well," the Headmaster went on, "the people then did not know how Volarius defeated Dahlia, only that the Cimmerian Sorceress was gone and that there was peace in the land. Volarius could have been king, but instead he retired to a quiet life. He took his Crystal Cage and kept it in his secret vault. There was no danger of Dahlia escaping from it, but he kept it safe nonetheless till the day he died. Then his family took over its guardianship. From then on, the Crystal was passed on from generation to generation, but its secret was known only to a precious few.
"Volarius was a good man but he was not naïve. He was aware that other wizards, even those of his kin, lusted for power, and evil deeds could be done should the Crystal fall into the wrong hands. So when he created it, he altered the Imprisonment Charm such that the Crystal's magic would work only under two conditions. First, the Crystal could only work in the hands of someone from his bloodline. And the second…" Dumbledore's eyes twinkled at Harry. "The second is that it would only work against someone from his bloodline."
Harry blinked at this, puzzled. Dumbledore went on.
"After many years, the story of Dahlia and the Crystal's secret were lost to memory, existing only in the dustiest of history books. The Crystal was passed on as a family heirloom, considered as nothing more than a pretty trinket. Last we know, it had been turned over to one of the last surviving branches of Volarius's family…the Evans."
Harry's eyes widened in shock. "You mean…my mother's family!"
"Precisely, Harry. I am sure neither Lily Evans nor her family knew of the Crystal's properties, being mostly of non-magical stock. However, I am sure that your maternal grandmother kept it as her personal treasure—she refused to sell it off even when the Evans faced hard times. From the research we have done, we believe that she had been buried with it."
Harry sat quietly, thinking things over. He looked up after a time and said, "Professor, you're saying that we can use this crystal as a weapon…"
The Headmaster nodded.
"You're saying…I'm to use it…against Voldemort."
Dumbledore did not respond. He merely looked at Harry.
"But it won't work on him! Volarius's conditions—"
He stopped, eye widening in comprehension.
"The spell! The spell Pettigrew cast to create Voldemort's body! He took bone, flesh...and my blood!"
"Yes," said the Headmaster. "Blood contains life force, the very essence of a person. That is why it carries Protective Charms so well. When Voldemort crafted his body, he infused himself with your own wards. A master stroke, indeed." He smoothed his beard. "But even a master stroke can have a blind-side."
They sat silently for a while. Dumbledore could see that that same guarded look coming over Harry's eyes as the boy gazed into the illusionary Crystal. He had no idea what it could mean, but he should say what he had to say.
"Now I will make my request of you, Harry," he said. "I ask you to go on a journey to obtain the Crystal Cage from your mother's hometown. It will respond only to you, Harry. There is no one else for this task. When you have found a way to master it, I will ask you to face Voldemort once more…"
He stopped and watched Harry's expression. Still nothing. He went on, "You have been through much these past years, too much for anyone of your age to bear…therefore, I do not order you to do this. I can only ask—"
Dumbledore stopped, looked long and hard at Harry. The boy did not seem the least bit afraid. "Harry, this journey is no simple adventure. You will be in danger. The agents of Voldemort are everywhere. And there may be unforeseen circumstances…"
Harry drew in a deep breath. "Professor, you have a plan to keep me safe on this journey, right?"
"Yes, I do."
Harry nodded. "I trust you, sir. I'm going."
Dumbledore heaved a long sigh. So it must be.
Harry's eyes maintained his resolve, but he also looked a little pale.
"I could really use some butterbeer now."
Dumbledore smiled and said, "I have something better, if you don't mind. Do you drink wine?"
Harry fidgeted, "Um, not as a habit, sir. Mr. Weasley once poured me some elderflower wine back at the Burrow. It was okay, I suppose."
The Headmaster waved his wand to dispel the illusion, then Summoned a bottle of wine and two goblets to the table. "Have some with me, then. This one's white plum. I rather like the taste, reminds me of springtime."
They drank a toast. Harry sipped lightly from the wine at first, nodded in approval, and drank more.
"Yes, my boy?"
"Will the trip be a long one?"
The old man paused. "Traveling there and back is easy. My agent has scouted the area and installed a Portkey beforehand, since you can't Apparate and the Ministry is not going to let us go there by Floo. The search for the Crystal will take a long while. Two weeks will be the limit for you. If you cannot locate the Crystal before then, you must return."
"I'm afraid I can't send any of your friends with you either. And communication with Hogwarts will be put to a minimum, all for security reasons…so if you change your mind…"
Harry looked somewhat miffed. "I won't. I already said I'm going." He looked at Dumbledore and said, "Sir? What did you think I was going to say?"
Dumbledore gave a small shrug. "I was afraid you'd say yes."
"It's a good plan, sir. You were right when you said we had to win this war with as little as conflict as possible. If we can get to Voldemort first, then the fight's over. We must find the Crystal Cage. Or at least try."
"He will be after you too, Harry."
"I know sir, but…" he paused, and Dumbledore saw resolve surface sharply on his face.
"I can't run from this. I don't want to keep my head down here while everyone else faces the danger. Why should I be any different? We all have responsibilities."
Dumbledore's smile was small and sad. "Don't you think you've put yourself under too much of it?"
Harry looked at him evenly, then said, "I've thought of that before. But then I remembered what you said last year to everyone in the Great Hall. Before the summer began."
Harry's grip tightened around the goblet in his pale hand. "'Remember Cedric,'" he said, "'if the time should come when you have to make a choice between what is right and what is easy, remember Cedric.'" He finished the rest of his wine and said, "How do we begin, sir?"
It took another half-hour of explanations before the final details of the plan were laid out. While Dumbledore paced around his desk, carefully explaining, Harry's eyes continued to widen in amazement. After the old man finished, Harry just sat still.
"Are you alright, lad?"
"…Yes sir. It's just that…I had no idea we'd have to take such measures…"
"I understand your concern. But you must remember that Voldemort's spies are everywhere. Nowhere is completely safe. Not even here."
Harry nodded numbly.
"Very well. Well and good." He gave Harry a small pat on the shoulder. As he gazed at the boy, he felt hope soar in his heart, the same hope he felt when he had founded the Order. Yes, this plan could work. Harry would find the Crystal—wasn't that what he did best, finding things? Yes, he would claim it, master it, and bring down the Dark Lord before he could inflict any horrors upon the world. And he, Dumbledore, would make sure Harry would live to tell about it.
"I will see you tomorrow evening then, Harry," he said, eyes twinkling. "And hopefully, Mr. Weasley and Ms. Granger as well."
Another goblet of wine, another round of well-wishing, and Harry left the Headmaster's office.
He stepped onto the staircase and allowed it to carry him back to the entrance. The gargoyle at the door sniffed the air once as he approached, and made way for him to pass. Out the door he went, into the halls of Hogwarts once more.
Then he sank into the nearest chair and clasped his hands between his legs.
What did I just say yes to?
He was not sure, but he knew he had said no to a great many things. No to the first two weeks of his Sixth year. No to wonderful, sumptuous meals in the Great Hall. No to the comforts of a cheery Common Room, playing chess by the fire. No to the luxury of a soft four-poster bed. Perhaps even no to Quidditch, for a second year in a row. If they found out, Fred and George would murder him. Ron would be the accessory.
He would be saying no to Ron and Hermione. He had to tell his two best friends that he was going away. He had to tell them they couldn't go with him, not this time. And he couldn't tell them why.
And what about her, Harry? a voice asked him. Are you going to tell her?
For an awful moment, Harry felt his resolve weaken. Two weeks on a dangerous journey, two weeks away from her. What if he never saw her again? Would she even care? He leaned forward, touching his forehead to his clasped hands, wondering if he should talk to her again after so long, wondering if he even had the courage to try.
Eventually, he calmed himself and stood up. He didn't have to make that decision right now. That, at least, was a consolation. For now there was Ron and Hermione to deal with.
Harry drew in a deep breath to clear his mind, then strode towards Gryffindor Tower.
To be continued
Chapter II: "Mad-Eye Moody Returns"