Disclaimer: I don't own Harry Potter. Also, this fic is based on Aya Macchiato's story 'Harry Potter and the Gift of the Morrighan'. With permission.
A Necessary Gift: A Harry Potter Story.
Chapter Twenty One
It seemed that attending a Samhain Ball at Black Manor was becoming something of a yearly tradition for Harry - but as he sat stiffly in the drawing room, on his best behaviour in the presence of his Grandmother Melania and Grandfather Arcturus, he thought to himself that it was a tradition he could easily do without. His formal robes were horribly uncomfortable, the number of expected guests was much too large, and the wild magic of Samhain was making Harry's skin tingle unpleasantly. He'd been feeling off all day and what he really wanted to do was go home, relax, and enjoy some peace and quiet.
"Well isn't this cosy?" Melania said with a beaming smile. "Just us family here until our guests arrive."
"Indeed, my dear," Arcturus said, stepping forwards to hand Sirius a drink before taking a seat beside his wife. "It is a great pleasure to have our family gathered here and to know that the Black bloodline will continue through the next generations." He nodded at Harry with an approving smile.
Harry shook off his bad mood long enough to smile back. As much as he disagreed with some of Arcturus' views on blood purity and politics, he'd grown to like and respect the man. Harry was still unused to having relatives who didn't hate him, but it was certainly a nice change.
"It's a pity Aunt Cassie isn't here though," Sirius put in.
Melania frowned. "Oh, she's busy with one of her ridiculous experiments, as usual. She hasn't bothered to help with any of the arrangements, which I think is really very selfish of her. I've had to do everything myself – the music, the decorations, the refreshments. Organising a ball is far from easy, you know."
"You've done a wonderful job, as always, Grandmother," Sirius said. If he'd been hoping to use flattery to cut off Melania's complaints, his attempt failed.
"Of course I have," Melania said impatiently. "Despite all the obstacles put in my way," she added with frown at Harry. "Why, when I tried to arrange for the Headless Hunt to perform tonight, they turned me down flat! The ghosts all refused to be in the same building as you, Orion.
Harry tried not to look too guilty. "Oh. Sorry."
Melania was not appeased. "Really, I don't know what you were thinking, exorcising Binns in front of everybody. I can understand wanting to get rid of him, but to do so in such an uncouth manner is beneath the dignity of a Black."
"It was an accident," Harry lied. "I miscast a spell because of my wand... it's a second hand one, you see, so it doesn't always work very well." That last bit was actually true, up to a point. The birch wand Harry had bought when he'd first arrived had been growing increasingly unreliable, though it had yet to affect his spell casting too badly.
"What? Why in Merlin's name do you not have a proper wand?" Melania demanded and then turned to Sirius. "Did you know about this?"
"Well..." Sirius began, but was quickly interrupted.
"You should get him a new one at once!" Melania ordered.
"Orion isn't too keen on Ollivanders," Sirius said while beside him Harry nodded his fervent agreement.
"That's no reason to stunt your son's magical growth!" Melania snapped. "You have to stop spoiling the boy, Sirius. You let him get away with far too much. He's twelve years old – he needs rules and discipline."
"I'm sitting right here," Harry grumbled, but Melania took no notice of him. Instead she continued to harangue Sirius until he promised to buy Harry a new wand before he went back to Hogwarts.
Harry hated the idea, since a trip to Ollivanders meant possibly ending up with Voldemort's brother wand. It wasn't just a question of avoiding drawing the attention of Dumbledore – in Harry's mind the wand was a symbol of his connection to Voldemort and his involvement in the Prophecy. As much as he had tried to convince himself that he'd left all that behind him, Harry didn't want to risk finding out otherwise. He wanted nothing to do with the trappings of the Boy Who Lived and so planned to put off buying a new wand for as long as possible.
Yet in some ways Harry appreciated Melania's interference, since he knew she was honestly trying to help. His Black relatives all wanted him to become the best wizard he could be (although it was probably less for his own sake and more for the sake of the family as a whole) and he was grateful for their concern. It was a welcome contrast to the Dursleys, who had always hoped for his failure and never his success. Being a member of the Black family came with certain responsibilities, however, as Arcturus soon reminded them all.
"I am sure Orion will benefit from a properly matched wand, allowing his already impressive skills to improve still further," Arcturus said before turning to Sirius with a stern look. "Your performance, however, is less than satisfactory."
Sirius immediately looked defensive. "What do you mean?"
Arcturus didn't deign to give a verbal reply, instead just throwing a copy of the Daily Prophet down onto the table between them. Both Harry and Sirius leaned forwards to read the front page headline - 'Sirius Black Reveals Cure For Lycanthropy! Lily Potter Hailed as Potions Prodigy!'
"Oh, that," Sirius said. "It's an exaggeration, you know. The Wolfsbane Potion isn't a cure, it just helps with the transformations..."
"Such details do not interest me," Arcturus coldly interrupted. "The issue at hand is your complete disregard for your duties as my heir. I do not seek to control your every action, Sirius, but I do require that you respect me as your Paterfamilias."
Sirius just looked at him. "Who says I don't?"
"Your actions have made it more than obvious!" Arcturus snapped. "Instead of informing me of your plans, you left me to discover the existence of the Wolfsbane Potion through the Daily Prophet. I should not have to tell you that that is utterly unacceptable, Sirius!"
"I'm sorry if I offended you," Sirius said without much sincerity. "I don't see how the Potion has anything to do with you, however – I'm the one who holds the patent while Lily was the one who invented it."
Arcturus' frown deepened. "Don't be so obtuse. Such an invention is of great importance to everyone and our family could have benefited greatly from it. If you had told us of your plans, we could have attributed the Potion's invention to Cassiopeia or another member of our family, allowing us to reap the ensuing accolades and further improve our standing in society."
"It's Lily Potter's creation, not ours," Sirius argued.
Arcturus waved the remark away. "What good does it do a dead woman?" he asked rhetorically. Sirius looked rather mutinous at that, but Arcturus was far from finished. "If you had consulted me, I would have been willing to support your plans to improve the lot of werewolves. The first rush of surprise over the potion could have been used to push through new laws and repeal old ones. Such things take time and preparation, however. We have lost the advantage our prior knowledge could have given us - opponents such as Dolores Umbridge will have had time to recover from their surprise and will be prepared to fight against any changes to the current legislation."
Listening to him, Harry was inclined to think Arcturus had a point and that he should have been told about the Wolfsbane Potion. The idea simply hadn't occurred to him before - Harry had always felt as if it was him and Sirius against the world, but maybe that should change.
Sirius seemed to be thinking along similar lines. "Would you really have helped?" he asked Arcturus with a hint of guilt in his voice. "I didn't think... I mean, you've never supported the rights of magical creatures before."
Arcturus gave an elegant shrug. "Indeed I have not, yet I am not so inflexible, I hope, as to ignore the changed circumstances. With the Wolfsbane Potion werewolves will no longer be as great a threat to society. In any case, Sirius, you are the future of the Black Family and I would be willing to offer my support on that basis alone. It is a simple matter of political expediency."
Sirius abruptly reverted to his earlier belligerence. "Yes, politics is all you seem to care about," he said bitterly. "I suppose it was also politically expedient to leave me to rot in Azkaban. For all your talk of family loyalty, you were quick enough to abandon me when it suited you. Orion is the only person who even tried to help me and so he's the only one who deserves my trust and respect!"
"Sirius, how can you say such a thing!" Melania protested. "I can only suppose that your mudblood friends are to blame for your rude behaviour - I've always said they're a bad influence." Her words fell on deaf ears, however as none of the others in the room gave any sign of listening to her.
Sirius and Arcturus glared at each other across the coffee table. "I do not deny that Orion played a significant role in your release, Sirius," Arcturus said after a pause. "But surely you cannot be so naive as to think he managed it singlehandedly?"
Harry wondered what Arcturus meant by that. It was true that people like Mr Weasley and Madame Bones had helped, but he was the one who had pointed out that Sirius had never had a trial and told them where to find Pettigrew. He glanced over to see if Sirius had a better idea of what was going on, but he looked as confused as Harry felt.
"Your innocence was very inconvenient for a lot of people," Arcturus continued. "There were many witches and wizards who benefited from your incarceration in Azkaban and who were prepared to go to great lengths to keep you there. Without my intervention Madame Bones would have been silenced and Pettigrew conveniently allowed to escape."
"But..." Sirius began before trailing off, apparently lost for words.
Arcturus sighed, all signs of anger draining away. "Sirius, I wish I could have helped you earlier, but even my political influence was insufficient to ensure your acquittal without proper proof. As soon as Pettigrew was captured I took the advantage of the situation to arrange a trial for you. I swear it on my magic."
That was not a promise any wizard made lightly and Harry believed him immediately. He wondered how much blackmail and bribery had been involved in Sirius' release, since off the top of his head he could think of several people who had reasons for keeping the Black heir locked up. Barty Crouch had never struck Harry as the sort of person who liked being proved wrong, Lucius Malfoy had surely wanted to get Sirius out of the way so that Draco could inherit the Black fortune, and Fudge had always been willing to go to great lengths to hide any ministerial wrongdoings. Harry hated the corruption in the Ministry, but was glad that for once it had been made to work in his favour. Whatever Arcturus had done, Harry was grateful to him.
Sirius looked shaken. "Why didn't you tell me any of this before?"
"I thought you knew that you could always count on the support of your family," Arcturus said simply. "I'm afraid I misjudged the extent of your mistrust."
"Grandfather..." Sirius shifted awkwardly in his seat.
"I also forgot to take into account that you are a Gryffindor and therefore blind to political manoeuvrings," Arcturus added with a wry smile.
Sirius gave a weak laugh, but took the hint and let the matter drop. "I'm sorry, Grandfather," was all he said before returning to the earlier subject of the Wolfsbane Potion. "You're right - I should have informed you of my plans."
Arcturus graciously accepted the apology, but Sirius had more to add. "With that in mind, I suppose I should tell you that I've arranged for Andromeda to become the new History Professor at Hogwarts," he announced, looking pleased with himself. "It took a bit of convincing of both her and the Board of Governors, but she should be starting work next week."
Harry joined Melania and Arcturus in staring at Sirius in astonishment. He'd been looking forward to being taught by anyone who wasn't Binns, but hadn't known that Sirius had someone specific in mind. He supposed Andromeda was a good choice though, since she had a good grasp on wizarding culture without being a pureblood supremacist.
"That's great news!" Harry grinned enthusiastically. "I like Aunt Andromeda."
Sirius looked grateful for the support, especially when Melania made it clear that she was far from happy. "Andromeda is a blood traitor!" she protested. "By marrying that Tonks person she showed a blatant disregard for her Black heritage and noble blood. You really shouldn't be allowing Orion to mix with such Undesirables, Sirius."
"Andy is family and family is important," Sirius argued.
"You are ignoring the fact that she has been disowned," Arcturus pointed out.
Sirius nodded. "Yes I am, because frankly I think it's ridiculous. Andromeda is a Black whether you like it or not."
"Having a metamorphmagus in the family would surely be a good thing, right?" Harry put in hopefully. As a child he was supposed to leave such discussions up to the adults and he normally let Sirius argue on his behalf, but in this case he couldn't keep quiet.
Arcturus and Melania exchanged glances. "Well... I have heard good things about young Nymphadora," Arcturus admitted. "She must be a powerful witch to be an Auror trainee."
"Obviously the girl is an exception to the Rules of Inheritance," Melania said. "But that doesn't change the fact that Andromeda wilfully went against all notions of family loyalty by marrying so far beneath her. She made her choice and now must live with it."
"That was years ago though. Isn't it time to forgive and forget?" Sirius suggested a trifle impatiently.
"Family loyalty works both ways," Harry added.
"I will think on it," Arcturus said at last. "Perhaps, as you say, a family reconciliation would benefit us all."
Arcturus had the final word on the subject, since the ball guests began arriving soon after. Melania immediately fixed a charming smile on her face and swept off to do her duty as a hostess, Sirius and Arcturus quickly finished off their drinks before following, and Harry was left to trail reluctantly along in their wake. He knew he should do his best to mingle and make a good impression, but it was difficult to make small talk with his Assessor senses going haywire. It didn't help that he found it all very boring; every conversation in the room revolved around the so-called 'Goblin Crisis' and the need for something to be done about it, though it seemed nobody could agree on what that 'something' was. Harry soon resorted to smiling and nodding in an attempt to hide his distraction and somehow managed not to offend anyone too badly.
Wild magic always rose to the surface on Samhain and the sensation wasn't new to Harry, but this time the feeling was almost suffocating. Something was nagging at his senses, as grating as nails on a chalk board. In the end he gave up on socialising and hid in an out of the way corner, taking deep breaths to calm himself down. He knew the magic of Samhain enhanced divination skills, which included his Assessor talent, but he didn't know how to interpret what he was feeling. All he knew was that he felt under threat, prompting Harry to reach for his wand as he stared around the crowded ballroom in search of danger. He couldn't help remembering Trelawney's warning - 'I see death before you!'
"Orion? What's going on?" Sirius asked, abandoning Lady Parkinson in order to check up on Harry.
"Something's wrong," Harry said. "I can feel it."
Sirius didn't seem concerned. "You might just be feeling a little more sensitive than usual seeing as it's Samhain and everything," he said with a shrug.
Harry glared up at Sirius, unhappy at being described as sensitive. "I'm not..." Harry began to protest, then gasped as suddenly the wild magic swelled to breaking point before crashing down. To Harry it felt as if the whole world had abruptly spun around on its axis, forcing him to grab hold of Sirius' arm in order to keep his balance. Feeling ill and disoriented and with Sirius' worried questions ringing in his ears, Harry tried desperately to get his bearings. He couldn't explain how or why, but it was as if for a single moment a veil had parted to let Harry see the terrible truth. "Voldemort's back!" he blurted out unthinkingly.
Before Sirius could do more than shake his head in horrified denial, Harry felt a heavy hand land on his shoulder. "What is going on here?" Arcturus demanded.
Harry's heart sank as he slowly turned around to face the older wizard. One glance at Arcturus was enough to show that he'd overheard Harry's words and was far from pleased.
"Grandfather, I can explain," Sirius said, though Harry didn't see how.
A sharp gesture from Arcturus stopped either of them from speaking. "This is not something to be discussed in public," he said and swiftly ushered them out of the ballroom and into his study. As soon as the heavy oak door swung shut, blocking out the happy chatter of the guests, Arcturus crossed his arms and demanded the promised explanation. "You claim that Voldemort is back," he said with his gaze fixed on Orion.
"Y-yes," Harry replied, still unsettled by everything that had happened. He couldn't say he understood how the knowledge of Voldemort's return had come to him, but he tried to explain anyway. "I felt it... the magic told me..." he said. "I know it's true," he finished forcefully.
"It is Samhain, I suppose, and you are an Assessor," Arcturus said thoughtfully, before turning to Sirius. "You believe him?" he asked.
Sirius gave a grim nod. "I do. If Orion says he's back, then he's back."
"It seems as if you were almost expecting the news," Arcturus said, carefully studying Sirius' expression. "But how can that be when Voldemort has been dead for over a decade?"
Harry and Sirius exchanged glances, unsure of how much to share. The argument from earlier was still fresh in their minds and they knew it was too late to keep all of their secrets. Sirius mumbled something about Voldemort stealing the Philosopher's Stone and using it to regain a body, while Harry fidgeted nervously - he didn't want to let Arcturus, or anyone else, know about his past as the Boy Who Lived, but he knew he had to say something to satisfy Arcturus' curiosity.
"Voldemort has a Horcrux," Harry said finally.
"What?" Arcturus stared aghast.
Sirius followed Harry's lead and between them they described how Voldemort had split his soul so as to be immortal, though they didn't mention that he'd made seven of the things or that they'd already destroyed three of them. Even so Arcturus was horrified and questioned them relentlessly, but they only told him about Slytherin's Locket hidden in the cave along the coast. When asked, Sirius claimed to have been told about the Horcrux by Dumbledore, adding that the Headmaster wanted to gather more information before doing anything about it.
Arcturus scowled and muttered invectives against meddling old men. "If Orion is right about the Dark Lord's return – which he probably is considering that it is Samhain and he is an Assessor – then something must be done," Arcturus said firmly. "I will not allow that mudblood with delusions of grandeur to destroy our family any further."
"I agree," Sirius said.
"Good," Arcturus said. "Then tomorrow we will go to this cave and destroy whatever lies within it."
"Tomorrow?" Harry and Sirius yelped in unison.
Arcturus did not look impressed. "Yes, unless you wish to lose the upper hand? I presume the Dark Lord has safegaurds in place - wards to alert him to intruders and the like," he explained. "Of course wards can be dealt with, but there is always the chance that one will go unnoticed. If we strike now, while the Dark Lord is still adjusting to regaining his body, we will more easily escape detection - especially with the magic of Samhain still strong and serving as a distraction. I doubt the Dark Lord will notice any magical disturbances in his protections, but that will change if he is given time to fully regain his strength - something I have no intention of allowing."
With that he strode out of the study, leaving Harry and Sirius gaping after him in surprise.
The next morning found Harry and Sirius waiting in the entrance hall of Grimmauld Place, both of them looking rather nervous and sleep deprived. The rest of the Samhain ball had passed in a blur, with Harry too busy thinking about Voldemort and Horcruxes to bother with anything else. Sirius and Arcturus had appeared equally preoccupied, making Melania huff in displeasure and nag them into socialising. By the time they'd finally been allowed to return home Harry was exhausted, but instead of sleeping he was up half the night making plans and gathering bezoars and healing potions.
"Are you sure those'll work?" Sirius asked him as Harry checked his stores yet again.
"No," Harry said unhappily. "But it's got to be better than nothing."
Sirius frowned. "I'm not sure this is a good idea. Maybe we should wait and research more before trying to destroy the Locket."
"Maybe," Harry said, although personally he just wanted to get it over and done with. "I don't think Arcturus will agree with you though." He sighed to himself. "I just can't believe I was stupid enough to blurt out the truth like that."
"You'd just had a huge shock, you weren't thinking clearly," Sirius generously offered as an excuse. "At least it was Arcturus who overheard you and not Lucius Malfoy or someone. Though... Orion, are you absolutely sure Voldemort's back?" Sirius looked as if he didn't expect a negative answer, but hoped for one anyway.
"Yes, I'm sure," Harry said apologetically. "I don't fully understand my Assessor abilities, but I know what I felt and what it means. There's also Trelawney's prediction... she warned me that my 'foe would return' or something like that, and she was right." Sirius' contemptuous snort made it clear what he thought of Trelawney, but Harry ignored him. "I wonder how Voldemort managed it though? We got rid of Riddle's bones and from what I've read I don't think the Elixir of Life would be enough to create a whole new body..."
"I'm less interested in the how and more in the who," Sirius said. "Voldemort must've had help, but most of Death Eaters I know of were at the party last night, which means it can't have been any of them."
"Who knows," Harry said, distracted by an unpleasant thought that had just crept into his mind. "Sirius, we destroyed his father's bones, but what about his mother's?" They both stared at each other as they contemplated their potentially giant mistake. "Would the ritual still work?"
Sirius looked worried. "I don't know. I'm not a Dark Arts expert, but maybe. Using Merope's remains might strengthen Voldemort's connection to his pureblood heritage, which he'd no doubt like."
Harry cursed long and loudly, but then sighed. "It's too late now, anyway. We have to concentrate on destroying the rest of the Horcruxes as soon as possible. Without them, there's a chance that Voldemort can be defeated even though he has the Stone, since the Elixir of Life just prevents death from illness and old age and stuff. It's not full immortality." That was the only possible bright side Harry could think of, since not only was Voldemort back several years earlier than last time, but he also had access to unlimited amounts of gold. It was all a disaster just waiting to happen.
"Don't forget that Arcturus has told everyone about how Voldemort is really Tom Marvolo Riddle," Sirius pointed out. "That should slow him down a bit."
"I suppose," Harry said gloomily.
The crack of apparition put a stop to their conversation as they both turned to greet Arcturus. The older wizard was elegantly dressed in dark green robes and perfectly polished shoes, with the Paterfamilias ring on his finger – a huge contrast to Harry and Sirius, who both looked as if they'd just rolled out of bed.
"Are you ready, Sirius?" Arcturus asked.
"Yes, Grandfather, but..." Sirius began with an awkward glance at Harry.
"I'm coming with you," Harry said forcefully, determined not to be left behind no matter what.
Arcturus frowned in reply. "A child has no place on such a dangerous venture," he said. "In fact I do not understand why you were told about such dark matters in the first place." Here he glared at Sirius, who gave a nervous shrug.
"It's not easy keeping secrets from an Assessor," Sirius defended himself. "And having one along might come in handy."
The argument went back and forth for several minutes before Arcturus eventually acquiesced, although not without casting suspicious looks at both Harry and Sirius. He seemed to know that they were hiding something, but was apparently willing to let it go for the time being, which Harry was thankful for.
"Very well, Orion may accompany us," Arcturus said at last. "I have no patience for further debate. We need to get a move on before Melania wonders where I am."
That was something they all could agree on and so Sirius quickly side-along apparated them all to the rocky outcrop by the sea that Harry had carefully described beforehand. It was quite a warm day for the beginning of November and the sun was shining, but Harry couldn't suppress a shiver. He had no good memories of the place and half expected things to once again end badly. Harry wasn't certain that the Horcrux was even in the cave – he was only assuming it was there due to Regulus never having had the chance to steal it in this universe. At least this time he was better prepared for what was coming, with several bezoars and his birch wand in his pocket and two adult wizards as company.
Harry kept reminding himself of those points as they plunged into the waves and began swimming through the strong currents to the mouth of the cave. Sirius and Arcturus swam with their wands raised to light the way, but with his child's body Harry had to focus all his energy on just keeping afloat. He was breathing heavily by the time he clambered up onto rocky ground and was glad for the drying and warming charms Arcturus sent his way.
"Thank you, Grandfather," Harry panted and caught his breath while the other two examined the rock wall in front of them.
"The Horcrux is hidden behind here somewhere," Sirius said, sending Harry a furtive glance to check that he was right. At Harry's nod he continued, "I think there's some sort of doorway."
Arcturus nodded thoughtfully. "Yes, but how do we open it?"
Sirius made a show of tracing his wand through the air. "It needs a blood sacrifice," he announced a moment later.
"Well spotted," Arcturus said, quickly cutting his hand and smearing blood over the wall.
"Why does it always come down to blood," Harry muttered to himself as the stone sunk away to reveal the hidden entrance. He cast a nonverbal lumos charm and began to move forwards, but a stern look from Arcturus stopped him. Knowing that Arcturus hadn't wanted him to come along at all, Harry wasn't going to push his luck and so waited for the older wizards to go first – though he couldn't help thinking that he was the one who should protect them rather than the other way round.
The cave was just as Harry remembered from his nightmares. They were standing on the edge of a black lake, the smooth surface of which stretched out endlessly before them. Even though nothing could be seen beyond a few paces to either side, there was the sense of a vast and threatening space opening up before them. Their lighted wands barely penetrated the thick darkness, but slowly their eyes adjusted enough for a glowing green light to become visible in the distance.
"That's where we need to get to," Harry said.
Arcturus gave Harry an odd look. "Do we indeed?"
"It looks as if it's coming from an island," Sirius put in hurriedly. "We'll have to cross the lake – which according to my spells is infested with inferi."
"How original," Arcturus said dryly, not looking at all impressed by Voldemort's defences. "There must be a hidden way across, similar to earlier with the door. We just need to find it."
Both Arcturus and Sirius kept Harry close to them as they inched along the rocky shore, their every step echoing through the inky blackness. As the other two waved their wands and muttered spells, Harry lit their way and concentrated on not blurting out anything incriminating. The dank and dangerous atmosphere of the cave made him want to rush through as quickly as possible, but he forced himself to wait in silence.
"There's something here," Arcturus said at last. He reached out and a green copper chain appeared as if conjured from thin air. With a clanking sound that echoed loudly off the surrounding rocks, the chain began to fall to the ground in coils, dragging a boat from the depths of the water.
As soon as it came to a rest against the bank where the three wizards stood, Sirius leapt onboard and then stretched out a hand to help the others in. It was then that Harry remembered that only one person could enter the boat safely. He probably counted as an underage wizard since his magic was quite immature, but that still left both Sirius and Arcturus to get across the lake. What was worse was that Harry had forgotten to tell Sirius about the added protection to the boat, which meant that he'd have to reveal his knowledge to Arcturus in order to warn him.
Harry hadn't accounted for Arcturus' Slytherin caution, however. That wizard glared at his grandson's recklessness and grabbed onto Harry to stop him from doing anything similar, before casting several in depth spells on the small boat. "This is not the time for your Gryffindor foolishness, Sirius!" Arcturus hissed. "The boat has been enchanted so that only one wizard at a time can sail in it – but imagine if it was spelled to drown anyone who dared step onboard?"
"Oh. I didn't realise," Sirius said and sent a pointed look at Harry, who shrugged apologetically. "How're we all going to get across then?"
Arcturus looked unexpectedly smug at the question. "The Dark Lord's defences appear formidable but he stupidly left loopholes open for us to exploit. What else can one expect from the son of a Muggle..."
"Loopholes?" Harry questioned.
"He did not account for several wizards of the same bloodline," Arcturus explained. "We are all three of us Blacks, descending in a direct line and sharing the Black magical affinity. We should be magically similar enough to pass for a single wizard."
"Should be?" Harry repeated nervously.
"Nothing about magic is ever certain, Orion," Arcturus said calmly as he joined Sirius in the boat. All three tensed in anticipation, but when nothing happened Harry was allowed to climb onboard. Once they were all in. Arcturus tapped the side of the boat with his wand and they began to sail smoothly across the water. Harry stared straight ahead, trying to avoid looking at the corpses floating just beneath the surface. Pale faces stared dreamily at nothing as the bodies drifted along, but Harry was well aware of how dangerous they could be if disturbed.
"This place is almost as cheery as Azkaban," Sirius said as he used his wand to illuminate the inferi-infested lake.
"I can only imagine." Arcturus stared down into the water. "For the record, I wish to be cremated when I die."
Which proved that the Blacks had a very dark sense of humour, Harry thought to himself. He was too preoccupied to pay much attention to the conversation, however; they were nearing the green light in the centre of the lake and Harry was tense with anticipation. The boat finally came to a halt with a gentle bump and they all climbed out onto the small island, taking care not to slip on the smooth black stone underfoot. In the middle of the island stood a stone basin on a pedestal and the green glow came from the potion within it. One glance was enough for Harry to know that the same defences were in place as had existed in his old world, but he said nothing and just watched as Sirius and Arcturus discovered that the liquid couldn't be penetrated by hand, vanished, parted, scooped up, siphoned away, transfigured, cursed or charmed.
"The potion is the final protection," Arcturus said thoughtfully. "But how do we reach the Horcrux beneath? We can't pour it out, or burn it away, or even move the whole basin out of the cave, which means…"
"We drink it," Sirius said firmly and before anyone could stop him he had conjured up a goblet and swallowed a mouthful of the poison. Arcturus made a grab for the goblet but Sirius fended him off. "I'm younger and healthier than you, so I should be the one to drink," he argued.
"I'm your elder, so you should do as I say," Arcturus retorted.
Sirius shook his head, looking pale but resolute. "I've already drunk some of it, so the best thing would be for you to guard Orion while I finish the rest of it. Just remember to keep making me drink no matter what."
Harry guiltily hoped that Arcturus would be the one to swallow the poison, but it was Sirius who ended up winning the argument. As much as he liked Arcturus, Harry didn't want to risk losing the only father he'd ever known. He hated himself for thinking that way and wished he could just volunteer to drink instead, but he knew neither of the others would ever allow him to put himself in danger. Instead he was left watching as Sirius drank one cup after another.
It became increasingly clear that Sirius was suffering from both physical and mental pain. He hunched over clutching his stomach and his expression turned haunted, reminding Harry of how he'd looked after Azkaban. "Please... no more," he moaned, dropping his wand and pushing the goblet away. "I can't, please, it hurts."
"Come, Sirius, have another drink," Arcturus urged him, holding the poison back up to his lips.
Sirius obediently drank and inevitably his suffering grew worse. He seemed to be locked in a vision that no one else could see but that terrified him. "No, not there… don't let them take me there! Grandfather, please!"
Arcturus looked so shaken that Harry forced himself take his place. "Just one more cup and it will all be over," he said, trying not to flinch at the lie.
One became two became many. Harry and Arcturus kept forcing him to drink, and Sirius kept crying out in pain and fear. "Don't! Please, no more, please! They're all dead… I can't bear it!"
"Just one more sip," they kept promising, until at last the final drop of potion disappeared from the bottom of the basin and Sirius fell into merciful unconsciousness.
Harry fell to his knees beside him and fumbled in his pocket for one of the bezoars he carried, but to his horror it crumbled into dust as soon as it touched Sirius' lips. "Why isn't it working?" he cried out as the same thing happened with all the other antidotes he had with him - potions and Mandrake essence and healing crystals. All disintegrated in Harry's hands from some unseen magic.
"It seems the Dark Lord did in fact plan his protection well," Arcturus said solemnly, before reaching into the empty basin and withdrawing a heavy gold locket emblazoned with an 'S'. "Slytherin's Locket," he whispered with what sounded like a mix of awe and disgust. Then he quickly slipped the Horcrux around his neck and turned back to Harry. "Come, Orion, we must leave here and get Sirius to safety. The potion does not seem immediately deadly, but there is still no time to lose."
Harry saw the sense in that and began clambering to his feet, not noticing Arcturus' intention until it was too late; with a brisk flick of his wand Arcturus cast an enervate charm on the unconscious Sirius.
"Water, I need water!" Sirius' eyes flew open and he senselessly threw himself towards the lake, blind to the inferi lurking in the depths.
"No, stop!" Harry shouted, but was too far away to react. Before he could grab hold of him and pull him back, Sirius had scooped up a handful of water and the inferi attacked. Putrid limbs shot up from the surface of the lake, clawing at Sirius' face and neck and almost succeeding in pulling him under. Arcturus lunged forwards to drag him to safety, but Sirius never stopped struggling to get back to the water's edge.
As Arcturus grappled with Sirius, Harry cast the strongest incendio spell he could. The searing flames drove back the inferi and kept them at bay, but to his horror the respite didn't last longer than a few moments. His cheap second-hand wand was unable to safely channel the powerful magic; it started shaking ominously in his hand and it took all of Harry's effort to hold on and maintain the spell.
"Just a little bit longer," Harry begged, but it was no use. With a sickening crack his wand splintered and the spell ended.
The fire vanished into smoke and the inferi swarmed the island, dragging their slimy and rotting corpses out of the lake. The tidal wave of bodies surrounded them on all sides, choking Harry with their stench of decaying flesh while the smoke stung his eyes and Sirius' piteous moans for 'water, water' echoed ceaselessly in his ears. Hands latched onto Harry's robes and pushed and pulled until he fell down with a bone-jarring thud even as he struggled desperately to break free.
Escape was impossible without magic, however. The broken stick in his hand was useless and Arcturus wouldn't be able to cast a spell without first letting go of Sirius, which meant that Harry needed a wand, any wand. He couldn't let Sirius die. Pressed down under the weight of countless bodies, Harry groped blindly along the ground, hoping against hope that Sirius' discarded wand lay nearby.
"Accio wand!" To his unending relief the warm weight of one appeared in his hand. "Incendio!" Harry shouted once more and flames leaped eagerly from his borrowed wand, far more powerful than anything he'd managed before. The inferi recoiled from the conjured fire and retreated back into the lake, leaving Harry to push himself to his feet.
Sirius lay struggling weakly in a spreading pool of blood, still delirious from the poison in his veins. Arcturus was slumped half on top of him, pinning him to the ground with the weight of his body.
"Sirius? Sirius!" Harry crouched down beside them while keeping the spell going. "You can't die again, do you hear me? I won't live through that a second time." But it wasn't Sirius who needed his help, Harry realised with a sick feeling. It wasn't Sirius' blood that was seeping over the stony ground and staining Harry's robes a dark red. It was Arcturus'.
With his heat thumping in his chest, he interrupted the wall of fire surrounding them long enough to cast a stunning spell at Sirius. With him safely unconscious, Harry reached out and carefully rolled Arcturus onto his back. The wizard groaned in pain at the move and Harry sucked in a horrified breath as he realised the extent of the damage. The inferi had clawed at the Horcrux around Arcturus' neck and torn strips of flesh from his body, leaving gaping wounds that were steadily leaking blood. Harry flinched at the grisly sight, having seen enough fatal injuries to know that Arcturus was dying.
He nevertheless tried to staunch the bleeding, but the damage was just too severe. "Grandfather," Harry whispered helplessly as he fought to close the worst wounds while still keeping the magical fire burning.
Arcturus stared up at him, shudders racking his body and his face growing ever whiter. "Who... who are you?"
Harry's heart sank further as he remembered the revealing words he'd shouted in the midst of his panic. "I'm Orion Black," he said, which was the only answer he could give. "We're family."
He never got a reply. Life left Arcturus' eyes as his heart stopped beating and his body slumped to the ground. Harry's breath caught, but he couldn't allow himself any time to mourn. Sirius needed him, he had to get him to safety, but he couldn't maintain the incendio spell while carrying him, and he refused to leave Arcturus' body behind...
Panic threatened to overwhelm him, but then Harry remembered something important - wizards couldn't apparate within the cave, but House Elves could. Harry had been determined not to drag anyone else into danger, but now he felt he had no other choice. "Dobby!" he called out.
Dobby appeared at Harry's side with a cracking sound that could be heard even over the roar of the conjured fire. His expression of eager helpfulness quickly turned to fear and then anger as he took in his surroundings. "Why did young Mr Black bring me here?" he demanded.
"I'm sorry, Dobby," Harry said, tripping over his words in his hurry to speak. "I'd never want to put you at risk... but I have no other choice. You've got to help me!"
"Dobby is a free elf," Dobby said, backing away a step.
Harry stretched out a pleading hand. "Please, don't go! You're the only one who can bring us home."
Dobby looked between Harry and the dead body of Arcturus, conflict showing plainly on his pointed face. "Bad things have happened here," he said uncertainly.
The flames were getting harder to control, Sirius' breathing was becoming ever more laboured, and Harry had never been so aware of the fact that Dobby wasn't bound to obey him. "I can't explain everything now... there are secrets I can't tell you... but please, help me," he begged.
Dobby stared and then seemed to come to a decision. "Dobby will take the wizards home," he announced, curling his spindly fingers around the limp hands of Sirius and Arcturus. As soon as Harry leaned over and touched Dobby's shoulder, he was dragged away through a swirl of colour, his last sight of the cave consisting of dying flames and a mass of inferi surging forwards in mindless brutality.
Then with a whoosh of displaced air Harry fell to the floor in Grimmauld Place. He was in the entrance hall where their journey that morning had begun, but his return was far from the triumph he'd hoped it would be. He couldn't afford to lose himself in regrets, however. There was no time to mourn for the dead when the living were still in danger.
"A bezoar, get me a bezoar!" Harry ordered Dobby urgently.
This time Dobby didn't argue, disappearing and reappearing within seconds, bezoar in hand. Harry snatched the stone and shoved it into Sirius' mouth. For an endless moment Harry thought he was too late or that whatever had stopped the bezoars from working in the cave was still in effect, but then at last Sirius began breathing normally and colour returned to his face.
Harry slumped in relief. "Thank you, Dobby," he said, his voice hoarse from smoke and grief. Sirius was still ill, still unconscious, but he'd survive.
But as Harry looked at the bloody and broken body of Arcturus that lay sprawled on the floor, he knew Sirius wasn't out of danger yet. They couldn't risk Voldemort finding out about his Horcruxes being destroyed, which meant that the events in the cave would have to be kept secret from everyone. The death of a prominent pureblood in mysterious circumstances was sure to lead to an Auror investigation, however. There'd be questions they couldn't answer and with no alibi Sirius could easily end up being accused of murder. There were people who still believed that Sirius was a Death Eater and others who would benefit from him being locked back up in Azkaban, making it likely that the corrupt Ministry wouldn't even require any real evidence. Just the fact that Sirius was Arcturus' heir could be enough to condemn him.
Harry couldn't let that happen and his mind worked feverishly to come up with a plan. He needed to give the Ministry someone else to blame. There was no way it could be made to look like Arcturus had died of natural causes. Maybe an attack by muggles? – but that could lead to a backlash against the Muggle World. An attack by a wild animal? – but any half-competent wizard would be able to apparate away. Arcturus was... had been... a powerful wizard, which meant that no one would believe that he'd had an accident or anything else along those lines. It could only be murder, and Harry would have to create a convincing scene in order to hide the truth.
"Dobby, would you be able to apparate Arcturus' body to the Ministry Atrium without being traced?" Harry asked in a hurry.
Dobby crossed his spindly arms. "Yes, but Dobby is not understanding why he should."
"Please trust me just a little bit longer," Harry said, gaining a reluctant nod in reply. "It'll soon be over," he reassured them both. Harry's heart ached and nausea churned in his belly at what he was about to do, but he didn't let himself falter.
First he tugged Slytherin's Locket from Arcturus' neck and placed it around his own, then he summoned a quill and parchment, dipped the nib in the puddle of congealing blood on the floor, and began to write. 'The Dark Lord has been avenged! Arcturus Black dared insult the purity of the line of Slytherin and has been justly punished for it. All who spread such lies will meet with the same fate!' With a few more spells he signed the note with the Dark Mark and pinned it to Arcturus' body.
Finally, swallowing back the bile that was rising in his throat, Harry picked up Arcturus' discarded wand. A Death Eater attack needed signs of dark magic to be believable and there was nothing worse for a wizard than to have his own wand turned against him.
"Sectusempra!" Harry cried and the powerful cutting curse slammed into Arcturus' body with a sickening crunch. He cast the curse a second and then a third time, refusing to let himself look away as flesh and blood sprayed up under the force of the spells. At last, choking back vomit and tears, Harry crouched down beside the mutilated corpse and gently placed Arcturus' wand on top of the forged note.
"Dobby," he said hoarsely. "Take the body to the Ministry Atrium and leave it there. Make sure you leave no trace behind."
As if from a great distance away, he heard Dobby's assent and then the crack of House Elf apparition. He was left alone, kneeling on the blood soaked floor next to Sirius' unconscious body and shaking as the full horror of what he'd done came crashing down.
Harry buried his face in his hands. "Oh Merlin, it's all my fault," he sobbed. "It's all my fault."
A/N: This chapter did not want to be written – I'm sure people can guess why.