Standard Disclaimer :: All things Harry Potter belong to JK Rowling and affiliates. This fanfiction is a non-profit venture written for the enjoyment of myself and my readers.
Dedication :: To Seratin, Lutris, Zeitgeist, Vira, KaiDASH, Palindrome, Kens and my friends from DLP, for putting up with my insanity, for reading early drafts, and just being there. Special dedication to Aekiel, Klackerz and Klael, who get zombie cameos in this chapter, and Mishie, for putting up with it all. Also, to all those who reviewed/favourited/alerted me or my story here on FFnet, cheers, and super triple special awesome dedications to all my regular reviewers and readers. Props to DLP for the continual feedback, too - anyone reading this who hasn't devoured their C2 on this very site must do so now. It's the first community on the list, for a damn good reason, and I'm more than happy to have this story a part of it too. And to Emily, who enthused the awesomeness of this fic to a friend of mine, and even got him to finally read the story! So cheers.
Preface :: Well, this is it. The final chapter comes in just under thirty-thousand words, and, in my opinion, is one hell of a ride. This whole story has been a ride, with its ups and downs, but when I'll look back, I'll never not love it. It's March now, and this chapter was written back in October, planned out in parts in the course of years beforehand, so getting it out there and being able to add "Complete" to this story's status feels just so satisfying. My end of chapter author's note will get into my thoughts a bit more, but yeah, I should stop rambling in here and do it in the story. Onwards!
Oh, and since I forgot to put it in the last chapter's Next Chapter Tease, I feel I should inform you all: Zombies. In this chapter. A fuckton. Enjoy.
Previously :: Back at the height of the war, Voldemort experimented on Muggles to create more widespread and potent ways to murder them, and in the process fed the remains to his pet Dementors. When the war ended, those Dementors were locked up under Azkaban, and when they next bred, they created a breeding mist of the souls they had devoured, which was usual, and used various side effects of the soul magic Voldemort had used to create a cocktail of badness, a singular disease to get what they wanted. And they wanted out. They spread The Dementor's Stigma in the mist, and it soon wiped out most of the world. The wizards, not as affected as the Muggles given the disease's origins, were able to band together enough to survive the worst of the outbreak, despite losing Diagon Alley, St Mungo's, and the Ministry building. Plans were put into place to protect the surviving Muggles to the extent they could without breaking the still-relevant Statue of Secrecy, and a year of just surviving ensued.
In the Wizengamot, twenty-one wizards and witches debated over the lives of the Muggles, with the ultimate vote being put towards a bill to dissolve the Statue and render aid to the Muggles in a more direct way. The staunchest purebloods were always against the idea, and Minister Robards was prevented from outright destroying the Statue himself due to the threat of another civil war, which would quickly implode on the wizards and destroy their race as a whole. So while the purebloods, under the leadership of Draco Malfoy, put in minimal effort to keep the bill from passing, the side under the banner of Harry Potter pushed every which way in order to try to get the bill passed. However, forces collided with the true threat, the Dementors, who destroyed Liliford through the use of pawn Theodore Nott, and placed themselves to do the same in Granford, just waiting for somebody to kill Nott and unleash the dead man's switch leeching off of his life.
But the conflict between Harry and Draco proved too great for either of them to look beyond the other, with Draco's wife Astoria, an old friend of Harry's, being put directly in the middle and suffering for it. Astoria and Draco's deaths through unfortunate happenstance related to the latter's tendency to keep pet zombies in his manor pushed Harry into resigning from the Wizengamot, giving up on that game, telling off Robards for his passivity, and heading into Granford one final time with Ron in tow, to save the town from Nott, even if it killed him. And despite being incarcerated and being hit with the revelation that Ron had the Stigma, Harry was able to convince Aaron Fortess to ally with the wizards and do what had to be done, whatever the cost... but the duplicity of Juliet O'Flynn, Fortess's second-in-command, soon proved tragic.
Juliet had been a Ministry spy since the previous winter, and the frankness of the Ministry reports she had received from Robards's second-in-command Samuel Stark had not helped her temperament towards wizardkind one bit. It was because of this she did not heed Harry's warning about Nott, and when Fortess was threatened in front of her, she didn't hesitate in shooting and killing Nott, dooming the town to be devoured by the Dementors from the inside out. Now, Harry, his hands and legs bound, his friends behind bars, their wands absent, must fight for his life and for the lives of all those that can be saved in Granford... No matter the cost.
Chapter Sixteen of Sixteen: Incident
Mist poured out of Theodore Nott's body, and everyone began shouting at once.
"Why did you do that? You foolish - you... you killed us all. I would've never asked for that -"
"He just tried to kill you, they are all trying to -"
"Potter, the cell! Now!"
"Harry, he's running!"
The mist leaked out of the amulet first, suspended in the air just above the torrent of blood rushing out of Nott's throat where Juliet's bullet had struck. The amulet, spinning and spinning, glinting silver in the dim light, pulsated white, black, and white again. It flickered and flashed, only seconds passing that felt like minutes, and my eyes were drawn to small tendrils of snaking white mist, emerging from the amulet and weaving through the chain links. The wisps jumped off the chain and into Nott's blood, diving under and... The bloody pool began to recede, becoming shallower and shallower. The tendrils of mist started emerging from Nott's eye sockets, his mouth, his ears, his nose, and even the hole in his throat. His skin turned chalk-white instantly, and the amulet kept flashing -
They were sucking him dry. But the mist, the mist could've only been there if -
"They were breeding," I breathed out, and I could see my breath in front of me. The temperature of the room had dropped already, as it fully hit me that the Dementors were breeding in the souls they took from Liliford, inside the amulet.
No wonder Nott had been so insane.
Something impacted on my chest, and I came into awareness again, tearing my eyes away from the mist swirling around the corpse. Beyond the corpse were steel bars. Yeah, they wouldn't keep them in at all. Fuck. I looked down at what had hit me: my wand holster, thrown by Fortess, who was scrambling to his feet, pushing away, away, from Nott's cell, from the mist and the Dementors -
"Harry!" Ron shouted from behind me.
I spurned my body into action, diving, on my magically-bound ankles, to the ground, my similarly-affected wrists smacking the concrete floor and sending jolts through my bones. The cut on my wrist screamed its protest as my fingers fumbled at the mechanism of my holster, and both my hands flinched away from the cloth at the rapport from Juliet's gun, bullets sailing over my head and in the direction of the mist. I swore to myself, fumbled for the mechanism again, pressing my fingers everywhere I could reach them in my scramble.
My wand clicked out, and I grasped for it. A tingle of familiar warmth, piercing through the steadily building cold, travelled down my wrists, and the bindings immediately dissolved. I stretched and turned my left wrist as my right flicked my wand to undo the ankle bindings, before I threw away the useless holster and took in the situation again.
Fortess was holding steady just in front of me, Juliet's rifle in his hands. Unlike her, he didn't seem to firing his weapon, but that might've been the fact his hands were shaking too erratically, frozen around the trigger but not pulling it. Juliet continued to fire into the mist, her expression frightened, beads of sweat running down her face and mingling with the tears from before. She pulled the trigger, again and again, until there was nothing but the noise and the smell of exploding gunpowder.
"Harry!" Su Li called, and I turned away from Juliet. My hand, holding my wand, snapped up before I realised, and the doors of the three occupied jail cells all opened with screeching noises, drowned out by Juliet's gunfire. In the din I thought I heard another, distant yet similar, sound, but it was soon overshadowed by the sound coming from Juliet... or rather, the lack thereof.
Her gun clicked, empty of its bullets. Panic took over her features; pure, unadulterated, panic.
Then the chill swept into my bones. That chill, the only chill. I couldn't describe it, not this close, not now. Screams and nightmares flooded in my head, the back of my neck tensing with this feeling, this depressing, soul-crushing feeling. Sarah, Astoria, everybody. I tried to push through it, and a part of me did, because I stepped back, noticing Fortess do the same; Nott's cell was fully swallowed in mist by now. The mist. White wisps of thick air, hanging high and low, bringing with it a feeling of dampness in every intake of breath, sucking all light from the room, drawing all source of positive energy towards it like a vacuum. Juliet, in her panic, didn't move.
A dark hand-shaped shadow reached out of the mist. I brought my wand to bear and -
Another hand broke through. A dark, oily. and scabby set of fingers, piercing the mist like a veil, a cloak of disguise. The fingers, skinny and skeletal like rotted bone, reached out, stretched taut in anticipation; the Dementor knew there was fresh food nearby. By the looks of things, so did its friends. More hands, more fingers, then the rest of them, whispers of dark cloaks, fleeting views of shadowy hoods. The mist moved as they moved, tendrils seeking out by feel, beings of their own kind -
I looked away, my neck snapping towards the others. Ron, Abe and Su were at my back, and I noticed that someone was missing.
"Meadowes ran," Ron explained shortly.
"Go," I ordered. "Run. Get him, get your wands, just go!"
Juliet's scream ripped through the air, and Fortess's rifle finally discharged.
Footsteps echoed behind me, and I took aim with my wand, pointed directly at the fray. The mist was covering the far end of the room, weaving out of the cells on that side, black hands and black cloaks glanced in the eerie haze. Juliet was pushing her hands in front of herself, the mist coming in under her feet, snaking up her legs and holding her in place as the hands, the hands, grasped for her arms. Fortess's bullets rattled into the mist, sailing harmlessly through the creatures he couldn't even see. Juliet screamed again, and it began to die in her throat, the sound of water rushing into a recently unplugged sinkhole...
And the whole time, I couldn't find a happy memory.
Because what was there, that hadn't already been used and abused for other Patronuses? The Dementors had the effect of taking all the good and leaving only the bad, creating people built on despair and nothing else, making the best meal they could make. They'd always had a thing for me, and after losing Sarah, they had an easy time of taking the happy memories I needed to use against them and turning them against me. There was nothing, I was tapped out, I had nothing I could summon a Patronus with, because they all faded, they all -
The hospital wing. The day I met Sarah. I took Astoria along for a tour at St Mungo's.
I'd used this memory once before.
I always had it, but the feeling of happiness, of laughing with Astoria, seeing Ron and Hermione happy and whole, of having that first electric connection with Sarah... The memory had always been there, but the feeling had changed when I used it against the Dementors once before.
Other memories rushed back. Other feelings. I never lost them. I never lost them.
And I shut my eyes and cried, "Expecto Patronum!"
The glare of my spell seared onto my eyelids, and I could see, and feel, dammit I could feel it, the Patronus form and shape, the body first, then the legs, the head, the horns. The stag, my father, my guardian, my protector. The beacon of light in the darkness, and it rushed forwards into the throng, into the Dementors and their mist, made up of a thousand screaming souls.
When I opened my eyes, the mist was still there. The dark shapes were still there. My Patronus had flickered into nothing, but it had been enough. I grasped for Fortess's shoulder, pulled him back forcefully, and turned to where Juliet had been standing -
Mist. Nothing else. Not one sign of her but a murmur in the air, joining the other consumed souls. Of Juliet O'Flynn, nothing.
But I, I was still alive, and I had to move on and take Fortess with me because by the look on his face, he didn't want to do the same. The town, I told him mentally. We have to protect the town. We have to get them out.
I navigated with my back, shuffling as fast as I could, until I hit solid metal instead of concrete. The bars of the cage leading out into the hall and from there, the front of the station; the doorway was open, and I saw the backs of my three friends, running towards the front, and it made me blink. How much time had passed in there, while I cast the Patronus? It had felt like...
I shook my head of it, hauling Fortess past the cage door and slamming it shut with a flick of my wand. Wouldn't do much, but dammit, worth the shot.
Fortess didn't need my assistance in the hall, and I let him lead the way back, my gaze never flicking back over my shoulder but the prickling feeling on the back of my neck and the pounding of my heart telling me that my Patronus hadn't slowed them down enough. Lights flickered out as we ran, not just the lightbulbs, but any and all light in my vision.
Up ahead, there was a great commotion, with the sound of a heavy weight hitting iron bars, followed by grunts of exclamation.
"Ron!" I called, outpacing Fortess to get there first.
We arrived in the pitch-black reception area, and when I lit my wand, I was able to spot a shape that could only be Lucas Meadowes slamming into the wall to the left of the front door. I shot off three consecutive Stunning Spells, but they went wide. Fortess, on the other hand, needed just the one shot. The momentum of his bullet took it through a sliver of the bars of the cage, across the room, and managing to catch the back of Meadowes's left leg as he turned the corner. Meadowes let out a cry, but the hurried sound that followed told us he still managed to get out through the front door.
"Shit," I hissed into the darkness, turning my wand into the rest of the cage. Ron was being hauled to his feet by Abe, his movements ginger; if I had to guess, pain gifted by tackling Meadowes against the reception cage. Su stood next to the desk, her eyes alert and weary. The only other person in the room was the svelte Muggle woman who manned the front desk every now and then. She was usually one of those permanently-frowning types, but the commotion had turned that frown into panicked fear.
"Sir," she said upon seeing Fortess. "What are we going to -"
"We need to alert the town," he replied.
"We need to get out of here," I said forcefully. I shooed them out before adding the implied, urgent, "Now."
Five of us, all but the receptionist, were on the other side of the cage when she spoke, "Why aren't we alerting the town?" she demanded. "The siren's back -"
"No," Fortess snapped. "We have to leave this area. The town hall. We have to go to the town hall -"
He was cut off by a swishing sound; of mist swirling on the floor, coming from the hallway leading to the cells. I didn't need to repeat the fact we had to run; we ran. Fortess slung the strap of the rifle - Juliet's rifle, a part of me remembered - over his shoulder, took one last look at his station, his workplace, filled with all the memories a place like Malfoy Manor would have for me, before leaving. Abe held open the door for everyone else in front of me - Fortess, Ron, Su - but where was the -
The receptionist had lagged behind in the cage too long. Directing my wand light, I made out no less than six shadowy, cloaked, figures pressing her against the far wall, covering her from all sides, and I turned away. The mist began to fill the reception cage, and worst of all, I spotted a more human-shaped shadow approaching in the haze, and she was approaching fast.
I pushed my way out of the station, leaving behind everything that happened in there, and followed the others out onto the night-cloaked street. The lightposts at both ends were flickering from bright white to dim orange, and under the light people were running back and forth, some towards the source of the noise, some away. The gunfire had alerted people, but the sight of us running away was pushing some back. Screams and cries lanced through the night. A few people began rushing towards Fortess, converging on their leader, but he gestured them away, as far away as they could go.
"To evacuate the town we have to call the siren," Fortess explained as we sprinted, footsteps pounding on the street and our breaths heavy with Dementor-induced fatigue. "From there we can alert the Tent Bridge, turn off all the town's power, and light the Two Flares. There are only two places we can do that from -"
"And one's mist," murmured Ron. "The town hall?"
"Everyone will converge there," I said. "Because in case of attack, if the attack was in the centre of town, people would bunker in, wait for it to pass. The others would escape to the filtering station on the north side."
I considered it. It wasn't good. We were on the eastern side of the centre of town, more north-east than south-east. The mist would spread out in a spiral pattern, and would take the filtering station soon... The Dementors themselves would be drawn to the Two Flares, just as the undead would, but this plan, Granford's emergency plan, was for the undead, and not what they called mistfiends. Not what they tried to ignore lest the nightmares start again, just as we did. Bunkering down in town hall wouldn't work; the Dementors would park themselves outside, breed their mist, choke everyone to death... No, we had to get out. The entire town had to evacuate.
"Can't apparate, can't portkey!" Abe exclaimed. "How the hell are we going to get a thousand people out before those things take everything?"
A concussive force destroyed, shattered and obliterated, every window in the two buildings surrounding the police station at once. The roar of breaking glass was matched with the whooshing that followed, as shards, some big and sharp, some small and little more than grains of sand, exploded outwards with the force of a cannon. Those around the area began to scream and cry, and I saw two people drop to the ground with faces full of the projectile glass. A certain instinct made me step forward to them, but that instinct was hung, drawn and quartered by the mist, leaping out of the broken windows of the station and into the buildings on each side, spreading and spreading and spreading... Cloaked figures, dozens of them, poured out into the two-story old storehouse turned apartment complex to the right of the station, the horde converging onto the building, devouring it.
"Quickly," I said. "We do it quickly."
Fortess's eyes filled with rage. "The armoury, my people, they -"
"They're dead." I spoke in a rushed, hollow tone. I was in battle now, and it had already begun to take over. "I'm sorry, but your guns wouldn't have done anything."
His steely gaze moved on mine. "Then we better focus on the rest of the town."
We started running again. I flicked my wand up into the air, creating flashes of bright white sparks, and all five of us screamed at passerbys to run away from the mist, run with us, quickly quickly quickly. The roaring sound of more windows breaking, of entire buildings creaking under the strain of magical creatures on the hunt, was behind us, and the centre square, with the screams of scared people rushing together in a time of crisis, was ahead.
When I turned and shot off another Patronus in the direction of the station (My first kiss with Sarah. The first we counted, after the awkward first, second and third tries. We were both giggling like idiots by the end of it.), I spotted something else, illuminated by the trail of radiant light my stag left in its wake. Out of the mist, near the mist, running free from the mist, were human-shaped creatures. At first glance, and in this darkness, they could be human, but watching one run out of the station's neighbouring flat complex and grasp for another person already running from the Dementors... The predatory instinct, the shadowy motion of one head sinking into another's neck. A zombie, eating its catch, but not the usual kind of zombie. These buggers were fast, strong, and alive. The Dementors could make them, carriers of their Stigma, by stripping away those they ate of everything but that instinct, and the bonuses of the zombie being alive showed. I'd encountered one of these once before, but now... Juliet had been turned into one, I remembered, and so would every other person fed upon by the Dementors tonight. More chaos in the night, the hissing and spitting, running and sprinting, the living dead.
I focused on running first. Making sure Su and Abe didn't lag behind. Making sure Ron was doing all right under the strain of his own Stigma, and then making sure I didn't fall behind at the reminder that my friend was just as dead as the zombies back there.
"Where would Lucas have gotten?" Ron asked me as the square got closer and closer. "We'll need our wands, dammit."
"Fortess hit him in the leg," I said. "He can't have gotten far... the Dementors might have already gotten him. Sorry."
He let out a exhale of frustrated air. "Fuck."
"I need to go check on Ellie and her family first," I said after a moment, letting Abe, Su and Fortess hear me too. "They have their own evacuation plan, but I need to make sure it gets down. Also, the Muggles Juliet put there might not want to let them go... Will I have time for it?"
"I'll be putting up the siren right away," Fortess declared. "There'll be a general announcement, a warning, the lights will go out, the Two Flares will be lit... You'll have minutes, and not many."
The group of Muggles ahead of us all stopped and dove behind barricades erected in the middle of the street. They were hodgepodge barriers, made up of old car parts, sandbags, and various other additions like barbed wire and oil drums. The Muggles, all of them armed with their guns, ducked behind these barricades to take the time to take aim at the incoming horde, but they didn't fire until all of us had cleared past them. The cacophony of gunfire hailed on the undead, and Fortess and I joined them for a few moments, Fortess emptying Juliet's rifle on an approaching trio, while I used my wand to drop the zombies one after another with a hail of conjured spikes. I just ignored the dropped jaws from the Muggles watching. The Statute of Secrecy can go bugger itself, right now.
"Harry!" Ron cried, tossing me something from the darkness. It jingled and jangled, a black silk bag, and I recognised it immediately; the gold I'd given Meadowes. "Must've run this way."
"That's good, Ron, but we have bigger -"
A scream tore through the night, and the victorious moan of a feasting zombie followed. I swore, and threw the bag at the approaching horde. My wand blurred in my hand, and the bag split open, over a hundred gold coins burst into the air. I pushed a wave of heat into them before they could hit the ground, and each coin propelled forward with that heated force, and when it struck the horde, it struck. Coins pierced through bodies with fleshy thwack noises, through arms and chests and necks, taking blood and bones with them. One of the closer ones, once a pale balding dark-haired man, caught two coins on both of its eyes, burning straight through and creating empty holes for sockets. The zombie didn't seem to realise that it had been hit, at first, but it fell to the ground sure enough.
I didn't take down as many zombies as I would've liked, because these ones were fast, and while the Muggles helped thin the horde out, they were still overcome by the fear and the chaos, and many shots went wide as the soulless monsters dodged instinctively.
And worst of all, the Dementors, spreading out from the mist, were coming.
"Go!" Fortess shouted authoritatively, and the Muggles didn't need to be told twice, though they all stopped and looked as another Patronus (Astoria and I, laughing. I didn't remember about what, but it felt good.) sailed out of my wand and into the distance.
I was completely out of breath by the time we got into the town square, which to my continual confusion, was round in shape, ringed by the oldest buildings in town, including the hall, the greengrocers, and the library. The area could fit the entire town if need be, and by the looks of it, it was nearly a third of the way there already. I tried to take it as a good sign, because the chances of anyone escaping intact would be bad enough - look at what happened to Liliford - but... A thousand people might die tonight. The last thousand Muggle people. In the UK alone, that was a third of the entire population.
So not tonight. They wouldn't be dying tonight.
The swell of the crowd took us in as we pushed for the town hall. People began screaming for Fortess's name; they wanted to know what was going on, how bad was it, if they should be going now... Some people didn't even bother asking; they saw the look on their leader's face and bolted, some heading the way we came, even as others warned them against it. Chaos was rumbling through the night air, cold and still with a hint of the rains earlier coming back later on. Panic was rich and audible, and fighting against that great tidal wave, keeping my eyes focused on following Fortess, following Ron, following everyone else, felt impossible after the fatigue of casting those Patronuses. I wondered if at what point would it stop being an issue of having the memories, but having the will to unleash them in corporeal form.
Halfway through the panicked crowd, a strong grip grabbed my upper arm, and a giant of a man with blonde hair and bushy eyebrows appeared in my vision. "Harry," he murmured - it was Auror Strong, Ministry operative. "I just heard. Dementors?"
"Yeah," I replied, shrugging out of the grip. "Where are the others?" A thought struck me. "Did you see Meadowes?"
"I saw him run away, but nothing else," he replied. He frowned. "Limp away, more like."
"Right, okay, ignoring him, where are the other operatives? What's their orders in an attack like this?"
"Do what we can to help. Emergency powers to break the Statute, but it's our mess to clean. Two of ours are already on Tent Bridge, and they'll be there to make sure the flares don't go out. I've put half a dozen up north at the station, and they'll try their best to keep the others safe. The rest are scattered; haven't seen them - could've run, or are heading this way now. Could already be dead,"
"Who's going to alert the Ministry?" Su asked, sidling up beside me; funny, she had been in front of me before. The crowd was pushing and shifting us all.
"The disillusioned sentries just near the ward boundary," replied Strong. "But they'll only see from a distance. We need somebody to go and tell them the exact nature of -"
My injured arm exploded in pain again as somebody bumped into it, and I involuntarily closed my eyes. When I opened them, the three of us were being buried in people. Panicked men, women and even a few children crashed into us, a stampede breaking out as we got closer to the hall. The tide washed over Su, but she made slipping into it look natural enough that I wasn't worried. Auror Strong, a big man, was visible somewhere to my left, eyes darting from side to side to watch me come. The lights coming from the town hall were closer now, and I used the back of Ron's head to guide me there. I found Fortess and Abe there too, Abe's nose swelling a nasty purple colour from some incident in the crowd.
"Aaron!" a familiar voice cried, and Stanthorpe stepped into view on the front steps of town hall. Behind him, people were running back and forth, carrying their weapons and supplies. "Should we -"
"Yes!" Fortess and I shouted at once, and Stanthorpe nodded briskly.
"The siren!" he called out behind him. "Call the siren, alert the bridges! Shut down the power boards, all of them!" People bustled and cried and rushed away to comply, and Stanthorpe turned to us. "Where's... anyone?"
"Juliet's gone," said Fortess, with a bitter inflection in his voice. "Mistfiends, Stan. And they're turning people into zombies."
"Faster, meaner zombies," I confirmed. "Bit of magic in them, keep them alive on nothing but instinct. The usual ones are dead, but as far as I can tell, these ones can't be saved either."
"Magic," Stanthorpe said, shaking his head. "Magic."
Fortess murmured a curse to himself. "The fences. We can't turn off the fences." At our looks, he elaborated. "If the attack moved inside-out at an unstoppable rate, the plan was to shut down the fence, just in case. No reason to keep the zombies in, and we'd potentially set ourselves up for injury. But... the fence used to run on our generators."
I got it instantly. "But now it runs on magic, a ward of some kind that's supposed to replicate the effect."
"Could you disable it?"
"A ward that big, in the time we have? And just me? No."
"Magic?" Stanthorpe repeated. "The fence runs on magic now?"
"Long story," Abe said with a wry frown.
And we didn't have the time to explain it. I said, "Okay, we can't afford to waste time. I need to get to Abe's pub, make sure everyone gets out all right."
"I'm coming," Ron said immediately.
"Same," grunted Abe.
"I'd come too," Su began, slipping out of the crowd, "but somebody has to stay and message you, just in case."
"Patronus message, Su?" I asked. "We can't do that if you don't have a wand -"
"She'll have mine," Auror Strong rumbled, placing a hand on her shoulder. His serious gaze met mine. "You have a way out of the town for the Ogdens?"
"Brooms, on the roof. Six of them."
"Then I'll take one, fly out with them, and report to the Ministry," he declared.
"Good, good." I turned to Fortess, who was talking with Stanthorpe in hushed tones. "We're going now. Make your announcement, get people moving towards the station or the bridges. If groups cross the Old Bridge, they won't be mistaken for zombies heading for the flares. Do not lock yourselves down here. The Dementors will find a way in, or breed all around you. Understand?"
They nodded seriously. I sent one last look to Su, and she nodded back, twirling Strong's wand in her hands. More than well aware at how she could handle herself in a crisis - the St Mungo's lockdown having taught me - I left her, gathering the others and pushing back into the crowd.
All the lights went out before we got back to Abe's, and the whole of Granford was plunged into total darkness. In the process, I nearly lost my footing to a deep puddle in the middle of the alleyway, before Ron caught my upper arm and set me back to running again. My wand was our only source of light, making out shadows of the alleyways, guiding us over more puddles, past barricades and various other debris. A light wind had picked up, and the echoing cries of Granford in danger ruffled my hair and swept into my back, creeping up my spine. The effect was amplified by the inclusion of the town's warning siren, a klaxon sounding out from the top of town hall, a warbling, terrifying, sound, crackling with disuse. As it echoed, I took steady, deep, breaths in the darkness, pushing onwards down familiar shortcuts back to the pub. The alleys were abandoned; those that lived on this part of the town were already in the centre of town.
The streets were dark for only a few minutes. When we turned our heads, we spotted the Two Flares lighting up the night sky, two orange flames burning bright for all the town to see; for all the undead and the Dementors to be drawn to.
Fortess's announcement echoed out of a speaker system hooked up to every street; the speakers would be the last big of power to go out. "... evacuation plans are in effect. Travel lightly, move as fast as you can. Homes can be rebuilt, supplies regained. Lives can not. The undead and the mistfiends have infested the east side of town, starting from my police station and moving outwards. Those heading to the filtering station must move north along the west barrier fence, which is active. Stick together, do not draw attention to yourselves. The flares are lit... I am here, for all of you. I will protect Granford until the end. All of you go, now. Repeat, an evacuation is in effect..."
He cut himself off after repeating the message three times, and the warbling siren stopped. The silence brought back that primal, instinctual, fear of the completely still darkness, but we were close enough to Abe's by then so I could focus on Ellie and her family. They were waiting for us, and I wouldn't let myself let them down. Not after everything.
Abe's was located on the south-eastern side of town, located in the middle of a street on a small plateau in between two inclines - heading upwards to the west side of town, and downwards on the east side. We emerged out of an alleyway to the stately building's right, and I immediately noticed the pinpricks of light through the windows, and since the rest of the town's power was gone, it would be candle light. Shadows moved in front of the light, one pacing nervously by the ground floor window to the right of the door. We approached carefully, not wanting to spook those inside. Last I heard, the recently deceased Juliet O'Flynn had locked the Ogdens and Hit-Wizard Strauss down to stop me from doing anything stupid. The shadows told me they hadn't moved, but they'd doubtlessly heard the announcement...
The door slammed open, and a shotgun-toting bald man shouted over his shoulder, "Yeah fuck you too! I heard 'im say to go, and I'm goin'!" He reeled in total shock upon seeing us, and I had my wand aimed at his throat before he could say a word. Beside me, Abe and Ron stepped forward menacingly, while Strong cracked his knuckles together. The man, who I thought to be named Matthews, paled. "Fuck."
"Move out of the way," I told him, before calling out, "Leeson! Are you in there?"
"Harry?" he called back. "What are you -" Brown haired and brown-coated, his left arm in a sling, Leeson himself appeared at the doorframe. "Harry, what's going on?"
"You heard the announcement, didn't you?" Abe grunted. "Move. I need to get my things." He pushed past the stupefied Muggle and walked into his pub like he owned the place, and his appearance was enough for Ellie to cry out in exclamation.
Ron and I pushed into the pub too, leaving Matthews and Strong at the door, and Leeson following. Inside, all but one of the tables had been pushed to the sides of the room, and a dozen armed Muggles, ten men and two women, stood in various positions in the room, behind the bar, at the stairs, watching out the windows. Their hostages were sitting on the sole unharmed table just in front of the bar. There was Gladys, her features lined with awareness, but she appeared calm; Amaris, gritting her teeth and looking torn between being happy for my arrival or being her usual self about my arrival; Strauss, sharp eyes taking in our injuries, our sweat and heavily breathing selves; and Ellie, who jumped right out of her chair at the sight of me, rushing up and sweeping me into an impromptu hug. Her grip was tight around my chest, and I returned it briefly. Felt kinda nice.
"I'm fine," I assured her as we broke apart. "Really, I am. But none of us will be if we don't go, now." I turned to Leeson and the Muggles. "Mistfiends, zombies, you heard the announcement. Go to the bridges, now."
"Damn straight," Matthews muttered by the door, turning and heading out into the night. Several of the others made moves to follow, but others stayed put; one woman pointed her rifle at Ellie's back, and another man spoke up.
"We were told to stay put, no matter what happened," he protested. "Juliet -"
"Is dead," Abe growled, circling him to get behind his bar. "Saw her die. This here is Fortess's order. Evacuate. This group is no threat to you."
"And we're supposed to believe that why?" the man asked.
Abe nodded to himself, then to Ron, to Strauss, and then to me.
We all acted at once.
Strauss sprung up out of his chair, pushing the chair itself back and slightly to the side, catching the legs of the woman pointing the gun at Ellie. She fell, cursing, and Strauss jumped on her to secure her weapon. At the same time, Ron tackled the man protesting to Abe, who reached over the bar to grab his pistol and quickly turn it on the rest of the room. I slid Ellie to my side and pointed my wand at Leeson. "Juliet's dead," I told him. "Whatever she told you doesn't matter. Tell them to leave."
His lips quirked in a little grin. "Never any doubt." He hooked a thumb over his shoulder. "Get going, all of you. Abe, hand him back his gun, and Strauss, help her up, would you?"
The two older men complied, Abe very begrudgingly. The group trooped out of the pub after a tense moment, leaving us alone with Leeson.
"You too," I said, nodding to him. "The bridges are closer. Go there. Avoid the mist."
He shook his head. "But what about you? How are you going to get out, mate?"
"I'll be heading that way when I'm sure the rest of the town's left," I said. I tipped my head to Ellie, who had attached herself to my side. "First, I need to get this lot out of here. Strauss, you still have your wands?"
"We do, Harry," he replied.
"Good. Amaris, Gladys, the roof, remember? Brooms are in the trunk by the chimney. Get on, get going. Ellie, you're going too."
"Harry, I -"
"Wait, wait, wait," said Leeson, his gaze incredulous. "Brooms?"
"I don't really want to go over this," Ron said. "There's only so much a man can take before his death, but... Okay, Leeson? Magic is real. We can do things with magic, but we can't do everything."
"We can't save everybody, but we can save enough," I said, as much as it pained me.
And of course, Leeson reacted the way we all expected him to. "Magic? What the fuck are you guys -"
By the door, Auror Strong cried out, "Get back here! Meadowes!"
I left Ellie where she was and bolted out the door and onto the street. Strong pointed, and I followed his finger into the darkness down the street, to a lone figure limping under the pale moonlight. The figure froze on the spot as the light of my wand flashed his way, but he didn't stay frozen for long. He turned his wand up, and I barely had time to blink before a jet of blue light flew in our direction. I ducked instinctively, and when I ducked, everyone behind me ducked, Ellie crying out in surprise as the spell obliterated one of the pub's windows. The next spell impacted Strong's shoulder with a fleshy thwack, and a chunk of bloody flesh spat into the pub, eliciting another cry of surprise; Amaris this time, who I imagined had caught a face full of it. Strong fell to the ground as Meadowes began to approach us, spitting out spell after spell, blasting holes in the front of Abe's pub.
"Meadowes!" I called. "You don't have to do this!"
Another spell whizzed over my head in reply.
"To hell with you, Harry Potter!" Meadowes limped forward into the light, looking like he'd been beaten to hell and back by the night's events. I saw the bloody mess that was the right side of his neck. "If I'm going to die, I'm -" He shot off another spell, fizzing out before it could hit anything, and he swore. "I want my gold, you son of a -"
"Hey!" a voice called out.
A silver dart, an arrow made of light whizzing as fast as a bullet, collided with Meadowes's head. Blood spurted out of the back of his head in a spray, and the last look of surprise, indignant and disbelieving, was the last I saw of Meadowes's face before he dropped to the ground.
My eyes darted to the source of the spell; Leon Strauss, standing in the doorway, wand braced on top of his left forearm.
Ron stepped forward and said, "Lucky... He has our wands."
Abe murmured in agreement and followed him to the body, and after a second, Strauss and I went too. Lucas Meadowes was a still corpse, the only source of noise coming from the fluids leaking out of the hole clean through his head.
"One of my old students," said Strauss with disgust. "Not one of my better ones. Don't quite know what he had less of: morals or brains."
Ron nudged the corpse with his foot. "Lot less brains now."
"DMLE justice," I said quietly. "That was for Artemis Hart."
Strauss made a noise of agreement, turning away from the man's corpse. "I'll get the Ogden ladies ready."
Strauss walked back to the pub and I followed, leaving Abe and Ron to do what they needed to do, while I crouched down and did what I had to do. Auror Strong was missing a chunk of his shoulder, but the spell hadn't nicked anything vital. A quick patchwork Healing, and he would be good to go.
Leeson, who I'd forgotten about in the commotion with Meadowes, stood and watched as I worked, mouth gaping as skin reknit back together, and blood was siphoned into nothingness. "That's magic," he gasped.
"It can do explode stuff and heal stuff."
"And a few things in between."
"Well..." He gestured with his injured arm. "You couldn't have used it for this?"
I smiled tiredly. "When we get out here, promise. You should go now, Leeson. Fortess and Stanthorpe have things handled in the square, and we'll be joining them soon. Get to the bridges."
"Guess I should..." He moved to leave, reaching into his jacket with his good arm and pulling out a little grey revolver. "Hey Harry? Good luck."
"You too," I said, and to his retreating back I added, "Watch for stray bullets."
His chuckle cut through the frigid night air, and he soon disappeared down the street, heading the way the other Muggles had.
I flipped Strong, him being unconscious this entire time, over on his stomach, to heal at his back. Red light shined over the wound like a second, transparent, skin, and the blood began to recede back into the hole, pushing back just enough for me to use the next spell, which would sew the skin back together seamlessly. He'd be in pain for a while, but would still be able to fly when I woke him. The red light of the healing spell was still doing its thing when a shadow fell across my patient.
"Where's the rest of your family, Ellie?" I asked without looking up.
"Packing," she replied. A bit of movement, and she was crouched down beside me. "I, uhh, never really unpacked."
I hmm'd, and said nothing else. When I eventually looked away from Strong's back, I saw Ellie sweeping her dark hair behind her head in a no-nonsense ponytail.
"I'm coming with you," she declared.
I frowned at her. "Ellie, I'm about to go back into a warzone, okay? Dementors, zombies, panicked Muggles with guns running away from them. I can't -"
"Or won't? Harry, I need to come." She shook her head and bit her lip. "You understand, don't you? I can't just run away, not after everything."
"You can live," I said forcefully, then quieter, "You can live."
"And if I can save people here, tonight?" she asked. "I've put up with being hidden for this entire year. I know you never wanted us moved here, but I know that I can't just abandon everything."
"And your mother, your grandmother? How about Tiberius, a friend of mine?" I stared at her intently; her eyes were bright in the darkness. "If you end up dead because you're not ready, what am I supposed to tell them?"
"You tell them I volunteered. Because I wanted to. Because you need all the help you can get, and..." She sighed. "Please. It's not... You trust Ron, and Abe, and Su, right? You trust them to watch your back?"
"Without a doubt. But they're not -"
"I didn't fight in the Battle of Hogwarts. I have never dealt with the undead personally. But even you were new at this, all of this, once. You told me your story, remember? You told me how Sarah died, and how St Mungo's burned, and you said that required a certain level of trust. I'm calling that again, Harry. Trust me. I want to help."
My mind screamed, No no no no. Ellie was many things, but a veteran of combat was not one of them. People in these situations, untested, tended to lose themselves. The Dementors would not help that situation; how many trained, experienced, wizards had died to their happiness-sucking nature, again? I could understand her want, her need, to help, but I couldn't... Risk it. Risk her. I made a promise to her grandfather to keep her safe, but what I was about to go back to wouldn't be safe at all. Ellie wasn't a known quality in this, even if I did trust her, even if I did see her as a friend, even if the look in her eyes told me she had her mother's iron will, and might just keep it through a battle...
"I won't be a burden," she promised, but ultimately, I don't think that's what I was worried about.
"I lost Sarah," I said quietly. "I lost Astoria. I lost Hermione, Ron's dying right now, and there's a whole long list after them. I don't want to add you to the end of that, Ellie. At a certain point I need to tell people no, that they should just run away from me as far as they can."
"Even if those same people tell you that they volunteered, and that this is their fight too?" she challenged. "Harry..." She reached out with one of her hands, a soft, slight thing, pale in the night. I reached out with one of my own, grasping -
"She is not going anywhere but away from here," a steely voice declared, and we both looked up to see Amaris Ogden standing in the doorway, wearing her best Sunday scowl in addition to Strong's blood from earlier. Mine and Ellie's hands flew apart as if we were electrocuted, and Amaris noticed. Her tone was softer, though not by much, as she addressed her daughter first, "Ellie, I am only trying to think for your best interests -"
"Harry!" Abe shouted from behind me, and my neck whipped around fast enough to hurt. I was on my feet instantly, my wand pointed at the street. The darkness hid them, but there was no mistaking the moans and groans in the air. The undead. The slow kind, by the looks of things... but not alone. A shadow ran out from the night, snarling in Abe and Ron's direction, the two of them standing in the middle of the street by Meadowes's body, having retrieved their wands. Abe whipped his through the air, and a dark green scythe of light clipped off the zombie's head. "Sorry, we're closed!"
Ron backed himself up, conjuring bluebell fireballs and rolling them along the ground to get a view of the approaching horde, some slow, some fast. The fast ones were gaining ground quickly enough to be worrying, though one caught one of Ron's fireballs and erupted in blue flame before Abe dispatched it. The corpse fell forward onto Meadowes's, creating a bizarre pyre that succeeded in, at least, illuminating the entire area.
I sprung into action, leaving Ellie and Amaris behind, and my wand whipped a burst of air to existence, slapping an approaching fast zombie into the ground, where my Piercing Curse was able to scramble its brains before it could stand back up.
"Strauss!" I heard Amaris call from behind me. "Strauss, get down here!"
Ignoring her, I made my way towards Meadowes's funeral pyre, which soon turned into a beacon for the horde. Ron and Abe were back-to-back and swatting the slower undead like flies while most of their attentions were on the fast zombies, their legs pounding towards the fresh meat with a ferocity that was foreign for the undead - no doubt because these guys weren't actually dead. I spotted the problem with their strategy of killing all of them immediately. If they focused on swatting the slow ones before they got to them, they'd be eaten by the faster ones. Similarly, focusing exclusively on the faster ones might yet allow a slower one to catch them unawares.
So I decided to prevent either scenario. The slower ones still had a bit to go, emerging from the east end of the street, and in one fell swoop, I could take care of enough of them before the fast ones truly became a problem. Ron swung his wand in an arc, the spell trailing behind it bludgeoning two heads at once, compressing them to messy pulp with pure force. He used the same spell pretty successfully against even more, but I could see him growing weary, and quickly; The Stigma was affecting him. Abe, on the other hand, used less conventional tactics, his spells lopping off the legs of those heading his way and creating a bunch of crawling zombies for the next batch to try and get through. He laid down some kind of spell that would shoot spikes out of the ground as the crawling zombies got close, absently taking care of those he missed.
I aimed my wand at one zombie man, a slow one, dragging his leg behind him in a limping gait, and used the heat from Meadowes's pyre to fuel my next spell. I got the attention of the slow ones by heading towards them, and even a few of the fast ones turned my way, their retreating backs getting shot down by Ron or Abe for their trouble. I gathered up a great deal of concentration, took in a deep breath... and unleashed it.
The zombie I aimed for exploded when the bolt of lightning struck him on the head, the shockwave ripping its skull in two and doing the same to the rest of the upper body, before the force just turned it into a blood splatter on the ground. While impressive in itself, the real use of the spell was sending a shockwave from the conjured bolt outwards, lances of lightning striking the slower undead surrounding the ground zero, and well, when the heat and the force I pumped into the spell struck a walking corpse, the results weren't pretty. Eyeballs exploded out of their heads, for one, and melted brains leaked out onto the ground through the empty, burnt, sockets.
It didn't kill all of them, but even I had to admit that was pretty impressive of me.
Strauss emerged from the pub then, and with him came more silver darts of light zipping through the air, four out of five striking their targets with expert precision. Abe and Ron cleaned up the straggling faster ones, and Abe's face was grave as he said, "There'll be more where they came from, and soon. They're moving out from the other side of town."
"And the Dementors can't be that far behind," I said, nodding sharply. "Okay, no more arguments. You two watch the street, especially the route we need to take back to the square." I gestured. "I'll send the Ogdens off."
Ron looked over my shoulder to Ellie, standing near Strong by the front of the pub. "Good luck with that."
I grimaced, and when I got back to her, I didn't meet her eyes. I muttered a spell to take Strong out of his unconsciousness, and Strauss helped me bring the big man to his feet.
"What happened?" he asked, voice slurring.
"Meadowes happened," I replied. "He's dead now, don't worry."
Strong cast his bushy eyebrowed gaze over my head and to the zombie corpses littering the street. "How long was I out, again?"
"Long enough," said Strauss. He nodded his head to me. "I can take them from here, Harry." Behind him, Amaris and Gladys were juggling the brooms retrieved from the roof. "You should move on before it gets worse out there."
I snorted. "How could it possibly get worse -"
"Hey!" Ron shouted in the night. "More walkers coming our way!"
We did what we did best; there were only three of them, and while each told a story, the important bits were condensed down into blood and brains splattered on the street. By now, the pyre had gone out with the rest of Ron's bluebell flames, very familiar bluebell flames, and the street was dark and quiet again, a great breath inhaling before the next attack, which I had no intention of being around to see. Things would be worse in the centre of town, and I had to move quickly.
"So we -" I began, but I was cut off by the sound of another spell whizzing through the night, a bright yellow stream cutting through the night and audibly connecting with something fleshy. The zombie, a fast one by the looks of it, fought and fought until the lack of knee bones made it collapse to the ground, moaning up a storm of what I assumed were zombie curse words.
Ellie Ogden walked over to the handicapped zombie, and I followed. She looked directly at me as she pointed her wand at its head. It was over pretty quickly; Piercing Curse.
"Do you know what you just did, Ellie?" I asked steadily. "You just killed somebody. Somebody with a life, before this, and somebody that could have friends or family wondering where he is right now. You just took his life. He was alive; see how fast he ran for us? That's because the Dementors made him that, but he was still alive. You don't need Legilimency to know those things are just as long gone as the undead, but..." I stepped forward. "Look at him."
Slowly, she did, her head moving down, pausing for a moment, then back up to meet my eyes. Her own were unflinching, defiant, but there was something, a glint of... Her resolve wavered, just for a second. I saw it, because I was looking for it, because it's what I needed to see.
"Good," I said, placing a hand on her shoulder. "You're feeling it. We all do, but that just means you're a human being. But... if you want to help that badly, you need to focus that feeling. All of this cannot hit you in the middle of a battle, and with the Dementors around, it will try. Focus on how scared you are, or frustrated. Use it, and I'll have you with me, okay?"
She nodded. "I will."
"Good. Remember, aim for the head, it's Expecto Patronum, and stick close to me. Do everything I tell you to do, even if I ask you to run and leave me behind. It will hurt, but do it, understand?"
She nodded again, and I was assured that she not just understood, but understood.
When we returned to the pub's entrance, Strauss took one look at Ellie before walking back into the pub and placing the broom he got for her back inside. Amaris and Gladys watched him do so with frowns, but Gladys seemed to get it first. She walked over and hugged her granddaughter tight, and I heard her whisper, "Be safe, and be smart." They pulled apart, and Gladys patted Ellie on the cheek. "And come back alive."
Amaris's face turned ashen. "No," she said, shaking her head. "Not a chance. There is no way I'm leaving her here in this fucking town to die!" Her rage, burning red-hot on her face and in her voice, turned itself on me, and I felt like ducking to avoid the spitting magma. "You! You have no right to do this, no right -"
"It was her choice," I said.
"But she's only doing it because of you!"
"Yeah I've noticed I have that effect on people."
Before Amaris could slap me, Gladys grabbed her arm. "Dear, you can't sway Ellie away from this anymore than I could sway you from anything when you were her age. I'm too old to fight, and Tiberius needs me, but I know the reason to stay. Because it's right, because there are lives at stake. We have the power to help the Muggles tonight, as we should've done from the start. Ellie realises that."
"Mum, I'll be all right," assured Ellie. "We'll be joining you soon. Just gotta get a few people out of town, protect them from the Dementors is all."
That assured her raging mother as much as a drop of water could quell Fiendfyre. "He is going to get you all killed," she accused. "Like Hart. Like your friend Terry."
Abe snorted and threw up his hands.
"What kind of person do you think I am?" I asked Amaris pointedly. "You think I use people, right, that I'm just a horrible person despite everything I've done for you? Is that what you want? Proof that you're right, that your little arguments with me aren't just you being scared and having no other way to show it?" I reached into my inner jacket pocket, the magically expanded one, and pulled out the folds of my Invisibility Cloak. "How's this? Okay, I'll give this to Ellie. It's my fourth-most valuable possession, if I had to rank them. I want to have this cloak by the end of the night, and if Ellie has it, I'll be more compelled to save her so I can get my cloak. You get where I'm going with this? You think I'm the kind of person that'd care more about the tool than the person. And while you're right, I've had my moments, I'm not fucking around when the stakes are like this. Not now, not ever."
She said nothing.
"Look, I know you'll never admit it, but you're just worried. Ellie's made her decision, and trust me, I tried swaying her away before you even heard about it. Now, are we going to make this into such an issue that we waste time getting back to the centre of town, and put Ellie into more danger when we get there and the Dementors are attacking? Are we?"
"If she is harmed..." she began.
"She won't be," I finished. But no promises.
I got the feeling Amaris would never, ever, admit to being wrong about me, but she didn't try and stop her daughter. After a tense moment, she walked out into the street, swung her legs over her broom, and waited for the others to join her. Nobody moved, and, perhaps realising she was alone, she let out a sigh, swinging her legs off of the broom and laying it on the ground. She reached into her bag and pulled out something small and unseen in the darkness, before marching over to Abe and shoving it in his hands. She repeated the process with Ron, her daughter and finally me, and when I looked at the square-shaped object in my hands, I finally understood.
"Chocolate," I murmured, pocketing the wrapped bar. "Thanks."
Amaris nodded stiffly, hiked herself back on her broom, and promptly pretended that the moment hadn't occurred.
Gladys, wearing a bemused look, followed, patting me on the arm and sending a supporting smile my way as she did. Ellie watched them go but stayed by my side, while I shook Strauss and Strong's hands.
"You tell them everything," I said. "You tell them about the Dementors, about how we need the help as soon as possible. Even if the bill's already been shot down, Robards will act. You just need to prompt him. Tell him to bring every single last one of his Aurors, of those able to fight. They need to save Granford, tonight. I'll do all I can, and my friends will help, but..."
"We understand," rumbled Strong. "Shouldn't waste time."
"Keep them safe," I told Strauss, who returned the sentiment.
"You'll do great, Harry," he said. "Follow your instincts." He swung his leg over his broom. "I'll get them out all right, but first... I'll signal you, with sparks. I'll show you how far the mist has spread."
"Thank you," I told him, and after one more handshake, he stepped away and gestured a hand to the others. The four riders were about to kick off as I sidled up to Ellie, muttering, "Last chance to go with them."
She muttered back, "Better the undead horde and the Dementors than my mother."
"You'll have to be especially brilliant tonight. Don't let us down."
"I won't." A slight nervous smile flittered on her full lips. "Promise."
Abe stretched his neck side to side, taking one last look at his pub and home for the past year. "Potter, we're burning through our time."
An echoing moan was his reply, coming from the end of the street we weren't planning on going down. Definitely not, anymore.
"Agreed," said Ron. "Very much agreed."
Strauss's signal had delivered bad news. The mist had swept up from the police station and taken the northeast side of town entirely, including the town's hospital, and the path to the filtering station on the northern end, the station having a set of pipes to evacuate straight out into the river from, would be getting swarmed by the Dementors by now. Strong had said there were five Ministry wizards helping the Muggles out there, but they would be overrun if they tried to make a stand, and if not by the Dementors, the undead would put in appearances and begin the feeding frenzy. All in all, it didn't bode well for the entirety of Granford, but there was still a chance that those converging on the town square were being evacuated right now, and the thought had the four of us running through the alleyways, just as empty, quiet, and eerie as earlier.
As we ran, I found myself beside Ron, examining his features on the starlight, looking through the shadows with my best Healer one-over. He was flushed, and pale, but with the expenditure of breath from the running. He wasn't tired from the earlier skirmish with the undead; he had dealt with more and used more to kill them and still stayed upright, so it wasn't that. Only one more thing would've given him this flush, this fever.
"It feels like it's calling to them," he said, answering my unasked question. "I don't feel good, mate, not at all. I'm barely... I'm barely running here."
"What do you mean, calling to them?"
"The Dementors," he bit out, looking pained. "The scab, on my arm, won't stop burning. Burning cold. And it just feels..."
"Like there's one nearby."
"Don't be. I can still run, I can still fight. I'll watch your back to the end." He tipped his head towards Ellie, running up ahead behind Abe. "Hers too, so you don't have to worry so much."
We kept up our pace, and all I could think about was how much losing my best friend was going to hurt, especially after everything else. He wasn't perfect, but dammit, he was Ron. He was there when it counted; it's what was killing him in the first place.
"Any regrets?" I asked.
"Plenty," he replied. "Sitting in your compartment back on the train, ten years back? Wouldn't change that for the world, mate."
And there was nothing else to say after that; Ron didn't even look like he could say anything without passing out, and with all his concentration only on running and keeping upright, he appeared a little less flushed and feverish.
We pressed on, and the dark alleyways of Granford pushed and pulled us, that feeling of a coming dread, sinking slowly in my stomach...
... and then I saw it.
Mist. Thick and thin, rolling and hovering, still and ever-shifting. Even from a distance it didn't look natural, and up close, it just radiated strangeness, an eerie sense of oozing wrongness, cold and oily. It didn't move with the wind, or dissipate over time. It would hang there and spread out as long as the Dementors wanted it to, as long as they took their food and bred with it and in it. Those poor souls weren't in the mist; they were the mist, and in the short time I spent inside, I had felt that weight, of the potential lives not lived, snuffed out and sucked dry by the Dementors. It was not pleasant, to say the least.
But that wasn't the biggest problem. The mist in front of us was blocking the centre square, including the path to the town hall. The Dementors had parked themselves somewhere in the mist, and it wouldn't even take many of them to spread the mist as thick as this, and enough of them could still be roaming the streets of Granford, feeding on anything in their path.
"The town hall," said Ellie. "Has the mist...?"
"I can't tell," I said, my voice almost a whisper as if the Dementors wouldn't hear me otherwise.
"They could've gotten out already," Abe said. "If we send a message to Su, can find out. Preferably before the Dementors notice us."
"Harry's not thinking that," Ron said, peering at me.
All eyes turned my way. "There could still be people in the hall."
"There's no way to know that, unless we..."
The mist swirled before us, wispy tendrils reaching forward to tickle at our feet. Ellie shivered first, and the rest of us followed suit. They were calling for us, the voices of the lost souls.
But then the mist parted in a subtle, understated way, and if I hadn't been staring into that iridescent white abyss looking for an solution to our problem, I would've never seen it; like a single leaf flipping over in the breeze, but it was enough to see. The mist was distorted by a light, bright and more solid than the mist itself, defined lines and a shape forming out in the haze. The shape was heading our way, and as it got closer I could see wings cutting a swath through the mist, and then the rest of the great eagle's body. It soared out of the mist completely and circled around our heads; it was a Patronus, and when it opened its beak, I knew whose it was.
"Harry," said Su's voice, issuing forth in a whisper. "There's mist everywhere. We were gathering up the last groups to head out when we... opened the doors, and... I drove them away, but they'll be back, and the mist is starting to leak in." The eagle's eyes met mine; they were as serious as Su's, and just as intense. "Since I know you'll come, come now."
The eagle tipped its head to me and took flight, disappearing into the cloudy night sky, leaving only a void of warmth, soon filled by the mist, calling again.
"So we go in," I said, and nobody voiced protests. They knew the stakes, they knew what would be in there. It was almost suicide, unless... "It's a straight path from here to the hall. When it's in front of us, we'll know. Okay, okay." I took a deep breath and paced in front of the mist. "We walk in a line, and we stay within reaching distance. Ellie, I want you behind me, and you will be holding onto my arm, understand?" She nodded. Good. "When you walk in, you'll feel things, hear things, and... I can't describe it. Everything about it will scream wrongness, and your body will react. It will burn ice into your eyes, it will take all of your senses, your will. And if the Dementors stop what they're doing and pay attention to us, we're screwed. This is their territory. Passing through undetected? Gonna be nearly impossible."
"But we have to try," said Ron, crouched over with his hands on his knees. "How close should we be to each other?"
"Practically touching," I said seriously. "The mist will disorientate you, try to throw you off, but we walk in that straight line. Watch your sides, but don't stray."
"Patronuses?" Abe grunted.
"In there it might draw attention to ourselves, even if we can cast them... The Dementors will be on us right away, see four lone targets like that, and they'll pick us off one by one." But I remembered the reaction Su's Patronus had evoked. Subtle, but there. All things Dementor hated all things Patronus, the pure despair being burned by pure happiness. "We... have to go in, now. Ellie."
She reached forward and grabbed my upper arm with her left hand. Her touch sent a tingle down my spine, warm and foreign in this night, but pleasant. I looked down and saw the silver charm bracelet on her arm, my birthday present to her less than a week ago. It still radiated warmth from my spell, and for a second, it felt like the best thing in the world.
Then I stepped forward into the mist.
And by Merlin did my body immediately protest this action.
The mist was not pleasant, to say the least. Everything inside of it was white, and thick, and impossibly cold - not just in the usual sense, but the hair-raising, mind-numbing kind. Get out, the mist screamed, and my bones turned to glass. The warmth from Ellie's charm was quickly snuffed out.
I tried to speak, but when I did the mist reacted, diving into my open mouth, honing in on the entrance I gave. A tendril of the mist touched the tip of my teeth and sent violent chills down the rest of my jaw, and I shut my mouth so tight it hurt. The wisp of mist receded away from me and merged with the rest of it, and I tried to focus on walking for a few moments. Just walking, forward, one step, two steps. Ellie's hand was crushing my forearm. Ron's breathing was irregular. Abe's footsteps were laboured. We continued on through, the only sounds made by us; the mist was still, but carrying an air as if was waiting, just waiting for us. Then I swallowed. Ice trickled down the back of my throat, and I felt its descent down my oesophagus. I wondered if I'd feel it all the way down, but I pushed the thought away.
One step, two steps... I looked up, I looked down, I looked left and right and every other direction, and there was only mist. I tried to judge how far we'd gone, tried to factor in how big of a loop the mist had already thrown us in, and wondered if we hadn't realised it yet. Three steps, four... The ground under my feet became cobblestone, I could feel it; we were the town square proper. Five steps, six steps, and we had to be close.
I risked opening my mouth again, but the mist barely stirred. "How many steps to the middle of the square?" I asked.
"A few more," Abe murmured back. Our voices were quiet, reverent and as contradictory as the mist; we tried to keep them still and calm, but they warbled out of us, in our fear.
I took a few more to mean four, and when I took them, I signalled the others to stop. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Ellie do the same, just in case Ron and Abe couldn't see me, which was likely. I let out a breath I didn't know I'd been holding, crouching down, and pointed my wand at the ground. The mist parted for the spell's light, an orange light, looking hot to touch but wouldn't be warm at all in the middle of this, burning an 'X' on the ground. Our midpoint. Couldn't be entirely sure, but it would have to do for now; we had no other option.
"Keep walking," I instructed the others hoarsely. When I stood back up, mist rolled off of me, feeling like a thousand people patting me on the back at once, and it made me shiver.
We did, going straight as straight could go. My eyes began to sting with the feel of cold water clinging to my lashes, and trying to blink it away only made it worse. Forward is the only way to go, I told myself. Forward.
A dark shadow flashed on my periphery.
I'd been afraid of that.
When I looked, I saw that it was more human-shaped than any Dementor would look like. It wasn't floating or gliding for one thing, no, it was walking. Shuffling, dull moans muted by the mist, which hissed and swirled in reply, and the souls of those eaten grew less and less subdued.
"Guys," I said softly. "Zombie. On the right."
Ron muttered out an incantation, and the shadow dropped out of my view.
But another leapt out of the haze, and Ron went flying off of his feet.
We all reacted at once. I turned, Ellie jumped, Abe rushed forward. Red light and blue light and invisible force mixed in and struck the zombie, its arms and teeth lashing and gnashing in an attempt to get at Ron, but failing, held back by his forearm and all the will he had left. Our spells didn't kill the creature, however. It lost chunks of flesh out of its side from spell, was barely moved by the force of air striking it in the back of the head, via Ellie, and the blasting curse from Abe only whipped its ear clean off. Two of the next three spells went wide, but Ellie's was stronger this time, and it snapped the zombie's neck, giving Ron enough time to push it off, point his wand at it, and quickly splatter brains on the ground. I walked over to make sure he was unhurt, and Abe and I hauled him back to his feet and gave the quick one-over.
"M'fine," he muttered. "Just a scare."
And we were about to get a bigger one.
Worse than the undead, who were at home in this mist; they could smell and hear us out, their vision impeded but their instincts all they'd ever need, numb to the effects of the stew of souls, never feeling the weight of all of them pressing down. No, worse than the undead, who would converge to the mist and perfectly hunt inside. The Dementors had never been far from my mind, but the thought of them blared in the front of my mind now, and a cold trickle went down my back.
And worst of all, in helping Ron with Abe, Ellie's hand had slipped off my arm. When I looked up, looking dead straight where I thought I came from, she was gone.
I called out, "Ellie!"
"I'm here!" she shouted back.
That cold feeling in my... everything... didn't cease. The Dementors had been breeding, unawares of our presence. But we just interrupted them. Oh, fuck.
"Shit," I hissed. "We got turned around. We got turned around. Abe, Ron, did you -"
"I fell, Harry, I fell," Ron replied. "The zombie threw me to the right, and -"
"Ellie!" I called. "Walk towards my voice, and nothing else! If you can feel them coming, just -"
"I haven't moved," Abe said. "I was facing this same way the entire time. I'm facing straight. We go that way."
"Are you sure?"
A dark curtain whipped through the air, and my insides clenched -
- but it was only Ellie's ponytail, but the rest of her threatened to be swallowed in the mist; she was facing the wrong way, and there were dark shapes emerging in the distance, and worse even darker shapes, closer and closer, the mist hiding them until they were right on top of us.
"Ellie!" I shouted desperately. "Turn around!"
Her hair whipped again, and I saw her pale face, which melted in relief as she saw me.
"Harry..." Ron said warningly. "They're coming!"
"We should run," said Abe.
"No, wait. The Dementors are coming too, I can feel them." I sighed in relief as Ellie caught up with us. "Abe, keep facing the way we're going. The rest of us, go back to back. Patronuses. If it doesn't work, then we run. If it does work, then we run."
I stepped around Abe, rooted in the spot with his eyes darting in all directions, and stood on his left side, my shoulder bumping his. Ellie pressed herself directly opposite me, and Ron opposite Abe, his shoulder bumping my other one. The four of us paused, for one long second, before raising our wands in unison.
My mind raced through the happy memories, the ones I thought I'd lost. I got smiles and laughs and nights spent in warm beds, but those weren't memories; they were ill-defined, feelings, fleeting and jumbled, the sum experiences of people, and they wouldn't fuel this. Something pure, something that wasn't like those other memories, filtered and misremembered. In a sea of souls, of vague feelings and experiences, something defined needed to come out in this Patronus.
I don't quite know how everything else realised it themselves, but the four of us all cried, "Expecto Patronum!" in unison (I've won the Quidditch Cup, my third year, and I felt on top of the world.), and four glorious white bursts of light broke into the mist, flashing so brilliantly and brightly that it was impossible to look away, or shut my eyes. The icy feeling on my eyelashes, in my nostrils and in my ears, evaporated as my memory, my Patronus, took shape, and Prongs rode into the mist. Ron's terrier, Abe's goat, and Ellie's formless starburst, weak in her inexperience but not lacking on the fuel to power it, travelled in the directions they were facing. The mist shifted and turned like it had before, and while several shadows fled, more remained; the undead, unaffected by the spells.
But they certainly weren't unaffected by the next ones.
We took down maybe six of them before I alerted the others. "Run! Don't stop running! Abe, take the lead!"
Abe pushed himself away from us and began to run, and I grabbed ahold of Ellie's wrist to follow, Ron taking up the rear, still shooting spells into the mist behind him.
Miraculously, the trip felt short. I could feel the Dementors, via the prickling at the back of my neck, fade, circle around and try to come at our sides like a wave, but we were faster, and the fear of the Patronus kept them at bay just enough, just enough for there to be a bigger shadow lying in front of us, a defined shape as old as the town itself. Abe pounded up the steps to the town hall, and I let Ellie go on her own to scramble up to the door. Ron and I ran up them together, and waited a moment at the top of the third, out of four, steps, wands pointed back into the haze we ran through.
There was nothing... but it couldn't hurt to be sure. I traded a nod with Ron, and we both raised our wands again and unleashed our Patronuses (My last day at Hogwarts, not the sad moment of longing for more, but the happy moment by the lake with Ron and Hermione, and a feeling of the future laid before me). When I looked, Ron was pouring all of his effort into his own spell, using every good memory he had, even if they came with the taint of the bad, like the ones with Hermione, or Megan, or his family. Ron Weasley was slowly dying, but right now he was surviving on those memories, on that last thread.
Behind us, Abe banged on the double doors. "Fortess! It's Abe! Open this damn door now. We are here to save you!"
And Ellie joined in, pounding with her hand. "If somebody can hear us, you have to either open up... or step back!"
"I like her plan," I said, and Ron and I wheeled around and aimed our wands at the doors. "Step back. Don't destroy it, just push it. Run in immediately, don't let the mist -"
Hot breath spilled on the back of my neck, and I ducked just as everyone cried out. I didn't look, just kicked back, pushing the zombie - the sneaky fucking zombie - back as far as I could in my shock. My heart began to race as I turned, aimed my wand toward the shape, but it lunged forward, the fast sneaky fucking zombie, and I felt my leg give way to the force. The steps reached up to me the side of my head, but I held my hand out just in time to prevent hitting the edge of a concrete step. My ear burned, and my elbow begun to sting, but I would be in a lot worse pain if I didn't move, and move quickly, because that zombie was still close, and -
One of the doors cracked open by a sliver, and Abe quickly held onto it with a gnarled hand. "Now!"
I needed no more prompting, and by the sounds of the footsteps, neither did the others. I half-crawled backwards up the last step; a few hands grabbed at my arms to pull me forward, and I attempted to balance myself on my feet. The sound of a gun firing stung at my injured ear, and warm blood splashed on the back of my legs. I could feel Ellie at my side, supporting me, and I felt a rush of gratitude for her. We bolted inside, passing out of the mist and into the cavernous entrance room of the town hall, which didn't feel much warmer but still felt so much better than outside in that hell.
"Thank... thank you," I said, placing my hands on my knees and panting; that encounter had taken a bit out of me.
"You're welcome," Su said quietly, her head appearing in my vision. "Thanks for the rescue."
"Yeah, well, you're welcome too, but..." I laughed hollowly. "We still have to go back."
Aaron Fortess clasped a hand on my shoulder. "So it appears."
It was just then I noticed the room was filled with people, and every single one of them was looking at us. Four people, three of them practically strangers and one gruff old Abe to them, who walked through the mist and survived intact. The faces staring at us belonged to men, women and children, and they were frightened, angry, tear-streaked, blood-stained, weary, or smiling weakly and trying to feel relief that somebody else had made it... But most of them looked just lost.
"How many are there?" I asked.
"A hundred," said Stanthorpe, one of the ones who was smiling weakly. "Near enough. From all over. Picked up a dozen before we lost the east side of town."
I nodded in reply, keeping an eye on my friends as colour returned to their cheeks. Ellie reached into one of her jacket pockets with shaking hands, and pulled out the chocolate bar her mother had given her. She quickly unwrapped it and started eating, and that soon set off the others to do the same, getting what little comfort they could after exposure to the Dementors, preparing themselves for what was coming next. I found myself reaching in my pocket to grab my own, unwrapping it as Abe split half of his off to give to Su.
A gunshot suddenly rang into the air, sharp and crisp and echoing from somewhere nearby, and it made me flinch, the chocolate bar raised halfway to my mouth.
"Doc Schulz got bit when we lost the hospital," Stanthorpe said, shaking his head, and that was enough to explain the gunshot. "People started running back from the filtering station, and they went here... We were so busy trying to push them to the bridges the mist was able to sneak up on us."
"We barricaded the doors before it could get inside," said Fortess. "But I doubt that will truly save us."
Su's eyes gazed into mine. "Harry," she said aloud, but there was more in what she didn't. What was the plan? she was asking. How are you going to get us out of this one?
I gathered Stanthorpe, Su and Fortess and brought them closer to the doors with Ron, Ellie and Abe, leaving the hundred Muggles to watch us, whispering and muttering. I kept my voice low as we formed a circle of sorts, enough so I couldn't stretch my neck too far to see everyone's determined face.
"The back exits?" I asked.
Fortess shook his head; Juliet's rifle was still strapped around his shoulder, and it shook with him. "Mist."
"The whole hall is covered. There's no underground passage, no way into any other buildings. Only way out is through that door."
"Harry burned a mark, in the middle of the square," said Ellie. "A midpoint. We could use that to turn toward the bridges..."
Fortess and Stanthorpe shared a look, and back to me. "I thought you were getting her and her family out," said Fortess.
"The rest are gone," I remarked. "I'm just sorry I don't have enough brooms for everyone here."
"It's no matter. Did you mark the square?"
"Yeah, I did, but the Dementors in the mist won't let me guide a hundred people out."
"Five of those people can cast Patronuses," Ron pointed out. "We put one wand per groups, manageable groups of twenty, and -"
"But what about the Ministry operatives?" asked Ellie. "They could be -"
"No, Strong had them at the station, or to the bridges," I said, it dawning on me that they might not've gotten out in time, but still could've stopped enough Dementors to allow hundreds to escape with their lives... I could only hope.
Ron nodded understandably. "Then one wand per group it is then?"
"No, can't just have one wand in the groups," I argued. "Not everybody can handle the mist, and the Dementors, on their own." Ellie looked ready to protest, but it wasn't just her I was worried about, and my tone was gentle as I said, "Ron's running on near empty, Ellie. And your Patronus isn't perfect, not yet."
"And we should be leading the groups," Stanthorpe said. "They don't know you guys, they don't know about magic. They won't just trust you're leading them proper, even with how scared they are." He nodded to Fortess. "They follow him."
"Yeah, you're right."
"Three groups, maybe," Abe grunted. "Me 'n Ron take the front. I seem to be the only one of us with a sense of direction, anyhow. Ron'll stay on the midpoint mark and guide the second group towards the tail end of the first."
"That will have to be the biggest one," Fortess decided. "I'll lead that one."
"And I'll be there to," said Su. "I'll meet up with Abe in the middle, and we take them out. Harry's got the rear. We set it up right, and he can take care of the second group too."
"I'll be with Ellie then, yeah," I said. "How should we split the groups?"
"Let me decide that," Fortess said. "Stan, you good with going with Ron and Abe?"
He shrugged. "As long as everyone wants to follow me."
"They will, Stan, trust me."
Stanthorpe almost looked abashed, and scratched his chin absently. "Then what's the plan when we get out of the square? The bridges?"
"Station's mist, fence is still up, only way out is the bridges," I said.
"But the bridges are rigged to explode, Harry."
"And the flares will be attracting everything," said Fortess.
Su nodded seriously. "Moths to a flame."
Fuck, they were right. Getting out of the mist was bad enough, leading a hundred panicked Muggles made things even harder. Five Patronuses. Potentially hundreds of Dementors, and the fricking undead wouldn't be put down so easily either. Looking around, I saw only a few guns in the hall. Not enough to spread in the groups and to stop the undead from being an issue, leaving the Dementors just for those capable of warding them off... All five of us.
"We need a distraction," I said.
It was Abe who spoke up first. "I have something for that. Back at the pub."
"We were just there," said Ellie. "And the undead..."
"If you need a distraction, we're goin' back there," he said firmly. "I've got something for this. Something I was saving." He eyed me seriously. "Trust me, Potter, this will work."
"Okay then. Okay... so the groups still stand. We'll want them in lines of two or three, at most."
Fortess nodded his head. "I'll try to set up the armed on the outlying edges."
"Won't do anything against the mistfiends, will they?" asked Stanthorpe. "We can't even see them..."
"There's still the walkers in there," said Ron. "Plenty of targets."
I nodded. "But if we need to get to the pub, we'll need a route back. We'll have to double back through the mist after we get the Muggles out -"
"No we won't," Su piped up. "If we're coming out of the west side of the square, there's an alleyway we can take back across to the street where Abe's is. Well... two alleyways, a quick detour in the primary school and we'll have to jump six fences and cross a roof."
We all just stared at her.
"I've been busy," she declared.
"Seems like," Fortess muttered.
There was no more time left to lose. The Dementors and the undead would be eating the town alive the longer we waited around. The Muggles would have to clear the bridges with all the ravenous undead and the monstrous Dementors on their tails, and even if they blew up the bridges, the Dementors would not be slowed down. They needed to be thrown off their trail, and if we made the big enough distraction, if whatever scheme Abe had cooked up would work, then they'd survive the night. They'd have enough time to get away.
So three wizards and two witches would be their saviours, where the rest of the wizarding world was not. A hundred lives on the line; I couldn't be responsible for the other nine hundred, but this group, right here, I could save. Time to put it all on the line, time to do what I tried to do best. Save.
"Get the groups ready," I instructed Fortess, popping the final bit of chocolate in my mouth and savouring the rush of warm sensations as it went down.
"I will." He paused before heading off, however, and he smiled at me honestly. "Thank you, Harry," he added sincerely. "And all of you." He tipped his heads to Ron, Abe, Su and Ellie in turn. "You volunteered to stay, to help. I owe you all."
They nodded in gratitude, and Ellie said, "We all have our parts to play, remember?"
He thanked us again, wordlessly, and Stanthorpe sent us a supporting smile before going to join Fortess in rallying the Muggles. I watched as the crowd converged on them, grabbing ahold of what meagre supplies, in backpacks or in hand as they did. Determination seeped over their faces as Fortess directed them into groups, picking out every individual by name, and compartmentalising them appropriately. It was decided that the first group would be those quicker on their feet, to get through as fast as possible, and Fortess assigned people with steady heads to watch over some of the shakier ones. The biggest group, his, the second, had the injured and unable, like the children, to be protected by the remnants of Fortess's best and brightest soldier types. The third group, mine, would have a mix of everyone else, and would be the smallest. The groups started to form together, and the hall was alight with people whispering, alternating between determined and scared. Fortess and Stanthorpe directed them, personally assuring the more scared people to not stop and stare at what would happen inside the mist, but to just run and keep steady heads. The key, they told them, was not to get lost, or stray, or panic. It would be optimistic to say only a dozen would panic, and I knew that not everybody would survive the trip.
However, there was a key difference between some people dying and all of them dying. I voiced my concern to the others, the five of us standing back from the action near the front doors. "The first group getting out unharmed will be a miracle," I said, leaning back on the hard wooden door, the handle pressing into my lower back. "The Dementors will definitely go for the second and the third. They'll be like a big herd of cows to those beasts."
"That's where we'll come in," said Ron. "Patronuses."
"Right. All of us make a path for the first group, and Ron and Abe will get them out. Ron goes back to the midpoint to help Su with the second group, which I'll be handling at the rear, while Ellie and I also take care of the third group..."
"Yeah, it's a good plan, mate."
"But if we all head out the mist one way, the Dementors will chase. The Muggles need to cross those bridges, and we need to get back to the pub." I looked at each of them seriously, at their various determined looks - Ron, tired and holding steady, Abe, disgruntled but wary, Su, sharply assessing, and Ellie, scared yet determined. "If we make the distraction big enough, we'll be a beacon. For the mist, for the undead... for the Dementors. All of you understand that this might be it, right?"
And of course they did. But they'd volunteered anyway. Me and my friends. Crazy bunch we are, but ultimately doing the right thing. Nobody else in the world I'd rather nearby right now.
So, fighting a proud smile off of my face, I continued, "The Muggles still need to get out, or this is for nothing. If we piss the Dementors off enough, they'll just follow, and risk our Patronuses to feed on the Muggles. The undead will go with, and they might risk blowing the bridges first. We need to get them out, but at the same time, we need to bring the wrath to us instead. Split off the horde as much as possible."
Ellie realised it first. "You want to draw them off."
"Just me, yeah."
Ron snorted. "Bullshit."
"Not this time Ron, not for this. The four of you will be exiting out of the mist on the west side of the square, where you can hold off long enough for the Muggles to run down the main street and to the bridges. You can then take the shortcuts Su described to catch up to the pub, where I'll be."
"So you'll go south?" Su asked.
"Throw as many Patronuses down their throats as I can, to draw them off. We'll meet up, and Abe, how long will this distraction of yours take?"
"Minutes," he replied. "You want a big bang, I'll need minutes."
"How will you draw them off?" Ellie asked, visibly worried.
"I'll switch to the rear of the third group after we get to the midpoint," I explained. "Guide you all out from behind, then I plan on running the second you're all out."
"Harry..." Ellie began.
"We still have to focus on the Muggles first," I told her, and our eyes met. Hers were sad, but in a pretty way. I softened mine. "I'll catch up at Abe's pub with the rest of you."
"I feel thanking you again wouldn't be enough, Harry Potter," Fortess's voice said from my side. I broke my gaze with Ellie and looked at him, and the hundred Muggles split into three groups behind him. "You'll forgive me if I wish to make sure all of my people get out? Stan will lead them to the bridges, and I'll take the rear."
I nodded. "I'll be happy to have you. Just one thing."
"What is it?"
"Don't hesitate. If you have to, once you've crossed them, blow the two bridges."
"Done," Fortess said. "Ron, Abe, ready? Group one will go right away, and group two will follow after twenty seconds. If you would all open the doors..."
We did, and the five of us pushed the mist back with simultaneous Patronuses. The stag (Our team had just saved three men from a Maxilla Curse, and everyone was in Hunt's office, laughing at nothing.), the terrier, the goat, the eagle and the body of some large four-footed animal, Ellie's Patronus, not yet fully corporeal. The beautiful creatures, constructions of happiness to drive back the despair, spread out in a semicircle around us, forming a shield of light pushing outwards like a wave.
I nodded to Fortess, and he rallied the first group. "Stick behind Stanthorpe! Do not stray, stay steady! Guns, stay pointed away from us. Just follow everyone else. Ron and Aberforth will protect you, I promise. Be safe."
"What he said," I said to Ron and Abe. "Abe, keep Ron on his feet."
Abe grunted. "Will try."
"What he said," said Ron, grinning a little. He snapped off a salute and stepped out into the mist with Abe, both of them with their wands raised, looking for shadows. They shot off a few spells in one direction; an approaching walker, most like. My focus shifted from them and to moving out of the way of nearly thirty men and women and children, making up the first group.
"Luck, Harry," Stanthorpe muttered as he passed.
The group headed off into the mist, and we watched them go, every person simply fading, being swallowed up by the swirling, regurgitated, souls. The back of my throat was dry as the last of the group disappeared.
"Girls," I said, while Fortess walked around behind us, prepping the second group. "More Patronuses, now."
I begun to feel lightheaded after Prongs leapt from my wand yet again (Ron, Hermione, Neville, Ginny, Luna and I playing that marathon game of Exploding Snap, my sixth year. That feeling I got looking at Ginny, the laughter at Neville's burnt eyebrows, and at the fact Luna managed to beat us all, every time.) but I tried not to let it show to the others. I couldn't have that many left in me, not after everything, but I still had to stay upright, for the sake of things bigger than me. Could've used a bit more chocolate, I suppose.
Fortess shook my hand before taking the second group out, holding Juliet's rifle as he ventured out. Su cast her Patronus two more times into the haze, while Ellie and I stepped in the doorframe to watch the group go and make sure the Dementors didn't try for their sides. We couldn't see anything, but that didn't mean...
"Harry," Ellie said suddenly. "I think the charm bracelet you gave me stopped working."
"No big deal. I'll make you a new one when we get out of here."
She laughed in a forced way. "When. I'd like that."
Something made me ask, "And more?"
She said nothing, a slight smile playing at the corners of her lips.
I turned away from her and faced the group of over twenty people I was responsible for. My mind flashed back to the lockdown, and the twenty people I left behind to escape the burning hospital. The look on Sarah's face, the last look she wore that wasn't pure agony... I looked at Ellie again. She smiled, and while her smile faltered, she still tried. That was encouraging enough.
"Okay, we go quickly, and quietly," I told the group. "I know you're all scared, and tired, and so many other things, and all I want to ask is that you put your trust in the right place. Fortess trusts me to do this, and while he'll take you when we reach the middle, I've got you now. And I... I will lay down my life for all of yours. Know that."
I turned from them, and signalled Ellie. She cast her Patronus out, but I didn't; not now, I couldn't risk it. Ellie's was enough to shift the mist again, again subtle but there, and when it shifted, I ran forward. Two steps forward to leave the hall, two more to get to the top of the hall's steps, a quick jump to get down to the cobblestone square proper, and then the realisation hit that I was back in the mist. I couldn't afford to feel it, even if I did, and I took one look back at the group before picking up a pace, a jog quickly turning into a run.
It wasn't quiet, not like before, with everyone's footsteps bouncing along, and I felt an intense pressure building in my head. Like the mist didn't just want us anymore, wasn't just calling, but it needed us, and it was going to take us. Goosebumps erupted on my skin, and things began to get darker; not like we were surrounded by shadows, but like the entire mist became darker, dimmer. The Dementors. Oh fuck, the Dementors.
I almost tripped on something fleshy and solid, but was able to avoid falling completely. When I looked down I saw a corpse, its face destroyed by a buckshot, and looking around in the dimming mist I could see more shadowy forms lying on the ground. More than we had taken down before, in our first trip. I couldn't tell if they were from the other groups, or if they were in the mist in the first place, but it was possible it was a mix of both... and more than possible that Dementors had snatched corpses away completely.
"Keep going," Ellie encouraged beside me. "Keep going. It's not far, just keep going." I couldn't be sure if she was talking to me, the group, or herself.
We did, and I just knew we getting close to the midpoint, but at the same time there was no way to be completely sure...
A woman cried out, and two guns went off.
Panic hit us first, and the shadows in the mist weren't far behind.
I turned away from the path ahead, and saw Ellie turn with me. A few of the group kept running ahead, pushing past us, but behind everyone we saw them coming. Not just one shadow, or two. Not even a shadow at all, a glimpse of something dark and insidious. This was a black cloud, and it was coming for us fast.
Moans and groans filled the air; the mist had hidden the undead, again, until they right on top of us. The two Muggles with guns, the only two with guns, began firing wildly, at the cloud, at the source of the moans, at everything at once, and screams tore through the air. Three Muggles, two men and a woman, were attacked by the faster zombies, and their painful sounds of struggling under the weight of teeth and claws were enough to draw the attention of the gun wielders, who turned, pointed their guns, and kept firing, until one's gun clicked, empty of its bullets, and it was too late for both of them. I pushed my own spells out on the swarm of zombies, nearly a dozen, coming from our right, and beside me, Ellie did the same, even as the screams of the dying Muggles and the hissing shrieks of the undead rang in our ears. The mist became dimmer and dimmer, until it was grey instead of white, the souls no longer screaming out with their weight, but hushed, reverent, paving the way for the icy cold of that black cloud, the Dementors.
"Expecto Patronum!" I cried, trying to push the Patronus forward towards the cloud... but what came out of my wand wasn't anything but a formless burst, and I swore internally, digging deep for a happy memory, something big that I could use, something.
Ellie's Patronus rushed forward and lost itself in the cloud, which slowly began to grow less and less defined, a shadow to a shade, a shade to a fading memory...
"Harry!" Ellie screamed. "Harry, we have to -"
"Go!" I snapped back. Zombies were coming from all sides, and the Muggles at the back of the pack who'd been picked off first were starting to rise again. I swept my wand out in an arc and let a pure wave of force knock them back down, turned, and ran for it.
The mist threatened to lose my view of Ellie and the others several times, and although it felt like we'd run the entire length of the town, eventually, my burning orange 'X' in the ground became visible, and with it came the figure of Aaron Fortess, his rifle firing into the zombies running behind me. His aim was precise, and meticulous, and he made every shot count. He never fired if there was a chance of one of the fleeing Muggles getting in the way. He was a stony pillar of calm in the raging sea, and I shot him a grateful nod as I approached.
"I'll take it from here," I told him, looking ahead. Ellie was running to the west, good girl, and her Patronus cut a swath through the mist. The Muggles ran with her, as many as were still alive. "Quickly, before you lose them."
"I won't," he said. "I won't. Harry, see you on the other -"
A rustle of a black cloak, and Aaron Fortess vanished right in front of my eyes.
My insides seized in shock, my head began to pound. Shakily, I raised my right hand, my wand, and pointed it at the mist, swallowing everything but me all around my body. "Fortess?" I called. "Fortess?"
Whispers were my only reply.
The souls were telling me to go, but Fortess...
... appeared in front of me, close enough to see but far enough away to make it feel like a great chasm, of this haze, was all that there was in the world. I could make out his tall, stiff-backed, posture, the short blond hair, the stormy eyes...
A shadow appeared just below his ear, and an oily black hand, rotting and skeletal, cupped the side of his face. Then another, above him. And another, at his neck, clamping like a vice.
The Dementors spread out around him like a beastly shadow, and more hands grabbed everything, until I could only see his face, lined with age and experience.
They were taunting me.
And Fortess's lips moved, and formed two words.
My aim never felt truer; the Piercing Curse struck him just above the bridge of his nose. His eyes went glassy, and the black hands started to grasp for his mouth, those monsters trying to get their feed in, but they wouldn't, not from Fortess, not from him. I'd denied them of that. He had denied them of that.
"You see that?" I called, screaming each word until my throat hurt, in my grief, in my rage. "You fuckers cannot take everything." I whipped my wand up towards them, and I reached for the memory (The lunch Sarah and I had with Astoria, when she started in St Mungo's. That feeling I got when I realised I loved Sarah for the first time, right then and there.), pushing it out into my next words. "Expecto Patronum!"
The shadowy creatures dropped the corpse of Aaron Fortess and fled as the ethereal stag bucked and gored. Officer Aaron Mackenzie, who lived and survived for Tess, his wife, for Granford, his town. The Dementors had taken him right in front of me, as they would take me. And they could, I knew that, but my Patronus brought the warmth back into my blood, and I called to it, "Go to Stanthorpe. Tell him Aaron Fortess went back into the mist to save who he could. Tell him to keep going. And to Ron, to Ellie, to Abe and Su, tell them I'll be at the pub."
Prongs nodded its head and glided up into the air.
The Dementors could take many things, but right now, I made sure they wouldn't take all the hope in the world. To everyone else, Fortess would be saving them, saving his town, a legend everlasting.
That was all there was to it.
I used the midpoint mark to orientate myself, and started to run.
Come and get me, Dementors. Come and get Harry Potter. Let me hear Sarah's screams, or see Astoria's corpse. Bring back every bad memory, every dark day, and I'll match them with the happy ones, the ones that make life worth living.
I ran forward. They were at my back the entire way, but at the same time, they were subdued, almost cowed. Maybe I'd thrown too many Patronuses at them, maybe they just wanted to play with their food a bit first. When I thought I was getting close, it felt like the mist started to shift and dance around me, throwing me off completely. While a logical part of me knew that it was always shifting, and never looked the same, for this moment it just felt different, like... like the Dementors were screwing with me. Of course. I shut my eyes and just continued to run; it may've felt like I moved, but it hadn't. The mist's last trick hadn't been good enough.
My eyes were open again when the tickling sensation of the mist stopped, and soft droplets of rain began dripping on my head. I looked around the familiar, dark, alleyway, half of it shrouded in mist, whereas earlier it hadn't been touched by the mist at all. I took one last look at it, just waiting for the Dementors to come out in force.
But they didn't, and I decided not to stick around. The alleyway stretched on before me, and I knew the path well enough by now. The rain felt almost good, cleansing and less cold than being inside the mist. I decided I liked the rain.
It turned out to be a brief shower, and by the time I turned the corner to Abe's pub, it had ceased. Rain no longer became the priority, however. The zombies in the street were.
There were, to put it very lightly, more than a few. I couldn't be entirely sure, but the groans I was hearing made it sound like there were a lot more shrouded in the darkness, and nearby too. Again, couldn't be entirely sure. In fact, I was pretty fucking unsure, as it happens.
My footsteps skidded on the wet asphalt, and all their heads turned my way. Their mouths dropped open; a zombie man with one eye dangling out of its socket, a zombie with no arms, one zombie woman with her hair torn bloodily off of her scalp. One of them had a shotgun strapped around its shoulder, its arms awkwardly trying to get around it as it headed towards me with an echoing moan. All but two were shuffling with arms outstretched, determined to get their meat. The other two? Running in between, one outright vaulting over the charred corpse of Lucas Meadowes. I stood my ground as they ran, raising my wand to -
One of them, the one who had jumped, flipped in the air, arms swirling like a windmill blade, legs flailing out of nothing. When it landed on the ground, just in front of me, I saw the top half of its head was missing, lying a metre away in the opposite direction. The other running zombie was dispatched by a beam of yellow light, slicing its face open and cutting right through where its nose was.
Ron Weasley, Ellie Ogden, Su Li and Aberforth Dumbledore all came up beside me, all looking a little worse for wear, but ultimately intact. Su's cheek was bleeding, Ron looked like he'd run a marathon, Abe's beard was singed, and Ellie's hair was plastered to her head from the rain, free of its ponytail.
"Nice night for it," Ron remarked, jabbing his wand forward and decapitating the armless zombie.
"Everyone get out okay?" I asked, Ellie and I both taking down an overweight zombie man at the same time, my spell slamming into its forehead, hers exploding a chunk out of it.
"Stan's got them," Abe replied. He was laying down a spike trap again, simply tripping the undead into falling face-first into the pointy ends.
"We drove the Dementors back," said Su, whose zombie-killing method seemed to favour conjured projectiles, floating around her head one moment like a graceful cloud, then speeding off to strike intended targets the next. "Got here as fast as we could."
"Are you okay, Harry?" Ellie inquired, as she finished the job on the scalped zombie woman, clipping the entire top half of its head off.
I turned my wand on the shotgun-toting zombie, my spell grabbing the gun itself, turning the barrel down, and pulling the trigger. The zombie's foot exploded in a gory shower of blood and toes, and as it went down I directed the barrel at the zombie with impaired vision. The next shot went wide, but still managed to take the dangling eye all the way out, blasting it into nothing. One more pull, and his entire head was mincemeat. That had worked in distracting myself from Ellie's question, because I hadn't wanted to think about what had happened with Fortess, and the pain I felt because he'd never get to truly see his town be saved...
So I replied, "Better that you're all here, now."
The last zombie dropped dead with a sickening squelch.
Soon, we were in the pub, and Ron slammed the door shut. "So what is the distraction exactly?" he asked. "Abe?"
Abe rushed behind the bar, and leaned down out of sight. "Explosive."
I had figured it was something like that. "What kind?"
"Been brewing it since I got here, just in case. Didn't expect to have to blow my own pub, but... well, circumstances change." A hand emerged from under the bar, and it placed a ceramic jug on the counter.
Su went over and sniffed at it. "Smells like goats."
"Not to say I did this back at the Hog's Head," said Abe, emerging briefly to place another jug on the bar. "I actually had goats, back there." He almost sounded wistful, ducking out of view again.
"So what do you need to do? How will this work?" I asked.
"This is premium stuff, Potter," his voice replied. "You want something to draw their attention, you'll get it. This won't just blow up my pub. It will level my neighbours's places. It will unleash a great fireball, green and purple and red, into the air." He slammed under jug down on the bar. "Simply put? You will get your fucking distraction, and every walker and Dementor will see it and come running."
I smiled at that. "How long will you need?"
"Minutes, like I said before," he growled. "I need to add the catalysts, force the mixture out of its inert state. Set up a timer... Five minutes." He looked at the jugs again, six now, and back under the bar, where he probably had more. "Maybe seven."
"I don't think they'll give us that long," said Ron, peering out a window. "They're coming."
Abe threw up his hands. "Well unless you want me to blow us all up right now and save some time..."
"Defend the pub it is," Su said. "Lovely."
Abe tipped his head to her and dove back down under the bar, to whatever secret compartment he had under there.
The pub's layout was simple. A grand old place straight out of the 19th Century, the place was a museum piece, a bit of history caught and bottled. The bar was old but beautiful, a long sturdy bit of ebony wood running from the side of the staircases, on the left side of the room onwards, curving into the wall next to the backroom door. Tables and booths took up the rest of the space, the latter lining the walls and the former once spread out evenly, but now pressed and stacked on the booth tables from earlier. The tables gave us plenty of potential fortification tools, but first we had to focus on the door and windows. The door was on the left side of the room at the far wall, but three large windows sat next to it, not to mention two similar windows on both side walls not covered with the bar. The room was dark and unlit, but with a wave of my wand, the candles sitting on top of the shelves and on the bar were aflame, bathing the pub in a dim orange light. It would have to do for now.
I directed the others to the tables. "Against the windows, and the door," I instructed. "Somebody fix the window Meadowes broke earlier, too. After that, try to reinforce possible entry points with magic. Can't be sure their resistance won't overcome it somehow, or if that'll stop the Dementors, but..."
"Still have to try," Ron said. "Got it."
Behind us, Abe muttered and noisily rearranged the jugs on the bar.
A fist smacked up against the windows, then another, and another. The door began to rattle and shake. One of the windows was pounded on more emphatically by a quicker fist, and was soon joined by a second. The glass begun to crack. Howling, mournful, moans begun to fill the air.
The undead were here, and I cried, "Quickly!"
The first window, the middle of the front trio, shattered before we could press the tables against it, and two snarling zombie visages peered through the glass. Ellie and I took them down immediately, but four others wandered into view, vacant expressions that still spoke of hunger on their faces. All of us, except Abe, lined up in front of the bar to take our shots; I used the shards of glass still in the frame to impale them under the necks, glass shooting up through their brains. One zombie managed to climb over one of its fellow corpses and awkwardly rolled into the pub, but its trip was short-lived, of course.
More glass shattered from my right. "Su!" I alerted. "Take that side." She rushed to do so, turning on the spot and instantly decapitating the zombie trying to get in.
It continued like that for a minute - more and more tried to pour in through the front window, while a few stubbornly tried to break through the others and make a new entrance or two. A side window on the left broke, and I directed Ellie's attentions that way. The whole time, the door was being pounded and pounded on, damn near shaking off of its hinges. How many of those things were out there?
And... how the hell would we get out?
The thought distracted me, and I paid the price for it. Debris whipped forward as my misfired spell exploded at the wall, shattering the glass of the leftmost front window. Immediately, undead began pouring in, and I tired to keep them at bay. I hadn't reacted fast enough, so three managed to get into the pub proper, and when Ron took the moment to kill one, two stumbled over themselves to get in through the first shattered window. Ellie turned away for a second at the commotion, and another one got inside through the side windows.
Then the fire started.
The zombie Ron had dispatched, that of a short, pudgy, man with intestines trailing out of its stomach, fell at an awkward angle, a fleshy stump on its neck all that remained of the head. The zombie's arms flailed out and upturned two candles sitting on a nearby booth, and the wood erupted in flame, spreading onto the upturned tables immediately.
"Potter!" Abe shouted, and when I looked, I saw him busy with his wand, waving over each of the jugs in turn. "If that fire gets to these, we'll be dead!"
So of course, the tables on the entire right side of the room all caught aflame, a trail of fire soon beginning to head up the walls and out the broken windows; it broke the other one under the strain.
Su and I conjured up torrents of water and directed the hose towards the flames, but the undead soon made their presence known. I watched as a dozen tripped over themselves to get through the windows, a few even catching on fire on that side of the room. I killed those ones first, their corpses pitching forward onto the ground, and sending sparks at the varnished floor, but Su stopped more flames from erupting right away. That turned out to be the only good news; a loud crashing noise signalled that the front door had been battered down. Acrid smoke began to fill my nostrils. The flames turned a dim orange room into a raging red and yellow, and the cacophony of the undead, moaning and groaning and hissing and spitting, became unbearable.
"Backs to the bar!" I shouted to the others; Su, trying and failing to combat the fire; Ellie, being overrun by zombies pouring from the left side of the room; and Ron, a ring of corpses at his feet showing just how close they were getting, the fast ones and the slow ones both. I stepped backwards and shot down two of them with deadly precision. "Abe! How long do you need?"
"Still need minutes!" he snapped, temporarily stopping his work to stop another flaming zombie from getting close.
My back smacked against the ebony bar, and Ellie was the first to join me, her face ablaze with resolve, even as the tiredness began to visibly seep in. Su and Ron followed, and the entire bar was soon surrounded.
And I tried everything. Brute force replaced one zombie with another. Spike traps like Abe's were only so effective when these things would walk on impaled feet, and tripping them over in such close quarters wasn't viable. The smoke and the flames were making things harder, and the zombies catching on fire weren't being hindered by it in the slightest. Repelling charms wouldn't work, shield charms could only stop so much; there went the hope for defence for this. Couldn't apparate, couldn't make a portkey, the only nearby broom was Ellie's from earlier, and it was ashes by now. Abe was rushing to throw in some kind of herb into each of the jugs, and the contents, smelling of wet goat this close, began to bubble and hiss, purple, odourless, steam issuing off of the rim of each jug.
"Guys," I said, as yet another zombie fell and yet another took its place. "We don't have the minutes. On three, we make a final push. If that doesn't work..." The others didn't say anything. "One." I took a deep breath and turned my wand over in my fingers. "Two." Ron grunted a little battle cry, Ellie pressed herself as close to the bar as she could, and Su seemed to slip into a trance, just waiting for my signal. "Three."
Our wands moved as one, and invisible force lashed out. Mine, the biggest push, blasted every walker back a step and got them tripping over themselves backwards, and it gave enough time for the others' spells to connect. Ron's pulped eyeballs out of sockets, Ellie's cracked bones, necks and shoulders and knees, and Su's spell finished the job, a wave of silvery darts all spreading outwards, most colliding with foreheads or faces, others flying right over the shorter zombies, some striking necks or chests instead on the taller ones. More than a dozen corpses vaulted to the ground.
Fire roared against the right side of the wall, and a flame leapt out at the support pillar next to the bar. Abe swore, and three jets of water quickly stopped it from spreading to the ceramic, explosive, jugs.
By the time I looked back, the undead were rallying again. We'd slowed them down, but not enough. It hurt to realise just how many people had died tonight, to create this many zombies, attacking us in a wave... The room felt crowded, and the choking smoke only added to that claustrophobia. My spells were starting to come out in feeble smatterings of light, and my head began to feel light with exhaustion. I was done; I could just feel it. The others wouldn't be much better, I just knew.
"I think this is it," I announced.
"It's not," said Ron.
The wooden staircase, to the left of the bar.
He pointed again.
The oncoming horde.
I rallied. "On three! One! Two! Th -"
Before I could finish, the four of us unleashed everything we had in formless bursts of magic, our wands directed at the staircase. For a second, nothing happened, and the moans of the undead felt mocking. But then the wood creaked and groaned, in protest at first, but when the supports gave out, it had no choice but to begin to fall, noisily at that, splinters of wood blasting off into our bodies and into the horde as it did. Ron and I used spells to push the falling staircase away from us and to the middle of the room. "Down!" I shouted as it fell, and everything vaulted to the ground. A green shield issued out of Su's wand, just as the staircase let out one final creak...
And everything went dark as it exploded into the floor.
When I opened my eyes, stinging in the smoke, I was looking at Ellie's back, and I reached forward and prodded. She groaned and rolled up to a sitting position, and I did the same. Ron made a similar noise beside me, but it was droned out by the sound of Abe swearing.
"Well I think that stopped most of them!" he called out, and spellfire whizzed above our heads, over the bar, over us, over the wreckage of stairs and wood just before us, and at the horde, looking noticeably more thinned out than earlier.
Su tossed a bloodstained splinter of wood at my feet, and she was holding her arm when I looked to her. "I'm fine," she assured, shakily standing up.
I followed suit, helping Ellie and letting her lean on my winded side, keeping our wands pointed at the dozen or so still-standing zombies left. I killed one on my second attempt, the first spell sailing right over its head and taking a chip out of the wall.
"Abe," I said, my throat dry as a desert. "Please tell me you're done now."
"Timer charm, and I am," he replied, before muttering an incantation under his breath.
It was just then I noticed that Ron hadn't stood back up with us, and when I looked down, he wasn't where he had been before.
His foot was sticking out of the wreckage just before us.
I left Ellie against the bar, and rushed toward the pile of wood and corpses. I pushed it all away with a sweep of my wand, and I leaned right over to check on him, absently registering something clatter onto the floor, I saw that he was still alive, breathing unsteadily through a swollen and bloody face. But he was still alive, if a bit more splintered than before, and I tried to pull him to his feet, at first using my shoulder to support him into a siting position, then pulling as hard as I could. He drifted back into consciousness, moaning groggily, and let me help, and soon we were both standing.
"Close one," I murmured. "Come on, back to the bar."
We were halfway back when Ellie shouted out in surprise, and she darted forward, wand raised at something behind us. I turned with Ron, and we saw the undead heading our way, hands raised, mouths open...
Ellie stood between them and us, pointed her wand at something on the ground and cried out, "Accio!"
A glint of gold flew into her outstretched hands, and I took Ron with me to see.
She pressed a familiar chain and ring in my hands, her eyes serious. "I know how much this means to you," she said, as I pocketed Sarah's ring again; it had fallen out sometime earlier, and I hadn't noticed...
"Thank you," I said sincerely. "Let's -"
A finger scratched at my cheek, and Ron was pulled away from me.
And he began to scream. Just like Sarah, just as loud and agonising.
I looked at him. Dark, rushing, blood spilled out of his neck and down his body. His eyes were wide and his jaw was wider, and blood bubbled from the back of his mouth in his agony as the zombie took a large chunk out of his neck. Another set of bloodstained teeth bit into the side of his chest, and a zombie rendered legless by the explosion earlier began grasping for his ankles.
I was the first to react, and Ellie, Su and Abe weren't far behind. The zombies weren't just blasted away, they were obliterated by our spells. The one attacking Ron's chest crashed into the wall with nothing more than a torso to support its remaining arm. The legless zombie became a pulp on the ground, sloshing at Ron's feet. The zombie at his neck met my spell head-on, and its entire damn head buckled backwards in a shower of blood, leaving only a few teeth sticking out of the ruined and torn neck.
Ron collapsed to his knees.
"No!" I shouted, and rushed forward to catch him. "Ron, no."
His eyes were dazed, and one of his arms moved up to feel for his neck. Around us, I dimly registered Ellie, Su and Abe killing the remaining zombies. The flames were still roaring, spreading through the staircase wreckage to cover the entirety of the pub. "Fuck, this hurts," said Ron. He spat out a globule of blood, and his teeth were stained with it as he spoke next, painful and stilted. "Better... than the alternative. I was dead already."
I waved my wand; diagnostic charm first.
"Just leave it."
My first Healing spell didn't work.
My second one faired no better.
I tried to save him, I tried to heal him. There was nothing I could do, but I tried anyway, because he was Ron dammit, my best friend, and I wouldn't... I tried to save him. I tried to heal him. I couldn't do anything, and I knew it. I've tried before, and I tried now, so many times. And it wouldn't work, it would never work. He was dead.
"M'sorry," he murmured, wincing in pain as more blood seeped out of his neck wound like a waterfall. "So sorry. After Astoria, after everything, I know this going to... hurt, Harry, but..."
"No," I said in denial. "No, mate, I can't." Frustration, pure anger and tiredness at the fact that everything had still led to this, as if it was always going to, leaked into my tone. "I can't save shit. After everything, I'm not... Fuck! Fuck. I can't. Save you. I'm sorry, but I can't. I just..."
"Then let somebody save you," Ron said with determination, fighting through his pain. The pub, aflame with hungry fire and the spent chaos, reflected in his eyes. "Let me save you."
"If I blow up with the pub, it will carry. The smell. Don't you remember what Stanthorpe said? The Two Flares have meat in them, and that helps attract the undead. Let the smell of me carry, let the explosion light up the night sky." He closed his eyes and smiled a painful smile. "Can't think of a better way to go. Hermione and Megan better get ready, because I'm coming." His eyes opened, and they implored mine. "Go."
The others began to shout as more undead poured into the flaming pub once more.
"Get going, Harry," Ron said, reaching out and pushing me away. He flipped his wand over in his hands, fumbling with it, and I caught it. "Take that. I won't be needing it where I'm going." He coughed out another mouthful of blood. "Abe?"
The older man tipped his head to him. "Yeah?"
Ron began to stand, pushing everything he had into it, even as his blood made a small lake on the floor. "They ready to blow?"
Abe nodded. "Guess you won't need the timer? Just drop a candle in 'em."
"And Weasley? Bottle of Firewhiskey under the bar. All yours."
"Thank you." Ron's gaze moved from his and to Su's, and they shared conspiratorial, silent, nods. He turned to Ellie next. "Take care of Harry, yeah?"
"I will," she said. "Good luck, Ron."
Ron swayed on the spot, and I caught his upper arm. He immediately pushed himself away and looked at me with all the seriousness in the world, because this was it, this was all that there was. "Go," he said. "Run, just run. Survive."
I shook his bloodstained hand, one last time, and pocketed his wand.
The pub roared and crackled under the flames, and Ron screamed at us, "Run!"
And we ran. We pushed over the flaming staircase wreckage, killed the zombies blocking our way by the door, and ran out into the night. Thunder rumbled in the clouds above us, drowned out by the roaring flames and the moans of the surviving undead. When I peered back through the open doorframe, I saw Ron sipping from a bottle of Firewhiskey with one hand, and holding a candle over one of the jugs with another. When the bottle let his lips, he let out a sigh of contentment, and closed his eyes one last time... The candle slipped from his hands.
My heart ran faster than I should've been. I turned away and caught up with the others, the faster of the zombies who had noticed us giving chase. I didn't look back, at them, at the pub, at Ron.
A fiery explosion tore through the night sky, and all of us stopped and looked then. A great fireball had obliterated Abe's pub and the two buildings on either side, sweeping upwards in a miasma of flaming purples and greens, with a core of blazing orange, red and yellow. The fireball consumed the very foundations of the three buildings, erupting upwards and outwards, taking itself as high as it could get into the night sky, embers of flame reaching up higher than I would've thought possible. The smell of ashes and burnt flesh violated my nostrils, and my ears started to rumble and pop. A shockwave of force spat from the epicentre, tearing up the asphalt off of the street, lashing out like bullets and taking parts of the surrounding undead clean off, a particularly sharp bit of shrapnel decapitating a spiky-haired zombie, his head flying off into the makeshift flare. The fireball swallowed the head whole, just like the pub and the two surrounding buildings, just like Ron Weasley.
The shockwave of it washed over me, and bits of shrapnel bounced into my chest. Abe grunted in sudden pain, and all of us saw the knife-sized chunk sticking out of his knee.
"Su!" I said, as we both rushed for him.
He began to wave us off. "I'll live, we have to go now!"
Ellie's face was fearful as she said, "He's right. If the Dementors come from the centre square to this, they'll be coming from the way we need to go."
"She's right," I exclaimed. "Su, do you have a route?"
She pointed down the street. "We'll come out on the main street." She took Abe under the shoulder and shifted under his weight. "I'll get him."
We needed no more prompting.
Granford pushed us the rest of the way, through the chaotic night air, under the thunder and the dense feeling of coming rain. The great flare Ron made with his death had made illuminated the sky enough to show us the way, and it was a hauntingly beautiful sight, much larger and more powerful than the two pinpricks on the Tent Bridge on the south side of town. It was two pinpricks we ran towards, down alleyways and side streets, guided by Su's uncanny sense of the layout of every corner and shortcut. There was mist at our sides and at our backs in some places, and the cold feeling told us the Dementors were never far behind; they had been absent earlier, perhaps rallying around the rest of the town before coming for us, and it made me more than thankful... until now. The cold swept up over us, to Ellie and I running with all we had left, with Abe and Su trailing behind as the former half-limped and swore. That feeling of time running out, of the town itself telling us to go, that it would sacrifice itself for us, was enough. I heard Fortess's voice urging me onwards, not for the sake of Granford, but for us. We saved all we could of the town, and it was now trying to repay the favour.
Spurning onwards, we sprinted over puddles and bodies and past flaming houses, misty streets, barricades and scattered supplies dropped in the rush. The undead all limped or ran by us, and I only took down those closest, those who could've ended our lives. One particularly fast one almost tackled me at the side, but I was able to push it away with an elbow to the face, and drill my spell into its forehead, squashing it against the ground like an insect. Squashy squash.
Run, survive, I told myself, preventing Ellie from tripping over. I took everything, every encouragement I'd ever gotten, and pressed forward with the weight of Sarah's ring, never given, Astoria's note, the one she'd never know if I got or not, and Ron's wand, the wood warm and familiar in my pocket. You can do it Harry, I told myself, over and over.
We emerged on the main street, the road stretching upwards towards the elevated side of town, with roads leading off into the main square, from there leading to everything else. This road was filled with even more corpses, scattered through the barricades. Some of them were milling about, and when some more spotted us, they started sprinting, matching our pace with their own. The road led down, down towards the main entrance, where I could see the two bridges, still standing, the Two Flares burning brightly on the left bridge.
My breath began to appear in front of my face, and icy memories played in my head, all of them at once and none more frightening or terrible than the others. The Dementors had come from the main square, and we coming to intercept us from behind, the undead leading the charge directly in front of them.
The bridges were close, dammit, but Abe was still being half-dragged by Su, and Ellie looked ready to drop...
I spotted something near the sandbag barricades. Something that would do the trick. I flicked my wand and oil leaked out of the placed drum, soon pouring out all over the road, slick as it made a trail from one end of the road to the other. I leapt over it to avoid slipping, and Ellie did too. She landed awkwardly, but righted herself and began to run again... until she noticed I had stopped.
"Abe, Su, come on!" I shouted desperately.
"Harry, what are you doing?" Ellie asked.
"Giving you time, all of you," I replied. Su and Abe hopped over the oil, the undead beating down at their backs and the black cloud of Dementors not far behind. "You have to run to the bridges, now."
"Now!" I whipped my wand around in a circle, and a ring of embers formed in front of me, so close the licks burned the tip of my fingers. I directed them down in a slashing motion, and they hopped right onto the oil. A blazing wall of orange flame appeared in front of my vision, and through the flames I could see the coming hell.
And Ellie Ogden reached up, grabbed me by the side of my head, and kissed me on the lips. It was hurried, but filled with warm passion, and by the time I had it in me to reply, just by instinct, she'd already broken away, her eyes filled with tears. "I'll see you," she said, and I nodded to her.
"Go," I said softly, and repeated the same to Su and Abe. They nodded back, but didn't hesitate like Ellie did. They ran for it, Abe in great amounts of visible pain but going anyway. Ellie shot me one last look of encouragement before running and never looking back.
I took two steps backwards, away from the blazing wall, and reached into the pocket with my left hand. I clasped Sarah's ring, felt Astoria's note, and pulled Ron's wand out. I played with the wood in my fingers for a second, and decided to aim it alongside mine, both hands pointed at the flames, which began to flicker and flash as the Dementors got nearer...
And I found a memory, one I'd used weeks ago. Sarah and I, eating breakfast after a thirty-six hour shift at St Mungo's, one that had driven us 'round the bend with the workload, making us giddy enough to bet each other on who would fall asleep first. We were laughing and joking one moment over our breakfasts, before she let out a big yawn, leaned back in her seat... and instantly fell asleep. I'd laughed to myself, and for a moment laughed even more as she vaulted forwards into her breakfast, snoozing into her pancakes. Just another little moment, of laughter and happiness, or the sheer warmth I felt just by being around her.
For Sarah. For Astoria. For Ron. For Terry Boot, Artemis Hart, Grey Gale, Isaac Aquilla, even Draco fucking Malfoy. For Fortess. For Sarah, for Astoria. For Ellie, Su and Abe. For Granford, and the fate of the entire world on my shoulders, I unleashed every miniscule part of will and feeling I had.
White light poured in front of me, a stream, a burst, a flash, everything and anything, beautiful and bright. The Patronus formed into my stag, my father's Animagus form who had been there to protect me this entire time, through cold and despair, and happiness and warmth overtook every sense, blinding and numbing me to everything else. I felt it drain out of me, the force I put into the spell, everything I had left. If I fell here, I would be content. I've done as much as I could. Maybe I was meant to die to save those last three lives: Ellie, Su, Abe.
The light washed over me, and fought back the darkness.
But I didn't fall.
I. Didn't. Fall.
Behind me, I could hear Ellie screaming for me to run, and my legs replied. They turned me away, my arms dropping limp at my sides, both wands clutched in my hands like lifelines. I felt the breath of the Dementors and the undead and the night following me as I pounded one footstep after another, down the road, the last road, the only road, until the bridges were right before me. The others were crossing the Old Bridge; the Tent Bridge in great disarray in the haste of abandoning it, and I followed, the rickety old bridge groaning in protest as I did.
I ran, and ran, and ran. The destination was dark and fuzzy, the things I could see out the corner of my eye darker and fuzzier, but there were people at the end of the bridge, lots of them, waiting for me to cross.
The bridge began to rumble and shake underneath my feet, and I slipped momentarily.
A sharp whine filled my ears, before -
- my body started ringing, right into my very bones. I pushed myself onwards, urging and urging, as the familiar smell of something burning filled my nostrils. The bridge exploded under my feet, and its sister bridge did the same at my side, but I kept running, and running, and...
The Old Bridge creaked one last time as I leapt off of it. My body turned, and a bright orange flare burned at my eyes -
I felt myself fall to the ground.
I felt darkness creep into the corner of my vision.
I felt something sticking out of my chest, and blood pour out onto the ground around me, until I was lying in a puddle of it.
Things got fuzzy after that.
Blinking, I saw Ellie and Su were at my side, crouched and their wands shaking over my form.
"Can you save -"
"I have to concentrate, I couldn't -"
"Can you save him?"
Su's wand flashed white, and a groan escaped my lips. Stars appeared in my mind, flashing and twinkling at me, and there was this feeling of something being pulled -
And I screamed in pain, my back curling me upwards towards the feeling, and my arms reached out to scratch and tear at the pain, to stop it -
"Harry!" Ellie cried. "Harry, stay down -" Her surprisingly strong grip pushed me back down; maybe it wasn't strong, I was just feeling weak. "Su..."
Su shushed her. "He's bleeding out, he's dying. But I..." A spurt of blood - my blood? - splashed on her chest. She took in a deep breath. "Okay, okay."
"I've been practising since Neville, Harry," she assured me. "I can do this."
And Su waved her wand again, a great white light sweeping out and catching me in the chest...
I let her heal me. I let her save me. I ignored the pain, the lightheadedness, the darkness sweeping over my eyes, the pins and needles in my arms and legs. Ellie's hand crushed mine, and I focused only on that.
My heartbeat began to slow.
Su's wand flashed again.
My flesh seared, and no sound escaped me this time; I didn't have it left in me.
When I blinked again, Su's eyes were visibly relieved, though strained, and she was waving her wand over my chest, over and over. "He... He's going to be okay," she told Ellie, and herself.
I was, I could feel it. I was going to be okay.
I looked past Su and Ellie, to the great chasm that had appeared in the destruction of Granford's two bridges. I dimly registered the ruined town, the mist, and... the Dementors hovering over the chasm, black cloaks whipping through the ashes. I cried out wordlessly through the haze...
And what sounded like a thousand voices cried out in reply, "Expecto Patronum!"
The great wave of warmth washed over my skin, and I screwed my eyes shut tightly, but the light still managed to blind me...
When I came back into it, I still felt warm. Ellie was holding my hand, I noticed, and I looked at it. "Still works," I muttered, nodding imperceptibly to the bracelet around her wrist.
She nearly burst into tears. "We're okay," she said. "We survived."
"Hunt would be proud," commented Su, sighing tiredly.
Abe appeared in my view next, holding his injured leg and looking disgruntled. "I want my pub back," he grunted to me.
"I'll... I'll get you a new one," I promised. To Su, I said, "Thank you."
"It's not just me you should thank," she replied, and she looked to my side and above me.
I followed her gaze, and saw a group of people standing in a line, their wands spilling out ethereal white light, driving the Dementors back and back, with their pain and their bane. I recognised many of those in the group, and the warmth I felt was more powerful and soothing than a thousand Patronuses. Neville Longbottom, Susan Bones, Bill Weasley, and Ernie MacMillan, fighting at the dark with the light.
"Get him up and moving!" another, harsher, voice snapped behind me. "I am not dying for him!"
I don't think I'll ever be happier to see Auror Proudfoot again.
He walked forward with the rest of my old scavenging team; Kingsley Shacklebolt, Leon Strauss, and Lara Wilkinson, the four of them unleashing their Patronuses to keep the Dementors at bay.
One more wand joined the fray, and it belonged to a bear of a man with broad shoulders, a thick face, and wearing old Auror robes; Minister Gawain Robards.
He nodded in agreement with Proudfoot's comment, and tossed a gold coin to Su. "Portkey to Hogsmeade," he said. "Will be activating with the others in ten seconds." He raised his voice and cried, "We're going! Prepare yourselves now! One last Patronus, and we leave!"
Su grabbed my arm, Ellie held on tighter, and Abe reached down to clasp at Su's shoulder. The four of us were jerked away by the portkey momentarily, my battered body protesting the action loudly, the sick feeling in my navel matched by every other feeling of the night - my pounding head, my injured arms and ears, my tired legs, the wound in my chest from the shrapnel... Then there was the grief, the anger, the sadness... It all added up, and despite the fact I wanted nothing more than to just go to sleep right now, the portkey trip kept me conscious, in pain, but aware.
The ground beneath me became drier - no puddle of blood here - and softer, grass instead of road. The blades tickled at my ears and the back of my neck. The night sky above me was starry and clear. It felt so much brighter, and warmer, around here than back in Granford. It made me sigh in relief, which sent lances of pain through my chest.
I dimly registered the action around me. People were running about, more people were crying out into the night, in shock or pain, and when Robards appeared, he quickly rallied a bunch of Aurors to him, including Kingsley and his team. "You have to head back," he declared. "We have to rescue those who evacuated out into the mountains. Now, we -"
"Harry!" I heard, and Stanthorpe of all people walked forward, no worse for wear by the night. "You made it."
"'lo Stan," I said thickly. "How many got out?"
"Hundreds," he replied, his tone grave yet a sense of relief, an undercurrent of happiness, despite all of it. His eyes travelled to the Aurors, and to the surroundings - Hogsmeade, bustling in activity, an area set up just on the outskirts of town for the wounded, tents erected in the night. Behind him I could see familiar faces, both wizards and Muggle, darting about - including Leeson, stretching his magically-healed arm and grinning at it.
"You want to go save more?" Robards asked Stanthorpe. "The Muggles who escaped through the filtering station still need to be rounded up, before the Dementors get to them. They won't trust us right away. They'll need a leader to step forward, and now."
Stanthorpe looked flabbergasted at that. "I'm not a leader, Minister. I'm not."
"Bullshit," I croaked. "Stan, now's not the time to be modest. You led them all out of the mist. Fortess is lost, and Juliet and Warren were never... they were never gonna be true leaders." My chest protested all the talking, and Ellie squeezed my hand tighter, while Su started casting healing spells. "Step up, Stan. For the future. For Granford."
Robards nodded seriously. "Are you going to do it or aren't you?"
And slowly, realisation alight in his eyes, Stanthorpe began to nod.
"The right thing to do," I murmured. "Good..."
"Go with Kingsley; he has the Portkey," said the Minister for Magic. "And Stanthorpe? Thank you." When Stan had left with Kingsley and the others, the Minister turned to me. "You as well, Harry. You saved a lot of lives tonight."
"So did you," I replied. "Did the bill... did it pass?"
It was Neville who replied, crouching down in my vision with Susan at his side. They were both beaming, and holding hands. "Nine votes for, four votes against. We had the majority. The bill passed, Harry. The Wizengamot did it."
A palpable sense of relief swept through me. I didn't need to know who voted for what, or the whys behind it. All of that work, playing that game, had paid off. The Ministry had come to save the Muggles, in the end, and that was all that mattered.
But something struck me. "Wait, thirteen?" I asked. "The evenstall...?"
"You can thank the Minister for that one," said Susan. "Sir?"
Robards nodded resolutely. "I used the notes you gave me. They indicated a possible breach in the agreements made with a former Death Eater, and even on suspicion, I could have him arrested, and his seat stripped from him. So I did, just before the vote."
"Christian Selwyn." His expression turned vaguely amused, almost conspiratorial. "The notes indicated he was responsible for the disappearance of one Archie Forscythe, and had been housing him for the last few months. He needed to be questioned for it, and I took care of it... That his loss not only broke the evenstall, but meant one less vote against this perfectly legal disclosure bill that allowed me to act tonight... Well, pure coincidence."
Laughing made my chest hurt, but I did it anyway. "You did the right thing, Minister."
"Somebody has to look to the future, Harry Potter," he said, and my respect for him went up.
But there was one more thing. "Can I get a favour?" I asked.
"What is it?"
"I'll assume there's a good reason."
"Just do it, please."
That made him chuckle. "Get some rest. I won't be. Work to do, and we can handle it. So let us, all right?" He tipped his head, turned, and walked away into the night, directing people immediately, a true leader doing what was for the best.
"He's right," said Neville. "Mate, stay put. We'll take care of it."
Susan nodded in agreement, and she added, "Take care."
"Healer's orders," said Su, as Neville and Susan walked away together. "Speaking of, I'd best find somebody to treat you that's not about to pass out. You're not out of the woods yet."
Abe snorted. "I'd best find one as well, then a drink. And a place to build me new pub."
He too walked off in the night, Su trailing after him before heading in the opposite direction.
Ellie said nothing, and just squeezed my hand again.
"I think I'll listen to them," I murmured to her. "Just might go to sleep now, for a bit..."
And before the darkness overtook me, I heard them all call my name, the ones I'd lost for this moment right now, for this blissful silence, having saved all I could... The morning would come, and there'd be mornings after, and there'd be other fights; this world was built for them, right now, but it was the future that was worth looking forward to, to see if the human race could truly survive, and prosper.
The human race, the wizards and the Muggles. All there was left, the best of us and the worst of us. We could still die, or we could yet survive.
I'll just have to find out.
Weeks passed, and before long, The Burrows was fighting in the winter.
Today was a surprisingly sunny day, the air chilled with the season, but the rays of light played on everyone's skin, keeping them warm enough to be sweating after a hard day of work. I had been out there most of the day, helping with my hands, even as my chest niggled at me, an afterecho of the pain to go with the scar, gifted by a piece of shrapnel that night in Granford, after the bridges, the Dementors, Ron's death, Fortess's death, the mist, the undead... After everything, I still felt my chest itch and tingle. Just another scar with the rest of them.
We were building and expanding on The Burrows today, as we had for many days before. The Muggles that had survived Granford had mostly relocated to the area; it was wide, the farmlands expansive and usable, and the community of wizards were still rebuilding from their loss, and friendships and families were forged from the aftermath. There were some Muggles living in Hogsmeade, of course, because they had every reason to be up there as well. The purebloods had kicked up a fuss, and still were despite the various arrests made in the days after Malfoy's plots and plans hit the Daily Prophet. Their little episodes had been expected, but Robards was handling it, and doing a damn fine job while doing so. I stepped back and let him, focusing on the rebuilding process instead.
I guess you could call it my long overdue time off, and while I worked hard with everyone else, it was rewarding and fulfilling. I also got to spend time with what little friends I had left, not to mention Teddy, my godson, who was happier and happier to have his godfather around on a regular basis. He had been out al day too, helping where he could with a child's enthusiasm, and although his attentions darted away more than once, I was just happy to watch him run and laugh, oblivious to it all.
The hard work of the day came from a suggestion of Stanthorpe's, something Bill had agreed with. While we could conjure up a block of houses for the Muggles within a day, in the spirit of cooperation, we wouldn't. We needed to let the Muggles ingrain themselves, and since they wanted to build their houses by hand, we volunteered to help. A hundred wizards and witches put their wands away, some bemusedly swinging hammers and some others being more of a hindrance than a help, but I suppose it was the thought that counted. Luckily, I was on hand to heal any injuries gifted by minor mishaps, even as tired as it made me feel to do so.
The scar on my chest itched the entire day throughout the work.
Recovery hadn't been difficult, but it had required me to stay bedridden for a while. Bill had put me up in his house so I could be near Teddy and friends, and I got updates from Neville and Susan, holding hands and looking all the happier for it every time, on how the rest of society was handling the transition. They were working hard for the DMLE, and the Wizengamot was still in use, despite the recent shakeups and the reduced member rate. I had other visitors, too: Ernie, who had put his experiences in Granford to good use and was Stanthorpe's go-to wizard; Abe, who had built his new pub in Hogsmeade; and Su, who was busy integrating some Muggle medicines into our own.
The Ogdens moved to The Burrows too, with Tiberius's retirement giving him the time with his wife, daughter and granddaughter that he'd craved. I liked having Ellie around too. She visited every day, and we were getting closer. Some time from now she might show up in my bed naked again, and I don't think I'd refuse her if she did.
So here I was. When the work of the day was done, and the sky was darkening in the late afternoon, I found myself sitting underneath the great sentinel tree, on the hill overlooking the surrounding areas, from The Burrows to Sarah's family's cottage. The hill would always be my spot, to think about things had gone, to have momentary regret, to wish for something brighter.
I added four new stones up here, to go with the others. Fortess's was the biggest, the sturdiest, and I'd carved his name into it for that was the significant characteristic that defined him; For Tess. Terry's was an eagle, great and proud. Ron's was a broomstick, but out of all of them, his didn't feel like enough; I half-buried his wand next to the stone, just as I placed Sarah's ring on its chain around hers, and Astoria's note next to hers. Astoria Greengrass's stone wasn't carved, but it was coloured light blue, the same as her eyes. It was all I could think of for her.
"I have to go now," I said to myself, to the stones, to the soft wind. "Things to do. There's always things to do. Dinner tonight, with the Ogdens and the Weasleys, and Teddy and Andromeda. Amaris is cooking, so I'll be sure to check for poison before I end up here with all of you..." I chuckled hollowly. "Sorry. Sorry. For... everything. I got to here, now, because all of you died, but I wish... I wish it hadn't been this way. I'll never stop wishing for that, either, even though I know I'm just being thickheaded, and a self-sacrificing git. So no more apologies, I suppose." I tapped each stone in turn: Astoria, Sarah, Ron, Hermione, Luna, my parents, Sirius, Cedric, Remus and Tonks, the Weasleys - Molly, Arthur, Fred, Percy and Charlie - Terry, and Fortess. "Goodbye."
I walked away from the tree, letting the breeze blow through my hair, my foosteps floating on the grass. It was going to rain later, I could feel it. I picked up my pace, jogging up and down hills, even though my scars grunted in protest and my mind clouded with doubts and fears. I pushed through anyway; those thoughts stayed on the memorial hill. The future was what I had to look to now, and the people I lost would be who I lived for, because although they'd never see it, this was the future they had died for. A future where Muggles and wizards would coexist, and rebuild, and fight off the Dementors once and for all, prevent them from ever repeating their trick with Nott that was the death of Liliford and Granford. The undead would come next, or maybe we'd just find that cure and reverse the process entirely. Doubtful, but I could afford to dream now.
Night fell as the trail led me all the way back to The Burrows, the outskirts home to a variety of tents sitting next to unfinished houses. In the middle of town I could see a great bonfire, and people were laughing and eating their dinner in front of it. I would join them later, but first I ventured into a green cloth tent, just on the boundary of the ward line.
The inside wasn't magically expanded, so the space was cramped with the equipment, shiny and metallic on tables and benches; the equipment ran on its own generator, and we kept it away from the wards to prevent magical interference. A few chairs were scattered about, and mugs, which earlier had held hot chocolate, sat on a table in the middle of the tent, next to the biggest support pole.
One of the chairs was occupied by Stanthorpe, and when I entered he turned away from fiddling with the radio equipment. "Hey Harry," he said.
I returned the greeting, amused. "Got bored of leadership already?"
"Just doing my part in the downtime. Somebody has to man the radios, somebody has to be listening... Might as well be me. I find it soothing."
I nodded. "You want me to get you something to eat, or are you going to put in an appearance later?"
"I'll show up, don't worry. You've got a dinner planned anyway, right? With Ellie and her family?"
"Yeah, I do. Should probably head off before Ellie -"
One of the radios crackled.
"Incoming transmission," said Stanthorpe, and he rushed to press buttons and fiddle with dials. I went forward and reached for the microphone, next to a set of speakers. Stanthorpe turned a dial, and words tumbled out of the speakers, every other word crackling and popping with static.
But the message was there.
"Hello? We're... broadcasting on every frequency. We need somebody to listen, and now." It was a man's voice, desperate and reedy through the static. "There are sixty of us here, locked down with the undead at our door. They're finally coming and we need... We need help. Can anybody hear this? I repeat, we are broadcasting..."
"How do I...?" I asked, and Stanthorpe pointed to the microphone. He pressed a button as I leaned forward.
My words were clear, and I poured everything into them.
"My name is Harry Potter. We have safe havens from the undead, and have nearly three thousand people in our settlements. We can help you, we will help you. Tell us where you are, and we'll come immediately. There is still hope, understand? We'll be there." I waited a moment, and murmured quietly, more to myself than anybody else in the world right now, "There's still hope."
Post-Story Notes ::
Well, that was Incorruptible. While the epilogue might feel a little extraneous to some, I kept it to highlight that the ending was bittersweet, and how bitter or how sweet and which is more present I'll leave up to all of you to decide. The story's done now, and it was, ultimately, a very satisfying writing experience. I had my ups and downs, and the finished product has the same, but it was the longest thing I'd ever written, it was the most complex, it was the most emotive and character-intensive and action-crazy and politics-drenched... That I wrote it all down in two months, after planning so much and pushing myself to actually write it, is a great accomplishment to me, and like I said before, despite the ups and downs, I'll never not love this story.
But enough about me. I really hope all of you enjoyed it, or even if you didn't like it as a whole, that there were moments that will stick with you or inspire or just strike you as plain ol' good fic fun. Either way. It's been commented to me that I haven't gotten all that much in the way of reviews, and I have to say that nah, that's not true. I'm forever grateful for the ones I have, and to those that add this story to alerts, to their favourites list, to their communities, or even just read it and never prove that they are. You're all awesome, just so you know, and, again, cheers.
Before I go, however, I feel I should let you all into the ideas I'm having for future projects. I've always got plots up my sleeve, and you might be seeing some stories sooner rather than later depending on how I go with balancing writing with everything else life throws at me. One idea I've had is relevant to fans of Incorruptible because it's basically me saying, "What if?" and wanting to explore the same setting I've made from the Harry Potter world, but in a different way.
The current plan is for two stories that are essentially alternate retellings of Incorruptible. AUs of AUs, roads not taken, what ifs, et cetera. And while the foundations remain the same, so much so that I wouldn't have released one of the AUs early because it would've spoiled a plot twist or two for Incorruptible, I won't be repeating what I've written here. For one, no huge politics storyline (Rejoice!). But Dementors, zombies, Healer Harry, and the various character foundations I've set up here can be used for these AUs (Though of course when I write them I'll assume the reader has no knowledge of Incorruptible, so you'll get refreshers in some basics), which will have different plots and ideas, all based on one point splitting off on the AU. So, allow me to announce:
The Dementor's Stigma: Ashes will be the first AU, and it will start all the way back at the end of the St Mungo's lockdown. After Sarah's death, Harry has his kneejerk reaction and accidentally hits Neville with it, and in Ashes, Neville is killed. The act has instant repercussions that kickstart a devilishly dark and grim plotline spread over a fic that's probably just a little shorter than this one, and yeah, shit gets crazy real fast. Harry will have to fight some seriously dark demons, including the guilt over Neville's accidental death and all that comes with, and the themes I want to get into the nitty-gritty of here are about the desperation of people when circumstances collapse in on them.
The Dementor's Stigma: Warmth is the second AU, and unless I plan to make more and more or do some kind of oneshot system that might make everyone sick of the world, will cap off The Dementor's Stigma world in a fic mostly centred on rebuilding things after the battles are done. The AU point is again the St Mungo's lockdown, but this time both Sarah and Neville survive, and the backbone of the alternate year with Sarah being alive sets up the main drive of Warmth's plot, which will also feature the struggles Harry and Sarah as they decide whether or not they can truly make it as a couple in this new world, or if the events of the lockdown have broken them forever. With this one I intend to flesh Sarah out a lot, and highlight if and/or how she'll be ultimately what Harry needs, and if Harry should try with her or just surrender to circumstances that occur, with deadly results. Keeping Sarah alive is a fundamental character change for Harry that I'm interested in exploring in the midst of a crisis while rebuilding, and so I'm looking forward to this one as a solid way to cap off the trilogy.
So yeah, that's what I'm working on. Vocal interest in either idea would be encouraging, although I suppose those sceptical of the concepts presented might have to wait and see what I produce when Ashes is released. The plan is for Ashes to come out and then Warmth, but I'm pretty changeable and might drum up some other stories to fill in the gaps, ones that may not even have zombies or Dementors in them, if you can believe that. But I've kinda got my hooks into the ideas and concepts of this setting I've created, and I want to keep writing in it, so yeah, that's probably where I'll end up.
Anyway, enough rambling. Thanks for reading the story, and if you've read this far in the author's note, thanks for that as well. Not much else to say from me, so I'll let you all take over now. If something changes I'll be sure to update my profile here, or post on DLP, but... well, yeah. Guess that's that.
- Final Wizengamot Scorecard ::
- Pro-Disclosure :: Neville, Susan, Boot, Brown, Patil, Diggory, MacMillan, Smith, Cuffe.
- Anti-Disclosure :: Parkinson, Bulstrode, Burke, Zabini.
- Status :: Bill Passed.
And, as always, thanks for reading.